Saturday, May 28, 2011

Setting the Tone.

A couple weeks ago I was reading an entry in Peter Follansbee's blog, Joiner's Notes and I had to chuckle as he wrote the line "just what the web needs - another knucklehead writing about cutting dovetails." OK maybe I have an odd sense of humor but I found it funny because I guess I can't argue with him. There is a lot on the internet out there about cutting dovetails by every method conceivable, and though I'm not completely innocent about writing about them, on some level I have always shied away from going into the standard "This is the best way to cut dovetails" take on a blog post.

Instead I've tried to just illustrate my day in the shop mostly in pictures, like THIS post, or just wrote my way through the process as I tend to do when I'm documenting a day in the shop, like HERE. But I don't think it's the fear of being another knucklehead that has kept me from writing about them, I think there are a couple other reasons. The biggest being that I'm no Rob Cosman or Frank Klausz I will not dazzle you with blinding feats of speed, I'm not slow at cutting them, but I have no desire to refine myself to such a high level. The other reason is I think you see dovetails written about everywhere and though cutting them is one of my favorite ways to spend the day in the shop, I just didn't feel like I had much to offer in the way of a new voice.
Marking one board off the cuts made on the other.
One of the cool things about writing this blog is getting to visit with other woodworkers from around the world. Sometimes I get simple comments, sometimes good conversation, and sometimes I get questions. A little bit ago I fielded a reader's questions about laying out dovetails. He was able to find a whole mess of us knuckleheads talking about splitting the line when sawing and arguing things like pins or tails first, and whether to chisel, drill, or saw out your waste, but he couldn't readily find someone saying, "Here is how I decide how to layout my dovetails before I cut them."

Now before everyone floods the comments with 1000 links, I know the information is out there, I did a little searching and I found some info scattered about, but I have to admit I didn't feel that what I found was overly clear, illustrative, or even discussing in depth some thoughts on the WHY of dovetail layout. I think the truth of it is that the decisions made in laying out your dovetails is more of a philosophical debate than it is a specific skill set. Layout can and should be design and situation specific
Chopping the waste from a half blind dovetail.

The question posed to me of how and why I choose my dovetail layouts intrigued me. The issue of the how and why took my memories back several years to when I started seriously playing around with sawdust. I decided I wanted to build furniture, and I had read enough woodworking magazines to believe that the perfect dovetail joint was akin to the Holy Grail, I know better now, good design is the Holy Grail for me now, but I think we each choose our own specific Grail Quests to fit what we need at that moment in time.

At that time the quest was dovetails and I desperately wanted to learn to make them because I naively equated the ability to cut dovetails with all around proficiency, and I just could not get them figured out. I tired and failed, tried and failed, over and over again until I was dismayed and discusted with the process. I was a poor sailor out on the treacherous seas of sawdust and dovetails were the Siren that lead me to repeatedly crash upon the rocks of failure. Now I know I'm not necessarily a fast learner sometimes but I believe I was a little handicapped from the beginning.
The zen moment that is splitting the line sawing. I love using my Moxon Twin Screw Vise for cutting dovetails, It's become one of those "gotta have" bench accessories for me.
For one, I started learning woodworking watching Norm Abrams, He is still a hero of my and I respect him a ton, but in my budding, learning mind, I really thought to make good dovetails you needed to own a Leigh Dovetail Jig. The trouble was I didn't have between 500 and 800 dollars to spend. So I bought a super cheep dovetailing router jig for 20 dollars, and I soon understood why the Leigh cost so much.

So I tried cutting them by hand, which, at the time, I thought was an inferior way of doing it, but I was desperate to prove to myself I was proficient. I did some reading and tried to study up as best as I could for the task. I collected the tools I was supposed to need and followed the mystical recipe for laying them out just like I read it in my joinery book. I worked my way through cutting a set of tails and began to go about transferring the marks to the pin board only to stop myself. First I was confused, then slowly the reality of my stupidity dawned on me. I had paid so much attention to "laying out" the spacing by the book that I had lost myself and cut the tails upside down.

Recreation of the botched tail cuts, go ahead and laugh a little, you'll feel better, I know I

A pine board has never flown so far and so fast...

