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Lost Art Press: Chris Schwarz
While searching for examples of lowrider (Roman-type) workbenches for Chris, I started to find images of workbenches from the Spanish Colonial era in Mexico and South America. As this is a field that is underrepresented, Chris and I thought it would be a good idea to assemble them for study. I found woodworking images from seven countries, with the majority from the early 17th through late 18th centuries.
Except for a very few, the majority of Spanish Colonial images are of religious scenes. In Europe, the shift from religious to secular images occurred earlier, but in the Spanish-controlled lands religious orders of the Catholic Church set up craft guilds for the converted indigenous peoples, and controlled much of the production of painting and other arts until the 19th century.
Paintings from Spain were used to communicate religious ideas and also served initially as examples to copy. And many copies were needed as churches were erected in every settlement, and new arrivals from Spain built new homes. In a twist that did not occur in North American, the Amerindians in Spanish-controlled territories began to infuse elements of their ancient cultures into the art they produced.
Along with workbenches, you will also see the basic tool kit in use, some sawing, angels and a few cats.
In the image at the top (lightened to see detail) Joseph is using an adze at a simple staked bench. Note the cabinet in the upper left corner with the basket of tools and two planes. You will not see all of Joseph’s workshops so neat and organized. And there is a parrot.
The painting above shows a simple bench with a substantial top and stretchers. A wall cabinet with a door is somewhat unusual in colonial paintings. Jesus has contrived a support for sawing on his own, no angels needed. This painting is probably a close copy of a European painting.
The painting above is from Oaxaca. Joseph and Jesus use a low and very long bench to support their sawing. There is a tool rack on the back wall and strewn about the floor are a selection of planes, chisels, an adze, square and mallet. It looks like Joseph is using his leg and a short bench as an additional support for the piece they are sawing.
In Mexico in the 18th century a type of secular paintings were made to illustrate a complicated and legal caste system. Very briefly: with a population of Iberian Spanish, colonial-born Spanish, Amerindians and Africans there were bound to be intermingling; racial mixtures were used to determined levels of status. Casta (caste) paintings generally illustrated 16 mixtures.
In the secular trinity above we have a nice example of the staked bench, although a bit higher than Chris would like, and a small selection of tools.
Of the hundreds of Casta painting I looked at most of the craftsmen were shoemakers, so I was surprised to find some carpenters. With adze in hand he works the wood supported by his bench and child.
It is highly likely some of the workbenches are exact copies of benches in European paintings. As more immigrants and members of religious orders arrived, more paintings and other artwork was available to copy. However, I think the Casta paintings and paintings from missions point to the type of bench most commonly built and used in mission shops and by craftsmen working in city shops.
The Spanish-controlled lands in the new world became part of a global trade network that extended from Spain to Asia. Via “La Nao de la China,” otherwise known as the Manilla Galleon, precious metals found in the New World, especially silver, were transported to Manila to trade with Chinese merchants.
The Manilla Galleons ran from 1565-1815 and ultimately completed two voyages a year using the largest ships in the world. The goods from Asia landed in Acapulco with some distribution in the New World. The bulk was moved over land to the Atlantic Ocean and thence to Spain. The human cargo consisted of slaves and freeman and with them the colonies were exposed to new materials, methods and influences.
One example is the use of mother of pearl for inlay (a craft the Japanese had perfected) which became known as enconchada. In paintings it was generously used to impart a richness to the subject. In dim churches and homes, the garments of Mary and Joseph, angel’s wings and the embellishments around doors and windows would glimmer and glow.
Back to the benches. Similar low staked benches, one with stretchers. On the left there is the not-recommended tool storage above the dishes. On the right, we have a sensible woodworker with only a gluepot (?) and a smaller saw on the shelf and a nice basket o’tools.
In the Mexico gallery there is a painting with bench that may be a reproduction, more glowing, some polychrome sawing and a vista. Click on each image for a description.
To wrap up Mexico here is a 19th century bench of a master carpenter.
The legs look like they have been replaced. The bench is 228 cm long and 127 cm wide. Chris commented that he suspects the face vise screws are so long to accommodate sawing pieces for veneering. My contribution is to name the nuts “double-bunny ears.”
Flemish paintings brought to the colonies introduced the idea of spiritual scenes warmed with details of domestic life. This is very likely a close copy of a European painting.
Jesus is a bit older and has his own bench. Both benchtops seem to have holes for pegs (or a holdfast) to use for work holding.
The right leg on Joseph’s bench seems to have holes and perhaps a holdfast.
This painting is from Medellin. The staked bench has a substantial top and legs. Tool collection on the ground and a cat.
Nice heavy bench top and a face vise with indeterminate nuts.
Staked bench with a very skimpy top and wonky legs, but you get the idea. The same set of tools strewn about. Baby Jesus is not using a safe chiseling method.
I add subtitles to images in my notes to remember which is which. This one is, “Get that baby off that bench!” But, we are back to the long and narrow staked bench. Demerits for the Baby Jesus on the bench (with chisel), merits for using a basket for tool storage.
Chisels in a rack on the wall, squares, planes, mallet, and saw on the floor. Dividers and adze on the bench. Bench more than a bit too high for its legs. Wait! What is that NOTCH on the front edge of the benchtop? I can’t repeat the exclamatory phrase Chris used when I sent this image to him. I believe this bench joins the Roman Saalburg workbenches in Workbench Mystery No. 326 (read that post here).
The Colombia gallery has two more benches and a vista.
Isabel de Santiago was the daughter of a well-known painter. Using her will, and other documentation, it was determined she had painted several paintings attributed to her father. Of course, the re-attribution occurred a few centuries after she died.
Joseph is about to strike a chisel with his mallet. An angel with dividers in one hand and a square in the other works alongside Joseph. The bench is similar to others earlier in the post with the addition of a cat and dog.
I had almost given up on finding a clear and uncropped image of this painting.* The bench has a face vise with hurricane nuts. There is a tool rack on the wall and minimal tossing of tools to the ground. The painter, Miguel de Samaniego, a mestizo, is considered one of the premier painters in Ecuador’s colonial era. He clearly had a sense of humor.
He gave Joseph a plethora of shop angels: naked angels are ripping, but who is supporting the other end of the wood? Joseph’s leg? The clean-up crew is busy. The chickens are being fed. Over at the soup pot, one angel blows air to stoke the fire while another suffers from smoke inhalation. And under the bench we have a spoon carver.
A staked bench with no face vise. Just as Joseph is about to bring his adze down, his helper angel puts finger to lips in the international sign of “Shhh” and points to the sleeping Jesus.
In the Ecuador gallery there is another painting by Isabel de Santiago (Joseph and bench are in the background), from the coastal city of Guayaquil a painting of Joseph with his tools and two vistas.
*A big thank you to Jaime H. Borja Gomez and his ARCA project. I was able to find missing information and better photos of previously found paintings, and many more images I would not have otherwise found.
I hope to have the next post up in a few days and it will cover Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.
— Suzanne Ellison
Filed under: Roman Workbenches, Workbenches
“Der Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen (The narcissism of small differences).”
— Sigmund Freud, 1917
The topic of sharpening is plagued by Freud’s “narcissism of small differences,” and the best example of this is all the noise about the shape and angle of the tool’s bevel.
Almost every word written about this topic is nonsense, at least from a practical perspective. Let’s talk first about the shape of the bevel.
Convex, Concave or Flat?
All the wood can see is the tiny intersection of the bevel with the back. It cares only about two things: the angle at which the edge is cutting and whether or not the edge comes to a zero-radius intersection.
The wood doesn’t care if you hollow-grind your bevel and hone it flat on stones. It doesn’t care if you have a dead-flat bevel. It doesn’t care if you add a secondary bevel. Or if your bevel is convex.
The wood never sees the bevel – only you can.
So from a practical standpoint, the shape of the bevel is unimportant (I’ve worked extensively with all of these shapes). Unfortunately, theory and speculation cloud what is – at the bench – dead simple.
A hollow-ground edge is not weaker than other edges. You might draw diagrams that show how the cutting edge isn’t as well-supported by the iron atoms behind the edge, but you are only making noise. Please stop that. A hollow-ground bevel works very well.
A flat bevel that is fully polished is not particularly difficult to sharpen. Yes, it might take a little longer to polish the scratches out because you are polishing a lot of iron and steel. But the time difference is not significant enough to warrant discussion. If it were, entire woodworking cultures wouldn’t have done it for thousands of years. So a flat-sharpened bevel also works very well.
A secondary bevel works very well. The wood has no clue you are using one.
And a convex bevel isn’t any more robust or easier to sharpen than any other bevel. Yes, there is theory that our human brains might ponder, but the wood doesn’t care about your theories. Bottom line: A convex bevel works very well.
Animosity Toward Angles
Another source of intense noise is the exact angle of the bevel. I’ve written about this red herring before. It seems logical that low sharpening angles are best for end grain, and high sharpening angles are good for mortising.
