Shellac Sundays

Or: The Policeman’s Boot Bench… Part 7

When it comes to applying a finish to the interior of a furniture project I either don’t bother (my Anarchist’s Tool Chest) or I apply a home brewed soft wax directly to the wood (the School Box). With the Policeman’s Boot Bench I decided to chanel my inner Tom Fidgen and adop a full pre-finish regime for the internal faces of the casework. There were two reasons for this. Well, three, but the third reason is my usual workshop motivation “hey, let’s try something new”, which probably doesn’t count. So there were two serious reasons for applying a pre-finish to the casework. Firstly, glue-up is going to get increasingly cramped as I install the four shelves, and a pre-finish will make cleaning up any squeeze-out much easier. And experience tells me that anything which takes the pressure off during glue-up is well worth doing. Secondly, a shellac and wax internal finish will offer some protection from any moisture or mud that gets tracked in by dirty shoes in the years to come (although I hope the client will only store clean and dry shoes on this piece). As with many processes at the workbench, I guess it comes down to what the specific project requires.

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An end piece, taped up and the knot filled with epoxy. Once the epoxy cures it will be sanded flat.

The first stage of the pre-finishing the top and ends was to remove any small dents and workbench rash. Using a standard household iron and a clean cloth I steamed out a couple of dents and tool marks, and followed this up with a light planing using my Lie-Nielsen No.3 smoothing plane. Using an iron and plenty of steam is a very effective way of restoring a dented or marked surface and reduces the amount of planing needed.

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I use a 1″ Gramercy finishing brush for shellac

Next I had to fill three knots with epoxy. The oak I’ve use for this project was remarkably clear of knots when you consider the size of the boards (15″ wide) and through careful placement and selection I managed to minimise the number and location of knots. However I was not able to avoid knots all together, and each of the end pieces has a knot on the internal face, and the top has a small knot on the underside. These knots were stable, but the centres had crumbled a bit when I was planing the boards back in January, and I wanted a cleaner surface should anyone take a peak inside the boot bench. To fill the knots I used Araldite standard epoxy, which I dyed black using Lampblack (which essentially soot). Lampblack has a very fine grain and as a result it only takes a small pinch to dye epoxy a solid black colour. I keep meaning to try West System 105/205 epoxy for this task as it seems to flow quite easily judging from Youtube videos, but I already had a pack of Araldite to hand and it is perfectly serviceable in this application.

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After two coats of blonde shellac, and before applying the black wax

With the epoxy liberally applied to the knots I taped up the dados and rabbets with blue painter’s tape to keep them clean and free of shellac. I then brushed two coats of a 2lb cut of blonde shellac onto the internal face of both ends and the top, being careful not to brush onto the still curing epoxy. Once the second coat of shellac had dried it was then a simple case of rubbing on a coat of Liberon Black Wax and leaving it to dry before buffing out to a soft sheen.

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The underside of the top – the shellac and black wax combination has emphasised the character of the timber and given a nice sheen

I still need to sand back the epoxy once it has fully hardened and then fill in those localised spots with shellac and wax, after which the casework can be glued up. I could have waited for the epoxy to cure before I applied any shellac or wax, but truth me told I was a little impatient and wanted to see how the oak looked with some finish applied. The beauty of using shellac is that if carefully applied it melts into any pre-existing shellac finish in a very seamless way, so other than the black dyed epoxy no one should be able to see which patches I finished separately.

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The inner face of the left hand end.

Behind the scenes at Over the Wireless

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This limited edition sea monster print by Quarrelsome Yeti makes me want to listen to nothing but sea shanties

Due to the inevitable compromises necessary when you rent accomodation, I’ve not had a dedicated place to write since early 2012. That all changed when we bought our house in 2015, but decorating and setting up my study was somewhere towards the bottom of the DIY to do list, especially as we moved in only six months before the Apprentic was born and my focus was on getting the nursery and main rooms all decorated before she arrived. As a result, my study remained a beige graveyard for countless boxes and stacks of timber, and I continued to write magazine articles and blog posts on the sofa. Which is fine up to a point, but with the John Brown book progressing at a pace (and more on that next week) it really has become time that I sort out a proper workspace. So early this year I decanted the study and set about decorating. At first I was at a loss as to what the colour scheme should be – it is a smallish room so I wanted something light and vibrant, and I am deeply opposed to beige in all of it’s hideous varieties. Then Dr Moss made the excellent point that my woodwork, and writing, all stem from a love of music and passion for lutherie. So why not look to my favourite vintage guitar colours for inspiration? After that it was easy – three of the walls have been painted a vibrant sea foam green (the very best colour for Fender Jazzmasters) while the fourth wall, framing the window, is a deep teal not dissimilar to another classic colour used by Fender. Perfect.

