Come and build things with me!

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The Packing Box…

This September I will be teaching a 5 day class at the Lost Art Press store front in Covington, Kentucky. The class will look at two of the projects from The Joiner & Cabinet Maker – the Packing Box and the School Box, as an introduction to handtool work including layout, nail clenching, dovetailing, preparing short runs of moulding, and fitting hardware (locks and hinges). While these projects are very accessible, they offer a lot of learning opportunities, which should make for a really enjoyable and stimulating class!

Registration opens at 10am (Eastern time) on 21 January through this link, and is limited to six students. I look forward to seeing some of you there!

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…and the School Box

First article of 2019

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Over the autumn I put my regular bench planes away, and put a Lie-Nielsen No.62 through its paces to test whether a low angle jack really is the only plane you need. Issue 280 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is now in print, and contains a four page article about that test, and my conclusions. So if you were wondering about the utility of low angle planes, it might just be worth a read.

Back to the Boot Bench… Part 7

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Doc Holliday 10″ dovetail saw and Sterling Toolworks 1:4 Saddle Square

The final stage of the Boot Bench was to make the drawer which fits in the compartment at the top right of the case. The drawer is of quite ordinary construction – 1/2” stock dovetailed at the corners, with a 1/4 x 1/4” groove in the sides and front to capture the bottom. The bottom is 1/2” thick, tapering to 1/4” at the edges to fit into the groove, and is orientated with the grain running across the drawer so that any seasonal movement is pushed to the rear edge of the bottom.

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Ploughing grooves for the bottom

As the front of the drawer will be painted to match the rest of the casework, I decided to use through-dovetails rather than half blind, as the end grain of the drawer sides won’t be that noticeable, and a simple square plug will fill the groove ends in the tails. Before dovetailing, I ploughed the groove in the sides and front using a Veritas small plough which I leave permanently set up for this operation.

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The rear corners, showing how the bottom slides in from the back of the drawer

Although dovetailing is the same operation regardless of stock thickness, I definitely find that dovetailing 1/2” stock requires a lighter touch than the 3/4” to 1” range that represents the majority of my work. That lightness of touch involves both a slight change to the tools I reach for, and the way I use them. For the past two years my go-to dovetail saw has been the 14” Bayonet by Bad Axe, but while that is an excellent saw for my usual stock thicknesses, for 1/2” it is a mite too aggressive, so I prefer my 10” Doc Holliday saw (also by Bad Axe), which has a touch more control for thinner stock. I also swap out my usual 8” coping saw for a smaller piercing saw for hogging out the waste, as the finer blades allow me to creep right down to the baseline without fear of any blowout. I find that I also use lighter mallet blows when chiselling.

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Sure, you could taper the edges with a jack plane, but when the panel raiser is this much fun, why would you?

The dovetails are orientated with the tails on the drawer sides and the pins on front and back, which minimises wracking when sliding the drawer in and out. The front had two tails, laid out so that the grooves land well within the tails. The back of the drawer is not as wide as the other components, as it terminates immediately above the groove, with two unequally sized tails capturing the back.

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Raised panel and scalloped surface – a lovely contrast

Once the dovetails were glued up I sized the bottom so that it fit the available space. The interior surface of the bottom was planed smooth, but I left the scalloped texture from the scrub on the underside. The taper to fit the grooves was then cut with the Philly Planes panel raiser. A rough taper could be achieved with a jack plane, but the contrast of a sharp raised panel and scalloped surface was something I wanted to achieve, as a visual (and textural) treat for anyone who takes the drawer out in years to come. I used some hope made soft wax on the edges of the bottom to help ease them into the grooves, and then smoothed the exterior of the drawer with my No3. I also drove a short Roman Nail through small notch at the rear edge of the bottom into the back. The notch allows for seasonal movement in the bottom, while also holding it in place.

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Drilling the mounting hole for the drawer pull – sacrifical stock prevents blowing out the interior of the drawer front

After testing the fit of the drawer in the compartment (relief, it had a snug fit and moved smoothly!) I drilled the mounting hole for the drawer pull. Clamping some sacrificial pine to the inside of the drawer from prevented the drill bit from blowing out the internal surface of the drawer front. I then pared two small plugs to fit the groove ends on the front, and glued them in place. Once the glue has cured I will flush them up and then paint the drawer front. After which, this project will well and truly be completed.

