About overthewireless

One time historian turned construction lawyer, musician, martial artist, photographer, distance runner, builder of musical instruments. Hand tool user all the time, every time.

The next evolution of Over the Wireless

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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.

A (dove) Tale of Two Battens

One of the unexpected, but really rewarding, elements of the staked worktable build is the different senses of scale across components in the project – moving between the large surface area (and edge joints) of the table top, the battens, octagonal legs, and finally drawer parts. Today I prepared the two battens that hold the table-top flat and accept the tenons for the legs. After edge jointing 53″ long boards for the top, working on two pieces no more than 25″ long felt quite dainty, and was certainly a fun change of scale.

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Squaring up the battens before laying out the angled sides

The two battens are an easy stage of the build, but they still involve some points of interest. The battens are trapezoid (or possibly dovetailed) in cross section, which I approached in two stages. Firstly I planed the long edges flat and square to the reference face, to ensure that I had accurate edges for layout. The move from 53″ long edges to much shorter pieces definitely had an impact in terms of how quickly the battens were squared up, and it is a helpful reminder that working on different sized pieces is key to improving that core skill set.

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The 4″ Vesper bevel is the Rolls Royce of bevels, and perfect for this sort of precise layout.

Once the battens were square on all four sides, I then laid out the angled sides. The Vesper 4″ bevel is wonderful for work lik, as it is exactly the right size to balance on components where a larger bevel would be too much of a handful. I struck the angle onto the end grain of both battens with a sharp making knife, before laying out the bevel on the face of the battens. It’s not really advisable to use a marking gauge or knife when laying out the lines of a bevel or chamfer on the face of the workpice, because the kerf left by the blade will remain below the surface of the chamfer (and Charles Hayward had some strong things to say about that). Instead, a pencil line is safer to work to, even though it is generally a less accurate method of marking work than a fine knife kerf. Until this week a pencil based marking gauge was one of the key omissions in my tool chest. Fortuitously, I saw good friend and tool maker Bern Billsberry on Friday, and quite unexpectedly he gifted me with a beautiful cam-lock pencil gauge from his latest batch. This was perfect for laying out the rest of the dimensions for the angled sides of the battens. I set the gauge to the knifed lines on the end grain of the battens, and used that setting to mark the edge of the chamfer on the face. The gauge locked solidly and left a good clean pencil line to work to.

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An unexpected gift this week turned out to be exactly the tool I needed. A cam-lock markng gauge by my good friend Bern Billsberry.

With all the layout done, I held battens into the vise and planed the edges to the correct angle using my No.8 jointer plane. Angling the plane removed the bulk of the corner, and then it was a case of adjusting the angle at which I was holding the plane to achieve a surface that was parallel with the line on each end of the batten, removing the waste until I hit the line on the face of the workpiece and those on each end. Again, the small bevel made it easy to check that a consistent angle had been achieved along the length of the workpiece, without needing to remove the batten from the vise. I also used a straight edge to make sure that the chamfered edge was straight and without any bumps or hollows. All in all, the four edges took little over an hour to plane from square, so this was a swift but very satisfying operation. It’s been a hell of a week for various reasons, and getting back to my workbench always helps to re-centre me. All of the extraneous pressures and concerns melt away as soon as the first shaving comes up through my plane.

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The two finished battens – angled and ready for the mortices to be drilled. On the lower batten you can just about see some alternative angles I marked on the end before making my mind up.

Next week I’ll be working on the legs, which if I’m totally honest are one of the reasons I chose this design. Also it means I’ll be taking a dive into the world of lathe work and turning.

This just tops it all

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Choosing the best layout for the top

If I’m being perfectly honest, I was a little apprehensive about jointing the boards for the top. At 53″ long this is the longest edge joint I’ve prepared to date, and although an edge joint is one of those simple techniques that every handtool woodworker picks up early on (and one which I’m very comfortable with), the additional length of this joint does increase the difficulty level a little. As the top joints will be visible every time I sit at my desk, I knew I would be haunted by any gaps or poor joints, and the only way to avoid this endless torture would be to work good joints first time round. As I keep saying on this blog, there is no such thing as a “trick” in woodwork – just fundamental techniques practised well and attentively. I should have remembered those words instead of worrying about the difficulty of the joints, because once I was actually at my workbench the process went smoothly and achieving gap free joints was very straight forward. Having confidence in the techniques and following them, is often the perfect antidote to being overawed by the task at hand. But let’s back up a bit and talk about the actual process…

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The straight edge shows that the rough edge of this board surves significantly. Stopped cuts will remove the high spots and then the full length can be worked

There are two significant visual features of this desk – the first is the facets and edges that punctuate the silhouette of the desk, and the second is the grain of the top. Placing the three boards in the most attractive combination is therefore critical to creating a pleasing final piece. One of the boards had some lovely subtle quilting, while the other two were much plainer. I decided to place the figured board in the middle, sandwiched between the two plain boards, and this was more attractive (to my eye at least) than a figured board on one side and the two plain boards grouped together.

