Getting to Know… Jenny Bower

One the many benefits of the online maker community is that it has placed woodwork within a wide context of handcrafts, and forged a community comprised of craftspeople from across a broad range of disciplines. One such rising star of the craft community is Jenny Bower, a Michigan based engraver who is notable for her intricate and naturalistic hand engraving to locks and woodwork tools – a process she refers to as “unnecessary embellishment”. A couple of months ago I interviewed Jenny for a profile published in issue 256 of Furniture & Cabinet Making. What follows is the unabridged version of that interview.

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Jenny Bower

1. Where did your interest in engraving come from? How did you start engraving?

I actually started to admire hand engraving before I even knew what it was. My mother had a very old locket that was ornately hand engraved. I used to play with it and she eventually gave it to me. It is one of my most treasured possessions. I didn’t understand how it was engraved until I was an adult. My husband met a local man who specialized in hand engraving watches and firearms. He took me to his studio. I was very intrigued with his work and wanted to learn how to do it. He couldn’t take me on as a student but gave me a few pointers to get started. I ordered the tooling and began to practice on my own. It has been a trial and error way of learning for me. I am still learning.

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Engraved tape measure

2. Your work is particularly notable for the engraving you do on tools and locks. What is it about these pieces that attracts you?

Most engravers work on guns, watches, knives or jewelry. Though I admire the engraving on those types of objects, I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. I love old hand tools. I am drawn to them. They have so much character to them. Once I became an engraver, I started to see the metal on the old tools as a blank canvas. Locks have always seemed romantic to me. I imagine people locking up their secret treasures with them. However, most locks aren’t very pretty, they are just functional. I wanted to make them beautiful. I started referring to my work, using the hashtag #UnnecessaryEmbelishment on Instagram. What I do to tools and locks isn’t at all necessary but it adds a uniqueness to them. Sometimes it brings a forgotten tool back to the forefront. It makes an ordinary tool into something special. It makes an everyday item a keepsake.

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Engraved brass wear strip on a marking gauge by Farnsworth Guitars

3. Where does your inspiration for engraving come from? Are there other artists or crafts people who have influenced you or who you admire?

Nature, architecture, advertising fonts, hand painted signs, carvings… these are all things that inspire me. It might sound odd but I try to stay away from looking at the work of other engravers. I don’t want to be influenced by it or feel like I need to follow a certain path with engraving. I find myself to be more inspired by creative people in general. I find that passion for craft is contagious. I have many friends who create in completely different capacities than I do. Some of the people who have most inspired me are woodworkers, metal casters, metal fabricators, tool makers, people in the custom automotive industry, woodturners, a whole host of different people. When I am around people who are excited about their craft, I get even more excited about my own. What is wonderful is that as a result there have been opportunities for our crafts to merge into collaborative projects.

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Engraved padlock

4. As well as engraving you also do a lot of handlettering art, including the excellent recent decals in conjunction with Texas Heritage Woodworks. Do you view your drawn art as an extension of engraving or a separate craft? Do the two disciplines compliment each other?

My drawing and my engraving are completely intertwined. I engrave or draw every single day, without fail. The steady hand control that is required for engraving has helped develop my drawing and hand lettering. The sketches and lettering that I draw are often translated into my engraving. I never wanted to copy the traditional engraving designs. Some engravers engrave from templates, I wanted all of my work to be original. Unless I am asked to engrave a specific logo for a customer, or do something in a very particular font, I create the design. When I engrave a monogram in an old style, I make each monogram custom. I am inspired by old fonts but I create my own lettering. I want it to feel unique and unlike something they could get from anyone else.

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5. You have a big following on Instagram, a large part of which is from the woodworking community. Do you do any woodwork yourself? What do you think attracts woodworkers to your work as a metal engraving artist? What is the common ground?

