Roubo Is Coming… Part 10

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In position, and ready for the reference face to be trued up

After flattening the underside of the slab, the next surface to be processed is the edge which will face outwards when in use. This edge needs to be both straight, and perpendicular to the underside, to facilitate laying out the leg joinery, and because it will be a clamping surface when the bench is in use. With the help of my slab-manouvering assistants, the slab was moved onto my saw benches with the rear edge resting on the saw benches, and clamped to my Sjoberg workbench so that (what will be) the top of the slab was facing the workbench, and the show edge was facing upwards. The staked saw benches I built from the Anarchist’s Design Book are the unsung heroes in my workshop – they are constantly in use and are so versatile that only a fraction of their time is spent being used as saw benches. They have proved to be invaluable for this build, and have even taken the weight of the slab (which is a 4 person lift) without complaining.

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I never thought my No8 would look small, but this project does so

Planing a 110″ long, 6″ wide, edge is very different to jointing a furniture-sized board, and a clear plan is needed if you are to work efficiently and avoid chasing your tail. My plan was to get the long edges straight and flat, and then make adjustments as necessary to bring the edge to a clean 90 degrees from the flattened underside. Before I reached for any planes however, I checked the edge with a 50″ straight edge to see what I was working with. Halfway along the slab was a large knot where a branch had grown. That knot was a fair amount below the surface of the slab, and the edge of the slab had a gentle concave curve, the apex of which was located at this knot. A light swipe with a plane showed that the grain reversed around the knot, so that on each half of the slab the grain flowed from the end towards the knot.

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A sharp low angle plane is perfect for cleaning up wild grain

While this created extra work than if the slab had been closer to flat, it also suggested a straight forward solution. I worked the curve out of the edge, working from each end towards the middle of the length, using my No5 set to a rank cut. Once the curve had largely been removed, I moved to the No8 jointer to get things really straight. The grain around the knot was swirling and generally uncooperative, although moving to a low angle block plane tamed things quite easily. I am sure some folk would have flipped the slab over to avoid this knot, however I decided to stick to this orientation of the slab because the crotch wood, now it has been cleaned up, is really quite striking and will add a nice visual feature. On a practical level, turning the slab around is no trivial matter, and also requires my team of willing helpers to be available, which would slow down progress of the bench build for several  days. So in this orientation the slab will stay.

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It ain’t square until Dr Vesper says its square

Now that the edge was flat and straight I was able to check how close to perpendicular it was to the underside. A few spots required fine tuning, and for this task I quite like a No3 smoothing plane. Set to a fine cut, the smoothing plane is small enough to subtle adjustments to localised spots, which is exactly what I needed here.

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Marking the ends of the bench top

With the reference side and faces processed, I was able to remove the excess length. I deliberately ordered a slab longer than I needed so that I could trim any horrors found at the ends, and this meant that there was just over 8″ to remove to bring it down to the 8 pied a roi final length. The slab was in the perfect position to trim the ends, and so I struck a line with a 0.9mm pencil and 24″ combination square, and then cut to that line with a coarse filed cross-cut saw. The surface left by the Skelton Panel Saw is very good, so I will likely leave the trimmed ends as they currently are, without any dressing from a plane.

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The Skelton Panel Saw is basically a meat-powered chain saw, but cutting a 6″ thick, 23″ wide slab still felt a lot like work.

There is one small task left to do while the slab is in its current position, and then it will be time to flip it over and dress the rear edge. Which means that most of the work on the slab is done for now, and soon it will be time to cut the iconic leg joinery – an operation I am really looking forward to.

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The slab is now trimmed to length, and just needs the rear edge dressing

Roubo Is Coming… Part 9

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The slab in the rough

After working on my article for Mortise and Tenon over the past few months (a piece I really enjoyed building) it feels good to be returning to the Roubo bench build. Having built the undercarriage, save for the leg joinery, it is now time for a stage of the build I’ve been simultaneously anticipating and overawed by – processing the slab top. There are no two ways about it – this is the single largest piece of timber I’ve ever worked on, and although I trust in my core skill set, tackling something of this size is a little awe inspiring.

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The No5 and scrub did all the heavy lifting on this stage of the build

The first challenge is how to move and set up something this size for working. Over this year I’ve been brainstorming workholding solutions, and finally it was a conversation with Mark Hicks (who builds these for a living) that convinced me I was overcomplicating something that was very simple, and that I should just put the slab on my existing workbench. It turns out Mark was right on the money – while the slab overhangs my Sjoberg bench by several feet at each end, the sheer weight of timber keeps it in place. Getting it there looked like a bit of a challenge, but I was able to call upon the assistance of my father and a couple of friends. Between four of us, the lift was manageable and we got the slab into position with a minimum of salty language.