What’s is far more important than the angle, however, is the zero-radius intersection. You can pare end grain with a sharp chisel honed at 35°. I do this all the time. In fact, almost every tool in my chest is honed at about 35°, which keeps my sharpening regimen simple.
Pre-industrial woodworkers didn’t seem to care much about angles, either. In the old texts, a wide variety of angles are acceptable (check out Joseph Moxon’s discussion in his ‘Mechanick Exercises’” for a good example). The advice of the dead: If the edge crumbles easily, raise the sharpening angle. If the tool becomes too hard to push or won’t take a shaving, lower it.
So pick a practical angle – somewhere between 20° and 35° – and see what the wood and steel tell you. Soon you’ll forget the sharpening angle you’re using (I certainly do) and focus more on that zero-radius intersection and less on the shape of the bevel or its angle.
— Christopher Schwarz
Read the other installments in the “Sharpen This” series via this link.
Filed under: Sharpen This
Read the other installments in the “Sharpen This” series via this link.
Let’s pretend I want to break one of your fingers. The job would be easy if you held up your fingers in the air with them spread apart.
It would be more difficult to harm you if you clenched your fingers in a fist. And it would be almost impossible if you stuck your fist inside a shiny and hard vase.
Violent fantasies aside, this exercise demonstrates one benefit of polishing your edges. A steel edge breaks down quickly when the iron atoms aren’t well connected to one another. So when there are deep abrasive scratches in your tool’s edge, those act like the space between your fingers. Without good support among the atoms (or your fingers) it’s easy to break them off – making a dull edge and a howling reader.
Clench your fingers in a fist, and you have created a durable structure that can keep your fingers intact. Sheathe your fist in something, and it’s going to take me a while to punish you for the naughty things you’ve done.
In sharpening, the act of polishing removes the deep scratches that separate the iron atoms, which are in a matrix with carbon. The fewer and shallower the scratches, the more durable the edge. This is, I think, easy to understand.
But what makes some people do silly things is the idea that they can create the ultimate cutting edge by polishing to finer and finer grits using particles that are less than 1 micron across.
In theory, sure. Polishing can refine an edge to an incredible degree. But it’s unlikely in the real world using real-world abrasives.
I’ve used sub-micron sharpening equipment (less than half a micron) that costs a stupid amount of money. I worked with these stones and slurries for months to get comfortable with them and improve both the sharpness of my edges and the finish on the wood. I concluded it was a fool’s errand.
In a real workshop, there are just too many abrasive particles on every surface to make this sort of crazy sharpening a practical thing. And the purity of the sharpening media itself – despite the manufacturer’s claims – play a big role in the results.
Also, these super-fine abrasives cut so slowly that you might want to have “Heaven’s Gate” on your shop’s TV while you polish that one holy edge.
So What is a Practical Polish?
Believe it or not, the cutting edges of woodworking tools haven’t gotten insanely better in the last 200 years. That’s because we have always had abrasives that get the steel to the same approximate level of sharpness and polish. The pre-Industrial craftsman might have had stones that were inferior to modern stones, but he or she also had a strop, which is the great leveler among the sharpening cultures.
Strops are charged with fine abrasives – a micron or so – that break down to even finer particles with use. And so a fine polish and a wicked edge have been available for many generations. We know this from books, of course, but also from the furniture record. Visit the Winterthur Museum some time and observe the pieces made using ribbon-stripe mahogany that are nicely planed. Those cutting edges were plenty sharp.
In my experience, the sharp edge that can handle anything in woodworking is made with an abrasive that is about 1 or 2 microns – give or take. After that point, the time and care required to take the edge to a noticeably higher level simply isn’t worth it (unless your hobby is sharpening or you participate in Japanese planing contests).
If you want to polish beyond 1 micron, you’re not hurting anyone. So feel free. But for people who want to get back to the work as soon as possible, 1 or 2 microns is the sweet spot for an edge that is sharp and durable.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Sharpen This
My last attempt to escape my apparent fate as a cabinetmaker involved going back to school in the early 1990s. After graduating with a master’s degree in religious studies, I imagined it would be easier to find work that would bring me into contact with people instead of mute material, which I’d consistently found depressing in my woodworking career up to that time. Over a period of four months I sent out employment applications while taking any odd jobs I could get. It was a trying year for the would-be employed in south-central Indiana; listings in the “Help Wanted” section of the local paper included such enticements as “LOOKING FOR A CAREER WITH CHALLENGE? Parkland Pork Enterprises is seeking a Production Manager to oversee all aspects of pork production!” and “TRAIN TO BE A CHILDREN’S ETIQUETTE CONSULTANT: You will join over 600 consultants who are providing the highest quality programs in the United States and abroad.”*I had a couple of interviews for office work but still had not been hired when I was called to interview for a clerical position in one of the university’s academic departments. The pay was low, but the university offered some of the best working conditions in town. I would spend my days in one of the historic campus buildings, a limestone Tudor originally constructed as a dorm. I could already see myself walking the mile and a half to work each morning, the perfect distance for a pedestrian commute, and eating my lunch of leftovers on the lawn at the center of the quadrangle. I was certainly qualified for the position. All I had to do was show my interest and enthusiasm, which were sincere. I dressed in a nice skirt and blouse and walked to campus feeling confident that this job might well be mine.
When I arrived at the office, the administrative secretary took me into a meeting room and introduced me to the chair, Professor Jameson, who was seated at the head of the table. Standing up, he shook my hand and smiled warmly. “I just had to meet you after reading your résumé,” he began. Things were looking good.
“We’re not going to hire you,” he continued. “You’re seriously overqualified. But I called you here so that I could ask you in person: Why would such a talented and accomplished personal apply for a clerical job?”–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
*OK, so the real ad, shown above, said 500. This does nothing to minimize the surreal experience of finding such a gem among the job listings. And for those of you who have already read Making Things Work, I agree with you that Nancy Hiller could have learned a lot by attending that school.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Read the other installments in the “Sharpen This” series via this link.
I roll my eyes when people talk about the superiority of their chosen sharpening media, whether it’s waterstones, oilstones, diamonds or cinderblocks. To my ears, it’s like you’re boasting about the superiority of the oxygen molecules that you breathe compared to those in your neighbor’s lungs.
Sharpening comes down to abrasion with small rocks. Some rocks cut steel faster but break down faster. Other rocks cut steel slower but are sturdier. Some rocks are expensive; others are cheap.
The practical differences among the systems are minimal. As a result, there is no clear winner among the rocks. Anyone who tells you different is either an evangelist or sells little rocks for a living.
I can say this with confidence because I wallowed in every sharpening system for about 15 years. I used them to sharpen tons of chisels and plane blades for tool tests at Popular Woodworking Magazine. And I listened to every snake oil salesman’s speech and put their assertions to the test.
We all want to believe that there is a superior system out there. It’s human nature to compare, contrast, contest and cajole. But the truth is that the best system is the one you have mastered.
So when I talk about sharpening media, I don’t give two figs about the type of media – oilstone, sandpaper, diamond, gallstone. Instead, what is far more important is the actual size of the little rocks you are using (which are best measured in microns when talking about sharpening).
Big rocks remove material quickly and leave deep scratches. Little rocks remove less material but leave smaller scratches. Tiny rocks remove little baby mousy bites of material and leave scratches the naked eye cannot see.
So the competent sharpener uses big rocks to create the zero-radius intersection. Then he or she uses the little rocks and then the tiny rocks to refine and polish the edge so it’s more durable.
That’s why the most important questions when it comes to sharpening media are: How big are my big rocks? And how tiny are my little ones?
Here’s the useful information: The world of practical sharpening media ranges from rocks that are about 200 microns in size down to rocks that are 1 micron (or smaller). A rock that is 200 microns is about .008” – that’s about the size of a thick plane shaving. A rock that is 1 micron across is about .00004”. By way of comparison, a human blood cell is about 5 microns across.
I separate the rocks into three different sizes, each with a different job in sharpening. The biggest rocks (200 to 40 micron) are used for grinding edges. Grinding is for fixing damaged edges or changing the shape or angle of the edge.
In my shop, this job is handled by an #80-grit grinding wheel, which has 192-micron rocks.
The next size rock is what I use to sharpen an edge that has become dull from normal work (not abuse). This rock is usually between 20 microns and 7 microns in size. This rock removes metal quickly and leaves scratches that are easy to polish out with smaller rocks.
You need only one grit in this size (unless you love to fund the sharpening stone industry). In my shop, this is a #1,000-grit waterstone, which has 15-micron rocks in it.
Lastly there are the rocks used for polishing. These are from 6 microns down to a fraction of a micron. Polishing an edge helps make it more durable (more on that in a future post). Deciding on your polishing rocks is all about how much patience you have. Some people have three or four grits for polishing. Others have one polishing grit. Neither choice is superior to the other.
The more polishing you do the longer your edge will last. But there is definitely a point of diminishing returns. Finding that point is up to you.
In my shop, I use two polishing grits. A #4,000-grit waterstone (4 microns) and an #8,000-grit waterstone (2 microns).
