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The Literary Workshop Blog

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Making what I need with my hands.
Updated: 53 min 54 sec ago

This Isn’t Me Anymore

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 8:13pm

Like a lot of guys, I used to collect weapons.  Well, “collect” is probably too strong a word, but I’ve had various blades hanging on the wall for a long time.  But the time has come to take them down.  The sword will stay up–it’s a dress-sword anyway, not a real weapon–but the rest are coming down.  It’s not that I wouldn’t defend my family if necessary.  (I have four daughters; I am no pacifist.)  It’s that my innermost desires are no longer for adventure and conquest, but for stability and peace.

Bayonet Box 4-2017When I was a teenager, I started collecting bayonets and knives.  I had carried a pocketknife since I was 10, but I think I bought my first vintage bayonet when I was 14 or 15.  Over the next few years, I picked up a few more at antique shops when I could afford them.

Why?  Because I was a young man, and I thought knives and bayonets were cool.  I still admire the craftsmanship of some of them.  (The one pictured here was made in Switzerland and hefts like it.)  But most young men just enjoy playing with sharp, pointy objects.

When my wife and I bought our house years ago, I hung the bayonets up on the wall, but then I more or less forgot about them.

In the meantime, I needed to build things.  A LOT of things.  I had started buying tools and learning how to use them. I had made a bookshelves, a storage box or two, a side table, and more bookshelves.  Then came the beds for us and for the kids.  I rebuilt the back porch.  I built a dining table.  I built more bookshelves.  I made a lot of wooden spoons.

And every now and then I would glance at those bayonets hanging on the wall.  The more I did, the more I thought, “That’s not me anymore.”

Of course I had never used those bayonets.  I had taken one or two of the knives on camping trips, but otherwise, they had never been of any use to me.  At best, they were slightly odd home decor.  At worst, they were fuel for heroic, violent fantasies.  Unlike my tools, which I use on a weekly basis, I hadn’t touched the bayonets in years.  I was holding onto them for nostalgia’s sake, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have missed them if they had disappeared.

What had happened to me?  I grew up.

There is a strong fighting instinct in boys, and it persists into adolescence.  I will openly admit that fantasies of fighting and aggression were probably behind my impulse to collect and display weapons.  (Thank Heaven I’m a cheapskate, or I might have ended up with dozens of those things.)  I see this aggressive impulse in my young son, who loves dressing up in super-hero costumes and racing around the house, “fighting” with any opponent, real or imaginary, that he can find. (He’s learning not to attack his sisters.  Or the dog.) I was like that as a kid, too.  Most boys are.  They love hitting, kicking, stabbing, and shooting stuff.  It’s in the blood.

It’s wonderful to be a kid, and I sure did enjoy being a little boy.  I made a lot of wooden swords.  I enjoyed a lot of my adolescence, too, especially when I found I could buy real weapons.  I don’t regret collecting the weapons I did.  But once I started taking on responsibility–a job, a spouse, a home, and children–I found my desires changing.

I no longer wanted to fight, but to build.

In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul remarks that when he became a man, he put away childish things.  Paul doesn’t mean he suddenly gained a Y-chromosome.  He means that he grew up.  Being a man is about responsibility motivated by love.  And for me, becoming a man entailed putting away away fantasies of violence replacing them with the slow, steady work of building a home, and taking responsibility for the everyday well-being of those who dwell in it.

So in the spirit of putting away childish things, I took the bayonets down off the wall and packed them away.  I found some pine boards and built a little crate to store them in.

Bayonet Box 4-2017

It’s not a fancy box–just nailed together in an old-fashioned manner.  The lid fits on snugly with only friction, thanks to the thin battens on its underside.

Bayonet Box 4-2017

I filled the crate with those old weapons and tied some cord around it. Perhaps one day I’ll know what I should do with them, but for now I’m storing the box somewhere safe and out of the way.

I want to be a man of peace.

I want to build things.

That’s who I am now.


Tagged: bayonet, boy, boyhood, build, building, childhood, crate, knife, love, man, manhood, manly, peace, weapon, weapons

Fake, Fraud, or Genuine? Book Review

Sat, 04/01/2017 - 3:21pm

Before there was Antiques Roadshow and YouTube videos that helped antique owners and buyers authenticate real antiques and uncover fakes, there was Myrna Kaye.  Thirty years ago, in 1987, she published a book called Fake, Fraud, or Genuine: Identifying Authentic American Antique Furniture.  The book is written for collectors of antique furniture and is intended to help savvy buyers avoid being taken in by pieces that are not what they seem.