The woodworking community on Instagram has been incredible. I dabble only a tiny bit in woodworking. I follow many woodworkers on social media. I find them to be a hard working group who are willing to encourage others and who are passionate about preserving traditional handcraft skills. I have a deep respect for people who work with their hands and create things with attention to detail, creating things that are built to last. These friends have inspired me to venture into the realm of woodworking. This year I was asked to engrave a monogrammed wax seal stamp for someone. It was important to me to be able to make the entire thing. I am fortunate to have several tools at my disposal as I am married to a horologist (a clockmaker). My husband works mostly with metal but has occasionally turned wood on some of our metal lathes. He gave me a piece of walnut and a few pointers. I studied the Instagram tutorials made by my woodturning friends and turned my first small handle. I posted the progress on my Instagram page and was cheered on by the woodworking community. In addition to that, several of them sent me boxes of turning blanks with notes of encouragement. I was completely overwhelmed by their generosity. I received gorgeous exotic woods and figured burls. I have since made a few more handles and plan to continue making them for all of my custom engraved stamps. My husband surprised me with my own small lathe and my dad gave me a set of turning tools that he had purchased 30 years ago and never used.

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Engraved ring

What attracts woodworkers to my work as an engraving artist? Initially, I think that my love for tools got me into the community. The mutual affection for hand tools was a starting point. Once I started showing my engraving work on tools, they became interested in my process and respected the fact that it was done by hand, not a computerized machine. I have since worked with woodworkers on many projects. I have engraved small hand planes, I have made tool box plaques, maker’s mark medallions for Mark Hicks’ (Plate 11 Woodworking) custom Roubo workbenches, wax seals of woodworker’s initials for them to use on their correspondence, engraved screw heads for Florip Tool Works‘ custom hand saws, engraved names and logos onto shaves made by Caleb James, engraved a marking gauge made by Farnsworth Guitars, as well as numerous pairs of calipers, chisel ferrules, levels, rulers and tape measures. My work is very personal to me. I put myself into the design, I think about the person I am creating the engraving for. It means a lot to me to know that my work is being treasured.

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Calliper engraving

6. What would be your dream commission be, or your dream tool to engrave?

For many years I refused to engrave on anyone’s personal item. Engraving by hand there is always a risk of a slip that could ruin a piece. It would absolutely devastate me to ruin something that was irreplaceable. I will take some commissions on personal items but I’m particular as to which ones. My dream commissions have been to work with people who I admire and respect. In all honesty, making things for my friends in the community of craftsmen and makers, brings me the most fulfillment. It has always been a goal to engrave all over one of my husband’s hand crafted clocks. He makes each component of his clocks by hand. He makes the screws, he machines the gears and then hand cuts all of the spokes and the plates… it takes months. I have engraved some components of his clocks, but he wants me to engrave very elaborate designs onto some of his future creations. I am looking forward to that. I know he crafts each piece with precision and care and I am honored to be able to collaborate with him.

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7. You recently wrote a very thought provoking submission for the “Perfect In 1000 words or less” series for the Daily Skepp. How did writing this piece cause you to reflect on your work and development as a craftsperson? Has it affected how you’ve approached your work since writing the piece?

I was very transparent and honest in the piece I wrote for the Daily Skep. Perfectionism has been a struggle for me since I was very small. Being able to talk about perfection openly in the essay helped me to face it head on. I heard from so many craftspeople after that article was posted. Many people identified with what I had to say and shared their stories with me. I realized it is a common bond that many craftsmen share. We strive to do our best and sometimes that can propel us forward into amazing things and sometimes it can be a weight around our ankles that holds us back out of a fear of failure. Since I wrote the piece, I’ve become much more daring in trying new things. This spring I would like to try blacksmithing. I am planning to sign up for a program locally. A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have even admitted out loud that I wanted to test the blacksmithing waters. I have no expectations of being stellar, I have no goals of being a blacksmith. However, I have an appetite for learning more about handcraft and other forms of metal work.

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8. What does 2017 have in store for you? Are there new projects or work on the horizon?

I have some collaborations coming with other craftsmen in 2017 that I am very excited about. I’m looking forward to finding new and unusual things to unnecessarily embellish. I am looking forward to attending the Handworks convention in Amana, IA and meet some of the people in the woodworking community who I have never met in person but already consider friends. We have bounced ideas off of each other through texts and emails, worked together on projects across the miles, and we have each other’s creations on our respective workbenches… It will feel like a reunion and I cannot wait to shake their hands, thank them for their inspiration and talk with them about their upcoming projects. I think it will also spark more ideas, more collaborations.

