Sunday, January 29, 2017

Developing an Eye

Chris Schwarz has written about it several times before and I agree that the best education in furniture design you can get is to look at furniture. Lots and lots of it. Books and books, web page after web page, antique gallery and museum exhibit, old stuff and new stuff, it seems I never get tired of looking and studying. A few weeks ago I took my family for an overnight trip up to the Twin Cities to visit The Minneapolis Institute Of Art. A place I've not visited in more than 20 years.

I'd found out, almost too late, about a curated exhibit on the life and influence of Martin Luther. Though I was baptized and raised in the Lutheran church I made plans to attend once I heard there was several pieces of furniture from the 16th century as part of the multi-room display. Considering the book I am writing (and re-writing) on medieval furniture I felt a moral obligation to travel and see these pieces, There is a lot of time between 13th c. France and 16th c. Germany but just having a chance to view the oldest pieces I've been able to see in person was too much to pass up.

The display from the apartment where Martin Luther translated the bible from Latin to German.
I love subversives of all shapes, sizes, and flavors. 

A Kastentisch, an interesting piece that combines a table with a desk.
The table top should lift or slide off to access the box underneath which may have drawers
or dividers. 

A 16th c. window seat that was probably not original to the Martin Luther room as the
window is wider than the seat. Still from the same time period and the same house.
I really, really like this piece and wish I had an excuse to build one. 

There were other things to see; great paintings and art, but importantly, the period furniture rooms and a surprise. I have a big thing for Charles Rholf's furniture and this fall front desk is my favorite. To get to see it in person was so cool. For some I could equate the experience of having your favorite celebrity or pro athlete sit down at the restaurant table next to yours.

Still, the purpose of this trip, and of my time spent looking at many other pieces of furniture is to inform my eyes and aesthetic. To get a grasp on what makes a piece successful and what can make it mediocre. To be able to make those decisions myself over having to listen to someone else. (It also helps in critiquing your own work) Let me explain what I saw cruising through the internet this morning.

Jack Plane's website Pegs and 'Tails is one of the must read blogs for woodworkers. The insights and workmanship displayed there are on a level I aspire to. One of my favorite things done there is a series called "Picture This," where an unique piece of period furniture is focused on and discussed. This morning I read the installment "Picture This CII" about a whimsically unique windsor chair.

From the seat up I love most everything about this work. The broad bent mid rail, The crest at the top. The way the rungs flow. Yes I can see some places I'd like to refine, but mostly it's close to perfect. The seat is circular, which I can come around to, but the legs of the chair is where this piece runs off the rails.

To my eye they are heavy and the splay is not lively enough. I like the beads turned below the rails, but I wonder if the lack of rails might make this more successful and align the dramatic scene above the seat with the foundation below.

There's probably only one way to really find out. . . add another one to my bucket list.

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Mentors . . .

The guys over at Mortise & Tenon Magazine recently asked people to post about their woodworking mentor(s) as part of National Mentoring Month. I wanted to participate of course, but had to step back from my initial enthusiasm. Figuring out my frame of reference took a little bit of thought.

At first it was easy for me to confuse a Mentor with one who has Influence. You read and hear from musicians all the time about their Influences. Guitar players will cite Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, or Eddie Van Halen or others as influencers on their art and though the end results might owe homage, sometimes clear homage too, there is a difference between influence and mentoring.

Mentoring, in my estimation, requires direct teaching of a specific subject, probably hands on and in person. I have a hundred influencers on the craft decisions I make, without a doubt the greatest influencers for me personally would be: (1) my father for whom making and repairing was an economical reality instead of a joyful craft, though that was my childhood and he has recently been rediscovering his shop and making sawdust and metal shavings for the joy of it. and (2) some of the surgeons I've worked for over the years and the single minded intent with which they attack a physical problem using mixture of experience, inference, and dexterity. But parsing back to woodworking directly, the list of influencers is broad, but direct mentors is sparse.

I never took a single shop class in school. I've yet to directly participate in a woodworking class in my adult life. I'm lucky enough that my phone calls are answered by guys like Don Williams, Chris Schwarz and Mike Siemsen and they've all given good advice but I try not to bother them until I've paired down to a finite conundrum. Though these circumstances do not leave me Mentorless by the Mississippi.

A pair of crappy bookshelves (I know) at least 3/4s full of woodworking knowledge. This doesn't show the piles I have sitting on either side of my laptop as I'm writing this. 

Books. I was raised in a house full of books, I have always kept a house full of books, I feel at home in a library brimming with books. Yes the internet and the power of Google is wonderful, but it isn't a book. Since I decided to play in this woodworking game for the long haul I have been collecting it's books. There are more books on furniture and woodworking out there than you can imagine and most are not difficult to come by. A little patience and flexibility with online auction and used book sites can bring great bounty. I started small and ramped up to where I was adding 30 - 40 books a year, now I'm ramping down and becoming more selective, but at a recent count I had well over 200 books on woodworking and furniture (with some related subjects like blacksmithing) and the library grows a little more every month.

