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Our culture shifts rapidly from past pockets we looked to the future from to the present we look back from and still further along the line towards future hopes we aspire to. Sometimes, often, we must dismantle the past to rediscover what we really felt before we were dissuaded from a hope we had. At 14 I told my woodworking teacher I wanted to be a woodworker. He fixed his eye on mine and said, “I wouldn’t if I were you. You can do much better than that. Go further, make something of your life.” I listened and thought he knew well what I should be, but then I listened again and heard a still, small voice that wasn’t his and I made up my mind and my future began to unfold. Wood worked with my hands began in a past pocket of culture and emerged in successive phases like solid stones I stepped on through to today. One part began to form and then another began to fit to the shape. It was a little while before I saw the whole and discovered fulfilment from my work. Remember, hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. That’s the power of culture.
As you search your heart and ask the honest question about what you want to be, remember that it’s important to really know that you can change the course you are on and that it takes courage and determination to step into the zone. I realised many moons ago that self employment is not for the risk aversed, but the rewards of surviving against all odds are incomprehensibly wonderful.
Today I unpacked the contents of the old woodworkers tool box and saw into the past of a man’s life. It doesn’t take imagination to understand him or his work. It was as simple as can be as far as his work was concerned. The chest has suffered trauma from time to time.
Unpacking dimensions of the tool chest is like dismantling the man. This one’s seen much use and abuse. It’s been dropped, overstuffed, abused since the owner left it but it’s held and I like it very much. The pins no longer seat the dovetails because they have shrunk, which makes me think it was made in humid conditions and perhaps kept in a coastal region or on board a boat as one of several belonging to a ship’s caprenter. I understand that the chest passed to a sailmaker and ended up with his tools in it when it was sold to Bill. I love the size because even with tools loaded it will be liftable between two. It will hold half a dozen planes, 4 saws of different types and then the usual squares and chisels, small planes and much more. The tills work fine as does the rest of the chest and today i spent much time as i said unpacking the joinery and measuring the details for replication. The walls and the bottom are no more than 9/16″ thick pine, so it’s super light compared to harder, more dense-grained woods. I think you will enjoy this one. better two or three of these around the bench for me. Soon I’ll have two.
The post From Past Early Start to Working Wood Today – Making the Parts Fit appeared first on Paul Sellers' Blog.
I have countered the prevailing culture of machine only woodworking for two decades and more now; proactivity gets results as long as there is consistency. It’s not always been easy, in fact I’d say it’s been a difficult passage in many ways, but if I were to take a sector of my life and say which has been the most rewarding I would have to say it’s been this last decade. I have never felt more fulfilled than seeing the results of getting people off the conveyor belt and especially so because it wasn’t easy, but a conscious decision.
Discovering my bent for hand tool woodworking came when I saw how little I liked to work only with machines. It wasn’t ever that I despised them but that my hands wanted to do it – my hands, my arms, my heart and head wanted to somehow take the wood and work its fibres. You see here a man working. An ordinary man, A working man. A, well, a workman. He didn’t turn a machine on to get the results you see in the table he’s making. in fact he planed each surface and split parts to plane them by hand alone. He passed his saw stroke by stroke down a secondhand board and formed some shaped mahogany aprons by his own will and his own choice and tonight, the man, me, turned out the lights and felt happy as he headed home.
I will sell the two pieces over the next few weeks i suppose. Perhaps someone will get married or have a birthday or something like that and they will make a handsome gift. My choice. On the other hand perhaps someone will walk in the workshop and say, “How much are these two tables.” I will say, “They are £200 each.” and they will say, “OK. We’ll take them.” Who knows if you don’t try?
My lifestyle is chosen, developed, designed and intentional. It took some time to establish it but it’s who I am and have been for decades. I am a woodworker.
When I decided to pursue handwork rather than machining I admit it wasn’t too easy to let go of the ease using power machines afforded my work. If I were to suggest a two-man saw for logging out my wood and a then a saw pit to slab it it would be far from realistic, but from there on I can do a lot of my work by hand and so enjoy it machinists think I have lost my marbles. Then they stand and watch me as I work and they can’t usually pull away. They can’t understand why I want to do it by hand let alone enjoy it, but still they hang around and watch and I see that look on their face and I say to myself, “What a wonderful world” I have found here.
I feel the same way about exercise when all it produces is a useless muscle that pops up when an arm or leg flexes. If the muscle doesn’t do more than that I don’t try to understand it. if the muscle is developed for a reason beyond just being there as a flex then I understand. Each to his or her own though. I say all of this to say making this table really meant something to me. My muscles flexed and sinews and tendons pulled. They had purpose and it’s so very black and white and tangibly enjoyed and I feel in love with people when they walk in my workshop or work alongside me because I so loved making what I made by hand. I like taking my time. I like feeling the hard work. I like correcting the plane to cut square and I like chiselling the shapes with and upturned chisel; the way it works in the mahogany 150 years old both chisel and wood and technique. I like work that demands every ounce of my attention. I like work that makes me think all the time. I like work that pays me back for my efforts that cannot ever be calculated by an accountant. I like work that makes me write about what I feel for others to read about and enjoy. I like putting this in the bank no banker can ever get his mits on. You are my depository. My banker. My storehouse for the future of my craft.
I like looking back into the shop as I close the door and seeing what I made on the benchtop and thinking the words, “Thank you!”
I picked up the tool chest yesterday and slipped it in place by my workbench. I own so many chests it could be embarrassing were I not using them to store the tools we do our research and revision in. Many of the ones I own now are still stateside USA, but one day we will auction them off I am sure. I have decided to replicate this one as a pattern for making one because it seems like a practical size as a smaller chest for modern woodworkers without a bunch of bulky wooden planes to house. Those that do have can simply scale up. When craftsmen traveled they used chests like this one to traverse the seas and the continents. Especially those from the Britain and that includes Scotland and the Scots carpenters and joiners well famed for fine workmanship. Speaking of which.
I did the deal with Bill, the canny Scot that always gets more out of me than any of the other dealers I deal with but we still parted friends. He looks out for things for me and of course I think I showed you these two panel gauges before some time. Yesterday I cut up some of the tabletops for the new replication series I am doing on the table build and it was a joy to use something made by a man 80 or 90 years ago as a special tool for his kit. Sometimes using something like this is viscerally sensing in that his fingerprint is all over the design. It’s so well thought through and balanced. I picture him staring like me at a lump of partially shaped rosewood and thinking how this thing can be enhanced. Pulling the gauge line along the tabletop created a good line to cut to and soon I was gluing up the new tabletop ready for the next stage of filming.
There has been something about this table that has really made me look differently at life as a whole. Abandonment seems always a negative anyway but this piece wasn’t just abandoning something because t wasn’t functioning or nicely made with quality joints. I imagine it being discarded because “people don’t like brown furniture these days.” How sick is that. “and they like the nice stuff they can buy in packs from IKEA.” Sicker still. A CNC machine cuts everything out and a robot creates the rest and a person in a lab designs it on a computer somewhere in a different country and then I buy a “brown furniture” piece for £3 after is served for 140 years. Unlocking past methods and techniques is one of the most enriching experiences there is. Interpreting chatter marks from a spokeshave and knowing by experience that the marks only come from wooden ones is my reward to express for others. How do you expelling so valuable a thing?
The videos are very different than our usual work. Tomorrow I should be done with the series but the experience of buying the tables, transforming issues and recreating pieces that are now influencing my next years modern designs is priceless. I so love not working for money everyone. I so have loved my life living and being a lifestyle woodworker. No flat packs and no flat screens, no flat bed delivery trucks but multidimensional three-dimensional lifestyle woodworking I can live with until I pass.
