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Lost Art Press: Chris Schwarz
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
My work on the expanded edition of “Roman Workbenches” continues. I need to build one more bench (oh, if I had a dime for every time I’d written those words) and then sort through the pile of research I’ve accumulated, plus the mass of images and links that that researcher Suzanne Ellison has sent me.
Here’s the surprising/not-surprising thing we’ve found so far: These benches are everywhere. It doesn’t matter what time or place you are researching. If you look long enough at a society’s paintings and material culture, you’ll find a low workbench. It might have vises, stops, dogs or holdfasts. It might have none of these things. Or all of them. The Christ child might be tenoning (as shown) or he might be using a chalk line (not shown).
But whenever I encounter these benches, I am both amazed and thankful that Jesus was a carpenter and not a shoe salesman.
Recently Suzanne dug up the example at the top of this blog. (“La Segrada Familia” by Juan del Castillo, 1634-1636. From the Museum of Fine Arts Sevilla.) Of note: The massive top, the face vise (we see these first in the 1300s) and the stretcher at the end between the legs.
Also, two people tenoning? Is this something the artist made up or had seen before?
Time for bed.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Roman Workbenches, Uncategorized
It’s amazing how unaware most people are of what’s involved in running a business that makes things, especially if that business involves the design and building of custom commissions, as opposed to mass- or even limited-production manufacture.
Start your own business and you’ll find yourself hit up regularly for donations to schools and nonprofits. “That Arts and Crafts wall shelf you did for Fine Woodworking would make a handsome contribution to our auction,” read an email several years ago from an acquaintance who was on the board of a local organization. “And if you wanted to throw in a copy of your latest book, that would add a warm personal touch.” Never mind that I had $1,200 worth of labor and materials invested in the wall shelf, or that, as author of the book, my discount was just 40 percent off the cover price, meaning that I would have to spend $18.95 plus tax and shipping to buy the copy he was inviting me to give away. “Your donation will bring you invaluable exposure to just the kind of clientele you seek,” his message continued: “people who have a household income of at least $100,000 per annum: pillars of the community who are active in civic affairs.”
“OK,” I’ve thought on occasion. “It’s a good cause. I’ll make this donation.” But do so a few times, only to learn that your work was purchased for not much more than you paid for the materials alone, and it gets old. “What? They bought that thing for just two hundred dollars?” I asked my acquaintance when he called with what he thought would be joyful news.
“Well, what did you expect?” he replied. “No one goes to an auction expecting to pay full price. Auctions are all about getting a bargain. Tom and Sylvia know your work and love it. That’s why they made sure that theirs was the highest bid. They told me they were overjoyed at the prospect of getting their own Nancy Hiller. “And such a steal!” Sylvia said. You should feel honored.”
“But I thought the whole idea was to raise money for your organization. I would have expected these pillars of the community to pay the full price for any item in the auction, maybe even more, knowing that their donation was going to such a worthy cause.”–Excerpted from Making Things Work
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Because I’ll be at the Lie-Nielsen Open House this weekend, the storefront will not be open this Saturday. Apologies.
We will return to our regular opening schedule on Aug. 12 when we will welcome Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work,” for a special evening event that will involve a reading from her book, a pinata and other assorted children’s games for woodworking adults. More details to come soon.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Lost Art Press Storefront, Uncategorized
Note: I’ve been meaning to write this blog entry for many weeks. But travel, teaching, book editing and toolmaking have stymied me. Time is short on this campaign, so if you can support this endeavor, please do.
Every modern survey of woodworkers that I know of contends that the craft is 95 percent male and 5 percent female. Why is this? I’m not smart enough or informed enough to give you an answer that is better than a guess (I seriously doubt anyone is). But I do know something very important: It wasn’t always this way.
Before the rise of the guild system in the Middle Ages and the later separation of gender roles in the 18th and 19th centuries, women in the woodworking trades were a common sight. (Want to read more about this? Check out this excellent article Suzanne Ellison wrote for our blog last April.)
And that’s why I wholeheartedly support “A Workshop of Our Own,” a school and workshop aimed at creating woodworkers among women children and other disadvantaged people. The effort is headed up by Sarah Marriage, a world-class furniture maker I met in Brooklyn a few years ago. Her work is spectacular. She has a brilliant mind. And she has the enthusiasm and drive to make this endeavor work.
While you might rankle at the idea of a school for women, I don’t. We men have failed during the last 150 years to bring women into the craft – the numbers don’t lie. So maybe this school and workshop will succeed where we have not.
Plus, I think the world will be a far more interesting place with “A Workshop of Our Own,” and I cannot wait to see what grows from the seeds the supporters are planting now.
