What was, and what will be

As has become tradition, I thought it would kick off another year of blogging (the eighth year of Over the Wireless!) with a brief review of the past twelve months. January offers a good opportunity to review and reflect on what came before, and to think about what comes next.


Catching up with Derek Jones at the Midlands Woodworking Show

First, the most important aspect of any yearly-round up has to be the traditional list of favourite music releases. My top five new releases of 2019 (in order) were:

1. “Ghosteen” by Nick Cave & The Badseeds;

2. “Sunset Kids” by Jesse Malin;

3. “It’s Real” by Ex Hex;

4. “Human Question” by The Yawpers; and

5. “Western Stars” by Bruce Springsteen.

Closer to the workbench, 2019 saw nine of my articles in print (my first for Mortise & Tenon, one for Popular Woodworking, and seven for Furniture & Cabinetmaking), including my first multi-part project series with the Roubo bench build series in F&C. The readership of the blog continued to grow, and I had my best year in terms of readership with 51,400 views (plus those who read through an aggregator and/ or the WordPress reader service). I’m still baffled that folk read what I write, but I am very grateful to everyone who has stopped by to read a post, and leave a comment.


The highlight of the year was without a doubt teaching the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class at Lost Art Press in September. A great bunch of students, as well as spending time with Chris and Megan, made for a very memorable trip, and I’m definitely looking for more teaching opportunities. In other Lost Art Press related news, Chris announced The Book Book last January, and that project will be my focus for the coming year (and beyond). There was also the Midlands Woodworking Show with Classic Hand Tools (and my good buddy Richard Wile) which was a lot of fun and an opportunity to re-connect with the community.


In terms of actual woodworking, most of 2019 was consumed with the Roubo bench build, which was functional if not complete by the end of the year. I am working on completing the bench, and hope to have it done by the end of February (which will mark 12 months of solid work on the project). This was a bucket-list project, so I was pleased to finally make the time and space to work on it. The pace and scale of the project was a real change to anything I’d ever built before, which was very refreshing. I also built an 18th century style Welsh Stick Chair (for Mortise and Tenon), and finished the Apprentice’s Stick Chair. So while I didn’t complete many projects, what I did build feel personally significant.


That all sounds like a pretty good year, and it was. There was also a lengthy period when I asked myself why I was working wood, and whether I should continue writing and making. I’m glad I persevered through that period of uncertainty. It is (I think) natural to have moments of self doubt in any endeavour, and the idea of not working with my hands feels about as natural as giving up breathing. Sometimes you need to knuckle through, and sometimes you need to take a break and rest up. Last year I knuckled through, and it worked – as I mentioned above, the change in pace and scale of the Roubo bench build provided much needed refreshment.


And what does 2020 hold in store? My main priorities are finishing off the Roubo bench, and getting stuck into the research for The Book Book. My next research trip is in less than a week’s time, and I will be looking at some very significant historic libraries, which will be an important step in charting the development of the humble bookcase. Expect an update on the blog soon. I try not to predict what projects I’ll be building in any year, because I seem to be incapable of accurate predictions. That being said, I really want to build a boarded bookcase from the Anarchist’s Design Book for my study (I started gluing up panels at the end of 2018 but then got diverted onto other things), and I have components for another stick chair ready and waiting. So those are likely to be my first post-Roubo projects.

Roubo Is Coming… Part 22

I never get much work done during the festive break as my focus is always on spending quality time with family.

That being said, I did manage to steal some time away in the shop this week to tick off a few outstanding elements of the Roubo bench build, the first of which was installing the brass plaque Jenny Bower engraved for the bench earlier this year. As the bench is now functional, if not yet complete, this seemed like a good opportunity to mount the plaque. After a final test fit in the recess, I put a thin film of adhesive on the back of the plaque and gently clamped it in place underneath a block of scrap.

Plate 11 shows a tool holder mounted on the rear edge of the benches. I’ve admired the Saddle Bags made by Jason Thigpen for some time, and so this was a perfect opportunity to order one. I find that shavings and other detritus tend to fall over both sides of my bench, but not over the front end, and so I mounted the Saddle Bag on the left-hand end of the bench, using dividers to centre it on the width of the bench top. The Saddle Bag will hold all of my frequently used layout tools within easy reach, so that I only need to get them out of my tool chest at the very start of the day.

The final task removed from my to do list was installing the Benchcrafted Swing Out Seat hardware. I still need to turn the seat itself, but mounting the hardware on the bench leg was straight forward and the seat moves very nicely.

After the Christmas break I will return to the Roubo bench build in earnest, and aim to have it completed by mid-February.

Roubo Is Coming… Part 21


This weekend saw another major milestone reached for the Roubo bench build. The benchtop is completely flattened, and I’ve applied a finish to the bench (more on that later). While there is plenty left to do before the bench is complete, it is now functional as a workbench, which means that I can use the bench to finish the last elements of the build.


This benchtop really does dwarf the No3 smoother

As predicted in my last post, jointing the bench top did not take too long, and the top is (for now at least) flat to 0.005″ over 24″ in any direction. Which is plenty flat enough for my work, and gives me a good basis for flattening the top when it moves in six months or so. After jointing the top I smoothed it with my No.3 smoothing plane. Keeping track of which elements you have worked on such a large surface area can be challenging, and so I hatched across the entire bench top with a lumber crayon. Overlaping strokes with the smoothing plane removed the crayon, and so I knew at any time where I still needed to plane. For each complete pass with the plane, I re-hatched the top, and worked the whole surface again.