Those are my rocks – 192, 15, 4 and 2 – and they are no better than yours.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. You are going to hear people challenge the above information with words such as “mesh,” “polycrystalline” and “binder.” When they do this, let your eyes glaze over and build a motorcycle in your frontal lobe. Then, when they are out of breath, ask to see their edges. I haven’t found that high-level abrasive knowledge leads to superior edges. If they won’t show you, then ask them to “sharpen this.”
Filed under: Sharpen This
This is an excerpt from “Doormaking and Window-Making” by Anonymous. This book was discovered for us by joiner Richard Arnold.
The door shown in Fig. 60 is very common as a front door in some parts of the country, although it has not much to recommend it, the long panels being very weak, and also the stiles, owing to there being no middle rail to strengthen them.
The making is very simple, being the same as an ordinary panel door, minus the middle rail; hence no detailed instructions on setting out are required here. They only mystifying point is the circular head panels, but those are only formed by the bolection moulding, the top rail being framed in square, as in Fig. 61, and the circular corner pieces glued and bradded in on the outside of the door only.
The circular moulding is formed in a lathe, as Fig. 62, and cut through to form two heads. It should be sawn through across the grain, as shown in the drawing, so that the end grain on the straight moulding will butt against the end grain on the circular moulding. In doing this, the shrinkage will be the same on each piece, and the intersection will not be affected. Of course, it must be understood that, if a good job is to be made, the turning must be accurately done, or the two will not intersect, and no amount of cleaning off will put matters right.
In making doors which have to be bolection moulded, some care is needed in gauging for the mortises, to ensure the moulding is bedding properly. If the moulding is rebated to a depth of half an inch, the gauge should be set to nine-sixteenths; the moulding will then bed tightly on the framing without any trouble. If gauged on too far, when the moulding is nailed in there is a risk of splitting at the outside edge; and if not gauged enough, the moulding will not fit closely to the framing. The medium should be aimed at, as in Fig. 63, where the moulding beds closely at A and B, and is slightly away from the panel at C.
In fitting bolection moulding, the mites should be shot as it is difficult to obtain a clean joint direct from the saw; the correct length of each piece should be taken, and the moulding cut to the marks; there will be no difficulty in making them fit accurately. The rebates are usually made slightly edge-shaped, as shown in Fig. 63, which forces the mitres up tightly as the moulding are driven in. In nailing each piece in, the nails should be driven as at D (Fig. 63); this will draw the points A and B down tightly, and at the same time allow the panels to shrink, without the danger of splitting them. This method of fixing does not, however, find favor in some parts, the favorite method being to screw the moulding from the inside of the panels, as at E. This certainly holds them firmly to the panels; but unless the latter are very dry, they are apt to split, owing to the outside edges being held by the screws. Taken on the whole, the writer prefers the former method of fixing and it must be understood that both methods should on no account be used together.
In Fig. 64 we have a door that will be a familiar object to some readers, but a total stranger to others: it is a bolection-moulded three-panel door, the third panel being formed by leaving out the bottom munition, and throwing the space below the middle rail into one panel. This, however, is relieved by planting on a raised panel of 3/4 in. wood, bevelled off from the centre to all four sides to a thickness of 3/8 and screwed to the panel proper from the inside. A vertical section of such a door is also shown, and an enlarged section of the bottom part appears in Fig. 65. In some cases a narrow raised panel in fixed to the upper panels in the same way as the lower, but this is not commonly done.
The above makes a very substantial good-looking door when finished, far better than that shown in Fig. 60; but to ensure lasting properties the bottom panels should be very dry, and the grain should cross in the two—that is, the panel proper should run longways, and the raised panel upright, or vice-versa.
— Meghan Bates
Filed under: Doormaking & Window-Making
You can now purchase our latest video “Roubo Workbench: By Hand & Power” for $35 through our online store. The 4:19-long video can be streamed or downloaded and played on nearly any device – we offer the video without any DRM or copy protection.
The video is an in-depth look at how to build a massive French workbench using giant slabs of wood, but without enormous machinery. Will Myers and I walk you through all the construction steps and show a variety of ways to perform every operation, from a pure hand-tool method to one that uses the latest hand-held power tools.
Along the way, Will and I debate the fine points of construction – we don’t always agree – and discuss the pros and cons of everything from wide benchtops to wet timbers to tail vises.
Oh, and I might add that the video is beautiful. Shot using a three-camera setup at F+W Media and directed by our own John Hoffman, this presentation is the best we could do without hiring Orson Wells.
In addition to the 4:19-long video, we also include a three-page pdf containing a construction drawing of the bench, a cutting list and a list of the suppliers mentioned in the video. You’ll also receive a sheet of timecodes that will allow you to skip easily to individual chapters.
This video is the start of a series of instructional videos from Lost Art Press and directed by John. Next up: Peter Galbert on turning.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Workbenches
Nancy R. Hiller, a professional woodworker and author of the fantastic “Making Things Work,” will read a selection from her book and autograph your copy during a special free event at the Lost Art Press storefront at 7 p.m. on Aug. 12.
Thanks to Nancy’s agreeable nature and off-bubble sense of humor, we also will abuse a piñata she is making (filled with things that don’t normally go in piñatas). And we’ll play her version of “pin the tail on the donkey” – called “pin the tail on the dove.”
Oh, and we’ll have beverages for everyone. So to recap: Nancy, blindfolds, alcohol, sticks and sharp objects. What could go wrong?
The event occurs on the same day as one of our regularly scheduled open Saturdays. So if you’ve been contemplating a trip to our store, Aug. 12 would be a good Saturday to make it. The store at 837 Willard St. in Covington will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Then we will re-open at 7 p.m. for the book reading.
To secure your free ticket to the event, please register here. Space is limited.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Lost Art Press Storefront, Making Things Work
Come on, you witty and waggish woodworkers! Caption this illustration.
From ‘Livre d’Amour’ by Pierre Sala, first quarter of the 16th-century. Collection of the British Library.
Filed under: Historical Images, Personal Favorites
We are on the verge of releasing a four-hour video on building a full-blown 18th-century French workbench in the next week or two. The video, starring Will Myers and me, is as complete an explanation of the process as we could manage, and it covers everything from dealing with wet slabs to what is the appropriate finish for a workbench.
In between, Will and I discuss a variety of techniques for completing every operation necessary to build a bench, no matter what sort of tools you use. For example, for making the tenons on the stretchers, we show how to cut them by hand, ho to cut them on the table saw and even how to use a Domino XL in the process.
The video will be available to stream through our website, and (if all goes to plan) you will be able to download a copy of it so you can watch it while not connected to the Internet.
Before we launch the video, two things have to happen: We have to settle on the retail price of the video, and I have to complete the construction drawing that accompanies it. Unfortunately, my computer was fried in an electrical storm a few days ago (don’t worry, everything was backed up), but I don’t have a machine loaded with the suite of software I need to make the drawing.
So stay tuned.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Workbenches
With June comes summer, and the forest pretty much goes on cruise control. Everything that was happening keeps happening, and not much new happens.
American basswood (Tilia americana) is a late bloomer, literally. It blooms in the early part of June:
I had a hard time getting a photo; this is about the best I could get. (The light kept changing, and the breeze kept moving things in and out of the shadows and in and out of focus.) You can see a tongue-like bract above each cluster of flowers. These bracts are much paler than the leaves, so they stand out, even from a distance.
Here’s another June-blooming tree, this one with wild-and-crazy flowers:
It’s a chestnut, probably a Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima). While Chinese chestnuts (imported after the demise of the American chestnut due to chestnut blight) are common near houses, this one is growing in a semi-wild location. It’s also possible that it is a hybrid. American chestnuts (C. dentata) do still occur in Ohio, but they only grow for a couple of years before they succumb to the blight. The largest one I’ve ever seen was about five feet tall.
Here is one of the tree’s leaves:
The fact that it is very broad and almost square across at the base is what suggests that it is a Chinese chestnut; the other possibility, Japanese chestnut (C. crenata) is more rounded. American chestnut leaves are paler green, and they taper to a point at both ends.
The other trees are all done flowering, and the ones that haven’t already dropped their seeds are busy growing this season’s crop. The fruit of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is, of course, the beech nut (just like the baby food):
They are supposedly tasty, but I’ve never managed to find one in that period of a few microseconds between when they turn ripe and when the squirrels take all of them.
The leaves of the American beech are somewhat elm-like (see last month), but are symmetric at the base (despite the fact that this one looks asymmetric, because I couldn’t get it to lay flat):
There are many species of hickory, and they are rather confusing. There are two species that I see here in my yard. First up is shagbark hickory (Carya ovata):
Shagbark has five leaflets, and the three distal ones are teardrop-shaped and much larger than the other two. At high magnification, the margins of the leaves have little tufts of hair.
The other one in my yard is mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa), which usually has seven or nine leaflets (occasional leaves will have five or eleven):
Its leaflets are not quite as teardrop-shaped, and the size difference from one end to the other is not as dramatic. The leaf margins have a few hairs, but nothing like shagbark.
