The Brides Have Hit Glass

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For the last six months, my teaching schedule has been light – I’ve had to cancel a bunch of trips to assist with some serious medical issues in my immediate family. As an odd result, I’ve had a luxurious amount of time to design and build things.

This time has been exciting – to me at least. I’ve explored a bunch of new designs that are based on my last five years of research into early furniture. I am weirdly enthusiastic about the stuff I’m now sketching, drafting and building. I have more than a dozen new pieces I want to draft and build.

However, for the last six months I think I’ve also developed a severe case of myopia. Without feedback from students, I’ve ventured into places that are odd and difficult for them to get excited about.

So I’m at a Robert Johnson sort of crossroads. Do I continue down the weird and delightful path I’ve been traveling this year to see where it takes me? (Knowing it’s likely a dead end.) Or do I double down on the teaching and use that as a compass to guide my research and building? More workbenches. Other tool chests. Traditional appliances. Unexplored hand-tool techniques.

This is a tough question. Time to drink a double IPA and look for answers.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Furniture of Necessity | 69 Comments

A Campaign Stool Mystery

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While teaching at The Furniture Institute of Massachusetts this week, Phil Lowe pulled out an interesting conservation (or restoration) project he was working on for a customer.

It was a footstool that was in pretty bad shape because the joints were all loose or coming apart. Or was that by design?

Lowe turned the stool over and pointed out how the four legs were attached to the top frame of the stool with snipe hinges. Then he showed how the lower stretcher simply pulled out of its dovetailed socket and was keyed in there at some point.

So it looks like the whole stool was designed to fold down.

Was it English? The turnings looked kind of English. And the entire thing was worm-eaten like old English walnut. Was it a campaign piece?

Who knows?

Lowe pulled up some of the horsehair and burlap stuffing and showed me a further mystery. The frame and legs were nailed together so the legs couldn’t fold. And the nails were blacksmith-made, wrought-head nails. Very early. Was the stool built to knock down? Was the nail added immediately after the maker saw that the folding wasn’t work to his or her liking? Or what?

Lowe and I looked at the piece for a good long while. Then we walked away and had a beer.

If you’ve seen a piece like this, leave a comment or let Lowe know. He’s debating how to properly conserve or restore the piece.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Campaign Furniture | 10 Comments

It’s ‘Be Kind to Hammers Week’

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If you told someone you like to restore hammers, they might think you lazy. Aside from tightening the head on the handle, what else is there to do?

Today during a lull at The Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, I spied a hammer on a student’s bench and had to snatch it. It was a Bluegrass 16 oz. claw hammer. Though this hammer isn’t made anymore, the student had one that was still factory fresh – or “new old stock” as the collectors call it.

The head and handle were still covered with factory goop. So I sneaked away with the tool while the student was occupied.

Step 1: Get the goop off. Yes, it protects the hammer from rust while it is on the shelf at the store. But it is as attractive as the plastic covers on the furniture in your grandmother’s fancy “drawing room.” Lose it. Remove it with solvent or elbow solvent.

Step 2: Dress the striking face. Sand the face of the hammer to remove the rough milling marks and to ensure the face is very, very slightly bulged. (It should come made this way, but the sandpaper ensures it will be that way.)

I usually start with #150-grit and finish with #220 – at most.

After you sand the face, don’t touch it with your hands. Ever. If some numbskull touches the face, dress it (the hammer head, not the numbskull) with sandpaper. Any lubricant on the striking face encourages the face to slip off a nail head.

I then returned the hammer to its owner.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Posted in Personal Favorites | 13 Comments

A Day in the Life

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Some day I will count up all the tool chests that I have built and those that have been built during classes I’ve taught.

In the meantime, here’s an important thing I’ve observed when building tool chests. I can build a complete tool chest in a white pine (Eastern white or sugar pine, for example) in about 40 hours. If I make one out of poplar, a yellow pine or worse, that adds at least eight hours to the process.

Harder woods make for harder work.

This week we’re building tool chests from perfectly clear Eastern white pine at the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts. The pine (and the two dozen doughnuts) are keeping us on schedule. Never underestimate how a mild species can make your work easier.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. More photos from the class are here.

Posted in The Anarchist's Tool Chest, Woodworking Classes | 28 Comments

45-second Furniture

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My youngest daughter, Katy, has been taking art classes at the Cincinnati Art Academy this summer, so I have been duplicating some of her interesting exercises while she’s in bed or not watching.

