Day 5: Saint Roy’s devilish brand of “Irksome woodworking”

And so this is it. The New English Workshop class of 2015 is dismissed. This week has been a whirlwind of fun, skills learned, tall tales told, and a vast sense of community felt. I’m struggling to believe that this course (which I have been looking forward to since last November) is already over, as the time has just flown by.

My completed projects (trapped nail not pictured)

My completed projects (trapped nail not pictured)

But let me backtrack a little, to the final day of the course. Roy had designated Friday as a day for irksome woodworking, the purpose of which is purely to annoy other people. And so he had a couple of fun projects for us to work on with this aim in mind.


Before we delved into irksome woodworking I managed to find a few minutes to finish yesterday’s patch box with shellac, a touch of hard wax, and then a swift burnishing using a polissoir made by Don Williams. This was my first experience using a polissoir and I am totally converted; I can very easily see this being my go to finish for future furniture builds.


With the patch box finished and full of mutton tallow substitute, Roy set us up with two irksome projects; the classic trapped-nail-in-a-block-of-pine, and a rising dovetail test joint. The trapped nail is a nice easy introduction to irksome woodworking, and although quite a frivolous piece still made good use of core skills like accurate cross cuts, pairing out waste, and layout. I won’t say anymore about this project in case it spoils the puzzle for any readers.

My test rising dovetail.

My test rising dovetail.

The rising dovetail was a different kettle of fish entirely. This is the key joint for Roy’s infamous Mystery Mallet, and one which I was keen to try out. I must have been getting a little tired and dim by this point of the course, as the layout for the rising dovetail did wrinkle my brain somewhat. But I think this is a joint that will come with practice, and the unusual layout method, as well as cutting an unfamiliar joint, are definitely worthwhile skills to master.


I’m still reflecting on this course, and suspect that the ideas and lessons learned will continue to percolate for some time. But as an immediate impression, is of a week spent developing more parallel skills, and covering a considerable amount of ground, in a relaxed and entertaining environment. It goes to show, I suppose, that skills based learning (as distinct from project based learning) doesn’t have to be dry at all – with the right teacher it can be a riot of laughter and bafflement in equal measure.


Myself and fellow Anarchist Tool Chest survivors at the start of this week’s course.

The sense of community on this course has been huge; from the guys at New English Workshop, the instructors and assistants (Roy, Chris, Deneb from Lie-Nielsen, and of course Jamie Ward from Warwickshire College), and the participants on both Chris’ bench building class and the Followers–of–Roy, it truly has felt like a large family.

Particular mention must go to my four fellow survivors from last year’s Anarchist’s Tool Chest class, and the camaraderie and kinship has been wonderful. So to fellow Anarchist’s Susan, Matt, Matt, and Rory, and the non-Anarchist’s we were lucky to work with this week; thanks guys. I’m already looking forward to doing the next class with you all!

Day Four: Good news for people who can’t saw accurately

Today we built another iconic project of Roy’s; the patch box. This delightful grease box is cut from a single piece of stock and has a cunning catch arrangement to keep your mutton tallow safe. As with all the projects we have done this week, what at first seems like quite a simple project has deployed a number of core skills in unusual ways.

Roy demonstrates use of the passer drill

Roy demonstrates use of the passer drill

Having laid out our patch boxes in mahogany (salvaged during yesterday’s skip dive), we got to use Roy’s passer drill to route out the recess for the brass inlay we cut yesterday. The passer drill is truly a remarkable device, and entirely different to any routing method I’ve encountered previously – this tool has the possibility of providing endless fun.

With the brass inlay fitted we ripped the two sliding lids from the stock. The surface left by my 16” Bad Axe tenon saw was so good that not much clean up was needed, and a few passes with my 212 scraper plane did the job nicely. The end of the top lid is cut at an angle across the width of the box, and also with a healthy amount of undercut to achieve a solid closing action. Which is great news for people who find it difficult to cut square across and down at the same time…

An ebony butterfly was inset into the opening end of the box, with the bottom half in the main section of the box and the top half in the lower sliding layer. The catch mechanism was completed with a single brass screw at the opposite end of the box, and the screw hole of the middle layer was elongated to allow the layer to slide back and forth as well as pivoting. This ingenious arrangement means that the box can only be opened if the two lid layers are moved in the correct direction and sequence. Brilliant.


