Saturday, December 22, 2012

Carving Letters,

A little bit ago I posted a picture of a sign I carved and the experience that went with making a big mistake in the spelling. In the comments area I got into a little discussion about how I go about carving my letters. I thought I'd go into a little more depth about it, seeing as how I had to re-carve the sign anyway.

The finished sign, Spelling corrected. 
 Here's the biggest issue I have with sign carving. I'm just not smart enough to do the letter layout on my own without a series of crutches. The judgmental feelings I have about this are directed at myself not at anyone else. Yes it gets the job done, no that isn't always the most important thing to me. In my shop, on the wall above my workbench, I've taken a Sharpie marker and written the words. "The things I make may be for others but the way I make them is for me."

This is a quote from Tony Konovaloff's book "Chisel, Mallet, Plane, and Saw" and it's become one of the defining mantras of my shop time. It keeps me from getting lost.

I use a technique for signs that I dislike because it feels like drawing a portrait by laying a piece of tracing paper over a photograph. I've never liked that style of doing things. It just doesn't feel honest to me. Until I found Peter Follansbee and the 17th C. style of carving I wanted to learn how, but I just couldn't get over the concept of gluing a piece of paper to a block of wood, then carving through the paper. I get how it works to get the work done, and I'm not judging those who do that, but it's not the way I want to work.

My letter carving technique is not ideal for me, but here it is.

The original "flawed" sign, ready to carve with it's carbon paper imprint. 

I use my computer and a word processing program. (Carvetech anyone?) I type in the words I want to carve and play with the fonts until I find one that seems fitting. Then I print them out in a couple of BIG sizes. This time I printed them at 125, 150, and 200 pt. Longer words print off on multiple lines but that's immaterial because I cut them from the paper and arrange them on the board over a sheet of carbon paper, (sometimes called transfer paper.) I print the multiple sizes so I can decide what will fit best on the stock I select.

A while back I bought a smaller set of five carving chisels on eBay, they are fine, detail chisels that really don't see much use, but they work perfect for lettering.

I use two from the set, a small gouge and a swept "V" chisel.

I carve the letters first with the gouge then I go back into them with the "V" chisel and add a line that helps define them and make them easier to read. I will say carving letters is an excellent practice in paying attention to the grain of the stock and the direction of your cuts.

After I carve the letters I take a couple passes with a smoothing plane to remove the left over transfer marks from the board and move forward with any outlining and designs

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Redemption . . . Of Sorts.

More to come soon . . .

Ratione et Passionis

P.S. Missed what this is about? You can read about my Epic Fail HERE.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Evolution Of An Idea.

The process of creating something has always been fascinating to me. Sometimes you struggle and fight with an idea for a while before sweat and hard work let you eek out a solution. Sometimes an idea just strikes you from sideways and it's like bringing your head up above water. The previous is a can be a significant amount of work and the later seems to come unbidden from no where.

I had a box to carve and a short time to do it, but I wasn't sure where I wanted to go with the carving. I knew I wanted to play more with a guiloche design, a series of circle shapes interwoven with each other, and I thought I would do that along the front of the box like I had on this version.

I was struggling more with the panel style carving for the lid. I wasn't sure which direction to go.

Then the Greek Muses struck at a crazy moment. One of my wife's great uncles had passed away at ripe old age of 97 and we went to attend the funeral. It was held in a wonderfully old, ornate Lutheran church in La Crosse. As we sat throughout the ceremony I spent some time looking at the architectural elements surrounding the altar. Running in a great arch was a guilloche. I went back after the ceremony was over and snapped some pictures with my cell phone.

After the ceremony, the family gathered for a light lunch and some time to visit and catch up in the churches basement. As I was looking at the design an idea had started to formulate in my mind about using the guilloche for the panel instead of the front. I didn't have my trusty sketchbook with, even though it follows me nearly everywhere. Thank goodness the little church ladies who helped make the sandwiches and pour the coffee had put out paper place-mats for everyone.

