The drawer component breakdown

I’ve been fighting off an unpleasant winter virus this week, which has had an impact on my productivity in the workshop. I did however manage to breakdown the stock for the desk drawer so that those parts can acclimatise before I start working on them.


This little Lie-Nielsen No.101 block plane is one of the prettiest tools in my chest.

Breaking down stock for smaller components is a little different to working with timber that just needs to be cut to length for large casework or parts (for instance the top of the staked worktable), so I thought it was worth covering this process in a blog post.


A couple of swipes with the plane removes the sealing paint and reveals the grain of the board

I had a 2″ thick maple board reserved for the drawer components, which will also yield some spare material for the staked chair. Before laying out the drawer components on the board I used a small block plane to remove the timber yard sealing paint from the end grain of the board in order to reveal the grain structure. Ideally for a drawer I would want quartersawn material, and while this wasn’t the case with this board, by carefully laying out the components I decided that I would be able to harvest material that was dimensionally stable. The drawer sides are the most critical part of the drawer assembly in terms of dimensional stability, as sides that exhibit too much seasonal movement will cause the drawer to rack and bind on its runners. I therefore laid out the sides to get the closest to quartersawn grain possible, with the back of the drawer getting the most flatsawn grain as this is the least critical component. By using material that is quite thick, I can also plane the sides at an angle to get closer to quartersawn grain.


Laying out the oversized components with a pencil marking gauge

With that decision made, I laid out all of the components with a pencil marking gauge, being sure to leave them a little oversized in case cutting them out of the board results in any significant movement or unexpected checks. Although there should not be too much risk of this, I prefer to use slightly more material than necessary at this stage of a build and to err on the side of caution. While I use blade based marking gauges for most of my layout, a pencil line is much easier to see on rough timber, and this cam-lock gauge by Bern Billsberry is quickly becoming invaluable.


The Skelton panel saw made short work of crosscutting the board into sections

By laying out the components in a way that made efficient use of the material, I effectively divided the board into three sections – one which remained unused, and two which had groups of drawer parts. My first step was therefore to crosscut the board into those three sections, using my Skelton panel saw. This resulted in two pieces which were easier to handle on the saw benches.


The riup cuts were made with my Dissotn D8 – 117 years old and still going strong.

I then ripped the draw parts out of the two smaller boards using my Disston D8 rip saw. Normally I prefer to make long rip cuts at the workbench using an overhand ripping grip, as this is much easier on the back. Since I built the staked saw benches last autumn I have been focusing on improving the accuracy of my rip cuts using a traditional kneeling technique at the saw benches, and this is how I broke the boards down to the individual drawer components.


The components are still in pairs, and I need to crosscut the parts, but I will do that in a week or so when the boards have had chance to rest.

The drawer parts are now lying in stick in the study, and in a couple of weeks time I’ll bring them closer to final dimension and allow them to acclimatise a little more before I build the drawer. I have not decided what to use for the drawer bottom yet. I have plenty of maple left over, or I might use plywood (which does have significant benefits in terms of seasonal stability). If I use plywood, then I am tempted to line the drawer with suede, which would also stop the contents rattling around.


Two legs octagonalised, two legs tapered. Look at the light play on those facets.

I also octagonalised the second leg, using the same process as I wrote about last week. The remaining two legs are down to tapered square profiles, and awaiting octagonalisation. So I should be able to polish them off over the coming week.

Octagonalisation – a way of life, not a process

We’re just back from a wonderful, and much needed, week long break to the Cotswolds and so progress on the staked worktable has temporarily slowed. That being said, before we escaped for our trip I managed to octagonalise the first of the legs for the table, and I managed to steal time away in the workshop as soon as we returned home to continue work on the remaining legs.


The consistent square profiled leg (l), tapered square leg (m) and tapered octagonal leg (r)

Octagonalising the legs is the stage of the build I’ve been most looking forward to. Taking leg from a consistent square cross section to a tapered octagon is a fun process, and as I’ve written about before, I really like the aethestic benefits – the increased facets and a significant reduction of the visual weight of the leg without reducing the structural integrity. Actually planing in the octagonal cross section for the work table legs is very much as for the staked saw benches I built last year, although there are a couple of important differences between these legs and the saw bench legs. Firstly, the legs taper in the opposite direction for the work table, with the narrowest point at the floor rather than at the tenon shoulder. Secondly, the tenons for the work table are shaped while the leg is still at a consistent square cross-section, while the saw bench legs were tenoned once they had been octagonalised. What this means in practice is that the process of laying out the octagons is a little different, as I could not rely on the same geometry techniques at the tenon shoulder as I did for the saw benches.