Thank God I missed the window...

I gave up on the idea that I could dovetail for a couple years after that and instead drooled over those ridiculous miter lock router bits. Thank God I never had money and opportunity in the same place when it came to those.

Frank Klausz was my savior, In the October 2005 issue of Popular Woodworking called "Frank Klausz's Final Word On Dovetails" It was very simple and straight forward and it finally gave me the confidence to pick it up again, this time with success. Did my success come from the time I had spent in the shop actually getting more proficient? Did it come from reading his article? Was it Divine intervention? Ok I'm pretty sure the last one was not part of the equation. Maybe it was just that I was ready, at any rate I finally cut a set of good dovetails by hand, they weren't perfect, or even up  to my standards today, but I had done it by God. Grabbed that bull and held on for the full 8 seconds. It felt great to exorcise that demon.

A couple of case sides for the plane storage shelf marked, prepped, and ready to cut,
Maybe I enjoy cutting dovetails so much now a days because it was such a struggle for me at that time. Because of the high price and self worth I equated with them. If I were teaching someone to cut them today the first thing I would stress is to not put them up on such a pedestal. It is an important joint and an important skill, but so are the other varieties of joint that don't get the same modern day fanfare the dovetail does.
I spent a day in the shop laying out and cutting some sample joints. Some were layouts I hadn't even tried before.
So what I mean by "Setting the Tone" is a little pre-warning so everyone understands what I'm getting into for a while here. If you haven't guessed it, I'm starting a short series on dovetail layouts, what I've learned, how I lay them out, and a little on my philosophy when it comes to them. Like most things I like to make the process simple and straightforward and I hope I do a decent job of translating that.
Spending the day cutting these joints was an excellent exercise, a good meditation on the skills I had began to take for granted, I recommend the exercise to anybody.
When it comes to the project I've been working on, the Plane Storage Shelf, have no worries I have made progress and you will be hearing updates on that as well.

Enjoy the Memorial Day Weekend.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Shop Made Texture Punches for Carving

Well, considering I jsut opened my rather sizable mouth writing about tools and the decision process when it comes to whether to skip it, buy it or make it, I figured I had better write a little about a couple of quick tools I made last week.

I was headed out to do a weekend living history demonstration and I decided to set up a woodworking set up for the first time. Instead of doing something big I decided to just focus on carving techniques I had been picking up recently from watching Peter Follansbee's new instructional DVD. The demo worked out great and I had a lot of fun.

As I was getting myself put together, gathering tools and printing patterns, I came to the realization that I was short a couple of essential tools, Peter uses a waffle textured punch sometimes on his backgrounds and he also has a couple different shaped punches for detail touches, a heart, a cross, a circle. I thought to myself, really they wouldn't be all that hard to make. and you know what, I was right.

I dug through the tool chest for some used up punches I knew where in there. I didn't get rid of them because I was pretty sure the good steel would come in handy someday. Among the pile I found an old cold chisel, a center punch, and a small alignment bar. Perfect.

I attached my small machinist vise on the bench and went to work with the angle grinder shortening the center punch and the cold chisel.

I just love those pictures of the grinding and the sparks coming off the steel. Makes me think a little of fireworks. I can hear the shop fire safety patrol in the wings and I don't want you guys to worry, I am very aware of what a spark in sawdust can do and I am very careful about clean up and safety, before, during, and after.

I smoothed over some edges on the bench grinder and with a bastard file. Now I needed to make some grooves in the faces. I could have started them all with a hacksaw but I opted for the rotary tool with a heavy duty grinding/cutting disk on it.

I clamped the steel in the vise and made a series of lines going one direction. Then I turned the piece again and made perpendicular lines. The most difficult thing was trying to remember to keep the lines a little course and not too close together.With all the grooves roughed into place I deepened them with a triangular saw sharpening file.

I then jointed the face of the punch lightly with a bastard file and I had something good I could work with.

I decided that a cross shaped detail punch would be the best place to start, besides the pattern I chose to start with had cross shaped detail punch marks so it seemed to make the decision easy. I took the longer alignment bad. clamped it in the vise and used the rotary tool grinding wheel to make some longitudinal grooves. Turning the tool to cut four compass points. Then I again used the triangle shaped file to give a final shape to the pattern.