Here’s an interesting one; I took it from one of my neighbor’s trees (don’t tell her):
There are five leaflets, tapered and elliptical rather than teardrop-shaped, and there are no hairs on the leaf margins. I’m pretty sure that it’s pignut hickory (C. glabra), but it’s all but impossible to distinguish from red hickory (C. ovalis), so much so that some authorities think the two should be treated as a single species. According to one source, “It is said that the two cannot be separated ‘except with completely mature fruit collected in November.’” Well, this one has quite a few nuts on it, so maybe I’ll be able to key it out then (again, if the squirrels don’t get them all first).
In the same family as the hickories (and pecan) are the walnuts. Around here, black walnut (Juglans nigra) is common. The trees are easy to spot, with their long, pinnate leaves having between 11 and 23 leaflets, and usually an overall “droopy” appearance to the foliage:
The bark is not quite as “braided” looking as hickory, but more so than ash or tuliptree:
Butternut (J. cinerea) supposedly occurs around here, but I haven’t seen it. Butternut is in serious decline due to butternut canker, which is probably why I haven’t been able to find any. Its leaves are similar, but generally fuzzier.
There are a couple of lookalike trees (or tall shrubs) to look out for as well. Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is a tall, gangly shrub that’s most often seen at the very edge of the forest:
It is easily distinguished in spring by its conical clusters of cream-colored flowers, which give way by the end of June to clusters of berries:
The berries start out green, but quickly turn a deep red and persist through the winter. Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) is very similar, but less common. As you might guess, its stems are hairy and not smooth.
The tree that most resembles black walnut is a somewhat invasive alien species, tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima)—most people just call it “ailanthus”:
It’s less droopy and usually a bit deeper green than black walnut.
Did you notice something not quite right in that last photo? The leaves at the center right are actually those of a black walnut growing next to the ailanthus:
The fruit of the ailanthus is a winged samara; it turns bright orange or red when ripe.
Of course, if you see walnuts, that’s kind of a giveaway:
Butternut fruit are more elongated, with smooth rather than pebbly skin covered in fine fuzz.
Incidentally, the name of the walnut genus, Juglans, means “Jupiter’s testicles.” I trust that I don’t need to explain how that name came about.
A close-up view of the leaves is also useful to distinguish these species. Black walnut leaflets have short petioles and finely serrated edges:
Sumac leaflets have no petioles, and somewhat more coarsely-toothed edges (sumac also exudes a very sticky, milky sap when cut):
Ailanthus leaflets have short petioles and just a few blunt teeth near the base:
You can also see on each tooth a gland that looks like a small pimple. From the underside, this is more obvious:
American hornbeam (Carpinus americana) is a tree prized for its hard, dense wood that resists splitting, perfect for tool handles. It is widespread as an understory tree in the forests around here, but for some reason I rarely see any with a trunk more than an inch or so in diameter. Its leaves are small and finely serrated:
Its fruit clusters hang down near the ends of the branches:
The related hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) also occurs here, but is less common, and I wasn’t able to find one with fruit. The leaves are all but identical, but the fruit looks a bit like those of hops (as in beer); hence, the name.
I’ve always thought that if a committee of circus clowns that tie balloon animals were tasked with designing a leaf, they’d come up with something like sassafras (Sassafras albidum):
Freshly-emerged leaves give off a pleasant, spicy scent when crushed. The wood gives off the same scent when cut, but the odor unfortunately fades pretty quickly. I have a few small pieces that came from a pallet (holding up a shipment of lumber from Horizon Wood Products in Pennsylvania).
Not all of the leaves have three lobes; some only have one side lobe, and others have none:
As was the case last month, wildflowers are few and far between. I found some American bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum):
This is one that I haven’t seen before. I’m pretty sure that it’s fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), but it has some characters that look a bit more like some related species:
It didn’t help that I was out photographing these the day after the flowers were battered by very heavy rains.
Unlike the previous two, which like the edge of the woods, the smooth oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) can be found deep in the forest:
Filed under: Uncategorized
Read the other installments in the “Sharpen This” series via this link.
People say that “sharp” is like pornography – you know it when you see it.
The problem with that statement is that you cannot see sharpness. When a tool is sharp, its edge becomes practically invisible to light. You can, however, see an edge when it’s dull. If you are confused by the above statements, don’t worry. By the end of this blog entry you will truly understand the difference between sharp and dull.
Let’s begin by discussing the definition of a sharp edge because it is incredibly important. Here it is: A sharp edge is two surfaces that intersect and create a zero-radius intersection.
Like many definitions, this one needs some definition. What does this mean?
Think of a chisel. Its bevel is one surface. The tool’s back is the second one. The surfaces don’t have to be flat; nor do they have to be curved. They just have to meet. Where they intersect is the edge. And when they meet at a “zero-radius intersection” you have a sharp edge.
What’s a zero-radius intersection? This is when the intersection of the two surfaces is not a radius or a rounded-over bit. Instead, in a best-case and theoretical scenario, the bevel and the back intersect and share a single line of iron atoms in a crystalline matrix with carbon. That line of particles is what wedges between the wood fibers and separates them cleanly.
That is sharp – as sharp as it gets. So what is dull?
Dull is where you have two surfaces that intersect, but their intersection is a radius or a rounded-over section. A million things could cause this radius to exist. Perhaps the maker of the tool failed to grind the two surfaces so they meet. Perhaps the two surfaces once met at a zero-radius intersection, but then the owner used the tool to do some woodworking. When you push a steel edge into the wood many times, tiny steel particles at the tip wear off, creating a rounded-over radius.
The goal of sharpening is to re-establish the zero-radius intersection.
You do this by abrading one (or both) of the surfaces until they meet again with a zero-radius. Note that this task can be done with any abrasive. A coarse abrasive will do this quickly but leave deep scratches in the edge that make it fragile. Fine abrasives will do the work slowly and you will want to take up golf.
And I repeat: Any abrasive can make an edge sharp. Fine abrasives don’t really make the edge sharper, they just make the edge more durable. But more on that topic in a future blog post.
Meet the Burr
So the first goal of sharpening is to ensure you have two surfaces that meet at a zero-radius intersection. But how do you know when you have achieved it? Easy. When you create a zero-radius intersection, a magical thing happens: You create a small metal burr on the surface that isn’t being abraded.
This burr is the heart of sharpening. It is the only thing (other than an electron microscope) that will tell you that you have created a sharp edge. Once you have the burr, the edge is sharp. Polishing will refine it.
So what did I mean at the beginning of this entry when I said “you cannot see sharpness?” Easy. A radius reflects light. When you look at your chisel and see a bright line where the bevel and back meet, that’s the radius smiling back at you. It’s time to sharpen.
But when you are done sharpening, have achieved a zero-radius intersection and have removed the burr (more on that later), there is nothing that can reflect light back to your eyeball. Sharpness is invisible.
That fact is one of the great curiosities of sharpening: It is a great labor to create nothingness (cue the sitar solo, dude).
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Sharpen This, Uncategorized
This is an excerpt from “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years: Volume IV” published by Lost Art Press.
Anyone using the Stanley or Record combination and multiplanes, or indeed any form of rebate or grooving plane, will no doubt have experienced difficulty in holding the work in position when it is too small or too awkward to be held in the vice. Here is a gadget that is extremely useful in overcoming that difficulty.
Made of hardwood, it is capable of accommodating material of almost any length, up to 15 ins. in width, and of thicknesses varying by sixteenths of an inch from 1/4 in. to 1-1/16 in. The one side of arm “A” (see Fig. 2) takes pieces 1/4 in., 1/2 in., 3/4 in., 1 in., thick, the other 3/8 in., 5/8 in., 7/8 in. Intermediate measurements from 5/16 in. to 1-1/16 in. can be obtained by inserting a 1/16 in. thick washer under arm A. Other measurements can be arrived at by using thicker washers, though 1 in. is normally ample, anything thicker being suitable for the vice.
The diagrams show the construction of the device and call for little comment. Arm A is attached to slides E by 2-1/2 in. bolts, the heads of which are sunk. Note also that the head of bolt X is sunk below the level of pieces B and D (see Fig. 3).
To attach the device to the bench it is necessary to cut a number of mortises, 1-1/4 in. by 1/2 in., 6 ins. apart along the edge of the bench. Where the vice is flush with the edge of the bench the mortises will have to be cut in the bench top, but where the vice projects any distance an extra fitment can be screwed in position. The mortises in no way interfere with normal work, and once cut require no further attention. Two hardwood stops are then all that are necessary to hold the device rigid on the bench. These should be about 4 ins. long and a tight fit in the mortises.
