An update on stickers and tees

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The next print run of Over the Wireless t-shirts has just landed, and pre-orders will be shipped out tomorrow. I currently have sizes L to XXL in British Racing Green, and M to XXL in Cardinal Red. Prices are £20 including shipping within the UK, £25 including shipping to the US, and shipping to other locations on request.

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OtW decals are also in stock, in two designs. A pair of decals (one of each design) is £3 including postage in the UK, or $5 including postage to the US. Other locations (as always) on request.

If you would like to have the OtW logo displayed about your person or tool chest, and would like a t-shirt or decals, then drop me a line in the comments or at kieran@overthewireless.com. I can never guarantee that we will do another print run (although I hope to be able to) so if you’ve been holding on for a tee, now is the time.

Joining the sticker swap revolution

Handworks 2017 promises to be a really special couple of days, not least because it is just about the only time you can expect to find a significant proportion of our community all together in the same barn. And so I thought it would be fun to have some new OtW merchandise for the event.

These OtW decals have now arrived from the printer, and Tom’s design work is looking as crisp as ever. But how do you get your hands on these stickers? Easy. Come and find me at Handworks – I’ll be helping out on the Sterling Tool Works stand, and also dashing about covering the event for Furniture & Cabinetmaking. The stickers are $2 each or $3 for the pair. BUT if you wear an OtW tee to Handworks then you can claim both decals free of charge. I will also have a couple of OtW tees for sale (priced at $25 each).

If you’re not going to Handworks, but will be at the European Woodwork Show in September, do not despair – I’ll have a fresh print run of the decals with me at EWS.

If you’re going to Handworks let me know by leaving a comment below. Looking forward to steering everyone in Iowa next week!

A different thread…

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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 kieran@overthewireless.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.

The Policeman’s Boot Bench… Part 1

There may be better ways of starting a new year than with a new project, but I’ve yet to find any. I started off 2017 as I mean to go on – spending the first day of the year in the workshop breaking down stock for my next funiture build. It all seemed very appropriate.

For this project I’ve been commissioned to build an oak side table and shoe rack to sit in a hallway. The client had a strong idea of what he wanted, but was open to some design input from me, and so we batted sketches back and forth until we reached the final specification. This was a perfect opportunity to apply the key design tenets from the Anarchist’s Design Book (a book that has had a significant impact on how I think about design), whilst meeting the specific dimensions the client wants (the piece will fit in a corner of the hall between a wall and radiator). We started with a low “boot bench” type design (and the name has stuck), although the final design did take advantage of the one dimension I could change, by increasing the height somewhat. Where we ended up was a 43″ wide, 14″ deep table with the top secured to the sides with through dovetails, while the four shelves (the client and his housemates have a lot of shoes!) are let into the sides with dados. To protect the wall behind from being marked by shoes, and to add rigidity to the piece, tongue and grooved boards will be set into a rebate and nailed to the back of the carcase.  So, dados, rebates, cut nails, and tongue and groove backboards. That definitely sounds like an Anarchist’s design!

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Rough oak boards, waiting to be turned into a boot bench

The boot bench will stand on a period tiled floor, and the client wants to make a feature of the floor as much as possible. So one of the design questions was how to give the table a solid footing without obscuring the floor tiles. My suggestion was to carve the bottom 3″ of the sides (up to the lower edge of the first shelf) into a cyma reversa foot detail similar to the feet of my Roubo bookstand build. This retains a good base for the table, but still allows sight of the floor tiles. The table will be finished with shellac and topped with a home brewed hard wax (the recipe for which is courtesy of Derek).

With the design agreed, my next stop was Sykes Timber, who were able to provide some gorgeous 15″ wide 5/4″ thick oak boards. These lay in stick in the workshop for November and December, before being broken down and moved into the house to acclimatise.

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Drawing full sized plans – I wouldn’t want to be without my set of Roubo curves by Sterling Tool Works for drawing curved parts.

Working from scaled drawings is all well and good if you’re following instructions from a design someone else has tested, but when building a brand new design I’m not happy putting saw to wood until I’ve worked up a full sized drawing. I find that making a full sized drawing gives me the opportunity to spot any design issues I’ve overlooked, and also to clarify in what order I need to carry out each stage of the build. I like rolls of lining paper for making full sized plans, as you can cut each piece to the precise length you need it, and the thick paper is quite durable. And so over Christmas I hunkered down and drew full size front, back and side elevations for the boot bench. With the drawings complete I then wrote a detailed list of each stage of work, making sure that each stage followed logically and wouldn’t complicate any stages that followed. This will be my masterplan for the build going forwards, so is worth getting right!

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Laying out the top and sides on one of the 15″ wide boards.

