Sunday, May 15, 2016

It Becomes Part Of Your Story.

A few treasured mementos from the Studley Exhibit. The work apron I wore in costume and a small pocket "tchotchke" with embellishments cast directly from the molds of details from the cabinet. 
There are events in your life where time plays one of it temporal tricks on you. It seems to stretch and thin in a way that both speeds up and yet manages to burn details into your memory.

Without getting too spiritual, I've always believed that phenomenon occurs when you are standing in exactly the right place you're supposed to be. These events can be either obviously significant or weirdly benign, but the connection to your life's story exists. 

It happened playing in a forest near a campground with my cousin Mark. It happened the day I got into my first serious fist fight in sixth grade. Sledding down a hill in Bemidji Minnesota in fourth grade. A foot race with my little brother on a family vacation. The day I married my wife and the way the sun shined through the stained glass windows of the church during the ceremony. The hours leading up to and during the very different births of each my three daughters. Standing in an operating room, watching smoke start to roll out of the back of the anesthesia machine, and having the wherewithal to unplug the electrical cord and avert disaster while others panicked. My first car accident (my fault). Being an overrated teenage asshole to my father as he tried his best to understand and deal with my overly-complicated psyche. Getting kicked out of a theology class for arguing with a nun about whether or no I was going to keep my shoes on. (I was not raised Catholic, I just ended up in a Catholic school for a while. Long story.) 

Good, bad, bitter and sweet, the moments write your story. 

Roughly a year ago I added a whole weekend of those moments to my life. Being a part of the H.O. Studley exhibit has become one of the solid cores to who I am as a craftsman. The cabinet and the workbench and the company of Don Williams and the rest of the crew. I don't have words, and that's not usually a problem for me. 

To this day I will still read someone on social media say something dismissive about the lone surviving works of a distinctive master and I will sit back an wonder. Some folks just aren't meant to understand I guess. I wish I could develop my experience into a virus that could infect them with the same understanding I've come to find. 

Then I realize I just have to be proud of the fact that I do get it, and there are other people who are smarter than me, who I respect and look up to, who get it too. 

It's a rare thing, standing witness to greatness. A year ago I was allowed to punch one of the stamps on my card. Afterwards you can't just walk away, you carry it with you always. 

Thank you Don. I can never say it enough. 


This photo courtesy of Narayan Nayar

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


This video is a couple tics over two minutes. It's rough and shot on a whim using my cell phone with no production set up at all. The lighting strobes because I guess I have to replace the ballast in one of my fluorescents, and there's a quick bit of slow-mo thrown in at 25 seconds that sounds like cheep Sci-Fi movie effects.

I shot it to prove a point. Give me two minutes and we'll talk about it.

I build  a lot of things for others, right now I'm building a boarded chest needed in my house. I'm ripping about 1 1/4" off a board so I can turn it into trim. I'm doing it by hand. I like doing this demo because I often hear about how slow hand tool woodworking is compared to power tools.

The three minutes it takes me to mark out the cut, holdfast the board to the bench, locate the wedges to keep the off cut from falling on the floor, and make the cut isn't far behind setting a tablesaw to the right measurements, making sure you have your push stick, and making the cut.

But here's the story in my shop.

I have a tablesaw. I make use of a tablesaw. I'm not dogmatically beholden to any one way of working though I do dislike routers, I own one of them too. Woodworking is about problem solving, and more options lead to more solutions. I often use my table saw for rip cuts on stock four feet and shorter (I will occasionally push it up to six feet but not often)

For rip cuts in longer stock, I tack the board to the bench and grab a Disston.

This runs counter logical to some, surely you'd want to use the machine to do the work on longer boards more than shorter ones. So let me explain.

For a long time, at least as long as I've paid attention, beginning woodworkers get the advice to buy a tablesaw, put it in the middle of their shop, and build their workflow around it. Usually this means a dedicated place for the saw with all the standard apparati surrounding. An outfeed table and a variety of crosscut sleds. Sacrificial fences and organized storage for a stacked head dado cutter. Piles of jigs to cut miter slots, tenon cheeks, enough to fill several books for the jig inclined.

I've set up my shop around this tablesaw archetype in the past, but it's not the way I work. When I moved into my current shop I shifted my thinking. The Earth isn't the center of the Universe, and neither is the Sun. In the Universe of my shop the warm toasty center is the piece I'm building itself. Most of the time that means my workbench is the center of my workflow. My tablesaw is on a locking wheeled system and rolls in from the side and back out of the way again.

This means no regular outfeed table or accessories beyond things like a push stick. Setting up to cut a 10' long rip cut means positioning it in the shop with run in and run out space on either side of the blade. It also means fashioning an outfeed surface or a well trained helper to "catch" the boards without causing binding and kickback.It only makes sence in the face of a production run of some type.

