A Welsh Stick Chair for the Apprentice

In the course of researching for The Life and Work of John Brown, I’ve had the privilege to examine a wide variety of Welsh stick chairs including examples by John Brown and Chris Williams, as well as a variety of historic chairs held in the collection of the St Fagans National Museum of History (including the chair used for the cover image of John’s Welsh Stick Chair book). The chairs I’ve looked at in person have then been supplemented by those photographed in Richard Bebb’s comprehensive survey of Welsh vernacular furniture. I’ve looked at a few Welsh stick chairs now.

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The Apprentice sitting on the chair my grandfather made for me some 32 years ago.

Vernacular forms are rarely homogenous – regional tastes vary, together with the timber available to the makers, not to mention the skill levels of the makers themselves. There may even be technological changes which impact construction methods over time. And all of this goes double for a chair making tradition that spans hundreds of years. The historic examples Chris Williams and I have examined have demonstrated a range of techniques and styles, emphasising that the Welsh stick chair tradition was vibrant and constantly changing. Some of those early chairs have lodged themselves at the back of my mind for some time – an itch demanding to be scratched. Scratching that itch requires further research, both in terms of closer examination of some of the chairs (as well as other contemporaneous examples), and building them at my workbench. This is a long term project, and I’ll writing about the research and building the chairs as I dig deeper into it.

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A 90 second sketch of the Apprentice’s stick chair. Hopefully the comb won’t be as wonky on the finished piece!

One of the chairs that caught my eye was a dainty child-sized stick chair from the late eighteenth century, held in the collection at St Fagans. This five-stick chair had an unusual trapezoid shaped seat and three tapered legs, topped by a very gently curved comb. I’ve spent months trying to shake this chair out of my head, and finally had to accept that the only way to do so would be to built it. A plan began to form. When I was three or four, my grandfather built me a desk and chair set. This set, which remains to this day at my parents’ house, was a constant feature of my childhood and I spent countless hours sitting at the desk drawing and playing. With the Apprentice’s birthday on the horizon later this summer, I got to talking to Dr Moss about the stick chair rattling around my head, and about my memories of the desk and chair I’d had as a child. We agreed that an excellent birthday present for the Apprentice would be her own stick chair to go in the reading corner of our lounge, next to my Chesterfield arm chair. The Apprentice adores books and reading, so this seemed like a natural gift. Hopefully in years to come it will mean as much to her as the chair and desk my grandfather built means to me.

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This large oak board is left over from the Policeman’s Boot Bench, and will provide the seat, sicks and comb of the Apprentice’s stick chair

With the very kind help of one of the furniture conservators at St Fagans, I now have a detailed set of dimensions for this chair, in addition to the notes and photographs I took during my last field trip. This weekend I marked the conclusion of another trip round the sun, and the focus for the bank holiday is on family celebrations and a much needed get-away with Dr Moss. But no birthday would be complete without a brief moment of workshop time, and so last night I broke down the stock for the Apprentice’s stick chair. Rummaging through my scraps pile located a large piece of oak left over from the Policeman’s Boot Bench which will provide the seat, comb and sticks. Further digging found some oak thick enough for the three legs. A few minutes on the saw benches with my Disston D8 and Skelton Panel Saw was all it took to harvest the components, which I will leave to acclimatise for a week or so while I finish up the campaign stools. Once the campaign stools are wrapped up I will build the Apprentice her stick chair in time for her birthday. This should be a fun build!

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This part of the process never gets old – my 1900 era Disston D8 and the staked saw benches.

The octagonalisation campaign continues

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My inspiration

One of the furniture styles I first connected with when I started thinking about building furniture in addition to guitars was campaign furniture. I’d read Chris’ blog posts about campaign furniture and my interest was piqued sufficiently to pre-order his book in 2014. It arrived just before the Easter weekend, and I spent the bank holiday reading it cover to cover. Campaign furniture is still one of my favourite furniture forms, and there are several reasons why it speaks to me. The first is the combination of utility and style. I tend not to find flashy furniture pieces all that appealing, and the clean lines of campaign furniture accented with brass pulls and corner brackets fits well with my tastes. Then there is the emphasis on functionality – these are rugged pieces designed to be broken down into manageable packages and easily transported. If only I’d had a set of campaign furniture during my student and itinerant early career years.