The moment that you start to work on rough boards always feels transformational to me – taking splintery and dirt encrusted timber in order to realise the beauty and furniture within. It can also be a somewhat nerve wracking moment – you only get one chance to make that first cut! S0 only once I was happy that the design worked, and that the dimensions would fit in the physical space the client has available, did I start thinking about breaking the oak down to size. If I’m honest, making the three cuts for the top and sides took over an hour, and even after a lot of careful checking I was still a touch nervous about cutting such beautiful stock. Having pulled the three oak boards out of their resting place, I selected the best board for the casework, and spent time laying out the top and sides so that they would run sequentially along the one board, avoiding any knots or shakes. These boards were very clear, but in any wide stock there is bound to be a couple of minor defects. Having laid out the cuts for the top and sides on one face of the board, I flipped it over to make sure there weren’t any surprises on the other side. Through careful layout I was able to place the few knots in areas where the foot detailed would be cut away, or in waste sections. The other two boards provided the four shelves. Breaking down 9′ long boards by hand definitely makes me want to build a third saw bench to support the extra length, but the two saw benches I do have worked perfectly and provided a lot of support to these wide oak boards. The Skelton panel saw is a monster, munching through the wide oak like it wasn’t even there. That saw is definitely a worthwhile addition to my tool chest.

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For breaking down rough stock the Skelton Saws cross-cut panel saw and a pair of saw benches is the perfect combination.

The stock is now safely stored in the house to finish acclimatising before I start work on the build proper, more of which next week.

Furniture in the wild

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I can’t seem to escape staked furniture – this small bench was in our cottage, and the Apprentice enjoyed toting it around with her.

In early November every year we head down to the Cotswolds for a long weekend. It is mainly an opportunity to break up that long, dreary expanse of autumn, and to have some family time away from the pressures of everyday life. One of the highlights of these trips, for me at least, is looking at the furniture in the period cottages we stay in, as well as in the local pubs and eateries. I always find the moments reflecting on the furniture surrounding us on our Cotswold breaks to be instructive. I don’t have much time to look at furniture in antique stores, historic buildings, or any of the other places that you’d go to look at handmade furniture in the wild, so most of my interaction with non-mass produced furniture is through woodwork texts or the internet. Which is fine up to a point, but something is lost when you are left engaging with a tactile subject such as furniture at a distance. The other advantage of engaging with the furniture pieces when we travel is that very few of them are museum quality pieces – by virtue of staying in holiday cottages all of the furniture is there to be used, and there can be a pleasing variety on display. And finally, living with a piece for a few days gives you much more opportunity to become accustomed with it than a brief encounter in an antique store or lunchtime google search. These trips have therefore come to play an important role in my on-going quest to pry open my design eye.

This year’s trip away bought a bumper crop of furniture experiences, all of which seemed to highlight the unusual and unorthodox. It seems I can’t escape staked furniture at the moment, as the first piece I enountered was the little staked bench pictured above. This low bench was perfect for the Apprentice to use, being about 10″ high and featuring octagonal legs back-wedged with dirty great 1″ tenons through a 1.5″ top. Either the tenons have shrunk a little, or whoever made the bench wasn’t too concerned about flushing up the wedges as these were all quite proud of the top. But the bench was stable and solid, and the Apprentice loved pulling it round with her and sitting on it. The proportions of this bench are quite different to the staked benches currently on my workbench, particularly the thin top compared to the large tenons and wedges. But the beauty of seeing pieces in the wild is how they can vary from accepted norms of design and still provide good use.

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Clinched door latch

The other great find in our cottage was the bathroom door, the tongue and groove boards for which had been secured by nail clinched battens. Even the latch was clinched in place. I confess that this is the first real world example of clinching I’ve encountered – previously it was a technique confined to the pages of The Joiner & Cabinet Maker, the Packing Crate project from that book, and also a blog post by Richard McGuire. So to unexpectedly stumble upon an entirely clinched door was a wonderful reminder that these furniture forms and techniques are not historical curios or academic exercises – they are genuine techniques that craftsmen have relied upon for generations.

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The final memorable piece was a little more highend. Whenever we go to the Cotswolds I always steal and hour or two to browse the inventry of Christopher Clarke Antiques in Stow on the Wold – one of the leading experts in campaign furniture. Amongst the usual collection of gorgeous secretaries, folding bookcases, and campaign chairs, was this lovely chest of drawers. Two things set this piece apart from any other example of campaign furniture I’ve seen in print or at Christopher Clarke. Firstly, the dimensions are significantly smaller than most other pieces – this chest of drawers was roughly 3/4″ of the usual size. Secondly, this is the first example of campaign furniture I’ve seen which has used two primary woods; the casework is ash but the drawer fronts are quartersawn oak. This combination of timber is really striking, and with the smaller dimensions makes for a wonderfully compact yet stylish piece which has a very different feel to many of its campaign brothers and sisters. I always find a trip to Chrispher Clarke Antiques to be inspiring, and there are several items of campaign furniture on my “to build” list. But this unusual chest of drawers has opened up other possibilities for the form, and provoked synapses into firing. Not for the first time, I am amazed at how changing a couple of simple design decisions can dramatically alter the impact of a piece.