A box with no interior compartment is not much of a box, however. To create a compartment we drilled out the interior of the main box section using an antique spoon bit and brace. To my eternal shame I’ve not used a brace and bit before, although I hope to remedy this as soon as possible (and I’m keeping my eye out for a good condition 10” brace).

Drilling out the cavity with a spoon bit

Drilling out the cavity with a spoon bit

Tomorrow I’m hoping to give the box a coat of shellac and wax, and then fill it with my mutton tallow substitute of choice. This has been another super fun project, and one which I may well build again as gifts.


Day Three: Skip Diving with Saint Roy

Many events occurred today which I never expected when I signed up for Roy’s class last November.


We started off the day with a healthy amount of metal work for two separate projects. One involved cutting copper pipe, beating it into a square cross section, drilling out screw holes and then soldering on nuts to accept the screws. These are to be used for a set of pinch rods, with two copper fixtures apiece. The only soldering I’ve done previously is guitar electrics, so using a ruddy great gas torch for soldering the copper bracket and brass nut was a new experience.

The second element of metal work was cutting brass inlay for use with Roy’s amazing passer drill on a project we will start tomorrow. I was more familiar with this work, having cut a fair amount of shell inlay for my guitars, but 3mm thick brass plate was a very different sort of material to work with. Lots of fun, and I’m quite pleased with how my inlay came out.

More parallel skills, more experiences. Perfect.

The afternoon was spent skip diving, which I definitely did not expect on this course (or in fact any other), for suitable timber for the pinch rods. Roy is clearly a master skip diver, and emerged with a haul of walnut, old growth mahogany, maple, and a teak skooner chair. I opted for some teak from the chair, which Roy expertly demolished. The teak turned out to have some crazy roped grain which tore out in every direction regardless of which plane I used (and yes, I tried the full complement of No.8 jointer, low angle block plane, and 212 scraper plane). But the pinch rods themselves came out pretty nicely, so I’m pleased with the end results of a pretty fun project,


As a final treat, Roy taught me how to play the saw. So expect more boings, squarks, and 1950’s sci-fi sound effects on my next brace of recordings. I may have to see if Mark has any nice vintage rip saws for sale – I prefer my musical saws to be in A sharp (A Sharp Saw, geddit? Yes ladies and gentlemen, I’m here all week. I think Ethan would be proud of this one).

Tomorrow holds more wonders and curiosities, but for now I’ll leave you with one of my favourite pictures of the course so far. Roy apparently appreciates my guitars! It might be time to retire…

Now if you’ll excuse me, apparently I have to play an open mic night in front of my course mates and instructors. There’s no way this can go wrong, is there?

Roy and Esmerelda become acquainted.

Roy and Esmerelda become acquainted.

Day Two: “Mother has all the prettiest tools”*


My completed Roubo bookstand.

The Roubo bookstand is to all intents and purposes complete. There is a little more cleanup to do, and maybe some shellac to apply, but I think we can call it as finished as any project on a course can be. The bookstand is a really fun, if challenging project, and the more I think about it the more I think it is a really useful route to learning a range of new skills. There is cutting some funky shaped mortises (the curved front edge definitely makes things more interesting), accurate layout so that the hinge actually rotates, re-sawing to split the leaves of the stand, and laying out the decorate curves using dividers and clever geometry (very much in the vein of George Walker and Jim Toplin). That’s a pretty sweet set of skills from only one modestly sized piece of timber!


The mortised and carved hinge, ready to be separated.

Today started off with chopping the remaining mortises, and fairing up the curved shape of the hinges. We then separated the hinges, first by establishing a kerf at each side using a toothed cutter in a marking gauge, and then a fine coping saw blade (fed through a 1/16” hole drilled in the corner of each hinge).


With the hinges separated, it was a case of splitting the leaves using a large (and very aggressive) rip saw. Which obviously wasn’t terrifying at all. Teasing the leaves apart is a matter of some delicacy, and I will wait until I write my full Roubo Bookstand post to describe how we went about this. But once the leaves were separated we cleaned up the show surfaces (leaving the inside surface of the legs in the rough as a mark of authenticity). The decorative curves for the legs and top were scratched out using dividers and simple radii to create flowing curves, and then cut with a coping saw. I may do a spot of clean up with a rasp when I am back in my own workshop, but these looked pretty good straight off the saw.


Re-sawing the legs to split the leaves. See, not a terrifying way to imperil nearly two days work at all.