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Coarse, medium, and fine

The following is based on an article I originally wrote for issue 252 of Furniture & Cabinet Making Magazine.

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Have you selected your bench planes? In Curing Plane Addiction I made the case that you only need three bench planes, chosen on their function rather than the size number assigned to them; a smoothing plane, a jack or fore plane, and a jointer plane. For me, that set consists of a No.3 smoother, No.5 jack, and a No.8 jointer plane, although each maker will have their own preferences.

Having selected your trio of bench planes, the next question is how do you use them? Now, hand planes are incredibly versatile tools and a complete guide on all that can be achieved with them is would be ambitious for a book, let alone a single article. So here I will focus on the fundamental principles of using hand planes, which can be summed up as coarse, medium, and fine.

Some historical guidance

The same historic woodworkers and writers that helped narrow down the choice for a set of bench planes in my previous article also had plenty to say about how to use them, especially Joseph Moxon – the author of Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works (1703, and re-printed by Lost Art Press 2013). Moxon gives two tips for planing work, which despite being incredibly useful, often get overlooked: always use the coarsest tool possible for most of the work, and traverse boards. I will come back to traversing later on, but for now let’s think about Moxon’s first tip.

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Full width shavings from a jointer plane tell you that the work is flat

Moxon helpfully explains that the jack, or fore, plane is the first plane to touch the work, and that the purpose of this plane is to prepare the work piece for smoothing or jointing with the other bench planes. The focus when using the jack is therefore to remove the worst of any saw mill marks and other irregularities, and to quickly remove material when bringing stock down to thickness. For Moxon the other important aspect of this is that it is not necessary to use all three planes in sequence on every element of a project. He also indicates that moving straight from the jack to the smoothing is perfectly acceptable when the component needs to be smooth but not perfectly flat. Similarly, if an element of a build needs to be flat but not smoothed (because for instance, it is not going to be seen once the build is finished) then stop work after jointing, and don’t move to the smoothing plane.

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From left to right, the thick shaving from a traversing cut with a jack plane, a full width thin shaving from a jointer plane, and the wispy shaving of a smoothing plane.

But what are the benefits in working this way? Well, an efficient workflow is essential in all workshops, and a large part of efficiency is using the right tool for the job. This can sometimes be forgotten in the pursuit of those beautiful gossamer thin smoothing plane shavings. You can flatten a board with only a smoothing plane, but it would take an awfully long time. Instead use the jack to get most of the way there, and then reach for the jointer for the final truing of the work. The smoothing plane is then only needed for a couple of passes on show surfaces.

Processing stock by hand

Although seemingly quite a basic task, processing rough sawn stock by hand is an excellent opportunity to learn, and practise, your key hand plane skills. I recently built a pair of saw benches out of The Anarchist’s Design Book (2016, Lost Art Press), and this seemed like the perfect moment to re-visit Moxon and those all-important hand plane fundamentals.

Removing Twist and Cupping

Before you first reach for your plane it is necessary to check the work piece for cupping and twist. Cupping can easily be checked by holding a straight edge across the width, while twist can be checked first by placing a straight edge diagonally from corner to corner, and by using winding sticks. The top of my saw benches was fortunately free from twist, but had become severely cupped.

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The yellow poplar for my saw bench top was free of twist, but was significantly cupped

Planing work that rocks or moves about is frustrating and time consuming, so with cupped boards I tend to work the domed side first, as the cupped side will rest securely on the workbench. If you are dealing with a twisted board, then address this before tackling the cupping. Work the two high corners until they are level with the two lowest corners, by working diagonally across the board with the jack plane, from the low spots to the high corners. Once the problem corners are level with the rest of the board join them up by working both along the grain and diagonally corner to corner.

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Work the peak of the dome by working along the grain with your jack plane

Different techniques are needed for each side of a cupped board, and for the domed face you are essentially forced into working along the length of the board – it is all too easy to plane a convex curve into the work piece when working across the grain of a domed board. A jack plane set to a heavy cut will remove the worst of the dome by planing the peak of the dome along the length of the board. As the dome is reduced, work an increasingly wide section of the board, until the board is close to flat. Now is the time to move to the jointer, working along the length of the board until that face is flattened – full width shavings off a jointer plane will tell you when your work piece is flat. Depending on the project now might be the time to introduce the smoothing plane to the work piece, although for casework I tend to wait until the carcase has been assembled before smoothing.

