‘The Carpenter Bench’

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I got an email recently asking about the image atop my Facebook page (and above), a young girl planing at a workbench. It’s from a 1918 booklet, “A Catalogue of Play Equipment,” by Jean Lee Hunt; it was published by the New York Bureau of Educational Experiments.

I’ve copied below the (out-of-copyright) text that accompanies the image, but the booklet is well worth paging through in its entirety (there are some adorable animal-themed pull toys) if for no other reason than to marvel at the comparison to today’s play equipment and safety regulations. You’ll find it here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28466/28466-h/28466-h.htm

THE CARPENTER BENCH

The carpenter equipment must be a “sure-enough business affair,” and the tools real tools – not toys.

The Sheldon bench shown here is a real bench in every particular except size. The tool list is as follows:

Manual training hammer.
18 point cross-cut saw.
9 point rip saw.
Large screw driver, wooden handle.
Small screw driver.
Nail puller.
Stanley smooth-plane, No. 3.
Bench hook.
Brace and set of twist bits.
Manual training rule.
Steel rule.
Tri square.
Utility box–with assorted nails, screws, etc.
Combination India oil stone.
Oil can.
Small hatchet.

Choice of lumber must be determined partly by the viewpoint of the adult concerned, largely by the laboratory budget, and finally by the supply locally available. Excellent results have sometimes been achieved where only boxes from the grocery and left-over pieces from the carpenter shop have been provided. Such rough lumber affords good experience in manipulation, and its use may help to establish habits of adapting materials as we find them to the purposes we have in hand. This is the natural attack of childhood, and it should be fostered, for children can lose it and come to feel that specially prepared materials are essential, and a consequent limitation to ingenuity and initiative can thus be established.

On the other hand, some projects and certain stages of experience are best served by a supply of good regulation stock. Boards of soft pine, white wood, bass wood, or cypress in thicknesses of ¼”, 3/8″, ½” and 7/8″ are especially well adapted for children’s work, and “stock strips” ¼” and ½” thick and 2″ and 3″ wide lend themselves to many purposes.

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‘He Saw the Light,’ by Ed Rumsey

Editor’s note: Thanks to everyone who entered our True Tales of Woodworking Contest, in celebration of the release of Nancy Hiller’s new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life.” We enjoyed reading every one of the entries – it was difficult to choose a winner (a good problem to have!). We’re running some of our top choices here (lightly edited to match LAP editorial style), and will announce and share the winning story on Saturday, Feb. 1. Nancy will also be sharing some of the entries on her Making Things Work blog, so be sure to tune in there, too!
Fitz

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End sheet from “The Windsor Style in America, Volumes I and II,” by Charles Santore.

In the 1980s, I made and sold Windsor chairs, using mostly old techniques and tools. Mike Dunbar’s “Windsor Chairmaking” was my handbook, and Santore’s “Windsor Style in America” was my inspiration. One friend’s 100-acre forest provided the trees, which I cut down with a chain saw; another friend’s gorgeous Percheron mare, a draft horse with hooves almost the size of dinner plates, hauled them out.

Instruction was hard to find. I remembered how scary it had been, as a kid in junior high shop class, “poking a bar of steel into a spinning chunk of wood”* – it hadn’t turned out well.

Today, excellent instruction is available on-demand in downloads and streaming videos; Peter Galbert’s wonderful materials come to mind. Forty years ago, a beginner would have to go to the teacher. After wasting four months trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to turn wood, I finally found a mentor, 300 miles to the south, whom I met at a workshop 300 miles west.

One of the most challenging things for me was learning how to drill the seat for the legs. I quickly experienced the heartbreak of destroying a carved seat by drilling the legs wrong. The technique shown in Dunbar’s book used two angle gauges and a hand-held brace with a spoon bit; that didn’t work for me. I found it easier to use a single line of sight with a single angle gauge (a common technique, today). I used an antique Delta floor-standing drill press with a foot pedal to bring the bit down into the wood. That left both hands free to hold the big wooden chair seat in position. To get the correct angle for the legs, I built a wooden tilting table that bolted to the work surface. It worked great and I could tilt it either way – front or back.

I often demonstrated chairmaking at the local Farmer’s Market. On one of these occasions, a young guy watched me from a distance. Eventually, he showed up at my door, introduced himself, and said he would love to watch me work, and learn how to build a chair in my workshop. I quickly realized that Eddie had a lot of potential; he had worked with mentors far more talented than I was, repairing 17th and 18th century furniture, stuff that I had seen only in museums. I taught him by simply showing him what I did and explaining why I did it. I said there were probably better ways to do all of it, but I just hadn’t found them.

I suggested the best way to make his first chair was to find a big fireplace, so he could burn his first attempt; he shouldn’t take it too seriously – that would minimize the stress. Eddie ignored me, of course; he was determined to make his first attempt a really great piece of work. And he was doing quite well; he spent several days carefully cutting and carving a seat to a very pleasing shape, and then turned some very nice legs to go with it.