Te middle of the slab contains some pith, and the grain direction changes on each side of the pith. I therefore found it necessary to work in opposite directions from each side. The purpose in smoothing was mainly to remove the tool marks from the previous flattening operations – you could potentially skip this step if you wanted. While I wanted to remove most of the tearout, I’ve been pragmatic and not worried about removing every last spot as that would require taking a vast amount of material off the top and risks taking it out of flat. And after all, it is a workbench which will take a lot of abuse over the coming decades.


Chamfering the corners of the top with the Philly Planes chamfer plane

Once the top was flat and smooth, I prepared it for applying the finish. This consisted of a number of small tasks. First I chamfered the top corners of the slab with my Philly Planes boxwood chamfer plane. Secondly, I taped up the two areas I do not want to get finish on – the top of the leg vise, as I will be gluing crubber to the vise jaws, and the recess where the plaque engraved by Jenny Bower will be glued. I also vacuumed any debris lodged in the splits in the top, so that these did not absorb finish. As a final step, I did a sweep around the undercarriage joinery to remove any squeeze out that had survived gluing up the bench last month. The Benchcrafted Skraper is perfect for removing dried glue without damaging the underlying surface.


In the white and awaiting oil

With the bench prepared, I ragged on a coat of Boiled Linseed Oil. This is a good solution for finishing benches, as it is dirt simple to apply, does not create a slick surface (I want my workpieces to stay still, thank you very much), is easily applied and maintained, and will prevent glue from sticking to the benchtop. Thirty minutes later I wiped off the excess, and now the bench will sit over the Christmas break while the oil cures. The only jobs left to do before the new year are to fit the plaque and also install the Benchcrafted Swing Away seat.


Oiled! I did apply finish tp the whole bench, even though the mixture of lighting sources (natural light and overhead fluorescent) makes it look like only some components were oiled.

Roubo Is Coming… Part 20


This is how the front end of the benchtop looked before traversing with the jack plane

I’m going to be honest with you, dear reader. Flattening the bench top has been the single most challenging aspect of the Roubo build. Not the large-scale joinery (which is where I expected the challenge to come), but getting the bench top flat and true. Why is that? I flatten every component of every build. And while that may be true, at 102″ x 21″ the bench top is the single largest surface area I’ve tackled, and the only project which has truly dwarfed my big No8 jointer plane. That being said, with perseverance and trusting fundamental handwork techniques, even a large surface area like this can be tamed.

At the end of my last blog post the back half of the slab had been traversed flat across the width. Since then I have traversed the front half, and then did some measuring with the straight edge to build up an understanding of the topography of the slab. A couple of truculent knots, and some pronounced cupping, meant that the slab had quite a lot of variation before being traversed. There was also a stubborn low patch along the rear edge, between the two legs.


Traversed, but with some stubborn low patches remaining. These will come out as the benchtop is flattened

After traversing, the next step is to work down the length on a 45 degree skew, working in one direction and then the other. The basic premise is that each process removes the variations of the one before, finishing with jointing along the length. I started working on the skew, and found myself chasing my tail, introducing a fall-off on the far edge where it had previously been flat, and generally making no progress. That’s ok – it’s wood and it hates you, and sometimes things don’t go quite to plan. My preferred solution in such circumstances is to take a break, preferably for a day or so, and return to the task fresh. I also took the opportunity to correspond with Mark Hicks, who kindly gave me some helpful pointers on how to tackle flattening such a monstrous piece of oak.

My first step when returning to the workshop was to sharpen my No5 and No8 planes, and to undertake a hard reset of the slab by traversing it flat again. This didn’t remove too much material, but did give me a solid reference surface from which to work. One of the interesting questions with flattening benchtops is “how flat is flat?“. You can work until you’re getting full width shavings off the plane, but after my recent frustrations I decided to be a bit more scientific about the process. So, I dug out my feeler gauges and traversed the bench until the entire top was flat to 0.005″ over a 24” length. I found that marking the high spots with a red lumber crayon helped to identify the key areas to work.


Working the benchtop on a 45 degree angle removes variations from traversing. Shading the benchtop with lumber crayon helps to identify when the whole surface has been worked.

Once the benchtop was traversed flat, I went back to working at a 45 degree angle with the jointer. This can be an awkward stroke as the plane ends up being extended far in front of you, which for the heavy No8 can introduce a nose-dive, rounding over the far edge of the workpiece. Paying attention to body mechanics, and being careful to end the stroke with pressure applied to the heel of the plane, is essential. I also measured the bench top every few inches with my straight edge and feeler gauge, marking off the high spots to ensure that the plane was removing material where it needed to. After six passes down the length of the bench top in each direction, the surface was flat to 0.005″ over 24″ on both the diagonal and across the width. Which seemed like a very good place to stop for the day. The length is a bit lumpy, but not more than 0.008″ on 24″ for the majority of the surface, and jointing will remove that in relatively short order.


Flat across the width and on the diagonal. Only jointing the length to go now

Flattening the benchtop has been humbling for sure, but moving through those difficulties and getting it to a state where is pretty much finished is very gratifying.

Time for Tea

The latest issue of Popular Woodworking landed on my doorstep yesterday. I’ve been looking forward to this particular issue because it includes an article I researched and wrote at the start of the year about the restoration of the iconic Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed “Willow Tea Rooms” in Glasgow.

Following PopWood’s entry into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year it wasn’t clear if this article would ever see the light of day. Fortunately, with Active Interest Media’s purchase of PopWood, the magazine seems to be in better shape.

I’m grateful that this article is now in print, as it examines a painstaking (multi-million pound) restoration of a hugely important Mackintosh landmark, and shows the very finest of contemporary Scottish craftsmanship. It is a breathtaking project, and I hope readers will find it as interesting as I have.