When Gareth was in the workshop a couple of weeks ago we managed to find time to do a photoshoot of Esmerelda as well as the Policeman’s Boot Bench. I’ve wanted to have set of high quality photos of Esme for some time, so was delighted to see what Gareth had done. One of the benefits of getting a photographer in to take photos is that they bring a fresh perspective and spot details or angles which you (as the maker) can often overlook. So it was with this shoot.
Thanks to an eagle eyed reader, it has come to my attention that there is video footage of Esmerela on YouTube! Gerardo of My Vintage Victory stopped by my stand at EWS and played Esmerelda for a couple of minutes. What I didn’t know at the time was that he had recorded the whole event. Esmerelda makes her appearance at 4:21 on the below video.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s hard to believe that the European Woodworking Show finished a week ago now, and I am typing this one handed while pinned to the sofa under the apprentice as she gently snores (even more incredible is that she is 5 weeks and 3 days old already). Last weekend was a huge blast, despite the 3am alarm clock on the Saturday morning. Thank you so much to everyone who stopped by my stand to say hello or to talk about lutherie.
The show really was an incredible event. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, as I’ve not demonstrated at a woodwork show before, and unlike most of the demonstrators there, I wasn’t really selling anything (other than myself). As it happened, I didn’t have any opportunity to work on the parlour guitar over the course of the weekend, as I had a constant stream of people wanting to look at Esmerelda and the tool chest, talk about some of my recent articles in Furniture & Cabinetmaking, and generally talk about lutherie and furniture making.
One of the highlights of the show for me was getting to catch up with so many good friends, and to meet other makers, including some of the people behind my favourite tools. This networking has inevitably opened up new opportunities, which I hope to be able to write about on the blog in the coming months. But for now, expect a couple of exciting new articles, a forthcoming blog collaboration project with the Minimalist Woodworker, and also the opportunity to come and learn some lutherie techniques from me in the classroom. All of which I am greatly looking forward to.
The quality of participants at EWS was of an incredibly high standard (where else does Sunday morning start with David Charlesworth trying out one of your guitars?), and I was honoured to be invited to take part in the show. The following is just a sample of the folk I enjoyed meeting and talking to over the course of the weekend (and apologies to anyone I didn’t get a photo with, I will be sure to make amends at EWS 2017!).
I’m already booked in for EWS 2017, and will have the apprentice with me for that show (child labour laws say it’s fine to have 2 year olds working for you, right?). So look forward to seeing everyone there in two years!
Many events occurred today which I never expected when I signed up for Roy’s class last November.
We started off the day with a healthy amount of metal work for two separate projects. One involved cutting copper pipe, beating it into a square cross section, drilling out screw holes and then soldering on nuts to accept the screws. These are to be used for a set of pinch rods, with two copper fixtures apiece. The only soldering I’ve done previously is guitar electrics, so using a ruddy great gas torch for soldering the copper bracket and brass nut was a new experience.
The second element of metal work was cutting brass inlay for use with Roy’s amazing passer drill on a project we will start tomorrow. I was more familiar with this work, having cut a fair amount of shell inlay for my guitars, but 3mm thick brass plate was a very different sort of material to work with. Lots of fun, and I’m quite pleased with how my inlay came out.
More parallel skills, more experiences. Perfect.
The afternoon was spent skip diving, which I definitely did not expect on this course (or in fact any other), for suitable timber for the pinch rods. Roy is clearly a master skip diver, and emerged with a haul of walnut, old growth mahogany, maple, and a teak skooner chair. I opted for some teak from the chair, which Roy expertly demolished. The teak turned out to have some crazy roped grain which tore out in every direction regardless of which plane I used (and yes, I tried the full complement of No.8 jointer, low angle block plane, and 212 scraper plane). But the pinch rods themselves came out pretty nicely, so I’m pleased with the end results of a pretty fun project,
As a final treat, Roy taught me how to play the saw. So expect more boings, squarks, and 1950’s sci-fi sound effects on my next brace of recordings. I may have to see if Mark has any nice vintage rip saws for sale – I prefer my musical saws to be in A sharp (A Sharp Saw, geddit? Yes ladies and gentlemen, I’m here all week. I think Ethan would be proud of this one).
