A Packing Box in the Wild

I’ve written before about how when a project leaves my workbench I tend not to write about it again. Maybe that is entirely natural – it is very satisfying to write about the process of making, and there is an easy narrative arc to writing up projects and the insights offered by standing at the bench. But I do think that seeing projects once they have been released from the workshop, into the wild, can give a new context to the build process, especially when someone else is using something I’ve made.

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The Packing Box loaded up and ready to go to Tom

When I made my first Packing Box from the Joiner & Cabinet Maker I did not have a particular use in mind for the box itself. It was a project I had wanted to build for three years, and I could see that there was a lot of lessons hidden within what was ostensibly a simple project. And so I approached it as a training exercise. But when I finished the build I discovered that the Packing Box itself was really quite charming, and instead of letting it languish unloved in a corner of the ‘shop I wanted to find a worthy use for it. After some weeks of pondering, I filled it with craft beer, mix cds, and an OtW tee, and sent it off to my good friend Tom Richards to say thank you for the outstanding work he had done on creating the branding for Over the Wireless.

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Occasionally since last summer I’ve wondered what Tom did with the Packing Box. And suddenly last week a series of photos popped up on Instagram, showing a familiar forest of clinched nails. It turns out that Tom has purposed the packing box as a memory box, holding several decades of gig tickets, cards, mix cds, and other precious ephemera he wants to keep safe. When I mentioned to Tom that I’d seen the Packing Box on Instagram he replied to me that he had thought “how perfect for the box of a ‘memories box’ be one of the memories itself”, which was incredibly touching! Tom kindly agreed to share a couple of photo of the Packing Box here on the blog.

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Tom is now using the packing box as a memory box holding gig tickets and other precious ephemera

I’m intending to make writing about projects that have escaped into the outside world more of a feature of the blog (all of which will be captured under the “In the wild” category on the right hand side of the screen). Hopefully we can get a conversation going about projects that have left the workbench and found their way to other people – something which Shaun’s excellent blog post already started several hours ago!

The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 12

The third backboard for the boot bench is now fitted, while the fourth has been partially processed. At the end of last week’s blog post I was intending to fully process and finish the final two backboards before fitting them at the same time. However while working on them I decided that it might be better to fit the third board, and then tweak the fourth to fit the remaining space, as this will give me a further opportunity to fine tune the fit of the final board.

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Flattening the reference face of the oak backboards

Over the past year I’ve written plenty about processing stock from rough, so I won’t describe the steps yet again. But while I was planing the backboards down to final dimensions, I was struck by how much this process has become second nature in the 12 months since I started working through The Joiner & Cabinet Maker. The projects in The Joiner & Cabinet Maker were really my introduction to working from rough stock, as it is not something that happens much in my lutherie work! Processing material in the rough can be an intimidating process for beginners, but with a little practice, and an understanding of why the process works, it is a straight forward matter to flatten and dimension even large boards by hand. Processing stock by hand is also an excellent opportunity to become familiar with the core trio of bench planes, and with working wood. All of which means it is definitely something I would encourage beginners to have a go at, and not be intimidated – just grab a jack plane and start making some shavings.

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Shooting the ends square with the Quangsheng No.22 mitre plane

The one change I made when processing these two boards was when it came to shooting the ends square. Normally I use a Lie-Nielsen No.51 with an Evenfall Studios shooting board. However, I had a Quangsheng No.22 mitre plane sitting on my workbench waiting to be reviewed for Furniture & Cabinet Making. I like to use review tools on real life projects wherever possible, as this gives me the best insight into how they perform. So as a starter for ten I set the Quangsheng up on a smaller shooting board made by Derek Jones, and planed the ends of the backboards square on that set up.

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Using cut nails to space the expansion gap between the boards

Cut nails allow for seasonal expansion by bending slightly as the wood moves, which prevents splitting. To allow the nails to do their job it is necessary to leave some room for expansion in the tongue and groove joint. As we are in the middle of a very hot and dry spell (at least, for England) I left more expansion room than I would if I were assembling the backboards during the dead of winter (when the boards would be at their maximum expansion, and most likely to contract over the coming months). I separated the joint just enough to be able to stand the tip of a cut nail on the exposed tongue, and then lined up several nails along the joint to ensure a consistent gap. The backboard was then nailed to the shelves using two nails per shelf, on 3 1/2″ spacing from each edge of the board.

