Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Contemporary Jewelry Making Cabinet

If this year's batch of holiday gifts has a theme, I guess it would be "wooden things that help express your creativity."  Let's face it, our schools are so overwhelmed with their quest for arbitrary test-taking prowess and over-the-top athletic myopia that little time or energy remains to foster a sense of personal expression in students.  The workplace, no matter how enlightened, rewards individuals for doing one task well, doing it consistently, and doing it in a context of institutional consensus.  In either case, the way you spend your time is measured, judged, and recorded by outsiders.

But creative pursuits offer a tonic.  No one sits in judgement over the "effective use of your time", and if you give yourself permission, you can surprise yourself with the sincerity of what you have to say.

One of my daughters plays guitar, and I really enjoyed making items to make her practice more meaningful.  My other daughter writes, and I think she is looking forward to using this year's gift of bookbinding supplies.  My wife is interested in making jewelry, and so my final holiday project is a workstation to hold supplies and serve as a creative benchtop.

Tom Fidgen's book, Made By Hand, arrived at just the right time as I started thinking about design.  His contemporary pieces reflect his own process and remind me a bit of the designs of Krenov and John Reed Fox -- good company indeed.  I decided that my cabinet would take a similar shape to the drawer section of his "Picture Perfect" project.  Cherry and birdseye maple would be the materials and I would, wherever possible, use hand tool techniques.

I started with a 10' by 6" length of 8/4 cherry and a couple of odd shaped boards from the common rack (hey, $2.50 bd. ft., how can you go wrong!).  The legs came first as I marked out the dovetail for the top rail.

I wanted plenty of support, so I decided to have rails around the top and bottom of the four legs.  I started by marking out the length of each mortice and marking a center line.  I then drilled along this line with a 3/8" bit and cleaned the mortice with a chisel.

The next step was to mark the mortices/slots for the six drawer frames.  These would be mitered and haunched to give visual effect and support.  Again, I marked, drilled, and in this case, sawed across to create the mortice.

In answer to the "I now have a mortice with round ends and tenons with square ends" question I generally use a mortice chisel to square the hole.  I think it is easier and feels more professional.  Once these are complete I was ready to shape the legs.

I wanted the legs to flare at both the top and bottom.  I also wanted the joinery to fit, so any shaping would take place on the two exterior faces of the legs.  I started with only a spokeshave to work myself down to the shape by degrees.  I dedicated the better part of a morning to this and arrived at a shape I liked.

Once this was done, I did transfer the shapes onto the other legs and bandsaw the profiles.  Using the spokeshave I compared the legs and adjusted them to match.

With the legs complete, the next step was to make the drawer frames.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Axe Hangar -- A Laminated Guitar Stand

I like to believe that the provenance and craftsmanship of the items you use most often have a real bearing on your relationship with the task that you perform with them.  I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that the things you use the most should be the ones that are most meaningful.

So when I made the guitar stool for my daughter I realized how shabby the aluminum and rubber guitar stand looked in comparison.  A nice little walnut stand, made with a light touch, would be just the ticket.  I wanted curves, a bit of stability, and a decent strength-to-weight ratio.  That meant either steam-bending or laminations -- I chose laminations.

I started this without a plan but with an objective -- to have several curves, very few pieces (not because I'm lazy but as a design element), and to possess a bit of grace.  Oh, I also needed for it to remain upright while holding a guitar.  I have no experience with bent laminations and charged forward with the enthusiasm of the naive.

I started by ripping 48" strips from some leftover 5/4 walnut.  With some tutoring from Thos. Moser's book, I ripped them about 1/8" thick.  I chose to have the laminations come off the non-fence side of the blade.  For example, if my stock was 5" wide I would set the fence to 4 3/4" and rip (1/8" for the lamination falling off the left side of the blade, 1/8" for the kerf, then the 4 3/4" between the blade and the fence.) There are instructions for fiddling with and moving a featherboard and planing after each pass, but I found this all to be unnecessary if you used push sticks, a bit of common sense, and kept the stock moving.  You get into a rhythm, subtracting 1/4" as you go until you get the number of laminations. 

Once I had these I waggled them around for a bit and thought about the mechanics -- how far can it curve, which way should it curve, etc.  I finally got an image in my mind of a sort of upside down version of the Southern Cross, and set about bending.