Laying out the octagons with dividers

Chris suggests laying out the octagons by stepping off facets on each face of the tapered square leg with dividers, and so this was the approach I took. At the foot end I still used the same geometry technique as I had for the saw benches as a fail safe. The additional length and amount of taper on the work table legs does require a touch more accuracy when planing the octagons. On the saw benches I was happy to eyeball the consistency of the octagonal facets when planing, as this was plenty accurate for legs of that length and extent of taper. The taper is much more pronounced on the work table legs, and the legs are much longer, and so rather than rely on just eyeball acuracy I marked out the edge of each facet along the length of the legs, and worked to those lines.


Planing the tapered square leg down to a tapered octagon

I also knocked up a pair of v-blocks to hold the legs while octagonalising. Nothing fancy – just some scrap blocks of poplar, into which a 90 degree “V” was cut with a cross-cut back saw (I used the Bad Axe Bayonet) which took a total of 5 minutes to prepare. These blocks support the leg, which would otherwise need to balance on the tip of a corner while planing the facets. To stop the leg shooting out the end of the blocks, I used a bench dog as a planing stop. This worked well enough, but really it emphasised how much I would benefit from a traditional toothed planing stop to hold work in place – yet another reason why I need to start looking into sourcing a slab of green oak for my Roubo bench.


A pair of v-blocks, and a bench dog, hold the legs in place for octagonalising. On my next bench I will use a toothed planing stop instead of a bench dog.

With the facets laid out, and the leg held in place by the two v-blocks and a well placed bench dog, planing the octagons was very straight forward. I removed the majority of the waste with the No.5  set to a rank cut, and then refined each facet with the No.8 set to a fine cut to ensure the new faces were straight and square. When planing to joint, or to a precise line such a here, I constantly look at the mouth of the plane. Seeing exactly where the plane starts to bite the workpiece, and which part of the iron is producing the shaving, gives a huge amount of feedback and allows for very precise adjustments to plane position and pressure distribution for an accurate cut.


Comparing the tapered octagonal leg to the tapered square profile, and the consistent square profile, shows just how much material has been removed.

Comparing the octagonalised leg to the original untapered profile, and even to the tapered square profile, it is striking just how much material has been removed and how much more elegant the finished leg is. The maple works really well for octagonalising as it holds details clearly, giving sharp corners between each facet. These legs, when installed, will have a really strong silhouette and an almost architectural quality.

Any Way You Slice It

For my birthday in May, Dr Moss booked me onto a bread making course at the Harborne Food School. The Food School opened a year or so ago right next to our favourite coffee shop, and the course list offers a wide variety of classes for all ability levels and areas of interest. And so it was inevitable that we would eventually start taking classes there. Despite baking quite a bit (at least before The Apprentice was born – there hasn’t been a huge amount of free time since) I’ve never made bread by hand. Given family history (more of which further down in this blog post) this is an omission I’ve long wanted to address, but haven’t really had the opportunity. The bread making class took place in July, and was a wonderful (and educational) evening in which the processes and mechanics of making high quality bread by hand were laid bare in an accessible and very enjoyable format. Which is all very well and good you say, but what exactly does this have to do with woodwork? At first blush not a great deal, but this class set some ideas in motion which have been slowly coalescing and bouncing round my mind ever since. 

But first, the class itself. Over the course of three hours we were instructed in how to make white and wholemeal loaves entirely by hand. Two batches of white dough were turned into a plaited loaf and batch rolls, while the wholemeal was baked into a loaf for slicing. As a final task we made pizza dough for cooking an in-class dinner, chatting about cooking and the best kept secrets of Birmingham’s restaurant scene while eating pizza we’d made ourselves and waiting for our bread to cool from the oven. The camaraderie and shared passion for food created a wonderful atmosphere, and instructor Charlotte gave very clear instructions and explations for the techniques and methods demonstrated. When it comes to traditional crafts there really is no substitute for hands on learning, and this was the perfect introduction to something I’ve wanted to try my hand at for as long as I can remember. I’m now on the waiting list for Advanced Breadmaking (focaccia and ciabatta ahoy!), and one of the very first things I did after the course was to book the Good Doctor onto a sushi making class for later this month. I fully expect that we’ll both be taking many more classes at the Harborne Food School over the coming years.