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Laying out octagons the easy way

There is also a much more emotive reason why I’m drawn to campaign furniture. My great-great-grandfather served in the British Army in the late nineteenth century. Listed as an ironmoulder and blacksmith in contempraneous records, at some point he enlisted (as many working class Scots did when work was sparse), and served on the North-West Frontier – what would now be the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. All three of my great-great-grandfather’s sons served in the military, with my great-grandfather enlisting in the Argyl & Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War. His son, my grandfather, then enlisted with the Royal Scots before taking a commission in the Indian Army during the Second World War. This commission took him to the same area of the North-West Frontier as my great-great-grandfather (his grandfather). I remember from my childhood a pair of photographs showing my great-great-grandfather and my grandfather at the same hill fort on the North-West Frontier, two generations apart. The fact that two separate generations of the same working class family from Falkirk served in the same area of the Indian subcontinent is something that never ceases to amaze me.

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Sapele, maple, and ash shavings.

And so, furniture from the British Empire, and particularly that associated with military service, has a family resonance. Which is all very well and good, but what exactly does this have to with woodwork? Well, I shall explain. For the past two years we have throw a garden party for the Apprentice’s birthday. We don’t have much in the way of garden seating, and when I was re-organising my woodstore at the end of the saw cabinet build, I realised that I had enough stock for a couple of the folding campaign stools out of Chris’ Campaign Furniture book. This is a probject that has been on my to-do list ever since I read the book, and with the Apprentice’s next birthday only a couple of months away this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Reviewing the available stock I realised I had enough material for four sets of stool legs – one set in each of ash and maple, and two in sapele. This will give me plenty of practice at the lathe (another reason why this project appeals). Finally, a quick project can be a nice palate cleanser after a major build.

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Octagonalisation is a campaign that will never end

After six-squaring the stock, I decided to octagonalise it before turning it to round. More experienced turners than me will no doubt be able to go from square to round without any intermediary steps, but while I’m still becoming familiar with the lathe I figure that anything which reduces the risk of a catch while turning is worth taking. I marked out the octagons using the same pre-industrial geometry I always do, before planing the corners away with my Clifton No.5. All told, octagonalising 12 legs took only a couple of hours (running at an average of 10 minutes per leg plus layout time). Next is to make a story stick for the leg pattern, and then turn the legs. I’m hoping for three usable stools – I’m realistic that turning 12 perfectly consistent legs might be a big ask for a baby-turner (but who knows, I might get lucky). I have one burgandy leather seat on order from Texas Heritage, and will order more seats (as well as tribolts from Lee Valley for the folding mechanism) once I know how many viable stools I have. In any event, this is going to be a super fun project which will hopefully increase my ability at the lathe, and result in some additional seating for the Apprentice’s guests in August.

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Four sets of campaign stool legs ready for the lathe

 

The Grand Reveal

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Over the past couple of months I’ve been working on a project which I’ve refrained from writing about on OtW. That project is a wall hanging saw cabinet (daddy has a saw problem, remember?) which will be the subject of a project article for the October 2018 issue of Popular Woodworking. With the build now complete, and the copy, drawings, and process photographs, all submitted to the magazine, I have added the saw cabinet to the Portfolio section of OtW. Click through here to see a selection of the excellent beauty shots of the saw cabinet Gareth took two weeks ago. And if you want to know how to build this cabinet? Stay tuned for the October issue of PopWood!

