Friday, July 26, 2013

Epiphany In A Pine Stick.

The thing that keeps me interested in woodworking long term is the problem solving. In front of you are some real world problems facing you in real time and you have to use your accumulated knowledge and experience to solve those problems, preferably an efficient manner.

The problem solving doesn't just fall into the "How will I connect these two boards together?" category either. Sometimes the most daunting problems fall along the lines of "How will I safely hold this board to work on it?" Note that safely is the key word in that sentence.

I think back to the first time I used a holdfast. Epiphany. The first time I crosscut with a bench hook. Epiphany. Planing a moulding on a sticking board. Epiphany.

Epiphany may be a strong word to some, but I can't come up with another word that would convey the little breakthroughs of understanding that accompany these positive experiences, and the following effect on my methods of work.

Work holding can be a tough adventure. A good workbench is key, mine is kind of middling. A good workbench should be able to hold a board so you can work on either the edge, the face, or the end, plus hold the appliances you need to accomplish various joinery techniques. My bench worked well in most of these categories. The operation I was unhappy with was holding a board to plane the face for flattening, thicknessing, and smoothing. Ideally one would use their wagon vise and bench dogs to hold for this work. Unfortunately I have and use dogs, but I don't have a wagon vise equipped on my bench.

Instead I used a series of dogs stuffed in holes to push against like in this picture from a 15th century German manuscript. Two dogs on the end, sometimes with a thin "plane stop" (read offcut) stretched between them, and at least two more dogs along the far side.

This system works well for working on a series of the same length boards. Traversing with the jack plane can be interesting if the board length doesn't fall in close proximity to the spacing of your dog holes. It's also difficult to work when you want the side of the board to hang off the side of the bench a little so you can get easy clearance with your plow or rabbeting plane fence. But I've made it work for years.

Then I spend a little time cruising the youtube last week and I come across this video by Richard Maguire. A fellow sawdust maker from across the Atlantic who calls himself The English Woodworker. He builds workbenches and has a very nice blog going, but the video that drew me in was pure magic and possible an answer to my workholding problems. He talks about an accessory to the holdfast called a Batten. A simple notch cut into the end of a thinner board and used with a holdfast to wedge your workpiece against a bench dog.

Today I made it out to the shop early in the day with the plan to start rehabbing / rebuilding a craftsman style desk left at the house by the previous owner. It's in rough shape but my middle daughter begged to have it for her room and I promised to make it nice for her. But before I got to work sanding the grime and damaged finish off the salvaged pieces, I decided to make myself a batten.

A piece of pine planed down to about 5/8" thick and a 90 degree angle notch cut in one end.

You place one end of the workpiece against the dog and fit the batten to the other end. Securing it in place with the holdfast.

Then you push into the workbench to wedge the batten against the workpiece, pushing it into the dog and holding it very securely. It works very well and in infinitely adaptable to board lengths and only requires pulling up the holdfast and moving it to a different hole, as opposed to banging out and moving up to three bench dogs like I used to do.

The video explains it very well, in it Richard talks about it being an old technique, not something he had come up with, but he didn't mention any provenance for the idea. I made a little connection myself. With Don Williams first volume of a Roubo translation due out soon and the big bench build-off going on down in Georgia there has been a renewed focus on Roubo in my mind and I'm sure in others. Just today I caught myself looking at the infamous Plate 11 and the massive timbered benches that are displayed there

I notice something new almost every time I look closely at it. Today I noticed what wasn't there. a wagon vise or end vise too. This, the ultimate of workbenches, is advertised as simple as a plane stop and a holdfast or two. The leg vise is optional. I knew there had to be something like the batten on one of the lesser worshipped plates.

So I delved into the copies of the plates I downloaded from the New York Public Library website (You can view them all yourself HERE) and sure enough on plate 14 I found it.

