Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Visit To The Vesterheim.

A hanging wall cupboard from Trondheim Norway,
The geographic location where most of my genetic code hails from.

Just last week I took a joyful day trip with my wife to view some of the wonderful fall colors my corner of the world has to offer and to visit a couple locations we've been meaning to see for a while. A location I've been meaning to visit for some time is the Vesterheim Museum, the National Norwegian-American Heritage Museum, located in nearby Decorah Iowa. 
That I have waited this long to make the short pilgrimage is a personal embarrassment. I will be returning again and again.

I've said before, I believe in study and practice and the best way to develop an eye for good design in furniture, (the first step to freeing yourself from the shackles of measured drawings, cut lists, and the design ideals of others) is to look at a lot of furniture. I mean really look. I have amassed more than a metric ton of books that address and chronicle furniture styles and history from ancient Egypt to Robert Adams to Sam Maloof. These are my text books, but understanding is only improved by field trips. A picture on a page will not fairly relate the way a cabinet stands in a room or hangs on a wall any more than a print of Van Gogh's work can truly capture the textures, colors, and brush strokes of seeing one in person. 

If you're building in three dimensions you've got to get out and see the work in three dimensions. The Vesterheim is a treasure trove for furniture and decorative arts. 

The "large piece" storage room. 

Wonderfully subdued colors in this corner cabinet. 

I had a bit of a personal epiphany during the several hours we haunted the exhibit that put to rest something I've been struggling with. 

Check out the grain painting on the fall front!
I like the slightly oddball proportions to this piece. 

There is a design aesthetic that resonates in woodworking social media and print for "clean lines and perfect proportions" whatever that means. I don't disagree with it, per say, I just find such things ---lacking to my eye. Those of us hungry to read and see anything to do with the craft have spent years wading through magazine articles devout to Arts & Crafts, Shaker, and Modern, (sometimes Danish Modern) furniture styles. I understand why. They're popular styles that can teach basic joinery techniques and be summed up in 2500 words or less. 

It sounds like I do, but I promise I hold no grudges here. 

The other side of the coin is woodworking revolutionist Chris Schwarz. I am and always will continue to be a rabid fanboy of his work, but you can be a fan and a friend without having to fall on your own knife in worship. His work in recent years, bringing Campaign Furniture out of the shadows and delving into the bare bones of vernacular furniture forms is inspired stuff and I definitively have some staked chairs waiting in my future but mostly because I see his techniques as a way to lo-jack myself into actually making some chairs. 

I understand his concepts both getting butts out of chairs and making something instead of buying into a cycle of work and consumption and the distillation of design into a silhouette. The shadow cast by a form can be iconic and important. Still the bare canvas approach leaves me wanting more. I have studied Art enough to understand the importance of Modern and Minimalist work. Deconstructionism to the core of color, light, and form is an important exploration, but I don't want them hanging in my house anymore than I want to work at a stake-legged desk with a single exposed drawer. 

I enjoyed reading The Anarchist Design Book, I've made my way through it twice now, but there were only three pieces that I came away liking a lot and will probably end up working with.

I like the boarded chest, because I've always had a thing for six board chests, they a versatile, blank canvasses that have existed for a millennia or more. I have built these before, I have one on the bench right now, and I will build them again. 

I like the bed design a lot but mostly for it's strength and utility, 

I like the three legged staked backstool most of all. Mostly because it's an outlier that seems to work so well. It's my favorite piece in the book. 

Subtle lines of kolrosing cover a spoon
I didn't write this post to bag on Chris. I wrote it because since I discovered his work and writing I have been willing to walk lock step after his lead and yet with The Anarchist Design Book I had a little different experience. I actually felt some honest to goodness dissent but I didn't understand why.

Some of it I blamed on my own maturing as a maker, my own vision and bla, bla, bla. . .

The rest I figured out in an afternoon inside the Vesterheim. 

I am very over clean, modern lines. You can keep your perfect Krenov Cabinets and ubiquitous Shaker Side Tables. I like color, lots of color and contrast. I like vivid, complicated carvings. I like grain painting that isn't really simulating wood grain. I like oddball proportions, offset turnings, elaborate mouldings, and custom hardware. I like when you open a door or lift a lid and the inside of a piece surprises you more than the outside.   

