Sunday, November 30, 2014

Perfect Workbench Punctuation

Today I took delivery of a absolute work of art.

I have been fortunate to get to know Master Blacksmith Tom Latane over the last year or so. This fall, after our "Forest To Furniture" demonstration I asked him for a favor. I knew over the next few weeks I would be building my new bench, once I was done, I'd need a few appliances. Holdfasts I had, a leg vise could wait, (and still can wait), but if I was going to live without a leg vise for a while, I would need a new plane stop.

On my Nicholson bench I had installed a recessed plane stop that raised up by a spring with a thumb screw and it works very well. But for the new bench I felt like I needed something more traditional. Something that was unique and complementary. The period at the end of a well written sentence.

Tom said he'd be happy to work with me and once the bench was finished I contacted him. He asked for some measurements and I asked if he'd find a way to add a bead detail to the work. So the plane stop, an integral part of a working bench*, fit together in the overall aesthetic.

Harmonic balance.

Fractal details,

Feng Shui,

You name it what you will, but it makes me smile.

I saw Tom today at a presentation I gave, He had my new plane stop in the pocket of his coat.

It's about 2 3/4" from the teeth to the heel, and 4 5/8" from the heel to the tip of the spike.

When he told me the price he wanted. I could hardly believe it myself. He's more than willing to make more, and for now, he only wants $60.

"Are you kidding me?" I asked, "Something like this has to be more."

"If I get tired of making them I'll raise the price." He said.

So consider this your fair warning. Ask him for one while the price is still, what I would consider, ridiculously low. You will not be disappointed. You can contact him through his website

Ratione et Passionis

*Needing a plane stop as an integral part of a working bench is my humble opinion, but after being introduced and working with one for quite a while, I will never build a bench without one if I can help it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Perfect Presentation Preparation

"Even the furniture of the fifteenth century - rude as it appears to us - was an advance on that of the thirteenth, when goods and chattels were preserved in "dug outs," or chests roughly hewn out of the solid, and chairs were luxuries for kings alone."
 - "Modern Cabinetwork Furniture and Fitments" Wells & Hooper, 1909

This is from a book first published in 1909, written by a pair of Master Cabinetmakers in Great Britain (The honors they each list in the title page read impressively, though I don't fully understand their merit or significance, There is more information HERE). The way the words present, shrugging off the 13th century as a crude and ugly time in European history.

I present to you the Sainte Chapelle, constructed in the early 13th c, at the behest of King Louie IX. I will grant this is the creme of the crop, but even the photos of it are breathtaking and to write that magnificent structures of beautiful architecture sit blatantly alongside crude dug out tree trunks in the next room are broad brush strokes of folly.

There was not a mythical lone day in the fifteenth century when a beam of sunshine lit down from the heavens and all the joiners and cabinetmakers looked up from the chunk of firewood they were diligently hollowing out and realized they could do so much more.

"and that, boys and girls, was how veneer was born. . . "

This common belief, about the "darkness" of the dark ages, is something I have always disliked. If you just look at the material record left behind you can see great works of intelligence, ingenuity, artistic ability, and masterful technique. The technology was different, more manual than CNC or 3D printing, but it was more honed and refined finer than many things I see created today. I have spent many years of medieval reenactment discovering this for myself and then trying to open other's eyes to this truth and sometimes succeeding.

And to anyone who calls the furniture fashions of the 15th century "rude" well that sounds uneducated to me as well. Proof to my regular statement that the smarter you are, the dumber you are.

This has been the underlying reason I've wanted to write a book about medieval furniture. I want a role in expanding how people think about this time period and giving some respect to the great things that have come before them. My wife has told me I have an overdeveloped sense of history, but there is a passion for it inside me. I spent years digging for photos and records of furniture that survived 800 to 1000 years on a continent that has seen more than its share of turmoil and war, including the main stage of two great wars, and a cultural predisposition to cast away yesterday for what's shiny and new today. (Different than Eastern culture's reverence for ancestry and tradition alongside the new) and constantly emerged frustrated.

My aha moment in this quest was deciding to stop trying to find my evidence in museums and look to the "photographic" record of the time. The artwork produced, especially books of hours, illuminated manuscripts and miniatures. The Maciejowski is one of the most detailed and fantastic records of the time. Well studied for a variety of things and it shocked me as I searched to see if anyone had studied it for the furniture shown and I couldn't find anything comprehensive.

I had my muse and I've spent hours researching, and drawing, and building. Just to get to the point of really understanding the scope enough to talk about it.

My first public presentation of the material and information I've gathered will be this coming Sunday and 2pm at the Castlerock Museum of Arms and Armor in Alma Wisconsin. I hope to see you there.