Time is short to support Sarah and her school so they can attempt to buy their building and secure the location and future of the school. You can read full details here. I hope you will consider supporting their effort.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Personal Favorites, Uncategorized
When Megan Fitzpatrick at Popular Woodworking Magazine asked me to write a project article about an Arts and Crafts style bookcase three years ago, I had something Stickley-ish in mind. I pictured something long and low in amber maple, designed to fit behind an antique settle in the home of some clients in Chicago. There was just one catch: My clients hadn’t yet found the right settle. There was no telling how long or tall the settle would be until they had it in hand, which meant the bookcase had to wait.
After a few months, I decided to forget about trying to combine the article with a commission and just build a bookcase. My husband and I are hardcore bibliophiles; we can never have too much storage for books. But we decided that this bookcase, which would be the loveliest one I’d made to date, should have a special purpose: to commemorate our son, Jonas, who died shortly before his 16th birthday. We would call it the Jonas Longacre Memorial Bookcase.
Some people can’t bear to mention those they’ve lost, but Mark and I love to talk about Jonas. He was a self-motivated learner who excelled at school. He was always game to do his part around the house. He wanted to learn Latin and started a Latin club at his school (even though he was the only member). In fact, he was fascinated by languages of all kinds, including computer code; after his death, we found a blog post written that morning in which he proudly announced to the world that after several months of effort, he had just finished creating an online translation tool. Of course he could have used a similar tool made by someone else, but he found it more exciting to figure out how things work. Books were some of his favorite things.
Tragically, it was just this curiosity that caused his death. I came home after work on the night of January 2, 2014 to find him lifeless. Amid the cognitive dissonance, I happened to notice that even though he had a rope around his neck, suggesting he had hung himself (which made no sense, considering how eagerly he was looking forward to the family reunion that weekend and the new semester at school), his feet were on the ground. He had also padded the rope with a t-shirt. Neither seemed consistent with intentional hanging, but I wasn’t analyzing these details as I stared, disbelieving, at his body while I waited for an ambulance to arrive. Thanks to the insight of a friend and conscientious work by the detective who came out to our house that night, we learned that Jonas had died while experimenting with the choking game.
Since that day I’ve learned a lot about the choking game, especially from Judy Rogg, who lost her own son the same way, and Trish Russell, an MD who also lost her son to this practice. Although boys are statistically more likely to die while playing this game, girls do too. Many fit a similar profile: They’re excellent students, curious about how things work, athletic, creative, and they tend not to be interested in alcohol or drugs. Hence one nickname for the practice: “the good kid’s high.”
Along with Judy, Trish, and others, I now make a point of spreading the word about this dangerous activity. Hence this post. If you have children or know others who do, please inform yourself and others.
Filed under: Uncategorized
May is, of course, peak box turtles-crossing-the-road month. Here’s one that managed to evade Chris’s car:
This individual is of the “eastern” subspecies of common box turtle (Terrapene carolina).
I mentioned last month that I wasn’t able to find a good example of a black maple (Acer nigrum). Naturally, I came across a perfect example the very next day. Unfortunately, that tree was inaccessible; I would have had to climb down a steep slope into a swamp to be able to collect a leaf. I did eventually find another one:
Notice that it looks a bit like a seriously overweight sugar maple; the lobes are broad, the sinuses between lobes are very shallow, and the two outermost lobes have all but disappeared.
I also mentioned last month that the leaf of the boxelder (A. negundo) is disturbingly similar to that of eastern poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I came across this tableau in Ottawa County, along Lake Erie in northern Ohio:
The leaf circled on the left is poison ivy; the one on the right is boxelder.
A common maple lookalike of a different sort is American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis):
In the UK, what we call sycamore is called plane or planetree, and what they call sycamore is a maple, A. pseudoplatanus. And this is why I always give the scientific names </rant>.
Even with the scientific names, it can be a puzzle. Note the sycamore maple’s scientific name, Acer pseudoplatanus: “maple that is a fake plane.” London plane is a common ornamental tree in the UK that is hybrid between American sycamore and oriental planetree (P. orientalis). It is sometimes given the scientific name Platanus orientalis var. acerifolia (“eastern plane with maple-like foliage”). No wonder people get confused.
Several Ohio trees bloom in May. The northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) is uncommon in the wild around here, but frequently planted for its abundant showy flowers:
The native range of northern catalpa is uncertain. It was once thought to be native only to a small area of the Mississippi River drainage, between Arkansas and southwestern Indiana, but recently discovered archeological evidence from West Virginia suggests that it was present in the Ohio River drainage near here prior to European settlement.