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Breaking down the rough boards with the Skelton cross cut panel saw and staked saw benches

With the room decorated I need a desk. If I’m honest, I can’t resist the idea of building the desk at which I’m then going to write about building other things. So on Tuesday I took a trip out to Sykes Timber and collected a stack of maple which will be turned into the staked worktable from The Anarchist’s Design Book. As is becoming a re-occuring theme, the project started with breaking down the rough boards to length using my Skelton “Kenyon” style panel saw and the staked saw benches I built last year. Every time I use the Skelton saw I am blown away – it cuts like a chainsaw but has 18th century style and charm. Just wonderful.

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Rough stock acclimatising in the study

The boards are now lying in stick at the end of the study, and once I’ve finished The Policeman’s Boot Bench I’ll start building the desk in earnest. This is going to be a fun project, and not just because of the large octagonal legs. It will give me an opportunity to finally press the lathe into use, as well as some big sliding dovetailed battens, and an excuse to use half-blind dovetails on the drawer front. And of course, more octagonalisation. So a useful piece of furniture which contains lots of lessons and practice opportunities. That is pretty much my favourite sort of project at the moment. Stay tuned for more on this build later this year.

Getting to Know… Jenny Bower

One the many benefits of the online maker community is that it has placed woodwork within a wide context of handcrafts, and forged a community comprised of craftspeople from across a broad range of disciplines. One such rising star of the craft community is Jenny Bower, a Michigan based engraver who is notable for her intricate and naturalistic hand engraving to locks and woodwork tools – a process she refers to as “unnecessary embellishment”. A couple of months ago I interviewed Jenny for a profile published in issue 256 of Furniture & Cabinet Making. What follows is the unabridged version of that interview.

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Jenny Bower

1. Where did your interest in engraving come from? How did you start engraving?

I actually started to admire hand engraving before I even knew what it was. My mother had a very old locket that was ornately hand engraved. I used to play with it and she eventually gave it to me. It is one of my most treasured possessions. I didn’t understand how it was engraved until I was an adult. My husband met a local man who specialized in hand engraving watches and firearms. He took me to his studio. I was very intrigued with his work and wanted to learn how to do it. He couldn’t take me on as a student but gave me a few pointers to get started. I ordered the tooling and began to practice on my own. It has been a trial and error way of learning for me. I am still learning.

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Engraved tape measure

2. Your work is particularly notable for the engraving you do on tools and locks. What is it about these pieces that attracts you?

Most engravers work on guns, watches, knives or jewelry. Though I admire the engraving on those types of objects, I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. I love old hand tools. I am drawn to them. They have so much character to them. Once I became an engraver, I started to see the metal on the old tools as a blank canvas. Locks have always seemed romantic to me. I imagine people locking up their secret treasures with them. However, most locks aren’t very pretty, they are just functional. I wanted to make them beautiful. I started referring to my work, using the hashtag #UnnecessaryEmbelishment on Instagram. What I do to tools and locks isn’t at all necessary but it adds a uniqueness to them. Sometimes it brings a forgotten tool back to the forefront. It makes an ordinary tool into something special. It makes an everyday item a keepsake.

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Engraved brass wear strip on a marking gauge by Farnsworth Guitars

3. Where does your inspiration for engraving come from? Are there other artists or crafts people who have influenced you or who you admire?

Nature, architecture, advertising fonts, hand painted signs, carvings… these are all things that inspire me. It might sound odd but I try to stay away from looking at the work of other engravers. I don’t want to be influenced by it or feel like I need to follow a certain path with engraving. I find myself to be more inspired by creative people in general. I find that passion for craft is contagious. I have many friends who create in completely different capacities than I do. Some of the people who have most inspired me are woodworkers, metal casters, metal fabricators, tool makers, people in the custom automotive industry, woodturners, a whole host of different people. When I am around people who are excited about their craft, I get even more excited about my own. What is wonderful is that as a result there have been opportunities for our crafts to merge into collaborative projects.

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Engraved padlock

4. As well as engraving you also do a lot of handlettering art, including the excellent recent decals in conjunction with Texas Heritage Woodworks. Do you view your drawn art as an extension of engraving or a separate craft? Do the two disciplines compliment each other?

My drawing and my engraving are completely intertwined. I engrave or draw every single day, without fail. The steady hand control that is required for engraving has helped develop my drawing and hand lettering. The sketches and lettering that I draw are often translated into my engraving. I never wanted to copy the traditional engraving designs. Some engravers engrave from templates, I wanted all of my work to be original. Unless I am asked to engrave a specific logo for a customer, or do something in a very particular font, I create the design. When I engrave a monogram in an old style, I make each monogram custom. I am inspired by old fonts but I create my own lettering. I want it to feel unique and unlike something they could get from anyone else.