When I first pitched this program to the museum, just shy of a year ago, I thought I would be further along with this project than I am, no surprise that life gets in the way of progress. In my minds eye I had most of the pieces built and finished, but in the end it's more important to get the pieces done CORRECTLY than to just get them done.

It's difficult to pre-judge the reception a lecture or presentation you've never given before, but I have worked harder on this one than I ever have before. The subject is fascinating and I hope to do it justice. To add a second level of pressure, I hope to use a video of this lecture as bait to lure a publisher into agreeing this is research and a subject that needs to be shared.

Now, back to work on my powerpoints.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Winter Shop

I'm beginning to believe I'm just not happy unless I'm working in a new shop. 

When we moved into our new home roughly a year and a half ago I was very excited to have a two car garage to move my shop into, and the new shop has been fantastic. More space. Room and power enough to run both my hand tools and the occasional power tool. Assembly area. Dedicated sharpening space!!  I'll say that again,  Dedicated sharpening space!!

I know there is no perfect shop set up and no perfect shop. Everything has upsides and down sides, but I have come to very much understand why some more evolved shops have a dedicated and separate machine room and bench room. There's the possibility of some big updates to the house here in the future and I have been considering that option seriously. 

But the toughest thing about the garage shop has been the lack of insulation, and heat in the winter. Last year's polar vortex really sucked the wind out of my sails as my little kerosene R2-D2 heater just couldn't cut the mustard most days. I came to a stand still on work and inspiration and I hate that. I need the natural inertia I maintain hitting the shop regularly, Stopping makes it difficult to start again. 

This year I needed an answer to the cold. Dropping the money to insulate and install an upgraded heating system was way beyond our means, but what I did have was an oddity of our house and a wife who is entirely too indulgent of my hair brained ideas. 

We have two back porches. Outside our back door is a small four season porch about 12' by 6'. This was populated by some overly large and inconvenient to use cabinets left from the previous owner. Then there's a sliding patio door between at porch and a larger three season porch before you get outside. 

I convinced my bride to let me move the cabinets out to the back porch and let me move some of the shop into the four season porch. After all I have an extra workbench now. 

My kerosene heater warms the new winter shop to a good temp in less than fifteen minutes and after that, with the back door of the house open and the patio door closed, it's just like working inside, and I'm only three steps away from the coffee maker. 

There is another door in this room, completely un-needed, I screwed it shut permanently when we moved in. now it supplies some natural light.

But not as much as this great, south facing window. 

 I had a demonstration dovetail corner laying about so I hung it up as a combo pencil sharpener, phone shelf. The space is small enough I can listen to my music and audio books without additional speakers.

The patio door is my favorite. Last year we started shutting it in the winter to help keep the house warmer and people kept walking into the glass. So I asked my daughters to paint something on it so people could tell if it was open or closed. They chose a TARDIS door. Now it's the new door to my shop and I love it. 

I know. It's supposed to be bigger on the inside. I guess that can't always be true. 

The weather changed fast this year with not much of an autumn at all and the space is cozy. But honestly a smaller shop is easier to keep neat and orderly than a large one. I'm considering making this area a permanent shop space. Naomi rolls her eyes when she hears me say this, but she probably won't stop me. 

A small window unit air conditioner and it will work just as well as a summer shop. 

Ratione et Pasionis

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Workbench 2014 Base Day Three: The Details

Day three and go ….

I had the base together now it was time to put the details together to finish it up

While I had the base sitting on the underside of the bench top I flipped it over and straightened, squared, measured, and fussed to get the bench sitting exactly where I wanted it to end up. Then I took a Sharpie and traced around the locations for all the legs. This would help me locate the stub tenons that would eventually connect the top and base. 

Now to prep for a sliding deadman. There are several way to install a deadman. I decided to go with a simple groove along the underside of the benchtop and a 3/4" thick tongue along the bottom rail. 

To start I had manuvered the top upside down onto a couple high stools. After a couple swipes of the plow plane I figured out the stools offered little stability and wiggled quite a bit as I worked. Normally I can appreciate a little wiggle when I see it, but that wiggle made me nervous. I guess the top weighs in somewhere around 300 pounds. Not the kind of thing you want wiggling while you work on it.

To remedy I moved the base over and transferred the top onto it. A couple clamps were placed to keep it from sliding and it was amazing. Here was my first taste of working at the new bench height would be like and I was happy to find I'd gotten it right. Two passes of the 3/8" plow blade next to each other and I had a 3/4" wide and 3/4" deep groove.  

