Thursday, September 22, 2016

We Oregonians love our joints

What are you thinking?  I meant woodworking joints, of course.

I began thinking about this subject after my friend John emailed me somewhat defensively about his decision to use box joints rather than dovetails for a carcase he is building.  That discussion was what prompted me to write my recent impertinent post about dovetails being for the birds.  As I thought about it more, I decided to make four boxes differing only in their joinery and rank them according to four attributes:
  1. Speed of construction
  2. Ease of construction
  3. Strength
  4. Appearance
Regarding the 4th attribute, I would ask my wife's opinion as well as noting my own.  She was the one that wanted a box in the first place after all.

The four types of joinery were:
  1. Dovetails
  2. Greene and Greene box joints
  3. Miters
  4. Rabbets
Here are some pictures of the completed boxes:





So, first, ranking them by speed of construction:
  1. Miters
  2. Rabbets
  3. Greene and Greene box joints
  4. Dovetails
Actually, it was more or less two ties, the first two taking about the same amount of time and the second two taking about the same amount of time.  The first two were very fast because of two great tools I own.  My Millers Falls Langdon Acme miter box makes cutting miters extremely fast and they fit tight off the saw.  This thing is a marvel, a truly magnificent design.  If I didn't have one, I would refine miters with a donkey's ear, which would still be fairly fast.  I made the rabbets with my Lee Valley skew rabbet plane, also a wonderful tool.  I cut the Greene and Greene joints by hand and was surprised that they took as long as the dovetails, but that was because you still have to chop out waste and it takes time to pillow the fingers.

Next, ease of construction:
  1. Miters
  2. Rabbets
  3. Greene and Greene box joints
  4. Dovetails
Same order.  With the miter box, miters are ridiculously easy to make and the masking tape trick makes them easy to glue and assemble.  Rabbets are easy enough to make and assembly is just glue and clamps.  Both of these have the additional advantage that you can plow grooves straight through all four sides for the bottom.  Greene and Greene joints are not very hard to make as long as you can saw straight and square and assembly is as easy as the first two.  Dovetails are harder to cut but easier to assemble.

Strength:
  1. Dovetails
  2. Greene and Greene box joints
  3. Miters
  4. Rabbets
Dovetails are obviously far and away the strongest, but the way these small boxes were made and will be used, it makes little difference.  The boxes have a glued-in baltic birch bottom, which adds considerable strength to all of them.  To make up for the lower strength of the other three joints, I pinned them with 1/8" birch dowels from Lee Valley, which I am a big fan of.  In addition, I know from experiments I have done that there is more glue strength in these joints than you might think.  There are other methods of strengthening them even more.  Of course, in other applications the strength of the dovetails can be much more important.

Appearance:

My wife's ranking:
  1. Greene and Greene box joints
  2. Dovetails
  3. Miters 
  4. Rabbets
When I asked her why she ranked them this way, she said she just likes the way the Greene and Greene joints look with the pillowed fingers.  She said everybody knows dovetails mean quality and craftsmanship.  The miters she found nice but plain and the rabbets she didn't like at all.

My ranking:
  1. Greene and Greene box joints
  2. Miters
  3. Dovetails
  4. Rabbets
 We differ only in that I prefer the miters to the dovetails.  I think they look really clean and nice and you can have the grain run around the box.  For the reasons I've given previously, I don't find the look of the dovetails that appealing and the "everybody knows ..." reason leaves me cold.  I don't like the rabbets either.

I am going to be making a number of boxes for presents this winter, one reason for conducting this trial.  I will be making them with ... miters.  I know I should be ashamed, but being able to make half a dozen of them in a day is a key advantage.  As for these four boxes, my wife gets them all.    

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Paring, tool steel and other lessons

When I first became serious about hand tool woodworking, I bought a set of Lie-Nielsen chisels.  Overall, they are fantastic, but I made two mistakes.  Not knowing which steel I wanted, I bought four in A2 and only one, the 3/4", in O1.  I strongly prefer the O1 chisel and always reach for it first.  I prefer it so much that I have seriously considered selling the other four and replacing them with the O1 versions, but there is a big problem.  Lie-Nielsen only sells A2 chisels now.  I just cannot understand this because, in my opinion, A2 is obsolete.  In my opinion, you either want to stick to O1, like I do, or you should move to something like PM-V11 steel.  If you want longer edge life, this is a superior alternative by far.  Of course, this is only my opinion.

The second problem is that Lie-Nielsen sells an alternative long handle that they promote as great for paring and I bought it instead of the regular handle for the 1/4" chisel.  I guess I understand their reasoning, but just putting a long handle on a regular bench chisel doesn't make it a paring chisel in my opinion.  I have never liked it and never used it, so I have to use a handle from one of the other chisels when I need a 1/4" chisel.  It just sat in the chest for years.  Then I had a brainstorm:
  
I cut it in two, rounded over the top and, voila, a handle I really like for this small chisel.  To make it even better, I found a great use for the other piece.  Some years ago, I bought a cheap little brass mallet that I like to use with my chisels, but the poorly-made handle fell off.  For the way I like to use it, by holding the head with my thumb and forefinger, this is perfect:


It nests in the palm of my hand like it was custom-made, and it's Maine hornbeam!  When I was growing up in upstate New York, we had this common trash wood we considered useless which was called ironwood.  Apparently, it was American hornbeam.  Wish I had some of it now.

