A (dove) Tale of Two Battens

One of the unexpected, but really rewarding, elements of the staked worktable build is the different senses of scale across components in the project – moving between the large surface area (and edge joints) of the table top, the battens, octagonal legs, and finally drawer parts. Today I prepared the two battens that hold the table-top flat and accept the tenons for the legs. After edge jointing 53″ long boards for the top, working on two pieces no more than 25″ long felt quite dainty, and was certainly a fun change of scale.

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Squaring up the battens before laying out the angled sides

The two battens are an easy stage of the build, but they still involve some points of interest. The battens are trapezoid (or possibly dovetailed) in cross section, which I approached in two stages. Firstly I planed the long edges flat and square to the reference face, to ensure that I had accurate edges for layout. The move from 53″ long edges to much shorter pieces definitely had an impact in terms of how quickly the battens were squared up, and it is a helpful reminder that working on different sized pieces is key to improving that core skill set.

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The 4″ Vesper bevel is the Rolls Royce of bevels, and perfect for this sort of precise layout.

Once the battens were square on all four sides, I then laid out the angled sides. The Vesper 4″ bevel is wonderful for work lik, as it is exactly the right size to balance on components where a larger bevel would be too much of a handful. I struck the angle onto the end grain of both battens with a sharp making knife, before laying out the bevel on the face of the battens. It’s not really advisable to use a marking gauge or knife when laying out the lines of a bevel or chamfer on the face of the workpice, because the kerf left by the blade will remain below the surface of the chamfer (and Charles Hayward had some strong things to say about that). Instead, a pencil line is safer to work to, even though it is generally a less accurate method of marking work than a fine knife kerf. Until this week a pencil based marking gauge was one of the key omissions in my tool chest. Fortuitously, I saw good friend and tool maker Bern Billsberry on Friday, and quite unexpectedly he gifted me with a beautiful cam-lock pencil gauge from his latest batch. This was perfect for laying out the rest of the dimensions for the angled sides of the battens. I set the gauge to the knifed lines on the end grain of the battens, and used that setting to mark the edge of the chamfer on the face. The gauge locked solidly and left a good clean pencil line to work to.

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An unexpected gift this week turned out to be exactly the tool I needed. A cam-lock markng gauge by my good friend Bern Billsberry.

With all the layout done, I held battens into the vise and planed the edges to the correct angle using my No.8 jointer plane. Angling the plane removed the bulk of the corner, and then it was a case of adjusting the angle at which I was holding the plane to achieve a surface that was parallel with the line on each end of the batten, removing the waste until I hit the line on the face of the workpiece and those on each end. Again, the small bevel made it easy to check that a consistent angle had been achieved along the length of the workpiece, without needing to remove the batten from the vise. I also used a straight edge to make sure that the chamfered edge was straight and without any bumps or hollows. All in all, the four edges took little over an hour to plane from square, so this was a swift but very satisfying operation. It’s been a hell of a week for various reasons, and getting back to my workbench always helps to re-centre me. All of the extraneous pressures and concerns melt away as soon as the first shaving comes up through my plane.

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The two finished battens – angled and ready for the mortices to be drilled. On the lower batten you can just about see some alternative angles I marked on the end before making my mind up.

Next week I’ll be working on the legs, which if I’m totally honest are one of the reasons I chose this design. Also it means I’ll be taking a dive into the world of lathe work and turning.

This just tops it all

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Choosing the best layout for the top

If I’m being perfectly honest, I was a little apprehensive about jointing the boards for the top. At 53″ long this is the longest edge joint I’ve prepared to date, and although an edge joint is one of those simple techniques that every handtool woodworker picks up early on (and one which I’m very comfortable with), the additional length of this joint does increase the difficulty level a little. As the top joints will be visible every time I sit at my desk, I knew I would be haunted by any gaps or poor joints, and the only way to avoid this endless torture would be to work good joints first time round. As I keep saying on this blog, there is no such thing as a “trick” in woodwork – just fundamental techniques practised well and attentively. I should have remembered those words instead of worrying about the difficulty of the joints, because once I was actually at my workbench the process went smoothly and achieving gap free joints was very straight forward. Having confidence in the techniques and following them, is often the perfect antidote to being overawed by the task at hand. But let’s back up a bit and talk about the actual process…

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The straight edge shows that the rough edge of this board surves significantly. Stopped cuts will remove the high spots and then the full length can be worked

There are two significant visual features of this desk – the first is the facets and edges that punctuate the silhouette of the desk, and the second is the grain of the top. Placing the three boards in the most attractive combination is therefore critical to creating a pleasing final piece. One of the boards had some lovely subtle quilting, while the other two were much plainer. I decided to place the figured board in the middle, sandwiched between the two plain boards, and this was more attractive (to my eye at least) than a figured board on one side and the two plain boards grouped together.

