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The complete 2018 Barn workshop schedule, which I will post every couple of weeks to help folks remember the schedule.
Historic Finishing April 26-28, $375
Making A Petite Dovetail Saw June 8-10, $400
Boullework Marquetry July 13-15, $375
Knotwork Banding Inlay August 10-12, $375
Build A Classic Workbench September 3-7, $950
contact me here if you are interested in any of these workshops.
While unpacking my “Gilding” tub for setting up my presentation at the CW WW18thC conference I removed all the stuff I needed for the show. Getting to the bottom of the tub I was dumbstruck. There, underneath all the gilding supplies — where it was not supposed to be — sat as my long-missing box of mostly mega-dollar (mostly) sable detailing brushes. I had turned the shop upside down several times in the past three years looking for this little box of treasures to no avail.
Recreating history is easier when you know all the secrets. Apparently (well, actually more than apparently) at a gilding demo many moons ago some idiot had packed this box of treasured brushes in the wrong tub of supplies.
Protection against self-incrimination prevents me from identifying the idiot.
As if WW18thC 2018 was not already wonderful enough!
The last session at WW18thC was my presentation of Historic Gilding and Finishing, including a brief sprint through the application of gold leaf. I described processes of gilding with a particular emphasis on building the surface (wood, gesso, bole) to make it amenable to the laying of gold leaf. It was only a few minutes, but gilding is a topic that can be introduced in either ten minutes or ten days, nothing in between makes much sense.
As quickly as I could I changed gears to get to transparent finishing, relying as always on my Six Steps To Perfect Finishing, a rubric that has served me flawlessly since I came up with it a couple dozen years ago. Not every one of the six points got the same emphasis here, that was not practicable given the time constraints, but the conceptual model was followed closely.
As always the starting point was surface preparation, including using toothing planes, scrapers, and pumice blocks that were integral to the finisher’s tool kit 250 years ago.
The final step in surface prep was to burnish the wood with polishing sticks or fiber bundle polissoirs.
I then moved into the no-man’s-land of filling the grain and building the foundation for the finish yet to come, employing the traditional method of using beeswax as the grain filler. In some circumstances this is the finished surface, in others it is the foundation.
In olden times they would have used a fire-heated iron to melt on the beeswax, I use a similar shaped tool that is electric. The molten wax is drizzled on to the surface then distributed with the heated iron unto there is excess. After cooling any excess is scraped off.
When choosing the finish itself, an 18th century palette would have been based on four major families of finishes. From left to right they are shellac, linseed oil, beeswax, and colophony (pine rosin).
In this demo I used padded spirit varnish (shellac) to show the application of the finish over the beeswax grain filling.
And then my time was up and everyone went home.
I’ll be offering my annual Historic Finishing workshop at the barn in late April. Let me know if you would like to participate.
Since our first-ever convening of the International Ripple Molding Association last spring JohnH has been an enthusiastic fellow traveler along this road, and once he got home he started building his own following the instructions of Roubo as closely as practicable.
Inasmuch as he had it finished and working I asked him to bring it with us to Williamsburg, since I had already asked him to be with me on stage when we were demonstrating Winterthur Museum’s ripple cutter made by my longtime friend and colleague Cor van Horne.
While demonstrating we were able only to get the Winterthur machine before we ran out of time, but we arranged for John’s machine to be on display out in the atrium of the museum.
There was a great deal of interest, including mine, and it would not surprise me to learn of several copies being made in the world of historic furniture making. I know that one will begin to take shape in The Barn in the not too distant future.
In addition, as John and I continue to develop our designs and facility in building these elegant little machines, we decided to offer a workshop on building your own ripple molding cutter at The Barn in late July 2019.
The first of my two WW18thC presentations was “Roubo Rediscovered – Merging 1760s Paris with the 21st Century” in which I recounted the nuggets gleaned from The Roubo Translation Project and how I have incorporated them into my current work practices. Not too surprisingly this is a topic on which I could speak and demonstrate literally for days, but I packed as much as I could in 90 minutes.
I began as almost always within this framework by giving my benches-and-holdfast sermon,
followed by demonstrations of Roubo’s veneer sawing bench with some audience participation,
the coopering cradle, a vital clamping component in the world of serpentine and bombe’ furniture,
panel clamping jigs,
mobile bench-top press, this one made by Oldwolf (can you say Moxon vise?),
and finally ripple molding cutter my friend and collaborator JohnH.