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Chamfering the far side to avoid spelching

Processing the slab is just like flattening any other board, only much, much bigger. I decided to flatten the underside first, as the top does not need working until the bench is assembled. The key to working timber of this size is limiting the number of rotations or lifts you have to achieve. Roubo suggests that the slab should be orientated heart-side up so that it tightens around the leg joinery as it dries out. My slab has some pith at one end (pictured above) but as I’m finding, one of the key mindsets for this bench is to use the material you have available, and do not worry about any imperfections (mainly because it is nigh on impossible to get timber of this scale which does not have knots, checking, or some pith).

Before reaching for my planes, I checked the slab for twist and was very pleased to find that there was only minimal twist at the very ends. If I scooted my winding sticks in by a couple of inches, the twist all but disappeared, and as the slab is currently 8″ over length, I’ll be able to trim off the twisted ends. A quick check with a straight edge showed that the slab was broadly flat across the length, and had a bit of gentle cupping consistently across the width.

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Traversing the grain with the No5

Just as lifting the slab is not a job for one, I decided to call in help for flattening the underside. My father was kind enough to join me in the shop today, and we had some long-overdue father-son time working some orney oak – he with the Lie-Nielsen scrub plane and me with the No5. The combination of scrub and jack worked very well – some of the knots which repelled my jack were easily dressed by the more aggressive (3″ radius) blade on the scrub. After planing a healthy chamfer on the far side of the slab, we traversed the grain until the surface was deadnuts flat across the width, with only mild undulations along the length. I then followed by traversing with the No8 jointer, skewing the plane to 45 degrees in order to remove the highspots along the length. The result is a slab that right now is flat (it will continue to move with seasonal variations in humidity for a while, but I can keep the top flat as it does). A few solitary low spots remain, but these are cosmetic rather than anything else, and as it is the underside of the bench I don’t see any merit in removing a lot of material to dress those divots. I would much rather keep the material on the bench, and have a few rough sawn patches where no one can see.

The next task will be to assemble my merry band of helpers to rotate the slab onto its edge, and dress the show-face so that it is straight and perpendicular to the underside. I also need to trim 8″ off the ends, which I will do once the reference edge has been trued up.

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The flattened slab

 

 

An Anarchist’s Anniversary

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There are only a few pivotal moments in life – those moments which fundamentally change your course or lead down an unexpected path. Much of life is really incremental in nature; layers of small decisions or events which slowly accumulate until you find yourself on a particular path. That’s all very profound, but what does it have to do with woodwork? Let me explain. There are three key pivotal moments that I can think of in my adult life – enrolling at Totnes in 2007 (the first real woodwork I had ever done, and which ignited a love of handwork that continues to propel me), lunch at the Evil Eye in York with Dr Moss in August 2007, which twelve years on is still the best lunch decision I’ve ever made, and signing up to the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class with Chris.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class, and I have been reflecting on how that class changed my life. It fostered an interest in furniture making, which expanded my focus from lutherie, and gave me a new set of core skills I use when building furniture. It introduced me to someone I am lucky to consider a friend and mentor, as well as a wider community of good friends spread across the globe. And I got to share a bench for five days with a good buddy from university. All good things. But it was also this class which kickstarted my writing career – something I’d not previously considered, save for this blog. Blogging every day about the class (which you can read: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5), led to Derek Jones kindly inviting me to write for Furniture & Cabinetmaking, which in turn lead to articles for Popular Woodworking and a book deal with Lost Art Press. Which means that the class has led to assignments, and research trips in Inverness, the South of France, Glasgow, London, Pembrokeshire, Amana, and soon, Kentucky. Not to mention exhibiting at EWS 2015 and 2017, and the Midlands Woodwork Show earlier this year.

All of these came about because of that class, and I cannot imagine what life would be like if I had not have spent that week in Leamington Spa five years ago.

There seems to be a certain poetry in travelling to Kentucky to teach an Anarchist’s Tool Chest class at the Lost Art Press storefront. And I am really excited about teaching this class. I can’t promise my students that the class will be life changing for them, but I can promise that we will make some memories (as well as many, many dovetails) and have a lot of fun in the process.

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A Different Type of Lamination

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I’ve written before about the parallels I’ve found between different handcraft traditions, and the particular familiy resonance that baking holds for me. Dr Moss surprised me this year by booking me onto another baking class for my birthday, this time a full day viennoissorie course at Loaf. This is the first time I’d ventured down to Loaf, but the quality of the bread they bake and sell means that it will be far from my last trip. There must be something in the air in Stirchley which encourages traditional handcrafts. Loaf were at the forefront of encouraging a community and rejuvenating what was previously a very tired stretch of the Pershore Road. JoJo Wood moved in a few doors down when she established Pathcarvers, and suddenly there is a hub of creative endeavour in an unlikely location. One of the things I love about living in Birmingham is the rich history of ingenuity and industry – in the nineteenth century Birmingham was the city of a thousand trades, and the plethora of traditional and independent crafts taking place around the city currently speaks to that same work ethic and passion to make.

