Saturday, September 28, 2013

No Matter What, No Compromises.

"To say dovetails are hand made joints is to say nothing. To tell about dovetails in terms of angles and traditional regular spacing is a bit more - but dull. To give a feeling of this classic joint in various situations - how spacing can be made less monotonous and at the same time more logical, how dovetail angles are related to different woods and the sense of tension in each, to convey the rhythm of a joint and it's clarity of purpose - is something else again."
-James Krenov, "The Fine Art Of Cabinetmaking"

I suppose, in the end, anything can be construed as a philosophy, that probably goes double for woodworker's and dovetails. I imagine there could be a whole weekend seminar that covered nothing but the ink and digital memory that has been sacrificed in the name of the "holy" joint. Dr. Phil could have a breakout session where we explore "What your dovetail choices say about you."

There is some justification.

They are a technically challenging joint to create and they are, right or wrong, a joint that even non-woodworkers recognise as a symbol of quality and craftsmanship.

I will admit. In a lot of my recent work my dovetailing has become a more relaxed thing. I've measured out the spacing and the depth, but I haven't used measured angles or worried about being super precise in the spacing. They have been on workmanlike projects or for a skirt around a chest where the variety carries the rustic look I'm after.

This project requires a little more precision, to create the drama and tension of purpose the joint and the cabinet deserves. My answer to that is to create a template and use that to transfer the same spacing on all four corners.

Typically if I lay out the angles I like to use a 14 degree angle. This time that choice created a problem. The thinner pins of the layout, combined with the near one inch thickness of the stock led the 14 degree angles to intersect perfectly at the bottom layout line. I pondered the problem for a minute, pulled out another angle guide, and set it to a different, more appropriate angle.

I marked the gauges so I could keep track of which ones to use.

In the end the different angles represented in the jointline offer that small amount of interest and detail I was looking for all along. A simple thing that demonstrates the flexibility of handwork. Even with the expensive, uber dovetailing jigs out there for routers you can create the offset spacing, but the spacing and the transition of angle. Possible I suppose, but not very practical. My dovetail philosophy ties directly into hand cutting the work so I'm dictating the layout and look. Nothing is dictated to me by my jig.

I find myself flagging back and forth more and more these days between hand work and machine work. For a long while I was becoming very dogmatic about handwork, but that was also in the midst of learning and mastering those skills. Pride sometimes leads to zealotry. The longer I work, the more I come around to something more akin to a semi-hybrid shop experience. I say semi-hybrid, because at the most, I'd say I'm still sitting at 75% handwork.

Philosophy can be made from all types of things, whether it's dovetails or pride in your methods of work. I believe the fact that you are accomplishing something is more important than the philosophy involved. If you can bring all your philosophies into congruence with your end results and a piece finished with no compromises, then you win.

My new workshop philosophy. "No Matter What, No Compromises."

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reverse Engineering A Carcass.

Woodworking is an exercise in problem solving. There are two kinds of problems, the ones that life pushes on you, and the ones that you create for yourself. The later is usually the more difficult to deal with.

I started to plan and build a wall cabinet inspired by James Krenov's work, a little outside the sphere of work that people have come to expect from me. Taking a shot at it is one part prove to myself I can, one part prove to the world I can, and one part "because I just want to, that's why." The inspiration was a pair of pine boards I found in a pile at the home store and immediately visualized as doors for this kind of cabinet.

In my own way, I decided to build the doors first. You can read about them HERE. Standard logic says you should build the carcass first and fit the doors to it. As I've said before, here at the Oldwolf Workshop we follow the standard substandard logic. Now my logic had forced me to reverse engineer the carcass.

I had a nice 5/4 cherry board with some great grain, a little interesting but not in a crazy way, and I thought it would make a nice compliment to the wildness of the pine doors. At a little over eight foot of board I had just enough to squeeze the four sides out of the one board.

