This Isn’t Me Anymore

Like a lot of guys, I used to collect weapons.  Well, “collect” is probably too strong a word, but I’ve had various blades hanging on the wall for a long time.  But the time has come to take them down.  The sword will stay up–it’s a dress-sword anyway, not a real weapon–but the rest are coming down.  It’s not that I wouldn’t defend my family if necessary.  (I have four daughters; I am no pacifist.)  It’s that my innermost desires are no longer for adventure and conquest, but for stability and peace.

Bayonet Box 4-2017When I was a teenager, I started collecting bayonets and knives.  I had carried a pocketknife since I was 10, but I think I bought my first vintage bayonet when I was 14 or 15.  Over the next few years, I picked up a few more at antique shops when I could afford them.

Why?  Because I was a young man, and I thought knives and bayonets were cool.  I still admire the craftsmanship of some of them.  (The one pictured here was made in Switzerland and hefts like it.)  But most young men just enjoy playing with sharp, pointy objects.

When my wife and I bought our house years ago, I hung the bayonets up on the wall, but then I more or less forgot about them.

In the meantime, I needed to build things.  A LOT of things.  I had started buying tools and learning how to use them. I had made a bookshelves, a storage box or two, a side table, and more bookshelves.  Then came the beds for us and for the kids.  I rebuilt the back porch.  I built a dining table.  I built more bookshelves.  I made a lot of wooden spoons.

And every now and then I would glance at those bayonets hanging on the wall.  The more I did, the more I thought, “That’s not me anymore.”

Of course I had never used those bayonets.  I had taken one or two of the knives on camping trips, but otherwise, they had never been of any use to me.  At best, they were slightly odd home decor.  At worst, they were fuel for heroic, violent fantasies.  Unlike my tools, which I use on a weekly basis, I hadn’t touched the bayonets in years.  I was holding onto them for nostalgia’s sake, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have missed them if they had disappeared.

What had happened to me?  I grew up.

There is a strong fighting instinct in boys, and it persists into adolescence.  I will openly admit that fantasies of fighting and aggression were probably behind my impulse to collect and display weapons.  (Thank Heaven I’m a cheapskate, or I might have ended up with dozens of those things.)  I see this aggressive impulse in my young son, who loves dressing up in super-hero costumes and racing around the house, “fighting” with any opponent, real or imaginary, that he can find. (He’s learning not to attack his sisters.  Or the dog.) I was like that as a kid, too.  Most boys are.  They love hitting, kicking, stabbing, and shooting stuff.  It’s in the blood.

It’s wonderful to be a kid, and I sure did enjoy being a little boy.  I made a lot of wooden swords.  I enjoyed a lot of my adolescence, too, especially when I found I could buy real weapons.  I don’t regret collecting the weapons I did.  But once I started taking on responsibility–a job, a spouse, a home, and children–I found my desires changing.

I no longer wanted to fight, but to build.

In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul remarks that when he became a man, he put away childish things.  Paul doesn’t mean he suddenly gained a Y-chromosome.  He means that he grew up.  Being a man is about responsibility motivated by love.  And for me, becoming a man entailed putting away fantasies of violence and replacing them with the slow, steady work of building a home, and taking responsibility for the everyday well-being of those who dwell in it.

So in the spirit of putting away childish things, I took the bayonets down off the wall and packed them away.  I found some pine boards and built a little crate to store them in.

Bayonet Box 4-2017

It’s not a fancy box–just nailed together in an old-fashioned manner.  The lid fits on snugly with only friction, thanks to the thin battens on its underside.

Bayonet Box 4-2017

I filled the crate with those old weapons and tied some cord around it. Perhaps one day I’ll know what I should do with them, but for now I’m storing the box somewhere safe and out of the way.

I want to be a man of peace.

I want to build things.

That’s who I am now.

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Fake, Fraud, or Genuine? Book Review

Before there was Antiques Roadshow and YouTube videos that helped antique owners and buyers authenticate real antiques and uncover fakes, there was Myrna Kaye.  Thirty years ago, in 1987, she published a book called Fake, Fraud, or Genuine: Identifying Authentic American Antique Furniture.  The book is written for collectors of antique furniture and is intended to help savvy buyers avoid being taken in by pieces that are not what they seem.

Kaye Fake Fraud or GenuineKaye begins with the Case of the Fake Seventeenth-Century Chair.  Back in the 1970s, a clever period-craftsman, after being insulted by the staff at a nearby museum, decided to build a fake seventeenth-century turned chair and pass it off as a genuine article.  And it worked.  He built the chair from new wood but used period-correct tools and styling.  Then, using an antiques dealer who was in on the game, the craftsman successfully got the chair into the local antiques market.  The chair changed hands several times before ending up on prominent display in a museum.  Only after it was featured in several magazines and books did the original maker come forward to challenge the authenticity of the chair.  It took X-rays to reveal that the chair had, in fact, been made using some modern tools and was confirmed to be a fake.

It’s a great story–something you might read in a quirky detective novel.  But Kaye reminds us that not all fraudulent antiques are products are such a dramatic narrative.

Much more common, she says, are the following types of fraudulent antiques:

  • Old Parts, New Object: Materials from one or several genuine antiques are used to make a new piece that still looks old because its parts and materials are old.  Example: a new “Chippendale settee” made from pieces of several broken Chippendale chairs.
  • Remade Object: Genuine antiques that have been modified, repaired, or enhanced so much that they have lost much of their value as real antiques. Example: an originally plain chair enhanced with new carvings and a replaced splat and seat.
  • Married Piece: Originally two pieces (often one significantly newer than the other) that have been put together and presented as a single piece.  Example: an old top to a high chest set on a newer, reproduction secretary.

