Just Shelfin’

 

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This old girl is 120 years old and still cuts the line like she’s on rails

I’ve now got one shelf left to process and then I’ll be ready to cut the joinery for the boarded bookcase. Processing the shelves has been a lot quicker thanks to only smoothing the show face (the top surface of the shelf) and leaving the underside scalloped texture from traversing with the No5 plane. This approach is consistent with how the furniture record shows historic makers treating secondary surfaces, and the change in texture offers a pleasant change for those who explore the finished piece.

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Workhorses

Not that smoothing and achieving a perfect glassy surface is a chore, but it does take time. At the moment I’m putting a Holtey 985 through its paces in readiness for an article which will be in print later this year. Sadly the plane will then be returned to Karl, but it’s been a very interesting experience using a high-end handmade plane. If you want to know whether a plane that costs more than a family car is worthwhile, and the design process of one of the greatest plane makers in the world, then stay tuned for more details soon.

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Flawless finish on truculent maple courtesy of Karl Holtey

My process for the shelves has been to joint the boards oversized, and then once the glue has cured rip them to 1/2″ over-width using my Disston D8 (which turned 120 years old this year). The shelves will be orientated so that the widest board of each is at the front of the bookcase. The shelves are then flattened and surfaced on the show face, and then thicknessed from the underside by traversing with the jack plane. Working to the layout lines when thicknessing the shelves means that shelves will be flat and straight from traversing, so no other work is needed. Then it is a case of jointing the edges. I’ve not yet shot the ends of any of the components square yet, because I have the Veritas fence and track for a new shooting board waiting to be installed, but need to venture down to my local timber yard for some baltic ply. Shooting the sides and shelves to length should be quite a quick task once the shooting board is assembled, and then I can get on with the fun work of cutting joinery (six dados to fit the shelves to the sides). There’s not been much to write about with this build so far, which is why the blog has been a bit quieter than usual. But that should change once we get to the joinery.

If you have to ask the question…

… you already know the answer.

When I cleaned up the first panel for the boarded bookcase (which I’d glued up back in September 2018) I found a joint that was structurally sound but the glue-line for which was far mor visible than I would have liked. This panel was for one of the bookcase sides, and so would be one of the most pominent components of the finished piece.

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The bandsaw made removing the waste a precise and predictable exercise

What followed was hours of agonising:

  • Could I orientate the panel so that the glue line was in a less obtrusive place? Yes, but I’d still know it was there.
  • Would you even notice it in the context of the finished piece? Possibly not, but I’d still know it was there.
  • Would knowing it was there matter? The glue-line wasn’t going to have an impact on the longevity of the piece, but it sure was going to annoy me everytime I looked at the bookcase. Which will be every day, given that it is going to stand next to my staked desk.
  • Could I paint the exterior of the bookcase? That was definitely an option, but my original plan was to finish the bookcase with blonde shellac and Osmo to match the desk. And what happens if I redecorate my music room? Would I have to strip and re-paint the bookcase? Hiding the glue-line under milk paint feels an awful lot like cheating, and even if I can’t see it, it will still annoy me (see above).

In the end, I did what I should have done when I first cleaned up the panel and decided I wasn’t happy with the joint – I cut it down and re-jointed. Which all in all took a lot less time than the several weeks of obsessing over whether I could live with the original joint or not. If you have to ask the question, chances are you already know the answer.

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Preparing the new joint. The top-most component is over width, which makes flushing up after glue-up easier.

Having surfaced the panel and planed it to dimension, I wanted to ensure that breaking the panel down and preparing a more satisfactory joint did not result in any damage being inflicted on the finish surfaces. To remove the current joint, I ripped the panel on the bandsaw, cutting just to the waste side of the glue line. This ensured that I would preserve as much of the existing panel as possible. I then jointed both edges simultaneously with the No8 plane set to a fine cut, making sure that the entirety of the old glue was removed before test fitting the joint. The new piece being scabbed on was also left overwidth so that I didn’t have to worry about getting the faces of the panel coplanar during glue up. Once I was happy with the new joint I glued it using Titebond liquid hide glue, situating the new component so that the extra width created an overhang on both sides of the existing panel.