It may be weird, but I consider this pile of ink on paper to be my true mentor. The collection is my first "Go To" for answering questions, inspiring or informing the next project, or day dreaming over as I revise my woodworking project bucket list. I can often find what I'm searching for without bothering or being beholden to anyone.

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Saws Of Chartres Cathedral

I need a wealthy patron. Someone excited enough about my work and research they're interested in funding my modest lifestyle plus a generous budget for my clinically diagnosed BAD (Book Acquisition Disorder.)

After a bit of a break as we upheaved life, home and workshop around again I have again rolled myself back into finalizing the research and writing of my book on the Medieval Furniture of the Morgan Bible and I'm finding maybe the step back was good. I never stopped thinking about it, I just stopped looking at it everyday and that time has given me two gifts. First it's allowed me to re-approach the work I've done with a fresh eye. I'd done a lot of footwork, tracking down books and articles, gathering notes, connecting dots, but now, notes I wrote are offering fresh insights and things I might have missed. 

Second, and more importantly, the time has allowed me to find the book. It took me a while to realize anyone willing to apply ass to chair and fingers to keyboard can write step by step instructions on sticking boards together but that doesn't make a book - that makes IKEA instructions. I've been able to solidify the string of my truth that trusses tight the parts into, well if it's not a story then we'll call it a strong argument. 

That string seems to have become a lit fuse and result will be sparse updates here, unfortunately this is a continuation of the recent trend. 

As a peace offering I'm sharing some photos I found tonight while looking at one of my primary collaborating sources, The Chartres Cathedral and some interesting saws. 

The sharp teeth of war and revolution has chewed up many touchstones to Europe's past. If not eradicating them completely, then leaving them scarred and much changed, but the Chartres Cathedral is one of the exceptions, surviving mostly intact from it's early to mid 13th century construction. It has many details in the stained glass and stone friezes just waiting for the curious eye to discover. 

There is a fantastic resource documenting nearly every inch of the structure online thanks to the University of Pittsburgh and Dr. Alison Stones. You can visit it HERE. just start punching terms into the search function. Mind-blowing.  

Is that a saw or an Anime Sword??  It appears to be St. Simon (the Zealot) one of the Apostles. He is often depicted with a large saw symbolizing one of the traditions of his martyrdom. I keep wondering about having one of these saws made. If for no other reason than to experience the use.

Better yet (and more interesting) this scene showing construction of a cathedral and one of the earliest representations of a bow saw I can remember seeing.

Even the detail in the twisted tension cording is there. Standard saw bench ripping body posture with the head dipped to really make sure you're following that layout line. 

This shit is just fascinating to me. As close as possible to a photograph from the past. Open to interpretation - yes. But then again what isn't? 

Ratione et Passionis

PS. The Chartres Cathedral has shown me some interesting tools before. Check out a very modern looking claw hammer HERE.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Seductive Power Of Hand Tools

There are many reasons I lean heavily into hand tool woodworking. Yes I have and use several stationary power tools, but there a word hand tools free me from and I love them for it.


With primarily a power tool mentality you fall into the activity of production and arrange your workflow accordingly. I set up the tablesaw for a certain cut and I want to make all the possible cuts using the same set up, the same measurements. To redial in precise measurements can be a big time sink.

Instead with my hand tools I can skip around the process of building with no real consequences. For example I built a small run of four little dovetailed pine boxes

I milled all the parts close using my table saw. This did help ensure all the sides were the same width and length. After milling I touched all the surfaces with a hand plane and started the process of building each box.

As a result of the space I have and the use of hand tools instead of doing things in production way. Say - cutting all my dovetails for all four boxes first THEN moving on to chiseling all four boxes joints to the line THEN grabbing all four boxes and   . . .  you see the cycle.

Instead I was able to take a single box from dovetail cuts to glued up carcass and start over again without creating any delay or errors by changing up my machinery.

Why jump around the process like this? For me that's a couple easy answers.

1. It keeps me fresh. I don't get burned out cutting dovetail after dovetail. When I do this I can see the quality in my work degrade over time but changing out operations allows me to tackle it with fresh eyes after a bit of a break and I believe my work is better because of that.

2. It keeps me involved. It's like the difference between hanging drywall and taping/mudding drywall. When you're hanging drywall your progress is evident, a half hour ago there was bare studs now there is something that looks like a wall - satisfying, with taping and mudding you are making small incremental differences that aren't as satisfying to the whole picture. Important but not as visually impacting. This trade off works the same. Throughout the day I can see nearly finished box carcasses pile up on the moving pad. I know I'm making progress and I can consider whether the most recently finished box is better or worse than the previous and try to perfect the steps on the one to come.

3. I don't lose time changing operations because I am the limiting factor. Because I'm the machine driving the tools I can just mark a line and saw a line and I don't have to worry about losing a set up or a measurement, Changing or resetting up a jig or configuration. If I had a small space with only a six foot bench this would be different, but as it is I can saw my dovetails in a moxon vice, grab the boards and move to a chiseling station to clean up to the lines, then move to a leg vice to cut the corresponding joint side before moving back to the chisel station, checking the fit, then moving to another area by the glue pot to stick things together.

