The second staked saw bench is now assembled, and I’ve had my first opportunity to press the pair of benches into use. In my last post on this project I had finished work on the legs for the second bench and just had the mortises to drill and ream before glue-up. I approached the rest of the build in the same way I’ve written about previously in this series (which is collected under the “staked furniture category” on the right-hand side of the screen).
This project has been my first introduction to staked furniture, and to the compound geometry chairmakers use. Dipping my toe into this new world (which is very different to the guitar building or casework I’m used to) has been a great experience. When drilling the mortises for the second bench I was amazed at how quickly the angles for the sight lines settled into my arms and eyes, and steering the auger bit through the bench top at the correct angle using only a sliding bevel for reference felt a lot more natural. There’s no voodoo to this – just a matter of practice. Unfortunately reaming the mortises still feels much less natural, I suppose because there is no reference edge on the reamer which you can use to follow the sightline. I was quite happy with the splay on my first saw bench – it could afford to be a touch more consistent, but it certainly wasn’t terrible. Somehow, despite prioritising the reaming on the second bench I managed to be less consistent than with the first bench. This is definitely an area I need to work on, and I think there may be a third saw bench in my future to really get to terms with this technique (anda to be honest third saw bench would make sawing long stock easier anyway). I have total admiration for chair makers who can get this operation right time after time – it is definitely the most difficult element of the saw bench build. That being said, even with legs that look a little like Bambi on ice, the second saw bench is still rock solid in use, which goes to show how forgiving the form is.
In The Anarchist’s Design Book Chris didn’t apply any finish to his saw benches. I decided that a simple finish would help them survive the rigours of workshop use, and I wanted to try a recipe Derek had given me. Both saw benches received a coat of freshly mixed amber shellac (a one pound cut) to which I added pumice powder. After this had dried and sat for a couple of days I then burnished the benches with a handful of plane shavings. The result is a slightly grippy, matt finish which will offer the benches protection and which can be easily renewed as and when it becomes necessary.
As soon as the finish has been burnished I was keen to put the saw benches into use, and so I used it as an opportunity to break down a 14′ long board of 12″ wide pine that I’ve been saving for a second Packing Box from The Joiner & Cabinet Maker. This is the first time I’ve used a good pair of saw benches sized specifically for my height, and the experience was extremely illuminating. My initial observations on working this way are as follows.
- I need to re-organise my workshop so that I can break down long stock without having to open the doors. This is something I’ve been thinking about doing anyway, but it is now clear that having the workbench in the middle of the shop (instead of against the wall) is not an efficient use of space. Time for a reschuffle in the new year. I’ll then be able to set up the saw benches down the middle of the workshop as needed.
- Crosscutting stock at the saw bench is a much more efficient way of working than breaking down wide boards at the workbench, especially with the Skelton Saws Panel Saw (which is a complete monster).
- For long rip cuts I think I still prefer working at workbench height and using an overhand ripping technique. Partly because I find it easier to keep to the line when overhand ripping compared to ripping on a saw bench (although I am sure that will improve with practice) but also because I carry an old shoulder injury from martial arts training which makes ripping at the saw bench somewhat uncomfortable.
- The saw bench design offers an excellent platform for sawing. Placing the workpiece along the length of the saw bench top provides a great deal of support for ripping long stock. Placing the workpiece across the width of the bench top gives a good reference edge for making square cross cuts.
- Two saw benches are good, three would be better. Working the 14′ long board required careful placement, and the occasional relocation, of my two saw benches, and having a third would definitely make life a bit easier. That will be another project (and opportunity to get the reaming bang on) for next year.
