Monday, November 23, 2015

The Studley Effect

Even though my exposure to the H.O. Studley tool cabinet and workbench was more than six months ago, the effect is still a constant in my life. It's like a perfect brownie with warm gooey chocolate goodness beneath a thin crusty, crunchy top layer. I had been aware of the cabinets existence from shortly after I started woodworking in the late '90's, but the intense time I got to spend around Mr. Studley's work helping Don Williams with the exhibit in Cedar Rapids. Even with some distance from the event, I'd call it life changing. 

Before I was even home from the experience I had found on eBay a couple small jeweler's hammers similar to those in the cabinet and bought them with no hesitation. Once I had the them in hand (complete with shaped ebony handles) I knew I had to something special for them. 
Seeing the cabinet with all the tools in place is one fantastic thing. Seeing it without tools…another level. It's a challenge from Mr. Studley stretching across time. A line in the sand. He's saying, "Here's what I can do…how about you?"  

This photo is Narayan Nayar's and I stole borrowed it from one of Chris's blog posts somewhere. 
I started a frame to hang the hammers in before the end of May and I've been slowly puttering on it as my confidence rises and putting it to the side when it falls, but the challenge of it taunts me and I can't abandon it.

I do not consider myself a finesse woodworker. I refuse to work within the confines of a fraction of an inch's dictating success or failure. I don't believe wood is that kind of medium. But at the same time I am obsessed with the details that matter, at least that I consider matter. I can accept some gaping in my dovetails if I can nail a work's proportions and pull off some fractal repetition, Still I've never been into "perfect" (whatever that means) but with this stupid frame, I'm trying for it. 

I've stalled out for a while trying to work out hanging the actual hammers to the actual frame. But today, newly relocated to the warm haven of my winter shop, I sat down at the bench to re-enter the ring with Henry the Stud again. This must be round eight of who-knows-how-many. 

He's the champ, and I'm sure to lose. I just pray it's by decision and not by knockout. 

Ratione et Passionis

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Tray For Tea Part 4: Finished Up.

After cutting and detailing the fretwork the rest of the work on my daughter's tea tray was like walking downhill.

I started the process by burnishing beeswax into the parquetry with a charged polissoir.

Then I fit the tray inside inside the fretwork sides. I glued the meeting long grain together and countersunk a couple finish nails on each side to hold things in place until the glue set. Before I fit everything together I took a few minutes and wrote a couple nice thoughts and wishes to my daughter around the tray bottom, where the sides will cover it and no one will ever see unless they disassemble to whole thing.

It's a Hidden Magic habit I've gotten into as I finish pieces.

I let the glue dry overnight and did the final shaping and sanding of the sides and glued 1" leather pads to the bottom four corners. Then it was off for the rest of the finish. Three coats of garnet shellac and a slathering and buffing of paste wax.

There were a ton of details that went into this small piece, of course it always seems that way. I can pick apart the slight gapping of the dovetails in one corner, and a couple errors in grain direction and accuracy of cuts in the parquetry, but overall those are small concerns. I am content with the outcome, but more importantly, my daughter Fayth is overjoyed.

What more can I ask for?

Ratione et Passionis

Gut Instinct

I've been interested in medieval furniture for a long time, it really isn't just something I decided needed a better book and I could be the one to write it. I've been chasing the subject for a while. I started carving based on that search.

An oak box I carved a while back.
I started carving following Peter Follansbee and what he calls a "17th century style" based on the fact the work just felt medieval to me. I hadn't found any documentary evidence to back up those feelings, and most of the examples I work from are 17th century in style.

But dammit it felt right.

Today I was once again cruising through the British Library's collection of digitized manuscripts, this time I was predominantly looking for images of Noah, tools, and woodworking in general more than pieces of furniture. I found a manuscript Add MS 15268 that comes from Acre, an important city in the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. Acre was the capital of the Kingdom after the fall of Jerusalem itself. The information calls the manuscript 13th century, predating the fall of Acre itself in 1291.