You can chalk it up to genetic memory, or you can say I've taken too many shots to the cranium, but the end result is a weird mix of vindication and self aware comfort. 

Thank you Chris for leading me out of the woods and helping me find the road.

Thank you to the Vesterheim Museum for helping me understand the fork in the road I've chosen. 

Now to finish up a few distractions and get back to work on my neglected book. 

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, October 20, 2016



Once the lumber rack was built, I wiggled my big ol' bench against the other section of painted wall. The idea was to give me a place, a space, somewhere to do good work. It wasn't where I wanted the bench to end up, but it was a space the bench could sit until the rest of the shop was painted.

Of course the bench doesn't just work alone. It's companion (in my shop at least) is the tool chest and for the move I packed it full of things not normally located there: bench hooks, holdfasts, doe's feet, shooting board, miter saw, Moxon vise, bench dogs, the block with the toothed plane stop mounted into it, and several other things. Filled to the brim I praised the fact it rides around on heavy duty caster wheels. 

Many of these things live on the shelf under the bench, but some do not. As I started to sort through things with the idea of setting up to do some work, I found out something about myself. 

I consider my workbench a shop necessity. I consider my tool chest and it's contents a shop necessity. These two things should come as no surprise. But a bit of anxiety began to set in, I just wasn't happy with trying to store everything that needed out of the chest underneath the bench. I was missing a third necessity, Something I wasn't even aware of my dependence on until I tried to create a basic set up without it. 

This simple shop shelf.

It's my take on a Popular Woodworking Magazine project done by Chris Schwarz. He based it on a drawing of an old woodworking shop.  I built it in anticipation of my last shop and the things that hang on the pegs, sit on the shelf, and fit into the tool space behind the pegs has grown organically over time. 

Early on in the last shop. Circa summer 2013.
Before my family started buying me stickers for my tool chest too!!

Now, those items seem to live there permanently. Like the organization in my tool chest, I know exactly where a tool is before I go reaching for it and once you begin to work like that it is difficult to go back.

So I eased my OCD anxiety and hung the shelf, even though I had to take it down again to finish the painting, having it up just feels right.

In the end, "just feels right" is pretty important.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Sequel Is Never As Good As The Original.

Oldwolf Workshop IX

Oldwolf Workshop 9: Live Free or Workshop

Oldwolf Workshop Nine: Red, White and Workshop

Oldwolf Workshop: The Quickening

Son of the Oldwolf Workshop

You get the point . . .  I've moved shop a couple times. With movies the sequel often fails to live up to the promise of the original, but with workshops. I'd say with every move I've learned a little more and been able to refine things down to a pretty specific set up that works for me.

Okay, Okay. Moving on.

The new shop loses a little square footage from my last one, but it makes up for it in insulated walls paneled in 4/4 pine recycled from shipping crates. The shipping information was clearly printed on several of the boards. There is evidence of a wood burning stove existing in here at one point as well, but I don't think it was very clean or well maintained because all the boards were dark, sooty, and oily. Three factors that suck light right out of the bulb and create a dim atmosphere unconducive to cutting dovetails.

The first order was paint. The previous owners left behind a full can of oil based white primer so I started there, covering one and a quarter walls and ceiling. The improvement was immediate.

Old wall color meet new wall color.
The second order was a lumber rack. I haven't used a real lumber rack in years, instead leaning boards against walls and stacking them on rafters, but the paneled ceiling and slightly more compact footprint meant I needed to be more organized. With one wall painted I could install the lumber rack by the garage door, pretend I was more organized, and get the piles of lumber off my workbenches so I could use them.

I picked up some 2x4's and threw together a simple four shelf lumber rack using the tailgate of my pickup as a workbench.

I decided glued and screwed lap joints would be workmanlike enough. Unable to get to my tool chest I dipped into the tool box I haul around for general carpentry tasks to handle the job. No marking gauge? No problem. This old trick of holding the pencil point to a mark on the speed square and sliding the square (and pencil) along the board works fine in a pinch for rough work,

No premium Bad Axe Carcass Saw? No problem. The little job saw I keep in that tool box worked just fine to establish the shoulders of the lap joint.

