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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Day one – folks are getting settled, and gathering their parts.
Slabs of 5″-thick white oak, aka benchtops.
Jointing the front edges on the benchtops – it takes a village.
First undercarriage to go together.
Drilling out waste in a leg mortise,
Drilling out waste in a leg mortise…with a much larger drill.
Christopher Schwarz shows the group how to transfer the leg joinery layout on the underside of the top to the top side.
Wyatt “Bo” Childs brushing just a little bit of glue onto benchtop parts.
Jeff Miller and Don Williams discussing the band saw setup for cutting leg tenons.
Transferring the joinery from the undercarriage to the underside of the tops.
Christopher Schwarz using a portable band saw to kerf dovetail waste.
Chopping out mortise waste, meat-clamp engaged.
Smoothing the bottom of a dovetail slot.
Removing a leg after a dry-fit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
If you’ve clicked on “Storefront Classes” from the Lost Art Press blog in the last few days, you’ve no doubt noticed that “Covington Mechanicals” (what we call our not-school) has no “live events” at the moment. That’s because we ran afoul of the EventBrite policies, and that platform has no solution that works for us (I asked).
So I’m being a lazy git and asking if you have an event-management solution suggestion that works for our semi-odd situation…other than simply having folks send me emails (which I fervently hope is not the only viable answere…but it might be).
In short – and as I’ve said before – we’re not a school. That is, we don’t pay the instructors – each instructor does her or his own billing, and using various payment portals. In order to be acceptable on EventBrite, an event has to either be free (which is where we’d listed ours, with a note in the copy that attendees would be billed by the instructor), or the payment has to go through the EventBrite system, for which the site takes a cut, of course. But we can’t do that…because then all the money would flow through one of us, which could be a tax problem.
My wish list:
A site on which people can register (with name, email and phone number) for a fee-based class, but on which no money must flow through said site for the class (again, so that instructors can handle billing via their preferred system, be that PayPal, Cash, cash, check…)
A site that allows a cap on registration, then offers waitlist signup
A site that sends an email to the registrant that says, “Yes, you’re in,” or, as needed “you’re on the waitlist.”
The functionality of sending an email to a waitlist participant from said waitlist (not my email) if a spot opens, and that limits the time in which the person must respond.
Ideally, a site that allows us to charge a small up-front registration fee, then allows us to say an invoice for $XX will come from the instructor (the instructors have been paying us this nominal amount for said registration fee during the past year – it’s basically enough to cover glue, pastries, water and electric)
A site/service that doesn’t cost much (again, we make almost nothing off classes unless we’re the instructor, and don’t want to pass on any additional overhead costs to you or the few outside instructors we’ll have next year).
Non-headache-inducing suggestions are welcome below.
The classroom at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, Maine, is adjacent to the showroom; to access it, one must pass through the room of shiny temptations. I left Cincinnati to teach a weekend class there with an empty slot in my chisel roll, but returned with it full.
I am now the proud (but chagrined) owner of a newly blooded 1″ chisel.
In that class, and just this weekend during a sawbench class at Lost Art Press, I mentioned that every new chisel – no matter the brand – is out to get you with the razor-sharp long edges (or “lands”). I’ve often joked that on some makes, the lands are sharper than the business end (which is true for some hardware-store offerings, though not for premium tools).
No matter the make, the chisel edges are easily sharp enough to cut flesh, if not wood. So during classes when I see a student wielding brand-new chisels, I typically grab a piece of #220 (or thereabouts) sandpaper and run it a few times over those edges, particularly in the regions one might grip while paring. (Yes, I know they’re sharp to get into corners…but you have to be able to hold them!)
So this Saturday, I gave my usual “don’t cut yourself” spiel, eased a few student chisel edges, then we carried on with the work. On Sunday, I grabbed my new chisel out of my chest to pare the bottom of a dado, forgetting I’d not yet followed my own (oft-repeated) advice.
While the cuts don’t look too bad after cleaning, bandaging and 26 hours, my new sawbench will forever be DNA-identifiable. And I am embarrassed to have let blood – and a fair amount thereof – in such a manner after preaching against it.
Although those chisel edges are now eased, I fear it’s too late. My 1″ chisel – like my flesh-cut saw – has a taste for blood.