Each of these items will be addressed individually in coming blog posts. The overal; topic of Roubo’s Workshop is a huge one and I am outlining an extensive video series to explore it in depth (more about that later this week).
My thanks to JohnR for pictures of this presentation. I would have taken them myself but I was busy at the time.
One of the more recent additions to the WW18thC conference has been Ted Boscana’s crew from the CW housewright shop. I never fail to learn a lot from these presentation/demonstrations and find Ted to be enjoyable company when we are together. This year the Joiner’s Gang was reproducing some architectural-scale cornice moldings and I found their approach to be immensely engaging.
Ted divvied up the sections of the molding profile among his posse of Amanda, Peter, and Scott and they set to work.
Although the scale at which they were working lends itself to segmented work, they were also demonstrating some of the complex planes in the CW collection.
As a finale, with one of the large complex molding planes, Ted placed his full weight over the plane body and the posse pulled him along on top of the workpiece with a rope.
With the challenge of interpreting a decorated 18th century tool chest, the three maestros from the Anthony Hay Shop – Kaare Loftheim, Brian Weldy, and Bill Pavlak – took stage to discuss and demonstrate the paths that they had taken individually to fulfill the task. Soon the small stage was filled with tool chests old and new.
I found this to be a fascinating discourse on not only the organization of tools within the chest but the selection and availability of the tools themselves. Three makers, three approaches to the problem.
I think this was Kaare’s earlier replica of the Seaton tool chest.
Like other presenters at this year’s confab Patrick Edwards had two sessions presenting his own topic of specialty, the techniques and compositions of marquetry. His first session revolved around his replication of the underside of the lid of Jane Rees’ tool chest lid, walking the audience through not only his conceptual approach but the bench-top manifestation of it. The second continued the theme of marquetry artistry, including making a blade for the chevalet.
Of particular fascination to me were the vintage veneer saw and shooting plane he used. I took enough of both of them to make versions of them myself, and surely I will.
I’ve known Patrick for more than three decades and seen him present several times, and every instance is a learning experience for me even though I cut my teeth restoring French marquetry in the 1970s. Patrick’s demonstration of making templates with his vintage pricking machine and transferring the pattern to multiple sheets necessary for the undertaking for sawing on the chevalet was a choreography to be savored.
I’ll get back to my recounting of WW18thC 2018 tomorrow, but for today I wanted to pick up the thread of the project to interpret an early 19th century mahogany writing desk.
With the full-size prototype built in southern yellow pine from my pile of bench-building stock it was time to move on to the real thing in mahogany.
But first I had to break my hip and lose more than half a year of shop time. One of my favorite jokes of all time involves a Calvinist who trips and breaks his ankle. “Finally,” he says, “I am glad to get that over with.” There’s nothing like some predestination humor to get the day started right.
As I wrote many moons ago I wanted to not only build the early-19th century desk with period appropriate technology, using power equipment only for “apprentice work,” I also wanted to use the best vintage lumber I could find. Casting my net as widely as possible among my circle of woodworking friends I was able to acquire small amounts of spectacular sweitenia from more than a half dozen sources. No single source was enough to accomplish the project, but en toto I obtained enough to build several desks, which I eventually will in hopes there are clients out there who want one.
The most difficult piece to find was the single slab of 30″x 20″ 5/4 mahogany for the desk top. Three stalwart friends responded and soon I was getting quizzical looks from Rich the UPS driver as he pulled up with securely swathed slabs of wood. You can get a sense of the scale as I believe that is my #8 in the frame.
Perhaps the most surprising source for lumber was the orthopedic surgeon who repaired my hip. As we were meeting for my final “turn me loose” appointment he asked me what I was working on, and I told him about this desk project. Although I knew he was a decorative turner I had not known he was an enthusiastic furniture maker in years past, and he told me he had a storage unit filled with vintage lumber he had acquired over the years. A couple months later we got our calendars to intersect and I went to meet him there, and wound up buying all the mahogany he had. He told me that this stash could be traced back to pre-WWI sources and based on the quality of the lumber I believe it. Similar stories accompanied the rest of the acquisitions as the lineage of mahogany inventories lives on in perpetuity, it seems.
Since the writing box of the desk was veneered, having just the right board for for making those veneers was crucial. Fortunately that was one piece I had in-hand already, having acquired it perhaps forty years earlier at an estate sale for a woodworker who had no end of fabulous lumber. Alas I did not have the money to buy more than a few pieces, and this was one of them. I was saving it for just the right project, and this was it. This dense, hard, and spectacular Cuban mahogany was nothing but delightful to work with.