Willow flowers aren’t showy, but there are enough of them that, from a distance, they give the trees an overall yellow fuzzy appearance. Here are some black willow (Salix nigra) flowers:
In North America, most legumes (family Fabaceae) are non-woody herbs. In the tropics, however, legumes are often trees, and some of the most highly prized tropical hardwoods, such as the rosewoods (Dalbergia), are in fact legumes. There are a few North American legumes that reach tree size, but only the mesquites (Prosopis) are traded commercially to any significant extent. Legumes often have showy flowers, and the North American species with perhaps the showiest is the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia):
The bark of the black locust is pale gray with a greenish tint, arranged in thick, vertical ropes:
Most legumes have compound leaves of one sort or another. The leaves of the black locust are pinnate, having a central axis (the rachis), with elliptical leaflets along either side:
The other North American tree called locust, honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), is actually not all that closely related to the black locust. It is most easily recognized by its formidable thorns:
(You can also see a flower bud near the center of the photo; in contrast to the black locust, the honey locust’s flower doesn’t get much bigger than what you see here.)
The bark is much smoother than that of the honey locust, but the thorns give it away:
(Note that there are thornless cultivars that are planted as ornamentals, so a tree that looks like a honey locust but doesn’t have any thorns is probably one of these.)
The leaves are bipinnate, meaning that the leaves are pinnate, and the leaflets are as well:
Although it’s not too common in Ohio, the Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is also a legume, with enormous bipinnate leaves, up to three feet long. I know where there are some Kentucky coffeetrees nearby, but none with leaves close enough to the ground for me to reach, and in any case I don’t have a gray card big enough to lay one on.
There is an American legume with significant commercial value, but it’s not a North American tree:
This is the koa (Acacia koa) of Hawaiʻi. What appears to be a leaf is actually a structure that emerges as a swelling from the petiole (leaf stem), called a phyllode. Most mature koas have no true leaves at all, but in younger trees, you can usually find a few leaves in the interior of the tree, and they have the familiar legume appearance:
(I took these photos on Kauaʻi several years ago.) The closest relative of koa is Australian blackwood (A. melanoxylon), which also has phyllodes.
The eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), which we first encountered back in March, also has attractive flowers. Those are long gone by May, but the seed pods are ripening:
It is said that the young pods can be cooked and eaten whole, like snow peas, but I have never tried them. Every year, by the time I think of it, they’ve gotten too old.
Unusual for a legume, the redbud has simple, heart-shaped leaves:
Another tree of the local forests with heart-shaped leaves is American basswood (Tilia americana):
If you look closely, you can see that the leaf is somewhat asymmetrical near the base, with one side reaching further back than the other. I don’t know why this is, and not all of the leaves are like this, but it’s a feature that is shared by several other unrelated trees.
Elms have asymmetrical leaves, too. Here is a slippery elm (Ulmus rubra):
(It’s a little hard to see the asymmetry in this one.)
And an American elm (U. americana):
The leaves of the slippery elm are densely covered with fine, stiff hairs. If you place one on a tabletop and press the palm of your hand flat against it, it will stick to your hand like Velcro. American elm leaves are usually much less hairy, but can sometimes look almost identical to slippery elm leaves. The easiest way to distinguish the two is to look at the stem between the leaves. In slippery elm, this stem is hairy:
In American elm, it’s smooth:
Another tree whose leaves have this same kind of asymmetry is the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis):
Hackberry trees are easy to identify from their bark, covered with warty protuberances:
Unfortunately, the emerald ash borer has reached Athens County. I would estimate that over half of the larger ash trees are already dead or nearly so; the smaller ones seem to be hanging on a bit longer. Here’s a dead white ash in Ottawa County; you can see how the beetle larvae eat through the cambium in such a way as to cut off the tree’s nutrient supply:
The more common species here is green ash (Fraxinius pennsylvanica). The leaves are pinnate, usually with seven leaflets:
The leaves of white ash (F. americana) are very similar:
With a leaf in hand, however, there is a simple way to tell the two apart. If you look closely at the base of the petiole, where the leaf attaches to the branch, the cross section of the green ash’s leaf is roughly circular, with a small cutout on top:
While the white ash’s petiole has a much deeper groove:
Rare in Athens County, but more common to the north, the leaves of the black ash (F. nigra) usually have nine leaflets (sometimes more), rather than seven. There is a large tree on our land in Meigs County that I think is a black ash, but the tree is so tall that I can’t get a decent look at the leaves, even through binoculars.
