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I travel for work once or twice a year. This summer it’s a week-long stay in a hotel, and I have evenings pretty much to myself. In such situations, I never want to be without my spoon carving tools and a few blocks of wood. Here’s my work-station:
The tools fit into a small bag. I bring along a couple sloyd knives, a couple other knives, a hook knife, a spokeshave, and card scrapers, along with an Arkansas stone and a strop. I also bring an old bed sheet to spread on the floor to catch shavings. It catches most of them. At the end of the night, I roll up the sheet and either take it outside and shake it (I find an area covered with wood mulch), or I carefully put them into the room’s trash can.
Here are a few I’ve made recently:
I’m using mostly black walnut, which carves pretty easily even when dry. The lighter wood is the walnut sapwood, which actually is a little tougher than the heartwood. Softer hardwoods like poplar also carve pretty well while dry. I do prep my blanks beforehand, cutting them to length and shaping one face with the drawknife or hatchet. Everything else is knife work.
At some hotels, I’ve been able to carve outside on the deck. I try to select an out-of-the way place, but people sometimes stop to watch anyway. If they do, I often have a pleasant conversation about woodwork or handicrafts. If they don’t, I get spoons made.
Either way, it sure beats watching TV all evening.
Tagged: hotel, hotel room, sloyd, sloyd knife, spoon making, spoons, travel, wood spoon, wooden spoon, wooden spoons
People ask me where I get my wood for the spoons and spatulas I make. The truth is, I find it. Most of the time I salvage limbs and logs from downed trees, but sometimes I find wood in more interesting places–and that wood always has a real story.
A few years ago, we discarded an old desk that had completely fallen apart. But we saved two of the drawers to use as containers. We gave the big drawer to the kids to use as a small toybox, and the small drawer lived for several years on top of the clothes dryer, where it served as a tray for detergent and dryer sheets. After being dropped a couple times, the machine-cut dovetails finally gave way, and the drawer collapsed. I was about to toss the pieces in the firewood pile, but after seeing the straight, clear grain on some of the pieces, I decided to try repurposing the wood for spatulas.
The drawer had four sides and a plywood bottom. I threw out the bottom, as well as one side that had too much run-out in the grain. Two other sides had straight, clear grain, and while the pieces were pretty thin (just under 1/2″ thick), I thought I could use them. (That’s the bottom two pieces of wood in the above picture.) These pieces were obviously oak, probably red oak, a common furniture wood. Red oak is very porous, so most varieties are not very good for wooden spoons, but it can make pretty good stir-fry spatulas. After looking carefully at each piece for any splits, I laid out some spatulas from a template.
The final piece (the top one in the above photo) was originally the front of the drawer, which was thicker. It was also veneered on both sides, so I couldn’t easily tell what kind of wood it might be. I suspected either maple or poplar, both of which are common substrates for veneer. I had to do some guesswork on the best layout for this piece, but I also had to avoid the bolt holes in the center.
Weathering had turned this wood pretty gray, but I knew there would be a more attractive color underneath. I took each piece to the bandsaw and carefully cut to my layout lines. My templates are just a little oversized, in order to allow for the stock removal that follows.
Then I went to work with my drawknife, spookshaves, and card scrapers. The drawer sides were indeed red oak, which is quite hard when seasoned, and this wood was about as seasoned as wood can get! But it also cuts cleanly with sharp tools. I understand why furniture makers like using it.
The thicker, veneered piece was definitely a variety of poplar. There are several different kinds of poplar, though I haven’t bothered to attempt a more precise identification. The fact that this spatula was once a drawer front kind of overshadows the exact wood species.
The poplar had some small, tight knots in it, but otherwise there were no flaws in this wood at all. These are the fronts of each spatula.
These are the backs. The Danish-oil finish did indeed bring out some nice colors in the end.
Working with salvaged wood, especially from old furniture, is always a risk. You never know when you’re going to reveal a flaw that renders that piece unusable. But when you succeed, the risk is worth it.
What is the best way to preserve a seed? I first came across this question in a gardening book, and it’s a trick question. The answer, of course, is to plant it.
I have thought about that question a lot since one memorable day last summer, when my wife got a call from our neighbor. Did we want some dry goods? She had some to share. And she wasn’t kidding. In front of her house was a big U-Haul truck full of preserved dry goods–dozens of buckets and barrels of rice, beans, wheat, corn, pasta, coffee, and other foodstuffs.
It had come from a local prepper who just died. (If you don’t know what a prepper is, you can look it up on the Internet. Prepping is a big trend down here in the Deep South–people who are seriously preparing for the end of civilization as we know it by stockpiling food, supplies, guns, and ammunition.) When this prepper died, he left half a dozen storage units full of about $30,000 worth of supplies. So what was in that U-Haul was only a fraction of what he had stored up for himself. We happily took whatever we thought we could reasonably use, and passed on the rest to others.
It was all very well contained. The owner had spared no expense in keeping out moisture and insects. Yet we found that upon upon closer inspection, we found use-by dates from over ten years ago!