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No trip to Christopher Clarke is complete without a close up shot of some campaign brass. The skeletonised draw pulls are by far my favourite, and the lack of clocked screws on this example is the icing on the cake.

In praise of the humble octagon

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The key stages of planing a tapered octagon (r-l) – square cross secton, tapered square, octagon.

I’ve been octagonalising the legs for the second saw bench, in preparation for carving the tapered tenons. There’s not much to say about the process itself – I followed exactly the same steps as I did for the legs on the first saw bench. Repeating a task is one of the best ways to consolidate the processes, and after working up eight legs now octagonalisation is feeling very much like second nature. As you work the leg from square to tapered to an octagon, the process sinks into your muscle memory, and your movements become that much more efficient. The second set of legs definitely took less time than the first. The risk of course is that complacency creeps in, and stupid mistakes can be made – a little muscle memory can be a dangerous thing after all, and it’s important not to switch off at times like these. The balancing act is to allow the muscle memory to develop and lead the way, but to stay focused. So far these legs are looking rather nice and I’ve maintained my focus.

The ash is lovely to work, and the way the grain patterns bend around the facets of the octagon is very pleasing. I’ve been threatening to make a pair of Roorkee chairs for a while now (another reason to get the lathe up and running this winter) and at this point I’m pretty much set on making them out of ash, with burgandy leatherwork from Texas Heritage. That will be a sweet combination.

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Part way through octagonalising one of the legs

Those winding grain patterns got all manner of synapses firing. I’ve written previously about how The Anarchist’s Design Book democratises the woodcrafts by demonstrating how a very modest tool kit and limited (but effective) set of techniques can be used to furnish an entire home. But there is another striking element to all of this which has been playing on my mind a lot this week, and that is the asthetics of the furniture Chris presented in the book. All of the furniture in The Anarchist’s Design Book is very attractive, but to my eye at least it looks quite unusual. The staked chair, for example, is instantly recognisable as a chair – it has all constituent parts (seat, legs, back, spindles) but for some reason the lines of the piece tickled my frontal lobe as being a little unusual. These designs feel as old as the hills (they have been informed by medieval artwork after all) but also fresh and modern. I think in part this has to do with the combination of straight and curved lines, the subtle saddling of the seat, and also the octagonal legs.

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A completed set of legs for the second saw bench, ready to have the tapered tenons carved

Something clicked for me when I finished the first of my saw benches – the slab top and octagonal legs in front of me suddenly made sense, stopped looking quite so alien, and started to feel more familiar. The octagons are a wonderful shape for legs – all those facets mean that as you move around the piece the light catches and dances across the planed wood, and the grain patterns move in ways you just don’t get with flat work or even square profiled legs. And now I can’t stop thinking about how octagons could be used for other pieces. How about for the legs of a Welsh stick chair? Or even a Windsor chair in place of the more usual bamboo turnings? Or perhaps for the legs of a cabinet stand? And that is all when you have an octagon of equal proportions – how about alternating two sizes of facet as you move round the circumference of the leg instead of facets of an equal size?

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The first of my pair of staked saw benches

This has opened up a new world of design for me, and has really emphasised that making small changes can have a tremendous impact on the overall feel of a piece. There is, after all, no reason why legs should be square or cylindrical, even if those are the most common shapes. And an octagon is hardly an exotic shape. Am I blowing the significance of the humble octagon out of proportion? Well, possibly. But the design possibilites offered by moving away from the more conventional square or cylindrical leg profiles are quite exciting, even if it seems like a less than radical design choice. The other attraction is that  octagonal legs can be a very striking, yet the process to create them is wonderfully simple and requires nothing more than jack and jointer planes (although you could get away with just a jack plane at a pinch). Sometimes the most profound changes to a design can also be the simplest, and that is a worthwhile lesson to hold on to.

I suppose that the other lesson from all of this is that while reading about furniture can help develop your design vocabulary, nothing quite beats building something to really pry open your design eye and to prompt new ideas.

Prying open my design eye

I have a confession to make. When it comes to furniture, there are gaping holes in my design vocabulary, and my understanding of furniture design is not as strong as it is for lutherie. This is only natural, given that my entry point to woodwork was building acoustic guitars, but it is far from ideal.

I’ve been thinking about design a fair bit recently, and have been working on prying open my design eye – to expand my design vocabulary both in terms of how I approach working up designs, but also how I interrogate the designs of others. The Dancing About Architecture series (which you can read here and here) are part of this train of thought, and I hope to write more over the coming months about design. When I talk about design vocabulary I don’t mean the nuts and bolts or practicalities of making furniture – dovetails, mortise and tenon etc. Instead, what I mean by design vocabulary is more the form of a piece, the lines, proportions, materials and stylistic elements which give shape and character to a piece of furniture.

