Sunday, October 30, 2011

Re-Finishing an Antique

Finishing a piece may just be the weakest part of my woodworking game. I have a few tricks, a few go to standbys that I use and that's about it. Don't get me wrong, I own "Flexner on Finishing" and Jeff Jewitt's "Great Wood Finishes," and I've read them both cover to cover a couple times. I enjoy the concept and the chemistry of the process, I think my fault lies mostly in lack of experience

So, I can figure out how to repair the physical damage. No problem, well some work and worry, but that was just plain old workshop fun. Now I had to repair a trashed finish.

I wish I had a genie bottle and when I rub it, Bob Flexner would pop out to help with the finishing process.
We've all seen Antiques Roadhouse on PBS, and we've all heard the appraisers say something like "Wow this is really a great dresser, you have photographic documentation that Presidents Washington, Lincon, and Reagan have all stowed their underwear inside at one point and time, (It could have been Clinton too, unfortunately you also have photographic evidence that he doesn't wear any underwear), but since some amateur tried to refinish it, I estimate it's value at one cool nickel, Thanks for wasting our time."

OK, so maybe not that drastic. It's not that incredible of an antique and I'm not going to submit the thing to a museum. It's a good piece of furniture for our home, I keep my underwear in it's drawers and I want it to be A: usable and B: decent looking. So I decided to give a go at it and see where the refinishing process took me.
I picked up a quart of Formby's Furniture Refinisher. I had no real experience using it, so maybe I'm naive, but I followed the directions on the can and got some decent results.
It works more like a dissolving agent instead of a chemical stripper. I've used strippers before and this was different, better. It didn't get me back down to bare wood, but that's not really what I was after. I needed a surface that would take a fresh stain and a new shellac finish over that. All I needed was a light finishing sanding of 180 grit and I was ready for color.

I tried to choose a stain that would be reminiscent of the original finish with a reddish tone, but I also wanted something a bit darker, hopefully that would blend and cover over areas that hadn't "stripped" as well. (stripped for lack of a better word) It comes out very chocolate brown in the pictures but there is a red tone underneath that I like very much.

Pieces of the mirror that mounts over the dresser. It was in good repair and not part of the original plan,  but when it came down to recoloring and refinishing the whole thing. I was obliged to take it apart and give it the same once over as the rest of the dresser. 

The dresser top turned out extremely beautiful. On the right is the mirror. 
 There is one problem, I started this project too late in the season, and by the time the stain had cured and was ready for the shellac finish to go over it. It had grown to cold to apply it, even during most days. I'm a little stuck about what to do with that. I live in an apartment building and I don't think I can get away with applying the shellac at home. I think I will put the pieces back together and bring the dresser home to use for the winter and when the spring warms up again. I'll cart it up and bring it back to the shop to finish the job.

But until that happens, this is it for this project.

Up next, something a little more . . . traditional.

Ratione et Passionis

Friday, October 28, 2011

How I'd Do It: Half Lap Joint

I enjoy those summer mornings my wife and I sneak out of the house and leave our girls to find their own breakfast (have no worries, two out of three are old enough to stay home alone and even the youngest has been pouring her own cereal for years). Naomi gets her coffee, I get a Diet Pepsi and we hit the area garage sales.

I don't enjoy these mornings because of I get to see mounds of toddler clothes, or various brick-a-brack and keepsakes, or even for the occasional circa 1970's jig saw.  Two things make me drag my carcass out of bed on these mornings, the first is the time I get having my wife's attention all to myself, (I'm a selfish guy what can I say), the second is that I get to look around another dude's garage. If they're woodworker's I get to see their shop layout and some of their stationary tools and that is like a little bit of crack to an addict.
I am not interested because I'm casing the joint for nefarious reasons, in fact I'm not completely sure why I like this so much. I think I feel a little validation when I see, in person, evidence that someone else finds the same tree sacrificing endeavors enjoyable. I also find ideas in those visits. I get to see floor plans that work and some that don't. I get to see storage solutions and individual answers to the same conundrums we all face in our shops.

