Friday, April 25, 2014


"Every man's life ends the same way. It's only in the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another."
   -Ernest Hemingway

I believe anyone can nail together two pieces of wood and build a serviceable stool or bookshelf or desk. I have been guilty of doing the same. It's the details of a piece that make it beautiful. Details added by the hands of the maker, by the hands of the user, or both, it doesn't matter. But the details of a thing are important.

They don't have to be elaborate.They don't have to be simple, They just have to be there; considered and purposeful. When they're done right, few can easily describe their contribution. Details bring harmony to the whole.

My work is the only place I sweat the small stuff.

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Burden of Conjecture

Here I am in near full armor doing a lecture/demonstration of medieval weaponry
 for a seventh grade class from the area. 

I've been working on notes and writing pages for a book on Medieval furniture for a long while now. Nearly too long. The issues I've had were several including the subject matter itself. I am interested in writing the book on medieval furniture that I, as a reenactor/recreationist, have always wanted to read. That carries the weight of several burdens. 

The Biggest Burden: Conjecture. Conjecture is a necessary evil, short of installing a Flux Capacitor in my pickup and going back in time to see it done for real, you have to make assumptions on history based on personal experience. One of the reasons I wear armor that's as accurate as possible and have studied and practiced the combat techniques documented in period fight manuals, (they do exist) was to expand my personal experience and reign in many of those assumptions. 

The issue with building medieval furniture, at least the stuff I'm interested circa pre-1300's, is that most of it is simply gone. There are some examples around, held tight by the museums or private collections  that own them, but the chance to experience a piece in that state, well it's difficult for a man living on this side of the pond. 

I want to write a book about pieces that have a connection to reenactors today. There needs to be the right provenance. I feel uniquely qualified to write this book, but finding the right subjects to study and build has been a slippery slope to scale. What I needed was good source material and it was sitting right in front of me the whole time. 

There is a document known as the Maciejowski Bible (it also goes by the names the Morgan Bible or the Crusader's Bible) Basically it's a picture bible that dates to somewhere between 1240 and 1250 AD. Think Medieval comic book based on the Old Testament. The really cool thing is instead of depicting the figures as being from biblical times, all flowing togas and sandals, the stories are illustrated as contemporary figures, (contemporary for 1250AD). 

It has been studied and discussed ad nauseam by medieval scholars and enthusiasts It's been an accepted source material for representations of armor, weapons, table wear, clothing, and to some extent customs. As near as I can find, nobody has looked seriously at the document as a resource for the furniture. 

This then becomes my intention, my quest if you will. I've spent the majority of my free hours over the winter studying scans of the pages available online and looking for every scrap of furniture present and there is some cool stuff hidden in the pages, some with high detail. I've drawn out several measured drawings based on the images and what I know about furniture construction. Conjecture . . .yes, but guided conjecture with purpose. 

I've identified ten separate pieces in the pages. My goal for the next several months is to build at least eight of these pieces, document the process thoroughly, and write them up into a manuscript over the winter months. For certain I will be writing about some of the process and pieces here. But before I get into the furniture I wanted to show a couple things I found interesting. 

The first is Noah building the Ark. He is obviously hewing a riven plank and there is another axe and spoon auger in the foreground. The workbench he's using is of a variety I hear refereed to as Roman, but I believe was fairly ubiquitous in Medieval Europe until the upswing of full blown cabinetmaking. Two things are especially interesting to me here. The first is the saw bench supporting the Ark up off the ground. I like the simple design and I'm certain I've seen Chris Schwarz build one that could be mistaken for it. 

The second thing is the plank supported on edge to the workbench. I'd say its unclear for certain if Noah is hewing the board he has one leg proped up on or the board supported on the bench, but I have not seen a historical representation of a board supported for edge work on a bench such as this. I'm not sure if the upright bits are clamping the board or just dogs supporting the backside. 

The next is a scene of masons at work erecting a tower I like this because it shows workmen in their clothes and more tools. Including this beauty. . . 

While I was busy making squares I figured I should go ahead and make a copy of this one too. 

My first step on the journey complete. Now to simply continue to put one foot before the other. 

Ratione et Passionis

All Life Is An Experiment

"All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better."
    - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've been busy in the shop building a prototype footstool from the Maciejowski Bible. At least that's what I thought I was doing.

I made mistakes and lost focus. The footstool I built is a nice little piece of furniture that has all the trappings of Medieval ornamentation. I started out on the project and then let it take me away on a trip of it's own. I often find myself working like that, letting my intuitions and gut feeling take me where it would as I build, and often that leads me down the right path.

This time it didn't.

I returned to my source material last night, and found the mistakes I made with the prototype. I'm going to have to change the way I work when it comes to these projects and reign in my wild spirit a bit. Today I'm returning to the drawing board, literally, and working out the measured drawings I should have made and been using from the start.

The upside I got to work with my new workshop toys.  