Shorter boards don't require this much fore thought therefore ripping long lengths of board by hand is the quicker and simpler way for me to work.

Question everything and be the best snowflake you can possibly be.

Ratione et Passionis

Friday, April 22, 2016

. . . Just Not Too Much.

Arm rail detail of 17th century carved French chair. 

I spoke in my Last Post about my recent opportunity with the Castlerock Museum and documenting the 17th century (and earlier) furniture there. They also want a little help writing the patron placards about the pieces. I did tease that there was more.

The museum also asked me to fabricate a few "matching" pieces to extend the display. They wanted a board to display some spoons, a shelf to display some plates, and a low box/platform to display a very ornate jewelry box (which I failed to get a reasonable picture of, go figure). Another win for me!

You think I'd jump at the chance, but I did have one big reservation.

I am not interested in making anything for the display that could be construed as contemporary to the pieces surrounding it.

After talking it over with the owner and the museum director, we were all on the same page.They do want something that will settle into the background, so color wise I've gotta match these old pieces, but we're not doing anything carving wise or embellishment wise other than a nice moulding profile or two.

The first problem on the docket is the spoon board. The person who organizes the look of the displays set up a cardboard mock up and already had some 1/2" oak glued up to match. She wanted the upper corners knocked off the board, but there were no other instructions above and beyond that.

So I took the board and some photos home with me. I was certain I could do better than just notching some 30 or 45 degree corners. I did a little research and found this woodcut print of a somewhat contemporary kitchen scene.

I have tried (somewhat) to find the best attributions of this print. So far I'm unsuccessful. 
The shelf in the background was my inspiration. More correctly the corbels holding the shelf up were my inspiration.

I didn't want to put my eggs in one basket and I don't sketch-up so I utilized the power of a Xerox machine. I printed a page with two copies of the photo above and made multiple copies to doodle on.

"A" was my first choice (and first idea) but I still felt compelled to offer a number of choices to the museum.

They liked choice "A" as well and appreciated the idea of something slightly decorative over a straight mitered corner.

A shelf with corbels similar to the corners in "A" was also approved and a plain dovetailed box/platform

Looks like I have a little work to do.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Revel In The Past

Saying "Yes" to one thing in life leads will lead to other great things. Though I live more than an hour away from the fantastic Castlerock Museum of Arms and Armor I have worked hard to cultivate some friendships and working relationships there. How could you not. I believe it's the largest museum in America dedicated specifically to medieval and renaissance (and much before and a little after) history. 

Ever since the Higgins Armory Museum in closed down in Massachusetts anyway. As I understand it, that place was huge. 

Some exciting things have began to develop. 

The first involves these old gentlemen. 

An English Wainscot chair labeled with a date of 1658
A French chair that's the contemporary of the English Wainscot
(both were bought together in the same auction lot) 
A piece the owner says is 16th century Flemish. . It has seen heavy restoration. 
I have secured permission to extensively photograph and measure these pieces. My hope is to get enough material and enough story teased out of these fellas to develop a magazine article or two and probably a few measured drawings. The French chair is fascinating to me with it's differences in style. Stylistically its a marriage of Wainscot and a Caquetoire. but the carving details are both very subtle and very bold. 

It's a contrasting description, I just don't have another way to talk about the sublime artisanry. 

There are a few other, non seating, pieces there as well. Though the owner admits some suspicions about their authenticity. I will document those as well. 

My interest and ambition has lead to a few other offers from the museum But more on those next time. 

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Marks of a workman.

Mortise & Tenon Magazine is a phenomenal product. Joshua Klein has provided a voice and direction that I feel has been needed among the woodworking community for quite a while. He is exactly the right person to stand where the worlds of scholarship, artistry, conservation, and a maker's ethos intersect. It's been a long time since I've read anything that both entertained and challenged me to the very core of why I feel connected to this craft. 

He's set the bar very high and I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit some jealousy. 

Intentional or not, I caught a theme that hung like a string of lights from cover to cover. Over again I read about the indelible marks left behind by the craftsmen on the work they created. Not a stamp or signature but the marks of a plane, the cut of a dovetail, and the nailing of a batten. All silent signatures left by men screaming across centuries "I was here. I made this."

The tool marks stand as evidence of intent, as the identifying fingerprints of the maker, and as a declaration of authenticity.

Were the marks and methods left behind intentional calling cards? Were the makers even aware that one day, some would be so interested in finding and attributing as much of their work as possible? That someday someone would know the quirks and camber of their planes as well or better than they knew the hairs on their children's heads.

It seems hard to believe so.