With the idea that not everyone has the same answer when it comes to shop solutions, its also true not everyone has the same approach when it comes to executing joinery. More than a peek inside someone's shop, I love a peek inside someone's joinery decisions and process, and I know I'm not the only one. Joe Ledington from the Sleepydog's Woodshop Blog started a bit of a movement, connecting woodworker's through Google+ and inspiring several of us with woodworking bloggers to join in what's been dubbed "How I Do It Friday"

On the last Friday of the month, we will all do a post covering how we chose to create one type of woodworking joint. This month, the inaugural month, we're going to be starting simple and working on half lap joints.

I think I will be using this format as an excuse to play with a medium I have only dabbled in so far . . . video. I'm hoping to get better and appear more relaxed than I have in previous attempts. I have worked in a classroom as a teacher and I regularly make presentations in front of crowds (sometimes a couple hundred people) with my living history hobby, but video is different for me. Maybe it's the fact that the moment is preserved and I can come back and critique my perfectionist self again and again.

Unfortunately. after shooting and editing up the video, I came to the realization that through the whole thing, I consistently call the joint's shoulder and the cheek by each other's names. What can I say, dyslexics of the world untie! So, please bear with me. An now, without further delay, here is How I Do Half Lap Joints.

Take some time and check out the other contributors to How I Do It Friday
Joe Ledington at Sleepydog's Wood Shop
Andrew Detloff at Ravinheart Renditions
Matt Vanderlist at Matt's Basement Workshop
Allison Slay-White at Scroll Dust Woman
Al Navas at Sandal Woods
Steven Taylor at The Taylor Garage
Tom Iovino at Tom's Workbench
Jeremiah Rodriquez at Sawdust Is Life
Kenny Comeaux at The Wood Ninja
Dyami Plotke at The Penultimate Woodshop
M. Scott Morton at M. Scott Morton Woodworks
Chris Wong at Flair Woodworks
Todd Clippinger at The American Craftsman Workshop

If you blog and are interested in adding to the crowd and offering your own joinery two cents I suggest you drop Joe Ledington a line over at Sleepydog, He's been voted our How I Do It Friday Team Captain. Or you can look any of us up on Google +

Ratione et Passionis

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Silence in the Movement of a Saw

"There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything."

-Excerpt from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
recorded sayings of Master Yamamoto Tsunetomo
Translated by William Scott Wilson

This quote has followed me for years. It is actually the quote that made me search out and buy a copy of The Hagakure. I have taken these words to heart over time and I try and remember them often. There is deep truth in the last words, understanding the difference between running and walking to the same destination with the same results extends to life and everything in it.

I suffer from a persistent interior monologue that consists of many, varied voices. The majority of them are pretty critical of everything I do. Age and experience has taught me to give the worst of them none of my  attention, but they are still there. I relish the moments in life when I can live without those voices, especially the ones that plan every moment in the future and dissect every second from the past. Those quiet times come when I can focus on something that requires I'm "there" and completely in the moment.

For me, to a varying degree, I collect many of these moments when I am standing at my workbench. Different operations yield different silences, the most profound is when I am sawing. It does not matter if I am sawing joinery or breaking down basic stock. The time with the saw in my hand is golden. I've done all my thinking and planing leading up to the moment I get ready to apply steel to wood. The layout lines are marked, the worrying and thinking about this cut has past. Now is the time to still my mind, and draw the teeth into the fibers.

Starting the cut is a leap of faith. I'm human after all, I could have made a miscalculation and wasted a beautiful piece of stock that I already invested significant time and effort into selecting and preparing for this moment, but once the saw begins to plow it's divide there is no point in concerning myself with those thoughts any longer. There is just the concentration on the rhythm of the cut, focus on following the line I've struck, and the wonderful quiet in my head.

