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Je ne sai quoi Woodworking

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Updated: 33 min 9 sec ago

My second commission – part 12

Wed, 08/16/2017 - 11:50am


Let’s start with a confession. I did stuff around with some of the photos in this post. It is the first time that any of JNSQ’s photos have been altered, as far as I can remember anyway.

The previous posts in this series can be found here.

In this edition we will take a look at some of the joinery and the first phase of preparation of the top for finishing.

The first bit of joinery I attempted was to fit a small block to the top of each leg construction. It will be the point that fix the centre of the leg to the centre of the top. All the other connection points will allow for wood movement, but these two will not. This means that the top will be able to move freely with changes in humidity, but the centre will remain fix to the centre of the legs. I think this is called a T-bridle joint. One feature of my Langdon mitre box and saw that came in handy here was it’s ability to set the depth of cut. Obviously you can simply do this by hand, which would also be much quicker. Where the mitre box might have an advantage is when you need to do heaps of these joints with the same dimensions. In this case it was an opportunity to work out how to set the mitre box for a job like this. That way it will be easier next time.

A router plane works well for the cheeks of the bridal section. It was a bit of a challenge to hold such a small piece while cutting the cheeks to depth. The solution was two dogs and a Veritas gadget. That could be a good name for a progressive rock band or a retrogressive gin mill (Two dogs and a Veritas gadget), come to think of it.

Next up were the slots in the top of the legs.

The two aprons are also jointed to the legs by means of T-bridal joints. Here I am marking the exact location of the shoulders using the leg.

That was followed by the same sequence involving the mitre box, router plane and careful chisel work to perfect the shoulders.


So then on a crisp and bright winter’s Friday morning I started to flatten the bottom side of the top. Seeing that it is the first table top of this size in Kershout that I am doing by hand I thought that the bottom side would provide an ideal opportunity to work out which method works best. The major challenges posed by this top are the schizophrenogenic nature of grain and the extreme hardness of the wood. As every self-respecting JNSQ Woodworking reader should know by now, we deal almost exclusively with feral boards from the ancient Knysna forest. Each of the trees that the boards for this top were sawn from would have been over 500 years old.

If you deal with wood like that it is my opinion that one has a real responsibility to do the best possible job of allowing the story of the tree to be told. In my estimation that means a delicate balance between careful surface preparation and leaving certain imperfections that relates to the history of the piece of wood. George Nakashima’s immortal oeuvre of work (which inspired this design) lends itself perfectly to getting the most out of feral hardwood such as what I chose for this top. How much and which imperfections are left to tell the story is of course in the eye of the beholder.

Anyway, I started experimenting with various different tools to see what might work best in flattening such a challenging top. The techniques I tried included a belt sander, a low angle jack plane with a toothed blade, a standard no.3 smoothing plane (45° frog) with a back bevel of 25° creating an effective pitch of 70° and a shop made fore plane with a blade pitched at 50° (aka York pitch).

The belt sander has always been one of my least favourite tools. It makes noise, it is all over the place and seems to be the best possible tool to turn a flat surface into the famous Valley of a Thousand Hills. What I found was that it is less harmful in such hard wood, but still not an option if you are aiming for a superior surface. The low angle Jack plane (12° bedding angle + 38° micro bevel for an effective pitch of 50° and a tight throat) worked diagonally to the grain clearly had the measure of the wonky grain, but would have taken too long for what would suffice for the bottom side of the top. I did not aim for a perfectly flat bottom side.

Next up was the back-bevelled smoothing plane. It worked even better (in terms of finish) than the low angle plane, but was difficult to push due to the high effective pitch and therefore even slower at removing material. It is also important to mention that this strategie seize to be effective in difficult grain when you try to take a fat shaving.

So I rolled the dice and tried the shop made fore plane (50° effective pitch) diagonal across the grain. It wreaked havoc in a semi controlled sort of way. This particular blade has a fairly substantial camber and it took no prisoners in the process of removing the necessary material in a timely fashion. In the pictures below you can see the characteristic scalloped appearance of a surface smarting from such treatment.

This is one of my attempts at manipulating the photos to highlight the pattern left by the plane.

The wooden plane in the picture below enforced the above damage. Of note in the picture is the bottles of water I consumed during this arduous labour of bellicosity.