I love it when a plan comes together:


Friday, September 16, 2016

Woodworking in the Woods

My birthday was this week, an event I am not as pleased about as I once was, so my wife gave me the choice of how to celebrate it.  It wasn't hard for me to select my favorite home away from home:


Nice enough, you may think, but here is the view from a short walk away:


The campground at Trillium Lake is at 3,600 feet, so it was a bit brisk at night (around 40 degrees F) but daytime temperatures in the high 60s felt even warmer with the bright sunshine.  There were four things I wanted to do:  fishing, biking, hiking and ... woodworking.

Woodworking?  Yup, something I have always wanted to try.  This is the setup I took with me:


It consisted of a bench raiser, a Moxon vise and a canvas tote bag of tools in rolls or wrapped.  Here is a rear view:


and, what it looked like in use:


How did it work?  Really great.  The picnic table is made of vertical grain douglas-fir 3x12s with 6x6 legs so it was solid as a rock.   The height of the Moxon vise was just right for sawing joints and the bench raiser was just right for chopping.  It worked great and I enjoyed myself immensely.

The biggest problem I had was the bright sun, which shone from the side and made it very hard to see some of the lines I was trying to saw to.  No way to move that picnic table, which probably weighs 500 lbs., so I had to adjust my work schedule instead.

The campsites are in deep woods separated by at least 100 feet from each other, so my sawing and chopping didn't bother anyone.  This is the compensation for accepting no electricity, no showers and pit toilets.  Well worth it.

This is something I will be doing regularly from now on.  You can see what a small space my equipment occupied and, while it obviously has limitations, there is a lot you can do with it.  Almost anybody, regardless of their living situation, can enjoy hand tool woodworking.  That is one of the great things about it.

When you hike above the timber line and look down at thousands of square miles of forest, the reality of wood being a renewable resource is compelling.  It was really nice to practice woodworking in this setting.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Feelin Groovy

With my plow plane back from Lee Valley after having been machined to accept the new beading blades, I decided it was the right time to upgrade my skills in using it.  Plow planes are not the easiest tool to use because you need to keep the fence right against the workpiece and the plane consistently upright.  Sounds easy but it isn't.

The best references I could find are from Lee Valley and from Chris Schwarz.  I have my own twists on their advice though.  To start, it turns out that the white oak scraps I have are quite a challenge to groove.  Lee Valley blithely notes that the plane is best used with nice straight grain, but that is easier said than done.  The white oak tends to tear out quite badly and the cutter wants to follow the grain so if you aren't very careful you find the fence soon isn't against the workpiece and you have an ugly, curved groove.  I tried my dual marking gauge to help combat this and it seemed to work.  Fairly deep marks very slightly wider than the intended groove helped me to keep going straight and to combat tearout.  Then if you take fairly short strokes starting at the far end to establish the groove it seems that you can avoid most tearout and having the fence wander away from the piece with the grain.

How you hold the tool matters a lot.  The advice Chris received that each hand has a separate job is solid.  The tote hand only pushes while the hand on the fence holds it against the piece and keeps the plane perpendicular.  The specific grip Chris recommends felt awkward on my plane and I have trouble not using the pushing hand for control, so this is what I settled on:


For some reason I end up with a death grip on my tools if I am not careful, so having only one finger around the tote helps and the dragging finger helps with maintaining perpendicularity while the open grip on the fence helps me to just push on it and the dragging fingers help orient the plane just as they do on the other hand.  The handhold seems curved just right for this and this is close to what Lee Valley recommends.  The dragging fingers definitely seem to help and not having the forefinger pointed seems less than ideal but alright.

You'll notice that my workpiece is resting against another board that is holding it just slightly proud of the edge of my bench.  I've always struggled with holding small pieces while grooving, so I made myself a t-square like appliance that I can clamp in my end vice and it seems to work well.

You'll also notice that the lumber stamp is still on my workpiece.  As a further defense against tearout and a way of removing the marking gauge lines, I decided to create the groove before surfacing.  I can then touch up the groove before assembly.  This is the only way I could get close to the pristine grooves in the sources above.  Being risk averse, it's also a way of avoiding spending time on joinery if the groove doesn't turn out well.  Sort of like the drawer stock they sell at the yard.

Lee Valley recommends an auxiliary fence, and I had one, but I took it off and had somewhat better results, possibly because I could then drag my fingers.  If you look at their picture, you'll see a dowel in the top of the fence that is a visual reference helping to keep the plane perpendicular.  If what I have tried so far doesn't get the job done, I may try this.

Both sources recommend thick shavings, which obviously makes sense.  If you made .005" shavings, it would take 50 strokes to make a 1/4" groove.  On the other hand, I found that the thicker the shaving the harder it was for me to control the plane.  There's a tradeoff and, for now anyway, I'm willing to take a few more strokes.

Finally, Lee Valley says the blade should be flush with the skate but my plane came back from them with it set to be noticeably proud, with the result that the skate is in a little from the edge of the groove.  This seems to work OK and I can't see why it would be a problem, so I left it this way.  This way the fence is in total control of the groove's position and that might be a good thing.