The method of use is as follows. Attach the device to the bench by means of bolt X passed through one of the mortises. Now drive the stops into the adjacent mortises, allowing the one towards which the planing is to be done to project above pieces B and D. This will act as a planing stop. The rear stop is driven below the level of B and D and serves merely to prevent the device swivelling due to lateral pressure. Here it may be noted that the outer edge of piece B projects a little over the edge of the bench as in some cases it may be required to act as a guide to the plane. Where a long strip is being rebated, for example, the front stop may be driven below the level of B and D and, the device being fixed in the middle of the bench, the bench stop used as the planing stop.
The work is placed on top of the device, its near edge projecting slightly beyond the edge of B and its end against the planing stop or the bench stop. Arm A is slid up to the far edge of the work and bolts Y tightened. Fig. 1 illustrates the method. By this means the work is held rigid.
In some cases, when the work is narrow, the construction of arm A does not permit of the work being clamped down, as the projection of A interferes with the plane. The method then is to reverse arm A, as in Fig. 4 in which case it serves merely as a lateral stop and not as a cramp.
— Meghan Bates
Filed under: Charles H. Hayward at The Woodworker
This is the last call for the three stickers designs shown above. I’m busy designing three new stickers for my daughter Maddy’s sticker empire – these new designs should be ready in August.
You can order a set of three stickers from her etsy store for $6 (which includes shipping) here. Yes, she accepts international orders with a small upcharge.
Or, for customers in the United States, you can send a $5 bill and a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) to Maddy at:
Stick it to the Man
P.O. Box 3284
Columbus, OH 43210
She’ll put the three current sticker designs in your envelope and mail them back to you. These are nice, 100-percent vinyl weatherproof stickers.
Maddy turned 21 this year, so I always wonder how much of her sticker profits go to food and how much goes to, ahem, “liquid food.” She assures me she is buying a lot of turkey sandwiches with the sticker money. Can you ferment a turkey?
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Uncategorized
One of the books I am most excited about publishing is David Savage’s “The Intelligent Hand,” which is supposed to be in my hands for editing by the end of the year. As many North American woodworkers are unfamiliar with David and his work, I asked Kara Gebhart Uhl to write this profile, which covers David’s life and work in both art and furniture. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
— Christopher Schwarz
“The story of my life is a whole series of failures in lots of ways,” says David Savage, an artist, designer, maker and founder of Rowden Atelier, a furniture design school and workshop in North Devon, England. “You don’t look at how you fall over, but it’s kind of how you get up again, the whole process.”
And David did get up, again and again. Some may call that a solid work ethic, perseverance, moxie. Or, when a young family is in the picture, survival. Perhaps, though, the getting up again is simply the root of being a maker.
David says it took a visit from Christopher Schwarz in 2015 to define the culture of Rowden. It was then that Chris noted a strong line of identity coming from the Arts and Crafts Movement to Rowden students.
That, says David, is what Rowden is. “It’s not the celebration of the flowery wallpaper of Arts and Crafts, but the celebration of who a craftsperson is — the treatment of a maker not just as a pair of hands to manufacture stuff but as a genuine contributing human being making something that’s worth having. The celebration of that is what we do here at Rowden.”
Every time David faced a challenge or failed in some way, the act of starting over came from an acknowledgement of worth. Sometimes it took an outsider. Sometimes the realization came from within. But it was the title of maker, with all its history and meaning, and the innate desire to make something worth having, that pushed David to get up and create, not just a piece of furniture, but a life, and one he deemed worth living.
Art in the Place of Speech
Born David Binnington in 1949, David grew up on the Yorkshire coast in post-war Bridlington. Both his parents were entrepreneurial and relatively prosperous. His mother, a hairdresser, owned several shops in town. And his father, an importer and manufacturer of soft drinks, owned a small factory.
“My childhood and youth were afflicted by a stammer,” David says. “Have you seen that movie, ‘The King’s Speech?’ Then you appreciate a little bit of what it’s like to have a stammer. Being inside that person with a stammer is awful in that you know where the problem lies, you know that words beginning with ‘b’ are a nightmare because you’re blocked with those. You can see those words coming up in the sentence ahead of you so the tension gets even worse. I describe it as being like trying to talk and eat a very droob-ly bacon sandwich at the same time. It’s just awful.”
David grew up quietly, rarely speaking but always listening — a skill that has served him well. “One of the great arts of being a designer is to be a very good listener so you hear what the client is actually telling you,” he says. “Most of us don’t hear. We only perceive a certain proportion of anything. I was a good listener because I didn’t say anything.”
With conversing being nearly impossible, David was drawn to art, which required little to no speech. His dedication and strong portfolio earned him a spot at The Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford in 1968.
“It was unlike a lot of the current art schools in that it was very requiring of you to gain skill in drawing, especially,” David says. “Mid-Atlantic expressionism was the happening thing. So you have studios filled with dry ice and naked bodies. This is the liberated 60’s and everybody is having a gas. They’re all on acid and weed and it’s a blast. But I didn’t go that way. I wanted to learn. Something told me I needed to learn how to do this. I needed to have a skill in order to be expressive. What was being thrown out at that time was the very idea that you needed a skill to be expressive, that skill was an inhibition to expression. I think that’s nonsense.”
The school, originally called the Ruskin School of Drawing, was founded by John Ruskin in what is now the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. (In 1975 the school moved to its current location on High Street.)
“So I went to this very fussy old art school, which was in a brilliant place,” David says. “It was in a few rooms in this fabulous museum. … It has all kinds of things from Egyptian sarcophagi to Samurai armor to Greek sculpture. Fantastic Greek sculpture. So if you’re me and 19 from Yorkshire, this is a mind-blowing experience.”
Much of what David learned wasn’t necessarily taught, but rather absorbed through the skin. “If you want to go out for a cigarette you have to walk from the studios through the Greek sculpture collection to sit right outside the door so it just becomes a part of your day, looking at genuine Greek sculpture from 400 BC carvings.”
David describes the school’s teaching methodologies as old-fashioned: You couldn’t draw the life model until you spent the better part of three months drawing Greek casts. “You were asked to use your eyes,” he says. “You used drawing as a means of looking very hard, because that’s really what drawing is: It’s looking very hard and exercising your eyes and your hands and actually coordinating them.”
Learning how to draw this way has allowed David to see better and that, he says, is the key to becoming a good maker.
“The thing I teach my students now is if you want to be a really good maker you really need good eyes and you need a hand that draws well enough. You don’t have to draw like an artist. You just have to draw well enough.” This, his says, provides you with another tool. “Drawing enables you to work out the inside of that joint and how those two parts come together. You can sketch it out, you can draw it, you can think it out, you can X-ray the joint in your head and sketch it out immediately. It’s a tool.”
This tool allows makers to create their own visual vocabulary, outside of images found online. And this, David says, he learned way back in the 1960s.
“When you sit down and you draw something, some of it you like the shape of it,” David says. “It may be a seashell or a bit of a twig or maybe the shape of a woman’s leg. You sit down and you draw it and you put down five or six well-observed honest lines. You don’t need to draw it anymore. That image goes into the back of your head, into your visual vocabulary. It becomes part of your visual vocabulary and you build up that visual vocabulary in your lifetime. And so you sit down 30 years later to draw a table leg and what pops off on the end of your pencil in your complete unconsciousness is something observed maybe 30 years ago. This is part of your visual vocabulary, it’s the stuff you internalized. This is very different from Pinterest or Instagram, which is external, not internal. So I learned to draw, which is a very powerful thing.”
After earning his undergraduate degree David says he had another amazing stroke of fortune: He won a postgraduate place at the Royal Academy Schools in London. Centered smack-dab in the middle of the art world on Cork Street and Bond Street, among all the galleries, was David, “this guy from Yorkshire who stammered a lot,” he says. He was given a grant, a studio and the pick of teachers for three years. “Crikey,” he says. “It was a wonderful experience.”
After graduating from the Royal Academy of Schools in 1974, David teamed up with a fellow student, Desmond Rochefort, and together they created The Public Arts Workshop. It was after living in, what David calls, “the guts of the art world,” he became more interested in something that didn’t exist in Britain at the time — public art. “I didn’t want to get involved with the galleries or selling the commodities of paintings,” he says. “But I wanted to be a painter.”
“In 1939, an organization called the British Blackshirts tried to march through a very largely Jewish area in East London,” David says. “They tried to have this march down Cable Street, and there was a huge riot. They were stopped from marching — the local uprising actually prevented them from doing that march and it became very famous. It was called The Battle of Cable Street. And it was one of those events that prevented the growth of fascism in Britain in the 1930s.”
Beginning in 1977, David raised money and worked on designs for a 70-foot-high mural depicting the battle on an old wall of what used to be Stepney town hall on Cable Street. He had hoped to have two assistants, but there was never enough money for that. So for three years David ran up and down the scaffolding that covered the wall, drawing and painting.
And then, a right-wing organization vandalized it.
“I crashed and burned,” David says. “I was left damaged and with no confidence and thinking, I don’t want to be a mural painter anymore. If I go back to Oxford on a scaffold, it’s going to kill me. So I pulled out. And I’m not greatly proud of that, but I knew that I had to, to stay alive.”
The project was picked up by someone else and completed, as David says he knew it would be. But then he wondered, What next?