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One joint down, onto the next!

When orientating the boards I also thought about the stability of the top, and mitigating seasonal wood movement – particularly whether the heart side and bark side of the boards should be alternated, or whether it was safe to position all three boards with the heart side facing the same way. My go to source when thinking about wood movement is always With the Grain, which provided some helpful tips but no definite answers. Ultimately, the most attractive orientation was for the boards to be placed bark-side up, with the grain running in the same direction. This will make final clean-up of the table top easy as the whole surface area can be planed in the same direction, and as the battens will restrict wood movement I think this orientation should work just fine. With the position and orientation of the boards decided upon, I struck lines across the edges of each board to help identify which edge paired with which.

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A small block plane can help fine tune localised areas of the joint

The final task before I started jointing the boards was to sharpen my No.8 plane. Yes sharpening is boring, but to get a really clean and precise edge joint, especially in material as hard as maple, needs a sharp iron. I also find preparatory sharpening such as this to be very useful for mentally preparing for the work ahead.

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Chris Vesper tells me that for edge checking the blade of the square should be placed against the face of the work for a greater reference surface, and the stock used to check the edge.

When planing an edge joint I first check the board with a straight edge to see if there are any obvious humps or hollows, and also to hold the two edges against each other. These tests quickly identify if there are any trouble spots, and as a result help me to dial in a straight and square edge faster than if I were working blind. The first edge I started working had a significant fall-off at one end, and so I took stopped cuts along the high spot, slowly lengthing out the plane strokes until I had worked the highspot down to the same level as the low corner. Once the edge was on a consistent level (although not perfectly straight of square), I set a fine cut on the plane and started to plane the joint proper. Whenever I plane edge joints I find it helpful to think of planing a concave curve into the workpiece – the long sole of the No.8 prevents this from happening, but aiming for it ensures that pressure is applied correctly and you do not end up with a convex curved edge (which is what a plane naturally wants to do). So, at the start of the cut the pressure is entirely on the toe of the plane, for the middle of the cut the pressure is evenly spready between the toe and heel of the plane, and at the end of the cut the pressure is entirely at the heel of the plane.

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Marking off the final width using the Hamilton Tools panel guage

Only once the first edge is square and true do I move on to the matting edge, using exactly the same process. Once both edges are jointed, the next task is to set them together and check for any gaps at both the front and back of the joint. If the joint is gap free without needing clamps, then it is good to go. All three boards were over width, and so before gluing up the first assembly I used my panel gauge to mark the final width of the two boards, and ripped the excess with the Disston D8, leaving 1/8″ waste still on the boards to allow for some final clean-up. The excess material ripped off the boards will provide the spindles of the matching staked chair, meaning that the entirety of the chair can now be made from scraps of the table timber!

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Ripping the excess with the Disston D8 and staked saw benches

I worked the top in two stages – jointing and gluing the first pair of boards, and then jointing and gluing the third board to the larger panel. Hide glue was used for both joints, and the top is now back in the study ready to be squared and cleaned up. I’m going to leave any further work on the top until after the legs and battens are complete, as there may yet be a spot of seasonal movement in the top, especially after a big glue-up, and I don’t want to remove any more materaial than I have to. One flattening just before the joinery is cut will be enough to get the top ship shape.

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The complete top, glued up and curing.

Crown and Glory

Because I don’t work with pre-dimensioned timber, it always takes a while when working on a new build to get to the point of actually doing any joinery or reaching for the glue bottle. There is always a goodly amount of time spent on stock preparation. After a bit of a slow start on this build, all of the stock for the desk is now processed and lying in stick ready to be used.

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I’ve written before about the benefits of traversing in order to flatten and thickness stock, but I’ve not spent much time talking about how to deal with the crowned side of a board. Which I think is an oversight for two reasons. Firstly, traversing is dead easy providing you can sharpen a plane and resist the urge to tilt it down as you exit the cut. Secondly, traversing the cupped face of a board before you have flattened the crowned face is a recipe for stock that wobbles and tilts under the weight of the plane, which definitely makes flattening more difficult. Because the cupped face generally provides a stable surface on the workbench, I normally flatten the crowned face before moving on to traversing the cupped face. So why not talk about flattening the crowned face?

