The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 9

The Policeman’s Boot Bench is now glued up, which seems like a fitting point at which to put it to one side for a couple of weeks while I fly out to Chicago for a family break followed by Handworks in Iowa. I’ve never had a glue-up that I’ve enjoyed – as soon as the glue bottle comes out I always feel the pressure ratchet upwards. But that aside, assembling the Boot Bench went smoothly and without any real incident. The key I think for any smooth assembly is to have a clear plan of attack, to have all the clamps opened to the right capacity before you reach for the glue, and where possible to break large scale assemblies into more manageable stages.

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Gluing the dovetails, with the bottom shelf fitted to keep the casework square.

Hide glue flows better when it is warm, so I always stand my glue bottle in a mug of hot water for 30-40 minutes before I start applying glue. I keep meaning to invest in a heated glue pot and start mixing up my own hide glue from granules, but until then I’ve found that Titebond liquid hide glue is an effective (and cost efficient) way of using cows as an adhesive. While the glue was warming up I did a final test fit of each of the shelves in their respective dados to make sure that they still fitted and there had been no further wood movement – the middle of a sticky and stressful assembly is definitely not the moment to discover that you need to make adjustments to a component! As the shelves had been well seasoned and then lying in stick, they were all very stable, and 7 of the 8 ends fitted perfectly. The eighth was a little tight in the dado, but a couple of localised passes with a small shoulder plane removed the few shavings necessary for a good fit once again.

As there were a significant number of components to be fitted, and I have only a modest selection of large clamps, I decided to approach this assembly in two stages. The first stage was to glue the dovetails fitting the sides and top to each other. To ensure that the sides were fixed square to the top, I slid the bottom-most shelf in place (without any glue) – this effectively gave me a four-sided carcase to clamp up, and to check for square. The dovetails were hammered home using my 24oz joiner’s mallet by Blue Spruce Toolworks, and then left in the clamps for two hours for the glue to cure.

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Sealing the end grain of the shelves with a thin coat of hide glue

The second stage of assembly was to fit the shelves. The dado joint involves a lot of end grain in the gluing surface, and end grain can have a tendency to wick glue away resulting in a dry joint. To avoid this, I sealed the end grain of the shelves, and the dados, but giving them a thin coat of hide glue five minutes before I started to glue and fit the shelves. This glue was absorbed into the end grain, which prevented the second application of glue (when fitting the shelves) from being absorbed. Hide glue also acts as a lubricant, which meant that the shelves slid most of the way home under finger pressure, and required only a couple of gentle taps from the mallet to get them in the right position. I then clamped up the edges of the sides to establish good even pressure across the dados while the glue cured.

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Cleaning squeeze out from each of the shelves would have been a race against the clock, but pre-finishing the interior of the casework gave me plenty of time to wipe up the excess glue

Pre-finishing the interior of the Boot Bench definitely paid off when assembling the casework, especially as the four shelves resulted in a significant amount of squeeze-out. My usual method for removing squeeze-out during glue-up is a toothbrush dipped in hot water, as well as judicious use of damp paper towels. The hide glue wiped easily off the shellac and wax finish, which meant that I could take my time in cleaning up all of the internal surfaces.

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Once the glue had cured for the second stage of the assembly I removed the clamps. There is still plenty to do on this project – the shelves need to be planed flush to the front of the casework, the backboards need to be processed and fitted, and the external surfaces need to be cleaned up. But the end is now in sight, and it feels good to have the main elements assembled before travel takes me out of the workshop for a couple of weeks. I’ll pick this project up again at the end of May, when I will start work on the backboards.

Joining the sticker swap revolution

Handworks 2017 promises to be a really special couple of days, not least because it is just about the only time you can expect to find a significant proportion of our community all together in the same barn. And so I thought it would be fun to have some new OtW merchandise for the event.

These OtW decals have now arrived from the printer, and Tom’s design work is looking as crisp as ever. But how do you get your hands on these stickers? Easy. Come and find me at Handworks – I’ll be helping out on the Sterling Tool Works stand, and also dashing about covering the event for Furniture & Cabinetmaking. The stickers are $2 each or $3 for the pair. BUT if you wear an OtW tee to Handworks then you can claim both decals free of charge. I will also have a couple of OtW tees for sale (priced at $25 each).

