The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 15

After seven months hard work, the Boot Bench is finished and safely swaddled in blankets awaiting collection by the client. And while that would make for quite a pithy blog post, it does miss out the final stage of the build process, so let’s rewind a little.

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One finished boot bench – no filter necessary on timber this pretty.

At the end of my last blog post the wide faces of the Boot Bench had been cleaned up and given the first coat of shellac. Next I turned my attention to the front, which is mainly made up of the thin edges of shelves and casework. The process for cleaning up these edges was very much the same as for the main elements of the casework – removing as little material possible with my No.3 smoothing plane to remove the last traces of glue and stray fibres, to reveal clean surfaces and crisp joinery. Because I was working relatively narrow edges (1″ wide for the carcase, and 3/4″ wide for each of the shelves) the cabinet scraper was not appropriate for this work, as there can be a risk of rounding over the corners. Instead, the little L-N No.102 came in handy to clean-up a few areas where my smoothing plane could not reach. For planing the dado joint (where the grain of the sides is running at 90 degrees to the grain of the shelf), skewing the smoothing plane 45 degrees into the cut helped to plane the shelves and sides without any tear-out on either surface.

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Creating a gentle roundover on the top edge of each shelf with the spokeshave

I then gently rounded over the top edge of each shelf using a spokeshave, with three or four passes at 45 degrees to the edge of the shelf, and then three passes either side to blend in the new facet. A gentle round over like this should help to protect the edge from chipping out if the soles of shoes catch when being removed. Originally I had planned to use a scratch stock to bead the front edge of each shelf, but having spent some time looking at the Boot Bench as a whole I decided that four extra beads would (no matter how fun) be too much, particularly as the client prefers understated pieces.

There was a small knot on the front of the bottom most shelf, and instead of filling this with black tinted epoxy (as I had done for the internal knots) which would have drawn the eye to the knot, I mixed up a filler using shellac and oak sawdust, which filled the crack while blending into the timber. Once the filler had dried I brushed on the first coat of shellac to the front of the Boot Bench, and left to dry.

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Introducing a 2lb lump hammer to something you’ve been building for 7 months? Not terrifying at all, why do you ask?

The final touch, before applying the second coat of shellac, was to apply my maker’s mark. The stamp works best in end grain, and I selected the end of a tail, at the back left corner of the top. Although an exciting milestone in any project, it is also a little terrifying to start hammering the product of many months work with a 2lb lump hammer. Fortunately this is one of the instances where a heavier hammer provides more finesse. Instead of pounding away at the stamp to leave a deep mark (which would be necessary with a lighter hammer), the weight of the lump hammer did all of the work, leaving a crisp impression in the hard oak end grain with minimal effort and no risk of damage to the piece. This is a subtle touch – it is there for people to discover, but is still discreet (1″ wide) enough not to dominate the piece.

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The maker’s mark after a coat of shellac and dab of black wax

I then gently wiped down the shellac with 400 grit paper, just to remove the highspots and leave a smooth texture, before brushing on a second coat to all external surfaces. Having left the second coat to dry and harden over several days, I then returned to wax the external surfaces. Black wax is an easy finish to apply, providing you use thin coats – there is a risk of putting too much on which can be hard to buff out, and results in a blotchy finish. I wiped the wax on sparing with a lint free cloth, only adding more once I had worked the wax deep into the open grain – my aim was to enhance the grain not obscure it. Once the wax had dried I then buffed it out thoroughly with a clean cloth.

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When the wax was buffed out, I sat in front of the Boot Bench for 30 minutes or so, in silence, just taking in the form and detail of the piece. Every project is a labour of love, if it wasn’t then there would be precious little reason to build anything. But this build has been a hugely important process – the first piece of furniture I’ve designed from scratch, and my first paying furniture commission. Building something for someone else is always a huge responsibility (not to mention a privilege). I’m proud of this piece, and hope the client will enjoy it.

Swimming into Focus – The John Brown Book

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I spent yesterday in Hay-On-Wye for the first of many field trips for the John Brown book. Picturesque Hay, home to the renowned book festival and equally renowned (if somewhat more niche) spoon festival, is halfway between the village where Chris Williams’ (my co-author for the project) lives and Birmingham, so it makes for an ideal location to meet up and formulate a plan of attack for the book.

And we are very much at the planning stage currently. To do this book properly (which is the only way we want to do it) is going to be a huge endeavour,with a significant number of interviews with John’s friends, family, and woodworkers, not to mention field trips to locations significant either to John or to Welsh Stick Chairs, and of course the chairmaking itself. With so many moving parts, having a clear road map from here to publication is the best way to stay focused on the key threads, and to make sure that nothing important falls by the wayside.

So over the past couple of months we have been engaged in a constant dialogue about what we want to achieve, and how best to go about it. Who to interview, what to make, where to visit, and what to read. Yesterday was the culmination of that dialogue, not to mention an excellent opportunity to spend a day talking woodwork with someone who has spent over 30 years working in the woodcrafts, and who personally worked with John for many years.

Slowly The Life & Work of John Brown is swimming into focus. What has become very clear over the time that Chris Williams and I have been discussing the book, and even more so yesterday, is that is for both of us it is important that we honour and embody John’s ethos as a chairmaker. What that means is that the chairmaking section of the book must make building these fascinating chairs accessible to everyone, with an emphasis on the minimal use of specialist tools or hard to find timber. That is not only consistent with John’s Anarchist Woodworker philosophy, but will also hopefully contribute to the longevity of a relatively uncommon chair form.