Ditto the flame veneers needed for the outside surfaces of the legs. I cannot even recall when I bought four slabs of crotch lumber, but they too were waiting for just the right project.
The structure of the desk was simple enough and I soon had all the pieces cut and ready for fitting assembling. But before final assembly could happen I needed to address all the hand-cut curvilinear moldings on the edges of the legs.
Renowned furniture maker Peter Follansbee presented two sessions at WW18thC, the first concentrating on the making of 17th century carved frame-and-panel chests, the second on making chairs. Peter looks like someone who planned on attending a Dead concert and found out he wandered into a woodworking shindig.
His comfort in front of an audience and well-deserved confidence in his ability is heartening. And his artistry with carving flows from his hands naturally, seemingly effortless.
His second session was an ambitious attempt to make a green-wood chair in 90 minutes. He got close.
It took until the first weekend in February for us to get any decent snowfall, and it did look lovely here in Shangri-La. It closed everything down for a couple days, but we were snug as a bug in a rug. We’ve had plenty of frigid weather (coldest temp this winter thus far was about -15F, wind chills to about -40F) but only a few light snow falls up to now.
I’ve been to several of Colonial Williamsburg’s annual confab Working Wood in the 18th Century (WW18thC), a gathering that always has a central theme of some sort. This year’s organizing topic was “Workmanship of Risk: Exploring Period Tools and Shops,” and it was my favorite of these conferences (although previous topics of “Surface Decoration” and “Oriental Influences” come in a close second tie). And not just because I was a speaker; that actually makes the experience less for me because of all the preparation work that consumes crazy amount of time and energy for me.
The presenters for this year included the crew from the Anthony Hay Shop, and their interpretation of a decorated tool chest; the Colonial Williamsburg joiners, demonstrating the consruction of monumental/architectural moldings; Jane Rees, the scholar behind the magnificent decorated lid of said tool chest; Peter Follansbee, recounting the processes of his work in carved 17th century oak furniture; Patrick Edwards, demonstrating classical marquetry techniques; and the inestimable Roy Underhill, with his keynote lecture and moderation of a panel discussion on historical primary sources; and me (more about that in subsequent posts).
There is no way to summarize the richness of the conference content without re-living it with verisimilitude, which could be accomplished only with a literal transcript and live video feed. But the next few posts will encompass my compressed take on the event.
As is the norm for this event, which normally sells every seat within the first few hours of opening the registration, every seat in the house was filled plus perhaps a few more. I know that often the deciding factor of whether or not some guest may attend a particular presentation is the occupancy limit established by the Fire Marshall. All the presentations are in the front of the auditorium on a small theatrical stage, making it difficult if not impossible for anyone beyond the front few rows to see the details of the proceedings. To alleviate that hurdle and enhance the learning experience for the attendees the entire performance is projected onto a giant screen behind the stage. It sometimes sets up the weird dynamic of us performing for the cameras, turning away from the audience.
Our start on the first evening was RoyUnderhill, undertaking the unenviable task of decoding philosopher/craftsman David Pye’s influential book The Art and Nature of Workmanship, a book, which Roy avers, has been read by few if any artisans (I think he is correct in this; I ground my way through it some 40+ years ago and never felt the desire to return to it. It’s on my shelf if the impulse ever emerges).
As always Roy was an engaging speaker even given the difficulty of the topic, and demonstrated some of the concepts contained within the risk vs. certainty discussion. Beginning with a mallet and froe to rive out some lumber workpieces, moving then to a hatchet, and finally to a sabot’s shave, he began the steps of workmanship that might not be “risky” in the hands of a skilled craftsman but certainly have a component of “uncertainty” to them, that uncertainly diminishing with each incremental step.
Roy ended up with an inventory of a complete tool box from ages past, using it and its contents as focal points for the soliloquy.
Returning from the regular Bible Study earlier this evening and reviewing the upcoming topics for the blog (I rarely do any work on Sunday, and generally aim for a couple dozen posts in the bullpen in varying states of development) I noticed that the blog had exceeded 800 posts last week without my even noticing. I guess I must have a lot of verbal effluent in me.
I used to host a regular monthly luncheon for think tank mavens and opinion columnists trying to influence the shenanigans in Mordor, and at one of these off-the-record soirees a columnist wailed about “writer’s block” and the impossibility of having to grind out 300-400 “interesting” words twice a week. I was unconvinced of the problem, and for the next year as an exercise I wrote that output just to show him it was not that tough. It really wasn’t.