Using recycled wood like this I don’t feel guilty working with real mahogany. I am glad I do and can. I sense the same my forebears did in working such fine wood and it really is a good resource for us. I just imagine how the Victorian joiners felt when they chopped and planed and chiselled such sweet wood with such even grain in wide boards. It has been a privilege all the way.
Yesterday a friend, Fred Sutton who is a craftsman from my home county as a child, dropped in and gave us almost 100 chisels that need new handles turning. A good two hours work! Bevel edged and firmer chisels, some mortise and other styles. I will need to do some turning now. There are other tools too, a nice wooden jack, a Mathieson, and an old Tenon saw by Robert Sorby with 10 tpi and is sharpened to a crosscut, which I think we’ll keep as a crosscut. More restoration work but everyone benefits. John claimed one of the 3/16” Marples mortise chisel and he needs a handle for that one too.
We are about done with the Shaker Deacon’s bench seat and so we are going to release the new series on picture frame making using methods unknown in the last 150 years or so. I mentioned them recently. We’ll use scratch stocks and moulding planes and other methods too. I am so glad we have been able to transition dome of the teaching to video because it saves so much of my writing time. Today we have been working through a series on replicating a table following methods we are unlocking by dismantling the past in the piece itself piece by piece.
It’s been amazing to discover a piece made 150 years ago where every facet is dead square and every leg is identically sized within the smallest fraction of a millimetre. How did they do it? They did it with wooden jack planes and smoothing planes in a few strokes. I so enjoyed starting the filming of this series this week. Today we concluded much of the series and then we get ready for our fall series workshops which include the Craftsman Style Rocking Chair, an introductory Women’s woodworking workshop, Discovering Woodworking and a couple of Foundational Course. Please check online for dates and space availability.
A lot of what we do in woodworking masterclasses is very unique to us. I am glad for this because that’s what is making our training so unique and refreshing to do. I often think that you might think everything I teach is old stuff I learned as an apprentice and whereas there is a lot in that, much of what we are teaching is new and innovative too. We might take a 100 year old tenon saw and file off all the teeth. We have a brand new video we just worked on that shows how you, not just me, can remove the teeth of any traditional hand or tenon saw that has bad or wrongly sized teeth – and I mean file off every single one of them – and recut and file them sharp in only a few minutes.
The results are stunning and all you need is two or three small and inexpensive tools to do it. So looking forward to sharing this with everyone. Look out everyone with woodworking masterclasses for another new and free video you’ve never seen before. It was a blast to see this come together.
Some of you asked about my fall front tool box and asked how it was made and for plans of it. It seems it would make a good wooodworkingmasterclasses series but a lot of the details are already in the tool chest build we did last year. I think the joiner’s toolbox Is a practical tool box that holds a goodly amount of kit. Don’t dismiss this one, it carries well, works in the shop as a minimalist space hogger, offers the easiest access of all in some ways and of course the tills can be pulled to the bench to work from directly. It’s also readily scaleable and have half a dozen of them in various sizes.
I designed it. As far as I know no other existed before it came about. Having said that, all of the ones I have seen LIKE it are the commoner ones I find all of the time here in the UK , which are the ones skinned back and front with 1/4” plywood that’s screwed and glued to the main box. I wouldn’t dismiss this one either. I can make the superstructure for one in about three hours and have it functioning ready to make the tills.
Tool boxes are of course a personal statement in the cabinet maker’s shop. (Cabinet maker UK is furniture maker). That said, I have different ones I have made through the decades and I probably own about 20 fall fronts as shown or similar, 10 chests to this pattern or similar and then of course the ‘bin’ type like this one here of which I have half a dozen two of which my wife uses for keeping the children’s treasured things as they were growing.
What’s different to the skinned plywood ones? I decided not to use plywood because in almost every example of ply-skinned ones I have seen, the plywood has broken down. Therein is my reason. Painting them helps greatly and then not leaving them in a dark damp cellar works well too. Of course its a quick and simple thing to replace the plywood too. I think that they are good for site work, keeping around for working at home and so on. I also think the method of construction shouldn’t be lost as it does mark an era of the start of and reliance on plywood for panelling work too.
On my design I developed it so that it had door and frame construction in the build, dovetailed joinery for strength to the superstructure, which is standard anyway, and of course drawer construction inside. I used raised panels too, to add a learning dimension for students, but also because, well, they look nice.
At the ultimate end of course you have the cabinet makers tool chest. These are usually weighty affairs because of the hardwoods and they were and are the show off tool chest apprentices designed to pass for the guild exams for entry into the guilds. These were often examples of general joinery, yes, but also more intricate details such as veneering and cockbeading, inlay work and carving sometimes. Then of course there is the Seaton chest and millions of others beside. Excesses in everything never stop, but I think nice work in a tool chest is sort of a private enjoyment for the crafting artisan. Perhaps I will find time for none in my retiring years but somehow I doubt it. We have a lot to do yet to complete what I would like to complete.
And then of course you’ve got this. Built like a battleship and ready for war. These chests were built for war service by servicemen in the military of two wars. That’s why so many exist. Sad times and sad losses for many when the tools came home but the men and women didn’t.
If you have little time to look at tool chests and boxes look at these here.
I have decided to make the tool chest shown here and make it a series on my blog. Enough people have said that they would like this so I will post the cutting list shortly. Choose your own wood. I think this will be a most enjoyable task and I will work on it as I teach the upcoming Craftsman Style Rocking Chair. It is simple enough for new woodworkers to make and progress their skills by and then they will have a good place to stow their tools safely.
We have a couple of places left in the remaining Foundational Courses later this year but please sign up as soon as you can set your schedule because I think they will fill. Above is the classroom. Below are the chairs we make in a few days time.
The post Woodworker’s Tool Chest – Replication Means Multiplication appeared first on Paul Sellers' Blog.
…to Find Buried Treasure in the Present
Yesterday I visited my friend Bill’s car boot booth as I might every other week or so. He has nice pieces, choice and repaired usually. Usually not what I want to buy because I want to knock them apart usually, to see what makes up the guts of everything and discover the unknowns.
Rarely am I disappointed and I never really feel cheated. Bill has many, many chests to study and one stood out because it was a smaller but practical version of the workman carpenter and joiner tool chest most simply and commonly known as a tool box or tool chest. The corners were dovetailed as usual and so too the skirt.
Many details I thought nice created something of a difference to the norm and I considered it as a Woodworking masterclasses project as another tool chest small enough to fit smaller workshops and large enough to accomodate essential tools. It’s not big enough to be really cumbersome and if you made two of them you would have easier access to the inside and be able to fit them accessibly into even a small shop. Another neat thing is that its really scaleable too, so if you wanted a larger version you could scale the whole without any trouble at all.
Tool chests like these gradually decreased in popularity as the machine methods of working supplanted hand tools and the need for hundreds of different wooden planes that were cumbersome, awkward and eventually or gradually unneeded. This tool chest struck me as perhaps a transition toward the joiner’s traveling tool box like the ones I use. Inside, the compartments and tills were long enough and yet quite narrow and so allowed for a box that wasn’t deep too. I tried to imagine the tools a woodworker with a decent amount of tools to work with wood fit his or her tools into the space. This tool box was a craftsman user and built by the owner. It’s been chemically stripped which is not always bad but mostly not good. It affects the joinery, swells the wood and discolours it to this sort greenish yellow colour. Most likely it was originally painted black. That was standard and many tool chests were even coated with black pitch like a telegraph pole if it was going to be used in damp places or transported on hand carts, carriages and ships.
