My Ritual

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“…my blood moves, I feel alright, my ritual followed us to paradise…”
– “My Ritual“, The Folk Implosion

The following is something that has been nagging away at my hind brain for a while, and sometimes the only way to relieve an itch is to scratch it. This may be an unusual jumping off point to discuss woodwork, but stick with the history and theology, and hopefully all will become clear.

In what feels like a lifetime ago, but was really only twelve years, I was immersed in studying history, coming to the end of a Masters course and preparing a research proposal for a PhD (this was before the pragmatism of the law won out, but that is another story altogether). My focus was on the 16th century, specifically radical evangelical movements in England, north Germany and Holland – those theological experiences that took the work of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli as a starting point rather than a destination, and really ran with it to some rather unusual conclusions. What is interesting (to me, at least) about early radical evangelism is how distinct social movements were formed and justified through radical theology, enabled by Martin Luther’s conceptualisation of a “priesthood of all believers” which had far wider implications than he ever intended. Because if Holy Mother Church is removed as a mediator between the laity and the almighty, then the common folk become empowered to develop their own theology, and to ritualise their existence in ways other than the “social miracle” of Mass. Suddenly theology, and the formulation of ritual, is not the preserve of the clergy and university theologians. Instead shepherds, soap makers (that’s you, Sebastian Frank!), and other lowly folk can get in on the act. This leads to some interesting high theological frameworks, but more crucially, unique ritualisation of the life experiences of ordinary people.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – mankind have been creating ritual to understand and explain their existence since time immemorial. But it is nonetheless fascinating. But what, if anything, does this have to do with woodwork (and if you’re still reading, congratulations on persevering)? Well y’see, recently I have been reminded of my history studies as I’ve been thinking a lot about how I approach the workshop and prepare myself to work. I do my best work when my mind is entirely clear of distractions, instead of being harried by time pressures, my next article deadline, whether I paid my credit card bill, or the myriad other passing concerns of modern life. Simply put, my best work is done when the only thing on my mind is the woodwork operation I am doing at that precise moment. I’m sure the same is true of many woodworkers.

So what is the solution? Three hours spent in zen meditation before I step foot in the workshop would probably do it, but doesn’t sound particularly practical. And to be honest if I had three hours spare I’d rather spent them at my bench making wood shavings. Instead, there are simple rituals which signify the start of “workshop time“, and which (on the whole) switch off the white noise of everyday life.

The very first thing I do, as soon as I step foot in the workshop, is to open my Anarchist’s Tool Chest – an act which exposes the tools of my craft (stop sniggering at the back) in readiness for work. I put on my ‘shop apron, into the pockets of which go my Starrett tape measure, Sterling Tool Works Double Square, and Blue Spruce Toolworks Sloyd knife. These tools are invaluable and constantly in use, so having them in my apron pocket makes for a far more efficient workflow as the number of trips to the tool chest at the end of my bench are greatly reduced. But it is more than that –  with these tools slipped into my pocket I can carry out any number of basic measuring, layout and marking tasks, which are really the fundamentals of any woodwork operation. The essential tools are now physically with me. So, with my apron round my neck I am ready to start work.

I’m sure I can’t be alone in having some small workshop rituals. At least, I hope I’m not (otherwise that would make me crazy, right?) And if you really want crazy then we could talk about the rituals I use for getting myself mentally prepared for martial arts tournaments, gradings, and significant training sessions. But we probably shouldn’t.  So what are your rituals, dear readers, how do you switch to “workshop mode”? Are there specific tools you put in your apron pockets, warm-up exercises at your bench for sawing straight, or albums you play as soon as you reach your shop?

Down the workbench rabbit hole… part 2

 

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An excerpt of Plate 11 from Roubo’s L’art du menuisier, showing the iconic workbench (with leg vise removed), photo courtesy of Benchcrafted

I’ve been on holiday in Devon this week, so I’ve not had an opportunity to make any wood shavings. But I have had plenty of time to think about woodwork, as well as taking the apprentice to the beach for the first time and getting her paddling in the sea. And slowly the details of the new workbench are starting to coalesce. There are plenty of question marks left, and some design choices left to resolve, but since my last post I have a firmer idea of what the bench should look like, and I thought that a series of blog posts charting the evolution would help direct the design process (as well as recording it for posterity).