Admittedly, I was assisted by the fact that was the year the nation’s Commander in Heat was hound-dogging his way through the intern pool and eventually committed perjury to escape accountability, with his political adversaries tripping over themselves like clowns. So, the 100 short essays almost wrote themselves.
I’m hoping that blogging continues the same easy path. If I could get the time to easily be at the laptop, I would probably post every day. When I don’t it just means that I am fully occupied with something, somewhere, or someone else.
With the legs and writing box done it as time to assemble them and make the shelf that had to be fitted to them precisely not only for the structure as a whole but to provide the specs for the spindles that held them together.
Not a whole lot of descriptive detail required here, the individual components were simply screwed together to make sure the pieces fit and allow for the layout of any remaining components.
It was certainly not a wasted effort as it allowed me to work out some of the minute details that could not be spatially resolved any other way.
It was finally time to move on to my pile of vintage true mahogany.
And speaking of workbenches, you’ll have the opportunity to work with me at The Barn building your own version of either a basic Roubo or Nicholson bench in Southern Yellow Pine. Thanks to my adapting David Barron’s innovative system for building laminated Roubo benches, and the elegant simplicity of the Nicholson bench, you can arrive empty handed (except for your tools) on Monday and depart at the end of the week with a bench fully ready to go. The only likely hindrance to this outcome is if you spend too much time simply looking at the mountain vista on the horizon.
The finished bench does not include holdfasts or vise mechanisms; if you want those you can supply your own or I can order them for you separately. And if you prefer a 5-1/2″ slab for the Roubo bench rather than the 3-3/4″ slab, there will be an additional $100 materials fee.
The complete 2018 Barn workshop schedule:
Historic Finishing April 26-28, $375
Making A Petite Dovetail Saw June 8-10, $400
Boullework Marquetry July 13-15, $375
Knotwork Banding Inlay August 10-12, $375
Build A Classic Workbench September 3-7, $950
contact me here if you are interested in any of these workshops.
With the bench “assembled” I turned it over halfway and rough trimmed the bottoms of the legs. Even though I was handling it by myself, wrestling with a 350-pound behemoth is fairly straightforward if I am careful and make sure I am actually handling half or less of the total weight, which is the case if I am rolling or spinning it. With the legs cut to rough length I rolled it the rest of the way over so I could work on flattening the top for a couple of hours.
With the bench on its feet, but on a rolling cart so I could move it easily, I set about to installing the planing stop I had already glued up. I planed it such that the fit was very tight, counting on a few humidity cycles to induce ccompression fit on both the stop and the mortise in which it resides in the hopes of establishing a nice firm fit in the end. I’d wanted to put a full width (of the block) toothed tip on the stop but I did not have the piece of scrap steel in the drawer that could suffice so I just used what I had. I filed the teeth, drilled and countersunk the holes for some honkin’ big screws and assembled the stop. I also excavated the top of the bench so the entire assembly is flush.
With that I cut and affixed temporary(?) stretchers to the legs to support the shelf, Kreg screw style (without the Kreg jig), which on a decently built Roubo or Nicholson bench is the only functional purpose for stretchers. If mortised stretchers are needed to stabilize the bench structure, it wasn’t built well enough. Using scraps from the pile I cut and laid the shelf boards and attached the vise and for now, it was done. Come summer I will flatten the top again and call it quits. As it was the bench served my needs perfectly in Williamsburg to give me both a perfectly functioning work station and a focus for my sermon on workbenches and holdfasts,
While the glue for the laminated slab was setting I turned my attention to the legs and their integral tenons. As in previous efforts the three laminae of the leg are glued up with the center lamina off-set from the outer two by a distance equal to the thickness of the slab plus a smidge, using decking screws and fender washers as the clamping mechanism. These are removed after they have done their duty.
If I did my layout and glue-up of the top slab correctly, and cut the dovetail pins accurately on the tops of the legs, the double tenons are a perfect fit for the mortises already created in the top slab so all that is needed to put them together is a gentle tap to drive them home. Since the bottoms of the legs need to be trimmed to matching lengths ex poste the protruding excess is no bother to me.
Before I do that, however, I de-clamp the slab after letting it sit overnight and spend an hour or so getting the underside flat enough to seat the legs evenly. I do not care about the underside being smooth, merely flat. A sharp scrub plane and fore plane make short work of it, as I said it was a little over an hour to get it to an acceptable point.
