The Policeman’s Boot Bench – glamour shots

Two weeks ago photographer Gareth Partington spent an evening in the workshop for a photo shoot of the Policeman’s Boot Bench and Esmerelda. I’ve been meaning to build up a portfolio of my work for some time, and Gareth’s photography is fantastic (seriously, check out the portraits on his site), so I was very pleased when he agreed to take photos for Over the Wireless. The photos of Esmerelda will follow in a separate blog post, but for now, here is a beauty pageant for the Policeman’s Boot Bench.

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The Policeman’s Boot Bench.

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Dovetails and dados. For this piece I wanted to emphasise simple but effective joinery as well as clean lines.

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The shelves are orientated so that the most attractive quartersawn grain and medullary rays are at the front edge.

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Tongue and groove backboards with a simple 1/8″ bead. Simple and classy.

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The confluence of several features – dovetails, rose head cut nails, and my maker’s mark.

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The foot detail came out really nicely, and gives a real lift to the piece. And the best thing? It’s all simple pre-industrial geometry.

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Rose head cut nails fastening the backboards to each of the shelves.

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And dressed. Featuring a selection of mine and Dr Moss’ shoes.

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I’m not sure the Policeman will be using shoes quite like these…

Breaking the Mould(ing) – Matt Bickford in Interview

It is inevitable that whenever you interview someone for a magazine column there is plenty of material that gets left on the cutting room floor. Fortunately there are no word limits on blog posts (although maybe there should be?) and so it is always possible to revisit the additional material in a later post. What follows is the full, unabridged, interview I conducted with wooden plane maker Matt Bickford for Issue 260 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking.

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Plane maker Matt Bickford

  1. Alongside Larry Williams of Old Street Tools, and Philly Planes here in the UK, you are one of the first modern makers of wooden moulding planes, and hollows and rounds in particular. What prompted your interest in moulding planes?

There are many (and more) people out there that have included the versatility that these tools afford into their work. These tools offer what machinery simply cannot. Like the ability to use simple fore, try and smooth planes manages every width and length of stock available, the ability to manipulate simple moulding planes like hollows and rounds, which have always been what has allured me, offers the same idea of infinity. The internet, god bless it, has just brought us out of our basements, garages and sheds to share our discoveries together.

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Moulding profiles, and a copy of “Moulding in Practice”

Along with Larry and Don, I may be one of first modern proponents of new planes and what properly made new planes afford the end user. If you purchase an old Stanley plane from a garage sale and immediately put it to wood you may conclude that old tools are substandard to the machinery and technology of today. In that same manner, if you pick up an old wooden plane and immediately put it to wood you will likely conclude the same. The jump in performance that can be achieved with tuning an old Stanley plane versus the exceptional quality of a new Lie-Nielsen plane can be achieved with wooden planes. Maybe the difference in knowledge and ability is due only to the amount of published literature or megabytes that have been dedicated to the two: metal planes get a lot of attention, wooden planes have not yet been funded the same. The same jump, or evolution, can be achieved. After all, likely the same issues are at stake. The differences are, I imagine, the perceived knowledge. I have certainly followed Larry’s lead in this respect.

Truth be told, Larry and his DVD introduced me to the idea of making my own planes. Prior to this video I had never considered making my own in the same fashion that, when I was twenty, I never considered making my own chair.

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Complex moulding plane by Matt

I became aware of the absolute versatility that hollows and rounds afford through the internet, but I did not gain the ability of being able to use them through this same medium. Larry suggested that they could do anything. I then purchased an antique set and failed, failed and ultimately learned in my basement. Don McConnell’s DVD confirmed my technique. Ultimately, teaching people refined my procedure, of which I may be a modern proponent. Using this type of tool to create predictable and desirable results is not straight forward when holding the tool for the first time. The process, however, can be straight-forward. Hopefully my book helps in this regard.

So, in answer to your question, what prompted my interest in this type of tool is the idea of ‘infinity.’ With a basic set of hollows and rounds I am able to make every moulding profile that I may want, so long as the profile is straight (curved profiles are done with carving gouges and scrapers.) The projects that I choose are neither dictated nor decorated with the selection of router bits I may own, regardless of size. I can produce any moulding with the tools in my shop; I’m 20 minutes to 2 hours away from completing 8 feet of any profile.

