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…

Cut from a similar cloth

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If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I’ve just had the second limited run of Over the Wireless t-shirts printed, featuring the excellent designs Tom prepared earlier this year. The first run of shirts (printed in February) sold out within days, but demand was high enough to justify a second run. Most of this second run has also now sold, but I do have a limited selection of t-shirts left in sizes M, L, XL and XXL with a choice of British Racing Green or Cardinal Red. Price is £15 for the shirt, plus shipping (£3 to the UK or £5 to the US, other parts of the world on request).

If you, dear reader, would like an Over the Wireless tee of your very own drop me an email at kieran@overthewireless.com. Unless demand is high enough for a third run these may be the last OtW tees we have printed, so get them before they are gone!

Down the workbench rabbit hole… part 2

 

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An excerpt of Plate 11 from Roubo’s L’art du menuisier, showing the iconic workbench (with leg vise removed), photo courtesy of Benchcrafted

I’ve been on holiday in Devon this week, so I’ve not had an opportunity to make any wood shavings. But I have had plenty of time to think about woodwork, as well as taking the apprentice to the beach for the first time and getting her paddling in the sea. And slowly the details of the new workbench are starting to coalesce. There are plenty of question marks left, and some design choices left to resolve, but since my last post I have a firmer idea of what the bench should look like, and I thought that a series of blog posts charting the evolution would help direct the design process (as well as recording it for posterity).

I think it is fair to say that the two most totemic symbols of the furniture maker’s (or luthier’s) craft are the tool chest and the workbench. These are the items which we build ourselves, or at least have the skills to do so, in order to practice our craft and build other things. I’ve written plenty about the importance of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest previously, both in terms of how it provides a safe home for my tools but also for the ideas it represents. Similarly, the workbench is an expression of the sustainable and ethical life I seek to lead – the reliance on my own hands and skills rather than big-box stores in order to create an environment in which my family can live and flourish

What it is…

That does not mean that the new workbench should be kept in a perpetually pristine condition, far from it. But it should be indicative of my approach to woodwork – the solid workmanship, refinement, and lack of ostentatious ornamentation, that I hope my guitars achieve. And above all, the workbench should facilitate many years of working with wood.

So what exactly will this bench look like? As I started out by saying, I’ve not got there quite yet, but the details are falling into place. So this post is an examination of what the bench design currently is, and what it is not.

The decision I reached at the end of my previous post was for a Roubo style bench, and that is very much still the basis of the design. That being said, the proliferation of Roubo inspired designs means that simply saying a “Roubo bench” is not in itself a precise description – there were two “Roubo” designs in the second edition of Chris Schwarz’s Workbench Book, not to mention the split top design developed by Benchcrafted. And Mark Hicks of Plate 11 offers three different twists on the Roubo bench (all of which are stunning). So more precisely, my starting point is the iconic Plate 11 bench from Roubo’s L’art du menuisier, (as seen at the top of this post) with a couple of twists which I cover below – all of which are still in keeping with modern interpretations of the “Roubo bench”.

Whenever you start a new project you inevitably draw on what you have done before. In terms of settling on a workbench design, my recent Moxon vise build has been particularly thought provoking. Prior to my Moxon build my only experience working with oak was in 1/4″ to 1″ thicknesses for some of the internal fitout of my tool chest, and so the Moxon build was my first proper experience using oak in any real thickness (oak, it must be said, is not a typical lutherie timber). To my surprise, oak is a real joy to work. The Moxon was also my first encounter with Benchcrafted hardware. So now I know two things – that I want to use oak for this bench, and that I’ll be using Benchcrafted vise hardware.

Yes, oak will push up the build costs, but will also stand the test of time, and feels very English. Should that matter? Probably not, but a nice solid bench combining the best of 18th century continental design with a quintessentially English timber does appeal. As I found on my Moxon build, oak goes very well with the sand cast finish of Benchcrafted “C” type hardware, and so a Glide “C” leg vise will be fitted to the left leg of the bench. Speaking of work holding, I’m going to depart from the Plate 11 brief by adding a Benchcrafted wagon vise (again the “C” type with the sand cast finish). I use the dog holes in my Sjoberg end vise as a make-shift wagon vise and this method of working has become second nature, so a wagon vise currently feels like an essential addition rather than a luxury.