I think it is fair to say that the two most totemic symbols of the furniture maker’s (or luthier’s) craft are the tool chest and the workbench. These are the items which we build ourselves, or at least have the skills to do so, in order to practice our craft and build other things. I’ve written plenty about the importance of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest previously, both in terms of how it provides a safe home for my tools but also for the ideas it represents. Similarly, the workbench is an expression of the sustainable and ethical life I seek to lead – the reliance on my own hands and skills rather than big-box stores in order to create an environment in which my family can live and flourish

What it is…

That does not mean that the new workbench should be kept in a perpetually pristine condition, far from it. But it should be indicative of my approach to woodwork – the solid workmanship, refinement, and lack of ostentatious ornamentation, that I hope my guitars achieve. And above all, the workbench should facilitate many years of working with wood.

So what exactly will this bench look like? As I started out by saying, I’ve not got there quite yet, but the details are falling into place. So this post is an examination of what the bench design currently is, and what it is not.

The decision I reached at the end of my previous post was for a Roubo style bench, and that is very much still the basis of the design. That being said, the proliferation of Roubo inspired designs means that simply saying a “Roubo bench” is not in itself a precise description – there were two “Roubo” designs in the second edition of Chris Schwarz’s Workbench Book, not to mention the split top design developed by Benchcrafted. And Mark Hicks of Plate 11 offers three different twists on the Roubo bench (all of which are stunning). So more precisely, my starting point is the iconic Plate 11 bench from Roubo’s L’art du menuisier, (as seen at the top of this post) with a couple of twists which I cover below – all of which are still in keeping with modern interpretations of the “Roubo bench”.

Whenever you start a new project you inevitably draw on what you have done before. In terms of settling on a workbench design, my recent Moxon vise build has been particularly thought provoking. Prior to my Moxon build my only experience working with oak was in 1/4″ to 1″ thicknesses for some of the internal fitout of my tool chest, and so the Moxon build was my first proper experience using oak in any real thickness (oak, it must be said, is not a typical lutherie timber). To my surprise, oak is a real joy to work. The Moxon was also my first encounter with Benchcrafted hardware. So now I know two things – that I want to use oak for this bench, and that I’ll be using Benchcrafted vise hardware.

Yes, oak will push up the build costs, but will also stand the test of time, and feels very English. Should that matter? Probably not, but a nice solid bench combining the best of 18th century continental design with a quintessentially English timber does appeal. As I found on my Moxon build, oak goes very well with the sand cast finish of Benchcrafted “C” type hardware, and so a Glide “C” leg vise will be fitted to the left leg of the bench. Speaking of work holding, I’m going to depart from the Plate 11 brief by adding a Benchcrafted wagon vise (again the “C” type with the sand cast finish). I use the dog holes in my Sjoberg end vise as a make-shift wagon vise and this method of working has become second nature, so a wagon vise currently feels like an essential addition rather than a luxury.

My final addition to the Plate 11 design will be a sliding deadman. Again, this isn’t a radical alteration, but it does add some functionality which is essential for my lutherie work.

Despite the additions, the bench will be recognisably “Roubo”, and will definitely include the iconic sliding dovetail joint attaching the legs through the benchtop, because after all, surely one of the main attractions of building a Roubo style bench is cutting this joint?

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The iconic sliding dovetail leg joint as drawn by Roubo, photo courtesy of Popular Woodworking

…and what it is not

First off, I’m going to jetisson the crotchet. With a good quality leg vise I’m not sure the crotchet adds anything, and I can see it fouling any attempts to secure my solera in the leg vise when assembling acoustic guitars. So the crotchet goes. More radically, I’m also undecided about the planing stop. This can always be added later if necessary (it is after all simply a chuffing large mortice through 5″ of oak benchtop filled by a friction fitted post), but with a wagon vise it feels a little superflouous. The elegance and simplicity of a planing stop and doe’s feet does appeal, but the wagon vise appeals more right now. Maybe I’ll see the error of my ways, but for now I think the planing stop might go.

There are still some major design decisions left to resolve, the most significant of which are the length of the bench, and construction of the top. My current bench is 6′ long, which is a reasonable size. Ideally I’d like an 8′ bench, so it is a case of seeing how comfortable the shop will be with an extra 24″ of bench length. My shop is 17′ long, so it will fit, but the far end has my sharpening station, bandsaw and go bar deck, so things may get a little crowded if the bench gets too long (which is sadly why I’ve had to scotch the glorious idea of building a 10′ long beast of a workbench).