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Moulding plane Christmas tree decorations

  1. Your book for Lost Art Press advocated using a small set of hollows and rounds rather than complex moulders. How did you reach this approach? And can you explain the benefits of such an approach?

Let me start with this: complex, or dedicated, moulding planes have two major advantages over modern machinery. The first advantage they offer is that the sheared profile the plane creates does not need to be sanded, it removes the most tedious aspect. By not needing to sand you also do not risk the likelihood of dulling the sharp corners or drastic inflections that profiled planes encourage.

Additionally, antique complex moulding planes are not bastardized interpretations. Depending upon how far into this subject you may travel, know that today’s router bits are manufacturers’ interpretations of other interpretations of original mouldings, a progression of refined curves. There has been a lot that has been lost in the progression (read regression) of profiles. Complex moulding planes are, however, similar to router bits and shaper knives in one respect: they produce a single profile quite uniformly.

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Pair of complex moulding planes

Hollows and rounds offer the idea of infinity. Any moulding profile is a series of flats, convex and concave curves. A set of hollows and rounds produces a varying number of progressing radii. Using this progression together allows an endless amount: the larger the set, the closer to infinity, everything.

In terms of a smaller set, most of our work does not include the entire range of moulding profiles. Those of us that make architectural crowns will likely not need the same set as those of us that make pieces that stand upon other pieces (i.e. mantle clocks, spice or bible boxes.) A smaller set of planes will likely afford the end user his necessary range. The necessary range, of course, may vary. My interests tend to fall in the even 2-10 range. (2s create a radius of 2/16ths of an inch, 10s create a 10/16th radius with the numbering system to which I ascribe.)

  1. To the beginner, hollows and rounds can be a little daunting. Can you explain your techniques for unlocking the versatility of these tools? What do you find inspiring about these tools?

Hollows and rounds have neither a fence nor a depth stop. It is the lack of these two features that allow the versatility that these tools both provide and encourage.

It will be difficult trying to explain the technique that I follow without a few dozen images. The process is straight-forward, but needs illustrations like my book. I started to illustrate this process in my blog and, ultimately, this led to my book.

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Matt’s method for using hollows and rounds starts with using rabbets and grooves to rough in the profile and steer the planes

In short, the real key to successfully using these tools is to give the plane two points to register upon instead of just one. As an example, trying to hold a hollow upon a corner at a uniform angle and uniform point upon the plane’s sole in order to create a convex profile is essentially impossible, but it is much easier than doing the same with a round to create a cove. Giving the plane two points to register upon instead of just one steers the plane, taking the place of the fence. It also gives a gauge for progress and replaces depth stop.

My blog and my book intends to illustrate a straight forward series of steps to follow to create something both desirable and repeatable.

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A completed run of moulding

  1. It can be a big leap to go from furniture maker to tool maker. How did you make this leap? What prompted you to start making planes?

I was a hobby woodworker for many years. When I started making things out of wood I started copying grain direction, then proportions, curves, carving, etc. I had settled on a series of router bits to decorate my edges that I considered my own. This set was comprehensive and when I needed something larger than what I owned I pieced a few together to create the dimensions I needed. I was spending a lot of time copying all of these features, then I made a sacrifice with the moulding that I regretted prior to making it, but I had settled upon my set and pushed forward.

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Carved leg by Matt

Finally, I went in search of other options. I was tired of making sacrifices and, through Larry’s writing, became aware of another option. I purchased an antique set of planes that, regardless of how long I spent with them, disappointed. When Larry came out with his DVD I decided to make my own. The first planes that I made for myself worked better than any antique that I tuned and also gave me the knowledge to tune any antique that I purchased.

How did I make this leap into making planes? It kind of just happened.

  1. What is the element of plane making that you find most satisfying?

I technically make 18th-century British reproduction planes. These planes represent the point where all of the technology was in the tool but none of the machining process had yet been taken out. These tools, despite the fact that they are a piece of steel and two pieces of wood, represent a significant amount of technology.