My final addition to the Plate 11 design will be a sliding deadman. Again, this isn’t a radical alteration, but it does add some functionality which is essential for my lutherie work.

Despite the additions, the bench will be recognisably “Roubo”, and will definitely include the iconic sliding dovetail joint attaching the legs through the benchtop, because after all, surely one of the main attractions of building a Roubo style bench is cutting this joint?

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The iconic sliding dovetail leg joint as drawn by Roubo, photo courtesy of Popular Woodworking

…and what it is not

First off, I’m going to jetisson the crotchet. With a good quality leg vise I’m not sure the crotchet adds anything, and I can see it fouling any attempts to secure my solera in the leg vise when assembling acoustic guitars. So the crotchet goes. More radically, I’m also undecided about the planing stop. This can always be added later if necessary (it is after all simply a chuffing large mortice through 5″ of oak benchtop filled by a friction fitted post), but with a wagon vise it feels a little superflouous. The elegance and simplicity of a planing stop and doe’s feet does appeal, but the wagon vise appeals more right now. Maybe I’ll see the error of my ways, but for now I think the planing stop might go.

There are still some major design decisions left to resolve, the most significant of which are the length of the bench, and construction of the top. My current bench is 6′ long, which is a reasonable size. Ideally I’d like an 8′ bench, so it is a case of seeing how comfortable the shop will be with an extra 24″ of bench length. My shop is 17′ long, so it will fit, but the far end has my sharpening station, bandsaw and go bar deck, so things may get a little crowded if the bench gets too long (which is sadly why I’ve had to scotch the glorious idea of building a 10′ long beast of a workbench).

With the top, I’m still torn between a slab top (comprised of a single, or maybe just two oak pieces), or a laminated top of 3″ wide oak. The laminated top involves a great deal more jointing than the slab top, but would be significantly cheaper. But if I’m honest, one of the real attractions of the Roubo form is the “Dreadnaught” slab-top design in Schwarz’s book, and as built on the French Oak Roubo Project for the past two years. So I’m leaning towards the slab top. If the slab top ends up being two-piece (which all really depends on what oak I can source) then I am strongly considering using loose pegged tenons (as demonstrated by Richard Maguire) to provide a mechanical joint in addition to the bucketload of epoxy. That should hold everything together for a couple of hundred years.

Where the slab top gets complicated is installing the wagon vise. Richard Macguire has previously sawn the wagon vise chanel into the slab top, and bolted an end cap to the slab. That works very nicely. But (and there is always a but) there is something very classy about a dovetailed end cap, which would require building a slab top with a laminated edge to dovetail to the end cap. Again, perfectly do-able, but it adds an extra step for no structural benefit – this is purely decorative. Jeff Miller’s stunning oak Roubo was built this way, and looks lovely.

So the impasse I’ve currently hit is whether to go with a pure slab top (with no dovetails), or slab top and edge laminate for a dovetailed end cap. What say you, dear readers?

Down the workbench rabbit hole

IMG_2901There is a rabbit hole down which most, if not all, woodworkers eventually disappear, regardless of what they make. And I now find myself teetering on the edge of this same rabbit hole. Let me explain.

My current workbench is a Sjoberg Duo (now marketed as the “Nordic Plus“). It has served me well over the four-and-a-bit years I’ve owned it, and it was definitely the right choice for me at the time. But I am now at the point where I’m butting up against the limitations of the bench, and it is time to re-assess what I need from a bench… and then build one myself.