I’m prepping for two Dutch tool chest classes this month: one at Lost Art Press in Covington, Ky. (sold out) and one at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking in Port Townsend, Wa. (a couple spaces are still available – the registration deadline is June 3).
My favorite commercially available hardware for these chests is from Lee Valley Tools, and until June, the company is offering free shipping. So if you’re in either of these classes – or working on a chest at home – now is the time to order.
I’ve a passel of Rivierre diamond-head nails on their way to Port Townsend and Covington (so no need to buy those for these classes). But take a look at the chest lifts (shown both atop and at the bottom) and the 9-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ strap hinges on one of my chests below. If you like those, now through Tuesday is the time to order.
I’ve been listening to folks wax poetic about Dan Raber’s Colonial Homestead for a couple of years, and I now know why.
Chris Williams, Christopher Schwarz, Terry West (Christopher’s mother) and I took a drive up to Ohio’s beautiful Amish region on Tuesday for cheese, broasted chicken and gorgeous scenery; we made a point of stopping in Millersburg to see Raber’s tool store and school, the Artisans Guild.
I was expecting a jumble of old tools through which to wade for the good stuff – but it was almost all good stuff, and nicely arranged. It was, in fact, a bit overwhelming. (I did walk away with a nice Starrett 4″ rule…of which one can apparently never have too many…)
We have slots open in four upcoming classes at Covington Mechanicals – what we call the not-a-school at Lost Art Press, 837 Willard Street, Covington, Ky. And it really is not a school; next year will seem a lot less as if it were, as we’ll be offering only a few classes. So now’s your chance.
In order, those Covington classes are:
Eating Spoon Master Class with JoJo Wood June 18-19 The perfect eating spoon should be a balance of smooth aesthetic, and function. It should feel great in both hand and mouth, carrying food comfortably without any spills. JoJo’s spoons are at the top of their game, performing exceptionally and looking beautiful. In this course she will teach her technique for bringing out the best spoon from each piece of wood, with all her tips and tricks from years of carving. This two-day course is aimed at people who have carved and would like to push it through to the next level.
French Polishing with Derek Jones July 11-12 Despite the fact that we’ve all heard of “French polish,” it’s amazing to think that very few of us actually know what it is and how to do it. It has a reputation for being difficult to master, time consuming and not nearly as robust as some other finishes. Here’s the bottom line. None of the above is true. Sure, you’ll need to keep your wits about you when you’re doing it but if time spent taking care of the details is wasted time then just maybe it’s time to find another hobby. The fact is, a perfect shellac finish will be touch dry while the first coat of oil is still attracting bugs and dust. And as for fragile, don’t you believe it!
In this two-day course you’ll mix your own shellac polish from flakes and create your own blend of wax polish from raw materials. You’ll learn to assess and manipulate the colour temperature of a project, disguise undesirable features or faults in the timber and mask repairs. You will be supplied with enough materials to make approximately 250ml of Dewaxed Blonde Shellac polish. We will use approximately 100ml during the course so the rest is yours to take home and practice with. Your sample polishing boards will be two pieces of mahogany approximately 450 x 250 x 25mm. They are also yours to take home.
Make a Carved Oak Box with Peter Follansbee July 29-Aug. 2 Explore the construction techniques and decorative carving styles of oak boxes made in New England during the 17th century. Using quartersawn red oak and white pine, we’ll size the materials, cut rabbets to join the corners and fasten them with square wooden pins. Fitted inside the box is a lidded compartment called a till. The white pine bottom is attached with hand-made iron nails. The lid, also white pine, opens on a wooden pintle & cleat hinge.
Much of the focus is learning the carving style.
Using about a half-dozen different gouges and simple layout tools
including an awl, square, compass and marking gauge, we’ll go through
numerous patterns in practice sessions prior to carving the actual box.
We’ll study reference photographs of period carvings, learning how to
lay out and cut them based on the tools and some basic geometry.
No experience necessary. Some basic tools required; a list will be sent to participants. (Follansbee will have some extra carving tools for students’ use.)
Build a Wall Cabinet with Anne Briggs (aka Anne of All trades) Oct. 7-11 Build a Whiskey Cabinet (or toy collection display or toilet paper cabinet – you can use it for anything really) as you refine your dovetailing abilities, cut dados, make a frame-and-panel door, install hinges and drive square-shanked nails.
