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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Dutch Tool Chest: All The Fixings

Building the carcass of a Dutch Tool Chest in a days time isn't that overwhelming of a prospect. I feel like any experienced woodworker should be able to pull It off. It's deciding how to trick out the tool storage inside that takes the most creativity and time. Lucky for me I waited around a while after Chris introduced this project and was able to look at what other woodworkers in the online communities had done and steal borrow their ideas!

One of the things I didn't like about Chris's chest was the joinery saw storage on the floor of the upper cavity. Looking around I found a solution used by Marilyn over at She Works Wood. She opened a recess in the back of the shelf which allowed her saws to hang and pass their length through to unused space in the case below. 

I popped one of the back boards off and modified the floor of the upper case, sawing an inch off the back. Then ran two strips of wood with a spacer in between supported to the floor on either end. I already like using this style of saw storage, it's how my joinery saws store in my traditional chest. 

Then in front of the saws I ran a strip of walnut with 1/2" holes spaced every 1 1/4" on center. This strip holds dividers, screwdrivers, awls, and nail sets.

Many people use the Tite Mark style marking gauges, but I have to admit I'm very happy using wooden beam gauges. The drawback is the wooden gauges are bulkier to store. This required constructing a specific storage rack just for them.

One of the big decisions I made related to plane storage. The bottom of my traditional tool chest is full of my metal bodied vintage Stanley planes (#3 - #7) and my wooden body planes have always had to live unprotected on open shelves. I'm plane polygamous and switch back and forth between Woodies and Baileys depending on the situation and my mood. Since I was making another tool chest meant I could protect my woodies from dust and rust a bit better. 

I used some small brass plated nails to tack down some 1/4" square walnut strips around the woodies footprints. This keeps the planes from sliding around when the chest is in transport, and keeps me honest and consistent in storing them. Plus with the strips simply tacked down, if I need to trade to my metal bodied planes I can pry them up and change them.

I upsized the dimensions of the chest a bit when I built it. I needed to fit my long wooden joiner plane. This meant there was a lot more space in the lower cavity than needed. I toyed with simply inserting another shelf to break it up and add storage, but the more I thought about it. The more I wanted to make a drawer that would hold, and protect, my joinery planes in transport. That meant a side hung drawer.

On a 1x12" off cut I laid out the size of the drawer and the spaces set aside for my plow plane, router plane, and rabbit plane. This also left some room upfront to store some other items. 

When it came down to a drawer front, I had to show off a bit. I love the idea of opening this plain painted chest exterior and finding something special beneath. I sized a section of drawer front out of oak and started a quick morning of carving

I used a pattern from a 17th century box found in the Chipstone Collection. I've carved this pattern before and I'm really enamored with it.

With the carving done it was time to cut the joinery. Dovetails "blind of one eye" and dado in dividers for the joinery planes. The drawer is side hanging and I cut the slots in the sides before glue up as well.

Everything turned out with a tight fit and with a little packing shouldn't move around at all in transit.  It was also pretty amazing how much else I was able to fit in the front compartment.

I added some runners inside the router planes compartment before I glued it together. I think I could eventually add a small till or lift out tray and it was easier to add this support before glue up over stabbing it in a tight space later.

I think another coat of paint over the outside is needed. I used the grey because when I was done with the carcass it was something I had on hand. It's ok, but I think I might have to go with black. Yup, gonna go black. 

Once I was done I had some pics of the drawer up on social media and after fielding a handful of questions about what and where I stored inside the chest. I decided the best course of action was to shoot a quick tour of the chest.

The traveling Dutch Tool Chest is done. On to bigger and better things. 

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Oh The Saw-Geekery Of It All

There's that moment when you're working on a project for a while. You're dialing in the details, creeping up on perfection, and you realize you're too close for clarity. You've weighed too many variables to avoid doubt. 

Too close for clarity. 
The solution calls for a fresh set of eyes. Every so often I am fortunate enough to get a call from my friend Mark Harrell over at Bad Axe Toolworks to act as that set of eyes . . . or maybe just hands, because with Mark's saws I could probably saw to the line with my eyes closed. 

I wouldn't dare to . . . the threat of traumatic amputation looms too large. His saws are damn sharp. 

If you spend just a few minutes visiting with Mark about the design in his saws you discover there is not one detail that's an accident. Consideration in everything. The folded back to tension and re-tension the saw plate, The design of the handles, based on treasured and tested antiques, but dialed in to just the right degree of grip and sized to fit different hands. The specs of the saw plate, thickness, teeth per inch, amount of set, the method of setting the teeth . . .  