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Winding sticks show that the crown is twisted – see the difference in height between the left hand end of the far winding stick and the corresponding end of the near winding stick

In my defence, I don’t think I have come across a detailed description of flattening the crowned face of a board (most books will say something similar to “plane the peak with the grain until it is level with the sides” without giving much more detail, which is technically accurate but misses some of the nuance) so I’m not alone in neglecting this subject. I was reminded of this as I flattened the three 9″ wide and 54″ long maple boards that will make the top of my staked work table, all of which had a decent amount of cupping from their time drying at the tinber yard. And so I thought this would be a good opportunity to shed some light on an essential, but often overlooked, element of flattening timber.

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The sole of my jack plane is plenty accurate as a straight edge for this sort of work.

Before I start planing any board, I first check for twist using winding sticks. Now, I really wish I had a beautiful pair of winding sticks by my friend Dan Schwank (and one day I will add these to my tool chest, because Dan’s work is impeccable). But in the meantime, a pair of 36″ long aluminium corner pieces works just fine. On this board the winding sticks showed that the extent of the crown was inconsistent across the length of the board, but this is easily planed out when removing the crown. For heavy stock removal like this I use the sole of my plane as a straight edge – it is always at hand, and is plenty accurate when judging where to take the next heavy cut from. My Starrett straight edge stays in the tool chest until I’m checking finer work.

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Take a good heavy cut, and don’t worry about tearout or woolly texture – that will all be smothed out later.

All of the crown is removed with a jack plane fitted with a cambered iron, set for as heavy cut as I can comfortably take. A heavy cut removes more material, and gets the job done quicker, but there’s no point exhausting yourself by trying to take superhuman-thick shavings! Start off by planing the very peak of the crown, along the grain, focusing on the highest areas of the length of the board, and then working the peak of the crown across the full length of the board.

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The peak has been knocked off, so next I work the high points to either side, followed by the middle again.

When the plane bottoms out in the cut, I check the crown with the sole of the plane. What you expect to see is a small hollow where the peak of the crown was, and a new peak to either side of the hollow. I plane the new peaks out, and then work the mid-point (where the original peak was) to ensure that I’m not planing a new crown into the board. Skewing the plane a little helps the toe and heel of the plane ride on the two new peaks, and when you bottom out in the cut you know it is time to work the new peaks again. I try to take an equal number of shavings from each of the new peaks, check my progress with the sole of the plane, and then work the middle.

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The high points are moving well towards the edges of the board, so I’m getting close to flat. Plane off the highpoints, work the middle, and check again. Repeat.

And then repeat. Many times. What you find is that as the middle of the board gets lower, the two high points move further apart towards the edge of the board. When the high points are on the very edges of the board, the board effectively has a very slight hollow. Check with the winding sticks to make sure that the board is free of twist, and then lightly traverse it until it is flat. All of this is done with the jack plane, and only after that light traversing do I reach for a different plane.

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The winding sticks say this board is now free of twist. Now to finish flattening this face

I’m trying to learn from Joseph Moxon, and allowing the purpose of the timber to determine which plane I reach for – does the workpiece need to be dead flat but not super smooth, dead smooth but not necessarily cricket-wicket flat, or both deadnuts flat and super smooth? The tyranny of assuming everything needs to be perfectly flat and smooth can be hard to shake, but thanks to Mortise and Tenon, and Moxon I’m making progress in my rehabilitation. For the top boards for the staked worktable, I reached for the No.8 jointer once the crowned face was flattened with the jack, as I need the boards to be flat before they are jointed and glued, but won’t be smoothing them until the table top is glued-up. And so my No.3 stayed in the tool chest for this session.

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The No.5 is the perfect plane for this sort of work. Long enough to keep planing true, but light enough to not tire you out.

With the stock for the table all processed, my next task will be to joint and glue up the boards for the top, after which I can start work on shaping the battens and legs.

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All the stock for the staked table is now processed and ready to be made into something useful

The Anarchist’s Office Suite?