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A pair of snipes bill planes by Matt

I am still fascinated by the amount of technology included in these seemingly simple tools. The final product that I create will never change and I am satisfied by the small changes I make in an effort to stream-line the process.

Every plane that I make (and I have made thousands) I still consider the best that I have ever made. I am fascinated by what the planes can do, how the planes perform, and the possibilities that these tools encourage.

  1. You’re known as a plane maker, and for the book you wrote for Lost Art Press. But you are also a furniture maker. What sort of furniture do you build? Are there specific styles which you particularly enjoy building?

I make furniture as a hobby, which is difficult once you are working wood throughout the day. My friends, who are also professional woodworkers, and I started a woodworkers’ guild. We meet one night each week at my friend’s shop where we work on projects for ourselves. This encourages us to continue making things we want to make and to push our own limits.

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Table by Matt

I have always been attracted to Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture. My parents had reproduced examples throughout our house growing up and I like the idea of potentially making things as good or better. I tend to like carving. The pieces that I make must have carving or I will not be interested. Once I am done with the carving I will not likely finish it (see the corner of unupholstered furniture in my basement). The mouldings and moulding planes are just a supplement. It’s kind of silly to make a sacrifice in the piece’s appearance in low-light when spending so much time casting shadows with carving in full light.

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A ball and claw foot Matt is carving

  1. You’ve been posting photos of really interesting moulding runs to Instagram recently. Where do you get your inspiration for moulding profiles?

I like to think that I am good at recreating some things. My imagination with the ‘new’ has not yet been set free because I am still fascinated with recreating the old. Most of the things that I have made have, to varying degrees, been recreations. I’m still in love with the idea that I can make what others already have.

  1. If you had one tip for aspiring tool makers, what would it be?

My advice is for aspiring woodworkers, not necessarily tool makers: see what has been done, consider what has been done, try to make it. You may have no desire to put pad, trifold, or ball and claw feet in your living room; you may not want turned, cabriole or ogee bracket feet; you may not want waist, base or crown moulding, but seeing and considering how each of these treatments have been included into others work will give you an idea and an inspiration into your own work. Look at what has been done throughout the centuries and consider the conclusions of the past, even if you do not include it in your own work. A lot of inspiration is out there, and it is all relevant. This same logic applies to making tools.

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“All inspiration is relevant”

  1. For woodworkers just investigating moulding planes for the first time, what limited set would you recommend?

A simple set of hollows and rounds is ideal. These planes are easy to rehabilitate, sharpen, maintain and, despite the ambiguity, to use. Hollows and rounds are extremely versatile and encouraging. Dedicated planes are fun to use but they are one-trick-ponies. Two pairs of hollows and rounds give the end user the ability to make scores of moulding profiles, the ability to make base mouldings that compliment waist mouldings that compliment cornices. A few pairs will offer the end-user so many options and, once mastered, confidence.

Confidence seems to be one thing that many of us lack. Starting a project is the hardest part. Completion just seems to happen.

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If you are looking for specific suggestions: I am often asked what pair of hollows and rounds to get first. With two pairs you will be able to do by far more than twice as much as you can do with one pair. Not only will you be able to make the same profiles in two different sizes, but you will also be able to mix and match the profiles. With one pair you can make 30+ different profiles. With two pairs you can make well over 100. With two pairs you will recognize the true versatility that these planes allow and encourage.

If you do not know what sizes you want but there is a certain profile you want to execute, find the included radii and you will have the answer. Otherwise, I often recommend getting a pair of #4s and 8s (they cut a radius of 4/16ths and 8/16ths, respectively) if you’re starting with profiles included on pieces that come up to your waist; 6s and 10s are a good size for somebody that makes mid range furniture (chest of drawers). Both will likely be included in the largest highboys, secretaries, case clocks and your final set.

  1. How did the book for Lost Art Press come about?

I used to go to woodworking shows and demonstrate the tools that I make. I was able to introduce and inspire woodworkers with the ability of the tool but my explanation did not always translate into their work. Six months later I would see the same people and was told that, despite fully understanding the process we previously discussed, they had forgotten.