It makes me pause and wonder, what fingerprints I leave behind? What telltale marks or habits distinguish my work? Reading things like, " . . .he looked at all the (Nathaniel) Gould things and would find that he always used triangular corner blocks with four nails in them. The back shoe would be made a certain way and the carving on the knees always had stippled background." (page 82) made me wonder if I have any of the same "consistency of craftsmanship," as Curator Gerald Ward puts it in the same interview.

If I think back through the many pieces I've made, from the early inconsistent work where I was just tickled if I could pull off a nice dovetail joint, to some of the better pieces I can turn out today. Is the difference growing as a craftsman without the direct guidance in an apprenticeship system? Without a master or journeyman standing over me telling me "this is the way to do this!" 

As a "hobbyist" woodworker I'm usually chasing the next piece that catches my interest, far outside of popular styles or often the pressure to make anyone but myself happy. I've ranged styles from William and Mary, to 17th century oak, to arts and crafts to modern Krenov. Across these projects and styles is it possible there is a consistent anything? 

Even with my joinery?

Will I become more consistent in my craftsmanship over time? Is that the same as "stuck in your ways?" Is it something I should even worry about? I'm leaning towards No.

I'm going to just keep doing my thing and let the conservators of the future worry about what kind of nutjob I was.

Still I wish I could be a fly on the wall and hear what they'd say.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, April 4, 2016

Joinery Bench Repair / Rebuild

If you've been here a while, you may remember we have a small four season porch tacked on the side of our home and the last few winters I've made use of it by moving my tool chest and a workbench into there. This past winter I chose to move in my portable joinery bench instead of a larger bench.

Winter passed and it was time to move things back into the full shop. The tool chest, Moxon vise, and all the other errata moved without incident. I removed the metal bracket keeping the bench still and stable and went to pull it from the wall. Carelessness on my part or just an unfortunate inevitability and one of the legs torqued and pulled one of the cleats free of the bench top. 

This joinery bench was made to break down and travel, and it has been hundreds of miles, way up in the UP down to the bottom of Illinois as I set up carving demonstrations at Medieval faires and festivals. For six years it's traveled and never complained. Hell I've lifted the weight of the whole bench top by the very cleat that failed. That's a 3" thick SYP top wrapped in 6/4 Hickory, plenty of weight. 

But, what's the difference? The construct finally failed. 

The thing I never liked much was the tendency to wiggle a bit side to side when planing, but that's a rare operation on this bench. I use it mostly as a place to cut joinery, especially dovetails on bigger carcass sides. Adding my Moxon vise to the already increased height is a much improved ergonomic situation. Where it shines for me is when I'm carving. I pondered my repair options and decided it was time to ditch the cleats and create a more permanent base. A solid box that would negate the wiggle. 

Tying the frame style legs together really just called for one thing. The dovetail treatment. It just so happened I had a piece of 5/4 decking sitting around for a few years. Oh my god, a bit of pressure treat pine to lock the rock outta this bench. You bet your ass!

Ripping out the old cleats, and tying the legs back together with some screwed together dovetailed runners took an afternoon of interrupted dinking around.

Then I resecured the new base to the bottom of the bench and flipped it down to stand proud on the floor. Guess what? Rock Stable.

Sure made this little corner of my world feel more complete again. 

Ratione et Passionis


"Furniture is the servant of fantasy just as much as it is a response to practical everyday needs. The whole notion of the domestic interior as scenery for a play which we make up as we go along, and therefore of pieces of furniture as components in a constantly shifting and capriciously altered three dimensional collage, is propagated today in every interior decorating magazine. Its roots lie in the eighteenth century, with individualists like Horace Walpole and William Beckford, and it established itself firmly in the nineteenth, when multiplicity of stylistic choice led eventually to the breakdown of previously fixed categories, a kind of overflowing from one compartment to another which can be seen in many contemporary representations of Victorian interiors. It was at this time that isolated examples of old furniture acquired the kind of talismanic force which many people attach to them today, and became the foci for ideas and emotions which were not necessarily connected to their appearance.

The study of furniture, which arose from antiquarian interests of the nineteenth century, has ever since been bedeviled by an obsession with "antiques." . . . .  (This book) tries to show how furniture is related to the general development of society, and also to the psychology of the individual." 

-"Furniture: A Concise History"  by Edward Lucie Smith (1979) 

I have authority problems, it's just a fact of my life. I tend to question a lot of things many people take for granted, probably because they take them for granted. If pressured I will use the word "irreverent" to describe myself. 

I've started to develop suspicious ideas in regards to words like "heirloom," and the reverence for antiques.  I'm not sure where they take me, but this passage spoke to them. 

If only I could carve out the time to write "The Irreverent Design Book." 

There may be more on this. Or not. Things are still formulating. 

Ratione et Passionis