Before I discuss the limitations of my current bench, and how I intend to address those shortcomings, let me go back to why I bought the Sjoberg in the first place. In 2012 I set up a new workshop – some significant health issues had kept me from any woodwork for 18 months or so, and I’d bounced round the country with work for a spell. So when I was finally in a position to get back in the workshop I had a very clear choice – my first project could be to build a bench, or I could buy one and get straight back to lutherie. I’d actually just finised reading the first edition of Chris Schwarz’s Workbench Book at the time, but made the decision to get back to lutherie and buy a bench. Part of my reasoning was that working on a commercially made bench would give me some practical insight into exactly what I needed from a bench, and what was superfluous. All in all, I think that was the right decision, and the four-plus years I’ve spent working on my Sjoberg have definitely been illuminating. Furthermore, the Sjoberg won’t be wasted once I’ve built a replacement bench, as it will replace the small sharpening station and assembly bench at the end of my workshop.

So now, the limitations of the Sjoberg. Firstly, mass. As in, the Sjoberg has very little of it. Which for most of the lighter lutherie work I do is not a problem. But for heavier work, for instance over-hand ripping of thick stock (like for my Moxon build) or taking a thick cut with a jack plane, then the bench twists and skitters across the workshop floor. The second and third limitation both relate to the bench top. The bench top is thin, which means that there is not much scope of flattening the bench – so after four years the bench top is not exactly what you’d call overly flat. Finally, the benchtop is only secured to the chasis by two carriage screws, which is not a particularly secure method. After four years of seasonal wood movement, the threads have stripped out of the bench top and I’ve had to patch in some maple blocks to keep the benchtop and the base together.

So what will the replacement bench look like? As it happens, I’ve been reading the second edition of Schwarz’s Workbench book at the moment. I’m decided on a Roubo style bench – the thick top and iconic rising dovetail joint represent that perfect combination of practicality and joinery-flair. The Roubo promises to address all of the limitations I’ve outlined above. But really this decision raises more questions and options. Do I want a slab top, or laminated? Will I have a tail vise or rely on planing stop and doe’s feet? If I have a tail vise, will the end cap be bolted on or will I go for some Frank Strazza style condor tails? I’m undecided on all of these points as yet, although I do know that a Benchcrafted Glide leg vise will fitted.

And here I am. Teetering on the edge of the workbench rabbit hole. And although I’m unlikely to be in a position to start work on the new bench until the very end of the year, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in and building the last bench I’ll ever need.

Dancing About Architecture… Part 1

The following is adapted from an article I published in issue 242 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, or so said Frank Zappa. And if this is true for music, does it also stand for furniture? I think maybe so.

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A folding campaign bookcase. How would you describe this piece?

A tale of two clients

I was reminded of Frank’s words of wisdom early last year, when I was discussing guitar commissions with two prospective clients. These clients were very different. The first (who I shall call Mr X) is a keen amateur player. I know Mr X quite well, we have a number of favourite albums in common, and share a similar musical frame of reference. The other prospect (who from here on in shall be Mrs Y) is a professional musician and wrote one of my favourite albums of the past few years. I don’t know Mrs Y at all, and beyond her albums we don’t share any reference points. Unsurprisingly, agreeing a specification with Mr X did not take much time at all, because we were able to draw upon that shared frame of reference. In comparison, understanding what Mrs Y was looking for took a great deal more work.

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Esmerelda has a “bright” and “jangly” tone, with plenty of volume. But how would other people describe the same sound?

This experience got me thinking about the different approaches and vocabulary that we as craftspeople use when we describe our work to clients, spouses, other makers, or interested laypeople. Because if the other side of the conversation does not share the technical vocabulary, or reference points, then it can all get a bit confusing. On the other hand, the right vocabulary and shared frame of reference can act as a short hand of sorts. Because if you both know what Greene and Greene style furniture is, or think that a ’59 Blackguard Telecaster is one of the finest electric guitars ever made, then you don’t have to go through the process of describing and explaining.