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The completed drawer (upside down to show off that lovely texture). You can see the Roman Nail at the rear of the drawer bottom

Back to the Boot Bench… Part 6

Finishing the Boot Bench was a straight forward process which I was able to attend to between festivities over the Christmas break.

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Sealing knots with shellac

Before applying any milk paint I sealed two knots (one on the top, and one on the right hand side) with a thin coat of shellac. That was followed by five thin coats of Bayberry Green milk paint by Old Fashioned Milk Paint, applied with a foam brush. I tend to mix milk paint using a 2:1 ratio of warm water to powder. This creates a much thinner mixture than the manufacturer’s instructions, which call for a 1:1 ratio. The result is a thin paint which requires more coats to get an even coverage, but which does not obscure the underlying detail or require as much work to remove the chalky texture. As you can see from the gallery below, the paint took a few coats to build up a nice density of colour. Once the fifth coat had dried I burnished all of the paint using a pad of brown paper – this smoothed out the texture and also eased the few remaining variations in colour.

I then removed all of the blue tape and was pleased to see that there had been very little colour bleed on the edges of the shelves. I gently chamfered the leading edge of each shelf with a spokeshave to protect the fragile corners from years of use, and this also removed what little colour bleed there was, resulting in a crisp paint line. At the same time, I flipped the case upside down (using a moving blanket to protect the finished surfaces) and chamfered the feet using a 9 grain Aurio rasp. The Apprentice helped me layout the chamfers with a pencil gauge, and also took some swipes with the rasp. She’s really enjoyed helping out on this project, and so some more father-daughter ‘shop time will hopefully be on the cards soon.

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The Apprentice helped me chamfer the feet

I then padded on two coats of Osmo Polyx to the interior and exterior of the Boot Bench. Osmo is a hardwearing and waterproof oil finish, which makes it perfect for this application. The oil gave a soft lustre to the milk painted surfaces, and deepened the colour a little. It also emphasised the underlying details, such as the end grain texture and lines of the dovetails, which is wonderful as I wanted to be able to see the joinery through the paint.

Once the Osmo had dried the finishing touches were to knock in the nails pinning the dados, and to apply my maker’s mark to the end grain on one of the tails. There really is nothing like introducing a 2lb lumb hammer to a project you’ve finished… And then, on New Year’s Day the Apprentice helped me load shoes onto the shelves. The Boot Bench has been in use for just shy of a week now, and has had a transformative effect on our hall – easily accomodating all of the shoes which used to spill out of the previous rack, and making the space much more welcoming. I need to finish making the drawer, and then this project will be done. More on the drawer next time.

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The year that was, and the year that will be

And with that, another year draws to a close. I remember in last year’s review that time was speeding up, and it feels like 2018 passed by in the blink of an eye.

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That “top 9” thing every one does on Instagram. Apparently you good folk like dovetails, staked furniture, and vintage Starrett layout tools.

What we leave behind

I don’t subscribe to the idea of “good” or “bad” years – 365 days is such a large expanse of time that all years encompass a range of events and emotions. 2018 was no exception, and it presented some of the biggest challenges I’ve faced to date, along with some genuinely incredible experiences. To read about the challenges you’ll have to wait for my memoires to be published, so let’s have a look at the highlights.

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This is my favourite detail – the leg tenon entering the batten. Just a little hint of the, compound angles, and lovely facets. I could look at this element of the desk all day.

2018 was the year I finally dipped my toe into chair making, and found it to be completely addictive – there is definitely going to be a lot more chairmaking in my future. I completed the staked worktable at which I am writing right now, my first campaign stool (a furniture form I’ve wanted to build for four years), and the saw cabinet. On the “almost completed” list goes the boot bench (which as of today is in use, and just needs the drawer before I can tick it off as done) and the Apprentice’s Stick Chair (which needs a new crest rail). I wrote my first collaborative article, with good friend Richard Wile, had a number of articles published in Furniture & Cabinetmaking, and two published in Popular Woodworking. I also wrapped up my research for the Life & Work of John Brown. On the skills front, I started to get to grips with the lathe, and also spent time working on my photography.

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I didn’t blog as much as I wanted to last year and for the first time in the five years of this blog I didn’t manage to keep up with my regular weekly schedule, mainly due to the rigours of daily life. Despite that, the blog readership stayed steady, and I’m determined to get back to weekly updates this year. Thank you to everyone who has stuck by the blog during the fallow patches.

