Finally, to round out the experience I’ll have a guitar with me, my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and the Apprentice.
Finally, to round out the experience I’ll have a guitar with me, my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and the Apprentice.
Or, The Policeman’s Boot Bench… part 14
I spent today cleaning up the exterior of the Policeman’s Boot Bench. It is always a big step to start cleaning up a project ready to apply finish, not to mention a critical stage of the work – applying a finish will highlight any imperfections or mistakes, so taking your time to getting everything looking pretty “in the white” is time spent wisely. To get in the right mindset, when I came into the workshop I headed straight to my sharpening station and sharpened the planes and cabinet scrapers I expected to use. Even if I had sharpened them last time I used them, they went back to the sharpening table for a fresh hone. Not only did this ensure that everything was as sharp as I could get it (I don’t want any tearout when finnessing the exterior faces of the casework) but most importantly I found that it helped get me in the right sort of mindset for the work ahead.
I find that for final surfacing and clean-up work it pays to have a plan of attack – the last thing you want to do is brush shellac onto a surface only to realise that you’ve not cleaned up it up fully. This is all the more so for the boot bench, where the open fronted shelves means that there are a lot of different edges and corners to pay attention to. I decided to ignore the front of the carcase for this session, and to focus on the faces of the wide boards, starting at one end before moving onto the top, and finally finishing at the other end. This meant that I could gently roll the boot bench onto one end, and then finish work with it standing on the opposite end. Fortunately, the boot bench has enough weight that when standing on a pile of blankets it does not move across the floor while being planed.
Because I had left the pins of my dovetails slightly proud, it was important to flush these up without chipping out any end grain, before working the rest of surface of the end pieces. I used the little Lie-Nielsen No.102 block plane for this, which worked in a very controlled manner to slice away the proud end grain prior to smoothing the rest of the board with the No.3 smoothing plane. Although I normally use a 60 1/2 block plane, I really like the 102 for delicate work, as it is perfectly sized and weighted to fit in one hand during use, meaning that you can hold the workpiece steady with the other hand. There were a few difficult patches of grain where I had to resort to some very localised sanding, for which I used Abranet 220 grit on a sponge sanding block. I’ve not used Abranet before, but after reading several glowing reviews I thought I would give it a try, and so far it does seem to be the best abrasive I’ve used. I blended the planed and sanded surfaces together using a cabinet scraper, which gave a consistent finish across the face of the board.
I then repeated the process for the top, with one significant diffence. With the end pieces I was able to work from the dovetailed corner down towards the feet. However the top is dovetailed at both ends. Planing off a dovetailed corner would chip out the end grain on the tails, resulting in plenty more clean up and patching. Instead, I worked from one corner, stopping an inch or so before the dovetails of the opposite corner. Then it was a matter of working in the opposite direction until both corners were flushed up and clean. A cabinet scraper helped to blend the transition between the two directions of working, and by lifting the scraper off the workpiece before I reached the very end, I was able to avoid any spelching.
As a final touch, I lightly chamfered the aris of the rear edge of the carcase, using the No.102 block plane. Oak is tough, but can be prone to splintering on the edges, and so removing the sharp corner helps to protect the edge from breaking.
With the three wide faces cleaned up, I decided to apply the first coat of shellac while the wood was freshly planed and scraped, to avoid the fibres darkening through oxidization during any delay to finish. I used the same 2lb cut of blonde shellac as for the interior of the carcase, brushed on with a 1″ Gramercy ox-hair finishing brush. The shellac brought out the grain and added a little pizazz to the dovetails.
All that remains now is prettying up the front of the carcase, applying the rest of the shellac and wax, and (most importantly) stamping the boot bench with my maker’s mark. More on that next week.
While I was at Handworks I was asked to take part in a podcast for the Modern Woodworkers Association. The podcast (MWA Issue 140) is now available for streaming here. My interview starts 40 minutes in, and Issue 140 also includes segments with Anne, Chris Kuehn, Colin Bullock, Jason Weaver, Jim, Peter Galbert, and Ryan Saunders amongst others.
So, if you want to hear me talk about the John Brown book, my favourite woodworking tools, what I think are the biggest difficulties for self taught woodworkers, why we shouldn’t be afraid of failure, and offend Garth Brooks fans the world over, then click through.