My bending form was nothing fancy, just a piece of OSB some screws and a few wood blocks.  I slathered on the glue on one side of each lamination and bent it free-form on the board.  It is pretty intuitive and very satisfying.  After a bit of noodling I bent a second piece for the base and set it to drying as well.  I determined the joinery of these two curves by eyeballing the angle, marking the intersection, and cutting a half-lap joint.  At this point I will just dry-fit and clamp since I will need to do more work on the base and I'm less likely to break it if it is not as cumbersome.

The places where the three legs met the floor were marked flush with the floor and cut . . .

And the main portion of the stand was complete.

The next step was to create a curved piece to hold the neck at the top, and a curved piece to hold the body of the guitar at the bottom.  These were bent in a similar fashion (except that I decreased the thickness of the laminations for the top piece to 3/32" to accomodate a tighter bend) and glued.

Once these were complete I cut them to length and determined where they should go on the body of the stand.  I created angled blocks from maple to have each support project at the proper angle from the stand, and affixed these block and support pieces to the body via maple dowels.  With these elements in place, I can line up the two main components, and secure them with dowels.

The final element was a shaped rod that held the guitar body on the stand.  I found a tasty bit of figured walnut, turned this and attached it to the bottom support with dowels -- using the guitar in question to determine the distance from the back.

All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the project -- and it was fun to build and required no special tools.  Since it is made from leftovers, you can custom build one for each of your guitars, varying the wood and finish to match. 

Come to think of it, as I look at the snow coming down out of the back window of the shop, it might be time to put down the tools and pick up the axe.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Place to Sit and Jam

My first holiday project out of the shop is a stool for guitar playing.  The design is based on the Milking Stool from the excellent book Thomas Moser's Windsor Chairmaking.  This book explains in great detail Moser's use of laminations to create the bent parts of windsor chairs, including his signature continuous arm chair.  Laminating, as opposed to steam bending, allows you to expand the types of wood you can use for certain elements of the chair.  He also gives dimensions and angles for many of his popular pieces.  The book was printed in 1982, and the designs do seem a bit dated, but I've found it to be a good reference.

I started by glueing up the seat from some figured walnut I had left over from the desk project.  A quick pass with scrapers and handplanes and I was ready to drill the leg holes.  A year or so ago I made a live-edged cherry bench, and I had built a little jig to allow me to use a router with a 1" straight cutting bit to start the holes.  By creating x and y axis on the seat and aligning the jig accordingly I made (what I thought to be) perfect 10 degree splay in each direction.

I decided to eyeball the seat carving using an inshave, travisher, curved scrapers, and sanding.  The walnut proved to be much tougher to work than the white pine I was accustomed to (duh) and the figure made it even trickier.  This was clearly a case of abondoning any pretensions I had about purity of method and concentrating on getting the puck in the back of the net.  All things considered, I'm pleased with the look.

I turned the legs into a simple taper from hard maple, taking care to be fairly accurate with the tenons.  I do think one of my next shop projects/purchases will be a little tenon rounder to speed up this part of the process.

Now it would be easy to gloss over the next step with some cleverly edited photos that made the leg angles look perfectly square and true.  They are not.  I had hoped that my little router jig was accurate (it had proved perfect in the bench project) but with the legs closer together I realized that at least one of the angles was not true and it introduced a kind of funny cant to each leg.  I knew that I could correct for the height and level in the final leg trimming step, but it was going to look a bit askew.  Well, I guess I will need to build that drill press jig after all.

Once assembled I set the chair on my level floor and placed wedges under the legs to make the seat level from side-to-side and tilted back a few degrees from front-to-back.  I then taped a pencil to a block of wood so that it drew a line, level with the floor, just above the bottom of the shortest leg and drew the lines for the final leg length.  With the legs glued and wedged into place all that was left was to finish the piece.

I chose two coats of Danish oil, and it really brought out the figure in the walnut and highlighted the contrast with the maple.  I guess some projects reaffirm your ability and some point out your weaknesses.  This did the latter, but for whatever reason I'm not too worked up about it.  Maybe someday it will show up on the Antiques Roadshow and they'll say "You can tell this is actually from the Combray Furniture Studio because none of the legs are actually square and true -- pure design genius." 

Then again, maybe not

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Please Don't Disturb The Elves While They Are Working

These weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are always the most satisfying part of the woodworking year for me.  It is the time that I put everything else aside and work exclusively on gifts for the members of my family (like the little batch of picture frames above.)  For most of us, I'm sure, it recalls the reason why we became involved in woodworking in the first place -- the magic of creating something from nothing.

Hidden away in our basements and spare rooms are those first attempts, each displaying one or all of the things we now despise -- torn grain, bad design, machine marks, horrible finishes, mid project re-engineering nightmares -- but we hold on to them because they say something about where we, and those close to us, were at that time.

