Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Why of Finishing

I have always been a little intimidated my the finishing process. I know I am not the only shaving slinger who faces this issue. I'm sure there are several reasons for this.

As I've said before, Norm Abrahms was my gateway into the woodworking world. Over a decade ago I would watch his show every chance, and while he spent nine tenths of the show going over the details of machining the wood and lovingly placing every biscuit. He would wrap up the finishing in less than five minutes, always telling us what he was using, but never the why.

I had similar experiences in most of the mainstream woodworking media, and even to some extent in books, even books written about finishing. There was a piece that was missing for me in those places. I couldn't put my finger on it, hell I probably still couldn't tell you exactly what that thing is. It doesn't fit well into words, not for me at least. I read about the guys I looked up to using these wonderfully complex finishes but what I couldn't get was why they chose to use them. 

What makes a woodworker decide to use a danish oil or a french polish? What's the best way to finish walnut? Pine? Bulbinga? How do you know when to choose?

I think I may be starting to figure it out, somewhat. And it's not something that came from a book, or a blog, or a group of magical elves that appear in my shop at night while I sleep. Well it's not completely any of those things anyway, it's partially those things and partially something else.

Let me try and explain it like this:

I have a friend who is a bladesmith. A blacksmith who specializes in making swords, daggers, knives, spears,  axes, and other general implements of use in dismantling a human body. I've bought several of Daniel's pieces over the years and I love his work. He has an keen eye for subtle lines and grace in historical accuracy. He's been at it for many years and I've always considered him very accomplished.

A while back I was visiting with him and he said he was excited because he had finally cracked the secret of correctly tempering steel. I admit I was a little surprised by the admission.

"Haven't you been tempering your blades for years?" I asked

"Well, yes," he said, "but not always the right way."

Confused? I still was too.

Daniel went on to explain how the man who got him started in smithing taught him to temper like it reads in the books, but he also told him that this wasn't the best way, or even the right way. He told Daniel he'd have to search for that on his own and he'd know it when he found it. After several years of experience and experimenting, he finally found it.

Now I don't agree with the concept of intentionally with-holding information, and I know on the surface it can seem like this is what happened in my friend's case. But there's something to be said for earning something important. A nugget of knowledge earned is a much more treasured thing. Daniel finally conquered an important thing through perseverance and experience, and along that path he learned tempering in a much more subtle and thorough way. He was given the groundwork and set on his own path to learn something difficult to accurately explain in words and even pictures.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Take On Starting To Carve Part Three

This is a continued expression of some of my thoughts and feelings about carving and getting started. I'll give a warning that your own individual mileage may vary based on where you come from and what you want to accomplish. If you're just arriving to the conversation feel free to catch up on the previous posts in this vein. Part one can be found HERE and part 2 is HERE. This post tends to feel a bit more opinionated so consider yourself warned.

Inspiration, or What Do I Carve?

Inspiration is a precious metal that can sometimes be difficult to pan for. When looking to begin designing a worthwhile piece of furniture, then inspiration can be difficult enough. If you are looking to add a carved element to that piece then you up the ante a bit.

If you are working on a straight up reproduction piece then by all means follow the details of the original as close as possible. If instead you are headed out into the no man's land of creativity then you have to play by a different set of rules. Lately I've been building a series of carved boxes, mostly to hold a bottle or two of wine. I would call the carvings I've done for them inspired by 17th century techniques and patterns, but I haven't tried to make anything a precise, or even semi precise reproduction.

So how do I come up with what I'm going to carve. To be honest, when I step up to the bench, chisel in hand, I have a somewhat vague idea of where I'm starting and where I'm going. Once the chisel hits wood though, all bets are off. A mistake may lead me down another path different from where I intended. The carving begins to take on a life and mind of it's own with each previous step dictating the next.

It may sound strange, in fact I'm positive it sounds weird as hell, it's even strange to try and write about. I chalk a lot of it up to my art background. In a past life, teenage years to young twenties, I was certain I was going to be a fine artist. I took all the art instruction I could find, including college level seminars. Given anything resembling real ambition at that age I would have continued on to college at an "Art School" (The Fine Arts Program at UW-Madison was my dream) The moral of the story is I spent a lot of time and energy training my eyes to see and my hands to work on whatever paper or canvas was in front of me. The other thing I learned to do was relax and trust my eyes and my instincts, and know that sometimes a work turns out and sometimes it's trash. You just keep moving forward either way.