Of course, no end of year review is complete without a top five albums list, so here is mine (in order):

  1. Years” – Sarah Shook & The Disarmers (who incidentally put on one of the best shows of my entire life, in November);
  2. Lush” – Snail Mail;
  3. What a Time to Be Alive” – Superchunk;
  4. How to Socialise & Make Friends” – Camp Cope; and
  5. Brass Against” – Brass Against.

What 2019 holds in store

The coming twelve months already offer much to look forward to. I’ve got a full slate of articles lined up, including a multi-part series for Funiture & Cabinetmaking, and a really interesting piece for Popular Woodworking. In the coming weeks I will be announcing my first class (a five day hand tool extravaganza involving two of my favourite projects), as well as a very exciting new project I’ll be working on with Chris Schwarz.

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Continuing my recent trend of only attending shows in odd-numbered years, in March I’ll be attending the East Midlands show in Newark (many thanks to Classic Hand Tools for inviting me down as part of their section), so if you plan on coming to that do swing by and say hello!

In terms of projects, the centre piece this year will be my Roubo bench build, and also building the boarded book case from the Anarchist’s Design Book for my study. I also need to build a steam box to finish off the Apprentice’s Stick Chair, and want to keep the chair building going alongside the other projects – I have a couple of Welsh Stick chairs rattling round my head that really need to be built.

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All that remains is to wish you all a very Happy New Year. Thank you for reading the blog over the past twelve months, it is incredibly humbling and heartwarming to know that folk are interested in what I post here.

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As of today the boot bench is loaded with shoes and in use. I just need to finish off the drawer before I can call it done.

Back to the Boot Bench… Part 5

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Dressing the front of the boot bench with my No3 smoother

I waited to clean up the dovetails on the boot bench until the very last stage before painting. The main reason for this is that I try to only clean up the exterior of a project once,  so as to avoid removing any more material than I strictly need to. By waiting until the last possible minute I am also able to address any “workshop rash” to the exterior.

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That moment of truth when you clean up a joint. This dado looks ok.

When cleaning up casework I try to approach the job in a methodical fashion, so that I only work on each face once, and to avoid denting or scratching a surface I’ve just cleaned up. This is all the more important given that workholding for a large-ish piece of furniture is different to flat boards. The most involved element of cleaning up the boot bench was the front, where all of the shelves intersect with the carcase, and need to be flushed up. I worked round the shelves in order using a freshly sharpened No3 smoothing plane and a No101 apron plane. Starting with the vertical divider, I flushed the ends up with the block plane, and then dressed the full length of the divider with the smoothing plane. Once the divider was flushed up, I then moved to the bottom shelf, and then each of the shorter shelves in turn, before lightly dressing the edges of the carcase. By moving around the elements in this order I was able to keep track of where I was, and also ensure that the casework is not planed out of true. When planing dados, skewing the plane to 45 degrees with a light cut as you work across the joint helps to avoid spelching or tearout on either component.

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Drilling the pilot holes for more Roman nails. I wonder how many holes this drill has created over the years?

 

Once the front was looking good, I worked each end in turn before turning my attention to the top. The first task for the sides was to layout and drill pilot holes for the Roman nails which will pin the dados. The nails will be hammered in once the boot bench is painted, as I want the nail heads to be a decorative feature and not covered in paint. Five pilot holes per shelf were laid out with dividers, and drilled using a tapered drill bit in my grandfather’s egg beater drill. Next, each side was cleaned up with the No3 smoother taking light cuts until the pine was smoothly finished and the dovetails were flush. To work the ends, I placed the boot bench on top of a thick blanket to protect it from the floor, and braced it against the workbench. Some minor glue staining remains on the end grain of the dovetails – from my initial (highly unscientific) experiences Old Brown Glue seems to penetrate deeper than Titebond. As the boot bench will be painted this does not matter, and the joints were all clean with no glue left on the surface.

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Trimming the dovetails flush

 

I trimmed the tails flush to the top with the block plane, and then smoothed the top until the surface was clear and free of tearout, standing the case on the floor (on top of a blanket) and bracing it against a bench leg. I’m pretty pleased with how these dovetails came out. The final touch was gently chamfering all four edges of the top, to avoid denting those delicate corners in use.