In early November every year we head down to the Cotswolds for a long weekend. It is mainly an opportunity to break up that long, dreary expanse of autumn, and to have some family time away from the pressures of everyday life. One of the highlights of these trips, for me at least, is looking at the furniture in the period cottages we stay in, as well as in the local pubs and eateries. I always find the moments reflecting on the furniture surrounding us on our Cotswold breaks to be instructive. I don’t have much time to look at furniture in antique stores, historic buildings, or any of the other places that you’d go to look at handmade furniture in the wild, so most of my interaction with non-mass produced furniture is through woodwork texts or the internet. Which is fine up to a point, but something is lost when you are left engaging with a tactile subject such as furniture at a distance. The other advantage of engaging with the furniture pieces when we travel is that very few of them are museum quality pieces – by virtue of staying in holiday cottages all of the furniture is there to be used, and there can be a pleasing variety on display. And finally, living with a piece for a few days gives you much more opportunity to become accustomed with it than a brief encounter in an antique store or lunchtime google search. These trips have therefore come to play an important role in my on-going quest to pry open my design eye.
This year’s trip away bought a bumper crop of furniture experiences, all of which seemed to highlight the unusual and unorthodox. It seems I can’t escape staked furniture at the moment, as the first piece I enountered was the little staked bench pictured above. This low bench was perfect for the Apprentice to use, being about 10″ high and featuring octagonal legs back-wedged with dirty great 1″ tenons through a 1.5″ top. Either the tenons have shrunk a little, or whoever made the bench wasn’t too concerned about flushing up the wedges as these were all quite proud of the top. But the bench was stable and solid, and the Apprentice loved pulling it round with her and sitting on it. The proportions of this bench are quite different to the staked benches currently on my workbench, particularly the thin top compared to the large tenons and wedges. But the beauty of seeing pieces in the wild is how they can vary from accepted norms of design and still provide good use.
The other great find in our cottage was the bathroom door, the tongue and groove boards for which had been secured by nail clinched battens. Even the latch was clinched in place. I confess that this is the first real world example of clinching I’ve encountered – previously it was a technique confined to the pages of The Joiner & Cabinet Maker, the Packing Crate project from that book, and also a blog post by Richard McGuire. So to unexpectedly stumble upon an entirely clinched door was a wonderful reminder that these furniture forms and techniques are not historical curios or academic exercises – they are genuine techniques that craftsmen have relied upon for generations.
The final memorable piece was a little more highend. Whenever we go to the Cotswolds I always steal and hour or two to browse the inventry of Christopher Clarke Antiques in Stow on the Wold – one of the leading experts in campaign furniture. Amongst the usual collection of gorgeous secretaries, folding bookcases, and campaign chairs, was this lovely chest of drawers. Two things set this piece apart from any other example of campaign furniture I’ve seen in print or at Christopher Clarke. Firstly, the dimensions are significantly smaller than most other pieces – this chest of drawers was roughly 3/4″ of the usual size. Secondly, this is the first example of campaign furniture I’ve seen which has used two primary woods; the casework is ash but the drawer fronts are quartersawn oak. This combination of timber is really striking, and with the smaller dimensions makes for a wonderfully compact yet stylish piece which has a very different feel to many of its campaign brothers and sisters. I always find a trip to Chrispher Clarke Antiques to be inspiring, and there are several items of campaign furniture on my “to build” list. But this unusual chest of drawers has opened up other possibilities for the form, and provoked synapses into firing. Not for the first time, I am amazed at how changing a couple of simple design decisions can dramatically alter the impact of a piece.
The advantage of building several of the same project is that with each successive build you can take what works, learn from mistakes, and also try new approaches to the key processes to see if there are more efficient, or precise, ways of working. With the second staked saw bench I’ve been focusing on consolidating the skills developed with the first build, but also approaching some of the key stages of the build a little differently.
When it comes to cutting the tapered tenons I’m specifically interested in removing the bulk of the waste as rapidly as possible, and getting as close as possible to the finished tenon shape before I reach for the tenon cutter. My approach for the second batch of legs has been largely as I described for the first saw bench, with one significant exception. In The Anarchist’s Design Book Chris suggests that the tenon could be shaped with a coarse rasp in the absence of a tenon cutter or lathe. Although I’m still using the tenon cutter to reach the final shape, with these legs I thought I’d try rasping the tenon.