The joinery is free cut in that it wasn’t laid out. I noticed the angles are not too different but that the opposites are all biased in degree. That’s a bad habit to allow to develop but there is a good chance this was hurriedly done by an apprentice or newly qualified joinery. It made little difference to the corners generally, but I think that there was too much inaccuracy to this corner.
If you look closely you can see the top angle to the dovetail is less sloped than the lower aspect go each. Many early woodworkers gauged size to the dovetails by eye and also the angles too. very fast. When I work the one I make to camera I always make one freely. I will show you how its done one time on a video. Looking at these vernacular dovetails is more common that people think because a man had little time to himself. He may have made it as I did mine at the back of the timber racks where the boss wouldn’t find it or see it being made in his time. It was dark back there and the dovetails weren’t perfect. I wish that I had kept it but I made better ones and then designed the ones I make and teach today and they are vastly better.
This tool chest has many more details I want to go over so will do that shortly if I think it has enough interest.
I bought a most lovely table made of a rich mahogany. I felt rich with my £3 purchase and I know others will be too. It has some very unique features, the maker-workman’s mistaken through mortise and I think important considerations for any design whether modern or old. I plane to use this one for woodworkingmasterclasses series where we use the design concept decisions of the originator to create a modern design.
First I want to dissect the design to show you what the man that made it considered the most. I think this is going to be eye opening.
Above is a large table I bought. The legs are a bit monstrous; woodworm too, but none living and still most solid. All in all they are in good shape as far as solidness goes and of course they can be returned and the mortises reused. Not sure what I will use them for. But the tops are very nice wood. Mahogany. I dismantled it yesterday and salvaged what I wanted. This piece too has some very interested material recorded in the textures left by tools. It tells me so clearly how my woodworking forebears trued up their stock and worked the wood to so fine a finish. It confirms also that my ways of working are not so oddball too. Reversing machinist trends in domestic shops has indeed been a challenge. Not a bad job though. Just challenging. My dismantling revealed some detail on secondary woods and of course the shortcuts to completion. I will show things unseen before…I think.
There are other details to the design we shall see that expand our training and also our options. I will show some historic notes and see how they fit today’s work. My plan at the moment is to replicate the small table and then create the modern version in a new and modern design concept.
John bought his oak drop-leaf table from the same buyer. He wants to make an up cycled tool chest using both old mahogany and old oak. The oak was passed over at £25 but the top is quartersawn and has very nice figuring. Now he must prep the wood, thin it appropriately and work the grain features into the overall design. There were many telltale signs in this piece too. I think you will find this interesting too.
Here he’s cleaning up the surfaces and edges ready for grain reading. You start to see how upcycling works and how we ensure a future by reconciling the lostness of things to become wanted and cared for again.
The lost and abused now lies against the cared for and stands out. It’s as if it longs to belong – to become becoming – and the ones I seek are those where the work changes the present for the best in the future. A man came in and said his sons didn’t want his woodworking tools and that he had the best ones anyone could want. They asked him what they would do with them. He wished he could give them to them, but they saw no value in them. I am sure they will likely end up as the unloved even though they actually enabled the elder man to put food in his children’s bellies, shoes on their feet and clothed them with a warm home. It’s a sad day when these things happen and we own governments and educators by their pay that are governing from the same platforms around the world. We don’t need craftsmen and women any more, we need technicians and engineers on computers to send schematics around the world to be made cheaply. We are powerfully global now. It’s a global economy. Don’t keep your head in the clouds with the dinosaurs. Come down from loftiness and get real, they say to me and others who would like to live their lives differently. Is there an alternative?
Can care change something and how does care manifest itself most? I took the saw and abraded away the enemy in rust that covered the plate on both sides. It’s tough to take the abrasive paper on the first stokes, mentally I mean, but then the steel starts to show through the red rust. It takes steady care not to abrade wrongly, go against the grain, create ugly patterns. I worked more and all the more as the steel began to shine again.
More neglect shows in the plate and the steel was damaged. I took a hammer and placed the plate on the second hammer face as an anvil. The steel resisted and seemed to reject my work for a minute or two. It worsened but then yielded as I adjusted my taps to manipulate the steel and move the steel toward the direction I felt change the shape. The plate rewarded my eye cast along the edge. Straightness came back and the work seemed good to me.
The brass too seemed overly dull. It doesn’t really need to shine but it does need to feel and look at least cared for. I used a finer abrasive to skim off the surface and penetrate to pure brass without stain and oxidation. A name emerged with each stroke and I felt an affection developing. In some ways the saws I have were each one orphaned. In a world where tools have lost their meaning I gather them and ask how it’s possible that I live in a culture that in many ways seems to have a love hate relationship with hand tools. Some people despise hand tools and workshops and working men and women who use or used them and in other ways some see them as somehow worth saving in the using of them.
I received a plane from eBay last week that was sharp and the seller sent me a note saying he appreciated what I’d done for the woodworking world via YouTube and the blog and the filming we do through the film makers. Before I read the note I noticed that the plane blade had a convex camber and the corners removed in like manner to my own. Then I saw why. The plane was a Woden I wanted to upgrade parts on one I have. I have a longer iron but a broken sole.Uniting the two will give me a good plane. Waiting for another Woden sole will give me another plane.
I love the thought that things unloved and lost become found and restored, renewed and then used and cared for. Who can explain such a thing. The dirt and grime in a plastic box of near discardment in used up oil and grease, dust and dead things past. You lift it from the wasted and place it in rough hands and then the hope starts working. The rust abrades your fingers and the handle has an unkempt feel of rough, wet-raised grain to it and you say to yourself, “Can this thing be loved again?” “Made-up”, we say in the UK, when we feel happy and successful? Can this saw feel ‘made up’? Something says “put it back, it’s not worth the effort”, but I can’t really. Not once I picked it up in so helpless and useless a state.
I look into the future now instead of the past and the wood this saw will cut to shape; dovetails and housing dadoes and much more. I think of the energy of exactness hand work has using hand tools and then I think of the excesses of machines that so exhaust into our world. How a bandsaw spins a million tooth-cuts per minute to my thousand before we switch off its motor. I never use less or more than a fraction of a stroke in waste and so I feel that feeling of settledness and wellbeing others rarely understand. Imagine this saw when tomorrow I reshape each tooth and size them to task. Set them and refine them after 60 years of isolation and neglect. The man who placed it away in his tool box; the craftsman that wore the handle to shape and once kept it free from rust and decay for decades. The one who loved it and never abused it will never know I retrieved it from the world of throwaway now, but when I am gone my work will live on in the lives of thousands upon thousands of woodworkers who understand what I am saying today.
Steps to recovery and restoration necessitated a little work on the handle but no reshaping. One of the loveliest handles.
Here is the newly cared for amongst others.
Rarer Finds Come Home Too
This chisel was described as a floor board chisel. It’s really not that. It’s a sash pocket chisel actually. I own one of these in the USA tools I have but this one came up via eBay. I bought it for little enough and will use it from time to time. Sash pockets are removable sections in each side of sliding sash windows. These pockets house the cast iron weights that work as counterweights to the sliding sashes and makes them liftable. Sometimes the sash snaps and the weights lie in the bottom of the casing. The sash rope (called a sash knot) needs to be retied. I suppose the seller used it for another common use, which was splitting tongues of floorboards so that the board can be lifted to access pipes and wires beneath. Little misnomer really.