Last week, her instructor made them engage in some 45-second sketching exercises. Katy and the other students were shown an object and given 45 seconds to sketch it. I was fascinated by how the students could capture the essence of the object in such a short period.

It reminded me of some Zen ink painting I had done in college, but that’s another story.

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So I resolved to sketch some of my furniture designs in 45 seconds or less to see what would happen. I have about 20 different forms floating around in my head right now, so I barfed out a few this evening while sitting in a Syracuse, N.Y., hotel room.

After a few crappy attempts I got into a groove. First I drew the floor – that was a huge help. Then I started sketching the elevation.

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I tried sketching some orthographic views, but those were more difficult because I fussed over getting the perspective correct instead of capturing the overall form. My best drawings were simple straight-on views of elevation, profile and plan.

And 45 seconds is plenty of time.

I drew these on the back of some old airline boarding passes. I forgot my sketch book.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Furniture of Necessity | 15 Comments

An Old Woodworking Crank

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On Tuesday, for the first time ever, I felt my hand skills fade a bit.

I was chopping half-blind dovetail sockets and I could not get the tail board to lock smoothly and at 90°. I looked down and noticed my hands were trembling. Weird.

It could be that I’m still recovering from a nasty infection that cut me down at Handworks last month. Or that I have an iron or protein deficiency as a result. But at that moment, I thought that dovetailing had evaporated from my hands.

I sat down and thought of R.J. DeCristoforo.

One of the odd aspects of entering the woodworking magazine business in my 20s was that I became the editor for a lot of mature craftsmen. I watched them make the transition from a vibrant maker to someone who struggled at the bench and then turned his efforts to teaching or writing.

Some of them continued to explore the craft in ways that their abilities allowed. Woodworkers who were traditionalists allowed themselves to use more machines and power hand tools. Others explored aspects of furniture design or history. But they were always curious. Always looking to learn something more that could be passed on.

The majority, however, seemed to close up like a paper fan. They guarded the ideas, designs, tools and techniques they developed during their long and fruitful careers. They lashed out with letters at other woodworkers who stole, borrowed or adapted their ideas without due credit. They began writing the same column over and over, like it was a copy-and-paste job.

After observing this cycle a few times, I resolved to be R.J. DeCristoforo – or Cris as he preferred to be called. He was a poet (literally) who fell into writing and editing for a staggering number of magazines and books (almost 90 titles). His pioneering work in the radial-arm saw and Shopsmith practically launched those two machines into American garages and basements.

We might snigger today at those machines. But my second machine was a radial-arm saw, and at the time I thought it was way better than my coping saw. Yes, even for ripping.

Near the end of Cris’ life he wrote a column for Popular Woodworking called “Cris Cuts,” which was basically anything he wanted to write about. Even up to his last column he was dreaming up new and different ways to explain the craft to people like myself who weren’t qualified to buff shoes on his radial-arm saw (my grandfather had that attachment!).

And he still kept building right up to the end in 2000.

His wife, Mary, called to tell me the news and I cried at my desk. It’s not cool these days to list Cris as your woodworking hero. But he was mine. And he was my first. Not just for the way he wrote, but for the way he lived out his handmade life and avoided becoming the bitter woodworking crank that I fear I’ll become.

I can still hear him saying on the phone: “It’s Cris! from sunny California!”

This afternoon I took a friend’s advice and ordered a big bloody double cheeseburger for lunch – I don’t eat all that much meat, to be honest. Within about 30 minutes, I wanted a second crack at those dovetails.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Personal Favorites | 17 Comments

Patterns for a Camp Stool Seat

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If you own “Campaign Furniture,” you might want to visit my other blog where I posted some free full-size scans of the patterns I use to make the seat and the three “pockets” for the stool.

This is made with 8 oz. 10 oz. oiled latigo leather from the Wickett & Craig tannery. Any thickish leather will work, however. I prefer vegetable-tanned hides because they stretch less and age better.

This stool was – sadly – the last one I’ll be making from this old teak. These were the last three sticks that were 24” long and thick enough to turn the 1-1/4”-diameter legs. So now the smell of beetle dung will subside a little more in my shop.

These stools are a great project, even if you don’t turn. Many broom handles can be pressed into service, and the Lee Valley Campaign Stool Hardware makes it classy.

My next stool is going to use charred ash – some scraps left over from my latest chair.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Posted in Campaign Furniture | 9 Comments