I have spent a good amount of time trying decipher why I gravitated away from my beginnings as a dedicated Normite and morphed into a mostly Neanderthal hand tool user. (Why is it Normite vs. Neanderthal, I think it should be Normite vs. Roy-ite or maybe Underhill-ite don't you think?) I have tried to consider the question of what would an 18th century woodworker gravitate towards if they were suddenly dropped into this modern age. Would he hold tight to his hollows and rounds or would he find merit in a router table. Would he take to a 36" wide drum sander like a fish to water?

I don't believe that any of our sawdust making ancestors were any smarter, stronger, or weaker than we are today. A person is a person, simple and complex at the same time, whether that person was born a thousand years ago or yesterday. The difference is the time you live in defines the circumstances and technologies you rely on. There were no diesel powered cranes to help build the pyramids, but there were also no hard hat or safety harness laws. Different technologies, different circumstances.

In the end, I think our time traveling woodwright would be true to what he is. A craftsman. His priorities would be first: to get the best results possible and second: to get those results as efficiently as possible. One truth I know is that while power tools are good, reliable and fast, they are not always the best results, and sometimes they aren't the most efficient either. I also believe there is more soul in a project built by hand tools than one pulled of the production line up that power tools can be.

When I worked with mostly power tools I was hemmed in with a factory, production mentality. Saying things like "I've got to cut all these stiles and rails at the same time so the table saw fence is set exactly the same for all of them. For me the power tool process wasn't creation as much as it was advanced model building. I did not find that same "in the moment" silence around the loud grind of electron driven steel.

The results I ended up with were not as satisfactory either. The work was technically correct, but it lacked something that is difficult to describe. When I attend a craft show there is inevitably a woodworker who has thrown up his shingle and is showing the fruits of his labor. Of course I'm interested in looking at his work, but there is usually something disappointing in what I find. I admire them for putting themselves out there and trying to scratch out a dollar or two from the sand, but for the sake of that dollar the results are often closer to soulless Walmart chip board then they are to items I would like to have around me. Routed profiles and dovetails pushed through on a template are just not items I want surrounding me in my life. I believe that, given the choice, even the average person could tell the difference between the things built by hand and things primarily built by power, and I believe, were cost no issue, they would be pulled to the item that carried feeling with it.

Then again I could just be morphing into a snob.

Coming back to the original quote, I believe there is a difference between calmly striding through the "rain" in my shop and perplexing my efforts trying to run. Both paths undoubtedly result in a work of some merit, but the moments of silence I receive create a piece that carries something more than the stock that makes up the parts, something more than the proportions and the design, something more than the abilities invested in the act of creation. The work carries with it a soul, and that is the ultimate in intangibles.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Check Your Drawers.

OK admittedly an immature title, but I am what I am.

I'm working through a rebuild and refinish of an antique chest of drawers and I have finished an almost complete disassemble and reassemble of the carcass and it was time to work on some of the other details. The chest has four drawers and three of them were in decent shape but the fourth one had taken a beating over the years.

I know the pictures were to show the damage that I faced, but even as I look at the pictures I have to say I am still blown away by the simple width of the bottom panels. Those are one width poplar panels you can see the circular marks from the re-sawing on the bottom side and the top is planed smooth. I hate plywood, I'll use it if I have to but I seriously wish I had stock like this available on a regular basis, I would never even blink in plywood's direction again.

