Prying open my design eye

I have a confession to make. When it comes to furniture, there are gaping holes in my design vocabulary, and my understanding of furniture design is not as strong as it is for lutherie. This is only natural, given that my entry point to woodwork was building acoustic guitars, but it is far from ideal.

I’ve been thinking about design a fair bit recently, and have been working on prying open my design eye – to expand my design vocabulary both in terms of how I approach working up designs, but also how I interrogate the designs of others. The Dancing About Architecture series (which you can read here and here) are part of this train of thought, and I hope to write more over the coming months about design. When I talk about design vocabulary I don’t mean the nuts and bolts or practicalities of making furniture – dovetails, mortise and tenon etc. Instead, what I mean by design vocabulary is more the form of a piece, the lines, proportions, materials and stylistic elements which give shape and character to a piece of furniture.

So far, prying open my design eye has involved two strands – the first is to improve my furniture design abilities, while the second is to expand my design vocabulary. In terms of the first strand, I’ve just finished reading the excellent By Hand and Eye by Geo Walker and Jim Toplin, and am about to delve into the worked exercises in By Hound and Eye by the same authors.This element of my design education is something I’ll write about at more length separately.

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By Hand & Eye and a bottle of good single malt got me through the dark winter months.

For the second strand, I’ve been trying to absorb as many different forms as I can, and my focus throughout this design self-education is deliberately aimed at furniture. Because I came to lutherie as a musician, and as an avid music lover, I have to a good degree internalised an understanding of guitar design as well as the cultural connotations of those designs (although there is always more to learn). I fully understand why I respond to different guitars – why  I consider the Fender ’59 Black Guard Telecaster to be the finest production guitar ever made, why the Rickenbacker 360 is to me pure perfection, or what it is about the two-tone green curves of a Gretsch Double Anniversary that I find achingly cool.  In stark contrast, because I have come to furniture building much later, and without those decades of cultural absorption, I feel I know a lot less about furniture design and the associations (or cultural baggage) of those designs. And because at this point I’m interested in internalising furniture forms rather than construction techniques, I’ve been ignoring joinery and construction methods, unless these are part of the express form of the piece.

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When I designed Esmerelda I drew on over a decade of playing guitar and being an avid music lover – the tight waist, small square shoulders, and rounded lower bout echo pre-war guitars by Gibson, while the internal bracing reflects more modern practices. 

What has been interesting about the process so far is that as I have cast around my net to research and absorb furniture I’m not familiar with, I’ve found it much more useful to look at designs of pieces that I find challenging or aesthetically uncomfortable than I have to look at furniture styles I respond positively to.

For instance, I know that I like campaign furniture, 17th century carved oak furniture (as popularised by Peter Follansbee and Jennie Alexander), Greene & Greene furniture, and I’m on the verge of building my first piece of staked furniture. Oh, and Windsor rocking chairs, because to be tired to rocking chairs is to be tired of life. That seems like a reasonably diverse base from which to start. I could probably, at a push give some explanation for why these furniture styles appeal. With campaign furniture, I like the clean lines, the robust feel the pieces evoke without being hulking, the practical solutions to the issues of withstanding tropical climates and being portable, and of course the beautiful brass hardware. My grandfather was a Major in the Indian army during the Second World War – he was the most recent in a line of Scottish working class men in our family who became professional soldiers and who served in the Indian sub-continent. So I also find an emotional resonance in campaign furniture.

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Campaign furniture is one of my favourite forms – this piece really resonates for me.

But when I look at pieces I like, I find it hard to dig too deeply into what appeals about the form. In contrast, when I find a piece that challenges me or which I find uncomfortable, I find it much easier to critically approach the form and ask exactly what it is that I do or don’t respond to. When I started this exercise I did what countless woodworkers before me have done, and took a broad survey of Arts and Crafts furniture. And actually, because Arts and Crafts was such a broad church, this has provided me with an excellent starting point to approach a rich tapestry of different design languages., because European, British, and American designers found a bewildering number of ways to apply the central tenets of the movement. So the survey then becomes a way to examine how a central design philosophy can be used to create wildly diverging pieces (seriously, contrast Rennie Macintosh with Gustav Stickley, and then contrast them both with Greene & Greene).