A Beginner’s Guide to Welsh Stick Chairs

The following is based on an article originally published in issue 268 of Furniture & Cabinet Making

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Blonde stick chair by Chris Williams, photograph by Kevin Thomas

I remember the very first time I saw a picture of a Welsh Stick Chair, how it appeared to be both familiar and completely alien. At first glance this chair shared common DNA with the Windsor chairs I was more familiar with, but there was also an underlying tension that felt very different to the Windsor chair form. More angular than Windsor chairs, the aggressive rake and splay of the legs, together with the distinctive comb perched atop four long sticks, gave the Welsh Stick Chair a dynamic silhouette suggesting a feral energy – this was a chair that wanted to spring out of the corner. I was hooked.

Several years on, and I find myself co-authoring a book for Lost Art Press about Welsh Stick Chair maker John Brown. My co-author, Chris Williams, is a Carmarthenshire-based Welsh Stick Chair maker and furniture restorer who worked with John Brown for a decade. The deep research required for a book has led us to many historic examples of Welsh Stick Chairs, as well as modern examples made by John Brown and Chris. That research has revealed a vibrant and enduring form that has evolved and been adapted over many generations, and which remains relevant today.

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Single piece carved arm on an early Stick Chair

While a comprehensive survey of a chair form that has been in use for centuries is outside the scope of a magazine article, what is possible is to introduce a fascinating chair that continues to inspire chair makers and furniture collectors alike, and to explain the key characteristics that set Welsh Stick chairs apart from other forms.

Background

Boiled down to the basics, Welsh Stick Chairs are an example of staked furniture – a method of constructing chairs that has been in use since the medieval period. Staked furniture relies on a thick seat into which conical or cylindrical mortises are drilled, and matching tenons are back wedged. The result is a strong mechanical joint that requires minimal specialist tooling to prepare. In his book Welsh Stick Chairs, John Brown suggested that the lineage of Welsh Stick Chairs extended as far back as the 12th century. A 12th-century manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda (a 10th century Welsh King) includes an illustration of a judge, or possibly Hywel Dda himself, sitting on a chair very similar in form to surviving examples of 18th-century Stick Chairs. This is a long-lived form.

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Stick chair by John Brown

Culturally, Welsh Stick Chairs are significant in that they were not typically built by chair makers, and instead would have been made by craftsmen from related woodcrafts such as “village carpenters, wheelwrights, or coffin makers” (John Brown). Welsh Stick Chairs then are furniture of necessity – a vernacular form made by (and for) common folk when they had need of something to sit on. That they were not made by professional chair makers also had a profound impact on the construction methods, and there is a notable lack of steam bending or turning in the Welsh Stick tradition compared to other chair making traditions.

Key Characteristics of a Welsh Stick Chair

As can be expected of vernacular furniture, there is a great deal of variety among surviving historic examples of Welsh Stick Chairs. That being said, there are also commonalities which make Welsh Stick Chairs instantly recognisable.

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Sticks on a historic chair, showing tool marks and facets

Historic examples can broadly be split between arm chairs and comb back chairs. Arm chairs are very much as the name would suggest – a number of sticks hold the arm above the seat, so that it is supports the middle of the sitter’s back, and the sticks terminate at the arm. In contrast, comb back chairs feature long sticks at the back which extend through the arm and terminate in a decorative comb level with the occupant’s head.

It all Flows from the Arm

The element that really separates the Welsh Stick Chair from its Windsor cousins is the arm. The shape of a Windsor chair is typically determined by the dimensions and shape of the seat, with the legs and back flowing from the seat. In contrast, the shape of early Welsh Stick Chairs was defined by the curvature of the arm. This is in large part due to the practice of using timber with a natural bend, such as a curved branch or crook, rather than steam bending. The curve of the arm would be refined by carving excess material away from a heavy crook while retaining the natural strength of the grain (which would flow the full length of the arm). With the shape of the arm defined, the position of the sticks would then be laid out and the arm joined to the seat. The result is a distinctive organic curve to the arm, and an arm which on early examples is often visually heavier than steam bent arms. A later development was the use of arms constructed from two or three pieces of timber using scarf joints, with the third piece being placed on top of the two major pieces to reinforce the short grain at the apex of the curve. Combs would also have typically been made from a naturally curved piece of timber, or a curved part would have been cut to shape rather than steam bent.