The seeds of both local ashes are encased in samaras that remind me of surfboards:
By May, the forest floor is pretty dark, so there’s not that much going on as far as wildflowers are concerned. Some species occur around forest edges, where there’s more light. One of the common May wildflowers in my yard (but strangely absent in other places that would seem to be appropriate for them) is foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis):
The flowers that we usually think of as roses are all Asian imports, but there are a few native species, like this Carolina rose (Rosa carolina):
Venturing a bit deeper into the shade, we can find touch-me-nots, especially common along roadside ditches. This one is a pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida):
The name comes from the fact that the ripe seed pods are spring-loaded. If you squeeze one, it explodes, shooting seeds in all directions. (It’s a good practical joke when you’re out in the woods with someone who isn’t familiar with the flora: “Here, squeeze this between your fingers.”)
This one is limestone bittercress (Cardamine douglassii):
It also goes by the name “purple cress,” but there are a gazillion other flowers that also go by that name.
In the deepest shade, we can find Canadian wildginger (Asarum canadense, unrelated to culinary ginger):
You have to get down on your knees to see the flowers, though; they’re hidden below the leaves and practically buried in the leaf litter:
One of the most attractive spring/summer ferns is the northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum):
There is also a more southerly species called common maidenhair, which looks quite different, but I wasn’t able to find one. Maybe later this year.
When you’re walking in the woods, it pays to look down, and not only for wildflowers and ferns. I almost stepped on this (Odocoileus virginianus) when I went to fill the bird feeders in my backyard a few weeks ago:
Filed under: Uncategorized
Sometimes the animals in our house get tired of being asked to pose with wax or stickers (hmmm, we still haven’t asked Skeletor the Undying Frog). So it should come as no surprise that Wally shot lasers out of his eyes today when showed a jar of Katy’s Soft Wax.
Yes, Katy has a batch of soft wax up in the store that is available for immediate shipment. You can order it on her etsy.com store.
Note that cats are not necessarily stupid. After he was told he would get a cookie, Wally instantly changed to “marketing genius” (see below).
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Personal Favorites, Uncategorized
This is an excerpt from “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years: Volume II” published by Lost Art Press.
The practical working of wood is largely based upon an extraordinarily simple fact; a fact which every man who goes in for woodwork, even in an elementary way, soon comes to discover for himself. This is that it is easier to take a tool right through than to stop it short—at any rate so far as hand tools are concerned. Men in the past found this out at a very early period, and traditional methods of construction have been based on and developed around this simple truth, but it is rediscovered daily by every man who picks up saw, plane, file, and so on.
Consider the number of times you experience this; how much easier it is to work a through groove than a stopped one; how simple it is to take a saw right across a piece of wood, but what a different proposition when it has to be stopped short as when sawing the sides of a stopped groove; how straightforward it is to plane an edge straight, yet what a nuisance it becomes when it is stopped at one (or both) ends and you cannot use the plane except at the middle (haven’t you been tempted to plane the edge straight and plant on the stops afterwards!); how a simple chamfer can be formed with the plane in a few seconds, but takes probably ten times as long when it is stopped; and so the list might be continued. These points are brought out in Fig. 1.
Of course, it does not follow from this that grooves are never stopped or that chamfers always go right through. Sometimes you cannot help yourself; possibly the one may be a constructional necessity, or the other so attractive a feature that it is worth the trouble involved. But there is no point in work for its own sake; it is much better to go about things in a simple way, especially when the involved method carries with it no corresponding advantage.
It is because of this that it is generally easy to tell whether a design is the work of a practical man; or, to take another aspect of the same thing, why a design by an artist invariably requires the cooperation of an experienced woodworker to convert it into terms of practical working. A simple example came to our notice recently. The sides of a drawer had to be grooved to fit suspension runners attached to the cabinet sides. They were shown stopped at the front as at A, Fig. 2. Surely no practical man would ever have given such a detail to be worked by hand when it would have been just as easy to arrange things as at C in which the plough could be taken right through before assembling the drawer. In fact the arrangement at B could have been followed, so enabling the runner to afford support almost to the extreme front.
This running-through business is of particular interest because it is largely peculiar to wood, and it is partly due to wood being a natural material which must be used in the form in which it is found (we are ignoring here made-up materials such as laminboard, plywood, etc.). Some materials (metal, plastics, etc.) can be cast or moulded, and projections and stops present no more difficulty than flat surfaces. With timber you fell the tree, convert the log, and then think in terms of so many straight pieces of material. Another point affecting the thing is that wood is comparatively soft so that you can set a metal cutter in a stock (that is, make a plane) and take off shavings, the device having the advantage of helping to make the work straight and true. But of course you have to be able to take the tool through without hindrance.