The Origins of a Furniture Maker, in the Style of Gimson
David liked being physical. He didn’t mind running up and down that scaffolding — he knew it was good for him. He wanted to use his brain. He wanted to use his hands. “I wanted to use all of me and I was fed up of not making a living out of this.”
In the meantime, he made some furniture. “When I say ‘furniture,’ this is just four bits of wood held up with screws,” he says. He made something for the garden, using pine, screws and glue. This led to a new train of thought: “Maybe I could make things,” he says. “Maybe I could use my hands and my knowledge. I wanted something to use my aesthetic sense and what became particularly inspiring for me was the Arts and Crafts Movement.”
Particularly, Ernest Gimson — trained as an architect he set up a workshop in the Cotswolds countryside where he made what was at the time (he died in 1919) modern English furniture. “I thought that was a role model that I could follow,” David says.
David also looked to Edward Barnsley, another key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, along with The Edward Barnsley Workshop. And then came Alan Peters, author of “Cabinetmaking: The Professional Approach” and former apprentice of Barnsley. David visited Alan and enrolled in a short, two-week course with him.
“He was instrumental in turning me into a functioning furniture maker,” David says. “It was his example that I very much took to heart. I wanted a workshop like Alan’s. And I wanted to be a craftsman.”
There were other influences. David was inspired by James Krenov’s aesthetic. And John Makepeace’s clear idea on how to run a business. “His example was you needed three legs to stand on and I thought that was interesting,” David says. The legs? Technique, design and business. “And I thought, Hey, that makes sense.”
At this point David was still living in London, living on social security. “They didn’t think very much of my retraining myself but they had a kind of tolerance of it for a little while,” he says. That tolerance, along with the bit of money people began giving him to make pieces, allowed David to learn.
“I read a lot of books,” he says. “I read Charles Hayward, anything by Hayward I could get a hold of. I read back copies of The Woodworker magazine. I was very good at using the library. My local librarian was my best friend and she would get me books from all over the country.”
Around this time David also met someone, a friend of his first wife. “He was a wonderful craftsman and he didn’t want to teach me anything,” David says. “So I said, ‘I’ll come work for you. You don’t have to pay me anything.’ And he thought that was very unusual. So I’d go and spend time in his workshop when I could and he had a very Japanese way of teaching in that he would completely ignore me. And then when he saw me in a desperate trouble he’d throw a scraper blade at me and say, ‘No! No. You do it this way’ and walk away again. But his example was very powerful.”
Upstairs in David’s house was a small studio, which David turned into his workshop. He struck deals. He told family and friends that if they bought materials and paid him enough to buy a new tool, such as a router, he’d make them a piece of furniture. “It was a step,” David says.
His client list, and reputation, grew.
Then, the Irish bombed London. David’s wife at the time had just finished training to become a teacher and was looking for a job. So they looked outside of London and ended up in Bideford, a port town in north Devon.
“Everybody that spoke to us said you’re crazy moving out of London,” David says. “You’re crazy moving away from anybody who might want to buy anything you want to make. And that was true. But it also made some kind of sense. We actually needed to get out of the bloody city and now I know why. It was actually the requirement to be in the countryside.”
(We’re skipping ahead now, just for a moment.) Rowden overlooks a meadow, a lake and trees. It’s not far from the beach, shells and water. David needed to be rooted in the countryside, in the same way Ernest Gimson did. It wasn’t until years later that David made this connection of craft and place — of what’s required, for some, to be a maker.
A Change in Name, Success and Failure
In Bideford, David says a very curious thing happened. His first wife’s surname was Savage. Although not married at the time, they had lived together nearly 20 years and in Devon, while looking for a property to buy, David would tell agents his last name was Savage. “I couldn’t say my own name, because it began with a ‘B.’ Binnington is still a word I would rather not say if I could.”
That was a name he could say with confidence. For the first time in his life, David could finally introduce himself. “And it was a new town so no one knew us,” he says. “And curiously, it kind of unlocked things. If you can say who you are, if you can introduce yourself, then it kind of became slightly easier. So that rather changed things.”
David legally changed his name to David Binnington Savage. And with his new name, his stammer began to lessen.
In 1983 David established David Savage Furniture Makers in Bideford. He found a big building that needed a lot of work, and he rented it. He also began writing for magazines. He would teach himself how to sharpen a scraper or use a hand plane and then, he’d write about it. Between 1983 and 1990 he wrote a monthly column in The Woodworker magazine called “The Craft of Cabinet Making.”
He made furniture for clients in London and assembled kitchen furniture for a builder on a monthly basis. Then a local furniture maker who was teaching students wanted to stop teaching. He asked David if he would take on two students who still needed to finish out their course. David said, “No.”
“And then I went back and started assembling these kitchen cabinets and I thought, Maybe it would be easier than actually doing this.” So he agreed to take on the students, who had only made a bench and an oilstone box in their first six months. “They came and they started to pay me money,” David says. And he taught them things he, himself, had only just learned how to do.
This, too, David realized, tied back to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Over the next few years he established a system where he allowed students, but always had more craftsmen than students in the workshop. This resulted in him being able to choose his best students as employees. “None of this was my great plan,” he says. “It just evolved that way.”
By now David was making pieces every day, and every single piece coming out of his shop was his design, his imagery.
One of his early students and a former PR executive, Malcolm Vaughan, taught David the art of writing a press release and the importance of nice photographs. “It was almost that not a month wouldn’t go by when a piece made by David Savage wasn’t in the magazines,” he says. “One of them went viral and boom! We were making Camelot chairs for everybody and everyone.”
The first Camelot chair was for now longtime clients Mary and Derek Parks.
David had made a large walnut reception desk for a corporate client in London. “A few weeks later I got a phone call saying they’ve sold the building [what was then the new Covent Garden site] and I said, ‘Horray!’ But they didn’t want one of my desks.” The new owners wanted a different desk, and David says he was heartbroken. And then mad, when he learned that the desk had gone to the managing director’s country house in Dorset.
“I tried ringing up this woman and I was not happy that it had all gone wrong,” David says. He finally got a hold of the managing director’s wife, Mary Parks. She loved the desk and wanted David to build more furniture.
David was bitter. But a few days later he drove to the Parks’ residence in Chelsey. “Money was pouring out of the whole place, you could see it,” he says. David met Mary and the two discussed design options for a dining room table and chairs. “And then her husband, Derek, walks in and he’s three sheets to the wind, totally pissed,” David says. Derek invites David to his house in Dorset. “And I was thinking, Christ. These people are going to be my clients and I hate it.”
Two weeks later David met Derek at his 15th-century Dorset manner house. “Derek was then a totally different person,” David says. “He was in the process of restoring [the house] in the most exquisitely sensitive way.” But more inspiring to David was this: “He took me around and he introduced me to all his gardeners and his chauffeur and the guy who polished his shoes, and he’s speaking to them, telling me about their children and about who they are and what they were doing. And he blew me away because I got the sense that this guy was operating on a totally different plane from me. He was an extremely high-functioning man. He was able to deal with people in a way that I couldn’t conceive of dealing and I was blown away by that.”
Derek and Mary spoke to David about their wants and needs, and David listened. And that, David says, was the first time he thought, “I can actually do this.”
“If I can find people that want to have really good furniture, I can do this,” he says. “I can do this and I can make a profit out of it.”
David hired a photographer to take a picture of one of the Parks’ dining room chairs and it struck a chord: “That photograph of that chair was in every color supplement of every glossy magazine for the next two years,” he says.
David had made it.
“It’s those kind of steps which are invisible, in that you don’t know you’re going to do that but then you do,” he says. David didn’t intend to build a furniture business, but he did. In 1984 David became a member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen followed by the Fellowship of the Society of Designer Craftsmen in 1992.
He was happy. “Happy as a clam!” he says. “Totally involved. Totally engaged. I didn’t know where we were going but I was making furniture and getting more confidence in dealing with people.”
“Things are flying along really well,” David says. “I made a great mistake in buying another workshop.” At the time David and his employees were in a 2,000-square-foot workshop and they were simply out of space. Fifty yards down the road was a 3,000-square-foot workshop — well insulated with three-phase electric. For years it was for sale but David could never afford it. Eventually the price came down to a point where he could no longer resist. He bought it.
“And that was a disaster in that you no longer have one workshop, you have two,” he says. Employees argued over who got to work in the new shop. “It was not a cohesive unit in that everybody could sit around the fire at lunchtime and they could have a conversation. They could have two conversations and that was a nightmare. That was a big mistake.”
Around this time David was coming out of the recession. He had laid off staff, but things seemed OK. Until, “I got in another classic mistake,” David says. “I got a big customer. A big customer that wanted a lot of furniture, really liked my work, his wife really liked my work.”
The customer was a city trader for Merrill Lynch. He had just come from the United States and bought a house in London. “I did a load of drawings and made the mistake of saying, ‘Yes, we can do all of that,’ which mean that I pretty much had one customer for a period.”