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One joint down, onto the next!

When orientating the boards I also thought about the stability of the top, and mitigating seasonal wood movement – particularly whether the heart side and bark side of the boards should be alternated, or whether it was safe to position all three boards with the heart side facing the same way. My go to source when thinking about wood movement is always With the Grain, which provided some helpful tips but no definite answers. Ultimately, the most attractive orientation was for the boards to be placed bark-side up, with the grain running in the same direction. This will make final clean-up of the table top easy as the whole surface area can be planed in the same direction, and as the battens will restrict wood movement I think this orientation should work just fine. With the position and orientation of the boards decided upon, I struck lines across the edges of each board to help identify which edge paired with which.

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A small block plane can help fine tune localised areas of the joint

The final task before I started jointing the boards was to sharpen my No.8 plane. Yes sharpening is boring, but to get a really clean and precise edge joint, especially in material as hard as maple, needs a sharp iron. I also find preparatory sharpening such as this to be very useful for mentally preparing for the work ahead.

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Chris Vesper tells me that for edge checking the blade of the square should be placed against the face of the work for a greater reference surface, and the stock used to check the edge.

When planing an edge joint I first check the board with a straight edge to see if there are any obvious humps or hollows, and also to hold the two edges against each other. These tests quickly identify if there are any trouble spots, and as a result help me to dial in a straight and square edge faster than if I were working blind. The first edge I started working had a significant fall-off at one end, and so I took stopped cuts along the high spot, slowly lengthing out the plane strokes until I had worked the highspot down to the same level as the low corner. Once the edge was on a consistent level (although not perfectly straight of square), I set a fine cut on the plane and started to plane the joint proper. Whenever I plane edge joints I find it helpful to think of planing a concave curve into the workpiece – the long sole of the No.8 prevents this from happening, but aiming for it ensures that pressure is applied correctly and you do not end up with a convex curved edge (which is what a plane naturally wants to do). So, at the start of the cut the pressure is entirely on the toe of the plane, for the middle of the cut the pressure is evenly spready between the toe and heel of the plane, and at the end of the cut the pressure is entirely at the heel of the plane.

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Marking off the final width using the Hamilton Tools panel guage

Only once the first edge is square and true do I move on to the matting edge, using exactly the same process. Once both edges are jointed, the next task is to set them together and check for any gaps at both the front and back of the joint. If the joint is gap free without needing clamps, then it is good to go. All three boards were over width, and so before gluing up the first assembly I used my panel gauge to mark the final width of the two boards, and ripped the excess with the Disston D8, leaving 1/8″ waste still on the boards to allow for some final clean-up. The excess material ripped off the boards will provide the spindles of the matching staked chair, meaning that the entirety of the chair can now be made from scraps of the table timber!

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Ripping the excess with the Disston D8 and staked saw benches

I worked the top in two stages – jointing and gluing the first pair of boards, and then jointing and gluing the third board to the larger panel. Hide glue was used for both joints, and the top is now back in the study ready to be squared and cleaned up. I’m going to leave any further work on the top until after the legs and battens are complete, as there may yet be a spot of seasonal movement in the top, especially after a big glue-up, and I don’t want to remove any more materaial than I have to. One flattening just before the joinery is cut will be enough to get the top ship shape.

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The complete top, glued up and curing.

Crown and Glory

Because I don’t work with pre-dimensioned timber, it always takes a while when working on a new build to get to the point of actually doing any joinery or reaching for the glue bottle. There is always a goodly amount of time spent on stock preparation. After a bit of a slow start on this build, all of the stock for the desk is now processed and lying in stick ready to be used.

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I’ve written before about the benefits of traversing in order to flatten and thickness stock, but I’ve not spent much time talking about how to deal with the crowned side of a board. Which I think is an oversight for two reasons. Firstly, traversing is dead easy providing you can sharpen a plane and resist the urge to tilt it down as you exit the cut. Secondly, traversing the cupped face of a board before you have flattened the crowned face is a recipe for stock that wobbles and tilts under the weight of the plane, which definitely makes flattening more difficult. Because the cupped face generally provides a stable surface on the workbench, I normally flatten the crowned face before moving on to traversing the cupped face. So why not talk about flattening the crowned face?