Here's a picture of the sketch I made on my place-mat.

I folded the paper up and put it in my pocket and I let it percolate in my mind for a couple days until it was finally time to build the box.

I start the layout using a couple pairs of dividers to scratch marks in the oaks smooth planed surface. One divider is set to the larger circles and one to the smaller circles. First I scribe a series of circles whose lines just touch along the marked axis. Then I adjust both sets of dividers to make slightly larger scratches around the first series.

After this is done I again adjust the dividers slightly smaller than the first series of circles and scratch marks inside. This puts the first series of scratches in the middle of the thicker overlapping wall.  It's tough to explain in words, if you already carve then my description might help, I should just film a video to help explain it.

I know Peter Follansbee has banished the scourge of pencils from the shop he works from (at least where his period work is concerned) but I find the thin lead from a mechanical pencil helps keep me on track of which line is crossing over the other. (it also helps the layout scratches show up in the photograph.)

The hard part of the layout work is done. Now I just have hit the oak with a "V" chisel and the process has begun.

I really got fixated into the carving that afternoon and I forgot to take any process pictures until the panel was done. The flowers in the circles are all gouge work as is the design that ended up in the corners. Personally I feel like the corners is where this one fell apart on me. I really failed to plan well for them and though I think what developed there on a "spur of the moment" idea is interesting and has a balancing movement to it I think I could have done something better. I wanted to do something like the two columns that flank the original I saw in the church but the space wasn't right for a couple ribbon bands either.

I was very happy with the guilloche and how all the detail in there worked out, looking at it now I feel I could have done something more with them smaller circles, but I do believe the enemy of good is better. I usually try to stop while I'm ahead.

As I do more of these boxes I am building a better sense of balance and style to the carvings. I get the feeling you can overwhelm a piece with too much of the same shape. Maybe this wasn't a concern in the 17th century where this style of carving would be more at home, but I am building in the 21st century for clients with a modern eye.

As I read that I think it can be misconstrued that I'm saying I have to dumb things down for a typical modern person to appreciate. I am not saying that. I am trying to say that while I am using 17th century carving styles and techniques as my platform, I am not interested in imitating or recreating as much as I'm interested in using those things as a springboard to launch me into my own.

The art teacher I spent the most time working with in my misspent youth always stressed the composition of a piece through the use of balance and movement. If there's a busy area you have to even it out with a simpler area or the eyes of the viewer can become overtaxed and overloaded. It's important to me that my work is pleasing to both my eyes and others so I try to incorporate these long ago learned lessons more and more as I get better at this carving thing.

The box was finished with a lightly pigmented Danish Oil. All in all the box went from lumber to piece in around four days. The lid was carved in one evening. It's not as important to me but getting faster is probably a byproduct of comfort and familiarity. I didn't even have time to get very good final pics before I had to deliver it.

 It's funny how things name themselves sometimes. The man I was making this box is the son of a pastor, and he's a very religious man, though not the kind who pushes his views on others. (The right kind in my book) I added the crosses on the front as a kind of a tribute to that. As I finished them up I was amused to find there were seven crosses, something unplanned, the same number as large circles on the top. Gospel stories and parables from my Sunday school days rolled around my head as I was putting the final details and hinges on the box. I started to refer to call it "Seven Times Seventy Loaves"

I've since gone back and reread the things I was thinking about and realize the name is a combination of a couple of stories, but really that's insignificant. I'm not sure I named it at all. I think it was those damned muses again. 

Ratione et Passionis

P.S. Those who know me will understand my sense of humor, Originally I had named this post "A-Mused To Death" which I thought was a clever reference to a moment of inspiration striking while at a funeral. I was kind of proud of my brilliance and shared it with my wife, who calmly convinced me it wasn't really in good taste. She's probably right, but I'm still irreverent enough that I couldn't let it go completely. It's probably the same personality fault that made my eighth grade Theology teacher kick me out of her class for most of the year. In the end I guess I am who I am.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Epic Fail

This is me, staying true to documenting my days in the shop, even the days when things don't go right.