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Profiles examples roughed in and ready for planing

I had started writing a pamphlet to hand out at the shows that I attended to people who seem inspired. This turned into me deciding that I would just put all of the information online, which I do through my blog. Chris Schwarz, the proprietor or Lost Art Press and who was very encouraging since the start of my business, read my blog for awhile and liked my approach and writing. I told Chris that I had essentially already started the process when he asked me if I had considered writing a book. The book then happened.

You did not ask this, but I have always been extremely proud of the book because I wrote every word in it. I have friends who have written articles and books. They produce a series of sentences that are then edited into the publisher’s words. Chris offered many suggestions but gave me full control over the book. He did not rewrite my sentences. He took out commas, broke up run-on sentences, comma-splices that are likely included here, and highlighted repetitious phrases, but the words are my own. Each of the books that Lost Art Press produces is unique in this respect: you seem to get the authors’ thoughts but the publisher’s directness. Each word in the final product has meaning and moves the narrative forward.

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Moulding profiles cut with simply hollows and rounds

My Ritual… part 2

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I’ve written previously about how I find ritualised activity helpful for entering the right frame of mind at the start of a workshop day. And although at the end of a project I am always eager to start the next build, I have taken to spending a couple of hours cleaning up and re-ordering the workshop before I start work on something new. I suppose that this is really another ritual of sorts, helping as it does to clear both my head and the ‘shop.

 

The workshop was in sore need of some attention and tidying by the time I had finished the Policeman’s Boot Bench. Although I try to keep a clear and tidy workspace, working on the Boot Bench had prompted some major reorganisation of the ‘shop, including relocating my bench against the lefthand wall. Changing one element of a workspace invariably means you have to reorganise other areas, and I’d not had the time to complete this process since January.

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Having completed the Policeman’s Boot Bench – the shop is in need of a good clean and some thorough re-organisation.

 

And so although I am chomping at the bit to start building a staked work table (out of the Anarchist’s Design Book) for my study, I spent half a day clearing the shop, having a thorough clean, and re-organising everything into a more ergonomic and less cluttered, space. Sweeping up all of the hard to reach shavings once a piece is finished really does help to clear my mind for the next project. My Anarchist’s Tool Chest has become a favourite refuge for shavings, as it is just high enough off the floor to collect plenty of debris, but too low to the floor to get a broom underneath it. So after wheeling the tool chest out of the ‘shop, and pulling the workbench into the middle of the floor, I had a thorough sweep up followed by vacuuming any stubborn fibres I’d missed.

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The much improved clamp and timber storage corner of the workshop

Moving my workbench from the middle of the workshop to the wall had provided much needed stability while planing stock. However, it had resulted in cramped working considitons at the right hand end of the bench, which was squashed up against a growing stack of lumber and my overflowing scraps bin (the contents of which towered above the brim of the bin, threatening to cascade across the ‘shop floor). I’d not had time to address this corner of the workshop while I was working on the Boot Bench, and this was my first opportunity to impose order. I emptied out the timber racks at the end of the workshop, reorganising the timber I was keeping, and consigning less useful pieces to the recycling pile. This meant that a lot of the loosely stacked timber could now go in the racks, with a couple of larger pieces being stored in the rafters. Only one plank of Canadian pine is now freestanding, and that is because at 16′ long it is 5’ longer than my workshop is wide. The scraps bin received similarly ruthless treatment, and the contents which survived the cull were neatly stacked back in the bin. The other source of clutter was my growing collection of Bessey sash clamps, which found new homes clamped around the edge of the go-bar station.

The final element of this ritual is to break down and clean all of the tools I have used particularly hard on a project – usually my bench planes, and some of the more specialist joinery planes. Although I clean my tools after each use and sharpen regularly, giving them some extra attention at the end of a build does keep them in good working order and gives me an opportunity to address any minor issues. This included tightening the frog on my Clifton No.5, as it had started to come a little loose and rattle – probably from several months of taking big traversing cuts through tough oak.

