N.E.W 2015: School’s in for summer

The New English Workshop summer school 2015 is now in full flow. This week saw David Barron and Chris Schwarz teaching down in Bridgwater, Somerset, while Peter Follansbee and Tom Fidgen were running classes in Leamington Spa.

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Meeting Tom Fidgen

I was fortunate to be invited down to Leamington Spa on Wednesday to meet Peter and Tom, and see what the students were learning. It turns out that the first rule of being taken seriously as a journalist is to avoid wearing shoes more interesting than those worn by your interview subjects, as being surrounded by a sea of people taking photos of your feet is a little distracting. And definitely don’t wear Heironymus Bosch print Dr Martens, as Peter Follansbee will attempt to steal them off you…

Peter Follansbee contemplates swiping my Hieronymus Bosch print  Docs...

Peter Follansbee contemplates swiping my Hieronymus Bosch print Docs…

It was great to meet Peter and Tom, as they are both incredibly knowledgeable and passionate woodworkers with a wealth of experience, and brimming with ideas. Hopefully they will return to Her Majesty’s Realm in future years, as I would love to take courses with both of them. It was also great to catch up with Jamie Ward of Warwickshire College, Matthew Platt of Workshop Heaven, and see a couple of fellow survivors from last year’s Anarchist’s Tool Chest.

Tomorrow I start the Woodworking with Thomas Jefferson course with Roy Underhill. As I did on last year’s dovetail death march with Chris Schwarz, I will be blogging daily from the course. So tune in every day next week to read about the day’s woodworking (and my daily battle not to squeal with excitement like a teenage girl at a One Direction show).

Dinner with Peter and Paul Mayon of New English Workshop

Dinner with Peter and Paul Mayon of New English Workshop

Looking back to move forwards: 2014 in review

The end of a calendar year is always a special time for bloggers; lists of favourite albums to compile (the excellent Somewhere Else by Lydia Loveless, is my top lp of 2014 in case you were wondering), the experiences of the past 12 months to be reviewed, and lessons learnt to be catalogued.

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Laurie, my black guard Telecaster type build

2014 was a rich year in terms of experiences and achievements. I completed two projects off my bucket list; Laurie (my blackguard Telecaster type guitar) and the Anarchist’s Tool Chest. The subscriber list to this blog tripled, and I had over 10,000 hits in 12 months (small fry for some, but a significant increase on 2013 readership levels). There was also the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course with Chris Schwarz, and two articles published with Furniture & Cabinetmaking Magazine. Please understand, I’m not recounting this to brag (lord knows that my year was positively uneventful compared to some) but simply to collate the experiences of the past 12 months. This was a pretty good year.

But actually, something far more important than all of the above achievements and experiences happened last year. Something which I never would have expected, and 2014 is the year in which woodwork changed completely for me. Not because I learned endless new skills (although I did learn plenty of new techniques) or because my woodwork improved dramatically (although it definitely improved). But because of what I found in the course of writing this blog and attending the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course.

What did I find, you ask? In a word, community.

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Derek Jones of N.E.W, fellow luthier Sue Johnson, myself, Chris Schwarz, and Paul Mayon of N.E.W

To be honest, when I started writing in August 2013 I didn’t really think that the internet needed another woodwork blog.  And for the first few months I happily hollered into the void of the internet, not expecting the void to holler back (let’s ignore any pithy quotes by Nietzsche, OK?). Anyway, woodwork by its very nature tends to be a solitary activity, so that’s all fine. But slowly over the course of 2014 I discovered, and then became overwhelmed by, the sense of community created by makers, tool manufacturers, and writers. The willingness to share information, discuss experiences, and most importantly, to encourage and inspire each other, is life affirming and oh so valuable.