This experience has been another example for me of the value of really thinking through how you use each hand tool.  A lot of little things matter.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Dovetails are for the birds, part II

In the last post I explained why I put away all the videos and articles on dovetailing, didn't practice any techniques, went out into my shop, thought about how I could improve at dovetailing and experimented.  I make no claim whatsoever to originality, much of what I write is obvious now that I understand it and this is just a few highlights of what I discovered, not at all comprehensive.  In everything I tried, the goal was to make things as simple and easy as I possibly could, stripping the process down to the bare essentials.  In writing this, I have tried to be somewhat humorous as well and I hope you enjoy it.

Pins or tails first?  Tails.  Why?  The first board only has to be accurate in one dimension while the second board has to be accurate in two in order to fit the first board.  Pins involve an angled cut horizontally and a perpendicular cut vertically while tails involve a perpendicular cut horizontally and an angled cut vertically.  I think pins are easier to saw very accurately, so I'll cut them second.

The tails board.  The tails really need to be sawed perpendicular to the face of the board and you can't saw beyond the baseline, but that's it.  For a tight joint, the spacing doesn't matter and the angles on the sides of the tails don't matter.  Every one of the angles on the sides of the tails can be different and it won't matter, so they don't even need to be marked.  I did draw them in as a reference so the tails would look roughly symmetrical and similar, but there was no need to and I resolved to pay little attention to them.  No problem if I saw off the line.  As an aside, this is why you often see videos of experts cutting tails with nothing but the baseline marked.  As long as they can make cuts perpendicular to the face of the board by eye, nothing else matters.  The angles on the sides of the tails can vary some and it won't be visible, much less affect the fit.  I think this is something most of us could learn to do, in part by using the reflection in the saw plate.  In a relative sense anyway, sawing the tails out first is easy peasy.

For this go round, I didn't want to saw the tails purely by eye, so I knifed in lines for the tails across the end grain with a small square.  This is when I made a discovery that turned out to be the secret to improving:

I can't saw to a line I can't see.

I told you most of this would be obvious.  So, to make the line distinct enough to see, I just dropped a chisel into the knife line and gave it a sharp tap.  Did it move the knife line a little?  Yep.  Does it matter?  Nope.



  This is magnified 15x and you can see how crisp it is.  I lined up my saw to it, preparing to make the first cut and, kerplunk, it dropped in!  This is when I learned of an exception to my discovery:

You can saw to a line you can't see if the saw can find it and you don't interfere.

This is, of course, what we always do with knife lines but it was the first time I had done it successfully on end grain.  Using almost no grip on the saw, I angled it down the line on the side of the tail, gave a push and, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a cut right where it was supposed to be!  A fluke?  After four cuts, it didn't seem like it.  On reflection, I think I had been like a teenager learning to drive, gripping the wheel and constantly correcting.  By giving up on following the angled line down the edge of the tail, I had followed the line.  By not trying to see the line in the end grain, I had cut on the line, granted as deepened with a chisel.  I could hardly believe it.

Sawing the shoulders and chopping out the waste has never been a problem for me, I do it the usual way, so I'll skip a description.

The pins board.  Crunch time.  Now the cuts across and down the board both matter and they must be exactly in the right place.  I couldn't knife in the lines on the end grain and use a chisel to make them visible like I had done with the tails because I would move the line.  I tried something I had read somewhere:  masking tape.

  
The idea is that you cut away pieces of the masking tape to reveal the pins.  Yes, this is an extra step but it takes 30 seconds.  Another issue I have had is moving the tail board slightly while I am marking the pins, especially if I use a plane on its side as a support, like you often see the pros do.  The plane is slippery.  I actually clamped mine down.  The result was crisp, high contrast lines I could definitely see.


Could I saw right to them though?  The chisel-deepened knife line for the tails were training wheels that I wouldn't have for the most important cuts.  I lined them up very carefully and, to my surprise, the result was great, at least by my standards:


Why?  The distinct line was essential but I think there was something else as well.  I had never held my dovetail saw so loosely as I had when I sawed out the tails, just the heel of my hand and the lightest touch of my fingers.  From this experience I have learned a new rule:

Never, never try to steer a dovetail saw.  It's all over when the saw first moves.

There may be an advantage to sawing dovetails with a gent's saw or a Japanese saw because the handles and the way you hold them aren't as amenable to steering as standard western dovetail saws like my Lie-Nielsen.  In any case, I now hold my saw just firmly enough to keep it from falling out of my hand.  It's a little nerve wracking because you know if you have lined up the saw to cut into the line, you're toast, but that's the way it goes I guess.  Really makes you pay attention to how you line the saw up.

The result is as good as it gets for me:


So, am I proficient?  No, but I can see it from here.  Now, practice would matter.  The time it takes me is ridiculous, but it would improve.  I'm pretty sure I could learn to saw out the tails very fast, possibly just by eye with only a baseline like some pros do.  Adding the masking tape doesn't take very long.