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My take on the finest production guitar ever made – the Fender ’59 Black Guard Telecaster

I think this is an interesting and valuable exercise – it is all too easy to stick with the comfortable and the familiar, which from a design perspective can be a mistake. Because if you have a small design vocabulary then not only might you be missing out on something that would completely re-frame your experience, but also there is a danger that your work becomes an echo chamber in miniature, constantly repeating the same limited motif or design elements. That is not to say that as makers we have to actually build in many different styles – there is absolutely nothing wrong to dedicating your work time to just one style or furniture form. But having a wider frame of reference, and internalising a variety of furniture forms, gives a richer understanding and more diverse array of design options at the workbench or drawing board. And if nothing else, that wider vocabulary may simply allow a maker to articulate why they prefer the furniture forms or styles they focus on. Which is no bad thing.

My design vocabulary is starting to grow, and I want this critical evaluation exercise to become a regular and sustainable part of my experience as a maker. Which means constantly looking at different furniture forms, including those that are more removed from my current sphere of experience, both in terms of more historic forms (because history will always be a powerful lure), and also non-Western forms. Time to look up some Japanse furniture forms I think…

Dancing About Architecture… Part 2

The following is adapted from an article I wrote for Furniture & Cabinet Making (published in issue 245).

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My 16oz Lancashire pattern cross pein hammer by Black Bear Forge

Are you still dancing about architecture, or have you found a new way to describe and explain what you do in the workshop? Previously I questioned whether we as craftspeople need to develop a new vocabulary to clearly communicate what we make and how we make it, to spouses, prospective customers, and non-woodworkers, without relying on the crutch of technical and esoteric terminology.

It’s… Hammer Time?

Almost immediately upon hitting “send” for my last article I found myself in the unusual position of being a customer who needed to describe a specific set of requirements in a field where I didn’t have any technical knowledge and didn’t necessarily understand the specific terminology. This experience, while initially uncomfortable, forced me to think more carefully about the communication problems I’d just written about, and to formulate strategies to overcome them.

Because, you see, I wanted to commission a custom hammer from blacksmith John Switzer of Black Bear Forge. John’s work is nothing short of incredible, and this would be my third order from him, albeit the first custom tool I’ve asked him to make me. And because I know very little about blacksmithing, I had to find a way to set out very clearly what it was I wanted from this hammer – I knew that John would be able to make me exactly what I asked for, but the challenge was giving him a precise and clear brief so that what he made was really what I wanted. This commission would live or die by how well I (the customer) was able to communicate what I wanted. It also got me thinking about hammers far more than is strictly healthy.

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Octagonal head, with domed face and a balance of decorative file work with “raw” metal still showing the signs of forging. Just what I asked for.

Funnelling the “Ill Communication”

When it came to describing my ideal hammer to John I took the approach of using an information funnel, describing each aspect of the tool starting with the most generic description and then drilling down into more of the detail, in order to build a comprehensive picture of the hammer. The generic description was for a 16oz hammer for driving 4d and 6d cut nails in casework. More specifically, I specified a Lancashire pattern cross-pein head, with a domed face to avoid “Frenching” the work, and for the head to be of square or octagonal cross section. I also wanted some decorative file work on the head, but balanced against plenty of unfinished metal so that I could see traces of where John had forged and worked the head. The handle was to be octagonal, as I prefer the handles of striking tools to tell me by touch which way the head is facing.

This gave a clear description of every aspect of the hammer for which I had specific ideas or requirements and I also provided an engraving from a pattern book showing the Lancashire pattern head I was looking for.

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Campaign furniture is one of my favourite forms. But how would you describe this secretary using the information funnel?

So the information funnel works for hammers, but would I use it to discuss my lutherie with potential customers and lay people? Absolutely, and providing care is taken to avoid technical language, this is actually a very practical way of describing an object, or process, to a layperson. It sounds obvious really, but I think that we all have a tendency to reach straight for the technical terms (because who doesn’t like to wax lyrical about houndstooth dovetails, or the resultant angles of chair legs?). So, my three-point plan for communicating about what I do in the workshop now looks something like this:

  • use the information funnel;
  • avoid technical language; and
  • use pictures to discuss and illustrate the more subjective, and ephemeral, aspects of furniture or guitars.