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A three piece arm by Chris Williams, photograph by Kevin Thomas

Saddle Up?

Early Welsh Stick Chairs had a seat that is wider than it is deep, and the shapes vary from simple rectangular examples to curved seats which more closely follow the curve of the arm. Many examples show little or no saddling.

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Rectangular seat and a one-piece carved arm on an early Stick Chair

Welsh Stick Chairs tend to have a much more aggressive rake and splay to their legs than Windsor chairs, and as a consequence do not always feature stretchers between the legs. Both three and four legged chairs are common, and the leg tenons are usually set further away from the perimeter of the seat than is often the case for Windsor chairs. The legs are typically tapered octagons or tapered cylinders, although tapered hexagons can also be found, and the sticks may also be octagonal or cylindrical in cross section. Because Welsh Stick chairs were traditionally not made by chair makers, the use of turned parts was uncommon and cylindrical legs or sticks would likely have been shaved by hand instead of being turned on the lathe, leaving distinctive facets and tooling marks. The sticks supporting the arm and comb may be set straight through the arm, or can be curved through the arm to give a “lobster pot” shape.

Native Species

In terms of timber choices, oak, elm and ash were (and continue to be) typically used as these native species are plentiful in Wales and have attributes which lend themselves well to chair making.  Although elm is increasingly difficult to source, it is particularly prized for seats thanks to the interlocked grain which makes it resistant to splitting when driving the leg tenons home. Ash and oak were commonly used for legs and spindles, as they can be rived easily to yield strong, straight grained components. However, there were no strict rules regarding timber selection and surviving chairs also show the use of yew, and fruit woods.

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Stick chair in yew, by John Brown

Evolution of the Welsh Stick Chair

While the Welsh Stick Chair is certainly less common than Windsor chair traditions, the Welsh Stick Chair is enjoying something of a renaissance. The late John Brown is undoubtedly the most well-known Welsh Stick Chair builder, particularly thanks to his outspoken articles for Good Woodworking magazine in the 1990’s, but he is not alone. Chris Williams continues to make Welsh Stick Chairs from his Carmarthenshire workshop, while the form has a number of supporters in America, including Chris Schwarz and Don Weber.

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Pair of stick chairs by Chris Schwarz

Modern examples of the Welsh Stick Chair have adapted the form for contemporary tastes – often comb back chairs will feature fewer long sticks for a sleeker appearance, and milk painted or oiled finishes are common. The use of crook backs also appears to be less commonly used than scarf jointed or steam bent backs. But despite these adaptations, the form remains distinctive and easily recognisable as the Welsh Stick Chair.

The Welsh Stick Chair remains a relevant and exciting chair form that while not being as widely known as the Windsor, has a cult following among those who have been exposed to its charms, and continues to fascinate chair makers.

 

The author would like to thank the staff of St Fagan’s National Museum of History for allowing access to their collection, and for permission to reproduce photographs of their chairs.

Further Reading and Viewing

Welsh Stick Chairs – John Brown

Welsh Furniture 1250-1950 – Richard Bebb

Oak Furniture, The British Tradition – Victor Chinnery

Visit: St Fagan’s National Museum of History

Build: Build a Welsh Stick Chair with Don Weber

 

 

Breaking Radio Silence

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Want to know what this is part of? Then stay tuned for more…

It has been 21 days since my last post, which is the longest period of inactivity on the blog since Dr Moss and I were on honeymoon in 2013. The truth is, while I have felt pangs of guilt for letting my weekly writing schedule slide I’ve had little opportunity over the past three weeks to write, due to a final push to complete my project article for Popular Woodworking, implementing some much needed (and long overdue) workshop improvements, and recovering from an unpleasant bout of shingles. The frantic pace of the last couple of weeks has finally abated, so I will be returning to the regular weekly updates very soon.

A very special project will be starting imminently, which I’m looking forward to sharing it here on the blog. Photographer Gareth Partington stopped by the workshop last night for a photo session of two completed projects, and I will be posting those photos here soon. So there is plenty of exciting content to come over the next month.