I planed and worked the boards flat and square on all surfaces. Not killing for a universal thickness. hand work allows you some freedom in millimeters of variation one board to another, just working for surfaces as true and square as possible.

One of my personal challenges for this build is to work without taking measurements. That is to say, I'm not interested in using numbers to size things. I'm trying to work more by eye and with a sense of proportion rather than follow out a plan of known measurements from a scaled drawing. I've been reaching for story sticks, sectors and dividers instead of my folding rule and tape measure.

The cabinet is to be as wide as the doors with through dovetail joints in the corners. I laid out the doors with a couple coins in between to help set the gap, and laid the roughly sized carcass end on top. I squared one end and used a pencil to scribe the width of the doors onto the blank. Scribing with a sharp pencil can come close but will still leave a couple thousandths of an inch wide. This was OK with me and I knew there would be sanding and more surface removal to do on the carcass after it was assembled so it's a planned overshoot.

If the end result of the carcass is more narrow than the doors, I will plane the doors down a little more to get the fit and look I'm after.

I re-marked the pencil line square with a tri-square. (It wasn't really off much more than a wiggle of the wrist) and sawed down, splitting the pencil line. Then I took the other carcass end and sized one to the other until they matched.

With the ends done I began on the sides. I laid out a door and the carcass ends and butted the side to them. The ends are included because in the final idea the top and bottom of the carcass have a curved profile that moves out proud of the doors and the carcass sides will snuggle behind them.

I marked this set up on the side, squared the line, cut down the side and sized the other carcass side to the first.

The most difficult part of all. Having to wait until I completed all the joinery (dovetails, rebates, and dados) before I could find out if I had done things well.

Ratione et Passionis.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Starting With Simplicity

I had three main boards and some off-cuts to start building my Kernovian style wall cabinet. All had been floating in the wood pile for a little while. The two pine boards I spoke about and one narrower cherry board. Just enough for the doors, carcass, and back. The interior fittings and detail pieces would be made up from my offcut pile and a small stash of exotics I've been hoarding away.

The smart way to build a cabinet is to build the carcass first, then fit the other parts to the finished carcass. I didn't follow the standard logic this time. Getting the doors to look right was the most important part of this design and build for me so that's where I started. Everything else would be fit to them.

I knew the height of the cabinet would force me to include some bigger knots on the doors. I laid the boards out and tried to decide best what to do. At first I really liked the look and symmetry I could achieve with the double knots on the far right side of the photo but there was some good cracking, checking, and chipping on the ends and I decided to make my cuts to balance the next knots down.

Here's the basic door stock as they are planned to be in the finished product.

Even the endgrain of these pine boards was interesting and spectacular.

Then I got worried about wood movement. Pine likes to move quite a bit. I decided my best bet would be to make breadboard ends to cut down on any severe warping. I ripped some cherry offcut at about 2 1/2", resawed and planed it down to the same thickness as the pine, and then laid it out to try and get the grain of the cherry to flow right from one door to the other.

When I see Krenov cabinets built by other woodworkers out on the internet I think attention to the grain overall is one of the thing that gets missed some. The maker has a great piece of figured walnut board, butterflied and edge joined for the door, and it looks fantastic at a glance, but then as you look deeper you see interesting grain choices, (or lack of conscious choice) in the grain patterns of the frames and carcass.

I'm not saying I got it perfectly right, I may have failed to get the right look when I see the piece finished, but I tried to pay attention to it, and I tried to get it right.

Rather than rebate plane across the funky grain of this pine, I opted to make my breadboard tenons on the tablesaw with a series of parallel cuts finished by paring with a chisel and a slick.

The end fit was fussy to achieve, but getting the joints right and tight was important.

 I drilled some 1/4" holes through the cherry and the pine tenon.

And marked out to square the holes with some chisel work. I have a square mortising bit that goes into the drill press, but it seemed like too much effort to dig it out for this.

The chisel achieved my goal perfectly.