For conversations about lutherie, where possible I also use recordings which feature similar guitar tones to the one being discussed: either common touchstones that I share with the other party to the conversation, or where we don’t have similar music tastes encouraging them to recommend records that demonstrate the sort of sound they are describing.

Taking a dive into the metaphor pool

Although very practical, the information funnel is not the only way to avoid technical language when describing furniture. I recently discussed this problem with Raney Nelson of Daed Toolworks, who explained to me that he prefers to use a more impressionistic method of communication which he describes as “finding the metaphor pool that you both share, and then drawing on it”. So how does the metaphor pool work as a means of communicating about furniture?

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This parlour guitar is braced to have a “clear, balanced, and warm” sound. But how would you use the metaphor pool to describe the same sound?

Raney suggested that the metaphor pool can work on several levels. With someone “whose background I don’t know, I can tell them that the desk (for instance) I have in mind is rough and ready, but with a sense of understatement, not in-your-face. And in the drawer details it incorporates some touches of really high refinement if you really pay attention, but without distracting from the strong utilitarianism and confidence of the piece in its function”. So far, so straightforward; but what I find really interesting about the metaphor pool method is the deeper level, where there is a common language pertaining to a field other than furniture or woodwork. Raney sets out his approach for this level of the metaphor pool where when he’s working “with someone who I know well and has a deep modern music lexicon, I can tell them it’s like Jon Spencer doing early Elvis Costello covers, but with a Jim Morrison affect. Much more Joey Ramone than Iggy, but also showing real refinement at the edges.  Sort of a Norah Jones in the details, but without losing that Bonnie Raitt authenticity”.

So while the metaphor pool does nothing to describing the actual appearance of furniture, it can be a very effective method for describing the feel of a piece and its more ephemeral qualities, which Raney believes then predisposes the other person to understanding what he has made. So the hammer I ordered from Black Bear Forge would be precise where necessary, but still raw – like Jeff Buckley dueting with Janice Joplin, an honest working tool but with some real flair, like Bruce Springsteen covering Prince.

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Would you use the information funnel or the metaphor pool to describe this campaign bookcase?

No need for a “Communication Breakdown”

Although the development of a universal, non-technical, vocabulary seems farfetched, I still believe that it is an ideal towards which we should strive. Without such a vocabulary, it is incumbent upon us as craftspeople to take the initiative when describing our crafts to non-woodworkers. There are many techniques for achieving clearer communication, from the precise information funnel to the more impressionistic metaphor pool, and the benefits of improved communication are an increased understanding within conversations with non-woodworkers, and ultimately making the woodcrafts more accessible.

And the hammer itself? Well as predicted, John captured everything I had asked for, and delivered a hammer which far exceeded my expectations. The balance is perfect and the hammer drives 4d and 6d cut nails almost effortlessly, even through difficult hardwoods. The handle is comfortable and the octagonal faces give a clear indication of the direction in which the head is pointed. The contrast between the mirror polish on the face, the decorative file work, and the “raw” unfinished elements of the head make for a wonderfully tactile tool, which proudly displays the processes which made the head. My only dilemma is how long I wait until I order an 8oz version for driving smaller nails. John’s work comes highly recommended.

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The perfect balance of raw athenticity and decorative flair. Like Bruce Springsteen covering Prince?

Beneath the surface…

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For me one of the most exciting moments of woodwork is cleaning up timber to reveal the final surface – even when you have a good idea as what to expect wood can often find a way to surprise you with unexpect figure, colour, or interesting grain. Planing the swamp ash body for the Mysterycaster was no exception.

Once the glue had cured on the body joint I broke the timber out of the sash cramps and secured it between four bench dogs using my end vise. Whenever I worked a jointed panel I always plane the area around the joint first, to make sure that there are no unexpected problems and that the joint is solid. Even when I feel confident about a  joint, the grand reveal under a plane blade is an exciting moment tinged with tepidation – will I find unexpected horrors from the glue-up? Fortunately, working the joint on the front of the body with my low angle block plane revealed a good tight joint with no visible glue line or gaps – the only indication that the body is commprised of two pieces is the sudden change in grain pattern along the joint. The same was true of the joint line on the back of the timber, so all in all I’m satisfied with this joint.