Handmade gifts have so many things going for them.  If we are thrifty and smart we can erase the modern connection between dollar signs and the value of a gift by making something beautiful from nearly nothing.  We can rationalize using up those scraps of hoarded wood with the nice figure because this truly is the important project for which we've been waiting.

It also gives us the opportunity to try out new techniques in a real world setting.  You've never done inlay, give it a whirl; bent laminations, why not.  It is truly the thought that counts, and as most of us have the ability to do at least a "very good" job on most projects, the recipient will never feel that they're getting second best.  If you are building a commission you strive for perfection; a gift needs to have heart.  Invariably these new projects require new tools, and with mock sadness you explain to your partner that you must purchase these new tools in order to keep with the spirit of the season.

More than anything else, the creation of handmade gifts allows you to spend more time with your family.  I don't mean in person, but in your own mind.  Because while you are building you can't help but think of how the recipient will use the gift.  You think about last year's gift and how much they've grown.  You think about their strong points, the personality traits you don't possess but are so glad that someone does.  You hope this gift will open the door to some new thought or idea for them.

I'm building a guitar stool and guitar stand for one of my daughters.  We both play and I'm amazed how her mind, free from the trappings and constraints of Mel Bay books, has created a singular playing style that I hope she keeps forever.  Thinking about her playing guitar is a gift to me that I'm enjoying today.  (An added gift is that thinking about her playing the guitar reminded me that I wanted to teach her how to play Proud Mary, that will be fun.  Which made me think of Tina Turner singing that song, which I've watched on YouTube with my other daughter, which was also fun.)  

The other members of my family are also in line for gifts, some large and some small, some more inspired than others, but each project brings me that same feeling of connection to that person.  The beauty for me is that on December 26th I'll be thinking about what they might enjoy next, and that keeps them in my thoughts throughout the year.  And they're a pretty nice crew to spend time with.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Prairie Chair -- Finished and Almost Done

We're on the homestretch now, and on familiar territory, as the Prairie Chair has been constructed and begins the multi-step finish program.  The traditional finish for this chair would include some industrial chemicals (ammonia) and a rig worthy of Mythbusters.  While I am interested in fooling around with this stuff, it is hard to make the switch from a technique that has brought me very good results.

Jeff Jewitt's site Homestead Finishing Products explains in step-by-step fashion the way to acheive a factory-like finish for your mission oak pieces -- he also sells all the kit that you will need to make it happen.  In short this technique has you:

                 1.  Stain the piece to a desired base color
                 2.  Seal the color with sanding sealer (1 lb cut shellac)
                 3.  Smear on and wipe off a darker glaze
                 4.  Finish with the topcoat of your choice (shellac, poly)

I like it because it works, involves run-of-the-mill toxic solvents (mineral spirits, alcohol), and allows you to make adjustments on the fly.  I started with Transtint dark maple diluted to the "Fayetteville" formula and wiped it on with a rag.  Just use common sense on this part, keep a wet edge if you can and don't let it pool.  My objective is to get it to dry evenly.  At this stage, as you can see, the results between bare wood and the stained wood are not that dramatic.  Once dry, I give it a gentle rub with a grey scotchbrite pad to even the dried finish and take care of any raised grain.

Now I wipe on a coat of Bullseye Sanding Sealer (open a window) and let it dry (which takes about 10 minutes.)  This starts to add a little depth.  This is a good time to take a break and shake the fumes out of your head.

Now comes the fun part -- the glaze.  Jeff Jewitt recommends that you use a stiff brush: I usually use a rag and my fingers to really rub it into the pores.  No matter how much you put on, you will be taking 90% back off.  This is where the real look of the finish comes alive.  I usually wipe on a small amount of the gel stain with a cotton rag and immediately wipe it off with another cotton rag that is damp with mineral spirits.  The key word is damp.  I work on one part of the piece at a time as I don't want the gel to dry completely.   My interpretation is that you want to remove almost all of the gel stain on the surface but leave the stain that sits in the cracks.  I sometimes then go back over the damp area I just finished with a dry paper towel.

Some gel finish will remain on the surface and make the finish darker -- another wipe with mineral spirits and a paper towel will make it lighter.  Adjust accordingly.  If you are doing it right you will be a mess but the piece will look quite nice.

I would normally add several coats of shellac at this point (after it sits overnight) but in this case I think I will use poly.  It will get a lot of use add I think it will need the protection.  Now all that's left to do is the internal frame and the make-or-buy decision on the upholstery.