No nice wooden handled chisels? No problem. I keep a full set of decent plastic handled chisels in that tool box too. Hey what's a hand tool woodworker without these things, even when doing general carpentry. After this I'm considering adding a marking gauge to the box as well.

No router plane? Who cares. The rough surface from the chisels chunking out the waste is fine for this application. The only downside? Having your Father-in-Law sit in a lawn chair during the process and explain to you repeatedly why a radial arm saw is the only real way to cut joints like this.Never mind a radial arm saw is the only power tool I have experienced a close call using, I will never own one, I will never use one.

Seriously I'm already working on a pickup tailgate, how am I supposed to find and set up a radial arm saw? I know he meant well and I was laughing about it by the end of the day. Yesterday I caught him cutting a sandwich in half and asked him why he didn't dig out the electric knife. We've got it figured out.

The shelf end of the lap joints. sawn shoulders and split out cheeks. Put the two together, attach it to the wall using some "L" brackets and screws and you get . . .

A simple lumber rack!!

That evening I moved the lumber over and reclaimed the space atop my workbenches.

The new shop was underway.

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Stop And Smell The Shavings

This story was supposed to be about how good I am. It was supposed to be about how I built a saw bench very quickly using a limited amount of hand tools. It was supposed to demonstrate my perspective that hand tool woodworking is not inherently slow. Then Tom Fidgen got in my head, dreadlocks and guitar strings caught in the wheels and cogs and seized up the machine.

And I'm probably better for it.

It has a lot to do with my good fortune. One of the premier woodworking events of the last few years was Sawlapalooza. The brain child of Mark Harrell of Bad Axe Tool Works and wood artisan/instructor Tom Fidgen where students not only built and filed their own Bad Axe saws but built a frame saw, kerfing plane and saw bench. I didn't get to make any sawdust, but I did get to hang around and photo-document the amazing week. 

As a thank you, Mark handed me an extra precut lumber pack for Tom's sawbench. Pine instead of the fantastic quartersawn oak the students received. I took the bundle home. Moved it from one shop to another. Until last week.

I had loaned my pair of saw benches to a friend. I still had projects to do and decided to put together the bundle into a version of Tom's. I was determined I could build it in a portion of a day using the least amount of tools possible. 

Was I trying to show off how awesome I can be? Maybe a bit, ego is a bitch. But it's more innocent than it sounds on the surface. You have to understand, there is a certain trap you can fall into when you read a lot of old books about woodworking. The books were written by, and often for, professional woodworkers. Even when it's not obviously stated, efficiency and speed of production are highly valued traits. When you think it through it makes sense and it hasn't changed in this day and age. 

Time is money. Efficiency is profit. Speed is important. When it's you're livelihood on the line it makes sense, and reading a lot of this can put the seed in your brain that efficiency is god. 

I was about an hour in, finishing up the joinery cuts for the legs and cross members, when Tom Fidgen's voice gave me pause.

No he wasn't standing right behind me. No it wasn't just like Ben Kenobi would advise Luke. No Tom has not entered the cast of schizophrenic characters that inhabit my mind. I was remembering something he'd said to the students at Sawlapalooza. 

"Remember. We all want to be "that" woodworker so let's make sure we focus on realizing that." 

The statement gave me pause when I heard Tom say it. It makes sense that we each strive to be that idealistic woodwright. One part Krenov, one part Underhill, one part Pekovich, with a sprinkle of Schwarz, Miller, and Tolpin, All knocked back with a Gary Knox Bennett chaser.

Chasing efficiency and professionalism is noble to a point, but more so is remembering that I am not a pro. I don't rely on sawdust to feed my family, and I have no real desire to trap myself in the thankless circle of dealing with customers and their assumption they're always right and important.

I slowed down a half step, stopped keeping close watch on my time, and instead went back to simplicity. The thing I really love about being in the workshop. Working in the moment.

I enjoyed the rest of the saw bench build much more.

Ratione et Passionis