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Flattening the new section

Once the glue had cured, I flushed up the new piece using my No5 hand plane, with the heel of the plane on the existing panel to act as a reference surface. Once the panel was just a hair off final thickness I moved to the smoothing plane to remove any tool marks and tearout. The end result is a much more acceptable glue line, and the return of my ability to sleep at night (this week at least).

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Maple is unforgiving of glue lines, but this one I can ive with

Was I being neurotic over what was at the end of the day a relatively minor imperfection? Quite possibly, but I find that if a project starts off on the wrong foot it will haunt you for the rest of the build (and possibly beyond). And when it is something I know I can get right, I feel compelled to correcting the error before moving on with the project. For what was only a few hours work, I’m glad that I tackled this issue, and can now progress with the rest of the build with a clear mind. Next up is flattening the shelf panels and then cutting some joinery.

Is this a clever joke about “straight edge”?

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I’ve not had much time at the bench over the past few weeks, due to work and family commitments. But I did steal a few hours yesterday to joint and glue up the final panels for the boarded bookcase. I find that the right workshop soundtrack is important, and because I’ve been reading Our Band Could Be Your Life recently, while I was jointing these boards I ended up with a steady stream of Minor Threat, Husker Du and Minutemen.

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Much of woodwork is practicing a technique until it comes naturally and these final edge joints went together pretty smoothly. Of course, part of the fun is waiting until the glue cures and then cleaning up the joints with a handplane to see if the glue line is nice and tight or whether it is visible from 50ft. But these joints seemed crisp without any clamp pressure being applied, so I’m reasonably optimistic. So far this project has largely been about readjusting to furniture sized work and tolerances after a year of Roubo bench-sized work, which in itself has been a useful learning experience.

Once the glue has cured I’ll get to planing up this panels and then it’ll be on to cutting some joinery. So the bookcase should start to take shape quite quickly after the stock is prepared.

Keep On Keepin’ On

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The two completed bookcase sides

I’ve been a little quiet on the blog recently, but that is not to say that I’ve been slacking at the bench. The sides for the boarded book case are now down to final dimension (save for being shot to length, but I’m planning to build a new shooting board before I do that) and ready for joinery. It is worth taking the time to get these key components right, because everything else is laid out from them, and they are the main structural elements. In a more forgiving material, such as pine, this would not have taken too long, but this maple is both beautiful and truculent. When I was at Totnes we used to say that the more beautiful a piece of wood was, the more difficult it would be to work. That is a phrase that takes me back to visions of fitting the cocobolo bridge to Esmerelda, a 3 day process which involved taking thin shavings from specific parts of the bridge until a perfect fit with the curvature of the top was achieved. Which is fine, until you start doing it in an incredibly hard and brittle timber like cocobolo. Good times indeed.

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The cocobolo bridge on Esmerelda

The maple for the bookcase isn’t as horrifying as that,  but even with sharp tools I’ve found it wants to tear out quite a bit, so going slowly and moving to a smoothing plane sooner than I would normally do, has been the order of the day. And there is something very rewarding about working slower – accepting that a job will take longer than you think and settling into the rhyth. The results are worth the work, and this should be a nice looking piece when it is complete.

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My saw benches are the perfect platform for holding rough stock ready for a day of planing

With the sides finished and put safely out of the way, I prepared the shelf components for jointing. Like the sides, I am edge jointing two pieces of maple to get the requisite width for each shelf. To provide a reference face for checking that the edge joint is square, I planed one face of each shelf board flat. These surfaces do not need to be perfectly smooth or pretty right now, just flat so that I have a datum surface to work with. The opposite face of the shelves are still in the rough, and I will work them once the shelves have been glued up. My plan for the shelves is to have the top face smooth and pretty, and leave the underside of each shelf with the tool marks from traversing to thickness with a jack plane. The scolloped texture from traversing is always a nice surprise for enquiring fingers, and traversing the shelves till be a very efficient way of bringing them down to the requisite thickness.