John found this tiny boxwood spokeshave that’s quite a scarcity these days, which was again via eBay. Both the sash-pocket chisel and the spokeshave are made by our once famed British Marples of old. Searching ebay can be tedious but when you know what to look for you can make inexpensive forays into realms of tool collecting that at one time we had to travel many miles to and stand for many hours at to bid on when people around you were outbidding according to the look of determination on another’s face. John did buy a glut of chisels over the past few weeks, so if there’s a chisel shortage we can blame him. He tends to collect the mixed unsets. On average he spends under two pounds a piece including shipping.
Anyone UK side know where I can buy one of these older brass wire brushes. This one has the tightest clumps of bristles that never bend and I rely on it so much.
Please let me know if you have one spare for sale.
I measure the pressure and press more to revive the old work of another man, a working man, and gold ripples of texture speak to me of where he levelled his plane to level the unlevelled and the unsmoothed and I stroked the more where it seemed to me something turned to a twist. Revival begins first with a glance at a flea market and then a thought of the wood and the man maker and then with a single pass of the plane and a chisel’s pristine edge to sever the waste from the wanted and the past from the present. Ribbons of golden oak fall away and at first I look more to the waste I create that spilled away, but then I look back to a day past and a man like me shaving the same piece of wood. I listen hard as my heart pumps and I hear his heart beat in a slow, rhythmic thud, thudding and the sweat of his brow and the surge of blood pulsing through his veins as in mine now and I smile in thoughts that work past and present is still being revived in recycling. I turned the knobs and added the shelf beneath for a spare laptop or some books. Everything fits well now and it looks nice.
In this piece I calculate my work in making one from scratch to be 12 days if I were to repeat every step and make all the lapped and half lapped dovetails and the secret dovetails to the two top corners. Quarter sawn oak here would cost me about £300. £35 is a small amount to pay and a few hours work was well worth the outcome.
I returned the base frame parts back together over the last couple of days and even the parts that might have seemed disconcerting vanished when I levelled and smoothed everything back to good finish and applied the shellac. My how solid the frame feels now and I can’t really see where the repair work took place. I replaced the top desk part to the leg frame with the 12 original turn buttons, stained the new rails I inserted and applied shellac to match the existing.
Interesting aspects inside the desk area revealed aspects to the design that will help you to consider essential elements that can trip up good design.
The back panel was a good quality 1/4” plywood faced one side with a quarter sawn oak veneer on the face side and a mahogany-type veneer the other. The way the plywood panel was fitted into the rebates was unusual in the the edge of the plywood was chamfered at 45-degrees and so too the wall of the reveal the plywood fitted into.Everything was nicely fitted and flush. He used 5/8” #4 brass countersunk screws to secure the plywood to the oak body.
I had noticed that the slide-in oak supports protruded past the front face of the desk by 1/16” and asked John and Phil why they thought that he had not fitted them flush. Neither could give me an answer. I said I thought that it was a flawed design and asked them what the flaw was. Again neither could give me a correct answer. I pointed out further that the drawer also protruded past the front face by the same 1/16”, which might take some correcting because the drawer was dovetailed on the back corners instead of using a housing dado.
Slide in desk support showing protruding support at front.
The answer of course was that the overall case had shrunk by 1/16” and the supports had the grain oriented length ways and almost zero shrinkage or expansion takes place in the length of wood, much more variance occurs in width according to absorption and release of moisture in the atmosphere surrounding the piece in the everyday of life.
Rear inside of the case, showing the support enclosure behind the plywood back.
Removing the back ply panel showed that the inside enclosure wall to the support pieces was also oriented the same alternate way and the added length showed at the back of the cabinet and protruded the same 1/16” back there. The reason shrinkage showed at the back was because the front edge of the divider was tenoned into the main desk carcass, fixing the point from which shrinkage would take place.
I was able to clamp the box in the vise and plane the back edge flush again. I also trimmed off 1/16” from the back end of the lid supports so that they would line up flush with the front edge of the desk again as in the original intent.
The flushed divider.
Removing the plywood back allowed me access to the supports and I could pull them out from the back. A cut and recessed 3/8” dowel was fitted through the rounder loosely and fitted into 3/8” grooves aligned to allow the dowel free passage to a stop position inside the grooves. Notice the saw kerf from a tenon saw on the inside corners of the grooves. Too small for a tablesaw and no power router used at all. The two grooves allow the supports to move forward but stopped them to support the fall front desk part. The supports each had a bumper at the rear of the support that bumped up against the plywood back when stowed. A bumper was missing from the drawer back and so I replaced it with a screw that would allow for adjustment to line up the drawer with the front of the body carcass.
I noticed that the supports and the drawer front didn’t align with the perpendicular parts of the front as if the drawer and supports were out of square. To correct this I planed the undersides of the drawer sides and the undersides of the supports from zero at the front to about 1/16” at the rear of the drawer sides and the supports and then they all aligned perfectly.
Screwing the turn buttons in sequence took only minutes because they were all numbered and ready to align with threaded holes again. I melted into the background of my workshop to look after standing it back on its legs and feeling how solid it now is. I stare for a while immersed in the sensing of who made this piece. I think he would have been proud of his work and the final appearance. I am sure he was disappointed with himself over his tenons but then forgot it. One hour would have fixed his mistake but he chose not to. A character flaw there really. All in all, in the overall scheme of things, I think the piece is well executed and very practical.
There was no scallop to the edges of the fall front and I found it awkward to open it. I scalloped a small point to make it easier.
The two hinges were brass and well made. I decided to remove them and polish them with the screws. To prevent the screws from rounding over I screwed them flush with the surface of a piece of scrap wood and buffed them on a polishing mop.
Before I left this evening I chucked up some oak for four new knobs and rough turned them ready for detail work tomorrow. Nearly done now.
Today I fitted all of the tenons back to their original sockets and made them snug as they should have been. I also added a pair of rails 3” below the long top rails. My joints were as tight as always and you can see that they hold the frame very well. This serves to add the strength I would have got had the top rail been wider. I will add a shelf here for book storage and such; perhaps a good place to stow my drawing board and tee square. It strengthened the overall carcass tremendously by the time it was all done and now I can sating and finish the unfinished parts to the golden oak colour. Beyond that I just need to turn some new knobs for the drawer and the support pulls and my work will be done.
This is the crystallised glue scraped from the mortise hole.
Here is a comments question someone asked and I thought my answer might add more light for consideration.
Out of interest, I’ve used Cascamite on a couple of projects in the past, none of which are 70 years old, obviously. The adhesive is known for setting glass hard, and glass brittle, hence in the boat building trade it’s only used where it can be backed up with a secondary mechanical fix, such as a screw. Otherwise it’s epoxy resin and not much else.
In your experience is this failure more to do with poor joinery or would the glue have failed in this manner over time regardless?
Good question, Jon. I noticed that all of the joints had failed in some measure. That’s 14 mortise and tenons. The reasons may vary but one thing I did feel was that shrinkage in a tenon can split along the glue line if the mortise wood is not moving or shrinkage taking place at a parallel rate and time. In other words both sections of wood should be dry to the same level at the point of union. If tenon wood is drier than mortise wood that would be fine, but we furniture makers generally use wood from the same batch and uniform in moisture levels. These joints were surprisingly poor even though the actual forming of them was very good. I repaired and glued up the whole framework this evening and was very happy with the eventual outcome as I left for home.
All in all it was the joinery I felt contributed most to the failure, and though there is of course something of value in using glues that allow splitting on the glue line for repair work to take place, for new and non-conservation furniture work I will continue with PVA and/or animal glues and perhaps use the Cascamite for outdoor work. Then again, I think that the newer PVA waterproofs seem to be holding their own these days.