A while back I resawed some African Blackwood into slightly larger that 1/4" x 1/4" stock to use as pins. I used a block plane to pare each peg down to fit individually into the holes.

The effect after they were glued in place and flush cut away was just what I was after. I made the decision to tip the center peg into a diamond profile on the fly to add some interest and accent. I think it worked out well.

I trimmed the sides and ends and the doors are done except for their face sanding to remove the working marks and smooth them out even.

Next will be sizing a cabinet to fit a door, an exercise in problem solving.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Testing Myself.

Some people think I'm crazy, but I like the idea of tests. Even when I was back in school I would rather take a test than any other schoolwork. Tests are logical and measurable and good tests challenge you and tell you what you know and a little bit of who you are.

I wish there were tests, real tests, for woodworking. Not the kind of ridiculous woodworking tests Bill Schenher over at Billy's Little Bench Blog has been taking. Instead I think there are a handful of Must Build lifetime projects that you should accomplish to consider yourself a well rounded woodworker.

Before the poo starts flinging, I don't pretend to have that list, infact that list may be different for me than it is for you. For me it includes some items like a Windsor Chair and a Pembroke table. Those tests are a little away from me yet, but it was time for me to knock something off my list.

I admire the hell out of James Krenov's cabinets. The plays on proportion and wood grain make them masterworks before you begin to look at the close details that prove they're masterworks. Though I admire them, the more modernist style seems outside my normal playground, and it is, and for a long time I considered building one beyond me.

Back in April of 2011 I was buying a selection of pine boards for a project. Amongst the pile was one starnge looking board, pockmarked across the grain.

"Well that looks weird." I thought.

Then after a bit I found another similar one. I set them down to one side as I picked the other boards I needed. As I started returning reject boards to the pile I saved these two for last. Though I didn't really have the money budgeted for them, I brought them back to the shop. I wrote a post about them you can read HERE. They were meant to be for my take on a Krenov style cabinet.

Over time I have sheltered these board. I kept them nestled, protected in the rafters of my old shop instead of piled out, semi protected under a lean-to like most of my other stock. There has been several times where I could take the next step in a project today "if I only had one pine board," to use for drawer sides, or a chest's skirt, or something else. I would stare at the pair for a few minutes, pondering their fate, then go get in my car to go buy a new board instead.

The three of us have developed a relationship, and eventually sawing into them was one of the more nerve racking moments I've ever had in the shop. For one, because once I've cut them, there's no going back. It's cabinet or firepit. And two is the result of a personal decision to build this cabinet without a lot of planned out drawings and measurements, without referring to my "golden ratio calculator" iPhone app, without a whole lot of numerical measuring at all.

I have a picture in my mind, a feeling I'm trying to capture, and until I reach the end I won't know if I've accomplished it or not. I sometimes pride myself on my speed of production, but I'm taking slow and steady steps with this one, like walking a tightrope.

Take a step, check my decision, reassess my plan, take a step . . . you get the idea.

I don't want to miss a detail because I've decided to move too fast. I've done that before. I hate myself when I do that. This cabinet is me, testing myself to the highest quality work I can do.

That only ensures that in a decade I'll look back at the piece and laugh at my idealistic naivete.

Ratione et Passionis.

Monday, September 16, 2013

My Argument For A "Top Shop" Reality Show.

For the last few years my family has gotten along just fine without cable television and 600 channels of nothing. We had a Wifi connection and all the internet TV we could watch, supplemented by an HD antenna for local channels. When we moved into our new house my wife convinced me we should give it another try. I suppose convinced is a strong word, but it didn't seem like something to squabble over.

The end result is when I sit down to catch my breath at the end of the day, I end up watching some shows I would have never searched out without a mindless stare and a remote control.

I am only human, and grabbing the attention of my demographic is a studied art form, I'm bound to fall victim to a couple guilty pleasures it galls me to admit I've watched. One of them has been "Ink Master." I don't have any tattoos myself, not because I have an aversion to them. More a lack of money and opportunity converging at the same time. The art styles interest me though and I like looking at the ink other's have collected over their lives.

