Issue 255 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is on the high street now, and includes my review of the wide panel shooting board by Evenfall Studios, as well as an excellent article on mentoring by Anne Briggs, a profile on Konrad Sauer, and a review of the diminutive Lie-Nielsen No.1 and 2 planes.
I’ve now processed the top for the boot bench and it is waiting to be dovetailed to the end pieces. Every project provides different lessons, and while processing the top I started thinking about the challenges of working on pieces of a different scale to what you’re used to (which also stopped me writing another simple “hey I flattened a board by hand” post, which could get dull quite quickly).
If you are used to working with small casework, or (in my case) guitar-sized components, the move to larger casework can feel a little daunting. The Policeman’s Boot Bench is 43″ wide, which makes it my largest piece to date, something I’ve noticed all the more so given that the majority of last year’s projects tended to be in the region of 10-20″ wide. In particular, the top of the bootbench is the largest piece of timber I’ve processed entirely by hand, especially as I cut all my components a little oversized to start with so that any minor shakes can be identified and dealt with as the timber settles. When I first started to work the top it was 47″ long and 15″ wide, and covered the majority of my workbench. I may have had to buy a longer straight edge as a result.
The thing about larger scale work is that it is both the same as smaller scale work, and a little different. Well that sounds wonderfully nonsensical, but when you stop and think about it, processing a 47″ long board requires exactly the same techniques as for a 15″ wide School Box. The difference, I think, is that the fundamental techniques need to be cleaner and more deeply embedded to be effective for larger scale work. Let me explain.
The only real difference between a 15″ long board and a 47″ long board is the size of the workpiece. So the same techniques will work, the trick is not to be overawed be the extra timber in front of you, and not to panic. That is where deeply embedded core techniques come in – remembering that regardless of the size of the workpiece, the same workflow will equally apply, traversing cuts and all. Cleaner technique becomes relevant because that extra expanse of wood gives a greater opportunity to get in a muddle and create problems through sloppy technique.
The good news is that expensive gadgets or new ways of working are not necessary – just doubling down on those core techniques. The best example of this I’ve found from working the top of the boot bench is when jointing the edges square. On a long edge there a greater potential for the plane to wander or skew, and consequently for localised areas of the edge to slope out of true, or even worse, in an opposite direction to the rest of the edge. Using the off-hand fingers to keep the same portion of blade cutting along the entire length of the board becomes even more important, as it keeps the angle at which the blade meets the edge constant. The result is an edge which is at a consistent angle, and which can be worked to true even if the plane blade itself is a little off being level. Secondly, good technique with stop cuts becomes more important because it is more likely on a long edge that there wil be localised areas which need addressing.
Unsurprisingly, the top took a little longer than usual to process, but the same basic techniques resulted in a board that was flat and square. That was a lesson in reinforcing the core handplane techniques, which I expect will be further embedded as I have four shelves (each 42″ long) still to process.
The above sounds all very forboding, but it is not meant to. If anything, I think that working on a piece that is of an entirely different scale to your usual work is a very beneficial way of honing the fundamental techniques and developing as a woodworker, whether it is building an 8ft long Roubo bench (on my project list for 2018), or some Marco Terenzi style minatures. Anything which forces us out of our comfort zone and makes us think critically about technique has, to my mind, to be a good thing.
Today I carved the feet for both end pieces of the boot bench. After a lot of flatwork recently it has been really liberating to exchange the tyranny of the straight line for some flowing curves.
The feet are formed by cutting a cyma reversa detail into the bottom of each end piece. Since I prepared the full sized plans over Christmas I’ve been experimenting with a number of curves for this detail – changing the transition point between the concave and convex portions, as well as both fixed radii curves and complex curves using french curves. In the end the detail that worked best to my eye was a pair of fixed radii curves, with the transition point two fifths of the distance from the top of the detail. Placing the transition point closer to the top of the foot ensures that there is plenty of material below the bottom dado to support the shelf, and provides an elegant curve that directs the eye upwards. The foot starts 2″ from each edge of the workpiece, and finishes 3″ above the bottom edge at the centre of the workpiece. Marking on those dimensions effectively gave me two right-angle triangles back to back (one for each half of the foot detail) terminating at the lower edge of the bottom dado.