If you’re not going to Handworks, but will be at the European Woodwork Show in September, do not despair – I’ll have a fresh print run of the decals with me at EWS.

If you’re going to Handworks let me know by leaving a comment below. Looking forward to steering everyone in Iowa next week!

Ten Years on the Path

 

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Five years after my course in Totnes, I went back to visit the workshop and took the guitar I’d built on the course for a reunion with Phil – my tutor.

Exactly 10 years ago today I started woodwork for the very first time. I remember it clearly, because it was the first day of term at the Totnes School of Guitarmaking. As a former historian, I like dates, and I like origin stories. The tenth anniversary of my time in Totnes seems like a good opportunity to revisit my own.

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I had finished law school, and decided to take a year out before starting work at the Leeds office of an international law firm. Totnes was the ultimate destination for that gap year, although first I worked in the construction industry for seven months to save for the lutherie tuition fees. In hindsight, a guitar building course was probably an unusual destination for me – although I’d grown up watching my maternal grandfather building all manner of things in his shed, I’d never had much inclination towards woodwork myself at that point. And although the secondary school I attended had a brand new craft, design and technology block including several well appointed workshops, there wasn’t actually any shop class being taught when I was there. I imagine that is the same for schools across the country. So I didn’t have anything in the way of experience, or even a long standing interest, in woodwork prior to starting at Totnes. What I did have though was a deep fascination in the mechanics of how stringed musical instruments worked, partly from having played violin for many years. Also, the husband of my music theory teacher was a violin and viola maker, and every Wednesday evening when I would go round for music theory lessons I would see rows of violins and violas in various states of completion hanging in the front upstairs window. So building musical instruments was something I knew people actually did.

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Laurie – my ’59 Blackguard type build

The experience of seeing those partially built instruments came back to me years later, as I finished law school and tried to decide how I would spend the next twelve months. Totnes is renowned as being one of the best places in the UK to study lutherie, and I very happily signed up to the 2007 summer class. I knew the course would be rewarding and challening in equal measure. What I did not anticipate when I took my first steps onto this path, where it would lead. That twelve week class was an incredible immersion in handtool work (and you can see the course photos here), and a mindblowing introduction to lutherie. Designing your own instrument, starting with only a pencil and paper, then building it by hand, is almost indescribable. But more than that, it sparked a passion for making things with my hands that if anything, is even stronger ten years on.

When I look back at past ten years, what really surprises me is the breadth of my woodwork experience. If I’m being brutally honest, I always thought I’d have built a lot more guitars by now. But that is more than offset by the other experiences I’ve been lucky to have. Embarking on the class at Totnes, my focus was purely on the guitar before me rather than any wider view of woodwork. But in the years that followed, furniture projects started to catch my eye, and then I stumbled upon the wealth of historic information published by Lost Art Press. I’m still at heart a historian, and furniture building offers a synthesis of history and craft which satisfies both the hands and the mind. Although far from my mind when I first went to Totnes, woodwork has since become the main outlet for my interests as a historian. Nor did I expect woodwork to result in a writing career, either with Furniture & Cabinet Making, or the John Brown book with Lost Art Press. I suppose that what I’ve learned is to be alive to opportunities and to know when to say yes.

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Roy and Esmerelda become acquainted.

But when I think about what I’ve gained most from these ten years on the path, it would be the ideas of self sufficiency, and community that have been most important. Being able to (slowly) furnish my home with long -lasting pieces I’ve made myself, and also the strength of community I have enjoyed. The woodwork community has been a great source of friendship, encouragement, and inspiration. And so it feels very apt that only a week after my tenth anniversary of starting woodwork I’ll be flying out to Iowa for Handworks 2017.

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James McConnell, writer and curator of the Daily Skep.

Looking back, I’m very glad that a nearly-25 year old me took that leap in the dark down in south Devon. Because that first step has enriched the past ten years, introduced me to many wonderful people, and to ideas which continue to shape the way I try to live on a daily basis.