I would never trade in my hand tools because of the freedom they assist me in achieving in the shop. it is so emancipating to mark a line and be able to saw or plane to it confidently.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Boarded Chest V: The Start Of A Vision.

The journey you take as an artist or craftsman (or whatever your prefered nomenclature may be) always makes me think of the movie "Back To The Future," when Doc Brown explains alternate timelines to Marty. Different things effect the timeline creating alternate futures. Different influences at different times can push your work and growth in a thousand different ways. Your work is the sum of decisions and influences as they compile into your timeline of work. You keep grasping, and pulling towards something that feels most like YOU.

A slight change in the timeline, perhaps seeing Wendel Castle's work instead of Peter Follansbee's when you were ripe for inspiration, the outcome could be very different when it comes to executing YOUR work. The things you create that feel like they bubble up intrinsically as opposed to extra-corporeal pressures.The artistic equivalent of "The Butterfly Effect."

People say they love carving or turning, and I can do both, but I don't love them any more (or less) than I love cutting dovetails or flattening a board or sharpening a handsaw. I love these things for what they allow me to accomplish in a final product. This boarded chest project is the exclamation point on a recent body of work that has allowed me to solidify a vision to explore until I exhaust of it and find new fertile ground.

Simple pieces of furniture masquerading as something fancy and fantastic. Simple with a surprise.

So here are the final pics of the boarded chest I chose to name "Start Of A Vision."

You will notice the till lifts out from the body of the chest to reveal a false bottom and a hidden niche. 

If you want to see the collection of posts leading to this finished product, you can find them HERE.

Thank you.

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Boarded Chest IV

I don't pretend to be extensively traveled or even all that educated. I do spend a lot of time buying and looking at books on woodworking and furniture. Once you begin to look you realize just how many there are out there. Many of the old ones are written by art historians and can be disappointing from a maker/woodworker perspective but I learn something from all of them.

In the shop I had a lid to solve for the boarded chest build and I chose a path a bit unconventional going with a frame and panel. I've seen frame and panel on joined chests and certainly on traditional tool chests, but I cannot recall seeing one tacked to a simple boarded chest. Still, their stability over a flat, cleated panel or even breadboard ends made it my go to choice and kind of fit the theme of a simple chest impersonating something more elegant.

I constructed the outer frame first then used a set of pinch sticks to establish the measurements for the inside panel.

Instead of making a raised panel I ran the rabbets along the front edges and then planed two simple beads into the long edges of the remaining field. Just like the door panel shown as figures T & S from "Doormaking and Window-Making" from Lost Art Press.

 I failed to get a good shot of the panel "in the white" Here is a close up of one of the final shots the chest panel after black paint and lacquer.

It also seems I failed to gather any photos of building the lift out till. It is a simple affair of rabbets and nails with a show face made from curly red oak. There will be more to show of that and the secret hiding place I added in the next, and final instalment on this build.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Ass, Gas or Grass. Nobody Rides For Free.

Recently I picked up a pair of match planes from Josh at Hyperkitten Tool Co. I can not recommend working with enough. He always has great user stuff for reasonable prices, responsive to emails and quick shipping practices. I've been looking for the right set of these at the right time for a while.

The planes were made by A. Kelly & Ashfield Mass probably around the mid 1800's and showed up in fantastic shape.

Match planes help you easily cut a tongue and groove joint for edge joining boards. They are common planes but finding them relatively clean and unabused can be a challenge especially if they're sized for the always very popular 3/4" thick board. Without them I made this joint very rarely because the other hand tool way to do it involves a rabbet plane and plow plane. (yes there are other ways too.)

I knew the planes I ordered from Josh were made for wider stock and sometimes you can get away with it on thinner stock.

Groove plane with the skate removed.
These just wouldn't work on 3/4" thick stock, No problem because sistering a thin addition to the fence would push the cut over and make it work. Not to mention cover over the small amount of damage to the toe of the plane's fence.

I do need to stop for a second and point out the fantastic molding detail above the skates bed. You just can't get better than the details in old planes.

I added a thin slip of oak, about 1/8" thick, that centered the groove on 3/4" stock and I added a matching slip to the tongue plane. I used some small brass screws counter sunk to hold the slip in place so I can remove it and use the plane on thicker stock when the need arises.

I understand some may have trouble with my decision to make small screw holes in these old planes for my own dirty purposes. It wasn't done without consideration to that matter but there's another truth. I am a tool user not a collector. I have no problem truing up the bottoms of my wooden try plane or sharpening the teeth of my old saws, Every tool in my chest has to do it's job and earn it's keep and I have to do my job to maintain them and keep making things with them. As much as I appreciate the details and elegance of these old planes, they have to be useful to me. There are no freeloaders here.

Truth be told these match planes have paid their due twice now. One in usability, but the second in inspiration. I've been planing a kerfing plane and frame saw build for a while and struggling with how I wanted to execute the body of the kerfing plane. Using the groove plane in this set felt just like I thought a kerfing plane should, so I used it as template.

Kerfing planes coming soon!

Ratione et Passionis