Eddie was very capable, so I let him work pretty much on his own, unless he asked for help. I occasionally took a peek to keep him out of trouble. The challenge was teaching without interfering, finding that line between oversight and overbearing. I showed him how to set up the drill press to bore the holes in the seat, and then watched from a distance. I knew how easy it was to reverse the angle of the table, and have the chair legs gathered tight together on the floor, like a goat on a rock.

I saw him setting it up wrong, and I just couldn’t bear to let him destroy that beautifully carved seat. I also wanted him to learn to think about what he was doing. I didn’t take my eyes off him as I quietly backed off into the far corner of the windowless shop. I waited to see if the light would go on in his head, but he pressed on. When he finally had everything ready (and backward), Eddie reached up and flipped the switch on the drill press motor. I pulled the switch in corner. The shop went dark, the machine fell silent, and Eddie yelled “NOOOO!!!!!” as he finally realized what he’d been about to do.

When we finally stopped laughing in the dark, I turned the power back on and we got back to work. His first chair turned out very nice, and he still has it decades later.

— Ed Rumsey

*David Fisher’s colorful reason for carving rather than turning bowls:
“There’s something about a twenty pound chunk of wood spinning around at five hundred rpm that makes me not want to poke it with a bar of steel. I like my chunks of wood to sit still in front of me.”
https://davidffisherblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/07/carving-round-bowls-can-be-super/

 

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Tool Chest Classes Near & Far

ATCBlueWhile there are a few spots remaining in a couple of my 2020 classes at Lost Art Press,  the tool chest classes are sold out – but I’ll be teaching a couple of other Anarchist’s Tool Chest classes next year, and registration is now open for both. One is close to home in Berea, Ky.; the other is in one of the most lovely places in the U.S. (IMHO), Port Townsend, Wash.

The first is June 1-5, 2020, at the Woodworking School at Pine Croft, a new school run by Berea College, in Berea, Ky. … that’s really an old school – Berea College bought the august Kelly Mehler School of Woodworking last year (Kelly is still involved as an instructor), and classes are held in the same (stunning and well-stocked) two-story shop that Kelly built. It’s a lovely area of the country to visit (as a Kentucky girl, I might be biased), with rolling green hills, horses, bourbon and Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill nearby.

The second is July 20-24, at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking – a school founded by Jim Tolpin, John Mackworth and Tim Lawson to teach traditional woodworking skills. The school is great (good tools, good people) – but I also love it for its location – come for the woodworking fun, stay for the well-preserved Victorian seaport, stunning sea views and perfect weather. (It’ll likely be 95°F or so in Cincinnati when I’m enjoying an average high of 73° in the Pacific Northwest.)

And the weekend before the ATC class (July 18-19), I’m teaching a two-day Moxon Vise class at Port Townsend…because that shop fixture is a godsend when dovetailing large panels. Those tend to cup a bit, and the Moxon vise (aka twin-screw vise) flattens ’em right out, making transfer easy. I also use my Moxon for all dovetailing and other sawing work, because it lifts the work to a comfortable working height while holding the work securely.

Moxon

The Moxon vise shown on my bench here is actually Christopher Schwarz’s; mine is on the shelf below. I’m showing Chris’s in use because it has that fancy lamb’s tongue detail, such as we’ll be putting on our Port Townsend vises. (It’s not just a pretty touch – the relieved front edge keeps you from cutting into your vise as you’re cutting on an angle.)

And I might have another not-in-Covington class or two to announce in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

 

 

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On the Naming of Parts

staircase

Please excuse the dust…

My bathroom renovation is the last major project above the first floor, so with but a few cosmetic things to take care of therein before I can call it done (and before I show it finished), I’m resigned to finally rebuilding my front staircase. There’s no other large items to move up the stairs, and thanks to Wyatt “Bo” Childs, I now have some gorgeous reclaimed Southern yellow pine out of which to make the two bottom stair treads; I’ve no excuses remaining for leaving the staircase balustrade-less.

So I’ve been delving back into my books about period staircases…even though I don’t really need to know how to actually build a staircase (which is good, because there is quite a bit of math involved). The steps themselves are in fine structural condition, and it’s quite obvious from the back stairs and the remaining original handrail and spindles in the second-floor hall as to how the thing should go back together. I even have a good idea of what the moulding that caps the closed string should look like, thanks to a neighbor’s almost identical (but less remuddled) house. And I know how to swing a hammer. But darned if I can find anything written about the method used in my house to affix the balusters – even though it seems to be a fairly common arrangement.