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The re-organised and cleaned workshop, ready to start the staked work table

The workshop is now cleared and clean – providing the perfect setting to start the next project free of distractions or niggles. I’ve found the ritual of bookending each major build in this way to be very beneficial. So what rituals do you find help in the workshop?

The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 15

After seven months hard work, the Boot Bench is finished and safely swaddled in blankets awaiting collection by the client. And while that would make for quite a pithy blog post, it does miss out the final stage of the build process, so let’s rewind a little.

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One finished boot bench – no filter necessary on timber this pretty.

At the end of my last blog post the wide faces of the Boot Bench had been cleaned up and given the first coat of shellac. Next I turned my attention to the front, which is mainly made up of the thin edges of shelves and casework. The process for cleaning up these edges was very much the same as for the main elements of the casework – removing as little material possible with my No.3 smoothing plane to remove the last traces of glue and stray fibres, to reveal clean surfaces and crisp joinery. Because I was working relatively narrow edges (1″ wide for the carcase, and 3/4″ wide for each of the shelves) the cabinet scraper was not appropriate for this work, as there can be a risk of rounding over the corners. Instead, the little L-N No.102 came in handy to clean-up a few areas where my smoothing plane could not reach. For planing the dado joint (where the grain of the sides is running at 90 degrees to the grain of the shelf), skewing the smoothing plane 45 degrees into the cut helped to plane the shelves and sides without any tear-out on either surface.

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Creating a gentle roundover on the top edge of each shelf with the spokeshave

I then gently rounded over the top edge of each shelf using a spokeshave, with three or four passes at 45 degrees to the edge of the shelf, and then three passes either side to blend in the new facet. A gentle round over like this should help to protect the edge from chipping out if the soles of shoes catch when being removed. Originally I had planned to use a scratch stock to bead the front edge of each shelf, but having spent some time looking at the Boot Bench as a whole I decided that four extra beads would (no matter how fun) be too much, particularly as the client prefers understated pieces.

There was a small knot on the front of the bottom most shelf, and instead of filling this with black tinted epoxy (as I had done for the internal knots) which would have drawn the eye to the knot, I mixed up a filler using shellac and oak sawdust, which filled the crack while blending into the timber. Once the filler had dried I brushed on the first coat of shellac to the front of the Boot Bench, and left to dry.

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Introducing a 2lb lump hammer to something you’ve been building for 7 months? Not terrifying at all, why do you ask?

The final touch, before applying the second coat of shellac, was to apply my maker’s mark. The stamp works best in end grain, and I selected the end of a tail, at the back left corner of the top. Although an exciting milestone in any project, it is also a little terrifying to start hammering the product of many months work with a 2lb lump hammer. Fortunately this is one of the instances where a heavier hammer provides more finesse. Instead of pounding away at the stamp to leave a deep mark (which would be necessary with a lighter hammer), the weight of the lump hammer did all of the work, leaving a crisp impression in the hard oak end grain with minimal effort and no risk of damage to the piece. This is a subtle touch – it is there for people to discover, but is still discreet (1″ wide) enough not to dominate the piece.

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The maker’s mark after a coat of shellac and dab of black wax

I then gently wiped down the shellac with 400 grit paper, just to remove the highspots and leave a smooth texture, before brushing on a second coat to all external surfaces. Having left the second coat to dry and harden over several days, I then returned to wax the external surfaces. Black wax is an easy finish to apply, providing you use thin coats – there is a risk of putting too much on which can be hard to buff out, and results in a blotchy finish. I wiped the wax on sparing with a lint free cloth, only adding more once I had worked the wax deep into the open grain – my aim was to enhance the grain not obscure it. Once the wax had dried I then buffed it out thoroughly with a clean cloth.

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When the wax was buffed out, I sat in front of the Boot Bench for 30 minutes or so, in silence, just taking in the form and detail of the piece. Every project is a labour of love, if it wasn’t then there would be precious little reason to build anything. But this build has been a hugely important process – the first piece of furniture I’ve designed from scratch, and my first paying furniture commission. Building something for someone else is always a huge responsibility (not to mention a privilege). I’m proud of this piece, and hope the client will enjoy it.