My 2014 was touched by countless people involved in the craft, and I do hope that a failure to mention anyone is not taken as a lack of gratitude. But particular mention must go to Chris Schwarz (without whom I doubt many people would be reading this blog), Paul Mayon and Derek Jones of New English Workshop, and Jamie Ward of Warwickshire College, all of whom were generous with their time and knowledge far beyond what would have been reasonable to ask of them. Also on the honour roll are Chris Kuehn of Sterling Tool Works, Mark Harrell of Bad Axe Tool Works, and Jason Thigpen of Texas Heritage Woodworks, who not only make some of the best tools going but have been incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging, and are top chaps with whom I very much want to share some beers (definitely in 2016, if not before). And by no means last, in terms of fellow bloggers, Anne of All Trades (for my money the most important hand tool blogger after Chris Schwarz). I am genuinely indebted to each of these people and am endlessly grateful for their encouragement and friendship over the past 12 months.

And you know something? When people talk about their fears of the craft dying out, I know that things are going to be ok. Not because there isn’t a lot of work to do to preserve traditional skills and the many woodwork crafts. But because under the stewardship of the people named above, not to mention the rest of the community of woodworkers, I am sure that the skills and desire to build, is safeguarded for another generation.

And so even though I am physically alone in the workshop, the events of 2014 mean that whenever I am working I know that I am connected to both the craftsmen (and women) that went before me (that all important idea of heritage) and the present day international community of woodworkers.

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My Anarchist’s Tool Chest, as the final coat of lacquer dried.

So what does 2015 hold in store? The year is less than a day old, and yet it is already shaping up to be a full one. First up is a new workshop, as we complete our move from the West Country to Birmingham, and I am looking forward to fitting out a new workshop to be the space I’ve been dreaming of for the past 7 years (or as close to that dream as practicable). In terms of projects, now that the Anarchist’s Tool Chest is complete, my main focus is going to be on the parlour guitar build I started writing about in early 2014. Expect to see plenty of details on this here blog as the build continues. But I am not going to neglect my journey into joinery either – with the new house comes the need for new furniture and I am planning to build the riveted strong trunk from Chris Schwarz’s Campaign Furniture book, along with a pair of Roorkee chairs from the same book. In July I will return to Warwickshire College to attend Roy Underhill’s Woodworking with Thomas Jefferson course, and you can expect the blog to feature daily updates from the class. And hopefully also more articles in print.

So plenty of things to build, skills to learn, and of saw dust to make. And a community to which I will continue to contribute in my own small way. This is going to be fun, and I hope that you, dear reader, will continue to come along for the ride.

Significance of the Anarchist’s Tool Chest

The following is a slightly reworked version of my first column for Furniture & Cabinet Making (published in issue 224).

For many people, conflating woodwork with ruminations on mortality will seem like an unusual thought process. But for me, the idea of heritage in hand tool work, transcending generations, has always been a pivotal idea.

My own woodworking journey started in 2007 when I enrolled on a course at the Totnes School of Guitar Making, and until recently, my workshop activity has been focused on building acoustic guitars; although my most recent build was a mid-50’s Telecaster type electric. This summer, I attended the inaugural course run by the New English Workshop. Under the tutelage of Chris Schwarz (his very first class in the UK), we spent five days building The Anarchist’s Tool Chest from his book of the same name. Now, you may be familiar with this iconic project, but if not: in short, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is concerned with building an 18th century traditional English tool chest. Because what better way to start learning traditional joinery than a five day dovetail death march using southern yellow pine (an evil material which has no place in the workshop)! Let’s not make things too easy for ourselves, right?

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I blogged daily from the course, but what I want to reflect on here is why this class was of immense personal significance for me. This is not just because of building the chest, but also because of what the chest represents. Let me explain.