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Clean dovetails, these look ok

I still need to complete the drawer, and apply finish to the whole piece. But the boot bench is almost finished, and should be in use by Christmas. In readiness for painting, I also applied blue tape to the inside edges of the casework and shelves, to avoid paint transfering to the interior. I have further strategies to address any paint that creeps under the tape, but you’ll have to wait until the next post for that.

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Taping up the casework before painting

Sharp Fixes Everything

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Writing about sharpening has always felt pretty redundant to me, simply because everything that needs to be written about how to sharpen has already been written – read “The Perfect Edge” by Ron Hock, the “Sharpen This” series by Chris Schwarz, and then get back to making your nicely sharpened edge tools blunt again (that’s the fun part!). So, over the five years of the blog I’ve always resisted writing about sharpening.

But this year a number of factors caused me to re-examine my sharpening routine and to change my system. So after getting acquainted with my new approach to sharpening, I thought a brief blog post was in order. I want to be clear though, there are many sharpening systems out  in the world, and all work providing you spend enough time to understand them. I”m not saying my current system is “best” (whatever that means), just that right now, it satisfies my needs. At Totness we used a Tormek followed by a fine water stone, finishing with a leather strop. After Totness I used oil stones for quite a while, because that’s what my Grandfather used. And for the past six years I’ve used Scary Sharp film on a sheet of 10mm thick float glass, lubricated with Liberon honing oil. All of those systems achieved a razor sharp edge, and I put in enough hours on each system to understand how to get my edge tools sharp. Each sharpening medium has different foibles, and there is always a period of familiarisation, which is why flitting between different systems is a recipe for blunt tools and frustration.

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Shapton Pro water stones – 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 grits (top to bottom)

Scary Sharp worked really well, and the cost of admission is very low (£20 for an A4 sized piece of float glass, and a couple of pounds for the film itself). For those on a tight budget, or who are just starting out, it is an excellent system. So why did I make the switch? Parly because the Apprentice is starting to come into the ‘shop with me, and shows an interest in doing some basic tasks. It’s going to be a good few years before she’s sharpening edge tools, but with her being in the workshop I wanted to reduce the number of unpleasant chemicals splashing around. So honing oil was out.

The other factor that started to grate on my with Scary Sharp was the need to replenish the film every so often. Peeling off the old film, scrubbing away the residue and dried swarf with a meths soaked rag, and then applying the new film, all of this takes time. No one sharpens as often as they should, and anything which presents even a minor barrier to sharpening is less than ideal. Added to this is the fact that the film sharpens very nicely when new, but then cuts slower and slower as the abrasive is worn away. Which is not to knock Scary Sharp as a medium – if you have the patience and discipline to change films often, and if this doesn’t interrupt your workflow, then it is an excellent system.

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Setting the correct amount of projection to hone a 35 degree bevel, thanks to the angle block by Derek Jones

So a sharpening medium that can be lubricated without oil, and has a sustainable and fast cutting action? My solution was a set of Shapton Pro water stones (available in the UK from Knives and Tools). This isn’t a cheap option by any means, even using a minimal set of 1,000 grit (Orange), 5,000 grit (Pink) and 8,000 (Green). Adding a flattening solution to keep the stones true (I went with a DMT Dia-Flat plate) also adds to the cost. But after 6 weeks or so of using this system in the shop, I’m very pleased. Using a gentle spritz of tap water from a plant spray meets my criteria of having a non-harmful lubricant. And the Shapton stones cut very quickly, helping to achieve a keen edge in very little time. The faster it is to sharpen, the more often I sharpen. Flattening the stones with the Dia Flat is also a very quick process – the stones don’t dish particularly quickly, which means that minimal flattening is needed after each use. So right now this system works for me, and I am staying sharp.

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Honing the bevel

The rest of my sharpening kit is very simple. Honing guides are a whole other topic (and one I want to write about even less than I want to write about shaprning). After using a couple of different guides over the past six years, I’ve spent the past 3 being monogamouse to the Lie Nielsen honing guide, which holds blades firmly and allows a consistent bevel to be honed with ease. Again, it’s not better than the others, but it works for me. Derek Jones makes a very nice angle block for use with the Lie Nielsen guide, and that has been my go to for over 18 months now. I also keep a small engineer’s square in my sharpeng kit to check for square cross the width of the blade. The only thing I need to get now is a tray to hold the stones on in use.

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My simple, but effective, sharpening kit