Still, the food was free, so we decided to try it out anyway. We cooked the pinto beans, but they came out a nasty gray color, and they took almost twice as long to cook as fresh beans would have. And they didn’t even taste very good. Some of the other items, such as the sugar and pasta, were edible. But the lima beans, the cornmeal, and the wheat were all very stale. The coffee was undrinkable. I don’t know what kind of existence this prepper had imagined for himself once civilization collapsed, but had he actually had to live on this food, he would have been far less comfortable than he probably imagined.
This experience got me thinking about this whole trend of prepping. The assumption behind prepping is that an isolated individual (or a small family) can maintain some semblance of civilization–food, shelter, safety, and comfort–alone and virtually unaided, probably while holding off bandits by using the thousands of rounds of ammo that the prepper has stockpiled alongside the foodstuffs.
It’s not a new fantasy, I suppose. What, after all, is more American than living by your wits on your own little compound deep in the woods, surrounded by a few loyal family members and a huge stockpile of food and ammunition? Modern-day prepping is Little House on the Prairie with a vengeance.
If there is one thing I learned from the contents of that U-Haul, it is the basic folly of prepping–of stockpiling food on the assumption that, someday soon, your stockpile will be all you have to live on. But even the biggest stockpiles run out, so preppers realize that eventually they will have to be able to grow enough food to support themselves and their families.
An essential component of any serious prepper’s stockpile (alongside dry goods, ammunition, fuel, and camping gear) is vegetable seeds. In that U-Haul, we found no fewer than five “kits” of seeds. They were bought mail-order from a company that specializes in supplying preppers, and they came with a manual explaining that one kit of seeds could grow enough food to feed a family of four.
As an experienced gardner, I knew that was a lie. There were not nearly enough staples, such as corn and beans, to plant even a reasonable garden plot. There were few easily-grown, hardy plants, such as kale, that really would be helpful during a food shortage. More importantly, the seed kits had been bought several years ago and then locked up in a storage unit. Just for fun, we tried to plant a few of these seeds. None of them came up.
This brings me back to where I started: the best way to preserve seeds is to plant them. But seeds don’t feed people; agriculture does. Growing enough food to feed a family is more than just sticking seeds into the ground and hoping for the best. It requires intimate knowledge of the soil, of your local climate, and of the kinds of plants you wish to grow. In other words, it requires culture. And real culture only happens in relatively large communities over time.
As an analogy, let’s say that I was convinced that the world would soon lose all of its knowledge of woodworking, and I was determined to preserve woodworking as a craft. (Which, incidentally, I am.) I might be tempted to buy as many tools and as much wood as I could, store it away with a few books about woodworking, and wait with baited breath for the woodworking apocalypse. But a better approach would be to learn as much as I could about woodworking, to actually practice woodworking regularly, and to teach other people to work wood–to get tools, wood, and skills into the hands of as many people as I could. And that’s exactly what a few people back in the 1970s and 1980s did when they saw that the old ways of working wood were about to die out forever. They knew intuitively a principle that preppers do not understand: the only way to keep a way of life alive is to practice it, and to teach others to practice it, too.
Prepping, on the other hand, assumes that a total withdraw from culture is necessary for survival, and in a twisted way, I think it may actually contribute to the cultural collapse that it fears. The more people stop contributing to the wellbeing of their society, the more likely that society is to decline. If you really want to preserve your way of life, first learn all you can about it. Then find ways to actively pass on your skills and materials to a new generation.
Tagged: children, culture, food, prepper, prepping, preservation, preserve, skill, skills
Today was Workbench-Organization-Day. It’s amazing how cluttered my workbench can get over a few months. It took me a couple hours to toss all those forgotten scraps into the firewood pile, organize the pieces of When-I-Get-around-to-It projects, and–of course–collect and putting away stray hardware.
You know how it goes. Spare nails, screws, nuts, and bolts accumulate at an an alarming rate in the corners of workshops. Sometimes I think they breed there. I have a couple small dishes that I keep on my workbench for collecting these bits of hardware when I find them, but when the dishes start to overflow, it’s time to actually put things away.
I’ve tried a few different hardware-storage systems. Well, “system” might be too strong a word. Like most “handy” guys, I have nails, hinges, and L-brackets in some random coffee cans and jars, but little by little, I’m converting to a simple modular-storage system. It’s taken me a while to make the conversion, though, because I need to drink more tea.
Yes, I use the leftover tins from Twinings loose-leaf tea for storing hardware. They come in two convenient sizes, and the lids are made such that boxes of the same size will neatly stack on top of one another. Unlike mason jars or coffee cans, these rectangular containers can be packed next to each other in a drawer with almost no wasted space between them. And they’re totally flexible. Changing the contents is as easy as writing a new label.
The only downside is that, unlike glass or plastic, I can’t see what’s inside each one unless I open it. But I’ve cracked or broken enough glass jars and plastic containers that I’ll gladly put up with limited visibility. I usually just dump the entire contents onto my bench, pick out what I need, and then hold the box up to the edge of the bench while I sweep the rest of the hardware back into it. You can’t do that with a round jar.
I’m normally a coffee drinker, so it’s taken me some time to replace most of my mason jars and coffee cans with tea tins. I still have several to go.
So pour me a cuppa tea, guv’nor! I’ve got more hardware to put away.
Tagged: box, hardware, hardware storage, storage, tea, tea tin, Twinings
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.
When 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.
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.
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
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 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.
Second, 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.
In 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
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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