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Nearly every project seems to start with my Vesper 10″ square and a pair of dividers

Once the Policeman’s Boot Bench was collected by the client I turned my attention to my next project – a staked worktable from The Anarchist’s Design Book. The maple had been sitting in stick at the end of my study (which is where the completed desk will stand) since April, and I’ve been looking forward to getting stuck into this project. As well as the desk I need an extra bookcase to house my library of woodwork and history texts, and so next year I am planning to build the boarded bookcase from The Anarchist’s Design Book, in maple to match the desk. Of course, a desk is no use without a chair to sit on, and I had originally planned to buy a generic office chair. Then, as I was tidying up the workshop at the end of the Policeman’s Boot Bench build, I looked over my timber stock and realised that I had enough surplus maple for a staked chair (also out of The Anarchist’s Design Book). So my plan is now to build a matching office set of desk, chair, and bookcase. Because it is good to have both a plan and a set of durable, stylish office furniture.

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Bringing the rough stock down to square for the legs

Due to various committments I’ve not generated much momentum or rhythm on this build yet, but the stock for the desk legs and battens is now processed, ready and waiting to be shaped and for the joinery to be cut, and today I have started to tackle the three boards that make up the desk top. This is all very much as I’ve written about before – flattening rough boards with a No.5 jack plane followed by a No.8 jointer. Because the legs and battens are structural components I processed them in two stages to ensure they would not move once at final dimension. The first stage involved flattening one face and one edge of each piece, and taking the opposite edge and face down until they were 1/’8 shy of final dimension. I then left the stock for another week to rest before taking to final dimensions. Because the stock had been stickered for 4 months, and the humidity in my study is reasonably consistent, the pieces didn’t move whatsoever. I then took them to final dimension.

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I love the change in texture from rough boards to a glassy-smooth planed surface

There are a lot of aspects of this project I am looking forward to. In addition to having a sturdy desk to work at (my first proper workspace in 5 years – no more writing from my arm chair) the desk will involve a number of new skills and techniques which I am looking forward to getting to grips with – half-blind dovetails for the drawer, turning the tenons, and the longest edge joint I’ve done to date (two 52″ long joints for the top). Then there are the finishing options – traditional soap, Osmo, or shellac and hardwax? And of course, a return to octagonalisation, with some big tapered octagons for the legs.

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Heavy cut from the No.5 jack plane.

Building the chair alongside the desk will be an interesting experience – as the chair requires many of the same techniques, but on a much smaller scale. So as well as practical projects these should offer plenty of valuable learning opportunities.

A print exclusive


Issue 262 of Furniture & Cabinet Making is now on sale, and as well as an excellent article by Mark Harrell on selecting your nest of saws, and more tricks of the trade by Ramon Valdez, my review of the new Combination Plane by Veritas is included. Unveiled at Handworks this year, the plane was not officially announced by Veritas until 15 of August, and I believe that the review in F&C 262 is the first UK print review of this new plane. 

The Policeman’s Commission

My workshop has felt very empty since the Policeman’s Boot Bench was collected by the client a couple of weeks ago. I was delighted when the client sent me a photo of the Boot Bench in situ, and even more so when he very kindly sent the following (unsolicited) testimonial with the suggestion that I post it on the blog. Long standing readers have had plenty of discussion this year about the Boot Bench from my perspective – now it is time to hear about it from a different vantage point.

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As the (now ex-)policeman alluded to in many blog posts on Over The Wireless, I felt bound to exercise my Internet-given right of reply about the build. For anyone thinking of using a craftsman for a specific piece of work, I hope this provides some insight into the experience.

As the client, the process has been fascinating, and unexpectedly gratifying. I came to commission this build basically because the furniture market wasn’t giving me what I wanted. Two years ago I bought my own house in a slightly shabby part of the East End of London. I have been doing it up ever since. It’s a Victorian terrace with a long, narrow hallway – an awkward space for storing shoes. For whatever reason, the British furniture market does not do shoe storage very well. You either get horrid IKEA plastic trays for the wall, a monstrous church pew/bookcase hybrid from a ‘posh’ (read: overpriced) retailer, or a flimsy Argos open-frame that achieves an anti-TARDIS effect: taking up egregious amounts of space whilst storing very few shoes. With no good options, I mulled for some months. Then whilst griping to Kieran about the perennial First World problem of unsatisfactory shoe rack choices at his daughter’s first birthday last year, I realised with a start that I was chatting away with a skilled amateur furniture maker.