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Winding sticks show that the crown is twisted – see the difference in height between the left hand end of the far winding stick and the corresponding end of the near winding stick

In my defence, I don’t think I have come across a detailed description of flattening the crowned face of a board (most books will say something similar to “plane the peak with the grain until it is level with the sides” without giving much more detail, which is technically accurate but misses some of the nuance) so I’m not alone in neglecting this subject. I was reminded of this as I flattened the three 9″ wide and 54″ long maple boards that will make the top of my staked work table, all of which had a decent amount of cupping from their time drying at the tinber yard. And so I thought this would be a good opportunity to shed some light on an essential, but often overlooked, element of flattening timber.

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The sole of my jack plane is plenty accurate as a straight edge for this sort of work.

Before I start planing any board, I first check for twist using winding sticks. Now, I really wish I had a beautiful pair of winding sticks by my friend Dan Schwank (and one day I will add these to my tool chest, because Dan’s work is impeccable). But in the meantime, a pair of 36″ long aluminium corner pieces works just fine. On this board the winding sticks showed that the extent of the crown was inconsistent across the length of the board, but this is easily planed out when removing the crown. For heavy stock removal like this I use the sole of my plane as a straight edge – it is always at hand, and is plenty accurate when judging where to take the next heavy cut from. My Starrett straight edge stays in the tool chest until I’m checking finer work.

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Take a good heavy cut, and don’t worry about tearout or woolly texture – that will all be smothed out later.

All of the crown is removed with a jack plane fitted with a cambered iron, set for as heavy cut as I can comfortably take. A heavy cut removes more material, and gets the job done quicker, but there’s no point exhausting yourself by trying to take superhuman-thick shavings! Start off by planing the very peak of the crown, along the grain, focusing on the highest areas of the length of the board, and then working the peak of the crown across the full length of the board.

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The peak has been knocked off, so next I work the high points to either side, followed by the middle again.

When the plane bottoms out in the cut, I check the crown with the sole of the plane. What you expect to see is a small hollow where the peak of the crown was, and a new peak to either side of the hollow. I plane the new peaks out, and then work the mid-point (where the original peak was) to ensure that I’m not planing a new crown into the board. Skewing the plane a little helps the toe and heel of the plane ride on the two new peaks, and when you bottom out in the cut you know it is time to work the new peaks again. I try to take an equal number of shavings from each of the new peaks, check my progress with the sole of the plane, and then work the middle.

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The high points are moving well towards the edges of the board, so I’m getting close to flat. Plane off the highpoints, work the middle, and check again. Repeat.

And then repeat. Many times. What you find is that as the middle of the board gets lower, the two high points move further apart towards the edge of the board. When the high points are on the very edges of the board, the board effectively has a very slight hollow. Check with the winding sticks to make sure that the board is free of twist, and then lightly traverse it until it is flat. All of this is done with the jack plane, and only after that light traversing do I reach for a different plane.

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The winding sticks say this board is now free of twist. Now to finish flattening this face

I’m trying to learn from Joseph Moxon, and allowing the purpose of the timber to determine which plane I reach for – does the workpiece need to be dead flat but not super smooth, dead smooth but not necessarily cricket-wicket flat, or both deadnuts flat and super smooth? The tyranny of assuming everything needs to be perfectly flat and smooth can be hard to shake, but thanks to Mortise and Tenon, and Moxon I’m making progress in my rehabilitation. For the top boards for the staked worktable, I reached for the No.8 jointer once the crowned face was flattened with the jack, as I need the boards to be flat before they are jointed and glued, but won’t be smoothing them until the table top is glued-up. And so my No.3 stayed in the tool chest for this session.

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The No.5 is the perfect plane for this sort of work. Long enough to keep planing true, but light enough to not tire you out.

With the stock for the table all processed, my next task will be to joint and glue up the boards for the top, after which I can start work on shaping the battens and legs.

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All the stock for the staked table is now processed and ready to be made into something useful

A celebration of craft and community

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Woodwork shows are a strange thing when you’re an exhibitor – the months of build up and anticipation which feel like they may never end, the show itself then disappears in a blur of faces, talk about woodcraft, old friends reunited and new friendships forged. And then the bittersweetness of breaking down your stand at the end of the show, amongst fond farewells. All this was all the more so given that EWS 2017 was the final European Woodwork Show (although Classic Hand Tools have said that they may be planning a series of smaller shows going forwards).

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The Apprentice enjoyed her time at EWS

This was my second time a EWS, and the show itself was fantastic. The breadth of exhibits was astounding, and a family atmosphere pervaded Cressing Temple, with something guaranteed to appeal to visitors of all ages (the Apprentice particularly enjoyed the heavy horse as well as the chainsaw carving).

