Archive for the Category ◊ Ideas ◊

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• Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022
workbench from h.s.

In fact, the first and only. It has sat, at least until now, for more than 50 years right in the spot in my late parents’ house where I completed it as a high school kid. 

It is nothing special, really, and certainly not nearly as functional as the good old Ulmia, a “real” workbench, that I have been using for about 40 years. Its construction mostly follows a design by John Capotosto that was published in the now defunct Mechanix Illustrated magazine in the May 1971 issue. [Old guys, you may recall that magazine, then a competitor of Popular Mechanics, and if you do, you surely remember “Mimi,” who, in various persons, graced every issue among the ads for cigarettes and automobile gear.] 

At the time, my only power tool was a Sears jigsaw, though I longed for a tablesaw, which is another story. The mostly hand-me-down hand tools that I had were marginally serviceable. It is also, hmm . . . possible, that some local construction sites were relieved of some, perhaps excess, 2-by lumber lying around. 

then

So, why does it matter? I liked then, and now, and for as long as I can remember, to build things – to make stuff. I can still recall the strong feeling then of wanting to build that bench after seeing the article in the magazine. I knew I could do it. Moreover, after all the lumps and bumps of the ensuing years of life, I am still glad that I made it. 

So, I suppose that is my message to you, fellow woodworkers and especially to nascent woodworkers. If you have that deep urge calling to you to Build It – I think you know what I mean – and you possibly can, then Go Build It. Sure, things get in the way, I know, but remember too, that “it’s always something.” So, do the best you can and build it. 

You will very likely be glad for a long time.

workbench from then
old workbench
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• Saturday, May 28th, 2022
David Charlesworth's books

David Charlesworth passed away on May 22. There is an announcement on his website.

Though I never met David, I learned a great deal from his three books and many videos. The books, now out of print, are compilations of wonderful articles that he wrote for Furniture and Cabinetmaking magazine. 

To honor the memory of this great teacher, I want to tell you the main thing, so valuable, that I learned from him, which goes beyond the many specific skills he presented. It was his acutely thoughtful, insightful approach to woodworking. He showed how things could be done with direction and precision. 

David stopped the brain clutter and calmly focused on what was really going on with a plane blade, a joint, or a construction process. With his friendly, humble bearing, evident in writing and videos, he inspired us to do the same. 

Focus, think it through, and try – you can do it. Plan. Create with calm energy and at the same time, stay open to new skills and methods.  

For me, and for so many others, these were his gifts. Thank you, David Charlesworth. Rest in peace.

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• Friday, December 31st, 2021
wall cabinet

[32″h x 20″w x 8″d] The curved sides of this cabinet started on the bandsaw, of course, but then I used the #20 compass plane, the RP rasp, and scrapers. The best tool for final truing of the curves was a simple purpose-built sanding shave. This is just a 14″-long stick, about 1″ x 2″, with the working wide face planed a bit convex, to which is attached PSA sandpaper. 

With all the tools on which we spend a small fortune, almost every project necessitates a shop-made tool to save the day. 

The dowel joinery went well. I have plenty of experience with it. Well, except for one section where I used too much glue and paid the price correcting a squeeze-out mess. Think! It is so much easier to avoid than to correct mistakes.

Just clamp the carcase together, right? No. The curved sides required specially shaped clamp blocks. It was so easy to draw that nice curve on paper . . .

For the door frame joints, I choose regular mortise-and-tenons rather than slip joints, which look cool but are a major pain to clamp. I routed the mortises and then carefully set up the bandsaw to make the tenons within a shaving or two (or none) with the rabbet block plane. It’s all about making a precise kerf-width-thick gauge.

stiles and rails

There’s a limit to masochism, or maybe not. The unconventional arrangement of the door frame rails and stiles made the final fitting of the doors more difficult. This was, however, a key design element of the piece so it was worth the trouble. The step at the junctions of the inner rail and stile on each door was another pain. A bigger pain would have been to try to assemble the door pieces in the wrong (impossible) order.

After a lot of mulling over, I decided to use magnetic catches. I should have embedded the fixed magnets in the fixed shelf but I made a separate little block for them, which could be removed and replaced if everything did not work out. The catches work nicely but I should not have chickened out on the design.

See the convex front edge of the sides? That feature made everything more difficult, especially the final fit of the doors. Does it matter? Yea, I think so; I like the look. It’s just a matter of deciding if it is worth it.

The problem with one-of-a-kind work is that you never experience all the issues and see the end point until you’re done. Yes, I would have done some things differently if I were to make this again. But I’m not going to.

The top panels are opalescent art glass. I learned a lot about art glass and glass cutting tools and techniques for this project. I installed the glass with strips that are screwed in place, not nailed as Krenov did. 