In distinguishing reproductions (either honest, period-style reproductions or clever fakes), Kaye has some good advice.  First, know the marks of each furniture style, whether seventeenth century, Queen Anne, Chippendale, or Federal.  There were variations within each style, of course, but if a piece seems to mix elements of two different styles, it’s probably not genuine.  Kaye’s overview of each major American style is brief but very helpful in pointing out some of the distinguishing marks of each style.

Kaye Fake Fraud or GenuineSecond, examine a piece of furniture closely for signs of its true age.  While it’s possible to make a fake antique so convincing that it will fool experts, most pieces will give up their secrets upon close inspection.  But you have to know what to look for–and where to look for it.  The undersides of tables and the insides of cases can be especially telling.

As someone who uses traditional hand tools and occasionally dabbles in period styles, I was already familiar with a number of Kaye’s points.  For example, cut nails were first used early in the nineteenth century, and wire nails became common late in the nineteenth century, so if you find an “eighteenth century antique” with pieces held on by wire nails, you should be suspicious.  I also know to feel for the scalloped surface left by a jack plane on the undersides of secondary surfaces.  Modern planers leave a very different surface.

But I also learned a number of things about identifying genuine antiques:

  • Until the later nineteenth century, very few furniture makers signed their work. If you find what appears to be a maker’s mark (whether in ink or as a stamp) on an earlier antique, it is probably an owner’s mark.
  • Many antiques have holes from old hardware that has long since been removed.  Some holes, such as plugged holes from replaced drawer pulls, are easy to explain.  Others are more difficult.  On the bottoms of feet, for example, you will often find holes from old casters.  “Leave no hole unexplained,” Kaye advises.
  • Use a needle and thread to test worm holes.  If the needle goes all the way through a worm hole, then that piece of wood was wormy when the wood was first cut to size, and that means that that piece of wood (and possibly the whole piece of furniture) was made from reclaimed wood–which was never done until the twentieth century.  On genuine antiques, worm holes always bottom out.  Worms start inside the wood and chew their way out.  They don’t chew all the way through a piece of wood.
  • Rocking chairs did not exist in America after the Civil War.  If you find an eighteenth-century rocking chair, then either the rockers were added later or the whole thing is a fake.  Remember the opening scene of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot?  Gibson’s character is a colonial farmer attempting to make a Windsor rocking chair, and it collapses under him when he sits on it.  It’s a funny scene, but Gibson should have done a little more homework on period furniture styles.  Rocking chairs were unknown in colonial America.

 

Kaye Fake Fraud or GenuineIn the thirty years since Kaye published her book, I’m sure there have been a lot of changes in the antique furniture market.  But now that period-style hand tools are widely available and instruction in traditional hand-tool work is easy to come by, I expect that fakes–both intentional frauds and honest mistakes–are also more common than they once were.  In the coming decades, it will be all too easy to mistake a good, twentieth-century reproduction chair or spice chest for a remarkably-well-preserved nineteenth-century antique.

Kaye’s book has had staying power.  You can still buy a new copy on Amazon for about $18, but old library copies are easy to find for under $8 on ABE.com and other used book sites.   The book is generously illustrated with photos of genuine antiques, as well as many fakes, frauds, and reproductions.  If you are a collector of antique furniture looking for sound advice (or a greedy, unscrupulous period-furniture maker looking for inspiration), I highly recommend this book.  I am neither, but the next time I browse the furniture in an antique shop, I’m going to have a lot of fun trying to pick out the fakes, the frauds, and the genuine articles.

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Piano Repair: Fixing a Broken Hammer

I am not a piano repairman.  But when our piano tuner told us that it would be pretty expensive to fix our 1950s-era spinet piano (for which we paid $60), my wife urged me to try it myself.

A couple weeks earlier, one of the younger kids had been pounding on the keys, and the dowel rod holding one of the hammers snapped right off.  My wife found the broken piece inside the piano.  It was the B-flat above middle C–so not exactly a note that we could do without.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

It’s easy to forget that a piano is both a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument.  Press a key, and a small hammer strikes a string held in tension over a soundboard.  There are 88 of these hammers, most of which strike three strings at once.  The dowel rod that held this hammer somehow snapped in two–perhaps there was a flaw in the wood, or perhaps the key was just struck too hard.  That happens sometimes when you have little kids.

Regardless, fixing this hammer was going to be tricky.  Open up the bottom of the piano, and this is what you see:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

All those vertical, wooden pieces are part of the action–the mechanism that connects each key to each hammer.  The broken piece was deep inside this very complicated mechanism.  (Pardon the funny lighting, but the ambient lighting in my living room is abysmal, and I was working mostly by LED flashlight.)

Looking in from the top, this is what I see:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Somewhere down there is the other end of a broken dowel rod.  My first thought was that, if I could get the stubby end out, I could surgically insert a new dowel without having to disassemble anything.  Some older pianos, I knew, were assembled with hide glue, which will release when moistened.  I tried it out on the free end of the broken hammer, but no luck.  It’s PVA, i.e. yellow wood glue.  The whole thing was going to have to come out.

All the way out.

I had heard from pianists that it was possible to remove the entire action assembly from a piano.  I looked over the inside of the piano for quite some time, trying to see how the  action assembly was attached.  Fortunately, the internet had a helpful tutorial by a professional piano repairman.  I’m not sure I would have gotten any further without his help.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Once I located the points of attachment, I started carefully removing nuts and screws.

