Friday, November 26, 2010

Striving For Imperfection

"There is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfections of a mere stylist." -- C. R. Mackintosh

I've been thinking a good bit about why we, as craftspeople, do what we do.  If you were to look at the cumulative cost of our tools, books, and stashes of lumber it just doesn't add up. Even the best-known woodworkers, those who teach classes, publish articles, sell their own line of tools, live modest lives.  In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between commitment to the craft, and success as defined by society at large. Yet, we persevere in an impractical pursuit for questionable rewards.

The world values perfection -- perfect teeth, perfect grades, perfect furniture.  Yet the things that mean the most to me are flawed, either by use or design.  It has taken a while for me to realize that success will come, both professionally and personally, if I learn to embrace this imperfection.  Not that I'm advocating shoddy workmanship, I'm saying that what we can do as individual artisans is to look at a piece of wood and understand how it might speak to the human condition.

The above bowl was turned from an imperfect piece of burl I saw on a neighbor's downed tree.  I knew it had flaws, but I thought it might be interesting.  Turning it was work -- the void in the middle made it impossible to ride the bevel and acheive a perfect surface.  In fact, I couldn't hollow it to the degree I wanted to as it was becoming increasingly unstable.  As a green piece of wood, it will move and warp -- hopefully not to the point where it breaks apart.

But knowing the why of making it made the how enjoyable.  This bowl is a gift to friends with whom we shared Thanksgiving dinner.  Having been to their house, I knew that the objects that they valued were things that had some meaning.  I'm convinced that the only way we can proceed as craftspeople is if we stay true to that credo -- what does this piece mean?  There's no way we can stand up to the pace or efficiencies of a factory, but we can create pieces that mean something to us or to those who take them into their homes.

Nothing original here, I guess. James Krenov, John Ruskin, and William Morris have said the same thing for generations, and that elusive coupling of art and technique is what keeps me in the shop (and being my own harsh critic.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shaker Side Tables: Simple Lines Define Round Stand

In my opinion, no piece of furniture defines Keats' observation  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" like the Shaker Round Stand.  Everything about it makes sense.  Three legs mean that it will never wobble unevenly; its shape allows it to fit in the smallest possible space.  Even the round top ensures that there are no edges to chip or corners to poke passers-by.

The only surprise is that it did not emerge, wholly formed, from the mind of Shaker craftsmen, but evolved over time.  Early incarnations have the look of a high school shop class gone terribly wrong -- a square top, peg legs, and awkward turnings.  The model for my stand was made somewhere around 1850, (according to Christian Becksvoort) in the Mt Lebanon or Hancock communities.

I made only a couple of modifications to the original.  The first being that the top for my piece is turned on the lathe, from a single 17 1/2" board I found in the "odds and sods" section of Groff and Groff.  I think I paid something like $15 for it.  The top starts life at around 1 1/2" thick, so the main purpose of turning is to lighten the appearance and keep it in scale with the whole piece.  I actually used the screw center in my Novatek chuck to secure it to the lathe, and steadied it with the tailstock.  It would have been better to use a faceplate with an integral screw, but I don't have one.  I turned it at around 300 rpm and took very light cuts and sanded to 220.

The second modification was that I cut a wide 1/16" groove in the bottom to accept the support piece and extended the tenon from the pedestal so that it extended into the top.  There is plenty of meat in the 1 1/2" top to accept about a 3/8" deep hole, and its only real purpose is aid in assembly.  This is part of an experiment I'm doing to see if I can create pieces that can be shipped with ease, allowing the client to assemble it at home. 

I will secure the top with brass insert nuts that are drilled and embedded into the top.  These accept a 1/4" round head screw and, since this is a cross grain application, I will expand the hole in the support to accomodate wood movement.  My normal finish for pieces such as this is Tried and True oil, however, I'm going to wait until the other tables are complete and finish all in one go.

Next, I'll look at a handy tool and complete the Single Drawer Sewing Stand.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Shaker Side Tables: Of Dovetails and Woodworking Theology

I've long felt that woodworkers can be categorized in the same way that you approach comparative theology.  You'll find Amish woodworkers who use no power tools.  Evangelical woodworkers who believe that their way is the only way, and that all others will be punished with an afterlife filled with MDF and Harbor Freight tools.  Unitarians whose methods and approaches change weekly.  Presbyterian woodworkers who understand that the tearout on that table top was predestined, and that only the elect will make true heirloom furniture.

Look around and you'll find Lutheran cabinetmakers who feel that their techniques aren't important, but that all good furniture comes from the grace of the big sawyer in the sky.  Mennonite drawermakers that feel that they will be judged not by their ideas, but by their actions.  Hindu tablemakers who know that their ruined project will reappear in another life as a piece of baltic birch plywood.  Cultists who follow a charismatic personality (WWSMD -- What Would Sam Maloof Do.)  And most recently, we've seen the rise of what I'll call Samsonites -- Chris Schwarz, David Charlesworth, and Tom Fidgen -- who somehow derive their woodworking prowess from the length of their hair.

And there is nothing that will define these hard-won theological positions like a row of dovetails.