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The front of the body, cleaned up and ready to be cut to shape.

Although I do give timber a final sand before finishing, I prefer to use the planed surface as far as possible, and so my focus in planing the front of the guitar was to flatten it and achieve a clean, and tear-out free, surface. Fortunately the front was reasonably flat, and so I skipped using a jack plane and went straight for the No.8 Jointer. Achieving as flat a front and back as possible for the guitar is important, so that they  will provide a consistent reference surface when radiusing the corners of the body later on in the build process. Setting the No.8 plane to an increasingly fine cut as I flattened the front of the guitar resulting in a gorgeous and clear surface. Using a jointer plane as a “super-smoother” isn’t practical in many instances, but just occasionally the extra work is justified.

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A near-mirror finish right off the plane, and wafer thin shaving.

With the front flattened, I moved my attention to the back, and it was here that the swamp ash surprised me. I started by marking on three edges of the timber the thickness of the timber from the front using a marking gauge (the fourth edge was significantly bevelled on the front so I had no accurate datum line to work from). Again, as very little material was to be removed, and I wanted as flat a surface as possible, I reached straight for the No.8. Which worked beautfully on one half of the timber. However, on the other half, right where the lower bout of the guitar will dip into the belly curve, my plane uncovered some really striking rippled grain, of which there had been no indication before starting work. Even set to a very fine cut, my freshly sharpened No.8 tore out (not something which happens very often as this plane seems to ignore grain direction). My usual strategy to deal with tricky grain is to reach for a No.3 smoothing plane fitted with a mid pitch (55 degree) high angle frog. This cleaned up the difficult spots of grain, removing all tear-out easily, and then it was a simple matter of flattening the rest of the back to match.

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The Lie-Nielsen No.3 Smoother with high angle frog is my go-to choice for dealing with difficult grain.

But man, that grain. That characterful and unexpected figure is a wonderful addition to the guitar – an element of visual interest which will look fantastic under a translucent butterscotch finish. For me Tele-type guitars are rugged workhorse instruments with gritty character – Keith Richards is said to have preferred Telecasters because he found the curve of the body to be perfect for hooking behind the heads of over-enthusiastic stage invaders! And I think the striking colour and swirl of the grain on the back of the guitar really emphasises this aspect of the guitar, without going as far as the bonkers knotty pine bodies some folk are currently using. So I am carefully positioning the layout of the body blank to retain as much of this figure as possible. Thank you, wonderful wood for this unexpected treat.

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Here is that inexpected ripple and characterful grain, which will look stunning under a translucent butterscotch blonde finish.

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?

Mysterycaster – I’d have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for you pesky kids

I’ve put the parlour guitar to one side temporarily while I work on a couple of more urgent projects – the Mystercaster (the customer for which has been very patient with me) and also a couple of builds for Furniture & Cabinetmaking. I’ll continue to work on the parlour guitar in between those projects, and it has definitely not fallen by the wayside.

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I really enjoyed my first Telecaster build. Electric guitar builds, particularly the classic Fender designs, are a very different workshop experience to my more usual acoustic guitars. This is in part due to the increased use of machinery – you could go hand tool only building an electric guitar, but cutting the body to shape in 2″ thick timber wouldn’t be much like fun. And Leo Fender deliberately designed the Telecaster and Stratocaster to be easily built with the technology available to him – they were after all the first production guitars. So this was an interesting process for me, given that I am very much a hand tool focused woodworker. And I’m sure I’ve said it before, but the tool I like using the absolute least in my workshop is the router – the thing just plain terrifies me. So when I first started building Laurie (my first Telecaster) there was some tension between the best way to build the instrument, and my prefered approach to lutherie. I’m not for one second saying that using machines is bad and wrong – many people make wonderful instruments and furniture with machines. But for me that is not a process, or an approach, which I find particularly satisfying (and again, see the blind terror or switching on the router). So for Laurie I forged a path where some operations would be fully powered – for instance shaping the body and fitting the truss rod, but as much as possible would be hand tool work. This hybrid approach worked well, and I’m looking forward to refining the same approach with the Mysterycaster before I retreat to some hand tool only projects.

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This is the body timber before I started planing. More gaps than the proverbial beaver with a meth habit.