For christ sakes he's dialing in the plates to optimize reduction in the heat build up that occurs in the act of sawing. The heat can warp a plate temporarily and Mark just expects his saws to be able to do more. The wood selection for the handles and the finish options on the fasteners is even a consideration to make these saws more desirable. Every one of my (eventually) four saws uses a different species of wood for the handle. It just makes it easier to be sure which I'm pulling from the tool chest. 

It's all thought out with a purpose. And I'm only flashing on the surface of what I understand. Talking saws with Mark must be akin to talking chess with Garry Kasperov. 

He gives me a call and I make time because I know it's always something special. This was no exception. The final decisions were being made for his new take on the carcass saw. 

How much more basic does it get than a carcass saw? You take a backsaw, usually a 12" saw plate, file the teeth crosscut and go to town. My Bad Axe carcass saw follows this recipe, I've used it for years and never thought once about using anything different. I had my carcass saw needs covered so why go through a re-design phase in something that works great. 

Because you might come up with something that works better!

I know, . . hold on. The process started with a saw Mark calls the Stiletto. I've never asked Mark to authenticate my theory, but here's how I see it rolling out. It starts with competition. There are many more tool makers on the scene today than when he decided making saws could be a good idea. Competition is a good thing for those of us making sawdust. Everyone wants to sell us a dovetail saw, because all of us want to buy a dovetail saw. 

The influence from The Cult of Perfect Hand-cut Dovetails is strong. I understand they're a subsidiary of the Illuminati.  

What does an innovative maker do? He steps back and rethinks his dovetail saw from the teeth up. He brings years of obsessive saw-geekery and experimentation to bear, and produces a fantastic saw. The Stiletto works so well, but I, personally, was able to resist. I cut a lot of dovetails, but time and experience in the shop has opened my mind to what saws are most important and I use my carcass saw at least three times as much as my dovetail saw. 

Then I found out Mark was bringing the same redesign thinking to the carcass saw and now I was intrigued. Last week, I had the prototype Bayonet (because what else would accompany a Stiletto?) put in my hands and set at a bench with a pile of dried hard oak offcuts to tear into. I ran that saw until my shoulder was sore. 

The final decision was on the prefered saw plate thickness. I ran one, then waited as James (One of the Bad Axe Spec Ops) to switch out to a thinner plate. 

I'm not sure he knew I was taking his pic as he worked. I hope it's OK.
First time I've met James but it was a pleasure. If you can follow him
on Instagram @0352devildog.
If I remember right we changed from a 0.02 thick plate to a 0.018 plate. To my mind it sounded ridiculous that 0.002 (that's half the average thickness of a human hair) would make a difference. I was wrong. 

The thicker plate worked well made the cut, moved through the cut, and sold me on the saw, but moving to the 0.018 plate was like hitting the perfect pitch in harmony. Suddenly the saw was singing in the cut. You could see it in the smile on Mark's face too. 

"Yup, that's the winner!" 

It's inspiring. The work of a man obsessed with finite detail, a ground up redesign of a workshop staple, and the ability to carry out consistency in those details. Every time I visit him I try and steal just a little of his work ethic to bring back to my shop. 

The day wasn't all Bayonet. I spent quite a while working with the Stiletto too, enough that I couldn't walk away from that upgrade either. Before I left I'd shaken Mark's hand on acquiring both. They're in his quene now and I'll have them in my hands and at my bench in a few weeks. 

I use these saws and use them hard. Dovetails to dados I cut all my joinery by hand, and this is where the Bayonet really grabbed my attention. I'm not sure if it's the lower profile to the plate, the 14" length, the hang of the handle, or a combination plus more. A carcass saw to me is more than a finer crosscut. It handles dados, tenon shoulders and sliding dovetails. The Bayonet really feels specifically built with joinery work in mind and I love that. 

Standing on the shoulders of a historic product, with all the things that made it great, yet raising it up to a higher level. 

I call Mark a friend, it's easy to call him a friend, but even if I hated his guts, his saws are the ones I want to rely on day in and day out in my shop. I've tried a lot of different backsaws, nearly all of them (including legendary makers long out of business). Some come close and I'd consider just as good. None are an improvement over Mark's. 

You don't have to believe me, You should just give them a try for yourself. 

More news when the new recruits arrive in the shop. 

Ratione et Passionis