At one point, I ran across an odd little nut that looked like this:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

I recognized it as a “split nut,” which is used on many old handsaws.  Getting one loose can be quite a trick, unless you have the right tool.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Which I did.

It’s an old spade bit ground down to a screwdriver shape and a notch filed into it.  I made this split-nut driver several years ago when I started working with old handsaws.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

When I made it, I didn’t think I’d get to use it on a piano.

In order to remove the action assembly on a spinet piano, it is also necessary to remove ALL the keys.  And piano keys are NOT interchangeable.  The keys on our piano are numbered, but I still kept them all in order so as to make it easier to put them back in later.

Once the keys were all out, I was able to remove the last few bolts and screws holding the action in place.  I carefully lifted the whole thing out.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

 

Here is the now-an empty piano with the keys lined up on the floor and the action assembly at the very bottom of the picture.  (Side note: you can probably imagine how much dust accumulates underneath the keys over sixty years.  It took us quite some time to vacuum it all out.)  The keys fit over those metal pins and rest on felt pads.  It really is an ingenious design, very complicated in some places and dirt-simple in others.

It was time to carry the whole action assembly out to the workbench.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

If the soundboard and strings are the soul of the piano, this is its heart.  I sort of feel like I’m doing open-heart surgery here. One false move, and the patient may not survive.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

With the action on the workbench, I carefully un-hooked and un-screwed the very-complicated mechanism that had the broken piece.

Each key is connected to a mechanism like this.  From this perspective, it looks a little like a Rube Goldberg machine.  Press the key, and a whole sequence of levers, straps, and pads moves to strike the strings.

Take a moment to appreciate how many individual pieces there are in even a small piano.  I count 14 wooden pieces all together here.  Some of the higher notes have fewer parts, but there are 88 keys total.  There over 1,000 little wooden pieces in the whole action assembly!

You can see here where the dowel supporting the hammer broke–right at the base where it was glued in.

Replacing the broken dowel was, I think, the easy part.  Once it got down to cutting and shaping wood, I felt that I actually knew what I was doing.   But order of operations was critical.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

I first sawed the broken dowel off flush at the base.  Then I carefully re-drilled the hole.  The replacement dowel I’m using is a hair thinner than the original, but it’s dead-straight hardwood and should hold up to household use.

It took me three stops before I found a suitably tough hardwood dowel at a local hardware store.  The original one was, I think, maple or birch.  I’m not sure what species the replacement is, but it’s not poplar, which was too soft for this application.

Dealing with the other end was more tricky.  After close inspection, I noticed that the dowel went into the hammer’s head at an angle.  I would need to drill out the old dowel at the same precise angle.  So before cutting off the old dowel, I made this little jig:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

In a squared-up piece of scrap, I cut a small dado to fit the hammer and wedged it in upside down.  I then inserted a long, pan-head screw into one end of the underside so I could raise the whole jig up at an angle by turning the screw. I sighted the dowel along an upright square and, by trial-and-error, found the precise angle at which the dowel was inserted.

I sawed off the old dowel and took my jig and workpiece down to the drill press.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

It was easy to drill the hole at the correct angle.

I glued in the new dowel and went and had a cup of coffee while the glue dried.  (Sorry, no picture of the fixed mechanism.  I was so tired that I forgot to take one!)

It wasn’t easy getting the repaired mechanism back into the piano.  Having one or even two people to help guide it in was very helpful.  The more you bump things inside a piano, the more out of tune it will be.  And I sure didn’t want to break any more pieces on this action assembly!

My oldest daughter kindly helped me put the keys back on, too.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Keys, nuts, screws–all had to be reinserted exactly as they had come out.  It was especially annoying to reattach the damper and sustain pedals.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Finally everything was back in place.  It was a lot of work to fix a little piece.  It kind of reminded me of car repair–and not necessarily in a good way.  I had to remove so many components in order to replace one little piece without which the whole thing wouldn’t work.  At least it leaves my hands less greasy.

Now, of course, the piano needs to be tuned again.  But it plays.  And I fixed it all by myself.

 

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Book Review: The Woodworker, The Charles H. Hayward Years. 3 vols.

High above my workbench, I keep the back-issues of a woodworking magazine I subscribe to.  It takes up about 8″ of shelf space, but it grows by a fraction of an inch as a new issue arrives each month.  Eventually I’ll have to cull the pile, saving issues with articles that I will want to reread and throwing out the rest.  Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody took the time to compile the really good articles, especially the ones covering essential tools and techniques, and reprinted them in a bound book?

That is exactly what Christopher Schwarz & co. at Lost Art Press have done with The Woodworker, a magazine published in Britain and edited by Charles H. Hayward from 1939 to 1967.

Hayward Book Set

I first met Hayward’s work back in my graduate school days.  When it came to woodworking, I was both ignorant and broke, so at the end of one school year I used some of my remaining printer pages to print out a bunch of old woodworking books, including Charles Hayward’s How to Make Woodwork Tools, from various archive websites.  I three-hole punched them and put them in binders.  It wasn’t an elegant solution, but it was the only affordable way to hold these classic books in my hands.

Now the bulk of Hayward’s work is available bound in these finely printed books.  These three volumes contain over 1,100 pages of instruction and information on woodworking, focusing almost exclusively on hand-work.  A fourth volume is coming out in February, and it will cover shop equipment and furniture styles.  Volume four will add over 300 more pages to the set, bringing the total number of pages to 1,500.  (The pages are numbered continuously across volumes.)   The set retails at $37-$45 per volume, though I expect that you’ll be able to order all four as a set once they’re all in print.  You can order them individually from the publisher here.