Kaye Fake Fraud or GenuineKaye begins with the Case of the Fake Seventeenth-Century Chair.  Back in the 1970s, a clever period-craftsman, after being insulted by the staff at a nearby museum, decided to build a fake seventeenth-century turned chair and pass it off as a genuine article.  And it worked.  He built the chair from new wood but used period-correct tools and styling.  Then, using an antiques dealer who was in on the game, the craftsman successfully got the chair into the local antiques market.  The chair changed hands several times before ending up on prominent display in a museum.  Only after it was featured in several magazines and books did the original maker come forward to challenge the authenticity of the chair.  It took X-rays to reveal that the chair had, in fact, been made using some modern tools and was confirmed to be a fake.

It’s a great story–something you might read in a quirky detective novel.  But Kaye reminds us that not all fraudulent antiques are products are such a dramatic narrative.

Much more common, she says, are the following types of fraudulent antiques:

  • Old Parts, New Object: Materials from one or several genuine antiques are used to make a new piece that still looks old because its parts and materials are old.  Example: a new “Chippendale settee” made from pieces of several broken Chippendale chairs.
  • Remade Object: Genuine antiques that have been modified, repaired, or enhanced so much that they have lost much of their value as real antiques. Example: an originally plain chair enhanced with new carvings and a replaced splat and seat.
  • Married Piece: Originally two pieces (often one significantly newer than the other) that have been put together and presented as a single piece.  Example: an old top to a high chest set on a newer, reproduction secretary.

In distinguishing reproductions (either honest, period-style reproductions or clever fakes), Kaye has some good advice.  First, know the marks of each furniture style, whether seventeenth century, Queen Anne, Chippendale, or Federal.  There were variations within each style, of course, but if a piece seems to mix elements of two different styles, it’s probably not genuine.  Kaye’s overview of each major American style is brief but very helpful in pointing out some of the distinguishing marks of each style.

Kaye Fake Fraud or GenuineSecond, examine a piece of furniture closely for signs of its true age.  While it’s possible to make a fake antique so convincing that it will fool experts, most pieces will give up their secrets upon close inspection.  But you have to know what to look for–and where to look for it.  The undersides of tables and the insides of cases can be especially telling.

As someone who uses traditional hand tools and occasionally dabbles in period styles, I was already familiar with a number of Kaye’s points.  For example, cut nails were first used early in the nineteenth century, and wire nails became common late in the nineteenth century, so if you find an “eighteenth century antique” with pieces held on by wire nails, you should be suspicious.  I also know to feel for the scalloped surface left by a jack plane on the undersides of secondary surfaces.  Modern planers leave a very different surface.

But I also learned a number of things about identifying genuine antiques:

  • Until the later nineteenth century, very few furniture makers signed their work. If you find what appears to be a maker’s mark (whether in ink or as a stamp) on an earlier antique, it is probably an owner’s mark.
  • Many antiques have holes from old hardware that has long since been removed.  Some holes, such as plugged holes from replaced drawer pulls, are easy to explain.  Others are more difficult.  On the bottoms of feet, for example, you will often find holes from old casters.  “Leave no hole unexplained,” Kaye advises.
  • Use a needle and thread to test worm holes.  If the needle goes all the way through a worm hole, then that piece of wood was wormy when the wood was first cut to size, and that means that that piece of wood (and possibly the whole piece of furniture) was made from reclaimed wood–which was never done until the twentieth century.  On genuine antiques, worm holes always bottom out.  Worms start inside the wood and chew their way out.  They don’t chew all the way through a piece of wood.
  • Rocking chairs did not exist in America after the Civil War.  If you find an eighteenth-century rocking chair, then either the rockers were added later or the whole thing is a fake.  Remember the opening scene of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot?  Gibson’s character is a colonial farmer attempting to make a Windsor rocking chair, and it collapses under him when he sits on it.  It’s a funny scene, but Gibson should have done a little more homework on period furniture styles.  Rocking chairs were unknown in colonial America.

 

Kaye Fake Fraud or GenuineIn the thirty years since Kaye published her book, I’m sure there have been a lot of changes in the antique furniture market.  But now that period-style hand tools are widely available and instruction in traditional hand-tool work is easy to come by, I expect that fakes–both intentional frauds and honest mistakes–are also more common than they once were.  In the coming decades, it will be all too easy to mistake a good, twentieth-century reproduction chair or spice chest for a remarkably-well-preserved nineteenth-century antique.