Before slings and arrows are thrown let me say I understand that this process might not work for everyone right away. I certainly believe anyone can learn to work this way to some extent, and it's a good skill set to have. And don't believe for a second that these things happen without planning. There is a lot of thought and planning that goes into each piece I build and carve. Without the planing foundation the creativity cannot be built on top.

Above is a picture of my most recent carved box. I think I may best illustrate my process by walking you through the carving of the front panel.

All my work starts with my secret inspiration weapons. I have spent a decent amount of time snooping around local used book stores, both local and online, to pick up books with pictures of 17th Century furniture and their carvings. I also have a large file folder on my laptop with a couple hundred pictures of carvings and furniture.

 There's a lot of Peter Follansbee's work in the folder along with pictures from antique auction sites, museum pictures I've taken, and even the occasional eBay offering. I open the folder up and flip through looking for what I'm going to steal. I use the word steal but I almost never take a whole thing and steal wholesale. I find a bit I like, an idea or a flourish, and I add that to another idea I like, and through this process I start to build a plan in my mind.

Often I will print out between two and six images and bring them to my shop. I pin them to the cork board that hangs over my carving bench so I can reference them along the way. For this panel the main two I picked to work from looked like this. (You can see some notes scribbled in the margins.)

From here I started doing the layout for what I had in mind.

Using a dividers to layout a pattern is so very liberating. It allows me to both scale the work to the stock and build in the symmetry that is a big hallmark of this carving style.

Then I started in with the "V" chisel to define the broad strokes of the landscape. Here's where things sometimes start to flow on their own. Originally I had intended the layout to be much closer to how the bottom picture looks, but I slipped and started carving away a line I shouldn't have. No worries, no starting over, no tears, I simply changed the design in my mind and moved forward though. This did lead to something interesting later.

I also like how this technique allows you to punch out a design based on the chisels you have. If I were working off a pre-printed pattern stuck to my board with low tack stick-um spray I would worry and obsess over whether I had all the right chisels to make the right cuts. This technique saves me from entering that level of OCD.

After a little work I had most of the carving done, with one problem area. 

The arches between the central circle and the pinwheel medallions were there because of my miscue with the V chisel early on and I was now to the point I had to deal with them. I didn't want to fill them with a void, textured field. there needed to be some detail to break up the space more. Luckily my laptop had made the travel with me to the shop. I fired it up and opened my inspiration folder. I was looking for examples of how arches had been dealt with in period carvings.

I fell upon a picture of this box from the Chipstone Collection almost right away.

I looked deeper into the file, just to be thorough, but I kept coming back to this solution. I guess we had a winner. I selected a gouge sweep I thought would pull it off and stamped in the rounds at either end of the, I guess in the context of my carving, I'd call them petals. Then I used a V chisel to clean up in between.

I was pretty proud of my solution. Sometimes we have to paint ourselves into corners in order to create the best solution to escape. I took a picture and threw it up on the social media sites while I was cleaning up for the night. I got some response back on Google + that some guys thought it looked a little Mayan. That made me stop and look again and in a way those gentlemen were right. At first all I was seeing was 17th Century because that's where all the inspiration was stolen from, but the big petaled flowers and the circles were reminiscent of that ancient Central American flavor. That's a very curious phenomenon to me.

I think I may just be out of things to say when it comes to how I go about carving. I hope somewhere in this you may have found a nugget you can steal for yourself. If I figure out something else to add, I'll open my trap some more. Keeping my mouth shut has never been what's gotten me in trouble. If there's ever any questions, or if I can help confuse you some more you can always shoot me an email at

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Getting Something Off My Chest

No this post is not about breast reduction surgery, It is part admission and part redemption.

Nearly a year ago. last November, I started building the odyssey known as The Anarchist's Tool Chest, and here comes the admission part. I made some mistakes.

