This just tops it all… part 2

Everything you make is practice for the next thing you make. And every time you practice a technique, or carry out an operation on a project, is practice for the next time you use that particular technique. I was reminded this as I started to flatten the top of the staked desk yesterday. Although the top is the largest piece I’ve flattened by hand, the techniques are exactly the same as I practiced on the Joiner & Cabinet Maker projects last summer, and the Policeman’s Boot Bench earlier this year. All that is different is the amount of time, and the patience, required when flattening a 52″ x 24″ top rather than a 15″ x 9″ panel for a School Box (or a 40′ x 13″ shelf for the Boot Bench). Ultimately it just boils down to traversing cuts, then a 45 degree skew across the piece, and finishing by working along the grain. Just those simple three steps, repeated on a larger scale.The important thing is to remember the core techniques, and not to get overawed by the scale of the piece.

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Cleaning up the top shows good tight joints

When I started work on the desk the thought of flattening such a large piece as the top didn’t bother me at all – I’ve flattened enough timber by hand over the past couple of years to make this second nature. What I did feel a little nervous about was jointing up the top – at 54″ long in the rough, these were the longest edge joints I’ve planed. As it turns out, the joints weren’t as difficult as I had anticipated, and cleaning up the show face of the desk top revealed two tight and gap-free joints, a success I attribute to all of the long edges I planed up for the Policeman’s Boot Bench (there were a lot of long panels that needed square and true edges on that build).

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The underside before flattening. This is a big old surface to work, but the techniques are essentially the same.

Checking the desk top with a straight edge revealed that while most of the top wouldn’t need much cleaning up, the board at the back of the top had cupped after glue up, resulting in the show face falling off by over 2mm (0.7874″ – don’t ask me what this is as a fraction). My first reaction was to rip that board off the top, re-flatten, and then joint back on. This would avoid removing too much material from the top overall, but would stall progress on the desk for a while. After considering my options, and checking the thickness of the top in multiple areas, I decided that I would be able to flatten the top without needing to rip the problem board off – I left the boards at just under an inch thick, so even taking into account the fall-off at the back edge, I still have enough material to make a viable desk top. The top is also currently overwidth, so if I remove the excess entirely from the cupped board that will remove the lowest edge and mitigate the worst of the cupping. Traversing the boards with a jack plane flattened most of the top quickly, and I then marked where the low area started with a pencil and straight edge. Cross hatching the low areas gives a quick visual indication of my progress.

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The familiar feathery texture of traversing shavings

Once the majority of the top was flat, with only a couple of inches of width in the low spot remaining on the back edge, I flipped the top over to flatten the underside. The jack plane made short work of flattening this face, and I’m going to leave the traversing marks on that surface – there’s no need to smooth the underside and the scalloped texture will remind me of the handwork that went into this desk when I am writing at it in years to come. I then moved back to the top surface, planing at a 45 degree angle to the grain with the jointer. This approach removes material easily but reduces the risk of tearout compared to traversing at 90 degrees to the grain, which means less clean up once the top is flattened.

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Flattening the underside with the No.5 jack plane

 

All of this is pretty straight forward, and in fact the hardest thing was my bench fought me most of the way. While the Sjoberg bench was a very good initial bench when I bought it, and perfectly fine for lutherie work, it is simply too lightweight for processing stock by hand. I moved it against a wall in January of this year in an attempt to stop it skittering  around the ‘shop, which has worked to some extent. But for this operation I had to move it back from the wall so that I could traverse the 24″ wide top (which is the same width as the workbench). To hold the bench in place,  I ended hooking my left foot over the lower rail in order to pull the bench towards me as I plane forwards. These workshop aerobics have me dreaming once again of a stout and stable Roubo bench, so now might be the time to call a couple of sawyers and see if anyone can cut me a 24″ wide, 5″ thick oak slab. Roubo is coming.

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The jointer plane keeps everything flat and coplanar. The crpsshatching identifies the low spots.

I didn’t quite have the time to finish flattening the top this weekend (with all the snow I had to assist the Apprentice with snowman building) but that break has given me the opportunity to take stock of progress and decide the best next steps. So, next up I will bring the top to final width and length, including squaring up the ends, all of which will help to reduce the amount of flattening necessary.