Kaye’s book has had staying power.  You can still buy a new copy on Amazon for about $18, but old library copies are easy to find for under $8 on ABE.com and other used book sites.   The book is generously illustrated with photos of genuine antiques, as well as many fakes, frauds, and reproductions.  If you are a collector of antique furniture looking for sound advice (or a greedy, unscrupulous period-furniture maker looking for inspiration), I highly recommend this book.  I am neither, but the next time I browse the furniture in an antique shop, I’m going to have a lot of fun trying to pick out the fakes, the frauds, and the genuine articles.


Tagged: antique furniture, antiques roadshow, fake, fake antique, fakes, fraud, Myrna Kaye, The Patriot, worm holes

Piano Repair: Fixing a Broken Hammer

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 1:43pm

I am not a piano repairman.  But when our piano tuner told us that it would be pretty expensive to fix our 1950s-era spinet piano (for which we paid $60), my wife urged me to try it myself.

A couple weeks earlier, one of the younger kids had been pounding on the keys, and the dowel rod holding one of the hammers snapped right off.  My wife found the broken piece inside the piano.  It was the B-flat above middle C–so not exactly a note that we could do without.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

It’s easy to forget that a piano is both a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument.  Press a key, and a small hammer strikes a string held in tension over a soundboard.  There are 88 of these hammers, most of which strike three strings at once.  The dowel rod that held this hammer somehow snapped in two–perhaps there was a flaw in the wood, or perhaps the key was just struck too hard.  That happens sometimes when you have little kids.

Regardless, fixing this hammer was going to be tricky.  Open up the bottom of the piano, and this is what you see:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

All those vertical, wooden pieces are part of the action–the mechanism that connects each key to each hammer.  The broken piece was deep inside this very complicated mechanism.  (Pardon the funny lighting, but the ambient lighting in my living room is abysmal, and I was working mostly by LED flashlight.)

Looking in from the top, this is what I see:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Somewhere down there is the other end of a broken dowel rod.  My first thought was that, if I could get the stubby end out, I could surgically insert a new dowel without having to disassemble anything.  Some older pianos, I knew, were assembled with hide glue, which will release when moistened.  I tried it out on the free end of the broken hammer, but no luck.  It’s PVA, i.e. yellow wood glue.  The whole thing was going to have to come out.

All the way out.

I had heard from pianists that it was possible to remove the entire action assembly from a piano.  I looked over the inside of the piano for quite some time, trying to see how the  action assembly was attached.  Fortunately, the internet had a helpful tutorial by a professional piano repairman.  I’m not sure I would have gotten any further without his help.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Once I located the points of attachment, I started carefully removing nuts and screws.

At one point, I ran across an odd little nut that looked like this:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

I recognized it as a “split nut,” which is used on many old handsaws.  Getting one loose can be quite a trick, unless you have the right tool.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Which I did.

It’s an old spade bit ground down to a screwdriver shape and a notch filed into it.  I made this split-nut driver several years ago when I started working with old handsaws.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

When I made it, I didn’t think I’d get to use it on a piano.

In order to remove the action assembly on a spinet piano, it is also necessary to remove ALL the keys.  And piano keys are NOT interchangeable.  The keys on our piano are numbered, but I still kept them all in order so as to make it easier to put them back in later.

Once the keys were all out, I was able to remove the last few bolts and screws holding the action in place.  I carefully lifted the whole thing out.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

 

Here is the now-an empty piano with the keys lined up on the floor and the action assembly at the very bottom of the picture.  (Side note: you can probably imagine how much dust accumulates underneath the keys over sixty years.  It took us quite some time to vacuum it all out.)  The keys fit over those metal pins and rest on felt pads.  It really is an ingenious design, very complicated in some places and dirt-simple in others.

It was time to carry the whole action assembly out to the workbench.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

If the soundboard and strings are the soul of the piano, this is its heart.  I sort of feel like I’m doing open-heart surgery here. One false move, and the patient may not survive.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

With the action on the workbench, I carefully un-hooked and un-screwed the very-complicated mechanism that had the broken piece.

Each key is connected to a mechanism like this.  From this perspective, it looks a little like a Rube Goldberg machine.  Press the key, and a whole sequence of levers, straps, and pads moves to strike the strings.

Take a moment to appreciate how many individual pieces there are in even a small piano.  I count 14 wooden pieces all together here.  Some of the higher notes have fewer parts, but there are 88 keys total.  There over 1,000 little wooden pieces in the whole action assembly!

You can see here where the dowel supporting the hammer broke–right at the base where it was glued in.

Replacing the broken dowel was, I think, the easy part.  Once it got down to cutting and shaping wood, I felt that I actually knew what I was doing.   But order of operations was critical.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

I first sawed the broken dowel off flush at the base.  Then I carefully re-drilled the hole.  The replacement dowel I’m using is a hair thinner than the original, but it’s dead-straight hardwood and should hold up to household use.