I'm gonna start by saying I dislike carving signs, I can do them and I think I do them alright, but they are picky, tedious, exacting things that people usually do not want to pay enough for. I'd rather give the business to the router guys with the pantographs.

I agreed to do this one as a favor, the client is one of my wife's good friends who wanted a sign for her parents camper. I checked and double checked the spelling with her and even made her text message the spelling to me. But I once again proved my humanity, because as I was typing the words into the computer to print out my template I focused very particularly on the word "Reineke's"  Seems like the tricky one in this sequence doesn't it.

"Clair" is supposed to have an "e" on the end of it.

To make the matters worse. . . I wasn't the one who noticed. I stopped at the point I took this picture because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with the open areas on the sides yet. I took another pic with my iPhone and sent it to the client to show her the progress.

My mistake was the first thing she noticed.

I've looked and I've looked at it and there's not a good bail out at this point. The right thing to do is to start again from rough board. It's a shame to waste a nice piece of cherry like this but this one will hang around with me for a while to remind me, so maybe it's not a waste of cherry after all.

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, December 6, 2012


"Derek, you do woodworking stuff right?"

"Ya, I make some sawdust John. Why?"

"Well I was looking to have something made, and someone told me I should see you."

"Well that depends on what you're looking for man. What do you need?"

"I need three boards, that's all I need is three boards. Nine inches wide by sixty inches long."

"Um, ok. . . .What are you up to?"

"Well I have these three antique rifles, one is from the Revolutionary War, and they're just locked in my gun safe, but I thought if I had some nice boards to hang them on they'd look good on the walls of my Man Cave."

"Wow, sure I can do that. Do you have any specific wood in mind? Any designs or decoration to them?"

"Well I guess a darker wood is what I have in mind, and if you want to put a decorative edge on them that'd be good."

"Anything else?"

"Nope, whatever you think is best. I just need them nine by sixty."

"Ok John, give me a couple weeks."

"Wow Derek, those are beautiful. That's so much more than I expected."

"I put some good hangers on the back for you. They'll hold up to 100 pounds."

"They don't need to hold that much."

"I'd rather it was overkill than have your rifles fall to the floor."

"Ya, that's true. Wow Derek, That's so much more than I expected."

"I know you said you wanted to place the pegs to hang the guns on yourself. If you like them, I picked up these decorative pegs for you."

"That's too much. Thank you."

"No such thing as too much John. You're welcome."

"Hey, while I've got you here I've been thinking about putting a shelf over this desk . . . . . "

Ratione et Passionis

As Perfectly Perfect As Humanly Possible.

Michael Jordan late in the fourth quarter with the ball in his hands, driving hard to the basket.

Harry Houdini hanging upside-down by his ankles, shaking his way out of a straight jacket and a pair of handcuffs.

Roy Underhill, axe hoisted on his shoulder, standing before an audience with a smile on his face and a story to tell.

Eddie Van Halen standing in the spotlight, hair dripping with sweat and he leans into his reverb enhanced "Frankenstrat" and drives into a heart stopping performance of "Eruption."

Photo borrowed from Wikipedia Commons
All examples of masters at the top of their game. They are awesome to witness at action, in their element, and in perfect control. Every endeavor has it's innovators and masters and the story is repeated again and again through a multitude of disciplines. They have high levels of skill built on layers of experience and hard work and it is both inspiring and humbling to witness these individuals at practice and play. I recently had a chance to watch a man I consider a master at work in his new home.

I've written here before of the respect I have for Bad Axe Saws and their maker Mark Harrell. I have two of these saws in my tool chest now and I built it with room for two more. These two saws a couple of the most reliable problem solvers in my arsenal. I've met with Mark a couple times, we live in the same area, and he is an extremely knowledgeable person with a passion to make the best damn saws possible. He has impressed me from the get go.