Normally I make ply templates for curved work so that the curves are easily repeatable. However, for this detail I wanted to put into practice the pre-industrial geometry that Jim Toplin and George Walker covered in By Hand and Eye, not to mention George’s excellent article in Issue 2 of Mortise & Tenon, so I laid out both feet using just my Starrett compass and the principles expounded by Walker and Toplin. Marking out repeatable curves like this is actually very straight forward once you get the hand of some simple principles. First off find the centre point for each of the two curves. To do this set your compass so that it spans the distance between the end point and the transition on the hypotenuse of the triangle marked on the workpiece, then sweep the compass in an arc from each point. Where the two arcs cross is the centre point of the circle. Lay out that curve, then repeat for the other half of the cyma reversa. Because the centre point of the convex curve fell off the end of the workpiece I butted both end pieces together to provide a continuous working surface. I’ve left the layout lines on the inside of the carcase to tell a story for any future generations who look inside. Despite the geometric terminology, this method is really intuitive and requires no numbers whatsoever (which is my kind of maths). And the Romans used it to lay out viaducts, which is pretty nifty.
With the curves marked clearly on the inside face of both end pieces, I removed the waste using a large Knew Concepts coping saw and a fresh skip-tooth blade, making sure to cut on the line. Even in 1″ thick oak the Pegus blades cut smoothly and swiftly. After using plenty of bad coping saws, the Knew Concepts saw is a revelation, particularly when loaded with Pegus blades. The coping saw removed a large whale-tail piece of waste, and left a surface that was smoother than you’d expect.
Cleaning up the curves was where the fun really started. The first priority when rasping or filing work is to elevate it so that it is close to eye level without needing to stoop. My Moxon vise is perfect for this, and the end pieces were rock solid and at a much more comfortable height. Cleaning up the saw marks was done with a 9 grain (10″) Auriou cabinet maker’s rasp, which quickly removed all blade marks and left a reasonable surface. The curves were then faired up and refined using a 13 grain (7″) Auriou modeller’s rasp which leaves an incredible surface. It is important to work from the show surface towards the back edge of the work, to avoid blowing out grain on the face of the work. For curves that will only be viewed from one side, I slightly undercut the curves from the rear, which means that I can focus on fairing the show side. Once the curves were flowing and fair I sent a photo to the client, to gauge his response. He requested a slightly deeper and dramatic curve on the convex portion of the detail, so I spent some time deepening that curve using the same rasps.
At this point the feet are probably 95% done. I’m going to leave the end pieces out so that I can live with the curves for a few days and let them seem into my subconscious. Then I will return to them mid-week and see if there is any more subtle refinement to be done. Once I’m completely happy with the feet it will be time to dovetail the carcase together.
Winter seems to be dragging on with no end in sight round these parts, so wearing extra layers is an essential survival strategy. Which is why I am pleased to announce that I’ve had a third run of Over the Wireless t-shirts printed. Now that all the pre-orders have shipped out, I have a good range of sizes in Cardinal Red left in stock, as well as a lone medium left in British Racing Green. The tees are priced at £20 including shipping in the UK, or £25 including shipping to the US (other shipping locations on request). Orders can be placed by leaving a comment below, or by emailing email@example.com
As always, I hope to have another run of tees printed but that depends on demand. So if you want a tee, drop me a line just in case this is the last print run. Of course, if you would like a British Racing Green shirt in a size other than medium, let me know and I’ll start the fourth print-run order list.
I spent yesterday in Hay-On-Wye for the first of many field trips for the John Brown book. Picturesque Hay, home to the renowned book festival and equally renowned (if somewhat more niche) spoon festival, is halfway between the village where Chris Williams’ (my co-author for the project) lives and Birmingham, so it makes for an ideal location to meet up and formulate a plan of attack for the book.
And we are very much at the planning stage currently. To do this book properly (which is the only way we want to do it) is going to be a huge endeavour,with a significant number of interviews with John’s friends, family, and woodworkers, not to mention field trips to locations significant either to John or to Welsh Stick Chairs, and of course the chairmaking itself. With so many moving parts, having a clear road map from here to publication is the best way to stay focused on the key threads, and to make sure that nothing important falls by the wayside.
So over the past couple of months we have been engaged in a constant dialogue about what we want to achieve, and how best to go about it. Who to interview, what to make, where to visit, and what to read. Yesterday was the culmination of that dialogue, not to mention an excellent opportunity to spend a day talking woodwork with someone who has spent over 30 years working in the woodcrafts, and who personally worked with John for many years.