At some point during the class, as kneading the dough created a hypnotic rhythm, I started to reflect on the similar threads that link breadmaking to woodwork. It is, unsurprisingly, all about heritage. Heritage in terms of both skills and family history. 

Maple, not dough. But the  process of taking a gossamer full-width saving is surprisingly similar to that for kneading delicious bread.

Kneading that dough by hand, shaping it, and then baking until properly cooked, reminded me a lot of the time I spend at my workbench. The proximity you gain to your material by working by hand, without machines acting as intermediaries, gives rise to an understanding of how the material is being worked, and when it is ready. Touch and feel tell you as much (sometimes more) than your eyes, and the process becomes one of thinking with your fingers as well as your mind. The more time I spend at my workbench the more I think that this state is where I am most truly content – working with a combination of both hand and mind to arrive at something useful that I have fashioned myself out of basic raw materials. There is also a sense of self-reliance common to both woodwork and cooking. Sure, you can buy bread readily and cheaply. But the act of choosing to make it yourself out of good quality ingredients (free from the multitude of artificial elements found in commercial bread) speaks, I believe, to the same sense of aesthetic anarchism that motivates many of us to build the furniture we need. A small act of refusing to be someone else’s consumer, and to make the things we need. Maybe I’m over-playing this a little, but I still get the delicious bread at the end of it, so either way I win something.

Using those same traditional techniques to knead and bake the bread I found also brought me one step closer to my grandfather, and to the heritage of his chosen craft. I’ve written about my grandfather before (also here). When I was growing up he was the main woodworking example I had to look up to. But he was also a third generation master baker. If you read local history books about Birmingham in the nineteenth and twentieth century, many of them will mention T Mountford and Son, a bake house found on the Lichfield Road at the junction with Sutherland Street. That was the bakery started by my great-great-grandfather, at which three generations worked. My grandfather had left school at 14 to work in the bake house, and continued to do so until the shop closed in the 70’s (due, I believe to a compulsory purchase order by the council to widen the Lichfield Road). Even in his 80s, my grandfather had the strongest hands of anyone I’ve ever known, from a lifetime of kneading dough. And so during that hypnotic slap-stretch-roll of kneading the dough at the Harborne Food School, I found a wonderful sense of peace, and feeling that I was working as my grandfather had, not to mention the earlier and generations I’d never known, very much as I do when I’m at my workbench. 

Although traditional bread making doesn’t really translate to how I approach my workbench, that sense of self reliance and continuation of traditional skills in order to create things of use, is incredibly powerful. And it is a mindset that influences an increasing amount of my life.

Before the Octagon comes the Taper

One of the big attractions of building the staked worktable was the tapered octagonal legs. As I’ve written before, I really like the way that tapered octagons reduce the visual weight of a leg while retaining the structural strength, and also how the introduction of facets plays with light and shade. This in turn informed the timber selection for the desk. A light toned timber such as maple reflects light and emphasises the silhouette of the design, drawing the eye to the facets in the legs. I briefly considered using a dark wood, such as walnut, for the same silhouette enhancing reason, although ultimately I thought that a dark timber could dominate what is a relatively small room. Heavily figured timbers were immediately discounted from the material choices for this desk, as a showy timber would obscure the overall shape of the design by drawing the eye away from the lines and facets towards the figure of the wood.


Laying out the foot. You can see the indentations from the lathe drive centre.

Octagonalising the desk legs is broadly the same process as for the staked saw bench legs, only on a significantly larger scale. Before planing in the octagon the legs need to be planed to a tapered square profile. In the Anarchist’s Design Book Chris suggests that a bandsaw is used to achieve the tapered square cross section, and also explains how a powered jointer (or planer, if like me you’re English) can be safely used to create a tapered surface. I need to fit a new blade to my bandsaw, and to adjust the tracking (something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now) so I decided to taper the legs the old fashioned way.


Hogging off the waste with the No.5

To lay out the cross section of the foot I used a pair of dividers to scribe a circle with a diameter of the final foot width, and followed up with a small square to mark off the four sides of the final foot. Selecting one face to plane first, I marked on the two adjacent faces lines showing the full length of the taper from the tenon shoulder to the foot. The bulk of the material has to be removed from the foot, with the least being removed from the tenon shoulder. I find it easier to plane a taper by working off the workpiece rather than onto it, and so started by hogging off the waste at the foot with the No.5, set to an aggressive cut. It doesn’t matter at this stage whether you’re planing with or against the grain, nor does it matter if you get tear-out at this point, as there will be plenty of time to refine the surface once the majority of the material is removed. The focus is just on removing the waste quickly and efficiently.  As the waste comes off the foot, lengthen the plane strokes to keep the taper straight and flat – the plane wants to create a curve which would result in a visually bulging leg. The key is to changing the pressure from the toe to the heel of the plane as you move through the cut.