Will I ever cut a dovetail again?  Yes.  My poor results did affect my thinking about them.  But, it probably won't be very often, only on those occasions where maximum strength is required or the look is what I am after.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Dovetails are for the birds

Labor day is my cue that it's time to get back in the shop and I am turning my attention to something I have been thinking about for some time: my ambivalence about dovetails.

Admitting to ambivalence about dovetails almost seems like heresy.  Anyone with respect for the hand tool woodworking tradition has to honor this iconic joint; in some ways it symbolizes the craft.  Learning to cut it is a rite of passage.  There is no denying its tremendous mechanical strength and durability.  It is generally accepted as a sign of quality work.

So, what's the issue?  In part, it's that I am an iconoclast out of sheer orneriness.  A whole dovetail industry has developed, with hand tool professionals competing to see who can cut one the fastest as a means of selling this saw or gizmo or whatever.  The power tool industry has gone completely nuts selling ridiculously complicated and expensive jigs.  Even though you don't have to play those games, I find the whole thing off-putting.

But there's more to it than that.  The dovetail joint just doesn't look that great to me; on one side it's indistinguishable from a box joint, but even the other side doesn't bowl me over.  There's a reason half-blind dovetails were commonly used.  On a drawer, you only see the actual dovetail in a secondary wood when it is open.

The mechanical strength is indeed impressive, but I've learned that there are plenty of alternatives that are more than adequately strong and have other advantages.  Even when they are weak, there are ways of making them strong.  Take the miter joint, for example, which can be made sufficiently strong for many applications with splines.  Look at my personal favorite, the Greene and Greene variant of box joints.  They are strengthened with screws covered by ebony plugs.  In my version of these elegant joints, I use pins to add mechanical strength in lieu of screws and the joints are extremely strong.  I have made box joints and then just drilled a hole through them for a dowel.  Fast and easy.

Boxes made with miter joints look nice because there is no end grain and they have the additional advantage of making it fast and convenient to install the bottom by just plowing a groove on all four sides.  You don't have to use slips, hassle with a stopped groove or put a plug in exposed ends of a groove.  Modern adhesives result in splines that are more than strong enough in many applications.

Just to make one thing clear:  if you like dovetails, the consensus is clearly on your side and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  I'm clear on the fact that I am the outlier on this subject.  However, if you have your doubts too, there is nothing wrong with that either.

I've had these heretical thoughts for some time, but there has always been a suspicion that they are just a rationalization, a cover for my embarrassing secret:  I'm just not that good at cutting dovetails.  I think it's partly because I am ambivalent about them that I haven't really devoted myself to becoming proficient and it's partly because the endless stream of videos I've watched and articles I've read on the subject haven't really gotten me there.  I think that the whole practice, practice, practice thing misses something.  You need to practice with good technique and my techniques just weren't that good.

I decided that before I could dismiss dovetails as "for the birds" I would have to convince myself that I am proficient at making them.  Since the articles and videos didn't get me there, I decided to figure it out on my own or, more accurately, use my intuition to pick and choose from what I have watched and read.  To my astonishment, it worked and that's what I will write about next.  Don't worry, I wouldn't dream of foisting a dovetailing tutorial off on you, just, "When I put away the books and videos, didn't bother practicing, thought about it and experimented, I learned some surprising things."















Friday, June 17, 2016

Grooves and beads

I have the Veritas small plow plane that is a few years old and was somewhat disappointed when I read that Lee Valley was coming out with a new version that can do beading as well.  A bit further down in the description, however, was the news that for $59 (including shipping both ways) the company will re-machine your older plane so that it will be able cut beads.  As a bonus, they also upgrade the depth stop, which had a tendency to slip.  I jumped at the chance.

Yesterday in the mail I received the kit:


In typical Lee Valley fashion, they send you detailed instructions on how to disassemble the plane, bags for the parts you keep and for the parts you send them (which has an anti-rust coating), a custom shipping box and an envelope with a reverse postage stamp.  Took only a few minutes to have my plane tucked in and cozy:


Stay tuned.  I am writing about this now because they are only doing this through August, so, if you own one of these planes, get cracking.

There is a larger point here.  It pleases me tremendously that Lee Valley is thinking about and caring about its customers this way, that they still know you after the sale.  You don't run into this too often.  I often hear and read that customers won't pay for this, but I sure will and it makes me a loyal Lee Valley customer.  I don't know about you, but I am tired of  buying things and throwing them away when they break or new models come out.  No wonder the landfills are full.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Handsaw bows and kinks

I have ended up with more than a dozen handsaws I don't use because I can't pass them up when a nice one is selling for $2-$3.  I usually don't buy them if they are bowed or kinked but I found a nice  Atkins  panel  saw that I bought even though it had both a slight kink and a small bow near the end.

If you do an internet search, you will find many methods for takings bows and kinks out of handsaws.  There isn't any question that the best way is to use a ball peen or similar hammer, an anvil and a lot of skill, but I lack all three.  A fallback method is to heat up the blade using boiling water, a heat gun or by putting the saw in the oven at 500 degrees and then bending it back into line by hand.  Bows are easier but I read suggestions that you could take out a kink with a crescent wrench or a piece of wood with a kerf in it.