The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 8

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Thick cross-grain shaving from a traversing cut

When I started planning how I was going to approach the Policeman’s Boot Bench one of the things I was very keen to do was to apply some of the pre-industrial woodwork lessons written about in Mortise & Tenon. Laying out the feet using George Walker and Jim Toplin’s “artisan geometry” was one aspect of this, but the other was challenging ideas of flat and smooth. All the show surfaces – casework, and the tops of each shelf, have been planed smooth and flat as you would expect, but for the underside of the shelves I wanted to give the client something of a textural surprise and have a contrast to the smooth show surfaces. This tied in neatly with my approach to fitting the shelves to the dados, as following each fitting the shelves were left with a hard step between the fitted tongue and the rest of the shelf. I wanted to remove this step and thickness the shelf in a time efficient way, and also leave a different texture.

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The underside of the shelf – the traversing cut has left a gently scalloped surface and slightly woolly texture.

Enter traversing cuts – essentially planing perpendicular to the grain rather than along with this. I’ve written about traversing cuts previously, and this is a very efficient way to remove large amounts of material quickly. It works because wood is strong along the grain, but relatively weak across the grain. Using a cambered iron in a jack plane and planing across the grain therefore allows you to take heavier cuts and remove more material with less effort. Which for this task was perfect. The attraction in stopping after the traversing cut for this task, rather than following up with a jointer or smoothing plane, is that the texture from a traversing cut is very different. Instead of that mirror like sheen that can be achieved straight off the plane when working with the grain, the traversing cut leaves a gently scalloped surface which has a slightly woolly texture. Not only is this an efficient way of working, but also the variation in textures really appeals to me. IKEA furniture is mono-textured, because it is made out of termite-vomit woodchip covered in a wood grain effect foil. Dull, dull, dull. A variation in textures announces that a piece of furniture is handmade, and also encourages the user to explore the furniture with their fingertips. The different textures and surface finishes invite the user to touch the piece, and to appreciate the different characteristics of the wood – as I previously discussed in my guest post on the The Daily Skep. Returning to Mortise & Tenon, leaving hidden surfaces such as the underneath of drawers or tables finished with a traversing cut is a common occurence in pre-industrial furniture.

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Traversing the shelves to bring them down to final thickness

So that’s why I approach thicknessing the shelves in this way. The how is much more straight forward. I set a marking gauge to the thickness of the tongues at the end of each shelf, and scribed a line along the front edge of the shelf. Then working front to back, traversed the board until the steps at the end of the shelves had disappeared, and I hit the marking gauge line. Nice and straight forward.

I also pre-finished the top and underside of the shelves in readiness for gluing up the casework. This is partly because once the shelves are inserted there won’t be much room to apply finish, and also because hide glue will not adhere to the finish, which will make clean up a lot easier. The tops of the shelves received two coats of blonde shellac (a 2lb cut) followed by a coat of Liberon Bison black wax – the same as the end pieces and top. The underside of the shelves were finished with two coats of the same shellac, but no wax. Because the finish prevents glue from sticking to the shelves, it is important to mask off the end of the shelves that fits in the dado. To do this accurately I placed each shelf in the dado and marked off with a fine pencil the top edge of the dado. Low tack blue painter’s tape then masked off the end of the shelf to the pencil line, allowing me to paint shellac up to the edge for a crisp finish line.

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Moving between traversing and applying finish developed a nice rhythm – each planing session lasted for just 30 minutes before applying another coat of shellac or wax to shelves that were fully planed. The staked saw benches have proved to be invaluable recently, including as a finishing table for the shelves while I was planing at my bench. This mixture of tasks also had the effect of keeping the work fresh and focused – another lesson from pre-industrial craftsmen.

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Three shelves finished and ready to be glued in. The shellac and black wax really brings out the figure.

Welsh Stick Chairs: a timber yard guide

Last Wednesday Chris Williams and I took a trip to Whitney Sawmills in search of air dried ash, oak, and elm, for a Welsh Stick Chair building session we’ll be undertaking for the John Brown book. Although this trip was ostensibly for the purpose of buying timber to build our Welsh Stick Chairs, really it was a research trip to find examples of what timber to select, and what not to select – a means to demonstrate and explore Chris’ experience and knowledge gained from building chairs for many years with John Brown.