Here we have an example of a part of the history of the tree that is often neglected to be told. Yes I know some of you will think I have lost the plot. Probably something along the lines of: “The #%$@&* hippy has been smoking too much pot.” The reality for me is however that the wood I in my collection have all sorts of imperfections and it would be impossible to create anything of reasonable size without these imperfections exposing themselves. I have therefore made peace with having to incorporate imperfections and try to design in such a way that the eccentricity of the stock enhance the aesthetics of the piece I am building.

Here are a few more tweaked pics with an array of tools that were used to tidy up the bottom side of the top.

Then finally it became time to employ some of the lessons learnt on the bottom side to the face side of the top. It took me three full days of planing at 45° to the grain with a toothed blade in a low angle jack plane to get the top as flat as I wanted it. The two pictures below were taken after the first day.

The dogs on my assembly table came in quite handy during this brutal process.

The toothed blade created these beautiful patterns in the areas that were approaching flatness.

This was the end of day two.


Once the entire (well almost) face side were in the same plane I removed the bulk of the rhombi left by the toothed blade using a no. 112 scraping plane. It was the first time I used this particular tool for a huge job like this. I prepared the blade the way that is recommended by my woodworking icon David Charlesworth. In my case a 45° main bevel, 50° polished micro bevel with a 75° burr set up in the plane with the blade leaning forward at 20°. The plane is an absolute joy to use when set up like this. You have to make sure you take very thin shavings of course. Some sanding with my shop made sanding planes took care of the rest of the rhombi.

While grappling with the rhombi I took short breaks to tidy up the cracks in the top. They all had lots of loose splinters of wood and other ancient bits of debris inhabiting their depths. This task was mainly accomplished by using a very old pocket knife that used to belong to my grandparents.

At this stage I shaped the curved ends of the top. As you can see I marked out two lines using my fingers as a fence. These lines guided the removal of waste to create a very gentle yet quite wide bevel. Once the bevel were established, the end grain area were rounded off ever so slightly using the same technique. My no. 9½ Stanley block plane did most of the donkey work and was then followed by a low angle smaller block plane, which was in turn followed by gentle sanding.

When I got a bit tired of the top I continued to chip away at the last bits of joinery.

Once the two aprons were fitted to the legs with very precise bridal joints, I started working on the massive beam that connects the legs at floor level. The Witpeer beam was laminated and squared up more than a year ago. It gave the wood a very generous time frame within which it could settle all possible disputes the fibres might care to raise (so to speak). It turns out that a very dense laminated beam like this stayed pretty much dead straight in all it’s  dimensions, but managed to go out of square by what appeared to be a full mm. That was fixed by hand planing a face side and face edge perfectly square with each other and using those reference surfaces to square up the others with my electric planer.

I transferred the inside measurements of the joinery from the aprons to the beam.

Using the above reference point I took the beam to the Windsor leg to mark out the exact location of the other side of the fairly complex stopped bridal joint (my own name not necessarily correct terminology) which will marry these two structures.

This is how far I got with this joint at present.

It was now time to break in my precious polissior that one of my favourite woodworking personalities and über craftsmen Don Williams (of The Barn on Whiterun fame) sent me earlier this year. That entailed rubbing the heads of the grass/straw on a rough piece of scrap wood and tidying up the appearance on a spindle sander.

I can thoroughly recommend reading Don’s article on this epic tool from the past.



I used the Polissior to burnish the top after perfecting the finish with gradually increasing grid sander paper on a orbital sander. I went all the way to 600 grid and did two rounds of wiping the surface with a damp cloth to raise the grain before sanding it back down with the 600 grid. You can see the effect of the burnishing in the pictures below.

Aoife helped me to apply a tung oil/turpentine mixture. We kept the surface quite wet for 30 minutes by reapplying the mixture where the wood absorbed it and then wiped it down with a clean and dry cloth.

As you can see it was one of those unbelievably satisfying moments in woodworking where the wood rewards you for months of painstaking elbow grease. Kershout is simply one of the most beautiful species of wood on the planet. I want to reiterate that there were no pigment added what so ever. This is what it looks like after tung oil mixed with turps were applied!!

The top will now rest for two weeks before we will apply beeswax with the polissior. Stay tuned my brethren!!

My second commission – part 11

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 5:51am


As promised we will look into the process of jointing, gluing, and inserting dovetail keys into the top of the table in part eleven of our journey.