Here you can see a design flaw or a wrong decision on the part of the maker. I conclude what happened was that he made the mortises keeping extra length on until after glue up and then cut the length down flush with the tops of the aprons. He allowed only 1/8” between tenon top and leg top. Not really enough. He bevelled the top corners after cutting the legs to final length. I like the concept and visual appearance where the top cabinet fits to the base frame but they would it would have been better increasing the apron width and also leaving more meat at the top of the mortise pocket between the top of the tenon and the top of the leg. I am sure all would have been OK had the glue or joinery not failed, but all joinery details and sizing should be decided on with repair and restoration being considered as possible after long-term usage. I always consider my joints might one day be X-rayed for authenticity or establishing details inside. It’s just vanity really.
I dismantled another piece this week and that was an oak fall-front writing desk I bought a few weeks ago. The desk is simple enough and made from solid oak and that was why I bought it. If I don’t like the desk or the style then the oak was worth the price I paid and more. I felt the desk worthy of saving and restoring and the top portion of you recall was made with mitred dovetails that hid the dovetails completely within the mitres. This aspect of the work was very neat and precise. I had however been a little troubled with the mortise and tenoned framework of the stand the desk was anchored to because two or three joints were loose and the desk’s upper weight seemed to readily part the shoulders. As I decided to take the frame apart my concerns were confirmed and suspicions verified.
Parting the joints I heard a sort of crunching crumbly sound not dissimilar to animal glue but I also knew the colour to be another glue I had used 50 years ago as a boy. Those I worked with touted this as one of the best glues and I accepted what they said to be true. Looking at it now I have shifted my opinion in some measure.
The glue he used
Cascamite is a synthetic resin used as an adhesive for general joinery usually for joints that are exposed to outdoors; windows and doors, door frames and so on. It was used on glue lines too where long edges were jointed for laminations. Cascamite is generally sold as a powder you mixed with water to a consistent thickness or viscosity and sets up during the cure which gives it its gap filling properties. It’s said to be suitable for load bearing and laminating. It leaves a clear glue line and will not discolour hardwood, its also mould resistant. After the glue is mixed you need to work with it quickly as it can quite rapidly change from thick liquid to a solid jelly and in about 6 hours (temperature dependent) sets rock hard. It’s touted as having excellent well proven adhesive for joinery, cabinet work or boat building and I know that to has its place, but seeing this piece 70 years on I feel questioning as to its long term efficacy.
Because the tenon thickness was undersized according to the mortise, a full width gap was evident on almost every one of the wide faces of the tenons. This surprised me because the overall piece was well executed. It shows the significant impact good joinery has on longevity and that glue generally cannot substitute for the levels of accuracy it demands. This for me is where harmony becomes evident in the word joinery which has its root in the word harmos. Now the tenons were all dead to size or slightly over width. Very different than thickness. You can use the extra width for tightness here but it substitutes for the real art of joinery. many joinery companies (or the staff machinists and assemblers) use foaming adhesives such as polyurethane glues to expand around the joints. This is only a temporary gap-filling fix (pun intended) for poor workmanship and the missing craftsmanship that’s become standard in the industry. It lasts long enough for the guarantees of a year or so but not really good practice.
I glued on the thin slither, jokingly called “special shim joinery” when I was a boy who made a bad joint, which pushed the other face to fully engage with the wall of the mortise too.
Inside the holes the glue was both brittle and fractured. it flicked of readily and was easily removed with the corner of an old chisel. So to chiselling off the glue from the faces of the tenon. I decided to thicken the tenons by adding thin veneers to the face of the tenons and then fitting the tenons back to the relevant mortise holes. I am also considering adding a mid rail along the long length to increase stability. I think wider top rails was an answer to the problem too. The weight of the top box is to much for flex in the legs. An inch extra and rightly fitted tenons would have meant no joint failure.
It’s interesting to see the two tenons used in tandem. Again forethought by the craftsman and his regard for ensuring the integrity surrounding the tenon and mortise. He wanted to keep the fibres as connected as possible and keep strength between the walls of the mortises. This decision came as a result of the width of the tenon because the wider the tenon the longer the mortise hole.
It is common practice to use twin tenons at around 6” in width. So when you approach that width you begin thinking of what use a piece will be used for and also what stresses will be placed on the piece too. In this case the drop leaf flaps are to create a larger table for sitting at and yet the table cannot be used that way when the flaps are down. This then suggests that the flaps are usually down to create more space around the table when not in dining use but perhaps still useful for preparing for other aspects of family life or to fill an otherwise empty space.
The table itself when the flaps are down is relatively narrow at just two feet over all. With a leg between the knees the table seats six or eight if some are children. Tables get pull and pushed into place quite frequently to create work areas, passages and flow for other needs. Pulling tables on carpets is hard on the joints. Lots of leverage and only a small jointed area to resist stress. These are often the breaking points with the tenons holding but the outer wall of the mortise giving way and resulting in a split. Especially is this so if no glue is used but only a draw-bore peg. This was well known on tables and not a problem on doors. Draw bore was not used on this table and so suggests the use of clamping and this then helps in the dating too. Although it was common enough to devise wedged clamping systems requiring only boards and wedges, long screw-threaded clamps were relatively unknown prior to the late 1800s. That doesn’t mean they weren’t invented at all, it meant that the accuracy in machining to cut threads was still in the developmental stages both in the US and the UK. My namesake, an inventor mechanic named William Sellers, worked diligently towards dissecting non-standardised threading and sizing of the age to produce a standard by which threading would be reliable and so to the British engineer Joseph Whitworth of Whitworth-thread fame who also endeavoured to establish a standard for measuring and creating threads.
In all cases of sound M&T joinery the mortise hole surrounds the tenon on four sides. When the tenon is used in the middle of a stile or leg there may be two, three or four sides of the tenon sporting shoulders. When one or more shoulder is missing the tenon is usually referred to as a barefaced tenon and in this case the longer pine aprons have a shoulder missing on the large face of the twin tenons. This is relatively unusual on tables as tables are commonly apt to accomodate both front and back shoulders as in the short aprons. It’s not uncommon to have shoulders of different depth however. That way you can push the limits in favour of stronger joinery, which only the craftsman can determine according to his discernment.
Factors surrounding this joinery revolved around the swing-out arms that support the flaps. These are indeed wide flaps at a foot wide. Quite heavy really. The need for them to be recessed away from the front edge pushed the mortise hole back toward the rear inside corner of the leg. It was a careful consideration and well though through in terms of sizing and distance and so on. This is true of apron sizing too. The width of the leaves meant unhindered seating arrangement at least along the flap edges. More problematic in the short apron space, but no problem for children with a leg either side of the leg or indeed a child sat in the middle and older siblings near the corners. All thoughts really.
By now you will see the critical thinking every craftsman had in developing a piece. it is most likely that this piece was more functional than decorative in that there are no decorative features to the table at al except for inside tapers to the legs. Even this was most likely a functional consideration. Thicker around the joint areas and thinner to the foot for access, sweeping and cleaning and of course swinging legs in and out of spaces to sit at a chair. In those earlier days of design the craftsman was constantly engaged in decisions minute by minute when he designed his work. The decisions were at the bench and in the home or workplace, office and so on. The design, this particular design, was most likely not a one off but a pattern developed through many years. That’s also true of todays developers in designing their pieces. Artisans place their work considerations at the forefront in establishing the form they will build to. Function is of course paramount unless you cross over into realms of art. In this case the art was designing a functional piece.
