Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Small Carved Box

I needed a small box to hold my auger bits for my braces. I had a little mahogany laying about and figured, a little upscale for auger bits but what the hell it's not doing me any good over here on the cut off pile. As I was cutting the dovetail joints I started to think about how I had heard that mahogany carves like butter so I figured, hey why not, a great chance to practice some of my 17th century carving techniques I picked up from Peter Follansbee's DVD. A couple minutes on the net and I had a couple patterns I hadn't tried yet and I went to town.

The cool thing about this is I got this project started and finished in just one day in the shop, it was a good long enjoyable day, but it was one day, and that makes me smile. At any rate I thought that from here on out I would stop typing and just let the pictures tell the tale of the day.

In some pictures you get a good look at the contrast in the wood between sap wood and heart wood, I oriented the stock when I was putting it together to make sure the darker band chased itself around the bottom of the box. A Danish Oil finish and I called it good. I do have to give a little shout out over to the Badger Woodworks Blog because it was his practice carving of a similar vein that inspired me to give the "S" scroll a try on the backside. I have to admit, his turned out better than mine, I ended up trying to stretch it too much for my proportion tastes.Overall a very satisfying project.

Here's a few final pictures:

I really begin to dig that heart wood, sap wood contrast. I made a good choice orienting the darker along the bottom, I think it gives this small box a little bit of gravity and weight.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Workshop Rearrangment and Renewal

After I finished the Plane Storage Shelf, I had one more big job to go. As I worked on the shelf I knew it was coming but I played it like I was two years old again and just stubbornly refused to admit reality. Like the phrase coined by Adam Savage from TV's Mythbusters, "I reject your reality and substitute my own!"

Unfortunately that fig leaf can only hold in place for so long.

Hanging the shelf meant I was going to have to rearrange the shop. Not just move a few things here and there, I mean a complete, knock it down, tear it apart and put it back together rearrangement. I had to take a deep breath for this one. If you watched the video tour I made of the shop this spring, you can pretty much disregard almost of it. In the end I am very happy with the changes and it's nice to have the shop feel this organized.

Without further ado:

Ratione et Passionis

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Here There Be Monsters

A long time ago, before GPS on your cell phone, before Google Maps on the internet, before World Atlases in you library, even before the whole of the world was known. A lone cartographer sat at his work, carefully drawing a map of the oceans from which sailors would chart their courses. He loved his work and took great care in painstakingly applying ink to his sheet of vellum. He drew out coastlines, ports of call, places of interest, and always used a wonderfully artistic medallion to point the cardinal directions.

What was this map-maker to do when his knowledge ran out before he reached the curled edge of the calfskin. I can picture him, working at a broad oaken desk by the light of tallow candles. He carefully scribes all he understands with ink and pen. Then, a moment of clarity strikes through the fog of creativity and he realizes he's exhausted all his knowledge and there is still space on the page. Worried, he sits up straighter in his simple chair and gazes off into the far corner of the room. His eyes distant and without focus as he ponders the issue and his options. How can he explain that he has no idea what exists past that certain point of the ocean?

"No one will buy a map with a blank space." He thinks to himself, "It will appear incomplete."

There a muse finds him, stuck in doubt and bending towards the hopeless. The spirit of creativity turns her sweet lips to his old ear and whispers inspiration into his mind. Suddenly he has an answer. He raises a hand to stroke his greying whiskers as he ponders the idea, it's lithe and light in his mind and he works hard to bring it to form and substance. He reaches out to grasp his pen, raising it, freshly dipped from the ink well and moving it towards the vacant space. For a second the tip hovers above the page, then in a flourish of carefully practiced calligraphy he scrawls the words.