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Gareth, mid-photo shoot in the workshop last night

In the meantime, Chris posted some very exciting Welsh Stick Chair news over the weekend, which is well worth reading if you haven’t already.

The Helpful Yellow Machine

Or: Confessions of a reluctant machine owner

Nearly all of my tool purchases are carefully planned over a period of time, with a certain amount of questioning before I put any money down as to whether I really need that tool. As a result, I rarely feel conflicted about a tool when it arrives, because I’ve made sure that it fills a genuine gap, and it’s at a price point I can afford. Last summer, there was one tool which I felt horribly conflicted about ordering, even though going through that same thought process left me in no doubt that placing an order was exactly the right move. That tool was a 12″ thicknesser by DeWalt. After 7 months of using the machine, I thought looking at the reasons why I was reticent to purchase it, and whether those concerns were reflected in reality, would make for an interesting blog post.

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The cause of much soul searching and angst, or a helpful apprentice?

I know what you’re thinking – you don’t expect to read much about machines on OtW. And I do wonder if this post will result in a reduction in my regular readership (there’s nothing like living dangerously on a bank holiday weekend, is there?). But I’ve always aimed to be honest about my approach to woodwork, and while I remain hand tool focused there are some machines I wouldn’t be without (I love my drill press and band saw, and fear my router wth every fibre of my being). So here goes.

I first started considering investing in a thicknesser during the Policeman’s Boot Bench – processing a number of sizeable (and often unruly) oak boards entirely by hand turned out to be a much more time demanding process than I had anticipated. Now, woodwork for me has always been as much about the process as the finished article (let’s see how many craft-based cliches I can fit into one blog post shall we?), and handwork is really where I find my satisfaction at the workbench. But ever since the Apprentice arrived, there has been a constant tension in how I feel about being in the workshop, which I’m sure will be familiar to many other woodworking parents.

Most of my waking time is spent thinking about what I will do when I’m next in the ‘shop, mentally rehearsing tricky operations or techniques, running over designs or new projects. And then, when I am at my bench, I wish I was with the Apprentice. So there is a palpable tension between the need to be productive and build things with my hands, and the need to be a hands-on, and present, father. It’s a tension that has had me chasing my tail for nearly three years, and I confess there have been times when I’ve seriously thought about shuttering the workshop permanently and dedicating every waking moment that I’m not in the office to fatherhood. That doesn’t sound like a bad way to live at all. Dr Moss is a lot smarter than I am, and she disagrees. I think, because she recognises that if I did not have some opportunity to pursue this vocation, and to satisfy that need to build things, that I would eventually turn into a withered husk. And withered husks are not generally much good at being decent parents. So it is a case of balancing parenthood and the workshop, which requires a degree of time efficiency.

I’m not saying that handtools are slow, far from it. Having dedicated 2016 as a year of unplugged work focusing on fundamental hand tool techniques, and working my way through two thirds of the Joiner & Cabinetmaker, I can process stock by hand pretty swiftly. And if I were building small pieces, or still focusing on lutherie, then my stock preparation would remain handtool only. But for the larger furniture pieces that I seem to be building at the moment, flattening a large board by hand and then thicknessing it mechanically is definitely a time saver.

Ultimately, after much soul searching, it was words of encouragement from Jim and Chris that convinced me I wasn’t committing a grave sin by ordering the helpful yellow machine. And as Chris pointed out, thicknessing machines have existed in various forms for at least 400 years. One of my concerns was that a thicknesser would encourage me to become lazy, and also de-skilled. That might show a very specific handtool prejudice towards machines (and I know machine-orientated woodworkers who produce incredible work), but I’m glad to report that it has not been the case. Flattening the reference face of my stock keeps those handplane skills sharp, and I still thickness the occasional board by hand to keep that skill set current. Also, some stock exceeds the capacity of the DeWalt, which means that I have no choice but to process it entirely by hand. What the thicknesser has allowed me to do is move through the stock preparation stage of a project more swiftly, which increases productivity in the long run, and aswages any guilt about being away from the family for a morning. That peace of mind alone means that the cost of the DeWalt was a worthwhile investment.