It took me three stops before I found a suitably tough hardwood dowel at a local hardware store.  The original one was, I think, maple or birch.  I’m not sure what species the replacement is, but it’s not poplar, which was too soft for this application.

Dealing with the other end was more tricky.  After close inspection, I noticed that the dowel went into the hammer’s head at an angle.  I would need to drill out the old dowel at the same precise angle.  So before cutting off the old dowel, I made this little jig:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

In a squared-up piece of scrap, I cut a small dado to fit the hammer and wedged it in upside down.  I then inserted a long, pan-head screw into one end of the underside so I could raise the whole jig up at an angle by turning the screw. I sighted the dowel along an upright square and, by trial-and-error, found the precise angle at which the dowel was inserted.

I sawed off the old dowel and took my jig and workpiece down to the drill press.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

It was easy to drill the hole at the correct angle.

I glued in the new dowel and went and had a cup of coffee while the glue dried.  (Sorry, no picture of the fixed mechanism.  I was so tired that I forgot to take one!)

It wasn’t easy getting the repaired mechanism back into the piano.  Having one or even two people to help guide it in was very helpful.  The more you bump things inside a piano, the more out of tune it will be.  And I sure didn’t want to break any more pieces on this action assembly!

My oldest daughter kindly helped me put the keys back on, too.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Keys, nuts, screws–all had to be reinserted exactly as they had come out.  It was especially annoying to reattach the damper and sustain pedals.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Finally everything was back in place.  It was a lot of work to fix a little piece.  It kind of reminded me of car repair–and not necessarily in a good way.  I had to remove so many components in order to replace one little piece without which the whole thing wouldn’t work.  At least it leaves my hands less greasy.

Now, of course, the piano needs to be tuned again.  But it plays.  And I fixed it all by myself.

 


Tagged: drill press, piano, piano hammer, piano keys, piano repair

Book Review: The Woodworker, The Charles H. Hayward Years. 3 vols.

Thu, 01/12/2017 - 11:13am

High above my workbench, I keep the back-issues of a woodworking magazine I subscribe to.  It takes up about 8″ of shelf space, but it grows by a fraction of an inch as a new issue arrives each month.  Eventually I’ll have to cull the pile, saving issues with articles that I will want to reread and throwing out the rest.  Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody took the time to compile the really good articles, especially the ones covering essential tools and techniques, and reprinted them in a bound book?

That is exactly what Christopher Schwarz & co. at Lost Art Press have done with The Woodworker, a magazine published in Britain and edited by Charles H. Hayward from 1939 to 1967.

Hayward Book Set

I first met Hayward’s work back in my graduate school days.  When it came to woodworking, I was both ignorant and broke, so at the end of one school year I used some of my remaining printer pages to print out a bunch of old woodworking books, including Charles Hayward’s How to Make Woodwork Tools, from various archive websites.  I three-hole punched them and put them in binders.  It wasn’t an elegant solution, but it was the only affordable way to hold these classic books in my hands.

Now the bulk of Hayward’s work is available bound in these finely printed books.  These three volumes contain over 1,100 pages of instruction and information on woodworking, focusing almost exclusively on hand-work.  A fourth volume is coming out in February, and it will cover shop equipment and furniture styles.  Volume four will add over 300 more pages to the set, bringing the total number of pages to 1,500.  (The pages are numbered continuously across volumes.)   The set retails at $37-$45 per volume, though I expect that you’ll be able to order all four as a set once they’re all in print.  You can order them individually from the publisher here.

The volumes are organized by topic, although the fact that they are made up of hundreds of self-contained magazine articles means that the organization is somewhat loose.  Here’s what you can expect in each volume:

Volume 1: Tools

This volume of about 450 pages includes articles on sharpening, marking tools (such as squares and marking gauges), chisels, hand planes (both metal and wooden), and hand saws.  There are also short sections on turning and veneering.  The volume also includes articles on basic techniques like planing and sawing, as well as a number of articles on relief carving and letter carving.  The articles describe the notable characteristics of well-made tools, as well as typical modifications and repairs.

Hayward The Woodworker v1

The sheer scope of the information in volume 1 is overwhelming, though this volume is perhaps the most repetitive of the set.  If you’re already familiar and comfortable with your basic tool kit, you could skip this volume.  But I don’t recommend doing that.  There is enough detailed information here on effective tool use that it’s well worth the sticker price.