With the top, I’m still torn between a slab top (comprised of a single, or maybe just two oak pieces), or a laminated top of 3″ wide oak. The laminated top involves a great deal more jointing than the slab top, but would be significantly cheaper. But if I’m honest, one of the real attractions of the Roubo form is the “Dreadnaught” slab-top design in Schwarz’s book, and as built on the French Oak Roubo Project for the past two years. So I’m leaning towards the slab top. If the slab top ends up being two-piece (which all really depends on what oak I can source) then I am strongly considering using loose pegged tenons (as demonstrated by Richard Maguire) to provide a mechanical joint in addition to the bucketload of epoxy. That should hold everything together for a couple of hundred years.

Where the slab top gets complicated is installing the wagon vise. Richard Macguire has previously sawn the wagon vise chanel into the slab top, and bolted an end cap to the slab. That works very nicely. But (and there is always a but) there is something very classy about a dovetailed end cap, which would require building a slab top with a laminated edge to dovetail to the end cap. Again, perfectly do-able, but it adds an extra step for no structural benefit – this is purely decorative. Jeff Miller’s stunning oak Roubo was built this way, and looks lovely.

So the impasse I’ve currently hit is whether to go with a pure slab top (with no dovetails), or slab top and edge laminate for a dovetailed end cap. What say you, dear readers?

Getting to Know… Brian Clites

In the “getting to know” hot seat this month is a maker thoroughly committed to resisting the “IKEA-ification” of household furniture. Brian Clites is a fellow Anarchist Tool Chest user, acadmic turned professional furniture maker, and as as you would expect, thoroughly interesting chap.

As always it’s an honour to feature other makers on the blog. So let’s get to know… Brian.

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1. You successfully defended your PhD dissertation last year. What was your PhD on, and how did you make the decision to move from academia to a furniture building career?

My recent doctorate from Northwestern University is in American Religious History.  My dissertation, “Breaking the Silence: The Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivor Movement in Chicago, 1936 – 2011,” was an ethnographically-informed history of the way that this community has transformed their pain and suffering into an agenda of social and ecclesiological reforms. It was a very challenging topic to study for six years. 

My decision to transition into furniture design was a mixture of pragmatism, ideology, luck, and an insatiable drive to create.
To be frank, I believe that the university system in the United States is broken. It is not broken merely because of its labor system. (In spite of being paid less than $100 per student per semester, I have actually loved teaching in adjunct and visiting lecturer capacities over the past five  years.)  It is broken because of the disjunct between what is taught and what is valued in our society.  And because of academia’s  inability to engage meaningfully in the crises of our time.  In spite of its benevolent self-imagining, the American academy exacerbates more than ameliorates problems like inequality, bigotry,  imperialism, and neoliberalism. 
All of that being said, the same ideals that drove me to graduate school ten years ago have driven my transition from hobbyist to professional furniture building.  Namely: the search for authenticity, meaning, integrity, and an anti-corporate lifestyle; my love for natural simplicity; and my lifelong goal of challenging – both physically and philosophically – the bare threads that hold together this vapid tapestry we call modernity.
It may not be true that teachers teach because they cannot do. But I build furniture because I cannot otherwise seem to live out the values that animate every fiber of my body.
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Tool Chest lifts by Brian

2. You’ve been building furniture professionally for just over 6 months now. How have you found those first 6 months?

As I was contemplating this life change last summer, I received a lot of helpful input from academics, friends, and family. However, the  best advice I received was from Christopher Schwarz. As I recall, Chris’s words were: “One business model is to make a career out of your passions. To do whatever it is that you cannot keep yourself from doing.  A ‘job’ that would make you happy whether or not someone pays you to do it. Find that path. And pour all of  yourself into it. In my experience, the income will follow.” 
On the ‘bad’ days – when I do not have any commission to speak of; when I’ve just ruined a drawer that I had already spent 14 hours on; or when my wife and I cannot pay the mortgage on time – on those days, Chris’s words ring particularly true. Because I am happier than I’ve ever been before, day in and day out, working with my hands.
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A run of Brian’s windsor chairs

3. On your blog you’ve written about making a deliberate choice to use local saw mills, and how you’ve found that making that choice in turn has changed your understanding, and experience, of woodwork. Would you care to elaborate on that sentiment? How has the use of local saw mills changed your perspective?

I discovered another great mill just last week. The sense of awe and wonder I feel in such spaces is tough to describe. There is something fabulous about knowing the tree that a board came from, and knowing in turn the town in which that tree lived, the people who cut it down, and the millers who sawed and dried it. 
Trees don’t talk to me. (Yet.) But the people who turn trees into boards have a lot of wisdom, a lot of knowledge, a lot of advice. And on the whole, I’ve found that they’re really nice folk. Men who are as interested in what I’ll do with the tree as I am in how they came to find, acquire, and process it.
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Brian has a well-stocked Anarchist’s Tool Chest – I’m particularly envious of his collection of moulding planes!