The volumes are organized by topic, although the fact that they are made up of hundreds of self-contained magazine articles means that the organization is somewhat loose.  Here’s what you can expect in each volume:

Volume 1: Tools

This volume of about 450 pages includes articles on sharpening, marking tools (such as squares and marking gauges), chisels, hand planes (both metal and wooden), and hand saws.  There are also short sections on turning and veneering.  The volume also includes articles on basic techniques like planing and sawing, as well as a number of articles on relief carving and letter carving.  The articles describe the notable characteristics of well-made tools, as well as typical modifications and repairs.

Hayward The Woodworker v1

The sheer scope of the information in volume 1 is overwhelming, though this volume is perhaps the most repetitive of the set.  If you’re already familiar and comfortable with your basic tool kit, you could skip this volume.  But I don’t recommend doing that.  There is enough detailed information here on effective tool use that it’s well worth the sticker price.

Volume 2: Techniques

In this volume of over 400 pages, there are articles describing a wide range of hand tool techniques that a well-equipped woodworker should know.  It covers everything from shooting board techniques and creative clamp use to drawer and door construction, moldings, and cabriole legs.  Want to know how cut a stopped rabbet?  It’s here.  How to fit a door?  It’s here too.  How to affix a table top to its base?  Yep, it’s here.  Which nails to use for which job?  That’s also covered.  Plowing a curved groove for inlay?  That, too.

Hayward The Woodworker v2

In volume 2, the superb illustrations alone are worth the cover price.  The articles are very well written and instructive, but you can learn a whole lot just by looking at the charts and illustrations.  I enjoyed just flipping through the volume and reading anything that caught my eye.  Just now, I happened upon instructions for making a replacement handle for a socket chisel without using a lathe.  It immediately solved a problem for me that I had always struggled with before.  Now why didn’t I think of doing it that way?!?  (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.  Go buy the book yourself.  You cheapskate.)

Volume 3: Joinery

This volume contains nearly everything from the popular but long-out-of-print book Woodworking Joints by Charles Hayward.  According to the publisher, however, this is much more than just a reprint.  It not only contains virtually everything that the original Woodworking Joints book included, but also includes many other articles that were never reprinted.  The articles cover edge joints, mortise-and-tenon, rabbets and dadoes, lap and bridle joints, miters of all kinds, and of course dovetails.  I never knew there were so many variations on the lap joint.

Hayward The Woodworker v3

As with volume 2, you can learn a lot from volume 3 just by looking at the illustrations.  But don’t skip the articles themselves.  Every article has helpful tips that make hand work simpler and warn you away from common pitfalls.  Although this is by far the slimmest of the volumes (only about 270 pages), it is perhaps the most packed with information.  Solid joinery is a cornerstone of woodworking, but it is often the thing that hobby woodworkers struggle with the most.  If you are going to buy just one volume of the set, this is the one to get.

Every good book should have little surprises that reward the reader, and The Woodworker is no exception.  The editors not only include quite a few period advertisements, but they also reprint many of the original magazine headings, complete with volume numbers, issue numbers, dates, and decorative illustrations.

I have two cautions for readers just delving into these books.  First, remember that the period photography is often grainy and of little help in illustrating the articles.  Our woodworking magazines have accustomed us to sharp, close-up photography, but don’t expect that here.  What we get instead more than makes up for it.  The pages are covered with Hayward’s own crystal-clear line drawings, as well as numerous charts and illustrations.  On balance, I much prefer illustrations to even the best photographs when it comes to learning techniques from a book.

Second, because the volumes cover nearly thirty years of publication, there is a good deal of repetition early on.  In volume 1, for example, there are about ten different articles on sharpening chisels and plane irons, all of them saying much the same thing.  After a while, I began to wish that the editors had left a few of the more repetitive articles out.  These books are not intended to be read through from cover to cover, but to be browsed and sampled over months and (I expect) years.

Hayward Book Set

Also, I must say that the organization does not always make sense to me.  On a large scale, the articles are sorted into separate, topical volumes.  But on a closer look, some of the organization seems haphazard.  For example, letter-carving is covered in volume one, Tools, whereas the articles on assembling basic tool kits are in volume two, Techniques.  The tables of contents in both books is titled “Tools and Techniques.”  Perhaps there was no perfect way to organize such a mountain of information into a reference encyclopedia, and since the volumes are available for sale individually, it makes some sense that the information be spread out across volumes.  But it makes it difficult to use these as reference books.

I love the historical perspective that these volumes give me.  Woodworking in Britain changed more slowly than it did in America, especially after WWII, and while power tools do appear in the books, it is assumed that most work will still be done by hand.  The articles on sharpening indicate that most woodworkers did not even own a bench grinder–a situation I was in for many years.  Unlike a lot of writers in today’s woodworking magazine, these authors do not assume that every reader will have a wide array of well-tuned power tools and accessories.  Instead, they frequently give instructions for effective work-arounds.  There are whole articles in volume 2 on what to do when you don’t have a standard tool and can’t just go out and buy it.

As a professional teacher of writing, I especially appreciate the authors’ clear, direct writing style.  You won’t stumble over vague, cumbersome sentences when trying to understand a technique the author is describing.  There are a few new vocabulary words to learn (e.g. what we call “clamps,” the Brits call “cramps”), but the writing is exactly like the tools and joinery it describes: straightforward, robust, and effective.

When asked for a one-volume introduction to hand tools, I will continue to recommend Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but when asked for a comprehensive guide to woodworking with hand tools, I will be recommending The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years.  