It turns out this approach has a number of significant advantages over rough shaping with a spokeshave (as I did on the first set of legs). Firstly, the rasp will reach right down to the shoulder of the tenon, while a spokeshave invariably bellies the tenon because the shoulder catches on the sole of the shave. Secondly, thanks to the left-to-right movement of a rasp, you can work round the tenon and cover more ground before you have to rotate the leg in the vise, which means more time is spent shapring and less adjusting the workholding – a much more efficient process!
Finally, the rasp can work very specific localised areas which is useful if splitting off the waste has left bumps which would foul the tenon cutter and which the spokeshave cannot reach, and also allows you to slightly hollow the middle of the tenon prior to introducing it to the cutter. What is the advantage of hollowing the tenon? Well. If a tenon is slightly oversized the lower portion of the cutter will start to bite first, and will continue to cut until the tenon is shaved to final dimensions. This causes uneven wear on the cutter as the lower part of the blade is constantly working, and will become dull long before the rest of the blade. Uneven wear necessitate sharpening more often, which is far less fun than making shavings. To encourage more even wear along the length of cutter (and hopefully less frequent sharpening), a slightly hollowed tenon should in theory allow the top and bottom of the cutter to bite just before the middle section – and by “early” I mean no more than one or two turns before the middle part of the cutter bites. I certainly needed fewer turns of the cutter in order to bring my rasped tenons to size, which suggests that I’ll need to sharpen the cutter less often in the long term.
So my process for these tenons has been to split the waste off with a 1″ chisel and 16oz mallet, after which I’ve cleaned up the tenon to cylinder with a spokeshave, followed by rasping to a tapered tenon using a 10″ 9 grain Auriou rasp. For small adjustments I’ve also been reaching for a 7″ 13 grain Auriou rasp.
The cutter invariably bottoms out on the tenon shoulder before the lower section of the tenon is at final shape. However by that point there is not much material left to remove from the bottom of the tenon, and what little there is can easily be identified by the faint ledge left by the edge of the cutter blade. To true up this part of the tenon I’ve been using a 3/4″ chisel, held tight against the finished part of the tenon as a reference surface. Although paring towards the shoulder involved working against the grain, with a sharp chisel taking only very light cuts there isn’t any real danger of tearout, and for particularly gnarly grain a sideways slicing movement can be used to remove the waste without tearing the grain.
The ash is lovely to work, and the way the grain patterns bend around the facets of the octagon is very pleasing. I’ve been threatening to make a pair of Roorkee chairs for a while now (another reason to get the lathe up and running this winter) and at this point I’m pretty much set on making them out of ash, with burgandy leatherwork from Texas Heritage. That will be a sweet combination.Those winding grain patterns got all manner of synapses firing. I’ve written previously about how The Anarchist’s Design Book democratises the woodcrafts by demonstrating how a very modest tool kit and limited (but effective) set of techniques can be used to furnish an entire home. But there is another striking element to all of this which has been playing on my mind a lot this week, and that is the asthetics of the furniture Chris presented in the book. All of the furniture in The Anarchist’s Design Book is very attractive, but to my eye at least it looks quite unusual. The staked chair, for example, is instantly recognisable as a chair – it has all constituent parts (seat, legs, back, spindles) but for some reason the lines of the piece tickled my frontal lobe as being a little unusual. These designs feel as old as the hills (they have been informed by medieval artwork after all) but also fresh and modern. I think in part this has to do with the combination of straight and curved lines, the subtle saddling of the seat, and also the octagonal legs. Something clicked for me when I finished the first of my saw benches – the slab top and octagonal legs in front of me suddenly made sense, stopped looking quite so alien, and started to feel more familiar. The octagons are a wonderful shape for legs – all those facets mean that as you move around the piece the light catches and dances across the planed wood, and the grain patterns move in ways you just don’t get with flat work or even square profiled legs. And now I can’t stop thinking about how octagons could be used for other pieces. How about for the legs of a Welsh stick chair? Or even a Windsor chair in place of the more usual bamboo turnings? Or perhaps for the legs of a cabinet stand? And that is all when you have an octagon of equal proportions – how about alternating two sizes of facet as you move round the circumference of the leg instead of facets of an equal size? This has opened up a new world of design for me, and has really emphasised that making small changes can have a tremendous impact on the overall feel of a piece. There is, after all, no reason why legs should be square or cylindrical, even if those are the most common shapes. And an octagon is hardly an exotic shape. Am I blowing the significance of the humble octagon out of proportion? Well, possibly. But the design possibilites offered by moving away from the more conventional square or cylindrical leg profiles are quite exciting, even if it seems like a less than radical design choice. The other attraction is that octagonal legs can be a very striking, yet the process to create them is wonderfully simple and requires nothing more than jack and jointer planes (although you could get away with just a jack plane at a pinch). Sometimes the most profound changes to a design can also be the simplest, and that is a worthwhile lesson to hold on to.