My first task for the Mysterycaster was to joint the two halves of the swamp ash body. When edge jointing, before I introduce a plane to the work I find it useful to assess the extent to which the joint will need flattening, firstly by holding a straight edge to the edge of the workpiece, and then by holding both the two edges of the joint together and seeing where the gaps fall. Unlike edge jointing for furniture, where a spring joint can be used, and it is common to leave a very faint hollow across the width of the joint, jointing for electric guitar bodies requires a joint that is deadnuts flat across both the width and the length of the joint. This is so that the glue joint does prevent the two halves of the guitar from resonating properly, and so that you don’t get any nasty surprises when surfacing and thicknessing the jointed body. There are no special tricks behind getting a solid edge joint, just good planing technique and using a straight edged blade (rather than one with a gentle camber like some furniture makers use). A very useful technique I’ve found invaluable for edge jointing is making stopped cuts without leaving a step behind – courtesy of Chris Schwarz’s Popular Woodworking blog. Edge jointing can require working localised highspots, and a stopped cut is the perfect way to do this. However a poorly executed stopped cut can leave a stepped transition which results in more gaps, not fewer. Chris’ technique for starting the cut with no downward pressure on the plane, and lifting the heel of the plane off the work (instead of the toe) at the end of the cut worked perfectly, leaving a smooth transition across my stopped cuts.

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Flat across the width, and square to the face of the workpiece.

My prefered plane for edge jointing is the Lie Nielsen No.8, partly for it’s excellent length (which helps to keep long edges straight) but also the wide blade which makes edge jointing even the 47mm wide swamp ash I’m using for the Mysterycaster a pleasure.When edge jointing I check my progress constantly, mainly with a straight edge to check the length of the joint for flatness, and the diagonals (corner to corner) to make sure I’m not introducing any twist or wind into the joint. For checking that the width of the joint is both flat and square to the face of the timber, my Sterling Tool Works Double Square is invaluable. The best check however is against the other half of the joint. I worked one half of the body until it was 90% there, and then moved to the other half. Once both sides of the joint were very close I fitted them against each other and noted where there were any hairline gaps. It is important to check the back of the timber as well as the front, because one side can look perfect while still having significant gaps on the other.

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The finished joint – through a macro lens you can see where the joint falls because of the change in grain directions, but you can’t see the joint line.

Once I was satisfied with the joint, I resharpened my plane blade and took a couple of very fine cuts from each side of the joint (no more than 3 cuts per side). This last touch closed everything up nicely, and the joint looked good and tight from both sides. A thin layer of Titebond and one rub joint later, and the body is now resting in three sash cramps over night.

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Down the workbench rabbit hole

IMG_2901There is a rabbit hole down which most, if not all, woodworkers eventually disappear, regardless of what they make. And I now find myself teetering on the edge of this same rabbit hole. Let me explain.

My current workbench is a Sjoberg Duo (now marketed as the “Nordic Plus“). It has served me well over the four-and-a-bit years I’ve owned it, and it was definitely the right choice for me at the time. But I am now at the point where I’m butting up against the limitations of the bench, and it is time to re-assess what I need from a bench… and then build one myself.

Before I discuss the limitations of my current bench, and how I intend to address those shortcomings, let me go back to why I bought the Sjoberg in the first place. In 2012 I set up a new workshop – some significant health issues had kept me from any woodwork for 18 months or so, and I’d bounced round the country with work for a spell. So when I was finally in a position to get back in the workshop I had a very clear choice – my first project could be to build a bench, or I could buy one and get straight back to lutherie. I’d actually just finised reading the first edition of Chris Schwarz’s Workbench Book at the time, but made the decision to get back to lutherie and buy a bench. Part of my reasoning was that working on a commercially made bench would give me some practical insight into exactly what I needed from a bench, and what was superfluous. All in all, I think that was the right decision, and the four-plus years I’ve spent working on my Sjoberg have definitely been illuminating. Furthermore, the Sjoberg won’t be wasted once I’ve built a replacement bench, as it will replace the small sharpening station and assembly bench at the end of my workshop.