Maybe there’s nothing written about it because it’s too obvious to need instruction? The balusters are housed in a wide groove on the underside of the handrail, and are simply nailed in to the handrail at the top and into the close stringer at the bottom. In between them on the underside of the handrail are simple rectangular pieces of wood nailed in place to fill the void in the groove between the balusters. At the bottom, there are faceted pieces of wood nailed between the balusters, directly to the closed stringer. A wide piece of moulding (I believe that’s called facia) is applied on both sides to hide the butt joints of the balusters and little pieces between (and to cover the rough surface of the stringer).

top run

Oh look – more dust! You can sort of see here the underside of the handrail and the little blocks that go between the balusters at the bottom – especially given that the moulding isn’t nailed in place to cover their edges.

I’m not all that concerned about doing it (except for getting the balusters turned), but it’s bugging me that I can’t find the proper name for some of the parts – notably, the little faceted pieces. But George Ellis’ “Modern Practical Stairbuilding & Handrailing” is no help, nor is “A Treatise on Stairbuilding & Handrailing” by W & A Mowat. And while Peter Nicholson is credited with devising a mathematical system for designing/building stairways and handrails, he doesn’t get into affixing the balusters (and my house is 100 years younger than “Mechanic’s Companion” – the method used here may have come after him.)

blocks

Surely there is a technical term for these? (And yes, more dust!)

I also have several late-20th-century books on staircases – but they have nothing on traditional approaches (and a lot on using construction adhesives).

So if there are any experts on historic staircase building who are reading this, do you know what the little spacer blocks are called? And can you point me toward a book or other resource that discusses this construction method? If not, I suppose continuing my search for relevant reading material will do nicely as procrastination.

 

 

 

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Workbench-Building Envy

petitroubo

My small and lightweight basement Roubo.

In my basement, I have a “petit Roubo” – a 5-1/2′-long bench I made in….2011? It’s perfectly nice, if a little lightweight. I made it out of pine sourced from Craigslist – leftover stock from a log cabin build. It’s short (and lightweight) because my former shop was on the second floor of my house; anything longer couldn’t make it up the stairs. Now, I have room for a 9′ bench – and it wouldn’t be too hard to wrestle a behemoth bench down the outside stairs to my basement shop (it’s a straight shot).

At the shop I work out of most days – Lost Art Press – there are seven bench forms (and nine benches total), including mine, the “Gluebo” I built with Christopher Schwarz in 2009.

Gluebo

My “Gluebo” in the Lost Art Press shop. The form is similar to a traditional French bench, but the material (LVL) and bolts (it knocks down) are wholly contemporary.

I like both of my benches and they have served me well…but after spending a week at Wyatt “Bo” Child’s place in Georgia for the third French Oak Roubo Project (FORP), I want to build a new old-style bench, then sell one of my current ones (probably the little Roubo, then I’d move the Gluebo to my basement).

I’d love a heavy, solid-wood bench that’s about 9′ long and 18″ wide…and I have a new Benchcrafted Glide and Crisscross vise just waiting for a bench on which to install them.

It sure would have been a lot easier to build one in Georgia – with all the industrial equipment Bo put at the disposal of Jameel Abraham and Father John Abraham, the organizers of the event – than to build one at home (plus, I won’t be able to get my hands on 200-year-old slabs of white oak).

But alas, I was there as an “enthusiast” (it’s not a school, so the helpers were not “teachers”) to help assist the “participants” (not “students!”) as needed and help out with milling lumber and whatnot, not to build a bench. I had a great time, but I was itching to get my hands on a chisel and start whacking out mortises…on a bench of my own. Below is a look at the fun. Unfortunately, I had to head home before the benches came fully together – but I’ve seen plenty of evidence on Instagram that the benches got done.

FORP

Day one – folks are getting settled, and gathering their parts.

tops

Slabs of 5″-thick white oak, aka benchtops.

jointer

Jointing the front edges on the benchtops – it takes a village.

First undercarriage to go together.

First undercarriage to go together.

drill2

Drilling out waste in a leg mortise,

drill1

Drilling out waste in a leg mortise…with a much larger drill.

layoutdiscussion

Christopher Schwarz shows the group how to transfer the leg joinery layout on the underside of the top to the top side.

Bo

Wyatt “Bo” Childs brushing just a little bit of glue onto benchtop parts.

bandsaw

Jeff Miller and Don Williams discussing the band saw setup for cutting leg tenons.

transferready

Transferring the joinery from the undercarriage to the underside of the tops.

Chris

Christopher Schwarz using a portable band saw to kerf dovetail waste.

mortises

Chopping out mortise waste, meat-clamp engaged.

DTcleanout

Smoothing the bottom of a dovetail slot.

legfit

Removing a leg after a dry-fit.

bourbon

Making off with Matt’s good bourbon. No, this was not the best part of the event…but it was a pretty good part…

Eternal thanks to Jameel and Father John for inviting me along for the ride, to Bo Childs for his hospitality, to Chris for letting me cadge a ride, and to all the other enthusiasts and participants. What a great week!

p.s. To see some of Bo’s incredible machinery, check out my upcoming post on the Fine Woodworking blog – it should be live on or around October 28.