I suppose that the other lesson from all of this is that while reading about furniture can help develop your design vocabulary, nothing quite beats building something to really pry open your design eye and to prompt new ideas.
From my perspective, one of the very best things about The Anarchist’s Design Book is how Chris used it as an opportunity to democratise furniture making – the suggestion that you need a minimal tool kit and only a handful of core techniques in order to make durable and stylish furniture is an incredibly powerful message. Yes you still need to develop those core skills, but by focusing on a small number of key techniques and removing the need to purchase an endless list of expensive tools, or to spend a lifetime making fancy jigs, furnishing your home with your own hands suddenly looks very feasible. For me, never has this been more apparent than reading the chapters on staked chairs and benches – chair making can often appear to have more than a touch of voodoo to it, so to see staked construction methods and compound geometry placed firmly within your grasp, is quite frankly intoxicating. Building this pair of staked saw benches is the equivalent of dipping my toe into chair making, and I hope to be spending a lot more time working on chairs of one form or another over the next couple of years.
Once the glue had cured on the first saw bench I trimmed the wedges and tenon stub with a flush cut saw, and then smoothed the whole bench top with my No.3 smoothing plane. Next was another introduction to a key element of chair making – levelling the legs and trimming them to length. As with the compound joinery, this actually sounds a lot more difficult than it is, and Chris’ clear instructions in the book left me with a bench that was level and stable in next to no time, and didn’t require any complex jigs (there is nothing I enjoy in the workshop less than jig making). After checking various available surfaces with a spirit level I decided to use the lid of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest – the raised panel was plenty big enough for the saw bench and it just happened to be the most level surface available. Standing the saw bench on top of the tool chest, with the spirit level on top of the bench, I wedged up the legs until the top was perfectly flat across it’s length and width. The oak wedges I made for the luthier’s thin panel jig worked perfectly for this operation, as I was able to tap them in to make precise incremental changes, instead of diving into the scrap bin for suitable off-cuts.
Once I was satisfied that the top was level I was able to work out the appropriate height of the saw bench by measuring the distance between my kneecap and the floor, and then determine how much the legs needed to be trimmed to get the top of the bench to the desired height, using nothing more complex that a 24″ rule in a combination square, and my small Sterling Tool Works Double Square. To continue the simple-jigs-or-no-jigs theme, to mark off the legs I taped a scalpel with No.10 blade to a piece of scrap the right height, and marked off each facet of the legs.
Actually trimming the legs is a bit nerve wracking at first – there’s not much margin for error if you want the bench to remain at the right height, and the angles are (yet again) a little funky. For the first leg I kerfed in the line on all eight facets of the leg to create a path of least resistance, and then trimmed the leg fully. That worked fine, but was a little fiddly, so for the other three legs I decided to be brave and just go for it. Positioning yourself properly definitely helps reduce the risk of this operation – standing where you can see the lines on at least three of the faces of a leg helps keep the saw at the right angle. After the first leg or so it became easy to dial the correct angle in by eye, and I think goes to show that compound angles are not to be feared. To trim the legs I used a 12″ carcase saw by Bad Axe, which although a little slower than my 16″ tenon saw, gives a very precise cut which needs virtually no clean up. As a finishing touch I gave the feet of the bench a 1/8″ by 1/8″ chamfer using a fine (13 grain, 7″) Auriou rasp.