So now, the limitations of the Sjoberg. Firstly, mass. As in, the Sjoberg has very little of it. Which for most of the lighter lutherie work I do is not a problem. But for heavier work, for instance over-hand ripping of thick stock (like for my Moxon build) or taking a thick cut with a jack plane, then the bench twists and skitters across the workshop floor. The second and third limitation both relate to the bench top. The bench top is thin, which means that there is not much scope of flattening the bench – so after four years the bench top is not exactly what you’d call overly flat. Finally, the benchtop is only secured to the chasis by two carriage screws, which is not a particularly secure method. After four years of seasonal wood movement, the threads have stripped out of the bench top and I’ve had to patch in some maple blocks to keep the benchtop and the base together.

So what will the replacement bench look like? As it happens, I’ve been reading the second edition of Schwarz’s Workbench book at the moment. I’m decided on a Roubo style bench – the thick top and iconic rising dovetail joint represent that perfect combination of practicality and joinery-flair. The Roubo promises to address all of the limitations I’ve outlined above. But really this decision raises more questions and options. Do I want a slab top, or laminated? Will I have a tail vise or rely on planing stop and doe’s feet? If I have a tail vise, will the end cap be bolted on or will I go for some Frank Strazza style condor tails? I’m undecided on all of these points as yet, although I do know that a Benchcrafted Glide leg vise will fitted.

And here I am. Teetering on the edge of the workbench rabbit hole. And although I’m unlikely to be in a position to start work on the new bench until the very end of the year, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in and building the last bench I’ll ever need.

Guest Post at the Daily Skep

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I’ve written previously about how The Daily Skep (written and curated by James McConnell) is one of my favourite woodwork blogs. Well earlier this year, James asked me if I would  be interested in writing a guest post for the Daily Skep on the subject of “perfection in hand work”, and naturally I said yes. What James didn’t tell me until just before I finished writing my piece, is that my post is the first in a series of 12 guest posts to be featured on the Daily Skep over the next 12 months, all concerned with the same subject. Knowing the identity of some of the other contributors, I can safely say that this promises to be a wonderful conversation with 12 very different takes on perfection.

It is a real honour and priviledge to appear on the Daily Skep, and you can read my opening salvo on the conversation about perfection here. James’ blog really is worth your time, so if you don’t already subscribe to it then now might be the perfect time to remedy that.

Dancing About Architecture… Part 1

The following is adapted from an article I published in issue 242 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, or so said Frank Zappa. And if this is true for music, does it also stand for furniture? I think maybe so.

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A folding campaign bookcase. How would you describe this piece?

A tale of two clients

I was reminded of Frank’s words of wisdom early last year, when I was discussing guitar commissions with two prospective clients. These clients were very different. The first (who I shall call Mr X) is a keen amateur player. I know Mr X quite well, we have a number of favourite albums in common, and share a similar musical frame of reference. The other prospect (who from here on in shall be Mrs Y) is a professional musician and wrote one of my favourite albums of the past few years. I don’t know Mrs Y at all, and beyond her albums we don’t share any reference points. Unsurprisingly, agreeing a specification with Mr X did not take much time at all, because we were able to draw upon that shared frame of reference. In comparison, understanding what Mrs Y was looking for took a great deal more work.

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Esmerelda has a “bright” and “jangly” tone, with plenty of volume. But how would other people describe the same sound?

This experience got me thinking about the different approaches and vocabulary that we as craftspeople use when we describe our work to clients, spouses, other makers, or interested laypeople. Because if the other side of the conversation does not share the technical vocabulary, or reference points, then it can all get a bit confusing. On the other hand, the right vocabulary and shared frame of reference can act as a short hand of sorts. Because if you both know what Greene and Greene style furniture is, or think that a ’59 Blackguard Telecaster is one of the finest electric guitars ever made, then you don’t have to go through the process of describing and explaining.

Divided by a common tongue

Conversations about what we build are a sort of information funnel, even if this process is normally subconscious. So for furniture building, you would typically identify the style of a piece (Arts and Crafts? Shaker? Federal?), before funnelling a number of different options to arrive at a clear description of a piece, including construction techniques (dovetails? Mortise and tenon? Staked furniture?) timber selection, hardware, finishing options. And if the other party to the conversation is not familiar with the styles or construction techniques you have just referred to, you can hit an early impasse. As an example, one of my favourite furniture forms is campaign furniture. This highly functional style of furniture is characterised by fully blind dovetails, the use of hardwoods, and extensive use of brass hardware including recessed drawer pulls and corner reinforcement. The result is a clean and rugged appearance However, despite being eminently practical campaign furniture has largely escaped popular attention. This has started to change amongst woodwork circles thanks to the publication of Campaign Furniture (Lost Art Press, 2014) and the excellent exhibitions held by Christopher Clarke Antiques (www.campaignfurniture.co.uk), but this has yet to filter into popular consciousness. As a result, a spirited conversation about campaign furniture can lead to confusion and blank faces.