4. You recently became involved in Lost Art Press. Tell me how that came about, and what your role at LAP involves.

 I do not have any formal relationship with Lost Art Press.  I was lucky enough to be in Chris’s last Anarchist’s Tool Chest class and, over drinks, we discussed the idea of a user forum, which he later invited me to help out with. Once the forum reached its beta stage, I stepped back. John and Chris do a great job with it. Most days, in fact, Chris replies personally to the new threads. I highly recommend the forum if you haven’t tried it yet, especially as a space for friendly conversations about the history and methods of hand tool woodworking.
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5. In addition to building furniture you also clocked up a lot of time teaching last year. From your blog it looks like your teaching combines practical woodwork with a strong philosophical element. How do students respond to that mix, and how do you find those two elements compliment each other? 

If money were not an issue, I would not teach philosophy. And I would not teach woodworking. Instead, I would (in my dreams) hold the first university position as “Professor of the Humanities With Your Hands.”  
In the most socially-conscious of today’s classrooms, students are asked to think about the ethics of labor.  But while all of them are consumers, very few young adults have (or will ever) produced anything tangible.  This dissociation leads to a chasm that is breaking the social bonds of civilization.
Instead of having students read Walden Pond in a classroom, I want them to live in the woods for a week (or more).  Instead of just reading about the Industrial Revolution, I want students to make a chest of drawers with their hands, then compare it to the Ikea crap in their dorm room.
In an era that defines ‘value’ solely as the lowest number of greenbacks, I seek to instill a different sense of that word in my students. 
Value. Quality. Ethics. Aesthetics.  These are not antithetical terms. And yet, in modern life, we so rarely can find them in the objects – not  just the furniture, but also the clothing and especially the plastic devices – which literally occupy the most intimate spaces in our lives. 
But to answer your question more succinctly: my students dig it. I don’t ask them to learn my values – just to recognize their hands as an extension of their mind (not some inferior, disassociated entity, as Plato and Augustine would have it, of which we should be ashamed).  
Humans can think better with our  hands than we can without them. And millions of western laborers do so every day. But we do not ‘value’ such symmetries of body and mind nearly as much as the abstract equations running Threadneedle and Wall Streets.
To make is to think.  But the inverse, increasingly, does not hold true.
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Rust Never Sleeps… Part 3

I’ve previously written about rust prevention, and light rust removal, which accounts for somewhere in the region of 95% of my rust management needs, especially as I don’t tend to buy many old tools. But occasionally I do have the need to refurbish antique tools, and when I do the light rust removal strategies I’ve written about previously don’t really cut it. So something a little more aggressive is needed.

Amongst the tools I inherited from my Grandfather was his set of pre-WWII carving tools. By rights I shouldn’t have these tools – my Grandfather was supposed to hand them in to be melted down for Spitfires during the Second World War, but instead hid them under his bed. Which although a poor contribution to the war effort, does at least mean that I have some of the tools my Grandfather owned as a boy.

Fast forward some 70 years, and the carving tools were suffering from an unhealthy accumulation of rust from years stored in a damp workshop. Although my Grandfather had been rigorous for as long as I can remember about sharpening and oiling his tools in preparation for winter, his final years saw his workshop start to decline, due to ill health and advanced years. So four years ago when I inheritated his tools, I knew that some time spent on tool-rehabilitation would be necessary. I’ve been slowly refurbishing the carving tools in pairs (because doing the full set of 14 in one go sounds a lot like work, and I’d rather be building things than fixing up too many tools), and this seems like the perfect time to finish my occasional series on rust management strategies.

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Two gouges in a solution of citric acid and hot water.

Fortunately with some basic chemistry, and a bit of elbow grease, most tools can be cleaned up relatively easy. My preferred method to remove severe rust pitting is citric acid, which can be purchased in powder form for a low cost from Amazon, or home brewing supplies. The powder is mixed with water (I use hot water as the higher temperature acts as a catalyst) to the desired strength, and tools submerged in the mixture overnight. For carving tools and small plane blades I use an old jam jar which also allows me to keep wooden handles out of the water. The citric acid attacks the rust while leaving healthy metal unscathed, and unlike the more specialized rust removal solutions, can be poured down the sink without any risk of environmental damage. You don’t even need to wear protective gloves when using citric acid, unlike the more aggresive forms of anti-rust chemical warfare. All of which makes using it a stress (and risk) free experience.