Theoretically, the resurgence of the premium dovetail saw, rip-filed and well-sharpened, has put hand-cut joints, with tiny pins and aesthetically pleasing layouts, within everyone's reach.  It is certainly my first choice and it carries with it an aura of craftsmanship.  If sharpening is a gateway skill, precision handcut dovetails ushers you from the realm of the journeyman to that of an artist.  They are (in spite of the videos that promise "Five-Minute Dovetails") time-consuming and there is a longish learning curve.  To add insult to injury, I've found that it is other woodworkers, not potential customers, who find them most appealing.  But still I persevere.

I have not reached that state of Nirvana where I can, Samurai-like, pull out the saw, pencil, marking gauge, and begin a stream-of-consciousness-mind-straight-to-wood display of artistry.  It is work, and it defines "workmanship of risk."

Still, I have no interest in being converted to a "Normite."  Dovetail jigs define blandness and scream compromise.  I guess they are not too bad for shop furniture, but I use shop furniture to keep my technique in some sort of order for real furniture.  When under the gun I use a hybrid approach, adapted from (I think) David Marks, that is a hand-cut dovetail, with an assist from a machine.

The heart of this "Middle Path" is a set of two jigs, designed to be used on the bandsaw, that cut the tail board and pin board with complete accuracy and flexibility.  My jigs are set to a ratio 1:8 and are quite simple to make.

Tail Jig
Start with something like a 6" x 18" piece of MDF or plywood.  Mark 8" down a long side, and 1" over from that mark.  Make a 1" wide fence from 1/4" plywood and connect it from the top left corner to the 1" mark down the long side.  A check with the dovetail gauge shows that it is a 1:8 ratio.

Mark your stock just as you would for traditional hand-cut dovetails.  Check that your bandsaw blade is running 90 degrees to the table and adjust the fence for any drift.  Set the fence a couple of inches to the left of the blade, place your work on the jig, and have at it.  You'll find that if you slide the work along the fence you can line up the cut line without moving the fence.  Just make sure that the wood stays firmly seated on the fence, and that you advance the entire jig while you make the actual cut.  This setup allows you to cut one side of each tail -- flip the workpiece to cut the other angle.  When the angles are cut, you can take the piece off the jig and hog out the pin waste.

Now, continue with a chisel to clean the half-pins and the pin waste.  If you are making half-blind dovetails, you will mark the tail piece and proceed by hand.

Pin Jig
Now mark the pin board in the traditional fashion -- be sure to mark the waste side and strive for accuracy.

I know that most bandsaw tables tilt, (some in both directions) but I prefer to make a jig that can flip both ways to make the pins.  My jig starts with a platform, with a fence, angled to the 1:8 ratio.  That angle comes from three supports that maintain that angle.  I cut the first support (on the right), then with it in place, put hot glue on top of a shorter support (with the same angle on top) and slid it into place.  I did this while the jig was on the bandsaw table and I could see that the blade would follow the correct cut line.

Just as in cutting pins with a hand saw, the trick is to nip the line you have marked, but not take it out entirely.  Just stay aware of which side is the waste side.  Again, turning the jig around allows you to cut both angles.  Your biggest concern while cutting is ensuring that you do not over run your mark (easy to do with an aggressive blade.)

At the risk of sounding like that Woodrat spokes guy, the obvious advantage is that you have complete flexibility to make the pins as small as you like, as no router bit is used.  You can also stop at any point and finish the work in the orthodox manner.  I guess the downside is that you need a bandsaw.

I almost forgot to mention, in all this meta-woodworking blather, that I did cut dovetails (by hand) for the drawer supports and I made progress with the Single Drawer Sewing Stand.

I write this blog to stay connected with other woodworkers -- so I encourage comments and dissent.  Let me know what you think.  Next, I'll see if I can turn the top to the Round Stand and build the two-fronted drawer to the above Sewing Stand.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shaker Side Tables: Sublime Shavings and Bonehead Blunders

I was eager to get beyond the machining phase and get back to some real hand tool action.  With all three sets of legs removed from their templates I needed to take care of any machine marks, remove any nubs left at the end of the legs from the templates, and taper the legs to their final profile.

I started by inserting the legs in their dovetails and marking where each leg contacted the supporting ridge on the pedestal.

With the use of a spokeshave (steady on, there's lots of short grain around these parts) and an inflatable doohickey that goes on my lathe and holds sanding sleeves, I brought the profile down to the correct arc.  I also made sure that the curve was still "fair" up to the top profile.  In addition, I made sure that the length of the shoulder along the dovetails was equal, as this (and the overall length of the legs) would determine whether the table would be level.  I held off on radiusing (if that's a word) the topline as still thinking about the final look.

I wanted the leg width to taper from 3/4" at the top, to 1/2" at the bottom.  By scribing a line 1/8" at the end of each leg, I had a reference point for hand planing.

I also made a handy jig for holding these odd-shaped pieces in place for planing.  I just drew an outline, predrilled the holes, applied some hot glue, lined it with scrap leather, and assembled.