Divided by a common tongue

Conversations about what we build are a sort of information funnel, even if this process is normally subconscious. So for furniture building, you would typically identify the style of a piece (Arts and Crafts? Shaker? Federal?), before funnelling a number of different options to arrive at a clear description of a piece, including construction techniques (dovetails? Mortise and tenon? Staked furniture?) timber selection, hardware, finishing options. And if the other party to the conversation is not familiar with the styles or construction techniques you have just referred to, you can hit an early impasse. As an example, one of my favourite furniture forms is campaign furniture. This highly functional style of furniture is characterised by fully blind dovetails, the use of hardwoods, and extensive use of brass hardware including recessed drawer pulls and corner reinforcement. The result is a clean and rugged appearance However, despite being eminently practical campaign furniture has largely escaped popular attention. This has started to change amongst woodwork circles thanks to the publication of Campaign Furniture (Lost Art Press, 2014) and the excellent exhibitions held by Christopher Clarke Antiques (www.campaignfurniture.co.uk), but this has yet to filter into popular consciousness. As a result, a spirited conversation about campaign furniture can lead to confusion and blank faces.

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A disassembled campaign secretary ready for transporting

Of course, this is complicated because the vocabulary of furniture making, or lutherie, is not just concerned with technical terms regarding construction techniques or styles, but also a level of subjectivity regarding aesthetic, and in the case of musical instruments tonal, qualities, and this introduces a lot of variables into a conversation. So into the information funnel also go subjective descriptions – is it vernacular or high style furniture, will the piece look delicate or stout, elegant or bold?

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I think campaign furniture has a “clean” and “rugged” appearance, but do those descriptors match your impressions of this furniture style?

For lutherie, the question is one of interpreting the client’s (entirely subjective) descriptions of their ideal sound, and applying that to the mechanics of how the guitar itself operates. In particular, for acoustic guitars the layout of the soundboard braces, and the size of each of those braces, is fundamental to shaping the sound. So when I build acoustic guitars I spend a lot of time tuning the braces to achieve the right balance of resonance and structural integrity. But it is not enough to understand that lighter braces allow a soundboard to vibrate more, which in turn increases the bass elements of the tone, while heavier braces dampen the soundboard’s resonance and create a brighter sound with less sustain – I have to apply that to the subjective language used by the client.

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The soundboard bracing on this parlour guitar will in large part determine the sound of the guitar.

A new way of communicating?

The need to communicate clearly should not be seen as a burden, but rather an opportunity to really understand the requirements of the end user. The tangle of subjectivity and technical language I have described above begs the question of whether we need a new way of talking about our crafts, and describing our work? And if so, how do we go about that? Or is it enough that we continue to “dance about architecture”? Unfortunately I have no answers, only questions. But the next time you set about describing a project to a co-worker or spouse, or discuss a commission with a client, take a moment to think about how you (and they) are trying to communicate ideas.

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Mr X wanted the same specification as this Tele-type guitar I had previously built. I think the tone of this guitar is “twangy” and “bright” with some real “snarl” when turned up, but how would you interpret those descriptors?

For those who are wondering, Mr X ordered a ’59 Blackguard Telecaster type guitar with a swamp ash body, maple neck and fretboard, and classic butterscotch blonde finish. You can follow the build of Mr X’s guitar by clicking on the “mysterycaster” tag in the right hand panel of this blog.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to practice a mime routine describing my next furniture build.

 

Bridge To Nowhere… Part 1

or: The Enthusiasm and the Doubt

Due to other recent workshop commitments, and various demands on my time, the first opportunity I’ve had to work on the parlour guitar in 2016 came in late February. To be honest I find any lengthy period of time away from a significant build to be quite difficult – as I lose momentum it is easy to start focusing on the details of the build that I wish I’d done differently, and dwelling on any mistakes. The mind starts to play tricks, and convinces me that a perfectly good project is just glorified firewood – the enthusiasm starts to be replaced by a lingering self-doubt, and the incomplete parts of a project seem to taunt me. They say that sharks die if they stop swimming, and in a way large builds in the workshop can face a similar danger. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like this – most woodworkers I know have had a crisis of confidence over a big project, normally at a critical stage in the build (although there is the distinct possibility that I’m just a nut job). The best way I’ve found to respond to the mind’s treachery is to double down on the stalled project, because inevitably the project is in much better shape than I remember it and those catastrophic errors are simply not present.