Volume 2: Techniques

In this volume of over 400 pages, there are articles describing a wide range of hand tool techniques that a well-equipped woodworker should know.  It covers everything from shooting board techniques and creative clamp use to drawer and door construction, moldings, and cabriole legs.  Want to know how cut a stopped rabbet?  It’s here.  How to fit a door?  It’s here too.  How to affix a table top to its base?  Yep, it’s here.  Which nails to use for which job?  That’s also covered.  Plowing a curved groove for inlay?  That, too.

Hayward The Woodworker v2

In volume 2, the superb illustrations alone are worth the cover price.  The articles are very well written and instructive, but you can learn a whole lot just by looking at the charts and illustrations.  I enjoyed just flipping through the volume and reading anything that caught my eye.  Just now, I happened upon instructions for making a replacement handle for a socket chisel without using a lathe.  It immediately solved a problem for me that I had always struggled with before.  Now why didn’t I think of doing it that way?!?  (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.  Go buy the book yourself.  You cheapskate.)

Volume 3: Joinery

This volume contains nearly everything from the popular but long-out-of-print book Woodworking Joints by Charles Hayward.  According to the publisher, however, this is much more than just a reprint.  It not only contains virtually everything that the original Woodworking Joints book included, but also includes many other articles that were never reprinted.  The articles cover edge joints, mortise-and-tenon, rabbets and dadoes, lap and bridle joints, miters of all kinds, and of course dovetails.  I never knew there were so many variations on the lap joint.

Hayward The Woodworker v3

As with volume 2, you can learn a lot from volume 3 just by looking at the illustrations.  But don’t skip the articles themselves.  Every article has helpful tips that make hand work simpler and warn you away from common pitfalls.  Although this is by far the slimmest of the volumes (only about 270 pages), it is perhaps the most packed with information.  Solid joinery is a cornerstone of woodworking, but it is often the thing that hobby woodworkers struggle with the most.  If you are going to buy just one volume of the set, this is the one to get.

Every good book should have little surprises that reward the reader, and The Woodworker is no exception.  The editors not only include quite a few period advertisements, but they also reprint many of the original magazine headings, complete with volume numbers, issue numbers, dates, and decorative illustrations.

I have two cautions for readers just delving into these books.  First, remember that the period photography is often grainy and of little help in illustrating the articles.  Our woodworking magazines have accustomed us to sharp, close-up photography, but don’t expect that here.  What we get instead more than makes up for it.  The pages are covered with Hayward’s own crystal-clear line drawings, as well as numerous charts and illustrations.  On balance, I much prefer illustrations to even the best photographs when it comes to learning techniques from a book.

Second, because the volumes cover nearly thirty years of publication, there is a good deal of repetition early on.  In volume 1, for example, there are about ten different articles on sharpening chisels and plane irons, all of them saying much the same thing.  After a while, I began to wish that the editors had left a few of the more repetitive articles out.  These books are not intended to be read through from cover to cover, but to be browsed and sampled over months and (I expect) years.

Hayward Book Set

Also, I must say that the organization does not always make sense to me.  On a large scale, the articles are sorted into separate, topical volumes.  But on a closer look, some of the organization seems haphazard.  For example, letter-carving is covered in volume one, Tools, whereas the articles on assembling basic tool kits are in volume two, Techniques.  The tables of contents in both books is titled “Tools and Techniques.”  Perhaps there was no perfect way to organize such a mountain of information into a reference encyclopedia, and since the volumes are available for sale individually, it makes some sense that the information be spread out across volumes.  But it makes it difficult to use these as reference books.

I love the historical perspective that these volumes give me.  Woodworking in Britain changed more slowly than it did in America, especially after WWII, and while power tools do appear in the books, it is assumed that most work will still be done by hand.  The articles on sharpening indicate that most woodworkers did not even own a bench grinder–a situation I was in for many years.  Unlike a lot of writers in today’s woodworking magazine, these authors do not assume that every reader will have a wide array of well-tuned power tools and accessories.  Instead, they frequently give instructions for effective work-arounds.  There are whole articles in volume 2 on what to do when you don’t have a standard tool and can’t just go out and buy it.

As a professional teacher of writing, I especially appreciate the authors’ clear, direct writing style.  You won’t stumble over vague, cumbersome sentences when trying to understand a technique the author is describing.  There are a few new vocabulary words to learn (e.g. what we call “clamps,” the Brits call “cramps”), but the writing is exactly like the tools and joinery it describes: straightforward, robust, and effective.

When asked for a one-volume introduction to hand tools, I will continue to recommend Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but when asked for a comprehensive guide to woodworking with hand tools, I will be recommending The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years.  

Volumes 1 & 2

Volume 3

Volume 4