Friday, July 31, 2015

13th C. French Coffer Take One.

The chest, coffer, arc, bahut, cistella, or hutch. The quintessential medieval furniture piece. Without counting I would say most of the surviving, reliably documentable pieces of medieval furniture are chests. Nearly every medieval reenactor who spends a night sleeping under canvas has at least one, usually it's of the six board variety, often it hides a cooler, that's where they keep the beer. 

It's amusing to my contrary personality that there are so few definitive depictions of chests in the Morgan Bible. Most of them appear in two quarters of a single folio (the lower half of 6 Verso) depicting the soap opera of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers and eventually presenting his father Jacob, to the Pharaoh. 

The black chest on the left is the most exposed of the lot and is the image I have chosen to work from. 

The build is simple and straight-forward, but a chest offers so much utility I've decided to build a couple versions to show readers different options. A little while ago I finished up option one, a small arming chest, and today I took the chance to shoot a few final shots before I place it in the hands of the client who now owns it. 

I was given free reign by the client to experiment and so I took many liberties and stretched in a few directions even outside of historical accuracy. This one started out as a prototype to test my experimental dimensions. We will see if it makes its way into the book, but for now it's finally made it's way off my benches. 

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, July 25, 2015

From Sorrow To Substitution To Solution.

A photo of workshop sorrow.

I own, use, and really like my Veritas Plow Plane. The only thing that has ever been a bother is the depth stop. I understood this was a known problem before I bought the plane, yet I still bought it. The accepted solution to the problem has been to use a pliers to tighten this knob and those holding the fence steady.

I know there's someone out there who came up with a small fitted strap wrench to tighten the knobs without marring the brass like pliers can, (forgive me if I can't remember the name, I only caught a photo a while back, If someone comments or emails me the info I will add it here as an edit) Personally I think if the strap wrench proves popular it will lead to an increase in problems like this. Without the threat of mangling, those inclined to torque hard will end up twisting off their knobs all the time. (insert adolescent snickering)

The issue is, no matter how well I torqued the depth stop knob it would inevitably slip. A few weeks ago, my efforts led to the failure of the brass alloy and sorrow in the shop.

I emailed Lee Valley right away. Their customer service is awesome! Even on a Saturday I had an answer back in a little over an hour and a couple replacement parts, including a new depth foot to "experiment" with, on the way. The rep suggested I rough up the post of the depth stop foot with sandpaper to try and give it a better grip but he admitted it's not a great solution but Lee Valley is aware of the problem and working on it.

My issue it the depth stop feels like an afterthought, something slapped on the side, which is out of character with the rest of my Lee Valley experiences. I think one (or all) of three things could improve the design.

1. The post is round and on the small side, something with more beef and shape would seem easier to grip, especially if the post were triangle shaped or square, Give me some surface space to tighten into because a cylinder requires a specific tight tolerance to grab.

2. The teardrop shaped clip that holds the post is a hollowed out casting and only contacts the post at two narrow points, If they were to make this a solid strong piece with contact along the whole face you would increase your odds of a good grip, even if you stayed with the cylinder post.

3. Lastly if everything is to stay as it is, then make the knob out of something more resistant to the torque of a pliers or strap wrench, steel would be nice, something in a grade 8 bolt variety please.

This afternoon I decided to try roughing up my post as suggested. I attacked it fairly aggressively with some heavy grit emery fabric in a circumferential fashion. I also roughed up the contact surfaces on the plane body and the teardrop clip.

Even tightened down with pliers, I can move the depth stop by pushing against it with my thumb. Substitution attempt failure.

My solution was to brandish a fairly new tool to the shop. A Starrett 237 Depth Gauge I picked up last month because a little voice in my head told me I'd need one, though I wasn't sure why. I skipped the depth stop and ran the plow plane until my eyes told me I was close to my target depth of 3/8", then I checked with the depth stop and refined from there.

Not completely as convenient as a well designed depth stop would be, but a passable, and (more importantly) reliable solution.

Ratione et Passionis

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Foundations . . .