I decided to try boiling water and a crescent wrench, not expecting success, but it worked fairly well.  I got most of both the bow and the kink out but the wrench left some nearly imperceptible "dents."  I also sanded and oiled the handle.





The tooth line is quite straight.  This was just an experiment with a $2 saw to see what would happen and I didn't put a lot of effort into it.  The bottom line is how it cuts and the answer is surprisingly well:


This basic method seems promising enough that next time I think I will put the saw in the oven and make a wooden "wrench" if there are kinks.  The oven will get the blade a lot hotter than boiling water.  It is very important not to heat the blade to the point that the temper is taken out, which is apparently around 700 degrees.  This can happen with a heat gun or a torch but the oven method seems safe.  I also read a suggestion that you could use C clamps and two straight pieces of steel on the blade to hold it straight when you put it in the oven .

How do bows and kinks in saws affect the cut?  I am not sure but it seems that they could offer resistance, widen the kerf and steer the saw.

All of this got me thinking about how delicate a handsaw is and how easy it is to put a bow or kink in one.  How was this handled in the old days?  Did the craftsman know how to straighten his saws?  Were saws sent out for sharpening and was this a skill that the sharpener had?  Were they just so careful that it never happened?  

Monday, May 30, 2016

Curtains on a doghouse

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I was mightily perturbed some time ago when I read another blogger characterizing the side boards on a Nicholson workbench as akin to "curtains on a doghouse."  So, it was with special pleasure that I received my wife's admiring comment this past weekend as she was helping me put our front door in place so I could work on it:


She was impressed that the door fit so perfectly and was interested when I explained that the bench was designed with this in mind.  I told her to think of the side boards, or aprons as some call them, as a vertical workbench.  She does not see the resemblance to curtains on a doghouse.  Harrumph.

After thirty years, it was past time to replace the latch and deadbolt and I expected, correctly as it turned out, that it would be much more involved than it should be, for the simple reason that this is always what happens when I undertake a simple household maintenance task.  Here is a picture that will explain:

 

The metal strip you see is for the old burglar alarm system and runs in a rabbet completely around the door.  It interfered with the old latch and deadbolt, so the original installer just ground off the side of the hardware.  As you can see, the rough edge of the deadbolt caught as I was pushing it out and split off a piece of the door.  In addition there was no mortise for the old hardware while the new hardware requires them.  Not having a gouge the right size, I used a forstner bit for the corners and then my Veritas small router plane, which worked great.  The only issue with it is that it is hard to set the depth but Veritas now sells a depth stop for it, something I will definitely acquire.  I had to file off the sides of the plates on the new hardware for it to fit inside the burglar alarm strip and, after gluing in the piece that had split away, the latch and bolt were in place:


Thinking I was almost done, I was chagrined to find out that the deadbolt and latch were too close together.   You'd think these distances would be standard.  Since I obviously had to use the original holes, the only option I could see was to file a notch in the handle plate:


Looks terrible, but the end result isn't half bad.  Before I started hand tool woodworking, I would never have done anything like this.  Might seem that there is no connection, but there is, at least for me.




The boss wanted a new matching kickplate but the ones at the orange box store are 8" wide and I only have 7 3/4" thanks to the rabbet for the burglar alarm strip, so I am going to paint it to match.

Lessons:
  1. Nicholson workbenches are fantastic;
  2. There is a hand tool mindset that comes into play even if you are doing something seemingly unrelated, like filing the hardware to fit, for example;
  3. It will always be the case that all home maintenance tasks are an order of magnitude more involved than they appear.  It's a law. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How I know I am old and unsophisticated

This past week, our newspaper carried a story about a chair from a local woodworker that had won a major design competition.  It is called The Portland Chair and is thought to be so wonderful that it will be manufactured and sold by Thos. Moser.  You can buy it for a mere $1,250 in cherry or $1,440 in walnut.  If you would like to read more about it and view pictures of construction details, see the newspaper article in the link above.

I don't know what you think of it, but I know what I think of it: not much.  I can't conceive of paying that much for that chair.  I wouldn't want to sit in it and I wouldn't want to look at it.  There are chairs at IKEA that I would rather have.  Really.  Honestly, I am utterly perplexed.  My grandfather's milking stool looked better than this to me.  The old image of the RCA dog cocking its ear at strange sounds emanating from a Victrola comes to my mind.

There are quite a large number of furniture styles that I really like, some historical and some modern, but I just cannot comprehend how anyone thinks this is a nice looking or nice functioning chair.

I just came back from a visit to my sister, who lives in Reston, Virginia.  While I was there, I read about a building that is about to be torn down which is a prized example of "Brutalist" architecture.  Brutalist?  I had never heard of it.  Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article:
In its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, Brutalism can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of some 1930s and 1940s architecture. In one critical appraisal by Banham, Brutalism was posited not as a style but as the expression of an atmosphere among architects of moral seriousness.
This chair seems to me to have evolved from the same sort of thinking.  By all means, let's not be comfortable, light, easy, optimistic or frivolous.  Perish the thought.  Why have chairs at all?  Why not just sit on the floor?  That would, after all, be more morally serious, wouldn't it?