I had been careful to make sure that the grain ran from the dovetail-to-foot direction to accommodate the planing.  I started with my old Stanley #3 (set for a medium cut) and did my normal routine for tapering.  Starting about 1 inch from the end I take three passes, then three passes two inches from the end (all the way to the end), then three inches from the end, etc.  I do this all the way until I'm planing the entire piece and repeat until I have some thing that looks like the right angle and I've reached my scribe marks.  I then switch to my Stanley 5 1/2 for a couple of swipes to make it an even slope.

Setting this aside I moved on to some drawer construction.  The Single Drawer Sewing Stand has a drawer that is housed below the top.  Taunton's In the Shaker Style has a good diagram.

Right, just a quick through dovetail job to make the U-shaped support that will hold the runners and call it a day.  I cut the parts, trued them on shooting board and marked everything for dovetailing.  After taking the summer off, I really felt rusty as I pushed on with the tails and pins.  A few minutes turned into an hour and still I worked -- marking and cutting.  OK, almost done let's just assemble, and . . .

Arrgh.  I failed to notice that I'd marked out the second tail piece upside down.  Instead of a U-shaped support, I had a Z-shape hunk of firewood!

But, like the proverbial fox who couldn't reach the grapes, I concluded that the dovetails were not great anyway.  I think I'll spend a few hours bringing my hand-dovetailing skills back to their former mediocre state.

Next, I do a bit of work on the Round Stand and see if I can get my spatial relationship issues worked out on that support.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Shaker Side Tables: Subtle Lines Make All the Difference

The three pedestals are turned to their various dimensions, and dovetailed mortices have been cut to accept the legs.  As you can see from the photo above, the Two-Drawered Shaker Stand (left), the Round Stand (center), and the Single Drawered Shaker Stand (right) stand different heights as each has a unique drawer configuration.

And now a word of praise for 4/4 common cherry.

I always feel a bit shabby sautering into Hearne Hardwoods, eyeing of some choice 12/4, medium figured board that is wider than nine inches (and thus sets off all kinds of monetary multipliers), and then selecting five somewhat ratty common boards at $2.25/bf. . .  But that feeling passes quickly.  I happen to have some leftover 12/4 from a previous project, so what I need is leg material.  My method of cutting and templating legs suits itself well to short pieces of interesting stock.

I start by cutting an angle of about 40 degrees on the stock from which to reference the template.  The template is cut the full size of the leg, including the 1/2" dovetail tenon.  This angle allows me to line up the back of the tenon with the angled cut and naturally aligns the long grain of the stock along the long dimension of the leg.  Failure to do this would put too many short grain fibers across the leg and it might fail.  I then trace the outline, cut another angle, and repeat.  These pieces go to the bandsaw for a rough outline cut.

Each piece can now go to the router table for tenoning.  I know that the area where the tenon will be cut is dead straight (it was the angled cut from which I referenced the template) and that (with my setup) the tenon needs to be 1/2" tall.  Using the same dovetail bit that I used on the lathe, I set it up on the router table, and take some test cuts. When the test cut fits, I run the real thing and have a dry fit.

Even in this rough state I can tell that the fit will be snug.  I'm ready to switch out the bit and start using the templates.

Routing with a spiral bearing bit and a template is what makes you love hand tools.  Everything about it is noisy, dusty and dangerous.  If you are not worried about breaking the bit, you are always on the lookout for unexpected, catastrophic failure.  And, -- like a motorcycle accident -- there are no fender-benders, just carnage.  So, why do I do it?  Because it works.

My templates all have a thin strip of wood that matches the space where the new dovetail tenons are located.  By sliding these into place I can line up the template on the right spot everytime.  Using double-sided carpet tape I affix the template to the leg.

I also like to make my templates in such a way that you can affix them on ether side.  This  allows me to read the grain and decide which way gives me the least chance of failure.

It would be irresponsible of me to try to give a fool-proof method of routing with a template.  (By that I mean, do it at your own risk!)  All I can say is that you want to be cutting "downhill", with the grain, as much as you can, and never try to take off too much at a time.

This first picture shows some clear sailing.  Moving the work right to left, and with the grain running downhill, you don't encounter much resistance until you start up the the hill at the end of the leg (on the far right).  Just don't start the cut on the edge of the far left, as that would be entering end grain.

The beginning of this cut might give you some problems the arrow shows where you will be cutting uphill into the grain.  You could put the template on the other side (thus reversing your direction of attack) but I wouldn't do this mid-stream.  You could also cut the portion on the right and then "climb-cut" your way (moving the work from left to right along that uphill portion.  Do this at your own risk!  The work will want to fly out of your hand to the right.  I actually took very thin passes, moving the work in the correct direction and got away with it.  In any case, do not let the cutter make contact with the end grain on the left. . .

Entering on end grain is instant disaster.  The work will snap, your hand might fly into the cutter, and you must start again.  Ahhh, the joys of the router.  Just be safe and careful.

Once all of the template routing is done you will be left with plenty of hand tool clean-up to remove any burn marks and finish the places that were too risky to complete with the router.

Next . . . I'll taper the cyma curved legs and shape the cabriole legs for final fitting.