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5. You have a big following on Instagram, a large part of which is from the woodworking community. Do you do any woodwork yourself? What do you think attracts woodworkers to your work as a metal engraving artist? What is the common ground?

The woodworking community on Instagram has been incredible. I dabble only a tiny bit in woodworking. I follow many woodworkers on social media. I find them to be a hard working group who are willing to encourage others and who are passionate about preserving traditional handcraft skills. I have a deep respect for people who work with their hands and create things with attention to detail, creating things that are built to last. These friends have inspired me to venture into the realm of woodworking. This year I was asked to engrave a monogrammed wax seal stamp for someone. It was important to me to be able to make the entire thing. I am fortunate to have several tools at my disposal as I am married to a horologist (a clockmaker). My husband works mostly with metal but has occasionally turned wood on some of our metal lathes. He gave me a piece of walnut and a few pointers. I studied the Instagram tutorials made by my woodturning friends and turned my first small handle. I posted the progress on my Instagram page and was cheered on by the woodworking community. In addition to that, several of them sent me boxes of turning blanks with notes of encouragement. I was completely overwhelmed by their generosity. I received gorgeous exotic woods and figured burls. I have since made a few more handles and plan to continue making them for all of my custom engraved stamps. My husband surprised me with my own small lathe and my dad gave me a set of turning tools that he had purchased 30 years ago and never used.

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Engraved ring

What attracts woodworkers to my work as an engraving artist? Initially, I think that my love for tools got me into the community. The mutual affection for hand tools was a starting point. Once I started showing my engraving work on tools, they became interested in my process and respected the fact that it was done by hand, not a computerized machine. I have since worked with woodworkers on many projects. I have engraved small hand planes, I have made tool box plaques, maker’s mark medallions for Mark Hicks’ (Plate 11 Woodworking) custom Roubo workbenches, wax seals of woodworker’s initials for them to use on their correspondence, engraved screw heads for Florip Tool Works‘ custom hand saws, engraved names and logos onto shaves made by Caleb James, engraved a marking gauge made by Farnsworth Guitars, as well as numerous pairs of calipers, chisel ferrules, levels, rulers and tape measures. My work is very personal to me. I put myself into the design, I think about the person I am creating the engraving for. It means a lot to me to know that my work is being treasured.

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Calliper engraving

6. What would be your dream commission be, or your dream tool to engrave?

For many years I refused to engrave on anyone’s personal item. Engraving by hand there is always a risk of a slip that could ruin a piece. It would absolutely devastate me to ruin something that was irreplaceable. I will take some commissions on personal items but I’m particular as to which ones. My dream commissions have been to work with people who I admire and respect. In all honesty, making things for my friends in the community of craftsmen and makers, brings me the most fulfillment. It has always been a goal to engrave all over one of my husband’s hand crafted clocks. He makes each component of his clocks by hand. He makes the screws, he machines the gears and then hand cuts all of the spokes and the plates… it takes months. I have engraved some components of his clocks, but he wants me to engrave very elaborate designs onto some of his future creations. I am looking forward to that. I know he crafts each piece with precision and care and I am honored to be able to collaborate with him.

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7. You recently wrote a very thought provoking submission for the “Perfect In 1000 words or less” series for the Daily Skepp. How did writing this piece cause you to reflect on your work and development as a craftsperson? Has it affected how you’ve approached your work since writing the piece?

I was very transparent and honest in the piece I wrote for the Daily Skep. Perfectionism has been a struggle for me since I was very small. Being able to talk about perfection openly in the essay helped me to face it head on. I heard from so many craftspeople after that article was posted. Many people identified with what I had to say and shared their stories with me. I realized it is a common bond that many craftsmen share. We strive to do our best and sometimes that can propel us forward into amazing things and sometimes it can be a weight around our ankles that holds us back out of a fear of failure. Since I wrote the piece, I’ve become much more daring in trying new things. This spring I would like to try blacksmithing. I am planning to sign up for a program locally. A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have even admitted out loud that I wanted to test the blacksmithing waters. I have no expectations of being stellar, I have no goals of being a blacksmith. However, I have an appetite for learning more about handcraft and other forms of metal work.

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8. What does 2017 have in store for you? Are there new projects or work on the horizon?