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‘Brusha Brusha Brusha’

brushingglue

I’ll bet your dentist also hands out toothbrushes that you don’t particularly like. Those used to go in my office drawer for emergency brushing situations, but now that my office is about 25′ from my bathroom and preferred toothbrush, I take those brushes to the shop.

I use hide glue when possible because – among other reasons – it’s easy to clean up drips of it with hot water and a wet rag. But a rag can’t get into corners or other tight spaces to tackle squeeze-out, such as where the skirt meets the carcase on this tool chest. But – with a bucket of hot water handy for brush dunking – I can easily scrub those areas with a toothbrush.

This chest will get painted (the customer chose Coastal Blue), so I didn’t have to remove all trace of the glue – but I didn’t want any beads or drips remaining. It’s easier to scrub those away with the glue still runny.

I’ve an appointment next week with the dentist. Good thing; the shop cache of toothbrushes is due for a refresh.

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Lost in the West

A set of tool drawers made by Brother Richard McNemar – one of my favorite-ever Shaker pieces. It’s at the Harmon Museum & Art Gallery in Lebanon, Ohio.

Many of the Shaker furniture pieces with which we are most familiar are from the Eastern Communities, thanks to books by John Kassay, Ejner Handberg, and others: the graceful candlestand, the clocks of Isaac Youngs and the production chairs from New Lebanon, N.Y.; the hanging cupboard and built-in cupboards from the Hancock community in Massachusetts; the pine cupboard from Watervliet, N.Y. (shown below). The exceptions are pieces predominantly from Pleasant Hill. There was simply a greater need for furniture in the Eastern Communities because there were many more members in those communities (there were 13 communities among those that lasted more than a decade), so of course, there are more extant pieces.

A pine cupboard from the Watervliet, N.Y., community, from John Kassay’s “The Book of Shaker Furniture.”

Yet there were six communities in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana (as well as one each in Florida and Georgia). If you’re a Shaker-furniture aficionado, you are no doubt familiar with Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, Ky., and South Union in Auburn, Ky. – but you may not know about North Union, near Cleveland, Ohio’s Watervliet, near Kettering, West Union, in Busro, Ind., Whitewater, in New Haven, Ohio and Union Village, about 30 miles north of Cincinnati in Lebanon, Ohio. Both Pleasant Hill and South Union are open to the public; Whitewater is open on occasion (a dedicated group of volunteers is working to make it more accessible). The other communities have all but disappeared – yet some of their furniture remains, most notably from Union Village; it’s now at the Warren County Historical Society’s Harmon Museum and Art Gallery.

Cabinet

A large cupboard from Union Village. Note the curved lower rail; it shows up on several pieces in the collection.

Western Shaker furniture looks, of course, a lot like its Eastern brethren with its clean, simple lines and little ornamentation, but there are subtle differences. The tops of tables, for example, are often thicker on Western work than Eastern, ditto with the legs, which often taper less as they reach the floor, giving the work a substantial and grounded look (some might say heavy). Kassay writes that Western Shaker work has much in common with vernacular furniture of the region, though with less ornamentation, because the makers were far-removed from the parent ministry in New Lebanon.

“Stylistically, western Shaker has long been considered the ‘poor cousin’ of eastern Shaker, and is often described as ostentatious, uncomely, and poorly constructed,” wrote Kassay. “Actually, most pieces are very well constructed, convey a feeling of strength, and, if ‘showy,’ are honest expressions of cabinetmakers working in a style they knew best.”

John Shea concurs in “Making Authentic Shaker Furniture.” “Craftsmen of the Ohio and Kentucky communities, many of whom had migrated from Virginia and other southern states, were naturally influences by the regional cultures of the places from which they came. Hence, may of their furniture designs were of heavier construction and sometimes yielded to mild embellishment of scrollwork and other decorative details frowned on by their brethren of the east.” Others point out the “superfluous turnings” on table, desk and bed legs.

There was also more walnut, beech and poplar used in Western Shaker work  than in Eastern – woods that were more readily available in the Western settlements.

table

Note the slight taper and “superfluous” turnings on theses table legs.

I’m working with representatives of the Warren County Historical Society to share more Western Shaker pieces with the woodworking world, in a book of measured drawings of select pieces from the Union Village collection. I’ve been granted access to pull out drawers, look inside and under, and take a tape measure to everything, as well as move pieces for photography. I’ll include a history of Union Village, drawings and photos for 15-20 pieces in the collection – including the tool drawers at the top of this post – and photographs of additional pieces. 

I plan to go to press in early 2020 (if not before).

discussion

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