"Here There Be Monsters"
Picture cropped from a 16th century map called the Carta Marina, Used from Wikipedia
I have been practicing my carving skills lately, particularly my 17th Century reproduction carving skills. After being introduced to them via Peter Follansbee's great DVD (you can read my review HERE) I have been working on the techniques in between builds. Some of you may know that I do Viking Age Reenactment in as a hobby, (I guess I consider woodworking to be more than a hobby). I'm part of the group Tribe Woden Thor, we travel to area events, schools, and libraries doing demonstrations on Medieval History and I've spent a while looking for ways to integrate woodworking into my part of the presentation. Once I started working with this style of carving it just seemed natural that I'd finally found a way to accomplish that.
Here I am working away inside our "museum" tent, where we will often set up the best and most historical reproductions of daily life, arms, and armor for smaller shows and events. I'm busy carving the red oak panel that will become the front of a bible box.  Yes those are swords, axes, war hammers, and daggers on the table next to the joinery bench and spears in the hangers behind me.

I started at a little show several weekends ago where I carved the front panel of a bible box with a fleur de lis pattern. You can read about that day HERE. A couple weekends ago our group did another small show for a private group and I set up to do carving again. This time I was going to start on the sides of the box.

The finished front panel and the picture of Peter Follansbee's carving that I worked from to create it.
Now I was headed towards the edge of the map and the place where those monsters lie. Up until this point in my work I had followed patterns directly from Mr. Follansbee. But I didn't want to carry through with the same exact pattern on the shorter sides. Stylistically I wanted more of a contained feature instead of a run on pattern, but I also wanted to carry the fleur de lis and the pattern from the front into the sides. I was stuck, I wasn't sure how to accomplish all those things at once.

I went to the event, set up my break down joinery bench, opened my tool box, and laid out my tools. I positioned one of the red oak sides in the holdfasts and began to stare at it. Just like the old cartographer in the brief fiction above, I pondered my options until I had an idea. Perhaps a muse whispered sweet inspiration into my ear as well because I picked up my dividers and started marking, diving directly into those unmarked waters.

By the end of the day I had finished one side and marked the other in preparation, and after a day of swimming in mysterious waters I think I managed to circumnavigate every monster and come to rest on the shores of a new world. It is one thing to copy directly from another artist's work, It's an important part of learning. When you let those works inspire you to follow your own design instincts and make your own stamp on the style, now you've started stepping to another level. 

I'm not sure how well my design decisions work in the vernacular of 17th century carving, but the dovetail joinery already shoots the "reproduction" street cred for this piece in the foot, so now I'm really only interested in making a box I like and getting more experience with the carving techniques. Most of the time when I work on a project it already has a home in mind or a buyer who commissioned it. This one I'm building for the experience and the value I get from using it for demonstration at reenactment events, so I don't know where it will end up.

Maybe this will be my first step into an online selling experience like Etsy. Hmmm. . . another uncharted area of the map.

I guess I'll have to tighten the rigging, set the sails, and see where the wind takes me on this one.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dovetail Layout Part 6: Moving Into Variety

I have been using my virtual soapbox exploring the methods I use to layout dovetails. I have two strong opinions when it comes to dovetail layouts: One, it's important they're simple and straightforward to carry out, something repeatable and consistent enough to be easily repeated. And two, there is no "Unifying Theory of The Dovetail Continuum," no "One" way to do it right. As a designer and builder of fine furniture you should be versed and flexible in using several different layouts so you can use choose the right look for the right circumstance. Don't ever make the mistake of locking yourself down into one pragmatic view of your pins and tails.

If you're just joining the conversation or want a refresher of where we've been already you can find all the dovetail layout posts collected together HERE.

I believe yet one more Dovetail Maxim: Dovetail joints are meant to be created with a hand powered saw. Remove the waste however you want, but there is no replacement for the simple, straight-forward hand saw to create the lines that define the joint. I do not care if you have a whole chest of drawers in a dovetailed carcass on your plate, do it the right way. The only time you could convince me a router is the way to go is if you have to build more than fifty or so drawers in a weekend. Short of that, a Leigh Jig or other random  router dovetail template is a waste of your hard earned money.