The show's format is simple and similar to other shows like "Top Chef" a group of hopefuls are gathered and put through a series of tests of their ability and time management skills and three to four experienced experts sit in judgement of their work.

Of course the producers make story lines out of the participants backgrounds and interactions with others and stereotypical roles are filled. Someone's the villain, someone's the drama queen, and someone is the cheater. But, whether it's needed or not, the soap opera side of the deal is ubiquitous and expected.

Here's my argument:

I think there's room in the world for a woodworking competition reality show. I know several years ago there was a show of handyman variety, but my memory tells me it was centered around carpentry skills. I would like to see a group of a dozen woodworkers gathered together and put through a furniture building competition.

I understand the issue is the length of time some builds can be. It's pretty obvious a Philadelphia Highboy isn't going to be a basic challenge, but given open shop time, imagine what you could accomplish in three days of pure build time with a day of finishing time. Conceivably you could accomplish three projects in a two week period.

Exhausting, probably in fact most definitely, but the endurance is part of the challenge. And maybe in the end the Highboy can be part of the challenge. Say two weeks to build a Highboy for the final challenge.  

 The upside? Beyond providing me with some relatable television viewing opportunities.

1. Promotion of the craft to possible clients. If done correctly and done well (two lofty goals I know) the show can promote custom built furniture. It can show people all the things they've been missing as they stroll through the aisles of Ikea and WalMart. It can promote the idea of having heirloom quality furniture, the kind that can be passed down for generations.

2. Promotion of the craft to possible participants. There was a time when manual skills was something taught to youth in school, and independence was cherished over consumerism. Both of these ideals can manifest with some time spent in the shop. I've read people's concerns about the craft. the lack of youth and the lack of diversity. This is one way to spread the word, to get new people excited about making shavings or sawdust, and introduce them to the vast diversity there is in making things from trees.

3. General education of the public. I have a difficult time explaining what I do in my spare time to people I work with. The worst question I try and answer is "Oh what kind of woodworking do you do?" like I could just answer "The purple kind" and they'd know what I'm talking about. When they find out I work with mostly hand tools, I might as well try and explain how I just commuted in to work from Venus inside my own personal space bubble. A show like this could at least help spark some relatable conversation.

4. Promotion of the various companies and suppliers. If you look at it from a purely skeptical, capitalistic view point. Think of the dozens of sponsorships from woodworking product manufacturers that could be available for such a show. I had no idea what "Whole Foods" was until I watched "Top Chef" I wonder what Rockler or Woodcraft could do with the same exposure. And the shorter Flash Challenges that start the show are a great showcase for smaller boutique manufacturers like Bad Axe and Blue Spruce.

The downside might be in the drama department. I have trouble picturing a group of woodworkers being anything other than humble or supportive. Then I think about the short amount of time I've spent around some of the online forums, and I think as a group we could probably hold our own in this department.

Who would you nominate for the three celebrity judges? Who would you like to see as guest judges? What project ideas would make good challenges? You'd want to focus on a different "genre" every week, (week three is Windsor week). At the least it's a fun thing to ponder.

In the end, if the chance ever came up, I'd be up to throw down against eleven other woodworkers. At the very least it would be the best of all learning opportunities. Who knows, I might even find that I'm the show's "villain"

Muhahahahaha (evil laugh)

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Talking Tool Chests and Travel

I have never really understood why tool chests are such a controversial subject. Breathe a whisper about them online and watch the fervor begin and the shouts of "Wall Hanging Tool Cabinet" begin. I have been working out of my tool chest for two years now and the system really works for me. That doesn't mean I think it will work for you. You're on your own when it comes to finding your own bliss, no one else should be responsible for that.