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I always enjoy trips to the timber yard, and Witney was a timber yard I’ve not been to before. So notwithstanding a flat tyre incurred on the drive through rural Herefordshire, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day out. What made it most valuable was watching Chris at work and to start to understand what he was looking for in each stick of timber that made it into the “to buy” pile. Occasionally what he wanted was very surprising – a knotted piece of elm I would have passed over without a second glance was said to be perfect. The reason? Those knots encouraged the surrounding grain to curve perfectly for use as the comb of a stick chair. Straight grain and curved grain, they both have their roles to play in this chair form, and knowing where each is appropriate is key to minimising waste and building a sturdy chair that will last the years. These are the lessons which we hope to pass on from Chris Williams and John Brown to the readers of our book. Watching Chris work his way through piles of timber, checking each piece carefully, weighing it against 30 years experience, and making his selections, was a real education.

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This knot looked like bad news to me, but to Chris Williams it is an opportunity. The curved grain is ideal stock for the comb for a Welsh Stick Chair.

In the end we bought some timber, but not enough for a full chair. What we did come away with though was a much clearer idea of how we want to present the chairmaking section of The Life & Work of John Brown, and in particular how we want to guide the reader through the process of selecting timber to separate what is truly important from what isn’t. The good news is that green timber is not necessary – good air dried stock is all you need, and we will explain how to select dried wood, as well as how to store and dry green timber if that is all that is available.

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A Blue Peter moment – here’s an arm section Chris prepared earlier, showing the curved grain necessary for three-piece carved arms.

The timber species we were looking for are traditional choices for Welsh Stick Chair making, and reflect what John used (especially the elm and oak). But committing future generations of Welsh Stick Chair makers to potentially difficult to find timber species (again, the elm) flies in the face of the ethos John expressed in his work, and also in the broader tradition of Welsh Stick Chairs. And so what we hope to do in what I’ve come to think of the “timber yard guide” part of the book is talk about the characteristics needed for Welsh Stick Chair timber,  and give the novice chairmaker the skills to select appropriate timber from locally available stock. Chris tells me that in his later years John talked about using alternatives to the traditional oak and elm, and we feel that exploding some of the myths and rules around chair timber slection is an important part of democratising making Welsh Stick Chairs. I can’t help but feel that John (the original “Anarchist Woodworker“) would have approved.

Shellac Sundays

Or: The Policeman’s Boot Bench… Part 7

When it comes to applying a finish to the interior of a furniture project I either don’t bother (my Anarchist’s Tool Chest) or I apply a home brewed soft wax directly to the wood (the School Box). With the Policeman’s Boot Bench I decided to chanel my inner Tom Fidgen and adop a full pre-finish regime for the internal faces of the casework. There were two reasons for this. Well, three, but the third reason is my usual workshop motivation “hey, let’s try something new”, which probably doesn’t count. So there were two serious reasons for applying a pre-finish to the casework. Firstly, glue-up is going to get increasingly cramped as I install the four shelves, and a pre-finish will make cleaning up any squeeze-out much easier. And experience tells me that anything which takes the pressure off during glue-up is well worth doing. Secondly, a shellac and wax internal finish will offer some protection from any moisture or mud that gets tracked in by dirty shoes in the years to come (although I hope the client will only store clean and dry shoes on this piece). As with many processes at the workbench, I guess it comes down to what the specific project requires.

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An end piece, taped up and the knot filled with epoxy. Once the epoxy cures it will be sanded flat.

The first stage of the pre-finishing the top and ends was to remove any small dents and workbench rash. Using a standard household iron and a clean cloth I steamed out a couple of dents and tool marks, and followed this up with a light planing using my Lie-Nielsen No.3 smoothing plane. Using an iron and plenty of steam is a very effective way of restoring a dented or marked surface and reduces the amount of planing needed.