Volumes 1 & 2

Volume 3

Volume 4

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Making a Dovetailed Recorder Case

Some years ago I was given a wooden tenor recorder.  (It’s a Küng pearwood, made in Germany, if anybody cares.)  It came in a basswood storage case that the previous owner had made for it, but time and use had weighed heavily on the original case.  The cheap hinges eventually fell off, and there was no latch to keep the box closed.  The interior, however, still did its job of protecting the instrument, so I resolved to build a second, sturdier box around the original basswood case.

That was four or five years ago.  Finally, over the holidays, I built the case.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

The finished box is made from cherry and spalted pecan–the same wood combination that comprises my tool chest, on which the recorder case is sitting in the above photo.  I like the combination visually, and I happened to have a lot of both woods on hand.  I also selected some cherry that had a few bug holes in it (including one massively big hole) in order to do some creative inlay to fill the holes.

But back to the original basswood case.  It has a story.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

The maker was a high school math teacher.  She wasn’t much of a woodworker, but she did understand geometry.  She bought a number of thin pieces of basswood, which is very soft and easy to carve.  She she measured the recorder pieces at different points, drew out the measurements on each thin piece, cut the profile out of each section, and then glued the sections together to form a box.  The result is what you see above–though I presume she did some sanding to get everything fitted just right.

In my own stock selection, I found pieces of wood that were thick enough that I could saw each one in half.  That way, the top and bottom pieces that make up each side of the clamshell would be bookmatched.  The cherry sides ended up at about 3/8″ thick, and the pecan top and bottom just a little thinner.  But I did almost no numerical measurement on this project.  The new case just needs to fit the old case snuggly inside it.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

I carefully arranged the pieces for the best visual effect and marked them out.

Construction was straightforward.  I dovetailed the corners–one big dovetail per corner–and plowed grooves all around the insides of the cherry sides to accept the pecan top and bottom, which will be captured in the grooves once the sides are assembled.

On the long sides, I used my plow plane to cut the groove along their entire lengths, but had I done that to the short end pieces, the ends of the groove would show as gaps once the box was put together, and I’d have to plug each gap.  The other option is to make a stopped groove.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

I began by taking a couple strokes with my plow plane, stopping before I went all the way through the end.  That way, I had the groove laid out exactly as it should be.  I just needed to deepen the groove.  I first used a utility knife to score each side of the groove.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

I then used a narrow chisel and mallet to deepen the groove.  The result wasn’t exactly pretty, but it worked.  The grooves are small, about 3/16″ wide and deep.

I beveled the top of each panel with a handplane so as to just fit into the grooves.  Then it was time to glue up each side.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

Everything came together nicely.  When your joints are cut precisely, you shouldn’t need much clamping pressure to keep them together as the glue dries.  Just enough to ensure that all mating surfaces are making full contact, and that the joints don’t somehow spring apart while you’re not looking.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

After planing, the joinery looks pretty tight all around.

I cut a small chamfer all around the top and bottom of each side, just to break the sharp edges and prevent damage to the box in use.

Then it was time to fill in the bug holes with some some crushed stone inlay.  The process is not difficult, and I’ve used it before on my dining table and other projects.  I begin by back-filling any deep holes with cheap material–either sawdust or a slip of wood, such as a section of a toothpick.  When I back-fill with sawdust, I flood it with superglue to keep it all in place.  Then I fill each hole with the inlay material, which in this case is a green stone called malachite.  (I get it in small amounts on Amazon–I get the finest grain available.)  I mound it up a bit over each hole and then soak it with superglue.  The regular, thin variety works better than the gel kind.  Once the glue sets up, I scrape and sand the surface flush and clean.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

Fitting the old box into the new one was easy enough.  It did require a little planing here and there to get everything to fit.  Somehow I made the new box just a little too long, so I had to pack just a little filler (wood shavings squeezed flat) into one end.

I ordered some hinges and a latch from Lee Valley, and while I waited for them to arrive in the mail, I set about finishing the box.  Because the box may see significant handling, I went with three coats of a semi-gloss polyurethane.

Everything fits nicely now.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

The recorder fits very nicely

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

I could have used small hinges that required a mortise, but I really like the look of decorative, surface-mount hinges for a project like this.  And they’re a lot easier to install.   To hold them steady while I marked out the screw holes, I taped them down with masking tape.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

The latch is a simple wire catch.

It was a satisfying project, and my favorite recorder will have a fine home for many years to come.

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A New Kind of Advent Candle Stand

It all started with a rat in the attic.  When we brought down our Christmas decorations this year, we found that the old advent candle stand I had built from pine some years ago had been gnawed all over by a rat and ruined.  So if we were going to celebrate Advent according to custom this year, I would have to make a new candle stand.

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This was my original design, which I still find visually interesting but a little too bulky and angular. (We couldn’t find the right color candles that year, either.)  And while I do like pine, I feel that a nicer hardwood would be more appropriate for what I hope will become a family heirloom.

If you’re not familiar with the season of Advent, or with Advent Candles, here’s a brief explanation: Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and it is traditionally a time of both repentance and anticipation as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus.  Repent, John the Baptist told the crowds, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  It is at once a more severe and a more hopeful message than the flurry of commercial activity that consumes us all this time of year.

We commemorate Advent by lighting candles each Sunday until Christmas.  The traditional Advent Wreath has five candles, arranged as you see above.  There are four tall, thin candles, one for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.  Each Sunday has a different theme: first hope (a purple candle), then peace (another purple candle), then joy (a pink candle), and finally love (a purple candle again).  On the first Sunday, we light only the first candle; on the second Sunday, we light the first and second candles, and so on until Christmas day, when we light them all, including the large, white candle in the center called the Christ candle.