The final back board is now fitted, which means that the casework for the Boot Bench is now complete. This feels like quite a milestone after six months of work.
Fitting this board was similar to the others (it is after all just a 1/2″ thick tongue and groove board) with a few additional steps to reflect the fact that is was to go between two boards which were already fixed in place. After processing the board to final thickness I selected the best side to face into the casework, as this will be the side that is viewed when the client puts their shoes on the shelves, and shot square the end that fits into the rebate in the top. As I’ve written before, I like sizing components off the rest of a project wherever possible, and if I can get away without using numbers to measure then I’m always happy. To bring the back board down to the final width I decided to dispense with my rulers and instead use the hole in the back to determine the width. To do this, I cut the tongue on the left hand side of the board, and laid the board in place with the shoulder of the tongue lying against the edge of the adjacent board. This gave me a good indication as to how much material needed to be removed before I planed in the groove on the opposite edge of the board.
Once I had brought the board down to that rough width, I planed in the groove and tried a test fitting, which told me that the board was a little too wide to allow for expansion gaps on either side. Tongue and groove joinery is pretty forgiving for this sort of test fitting process, especially when using a dedicated plane like the Lie-Nielsen No.49 where the fence is held in a precise and repeatable position to the cutter and where the plane stops cutting once a predetermined depth is reached. Reducing the overall width of the board was a simple matter of taking a few full length passes from each long edge with my jointer plane, restoring the depth of the tongue and groove with the No.49, and then test fitting the board, repeating until I had a clean fit with even expansion gaps on both sides.
After finishing the board with shellac and wax I used a 2lb lump hammer to knock it into position. I’d previously not thought of using a hammer of this weight for furniture making, but after Chris wrote about the benefits of wielding the sort of hammer that would make Thor proud, I thought I’d give it a go. The lump hammer crushed the end grain of the board a little, but I had anticipated this and left the board over-length so that any damage could be trimmed off.
When fitting the other back boards a portion of each shelf had been visible, which made locating the pilot holes for the cut nails easy. However with all the boards now in place, the shelves were completely obscured. My nightmares recently have been full of images of missing the edge of a shelf and pounding a cut nail into open air within the casework. To avoid this, I placed a large (50″) straight edge against the cut nails holding the other three bac boards in place, and located the pilot holes for the final board off the straight edge. This approach worked a treat, and I’m pleased to say that all 32 nails in the back fit neatly into a shelf (and breathe a sigh of relief).
I want to roll the boot bench around my workshop floor as little as possible. And so while the the carcase was face down, I took the opportunity to clean up the back edge of the sides and top with my No.3 smoothing plane, and to apply two coats of shellac. I then stood the carcase upside down (on top of a pile of moving blankets to protect it from the concrete floor) and trimmed the back board ends flush. As a finishing touch, I cleaned up a small amount of squeeze out from the bottom shelf, and then chamfered the feet to ensure that no fibres blow out when the boot bench is moved into position in the client’s home. I’m sure there are more satisfying things in life than chamfering edges with a block plane, but I’m not sure I’ve experienced any.
I never got to meet John Brown. Truth be told, I didn’t hear of his name until several years after his death. But I’m starting to feel like I know the man.