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I floated the idea of the build, and a commission was rapidly and enthusiastically agreed. The process was pretty simple. I had in mind, after many months of internet scouring, a rough vision of what I wanted. During September I drew up detailed sketches of front, side and base, including proposed dimensions, and passed them to Kieran. He responded with a request for photos and measurements of the space in which the piece would sit, to help in judging dimensions, materials and finishes – in particular as the boot bench would sit next to a radiator. He then suggested some fairly mild adjustments: less dainty feet, deepening the dimensions to accommodate bigger shoes (such as his own), a shift in style from country kitchen to Arts & Crafts, and the addition of a back panel to protect my hallway wall from scuffs. I was generally satisfied, but asked that the feet lift (to expose my prized encaustic tiled floor). I also rejected a suggestion of decorative nails to secure the shelves, as it was out of keeping with the style of the existing furniture in nearby rooms. The result was an elegant, practical piece that will work in many different settings as I move over the years.

From October it was over to Kieran for by far the greater part of the work. Every weekend for the following nine months I had the pleasure of prose and photos describing the latest progress on the build. First came heavy planks of wood, which I had the chance to see in person on a visit in December. These were left to acclimatise to the environmental conditions of the workshop. Then work started in earnest on New Year’s Day, and out of the rough lumber came unexpected geometry: smooth planes and clean lines, neat grooves for the shelves, and lastly sharply toothed dovetails. Kieran kept consulting where needed, such as when I requested a deeper curve to the foot detail for aesthetic reasons.

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In February, Kieran sent me out a sample board of waxes and shellacs – unremitting professional that he is. I had seen pictures of the sample board on my phone, and had one choice in mind of black wax and a reddish shellac, which would lend the wood a warm, grainy look.  In hindsight it would have been an error to choose without seeing the samples in person first as I surprised myself with my choice of a black wax and blonde shellac. These coats created a strong contrast, showing off the grain but maintaining the underlying cool tone of the wood. I was also able to visualise properly for the first time how the hallway would hold together visually: invaluable.

Spring saw the delicate process of fitting together all those carefully prepared boards, and the transformation from lines on a page to a three-dimensional object. My role in this period mainly consisted of frantically opening each of Kieran’s weekly updates, and thinking of new ways to express my excitement at each new development. In fitting the backboards, Kieran managed to sneak in an element I had ruled out: the decorative nails, which I had thought too chunky and visually out-of-keeping with other furniture in the house. I still think the original call was right, but I am glad of the cheeky addition at the back. It added interest to a part of the object that would otherwise be relatively dull, and will remind me of the build process every time I move the boot bench. Kieran is a fan of subtle gestures like this – such as the roughly scalloped underside of the shelves, and the out-of-the-way placement of his maker’s mark.

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I should warn and confess other readers that it has been something of a torment to have our joint vision realised so gradually. But, like a good TV series, it has been worth the wait for each installment. And, knowing Kieran’s busy family life and career, it has been touching to see the regular commitment of his spare time. That’s one thing to bear in mind with an amateur commission: it does take time. From that initial conversation to collection was exactly a year – of which seven months was building time, and the rest was faffing on my part. I would estimate that the build time would equate to about three or four weeks’ work if done full-time (although there were additional deliberate delays to allow the wood to adjust to its environment). As a generally impatient person, the waiting was difficult but not unbearable for me.

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And a few weeks ago I was finally able to achieve catharsis after months of anticipation: I rented a car and drove up to collect the boot bench while attending another gathering at Kieran’s house. First order of business on arrival was to view the boot bench in person. I was very, very satisfied to finally be able to see, walk around, touch, examine and test the weight of the thing. It has an unexpected solidity, and is a surprisingly tactile experience. After allowing other guests their own viewing, several of us carefully hoisted it into my boot, where I swaddled it in blankets. No longer bound to this build, Kieran took an expansive turn and began discussing more furniture to come from his workshop – including a more complicated variation on the boot bench for his own hallway. I meanwhile made an early exit, so I could get home at a reasonable hour and make use of my heavy-lifting housemates.

With the boot bench finally in position, my hallway has gone from messily cluttered to a state of butch elegance. The careful consideration of shape, proportion, material and finish have made the space substantially more functional and beautiful. My housemates have also stopped the boot-rack related banter (it’s a shallow seam to mine). The final seal of approval came this weekend from my mother, who dressed and photographed the boot bench for me – and said she’d be tempted to make a commission of her own.