The first mistake was an early miscalculation. I ordered sixty board feet of 5/4 poplar for the project. As I neared the end of principal construction of the shell it dawned on me that although I was very miserly and calculating about my waste, I was not going to be able to stretch the stock enough to make the skirt or upper wrap

The "Unfinished" chest at work in the temporary winter shop I set up in our  apartment. 
The Second mistake happened during the construction of the shell. It is slightly, oh so slightly out of square. Unless you measure it out you cannot tell. When recognized and planned for this should not be a problem and it really isn't, but it is a mistake and it did compound some further issues.

Mistake three came as a factor of the first two. I built the lid square and a fraction undersized. First, square and unsquare do not match up perfectly well. Second I was trying to be so precise on my measuring, (the better to stretch my stock my dear) that the lid would not fit and allow a wrap around it without that wrap hitting on the sides of the shell.

If I had been smart enough I would have built the lid over sized and planed it down to the proper fit. Square, un-square just would not have mattered. I admit I was at a loss as to how to fix the problem right away so I moved into mistake number four. I moved forward and built the interior of the chest, filled it with tools and started to work out of it.

Once you have started using something like this it's tough to take it apart to finish it. There was a serious danger my version of the chest may have sat at 90% finished forever.

This past week I changed all that. Lately I've been re-reading the book that inspired the build and with a lull in the shop I figured I had enough time to finish the build. So I set up a couple saw horses and emptied the chest's contents out onto a couple boards.

The gift the last year had given me was time to devise a solution to my lid misfit.

I took the lid off the hinges and glued 3/4" thick pine around three sides of the perimeter. I left the back alone, I didn't want to shift where the hinges attached.

Since the lid stock is close to an inch thick, I had to face glue the pine on, I cut the boards oversize and planed them to match. Then I reattached the lid to it's hinges.

Then I cut some strips of 1/4 thick birch plywood and hot glued them to the top of the shell. I wonder if you can guess what comes next?

I broke out my Porter Cable router and a pattern bit. I know, it could be considered kind of shocking because of how I talk so much about hand tools incessantly, but after a lot of thinking I decided on this method as the fastest and most reliable. The bearing on the end of the bit rode around the case shell on the 1/4" plywood strips. After removing the strips this left me with a lid sized perfectly to the shell with a 1/4" overhang.

From there I was able to start on the skirt and wrap. also in dimensional 1X clear pine.

I got going by planing a chamfer, not a straight 45 degree chamfer, I offset it and removed 3/4" off the face and 1/2" off the edge.

The process of wrapping a case like this takes a little while to accomplish. You don't want to try and do this by breaking out the measuring tape, you want to lay things out and take them right from the case itself. Measuring and cutting one corner at a time.

The process is laid out thoroughly in The Anarchist Tool Chest.

The upper skirt is accomplished in the same manner. It has the same chamfer on the bottom.

And the top is wrapped on only three sides leaving the back without.

Finally I had a dust seal and completed the build of the chest. Next up comes the paint. I'm going to do a white undercoat with a darker red overcoat. I'm thinking I may do an oval on the front with a stenciled in logo for the Oldwolf Workshop Studio. But as we are beginning the moving process here in the next week or two the paint job will have to wait until I get into the new shop.

Until then I pushed the chest back in it's current home.

At first I staged this shot as kind of a vanity set up, a little to plug Chris's book and a little to celebrate finishing the build, mistakes and all. After I got home and started editing the photos I realized something different in the picture.

To the left of my ATC is the Old World Tool Chest my Father-In-Law gave me a while back. It currently holds a bunch of the odds and ends tools that came with it but it also holds my tools for green woodworking, splitting wedges, hewing axes, a froe and more. Getting this chest was my first inspiration for wanting to build a traditional tool chest like the one featured in The Anarchist's Tool Chest. I was inspired to start even before the book was published. I wrote a couple posts on the chest and you can find them HERE.

I find it fitting that these two sit next to each other. Originally I planned to retire the heirloom chest once mine was in play, but it has spent it's whole life holding tools, I think it needs to stay holding tools.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, September 10, 2012

I Never Even Knew This Existed.

Craigslist is the epitome of entropy.