Perhaps a better appreciation of this point is to compare it with the method used by the stone mason. You cannot use a plane on stone; you have to chip it away with chisel and hammer. There is therefore no point in running through. If a mason has to work a moulding around, say, a window opening, he does not form the joint right at the mitre. Instead he carves a special corner stone as in Fig. 3, this having the two joining mouldings carved in it. Thus we see how a fundamental difference in methods of working has evolved a technique peculiar to the material, this basically affecting the design.
This brings us to an interesting point. The carver in wood uses tools and methods of working which are similar to those of the sculptor in stone. He uses gouges and chisels as distinct from the planes and ploughs of the joiner or cabinet maker. Consequently the running-through idea does not apply to him. When therefore a wood carver makes a piece of woodwork he often carves it in the solid rather than joins pieces together, and the mitres of his mouldings are like those of the mason. In fact, the same idea is occasionally carried out in joinery in which a timber framing is used. In Fig. 4, for instance, the joint in the moulding is not on the mitre line, but runs straight across in line with the shoulder of the joint. Clearly the moulding plane could not be used on the uprights, and the corner would have to be cut by the carver. This joint is, in fact, known as the mason’s mitre, and the corresponding joiner’s mitre is given in Fig. 5.
It is an interesting thought that if the technique of woodwork had developed through the wood carver rather than the joiner, the mason’s mitre would probably have become the rule rather than the exception.
— Meghan Bates
Filed under: Charles H. Hayward at The Woodworker
When most people stop at a fast food restaurant, they run in and out without so much as a glance at the surrounding landscape – and that’s if they get out of their car at all; a high percentage place their order in the drive-through and sit there idling until they’re at the head of the line.
Cathryn Peters is different, at least when she visits her local McDonald’s in Cook, Minnesota. Peters doesn’t go there for the burgers. Her treat’s in a marshy spot behind the parking lot: bulrush.
Peters has been weaving seats since the 1970s, when her son was an infant. Thinking that she should have something constructive to do besides caring for the baby, her mother-in-law brought over a seat frame she wanted to have woven, along with rush weaving instructions from a magazine article and a pack of paper fibre rush. (The British spelling is used in the United States to differentiate the artificial paper material from the natural cattails and bulrush).
“My mother-in-law talked me into learning how to weave this seat using the instructions in the magazine article,” Peters says. The payment for the job was a walnut drop-leaf table from her mother-in-law’s home. “I got the better end of that deal for sure,” says Peters, looking back. “The chair seat I did looked horrible! It had a big hole in the center, there were overlapping strands and the gauge of paper rush was too small for the chair frame.”
In the 40-plus years since then, Peters has woven thousands of seats – some for new chairs, some for chairs undergoing repair, and some she bought for resale. She also weaves traditional baskets in a variety of materials and her signature antler baskets.
Although she has taken a few workshops in basketmaking, Peters is primarily self-taught at weaving seats. In the early years, pre-internet, she was able to get some direction from pamphlets provided by material suppliers. But most of her learning came from trial and error or from taking apart seats that were going to be rewoven to figure out the patterns.
In the mid-1980s The Caner’s Handbook by Bruce Miller and Jim Widess, The Craft of Chair Seat Weaving by George Sterns, and a few other books were published – an immense help to seat weavers across the country. Resources in print and online, many of them written by Peters herself, have proliferated since then.
A high point of Peters’s career came in 2006, when she was awarded a fellowship to study in England with basket maker and seat weaver Olivia Elton Barratt. Barratt was the President of the Basketmakers’ Association (BA) and was also installed that October as Prime Warden of Basketmakers in the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, a guild in existence since 1569.
During her ten-day fellowship and stay with Barratt, they traveled across the country meeting members of the Basketmakers’ and Seatweavers’ Association, of which Peters has been a member since the early 1990s. Barratt also taught Peters how to weave a bulrush boater’s hat at her home studio. They drove to see the harvesting of bulrush from the River Ouse with Felicity Irons, watch the weaving process of making willow coffins (if I were going to be buried, I would definitely want one of those — how cool!) and hot-air balloon gondolas at Somerset Willows, visit the Coats basketry museum, and to the Musgrove Willows farm to learn how cultured willow is grown and how buff willow and white willow are processed.
Peters weaves seats using a variety of natural and commercially prepared materials: natural bulrush, cattails, paper fibre, cane webbing, strand cane, Danish cord, rawhide, oak, ash and hickory bark splints.