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To lay out the nails, I used a combination square and brad awl to mark the location, checking the alignment with the nails fixing the outermost backboards using a 50″ straight edge. A tapered drill bit then drilled pilot holes to a depth of 2/3 of the nail’s length. Once the board was secured to the carcase I removed the cut nails I had used as spacers along the expansion gap.

The final backboard will be finished and fixed in place when I’m next in the workshop. After that, I’ll be onto making the exterior pretty and applying the finish.

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Looking inside the casework shows the beading detail on the tongue and groove joint.

The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 11

The first two backboards have now been fitted to the Policeman’s Boot Bench, which means that I have only two more backboards to go before the casework is completely assembled. The end is truly coming into sight now!

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Ignore the front knob and push the fence into the workpiece for a straight cut.

After my test cuts with the Lie-Nielsen No.49 last week, I was ready to cut the tongue and groove on the backboards. The No.49 is very easy to use and produces repeatable tongue and grooves in 1/2″ material, so I expect that it will see heavy use in my tool chest. Although it is a simple tool, there do seem to be a couple of key pointers to get the best out of it, and to my mind it behaves quite like a cross between a plough plane and a rabbet plane. Rather than take full length passes from the first push, I started at the far end of each piece with short passes that increased in length until I was planing the full edge, very much as you would with a plough plane. This helps establish the cut and prevents the plane from wandering off the line. The sole of the plane is not flat, rather it is shaped into a tongue and groove profile. This clever design means that once the cut is established, the sole of the plane will run in the emerging tongue and groove, and stop the plane wandering.

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The sole of the No.49 is profiled to match the tongue and groove it cuts. This pofile keeps the plane cutting straight and true.

Keeping the plane square to the workpiece is critical, and this requires correct body position. Firstly, I ignored the knob at the front of the plane, and instead kept my left hand on the fence, pushing the plane into the workpiece while my right (dominant) hand pushed the plane forwards. Secondly, I kept my head over the workpiece, just to the right hand side of the centre line – the same body position as I use with rabbet planes. I find this pushes the fence into the workpiece and counterbalances any tendency to tilt the plane to the left handside.

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Philly Planes 1/8″ beading plane, and the Sterling Tool Works plane hammer.

Finally, to avoid bruising the tongue and groove with the sole of the plane, I did not lift the plane out of the cut on the return stroke, but simply slid the plane backwards before pushing through another cut. The result was a crisp tongue and groove in only a matter of minutes.

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After so much stock processing and joinery recently, I decided to spend a couple of minutes adding some subtle decoration to the boot bench. To enhance the appearance of the backboards I beaded the edge of the grooved board using my 1/8″ beading plane from Philly Planes. This is one of the most fun tools I own, but more importantly the shadow line from the bead will give the joint between the backboards a nice visual flow, and stop the transitions from one board to the next from being too abrupt.

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The beading profile on the tongue half of the joint.

After beading, I gave the front and back of backboards two coats of blonde shallac, followed by a coat of Libern Black Wax to the front face (which will be visible inside the bootbench).

 

As I mentioned previously, the shelves were over-width when the boot bench was assembled. Fitting the backboards would require placing the bootbench face down, and while the shellac on the backboards was drying I trimmed the front edges of the shelves until they were flush with the sides and top of the carcase. This was a slightly awkward operation as the bootbench is too big for my workbench, and I don’t have enough saw benches to put one under every corner. The result was weilding a No.8 jointer while kneeling on a concrete floor. Not entirely comfortable, but the pay off was removing the excess material and dried glue to reveal tight and well fitting dados.

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Cut nails and my Black Bear Forge hammer – a dream combination. Angling the nails slightly increases their holding power.