I wasn't perfectly careful, I was just making up how I was going to do this as I went along, so the cross didn't turn out symetrical, but in all honesty I kind of like the way some points are fatter than others, it adds a little bit of interest, and there's no reason for people to think that I didn't intend to make it that way, I mean it's not like I'm writing about the mistake and posting it up on the internet right? Oops.

So I made some test punches in a scrap of pine and I was pretty happy with the results.

I had some scrap oak and I did some punches on there too, I wasn't as happy with the impression but I figures it would just have to do. I used them on the carving I did during the demo and I was using red oak, not the green oak seasoned for a few weeks like Peter gets to use. I was in a hurry and I ended up buying a board from the home center. So the stuff was thoroughly dried and hard as hell which lead to some tough carving sometimes, but the punches also seemed, at the time, not so effective.

Up close I can see all the mistakes and the texture impressions just didn't seem vivid enough to me. I know that I will always see mistakes here that others won't, and I accept that, It's kind of the nature of the beast.
Looking back at some of the pictured from working away I realize that the punches worked very well. I don't know what I was expecting really but the punches did a good job of leveling out the background in the carving, sharpening some edges and evening out the tool marks from removing material. After I backed away a few feet I realized that these were working great.

Back away a little and your eyes adjust and pull the whole pattern together, because our minds want to see patterns so it compensates. From a foot and a half away, I do like my work here. Again, the nature of the process.
All in all, not bad for a little over an hours work in the shop.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Theory of Tool Relativity.

Almost always the stimulus for making a tool is the need for such a tool. Now I have recently made a promise to myself to simplify my shop a bit and set some tools off to the side until I feel like I can get rid of them. I admit fully that the trigger for this recent behavior was my preview of the first 2 chapters of Chris Schwarz's book "The Anarchist Tool Chest" but the words I read and the sentiments he has been writing about on and off in his blog for the last 6 - 8 months have felt like kind of the mirror of my own feelings and thoughts. I wrote a post last August talking about the year I spent without my table saw and the things I learned (you can catch it HERE if you haven't read it or want to remind yourself)

At that time I was happy to be able to return to a full size shop from the closet I was working in before. Just the chance to set up part of my shop that I had been denied for so long was exciting to me, but in that time I had added new tools and a new skill set, a hand tool skill set if you will. Joining these two worlds together into harmony was not as simple and straightforward as I thought it would be. That should surprise nobody, things are never as simple as you sometimes think they should be. So I have begun the process of sorting through, at least in my mind, and working towards paring down, simplifying, and focusing on woodworking where for the last while I have been focused more on my shop and what I can do to improve it instead of doing the very scary work of putting myself out there with creative furniture.
I have started the process. The other day I gave my father my trusty power miter saw, one of the first pieces of woodworking equipment I ever bought. Yes really, when I started I bought two power tools, the miter saw and a small trim router from one of those traveling, tool sale tents. But at the time I was looking more towards the home we were remodeling not towards building furniture.I have started to rethink my shop in many ways and I will be making changes, not rapidly, but slowly, but they will be changes.
The first change I have already made, I have committed myself mentally to stop buying tools I do not need, that I cannot justify. I know buying tools is fun and it is exciting. A while back I could not help but pick up a very nice and clean Stanley #6 and a Miller Falls #4 from a flea market for $40. What a buy huh? But when I got them back to the shop there was a little buyers remorse. I didn't really need either of those planes, even though they were an awesome deal. I can use them, don't get me wrong, but I didn't need them. Perhaps there was another woodworker out there, right behind me in the crowd, and he was standing in the shoes I was a couple of years ago, and finding those hand planes would have jump started a whole new chapter in his shop life. I have never believed in the adage "He who dies with the most tools wins" in any other part of my life, it is time to let my shop be more authentic to me and reflect my feelings there.
Second, I have decided that the tools I do purchase from now on will be well researched tools that follow a thought out plan of action that compliments my abilities in the shop instead of impulse buys based on what is new and great and what seems like a great idea at the time. I have started this path recently too. I have made one of my first purchases of a quality, premium hand tool. I bought the new dovetail / small tenon saw from Mark Harrell over at Bad Axe Tool Works. This saw is in-frickin-credible! (OK and I was showing off a little when I tool the picture of it above, but it's not my fault, I was baited into trying my hand at "tool porn" but that's a different story)

I'm starting to call it The Theory of Tool Relativity, I don't have an equation for it, I'm just not a mathematician, but I do have a distinct feeling for it, when it feels right and when it doesn't. It comes down to simple questions.