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Six boards waiting to become three shelves

Enjoy the Ride

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Smoothing the outside surface of the second side piece

If I’m being honest, I was in a hurry to get the bookcase underway and finished. Partly because I’m tired of picking a path between boxes of books that are in sore need of a home, and also because following on from over a year of building the Roubo bench I was looking forward to progressing (and completing) a furniture project in a shorter time frame.

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Marking off the thickness with a Hamilton Toolworks small marking gauge

Every project, and every process, has something new to teach you, even if it is something you’ve built many times before. And after spending time at the bench cleaning up the panel I glued up last week, I’m taking a different view of the project – I’m going to slow down, and enjoy the ride. Part of this is because the maple I’m using demands a slower approach. It is lovely material, with some subtle quilting. But it is as hard as any material I’ve ever worked, and prone to nasty patches of tearout. Those properties don’t really facilitate working at pace. Very sharp irons, and high cutting angles, are the order of the day. But also, as Clive is fond of saying, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Working at a slower pace actually gets things done, and without the frustration or needless mistakes that creep in when you’re pushing against a tight deadline. So, I’m slowing down and enjoying work on a project that is markedly different to the bench and chair I built last year. Slowing down also means I’m more receptive to the lessons this project will offer.

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That glue seam looks ok

I’m already feeling the benefit – I’ve not quite finished dimensioning the panel that will become the second side of the bookcase, but I’m much more content with my progress, and I’ve enjoyed working it a whole lot more. The shelves will be quicker in any event, because I will leave the underside with the rough scalloped tecture from the jack plane, while the sides need to be finished on both surfaces. But get the sides in good order, and everything else will follow from them. Settling into a different rhythm after the bench build may have taken a few weeks, but it’s good to be back in furniture making mode, and I’m enjoying using the Roubo bench. The extra length of the benchtop has already proved to be beneficial, as the bookcase sides would have stretched my old bench to full capacity. As it is, the Roubo can handle work of this scale with plenty of room to spare. It was also gratifying to see that the glue joint that had me chasing my tail last week turned out ok in the end – perseverance paid off.

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I also reconfigured the workshop layout so that the tool chest is at the end of the bench, where it is more accessible

You can spend money or you can build skills

“Skill is equal parts muscle memory and knowledge.”

“You can spend money or you can build skills.”

“Bloggers only show their best work.”

These have been the thoughts circling my mind while I’ve been at the ‘bench today working on the boarded bookcase, and I thought it would be useful to discuss them here. Not least because yet another description of edge jointing boards would not make for gripping reading, and also it wouldn’t be particularly representative of this week’s work. So instead, let me offer some thoughts, with edge jointing those maples boards as a backdrop.

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Skill is equal parts musckle memory and knowledge – it’s why you can’t learn to build furniture (or anything really) solely by reading or watching Youtube, although I’ve found research and reading to be an invaluable part of the building process . At some point you simply have to get into the ‘shop and make some shavings, to translate the research into muscle memory. Muscle memory takes time and practice to develop, and it can also atrophy if not  constantly. And here’s I found myself – I learned a huge amount from the Roubo bench build, including new techniques and approaches. But I’ve not prepared an edge joint for glue up since October 2018, and boy can I tell how long it has been. The knowledge is still there but the muscle memory has faded, and while it will come back with some hard work, I’ve found myself chasing my tail with the next panel glue up for the boarded book case. Getting those two edges square and straight today seemed beyond me, as the edge tilted one way then the other despite my best efforts. And so the frustration mounts because I know I can do this (the three-piece maple top for the staked desk has two long glue joints, which are barely visible).

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You can spend money or you can build skills – I’m going to admit it, there were moments today when I wondered how much a 6″ spiral head jointer would cost and whether I had room for one in my ‘shop (the answers are: “£1,119 from Axminster“, and “no I definitely don’t have the space“). Stepping away from the bench for a moment to finish my coffee, I reminded myself that it is easy to see new tools as being the answer to finding a technique difficult, but new tools also require new techniques and skills (and there are few things I dislike more than setting up machines). When I started my journey in the woodcrafts at the Totnes School of Guitar Making back in 2007 I was focused on gaining the hand skills I needed, not spending my way out of difficulty. There are very good reasons to buy a jointer, but a frustrating day trying to get a good joint is not one of them. The acquisition of skills is still at the heart of what I’m trying to achieve at the bench, and so I’m going to focuse on nailing these edge joints to the standard I have in the past.