Refining the taper with the No.8 jointer

Once roughly half the waste is removed from the foot, and the cut has advanced to half the length of the leg, I moved from the jack to the No.8 jointer plane set to a medium cut. At this point I work with the grain, even if this involved planing uphill (from the foot to the tenon shoulder) onto the workpiece. The taper increases the length of the leg until a full-length shaving is taken from the foot to the tenon shoulder. Checking the surface with a straight edge helps, but the plane shavings and layout lines on each side of the leg should be enough to tell you if the taper is square and true. As I get closer to the layout lines, I keep reducing the depth of cut on the plane, until the final few shavings are full width, very fine smoothing shavings. I found that for tapering all four sides of the legs is pays to rotate the leg in a consistent direction for each subsequent face, as this means that after the first face, you are planing a smaller surfac area (because one of the adjacent faces has already been tapered) and the fourth face will be smaller still because both adjacent faces have been tapered.


Not a bad amount of shavings from just one leg

I didn’t quite appreciate when I started tapering the legs just how much material was going to be removed – the taper is much more pronounced than for the staked saw benches. This may explain why Chris suggested a bandsaw would be a fast way to achieve the initial taper before octagonalising the legs. That being said, the handtool only approach isn’t too slow providing proper use is made of the jack plane to rapidly remove stock and before finishing up with the jointer. The dramatic taper on the legs is going to be really striking on the finished desk, and I’m looking forward to planing in the additional facets for the octagons.


Comparing a tapered leg with a square leg shows just how much material is removed.

Live and on film

At the European Woodwork Show last month, Mark Harrell and I gave a short presentation both days about the new Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw, talking about design and development of the saw, the specification, and how the saw performs in use. Dr Moss kindly captured the Sunday presentation on film – click on the play button below.

I also managed to escape my booth for a few minutes to watch Michael Auriou demonstrate hand stitching a rasp. Michael is a true craftsman, and makes something as complex as rasp stitching look effortless. Here’s a quick video of Michael in action:

Turning Just to Keep on Turning


As I’ve written about previously, one of the real attractions in building the staked worktable design (in additiona to the fact that it is a very attractive and practical piece of furniture) is the existing skills this build will reinforce, and the new skills sets it will help to unlock. One of the new skill sets to which this build will serve as an introduction is turning. I acquired my Shopsmith machine just over two years ago (and wrote about it here) but until now I’ve not had the opportunity to actually get to grips with the lathe and try my hand at turning. Earlier this year, in anticipation of starting work on the staked work table, I removed the band and table saw attachments, and set up the Shopsmith in it’s lathe configuration. But aside from checking that everything either locked properly or span smoothly, I didn’t have the time to try turning.


Marking the centre point with a centre finder

Today that all changed, when I mounted the table legs in the lathe and turned the 2″ wide, 3″ long, tenons. This is the most dirt simple shape you can turn on the lathe – a straight cylinder. But for that reason I think it made a very good introduction to turning. The legs are thick enough to reduce any diffraction or bending while on the lathe, and the relatively short length of the turning means that you do not have to maintain a consistent diameter over the full length of, say, a chair spindle (although the tenon does need to be a consistent diameter to provide good glue surface for the mortice). So the end result is achievable.


The dividers layout the tenon circumference.

My lathe tool kit is very minimalist at this point. I’m using the Easy Wood Rougher (with plans to add the Easy Wood Finisher and Detailer tools at some point in the future). This choice was informed partly by of Chris’ recommendations, partly because this tool flattens the initial learning curve, and also because a compact set of tools really appeals at this stage. To be honest, this tool is all I needed to turn the table leg tenons, but looking to future projects the Finisher and Detailer will put more profiles and decorative elements within my grasp.