As you can evidence from the photos the majority of the damage came as the bottom of the sides wore down in use and this over time lead to the back separating from it's dado and the front developing a fracture along the bottom.
I pulled the whole drawer apart. Thank god again for hide glue being reversible with denatured alcohol. I'm not sure what I would have done if I couldn't pop apart the dovetailed corners and cut out the damage. Some of it was pretty straightforward, a little glue and clamp fixed the split suffered by the front of the drawer. The sides however were another story.
 I considered replacing the sides all together. I had a 1x poplar cutoff sitting in the bin that was wide enough to do the job, but there was something that was just unappealing about that. Instead I decided to cut off the damaged areas and edge glue in repair pieces.
I started by cross cutting the poplar to length.
Then rip the strips of the appropriate width. When I'm cutting these smaller, shorter pieces I often like to work right off the bench with an overhand grip on the saw instead of working off a lower saw bench.
A little plane work to clean up the saw marks and I had a couple of 1 1/2" pieces. I like hand sawing, but I don't really like re-sawing to thickness by hand and I needed to get these 3/4" thick pieces down to 1/2" thick. Cue the bandsaw.
A little more plane work to clean up the saw marks and bring the piece down to a final, matching thickness.
Then the trick was to decide where to make the cuts and sacrifice the original sides. on one side the dovetail end was in good shape and so the trick was to remove just the back section. I knifed in a cut line, took a deep breath and made the cut.
Some hide glue and some clamps and I had the simpler side repair done. I would come back after the glue dried, cut it to length and get the final shaping done.
The other side I ripped off square and glued in the repair piece. I didn't worry about replicating the width at this point, I would plane it to the width later.
I had to sacrifice one of the original dovetails to get the board properly repaired so I had to cut a new one.

To finish off the repair I had to plow some new grooves into the sides, one to hold the drawer bottom and one to make the rabbet and dado joint that held the back of the drawer.
There is one major hand tool that I have not managed to get my hands on and that is a plow plane, I have a Stanely 45 on my shelf I have yet to refurbish but I have been holding off because it only came with one iron, a beading iron, which is not a whole lot of help. I just haven't been able to find any blades for a price I can afford, so for making grooves like this I use my router plane, actually and excellent tool for the job.

And some shots of the repairs in place as the drawer is glued up to finish.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

There Was A Right Way To Do Things, And There Still Can Be.

Working my way through the rebuild, repair, and refinish of an antique dresser we own that had been loose in the joints for a while and finally failed completely as my wife tried to move it away from the wall. This type of project has always been a little intimidating to me, there is a slightly different way of thinking and skill set involved, and while there are similarities to your standard "build it from scratch" woodworking, there are enough differences to make it interesting.

If you missed where we started from, you can catch up HERE.
The first thing to do was to take apart the piece. Not all repairs require the piece to be taken apart here there was so much damage there was no other way I could think to do it. To repair everything along the front, It required that I get the top off the dresser.

I turned the work upside down on the bench to get a good look at what I had to work with. I found half a dozen glue blocks between the base and the top. At first I thought about just taking a beater chisel and tearing up the blocks. A very caveman like approach I agree, but it did cross my mind as a first answer and I pried a little with no good results.

I pondered my options. The rail parts I had been able to get off easily showed obvious evidence that the piece had been put together using hide glue. I thought about Stephen Shepherd and his great writing over at Full Chisel Blog. Stephen covers a great many subjects most directly related to 18th century woodworking and one of those subjects is his work repairing antique spinning wheels. Coincidentally while reading about these repairs he also taught me a good deal about hide glue.
One of the best properties and reasons to use hide glue in your woodworking is the fact that it is a repairable glue. What does that mean? It means you can undo it by dissolving it with denatured alcohol, and there by take the work apart to rebuild, and reglue it.

I took a quick trip down the street to the hardware store and picked up a can of denatured alcohol, what did I have to lose. You can see in the picture above how I flooded the area around a couple of glue blocks, I also used a small brush to make sure I flooded the nooks and crannies around the blocks. Of course the picture above shows the absence of glue blocks as well. The real experiment was finding out how long to wait for the process to work.

I'm sure individual milage may vary, but I only had to wait around five minutes for each soaked block to be loose enough to pry it free with a chisel.
Ok I lied about a half dozen glue blocks, now that I count the ones in the picture I come up with around 10. Math is hard.
Besides the glue blocks there were four cut nails connecting the top to the base. Here I am lifting the top front rail off it's nail attachments.
 I wish I could have stopped here, but the joints in the three remaining sides were all loose as well. Some more alcohol soak and a little light wooden mallet persuasion and I had the dresser looking more like a pile of kindling than anything.
 This was the most intimidating moment of the whole process. I snapped a pic of this with my phone and sent it to my wife and her response was a worried, "Can you get it back together?"
 I believe there are few things straight up black and white, wrong and right. I usually see lots of shade of grey in my world. But I do believe that there was a lot of "right" things our fore-bearers knew that we have managed to forget.