While I had the top stable on the base, I used a straight edge to draw a line connecting the opposite corners of the rectangular shaped outlines I'd traced around the legs. This gave me the center of each rectangle. I chucked up an 1 1/2" forstner bit into my plug in drill and hogged out a 1 1/2" deep hole at each center point. 

The top moved back over to sit on the stools and I moved the base onto my low saw horses to work on it.

I used a rabbet plane to run a front facing rabbet 3/4" deep on the front rail. This created a space for the deadman to run along and still be flush with the front of the bench. 

I cut a lambs tongue detail on the outside corner of the front legs.

I measured and face glued two pieces of 1 by and 2 by 6 to make the deadman. Once things were set up I decided to make it a little pretty with a bead detail reminiscent of the detail you can find on the Anarchist Square that Chris Schwarz builds (The one most of us have prominently hanging in our shops) I marked it out and cut it out on the bandsaw.

I liked it so much on the deadman I dug out the jigsaw and repeated the detail on the front rail of the base.

The I decided to split from the script a bit.

I said it here before but I'm lucky that Don Williams has asked me to help him with the Studley Tool Chest and Workbench Exhibition this coming May in Cedar Rapids Iowa. This means I've been paying particular attention to every picture that comes across his blog (Don's Barn) or the Lost Art Press blog. As well as corresponding with Don and others about the exhibition. I'm very excited and I had the tool chest and workbench on my mind these days in the shop. I decided to have my first go at inlaying anything. A dot and darts similar to those that are in mother of pearl and ivory on the bandings of the chest.

I laid out the shape on the rail with chisels and a marking knife. used those lines to make paper templates which I transferred to a piece of (I think) mahogany veneer. I excavated a the thin recesses in the rail by chisel and router plane and glued the inlays into place.

The only thing left to do was nail in some cleats to the bases rails to hold the bottom shelf boards in place.

I also marked the centers of the legs and drilled a corresponding 1 1/2" radius by 1 1/2" deep hole, and cut some 1 1/2" maple dowel I had sitting around into four 3" long sections. I shaved and sanded those down a bit and rubbed canning wax on them until they cried for mercy. 

Then, as if building a huge bench in a one man shop doesn't throw things into disarray enough. I had to clear out one whole wall, old bench and all, to slide the new bench into place.

Here's a slightly doctored shot of the place in disarray. With some help from physics and a wife who was willing to move saw horses in and out of place while I held up one end of the top I got the beast maneuvered into it's new home.

Did the dowels all fit? Well not perfectly, one out of four was off by just enough it wouldn't drop in smooth. A piece of sacrificial 1x6 and a good smack with the 8 lbs sledge and it stopped arguing.

If at first you don't succeed . . . get a bigger hammer.

My measurement was off on the deadman by a slim 1/4" But I can fix that with a shim. It won't help me much until I get my hands on some leg vise hardware. I'm leaning towards the ones made  over at Lake Erie Toolworks. I just have to save a few pennies first because I already ordered a custom plane stop from Blacksmith Tom Latane. I should get it by the end of the month and I can't wait to show it off.

It was a long day finishing up the bench but from a pile of reclaimed barn beams to the final dimension of 12 foot long, 22 1/2" wide. 33 1/2" tall and solid as a freaking mountain. Definitely an upgrade for me.

That was enough for one night. The next day I would shiplap some 1x12 pine and line the bottom shelf but for now I was just looking to lay down and rest.

Ratine et Passionis

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Keeping My Head Above Water.

As a lot of you know I'm neck deep in the middle of a project I've been toiling with for years. I'm writing a book on medieval furniture specifically the pieces shown in the Maciejowski Bible (AKA the Morgan Bible, or The Crusader's Bible). Currently I'm finishing up some of the measured drawings and broad stroke concepts for a lecture I'm giving on November 30th at the Castlerock Museum of Arms and Armor.

Casting about for additional resources to corroborate the design and construction decisions I'm making can be difficult. Often I have to tease the details out of a dozen varied other sources, other times I have to make an educated guess. But often I the other resources I find are like little Lewis Carol's rabbit holes and they threaten to swallow me up in an afternoon of distraction.

Today I found one page that nearly distracted the whole project. It's a surviving Miniature from the Turin-Milan Book of Hours created around 1420 - 1425. A book of hours is a devotional book, illustrating specific scenes or lessons from the bible In the days of yore they were often beautifully illuminated (fancy artful calligraphy) and contained miniatures (illustrated depiction of a certain passage). It's a depiction of the birth of John The Baptist and I think there's enough information in this one page to write an entire project furniture book. Let's take a closer look.

Here's the full page, but let's look a little closer at the larger top portion that depicts the birthing bed chamber.

I count up eight different builds within this one frame. That's enough for a book! Let me show you.

