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.

The search for “shelf awareness”

There are many ways to carry out any woodwork task, plenty of which will be effective for different types of woodworker or with different tools. It’s why I’ve never understood makers who get too dogmatic about process. Yes, be dogmatic when it comes to quality (quality always matters) but cutting your dovetails one way with certain tools (for instance) doesn’t mean it is the only way to do it. And sometimes, trying a different approach can help to improve understanding of technique or tools, or can simply get you out of a rut. Learning opportunities abound if you are open to them, and they are nearly always useful.

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If in doubt, sharpen. If you don’t feel any doubt, sharpen anyway.

The next stage of the bookcase build was to joint and glue up panels for the three shelves. The shelves will be 12 1/2″ wide, and I’m using two boards for each shelf, one 9″ wide and the other (currently) 6″ wide. The excess will be ripped off once the shelf is glued up and the show-face planed. In the past I’ve jointed each board separately and then bought them together to test the fit and identify where any gaps arise. That’s a solid approach, and worked very well on the staked desk build. One challenge is that balancing a No8 jointer on 1″ wide stock can tempt the plane to tilt, which throws out the edge. I was chatting to my good buddy Jim McConnell about what we had on our bench and he explained that he often gangs both sides of the joint together and works it as one process. The idea being that providing the joint is straight and tight, any variations in angle across the joint will be cancelled out when the two halves are introduced to each other. A further benefit is that the work surface is doubled, providing a greater bearing surface for the plane, which reduces any tipping.

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A quick grip clamp holds the two boards together for jointing

This all makes sense, and I thought that trying a different approach would be good. The iron in my jointer is normally honed with a gentle camber to avoid leaving plane tracks when jointing the face side of workpieces. The camber also helps to correct edges when they are out of square (don’t touch the adjuster on the plane, just move the plane so that the proud side of the iron is cutting the high spots), but a camber won’t help when you are looking to cut dead flat across two halves of the joint simultaneously. Instead of grinding out that camber and having to reinstate it once the shelves were glued up, I ordered a spare iron and once it arrived got to jointing the boards.

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Whispy maple shavings, and a full view of the work holding arrangement

Lining up two workpieces in a leg vise can be a bit of a chore, but having one board narrower than the other became very helpful in this instance. The narrow board sat on the bench top, while the wider board was placed in the leg vise so that the top edges of both boards were coplanar. A quick release clamp at each end held both boards tight against each other, and the result was a quick and easy set up, with both boards stable ready for working. Trying out any technique for the first time involves some learning, but Jim’s method works very nicely and I had two shelves jointed and glued up quite quickly. The prospect of glue lines showing is always a risk with maple due to the marked contrast between the light timber and dark brown hide glue, and the key to avoiding them is getting a good tight joint. I tested these joints back and front with a 0.05mm feeler gauge while under gentle clamping pressure, and couldn’t gain any purchase with the feeler gauge. So they should hopefully pass muster once cleaned up. Normally I don’t use feeler gauges for furniture making – that particular torture is saved for lutherie, but for these joints I wanted assurance that they were good and tight. Now to wait for the glue to cure and the clamps to come off.

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Two shelves glued up, one more to go

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

What this bench was made for

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Traversing large boards has never been so enjoyable as it is on the Roubo bench

I’m finding my rhythm with the boarded bookcase project, and enjoying the process. In particular, it is fascinating testing the capabilities and functionality of the Roubo bench as I work.

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Holdfasts and track saw – combining technologies across centuries for an efficient workflow

This week I’ve been processing yet more maple, which involved working on several faces of the board. As a test, I also decided to see how the bench fared with a hybrid woodworking approach. After all, the design arose at a time when woodworkers were using hand tools exclusively hand tool, but how does it function when power tools are introduced into the mix? I don’t use power tools all that much, but I do have a few which I find useful to keep around, including a Festool tracksaw. Ordinarily I prefer to reach for my Disston D8 when ripping stock, but as a test I set up the tracksaw to rip one edge of the maple panel straight before planing it. Getting a rock solid set up was much easier on the Roubo than my old Sjoberg, and the two Crucible holdfasts held the workpiece in place with the edge to be cut hanging off the edge of the bench. This set up was quick to set up, stable, safe, and allowed for easy operation of the tracksaw – a win by any reckoning. I’m sure that holding workpieces for work with the Festool Domino (which I find indispensible for shop jigs and some other work ) and the router (which I honestly try to use as infrequently as possible) will be as straightforward and dependable. So the Roubo seems to be a solid choice for the hybrid woodworker as much as hand tool purists.

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Making the width of the board with the panel gauge – working into the planing stop holds the workpiece steady

The planing stop is also very versatile. While the main function is to hold workpieces in place while planing, I have found it is also very useful for steadying the work while using marking gauges to strike lines. Today I made use of the planing stop for this purpose with the workpiece in two orientations – firstly striking the width of the panel using the Hamilton Toolworks panel gauge, then to gauge the thickness of the panel, with the workpiece stood on it’s side, supported with a does’ foot at the back end. This is much quicker than securing the workpiece in the leg vise. Less time fixing the workpiece in place means a smoother and more efficient work flow.

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I don’t use this sweet Krenov style block plane by my buddy Jim McConnell as often as I should – here I’m bevelling the far side of the board to avoid spelching when taking a traversing cut

I was also struck by how much the Roubo bench offers a solid working experience when traversing the maple board with my No5 jack plane. While this is a very standard technique in my work, I never got the work holding on my old Sjoberg bench to co-operate when taking heavy traversing cuts – the tail vise just wasn’t up to holding workpieces for traversing, and after a few strokes the work would start to wriggle across the benchtop. Which was both frustrating and an impediment to steady work. In contrast, a single holdfast and the planing stop was enough to secure the 47″ x 13″ maple panel in place for an extended session of traversing with no movement whatsoever despite taking a heavy cut. This is what this bench was made for, and it excels as a planing bench.

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Traversing removes the bulk of the waste efficiently, and leaves a wonderful texture. If this were the underside of a shelf I’d leave that texture and call it done, but as this is the side of the bookcase I’ll dress the surface with a smoothing plane for a clean and smooth surface.

I’ve almost finished working the two sides of the bookcase, following which I’ll have an opportunity to see how the bench performs for cutting joinery. I fully expect there is nothing I can throw at this bench which it cannot handle.

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)