Do I want to make furniture or do I want to collect tools? Do I want to work in a shop that's well organized with tools I know well that can perform everyday or do I want to work in a shop where I am fighting the losing battle of storage space and work organizers with tools that may or may not hold up ("Oh damn this smoothing plane is dull, let me go grab another") ? Do I want to be my own man and make my own decisions about what tools I need to get projects completed to my standards or do I want to be the puppet of the hundreds of tool makers and sellers out there and purchase the next dozen versions of the lock miter router bit?

Do I want to be a tool collector or a woodworker? Do I want to play around of get serious?

Here's a bit of how my thought process has changed and an outlook on what the future holds for the Oldwolf Workshop. As a lucky member of the email newsletter from Lost Arts Press I was sent the first 2 chapters of the upcoming "The Anarchist's Tool Chest" The first chapter is available for everyone to download HERE, but the second chapter is a little actual meat and potatoes. It is The List, what Chris Schwarz is naming as the essential list of tools a shop needs, period, anything more than what is on this list is extemporaneous fluff. And you know what? For the most part, I couldn't agree more.
While I don't own all the tools on the list, I have seriously looked at all the tools on the list over and over knowing that I should have those tools and what do I think has held me back? All those great deals I've found on fixer uppers. If I had saved the money I had spent and instead invested in tools that I know I should have but just seemed too expensive and out of my reach, I'd be further ahead than behind now.

So I sat down and developed a plan for my shop, not a rigid plan but one combining the flexibility I need with the focus I desire. First I took the ultimate list of tools from Chris's book and printed it off. Then I spent a good while with a highlighter and a pen going over the list, making notes to myself, thinking my way through the process of what I want as that list. Of course mine is not going to be a carbon copy of Chris's, and I don't think he intended it to be ironclad, besides change comes from thinking it through, not just following it blindly. I eventually separated the list of tools I should have to fulfill whats needed into two columns. A list of tools I should make, and a list of tools I should be buying the best quality possible.

I took these papers and I hung them on the bulletin board in the shop to remind me what I'm up to.
So among my other summer projects, including a few commissions, I am going to focus on the list of tools to make. I kind of look at it as a check list, there are bigger things I want to focus on with The Oldwolf Workshop, there are bigger ideas in my head, but you cannot put a cart before the horse. and completing this list will set me up to dive head first into those other things. Yes there will be distractions and side trips on the way, but that's part of the journey too.

I have been in a heavy period of building things for the shop, understandable really when I step back and look at where I am in the process. I think that this list plus one big thing will complete the journey of readying my shop, for the most part. (sometimes I think I'd like to take another crack at a bigger workbench, maybe a Roubo instead of my Nicholson) the final item will be a traditional style tool chest.

I know with Chris's new book that this will probably be the "Hot" item to build and blog about this summer and fall, probably for a couple of years so I kind of feel like I'm just a sheep joining the crowd when I build one here, but the truth is this is a project I have been working on and planning for some time and even more seriously in the last year since my Father-In-Law gifted to me the family heirloom of the tool chest that followed his great uncle Melvin over the seas from Norway in the 1860's. (You can check it out for yourself HERE) And I have been promising to make one ever since I received the gift so I can get the old bird out of the shop and into my house like a real family heirloom deserves.
I think I may take one other step towards freedom this year as well. I think I may swear off The Schwarz. I will still read what he writes, I will still enjoy all of his blog posts and I will still envy the projects he does, but I have been on quite a kick following his projects lately. From the English Layout Square to the Moxon Twin Screw Vise, from both my workbenches, (Yes the Joinery Bench was inspired by Tim Williams but the info was carried to me by Chris) to my tattoo. He's a hell of a guy, a hell of a woodworker, and a hell of an inspiration, but I need to take a step back and focus on being inspired by his spirit to do more of my own creating and less "follow the bouncing ball"


Monday, May 16, 2011

A Weekend In Photos

Just a quick note and a series of pictures from this past weekend.