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I use a 1″ Gramercy finishing brush for shellac

Next I had to fill three knots with epoxy. The oak I’ve use for this project was remarkably clear of knots when you consider the size of the boards (15″ wide) and through careful placement and selection I managed to minimise the number and location of knots. However I was not able to avoid knots all together, and each of the end pieces has a knot on the internal face, and the top has a small knot on the underside. These knots were stable, but the centres had crumbled a bit when I was planing the boards back in January, and I wanted a cleaner surface should anyone take a peak inside the boot bench. To fill the knots I used Araldite standard epoxy, which I dyed black using Lampblack (which essentially soot). Lampblack has a very fine grain and as a result it only takes a small pinch to dye epoxy a solid black colour. I keep meaning to try West System 105/205 epoxy for this task as it seems to flow quite easily judging from Youtube videos, but I already had a pack of Araldite to hand and it is perfectly serviceable in this application.

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After two coats of blonde shellac, and before applying the black wax

With the epoxy liberally applied to the knots I taped up the dados and rabbets with blue painter’s tape to keep them clean and free of shellac. I then brushed two coats of a 2lb cut of blonde shellac onto the internal face of both ends and the top, being careful not to brush onto the still curing epoxy. Once the second coat of shellac had dried it was then a simple case of rubbing on a coat of Liberon Black Wax and leaving it to dry before buffing out to a soft sheen.

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The underside of the top – the shellac and black wax combination has emphasised the character of the timber and given a nice sheen

I still need to sand back the epoxy once it has fully hardened and then fill in those localised spots with shellac and wax, after which the casework can be glued up. I could have waited for the epoxy to cure before I applied any shellac or wax, but truth me told I was a little impatient and wanted to see how the oak looked with some finish applied. The beauty of using shellac is that if carefully applied it melts into any pre-existing shellac finish in a very seamless way, so other than the black dyed epoxy no one should be able to see which patches I finished separately.

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The inner face of the left hand end.

Behind the scenes at Over the Wireless

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This limited edition sea monster print by Quarrelsome Yeti makes me want to listen to nothing but sea shanties

Due to the inevitable compromises necessary when you rent accomodation, I’ve not had a dedicated place to write since early 2012. That all changed when we bought our house in 2015, but decorating and setting up my study was somewhere towards the bottom of the DIY to do list, especially as we moved in only six months before the Apprentic was born and my focus was on getting the nursery and main rooms all decorated before she arrived. As a result, my study remained a beige graveyard for countless boxes and stacks of timber, and I continued to write magazine articles and blog posts on the sofa. Which is fine up to a point, but with the John Brown book progressing at a pace (and more on that next week) it really has become time that I sort out a proper workspace. So early this year I decanted the study and set about decorating. At first I was at a loss as to what the colour scheme should be – it is a smallish room so I wanted something light and vibrant, and I am deeply opposed to beige in all of it’s hideous varieties. Then Dr Moss made the excellent point that my woodwork, and writing, all stem from a love of music and passion for lutherie. So why not look to my favourite vintage guitar colours for inspiration? After that it was easy – three of the walls have been painted a vibrant sea foam green (the very best colour for Fender Jazzmasters) while the fourth wall, framing the window, is a deep teal not dissimilar to another classic colour used by Fender. Perfect.

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Breaking down the rough boards with the Skelton cross cut panel saw and staked saw benches

With the room decorated I need a desk. If I’m honest, I can’t resist the idea of building the desk at which I’m then going to write about building other things. So on Tuesday I took a trip out to Sykes Timber and collected a stack of maple which will be turned into the staked worktable from The Anarchist’s Design Book. As is becoming a re-occuring theme, the project started with breaking down the rough boards to length using my Skelton “Kenyon” style panel saw and the staked saw benches I built last year. Every time I use the Skelton saw I am blown away – it cuts like a chainsaw but has 18th century style and charm. Just wonderful.

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Rough stock acclimatising in the study

The boards are now lying in stick at the end of the study, and once I’ve finished The Policeman’s Boot Bench I’ll start building the desk in earnest. This is going to be a fun project, and not just because of the large octagonal legs. It will give me an opportunity to finally press the lathe into use, as well as some big sliding dovetailed battens, and an excuse to use half-blind dovetails on the drawer front. And of course, more octagonalisation. So a useful piece of furniture which contains lots of lessons and practice opportunities. That is pretty much my favourite sort of project at the moment. Stay tuned for more on this build later this year.