When I saw it I was struck by the details representing carvings on the edge of the kings throne on the right and on the side of the bench seat on the right. This isn't definitive proof to back up my suppositions regarding the style of carving I enjoy working in and 13th century furniture, but it's a compelling bread crumb.

The designs do have a bit more . . . middle eastern feel . . . I'm not sure how to comment on that clearly, but the basics are there of the "S" style carving and the feel imparted into a lot of the work I've done.

For completeness, here are some of the woodworking images I found in the manuscript. I love how the tools being used are pretty readily correlatable to more modern hand tools. I love the claw hammers in particular, but it's very nice to see a frame saw as well.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Step Stool Morning

One of my neighbors was looking for a step stool they could use outside in the garden. He couldn't find what he was looking for so he asked if I'd build one when I had a chance. That was in the neighborhood of two months ago. I decided to finally get around to it. 

I started with a couple of 1x12 offcuts and zero plan, but the end results turned out really nice. I was sad to see the stool go, I kept some measurements and may build another couple as time permits. 

I started by cutting the two ends of the stool and went a little "By Hand and Eye" using the spread width of my hand to set the length (open hand - distance from pinky tip to thumb tip) After cutting one end I used it to measure the second end, Then I squared the two to each other. 

I knew I wanted a strong corner joint, so it was off to dovetailing, marking out wide strong tails and gang cutting both sides together, making sure the "outside" faces of the boards were indeed facing out. Dovetail saw, coping saw and chisel to the scribed line and done. 

I used the ends to mark the mating part for the top. Repeat the dovetail saw, coping saw, chisel routine and we have a joint. There was a gap I would have shimmed on a fine walnut cabinet, but this is a pine garden step stool. Let's just move forward. 

I started to think about the ends again. I wanted a cut out to make legs but the standard arch or ogee just wasn't feeling right. By this point I'd started thinking about the step stool as a riff on a six board chest's design. I remembered a couple boarded chests I'd seen at the Chipstone collection exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago

Off hand I'm not certain of the nomenclature for this style of cut-out, my memory calls it "bootjack" but I'm unreliable. At the time in the shop I didn't even bother to go in and look up these photos, I just cooked something up from memory and tried to proportion it well to the size without removing too much wood and thereby strength.

The end result was successful to my eyes. Just what I was looking for. Now I weighed my options for supporting the span of the step and decided keeping with the boarded chest theme to make notches in the ends and rip another 3/4" off each side of the top to make space for sides to be nailed in place.

At some point along this path I drilled a couple 1 1/4" holes along the center of the step and with a little more chisel work made a pick up hole. I glued up the dovetails, nailed on the sides and started to clean things up for finish.

I eased all my corners with spokeshave and chisel and sanded everything down to 120 grit then set the piece aside for the rest of the day.

 I wanted a somewhat durable finish for the outdoors that wouldn't be too slick with a little wet or dirt. Again my memory kicked out reading about glue finishes and I decided to give it a try. I diluted down some PVA glue with water in a 1:1 ratio and brushed on the concoction in three layers, allowing 45 - 60 minutes in between. I shook a little fine sand between the 2nd and 3rd layers to add a little texture to help shoes grip.

The finish came out alright, it sealed end grain and gave a little bit of an egg shell shine without modifying the color of the pine. What more are you looking for? The proportions of this build seem to hit the right notes to my eyes, and that might be the most fun.

I think this is an important exercise. From time to time enter the shop with a vague idea for a simple project, no plans, no measurements, and trust yourself to come up with something on the fly. It tests your problem solving, your creativity, and your skills. Have fun, it's only woodworking.

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Tray For Tea Part 3: Fretwork Sides

Back to the tea tray. . .

I had done a lot of focus and worry up to this point about the face of the tray, but there were the sides to consider. I poked around some online antique auction sites until I found a rectangular tray that tickled my fancy and worked from that,

I milled some walnut to 1/2" thick and what felt like the right width and set about dovetailing the corners.