As some of you have heard me talk about, my other big hobby is Viking Age Reenactment, I amd a Member of a group called Tribe Woden Thor. (click on the name and check out our page!) There was a local festival celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day in Westby Wisconsin this week. Most of us live near by and with the links to Norse heritage we have set up a living history display there for the past few years.

For a long time I have been wanting to do some type of medieval woodworking demo at these type of events and this past weekend I finally pulled one together. If you look at medieval furniture carvings, those that did survive this long, you can see a lot of similarities between them and those carvings found in the 17th century, like the ones done by one of my heroes, Peter Follansbee. So that's what I decided to work with, I would set up my travel joiner's bench and begin work on carving the pieces of a bible box. I spent the weekend working and finished the front panel, there's a lot of carving left to go, but I don't think I went to slow considering how much I stopped to visit with people and how new I am to this skill set.

Anyhow I guess that would wrap up a quick note for's all picture from here. Enjoy.

My set up just before I get started.
The rest of the tools I brought, no the pliers themselves are not old, Viking style, but I needed them to put together the workbench.
My set up from the other direction, the "public's" Point of View.
Some more of our set up, we tried to stay modest so only a small part of our medieval weapons collection made it to the table. Most of these pieces are hand forged by a blacksmith friend of the Tribe.
A bit of "everyday life" items with reproduction coins, the board game hnefatafl, An ancestor of chess, it takes five minutes to learn to play and a whole lot longer to master.

Some of the armor set up, We had several stands sporting various armor as well.
Hard at work starting the carving.
"V" chisel sweep to the left.
The arches are finished.
While I worked, and spent time visiting with the public, so did my good friend Patrick, AKA Einar the Scar,. He weaves chain maile armor and he is supposed to be working on a new shirt for me...(just a reminder Pat) 
As with any festival, there is a parade and the Tribe usually marches to give the crowd some loud medieval entertainment. We had a smaller crew show up this year, to many people stuck at work, but we made the best of it, had a lot of fun, and judging by the crowds reactions, they enjoyed it too. 
That's me on the right hand side. Kind of a mush up of different periods of armor, but I was looking to  show off a little this weekend I guess. Most floks who aren't serious reenactors wouldn't notice.
Back at the tent and I've finished carving the front panel. Included is a blow up of the picture I used to carve this from. It is based on the carved box Peter Follansbee wrote about in Woodwork Magazine.
Come to think of it, here's a link to where you can download the article in .pdf I highly recommend you do. CLICK HERE.

Hope everyone out there had just as much fun this weekend as I did.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Carving on the Brain

Don't worry folks, I have not passed up finishing the Plane Storage Shelf build, but the shop is sometimes too much like life, filled with distraction and multi tasking

I had a post all prepared, I finished writing it yesterday morning, and planned to give it one more proof read that evening before posting it, but apparently Blogger caught the flu or something, and what I had finished in the draft area has evaporated back to my rough outline and beginning notes. I will take me a few days to stop complaining and sit down to rewrite where I was going with it.

At any rate I am in for a pretty big weekend and that will slow me down as well. The Viking Age Reenactment Group I am a member of Tribe Woden Thor will have a set up and display Saturday and Sunday at the Westby Wisconsin "Syttende Mai" celebration. (Syttende Mai = 17th of May = Norwegian Independence Day). We will have our museum tent set up with reproductions of Viking Age arms and armor, one of our guys sits and weaves Chain Maille while visiting with the public. Others sit and talk about the weapons specifically. I usually visit with people about daily life in that age including past times like games the viking's played and I show them reproduction coins and trinkets of daily living. But this show will be different for me.