Applying Body Mechanics to Octagonalisation

All of the legs for the staked worktable are now octagonalised, and I spent a couple of hours today making them pretty – final smoothing to remove a few spots of tearout, plenty of time with an eraser to remove stray pencil marks, and refining the fit of the tenons. Finalising the tenon size was a good opportunity to revisit the lathe and get a spot more turning practice in.

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The 50mm maxi-cut bit by Colt is a monster, and chewed through this oak rapidly while leaving a very clean finish and no splintering on the exit side.

When I originally turned the tenons I had been quite cautious and left them a touch oversized, which also abetted by wear to my “go block“, the corners of which had become burnished and slightly widened when checking the still-spinning tenons. So I prepared a new test mortice in some scrap oak left over from the Policeman’s Boot Bench, and took the barest shaving off each tenon until they all fitted smoothly without any slack. I also took the opportunity to clean up the shoulder of the tenon. Ideally I would like to turn a gentle cove into the shoulder, but my turning kit currently extends to one tool (the Easy Wood Rougher) and until I order the Easy Wood Finisher that particular shape is outside of my grasp. Instead, I made sure that the shoulder was clean and square to the tenon, with no stray bumps or unslightly catches.

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My standard grip for traversing boards and heavy stock removal is no good for octagonalisation – placing the off-hand on top of the bun raises the centre of gravity and encourages the plane to wobble during the stroke.

One of the advantages of performing a repetative task, such as octagonalising a set of four legs, is that it provides the opportunity to review technique and make incrimental changes towards efficiency. An aspect of woodwork that I find constantly interesting is the impact of body mechanics – the way that posture, including hand and foot placement in relation to the tool and the workpiece, will influence the outcome of a technique (for instance, cutting to a line, or planing a square and straight rabbet). Body mechanics have been a constant focus throughout my martial arts training, particularly when training with Clive, and that emphasis is something I find increasingly useful at the workbench. Octagonalisation is a case in point.

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This jointing grip helps hold the plane steady when removing the corner and establishing the facet. My fingers are pressed against the face of the leg to centre the plane on the aris of the workpiece.

When octagonalising the table legs, I found that my standard off-hand grip for planing wasn’t providing the control or comfort I wanted. Mainly this was because the initial strokes find the plane balanced on the aris of the workpiece, which makes holding the plane in a constant orientation to the leg difficult until the the facet is established. My standard grip works well for traversing boards with the jack plane, as it provides downward pressure to keep the plane in the cut, especially in ornery timber. But for octagonalisation it meant that the centre of gravity was too high and the plane was prone to wobbling.

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I transition to this grip once the facet has been established. Keeping the hand low to the plane body lowers the centre of gravity and keeps the plane in a constant orientation to the workpiece.

Instead, I established the facet by dropping my hand to the sole of the plane, mimicing the grip I use when jointing an edge – the thumb grips the side wall of the plane and the fingers curl under the sole to provide a fence to register against the workpiece. Once the corner is knocked off and the facet established, I shifted my thumb so that it was curled around the base of the bun while the fingers gripped the front edge of the bun – this kept the centre of gravity low for stability, but provided more power behind the plane stroke for rapid stock removal. After a few facets transitioning between these grips became second nature, providing a comfortable and precise way to carry out the operation.

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Four legs octagonalised, and made pretty. These are ready to be fitted to the sliding battens.

When I started octagonalising the legs I did not think much abut the plane grip I was using. Starting with a jointing grip, and transitioning between the two hand positions, occured insinctively in response to the feedback from the tool and the need to stabilise the plane on a narrow surface. Just as the projection of a plane iron is adjusted throughout a planing task (for instance, backing off for a finer cut as you near your layout lines), I would suggest that body mechanics are not static but also evolve throughout an operation in order to reflect to the changing state of the workpiece. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples of how body mechanics influence woodworking technique – I’ve previously written about how posture can contribute to effecive use rabbet planes and tongue and groove planes. But what are your favourite body mechanic tips for woodworking?