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A disassembled campaign secretary ready for transporting

Of course, this is complicated because the vocabulary of furniture making, or lutherie, is not just concerned with technical terms regarding construction techniques or styles, but also a level of subjectivity regarding aesthetic, and in the case of musical instruments tonal, qualities, and this introduces a lot of variables into a conversation. So into the information funnel also go subjective descriptions – is it vernacular or high style furniture, will the piece look delicate or stout, elegant or bold?

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I think campaign furniture has a “clean” and “rugged” appearance, but do those descriptors match your impressions of this furniture style?

For lutherie, the question is one of interpreting the client’s (entirely subjective) descriptions of their ideal sound, and applying that to the mechanics of how the guitar itself operates. In particular, for acoustic guitars the layout of the soundboard braces, and the size of each of those braces, is fundamental to shaping the sound. So when I build acoustic guitars I spend a lot of time tuning the braces to achieve the right balance of resonance and structural integrity. But it is not enough to understand that lighter braces allow a soundboard to vibrate more, which in turn increases the bass elements of the tone, while heavier braces dampen the soundboard’s resonance and create a brighter sound with less sustain – I have to apply that to the subjective language used by the client.

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The soundboard bracing on this parlour guitar will in large part determine the sound of the guitar.

A new way of communicating?

The need to communicate clearly should not be seen as a burden, but rather an opportunity to really understand the requirements of the end user. The tangle of subjectivity and technical language I have described above begs the question of whether we need a new way of talking about our crafts, and describing our work? And if so, how do we go about that? Or is it enough that we continue to “dance about architecture”? Unfortunately I have no answers, only questions. But the next time you set about describing a project to a co-worker or spouse, or discuss a commission with a client, take a moment to think about how you (and they) are trying to communicate ideas.

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Mr X wanted the same specification as this Tele-type guitar I had previously built. I think the tone of this guitar is “twangy” and “bright” with some real “snarl” when turned up, but how would you interpret those descriptors?

For those who are wondering, Mr X ordered a ’59 Blackguard Telecaster type guitar with a swamp ash body, maple neck and fretboard, and classic butterscotch blonde finish. You can follow the build of Mr X’s guitar by clicking on the “mysterycaster” tag in the right hand panel of this blog.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to practice a mime routine describing my next furniture build.

 

The Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw

  
About 18 months ago Mark Harrell (of Bad Axe Tool Works) and I started discussing the specification for a speciality lutherie saw for delicate cross cut work and fret slotting duties. My 12” Bad Axe carcase saw is already a firm favourite for furniture grade cross cuts and so the prospect of a thin plated 10” saw for some of the most critical cuts in guitar building, sprinkled with the Bad Axe fairy dust, was very exciting.

Last summer we welcomed good friend, fellow Anarchist’s Tool Chest survivor, and luthier, Susan Chillcott to the conversation, and the specification for the Bad Axe lutherie saw started to firm up. Mark has now published photos of the initial prototype, and I should be in receipt of the actual saw in the next couple of weeks. What will follow is rigorous testing and feedback before the specification is finalised, and I cannot wait to welcome the prototype to my workshop. Working on this saw has been a wonderful experience – Mark is truly a master of his craft and has been able to translate comments and ideas from Sue and myself into a working specification, guiding us past design rabbit holes and focusing with laser-like precision on what is really important.

I can honestly say working with Mark and Sue on this project has been a once in a lifetime experience, and the Bad Axe luthier’s saw promises to be the antidote to the cheap, disposable, fret slotting saws currently littering the market. Stay tuned for more!