Finally it was a case of testing the bookstand, for which I used my copy of Joiner & Cabinetmaker (which Chris and Katy very kindly signed for me – including the iconic sock monkey emblem!). I’ve really enjoyed building the bookstand, and am looking forward to building some more of these in the near future (just as soon as I have tracked down a big enough bow saw).

Testing the bookstand with one of my favourite Lost Art Books.

Testing the bookstand with one of my favourite Lost Art Books.

Tomorrow we are starting with a morning of surprise metal work, before moving on to pinch sticks and Roy’s catch box project. So more wonders, curiosities, and skills await. I’m looking forward to it already.

*This post is named after a quote by Roy Underhill referring to the tool collection of my good friend and fellow Anarchist Tool Chest survivor Susan Johnson.

Day One: Saint Roy’s suitcase of delights

What a first day on the course. It is hard at this point to know exactly what to write about, because unlike last year’s very focused Anarchist’s Tool Chest class, Woodworking with Thomas Jefferson is a little more… sprawling in nature. The overarching theme however is easy to spot; Roy’s unbridled enthusiasm for spending time (and facilitating) whatever we are interested in.


Myself and Roy Underhill

The main focus of today was building the iconic Roubo bookstand (which has been on my project list for several years), but we have also had a crash course in sharpening handsaws, the use of passer drills, and a brief glimpse into what can only be described as Roy’s suitcase of dlights. It looks like the rest of the week will be working on mitre shouldered rising dovetails, Roy’s infamous Mystery Mallet, a sample easel from Jefferson’s five-book rotating lectern, and anything else that Roy can think of.

It occurs to me that the best way to think about this week is not in terms of the projects or “outputs” to be built, but as an opportunity to build up a new set of parallel skills, some of which I may never use again, but all of which will undoubtedly make me a better woodworker. And that is super exciting, given all of the time I have spent thinking, and writing, about parallel skills in the past year. Being less output driven than the ATC class I took last year means that there is more opportunity to just soak up the skills on offer and follow some interesting rabbit holes. Roy is an incredibly charming and knowledgeable teacher, as well as being just as funny as he is on the Woodwright’s Shop, and seriously enthusiastic. So much enthusiasm. So much.


Roy demonstrating the Roubo bookstand

As I mentioned, the focus of today has been on the Roubo bookstand. I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow account of building the bookstand right now (I will save that for a future entry), but for the uninitiated the project is a folding bookstand made out of a single split piece of hardwood (in this case 9” wide, 1” think mahogany). A hinge is carved into the stock, and then the thickness of the stock split in two so that the two pieces can rotate on the carved hinge. Seriously clever stuff. So the bookstand has thus far involved cutting a dado to allow access for a bow saw for splitting the thickness of the stock, (surprisingly!) bow sawing the stock (which is very different to any other type of handsaw work I have done previously) before, and carving the hinge from both sides of the work.

Using a bow saw to split the mahogany stock for the bookstand.

Using a bow saw to split the mahogany stock for the bookstand.

I can’t wait to get back into the workshop tomorrow morning and see what else lies in store for us!

N.E.W 2015: School’s in for summer

The New English Workshop summer school 2015 is now in full flow. This week saw David Barron and Chris Schwarz teaching down in Bridgwater, Somerset, while Peter Follansbee and Tom Fidgen were running classes in Leamington Spa.

Tom Fidgen

Meeting Tom Fidgen

I was fortunate to be invited down to Leamington Spa on Wednesday to meet Peter and Tom, and see what the students were learning. It turns out that the first rule of being taken seriously as a journalist is to avoid wearing shoes more interesting than those worn by your interview subjects, as being surrounded by a sea of people taking photos of your feet is a little distracting. And definitely don’t wear Heironymus Bosch print Dr Martens, as Peter Follansbee will attempt to steal them off you…

Peter Follansbee contemplates swiping my Hieronymus Bosch print  Docs...

Peter Follansbee contemplates swiping my Hieronymus Bosch print Docs…

It was great to meet Peter and Tom, as they are both incredibly knowledgeable and passionate woodworkers with a wealth of experience, and brimming with ideas. Hopefully they will return to Her Majesty’s Realm in future years, as I would love to take courses with both of them. It was also great to catch up with Jamie Ward of Warwickshire College, Matthew Platt of Workshop Heaven, and see a couple of fellow survivors from last year’s Anarchist’s Tool Chest.