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Or, The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 14

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Sharpening can be a real bore, but I find it can also help to focus the mind on what comes next

I spent today cleaning up the exterior of the Policeman’s Boot Bench. It is always a big step to start cleaning up a project ready to apply finish, not to mention a critical stage of the work – applying a finish will highlight any imperfections or mistakes, so taking your time to getting everything looking pretty “in the white” is time spent wisely. To get in the right mindset, when I came into the workshop I headed straight to my sharpening station and sharpened the planes and cabinet scrapers I expected to use. Even if I had sharpened them last time I used them, they went back to the sharpening table for a fresh hone. Not only did this ensure that everything was as sharp as I could get it (I don’t want any tearout when finnessing the exterior faces of the casework) but most importantly I found that it helped get me in the right sort of mindset for the work ahead.

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Cleaned tails

I find that for final surfacing and clean-up work it pays to have a plan of attack – the last thing you want to do is brush shellac onto a surface only to realise that you’ve not cleaned up it up fully. This is all the more so for the boot bench, where the open fronted shelves means that there are a lot of different edges and corners to pay attention to. I decided to ignore the front of the carcase for this session, and to focus on the faces of the wide boards, starting at one end before moving onto the top, and finally finishing at the other end. This meant that I could gently roll the boot bench onto one end, and then finish work with it standing on the opposite end. Fortunately, the boot bench has enough weight that when standing on a pile of blankets it does not move across the floor while being planed.

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The No.102 block plane is a new addition to my tool chest, but is already becoming a firm favourite

Because I had left the pins of my dovetails slightly proud, it was important to flush these up without chipping out any end grain, before working the rest of surface of the end pieces. I used the little Lie-Nielsen No.102 block plane for this, which worked in a very controlled manner to slice away the proud end grain prior to smoothing the rest of the board with the No.3 smoothing plane. Although I normally use a 60 1/2 block plane, I really like the 102 for delicate work, as it is perfectly sized and weighted to fit in one hand during use, meaning that you can hold the workpiece steady with the other hand. There were a few difficult patches of grain where I had to resort to some very localised sanding, for which I used Abranet 220 grit on a sponge sanding block. I’ve not used Abranet before, but after reading several glowing reviews I thought I would give it a try, and so far it does seem to be the best abrasive I’ve used. I blended the planed and sanded surfaces together using a cabinet scraper, which gave a consistent finish across the face of the board.

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A well tuned cabinet scraper is perfect for cleaning surfaces prior to applying finish

I then repeated the process for the top, with one significant diffence. With the end pieces I was able to work from the dovetailed corner down towards the feet. However the top is dovetailed at both ends. Planing off a dovetailed corner would chip out the end grain on the tails, resulting in plenty more clean up and patching. Instead, I worked from one corner, stopping an inch or so before the dovetails of the opposite corner. Then it was a matter of working in the opposite direction until both corners were flushed up and clean. A cabinet scraper helped to blend the transition between the two directions of working, and by lifting the scraper off the workpiece before I reached the very end, I was able to avoid any spelching.

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Chamfering the back edge using the little No102 block plane

As a final touch, I lightly chamfered the aris of the rear edge of the carcase, using the No.102 block plane. Oak is tough, but can be prone to splintering on the edges, and so removing the sharp corner helps to protect the edge from breaking.

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The half pin at the left hand side hides the rebate for the backboards

With the three wide faces cleaned up, I decided to apply the first coat of shellac while the wood was freshly planed and scraped, to avoid the fibres darkening through oxidization during any delay to finish. I used the same 2lb cut of blonde shellac as for the interior of the carcase, brushed on with a 1″ Gramercy ox-hair finishing brush. The shellac brought out the grain and added a little pizazz to the dovetails.

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Shellac really makes the dovetails standout

All that remains now is prettying up the front of the carcase, applying the rest of the shellac and wax, and (most importantly) stamping the boot bench with my maker’s mark. More on that next week.

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The first coat of finish on the top is really bringing the grain out