Once the shelves were flushed up I was able to maneuver the boot bench face down on a pile of moving blankets, and fit the backboards. The first two backboards were fitted one at each end, as this means I can adjust the size of the remaining backboards to fit the precise space available. Each backboard was glued down their outermost long edge into the corresponding rabbet, and nailed to each of the shelves with decorative wrought head cut nails from Tools for Working Wood. As the backboards are 10 1/2″ wide I used two nails per shelf, on 3 1/2″ centres. Pilot holes were drilled using a tapered drill bit and my Grandfather’s egg beater drill, and the nails were knocked in using my 16oz hammer by Black Bear Forge. This combination of one glued edge and nails gives the carcase further rigidity but still allows for wood movement as the nails will bend under seasonal expansion and contraction. The nails are gorgeous, and even if they won’t be seen once the boot bench is installed it pleases me to know they are there. The inner two backboards will be nailed in, but not glued.

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One backboard fitted – the blue tape reminds me where the top edge of each shelf is.

The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 10

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Shavings landing on the bottom shelf of the boot bench

Every build for me is an emotional journey as much as a series of physical processes. For the Policeman’s Boot Bench, that journey started with real enthusiasm about the build at hand, and excitement at the opportunity to provide the client with an heirloom piece of furniture. Yet as the project progressesed and I got closer to assembling the casework, a nagging doubt started to grow: that the project would not fit together properly, and that some small but critical detail had been missed. Now, this is in many ways entirely irrational – everything looked good on the full sized plans I had drawn, and I knew that the joinery should fit absolutely fine. Yet over the months of working on the casework I did started to wonder if I had missed something which would prevent everything a good clean fit. And that doubt grew the closer I got to gluing-up the casework. I’m sure other woodworkers have very much the same experience, although it is not something I’ve really talked about before. But who knows, maybe I’m just neurotic? If any readers get the same mid-build worries do let me know! In many ways I am sure it is a manifestation of the responsibility of working on a project for a client rather than for yourself, and also the fact that all of the time spent working on individual components is effectively at risk until such time as the components are safely assembled.

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Needless to say, the boot bench went together absolutely fine, first time, and with no extra fussing needed (as I wrote about in part 9). Which was a huge source of relief, and a certain amount of “I told you so” from Dr Moss. I guess it goes to show that sometimes you have to stop worrying and just trust in your skill set.

And there there the boot bench stood for several weeks – real life intervened as soon as I returned from Handworks, and I’ve had next to no opportunity to get back in the shop until today, when I finally managed to steal myself away for a day in the ‘shop and was pleased to see that all of my doubts about the boot bench were for nothing.

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There’s plenty of work left to do, but I see the sunlight catch on the figure of the shelves, and I think this one will turn out ok.

My first temptation was to clean up the dovetails as soon as I got back in the workshop, to see exactly how they fit and how the joinery will look under a finish of shellac and wax. I managed to resist though, and I shall have to wait a while longer before I plane them up. The reason for this is that I only want to pretty-up the exterior of the casework once, at the very end of the build before I apply finish, as that way I can be sure to catch all of the workshop-rash and minor scratches that occur when working on an assembled piece. I also had to resist the temptation to flush up the front edges of the shelves, for the same reason.

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Waiting to be turned into backboards

The next major stage of construction, and my focus right now, is to process and fit the tongue and groove backboards. As with the rest of the casework, these are oak, although this time the rough boards are 3/4″ rather than 6/4″. I had cut the back boards slightly oversized months ago, and they had been lying in stick to acclimatise. After cutting joinery and assembling casework, there is something quite refreshing about going back to basics and processing stock for the next round of components. The back will take four boards, which started as rough boards each 8″ long by 11″ wide, and brought them down to final dimensions of 26.25″ long, 10.75″ wide and 1/2″ thick. Processing the stock was very much the same as I’ve written about before – flattening the show face (in this instance the side that will face into the casework, and will be seen from the front) and then jointing a reference edge, before planing the other face and edge down to size, and finally shooting the ends square and to length. The same satisfying, predictable process. The main different here is that the boards need to be overwidth to allow for the tongue and groove to be planed along the edges.