Figure 17, hanging out next to checking a board for square edges and using winding sticks. It's fun to find evidence for such a simple concept in these etchings. It's possible I have it wrong and figure 17 is described in the text (something I don't have a copy of and couldn't read if I did) as a support board for cutting fretwork with a turning saw or something similar. I'm sure someone will let me know if I'm barking up the wrong tree.

Let me tell you though, either way it works great and I wish I had known about it a long time ago. This changes the way I flatten stock, plane rabbets, and even my workholding for carving. Watch the video Richard shot HERE and try one yourself. If you hate it you're only out a little piece of pine. If you love it, it could be an epiphany. (There's that word again.)

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Now What Do I Do With It?

I did a carving demo on the 4th of July.  I didn't do a whole lot of planning ahead of time but I knew I wanted to work on an "S" curve pattern so I printed a few pictures to work from. Then I grabbed a piece of red oak offcut, my bench, and tools and headed out the door.

It was a good day. I visited with a lot of people as I worked away carving out the pattern. I got a long way but I didn't quite finish the carving. I pulled up to the bench this morning and finished the carving. It's a fun pattern to pull off.

There's one problem. Usually I have a project in mind when I start a demo. A document box, a panel, something. This time I just carved a random oak board, and I'm a little lost about what to do with it now. It measures 38 1/2" long by 8" wide. It's too wide to be a good rail for a joined chest, and it's now panel shaped. It's too long to be a side for a document box.

What would you do with it?

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

States of Matter

Physics tells us matter has four separate and distinct fundamental states: gas, solid, liquid, and plasma. I'm not sure if you could say the exact same about wood (beyond the theoretical make up of it's basic elements) but wood I've worked with seems to exist in three states of being: kiln dried, air dried, and green.

All three states of wood behave a little differently while you're working on them, and in order to really learn my media of choice I've tried to gain some experience in all three states. Kiln dried is easy to come by these days and I have some air dried walnut I've used in several projects, but I haven't had much opportunity to make some shavings from the green side of life.

So what better way to break in a new shop than to try a little green woodworking exercise. I had a nice section of willow branch from a tree I helped my parents remove and I though this was a good chance to try my hand at spoon carving. For a while I've wanted to give this rustic woodworking exercise a try but I was waiting on one piece of equipment.

An oak hewing stump. I brought it home while I was still in the old shop, so I had to move it twice, but this was the first real chance I had to work with it.

I'm afraid that carving a spoon seems to be a little like carving for me, at least when it comes to documentation and taking photos. I get into the middle of working and I kind of lose sense of everything else going on.

I've watched several videos on spoon carving, some with Peter Follansbee and I own the FWW DVD "Carving Swedish Woodenware" done by Jogge Sundqvist, but I hadn't tried these things out for myself yet. I did learn you cannot take them from stick to finished in one sitting. You have to let them dry a little in between, and the first step looks kind of rough.

Here is the spoon, freshly busted out of the branch.

I brought the spoon into the house where the humidity is lower and let it dry for a week. After that I renewed my attack. I smoothed and refined the lines and sanded it down with some 220 grit paper. I tried a simple chip carved design on the handle and quickly realized I need to work on my technique there. I also added a little flair to the end of the spoon.

I picked up some mineral oil last night and I'll get around to treating the spoon today. I found this to be a fun and worthwhile diversion.

Now that I think about it more. I think the fourth state of wood might come in the wonderful and warm concoction that allows family and friends to gather, drink beer, and talk smart. One of the best of man's inventions, the backyard firepit.

Ratione et Passionis

Friday, July 12, 2013

My Luddite Transformation is Almost Complete

This isn't a note about woodworking, moreover it's a quick note about how my choices in the shop over the last several years have started to influence my life outside the shop.

Many years ago I was envious and frustrated. I had fallen into the New Yankee Trap. I thought I would have to fill a shop full of wondrous machinations and ingeniously constructed jigs of all shape size and color to finally begin turning out the furniture of my dreams. I just needed to figure out a way to afford that next great thing.