Now, a personal confession: the asymmetry of the traditional, circular arrangement of the Advent Wreath has always bothered my aesthetic sensibilities.  Four candles in a square, burning at different lengths, looks wrong to my eye.  And every year, I always forget where to begin lighting the candles.  (For the record, you start with the candle that’s caddy-corner from the pink one.)  Additionally, my wife asked me to make a narrower stand so that we could keep it on the table for the whole season and still have space for food.

I began sketching out different possible arrangements.  Eventually I lit on an elliptical design, with the Christ candle in the center and the other four candles lined up behind it.  Then it occurred to me that I had very nearly drawn the Icthus–the “Jesus fish” symbol that you may have seen on the backs of cars.  It’s an ancient symbol of Jesus that has probably been used since at least the second century AD, and it is even older than the symbol of the cross.  It seemed a fitting base shape for the Advent candles, so I added a tail to complete the design.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I began with a 1″ thick cherry board I had left over from the table I built–a fitting choice, since the candle stand would go on that very table.  I planed them down just enough to see the grain direction clearly, then glued it up.  The dimensions of this piece are about 7″ wide and 13″ long.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I planed the top smooth and leveled out the bottom so that the stand would sit flat and stable.  You don’t want a wobbly candle stand!

Drawing the design was a little tricky, but with the fish shape, all you really need is a single curve, which you trace out four times, flipping the paper each time.  I drew several on paper, cut out the one that looked right, and started to trace.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I had to erase a few lines here and there, but this is what I eventually came up with.  The “football” shape that makes up the body is what I traced out.  I just followed my lines visually to add the tail.  The center will be cut out, and is just large enough to hold a standard pillar candle.  The top needs to be wide enough for the holes that will hold the candles without making the walls of the holes too thin.  It’s about 1 3/4″ wide all the way around.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I used my bandsaw to cut the outside to rough shape, and I drilled small holes on the inside so as I have a place for the coping saw blade to start when it came time to cut out the middle.

I wasn’t sure what size to drill the holes for the candles.  The butt ends of most candles are tapered, so after measuring the candles’s ends and experimenting in some scrap, I decided to drill stepped holes.  I drilled about half way through with a 7/8″ Forstner bit, and then drilled the rest of the way through with a 3/4″ bit.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I happen to have a nice reamer, so I reamed out the holes a little–even though the candles would have stood just fine in the stepped holes.  But after reaming the holes to ease the step in the hole, the candles go in a little easier.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I cleaned up the band saw cuts with my spokeshaves, followed by a file for the corners and a card scraper. (As you can see, I’m writing this out of order.  But with this project, order of operations isn’t critical.)  I’d have to pay close attention to grain direction and cut only “downhill.”

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I sawed out the center with a coping saw.  Cherry is a hard wood, and this stock is more than 7/8″ thick.  I broke two blades before I finished.  I did manage to get a spokeshave inside to clean up some of the saw marks and fair the curves, but it was mostly file work.

I wanted this candle holder to have some visual depth, so I decided to under-cut the “joint” where the two sides of the body meet to form the tail.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I made a stopping cut with the chisel and then pared into the stopping cut.  I had to go down pretty far in order to get the shadow I wanted, maybe 1/4″.  It was also important to make the cut slope down in a curve rather than go straight down.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

As with any carving, a razor-sharp chisel is critical to success.

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With a spokeshave, chisel, and card scrapers I relieved the sharp edges inside and out.  There are a few uneven spots, but by this time it was Saturday night before the second Sunday of Advent, and I was already a week late.  The wood was smooth enough from the cutting tools, so I didn’t even take time to sand it.  A couple coats of paste wax are all the finish it required.

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New candles would have been nice, but the old ones will do for now.  The Advent Candle Stand is now in the middle of the dining room table.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

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Spoon Carving: From Log to Table

It all starts with a log.  Usually the log comes from somebody who has taken down a tree and just wants the trunk out of the way.  Other times, I go looking for something special.

Logs are heavy, unwieldy things.  So the first step is to get it down into manageable pieces.  If it’s a long log, I cut it into 3′-4′ lengths with a chainsaw.  Then using steel wedges and a sledge hammer, I split the log into halves, then into quarters, and (if it’s a really big log) into eighths.  Splitting out the log means that the wood’s grain will run straight from one end of the piece to the other, so when I eventually make spoons out of the pieces, the grain will run true from one end of the spoon to the other.

Then I run each piece of wood through the bandsaw, sawing them into blanks that measure between 1/2″ and 1″ thick and as wide as I can manage.  It’s a slow, cumbersome process, and probably my least favorite part of making spoons.

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I get excited, however, when the stock comes out this pretty.  This is spalted pecan; the spalting occurs naturally in some logs after they are felled, though there are ways to encourage it happening.  I find that woodenware made from spalted pecan sells very well.

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Although I bill my utensils as hand-made with traditional hand tools, I do use a bandsaw to saw out the blanks to rough shape.  This process allows me to select the best grain for each piece while also allowing me to get the most out of each piece of figured wood.  I like to let the machines do the precision donkey-work that they’re so good at, leaving me time to do the fun stuff–the shaping and carving.  If you do a lot of hand-work, it’s important to economize on time and energy where you can.

Spoon blanks 10-2016

An hour at the bandsaw yields a big pile of blanks. That should last me a month or so.

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I use a single carving gouge to shape the inside of the bowl.  Pecan is hard stuff to carve, but with a very sharp edge and a little care, the surface ends up very smooth.