Bridge to Nowhere… Part 2

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With less workshop time than I’d like to at the moment it is easy for some of the more mundane tasks to fall by the wayside, no matter how essential they are. I much prefer making tools blunt to sharpening them, but using a blunt tool is dangerous and results in sub-optimal work, neither of which are satisfactory. So I’m trying to make a concerted effort to spend my first 15 minutes as soon as I step into the workshop sharpening. No one (and I mean no one) sharpens as frequently as they should, but little and often is proving to be a sustainable and efficient way to keep all my edge tools in a state of readiness. The other advantage I’ve found is that 15 minutes at the oil stones serves as a mental cleanser to block out the demands of the outside world and get into the right mindset for precision woodwork.

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I hold the soundboard in a solera at this stage, mainly to keep it safe from knocks – having spent some time on the soundboard I want it to remain safe until the guitar is assembled!

Using sharpening as a meditative exercise has paid off this week, as I’ve been fitting the bridge to the parlour guitar. In my opinion fitting the bridge to the soundboard is both one of the most critical, and also most difficult, operations in building acoustic guitars. Critical because a solid joint is necessary to ensure that the string energy excites the soundboard efficiently (which creates the sound of the instrument), and also to preserve the structural integrity of the instrument. Difficult because a good joint depends on precisely matching the curve of the soundboard with a curve in the base of the bridge blank.

Some lutherie manuals call for the base of the bridge blank to be straight and flat at the point of gluing the bridge to the soundboard. This in my opinion is a fundamental mistake. The soundboard of an acoustic guitar curves across its width and length, thanks to the bracing. Fitting a flat bottomed bridge would at best force part of the soundboard out of the curve previously set by the braces, and at worst would result in a poor glue joint. Neither of these is a particularly promising idea, especially when you start to apply several hundred pounds of string tension to the bridge. And if you’ve taken the effort to plane a nice curve into all of those braces, why would you want to undo that good work at this point?

So instead I opt for the hard road of planing a precise curve into tough ebony or rosewood. What makes this even more fun is that the soundboard acts as a hydrometer, and will subtly change shape with humidity changes throughout the day. So not only are you using a tool designed to plane things flat to create a concave curve, but you’re trying to hit a moving target as you do so. Success is determined by using a super sharp block plane blade, taking very fine cuts, plenty of patience, and measuring a-plenty.

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There are ways you can make this easier. A strip of low-tack painter’s tape on the soundboard makes placing the bridge in position easy (it’s important to use low-tack tape to avoid pulling grain fibres out of the soundboatd). I place the tape so that the rear edge falls along the front face of the bridge. Then when I come to check the fit of the bridge it is just a case of butting it against the tape, and easy placement without needing to reach for my ruler everytime means that I am inclined to check my progress more often.

In terms of planing the curve into the bridge blank, I start by planing a gentle hollow into the middle of the bridge until the ends of the wings (which at first will be above the surface of the soundboard) touch the soundboard. Then it is a case of planing the curve across the depth of the bridge (between the front and rear faces). I do this by working across the grain, from each long edge to the middle of the bridge, with a very fine cut. It is important that the two long edges of the bridge form a good joint with the soundboard, but also that you avoid forming a hollow joint by removing too much material from between those edges, as most adhesives will not form a lasting bond across a hollow joint (and that is the path which leads to your bridge detaching itself from the soundboard under string tension).

So plenty of checking is necessary. To check the fit, I place the corner of the front edge in position, holding it up to the light to ascertain how that edge fits. Then I do the same with the corner of the back edge. If the edge contact is good along the full width of the bridge on both edges, then I rock the bridge back from the front edge so that the base contacts with the soundboard. If material needs to be removed from the base then there is a subtle feeling like the bridge being cushioned as it makes contact, in which case it’s back to taking fine cuts across the grain. When the fit is right, there is a gentle “click” as both edges make contact with the soundboard without any interference from material between the edges.

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You can see from the shavings on the cap how fine a cut this plane is set to.

Fitting the bridge is not rocket science, nor does it involve arcane techniques or specialist tools. Just a lot of patience  and checking progress against the soundboard. The pay off is a solid joint which will result in an instrument with good tone and the strength to withstand string tension.

On a bridge with scalloped wings this would be the point at which I glue the bridge to the soundboard. However, as this bridge will have pyramid wings those need to be carved prior to glue-up, which I will cover in my next post.