I have some collaborations coming with other craftsmen in 2017 that I am very excited about. I’m looking forward to finding new and unusual things to unnecessarily embellish. I am looking forward to attending the Handworks convention in Amana, IA and meet some of the people in the woodworking community who I have never met in person but already consider friends. We have bounced ideas off of each other through texts and emails, worked together on projects across the miles, and we have each other’s creations on our respective workbenches… It will feel like a reunion and I cannot wait to shake their hands, thank them for their inspiration and talk with them about their upcoming projects. I think it will also spark more ideas, more collaborations.

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The Policeman’s Boot Bench.. Part 6

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Ripping the shelves to width using the staked saw benches I made last year and my 117 year old Disston D8

A lot of woodwork, especially if you are hand tool focused, isn’t cutting fancy joinery or applying esoteric finishes. Instead, much of woodwork comes down to a few fundamental processes – sawing and planing boards to take them from the rough to smooth, square and straight. If your stock is properly dimensioned, and free of twist or cupping, everything that follows will be smoother. The converse is that without properly processed and dimensioned stock a project will fight you every step of the way – joinery will not fit properly, and the various components of the casework will not be coplanar.

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A good tight fit for the first shelf. Oak can be prone to chipping out, so I wanted a good fit that wasn’t overly tight at this stage.

I’ve been processing the stock for the four shelves of The Policeman’s Boot Bench, and I’ve found a quiet sort of joy in practicing those fundamental techniques; ripping the shelves to width, jointing the edges, and smoothing the top surface of each shelf ready for applying the finish. Finding that with each shelf that passes I’m a little more efficient, a little more accurate, and that the core techniques are a little more deeply embeded.

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Normally I only use these callipers for specific lutherie tasks, but they are also very useful for measuring the internal width of dados.

I left the shelves slightly over thickness initially, as I knew that it would be a few weeks between processing them and being ready to glue the casework together. As a consequence I wanted to avoid any wood movement in the shelves once they were at final thickness, as planing out that cupping would result in them not only being under thickness but also risk having unsightly gaps between the shelves and dados. After a few weeks of sitting in stick, the shelves had stabilised and were ready to be fitted. Because I had cut the dados prior to processing the shelves, I decided to fit each shelf to the dados individually rather than just plane them down to 3/4″ thickness. Although I marked the dados out to the same dimensions, cutting the joinery by hand means that there is likely to be small variations between the dados and fitting the shelves individually gave me the opportunity to address these and achieve a good fit. As a health warning, I would add that the following process makes a lot of sense to me, but woodworkers with many more dados under their belts may think the process I’ve adopted is frankly nuts.

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Using a rabbet plane allows the shelf to be brought down to final thickness exactly where it is needed, and in a very controlled manner. The rest of the shelf can be thicknessed once the shelf has been fitted.

First I measured the width of the dado with a pair of Starrett callipers – yes I know we’re not supposed to use these for woodwork, but for reading an internal measurement within an enclosed space they simply can’t be beat. I took several readings along the length of the dados to check for variations in width. With the final width ascertained, I planed a 3/4″ wide rabbet at the end of the shelf using the Veritas Skew Rabbet plane, stopping just shy of the final thickness. This rabbet was planed to the bottom edge of the shelf, and provided a very easy and controlled way to reduce the shelf to final thickness without having to worry (at this stage) about thicknessing the rest of the 42″ long shelf. With the shelf hovering on the limits of final thickness it was then a process of repeated test fittings and making a note of where the shelf would catch on the bottom lip of the dado. Localised adjusgments were made to the shelf with a shoulder plane, until the end of the shelf slid fully home.

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A shoulder plane takes fine shavings from very precise areas of the shelf’s tongue. I’ve not done any workshop macro photography for a while, so this should make up for it.

All four shelves have now been fitted to the left hand end piece, and I now have to repeat the same process for the opposite ends. Once both ends of each shelf have been fitted to their dados I will then finish thicknessing the shelves by planing the underside of each shelf to reduce the thickness until it matches the tongues at each end.

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All four shelves fitted to the first end piece. Now to do the same to the other end.

European Woodwork Show 2017

Spring is finally here, which means that the woodwork show season is now kicking into gear. As well as attending Handworks next month, I am pleased to announce that I will also be exhibiting at the European Woodwork Show in September. EWS 2015 was a wonderful event with lots of really interesting demonstrations and stands, as well as a fantastic community spirit. What made the last event so memorable for me personally was the number of readers, both on the blog and F&C, as well as members of the Instagram woodwork community, who stopped by to say hello and to have a chat about woodwork.

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EWS 2017 promises to be even better, with a bumper crop of stands including Chris, Megan (for the first time!), Vic, Bill Carter, Skelton Saws, Deneb from Lie-Nielsen, and many more. I will also have the Apprentice with me, and will be working on my current guitar build throughout the weekend. Do stop by my stand and say hello!

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