Tomorrow I start the Woodworking with Thomas Jefferson course with Roy Underhill. As I did on last year’s dovetail death march with Chris Schwarz, I will be blogging daily from the course. So tune in every day next week to read about the day’s woodworking (and my daily battle not to squeal with excitement like a teenage girl at a One Direction show).

Dinner with Peter and Paul Mayon of New English Workshop

Dinner with Peter and Paul Mayon of New English Workshop

Building things to build things (to build more things)

Having built a new version of my soundboard gluing jig (as featured in this month’s issue of Furniture & Cabinetmaking) over the May bank holiday weekend, I thought I would take the opportunity to built a new solera as well. For the uninitiated, a solera is the form used traditionally when building acoustic guitars, particularly when assembling the body.

I try to avoid relying on too many jigs, as I prefer to spend my time building instruments or furniture, instead of building things I need to build things, and being hand tool focused has certainly assisted in jig-avoidance. Storing a large number of jigs is also something I would rather avoid. For this reason my workflow requires relatively few jigs. Equally, instead of using fixed moulds for each acoustic guitar body shape, my solera is adjustable for any body shape from the current parlour guitar build right up to a super-jumbo body size. This means that I don’t have to build a new mould every time I build a guitar of a different size or shape (which would add to the build time and quickly eat away at available workshop space).

The finished solera

The finished solera

This design of solera, which is the same we used at Totnes, consists of a deck of 25mm thick plywood, with thirty two 6mm thick slots cut from the edge in towards the centre of the deck. The shape of the guitar is set by 22mm diameter dowel posts with 5mm thick threaded steel rod set in one end. The steel rod slides in the slots in the deck, and the posts are secured in place by wing nuts underneath the deck.

Although this wasn’t the most thrilling build, it was a useful insight into the power tool woodworker’s world, as I had to build a couple of templates in order to build the jig (in order to build more guitars…). First up was a template so that I could route the deck to shape. I found a friendly reprographics shop who could copy my drawing of the solera at full size, and glued one of the copies to a sheet of 5mm thick MDF. The MDF was cut to shape using a jigsaw, and the shape refined with sandpaper and files.


The deck, cut to shape, with slot position and the bridge recess marked out.

I then clamped the MDF template to the plywood, and using a 25mm router bit in a template collar, cut the deck to shape, again followed by some cleaning up with sandpaper. With the deck shape finalised, I marked the inner end of each slot by drilling through the plan glued to the MDF template into the deck. Before I could turn to routing the slots, I made a simple template to guide the router, out of a piece of scrap pine. The template simply consisted of a straight slot wide enough for my router’s template collar. The deck was clamped to the workbench and the template moved round the deck so that the router would cut each slot marked by the earlier drill hole to full depth. The recess for the guitar bridge was also routed out at the same time (guitars are assembled face down in the solera).


Having routed all 32 slots, I then prepared and glued the feet to the underside of the deck. The feet are in three sections. A 50mm square piece of hardwood runs from the end of the solera to the front edge of the bridge recess. At the rear of the bridge recess is a cross piece of 50mm x 20mm of hardwood running along the width of the solera (positioned so that access to none of the slots is fouled) and a further piece of hardwood running lengthways from the cross member to the end of the solera. This arrangement is sufficient to keep things stable, and high enough off the deck for the steel rod to feed through the deck.

Gluing the feet in position.

Gluing the feet in position.

As a final touch, I gave the deck a couple of coats of shellac to make wiping up any glue easier, and to provide some basic protection (I don’t intend to make another one of these for a couple of years).


Then it was on to the posts. Cutting 40 posts (I wanted to have a couple of spares on hand) by hand would have been quite dull, and as this was already turning into a power tool powered build I cut the posts on the bandsaw in only a couple of minutes, using a piece of blue painter’s tape on the table to mark the correct length (90mm long). Similarly I drilled the slots for the steel rod on the drill press.


The full set of posts glued up.

Cutting the steel rod to length was one of the most time consuming operations for this build, as I resorted to a Kieran-powered hacksaw. With the rod cut to length I glued them in to the posts with epoxy, and then threaded two washers and a wing nut onto each.