The bottom of the mortise holes, or inside the enclosure, were trapped two pine shavings. Not significant at all but interesting in some cases. In times past I have found shavings between the cap iron and the cutting iron that told me the last work of the man and the plane.
In the bottom of the mortises the chopping is indeed choppy and not smoothly executed. In fact they come surprisingly close to the outside faces and in one case on 1/16” remained between the bottom and the outside face; a near flaw. I noticed that the inside walls were very smoothly cut and suspect that they were cuts with mortising chisels of one type or another and not firmer chisels. The sizing was 13/32” and corresponded to to the tenons. that may sound obvious but it’s not always the case as in some cases craftsmen did undersize tenon thickness for speed and relied on other a draw bore pin or tenon width to be tight. This sped up the process for those under pressure from their masters. The width the tenons are set to show no underside shoulder and this is common with pieces where the shoulder is unseen. It’s quicker and easier and any shrinkage that might show as a gap is of no consequence because you would need to be bent over on your knees to connect to this. Sometimes, however, I do use shoulders here because it’s good exercise for my students in establishing skilful shoulder cutting.
My next part in this will be examining the making and using of the knuckle joints. Hand cut and no machines. Fascinatingly accurate and effective underpinning!
Dismantling furniture gives meaning to the present and so we better understand out craft and piece together the missing pieces in the puzzle of what has gradually disappeared. I like finding chisel cuts and plane marks because they reflect a richly textured craft culture evidenced in honest workmanship. It’s something machines will never leave or if they do it will likely be in burn marks in saw kerfs and routed moulds and dadoes. I watch a machine cut the wall of a recess and it often leaves a perfect square wall straight as can be. It’s boring to watch and has no character really. Every cut comes out the same and when it’s done the machine user knows he didn’t do it. I don’t believe we will be undoing CNC router-cut work and feel too much at all. Why? There’s no character to it. It has only the dullness of machine passes and not the record of a man’s hand as in this table.
When I open up joints and dismantle pieces for repair or because I want the wood for something else, I can spend many hours recording and researching to learn from my mentors in previous centuries. When one thing touches another it leaves a trace of itself on the other and in woodworking it’s no different. One of my favourite aspects of my work is undoing the work of my predecessors in woodworking. I think last week I mentioned that John bought a four foot square mahogany table because I told him that the wood alone was worth many times more than the £35 they were asking. I was glad he did. John dismantled the physical parts yesterday. Today I dismantled the methods and examined the cuts and slices and traces left by the tools in the wood. The parts were as a message pad to me. Grain, cuts with sharp-edged tools, different signs told me how every cut was made and also about the tools used themselves. What I take for granted is not necessarily obvious to everyone and I realise that. I can tell the difference between a single bevel knife cut and a two bevel knife cut and the difference between a knife wall and a cutting gauge cut too. Spokeshave cuts and plane cuts and chisel cuts are all identifiable if you know what to look for and I can tell when pre cuts are made to facilitate additional chops with a mallet and chisel. In other words I know how craftsmen created things because of my own working as a master craftsman of 50 years. By this I unlock the past and understand from silent works the sharpness and dullness of their tools, the direction of cuts and the choices of techniques. Let me walk you through this just a little here.
The joinery on this table is simple to make and specifically designed with great care and insightful craftsman knowledge. Firstly the joinery is traditional. Twin mortise and tenon joints create the typical intersecting of legs and aprons to form the framework undergirding the tabletop and drop leaves. The twin coplanar tenons are at first glance perhaps less pristine than you might expect or even like or admire, but in essence you can’t help but respect the standards as you see the economic steps he took to make the joints interlock with tightness and to very specific measurements. For instance, the tenons and mortises were all 13/32” – a small amount over 3/8” and of course a non-metric 10mm +. The faces of the tenons were planed and the two cheeks dead parallel with a vernier. The surfaces look rough on the inside but that’s more the glue residue and not the inaccuracy of tool work.
Look at the rough chisel work between the two tenons. This was of course pre-coping saw days but not pre bow saw. In this case the two tenon widths were cut down with a tenon saw and then a 1” firmer chisel is used to chop from each side by first placing the tenon cheek on an elevated block and chopping. First removing the waste with a rough cut say 1/8” from the line reduces resistance when the final cuts are made and hence the cut through is made with a single blow from nosed and then a second meeting cut from the other. No clean up took place.
Now let’s look at the width of the tenons. On all of the tenon widths there is compression bruising that shows that the tenons were deliberately cut over width by a surprising amount. In this case the depressed internal surfaces are 1/16” compressed. That seems a lot to me, but then I noticed the compression was deeper on the two softwood aprons and a lot less on the hardwood mahogany ones where compression is less. So, this tells me that the craftsmen made conscious assent to factors inherent to the different wood species and judged the work accordingly. What was he considering? He judged compressibility, spring, strength, fracture capacity, denseness, hardness and perhaps things I might not yet know of.
Notice too that on the entry point along the edges of the tenon he created lead in along the edge to ensure the corners don’t snag on the mortise internal walls. It’s something I have always done because I too was trained to do the same.
The shoulders of the tenons are undercut for ease and speed and to ensure that the outer rim of the shoulder closes up to the leg without any hindrance. I prefer not to do this as a practice, but sometimes it happens through injudicious cutting. Shoulder-lines for the tenons were knifewall cuts and not cleaned up with a shoulder plane at all. The faces of tenons were all planed level and smooth with no evidence of chisel work. Does that mean they were all sawn or just planed? Not at all. It means both chisel and saw cuts were refined with a rebate plane at least 1 1/4” wide and probably wider.
Looking at the mortised legs I was pleasantly surprised by the composition of mortises in relation to the leg. The mortises were not equally placed as would be more normal. The mortises on the short apron are set 5/16” from the outside face and then the long apron is set 7/16” from the inside face.This positioning allowed a full length tenon to both aprons but offsetting the long apron allowed for the knuckle-hinged folding support for the drop leaves to fold out of the way when the flaps were placed down and stowed.
All of the cuts were pristine for the main part. I mean very sharp cuts from hard steel. Both chopped and pared cuts with and across the grain were were clean cutting and so well cut all pores were fully open. This should not surprise anyone. We have made no advances in sharpness in the past two centuries that I know of.
I think that sometimes I have been grateful for machines and I realise their real value when woods have difficult grain. I remember one time passing a most beautiful treasure of mesquite burl into my planer for a second pass of 1/64th. Not a heavy cut at all. The first pass had worked fine and I was passing it through oriented the same way as previously. The piece entered fine and then suddenly exploded every bit of it somewhere into the cutterhead. Nothing came out the other side and 16″ by 5” wide of 1/2” mesquite burl that should have made a perfectly book matched lid was obliterated. That’s not so rare an occurrence as it might seem and that’s why many users of thinner stock use planes and scrapers rather then machine planers to thickness their stock down to final sizing. I know that many guitar makers use thickness sanders to gain the thickness to exactness but I also know that Marty Macica resolves his work as I do using hand methods and no sanding. This is because he feels the sanding dust fills the grain pores with dust that deadens sound. Marty is teaching a new guitar-making workshop later this year in New York and you can see him do that here.