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Before and after – transforming rough boards to smooth never gets old

To cut the tongue and groove I’m using a Lie Nielsen No.49 plane, which I bought specifically for the boot bench (although I’m sure it will see plenty of use on future projects, including the bookcase out of The Anarchist’s Design Book for my study), and it is a tremendous amount of fun. There are many ways to cut tongue and groove, including router bits and spindle moulders, but a dedicated plane like this cuts it swiftly, cleanly, and without the need for spinning finger munching machines, so it gets my vote!

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Testing the L-N No.49 on some scrap 1/2″ southern yellow pine, prior to cutting the tongue and groove on two backboards

Two of the boards are now processed and ready for finishing, and these will be fitted at each end of the boot bench, leaving the two inner boards to complete. The two outer boards will be glued to the carcase along their outermost long edge, and all of the boards will be nailed to the shelves. It is really good to be back in the ‘shop after a three week absence, and Handworks has left me feeling energised and inspired, so I am looking forward to taking the positive energy and directing into some good work over the coming months.

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The first backboard fits nicely

The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 9

The Policeman’s Boot Bench is now glued up, which seems like a fitting point at which to put it to one side for a couple of weeks while I fly out to Chicago for a family break followed by Handworks in Iowa. I’ve never had a glue-up that I’ve enjoyed – as soon as the glue bottle comes out I always feel the pressure ratchet upwards. But that aside, assembling the Boot Bench went smoothly and without any real incident. The key I think for any smooth assembly is to have a clear plan of attack, to have all the clamps opened to the right capacity before you reach for the glue, and where possible to break large scale assemblies into more manageable stages.

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Gluing the dovetails, with the bottom shelf fitted to keep the casework square.

Hide glue flows better when it is warm, so I always stand my glue bottle in a mug of hot water for 30-40 minutes before I start applying glue. I keep meaning to invest in a heated glue pot and start mixing up my own hide glue from granules, but until then I’ve found that Titebond liquid hide glue is an effective (and cost efficient) way of using cows as an adhesive. While the glue was warming up I did a final test fit of each of the shelves in their respective dados to make sure that they still fitted and there had been no further wood movement – the middle of a sticky and stressful assembly is definitely not the moment to discover that you need to make adjustments to a component! As the shelves had been well seasoned and then lying in stick, they were all very stable, and 7 of the 8 ends fitted perfectly. The eighth was a little tight in the dado, but a couple of localised passes with a small shoulder plane removed the few shavings necessary for a good fit once again.

As there were a significant number of components to be fitted, and I have only a modest selection of large clamps, I decided to approach this assembly in two stages. The first stage was to glue the dovetails fitting the sides and top to each other. To ensure that the sides were fixed square to the top, I slid the bottom-most shelf in place (without any glue) – this effectively gave me a four-sided carcase to clamp up, and to check for square. The dovetails were hammered home using my 24oz joiner’s mallet by Blue Spruce Toolworks, and then left in the clamps for two hours for the glue to cure.

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Sealing the end grain of the shelves with a thin coat of hide glue

The second stage of assembly was to fit the shelves. The dado joint involves a lot of end grain in the gluing surface, and end grain can have a tendency to wick glue away resulting in a dry joint. To avoid this, I sealed the end grain of the shelves, and the dados, but giving them a thin coat of hide glue five minutes before I started to glue and fit the shelves. This glue was absorbed into the end grain, which prevented the second application of glue (when fitting the shelves) from being absorbed. Hide glue also acts as a lubricant, which meant that the shelves slid most of the way home under finger pressure, and required only a couple of gentle taps from the mallet to get them in the right position. I then clamped up the edges of the sides to establish good even pressure across the dados while the glue cured.

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Cleaning squeeze out from each of the shelves would have been a race against the clock, but pre-finishing the interior of the casework gave me plenty of time to wipe up the excess glue

Pre-finishing the interior of the Boot Bench definitely paid off when assembling the casework, especially as the four shelves resulted in a significant amount of squeeze-out. My usual method for removing squeeze-out during glue-up is a toothbrush dipped in hot water, as well as judicious use of damp paper towels. The hide glue wiped easily off the shellac and wax finish, which meant that I could take my time in cleaning up all of the internal surfaces.