So it was starting to go with the parlour guitar but fortunately getting stuck back into work, even on the mundane task of preparing an ebony bridge blank, was enough to dispel the growing self-doubt and get this build back on track.

The bridge of the original 19th century parlour guitar, on which this instrument is based, was 22mm deep with a straight saddle. Intonation on fretted instruments is always something of a compromise, but to my ears a straight saddle represents a compromise too far, so I decided to widen the bridge a little to allow for a compensated saddle. Increasing the bridge depth to 25.4mm gave me the necessary extra real estate without making the bridge look too heavy given the small body of the parlour guitar. The width remained at 149mm, as per the original design. I’ve always been a fan of the early Martin pyramid bridge design, but I’ve never had the opportunity to carve a pyramid bridge for any of my guitar builds. The pyramid wings will suit the parlour guitar’s aesthetic perfectly, so instead of the scalloped wings of the original guitar I’ll be carving pyramids for this instrument, which I’m greatly looking forward to.

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The bridge blank secured on the shooting board by a 5-minute jig

Securing small work pieces can be tricky, particularly when it comes to planing small pieces on the shooting board. My solution for this was to make a simple fixture to hold the bridge blank in place. I marked out a recess 20mm deep and 174mm long (the length of the bridge blank) on a large piece of 6mm thick scrap pine. I defined both ends of the recess with my carcase saw, and while I was at it made a couple of relief cuts across the width of the recess. It was then simply a case of knocking out the waste with a 1″ chisel and mallet. The bridge blank then pressed tightly into the recess, and the larger pine piece was easily secured on the shooting board by way of a holdfast. The tight fit of the bridge blank meant that the work piece did not slide under pressure from the plane, which makes for a much less frustrating experience.

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The Lie Neilsen No.51 shooting board plane and hold fast by Black Bear Forge are a fantastic combination

My main concern when shooting both long edges of the bridge was for a straight cut the length of the work piece, and which was bang on 90 degrees to the bottom of the bridge blank, with no undercutting. At this point I’m less concerned about the top surface, as this will be shaped once the bridge is fitted to the soundboard, but the bottom, front, and back all need to be perfectly square to each other. In the past I’ve used my Lie Neilsen 212 small scraper plane to dimension blanks, but for this bridge I wanted to see how the larger No.51 fared for shooting smaller work pieces. Needless to say, with a freshly sharpened blade, some careful setting of the blade’s lateral position, and the bridge secured in the jig, the large No.51 made relatively easy work of what can be quite a fussy job.

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My 12″ Bad Axe carcase saw is the perfect lutherie saw, here you can see the guide kerfs prior to trimming the bridge to length

With the long edges trued up, I then cut the bridge to length.  For this I struck a line for the first end on all four sides of the blank with a sharp marking knife, before trimming the blank using my Bad Axe 12″ carcase saw. I wanted this cut to be as accurate as possible and to need minimal clean up. This saw leaves a very good finish behind, so the only issue was getting out of the way of the saw and letting it cut straight and square. For critical cuts like this I prefer to make a shallow kerf on each of the four sides of the work with the saw, just to the depth of the saw teeth. When I come to cut the full depth of the work, the kerf creates a path of least resistance which the saw follows. The result is a square and true cut. With the first end trimmed I then struck marking knife lines 149mm along the blank for the other end, and having established my guiding saw kerfs on all four sides of the blank, trimmed the bridge to final width. Some gentle clean up with a 13 grain Auriou rasp and a Bahco smooth cut file, removed the saw marks, and the bridge is now ready for the gluing surface to be curved to match the curvature of the soundboard. But you’ll have to wait for my next post to read about that…

Branding: not just for cows

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Some ideas snowball quickly, while some slowly percolate over a far greater period of time. Nonetheless, no idea is born in a vacuum, and most are linked to other thoughts. I’ve wanted a maker’s mark for some time now, but two (quite significant) stumbling blocks have thus far stopped me from doing anything about it; I can’t draw whatsoever, and I couldn’t decide whether any maker’s mark should be linked to the blog, or my name, or something else entirely. So the inertia set in.