The work, which was spread over four or five benches, was intended to be done in three stages. David and his employees completed the first stage and they were paid. “It was the second stage that got me,” David says. “I went up there and he wasn’t there. The house was closed up and he had gone back to America. I couldn’t get a hold of him in any way. I couldn’t get a hold of him through his company. They wouldn’t let me speak with him. So I was left with a pile of furniture I couldn’t sell. No money coming in and bills to pay. My only option was to go bankrupt, which I did, which is a bit of a life-changing experience.”
David closed the Bideford workshop. “I was thinking, What the hell am I going to do now? I’ve got a young family, a baby of 18 months, and what am I going to do now?”
He says the experience was akin to stepping off the conveyor belt of life. “When you’re on the conveyor belt of life you’re moving and this time you can take a step off it and you can observe the conveyor belt and see what is happening.”
Sometimes, though, it takes someone else to push you back on the conveyor belt. And for David, one of those people was a client, Maggie Rose.
The Value of a Craftsperson, Both as Maker and Human Being
David’s tools, benches and furniture in process were all slated to be sold at auction. Maggie called and asked if she could buy the unfinished pieces of furniture and then give them back to David for finishing.
“Then someone rings up and says, ‘I really like those chairs you made for me and I’d really like a desk,’” David says. “And I knew all these craftsmen in all these workshops so I was all set up doing drawings for clients and selling furniture and having it made in various workshops around me.”
This worked for 18 months.
“That was really quite good,” David says. “I hadn’t a workshop but we were actually functioning. We were doing the jobs of meeting clients, doing drawings, taking orders, getting furniture made, getting paid. Everybody was happy. Until my second wife, Carol, said, ‘David, you know that room you’re in in your office?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Well, you can’t have it anymore.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because I’m pregnant. I’m going to have a baby.’”
So then David was faced with putting his foot back on the conveyor belt, the one that required a workshop. He was tentative, but knew he had to take the plunge. He wrote an advertisement for the local paper: “furniture maker looking for barns to convert.”
“I wanted to be out in the countryside,” he says. “I wanted the green fields around me. So I found myself at Rowden.”
David met a maker, Nick Chandler, who he employed. For four or five years the two of them worked together, and David calls that time a period of great liberation. Without having many employees to support, David was able to take more risks with his designs.
“My wife encouraged me to be more free,” David says. “She was saying, ‘Go on. You can do all sorts of stuff. You’re a crazy artist. That’s what you should be doing.’ And we did all sorts of pieces that are important now, things that are central pieces.”
In the end, bankruptcy, David says, was “an enormous blessing.”
“Change is a wonderful thing,” he says. “It’s always energizing. It’s always a great thing to embrace. Moving out here and working with Nick was a great thing. He was a wonderful guy to spend time with.”
With time, Rowden developed into what it is today: a furniture design school that offers classes in drawing, design, woodworking and business. David is mostly retired, having delegated teaching to former students (with the exception of head craftsman Daren Milman). Fellow furniture designers and makers now on staff include Ed Wild, Jon Greenwood, Jonathan Walter and Lakshmi Bhaskaran.
Although Rowden’s focus is almost primarily on education, David will occasionally make a piece of furniture for someone he knows and cares about — currently that’s a desk and chair in pear wood.
“It’s great,” David says. “It’s a great thing now.”
David and his wife, Carol, live in the oldest continually inhabited house in the county. It’s since been split into 13 units, and they live around the back “in a courtyard and I think cows probably lived where lived or it was a dung heap,” he says, adding that it’s great fun.
He has two children, a daughter who recently earned a degree in psychology and a son who is in his second year of university. For now, they’re not interested in making.
“When I was quite young it was kind of expected of me that I might follow my father’s direction and I didn’t want to do that,” David says. “So I’ve never in any way laid this on them. I want them to do what they want t to do. So it will be here, hopefully for them when they need it, or hopefully it will provide them income after I’m long gone. But we’ll see.”
And so Rowden exists, not as a factory for employment or as a means to an end, but in celebration of craftsmanship and making things, and a testament to the life David lives.
“I feel extremely fortunate that I’ve lived a varied and challenging life,” he says. “It’s been great. I’ve been having a great time. Yeah, very fortunate indeed. Very fortunate.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
Filed under: The Intelligent Hand, Uncategorized
Read the other installments in the “Sharpen This” series via this link.
When you learn to sharpen, I think it’s essential to do something that is normally a bad idea: Close your mind.
Let’s say you are 5 years old and starting school. The teacher says you need to learn to read, write and speak, and that you can use any and all of the words and phrases from every language on the planet.
It’s unlikely you’d be able to communicate with anyone in your class or your community. You learned the German word for “eating” and the Persian word for “sauce.” But your friend learned the Cherokee and Finnish words.
Instead, the quickest path to finding out where the bathroom is or how to microwave a burrito is to learn a language that allows you to navigate your world. Then you can figure out which other languages you might like to learn.
Sharpening is like that. Every sharpening system is has its own logic, history and subtleties. And while every system works brilliantly, mixing and matching bits from multiple systems is likely to confuse and confound.
Pick one system. It doesn’t matter if it’s oilstones, waterstones, diamonds or sandpaper. Ignore every other system out there. If someone tries to tell you that a different system is better, plug your ears and start shouting “nunga, nunga, nunga.”
Here’s why: About 70 percent of the people willing to talk about sharpening in detail are those who are new to it. They simply love their new system. It makes edges that can shave them bald with little effort whatsoever.
About 29 percent of the people willing to talk about sharpening in detail are trying to sell you sharpening equipment. Most of this equipment works fine, but you don’t need all of it (any more than you need all the handplanes in the Lee Valley catalog to make a box).
And the final 1 percent of people willing to talk about sharpening are idiots like me. I don’t think one system is particularly better than any other. I don’t sell sharpening equipment. I’ll be happy to teach you to sharpen, but you have to promise me you’ll master one sharpening system and use it exclusively for one year before changing your routine or buying different equipment.
I call this “sharpening monogamy,” and I think it’s the fastest route to the sharpest edges.
So step one is to pick one system and sign that pre-nuptial agreement, but don’t buy anything yet. First you need to understand what sharp looks like (and what dull looks like). And you need to figure out the three grits in your system of choice that will grind, hone and polish your tools.
Only then should you get out your wallet
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. These sharpening columns are generally not going to allow comments. Why? Well, I think this column pretty much lays out why. If you’d like to take me to task on my approach, I recommend posting your thoughts on your blog.
P.P.S. And if you think this is a “free speech” thing, please read this first.
Filed under: Sharpen This, Uncategorized
After years of working with professional and amateur woodworkers all over the world I have concluded that people who are hostile to handwork tend to badmouth it for a simple reason: They cannot really and truly sharpen.
They might be able to rub a chisel on a rock so their chisels can chop out wood left behind by a router or saw, but beyond that, they are lost.
Think about it: What if your table saw tried to kill you every time you turned it on? (Oh, wait, that’s what it really does do.) OK, imagine if your table saw’s blade had only two teeth on it. You’d hate that saw. You’d tell your students to avoid it. You’d say it was no way to make furniture.
Fixing this ornery saw takes about five minutes, tops: Remove the old blade and replace it with a sharp one. The same goes for a dull chisel or plane blade. Five minutes on the stones (or strop, if you are so inclined) and you are back to perfect.
But if you are unwilling to take a half-hour lesson and perform a few practice sessions to learn to sharpen, then you are going to be forever left with tools that are frustrating, slow, damaging to the wood and awkward.
And that is – I think – the source of hostility to handwork. It’s not that these naysayers think their machines are so fantastic. It’s that they are unwilling to admit they cannot sharpen at a high level.
This is not a supposition. I’ve concluded this after looking at a lot of people’s edges and comparing it to their work and what they say. (The only outliers to my observation are the few people who really can sharpen, but their public personas are based on bashing handwork – yes, these people exist.)
I say all this because today marks a turning point on this blog. Until today, I avoided writing much about sharpening because it is a sticky wicket. There is more misinformation floating around about sharpening than any other woodworking topic (the topic of finishing is a close second).
I have started a new category on this blog: Sharpen This. Articles in this category will show you how I sharpen every tool in my chest: planes, chisels, scrapers, travishers, scorps, moulding planes, awls, spade bits, screwdrivers and so forth. I’ll also attempt to disarm the consumerist economy that has sprung up to capitalize on our craft’s fear of this simple process.
You don’t need a lot of equipment to sharpen. All the systems work. The trick is to pick one system (what I call “sharpening monogamy”) and practice.
And if you are willing to humble yourself before a teacher, admit you cannot sharpen and take a lesson, you can get fixed up with everything you need to know in less than half an hour. (Pro tip: Attend a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event and they will gladly give you a complete and free lesson.)