The solera is now complete, and I am looking forward to pressing it into use on the parlour guitar build (and many other guitars after that). All in all it took two and a half days to build, although I’m sure that someone who is more familiar with power tools could have shaved some time off that. That has to be my most power tool heavy post to date. But don’t worry, because my next string of blog posts will be entirely hand tool focused.

Now available on every high street


Issue 234 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is now in print, and if you were to turn to page 44 you would find my latest three page article on building a jig for gluing up thin panels. This is one of the most useful jigs in my workshop as I use it to glue up soundboards, acoustic guitar backs, book-matched headstock veneers, and any other stock too thin to put in conventional cramps. Issue 234 is an embarrassment of riches, with articles from Anne Briggs, a feature on how to build a Roubo workbench, and Mark Harrell’s excellent on-going saw doctor series on tuning up a backsaw.

On the endless layers of simplicity (or, why the dovetail saw is mightier than the sword)


It was with some horror that I realised only two weeks before my course with Roy Underhill that I’ve barely cut any dovetails this year. This has mainly been due to losing workshop time because of the move, and then focusing on the parlour guitar and my Furniture & Cabinetmaking articles. But even though I know I can cut a half-decent dovetail (thanks to last year’s dovetail death march with Chris Schwarz) I thought I should get reacquainted with my dovetail saw and put in some practice before the course with Roy.

And then I had a slightly better idea. Because you see, it is always worth stripping a technique back to very basics, and revisiting the fundamentals, regardless of your current skill level. This is a training technique I have always found to be very beneficial (and enjoyable) in my martial arts training. Leave the complex techniques alone for a few minutes, take something simple that you know off by heart and break it down to its constituent parts, dissecting exactly what happens at each stage of the technique. So instead of diving straight in to those practice dovetails, I decided to spend a couple of nights running through the Night of 100 Cuts exercise. Now, I wrote about this exercise back in June last year, but in a nutshell it involves practicing each of the 5 cuts you use in a dovetail (square on and straight down, angled left and straight down, angled right and straight down, square on and angled left down, and square on and angled right down) in isolation. So 20 repetitions of the first cut, followed by 20 of the second cut, and so on.

And here is the interesting thing about repeating this exercise for the first time since the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course. When I first started using the exercise last year I thought it was all about training that all important muscle memory of what dead plumb actually felt like, and how that compares to a 1:4 angle slope for cutting tails. And yes, that is an important part of the exercise. But I think it goes beyond that. Much like when I start breaking down my favourite joint manipulations in martial arts training, this week I have found Night of 100 Cuts to be an opportunity to focus on each aspect of each cut. So what are my feet doing? Where is my centre of balance and weight distribution? How am I orientating my upper body and shoulders in relation to my sawing hand? How am I gripping the saw (like I’m cupping a baby bird, as you asked)? What is my left hand doing? All the same questions I would ask when breaking down a wrist lock (apart from the cupping action, we rarely cup in the dojo).

And then, how do all of the above change when I move from cutting the left edge of a tail (square across the board, downward slope to the right) compared to cutting the left edge of a pin (angled to the left across the board, straight down)? To what extent does my posture, stance, and movement change between the five cuts? It becomes a forensic examination of the technique from the ground up.

Building things is always more fun than practice cuts or practice joints, but practicing a high number of repetitions of each cut, safely away from a real life project, means that you can analyse and adjust each element of your technique, and understand what effect your stance and posture have on a particular cut.

Of course the ultimate aim is to not have to think about any of this, just to step up to the board and cut row after row of perfect dovetails right off the saw (what in Jiu Jitsu we refer to as “mushin”; a clarity of mind in which the body can react without higher thought processes interfering). But to get there, the mind has to do a lot of thinking, and the more we progress and understand a technique, the more I think it is possible to get out of a seemingly simple exercise like Night of 100 Cuts. Because as our understanding and skill level increases, we become more sensitive to the nuances of a given technique or operation.

Simplicity, it would appear, is onion-like in its layers.


Over the Wireless On Tour: European Woodworking Show 2015


I am very pleased to announce that I have been invited to pitch up my bench at the European Woodworking Show at Cressing Temple on 12 and 13 September this year!

I will be working on the parlour guitar and demonstrating some lutherie techniques over the course of the weekend. I also plan to have both my Anarchist’s Tool Ches and Esmerelda in tow.

If you are planning to attend EWS 2015 then please do take the time to stop by my bench and say hello; it will be great to meet new readers and say hi to some old friends.