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In The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, Schwarz uses the chest as a literary conceit, a way of discussing the tools necessary to build furniture, and the skills necessary to use them. The chest is a way of restricting your tool wish list to the fifty essential tools, and as a statement of intent for craftsmen and craftswomen who seek to lead an ethical and sustainable life by building long lasting furniture and so escaping the spiral of buying disposable, chipboard, furniture-shaped objects. I read the ATC some five years after the course in Totnes, and it is hard to overemphasize the impact the book had on my thinking. The half articulated ideas which had been slowly fermenting since the course in Totnes finally coalesced, with Schwarz filling in the gaps and signposting where the path could lead. This was an approach that meshed with my own embryonic thoughts on woodworking, a Eureka! moment when everything started to make sense – very much like the time I first took a wafer-thin shaving with my trusty Clifton No. 5.

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There is another reason why the ATC was loaded with personal significance; it was the last project I discussed with my grandfather. Although I had not done any real woodwork before the course in Totnes, it was something I had grown up around thanks to my maternal grandfather, who build everything from wardrobes to toys in his shed – an Aladdin’s cave of tools, many of which had belonged to his grandfather. So it was inevitable that when I took the lutherie course in 2007, we bonded over woodwork, constantly discussing new projects, techniques, and yes, tools. In 2011, as he lay dying in hospital, we continued to talk about woodwork, and he enthusiastically examined pictures of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest I’d taken in for him, and talked about timber selection and the construction techniques necessary for this project.

So yes, this was a hugely important course, even before you consider that it was taught by Chris Schwarz himself (a huge hero of mine).

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But the learning experience did not stop when we all packed our tools up on the Friday evening (and not just because I still had my first frame and panel lid to build before the chest could be painted). Because, you see, manhandling the tool chest onto the bench in my workshop got me thinking again. And I couldn’t help but think that there was a punch line to the course beyond having improved my dovetailing.

And then it struck me. I knew exactly what I had attended the course to achieve. Building the chest is a way of representing the ideas I talked about at the start of this column; keeping the craft of hand tool work alive, of empowering woodworkers to build and to lead ethical lives without the crutch of cheap disposable furniture (or musical instruments). And yes, it will also keep my tools safe. This chest, which still connects me to my grandfather despite his passing, is the means by which I can teach my children, and (eventually) my grandchildren all of these things. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is essentially bombproof; built from southern yellow pine, dovetailed at the corners, with further dovetails on the upper and lower skirts, it should last for a hundred years at the very least.

So here’s my suggestion for the course’s final and most important lesson:- this chest will continue to represent these important ideas long after I’ve returned to the soil, and (with all probability) long after my grandchildren are gone. The enormity, and staggering simplicity of this, is beautiful.

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Day 5: “Faster you dogs, there shall be no mercy!”

And we’re done. After five days of hard work, culminating in a day-long sprint to the finish line, it is hard to believe that that the course is now over. Not that work on the tool chest has ended; I still have the lid to build, milk paint to apply, and the internal gubbins to fit out. But still, the course proper has finished, and after such a phemonenal week there is a lot to absorb, a lot to reflect on.

Work on the tool chests continued apace today, with Chris, Paul and DJ assisting students on the final push. The top and bottom skirts are now glued on to my chest, and the bottom boards have been nailed in place.  I didn’t get to start work on my lid, but on an ambitious course like this (where only one of the 18 students left with a completed lid) completing the project within class time is less important than learning the skills and techniques being covered. And after all, I do have the Anarchist’s Tool Chest book to follow when completing the build (I will of course detail the rest of the build on this blog). Despite the fast pace of the day, I did learn some new techniques, most notably overhand ripping, which is something I had previously only read about (but never witnessed).

Doing such an intensive course has a very real and noticeable impact on your basic skills. By mid-week I was much more efficient with my sharpening – getting a razor edge and mirror finish on my chisels after only a couple of strokes. Similarly, sawings and paring accuracy was much greater by the time I had finished dovetailing the case. It is an important reminder that the best (and sometimes only) way to improve so many of the fundamental skills in woodwork is with constant and repeated practice.

