Celebrate Whimsy

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Editor’s Note: Longtime LAP author Don Williams is in the process of writing a new book: “The Period Finisher’s Manual.” The book will be a culmination of his years working as a conservator, educator and scholar (including more than 25 years of service to the Smithsonian) with expertise in conservation, woodworking and wood finishing. Here he talks about his writing process. You can find Don online at donsbarn.com.

— Kara Gebhart Uhl

For most of my working life, writing tasks were simply a matter of plugging information clusters into whatever format the recipient required. Artifact condition reports, conservation proposals and conservation treatment reports follow a regular format. Either you had the information at hand or your did not. Ditto budget requests, performance evaluations, monthly and annual reports, and a multitude of bureaucratic tickets to be punched.

Much to my surprise I discovered that I did not mind the writing itself and began to explore it outside the 9-to-5 boundaries. I did not care if I was any good at it, rather I found it to be a pleasant diversion. I recall the day in the 1990s when I was reading a well-known thriller from the library. After several dozen pages I put it down and said to myself, “Self, you can do better than this.” So, over the next year I wrote a novel about a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong woman and the bad, bad things that ensue; a story that tied together threads from the Weather Underground, Stasi terror brokers, mobsters, purloined identity, and a history teacher at a remote private school (and, of course, a beautiful sniper).

I have no idea if it is any good but there is a beginning, a middle with many rabbit trails, and an end. From the start, I knew where the story was going, but I did not always know how it was going to get there. I did not write it in a beginning-to-end manner. Since the bare bones of the story required a lot of embellishment I found that the enriching texture was added when Whimsy would strike and individual vignettes unfolded irrespective of where they fit in the plot. When the pile was large enough I knitted all the pieces together, smoothing out their connections. I found in subsequent fiction writing that this strategy fits my temperament perfectly. (My current book plot involves weaving together 1760s Parisian ateliers, a 1930s Skull-and-Bones-ish group, the French Underground, the contemporary New York museum scene, and a furniture conservator putting his life back together after a 10-year bender and how he saves Western Civilization while the bodies start piling up.)

I have, on occasion, written here about my similar process for creating earlier LAP books, the two Roubo volumes, “To Make as Perfectly as Possible: Roubo on Marquetry” and “With All the Precision Possible: Roubo on Furniture,” and “Virtuoso, The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley.” Since writing is a prominent focus of my working life these days, I am often asked, “How do you go about writing a book?” The answer for my current undertaking, “The Period Finisher’s Manual,” makes me sound sort of goofy.

In the former cases the text was established by Roubo himself via Michele Pietryka-Pagán and all I had to do was make it sensible to a 21st-century woodworker. There were times I thought the latter text (“Virtuoso”) wrote itself because Studley’s tool cabinet was so iconic all I had to do was write what I saw, gather as much primary source material as possible (thank you, John Cashman!), get it all down on paper and smooth out any wrinkles (aka “editing”). As I recall, the first draft of “Virtuoso” took about 10 weeks, eight hours a day most days, or about 100 words per hour. The captions took another two weeks, at a faster pace. But that was at the end of several years of traveling, observing, measuring and researching, so the raw material was ready at the waiting.

My current labor on “The Period Finisher’s Manual” began years ago with a detailed outline, so for good or ill it will have a fairly cogent organization. I hope. When the time comes, Chris will tell me if I am correct and instruct me on changes if I am not.

My typical working habit is proving to be true for “The Period Finisher’s Manual.” With my working outline in hand, and mental sketches of the knowledge to be conveyed, I wait for the paragraph (or paragraphs) to emerge from my experience of almost five decades of practicing and exploring wood finishing. “The Period Finisher’s Manual” content thus congeals in a non-linear fashion but in the end congeal it does, and the gelatinous masses are merged in a careful review and self-edit. Sometimes smoothing these wrinkles is more work than creating the original fabric.

One minute I might be working on a section describing the nature of solvents and a half hour later something about good finishing shop rags or making 18th-century sandpaper followed by using molten wax grain filler or building a flawless spirit varnish then extolling the virtues of avoiding power tools near the finishing shop might come up. I do not labor over a section if it is not flowing well from my fingertips – that just means those words are still in gestation. I know that the words will emerge when their time comes. Once a larger section has all its swatches I sew them together, a sometimes-arduous task. I am reminded of Edison’s description of invention: “It is 1 percent inspiration and 99 perspiration.” That probably explains why the timeline for any book covers many years, a characterization that fits this book, too.