I use two tool chests in my shop. The first was built in Norway in the 1800's and carried the tools my wife's great-great-uncle brought to help create their new homestead. I keep some odds and ends in there along with my green woodworking tools. Being given that chest inspired me to build my own, and while I was in the research phase Chris Schwarz published "The Anarchist Tool Chest." I love the book and found the chest he presented in the pages to be a straight-forward, down to earth, bomb proof badass. Something to last for the ages. I used the plans as the pattern for my tool chest.

I have a third tool chest I use intermittently when I take my show on the road. I'm part of a group that does medieval living history displays and demonstrations. Most of the time when I get to participate I will do a carving and woodworking demo. I pack up and bring my knock down Joinery Bench, my Saw Benches and a small chest full of tools.

I never really though about the small chest much until I read a post on Jeff Miller's blog. He was toiling away at the FORP (French Oak Roubo Project) and blogging about it in a unique way. Instead of providing a blow by blow of the days events he tool collections of pictures documenting each of the participants. One series of everyone's hands, one of everyone's saw horses, and one of everyone's traveling tool chest.

Several years ago one of the woodworking mags (I think it was Pop Wood) ran a contest to build something with one maple board. I decided I wanted to build a Viking age sea chest but juice it up a little with some carving and tricky joinery. Sea chests are six board chests with the sides slanted in towards the top. The size of this one in particular is based on the Mastermyr chest.

At the time I was really proud of this "showpiece." Time and experience have shown me where my mistakes are and why the build was kind of mediocre. However, it's still a box of reasonable size and somewhat historical shape, so it works to haul a small surplus of tools around.

First are the three items I can't usually fit in the chest. My heavy bench mallet, a pair of holdfasts and my Anarchist A frame square / libella. I bring the libella not so much because I use it in laying out carvings, but because it's a great conversation and teaching piece.

In the end it really is amazing how many tools you can fit into such a small chest.

Enough to fill six foot of my eight foot benchtop.

I have a canvas roll of my carving tools and one of my chisels. some smaller wood rasps and a card file to clean them.

A pencil, marking knife, scratch awl, 6" steel rule and marking gauge. An assortment of dividers, very important in laying out the carving style I work on.

The big bench mallet doesn't travel in the chest usually, but there is also my smaller carving mallet, a carpenter's mallet and small brass mallet for adjusting the horned plane I bring with. I love this plane as it's so versatile and can scrub off a lot of material or a very fine amount for smoothing. I bring a pair of sectors, some wooden bench dogs, a brass plumb bob and spool of string. I bring a small flexible pull saw I put a wooden handle on because it's very much like the saw found among the Mastermyr tools. There's a wooden tri-square, a bench brush, a couple offcut blocks I use to pad my holdfasts and a block of gulf wax.Inside the chest also travels a couple carriage bolts, a pair of pliers and an alignment tool/drawbore pin to help put the legs on the bench when I get to the site.

I get a lot of questions about the carving I'm doing, mostly from kids. Unfortunately adults seem more reserved to just watch me work and I have to start asking them questions to get them to interact. If I do get questions from adults the number one, hands down, is about the holdfasts I'm using. Such a simple piece of technology garners the most interest.

Sometimes I wonder what that says about us as a society. As a whole we seem to strive for the most complicated, over engineered gadget possible to perform a task. When sometimes you just need a piece of steel and a little friction fit to get the job done.

There's a dirty joke in there somewhere, but I think I'll refrain this time.

This set up works well for me at this time. I've considered doing a different demo building some six board chests by hand and that will require a few more tools, more planning and possibly a different knock down bench. If I head in that direction I will probably build myself something more akin to Chris Schwarz's Dutch Tool Chest. We'll just have to see what will come of those ideas.

Ratione et Passionis

P.S. The Mastermyr find has fascinated me for years and it's difficult to get your hands on the book documenting the find. If you want to see the images of other Viking age tools from the find you can check out this website and enjoy.  It's amazing to me the way tools have not significantly changed in a milennia or more.