Resuming from my blog a couple of days ago here. My mesquite pile had now ceased to lose weight. In summertime Hill Country Texas that means it’s as dry as you will get it and that’s when I like to start putting my final thoughts on paper. The most economical way to use rarer woods is to create veneers from them. Our modern take on that is of course that veneers are somehow cheating us out of the real thing and to some degree that’s quite true. IKEA and others use thin veneers to mask what’s underneath and they might tell us it’s to save the rain forests, which of course is untrue. Most modern goods with surface veneers are usually super thin. So thin in fact you can see through them to the light sub-woods underneath. What mass makers want is something that feels and looks like real wood for its warmth and appearance and at the same time controllability to pass it through machines for tight tolerances. Adding stain to equalize colour and tone gives them and us the illusion of real and we unwittingly buy into a built-in obsolescence product. This is less true of hand crafting artisans who want the control MDF offers, but creative ways of using veneers. Box makers often use this and I recall the most prodigious UK furniture makers SilverLining making doors for the Russian Embassy in London using MDF for some massive doors that were veneered with some very special veneering to the faces. Many top-notch makers use MDF. I chose ot to do this and find ways of veneering with solid wood as a substrate. It can be done but it takes careful consideration every time.
The piece I designed had many features I chose from my early signature details. The rails separating the drawers comprised hidden aspects to the internal joinery but through tenons cross-wedged on the outside. I have always liked this feature because it visibly shows the contained tenon within the mortise and the compression within that creates a lock to the dovetailed tenon.
Inside the tenoned area I created a housing 3/32” deep. I wanted to support the rear of the rail. In the scheme of things all joinery necessitates one part to to be reduced in some measure to fit into another. I considered two types of mortise and tenon joints and chose one for different reasons. Here are the two options I thought to consider. The one on the left is a single through tenon. The one to the right is a twin tenon. I rejected this for this particular piece but used it in other work later. I felt that the joint with twin mortices took too much wood way. It made the joint area weaker, but I decided this based on my knowledge of mesquite and knowing it’s brittle nature. using a single tenon meant I could move the tenon further from the front edge of the side panel and increase the strength that way.
The cross wedging needs much care too because the wood either side of the wedge needs to retain continuity along the length of the rail. The wedges are not too long and must not be driven into the rail beyond the depth of the saw kerf. I start my wedge the same width as the kerf, that way the the wedge immediately parts the narrow section of the wedge to press it into the widened aspect of the mortise. I forgot to tell you that the outer aspect of the mortise to the top and bottom are widened with a sharp chisel. You can see this in the drawing. It’s always important to consider joinery in terms of its reductive parts. Widening a tenon means less wood surrounding the mortise. Reduce the size of the tenon too much and you have a weaker tendon. Reduce it too much and you destroy the efficacy of the tenon in favour of the mortise. Joinery is about finding balance and seeking harmony between two married parts. Each relies on the other, which is why when I was young the men always referred to “marrying” the various parts. It’s a reductive process you see, but one part cannot be reduced so much as to be weaker at the cost of the other.
Someone asked me to write about my past works and I am reluctant because I have no decent images of what I made nor pictures of me making what I made. I am a dinosaur from the pre-digital era. If I go back too far, say the 1970’s and 80’s , I have almost no photographs, and the ones I have are now stored in Texas in the USA. In the next lines I will describe making a chest of drawers I made and eventually to a man in Houston. I will describe my doubts and my emotions and try to express something you and others might or might not understand. It’s a series. Too long for one post given my always ever-diminishing time.
This piece is a piece I made and sold to a Houston lawyer; for his boardroom centrepiece. It’s not a large piece, quite diminutive for a Texas lawyer, but it had punch and spoke much about Texas wood so few can ever understand because it’s unlikely they will ever see it or know it as I have. I lived in south Texas when I met two men who were cutting mesquite trees and milling it into boards to sell as rough sawn lumber. These two men built my first USA home for me and were both carpenters cum timber saw millers at weekends. I regularly bought mesquite wood from the two men over the first months when I arrived and one day they came to me bright-eyed with a truckload of “something special.”
It would be hard to describe the wood without you thinking I was exaggerating. I don’t know if I could ever find such quality again. As we stood and examined the woodcut it was as if I invaded their excitement, got caught up in it and found myself twirling with them. I think that it was the first time I had seen two adult men, basically cowboys in the true sense of the word, who for the first time in their lives felt the extreme heights of discovery that was no different than those discovering the redwoods of California or the mahoganies of South America. My hands slipped quietly over the poser covered boards and the intense cat-claw figuring popped and popped and popped in 3D reality as I uncovered the grain beneath. Back then I [paid $2 a board foot for mesquite if it was nice and of course ot was always nice. The rough sawn boards were cut to 1 1/8”, 30” wide and sequence cut through and through. The stack was burl or cat-claw for about 40” long and I could see would yield about half of what I saw in useable wood. They invaded my space and sense of discovery with a swift interjection of, “We want $6 a board foot and there’s 120 board feet here.” $720 was hard to come by for me but we cut a deal of half down and half when I sold whatever I made from it or pay up in full if nothing was sold in six months. It worked. I made 10 meat boards and sold them for a $100 each from the non-usable sections because they “Shure looked purdy” to everyone that came by the studio over the next few weeks.
The wood had been dried in a solar kiln Bobby had and then acclimated in the Texas summer sun under tin. Mesquite is the most forgiving wood for drying there is. No other wood comes close. Distinctive features about mesquite is its canary yellow sapwood against the deep reddish purple brown heartwood. Even the sapwood was very highly figured and I was able to work some stunning centre book-matchings using the sap wood as the jewel in the centre. I have done this many times with this and other woods and it looks quite unique and lovely. Here below are some similar panels I used for the White House cabinets to show what I liked in the formation of panels but the woods shown in no way parallel the quality of what I had down in Uvalde and reagan Wells in Texas.
Mesquite panels made with book-matched centre field and skirted with an oak and ebony frieze and an outer band of mesquite crossbanding.
I continued the acclimation process for about a year under my carport where I stored other woods. it’s a mistake to use such wood too soon after purchase. Seasoning is something we have lost and most people call kiln drying seasoning but that’s really not what it is at all.
The White House pieces I designed and then made for the Permanent Collection in 2009
Often I would sit out in the car port and stare at my boards, pull them apart and stare at them. I didn’t want a commission piece to be made from them, I wanted to design a piece for them. I think the process often goes this way for me. processing the thoughts rather than the wood. making the thoughts fit the wood rather than the other way around. it’s something of a luxury to do this but it allows me to step outside of business and consider wood more than perhaps commission work does. All too often commissions have price limits and deadlines. making some pieces without a sale using wood no one else has ever seen allows a privilege to happen that can never be explained. I don’t say all pieces should be that way. Such things are the laughter and the joy that come periodically in life to separate joy from hardship so that contrast separates us from the monotony and the mundane to create spheres of happiness and to explore those unchartered realms of the unknown. Wood like this, and of course other precious woods are jewels where our mind explores passages over weeks and months until we plumb the depths as best this finite mind can and fathom hitherto unreached and untapped depths before we begin to consider how parts begin to fit together in dimensions of unity you felt but never knew existed. This was what happened when Joseph and I made a voice come from wooden parts in a cello we made. Your mind races as never before and your muscles and sinews flex and twist your arms and legs according to each beat your heart takes and makes and trembles for. The chisel, the plane and saw explore as no machine can ever explore. The rhythm starts like a fast pulse starts to pump and you embrace the straining conditions you might never otherwise embrace. And all the time this happens the wood is still; it just lies motionless, stickered in unconsciousness not knowing the plans you developing and forming shapes by every impulse in your sensing mind.