So since we are doing the right thing and cutting our dovetails by hand, then why wouldn't you use that fact to your advantage. You are not a machine so you do not have to cut your dovetails like one either. Unless the design calls for subtle even dovetails that blend in to the background, why not add some pop with some staggered pacings and varied sizings. After all dovetails are the showoff of the joint world. They like to scream "Hey! Look at me!" So changing up the game a little can lead to some nice results that don't have to be distracting, but can instead showcase your artistry.

The key is to remember the eye likes symmetry and grouping. I repeat my sizing from the right side of the layout to the left side to keep that symmetry. I will also group two or three smaller pins together with wider spaces between them. Groupings of more than three tend to begin to look busy and too many varied widths can look amateurish. I rarely do more than two or three different sized spacings in a design. Well executed simplicity will be more dazzling than complexity.

Here's one way of accomplishing the type of layout I'm talking about.
As we have gone over before, you can use dividers to help size the layouts, but I often find it faster to just use my chisels as sizing blocks. With the stock in the vise I mark my half pins on either side with a 3/8" chisel.
With that done I measure to find the center of my stock and mark it.
Shifting the rule over I then mark out for a 1" wide space. If I were to expand this across a wider section of stock I have the decision between widening this center area or adding a second area and spacing the board out in thirds instead of halves. Wider stock yet? I add more of the same spacing and judge the right amount needed by eye.
Then I grab the 1/4" chisel and eyeball the placement in the center of the remaining space. What no measurement? That's right, you can measure if you want, but I think you should be able to trust your eyes to tell you what looks right. If it looks right now, why should it look wrong later? I just make a small mark on either side of the chisel.
 And complete the lines with a small tri-square
I make sure to "X" out the areas to be cut away . . .
. . . and mark the angles on the face of the stock. I only bother to mark my end grain and the face of my stock. Marking the angles on the backside is unnecessary, and this way makes sure I don't get turned around and put the face of the stock away from me. I want any tear out from the saw blade to be on the backside of the stock and the inside of the joint.
Ready to start sawing with all the waste marked.
Transfer your pins, mark, and cut them. Often these days I will only mark the end grain on tails, but when I was starting to learn I would transfer my lines square down the face of the stock to help guide me.
After the joint is put together and cleaned up you can see how the paired grouping and slight variety in widths gives an interesting and appealing look.

You can play around a lot with groupings and an asymmetrical / symmetrical look. Here's a quick second take with a different result.
 This time I chose to start with very wide half pins, so I used my 1" chisel as a marker.
And I repeated it on both sides. Remember, use symmetrical placement of asymmetrical sizes and you can achieve good looking results.
Everything marked out and ready to cut.
 And the finished product, a similar paired grouping to the previous set but with an altogether different appearance and feel. Consider the effect you're reaching for as you head into these layouts.

And one more off the deep end just to prove a point.
With this joint I did zero layout at all beyond marking the appropriate depth of cut with a marking gauge. I didn't mark my angles or my spacing, and I actually tried to make it very random. While this is the ugly stepsister of the whole series, it does prove a couple points. One, is it proves how simple layout can be if you are practiced at cutting these joints. If I had put effort into symmetry over randomness I have no doubt I could have turned out a workable joint with no substantial layout at all. Just my eyes, my mind, and my hands working together in a practiced way.

The other point is that from a design stand point, I can actually conceive of using this random joint as a design feature. Say I was making a box based on The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, or representing a twisted ideal in some other fashion. This joint would be perfectly at home in those instances. So understand the look you're going for and don't be afraid to make mistakes getting there. After all, those aren't mistakes, they are lessons learned. The most important thing to remember is to relax, do NOT put this joint up on a pedestal, just have fun and go for it.

I'm pretty sure this should wrap up my side of this discussion. Thanks for lending me your ears while I rode the soapbox for a while.