One of those things is hide glue. Without my predecessors use of hide glue the repair of this piece would have been incredibly more difficult how could I go any other route but to use hide glue to fit the piece back together.
 I reglued every joint in the carcass. It stands strong and rock solid again, ready for another century or so. There was one more big repair that I had to work at quite a bit, but more on that next time.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, October 3, 2011

Doc...Do Ya Think I'll Make It?

You've seen the scene in movies before. A M.A.S.H. unit tent, helicopters swarming in delivering the casualties from whatever disaster of war is in the air. A young field surgeon, too good looking for real life, stalks the triage area surveying the work that will make up the next 10 minutes of celluloid footage. A young man reaches out with his hand and catches the psudo-physician's attention. His hands are covered in contents of a hundred ketchup packets as he reaches out and with pleading eyes says the words. "Doc...Do ya think I'll make it Doc?"
Army nurse monument in Kolobrzeg, Poland. Taken from Wikipedia Commons
"CUT!" yells the director, stopping everyone in their tracks, "Let's back up and do it again and this time I want to see more Matt Damon and less Will Ferrel!"

. . .

Ok, a little dramatic maybe, but a few nights ago the scene crossed my mind after I heard my wife's voice, colored with an annoyed tone, call from our bedroom. We have an antique dresser that belonged to my wife's grandmother, and she was trying to shift it out to reach the plugin the dresser was strategically placed infront. A pull and a chift and the glue in the joints gave up the goose and failed. The mortise and tenon joints of the dividers seperated all the way up, the drawers fell out, and my work started.
The dresser after transporting it to the shop. It doesn't look so bad now because I held it together with several ratchet straps to make the journey. You can still see it has led a long hard life. 
All the tenons of the front divider rails were loose all the way up on both sides.
My wife squawked when she went to pull it out from the wall and the dividers all popped loose and a couple of drawers dropped. 
Event the top rail was separating though it was being held in place by the top. 
Three of the four drawers were in good solid shape, but one had some pretty good issues.
On both sides of the drawer, the sides had disintegrated or broke at the grove that would hold the bottom. I wasn't sure how I was going to fix that yet.  
The other side of the drawer displaying similar issues. I have to admit one of the cool things about  getting to inspect this piece this close is the drawer bottoms. They are planed smooth finished on the upside, but on the underside you can see the deep whirls of the circular saw blade that resawed the stock. Kind of cool. 
Even the back was separating from the corner on one side.
Of course the finish had taken a beating over the years. My wife remembers having the dresser in her bedroom as a child and that some decals had been on the top.
Can you see the giraffe? There were five stickers on the top at one point. 
Now full disclosure requires me to explain the dresser had been wobbly and delicate for quite a while, but I am a big old chicken when it comes to refinishing and repairing antiques. I just wait for the moment when I turn what was a functional piece of furniture into a pile of well dried kindling, so I put off the inevitable for as long as possible. In the end though the fix up of this piece wasn't bad even though, in fact I'm feeling better with my comfort level on these kind of things.

 As the dresser sat in my home I couldn't have told you for sure what wood it was made from. One, I hadn't paid that much attention before but two, it also had a thick stain and shellaced finish on it. If pressed I would have guessed a cherry or other fruit wood. As it turns out the whole damn thing is poplar, so if I had to guess I would say that this was a fairly cheep piece of furniture at the time it was made, but there is not a glued panel in the piece. the wide top and the solid wood bottoms of the drawers are all single piece solid wood.

The joinery is all machine cut, but there is evidence of hand planing and I'm pretty sure hand assembly by someone who knew what they were doing. It's funny to think of this as being a cheeper piece of furniture. Recently I picked up an order of poplar from my hardwood dealer and I specifically asked for the widest stock they could find and the best I got was a board 11 1/2"wide. It's a sad thing that wide stock has become such a rare thing in this day and age.

Ratione et Passionis