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Munching 12″ wide boards down to thickness saves time which I can then spend on cutting joinery

So will you see my workshop trading out the hand planes, back saws, and brace and bit for a collection of shiny powered contraptions? Not at all. My focus will as ever remain on traditional handwork techniques and tools. And this is a focus which means that the workshop is an appropriate environment for the Apprentice to spend time in, should she wish to in a couple of years time. But for the grunt work of bringing boards down to the required thickness, I’m glad to have a helpful yellow machine to assist me.

The redneck sticking board… for when all other workholding fails

Richard Maguire wrote a very interesting blog post about work holding on Friday, which came at exactly the right time for me. The main thrust of Richard’s post (although it really is worth reading in its entirety) is that clamping every workpiece to the bench is not only unnecessary, but also disrupts workflow. Now, Richard knows his workbenches, so I find it pays to give proper thought to what he says. As it happens, I received a planing stop in the post a couple of weeks ago from Peter Ross, in readiness for my Roubo bench build (and more about that soon). But on my current bench I’m limited to bench dogs, holdfasts, and clamps. These do for most tasks, but occasionally I hit an operation which these workholding methods are just not appropriate.

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This handmade planing stop by Peter Ross is just sublime, and will perform key workholding duties on my Roubo bench

My current build (for the October issue of Popular Woodworking) is a case in point. This project calls for a shallow drawer which is grooved to accept the drawer bottom. All very conventional. But securing a narrow drawer side to plough the groove can be tricky, as I realised this morning. The drawer stock was too narrow to hold with clamps without fouling the posts of the plough plane, and I prefer not to use a tail vise and dogs to hold small stock due to the risk of the clamping pressure bowing the workpiece. While I was contemplating how to secure the drawer stock in place, Richard’s post started to play on my mind. And then I realised I already had the solution tucked away in the corner of my ‘shop.

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Five minutes, a length of 3/4″ ply, and a handful of self tapping screws, and I had the most redneck sticking board ever to grace a workbench. It was also incredibly effective. I always keep a box of self tapping screws on hand for jig making – they are nasty little things which I would never use for furniture, but perfect for jigs. Instead of driving the screws all the way home, I put three at varying heights to act as a rough planing stop. To prevent the drawer stock from deflecting sideways I then created a fence by driving another series of screws into the ply, leaving them proud of the surface. This positioned the workpiece with one edge hanging off the ply for the plough fence to register against. The pressure from the plane was sufficient to hold the workpiece against the two lines of screws, and with the screw heads below the surface of the workpiece there was nothing to foul the movement of the plane (as there would have been had I used clamps or a holdfast).

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A handful of screws and some thick ply was all I needed to hold these narrow drawer components securely for grooving

Now, none of this is particularly revolutionary – this is basically a very rough version of the sticking board from Mouldings in Practice. But what I found very interesting about the whole experience was how it improved my workflow, very much as Richard had suggested. Instead of releasing clamps or winding back a tail vise, I could just pick up the unsecured workpiece to check my progress. This encouraged a much smoother workflow, and smooth leads to fast. After ploughing several grooves, I also needed to cut a stopped groove, and I used the same sticking board. It worked even better in this application – without needing to worry about the plough plane fance, I was able to butt the workpiece against a screw head, and hold it in position using only pressure from the small router plane. Simple, intuitive, and quick. And even better, at the end of the operation I removed the screws and put the ply back in the corner until I need it again. Now that’s my sort of jig.

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Hand pressure and a screw keeps the workpiece in place while cutting the stopped groove

Based on this brief experiment I can’t help thinking about how I might apply the same principles for other workholding tasks, so that I do not have to rely on anchoring the workpiece down. I’m also greatly looking forward to using the Peter Ross planing stop once the bench build is complete. Roubo is coming.