This week is yet to happen and last week has gone completely. Life unfolds day by day and week by week and how we fill this space we call life or time or the actual space itself matters. I talked to an archaeologist today who asked me many sincere and healthy questions about how my life works. I told her that it was both simple and complex but it was one I engineered as best I could and despite invasions constantly from people I invite into my workshop via the opening of my door each day, I like what I do. A rope barrier hangs between me and the visitors and in general I can control my engagement with people by looking up and smiling, smiling and getting on with my work or just plain keeping my head down and working. I can close the door if I choose to but mostly choose not to. I want to share my life with people most of the time, but I confess sometimes enjoying not talking and looking around but just engaging with my work. I suppose I might consider myself selfish were I to close the door on the world. Where else would people see someone working with their hands and be able to stand in an entryway hearing sounds they never heard before and smelling wood they never smelt before?Where else would they watch a man make a dovetail joint on a drawer being made or a plane swipe off the name of a child from a piece of pine to become a wristlet? You see, my life is unique. So unique is my life I actually don’t know a working man in my region who leaves the door open for visitors to stand inside his shop, ask questions and things like that. Being a married, family man, I like to see families come in and spend a little time here. I like seeing the children’s faces and hear their questions and the answers the parents give, whether they are right or wrong. If I kept the door open and the router running (if I had one) and the tablesaw (if I had one) or the chopsaw (if I had one), how would that happen. I said it before and I will say it again, machines seem to create an insurmountable barrier between children coming into the workshop. I am sad sometimes when I wonder if my craft will actually die before they hear sounds I hear all day long, but then I nudge myself and say keep pressing. I know one thing for certain. The art and craft of woodworking will not come to children through the doors of a machine shop and woodcraft and the art of craftsmanship will be continued through the lives of those working wood using hand methods and that’s what keeps my doors open wide and the children standing there asking me wonderful questions.
Some days seem quite ordinary and I suppose that they are really. John and I ate breakfast and went to the car boot sale a mile from the house. It was quiet but we bought a few things between us as we walked around the booths and aisles. I had wanted a hand cranked grinder for some time but couldn’t find the one I wanted and then there it was lying rejected on a concrete floor. £7 seemed a good price to pay of it worked and it did. I found an old mahogany table 4’ square in two 1’ laminations with 1’ drop leave all 4’ long. It had aprons and square tapered legs so we bought it for £35. The wood was lovely of course. It will make a fine tool box or something more practical than a table with wide drop leaves to wide to sit at. Another Stanley brace and a very nice wooden spokeshave seemed most ordinary and then I saw two nicely made panel gauges I thought should belong to someone other than Bill the vendor selling them…mostly because they were nicely not ordinary in that setting. I should have bought them really…to give them the home they deserved.
This wasn’t the one we bought but it was there at the sale
Back at the shop the table seemed quite settled when someone walked in and said that they really liked the table. The table had nice mahogany but the design was as I said, quite ordinary. Soon it will be a most beautiful something.
I cut these notches with an ordinary knife and a chisel. They sliced the wood neatly and exactly as I placed the square on the increment marks I wanted. The inclined incisions are critically important to my goal, yet my goal is quite ordinary. It took a while to develop this and when it was done it was less to me than the effort I put in to achieve it. John sharpened more tools and we talked the whole time about things that mattered to him and then things that mattered to me. Mostly we shared the same pockets were what we liked we enjoyed over a coffee and the same music.
People drifted in and out all week as all of these things that are ordinary to us occurred minute by minute. I think that it’s a true thing that when we do things over and over for a length of time, like slicing notches for an hour, they become ordinary to us. What’s ordinary to me is often extraordinary to those who come from somewhere ordinary to them. Surely that’s an important thing to grasp. Two small girls came in to the workshop. Elena and Lucy. They were lovely to visit with and so too their parents. I wrote their names neatly on an ordinary piece of pine in pencil and then erased them with my plane. The shavings were quite thick and I showed them how I had erased their names from the pine block. They were amused and perhaps a little sad to see their names disappear with one swipe until I pulled the shavings and the names from the throat of the plane and curled them around their wrists. I don’t know what a pine bookmark shaving will mean to them in their future, but their young noses will remind them of some ordinary minutes with an ordinary man when a name disappeared and reappeared for them to keep. I concluded that there is nothing wrong with an ordinary day shared with ordinary people because ordinary things we do with our hands affect us all very greatly.
I don’t believe it is unrealistic to derive your full income from being a woodworker no matter where you are in the world. It does seem that some governments have legislated protectionism into its governance for different reasons and not the least of which is ensuring protection for the customer or should I say consumer. Germany seems to be ahead of the game on one hand, with extreme levels of legislative controls, whereas here in Britain, whoever picks up a claw hammer or a drawknife can call him or herself a carpenter, chair bodger or the total escapist ‘green’ woodworker. I must admit I do like the freedom we enjoy in deciding to make change. The fact is that, for the main part anyway, if we are no good, and our products inadequately made, we will most likely go under before we cause any real distress. In other words we survive by being fit – that’s making products fit for purpose, not the dog-eat-dog survivalism we left our corporate jobs for.
Anyone offering an honest piece of work will indeed stand out and the quality of work always sets us apart because, no matter the background, it seems to me that a percentage of people always seem to recognise quality workmanship. I recall a furniture maker in Texas lowering a car onto four of his small oak tables made with traditional joinery to prove the value of what he had. The legs sank into the earth 3” but the joints held and the car stayed there for three days. He sold tables and other pieces throughout the weekend and established himself as a fine furniture maker based on his educating strategy. He never had to do that again, but that was what it took to persuade people that his work was different.
I strongly think that we woodworkers need to give more insights into what sets us apart and whereas the car trick was a bit over the top, and it is unlikely that most of us could indeed offer such an exhibition, we can’t usually just expect people in todays world to understand what we are bringing to the market.
In my workshop I have several joints sitting out in the visitors area for people to look at. These joints tell a story and especially is it of value in relating to what might otherwise not be seen inside the jointed areas of say a table or a chest. Dovetails especially seem to impress people.
This week three people from China came in to see my work. The older man was a woodworker also and he was happy to see what we were working on. He seemed a modest man, humble in spirit and expressing only appreciation without saying a word. His wife too seemed of a similar disposition. The daughter, in her mid twenties, assertively insisted that I could sell my work and “make a lot of money.” It seemed to this confident visitor that I had never thought of that and now at almost 65 I needed someone to help me see where I had failed myself.
So, it is important to educate your future customers. This can be done in different ways. Video is much simpler now than ever and a short film can show you at work making the joinery. You can also demonstrate at the workbench at craft show venues as I did for decades. This really works well. I once saw a man demonstrating carving a ball and claw chair leg at a show and people stood there for half an hour totally glued to his demo. Creative work is always electric and of course you can print a brochure of what goes into your work to support any audiovisual you might have there too. Drawings of Mortise and tenons and explanations of which joints you used where. Before many minutes pass people are asking questions and most days when people come into my shop they are asking if this or that is for sale and how much would it cost to have something made.
It is important to take your work to an audience of you don’t have a venue to work from that shows your work. In every shop I have owned I have always set up a reception area showing my work. Sharing what I do is as important to me as the actual making of it. It’s here that I engage the most and it’s here I can best explain my ambitions and goals and indeed my life as a lifestyle woodworker. There will always be a percentage of people who want to buy a piece knowing it was carefully made by hand. I’m not saying it’s an easy passage being a maker, designer, marketer and salesperson, but somehow it seems so much more relational and you develop something so much more substantive when people know that the piece in front of them didn’t come from a factory or from another country or continent.
A few weeks ago I turned some new chisel handles I needed to upcycle an old wooden plane into new life. We made a video to show how and have a second video soon for how to fit step-fit the tang into the handle.
Here is the video. Hope you enjoy it.
We have another planned for a turned hexagonal handle soon too.