 

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These gouges have just come out of the acid solution and are ready to be cleaned up with a brass brush. It is easy to see here which section of blade has been treated with the citric acid.

Once the tools have had the worst of the rust removed in the citric acid bath, I dry them and remove the remaining rust with a stiff brass bristled brush. A steel brush may be more aggressive, but also runs the risk of magnetising the tool blade, which I’d rather avoid. Going slowly with the brass brush works just fine, and to be honest if I’ve mixed the citric acid to the correct strength it doesn’t take much to remove the last of the rust. What is left is a dull, but clean blade, ready for sharpening.

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After being cleaned up with the brass brush, these gouges are ready to be sharpened. You can see clearly how the previously rusted length of blade is much cleaner than in the previous photo.

To sharpen the carving tools I used a combination of scary sharp papers on some 10mm thick float glass for the outside edge, and some Arkansas oil stone slip-stones for the inside bevels. The whole process only takes a couple of hours of workshop time, plus a night or two of letting the tools soak in the citric acid solution, and these carving tools are now good to go for another 70 years or so.

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Translucent Arkansas slip-stones are ideal for sharpening carving tools.

“Hey man, need any of the good stuff?” The moulding plane gateway drug

I’ve not had any opportunity to make progress on the parlour guitar yet this month, thanks to some minor surgery which meant that pushing a plane was off the cards for a couple of weeks, and a front loaded year in terms of article deadlines (3 articles all due within 4 weeks of each other). Which is fine because it means the writing is going well (and I am looking forward to writing more about those articles in due course).

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In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to write a review of the 3/8″ beading plane Philly made me last year. I’d borrowed a similar beading plane by Philly off Alex Primmer of Classic Hand Tools whilst on the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course, to bead the floor boards on my tool chest, and found the process simple and thoroughly addicted. I only have myself to blame, after all, as there are plenty of blogs out there which warned of the dangers of beading planes. Set the plane’s fence against the edge of the work, plane the beading detail, and stop when the depth-stop bottoms out. Simple. And effective – the subtle shadow line introduced by the bead adds a touch of class to the floor of my tool chest. I was hooked.

Of course, beading doesn’t just add a decorative element, it also protects exposed edges that would be otherwise prone to knocks chips and dents. The bead absorbs the damage of daily use, and prevents any splits from travelling deeper into the piece. So pretty and useful? Isn’t that the perfect combination?

Not long after the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course finished, I dropped Philly a line to commission a 3/8″ beading plane of my own. After a couple of months wait what arrived was a beautiful example of a traditional handmade wooden plane. The beech body has crisp chamfers, a nicely fitted wedge, gorgeous finish, and perfectly fitted boxwood insert (which establishing the bead profile). The O1 steel blade is sharp out of the box, and cuts oak just as smooth and effortlessly as it does pine. As an advert for traditional tools made in a traditional way, Philly just can’t be beat (and he’s a thoroughly nice chap to boot!).

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The beading plane isn’t a tool I reach for every day; there is limited opportunity to bead guitars. But in terms of furniture building it is invaluable for the ability to pretty-up an otherwise plain component with subtle shadow lines and visual interest, and also to protect those delicate edges. I only wish I had had this plane before I started work on the dust seal and runners for my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, as these would be perfect candidates for some beading. I did reach for the beading plane when installing the front tool rack in my chest last August, and this is a prime example of where beading can really lift an otherwise uninteresting element. Truth be told, it’s a wonder Dr Moss and the Appentice haven’t yet been beaded (though they are far from uninteresting), but I shall have to wait until they are fast asleep before I attempt this…

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So are beading planes really the gateway drug? I obviously couldn’t comment, but having found myself in dire need of a re-up (yeah, I watched The Wire) Philly is now making me a pair of No.6 hollow and round planes. So I suppose I have sucumbed to moulding plane addiction. And it feels so good.

Getting to know… Jamie Ward

The “getting to know” series continues this month with Jamie Ward in the hot seat. I first met Jamie at the inaugural New English Workshop summer school – while Chris Schwarz cracked the whip and 18 of us slaved away at building Anarchist’s Tool Chests, the seemingly unflappable Jamie was on hand to run the workshop and offer constant advice and encouragement.