Slowly The Life & Work of John Brown is swimming into focus. What has become very clear over the time that Chris Williams and I have been discussing the book, and even more so yesterday, is that is for both of us it is important that we honour and embody John’s ethos as a chairmaker. What that means is that the chairmaking section of the book must make building these fascinating chairs accessible to everyone, with an emphasis on the minimal use of specialist tools or hard to find timber. That is not only consistent with John’s Anarchist Woodworker philosophy, but will also hopefully contribute to the longevity of a relatively uncommon chair form.
Which is all very well and good, but how will we achieve this? Well, one of the ideas currently being kicked around is starting the chairmaking section not at the workbench, but at the timber yard. Timber selection can be a truly daunting experience for the inexperienced woodworker – I still remember my first trip to the timberyard, and how the choice was almost crippling. Many woodwork books tend to assume that you already have material and are standing at your workbench ready to start work, but to our minds the timberyard is where every build starts, and to start anywhere else would be omitting a key step. By having Chris Williams guide the reader through timber selection for a Stick Chair, we hope to remove one of the greatest hurdles to chairmaking.
We are also considering of building chairs with pieced and carved armbows rather than steam bent bows. While English and American Windsor chair making traditions use steam bending for arm bows, Chris Williams tells me that due to the social function of Stick Chairs there was little or no tradition of steam bending in Wales. The pieced arm bow is very striking, and relies on techniques and tools common to most woodworkers. So accessible and historically accurate. Perfect.
These snapshots are really exciting to us, and I hope that by sharing some of the processes behind the book we can encourage more dialogue about John and his chairs, and also share our enthusiasm for the project. This is just the start of the process, and plenty is likely to change as we continue to work. But as the framework for the book starts to fall into place I can see how it will hang together, and what an important contribution this could be. There’s a lot of hard work to do over the next couple of years, and I hope that you will all join us for the ride.
The boot bench design uses a number of joinery techniques, which makes the sides quite a fun stage of the project. Through dovetails fix the top and sides together (tails on the sides, pins on the top), while the shelves are let into the sides by way of dados. Finally, the tongue and groove back boards are recessed into the sidesusing a stopped rabbet. Cutting the dovetails will wait until the top is prepared, as I don’t want to risk damaging the tails while working on the sides, but I decided to layout and cut the rest of the joinery for the sides as a short break from processing stock.
First I marked off the baseline for the dovetails, as this then gave me a datum line from which to measure the rest of the joinery. The shelves are 3/4″ thick, and let into 1/2″ deep dados. I have staggered the position of the shelves so that there is a distance of 5 1/4″ between the top two shelves (and between the top shelf and the baseline of the dovetails), and then 6 1/4″ between the third and fourth shelves. This spacing allows shoes to be placed on the top two shelves, and larger footware on the bottom two. The sides extend 3 1/4″ below the bottom of the fourth shelf, and will be carved into a cyma reversa foot detail. The stopped rabbet is 1/2″ by 1/4″ and extends from the dovetail baseline to the bottom edge of the lowest shelf.
With different dimensions needing to be marked off on different faces of the work I prefer to use multiple marking gauges, so that I can easily keep track of the measurements. All measurements were made on the reference edge of each side, extended across the workpiece using my Vesper 10″ square (which in my workshop is the final arbiter of squareness), and marked out using a Blue Spruce Toolworks small marking knife. I also coloured in the waste from each joint in pencil, just to avoid any confusion. Any time spent idiot proofing work is time well spent! To check that the joinery was correctly laid out I butted the reference edges of both sides together, and made sure that the layout lines matched for each joint (thanks to Charles Hayward for that tip!).
To cut the dados I deepend the knife lines with a broad (2″) butt chisel and mallet, and then pared a trench from the waste side down to the knife line – this trench guides the saw down the line and assists in maintaining a straight cut. It also ensures a nice clean surface for the joint. I cut a similar trench on the front edge of each dado down to the baseline. This project has been the first time I’ve used my new Bad Axe Bayonet in anger, and it really is the perfect crosscut saw for cutting joinery. To keep the saw in the cut initially I gently press a finger on the toe of the saw, which stops it jumping out of the trench. Once the kerf was established the Bayonet required no further assistance, and cut across the wide oak boards with ease. I’ll post a more detailed review soon. A piece of blue painter’s tape on the saw plate acted as a rudimentary depthstop (try as I might I couldn’t being myself to draw on the saw plate with a marker pen as Chris suggests in The Anarchist’s Design Book!).