For this bench I did something I had not done before and remain unsure as to whether I would do it again. Since I was installing a vintage screw and nut from my stash I decided to inset the nut into the back side of the front left leg, where the leg vise would be installed since I am right handed (if you are left handed it goes at the other end). Doing this was no particular bother but I am unconvinced of its efficacy or necessity. I also cut the through-mortise on the lower leg for the pin bar of the movable chop/jaw.
Before long I was assembling the bench and as you can see the space was ridiculously tight with not only this bench but two ripple molding machines being tuned up for the conference. Since this is the only heated working space I have, everything that needed to be worked on for WW18thC was there. It got to be pretty chaotic for a while. I am not particularly tidy as a workman and that shortcoming becomes really evident at times like this.
At this point the bench was assembled and I was at the 12-hour mark for the project.
Once I realized I needed to make another Roubo bench for WW18thC, my sixth or seventh such tool, I began with a selection of SYP 2×12 framing lumber stacked underneath the lathe. (Calling it my 18th bench includes a small number f no-account benches, for honest-to-goodness furniture making or repairing workbenches the real number is probably 13). I ripped in half as much material as I needed to make the bench and legs and loaded the ripped lumber into the truck to cart downstairs to the planer.
After running it through the 10″ Ryobi planer to get clean surfaces on both sides (although I will have to set aside some time to address the snipe issue, which seems to be getting worse. Go figure, I’ve only been using it hard for thirty years. Or, here’s a thought, run some new wiring down to the machine room/foundry so I can hook up my Mini-Max 15″ planer/joiner that has zero snipe) and then carting back up the the main floor I set them out spaced in my barely heated shop for a few days to equilibrate.
After spreading some plastic on the bench I glued up the core laminae using yellow glue to skirt any temperature issues. Previously with 3-3/4″ stock I assembled the bench tops in two pieces so I could run them through the planer once assembled, but since this was 5-1/2″ stock I was going to have to plane everything entirely by hand. No, I was not going to be slinging these slabs around to feed them through a planer.
I had not yet finished fabricating Roub0’s panel clamps, which could be scaled-up to work perfectly for this process, so I wound up using practically every clamp I had of this size to get things glued.
The next day I came back to glued up the outer laminae with the mortises, using 5″ decking screws as the clamps. The resulting slab was right at the wight limit I could handle by myself.
Presenting a demonstration takes a lot of time, as much time as actually teaching a hands-on session on the same topic. When I used to manage educational programs in my previous life I usually budgeted staff time of one full day of preparation for each hour of a new class. So if a colleague came to me with an idea to develop and teach a week-long class, I knew to budget for them eight weeks of prep time. Time-compressed demos for a conference like Working Wood in the 18th Century are even more lopsided, as a 90-minute live demo requires roughly the same preps and materiel as a two week workshop. So, for my two sessions at this year’s conference, Roubo Rediscovered: Merging 1760s Paris with The 21st Century and The Historic Gilder’s and Finisher’s Workshops, I began preparing aand assembling the supplies in earnest before Thanksgiving.
Things were progressing swimmingly until just before Christmas, when I corresponded with Anthiny Hay Cabinet Shop master Kaare Loftheim about the logistics of moving Colonial Williamsburg’s Roubo bench to the stage of the auditorium. His reply, which I should have expected, was that they did not possess a Roubo bench. I smacked my head. Of course they would not have such a bench since Williamsburg was essentially a 17th century English town!
It was time to rethink my strategy as I would need to arrive with my own Parisian workbench. I already had three that would serve the purpose nicely but they were so ensconced in their places that it was easier to build a new one for this demonstration.
So I did…
Recently I was back in Mordor for a couple of days and dropped in to visit my friends and colleagues at the Library of Congress Book Conservation Lab. I was delighted to see them again, and can happily report that the work bench I custom made for them last year is suiting their needs perfectly.
There is clear evidence of use of the bench, and there is universal acclaim of its suitability for their needs. They are especially appreciative of the stepped riser blocks so it can be fitted for everyone in the group. As you can see there is a wide range of statures represented in the group.
The purpose of the bench is to serve in the re-binding of ancient books, a process that is typical every few centuries for books of the pre-16th century type, which were bound with solid wood cover boards. In preparation for an upcoming rebinding of an important book (14th century?) they undertook a practice run of creating a completely new book that replicated the projected treatment for the old book.
Much to my surprise and delight they gifted this practice book to me, and it has become a treasured keepsake. The workmanship and artistry are simply breathtaking. They urged me to use it as a note book but thus far I have not been able to force myself to do that (although I did already ding one edge). Time will tell if I ever can.