I throw a lot of dovetails together quickly and carelessly. That's not to say they don't turn out tight and functional, but if they're not part of the visible design I pay no real attention to the ratio of my slope angle or perfectly even spacing, Close by eye is more than good enough for functional. When they pop up as a visible part of the design I switch gears and often I make a template to make sure everything looks right before I start. I'll use an offcut of the stock I'm dovetailing to make this template.

Then I sandwich both template and stock into the leg vise. Knife lines are easy to transfer from one piece to another. I'll take out the template, finish marking up the side and cut this half of the joint.

A little dovetail saw, followed by a coping saw and a little chisel work to pare the baselines and I'm off to using one side of the joint to mark the other. It's a pretty standard way to accomplish this and often the way I work. I will change my tricks if the situation calls for it.

I usually get pretty good results, but I cut them a lot. Practice is the key, nothing will replace time in the saddle.

Once all four sides were cut and joined to frame the tray, it was time to start the fretwork. First I drew out some full sized designs for the sides, mimicking the antique I found.

I only drew half a design for a long and a short side. Then I traced over my work with tracing paper and a very fine sharpie. Then I used our scanner/copier to make copies, two forward, two backwards by flipping the tracing paper over, The scanner can read the ink through just fine and makes a mirror image.

I glued the paper down to the prepared sides, drilled some holes, and began the longish process of sawing out the design. You can see my Knew Concepts fret saw in the photo. I'm getting used to it. There are things I like and don't like. I'd switch between this and my coping saw. The thing that worked well was using my version of Don William's Tilting Fretsaw Fixture. You can read more about this quick little marvel to build HERE.

Eventually all the cutting was done, but not all the work.

I'm not sure how much clean up the period piece would have received and some of the surfaces left by the saw were not bad, but some were pretty rough. This tea tray is a gift for one of my daughters so I'm after just about as perfect as I can manage. That meant working into each of the spaces with a selection of small rasps, floats, and files, followed by a little folded up strip of sandpaper.

One more dry fit before cleaning things up, gluing things up, and finishing things up. I am not unhappy with the look. I see mistakes of course and places to improve, but this is a piece I'm certain I will be proud of once finished.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tie Enough Strings Together And Make A Nest.

Writing something down in ink carries a burden. It had better be right because the only way to change it is to cover it with more ink, a lot more ink. Printing ink in a book for others to read. Doubly so.

Maybe some don't feel the same way, but I'm not interested in half-assing this job. That means searching down clues that may or may not even end up in direct print. They'll be there, in the subtext, between the lines, and in the assurity I know what I'm writing about. Sometimes I wish I could afford a couple of researchers to help me comb through the homework and pull out the highlights. Then I remember I'm doing the homework for my own benefit more than anything. I understand no amount of research or knowledge will protect me from critics and naysayers. But I want to know I've turned over every rock I could get my hands on before I commit to ink.

This process is dragging on a little longer than I thought. I had first hoped this would be a year long project and I'm seeing most of year two in the rear view. It's ok. I'm happy and feel like I'm getting it right. Hitting notes that ring truthful over rehashed hyperbole. 

I've got two more books arriving in the mail soon and I have one more nearby college library to haunt for a day and I'll be (mostly) out of the research phase. (It doesn't really end, but you have to draw a line somewhere) Just a window into the work, the last few evenings I've spent several hours hunting down threads in ancient Egypt. 

It's a line repeated so often when I read about medieval furniture it almost gets to sound like plagiarism, yet I'm struggling not to include my own version. It goes something like, "It is amazing that we know far more about the furnishings of ancient Egypt than we do about early medieval Europe." But there are some similarities in clues that I see in depictions of shipbuilders at work.

Here is a mural from Tomb 3 at Beni Hasan, Wikipedia calls this place simply, "An ancient Egyptian cemetery site."  Tomb 3 is the resting place of Khnumhotep II who reigned during the 20th century BC. (That's almost 4000 years ago.) Second line down on the left you see a scene that was familiar.