In the lathe and ready to transform something rectangular into a cylinder

To turn the worktable tenons, I located the centre of each leg (at both ends of the leg) with a centre finder, and also marked a 2″ diameter circle at the tenon end using a pair of dividers, which I then traced over with a fine pencil. The marking gauge Bern Billsberry gave me recently was perfect for marking the shoulder of the tenons, as a dark pencil line is much easier to see than a knife kerf when the lathe is running. It was then a case of mounting the leg in the lathe and carefully removing material along the length of the tenon until I reached the desired diameter. To test the fit of the tenon I used a “go block” – essentially a scrap of oak which I drilled with the same 2″ forstner bit I will use to drill the mortices of the desk, and which was then cut in half to give a semi-circle cutout to test against the tenon. As soon as the go block fits over the tenon, it is time to stop turning.


Which is all straight forward. But what that very mechanical description does not convey is the meditative experience of gently wasting away wood (being careful not to catch the corners of the legs) and sneaking up on the final tenon shape. This was one of the most blissful, and addictive, woodworking experiences I have had in ages. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it is because most of my work involves making stock flat (or octagonal), so the act of shaping it into a cylinder, is entirely new. There is also a focus on posture and body mechanics which feels very similar to time spent on the martial arts mat – turning is all technique and lightness of touch instead of brute force, very much like  my martial arts techniques. Who knows. But once I’d figured out the idiosyncracies of the Shopsmith, turning the four tenons was incredibly relaxing. I need to do more of this.


The go block says this tenon is done.

Taking the first steps toward developing a new skill set is always intoxicating – I felt this way the first time I cut a half decent dovetail, or when Clive taught me my first spine dislocation. And there is much to learn. But starting something is always the first hurdle, and today has shown that Roorkee chairs and campaign stools (both using Jason’s excellent leather kits, as can be seen here and here, respectively) and chair spindles are now all achievable. All that is needed is practice. Having the lathe up and running unlocks a list of projects I’ve wanted to build for sometime, and also opens up an entirely new woodcraft to explore – one which adds an entirely new perspective to my work. This couldn’t be more exciting.


Four tenons all turned. Next is to octagonalise the legs.

The next evolution of Over the Wireless

OTW Logo - Graphic

If you use an RSS feed to read OtW, or if you read via an email subscription, then you may not have seen the recent changes to the site. Over the Wireless started over four years ago as a way to simply describe what I was doing at my workbench, without any real expectation that anyone would want to read it. Now, with regular articles published in Furniture & Cabinetmaking and Popular Woodworking, the John Brown book for Lost Art Press, interest in commissions from prospective clients, and frequent enquiries about teaching classes (and more on this development very soon) I decided it was high time for an update of the site to better reflect the professional direction OtW has taken.

The blog feed remains the beating heart of Over the Wireless, so readers do not need to make any adjustments. But if you visit the site itself, you’ll now find on the menu bar (in order):

The aim with the new site is to give a clearer picture of what OtW is about, to present the important information clearly, and to properly showcase some of my work. A website, very much like a tool chest, is never truly finished. But I think that this iteration of Over the Wirless is a significant improvement, and puts the site on a good footing to explore and develop the new opportunities and adventures that keep presenting themselves.

Despite the fact that a large part of what I do here is communicating, I find it absolutely excruciating to write about myself. So when my good friend Jim McConnell announced his new venture (with wife Emily) as Wishbone & Hearth offering a writing, editorial, and transcription service, I knew exactly who to commission writing the new About page for OtW. Jim is an excellent writer (if you haven’t already, you should subscribe to the Daily Skep, and read Jim’s article in issue three of Mortise & Tenon) but most of all I knew I could rely on Jim to present who (and what) Over the Wireless is in a sympathetic and accurate light. After exchanging a couple of emails about the scope of the copy, and providing Jim with some background information, it was a case of waiting a couple of days for the first draft to arrive. The difference beween that first draft and the final copy you can see on the site is very slight, with only a couple of changes to tidy up and clarify some points.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that Jim’s enquiring mind would pull together threads I sometimes overlook and draw them together to give a much better representation of Over the Wireless than I could have hoped to do myself. All this, with cutting through the myriad tangents and facets which occurred to me, but which did not add to the OtW message or narrative. Sometimes it takes someone with a bit of distance and perspective to capture what is truly important about your work – I’ve certainly found this with both the OtW branding designed by Tom, and now the copy written by Wishbone & Hearth.  And working with other designers and craftspeople is an embodiment of the community spirit and engagement I really want to place at the heart of what OtW is about. Returning to Wishbone & Hearth in particular, Jim is a consumate professional (and very reasonably priced) and I would have absolutely no hesitation in commissioning further writing from him if the need arose. So, if you need someone to draft, edit, or transcribe recordings, then Wishbone & Hearth come highly recommended.