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Once the glue had cured for the second stage of the assembly I removed the clamps. There is still plenty to do on this project – the shelves need to be planed flush to the front of the casework, the backboards need to be processed and fitted, and the external surfaces need to be cleaned up. But the end is now in sight, and it feels good to have the main elements assembled before travel takes me out of the workshop for a couple of weeks. I’ll pick this project up again at the end of May, when I will start work on the backboards.

Ten Years on the Path

 

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Five years after my course in Totnes, I went back to visit the workshop and took the guitar I’d built on the course for a reunion with Phil – my tutor.

Exactly 10 years ago today I started woodwork for the very first time. I remember it clearly, because it was the first day of term at the Totnes School of Guitarmaking. As a former historian, I like dates, and I like origin stories. The tenth anniversary of my time in Totnes seems like a good opportunity to revisit my own.

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I had finished law school, and decided to take a year out before starting work at the Leeds office of an international law firm. Totnes was the ultimate destination for that gap year, although first I worked in the construction industry for seven months to save for the lutherie tuition fees. In hindsight, a guitar building course was probably an unusual destination for me – although I’d grown up watching my maternal grandfather building all manner of things in his shed, I’d never had much inclination towards woodwork myself at that point. And although the secondary school I attended had a brand new craft, design and technology block including several well appointed workshops, there wasn’t actually any shop class being taught when I was there. I imagine that is the same for schools across the country. So I didn’t have anything in the way of experience, or even a long standing interest, in woodwork prior to starting at Totnes. What I did have though was a deep fascination in the mechanics of how stringed musical instruments worked, partly from having played violin for many years. Also, the husband of my music theory teacher was a violin and viola maker, and every Wednesday evening when I would go round for music theory lessons I would see rows of violins and violas in various states of completion hanging in the front upstairs window. So building musical instruments was something I knew people actually did.

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Laurie – my ’59 Blackguard type build

The experience of seeing those partially built instruments came back to me years later, as I finished law school and tried to decide how I would spend the next twelve months. Totnes is renowned as being one of the best places in the UK to study lutherie, and I very happily signed up to the 2007 summer class. I knew the course would be rewarding and challening in equal measure. What I did not anticipate when I took my first steps onto this path, where it would lead. That twelve week class was an incredible immersion in handtool work (and you can see the course photos here), and a mindblowing introduction to lutherie. Designing your own instrument, starting with only a pencil and paper, then building it by hand, is almost indescribable. But more than that, it sparked a passion for making things with my hands that if anything, is even stronger ten years on.

When I look back at past ten years, what really surprises me is the breadth of my woodwork experience. If I’m being brutally honest, I always thought I’d have built a lot more guitars by now. But that is more than offset by the other experiences I’ve been lucky to have. Embarking on the class at Totnes, my focus was purely on the guitar before me rather than any wider view of woodwork. But in the years that followed, furniture projects started to catch my eye, and then I stumbled upon the wealth of historic information published by Lost Art Press. I’m still at heart a historian, and furniture building offers a synthesis of history and craft which satisfies both the hands and the mind. Although far from my mind when I first went to Totnes, woodwork has since become the main outlet for my interests as a historian. Nor did I expect woodwork to result in a writing career, either with Furniture & Cabinet Making, or the John Brown book with Lost Art Press. I suppose that what I’ve learned is to be alive to opportunities and to know when to say yes.

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Roy and Esmerelda become acquainted.

But when I think about what I’ve gained most from these ten years on the path, it would be the ideas of self sufficiency, and community that have been most important. Being able to (slowly) furnish my home with long -lasting pieces I’ve made myself, and also the strength of community I have enjoyed. The woodwork community has been a great source of friendship, encouragement, and inspiration. And so it feels very apt that only a week after my tenth anniversary of starting woodwork I’ll be flying out to Iowa for Handworks 2017.

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James McConnell, writer and curator of the Daily Skep.

Looking back, I’m very glad that a nearly-25 year old me took that leap in the dark down in south Devon. Because that first step has enriched the past ten years, introduced me to many wonderful people, and to ideas which continue to shape the way I try to live on a daily basis.