I was a fool. I have grown and matured and now I know better.

I have a tool chest full of tools that can build anything I desire. I have a want for only a few more "big" purchases and I will consider myself complete. Until then I have learned to work around those small holes in my woodworking arsenal by using different techniques. Woodworking hand tools are the epitome of versatility, (often with no jig construction required)

To top it off my hand tools are exceedingly easier to maintain and care for over the long haul. most of them only require regular sharpening to work well.

So how have these learned experiences affected me outside the shop?

I've mentioned here that we have finally moved into a new home, this has been a great thing for us. After living on the fifth floor of a large apartment complex for the past few years I have found myself without some of the items one needs to care for and maintain a yard. The big item, a lawnmower.

I borrowed my in-laws for a few weeks until that was tiresome and I decided to go to the area Farm and Fleet store to pick one out for myself. I always hate buying lawnmowers, heck I could say I hate lawnmowers. They are loud, smelly, obnoxious things that have the constitution of an anemic, anorexic diva. One little thing pushes them from their comfort zone and they give up the ghost and refuse to work. When you have someone look at them to see what the problem is, the answer is often, "I can fix it, but it will be cheaper on you if you went and bought a new one."

I am not hard on my tools at all, and even following all the instructions provided in the three page owner's manual, (ok fifteen pages, but with five languages squeezed in there) I have never had a push mower last more than three years.

I grumbled about these experiences as we mulled around several isles of push mowers. Prices have gone up more than I had anticipated and I started to feel sick about the money I was about to flush down the drain on this deal. Then I saw my salvation.

It was a rotary blade push mower made by Fiskars. At first I joked with my wife about it. "Maybe I should just get that one."

Then I started to think about it more seriously, and what was a joke became a serious consideration. It was no more money than the other push mowers. It was geared at the wheels to make pushing easier than these mowers had been in the "old days" New ideas applied to old technology gets me every time.

I bought it, and so far I am so glad I did.

It took a little adjusting to my technique, you have to cut with momentum behind you, and it took a little tweaking to set the blades right, just like setting a smoothing plane, but it provides a nice cut to the grass. It;s lighter to push than the gas powered versions. I don't have to make a interupted trip to the gas station halfway through the job because I ran out of gas and forgot to fill the can. I don't have to buy gas and oil and keep it in my garage any longer. I don't have to wear ear plugs while I mow. I can let go of it and pick up a stick that blew out of my trees and then go back to mowing without restarting it or lashing the lever down to the handle against the manufacturer recommendations. I can mow early in the morning or late at night without disturbing my neighbors. And when I pull a couple cotter pins the handle slides off and I can store the mower on the wall of my garage and save the floorspace.

Beyond keeping it clean and making sure the wheels aren't going to fall off, the only real maintenance I need to do is sharpen the blades periodically. Heck my daughters are even finding it easier to mow this way.

As I said, My transformation to a complete luddite may be nearly complete. Who knows what will be next.

Ratione et Passionis

Friday, July 5, 2013

Finishing Is A Journey.

"Once this year, I want you to take one of your pieces and work it over so much you think you'll ruin it. Just keep adding to it and taking away from it past the point where you're afraid. You have to learn where the limits are."

Not much stuck in my head back in school, I've forgotten most of it. But I distinctly remember the first day of this honors Art class with a new, fresh out of school art teacher, and those words come out of her mouth. "She's freaking CRAZY!" I told a classmate later, "It's my art I should be able to decide when it's done. I don't want to ruin anything."

It took me years to gather the maturity to really understand the concept she was trying to help us realize. Pushing something beyond where you're concience is telling you to stop is a scary thing, especially when you're pushing the boundries on something you've put a lot of sweat equity into already. I felt like I was ready to push my boundries into uncharted waters when it came to finishing and once I finished construction on the tool rack I had the right piece to push the boundries on.