Learning how to build the Anarchist’s Tool Chest under the tutelage of Chris Schwarz has been a dream come true – this has been an incredibly important project for me since I first read the book several years ago. And to spend a full week doing intensive joinery with other passionate woodworkers is not only a real joy, but very humbling.  The course also provided the opportunity for some very valuable networking, and I hope to be able to announce the outcome of that on here soon.

Once I have finished reflecting on the past five days I will post some further thoughts, but for now, I shall leave you with a rogues gallery from this morning (from left to right, Derek Jones of New English Workshop, fellow luthier Sue Johnson, myself, Chris Schwarz, and Paul Mayon of New English Workshop):DSC_0039

Day 4: “…It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding…”

Two things have to happen before I start to believe I’m working on a “real” project; I have to bleed on the stock, and there has to be one significant mistake. Otherwise it feels like I’m just playing at woodwork. Today was the day on which my Anarchist’s Tool Chest became a real project.

The sharply relieved sides of Lie Neilsen chisels? Yup, they’re sharp. To the extent that the next time the cutting edge of my 1/2″ chisel becomes dull, I’m going to turn the chisel side on and pare my dovetails with that edge. Still, milk paint will cover up the trail of blood I left across the side of the case. Milk paint hides all manner of sins.

The first part of the day was spent flattening and smoothing the rest of the casework. Although the No.4 and No.8 Lie Neilsen planes I had borrowed from Paul were useful for this operation, I remembered how much I love my No.9 1/2 block plane for removing tearout and achieving a finished surface. The block plane is incredibly comfortable to use for extensive periods of time, and being smaller than a smoothing plane it can work very localised areas. The interesting thing about flattening the case was the extent to which I had to switch off my luthier’s training. Because of the gnarly stock we are using, the time constraints of the course (which are increasingly constantly) and the fact that the tool chest is by necessity a rough piece of furniture which is going to get knocked about in the workshop, I had to keep reminding myself that the purpose of flatting was to achieve a surface that is flat enough to glue on the skirts, and not to achieve complete flatness in the way that you would for an acoustic guitar soundboard. And this is a universal lesson which I think can be lost in the heat of working on a project – all work is done to tolerances, but the tolerances will change with the function and nature of the project.

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But what of the significant mistake I mentioned earlier? It was, predictably, a result of trying to hurry too much and feeling the slowly ratcheting pressure as the course comes to an end. Having carefully dovetailed two opposite corners of the lower skirt, I marked off the correct length for the two other corners, cut to length and set to dovetailing the stock. Which was all going fine until I hogged out the tails, and not the waste, on the tail board. Clearly swapping the tails to the sides (unlike the carcass where the tails are on the front and back) had confused me. Silly boy (and again, slow is smooth and smooth is fast). Still, with able assistance from Matt of Workshop Heaven (who was visiting the workshop) I was able to replace the ruined board.

And you know what? I’m not going to beat myself up about this mistake. They happen, even to the best woodworkers. And with the pressure to stick to the schedule mounting, most people in the class are starting to slip in a couple of mistakes here and there. It’s all part of the learning curve.

And as important as it is to learn from the mistakes, success must also be celebrated. Somehow this week I appear to not have goofed half as much as I expected to in front of Mr Schwarz. Getting starstruck is a terrible curse, and there are times in the past when I have been reduced to a gibbering wreck upon meeting my heroes (I still have nightmares about the time I asked HHJ Humphrey Lloyd QC to be my dad, seriously not cool). But either I’m more coherent than I exected, or Chris is used to fanboyish behaviour. Either way, I’m chalking this one up as a win.

Tomorrow I will glue the skirts to the case, nail on the bottom boards, and build the lid. So plenty to get done, but we’re almost at the finish line.

Day 3: “…This is my dovetail saw, there are many like it but this one is mine…”

You know, the thing they never tell you about woodworking classes is what an emotional roller coaster you will experience. This week’s course is my first woodworking class since I was at Totnes, and in the intervening 7 years I appear to have completely forgotten the emotional twists and turns I experienced. These days when I think about that summer in Totnes the memories are of a halcyon time of carefree workshop fun. And yes, it was hella fun, but there was also a full gamut of emotions to be experienced, from elation to despair and all points in between. This week, all those memories came flooding back.