Shipwrights, cutting down trees on the left (probably) with bronze axes, and building a ship on the right. I can't make out for myself what's in between but one of the dudes looks to be carrying a nice axe. (nor can I tell whats going on with the antelope or gazelle on the far left, it looks illegal without a permit in 46 states)

This was a familiar site to me, not because I grew up in a bronze age family building ships when other families were watching Dallas. Instead it came from my years of fascination with the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts the Norman conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. When I saw the mural above I immediately thought of this.

 William the Conqueror's men building boats to sail across the English Channel and invade. I particularly like what looks like hewn boards set in the branches of the middle trees, maybe with some stacked along the ground. Personally I'm not sure I'd snuggle a board into my no-no space before hewing away, but then again maybe it'd help.

Push on further to my current obsession and subject of my book, the Morgan Bible and Noah hewing a board, also leaned against a tree circa 1250 AD. Right in the same time frame as THESE IMAGES from Chartres Cathedral's stained glass were created.

The point is wood is the same material now as it was then, even if then was 4000 years ago. It's only efficiently worked in a handful of ways. You need to measure it, saw it, drill it, shape it, smooth it, and decorate it, and the tools that accomplish that don't need to be varied or different in general. And people still have the same needs and wants from wood. Chairs need to sit right. tables need to not fall over and spill your beer, surfaces are supposed to be smooth enough to touch and our eyes are all drawn to shine.

It's amazing we know more about furniture in ancient Egypt than in medieval Europe, but it's also amazing that we fail to draw the lines of connection between the experiences then through to our experiences now. We have more in common with our past than our egos will let us believe.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Importance Of Dividers

As I round the final curve in my research for my book on the furniture shown in the Morgan Bible I've finally gotten my hands on two digitized manuscripts regularly referenced by the art history scholars who have researched medieval furniture before me thanks to the digitized library of the Getty Museum. 

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc was an French architect in the mid 1800's. The majority of his work was in restoration of medieval buildings. Connected to that work he wrote several books, the two pertaining to my research; "The Dictionary of French Architecture from the 11th to 16th Centuries" and "The Dictionary of French Furnishings from the Carolingian Period to the Renaissance."  It's good to have my hands on some original source material created before the World Wars took their toll on the material culture of Europe even if it is the biased and somewhat controversial writings of one man. (like any of our works could hope to be different.) 

Unfortunately for me, both volumes are in French and only "Architecture" is (roughly) translated. My public education and lack of liberal arts degree from (Insert Institution of Higher Learning Here) has left me woefully unarmed in this battle so it will take some time for me to digest the texts. Still the illustrations are fantastic and I found something interesting as I started flipping through the pages of "French Architecture

The Apse is the terminal end of a choir, church, or chamber. It's the period on the structural sentence sometimes referred to as the grandstand. As churches are typically shaped as building sized hallways with a door on one end and the center of worship on the other. It's easy to understand the symbolism of a linear journey from dank reality to beatific transcendence translated through the architecture with the apse symbolising the climax. 

To mark it's importance, there is wonderful sacred geometry related to the apse.  

The fun part about life now is how the book "By Hand and Eye" has opened my ability to see things differently that before. Combine that with hours spent laying out 17th Century carving patterns and the floor layouts shown in the text start to come alive with whole number ratios, complex layouts and fractal repetition of patterns and ideas set down more simply with dividers over any linear ruler, . 

The cliche answer for the most important feature of gothic architecture is the design of the flying buttress, and it's not wrong, But the masterful use of geometry and fractal pattern repetition from the design of the building to the tracery in the windows are the most interesting pieces of the puzzle to me. 

All of this just hammers home for me the importance of a pair of dividers as a layout tool and how it's something we've nearly lost as a society in our race to advanced computized perfection to the tenth decimal. 

I also cannot wait to apply the sweeping concepts I see in my research to my own furniture designs and artistic ideas. First I have to get past this project of creating this book. It will be interesting to see what things I've assimilated when I come out the other side

Ratione et Passionis