I have finally decided to set up my traveling joinery workbench and do some woodworking. I will not be cutting joinery and constructing casework or anything like that, my tool kit is still not set up for that type of demo, (some of the stuff I have just looks too damn modern, even to a layperson's eyes) Instead I am going to set up and demo medieval carving.

What does medieval carving look like? Well if you have ever been over to Peter Follansbee's Blog and seen his work, then you have a pretty good idea. Peter focuses on the 17th century with his work but in truth there was not a very significant advance in furniture or decoration of furniture from 1000 AD up to the middle to late 1600's. Infact 17th century furniture designs and techniques were all heavily influenced from the earlier medieval time period. Yes things became somewhat more refined, but as I look at Follansbee's recreations I can clearly see the influences of earlier time periods I've studied.

So I decided to construct a carved box, I picked up some red oak this morning and spent the day prepping the sides and lid of the box, all of which I will carve. I cut dovetails for all the corners and packed my tools for  tomorrow.

Wait...did I say I dovetailed the corners? But Mr. Follansbee either nails or drawbore pins the corner's of his carved boxes. Am I sure I know what I'm talking about?

Well I chose dovetails and I think that there is some period accuracy to my decision. You see the reenactment troupe I am part of considers itself as hailing from the Northern reaches of Germany between 800 and 1200 AD. Some of us portray the Viking influences in that area, and some research the Tribal Germanic peoples. As a character, I play Beorn The Oldwolf, a Viking who has chosen to settle in Northern Germany due to upheaval and turmoil in his home Trondheim Norway. This was very common for the Norse, we would just move in, claim a chunk of land as ours, (try and take it back...) and start a new life. Therefore as a joyner of wood Beorn would have become influenced by German styles and craftsman.

There are very few remaining pieces of furniture from the era that I can point to to prove my point but I make a little conjecture based on what I know about German settlers to America, and the fact that they used joinery dovetails and sliding dovetails extensively in their work because of the strength. Where the English influenced woodworkers of the time, did a lot of their work with pegged mortise and tenon joints. read a little about furniture history and you will get the story of the change from Jacobean furniture styles into the more ornate William and Mary style. Historians claim the change came from the influx of Danish artisans.

I may be drawing inferences on some weak evidence, but the dovetail joint has survived through the centuries all the way from ancient Egypt and it had to survive somewhere. With their stereotypical reputation for quality engineering and superior construction of goods, and I call that just enough evidence to join this box with dovetail.

But I did it mostly because I like dovetails.

But all the set up and preparation today got me thinking about a couple weeks ago when my 11 year old daughter Fayth followed me out to the shop. She shot the BB gun for a few hours and when she got tired of that she uttered those famous 11 year old words, "Dad...I'm bored"

I thought about it for a few minutes and came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. I had my laptop and my copy of Peter Follansbee's 17th Century carving video, (I wrote up a review on that one you can find HERE) I had her sit down and watch the first half of it or so.

Then I planed up a crappy pine 2x6 for her and set her to work carving. I helped her with some of the layout and got her started on technique, but mostly I just let her go for it and work away, It was beautiful, a couple hours of her quiet concentration and the rhythmic rap of the mallet. She was smiling and I got some more work done.
So I wish you all a good and fulfilling weekend as I plan to have one of those myself, and you will hopefully hear more from me on Monday.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

To Me Woodworking Is . . .

To me woodworking is . . .
Woodworking is Concentration
Woodworking is Tradition
Woodworking is Finding Solutions to Problems
Woodworking is Creation
Woodworking is Passing Something Meaningful Down to My Children
Woodworking is Innovation on Ideas
Woodworking is Making Friends Online
Woodworking is The Study of a Lifetime
Woodworking is A Little Bit of Anarchy
Woodworking is My Time to Clear My Mind
Woodworking is Finding Beauty in the Details
Woodworking is Art in My Sketchbook and In My Life
Woodworking is Making Connection in Life
Woodworking is Sacrifice
Woodworking is Spontaneous
Woodworking is Dedication
Woodworking is Sometimes a Thicket of Frustration
Woodworking is Simplicity
Woodworking is Potential and Possibilities
Woodworking is The Thrill of The Hunt and Returning With the Spoils
Woodworking is My Sanctuary, My Home, My Life