Jamie with Roy Underhill

Jamie with Roy Underhill

Although you are now course leader at Warwickshire College, you have previously worked as a professional furniture maker, right? Tell me about your career before you moved into education, including where you trained?

I trained at Warwickshire College in the late eighties which is interesting as I have gone full circle and returned to the workshop where I first started and now teach from. So when I am trying to motivate one of our 16 yr old students who is having a ‘bad day’, I try to think back to when I was on the course and their age.

So I went from that course into the construction industry, mass producing joinery (windows, doors, stairs etc) for large house builders like Barrats, Redrow, David Wilson Homes. We had daily targets to run 3500 metres of components through the machines, it was a touch soul destroying and monotonous. I was made a supervisor by the time I was 20. Once I had learnt how to use the various wood machines, including four cutters and double ended tenoners it was time for me to move on.

So after 9 years in my first job, I decided I needed to change things to progess and so I decided to sell my house, give my job up and go to university – I was 26. I felt I could use my woodworking skills gained from my joinery days and refine these and go into furniture making. I did my research and felt that Buckinghamshire College in High Wycombe (the home of furniture making), was the college for me. At that time it had the largest furniture making education department in the country and lots of industry still located around the town. Unfortunately Bucks New University as its known now, is about to close most or all of its furniture making courses – very sad.

So I embarked on 5 years at uni, first on a HND Design (Furniture) course then progressed on to BA Hons Furniture Design & Craftsmanship degree course and I loved it. It was so satisfying breaking away from the rigid routine from working in a factory to being able to design furniture and then make it. The experience gained before uni was invaluable in gaining work whilst at unI and my first college job was working holidays in an amazing furniture workshop ran by Richard Williams.

This experience taught me lots, including accuracy, attention to detail and how different it was to work in a small bespoke furniture workshop compared to a large joinery workshop; complete chalk and cheese. In fact as I write this I have just returned from a surprise party at Richard Williams to celebrate his 25 years in business. It was great to see Richard and many people who have played apart in his business and that includes his university tutors from who were also my tutors, this just confirms how supportive the industry is and how tight knit it is and everyone knows everyone.

My time at Bucks College was great, I met my wife there and it gave me a first class degree, something I never thought possible when I was at school. A lesson to my 16 yr olds students – ‘you can change things and make things happen even after a bad time through school’!

After university I help set up a furniture workshop in the Cotswolds in a beautiful village but making furniture for clients in London, it allowed me to use the skills from both university and my joinery days to build a successful workshop and business. After a couple of years I started teaching an evening class at Warwickshire College which 13 years later, I still teach. Within two years of starting teaching part time I then went full time at college.

Teaching is amazing, I love passing on my skills and showing passion for furniture making and seeing students leave and gain jobs in the industry or go onto university just as I did.

I still keep my hand in and design and make furniture in my spare time, but teaching takes priority.

Oak sideboard by Jamie

Oak sideboard

What prompted the move into education? 

I never set out to go into teaching, it began with an inquisitive question to the course leader of the furniture course at the time, do you have any part time teaching posts available? and before I knew it I was teaching an evening class.

I caught the teaching bug here. I was teaching mainly mature students just 1 evening a week, they made a couple of set projects like  tables and wall cabinets then they moved on to their own projects. We continue to have projects that range from bird boxes to the largest project to date, a flight of stairs.

Jamie

Community Is!

Running the furniture programe at Warwickshire College puts you at the forefront of training the next generation of makers. What from your perspective  are the main challenges for keeping the woodwork crafts alive?

FUNDING! I have helped implement a forum with fellow furniture course managers from around England and we often discuss the challenges of proposed funding cuts and how we can overcome these. Because the furniture industry is quite an unknown industry, its not the first career choice of many.

Did you know the UK Furniture Industry is bigger than the Aerospace industry in its turnover? I have recently become a freeman of The Furniture Maker’s Company. Only last week there was a conference called ‘Mind the Gap’  at The Furniture Makers Company  and it discussed the challenges of training and engaging with education and industry, there was also a recent survey carried out – please do click on this link to find out more.

Next is getting the opportunity to discuss furniture making to 13-15 year olds and therefore RECRUITING FROM SCHOOLS. Because we are a Further Education College with various courses ranging from  A-Levels to plumbing to engineering and furniture making, I feel some schools see us as competition. Therefore it can be challenging to gain access to this age group and promote furniture making as a career. There are some local schools that welcome the college in and offer careers events, it would be good if this was more widely practised. Staying in school to do A-levels is not for everyone! And now children have to stay in education until they are 18. Even before secondary schools, it could be said children are making less, how many of you played with Lego bricks or made Airfix models? I did and I loved making things. So are enough children being exposed or getting the opportunity to put the Ipad down and be creative?