Bloggers only show their best work – it would be wonderful to pretend that everything goes perfectly everytime I’m at the bench, and not to write about the mistakes or difficulties. But that would be disingenuous, and I’ve aways tried to be honest in my writing here. After all, to err is human (to really stuff up takes a power tool). I think there is more benefit in showing the difficult stuff and the times that work does not go to plan. Today I stepped up to the bench expecting to nail this edge joint, and it owned me for several hours. It was a humbling experience, but keeping the ego in check is good for the soul.

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Ultimately I did achieve the tight joint I was looking for, and got the panel glued up with Titebond hide glue. I’m determined to bring that muscle memory back, and so the next few weeks will be spent working on the remaining three panel glue-ups before I move on to any other stage of the build. Focusing on the process will help to revive that all important muscle memory, and will keep me humble in the meantime.

One other useful learning experience in an otherwise frustrating day was trying another workholding method on the Roubo bench. Normally I would hold work to be edge jointed in the leg vise, but for the narrower board I rested it on the bench and held it with the planing stop and a does’ foot and holdfast. This method wouldn’t be appropriate for very wide panels, but for narrower boards such as this (3″ wide) piece it was very effective. This bench still has a great deal to teach me.

“The Finest Worksong”

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Cleaning up the first edge

Now that the Roubo bench is finished I’m digging into my first furniture project in some months, not to mention the first thing which will be built at the Roubo bench – a boarded bookcase from The Anarchist’s Design Book, in maple to match my staked desk from the same book. I actually purchased and broke down stock for this build back in February 2018 with (optimistic) intention that I would have the bookcase and a matching chair completed by the summer of that year. Needless, to say after gluing up the first panel I got way laid by two stick chairs, a set of campaign stools, and the Roubo bench. All good things to be distracted by, but the pile of maple and boxes of books next to my desk aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve been looking foreward to building this project for ages. So now is a good time to get building.

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Chris Vesper is the ultimate arbiter of squareness in my workshop

When Megan teaches this project at the LAP store front it is a two day class, cutting joinery, assembling the bookcase, cleaning it up and getting acquainted with cut nails. That sounds like a good way to spend a few days. But that compressed timetable assumes the timber is dimensioned and ready for use (one of the major benefits of taking a class). Try as I might, I was unable to get maple in the 13″ widths needed for the project (the perils of using an American hardwood in the UK – I hear in the States 13″ wide maple liteally grows on trees). So before I can get to the joinery I’ve got five panels to glue up and flatten, less the panel I glued up in 2018. That’s a decent amount of work gluing and processing stock by hand. It’s a good job I enjoy using my hand planes.

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Marking panel thickness

As an easy start I have been processing the panel I glued up in 2018. The interesting thing about the process is not flattening the board – I’ve written about that process plenty of times before (a good soundtrack is advisable, and as I’ve been on an IRS-era R.E.M kick recently I’ve had Document playing quite a bit). No, what has been interesting is getting accustomed to different ways of working at the Roubo bench.

To traverse the board flat I’ve been holding it with a combination of planing stop and doe’s foot with holdfast. Rock solid work holding and simple to set up. For working along the grain, I abandoned all work holding that fixes the workpiece in one position, and worked into a batten held by the planing stop and holdfast. If you are accustomed to cinching work between bench dogs in a tailvise, this “loose” approach to workholding can be a leap of faith. But it works very nicely indeed, and an additional benefit is the increased amount of feedback from the tool and workpiece. You’ll soon learn if your plane is not sharp, because it’s harder to muscle a dull blade through the cut if the workpiece can slide out of the way. Similarly, the workpiece will tell you if you’re not applying pressure in the right places, or skewing the plane in the wrong direction, because the timber will slide from under the tool. Instead of being a hinderance this is really helpful, because if you learn from these cues then planing becomes more efficient, and you remember to sharpen more frequently. This learning curve with the bench has made a routine operation (flattening stock) a thought provoking and very beneficial experience. I’m sure the bench has more to teach me as we get acquainted.