I am loving this course. Loving it. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is a project I’ve wanted to do for three years, and learning how to build it in a class taught by Chris Schwarz is a dream come true. Additionally, woodwork has been a solitary activity for the past 7 years, so to be in a workshop with 17 other students, all working on an ambitious project is so exciting. The way in which your skill set accelerates as you progress (I think it would take several months of hard practice to improve my dovetailing as much as it has improved this week), the wealth of knowledge just waiting to be imparted by the tutors, the camaraderie, and the awful (truly awful) jokes. This course is the most fun I’ve had since Clive taught me the R.A.T.

But yes, it has been an emotional roller coaster (and we are only 3 days in). If I’m honest, yesterday finished leaving me feeling a little glum. Today however, all the previous day’s hard work started to produce results. All of my corners were test fit, and apart from the one corner which pressed close, the other three were good and tight, with no crumbling tails. A couple of gaps, but nothing too noticeable (especially not after the chest gets milk painted) and structurally solid.

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Gluing up the carcass represents the first significant milestone in the course, which is cause for good cheer. And having left the glue to set for 30 minutes, the clamps were removed to allow the next student to glue up their carcass, and my assembly added to the pile to cure for a further 90 minutes.

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While the glue was curing I busied myself dovetailing the skirts of the chest. The dovetails on the lower and upper skirts are rotated through 90 degrees, so that the tails on both skirts are on the sides of the case. This is in contrast to the carcass where the tails were on the front and back boards. This rotation gives added security in the event that the joints on the carcass fail, as the skirts will continue to hold the case together.

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Once the glue had cured it was time to put down the much used mallet and chisel, and plane the outside of the carcass flat. A No.4 smoothing plane took down the end grain of the protruding pins and tails, and a No.8 jointer (both gratefully borrowed from Paul Mayon) flattened out the two end boards of the case. Tomorrow I will flatten the front and back of the case and glue the skirts in place.

Day 2: “…Because it’s wood. And it hates you…”

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Today has been gruelling. Anyone who thinks that hand tool working is a gentle and quiet activity (a preconception I keep hearing) has clearly never chopped dovetails. Today we have been cutting the pins on each end of the side boards for the carcass. Eight pins per side gave us a total of 32 pins that had to be pounded out of uncooperative yellow pine. That is a lot of hammering and paring. I cannot understate how tough the yellow pine stock is. In the long run this will ensure that (along with robust joinery) the tool chest is pretty much bomb proof. But in the short term? This is not nice stock to work with.

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The pattern of the day was to transfer the position of the pins on one edge of the pins board, securing the tailboard in place with a heavy weight (as pictured last night). Then cutting the pins, chopping out the waste front and back, and paring the space between the pins. Then repeat on the remaining 3 sets of pins. With plenty of breaks for sharpening, because damn but yellow pine blunts chisels. So lots of chopping, lots of paring, lots of sharpening.

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If I’m going to be honest, working to a good standard while also trying to get an ambitious amount of work done within the time frame felt like a challenge at some points. And there were one of two silly mistakes which I would have probably avoided if I’d taken a moment to stop and think. But that is part of the thrill and challenge of attending a course like this. And even after only 2 days I definitely feel like my saw and chisel skills are greatly improved.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Always, always, always.

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Before the workshop shut for the day I was able to test fit the first corner. And so far, so good. The fit is a little loose (press fit, rather than needing any “persuading” with a mallet) but far from disastrous. And all things being equal, the other three corners will be at least as good, if not better.

Tomorrow morning we will be test fitting the remaining three corners and gluing up. After which the top and bottom skirts will need to be dovetailed, and the chest bottom nailed on. It’s going to be a busy day, but I’m already looking forward to getting started.