It's been a while since I wrote about the tool rack. It's something I decided to build for the new shop. If you need to refresh your memory on the journey you can find all the posts (including this one) collected together HERE. Blogger organizes them in reverse chronological order so the newest post (this one) will be at the top of the page, just keep scrolling down to find older.
I decided to use the tool rack to play with multiple layers of finishing techniques. I started by applying a basic oil stain. 

I wanted something darkish, that was all I cared about. I took several old cans of oil stain and poured them together through a strainer. I let the stain sit for a while and wiped off the excess.

After the stain set and dried for a day, I attacked it with a can of shellac I needed to use up. A mixture of amber and blond shellac I had dumped together and had cut fairly thin. I just applied layers until the jar was empty. I think I got eight coats out of it.

Now came the problem. I really liked how the stain and shellac looked. But I'd promised to push this past the limits of my normal taste. I took a deep breath and cracked open a can of oil based white primer.

I couldn't bring myself to take a picture of how it looked. I had thinned the paint 1:1 with mineral spirits and tried to paint a surface and then wipe most of the paint away with a rag. It was a warm day and I was painting in the sun and the paint was drying far to fast for me to keep up with. In the end I resorted to eltting it dry and then comming back with a random orbit sander and some 100 grit paper to take it down to where it wasn't so bad.

But the white was just too white and clean. I wanted to add some yellowing and age. I had a can of amber dye and reducer. I mixed those 1:1 and applied them over the paint.

I liked how the white paint, yellowed from the dye, looked around the carvings. I thought I may have finally pushed things far enough. I had a can of aresol spray, semi gloss polyurethane wasting away on the shelf. I have the rack a couple coats of that until the can was gone.

I let it sit out of sight for a couple days and came back to it. I still really liked the carvings but the glow from the dye was simply overpowering to look at. A little help and input from some friends on Google+ and I knew what I had to do.

I taped off the carvings and hit the rest of the piece with some matte black spray paint. It was the prefect thing. The carvings and the rail popped and the rest of the piece fell subtly to the background. Now I was happy. And I knew with the spray paint over the polyurethane, that time and use would wear away the black paint and expose the other layers of finish beneath. 

Here's the finished rack hanging in the new shop. I am really happy with it and I was able to use it to replace a boring basic storage shelf I'd had floating around for a few years before. Even better. 

In the end I'm glad I remembered the words that "crazy" teacher had spoken to me years ago. As time progresses I'll have less fear and more experience layering finishes for the future. I'm not sure I'll paint over carvings again . . . but you never know.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Starting to Put It Together In My Mind

It wasn't really all that long ago, in historical terms, that average and mostly anonymous craftsman created many pieces of furniture that are cherished and venerated today. Their work commands a kings ransom at auction houses and is treasured in museums and the homes of collectors. It could be argued this reverence comes from the history and age associated with the pieces, but if thats the case why are the collections I've been able to visit most housed in art museums? Why do modern artisans and craftsmen struggle to recreate these pieces down to the millimeter of accuracy. Let's not even mention the piles of plans and measured drawings produced by the woodworking media to sell us the latest "newly discovered, never before published" version of a Newport Highboy or Shaker Cabinet. 

I've been thinking a lot about design and furniture styles and nearly everything encompassing those circles lately. The impetus for these rumblings comes from two sources. The first is our new house and the sad fact that we don't have enough good furniture to suit ourselves. I can build furniture and I can fix this problem, but I want to build furniture that will last us the rest of our lives, so building beautiful furniture that is designed right for our tastes and lifestyle is important. I want the pieces I build to work together with each other and with the house itself. Similar in experience to what I was talking about HERE after reading "Poems of Wood and Light."