Utility Dovetails – Nancy Hiller on furniture in the wild

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These dovetails (which Jim McConnell joked may have been cut with an axe) are rough in the extreme, but the drawer still moves smoothly after many decades in use.

Whenever we stay in holiday cottages I find myself drawn to the old pieces of furniture you usually find in these places. I open the drawes to check for fit and look at the dovetails, peek inside casework to look at joinery and for evidence of whether the maker processed their stock by hand. As I’ve written about before, such pieces can be a useful education in furniture that was made for daily use by ordinary folk, I have found that such exploration can be really useful to illustrate, and ground, the principles that Joshua and the team write about in Mortise & Tenon. The Cotswolds cottage we stayed in earlier this month was stuffed with furniture that had clearly been made by hand, for daily use rather than for a high-end market. Two pieces in particular caught my eye – a small dresser in the dining room, and a desk in the lounge. The draws of the dresser still moved smoothly and without wracking, which pointed to solid construction. But on examination the dovetails of those draws were quite rough (to say the least). Thinking that others may find this real world example to be interesting, I uploaded a photo to Instagram, and what followed was a fascinating conversation about “utility dovetails” and furniture in the wild. 

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The desk in our cottage. At some point in time someone had decided to fit this brass drawer pull, preventing the lock from being used. I wonder why they did not patch in the lock hole, or place the pull a little higher to completely hide the lock?

Now, I can wax lyrical about my thoughts on utility dovetails till the cows come home. But what I thought would be more interesting would be to offer some insight from a woodworker at the top of their craft. And so, in a very first for Over the Wireless what follows is a guest post, and I am honoured to welcome Nancy Hiller to the blog. As well as being a professional furniture maker, Nancy is one of my favourite woodwork writers – her latest book “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life” is essential reading for woodworkers and non-woodworkers alike, and her blog is full of thought provoking insights. So dear reader, please read on. 

 

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Nancy’s chest of drawers

A training in craft is a lesson in dissatisfaction. As craftspersons we are taught to internalize the message that we could, and should, always do better. Never mind the pots with minor defects in their glaze, the chairs whose turned finials are not a perfect match. However eagerly you long to exclaim “I made a chair!” you’re taught that these things are but means to an end: that great day when you will produce a Flawless Specimen, presumably the first of many in your career. For now, you must hold your head high as you hurl these personal indictments onto the bonfire.

***

One of my favorite pieces of furniture is a chest of drawers I bought at an antiques store in Reading (the English town, not its Pennsylvanian equivalent) circa 1984. At least a century old by now, it’s made of deal, a nondescript softwood, with knots and other characteristics usually considered defects. It was originally painted; traces of finish still linger in the cracks. By the time I came across it, a dealer had dipped it in methylene chloride stripper, which did the joints no favors. And yet it has held together over its three decades in my possession.

I love this chest of drawers, not least because it’s a mass of contradictions. It was made from defect-riddled paint-grade wood, but aside from the top, which is attached with nails, it was built with traditional joints cut by hand. Sliding dovetails hold the drawer rails in place. Stub tenons support the runners. The drawers themselves are dovetailed front and back; their bottoms, along with the cabinet’s back, are also solid. Altogether it’s a strange meeting of coarse and fine, at least by our own day’s standards.

What endears the piece to me most is the dovetails’ imperfection. They taper to a fine point, a mere saw kerf wide–typically considered a mark of high craft. Yet the gauge lines were left in place. What’s more, many of the kerfs go well beyond those lines; and some of the joints have gaps. If I produced a set of dovetails similar to these, I would feel obliged to consider tossing the drawer into my version of a bonfire, the woodstove that heats our house.

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Utility dovetails in the chest of drawers

These dovetails, which were clearly made by an accomplished craftsman intent on getting the job done, remind me that in the universe of making things, utility is no less worthy a goal than fine craft. Amidst the relentless drive to do better, it’s easy to lose sight of the grace that characterizes our very ability to make things, however imperfectly, not to mention the blessings offered by even the most basic material artifacts. Yes, the things we make reflect who we are, at least to a degree; and who wants to be defined by radical imperfection? But there’s a conceit in being so wrapped up in the tightness and proportions of a joint that we lose sight of the bigger picture, which includes those who will use the things we make.