Tomorrow holds more wonders and curiosities, but for now I’ll leave you with one of my favourite pictures of the course so far. Roy apparently appreciates my guitars! It might be time to retire…
Now if you’ll excuse me, apparently I have to play an open mic night in front of my course mates and instructors. There’s no way this can go wrong, is there?
I am very pleased to announce that I have been invited to pitch up my bench at the European Woodworking Show at Cressing Temple on 12 and 13 September this year!
If you are planning to attend EWS 2015 then please do take the time to stop by my bench and say hello; it will be great to meet new readers and say hi to some old friends.
I am working away from home at the moment, and as a result my workshop time is limited to Sunday mornings, which has hit my productivity a little. I am still beavering away in the workshop however, and a more substantive post will follow soon. But in the meantime I was pleased to see that the Totnes School of Guitar Making have recently revamped their website. As a result you can see in progress pictures for each student going back to January 2006, with older course photos to be added soon.
The website is a great introduction to a hand tool focused method of lutherie (the only machines used are a drill press for drilling machine head holes, and router for truss rod slots and electric guitar cavities), and the course photos are bound to provide an endless source of inspiration for new guitar builds. Highly recommended.
Beginnings are always the hardest part. Where to start? I mean literally, where to start? At the beginning.
This is a blog about lutherie, wood work, and music making. But really that’s not the beginning, not by any stretch of the imagination. That is very much the destination.
The beginning, I suppose, takes place some 26 years ago, when a much younger me first picked up a violin. What followed was many, many hours of (unintentionally) impersonating the sound of an enraged and cat-nip addled tom cat being fed tail first through a wood chipper. The practice continued, and the cat-slaughter sound effects finally abated. Several years were spent playing with high quality youth orchestras. The tuba, guitar, and mandolin were added to my practice regime. And somewhere deep inside my mind, a question started to form. Because you see, once I understood how a musician used a musical instrument to generate a sound, and string that sound to several others to play a melody, I wanted to know how the musical instrument itself worked.
Although I never did much in the way of woodwork growing up, it was something which had always been present during my youth. My maternal grandfather was an active and enthusiastic woodworker, building everything from toys to wardrobes. There is another blog post or two about the sanctuary of Grandad’s shed, and about the idea of heritage in hand tool working, but I shall leave those for another time.
And so the idea had been planted, and as soon as I finished law school, I booked myself onto a term at the Totnes School of Guitar Making. Under the tutelage of Phil Messer I designed and built, entirely by hand, a 12 string acoustic guitar named Esmerelda. And somewhere a lightbulb lit up. This was it – the Eurika moment. This was love. With hand tool working and making things from wood I might add, not with Phil (although he is one hell of a chap). That was just over six years ago now, and for my sins I spend my days working as a construction solicitor at an international law firm. When I’m not in the office, my focus is still on playing and writing music, and of course, wood working.
Most of my workshop time is still dedicated to lutherie, particularly building acoustic guitars (although at the moment I am working on a ’59 Blackguard Telecaster type electric guitar). But thanks to the writings of Chris Schwarz, both on his blog and in print through his Lost Art Press publishing house, I am slowly turning my gaze towards furniture building. In 2014 I intend to work my way through the projects in the Joiner and Cabinet Maker, and will chart my progress in this here blog.
It seems only fitting to end this inaugural post with photos of the instrument which started it all; Esmerelda.
An acoustic 12 string guitar with alpine spruce sound board, Indian rosewood back and sides, mahogany neck and cocobola headstock veneer and bridge. At her widest point she’s 512mm wide (across the lower bout), so pretty large, although the tight waist and small square shoulders give the impression of a smaller guitar when in the playing position.
The corner binding is maple and rosewood, a theme which is repeated in the soundhole decoration.
The Indian rosewood back.
Close up of the cocobola bridge.
The headstock, with cocobola veneer and angel inlay taken from the cd my band Cake for Lily released back in April 2007.