Natural hand-twisted rush seats are woven with the round stalk, stems or strands of the bulrush plant, and cattails with the flat leaves. Both plants are just right for harvest between late August and September, when they have reached maximum height and the ends of the cattail leaves have turned brown. Peters harvests the natural bulrush and cattails from her rural northern Minnesota farm and the surrounding area.
With so many years of experience, Peters can weave a seat in far less time than it would take a beginner. The 15” seat for the hand-twisted bulrush Voysey chair would typically take her from six to eight hours to complete. After a couple of years, the fresh green and gold tones of the natural rush will fade to a nice, warm honey color.
If you’re interested in learning how to weave hole-to-hole cane and over-the-rail cane seats, Peters will be teaching a class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking on the weekend of Sept. 16 and 17, 2017.
The Wicker Woman®
Filed under: Uncategorized
In a few days America will be celebrating Independence Day, and I thought a brief history of the Chicago and Great Lakes lumber trade in the 19th century would be in order. The Great Lakes region is one of our treasures, and Chicago is at the great heart of our country.
The opening lines of “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg:
“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler,
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of Big Shoulders.”
As the great timber stands in the East were exhausted and settlers moved west new sources of pine and other woods were needed.
The dense forests and extensive waterways of the Great Lakes, especially Michigan and Wisconsin, became the source for the lumber needed to build the barns, fences, homes and businesses of the settlers. Chicago was perfectly situated on Lake Michigan to receive and distribute lumber by water and railroad links.
Chicago’s commercial lumber business started in 1833. But it was the opening of the Illinois & Michigan Canal in 1848 that transformed Chicago from a supplier for local markets into a national distribution center for lumber. And by the second half of the 19th century, Chicago was the world’s largest lumber trade market.
The canal ran from the Chicago River at Bridgeport to the Illinois River at LaSalle and opened a direct link to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. With this North-South water link, and later with railroad networks, Chicago became the world’s largest lumber trade market.
This 1844 map shows the extensive network of drive-able streams and rivers that could be used to move lumber to mills on the coast of Lake Michigan before transport to Chicago by ship.
As the forest cuts progressed further inland, and before narrow-track rail lines were introduced, loggers had to find faster means of moving logs to nearby waterways. When rail lines penetrated the forests, hardwood supplies to the Chicago yards were increased.
In winter, logs were moved on paths with ruts for sled runners. The paths were sprinkled with water to keep the ruts iced. In the sled photo above, the number 7,225 marked on the topmost log is the number of board feet in the load. In 1875, the “big wheel” was invented by Silas Overpack, a carriage builder by trade. The big wheel came in three sizes from 12′ to 18′ high. Logs 12′-15′ long could be carried beneath the axle, and by lifting one end of the log it was easier to move them.
Following are excerpts from “History of Chicago” (1886) by Alfred Theodore Andreas that describe the growth of the lumber trade within the city. He also describes the rise of hardwoods for the furniture trade, which is linked to the expansion of railroads from the Great Lakes states.
“In 1868 a movement was started to transfer the lumber business and yards to what has since been known as the New Lumber District. A series of canals was excavated by the South Branch Dock Company, extending from the River to Twenty-second Street, affording a dock front of twelve thousand five hundred feet, which, together with the river front adjoining, makes a total dock front of nearly three miles. These canals are one hundred feet wide, and were, at first, eleven or twelve feet deep; since then, they have been dredged to the depth of from twelve to fourteen feet.”
“The lots owned by the South Branch Dock Company were one hundred by two hundred forty-four feet in size, each having a dock and street front, and being furnished with a switch track connecting with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, thus placing them in direct connection with the entire railway system of the Northwest. These lots were rented to lumber dealers at ten dollars a foot per annum. In 1868, the lumber trade of Chicago reached the enormous proportion of nine hundred and ninety-four million feet, and this immense trade moved southward to the new district as rapidly as it could find accommodations. In the spring of 1869, about forty lumber firms were doing business, besides eight first-class planing mills.”
“The increase in the amount of lumber handled in the Chicago yards became so great that a still further extension of facilities was imperative, and, in 1881, another district was added upon the South Branch of the river, extending from Thirty-fifth Street to the city limits at the Stock-Yards…Here, in 1884 occurred the first extensive conflagration originating in a Chicago lumber yard. This fire commenced in the yard of the Chicago Lumber Company, being ignited by a spark from a passing locomotive. It was not checked until twenty million feet of lumber and one hundred million shingles, aggregating in value about $400,000 had been consumed.” (In 2017 dollars the loss was about $9.4 million.)