From the start, I planned to use Z-clips to hang the cabinet. These are essentially metal French cleat hangers but take up only 1/4″ of depth in the back of the cabinet. They must be accounted for when forming the rabbet for the back panel, including some consideration for walls not being perfectly flat. 

Virtually every project requires learning about a new material, technique, finish, or design element. I enjoy that. 

The spalted big-leaf maple panels were a nice find, and they bookmatched well for spalted wood. Like most well spalted material, there were some soft areas that needed hardening. Protective Coatings PC-Petrifier works well with minimal darkening.

For the hinges, bright or even brushed brass just would not look right, and the antiquing on the hinges that I bought proved to be delicate, so I blackened them for good with a solution from Rockler

I could go through a dozen or more other special issues with this piece but you get the idea. The truth is that there is a lot of thought, time, trouble, and – is suffering too strong a word? – in making these things.

Are these details worth it? How about the specialized tools, finding the right wood, correcting mistakes, refining the design (over and over), finding the way out of construction problems, and on and on?

Only the maker can answer these questions. That’s the privilege – and the joy – that comes with making things. Best wishes for you and your projects. 

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• Tuesday, November 30th, 2021
resawn sapele

Even at this point, I often make small refinements in the design, mostly to make the proportions look good. I also may add features, such as edge treatments. This is small stuff that I do sweat. I am aiming for a certain peace and balance that will make the piece of furniture be interesting at several levels, and ironically, even fascinating.

However, all of this has to be put into the language of wood. The goal is to make something out of wood, not to just make a nice looking drawing on paper. Sometimes as I gradually get the oversized components out of the rough stock, the wood itself will suggest subtle alterations in the design, so it’s back to the drawing board yet again. 

I think of the wood early on in the design process. In fact, I really do not even think of a design in the abstract at all, but instead see it from the beginning as being in a particular wood or at least narrowed to a few possibilities for the wood.

So there is an ongoing interplay among the drawings, the wood, and my imagination.

Now, when the mental dust has settled and sawdust will take its place, I want the wood to be reliable. Oh, and you know where that goes, fellow woodworkers. Recall the words with which the late Professor Bruce Hoadley began his seminal book, Understanding Wood, “Wood comes from trees.” Its essential characteristics make it for good trees; it did not evolve for woodworking projects. 

And so the gorgeous boards of quartersawn sapele that I took home for this project were destined to drive me nuts. I wrote about this a while ago in the post “Weird wood stresses stress me.” 

This was an unusual, hopefully uniquely frustrating situation with the wood. The point here is that once we have settled on a design that drives us, that answers the question “Is it worth it?” strongly in the affirmative, uncertainty still lurks, starting with the first bite of the saw’s teeth into the rough lumber. 

The recipients of our best work do not, in all likelihood, have any idea of this, especially if they are used to veneered particleboard ready-to-assemble “things” (see how civil I’m being). Still, as I pointed out in the first part of this series, these matters are not, and should not be, their problems. 

Yet they are out problems, fellow woodworkers, and indeed we can usually solve them. So, I am not whining but once in a while, it is worth mentioning them, just among us. This is the uncool reality that is infrequently shared in print, but we ought to be able to say, “Oh, you too? That happens to you too?”

Next in this series: construction, detours, and, gasp, mistakes!

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• Saturday, October 30th, 2021
cabinet design

Something easy to draw on paper may not be so easy to execute in wood. Though we can and should try to stretch our technical limits to meet the demands of a compelling design, it may be impossible or at least unwise to attempt certain things in wood. Sometimes even an innocent curve on paper has the potential to foul up a construction.

Deviating from established construction methods is fine but there are reasons they are tried and true, so you better know what you are doing and have a sound plan if you diverge from tradition.

With those points in mind, the “hook” for this piece is the curved sides. I knew I was asking for trouble. Whenever there is a major asymmetry in wood removal on opposite sides of a board, the built-in stresses can manifest unpredictably. If the wood has been in storage through many seasons of changing humidity, the stresses seem to reduce themselves, but for recently harvested and kiln-dried wood, there are inevitably some case hardening stresses lurking. The thinnest points of the 8-inch-deep sides are about 1/2 inch less than the thickest points. The sides come out of 8/4 stock. 

But wait, I’m the wood guy, I know how to work around this! Well, dream on wood guy, the wood does not care that you’re the supposed wood guy.

The wood had its own plans as I was to find out. 

The case construction is carcase dowelling, and the techniques I use have proven sound in projects going back more than 20 years. So I felt confident there and similarly for the frame-and-panel construction of the doors and back.

However, the other hook for this piece is the layout of the door stiles and rails. The center stiles do not reach to the top and bottom like the hinge stiles. They are also, along with the middle rails, slightly thinner than the other frame members to create small steps at the joints.

It would have been easier to take the usual approach where the center stiles go all the way to the top and bottom like the hinge stiles. That way, the doors would be easier to assemble and trim to a final fit. But that’s not the way I wanted it. Still, my scheme here is not too unusual and quite doable. 