Last is PROGRESSION, we have some industry on our doorstep, and we work hard to keep and maintain contact with these companies. It is important to have routes into jobs and for some, onto higher education courses. Around 70% of our students progress into a job or on to a university on completion of their studies. These jobs include, furniture making, wood machining, boat building, kitchen making, theatre set making and joinery to  name just a few. The jobs are there but we don’t always hear from employers, it is common for companies to want employees with experience, but its that old chestnut, ‘how do you get experience if no-one will give you a job?’?

Fan shaped wall cabinet

Fan shaped wall cabinet

So, challenges aside, what are the positive elements of teaching woodwork? What do you find most rewarding?

I love teaching, I do not struggle to get out of bed and come to work each day. Every day is different and always rewarding to see skills being past over to the next generation – ‘Inspiring the next generation!’ sound familiar?  As a tutor we are rewarded in many ways, whether that is seeing a student master cutting dovetails or stand back and look at their finished piece of furniture and a broad smile appear when they have concluded the production journey and the birth of a piece of furniture.

The realisation that this can be such a self fulfilling activity.

We have an end of year show and this an excellent platform to witness the joy of furniture making and end results where students show their work to family, friends and possible employers.

It is very rewarding to observe and watch the smiles of the students, the faces of proud parents the feeling of my job has been completed for this stage in their careers and now its over to them to see where they can go in the industry.

So reward comes in various amounts, daily, weekly or in one big dose at the end of the year.

Union Table

You obviously have to teach a broad range of skills, but how would you classify your own approach to woodwork? Are you a handtool purist, a machine focused worker, or do you have a hybrid approach? What lead you to your  method of working?

Well, with a varied woodworking background, my approached has evolved. As mentioned, I began mass producing joinery, there was no time to spend using my trusted Stanley no 5 there! University and working for Richard Williams showed me how there could be a mix between machines, power tools and hand tools and still make beautiful crafted  furniture and there be a successful business.

So my approach to teaching is that of a pragmatic, or as you put it, a hybrid approach to woodworking, If you are going into industry I feel it is my duty to show a range of ways to work. This could be by hand with very little machines or with the use of a broad range of machines and accompanied hand skills, for example hand cut dovetails when making drawers.

This is my approach to furniture making, use the kit around me and use hand skills when required. Preparation of materials like sawing and planing, well I do like our machine shop full of Wadkin and Robinson machines – so I’m happy to use them!

‘Time is money’ is a mantra that I have learned, and with two young children, ‘time is precious’!

Custom fitted bathroom cabinets

Custom fitted bathroom cabinets

With your own woodwork, what styles or types of work do you consider to be influences?

Influences I feel are varied for me, the obvious ones would be Richard Williams who gave me my first fine furniture making opportunity.  Elegant and well made furniture with the use of quality materials.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his use of sculptural or dominant designs to set a feel for a room, for instance the ladder back chair in the hill house.

Paul Smith with his use of colour and stripes; love the understated exterior of his suits and then a flash of colour with the linings.

Then I have to mention the arts and crafts movement with Gimson and The Barnsley’s. I’ve really enjoying visiting Arts and Crafts houses this year and seeing the furniture with through tenons or solid oak panels. True and honest furniture, build to last but also functional.

Let me finish with a William Morris quote,  ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’.

Workshop Archaeology

The following is based on an article I wrote for issue 237 of Furniture & Cabinet Making.

Although there is a reassuring lack of ancient spike filled pits under my bench, and no nest of vipers guarding my tool chest, I have recently found myself drawing inspiration from my favourite childhood Indiana Jones movies and assuming the role of a workshop archaeologist (sadly this is where any comparison to Harrison Ford ends).

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Thanks to a family friend I recently came into possession of a large batch of tools being disposed of in a house clearance. I had no idea what was included in this collection, so when several large boxes where unloaded from the delivery van I was curious to discover what they contained. A pristine condition Shopsmith combination lathe/ band saw/ disc sander machine was the undoubted centrepiece, which means that I can finally build that pair of Roorkee chairs I’ve been promising myself. The rest of the collection was a jumbled assortment of smaller items in several battered hardwood boxes, and I have been slowly sifting through these crates and working out exactly what they contain.