The rest of this particular chronicle can be found here.

The Kershout boards in the picture below were prepared up to this point towards the end of last year and has since been kicking it with my 1969 MGB in a separate garage.

The first task is to arrange the boards as best as you can with regards to colour matching and balancing out defects. This is where you whip out your artistic licence. This is after all a tribute to the legendary George Nakashima.

I took the opportunity to see what the trapezoid leg would add to the overall look. The top looks very light in colour (in this picture), but I can assure you that it will be transformed to a very dark reddish brown once the finish is applied. The Kershout dovetail keys contrasts exquisitely with the lighter Witpeer boards that makes up the trapezoid leg. I also like the darker lines created by the defects on the leg. It was strategically place to balance out from an aesthetic point of view. We will see later in this post how the reverse of the mentioned timber combination has a similar effect with regards to the top.

As you can see here my bench really came into it’s own working on the edges of these boards during the jointing process. I first prepared the edges so that they were close to the desired configuration, which is a very slight bow in the length.

Then the boards are clamped together with the two edges that will mate (so to speak) flush with each other and folded much like book-matched pieces before opening the “book”. This nifty trick leads to a cancelling out of the minute error that might arise in squareness of these edges with regards to each other. This technique is sometimes referred to as match planing.

Didi gave me a few pointers.

The Kershout is so ridiculously hard that I had to resort to using an alternating attack with my Lie-Nielsen low angle Jack plane armed with a toothed blade and a Shaw’s Patent Sargent no. 14C armed with an aggressively cambered blade.

Once the artillery softened up the enemy, I moved on to this shop made jointer plane to finish off the job.

I find my Festool Domino to be a very useful tool to keep the edges flush during glue-up.

It has become my custom to do only one of these edge joints at any one time given the short window to get the job done in our dry climate. Each joint is then left in the clamps for at least 16 hours. In other words, I tend to leave the glue-up for my final task each day. It is usually done at around 17h00 and left over night until around 09h00 the next morning.



Ready for the final glue-up.

I had to buy a set of 1.3m long 1″ pipes for my pipe clamps in order to do this final glue-up. Of course, as you would expect, my 1.2 meter wide assembly table was too narrow to accommodated the clamps for this glue-up. The situation therefore necessitated some problem solving on my behalf.

As you can see here a piece of wood (for each of the bottom clamps) was cantilevered off the edge of the table held in place by a clamp through a dog hole. Oh! … and yes, in case you wondered, it is my daughter’s “Biscuit finds a friend”. My English is not advanced enough to indulge in such haute literate.

As I have mentioned before, a mere mortal tends to sweat like a Gypsy with a mortgage during our sweltering rainy season. Didi is the master of African Climate Control (aka toplessness).

… and Bob’s your Uncle.

I modified the strip of wood that links my trammel points to draw a curve to soften the appearance of both ends of the top.

Marking the location of the dominos like this helps to remember where they are when further shaping is done.

The waste was removed with an electric jigsaw. It is a crappy old Black & Decker that I bought many moons ago while still living in New Zealand. I do not use it very often to start with and do not recall ever calling upon it to munch through Kershout. As most things you do for the first time there were a few lesson to be learnt. These things (for lack of a better insult) cut on the pull stroke, which translates into a messy splitting out of fibres at the top edge. Therefore (in hind sight) it is desirable to have the bottom of the top facing the jigsaw when doing this job. Secondly, I realised that I used a blade that was too aggressive, which did not help either.

On the flip side, this indiscretion coerced me into a design tweak that might (or might not) add an interesting twist. You will have to wait and see just like me.

Another reason I chose this shape for the ends of the top, is to enhance the appearance of it being sliced from a massive tree trunk. The idea is that this shape resembles the end of a trunk that was chopped off by axe. If you imagine a board cut from a trunk like the one in the first photo below, it would probably resemble the top of my table as seen in the picture below. That is in my mind anyway, you might feel different.

Then it became time to fashion a few dovetail keys to stabilise the obvious cracks in the top.

I worked out how many is needed of each size.

Here I tried to work out where to place the keys with regards to my sense of (randomly planned) artistic balance. The picture below was not the final version that was decided on, but somewhere towards getting there.