I've never haunted the online classified site much, but our recent search for a new place has lead me to put an app on my cell phone that reads the site. Of course this has lead me to peruse both the "Tools" and the "Materials" areas. No tools have caught my eye, I've gotten down to some very specific things I'm looking for in that area and I'm probably never gonna find those among the mounds of used air compressors and Cold War Era power tools. I hadn't found much in the materials area either. Until.

I found a man selling around 70 board feet of rough saw 4/4 white oak for $100. As it happens I wanted to use white oak for my next project. A carved, joined 17th century chest for my oldest daughter's 16th birthday. At a buck forty three a board foot it seemed like a pretty good deal to me. I sent off an email and the next day he answered with a phone number and address.

I borrowed my father's pickup and went for a drive out into the country. I never really got the whole story but the man had some connection to a saw mill and a kiln, and the white oak looked good so I ponied up the bills. Then, like any good used car salesman or illicit drug pusher, he pointed to another stack of dead tree sitting in his garage and said something like "I'm looking to sell this stack of curly red oak too if you'd be interested."

I had to stop and figure out if I had heard him correctly. I had never heard a curly flavor of oak before. I looked through the stack and there was a lot of it, around 60+ board feet. and not just lightly figured or narrow boards. Wide and highly figured stock.

I'm not much for rare or exotic woods. I admit I love to look at the use of Tiger Flame Maple is Glen Huey's work. It's incredible looking, I just figured I would never have the chance to work with such stock. I buy my lumber on a budget and by the project. I debated and fiscal responsibility lost out. I pulled out some emergency cash I keep in my wallet and ponied up.

As I drove away I had a little buyer's remorse. I was on a schedule so I piled the boards in my shop and left. But as I did some research that night and thought about it I got a little more excited. The next day I got back out to the shop and took another look at the boards. I was impressed all over again. The stuff is fantastic and special. Even with the rough skim planing that had been done to the boards they sang. If I can get these planed and smooth and finished properly . . . . they will be an amazing part of a project.

I keep thinking about James Kernov's books that I've read and the piles of stock he would buy by the flitch to be selected for the perfect cabinet doors later. I'm kind of working backwards on this project, usually I select my project and choose my stock based on that. This time I have some mind blowing stock that is inspiring thoughts of a project. It's kind of exciting.

I'm not going to rush into it, I'm going to let it percolate for a while, but it's fun to think and plan.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Another Wine Ceremony Box

I harbor a dream of someday making a full time living connected with sawdust, be that building, designing, writing, teaching, or any combination thereof. To that end I have found some moderate success lately with small carved boxes to be used during a wedding ceremony in something called a Wine Ceremony.

 The box is intended to hold a bottle of wine and two letters, on from each side of the matrimonial union, for many, many years. I understand the standard plan is to open the box again on the twenty fifth anniversary. That means the box must face the test of time and life, moves from one house to another, handling by children and waiting on a shelf.

That means bomb proof joinery is needed. Joinery that is just as strong as the bonds that hold a long and successful marriage together. My marriage is on the doorstep of our seventeenth anniversary and the bond we have is the thing I am most proud of in my life. I hope all these boxes make it to couples who are as fortunate as we are.

The dovetails are fun and functional, but the real star of the box is the carvings I get to cover them with. This process always starts with the simple, humble dividers. I divide the board in half in both directions and scratch the basic shapes in to achieve symmetry.

Then I follow with some initial work, carving out the big ideas with a V chisel and stamping in the patterned shaped with various sweeps of gouges.

With the basics stamped in, the next step is to remove the background from the design.

Texturing the background helps it contrast with the foreground. I also try and create the hints of motion with the texture tool by stamping it in a radius like the outer circle.

The front plate is finished, Time to start the lid.

This client wanted a "S & S" carved on the inside of the box. I find lettering to be the most technically challenging thing to carve. Everyone knows letters, the have expectations about how they should look. Letters are one of the few things I make a template for and utilize some carbon paper to get them right.

Then comes the glue up. Hide glue of course.

Then comes the carving for the lid. For this application I try and stick with an opposing heart centerpiece on the lid. Two hearts coming together as one. I think you can understand the idea and meaning.

I managed to get some good final pics at a local park. The lighting was perfect.

Ratione et Passionis