First there's this obviously central aumbry. It's fantastic with the details and the carvings, It looks nearly as tall as the woman standing next to it. You can see the hardware and even tell which way the grain is running. I may have to build this piece eventually anyway.

Next obvious is the hutch chest on the left hand side. I have built one of these before and I plan to build more in the future, possibly even offering them as a class.

That's just two, but its a really great start.

The woman in the green dress is seated on a triangle shaped stool with a cushion. I can tell it's a triangle shaped stool because there's another one all the way to the right.

A good depiction and evidence of the existence of this style of chair back to early 1400's in France. Standing before the chair I believe is a distaff for the drop spindle spinning of flax fibers into linen thread.

In the back doorway is a Gandalf looking figure sitting upon a cushioned chest and reading his signed copy of The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. These low boxes can be found in the furniture record. To Gandalf's left looks to be another triangle stool.

Above the door is a cool knick-nack shelf.

Last, but not least, there's a turned bowl and wooden spoon on the floor in the foreground.

That makes
1: The aumbry
2. The hutch chest
3. The three legged stool
4. The distaff
5. Gandalf's chest seat
6: The wall shelf
7: The turned bowl
8: The wooden spoon

That doesn't count the obvious objects like the bed, which is lacking in details other than the textiles that cover it, and what is undoubtedly another chest like Gandalf's under a red cloth to the left of the doorway. Off the top of my head the skills you can cover in this book starts with: mortise and tenon joinery, tongue and groove joinery, simple carvings, spindle turning, face plate turning, and spoon carving

Maybe another time.

I have to remind myself of the mission at hand and keep my head above water or things like this will carry me out with the tide and I'll never finish.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, November 3, 2014

Lessons From Roubo

In the August 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking I penned an article about building the press vise shown on Plate 280 of Roubo's "L'Art Du Menuisier" As vise meant to clamp both veneer and solid wood. Since building it I have found it to be a very useful shop appliance that I am still finding new uses for.

Recently I shot some video of it's use and wrote some about the lesson's I've learned. With Megan Fitzpatrick's help I've gotten those posted over on Popular Woodworking's Blog. You can read and see more about the vise (and how fast I can move in the shop!!) by following this link

Pretty cool stuff.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Workbench 2014 Base Day Two

Continuing along the path to a new workbench for 2014. Day one of the build saw the legs all cut from a large beam and sized to the same length. Day two was the mortise and tenons for the stretchers.

The first challenge was to get the spacing right for the legs on the bench. There was a time when I would have just randomly selected the measurements and plowed forward. Those days have passed, I've been introduced to dividers, whole number ratios and all the fantastic things that can be done with them.

I don't have any ink in the printer, so I chased up an image of the workbench on Roubo's Plate 11 on my iPhone and tried to step it off with dividers. Ever tried to use a sharp pointed dividers on a touchscreen? I bet I'm the only one who's tried, no damage was done to the phone or the dividers. I came to the conclusion the outside overhangs were equivalent to 1:6 of the inside span, or the length of the stretcher.

Working off the front edge of the bench top. I crowded the two front legs down to one end and measured the remainder of the bench, Then I divided that measurement into eight.

I transcribed that measurement in from each end and marked a line square to the front. Then I laid out the legs in their final position and outlined their placement on the bottom of the bench top. Using the outlines of the legs I was able to get the measurements for the stretchers (plus 2" on each end for the tenons.

I know most of the woodworking world cuts their mortises first. I'm afraid I'm in the habit of cutting my tenons first and that helps me locate and size my mortises. To each their own I suppose. I used the table saw to make the shoulder cuts in these SYP construction 2x6's.

The stretchers were selected for good straight grain, so I was certain I could split off the tenon cheeks with no issues. I started by scribing a line with the marking gauge.

Then I bust off the waste with a sharp chisel working by halves. Remove half the waste in the first pass, then half of what is remaining, then half again until you get to less than 1/16th or so remaining. Then you drop the chisel in the scribed line and finish the job.

Well, not finish - finish. You will probably have to pare across the cheek some to get a perfectly uniform surface.

I chose to run the bottom stretchers off the ground at the same elevation as the bench top is thick. It's Symmetry!  Then I laid out the placement of the mortises and hogged out the waste with a 1" forstner bit to a little past 2" depth.

The more you work, the better and smoother things like this go. Mortise and tenons used to give me fits, I guess most everything used to give me fits at one point in time. But I was happy because the last several times I've gone through this joinery process, it has worked out to satisfaction.

Once everything dry fit I pulled the legs back apart, stepped through the process of drawboring the joint together A little glue and the tapping of tapered dowel pins and I was finished with a long day number two.

It's almost a bench.

Ratione et Passionis