Which is all very well and good, but how will we achieve this? Well, one of the ideas currently being kicked around is starting the chairmaking section not at the workbench, but at the timber yard. Timber selection can be a truly daunting experience for the inexperienced woodworker – I still remember my first trip to the timberyard, and how the choice was almost crippling. Many woodwork books tend to assume that you already have material and are standing at your workbench ready to start work, but to our minds the timberyard is where every build starts, and to start anywhere else would be omitting a key step. By having Chris Williams guide the reader through timber selection for a Stick Chair, we hope to remove one of the greatest hurdles to chairmaking.

We are also considering of building chairs with pieced and carved armbows rather than steam bent bows. While English and American Windsor chair making traditions use steam bending for arm bows, Chris Williams tells me that due to the social function of Stick Chairs there was little or no tradition of steam bending in Wales. The pieced arm bow is very striking, and relies on techniques and tools common to most woodworkers. So accessible and historically accurate. Perfect.

These snapshots are really exciting to us, and I hope that by sharing some of the processes behind the book we can encourage more dialogue about John and his chairs, and also share our enthusiasm for the project. This is just the start of the process, and plenty is likely to change as we continue to work. But as the framework for the book starts to fall into place I can see how it will hang together, and what an important contribution this could be. There’s a lot of hard work to do over the next couple of years, and I hope that you will all join us for the ride.

The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 7

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The great thing about milk paint is how ghastly the first coat looks…

A lot of woodworkers get indimidated by applying finish to projects, which I think is partly due to the endless variety of finishing products and solutions available, but also the vast quantity of voodoo waiting to ensnare happless forum readers. Finishing does not have to be complicated or difficult, and in fact the biggest single factor in my experience for a successful finish is having plenty of patience while things dry. But there again I’m a simple soul and have always liked simple finishes. So for the School Box there really was no choice but to go with the historically accurate milk paint, oil and wax combination.

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The third coat looked much better!

Salem Red by the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co looked like a good colour, and I mixed up a batch using Chris’ instructions from the Anarchist’s Design Book. The first coat of milk paint is always a test of faith as it tends to look streaky and washed out, but with each subsequent coat things improved significantly, and by the third coat I’d built up a good density of colour while still allowing the dovetails to be visibile on close inspection. I left the School Box to dry out thoroughly for 48 hours before applying a thin coat of Liberon Boiled Linseed oil. After 30 minutes waiting time I wiped away the excess oil with a clean rag and left for 24 hours to dry before applying the wax.

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Boiled Linseed oil ragged on top of the milk paint provides an additional layer of protection.

So far so straight forward, but this is where things got unexpectedly… messy. When I came back 24 hours later the oil seemed to be good and dry, with no residue left on the surface of the paint. So I gently ragged on some home made soft wax (a bee’s wax, turpentine and white spirit recipe I learned from Derek Jones). But when buffing out the wax I ended up with a very streaky finish with patches of entirely matt finish in the middle of areas which remained sticky to the touch no matter how much I buffed them out. Definitely not ideal. I quickly eliminated the wax as the culprit because I had an entirely even low sheen on the interior of the School Box using the same batch of wax with no stickiness. Some reading around and talking to folk much more knowledgeable than I identified the oil as being to blame. Possibly I had a bad can which lacked sufficient driers, possibly I have angered the finishing gods in some way. Who knows.

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The lid, showing the streaks and matt patches from the less than successful oil/wax combination.

The good news was that cleaning up the box was pretty straight forward. I put it to one side for an evening or so in order to chill out, and then using a judicious volume of white spirit and several rags removed the oil and wax gunk and left to dry over night (again). I confess I had been a little worried that the white spirit and vigorous rubbing would remove some of the milk paint, but the underlying finish was left intact and very little pigment came away during my late night cleaning session. In fact, the grain and joinery were showing through the paint slightly better, even though the colour density was still good, so I decided to skip the oil and go straight to the wax. This time the wax covered nicely and built up a gentle sheen that really suits the box – a high gloss finish would have looked entirely out of place on this project.

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The finished School Box

I then fitted the hardware and stood back to admire what has been a really instructive and fun project. I’ll post a full beauty parade of the School Box next time around.

Introducing the Apprentice

In an interruption to our usual programming, Dr Moss and I are very pleased to introduce my new workshop apprentice.

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Grace Bronte Binnie, born at 10:29am on 13 August 2015 weighing 7lbs 14oz. Despite arriving 11 days early, both mother and baby are doing well, and I am totally besotted. Grace has already received many lovely gifts, and the picture above shows her with a rare hammer made by C Hammond of Philadelphia, sent by a very generous friend so that Grace could shatter glass ceilings and enjoy workshop time with her Dad.

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And now a return to our usual content…

Going Dark

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I’ve not had any workshop time over the past couple of weeks, as final wedding preparation has taken over. Yesterday that hard work came to fruition and Rachel, my partner of six years, and I married.

Tomorrow we fly to San Francisco to start a two week road trip through down the pacific highway to Santa Barbara before cutting inland to Death Valley and ultimately arriving in Las Vegas.

As a result, I won’t be posting to Over The Wireless for the next couple of weeks, although that doesn’t mean I won’t be thinking about woodwork.

Normal service will be resumed in October.

Catch you all on the flip side!