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Vic is a good buddy, and a hilarious neighbour to have at a show like this. Never a dull moment, honestly.

My stand this year was between Derek Jones and Vic Tesolin (I know, a tough neigbourhood), which ensured plenty of banter and hilarity throughout the course of the weekend.

 

Although I didn’t have much chance to stray away from my stand for long, it was great to catch up with so many friends who I only ever seem to see at woodwork shows, and to meet Instagramers, and readers. Thank you to everyone who took the time to stop by my stand and say hello, and talk about lutherie, furniture making, the John Brown book, and of course the Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw. As promised, I had plenty of spare fretboards on hand and it was great to see people with no experience in lutherie trying their hand at slotting a fretboard. Mark Harrell and I also gave presentations on the luthier’s saw both days – I managed to get these recorded so will upload one of them to the blog as soon as I’ve had chance to check the recordings over.

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With Mark Harrell and Susie Chillcott – the three of us worked on the R&D for the Luthier’s Saw for three years.

When you combine good friends and musical instruments, it is never long until you find youself in the middle of a jam session. One of the highlights of the weekend was Sunday morning, when Anne revealed she had bought a mandolin with her. Without a second thought, we opened the show with an impromtu hour long jam session, running through bluegrass standards, as well as some alt country deep cuts by Turnpike Troubadours, Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Whiskeytown. Enormous fun, and something which will hopefully happen again at a future show. We closed out the Sunday evening with a final jam, this time joined by Ryan Saunders on vocals.

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Jamming with Anne.

Whenever I go to a show I always keep my eye peeled for a tool to add to my tool chest to commemorate the show. My only requirements are that it must be useful, and something which I wouldn’t be able to just order or pick up in the normal course of events. EWS must have had a boxwood smoother vibe going on, because I ended up bringing home two boxwood smoothing planes. The first is a minature boxwood smoother made for me by my good friend (and father of the Nut Saver) Bern Billsberry – Bern had mentioned last December that he was going to make a run of these and I asked to be put on the waiting list. On the Saturday morning he presented me with No.1 of this run of planes. This plane is not just a curiou – as well as being tiny, it works really well and will be invaluable for shaping guitar braces.

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A pair of very special boxwood planes

My second plane of the weekend came when I was visiting Oliver Sparks‘ stand before the show opened (a dangerous move, I know). I have admired Oliver’s work since we met at EWS 2015, and he and Molly are just the best people. While looking over Oliver’s stock of gorgeous planes, I came across a gorgeous boxwood thumbplane with new old stock iron. I have a real weakness for thumbplanes and this was at a very keen price point, so I snapped it up without hestitation. The plane works as well as it looks, with incredibly crisp craftsmanship (there is a reason Oliver is one of the leading lights of British plane making) and I’m sure it will be a mainstay of my tool chest for many years.

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See the look in my eyes? That’s the look of a man about to buy a boutique plane.

But as wonderful as the tools were, the real joy of Handworks was the sense of community, friendship, and a shared enthusiasm for the craft (and the jam session, obviously!). Shows like this always offer new (and unexpected) opportunities, and I’ll be posting more as events unfold. A final word of thanks must go to the Over the Wireless Street Team – those dedicated souls who wore OtW tees over the weekend. Anne, Doug, and Bern (and of course Dr Moss, Dad, and the Apprentice), I salute you.

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With Megan and Anne – the American contingent was out in force this year!

European Woodworking Show 2017 – this weekend

Here’s your friendly reminder that the European Woodworking Show is taking place this weekend (16 and 17 September) at Cressing Temple in Essex. I will be there both days talking about progress on the John Brown book for Lost Art Press, furniture making and lutherie.

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I will also be demonstrating the new Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw by slotting fretboards a-plenty over the weekend. Mark Harrell of Bad Axe will be joining me for a presentation at 12pm on both days and we will talk about the design process and development of the Luthier’s Saw (and I’m sure Mark will be pleased to answer any other saw-related questions you may have). Mark is a super knowledgeable woodworker and saw maker, and I’m honoured to have him on my stand for these presentations.

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I will also have OtW stickers (£3 for a pair) and t-shirts (£15 each), so if you’ve wanted some OtW apparel but have been holding off, now is the time. I’ll also be doing a free give-away for people who wear their OtW tee at the show, so if you already have a tee (and there are a fair few of you out there who do) then show your allegiance!

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Please do stop by my stand to say hello and chat about woodwork (or anything else). This promises to be a great show, and I’m looking forward to catching up with old friends and readers. Just look out for the OtW banner!

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