As for me, I'll be sitting in my comfortable FDR chair drinking a microbrew and trying to be optimistic about the state of American design.  If this Moser chair sells for $1,440, I'm thinking of offering my chair for $9,999.  For the record, don't get an idea of what we here in Portland are like from The Portland Chair.  Watch Portlandia or go see the chairs in Timberline Lodge.  Basically, we're easy, optimistic and frivolous.

C'mon guys, help me out here.  Open my eyes to the art.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Pegs and rub joints

For both strength and visual appearance, I chose to peg the joints on the footstool that I made to go with my FDR chair:


Pegging adds tremendous mechanical strength to a joint due to the shear strength of a riven peg and drawboring pulls the joint very tight without clamps.  If memory serves, Chris Schwarz wrote that he often does not bother gluing mortise and tenon joints that have pegs.  To me, the main downside is the time it takes to peg the joints.  I don't see appearance as an issue because  I like the way they look.

The main hassle with pegging is the time it takes to make the riven pegs.  I have the Veritas dowel former and made a small stand for it:


To use it, you have to prepare stock and Lee Valley suggests a very tedious procedure:  
Take the time to hand plane the blank down to just slightly over the final diameter and then knock off the corners to form an octagon. To facilitate starting the blank in the plate, taper one end of the blank...
 This is a lot of trouble.  So far, I just rive square blanks a little oversize with a chisel (a handscrew works nice to hold the stock while you are doing this), sharpen the end and pound away.  With smaller ones, such as the 1/4" pegs for this project, this works fine, but it's a problem with larger ones.  I have thought about a little jig that I might be able to make to facilitate this:  a stop across one end and a V-groove.  If this works well so I get a nice hexagon, I may try one of those sharpeners for oversize kids' pencils for sharpening the ends of the blanks.  If anybody's got a good, quick method for making pegs, I'd be really interested.

When I first made cabriole legs, I was amazed that they could be securely attached via a rub fit with hide glue.  You just rub the pieces back and forth and the hide glue has the amazing feature of pulling the pieces together as it dries and enough tackiness to hold it in place until it has.  I can't deal with a glue pot, so I used Titebond liquid hide glue for the arches on the footstool, though I have read that Old Brown Glue is a much better option because it has more initial tackiness.  I got around this issue by holding the arches in place with pieces of masking tape while the glue dried.  One of the disadvantages of using the Titebond product is that bottles of it that you find in stores are often past the expiration date.  This has happened to me time after time.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A visit to the dark side

After an intense time working on the FDR chair, I wanted to kick back and do some easy projects using the white oak scraps I had left over.  I have a trip to visit my granddaughters coming up very shortly and I wanted to make a stool for the youngest one. I also wanted to make a footstool to go with the FDR chair so I could get it upholstered at the same time as the chair.

For a variety of reasons, curiosity mostly, I decided that I would use some of my power tools that haven't seen much use for quite a while, if there seemed there might be an advantage to doing so.

First, my granddaughter's stool.  Little would have been gained by making the top with power tools, so I didn't bother, but attaching the legs seemed like power tools might have an advantage.  I wanted them to be angled out to the corners as they normally are and I wanted the legs to be square in cross-section for aesthetic reasons.  I angled the tops and bottoms of the legs at 10 degrees with the miter saw then I decided I would drill vertical holes in the top with the drill press and make a quick jig to drill angled holes in the tops of the legs, again with the drill press:


This worked fairly well, though it would have been better if I had put more care into making the jig.

Here is the result:


I like the way it looks.  The 1" tenons are overkill obviously, but I think they look nice for a kid.  Was it an advantage to use power tools?  Not really.  If I were making ten of these stools it would be, but I think I could have done just as well rounding the tops of the legs with a spokeshave and boring angled holes with a brace and bit.  This is the method Paul Sellers teaches, I have done it in the past and it works.  I could have angled the legs almost as quickly with my miter box.  Another option would be to use one of these Veritas tenon cutters in a brace.

Now for the footstool.  Years ago, I made a three-axis vertical router table, sort of a poor man's multi-router, and it has been collecting dust for at least the last four years:


After spending a few minutes attaching the router and setting it up, it made quick work of routing the mortises.  I then made the tenons on my standard router table, leaving them just a bit oversize so I could trim them to fit with a shoulder plane.  Again, I'm pleased with the result.  This is just a dry fit skeleton for now:


Was it an advantage to use power tools?  Actually, yes.  You can whip out plain vanilla mortises and tenons lickety-split like this and they will be very accurate.  I would imagine that a very accomplished hand tool woodworker would be almost as fast making just one stool, but I am just not that fast.  Machines would be much faster if more than one stool was being made.  Was it as much fun or as fulfilling as making them by hand?  No.  Would I get faster if I practiced more?  Yes.

This is not just any footstool; it's a footstool for a FDR chair.  It obviously has to have Timberline arches on the sides, so that means eight pieces, like cabriole leg knee blocks, had to be made.  Could I make them with a template and a pattern bit in a router?  Yup.  Would it have been faster?  Maybe for one stool, but just a little.  Would they have been more uniform than the ones I made by hand?  Yup, by about 1/32" here and there, less when I am done refining them:

  

These two projects took advantage of power tool strengths and still didn't demonstrate a strong advantage to using them for one-offs.  Faster in one case, probably not in the other.  A better result?  No.  There would have been more of an advantage if I had been making multiple copies of each project, obviously.