A set of real, honest to goodness photography lights. Using them has improved my photography, reduced the amount of photos I take before I have one I like, but significantly increased my set up time for each shot. I'll tell you if you want something you build to take at least twice as long, then pick up a pair of lights and try to photo-document the process. All in all it's a delightful conceit.  

The results speak for themselves. Because I'm unhappy with the prototype I can't use these photos for much else, but the practice I received taking them paid for the experience.

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, April 17, 2014

When Good Tools Go Bad.

I get the idea that for some woodworking is mostly about accuracy. Accuracy is important but it has it's place. I have never worried about how infinitesimally thin I can get my #4 to take shavings, There are times and places I take thick groatish shavings, even with my #4. Instead I worry about the line I'm shaving to and the surface left behind. Who cares how gossamer the shavings are on my shop floor and under my feet.

I bought my first marking knife in 2010. Up to that point a pencil had always worked well for me. I bought it because I'd read it was something essential for a hand tool woodworker to have and to use. I knew it was indispensable to improving my dovetail layouts. I knew it because the internet had told me so, and the internet never lies. Abraham Lincoln wrote that and I know because Facebook told me so. Facebook is also on the internet.

I bought that marking knife and tried to use it. I tried to use it just like I'd read about.

I bought that knife. I tried to use it, and it was horrible. I hated it. It stuck in the grain, It took a slice off the blade of my wooden square. It wiggled and pushed the square out of line. It slipped and cut my finger. It cut into the dovetails I was trying to trace. The damned thing was defective.

I put it back into it's plastic sheath and threw it into the drawer of a tool cabinet. The controversy was settled, I was a graphite man.

A while later I built a traditional tool chest and started to work out of it. I emptied the drawers of my tool cabinet into the tills of my chest. The Damned Marking Knife ended up with my measuring and layout tools in the top till. I spent a while moving it out of the way to grab a pencil. Then I started to pull it out of the chest every once in a while to see if it was still defective.

Once in a while grew to more often, which grew into fairly frequently.

Then on impulse bought a second marking knife at a woodworking show in Milwaukee.

That one seemed to follow the example of the first, It worked as well.

I'm proud to announce the Damned Marking Knife has learned it's lesson. It understands if it stops working again I will be forced to return it to exile. I consider this another bad tool reformed.

Now where did I put my pencil?

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"A" Stands For Icon

 I've read the story Chris Schwarz wrote about the Anarchy Square several times. In my romantic, failed fiction writer mind I picture a chorus of angels harmonizing their "Ahhh"'s as he opened his email from Patrick Leach and found the icon for his book "The Anarchist's Tool Chest."

I see the Anarchy Square popping up in all kinds of places these days. They kind of stand as a secret handshake for a specific cloister of the woodworking collective. A Schwarzian cult that bides its time like a sleeper cell, waiting for the beginning days of the zombie apocalypse when we can fill our hands with dovetail saws and razor sharp chisels to defend humanity and bring about a new and lasting Luddite utopia.

Ummm. . . . sorry, my imagination seems to be getting the better of me this afternoon.

In seriousness, I do find it fun to spy this square out in the wild. You'll see it in the back ground of pictures inside shops and hanging on the wall in shop tour videos on YouTube and every time I notice it I smile.

I've been taken with this square since I first saw Chris write about it on his Popular Woodworking blog. I build a pair of them almost three years ago to the day, (Read the entry HERE) a full size and a half size one. The older ones were built from some African Mahogany scraps. I've been making a couple sets of wooden squares lately and decided to make myself a new version of the Anarchy Square. This time I was able to get the walnut to the more correct width and give the tool the strong posture it deserves.

I've built several wooden squares lately and I've found it to be a good, back to basics endeavor. A little bit like NBA players will still spend hours shooting free throws. I've gathered quite a collection of wooden squares over all now.

In addition to my three versions of the Anarchy Square. I have a Roubo Square I built three years ago, and the square I bought from Jim Tolpin.

I built the full set of three squares from the Benjamin Seaton Tool Chest, accurate to the measurements given in the book. The large and medium squares are massive. Bigger than my steel carpenter square with the blade on the large one measuring 30 1/2" long. The double tenon on these was a cool challenge.

The best thing I took away from this squaring exercise was enjoying how far my skills have come. Sawing a straight line for a tenon or half lap was something I really had to concentrate on last time I built squares. This time around the sawing and paring came easy. I could see whether my surfaces were straight and square without really measuring. I'm proud of how far I've some in using and understanding my hand tools. Things I worried about so much in the past have now taken a back seat to bigger and better concerns, like proportion and the execution of details.

I did build one other square over this past week. One sourced from my own little epiphany, complete with angels singing, well maybe not angels, but inspiration, answers, and plans instead. More about that soon, but in the meantime, lets see if anyone can guess the historical inspiration for this square. . . (Hint: In the historical context, the square is not being used by a woodworking craftsman, but some other trade. This reference is significantly older than Roubo or Moxon)

Ratione et Passionis