My first introduction to John Brown, and to Welsh Stick Chairs, was as I imagine it was for many woodworkers, a blog post Chris wrote. These unusual chairs were nothing like I’d ever seen before – theirs was a dynamic form, suggesting a feral energy coiled within the sticks, waiting to spring out. I was intrigued, but at that time focusing on lutherie, so I mentally filed the chair away for another day. A little over a year later and John Brown was again mentioned on the Lost Art Press blog, this time in the context of his influential, if hard to find, book Welsh Stick Chairs. Then I bought a copy of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and opened the cover to find a dedication to John inside. I was just starting to think about building furniture in addition to my usual workshop diet of lutherie, and my interest was piqued, but I still knew precious little about John or his chairs.All of that has changed in the past twelve months since I joined the team for the Life & Work of John Brown. The chairs still fascinate me, and I cannot wait to start building some with my co-author Chris Williams. And I feel that I am starting to know John a little. Over the past year we have combed through all of John’s articles for Good Woodworking, his book (yes copies are still out there if you search for them, yes you will get gouged for a tatty second hand copy), his article for Fine Woodworking, and his correspondence. All of this is a great starting point for getting to grips with John’s passion for hand tool work, his vision of the Anarchist Woodworker, and the importance he placed in the Welsh-ness of his chairs. But all of that only presents half a picture – it tells you how John perceived himself and his work, a perspective which is incredibly important. But unless you have exceptional self awareness, your writing and correspondence will never tell the reader how other people perceive you. And so I’ve spent the weekend on a research trip to deepest Pembrokeshire, where John spent many of his chair making years. This trip has been revelationary, giving my understanding of John context in terms of both space and relationships – we saw the house he lived in when he first started building Welsh Stick Chairs, and the countryside that he wrote so passionately about in Good Woodworking. We also spent time with some of John’s family and friends, talking about John’s path as a woodworker and chairmaker, and his motivation and philosphy in craft, trying to understand the man behind the Anarchist Woodworker. One of the joys of carrying out interviews is not just answering the big questions you came armed with, but the incidental details, or stories that you never thought to ask. Yesterday I sat in a Welsh kitchen, enthralled while John’s first wife unveilled the very first thing John had made from wood – a simple lidded cotton box held together with small tacks, and which is still in use today. It was a powerful reminder that even great makers do not start out building masterpieces – they have to start with simple projects just like the rest of us. There is a responsibility when writing about someone other than yourself. To write with integrity, you must approach the subject both sympathetically and honestly, critically but without judging. Above all, it must be accurate. In many ways this is not dissimilar to researching and writing history (one of my very first loves), only in a much more modern setting. Tracking down answers to our questions, and uncovering what should be a rich and vibrant narrative, is thrilling. We won’t be writing a full biography of John Brown – that would take several volumes, and much of it is not relevant to John Brown the chairmaker. But as someone whose craft was more than just what he did with his hands, he is in many ways indivisible from his work. And so we are going to tell the story of Chairman Brown, and to hopefully prompt a well deserved re-evaluation of his impact on the craft. Yesterday would have been John Brown’s 85th birthday – a fact that I did not learn until after we arranged the field trip several months ago. But it felt very apt that on what would have been his birthday, I finally saw several of John’s chairs in the flesh for the first time. Running my hands over the smoothed arms, feeling the rough-sawn surface of the underneath of the seat, and yes sitting in, John’s chairs transformed for me a lot of his writing from abstract concept to real craft. These chairs have power, very much like the words of the man who made them. This is a power, and an ethos, which we hope to convey in the Life & Work of John Brown.
I cannot wait to bring you all along for the journey.
I’ve written before about how when a project leaves my workbench I tend not to write about it again. Maybe that is entirely natural – it is very satisfying to write about the process of making, and there is an easy narrative arc to writing up projects and the insights offered by standing at the bench. But I do think that seeing projects once they have been released from the workshop, into the wild, can give a new context to the build process, especially when someone else is using something I’ve made.
When I made my first Packing Box from the Joiner & Cabinet Maker I did not have a particular use in mind for the box itself. It was a project I had wanted to build for three years, and I could see that there was a lot of lessons hidden within what was ostensibly a simple project. And so I approached it as a training exercise. But when I finished the build I discovered that the Packing Box itself was really quite charming, and instead of letting it languish unloved in a corner of the ‘shop I wanted to find a worthy use for it. After some weeks of pondering, I filled it with craft beer, mix cds, and an OtW tee, and sent it off to my good friend Tom Richards to say thank you for the outstanding work he had done on creating the branding for Over the Wireless.
Occasionally since last summer I’ve wondered what Tom did with the Packing Box. And suddenly last week a series of photos popped up on Instagram, showing a familiar forest of clinched nails. It turns out that Tom has purposed the packing box as a memory box, holding several decades of gig tickets, cards, mix cds, and other precious ephemera he wants to keep safe. When I mentioned to Tom that I’d seen the Packing Box on Instagram he replied to me that he had thought “how perfect for the box of a ‘memories box’ be one of the memories itself”, which was incredibly touching! Tom kindly agreed to share a couple of photo of the Packing Box here on the blog.
I’m intending to make writing about projects that have escaped into the outside world more of a feature of the blog (all of which will be captured under the “In the wild” category on the right hand side of the screen). Hopefully we can get a conversation going about projects that have left the workbench and found their way to other people – something which Shaun’s excellent blog post already started several hours ago!