I had a lot of power tools before I got into hand tool woodworking and, except for the table saw, I still have most of them.  They are useful for carpentry and aren't worth much.  If I didn't have them, I wouldn't buy them.  The one exception is my bandsaw, but I am pretty sure it will outlast me.

I disagree with those who rail against power tools as some sort of soul crushing evil, which I find silly.  As far as I am concerned, there are five main reasons that I prefer hand tools:

  1. I like using them;
  2. There is little advantage to using power tools if you have the requisite hand tools and the skill to use them, assuming you primarily make one-offs.  The exception is rough stock preparation;
  3.  This is a hobby for me so speed is not a priority;
  4. Hand tools open up a whole world of curves and shapes that can be made easily without a lot of jigs and fixtures;
  5. I have enjoyed the process of acquiring, restoring and using vintage hand tools.  I also like the amazing new hand tools being made by top notch suppliers.  In both cases, many of the designs are so well thought out and executed, a welcome contrast to most of the products available in today's markets.



Tuesday, April 26, 2016

FDR Chair: Finishing and finished

I have written that I unexpectedly got substantial color variation on the back of my FDR chair, something I hoped would be corrected by stain.   Salespeople at specialty stores assured me that gel stain was the way to go and, although I was skeptical, I decided to try it.  For the most part, it worked out:




I almost didn't use this color because General Finishes calls it brown mahogany, I have no idea why.  They had a sample on oak in the store and it looked like what I was after, so I went with it and I'm glad I did, as this is the shade I was looking for.  I applied three coats of Arm-R-Seal over the top of the stain.

Once again Margeson's law held:  "No matter how hard you try, there will always be a stray scratch, dent, spot of glue and/or tool mark that becomes visible when you apply finish."  Grrrrrrrr.  I know you're supposed to wipe down your project with mineral spirits to avoid this, but that's not happening in my shop.  I may try alcohol next time.  I had one blemish that really bothered me, so I carefully sanded and reapplied stain and, to my surprise, it blended in fine.

As for advice about using gel stain, it dried to the right consistency to rub off quite quickly, so just do a small section at a time.  Because gel stain doesn't wick like regular stain, pay special attention to make sure you get it wiped off thoroughly around nooks and crannies.  Finally, they say coat in 12-24 hours, but I found 24 hours is best or you risk rubbing off the stain in spots. Gel stain sits on the surface rather than soaking in.

So, now for the acid test.  Here is the photo of the original chair from 1937:


The finish is different, obviously, but, other than that, how'd I do?





Tuesday, April 12, 2016

FDR chair ready for finish

Installing the arms was the last major thing remaining on this chair.  They are held in place by half inch dowels, two through the back into the arms and two through the arms into the front legs.  I clamped them securely into place and drilled the holes:


I would have liked to use a brace and bit for this, but, if there is a bit that will make a hole in white oak end grain, I don't own it.  My only alternative is a cordless drill and brad point bit.

I cleaned out the holes carefully by running the bit in and out several times.  Because I know dowels are a tight fit, I put them through the dowel former multiple times and even drove them dry through the hole in the back for good measure.  Nevertheless, when I applied glue to the dowels, it was a real struggle to get them in.  I wish my Lee Valley dowel former was a bit more undersized (I checked the drill bit and it is dead on.).

All's well that ends well, and the chair is finally ready for finish.  Notice how the arms make a second Timberline arch:




Monday, April 4, 2016

Extreme wood bending

I really like old airplanes and I ran across this video about bending wood for airplane parts that is extremely interesting.  Obviously, there are few applications for bending wood more critical than the fuselage of an airplane.  Add to that the fact that parts often have to be bent at sharp angles and you have a real challenge.  There are some worthwhile lessons here for woodworkers even if we aren't going to fly around in our projects.  I'm already thinking of things I would like to try making.

Several comments.  He achieves these very sharp angles by laminating and steam bending in combination.  First he steam bends 1/8" pieces, then he laminates them together.  Notice how basic his steam bending apparatus is, just plastic pipe and a wallpaper steamer.  I am fairly sure this is Sitka spruce by the way, favored by airplane makers for its strength, durability and light weight.  Think about the stresses on a WWI fighter.  I was also interested in his jig, a lot simpler than most I read about.  Finally, I had never heard of casein glue.  It is made from milk protein and is apparently very strong, durable, resistant to water and has a long open time.  Invented in ancient Egypt, it has been used by musical instrument makers and wooden airframe manufacturers.

Here's the video:


 Correction:  Alan correctly points out in the comments below that the woodworker in the video is using Cascophen glue, not casein as I indicated.  As he says, it is a resorcinol formaldehyde adhesive that has apparently come to replace casein for manufacturing wooden airframes.  I apologize for the error.  The information about casein glue above is still correct.