The second is I have been reading my way through the new book from Lost Art Press by George Walker and Jim Tolpin called "By Hand and Eye." The book speaks to me from my own interest in history. I've spent good time and energy figuring out how woodworkers of the past created furniture from a technical point of view. Planing boards flat by hand and cutting dovetails with a backsaw. But the technical side is only half the picture. Knowing how to fold a crease into a piece of paper doesn't give you the ability to create origami and knowing how to make a mortise and tenon joint with a chisel and saw doesn't imply the ability to make beautiful furniture. 

"The Joiner and Cabinetmaker" is one of the better woodworking tomes put to print in the last decade or more. I'll give the caveat that it is a mostly a reprint of an older book accompanied by research. In general it is very well received and I can't remember ever reading a dissenting or belittling review of it. 

Fairly early on in the text of the actual book (Pg 56 - 58) there is a small passage that fascinated me when I read it, yet it seems to have garnered little notice. Reading "By Hand and Eye" brought this passage back to mind and I had to revisit it again. It tells about the care an apprentice must take if he is to go out to a customer's home and measure the space to fit a new cabinet. It goes on about how he must carefully check and double check the height, width, depth, and write these numbers legibly on a piece of paper, scratching them onto the back of a snuff box with a point of a nail is unacceptable. 

The book's point of view puts you in the shoes of the apprentice, but after re-reading the book a couple times I started to think of this passage from the journeyman's point of view. 

Picture it. 

You're working hard in the shop on a Wednesday morning, putting the finishing touches on a client's chest of drawers. Suddenly the Master stops at your bench and hands you a piece of paper with measurements the apprentice Thomas was sent to collect yesterday. On the paper is the numbers for height, width, and depth and maybe a few other notes in the Master's hand. The cabinet is to be made of oak and deal and have drawers underneath and doors on top. 

Now hop to it!!

I would argue that anyone could slap a box together to fit into those proscribed measurements, but you have to take into account the information and tradition reinforced in the rest of the book. The apprentice tradition described worked very hard to build on a foundation of good, careful, quality work. A tradition of doing things the right way the first time. It was of the utmost importance the client be happy with the finished piece and all the careful dovetailing in the world won't help a malformed, misshapen piece that belongs on the island of misfit toys. 

I wonder how I would fare if placed in that situation. Surely I could hit the measurements, but would my work have visual appeal? Would it be utilitarian enough to perform it's duties? Would it survive the test of time and someday be placed in a cozy,, climate controlled museum as a prime example of furniture from the period. 

I probably could do all these things if given enough time and enough chance at trial and error. Certainly if I sketched out a measured drawing or four then proceeded into several versions of mock-ups and prototypes until I had the details dialed in satisfactorily. But could I do all this and build the final cabinet in around a week's time? 

The end of this passage in the book talks about Bill Sharp. He was a good workman who was just a little sloppy and poor at taking and following measurements. He was dismissed from the shop because his cabinet wouldn't fit in the space measured. The book says it was a good cabinet though and it only took him a week to build it. 

Could you design and build a successful cabinet in a work week? 

Up until now I'm not sure I could either. But the book "By Hand and Eye" is opening my eyes on how an 18th century journeyman may have attacked the problem "at the point of the tool" and it has been quite a journey for me so far. I've not even finished my first tour through the pages and I'm already picking up so much. I should say I'm relearning a lot of the things I learned to years ago in Art and Humanities classes and have forgotten or misplaced over time.This is a good thing.  

I'm learning it's OK to trust my eye. Learning to break things down into shapes and proportions. Learning to size things to the body and the space it's to fit into. Other design books I've read have been profiles in particular styles or focused on measurements with some nods to perspective and other larger ideas. They just haven't been all that this book has been so far. 

Cutting dovetails is easy. Designing the right piece, with the right place, for those dovetails, that's much more challenging. With the furniture I have to build for this house and the work I want to accomplish in my writing pursuits I'm glad to have this book in my hands and now that the new shop is finally in order, I can start to put it to practice and build the pieces that fit us, fit our house, and fill our lives. 

Ratione et Passionis