"If one is but secure at the foundation, he will not be pained by departure from minor details or affairs that are contrary to expectation. But in the end, the details of a matter are important. The right and wrong of one's way of doing things are found in trivial matters."
                                                        - Hagakure - The Book Of The Samurai - Yamamoto Tsunetomo

The foundations of how we work are not trivial matters.

Joshua Klein at "The Workbench Diary" asked an important question on his blog the other day. "Why Do You Choose To Use Handtools?" He'll pick the answer he likes best and give the winner a very nice chisel.

I don't need to enter, I don't need the chisel. (I like the chisel, but believe someone more in need could make better use of it, I already have a few this size) Still I felt the question is important enough to address.

I make use of a hand full of power tools in the shop. I own a tablesaw, bandsaw, and drill press but they DO NOT own me. I use them but am not beholden to them for any task, (well if I'm honest I do appreciate re-sawing stock on the band saw, but I can do it by hand if necessary) I used to make many shop decisions based on the needs of machinery set up. Now I dictate the order of things and my time is more creative studio and less factory feel.

Hand tools are my emancipation. My Foundation. They connect to my right and wrong way of doing things.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Intimidation At The Workbench

It's easy to sit high in the saddle like John Wayne and act brave and cavalier about everything you do, but that would be just what John Wayne did for a living, Acting. Feeling intimidated by the project you're working on is a real, honest to god, thing we all have to face sometimes.

If you're not facing it, then you're not pushing yourself, or the art/craft, far enough, but you have to admit there's a problem before you face it.

It may sound ridiculous to some, but I have a hiccup when it comes to chairs.

That makes this book I'm working on extra interesting because there are three types of chairs depicted in the Morgan Bible, one to match up with each style identified in Penelope Eames book "Medieval Furniture" A turned chair, a faldstuhl, (AKA Sella Curulis, or "X" chair) and the chair I've been in the middle of for a good long while, a boarded chair.

I worked on it feverishly before the snow fell last year and to my current regret, once I allowed myself to pause, worries and excuses to hold off moving forward began to pile up.

I had the day off from the hospital this past Thursday and I used it, (and the help of my youngest daughter) to clean up the shop. It had been trashed after a bevy of home repairs and non-furniture woodworking projects.

After getting everything back in place, I sat down in my worry chair and just took it all in. My eyes kept falling on the turned chair legs I'd hidden behind my tool chest. I swear they were looking right back at me. After a little internal argument I collected all the parts I've cut and prepared for the piece and laid them out on my workbench.

Time to get off my ass and move forward with more than writing.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, June 22, 2015

Want To Know What I'm Waiting For?

3D printed moulding planes.

It could be a big thing!!

I know, you think the plastic would wear out quickly, be soft and difficult.

The perfect plastic already exists. I help put it in nearly everyday I work in the hospital helping Orthopedic surgeons implant total joint replacements into hips, knees, shoulders, elbows, and ankles. Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene, laboratory tested to hold up to twenty years of continuous pressure, friction, and wear. It does have issues with exposure to UV radiation but something like a carbon fiber skin would solve that and and maybe other issues.  

I'm not the engineer I'm standing in as the idea guy. 

Old, historic planes of the past, scanned in and reproduced. Impervious to moisture and humidity changes yet inexpensive enough you can still drill a hang hole through them and feel zero guilt. CNC plane blades could be matched up to the computed profile exactly, no fine tuning, no guess work. Just straight usable planes cheep, customized, and delivered right to your shop. 

Hell you could probably get them from a vending machine at your local Home Depot or Lowes!

With this technology how cheep can a full set of hollows and rounds get? Think about it. Skewed blades. Custom coloring. Logos. Customization of profiles. Customization of bed angles to deal with difficult grains and woods. Print on demand. Thousands of "historic" profiles to select from.

I want in on the ground floor of this. Whoever picks this up and runs with it owes me at least one of every plane they produce so lets make this happen folks. Are any of the Chinese manufacturing corporations I get a dozen (or more) emails a week from really listening? Time to put your Yuan where your mouth is.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Run! Don't just walk from the mistakes of your past. 
Don't forget them, but don't let them hang their anchor chain around your neck and drag you under. 

Exorcise the demon and move forward. 