For the design of the keys I chose an angle of 9º, which repeats all through the design of the table. This is an idea you might want to consider. You draw only one key, chopped off at different lengths, and write on the template the number of keys needed of each length. It is then cut out, traced onto the wood as many times as the key tells you and then you chop off the ends and repeat on the next sized key. This way they all have the same shape, but of different lengths in an attempt to add visual interest.

As so.

The keys were liberated from the above Witpeer board by means of a bandsaw.


Another useful trick is illustrated below. Clamping a piece of scrap wood across the top to hold the dovetail key firmly in place while it’s exact configuration gets marked out on the top.

Drilling out the waste by hand in such hard wood is no joke. “Trust you me”, as they say around these parts.

Enter: Lie-Nielsen merchandise in tandem with my trusty shop made Assegaai mallet. I chose the mallet as I needed a bit more heft than what the so-called Je ne sais quoi Persuader can deliver. When working “stone”, the extra heft is a must.

The lazy winter sun give us a better idea of the warm colours of the Kershout as it infiltrates my shop during the late afternoon.

It seems as if this post is riddled with tips, so here is another one. In order to see the scribe line better, one can have a small torch lying on the top to cast a shadow into the line. On my bench this is usually accomplished by positioning the bench light in a similar fashion, but clearly this top is too big to take to the bench.

Once the key enter it’s mortise like this I stop refining the fit. The key is then clobbered home after a frugal application of Epoxy, which acts as lubricant as well as an adhesive. The clobbering is done with a heavy mallet furnished with a thick sealskin face (not pictured).

As you can see here (minus the heavy mallet).

One week later the keys were planed flush using the two planes pictured.

As you can see the Witpeer keys contrasts nicely with the Kershout, much in the same way as the opposite combination works splendidly in the trapeziod leg.

We will get into preparation of the top for finishing in our next riveting edition of this series.

Shaw’s (re)Patent

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 5:50am


One day in May while sitting in my shop at the end of a long day sipping usquebaugh I found myself staring at this so-called Shaw’s Patent no. 5 Jack plane of mine. It is the Jack plane that I use for heavy stock removal, which means it ends up on the receiving end of some significant elbow grease. As a result, the plane tends to reciprocate the well intended elbow grease with fervent vesication of that part of my hand that flirts with the ribbed edge of the main casting.  It got me thinking that the plane could possibly be modified to amend this particular quirk.

You can read a post on how I restored it when I initially got my discombobulated mitts on it.

As you can see here, the slight design glitch with this Sargent plane is twofold. There is a lot of wasted space between the top of the tote and the lateral adjuster. Also the bottom end of the tote slopes downwards, which has the effect that the side of one’s hand tends to end up on the rib of the main casting. Thus a combinations of these two inadequacies coerce the hand of the user into a position much lower than what is needed.

As you can see in the example below, the bottom part of the tote on this Lie-Nielsen low angle Jack plane does not slope down, but runs parallel to the sole of the plane. This design element stops the hand from sliding down too far. I thought that the Shaw’s Patent could benefit from a tote that employs the same strategy. Together with that I could utilize the dead space between the top of the tote and the lateral adjuster by lengthening the tote, which would also aid the user’s hand to ride higher.

I found a piece of Kaapse Swarthout, that would not suffice for any other purpose. This is by far my favourite indigenous species for producing totes.

It was quite a mission to fashion a tote that would fit the plane and at the same time tick the desired design tweaks. I used a combination of the original tote, the Lie-Nielsen tote, and documents on Stanley totes to accomplish the task.

The final product looks like this. You can see how the top of the tote is now much closer to the lateral lever and the bottom of it has a parallel section to hold the user’s hand up. Another neat little trick I discovered is to cut a leather washer to sit between the sole of the tote and the main casting. It makes a huge difference to the feel of the plane when using it. The difference is hard to explain, but try it and you will know what I mean.

The changes to the tote also necessitated a tweak to the length of the tote bolt. Unfortunately it is a change in the more challenging direction i.e. making it longer.

While I was at it I also changed the knob. I prefer a flat section at the top of the knob for my thumb when gripping the front end of the plane with the rest of my fingers on the sole acting as a fence.

The final adjustment I made was to file down the part of the rib in question by about 1 mm and rounded it. After all that the Shaw’s (re)Patent works like a dream. If you prefer woodworking rather than tool tweaking, I suggest that it might be better to buy a Lie-Nielsen plane from the start.