***

I often find I can’t look at a piece of my own work without focusing on the parts that should have been done better. Even as I tell myself it’s alright to be less than perfect, I feel a pang of self-loathing. Sometimes I get a chance to visit a customer’s home years after I’ve completed a job. I see a table or a set of built-in cabinetry serving its purpose in its intended setting. And I am able to appreciate my work separate from its reflection of its decidedly flawed maker. It’s a valuable corrective, revealing my self-flagellation as a form of vanity.

This is one of the wonders of making. In the end, it’s not about perfection. While craft entails much character-building struggle, it’s also a practice of learning to accept our failings and appreciate our role as makers who bring useful objects into the world.

 

The Policeman Calls…


Issue 265 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is now in print. Along with the usual compliment of articles on design, technique, and tool reviews, is a project article for The Policeman’s Boot Bench. This is the first major project article I’ve had published, and seeing the beautifully presented construction drawings (which were much nicer than the plans I drew before I built the piece) was a real thrill.

If The Policeman’s Boot Bench isn’t enough to tempt you, issue 265 includes more tricks of the trade by Ramon Valdez, an introduction to chip carving, an explanation on how to make 18th century cross-grain moulding, and a collector’s guide to gimlets.

The drawer component breakdown

I’ve been fighting off an unpleasant winter virus this week, which has had an impact on my productivity in the workshop. I did however manage to breakdown the stock for the desk drawer so that those parts can acclimatise before I start working on them.

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This little Lie-Nielsen No.101 block plane is one of the prettiest tools in my chest.

Breaking down stock for smaller components is a little different to working with timber that just needs to be cut to length for large casework or parts (for instance the top of the staked worktable), so I thought it was worth covering this process in a blog post.

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A couple of swipes with the plane removes the sealing paint and reveals the grain of the board

I had a 2″ thick maple board reserved for the drawer components, which will also yield some spare material for the staked chair. Before laying out the drawer components on the board I used a small block plane to remove the timber yard sealing paint from the end grain of the board in order to reveal the grain structure. Ideally for a drawer I would want quartersawn material, and while this wasn’t the case with this board, by carefully laying out the components I decided that I would be able to harvest material that was dimensionally stable. The drawer sides are the most critical part of the drawer assembly in terms of dimensional stability, as sides that exhibit too much seasonal movement will cause the drawer to rack and bind on its runners. I therefore laid out the sides to get the closest to quartersawn grain possible, with the back of the drawer getting the most flatsawn grain as this is the least critical component. By using material that is quite thick, I can also plane the sides at an angle to get closer to quartersawn grain.

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Laying out the oversized components with a pencil marking gauge

With that decision made, I laid out all of the components with a pencil marking gauge, being sure to leave them a little oversized in case cutting them out of the board results in any significant movement or unexpected checks. Although there should not be too much risk of this, I prefer to use slightly more material than necessary at this stage of a build and to err on the side of caution. While I use blade based marking gauges for most of my layout, a pencil line is much easier to see on rough timber, and this cam-lock gauge by Bern Billsberry is quickly becoming invaluable.

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The Skelton panel saw made short work of crosscutting the board into sections

By laying out the components in a way that made efficient use of the material, I effectively divided the board into three sections – one which remained unused, and two which had groups of drawer parts. My first step was therefore to crosscut the board into those three sections, using my Skelton panel saw. This resulted in two pieces which were easier to handle on the saw benches.

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The riup cuts were made with my Dissotn D8 – 117 years old and still going strong.

I then ripped the draw parts out of the two smaller boards using my Disston D8 rip saw. Normally I prefer to make long rip cuts at the workbench using an overhand ripping grip, as this is much easier on the back. Since I built the staked saw benches last autumn I have been focusing on improving the accuracy of my rip cuts using a traditional kneeling technique at the saw benches, and this is how I broke the boards down to the individual drawer components.