My twin Bad Axe guns, A hybrid, 12" dovetail / small tenon saw and a 12" carcass saw. 
The only credible issue there has ever been is his backlog of work. Up until relatively recently Mark worked hard everyday turning out saws from the basement workshop of his home. He worked by himself and turned out great saws, but one man can only accomplish so much in a day. I was encouraged a while ago when he started to hire some staff and build a crew to help him turn out saws at a more timely pace.

Then I heard the best news of all for Bad Axe Saws. Just after this years WIA Midwest conference Mark made like it was groundhog day, He poked his head up above the below ground digs of his "Saw Dungeon" and found the fresh air and daylight to his liking. He found a good shop space with all the accouterments a business needs to grow. The new Bad Axe Emporium is a large, spacious place with lots of light and room. I got an invite to visit the other day, even though they are still settling in, and it is great to see a man and a business I've supported for a long time do well and come into it's own. It's kind of like watching your football team win the Super Bowl.

A look across the Bad Axe Emporium from behind Mark's personal bench. In the background you can see Mark and one of his employees working together to fit a back onto a troublesome saw plate. 

Now I am a cynical man. I'm not proud of it but it's just the color of the stripes on this tiger, and when I heard about Bad Axe growing and taking on staff I had some troubling thoughts. I knew Mark could turn out a great saw, but it crossed my mind that as you mess with a recipe you can spoil the soup. I worried that more hands on deck might somehow lessen the quality of the finished piece. Now as a rational person, I know Mark cares deeply about his product and reputation and would not let someone else get in the way of those things, but me being me, I had worries.

This is why I was so glad when Mark reached out and invited me to visit the new shop. It took all of about five minutes for me to realize how unfounded those worries were. You could see it in the set up of the shop and it's work flow. Mark has his own, personal bench and set up and all the work in the shop funnels to him for it's final preparations before shipping. He has help doing the basic build work now like assembling the correct parts for the order, mounting the backs and the handles, and hammer setting the teeth. But every saw  moves through Mark's hands for checking the quality of the saw assembly, jointing and filing the teeth and making sure the saw is top notch before it gets packed up to head out to your shop.

A shot of Mark's personal bench space, an awesome slab workbench where every saw gets put through it's final paces before it gets to your shop. 
I have to admit, I was surprised at how much goes into those final adjustments and touches. I have pulled vintage saws apart, cleaned them and sharpened them to good results so I thought I knew a bit about the process. It's kind of like saying a child who can recite the alphabet could replicate Shakespeare's sonnets  Could they learn to do so? Yes, but not without years of study and work. I thought I knew what went into saw making and maintenance, but after spending just one afternoon watching and talking with Mark, I learned so much more.

After a quick tour around the place and the various stations. Mark and I discussed saw handles and how they fit your hand. Yes, if your paw is bigger or smaller than the average bear you may never know what it's like to use a saw that fits your hand and Mark has the answer to that as he can size his handles to the customer. Options are the real beauty behind buying a Bad Axe Saw. From the wood species and size of the handle to the metal used for the back and saw nuts to custom filings. When he's done your saw will look and perform exactly like you want. Not sure what you want? Drop him a line and he'll answer all your questions and put you on the right path.

Mark pulled down one of the next saws in his queue to show me the process he goes through to get the assembled saws up to his standards. It starts with joining the teeth of the saw. When I joint teeth I use a jig to keep my file flat, Mark's practiced hand was able to just grab a file, make two runs, and move on. I already knew at this point I was watching someone who had mastered his art.

The process continued as I watched him start to file the teeth to shape and sharpness. In my shop I had recently resharpened my crosscut panel saw and there was a distinct difference between my work and Mark's educated hands. You could even tell he was using a heavier touch on his first pass, then a lighter touch to his second pass.