But if you won’t do this and you continue bash handwork, then I have only two words (and an obscene gesture) for you: Sharpen this.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Sharpen This, Uncategorized
When my former husband and I moved to southern Indiana in 1988, we became friends with a carpenter named Joe who possessed an endearing confidence that everything he thought and said was right. He and his wife were literal about the biblical injunction to go forth and multiply. By the time we met, they were well on their way to having a chief for each of their own twelve tribes. My husband and I, on the other hand, had decided not to reproduce, convinced that our species was already consuming such a disproportionate percentage of the earth’s resources that we had a moral duty not to make things worse.
One day Joe brought up the subject of our not having kids. “People who don’t have children are just selfish,” he began. “Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that you two are bad people. But you think only of yourselves: your work, what you’re going to cook for dinner, where you’d like to go on vacation. Now, none of this stuff is unimportant! But when you have children, you’re forced to think about others. Instead of keeping everything for yourself, you’re forced to share. It makes you a better person.”
Those of us who have a business but no employees occasionally find ourselves faced with a similar kind of judgment. Some people see the mere fact of having a business as evidence that you’re privy to a certain largesse that should be shared. If you don’t have employees, well, shame on you for keeping all that wealth for yourself. You ought to be a job creator, give something back.
You can find out where this opening leads in “Don’t Call Me Boss,” one of the stories in Making Things Work
Filed under: Uncategorized
Vickers’ reproduction of the Voysey Kelmscott “Chaucer” cabinet was a commission
Do you really need that 2400-square foot workshop?
I’ve lost track of how many retired friends of friends are currently building themselves shops. Most of these people moved to a rural location so they’d have the space to build. Once you’ve taken the plunge, it seems, the old English saying applies: “In for a penny, in for a Pound.” I mean, why have a shop that will hold a Mini Cooper when you can have one large enough to house a fleet of RVs? Who can’t use the extra space?
As someone who never seems to have enough room to store lumber and salvaged hardware for bona fide jobs, never mind the recycled plant pots, bags of ice-melting salt, antique chamber pots, old dog beds (which, perversely, became “insufferable” [to the dog] after being washed), and surplus hickory floorboards that “just might come in handy, and besides, the wood is so beautiful” (even though the boards in question have been lying there, undisturbed, for a dozen years), I feel your pain. And I am here to share a sobering example of a consummate craftsman who has made a name for himself with a workshop about as big one of those structures we Americans know today as a “tiny home.”
Christopher Vickers was born in Bexleyheath, south-east London, in 1961. His father, a cinema sales rep, had a keen interest in all things DIY but was especially taken with marquetry. That love of fine woodworking spread to Chris, who, at the age of 16, decided he wanted to be a furniture maker. No apprenticeship was forthcoming, however, so he served a seven-year apprenticeship as a joiner at Clark and Son in Islington.
Chris and Jenny Vickers in the conservatory they added onto their house
It was an excellent foundation in woodcraft: He made windows, doors, and staircases according to traditional methods. Still, he longed for finer work. When a friend suggested he apply to the London College of Furniture, he did. Most applicants to the program had taken A-Level exams (roughly equivalent to graduating from a high school in the United States), the usual prerequisite for university admission. But Chris’s significant woodworking experience, combined with his passionate desire to refine his skills, won him admission.
During that two-year furniture training Chris and his classmates visited the Cheltenham Museum (now called The Wilson) in Gloucestershire to see some of Alan Peters’ work. The museum also had extensive holdings of work by many other luminaries of the Arts and Crafts Movement, among them Ashbee, Gimson, Voysey, and the Barnsleys. “When I saw all the exposed joinery of the Cotswolds School, the penny dropped,” he remembers. He knew the direction in which he wanted to take his own work.
A Vickers reproduction of one of Ernest Gimson’s hayrake tables
After college he spent two years working part-time for a specialist silverware canteen maker, F. Mottram, in London, making pieces for Asprey’s and other top silversmiths. He then set out on his own, producing jewelry, sewing, and writing boxes made from English hardwoods.
In October 1987 Chris and his wife, Jenny, moved to the small town of Frome in Somerset, primarily because it was affordable. They bought a Victorian red brick row house on a narrow lot typical of that architectural form, and Chris set up a woodworking shop measuring 18’ by 8’ (yes, that’s under 150 square feet), which he nicknamed “the bunker,” in the backyard.
The ceiling height tapers from 8’ at the high end down to 6’. Chris is 6’ 2-1/2” tall.
With a workbench, hand tools, and basic set of small machines, he turned out beautifully crafted boxes that he sold at craft fairs, supporting himself and Jenny on that income. Small boxes were made with keyed miters, larger ones with handcut dovetails. His interest in specialty hardware for the boxes eventually led him to begin fabricating his own hinges, straps, and latches. He started making furniture for their home, along with small pieces such as side tables and chairs to sell.
His big break came in 1998. The owner of the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa, wanted to create a room decorated in authentic William Morris style. On a trip to England she visited the Cheltenham Museum, where she met Arts and Crafts expert and curator Mary Greensted. Mary suggested she contact Chris. What began with an invitation to lunch at their home turned into two years of steady work.
“We had never flown before,” Chris remembers, “and the client flew us over business class, which was an adventure in itself.” Chris and Jenny were in Iowa for about two weeks, “wined and dined and shown around.” When the furniture was finished, it was shipped to its destination. “All done with just a handshake!” he adds. The hotel’s website has a section on the Morris Room with photos of Chris’s work.
After the hotel commission Chris was confident of his ability to make larger pieces in his tiny workshop. “The rule of thumb thereafter was, once I had worked out the size of the piece, would it go up the hall [of our house] and out the front door? Assuming the answer was yes, then I just needed to work out how to assemble and finish the main parts in our living room.”
Did you get that? He made the parts in his workshop, then assembled the pieces in their living room.
(OK, OK. Maybe there are advantages to having a shop with more than 150 square feet.)
This concern with size should help explain why he now specializes in lighting, which was originally an offshoot of his work producing his own hardware. In 2014 he added a second workshop to the backyard (this one 12’ long by 6’ wide with slightly higher headroom than “the bunker”), where he crafts replicas of original fixtures designed by W.A.S. Benson, C.F.A. Voysey, and the Birmingham Guild of Handicrafts.
“The bunker” at left. New workshop for lighting and metalwork in the far ground.
One of the many light fixtures Vickers now makes
You can see more of Chris’s work and read more about him at Inspired Illuminations
–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
Filed under: Uncategorized
This is an excerpt from “Chairmaker’s Notebook” by Peter Galbert.
Using wood fresh from a log has a number of advantages for the chair and chairmaker. But that being said, lack of access or experience with green wood should not prevent you from exploring chairmaking. Once you understand the concepts behind the use of green wood and the advantages it imparts, you’ll see there are ways to use dried wood with the same or similar results. Ideas for starting with dry wood are included at the end of this chapter. The process may not be as easy using dried wood, but I recognize that for some woodworkers, the plunge into chairmaking and green woodworking might take place in stages. With a little success in chairmaking, I have no doubt that the excitement will nudge you ever closer to the log.
Why Split Wood?
While the softness and flexibility of the green wood is obvious, you might wonder what the advantage is of split wood. Working from split wood can be a tough concept to grasp, even for the experienced furniture maker.
Trees don’t have any flat or square parts, and wood is not a homogenous material that’s indifferent to the way it is cut. Trees are a bundle of fibers, and once the tools and techniques to split and shave these fibers come into play, hand-tool jobs that would be difficult or tedious with sawn planks become simple and fast.
One way to compare sawn wood to split wood is that a saw blade ignores the fibers and cuts across them. Splits follow the fibers, which yields strong parts that display amazing flexibility without a loss of strength. But there is more to this story.
Whenever sawn wood is shaped, shaved or cut with hand tools, the direction of cut is of primary concern. A smooth surface can be created by cutting or shaving the fibers in the direction that they ascend from the sawn board. Cutting in the opposite direction, where the fibers descend into the board, will cause the cutter to grab the exposed end grain and lever out small chips. This “tear-out” leaves a rough, undesirable surface and takes more effort to cut.
On sawn boards, the direction can change from one area to another, especially if the tree didn’t grow straight. The showy grain patterns so prized in cabinetwork are the result of milling across the fibers, whereas split and shaved pieces will have uniform – perhaps even boring – figure.
But showy grain can force you to constantly change your cutting direction to avoid tear-out, which slows the process. Plus, when shaving round parts from sawn wood, you will usually have to change direction as you shave around the surface. On the lathe, changing direction is impossible.
But when parts are split and shaved to follow the fibers, the direction of cut is simplified. You always head from the thick area to the thin. On round parts, this allows you to work around the entire piece without changing direction.
This enables you to rely on the shape of the piece to dictate the tool’s cutting direction instead of constantly interpreting the surface for clues.
Split wood can be worked in either direction when shaved parallel to the fibers. Once the fibers are carved across, the direction of cut is always toward the thinner area.
This simplifies and speeds the shaping process. Trying to shave a sawn spindle that has fibers that are not parallel to the axis of the spindle requires a constant changing of the cutting direction, which renders the process impractical.
— Meghan Bates
Filed under: Chairmaker's Notebook