“The use of hardwood lumber gradually increased with the establishment of manufacturing interests particularly that of furniture, and in 1885, the number of yards of this character increased to thirty, handling an average of about three hundred million feet of hardwood lumber annually, and carrying stocks averaging about forty-five million feet, embracing all varieties of native timber with a liberal supply of foreign woods. The volume of trade in this department comprises, at the present , about one-sixth of the sum total of the lumber trade of the city, its supplies being drawn from nearly every one of the Western, Northwestern and Southern States.”
“The lumber yards of Chicago, in 1885, if consolidated in one, and the lumber piled in a solid body, twenty feet in height, would probably occupy a space fully one mile square; but spread as the business is, through various parts of the city, it occupies a dock and stock frontage of probably twenty miles. In the transportation by lake, not far from five hundred sailing craft are employed, landing eight thousand cargoes a year. In addition, not less than thirty thousand railroad cars, averaging ten thousand feet a car, are employed in supplying the yards.”
When Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” was published in 1916, the city’s lumber trade was well past its peak. The great northern forest were near or at exhaustion point and even with a shift to tapping into southern supplies of yellow pine, made possible by rail transport, the economics of lumber distribution had changed. Rail transport had also made it more economical to ship lumber to nearby mills and specialized manufacturing plants rather than send it to Chicago for storage and further transport.
The Great Lakes lumber trade with Chicago at its center helped fueled immigration needed for the labor force, expansion of the railroads, innovation in the logging business and provided materials needed for our country to grow. Chicago was, and still is, our crossroads.
If you enjoy reading old lumber business directories with statistics, ads and other sorts of miscellany you can find “Hotchkiss’ Lumbermans Directory of Chicago and the Northwest” of 1886 here. There is an option to download it as a pdf.
The gallery at the bottom includes some statistics on the lumber trade, a few more images, a short history of the T. M. Avery Lumber Company (seen in the drawing of the junction of the Chicago River above) and an account of a yard fire.
— Suzanne Ellison
Filed under: Historical Images, Personal Favorites
Everyone involved with Crucible Tool has been working overtime to get the next batch of tools ready for the store on Saturday. Our machinist has been working Sundays. John and Raney have been reaming, sanding and assembling dividers nonstop. My fingers are bleeding a bit on my keyboard tonight from sanding our design curves.
At 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday we will put all these up in the store. We know that many of you have patiently waited to get dividers or curves. We keep hoping that we’ve made so many tools that we don’t sell out immediately.
Thanks for your patience and your support.
We are currently working on how to get curves and dividers to market even faster, plus our next two new products (details to come).
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Crucible Tool, Uncategorized
During the last class I taught at The Woodwright’s School, I think Roy got a little bored or restless. And so he asked: “Would you like me to make you a mallet?”
The answer was, of course, “Heck yes, please.”
And so Roy spent an afternoon making a mallet for me out of a chunk of live oak (one of my favorite species) as I taught the 12 students to build a Dutch tool chest. After a few hours of sawing, mortising, rasping, chiseling and finishing, Roy presented the mallet to me.
It is, of course, one of my favorite objects. I have put it to good use and, thanks to a defect in the wood, I broke off a corner of the head. No matter. Tools should be used, and so I use the other face of the mallet’s head to hit things.
In case I destroy this mallet, I took some careful measurements and made a copy in maple. I call it the Son of Roy Underhill’s Mallet. It is identical in every regard except for the species of wood and the amount of use it has seen.
And because I have been too long away from this blog, I present the plans to you for Roy’s mallet. Free of charge.
Here are the sizes for the head and the handle:
Head: 2-3/8” x 3-3/8” x 5-3/8”
Handle: 1” x 1-5/8” x 14”
You can download a pdf drawing of the mallet here:
Here are a few details not discussed on the drawing.
- The striking faces of the mallet head are the same angle as the tapered mortise, approximately 2.1°.
- The chamfers on the handle are 1/4” x 1/4”.
- Chamfer the top and bottom of the handle. These chamfers are 1/8” x 1/8”.
- The grain of the handle and head should be dead straight throughout. And free of knots and defects.
- The mallet is finished with linseed oil.
It’s a mighty fine mallet. Balanced in the hand and to the eye. Making one takes an afternoon of pleasant work. And doing so cements your lineage to Roy.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Personal Favorites, Uncategorized
I read most of Nancy R. Hiller’s “Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life” in the laundromat. Our washing machine was broken, parts strewn all over our basement floor while we tried to figure out the problem. Forgive me, as I realize what I’m about to say next is very much a first-world problem, but I missed having a working washing machine. I have three children and we’re thick into the stains of summer: dirt, grass and popsicles. Suddenly, lugging overflowing laundry baskets down our tight basement steps (oh the dreams I have of a first-floor laundry room!) seemed downright luxurious.