Ratione et Passionis

Sunday, June 7, 2015

When Is A Chair Not A Chair?

One of the frustrations I have experienced in many years of trying to research medieval furniture is the contrasting convictions of those who are supposed to be experts. For some things I wish the whole lot of them would come together at a convention, examine each other's evidence, and converge on a resolution of accepted truth.

There is no more controversial furniture item than the simple chair and the question of what it was; not to mention who had one and who did not.

A Peter Galbert Windsor Chair. A form I long to figure out for myself. 

On one hand you have an accepted expert in furniture history and styles, John Gloag who writes in his book "A Social History of Furniture Design from BC 1300 to AD 1960" writes the following.

"Early inventories and wills, of which many survive, disclose how scantily homes were furnished; even wealthy citizens owned little besides a trestle table, with boards that could stand in a corner or against a wall except at meal times, a few benches and three legged stools, for chairs were a rarity, and in the richest houses there was seldom more than one, which was used exclusively by the master of the household, not an easy chair, but something massive and stately, too heavy to be moved about and usually kept in place. As mentioned in chapter one, basketwork chairs were almost certainly in common use; but they had no more social prestige than a three legged stool." 

I won't go into the contradictions included even in these couple sentences. Instead I will just point out the difficulty involved in even defining what a chair is and isn't and the apophasis of talking about a piece of furniture that seemed to hardly exist.

A chair shown in the left background of Vittore Carpaccio's painting St. Augustine In His Study. (C. 1502) Pretty far out and space age for being a relatively new form of furniture. 

Taken in contrast are the words of Frances and Joseph Giles in their book, "Life In A Medieval Castle"

"A peasant's possessions consisted of three or four benches and stools, a trestle table, a chest,one or two iron or brass pots, a little pottery ware, wooden bowls, cups, and spoons, linen towels, wool blankets, iron tools, and most important, his livestock."

I will admit, no explicit mention of chairs, but the peasant's worldly goods appear to sound pretty similar to Gloag's description of the wealthy. It's not the standard Monty Python view of medieval peasants digging around in the mud and filth.

Boarded Chair shown in the Morgan Bible

The plot thickens as Penelope Eames writes in the best and most completely researched book on medieval furniture I've found  "Medieval Furniture."

"The use of important seats was not the sole prerogative of rank but was conditioned by social makeup at a particular occasion and individuals, including peasants, in their own homes might occupy a distinctive seat which they would not aspire to in a feudal lord's hall."

Here we have a connection to a "distinctive seat" in most homes. An echo of Gloag's find of a Master's Chair.

Faldstuhl or Sella Curulis shown in the Morgan Bible

I feel strongly that the jury is still out on the existence of a medieval chair and the true issue is the considerations in defining the object itself. If a chair is only four legs and a back, then it is fairly simple to make. (Though I know enough to understand simple things can be difficult to perfect.) When I think about it my mind wanders to Jennie Alexander and her book "Make A Chair From A Tree." where she writes:

"You need very few tools to go into the woods and bust a chair out of a tree. You could get by with an ax, a saw, a drawknife, a whittling knife, and a brace and bit."

One of Jennie Alexander's chairs. 

Chairs are the most important piece of furniture connected to the human experience. There is deep reverence and symbolism piled on their form, from a gilded throne of kings to the threadbare upholstery and memories covering "dad's favorite chair." They hold the origins to the phrases "Chairman of the Board," and "Seat of Authority," that convey their relevance to social norms. They are the first thing we look for after a long day of work and need a few minutes off our feet and they allow us to easily gather in groups to join in a meal, or a prayer.

Chairs are important.

Chairs have always been important . . .

. . . .to everyone.

Turned Chair shown in the Morgan Bible

One of the best things about limiting my furniture to the pieces shown in the Morgan Bible is I don't have to wade into a debate over whether or not Jim The Theoretical Medieval Peasant had something in his house he called his chair. The artisan's of the bible have gifted me with chairs to build. In fact three different types to decipher and build.

Once they're done I won't have to debase myself by sitting upon a lowly bench, basketwork chair, or three legged stool.

Three legged staked backstool built by Chris Schwarz. Definitely, probably not a chair. 

Ratione et Passionis