Friday, April 1, 2016

FDR chair: finally

Except for finishing and the arms, the chair is done.  It's glued-up and every joint is pegged:  




I am not going to tell you it is perfect.  All of the joints on the outside are tight but on the inside there are a few gaps in the .00X" range.  The chair rocked about 1/8", likely a result of my trimming the compound angle joints on the seat rails, which I solved by trimming the legs on the longer diagonal about 1/16" each.  There is the grain mismatch on the right rear leg/arm.  I give myself an A-.  My standards keep going up as my skills improve, so I can never achieve them.  That's good and bad.  For the most part, I don't think about this after the piece is complete and it keeps me striving to get better.

I went back to the lumberyard and they still didn't have any 5/4 or 6/4 QSWO; the whiskey distillers continue to buy it all.  I had to buy an 8/4 piece:


$54!!  I also bought Pendleton wool upholstery fabric for the seat.  It is usually $84 per yard but they are having a 30% off sale on remnants:


It's more than I need but I can use it for other things and I really like the pattern.  All told, materials for this chair will cost almost $300!  Yikes.  Maybe that's the reason the chair isn't reproduced commercially, that and the fact that it takes so much hand work to build it.

I have reluctantly given up on the idea of making an exact copy of the original from photographs and an inaccurate construction drawing, so I contented myself with making a template for the arms that looks right and seems to match the photos:


Basically, I made the curves by placing nails at strategic points and bending a thin stick around them.  The width changes very subtly from the front, at 3", to the back at 2 1/2", so that it will mate up with the back, just as I think the original does.  I tried to do this in a way that isn't noticeable by having the outside curve in a little bit more than the inside.  The paper template is mounted to thin baltic birch plywood.  It is surprising to me how much the eye and the fingers can detect a smooth curve.  I just kept making very fine cuts with a spokeshave until I got the shape I wanted.  It also seems to fit my arm quite well.  I continually think that the design of this chair is just right, a testament to the skill of Ray Neufer and Margery Hoffman Smith.  This is an example.  I now realize that the front of the chair is just enough wider than the back so that the outside of the rear legs line up with the inside of the front legs.  So much goes into the design of a great chair.  Few people will really notice, I know I didn't, but the details matter.

Ray Neufer made several copies of the chair later in his life, this one for example.  It clearly doesn't exactly match the original, especially the shape of the back, but I don't think he cared.  You'll notice he has a grain mismatch too.  I feel better.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

FDR chair: almost ready for glue-up

Except for some more fine-tuning, the chair is ready for glue-up and pegging:




I don't yet have the material for the arms, but they are pegged in place so I will install them after the rest of the chair is together.

Frankly, the last week has been frustrating.  There are ten angled joints in this chair, four of which (the side seat rails) are angled in two directions.  I made them as carefully as I could and each joint closed tightly on its own, but when I dry-fit the chair there were small gaps in some of the joints, less than 1/64" in all cases, but noticeable.  Grrrrrrrr.  Incidentally, I accidentally discovered that this is almost exactly the thickness of my fingernails.  I have spent forever trying to close these gaps and am gradually getting there.  The problem is that it isn't obvious which joint you should work on and what is holding the joint apart, so there is trial and error involved.  In addition, each time I made an adjustment I had to reassemble the chair.  Compounding the problem is that I made the joints very tight, maybe too tight, which slows down the process.  These thick pieces of white oak don't flex at all, so the joints have to be very precise.  Calling this chair sturdy is an understatement.  It's a beast.

There is a Pendleton Wool outlet near me and I went there last weekend because I thought that it would be nice to upholster the seat with their cloth, which in Oregon is iconic.  The heavy fabrics suitable for upholstery cost $84 per yard!  I'm thinking about it but, at that price, the pattern will have to really grab me.

Despite the frustration associated with closing these angled joints, this has been a great project.  I have come to realize that this is a chair that can only be made with hand tools, unless you scan it, make a CAD file and make a plastic one with a 3-D printer I guess.  Trying to make all these curves and angles with machines would take forever, if it even could be done.  The guys in the WPA shop were hand tool woodworkers, some of them very talented carvers, and they made a chair that showcases hand tool skills.  Rectilinearity didn't interest them at all.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Starting to look like a chair

After a whole lot of final fitting, rounding-over and scraping, I assembled the back of the chair.  As I wrote earlier, I wanted to do this because I want to fit the remaining pieces rather than measure them, especially because of the compound angles of the side seat rails.  All of the joints on the chair are pegged but I chose not to drawbore them because this oak is so dense and the pegs are so stout that I didn't think they would deform as intended.  I had visions of the pieces splitting instead.  A middle ground would have been to drawbore the pieces very slightly.  At some point, I may try some experiments with pieces of my scrap white oak.  In any case, the joints are tight and the back looks good to me, except for the one grain mismatch I mentioned earlier.


The next step was to make the front legs and fit them to the side rails.  Here is what I have:




It was a relief to see the front legs vertical and things looking roughly as they should.  You can see in the front picture how the side seat rails slope up and out.  The chair is a full 4 inches wider in the front, which seems like quite a lot to me but it does give the chair the appearance of receiving you with "open arms."

So now it's on to making and fitting the stretchers and arms.  The arms have a substantial curve to form a second Timberline Arch and I'll have to make a template for them.  I'll also have to take a trip back to the lumber yard to see if the whiskey distillers have left any quartersawn white oak because I don't have material suitable for the arms.