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The components are still in pairs, and I need to crosscut the parts, but I will do that in a week or so when the boards have had chance to rest.

The drawer parts are now lying in stick in the study, and in a couple of weeks time I’ll bring them closer to final dimension and allow them to acclimatise a little more before I build the drawer. I have not decided what to use for the drawer bottom yet. I have plenty of maple left over, or I might use plywood (which does have significant benefits in terms of seasonal stability). If I use plywood, then I am tempted to line the drawer with suede, which would also stop the contents rattling around.

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Two legs octagonalised, two legs tapered. Look at the light play on those facets.

I also octagonalised the second leg, using the same process as I wrote about last week. The remaining two legs are down to tapered square profiles, and awaiting octagonalisation. So I should be able to polish them off over the coming week.

Octagonalisation – a way of life, not a process

We’re just back from a wonderful, and much needed, week long break to the Cotswolds and so progress on the staked worktable has temporarily slowed. That being said, before we escaped for our trip I managed to octagonalise the first of the legs for the table, and I managed to steal time away in the workshop as soon as we returned home to continue work on the remaining legs.

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The consistent square profiled leg (l), tapered square leg (m) and tapered octagonal leg (r)

Octagonalising the legs is the stage of the build I’ve been most looking forward to. Taking leg from a consistent square cross section to a tapered octagon is a fun process, and as I’ve written about before, I really like the aethestic benefits – the increased facets and a significant reduction of the visual weight of the leg without reducing the structural integrity. Actually planing in the octagonal cross section for the work table legs is very much as for the staked saw benches I built last year, although there are a couple of important differences between these legs and the saw bench legs. Firstly, the legs taper in the opposite direction for the work table, with the narrowest point at the floor rather than at the tenon shoulder. Secondly, the tenons for the work table are shaped while the leg is still at a consistent square cross-section, while the saw bench legs were tenoned once they had been octagonalised. What this means in practice is that the process of laying out the octagons is a little different, as I could not rely on the same geometry techniques at the tenon shoulder as I did for the saw benches.

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Laying out the octagons with dividers

Chris suggests laying out the octagons by stepping off facets on each face of the tapered square leg with dividers, and so this was the approach I took. At the foot end I still used the same geometry technique as I had for the saw benches as a fail safe. The additional length and amount of taper on the work table legs does require a touch more accuracy when planing the octagons. On the saw benches I was happy to eyeball the consistency of the octagonal facets when planing, as this was plenty accurate for legs of that length and extent of taper. The taper is much more pronounced on the work table legs, and the legs are much longer, and so rather than rely on just eyeball acuracy I marked out the edge of each facet along the length of the legs, and worked to those lines.

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Planing the tapered square leg down to a tapered octagon

I also knocked up a pair of v-blocks to hold the legs while octagonalising. Nothing fancy – just some scrap blocks of poplar, into which a 90 degree “V” was cut with a cross-cut back saw (I used the Bad Axe Bayonet) which took a total of 5 minutes to prepare. These blocks support the leg, which would otherwise need to balance on the tip of a corner while planing the facets. To stop the leg shooting out the end of the blocks, I used a bench dog as a planing stop. This worked well enough, but really it emphasised how much I would benefit from a traditional toothed planing stop to hold work in place – yet another reason why I need to start looking into sourcing a slab of green oak for my Roubo bench.

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A pair of v-blocks, and a bench dog, hold the legs in place for octagonalising. On my next bench I will use a toothed planing stop instead of a bench dog.

With the facets laid out, and the leg held in place by the two v-blocks and a well placed bench dog, planing the octagons was very straight forward. I removed the majority of the waste with the No.5  set to a rank cut, and then refined each facet with the No.8 set to a fine cut to ensure the new faces were straight and square. When planing to joint, or to a precise line such a here, I constantly look at the mouth of the plane. Seeing exactly where the plane starts to bite the workpiece, and which part of the iron is producing the shaving, gives a huge amount of feedback and allows for very precise adjustments to plane position and pressure distribution for an accurate cut.

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Comparing the tapered octagonal leg to the tapered square profile, and the consistent square profile, shows just how much material has been removed.