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Chamfer the far edge of the work with your block plane to avoid spelching when using a traversing cut

With one face of the work piece flattened you can now work the cupped face. First, take your block plane and chamfer the far edge of the board – a few swipes should do it. Now you are ready to traverse the grain as suggested by Moxon. Starting at one end of the board plane across the width of the work piece and perpendicular to the grain, using a jack plane with a cambered blade, taking overlapping cuts until you reach the opposite end of the board. The chamfer left by the block plane will stop spelching, and as the jack plane removes the chamfer a few swipes with the block plane will renew it. Traversing the work piece in this way will remove the cupping while leaving the low middle of the board untouched, and because wood is relatively weak across its grain you can take deeper cuts than would be possible when working along the grain. Don’t worry that the surface is a little woolly; this will be removed by the subsequent planes. Just keep traversing and checking the progress with a straight edge – I tend to use the sole of the plane as this is plenty straight enough for this type of work, and is already to hand. Once your jack plane starts to remove material from the very middle of the board you know that the cupping has been removed. If the work piece is at the correct thickness then you can move directly to the jointer or smoothing plane depending on whether you need a perfectly flat, or smooth, surface.

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Traversing with a jack plane quickly flattens a cupped board

Thicknessing

In all likelihood, having removed any twist and cupping the work piece may need further planing to bring it down to the correct thickness. For this, you can exploit wood’s weakness to working across the grain, while adopting a technique that is a little less aggressive than traversing. As always, start with the jack plane. This time, work diagonally across the board, planing at 45 degrees to the grain, from one corner to the opposite corner. Then change direction and work back towards the original corner. One direction will leave a cleaner surface than the other, but do not worry about tear out or leaving a woolly surface at this point – the focus is on getting close to the finished thickness and on removing as much material as possible in a quick and controlled manner. As you creep up on the final thickness you can move to the jointer plane, working diagonally to start with, before finishing with shavings taken along the grain to clean up the surface. Once final thickness has been reached, you can break out the smoothing plane if necessary.

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By working diagonally across the grain you can remove very thick shavings with minimal effort, perfect when there is a lot of material to remove.

Conclusion

Processing rough sawn stock by hand is an excellent way to develop fundamental hand plane skills. It may seem that this article has been a guide on how to use your jack plane rather than all three essential bench planes, but really that is because a jack plane should spend more time on your bench than either of the other two. In my workshop the smoothing plane sees the least use of all my bench planes, not because I don’t smooth my work, but because I make my jack plane do all of the heavy lifting, with the jointer and smoother just finishing up the work. Even if you decide to rely more heavily on your jointer and smoother planes, knowing when to use them is essential to an efficient workflow. Similarly, although it may seem counter-intuitive to plane across rather than along the grain, this technique saves an extraordinary amount of time and has been used by craftsmen for centuries.

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The distinctive feathery edged shavings from a heavy traversing cut

Moving forwards in reverse: 2016 in review

Somehow it is January yet again. I’m not sure where 2016 went – the past 12 months have disappeared in a blur, and it seems like only yesterday that I was writing my 2015 round up. Every year goes by quicker than the last, and fatherhood has only accelerated that feeling. I’m a lot less sleep deprived than I was 12 months ago (the Apprentice has now been sleeping through the night since August) which definitely makes reflecting on the past year a whole lot easier.

First off, let’s get the important stuff out of the way. No year is complete without a mix cd of the best new songs, and a list of top 5 albums, so here are my top picks (in order):

  1. Real – Lydia Loveless
  2. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
  3. Case/Lang/Viers – Neko Case, KD Lang, Laura Viers
  4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
  5. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & The Badseeds

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The finished pair of saw benches

A year at the workbench

Although I didn’t set out last January to have any kind of theme to my woodworking, looking back it feels very much like 2016 was a year of doubling down on fundamental techniques, and embedding a solid handcraft practice to my work. So I built two Packing Boxes and a School Box from The Joiner & Cabinet Maker (only the chest of drawers to go now!) and a pair of staked saw benches from The Anarchist’s Design Book, as well as  Moxon vise. Little did I know how important staked chairmaking was going to become when I settled on that particular saw bench design.