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Planing into a batten, with the No62

The maple I’m using is beautiful stuff, but prone to areas of bad tearout. While I normally use my standard issue bevel-down bench planes for processing stock (No 5, 8 and 3, in that order) I’ve found myself reaching for the No62 bevel-up plane, which when sharpened to a 50 degree bevel tames even the most truculent grain with ease. So after traversing the grain with the No5 and a cambered blade, I’ve been working along the grain with the No62 to remove traversing marks and before finishing up with the No3 to achieve a final finish. The first panel is now ready for joinery, so I’ll be moving on to the next panel (and my first glue-up at the Roubo bench) shortly.

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Planing stop, holdfast and batten (I’m using an old fretboard blank)

 

The Autumn of Maple and Pine

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Here you had an “all assembly needed” flat pack book case and stick chair. TIme to turn that stack of maple into something useful.

Since the start of the year I’ve had the stock for my boarded bookcase stickered neatly at the side of my desk, underneath the timber for a Welsh stick chair.  The bookcase design (from The Anarchist’s Design Book) is one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, as it looks like a fun build and will liberate a lot of my history and woodwork books from the boxed purgatory they have suffered since we moved house. I decided to build the bookcase out of maple to match the Staked Work Table I finished in January.

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Removing a live edge from the maple seat

Unfortunately sourcing wide enough boards in the UK seems to be a challenge, so I’ve committed to gluing up a pair of boards for each of the sides and the three shelves in order to reach the 13″ width needed (a reason, perhaps, to move to Kentucky? I hear that such boards are in plentiful supply). If nothing else, this will give me plenty of practice with long edge joints, which is always good to have. The other project on the to-do list is a variation on the Policeman’s Boot Bench for our hall (in pine), which I promised Dr Moss I would finish before our annual Christmas Tree trimming in early December. I’ll be starting the boot bench in October, so I thought that I would use the remainder of September to build a steam box so that I could finish off the Apprentice’s Stick Chair, and also start gluing up the panels for the book case. . Although I don’t normally move between several simultaneous projects, I will be staggering the bookcase build in between stages of the boot bench and hopefully doing so will be a positive experience.

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A stick chair seat in the clamps

While I was thinking about working on several projects at once, and had the glue warming in a mug of hot water, I decided to joint up the seat blank for another child sized Welsh stick chair (and now I’m thinking that the autumn is looking very busy!). This chair will be all maple, and be a little different to the one I am building for the Apprentice. The 2″ thick maple seat was made up of two boards, and jointed very easily before going in the clamps to cure over night.

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Laying out the mortises for the

While I waited for the glue to cure I finished making the chair pattern I started a few weeks ago. While I’ve made plenty of guitar templates, it is not somthing I’ve done for furniture. For chairs it makes a lot of sense as there is a great deal of construction information to collate if you want to make another version of the same chair (and I do) – mortise positions, resultant angles, sight lines, seat dimensions and curves. I intend to use this pattern as an aide memoire rather than a concrete design to follow slavishly – this way all of the information I need is in one place, but I can still change the details and proportions as the whim takes me. The pattern is on 6mm ply, which means that it was easy to work but should be durable for years of use.

With the pattern complete and the seat blank clamped up, I decided to get a start on jointing the first side of the bookcase. I started off by levelling the rough sawn edges with a No62 plane that I’ve been testing for an article in Furniture & Cabinet Making. The No62 is shorter than I would like for a 48″ long edge joint, so I then moved to my usual No8 jointer. I quite enjoy edge jointing – the Staked Work Table build was good training for long edge joints, and I was looking forward to the practice of jointing five pairs of boards for the book case. Maple can be an unforgiving wood to edge joint – being very light in colour the glue line can be glaringly obvious unless you get a good tight joint off the plane, without relying on clamp pressure. The key (as with many woodwork operations) is patience.