And then last autumn, as the freelance woodwork writing continued to grow, and further opportunities presented themselves, I set up Over the Wireless Limited as a way of formalising and managing the different threads of my writing and woodwork. Bingo, a new entity is born, and my woodworking identity started to coalesce. In truth this shouldn’t have been a big surprise –  I’ve been writing as Over the Wireless for two and a half years now, the blog is how I originally scored the writing gigs, and EWS 2015 showed (much against all expectations) that I do have a good sized and loyal readership. So Over the Wireless it is.

Now, it’s easy when you set up a new business to fall into the trap of thinking that you now need to invest in all manner of equipment and merchandise that you didn’t previously need (hey, we need two photocopiers and a watercooler, because how can we have an office without those?!). And that is a way to lose money and quickly go bust. Which doesn’t sound like much fun. And to be honest my woodwork needs are simple, and I’ve never enjoyed buying gadgets for the sake of it. So there’ll be no Over the Wireless calendars or bumper stickers. But having some way of communicating with the world as to what (and who) Over the Wireless is, and how folk can contact me, is fundamental. At EWS I got through a vast number of business cards which identified the blog url and my contact details. But that was prior to setting up the company, and this time around I wanted to do it with a little more… style.

So (and this is where we get back to my original point) I asked graphic designer, and all round great chap, Tom Richards to design some company branding. One of the skills of a real craftsman is being able to understand what the customer wants, even if they aren’t sure themselves, and Tom showed himself to be such a craftsman. Although I had an idea of the feel I wanted for the branding, I didn’t have anything concrete in mind as to how it should look, and Tom ran with the brief I sent him and far exceeded all my expectations.

The result is a trio of strong designs that tie in together, and can be used for the different formats I need. So, for a logo (and now proudly displayed at the banner of the blog):

OTW Logo - Double Line Lockup

That longed for maker’s mark, now looks like this (which will also be embroidered onto a set of chisel and auger bit rolls Jason is currently making for me):

OTW Logo - Maker's mark

And finally, as a stand banner for future woodwork shows:

OTW Logo - Graphic

I couldn’t be more pleased with the branding, and the way this captures the identity of Over the Wireless. Tom’s work has been top notch and very swift, and I’d happily recommend him to anyone who needs graphic design services (you can email Tom at phototropicalia [at] gmail [dot] com to discuss your design needs).

Next post will be back to the real business of making woodshavings. But I’m really pleased with the new graphics – and what is the point of having branding unless you can have an online launch!

Sounding off about… design choices

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The parlour guitar has presented some interesting design choices, particularly with regards to the soundhole decoration. I don’t have the design chops of George Walker (oh but I wish I did) but I do take the design of my guitars seriously and I thought I would write about some of these decision here.

When laying out the soundhole decoration for full sized guitars I try to follow several rules of thumb. The outside circumference of the decoration should meet the corners of the fretboard, with the end of the fretboard falling over the top section of the decoration. The length of the fretboard is calculated as being the number of frets desired for the particular guitar plus an extra fret’s worth of fretboard material (so for a 22 fret guitar the fretboard would be 23 frets long).

However these rules of thumb do not all work for the parlour guitar due to the smaller body size. The parlour guitar has a 90mm diameter soundhole (compared to 100mm diameter for a full sized guitar) and 18 frets. But setting the diameter of the soundhole decoration large enough to meet the corners of the fretboard would be in danger of visually swamping the smaller body of the guitar. After drawing various mockups of the decoration, I decided to extend the fretboard so that the end meets with the edge of the soundhole. This allows the soundhole decoration to meet the corners of the fretboard, but on a tighter 106mm outside diameter which remains proportionate to the size of the body.

The decoration itself is a 4mm wide band comprising 0.6mm ebony banding on each circumference, with 2.4mm inlay in between the ebony. The main inlay blocks are eleven alternating ebony and mother of pearl pieces (the ebony blocks are shaded black in the above drawing).

I will be cutting and installing the inlay at the European Woodworking show on 12 and 13 September, so stop by my bench at the show and watch it unfold in real time!