I didn’t know the former owner of these tools, nor do I know anything about him other than what his tools tell me. And so I have started a process of workshop archaeology; piecing together an impression of another craftsman from (what is probably just a selection of) his tools. And in doing so, the idea of heritage (about which I have written before) started to call its siren song. Because I began wondering what a future woodworker and workshop archaeologist would surmise from the contents of my tool chest. If all that is left to tell the story of my craft is my tools, what would they say?

Thanks to two readers, I now know what this mystery tool is.

Thanks to two readers, I now know what this mystery tool is.

I don’t think the contents of my tool chest would surprise anyone. It is very obviously focused on hand tool work, and save for a couple of specific lutherie tools, most of my tool collection looks like it was lifted from the pages of the Joiner & Cabinetmaker or any other traditional handwork text. So you will find the standard issue hand planes, chisels, marking and measuring tools, and a nest of saws. Only the bending iron, purfling cutter, and fret files might give any indication that I am predominantly a luthier rather than a cabinetmaker.

A set of letter blocks, but what sort of printing machine do they fit?

A set of letter blocks, but what sort of printing machine do they fit?

In contrast the collection I recently acquired makes for a varied, and fascinating subject. The vast collection of router bits, in addition to the Shopsmith machine, allows me to infer that the previous owner was a predominantly machine based woodworker. He was also, I think, a metal worker. There is an endless supply of round and square steel stock, milling bits, and numerous metal working tools including some wonderful knurling tools and parallel jawed pliers. But some of the crates hold more unexpected wonders. A bag of small brass letter blocks for use in a printing machine, a pyrography machine, and a 3” sweep brace, were some of the more unexpected finds buried in one of the crates. It is hard to picture this craftsman; was he accomplished in many crafts, or was he a spirited dabber? What as his work like? Whatever the reality, the sheer breadth of his interests leaves me wishing that I could have talked to him about his craft.

My Anarchist's Tool Chest

This Anarchist’s Tool Chest houses all of my tools.

By sheer coincidence, my excursion into workshop archaeology came just after I had finished reading Virtuoso, the recent book on the tool cabinet of American piano builder H.O Studley (published by Lost Art Press, 2015). And my experiences of trying to piece together a picture of an unknown craftsman reminds me of the work that Don Williams undertook in researching Virtuoso (although my workshop archaeology is on a far less grand scale). Like my mysterious craftsman, we know little about Studley, but in Virtuoso Williams‘s forensic examination of Studley’s iconic tool cabinet, and the tools it contains, together with solid historic research builds a picture of the elusive craftsman who built and used the cabinet. It is a fascinating read, both for the intricacies of the tool cabinet, which in many ways resembles a 3D puzzle, and also for the light it sheds on a craftsman who has been obscured by the tool cabinet he clearly intended to be his legacy and the expression of his craft. As a book examining the very highest levels of craftsmanship, and workshop archaeology, Virtuoso comes highly recommended.

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Very few of us ever achieve the enormous level of skill that H.O Studley possessed. But most of us will create at least one piece of work which will outlive us. And like the owner of my recent acquisitions, we will leave behind a tool collection that others will pick through and make use of, continuing the heritage of woodwork. I find this very comforting; the idea that my tools will continue to be used to create long after I am gone. At my old martial arts club there was a tradition of never washing your belt, because the dirt it picked up represented years of hard won experience and training. I like to think that the patina and wear on each of my tools carries a similar message for the future owners to interpret and decode.

So, the next time you lift the lid on your tool chest (or open the door to your workshop), consider what the contents would say about you and your craft to a future workshop archaeologist.

The important of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest

I have written previously about the personal significance of my tool chest (particularly in issue 224) but in short this is a traditional 18th century English design, recently re-popularised by Christopher Schwarz in his book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest (Lost Art Press, 2011). The chest serves several critical functions in my workshop. It protects my tools from dust and moisture (the two key ingredients of rust) and serves as an excellent vessel for both storing tools and working from. Because of the robust construction (a dovetailed carcase, and mortise and tenon lid, all in inch thick southern yellow pine), the tool chest will also serve as an ark for my tools, ensuring that my children, and their children, can continue to use my tools for many years to come. But most of all, my Anarchist’s Tool Chest is a constant reminder of how I want to approach my craft. It is a reminder of the countless craftsmen who came before me and used the same traditional tools, techniques (and yes, form of tool chest) as I do, and of those that will follow the same path long after I am gone.

This guitar, and my tool chest, are all that is needed to tell the story of my craft.

This guitar, and my tool chest, are all that is needed to tell the story of my craft.