Comparing the octagonalised leg to the original untapered profile, and even to the tapered square profile, it is striking just how much material has been removed and how much more elegant the finished leg is. The maple works really well for octagonalising as it holds details clearly, giving sharp corners between each facet. These legs, when installed, will have a really strong silhouette and an almost architectural quality.

Before the Octagon comes the Taper

One of the big attractions of building the staked worktable was the tapered octagonal legs. As I’ve written before, I really like the way that tapered octagons reduce the visual weight of a leg while retaining the structural strength, and also how the introduction of facets plays with light and shade. This in turn informed the timber selection for the desk. A light toned timber such as maple reflects light and emphasises the silhouette of the design, drawing the eye to the facets in the legs. I briefly considered using a dark wood, such as walnut, for the same silhouette enhancing reason, although ultimately I thought that a dark timber could dominate what is a relatively small room. Heavily figured timbers were immediately discounted from the material choices for this desk, as a showy timber would obscure the overall shape of the design by drawing the eye away from the lines and facets towards the figure of the wood.

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Laying out the foot. You can see the indentations from the lathe drive centre.

Octagonalising the desk legs is broadly the same process as for the staked saw bench legs, only on a significantly larger scale. Before planing in the octagon the legs need to be planed to a tapered square profile. In the Anarchist’s Design Book Chris suggests that a bandsaw is used to achieve the tapered square cross section, and also explains how a powered jointer (or planer, if like me you’re English) can be safely used to create a tapered surface. I need to fit a new blade to my bandsaw, and to adjust the tracking (something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now) so I decided to taper the legs the old fashioned way.

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Hogging off the waste with the No.5

To lay out the cross section of the foot I used a pair of dividers to scribe a circle with a diameter of the final foot width, and followed up with a small square to mark off the four sides of the final foot. Selecting one face to plane first, I marked on the two adjacent faces lines showing the full length of the taper from the tenon shoulder to the foot. The bulk of the material has to be removed from the foot, with the least being removed from the tenon shoulder. I find it easier to plane a taper by working off the workpiece rather than onto it, and so started by hogging off the waste at the foot with the No.5, set to an aggressive cut. It doesn’t matter at this stage whether you’re planing with or against the grain, nor does it matter if you get tear-out at this point, as there will be plenty of time to refine the surface once the majority of the material is removed. The focus is just on removing the waste quickly and efficiently.  As the waste comes off the foot, lengthen the plane strokes to keep the taper straight and flat – the plane wants to create a curve which would result in a visually bulging leg. The key is to changing the pressure from the toe to the heel of the plane as you move through the cut.

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Refining the taper with the No.8 jointer

Once roughly half the waste is removed from the foot, and the cut has advanced to half the length of the leg, I moved from the jack to the No.8 jointer plane set to a medium cut. At this point I work with the grain, even if this involved planing uphill (from the foot to the tenon shoulder) onto the workpiece. The taper increases the length of the leg until a full-length shaving is taken from the foot to the tenon shoulder. Checking the surface with a straight edge helps, but the plane shavings and layout lines on each side of the leg should be enough to tell you if the taper is square and true. As I get closer to the layout lines, I keep reducing the depth of cut on the plane, until the final few shavings are full width, very fine smoothing shavings. I found that for tapering all four sides of the legs is pays to rotate the leg in a consistent direction for each subsequent face, as this means that after the first face, you are planing a smaller surfac area (because one of the adjacent faces has already been tapered) and the fourth face will be smaller still because both adjacent faces have been tapered.

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Not a bad amount of shavings from just one leg

I didn’t quite appreciate when I started tapering the legs just how much material was going to be removed – the taper is much more pronounced than for the staked saw benches. This may explain why Chris suggested a bandsaw would be a fast way to achieve the initial taper before octagonalising the legs. That being said, the handtool only approach isn’t too slow providing proper use is made of the jack plane to rapidly remove stock and before finishing up with the jointer. The dramatic taper on the legs is going to be really striking on the finished desk, and I’m looking forward to planing in the additional facets for the octagons.

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Comparing a tapered leg with a square leg shows just how much material is removed.