I use a couple of shop made guides when I sharpen. They help keep my angles more or less consistent. Mark's hands were a machine and his eyes were watching to assure he achieved exactly the right results. The fluidity and economy of movement throughout the whole sharpening process was inspiring. I don't easily throw around terms like "master" or "virtuoso" but it was clear Mark's done this a time or two before.

With the file work done he stones each side of the tooth line to remove some of the burr and tease the saw into cutting straight. Quality saws will cut the line for you, all you really have to do is provide the kinetic force to move them and be smart enough not to get in their way by trying to over control them.

Then came a process that surprised me a bit. through the assembly process, and the joining of the saw plate and the back, a saw can pick up some slight warp and twist. Mark removes the handle and uses a couple crescent wrenches and a practiced eye to adjust the plate fair.

Then he replaces the handle and goes about rechecking and readjusting to get the saw blade lined up perfectly with the handle. The forces of the handle and the saw nuts can change a saw and need to be taken into account.

This process took him the longest, maybe ten minutes, and by the end he was adjusting and fine tuning for imperfections that I couldn't even see until he put his finger on them to show me. This dashed any of my foolish notions that more production and personnel would lead to less of a product. I would think it only increases the quality of these saws because it frees up Mark's hands and eyes to focus on making the saw as perfectly perfect and humanly possible before it leaves the shop.

I lost track of time while I was watching him but I'd estimate the process took him around forty-fives minutes from start to where he was happy enough to let me have a test cut or two.

How are you going to go to the Bad Axe Emporium and not come away without making some saw dust? Come on man, this 10" 15 ppi "Doc Holiday" dovetail saw tore right through 5/4 white oak without even stressing about it. This is something I continue to be amazed at. It's something that in my estimation a high ppi saw shouldn't be able to handle, but Mark's saws laugh at the challenge.

Besides demonstrating his mastery over steel and wood Mark also shared some other exciting information with me and I want to spread the word.

The first thing is that he is so happy to be working up above ground level that he is throwing a party. Bad Axe Tool Works will be having a big open house this coming January 12th 2013, from Noon to Four PM. I will be there and so will other woodworkers, woodworking instructors, and tool makers. It is bound to be a good time. If you're interested in coming you should drop Mark a line HERE.

The other exciting news is Mark decided to start teaching classes on his saw filing techniques to the world. With such a great shop and all the space and benches he needs he's thinking of having quarterly classes on the subject. I know I'll be in attendance because there is no one I've met who has a better understanding of this important tool, and if it makes me a better sharpener and sawyer, then count me in.

To keep up with information about what Mark and Bad Axe Tools is up to you can always visit his website, or keep even more up to date by liking and following Bad Axe on Facebook by going to

Ratione et Passionis

Friday, November 30, 2012

Final Pictures of the School Box / Sewing Box

The school box / sewing box build is finished. I built it for my oldest daughter's 16th birthday present and she was very tickled with it. It is made from Curly Red Oak with a White Pine bottom (so it will have that wonderful pine scent when you open it) and air dried Black Walnut mouldings. The inspiration, of course came from the piece built by Chris Schwarz for the book "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker"

It was finished with three coats of boiled linseed oil on the outside and left clean on the inside. The hardware is Lee Valley unequal strap hinges (01.H20.12) and brass flat head screws. Chest handles will probably be added in the future when the right ones are found. I decided to skip the lock.

Once finished the box is bigger than I thought it would be, more of a small chest than a box. It measures 16" wide by 10 1/2" deep by around 10 3/4" tall.

Making this chest was so very satisfying, I have never gotten to work figured stock like this before and the results were fantastic. Getting to build it for someone so special was important too. I'm very happy with the way it turned out and I really don't have a lot of complaints to make. Turns out my inner Thomas was along for the ride on this one.

Here are the "glamour" shots of the piece. Thanks for looking.

Ratione et Passionis