So far, prying open my design eye has involved two strands – the first is to improve my furniture design abilities, while the second is to expand my design vocabulary. In terms of the first strand, I’ve just finished reading the excellent By Hand and Eye by Geo Walker and Jim Toplin, and am about to delve into the worked exercises in By Hound and Eye by the same authors.This element of my design education is something I’ll write about at more length separately.

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By Hand & Eye and a bottle of good single malt got me through the dark winter months.

For the second strand, I’ve been trying to absorb as many different forms as I can, and my focus throughout this design self-education is deliberately aimed at furniture. Because I came to lutherie as a musician, and as an avid music lover, I have to a good degree internalised an understanding of guitar design as well as the cultural connotations of those designs (although there is always more to learn). I fully understand why I respond to different guitars – why  I consider the Fender ’59 Black Guard Telecaster to be the finest production guitar ever made, why the Rickenbacker 360 is to me pure perfection, or what it is about the two-tone green curves of a Gretsch Double Anniversary that I find achingly cool.  In stark contrast, because I have come to furniture building much later, and without those decades of cultural absorption, I feel I know a lot less about furniture design and the associations (or cultural baggage) of those designs. And because at this point I’m interested in internalising furniture forms rather than construction techniques, I’ve been ignoring joinery and construction methods, unless these are part of the express form of the piece.

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When I designed Esmerelda I drew on over a decade of playing guitar and being an avid music lover – the tight waist, small square shoulders, and rounded lower bout echo pre-war guitars by Gibson, while the internal bracing reflects more modern practices. 

What has been interesting about the process so far is that as I have cast around my net to research and absorb furniture I’m not familiar with, I’ve found it much more useful to look at designs of pieces that I find challenging or aesthetically uncomfortable than I have to look at furniture styles I respond positively to.

For instance, I know that I like campaign furniture, 17th century carved oak furniture (as popularised by Peter Follansbee and Jennie Alexander), Greene & Greene furniture, and I’m on the verge of building my first piece of staked furniture. Oh, and Windsor rocking chairs, because to be tired to rocking chairs is to be tired of life. That seems like a reasonably diverse base from which to start. I could probably, at a push give some explanation for why these furniture styles appeal. With campaign furniture, I like the clean lines, the robust feel the pieces evoke without being hulking, the practical solutions to the issues of withstanding tropical climates and being portable, and of course the beautiful brass hardware. My grandfather was a Major in the Indian army during the Second World War – he was the most recent in a line of Scottish working class men in our family who became professional soldiers and who served in the Indian sub-continent. So I also find an emotional resonance in campaign furniture.

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Campaign furniture is one of my favourite forms – this piece really resonates for me.

But when I look at pieces I like, I find it hard to dig too deeply into what appeals about the form. In contrast, when I find a piece that challenges me or which I find uncomfortable, I find it much easier to critically approach the form and ask exactly what it is that I do or don’t respond to. When I started this exercise I did what countless woodworkers before me have done, and took a broad survey of Arts and Crafts furniture. And actually, because Arts and Crafts was such a broad church, this has provided me with an excellent starting point to approach a rich tapestry of different design languages., because European, British, and American designers found a bewildering number of ways to apply the central tenets of the movement. So the survey then becomes a way to examine how a central design philosophy can be used to create wildly diverging pieces (seriously, contrast Rennie Macintosh with Gustav Stickley, and then contrast them both with Greene & Greene).

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My take on the finest production guitar ever made – the Fender ’59 Black Guard Telecaster

I think this is an interesting and valuable exercise – it is all too easy to stick with the comfortable and the familiar, which from a design perspective can be a mistake. Because if you have a small design vocabulary then not only might you be missing out on something that would completely re-frame your experience, but also there is a danger that your work becomes an echo chamber in miniature, constantly repeating the same limited motif or design elements. That is not to say that as makers we have to actually build in many different styles – there is absolutely nothing wrong to dedicating your work time to just one style or furniture form. But having a wider frame of reference, and internalising a variety of furniture forms, gives a richer understanding and more diverse array of design options at the workbench or drawing board. And if nothing else, that wider vocabulary may simply allow a maker to articulate why they prefer the furniture forms or styles they focus on. Which is no bad thing.

My design vocabulary is starting to grow, and I want this critical evaluation exercise to become a regular and sustainable part of my experience as a maker. Which means constantly looking at different furniture forms, including those that are more removed from my current sphere of experience, both in terms of more historic forms (because history will always be a powerful lure), and also non-Western forms. Time to look up some Japanse furniture forms I think…