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A drawknife and two spokeshaves take care of the rest of the spoon.  It’s almost a pity the work  goes so fast, because the spokeshave work is my favorite part.  I finish up with a couple of card scrapers, which remove any tool marks and leave smooth curves everywhere.  It takes me about twenty minutes to go from a rough blank to what you see above.  Yes, that’s twenty (20) minutes.  I’ve timed it.  You get pretty fast after you’ve made a couple hundred of these things.

After rinsing in clear water to raise the grain, I sand each spoon briefly.  I don’t enjoy sanding, so I do as little as I can.  But the sanding does relieve all the sharp edges, and it smooths the grain down so it feels good in the hand and food doesn’t stick.

The last step is to apply an oil finish.

The finish warms the wood’s natural coloring and brings out subtle color contrasts, especially in the spalted wood.  Plus, it puts a subtle shine on the utensil, which customers love.

 

Then, it’s market time.  Here, my oldest daughter and I attend the table at the craft market.  When people approach the table, I encourage them to pick things up.  Lots of people are surprised at how smooth the wood feels.  Many of them like hearing about where each piece of wood came from.  After all, they’re not just buying a utensil; they’re buying a little piece of a story.

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It Doesn’t Matter What Route You Take, As Long As You Get There, Right?

“It doesn’t matter what route you take, as long as you reach your destination.”

I see different versions of this sentiment pop up frequently on various forums.  It’s usually offered as a reasonable middle ground when two people are hotly disputing the “right” way to do something, whether that is to join two pieces of wood together, shape a pipe stem, or write a poem.

The problem with the statement is that it’s misleading on at least two levels.

First, for anybody who is trying to build skill, the method does matter.  It matters a lot.  Whether you are learning to sharpen a chisel, play the clarinet, or hit a baseball, as long as you are still learning the basics, you have to master the fundamental methods.  If you want to learn to hit a baseball, you can use a closed stance or an open stance, but if you don’t know how to keep your head down, rotate your hips, and follow through, you’ll never hit well.  You might use water stones, diamond stones, or sandpaper to sharpen a chisel, but if you don’t keep a consistent angle, you’ll never raise a wire edge.  Whatever the task, there are usually several sound methods to choose from, but they all fall within a narrow range of practices that yield predictable results.

One of the best ways to learn a skill is to set strict limits on yourself.  If you want to learn to parallel park, you could commit to parking only in parallel parking spaces for a month.  If you want to learn to use hand tools effectively, you could commit to building a major project with only hand tools.  In the woodworking community, however, anybody who says, “I’m going to build this using ONLY hand tools” is often met with a lot of raised eyebrows.  Yet there is great value in setting arbitrary boundaries for yourself, IF you are doing it in order to build skill and not just for bragging rights.

Secondly, altering the route often alters the destination. And that’s where the metaphor of a project as a journey gets us into trouble.

Does it really matter whether you walk or drive across town if you end up in the same place? I say yes, it does matter. In walking, you may find yourself taking shortcuts that would be impossible in a car.  And you have been fully present in more places along the way, and you will see the destination differently when you do arrive, albeit several hours after the guy who drove the car.  Or you may find that you didn’t really need to go all the way across town, and that what you needed was within walking distance all the time.

Let me use a silly example: Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was once challenged by a friend to write a whole children’s book using 50 words or fewer. On its face, it’s a dumb idea. Why limit yourself to only 50 words when there are hundreds of thousands of English words to choose from–not to mention the multitude of made-up words that Geisel was so fond of? But Geisel took the bet, and he wrote one of his most memorable books ever: Green Eggs & Ham.  Without those limits, he would have written quite a different book.

Similarly, if I limit myself to certain kinds of tools tools, that always affects how my projects look/feel at the end.  When working with machines, for example, workpieces must often be milled to precise dimensions that hand tools couldn’t care less about.  Some time ago, Woodworking Magazine (April 2008) had a feature article on making two Stickley tabouret tables, one of which wad made primarily with power tools and the other primarily with hand tools.  From one photograph of the two tables side by side, it is easy to tell which one was made with hand tools. (I’d show a picture, but I fear copyright infringement.) The one with the shallow curves on the stretchers was made primarily with hand tools.  Those curves are easy to shape by hand with a spokeshave; the tight curves on the other table’s stretchers could also be made with hand tools, but not as easily as the shallow curves.   Neither table is necessarily better than the other, but they are two different tables.

So yes, the route you take matters.  If the destination matters at all, then so does the journey.

Posted in Musings, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , ,

Countdown to Simplicity

I like simple tools, and the simpler the better.  One measure of simplicity is the number of discrete parts the tool is made of.  Some relatively simple tools, such as a hand plane or an eggbeater drill, have a lot of parts.  Fully disassemble a typical hand plane, and you will have twenty or more parts, depending on how you count the parts for the frog assembly.  Some eggbeater drills are even more complex.  And I don’t even want to think about how many parts my band saw or my drill press has!

Other tools have very few parts, but even some of the simplest tools often have more parts than we might think.  Quick, how many parts does a handsaw have?  You might say two–the handle and the blade.  True, but what about the nuts and bolts that keep the handle in place?  A big handsaw might have a dozen parts total: a blade, a handle, five bolts, and five nuts.

Counting parts is amusing, I suppose, but it also reveals something about your tools.  The fewer the parts, the less there is to go wrong, and the easier the tool is to repair if it breaks.  So, in honor of simple tools, here are a few of my favorites, in descending order.