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There wasn’t much in the way of lutherie last year – the parlour guitar was put to one side so that I could start the Mysterycaster commission, and also so that I could work on the furniture projects.I will return to the parlour guitar, and the Mystercaster is a priority for 2017. But lack of lutherie aside, I’m really pleased with the selection of projects I worked on over the past 12 months – I am definitely feeling the benefit of spending much of the past year focusing on those all important fundamental skills (although there is always more to learn, and more practice to have). An epic build like an acoustic guitar can be very rewarding, but there is something very satisfying about working through projects that take a shorter period of time. Maintaining a balance of short projects and longer-term builds is something I’m going to try and do going forwards.

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I didn’t manage to get to any classes in 2016, but I did take a trip to Forge de Saint Juery, which was a wonderful experience and one that I highly recommend. After nearly two years of discussion and design between myself, Mark Harrell, and Susan Chilcott, the Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw was finally unveiled, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed testing one of the first production models at my workbench.

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The Bad Axe luthier’s saw – being involved in the design process for this has been a wonderful experience

In terms of writing, Over the Wireless more than doubled readership from 2015, and I was grateful to feature interviews on the blog with some really important members of the woodwork community, including Joshua Klein, James McConnell, Brian Clites, and Kerryn Carter. I was also honoured to write the inaugural post for the “Perfect in 1000 words” for the Daily Skep (thanks Jim!). Furniture & Cabinet Making published nine of my articles last year, including the Dancing About Architecture series, which are two of my favourite pieces of writing to date. The June edition of Popular Woodworking  also carried my feature on Karl Holtey, which was a real thrill. But the big writing development of 2016 still has to be the Life and Work of John Brown. This is a hugely important project and one that I am entirely humbled to be part of.

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So 2016 was quite eventful, although I’m quite sure that by many people’s standards that would rather quiet (and in no way do I want this round-up to appear self congratulatory).

…and the next 12 months

And now for 2017 (which  to be perfectly honest still sounds like the future to me). What does the next 12 months have in store? Well the main focus of my attention for much of the next two years will be on the Life and Work of John Brown – there is a great deal of research to do, many interviews to be undertaken, not to mention chairs to be built. But it is going to be great fun, and I’ll be posting as much as I can on Over the Wireless throughout the process. I’ve also got a number of articles slated for Furniture & Cabinet Making, and which I’ll be announcing in due course.

But what about the next 12 months at the workbench? Well, I’m going to be brave and nail my colours to the mast right now. The projects which I’ve got lined up for 2017 are as follows:

  1. The Police Man’s Boot Bench – a furniture commission I actually started today (new year, new build. It seemed appropriate);
  2. Staked Work Table from the Anarchist’s Design Book; and
  3. The Mysterycaster.

So now, if I don’t manage to complete those builds this year, you dear reader, have a full licence to tell me to get my act together.

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Finally, after a year of no courses or shows, I’m looking forward to travelling a little more and connecting with the wider woodwork community. So I’ll be at Handworks in Iowa this May, and then at the European Woodwork Show at Cressing Temple in September. Over the past two years woodwork has been defined for me by the community, and I can’t wait to see many good friends and readers at both events.

So, Happy New Year. And thank you to everyone who has read a blog post or magazine article, or commented on a photo on Instagram. This community is so important to what I do, and the past 12 months would not have been half as rewarding without you good people.

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Hopefully 2017 will involve more father-daughter trips to the timber yard

 

The Apprentice knows her saws

Issue 253 of Furniture & Cabinet Making is now in print. The final issue of the year includes my review of the new Panel Saw by Skelton Saws, which was inspired by the Kenyon saws from the Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton. Also in this months issue is Anne Briggs’ account of Woodwork in America, and Glenn Rundell’s experience at The Windsor Workshop.
As you can see, the Apprentice is thoroughly enjoying my copy.