A quick test with the new Skelton Saws Panel Saw confirmed that the first saw bench is rock solid and at the perfect height. All that remains to do now is apply a simple finish, although I will wait until the second bench is finished.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that the first of the pair of saw benches is now glued up and ready to be leveled. I’m pleased to say that gluing up the saw bench was one of the least stressful glue-ups I’ve ever had, which is remarkable when you consider that this is my first time building with staked and wedged joinery. I can’t take any credit for the ease of glue-up however (as much as I’d like to) – I think that the simplicity and effectiveness of the joinery lends itself to a straight forward and stress free experience.But I’m getting ahead of myself a little. Before I could fit and glue the legs I needed mortices to house them. The mortices are drilled through the bench top using a 5/8″ bit and then reamed to match the taper of the leg tenons. This was one of the most challenging, yet enjoyable elements of the saw bench build, and the introduction to chairmaking geometry was one of the reasons I decided to use this saw bench design over the other (very good) options.
Drilling the holes is pretty straight forward, despite the compound angles involved. The key is to go slowly and to have a good sliding bevel set up on the workpiece to keep you boring at the right angle. Chris writes in The Anarchist’s Design Book that compound angles are just as easy as boring at 90 degree, and he’s got a point. Boring the hole at a funky angle to both the surface and the edges of the bench top feels counterintuitive at first, but the sliding bevel offers an excellent guide and once you’ve got the body position dialed in it becomes second nature. I used one of the excellent Jennings Pattern auger bits by Tools for Working Wood, driven by my 1920’s era (pre-Stanley takeover) North Brothers brace, which is definitely my favourite way to bore holess. Despite being nearly 100 years old the brace chuck holds bits with an iron grip, and the 10″ sweep is smooth as silk.
Reaming the holes is more challenging, as the sliding bevel offers much less guidance against a conical shaped reamer. Instead, I took Chris’ advice from the book, and shaved a test tenon using a length of spare curtain pole – the pole shaved to a clean tenon very easily, and gave me something with which to test the angle I was reaming every 10 turns or so of the brace. This then becomes a process of checking using the test tenon, and making subtle adjustments to keep the reaming on track with the right angles. I didn’t quite manage to ream all four mortices to the same angle, but hopefully the finished bench won’t have too much of a resemblance to Bambi-on-ice. We shall see. To ream the mortices I used the Veritas reamer, which was again driven by my North Brothers brace. The Veritas reamer has the same included angle as the tenon shaver, which keeps things simple and ensures that the tenons will match the mortices. Once the mortices were all reamed I tested the fit of the legs, and numbered them along with the matching mortices – small steps like this definitely take the pressure off during glue up. I also recycled some scrap oak into wedges. The final step before glue-up was then to kerf the tenons to accept the wedges. The bench vise on my Sjoberg bench is guided by two rods which prevent racking, but also meant that the vise had only the most precarious grip on the tapered octagonal legs. My Moxon vise on the otherhand has a little bit of give in the front jaw, partly due to the lack of any guides and also the enormous force exerted by the cast iron wheels. All of which meant that the Moxon was able to close around the legs despite their taper, and grip them tightly while I kerfed the tenons with my dovetail saw. It’s a useful reminder that not all racking is bad! After running through a dry run (which did not include hammering in the oak wedges, because I’m not sure they would ever come out again!) I glued up the saw bench using Titebond Hide Glue which had been gently warming in a mug of warm water for 90 minutes, working one leg at a time. Once the legs were glued and hammered in (I used a 24oz mallet, but I’m sure a lump hammer would work just as well) I flipped the bench over and knocked the wedges in, again using the Bluespruce 24oz Joiner’s mallet.