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Laminating the dough

The class itself was fantastic. A full day provides an opportunity to deep dive into technique and approach each stage of a bake in real detail. For the uninitiated, Viennoissorie is the use of laminated and enriched doughs, and the day involved baking croissant, pain au raison, pain au chocolate, brioche, and hot cross buns. Yes, breakfast the next day was very enjoyable ( I do wonder if this was Rachel’s motivation for booking me on the class?)! I’d wanted to bake hot cross buns for a long time, as one of the stories I remember most vividly from my grandfather’s bakehouse was that they would be so tired of making tens of thousands of hot cross buns at Easter that every year, the last hot cross bun baked at Easter was placed on a nail and left there for the next twelve months.

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Things are about to get messy – folding in the fruit for the hot cross buns

If kneading dough is similar to planing timber by hand, then preparing laminated dough and assembling viennoissorie is joinery for bakers. There is plenty of opportunity to work the dough by hand, and to develop an understanding of your material as you prepare it, which continues as you assemble and fill the pastries. This is a type of baking I’d not previously tried, and I had assumed that laminated doughs would be fiendishly difficult. I shouldn’t have been concerned, as instructors Neil and Martha were incredibly knowledgeable and patient, and broke each stage into easily understood instructions and tips. The class was well paced, so that we were never rushed, and had plenty of time to experiment and work through the different tasks, but also that no one was left waiting for the next instructions. Our hard labour was rewarded by seeing trays of freshly baked pastries come out of the oven. we were also well catered for during the day, with plenty of Loaf’s own freshly bread provided for pre-class breakfast and lunch.

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Hot cross buns

The class concluded with a tour of Loaf’s bakery, and the opportunity to see how a bustling professional bakery is set up was fascinating. If yo uare in the Birmingham area and want to learn some new baking skills, then Loaf comes highly recommended. I will definitely be returning for future classes!

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The Final Piece of the Puzzle

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Holdfasts have been central to the way I have worked over the past four years, and they are a critical workholding strategy for the Roubo bench. A hefty bench, such as my oak Roubo build, deserves a big hefty holdfast. The distintive holdfasts detailed in With All the Precision Possible are much larger than many modern designs, and I wanted something which would fit the overbuilt vibe of the bench. Specifically, I wanted a Crucible Tool holdfast, or one of Peter Ross’ amazing full scale “Roubo” holdfasts.

Unfortunately Crucible do not ship internationally, but a tip-off over Instagram led me to Hyvlar – a Swedish tool seller who stock Crucible tools and are happy to ship across Europe. My Crucible holdfast arrived today, and while I do not yet have any 1″ diameter holes to test it in, it appears to be an impressive tool. The design is very similar to the engravings in Roubo’s manuscript, and the large size and rough cast texture will complement the oak bench nicely. Of course, none of that matters unless the holdfast can steady workpieces, but everything I have heard from folk who use these holdfasts is that they hold like the dickens. I’m looking forward to putting this holdfast through its paces, and will report back once the Roubo bench is in use.

I’ll be keeping my current 3/4″ holdfast, and may well bore a 3/4″ diameter hole in each of my saw benches to assist with holding stock in place.

An unexpected chest

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Last weekend we took a trip to North Shields to see some very close friends. Travel has many benefits, but as I’ve written about previously, staying in holiday cottages often provides the opportunity to get up close and personal with vernacular furniture. This trip was no exception, and I was delighted to find in the lounge of our delightful flat (which was only meters from the beach) an old dovetailed chest. Now, I can’t resist the opportunity to spend some time looking at utility dovetails and this chest was intriguing. It was a touch smaller than my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but both chests share design DNA. And while the execution was one the utilitarian side, it was clearly built by someone who understood furniture making and woodmovement in particular.

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So what caught my eye on this chest? The dovetails are an obvious space to start. They were irregularly spaced, and while some were very gappy, there were also a number of splits radiating from the corners of the chest which suggest that some of the joinery was over tight. Nonetheless, the chest felt very solid, which goes to show that a dovetail does not have to win any beauty contests to be stout. The dovetails were almost certainly cut by hand, as the baseline was still clearly visible on several corners. Whoever built the chest had also used beading to protect the fragile edge below the lid. Tearout and tool marks were also present on the external and internal surfaces.

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The lid was comprised of two pieces, which had been joined with tongue and grooves. Opening the lid revealed two rectangular patches on the inside face, where the wood had retained its original colour. Those patches (which crossed the two boards) were pierced at each end with a hole, and this suggests that battens had been screwed or nailed across the lid to prevent warping. The end of one dovetail in the carcase also showed that the sides of the chest had been built out of tongue and grooved boards.

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The corners had also been reinforced with metal plating, although some edges of the plates had been folded over, so I am not sure how robust the reinforcement was. Interestingly, some effort had been taken to clock the screws when installing the hardware.

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The chest was full of records and casset tapes, and I was interested to find a fixed till at oneend which appeared to be original, and which contained two drawers.

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All in all, this was a lovely example of a “user” piece of furniture, and one which has plenty of life left in it.