But, I was making things work.
I love a good memoir. I tend to overshare (sometimes rather unfortunately) so I deeply respect gritty honesty. We currently live in a world of filtered Instagram posts, our lives made beautiful, easy, golden even, with a few clicks. None of the essays in Nancy’s collection are filtered. She strips away the gloss, highlighting the truths of furniture making. She writes:
“We may do what we love every day, to paraphrase the marketing pitch of a well-known school, but as with most long-term love, ours deepens from the passion of new romance to the mature familiarity of marriage: sometimes tedious, occasionally exasperating, as much taskmaster as muse. Passion, after all, is equally about what we bear as what we embrace.”
Nancy’s tales of jobs, clients (oh, the clients!), living conditions, working conditions, employees, the minutiae of (solo) business-owning and business-running, romance, learning, personal growth, worry and problem-solving allow you to immerse yourself into the life of a talented cabinetmaker who has managed to make a living—and life—out of bettering and beautifying client’s homes with her hands, her skill, her craft.
I thought of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” while reading Nancy’s book, everything I’ve read by David Sedaris, and Nick Offerman was exactly right when noting the predicament in how one should shelve Nancy’s book: fine woodworking? Philosophy? Self-help? Etiquette? Religion? For “Making Things Work” is one of those rare reads that could easily be found in anyone’s bookshelf. Woodworker? Must-read. Small-business owner? Must-read. Graduate? Must-read. Artist? Must-read. Feminist? Must-read. Collector of fine, handmade furniture? Must-read.
Maybe it’s because I’m currently immersed in the philosophical writings of the late Charles Hayward, but Nancy manages to do what I believe many woodworkers, in particular, feel but sometimes can’t quite express: the way we work, the way we make things work, speaks greatly about who we are and how we live. Nancy’s anecdotes of a cabinetmaker’s life, her life, speaks to all of that. Because behind all the humor, flaws, talent and grit in each of her essays lies a simple truth: “It’s all problems.” How we approach our problems speaks much more about one’s self than ingenuity. And when problems do arise, we should only be so lucky to have a Nancy at our side during something as small as a tricky installation or as big as a leap of faith—if not in person, then in spirit, in the form of mantras extracted from this book.
Filed under: Making Things Work, Uncategorized
I never got to meet John Brown. Truth be told, I didn’t hear of his name until several years after his death. But I’m starting to feel like I know the man.
My first introduction to John Brown, and to Welsh Stick Chairs, was as I imagine it was for many woodworkers, a blog post Chris wrote. These unusual chairs were nothing like I’d ever seen before – theirs was a dynamic form, suggesting a feral energy coiled within the sticks, waiting to spring out. I was intrigued, but at that time focusing on lutherie, so I mentally filed the chair away for another day. A little over a year later and John Brown was again mentioned on the Lost Art Press blog, this time in the context of his influential, if hard to find, book Welsh Stick Chairs. Then I bought a copy of The Anarchist’s Tool…
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Filed under: Uncategorized
Some people have the vague notion that when you’ve been a woodworker for decades, you know how to do everything. If only. No one knows how to do everything. Experience in a variety of techniques may be transferable to new forms, but just because a technique will work does not mean it’s especially good in structural or aesthetic terms, let alone efficient to use in specific circumstances.
When faced with a woodworking mystery–say, a look I want for a finish, or some convincing 3-D effect I’d like to produce in an 1/8-inch-deep relief carving–I like to try to answer the question for myself before I seek the answer from others. The effort of thinking a problem through will often give me deeper insight into methods others recommend, and it’s especially satisfying when I find that “my” method is the one used by other woodworkers I respect.
I’ve enjoyed a few…
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Warning: The following is not about woodworking, so if you wish to limit your reading to that subject, you may prefer to substitute an installment of Routers I Have Loved (my personal favorite was my 1980 Elu) or wait for Chris’s next post about Roman Workbenches (which I am, in all seriousness, eagerly anticipating). This anecdote was excised from Making Things Work on the grounds that too much of a good thing is, well, sometimes too much. It will be included in a future collection. Also, you probably won’t want to read this story while eating.
A few days after Thanksgiving, my phone rang. “Oh, hello, Nancy.” It was Andrew, my client at the time. His tone was suspiciously cheerful considering our recent contretemps over the installation of his 1.6 gallon per flush toilet.*
“Look, I hate to ask you, but there’s no one else I can call. I had…
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