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Jointing the first set of boards for the bookcase

Unfortunately, by the time I had a good clean joint the temperature had started to fall, and while the glue was good and warm in the pot (I warm Old Brown glue to the recommended 120-140F), it started to tack up while I was pulling the top board into position and setting the clamps. It was now 13C in the ‘shop, and I wasn’t confident that I would get a good bond with the temperature dropping so rapidly. Removing the clamps and washing the jellified glue off both halves of the joint wasn’t how I had intended to spend the late afternoon, but you only get one chance to nail a glue-up. With the joint cleaned and dried, I moved the clamps and timber into the house (which was mercifully warmer) and had a much less eventful glue-up in the kitchen. It is definitely getting to the time of year where any ‘shop glue-ups have to take place earlier in the day, or else in the house (another reason to move to Kentucky, perhaps?).

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll move my way through the stack of maple in the music room waiting to be glued up into panels for the bookcase, and will also progress the maple stick chair (as well as building a steam box and finishing the Apprentice’s Stick Chair. There’s a fair amount going on!). Juggling multiple projects will hopefully teach me a few valuable lessons, as well as watching various things take shape.

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The aborted glue-up in the workshop. just before I moved everything into the house to work at a temperature much kinder to hide glue

 

All Assembly Required

or: The Anarchist’s Office Suite, Phase 2

The staked desk was the first of three pieces for my office, and by the summer I will hopefully have completed the remaining two projects – a boarded book case and a staked chair, both from the Anarchist’s Design Book, and both in maple to match the desk.

Because my workshop is unheated, I tend to tee up projects a couple of months in advance of when I plan to start them – breaking stock down to rough dimension and then stickering it in the house to acclimatise until I’m ready to get building. Before I can work on the book case , I am writing (and building) a project article for Popular Woodworking, scheduled for the October issue later this year. But in the meantime, and before I started working on the piece for PopWood, I took some time to prepare the stock for the bookcase and chair.

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Breaking maple boards down with the Skelton Panel Saw

When marking rough timber to length I prefer a timber framer’s square, and a chunky carpenter’s pencil (my saw *ahem* addiction means that I have a healthy supply of the carpenter’s pencils Bad Axe include with each saw), while rip cuts are easily marked out with a chalk line. Although this is not tricky work, I tend to take it quite slowly so that I can look over the boards carefully and make cuts to avoid knots or other defects. Once the boards have been marked out, and triple checked that the lengths are correct (including an extra inch or so to allow for any end checking that may occur), onto the saw benches they go to be broken down. Sawing the stock is straight forward – my Disston D8 handles rip cuts while the Skelton Panel Saw cross cuts stock to length.

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Stock preparation tools – Skelton Panel Saw, timber framer’s square, and carpenter’s pencil

After breaking the boards down I left them in the workshop for a week or so before stickering them in the house. I find that this staged process of cutting to rough length and width, resting in the ‘shop, and then moving into a heated environment avoids shocking timber and so reduces drying related movement or checking. Once I’ve finished the project article for PopWood, it will be onto the book case, which will provide a home for the remainder of my books and research materials currently languishing in boxes on the floor. And finally, the chair. Slowly but surely, the office suite is coming together!

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In this pile of maple is a boarded bookcase, just waiting to be assembled.

Staked Work Table – in situ, in pictures

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A vintage compass (from 1904) sits on the corner of my desk. The lif of the compass is engraved with “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

As soon as a project is finished and installed, most of my attention tends to switch to the next build on my work bench. The staked desk is a little different, in that I’ve been sitting at it most evenings this week catching up on various items of work. And it has been wonderful to spend some quality time working at the desk – I’m sure this is a piece of furniture that will age well as I spent many hours, and years, working at it.

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A confluence of components – the top, batten, and leg all coming together.

One of my favourite post-completion stages is always taking detail shots of the completed piece. Gareth is booked for a photo session in April, so there will be new additions to the Portfolio section of OtW in the near future. But in the meantime here are some detail shots I took of the desk in situ.

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The finish on the top worked very well. Plenty of protection, and the figure is emphasised without becoming distracting.

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Maker’s mark on the left hand batten.

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Facets!

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More facets. This time one of the back legs.

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Left hand batten.

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This is my favourite detail – the leg tenon entering the batten. Just a little hint of the, compound angles, and lovely facets. I could look at this element of the desk all day.