Once the shoulders of all four dadors were defined I knocked the waste out using a chisel and mallet – bevel up to hog out material quickly, and then bevel down as I got close to the base line. A couple of passes with the large router plane cleaned up the floor of the joint.
Once the dados were cut and cleaned I turned my attention to the stopped rabbet. Had a through rabbet been practical I would have reached for my skew rabbet plane and cut the joint in moments. However, a through rabbet would have resulted in a large gap through the dovetails, which is less than ideal. Instead, I made a series of deep relief cuts across the grain with a chisel, and before cleaning the bottom of the rabbet with the large router plane. Having already cut the dados to the rear edge of each side meant that the rabbet was effectively divided into a series of smaller sections, with access points at each end. This made cutting the rabbet easier, and this sequence of work is definitely beneficial.
The sides are progressing nicely, and so the next task on my list is to carve the foot detail before I process the top and cut the remaining joinery.
That moment when you first introduce a hand plane to a rough timber always feels like workshop alchemy to me, as the dirty and splintered outer layer is carefully stripped away to reveal beautiful woodgrain ready to become furniture or a musical instrument.
Having left the oversized stock for the top and sides of the boot bench to acclimatise for a couple of weeks, I’ve started the build in earnest and the two sides of the carcase are now processed and at final dimension. When working with rough timber my first step (before I reach for my jack plane) is to give each surface of the workpiece a good scrub with a brass bristled brush – this removes the worst of the timber yard grime and any grit that would otherwise ruin the cutting edge of my plane iron.
The oak boards were free of twist, but there was a noticeable amount of cupping which I spent time to remove, using the same historically informed handwork method I’ve written about before. Dedicating 2016 in large part to the consolidation of solid handwork fundamentals, particularly the projects in the Joiner & Cabinet Maker, has definitely paid off, and processing the boot bench timber has so far felt like second nature. Not that there isn’t always plenty to learn – despite having processed the timber for several projects last year entirely by hand, the boot bench is by far the largest casework I’ve worked on since my Anarchist’s Tool Chest in 2014, and using larger stock does take a little more effort to keep flat and true. But essentially the technique is the same – traversing cuts with the jack plane to quickly remove stock, following up with the jointer and smoother on the show face, and just the jointer on the internal faces. You all know the drill by now. And really it is nice to be working on a project of a different scale – the sides of the boot bench are 13 3/4″ wide by 30″ long, compared to much more compact dimensions for the Packing Crate, School Box, or saw benches I was working on last year.
As I discovered when I set to work on the first side piece, the biggest challenge was keeping my bench still when traversing the grain for a heavy cut. The added mass of the wide oak boards had my (already footloose) workbench skittering across the workshop floor. Cue an impromptu reshuffle, involving decanting exactly one half of the workshop and moving the workbench against the wall, then moving the displaced contents around. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, partly to keep my workbench from dancing across the room as I work, and also to open up the middle of the workshop for breaking down long stock on the saw benches, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to attempt it in the middle of a work session. There is a bit of shuffling and organising left to do, but so far I’m very pleased with the workflow improvements and increased bench stability from this layout, and I will write more separately once I’ve finalised the new layout.
With the workbench relocated against a sturdy wall processing the two side pieces went pretty smoothly. This oak is beautiful – even though it is flatsawn the boards are wide enough to show some lovely medullary ray flecks at the edges as the grain turns to quartersawn. It is also very hardy stuff, and to maintain a good clean cut I found it necessary to resharpen the jack and jointer plane irons for each board. Once the sides were surfaced, thicknessed, and brought down to 13 3/4″ wide I then brought them down to final length by shooting one end square and then working the opposite end until I hit a perfect 30″. The Lie Nielsen No.51 shooting board plane and a good shooting board (I use the Evenfall Studios wide shooting board) make shooting to a precise length very easy, even on wide stock.
I’ve still got the top of the casework to process, although I may have a brief break from the grunt work to cut the joinery for the sides.