The cabinets will be made of cherry and if time allows, a hand rubbed oil finish will be added. Note: The “Proud” style dovetails seen in the photo will only be an option for more advanced students since they add several degrees of complication to the project, as will the middle stile in the door assembly. Less experienced students should plan for a single door panel and flush dovetail assemblies.
Chip Carving with Daniel Clay Oct. 19-20 In this two-day class, students will receive comprehensive instruction in the fundamentals of chip carving, a decorative technique in which faceted “chips” are removed from a wooden surface to produce geometric patterns, stylized images, lettering and ornamentation. Through demonstrations, guided practice, skill-building exercises, and the completion of a decorative wall hanging, students will leave class with all the knowledge, experience and confidence to pursue chip carving on their own. One of the most attractive aspects of chip carving (especially for beginning woodcarvers) is that it can be accomplished at a high level with minimal tools and materials; all you need to become a great chip carver is a sharp knife, some suitable wood and a little practice.
And I still have room in two of my classes elsewhere:
Build a Dutch Tool Chest June 24-28, Port Townsend School of Woodworking With dovetails only at the bottom, this chest is less of a dovetail death march than a full-size ATC, and it teaches more joinery lessons. The basic shell goes together in two (long) days…or three more relaxed days. Then, we’re going to dress it up both for good looks and longevity by making a top with breadboard ends and a hand-tool-cut fingernail moulding, as well as a hand-raised panel on the fall front and a hand-cut tongue-and-groove back. Time allowing, we’ll use casein-based milk paint to add color, and while that dries, kit out the interior to store chisels, panel saws, planes, layout tools and more – all the core furniture-making tools. Finally, we’ll install the hinges and lifts. While our goal is to complete this chest in five-days, it is likely that will be challenging.
The skills that you learn – dovetails, dados, rabbets, cut-nail joinery, breadboards, mouldings (along with rules for carcase construction) – will serve you well for all your projects to come.
Four Hand Tool Corner Joints July 20-21, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks While there are myriad joints suitable for boxes and drawers, four of the most common for hand-tool woodworkers are a simple rabbeted and nailed joint (perfect for workaday pieces such as tool chest tills and kitchen drawers), a finger joint nailed with decorative iron (a nice touch when you want a relatively quick but handsome look), through dovetails (for the ultimate in joint strength) and half-blind dovetails (the classic drawer-front joint). In this two-day class, students will learn layout and techniques to cut each, using a small kit of hand tools.
I searched high and low for a bathroom vanity that fit my aesthetics, space and budget, but found nothing I liked at any price point. I refuse to settle (which is why, says Chris, I’m single), so I designed and built what I wanted (or it will be what I wanted, once I make the drawers and the top and sink are installed.)
But “designed” is perhaps too strong a term; really, I “combined, modified and re-purposed.” Chris Becksvoort fans might recognize the underlying plan for my asymmetric door and drawer layout from his “Cherry Work Counter” in “Shaker Inspiration” (page 110), and fans of Shaker furniture in general will see in the underlying structure a traditional “tailor’s counter”…with the tapered legs typical of many side tables.
I’d originally sketched out something closer to Chris’s piece (with his permission), with two banks of smaller drawers above a long bottom drawer…but then realized I had no suitable place for my (now rarely used) hairdryer and hidden plug, so I replaced two drawers with a 10″-wide cubby. And I’d planned on turned legs to match those on the Shaker-inspired stepback and coffee table I built for my living room. But I decided to make my life a little easier – I get along better with the bandsaw than the lathe.
I made the joinery a bit easier, too. Were this a freestanding piece of furniture, I’d have used solid wood for all the exterior bits and drawbored mortise and tenons. But it’s a bathroom cabinet that will be attached to the wall, so to keep costs (and time) down (a little) and to combat wood movement, I used cherry plywood for the side and back panels, and pre-finished maple ply for the interior dividers and bottom. (The door panels are solid cherry.) I used the Festool Domino for the carcase joinery, and pocket screws for the dividers, with all the pockets oriented so as not to show once the drawers are fit.
And, because all my nearby friends with trucks have stopped taking my calls, I cut all the joinery and dry-fit everything at the Lost Art Press shop (it’s nicer than my basement), then took it all home as a flat-pack and assembled it in the bathroom. Kind of like IKEA…but more difficult (no pictograms to guide me, and a cat to help).