Simple Tools 2013 - 1

Five Parts

My wooden jack plane has five parts: the stock, the wedge, and a three-piece cutting assembly (blade, chipbreaker, and screw).  That, at least, is the number of pieces it can ordinarily be broken down into.  Looked at another way, there are two more parts: the tote and the strike button.  From the point of view of the user the tool has five parts, but from the point of view of the manufacturer it has seven, so I admit I’m fudging this one.

Another tool that really does have five parts is one of my axes.  It has a handle, a head, a wooden wedge, and two metal wedges.  In use, of course, it’s a one-piece tool.  You disassemble it only when you replace the handle–which happens a little more often than I’d like to admit.  I need to work on my aim.

Four Parts

My favorite shop-made marking gauges have four discrete parts: the arm, the cutter, the fence, and the wedge.  Normally it can be taken apart into three parts, but the cutter is certainly distinct in function (and material) from the arm.  So I count this as a four-part tool.

Three Parts

Diamond Sharpening Stone Box 2016

Sharpening stones are tools, too.  And my diamond sharpening stone has three parts: the stone, the bottom of box, and the lid.  Each part is functional.  The base allows the stone to be clamped in a vise when I’m sharpening.  The lid protects the stone’s surface, certainly, but it’s also useful for holding small parts like chipbreaker screws while I’m sharpening irons.

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My hewing hatchet also has three parts: the head, the handle, and a single wooden wedge. Like an axe, it is a one-piece tool in daily use, but full disassembly yields three pieces.

Two Parts

Mallet Batch 12-2011 - - 06

My two-part tools are among my favorites–and I have a lot of them.  My joiner’s mallets, for example, are made up of a handle wedged through a tapered mortise in the solid head.  Frequent use keeps the head tight on the handle, though enough pounding on the handle’s end can separate them.

My birdcage awl, my gouges, and many of my chisels are also two-part tools: just a blade and a handle.  Ideally, the handles are fixed permanently in place until they need to be replaced–which I hope is seldom or never.  I have never yet replaced a chisel handle that I made.

One Part

Card Scraper and Ruler

While this ruler is usually used with a combination-square head, it’s useful as a tool in its own right.  The tool is built for accuracy, and a single piece is best.

My favorite one-piece tool is a card scraper.  I must have a dozen or more in several shapes.  They get used on nearly every project I work on, from fine furniture to wooden spoons and spatulas.  Once I learned how to sharpen card scrapers, they became absolutely indispensable tools in my tool chest.

Conclusion

I enjoy using complicated hand tools–my joinery planes, for example–but the real workhorses in the shop tend to be my simplest tools, the ones that get used on every project.  I’d call myself a minimalist, except that I have LOT of simple tools.  (Seventeen handsaws and counting…)  And that, I suppose, is another level of complexity to be addressed another time.

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Then Disaster Struck: Dining Table Repair

We had been eating around our new dining table for about week.  Then one afternoon my oldest daughter and I were sitting in the living room when we heard a tremendous crash from the dining room.  We ran out to find a huge mess–and a broken table.

There are wooden valances above each of the dining room windows, and we had been storing books on top of the valances for years.  But something happened that afternoon, and one of the valances came down, books and all, right onto one edge of our new table.  Thank God nobody was sitting there at the time!

Dining Table Repair August 2016

The top was split most of the way down its length, and the support underneath was broken in two.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

It must have been a couple hundred pounds of books that fell five feet before they hit the table top.  The books that had fallen weren’t harmed much.   The valance, however, had broken in a couple places.  (I guess this was a literal case of multivalence?  Okay, sorry, that pun is bad even by my standards.)  When I saw it, I collapsed onto the floor with my head in my hands.  There was nothing for it but to clean up the mess and figure out how to repair my new table.

The top was a clean break, so I knew I could glue it back together without much difficulty.  (By the way, notice that the wood did not break at any of the joints–a properly-made edge joint is indeed stronger than the wood itself!)  The support underneath was another matter.  Each I-shaped assembly is a single, solid piece.  I had neither time nor materials to rebuild the whole assembly.  So I opted for a reinforcement that I’ve seen used for weakened joists in old houses.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

The crack did not run the full length of the table.  I think the bolts holding the top onto the legs kept it together at the far end.  I put a clamp onto the far, undamaged end to keep it together.  Then I used wooden wedges to expand the crack far enough to force wood glue down into it.  Toothpicks and a palate knife were useful in spreading the glue throughout the crack.  I used a couple of cauls to keep the joint aligned. Everything seemed to go together pretty well.

Then it was time to work on the undercarriage.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

Once the glue was dry on the top, but before I pulled all the clamps off, I loosened the lag screws that held the broken piece to the top.  I shot some Liquid Nails adhesive into the break and pulled the two pieces together with clamps.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

Just to be clear: I glued the two pieces together only for alignment, not for strength.  Once that glue was dry, it was time to install a reinforcement.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

I cut a clear 1 1/2X2 from yellow pine and screwed it to the wood on each side of the break.  Then I tightened up the lag screws in the original piece.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

It doesn’t look pretty, but the result is a stable, solid table.  And unless you crawl under the table, you’ll never see that it’s been repaired.

And as for the top, the glue line is nearly invisible.

Dining Table Repair August 2016Dining Table Repair August 2016

All that’s left is to scrape/sand the glue line perfectly flush and refinish it.  But at this rate, I’ll probably just let the younger kids continue to destroy the current finish, which already has some noticeable scratches in it.  Then after a couple years (or decades) I’ll sand it all down and do a proper refinishing job.

Because, frankly, it took me two afternoons to repair the table, and by that time the family was a little tired of not having a table for meals.  I got the undercarriage fixed just in time to eat supper.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

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