Other things that required careful thought are the doors overlapping the top and bottom of the carcase, which precludes using a nice Krenov-style door catch, and hanging with Z Clips, which are essentially thin metallic French cleats. 

So, in summary, I felt my design was exciting but brought about some challenges and doubts. Doubts for sure. But remembering the late Wendell Castle’s advice, “If you’re always hitting the target, it’s too close,” I was ready to go.

Now, about the wood . . .

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• Thursday, September 30th, 2021
design stage

This will be a series of posts that I have wanted to write for a long time. It will be what is rarely written – a real accounting of a maker’s thoughts from the first idea for a piece through its completion. I will relate my ambitions, joys, frustrations, doubts, successes, failures, and more – all unvarnished and “from the shavings and sawdust of my shop” – in building the piece that started with the sketch above.

Now, why would I want to do that and why might you care?

Magazine articles and books almost always present a sanitized version of the construction steps, and reasonably so. The reader needs a clear layout of the building process so it can be understood and employed, not a replay of a woodworking psychiatric session.

Moreover, when the finished piece is presented to viewers, interested and sensitive observers are generally best served when the piece is mostly left to speak for itself with little or no verbal accompaniment. Questions can come later. That the joints were hard to fit or the wood tore out on the thickness planer are my problems, not theirs, and I have to solve them so they can enjoy the piece.

Yet, Heartwood readers know that I have long emphasized that high-end woodworking is not fast or easy and pretensions to such fantasies by woodworking media are counterproductive. I also think that high quality woodworking, especially one-of-a-kind pieces, are largely underappreciated and not well understood. If that were so, they would probably be in greater demand and fetch higher prices.

So, this is some honest talk for woodworkers. Most of us work alone and all of us encounter doubts and difficulty with the craft. Sharing that can bolster our faith and energy in making things. This can also benefit those who have to put up with our passions or just want some inside baseball about the craft of making really nice stuff from wood. 

I will cover: 

  • Design, starting with the sketches above
  • Wood and materials
  • Construction plans, problems, and detours

The first question, however, is posed in the title. From the outset, a maker has to be convinced that the object is worth building. The concept must be strong, clear, and compelling. The energy has to be there. The plan to execute it must be sound. That’s right, the plan, but as boxing great Mike Tyson has been quoted, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.”

Here we go.

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• Sunday, January 31st, 2021
the why of woodworking

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

For the last installment in this series, I present a simple idea that supports all of our work in wood. “They don’t tell you” this one because it is up to you, and maybe because it is obvious. Anyway, here it is: When you make something for a specific recipient or purpose or reason, you will be more energetic, you will concentrate more, you will be more efficient, and you will feel more joy. More, that is, than making something practically and in spirit only “on spec.”

Your reason for the project can range from furniture for your child/grandchild to just putting food on the table. (A table, by the way, that is probably not nearly as nice as the one you are making.) The reason may be internal such as your pure joy in building something, but is probably more powerful if it is also external to you. Maybe at the heart of it, your reason is ad majorem Dei gloriam.

So, as you develop a design, hunt for the wood, and fortify your shop, search also for your reason. Choose a good one and your chisel will be sharper and your saw will not tire.

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• Saturday, December 19th, 2020
best woodworking books

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

I offer for your consideration the following four points regarding learning woodworking: 

1. No matter the amount of instruction you receive or the sources you consult, you ultimately have to get into your shop, and with your brain and hands, find your personal approach to building things with wood. This is not to say you should wing it, nor adopt a sophomoric attitude toward competent instruction, but you must find the way to deliver yourself – your talent, ambition, and, yes, courage – through your fingertips to the work on the bench. 

2. Learning is continuous. Yes, you reach a point where the general principles of woodworking come together in mind and hand, and from there it is easier to add new skills. But new frontiers are always out there, and will always be humbling and challenging. For me, some examples are use of non-wood materials, art skills such as carving and marquetry, bent lamination panels, along with many more. 

3. The corollary of the second point is to beware of being bedazzled by any so-called expert who you might think has seen it all and knows it all, and so can be relied upon for all definitive answers. Sure, there are some great woodworking teachers out there, but none that should supplant your common sense. We all have more to learn.

4. I’ve made this point before but it bears repeating. The most difficult part of making a piece is the big picture – putting all of the elements together. This is true, I suppose, of any field of endeavor.

The design must create enthusiasm. The wood, joinery, and construction plan must make sense to carry out the design. Each of the construction elements – stock preparation, joints, finishing, etc. – must be coordinated and carried out with cognizance of their roles along with particular attention to the critical junctures. Furthermore, you must be willing and able to make adjustments and corrections along the way based on continuous assessment of the work.  

The only way to get good at this, which is what really makes you a “good woodworker,” is to build things!

One more post in this series is coming.

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