When writing a book like “The Period Finisher’s Manual,” my job is to first create the skeleton (outline) then fill in all the holes of the outline one at a time and do my best to make it accurate and readable. On Day One, all the holes were empty so I had a target-rich environment – any paragraphs I threw out there would fit something, somewhere. As I told someone recently about this project, “You start with one paragraph somewhere in the book. Anywhere. It does not matter. You keep writing until you have a 1,000 or 1,500 paragraphs. You connect them together seamlessly. Then you have a book.”

Don Williams

Posted in The Period Finisher's Manual, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Dictum: The New Woodworking Mecca

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After almost three decades of woodworking and writing about woodworking (and its occasional excesses), I am not easy to impress. I’ve been to all the big woodworking shows (including IWF and AWFS multiple times). And I’ve been to factories and stores all over the world.

But Dictum’s new headquarters in Plattling left me fairly speechless.

I have worked as an instructor for Dictum for many years and continue to work for the company because it it is on the same ethical wavelength as I am. Dictum takes a long view with its business practices, in everything from the way it treats it employees, to the fixtures it chooses for its bathrooms.

So yes, I am biased. I am a huge fan of the company and its employees.

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This summer I got to visit the company’s new headquarters building after wrapping up a long day of teaching a workbench class. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a woodworking facility like this. Though I’ve never visited Google, Apple or Facebook headquarters, I imagine they might be something like this.

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Everything is modern, open, airy and friendly. All the tools are hanging on the walls and can be taken down for inspection or use. The showroom is (easily) as twice as large as Highland Woodworking, the largest woodworking store I’ve ever visited.

There are separate areas for the knives, the leatherworking tools, the woodworking hand tools and the machinery. And there is a large section of Filson workwear – a bit of a surprise but not really.

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After an hour in the showroom one of the employees took us of a tour of the warehouse and offices. I have never seen a cleaner or more efficient shipping operation (and I’ve seen a lot). And the offices and public employee areas made me re-think being self-employed (only a bit).

So if you are in southern Germany, a visit to Dictum is definitely worth the effort, whether it’s the company’s headquarters in Plattling or the store and school in Munich (which is where I’m teaching this fall).

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One more thing: If you’ve been reading this blog for longer than 5 minutes then you know this isn’t a sponsored post. Dictum didn’t give me any tools for free. They worked me like a dog and paid me a fair wage.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Slöjd Butter Knife

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This is an excerpt from “Slöjd in Wood” by Jögge Sundqvist.

Carving a butter knife is a good beginner project. It may seem to be an easy object to make, but the design requirements require some reflection. A tapered handle with a thin blade is important to work well.

Tools required Axe, knife, drawknife (optional).

Material Juniper (Juniperus) is moisture resistant, dense and durable. Rowan (Sorbus) and maple (Acer) are excellent alternatives, as well as ring porous woods such as oak (Quercus) or ash (Fraxinus). My preference is to use birch (Betula) because it is convenient to make butter knives and spatulas from straight-grained leftovers from splitting green logs. It is also possible to split out blanks from naturally crooked blanks, if you wish.

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Carving direction for a butter knife.


Make the Butter Knife
Select a straight-grain, knot-free piece of wood approximately 25cm to 30cm (9-1/2″ to 11-3/4″) long by 10 or more centimeters (3-15/16″) in diameter. Split it right through the pith of the wood. From one half, use your axe to rough out a piece 5cm (2″) wide by 2cm (3/4″) thick. Hew carefully along the wood grain, working down the grain so you don’t split the piece apart.

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Rough-finished and rough-carved blanks.
It is important the handle fits the hand well
and the blade is thin and flexible.

If you need to remove a lot of material, use the axe to hew relief or scoring cuts nearly to your line. Start at the bottom and work your way up the blank. Then come down with the axe to chop this waste away. Taper the handle gradually toward the blade. If you have access to a shaving horse, it is a good idea to use a drawknife to quickly shape the form and create even bevels, or you can use a knife. Taper the blade’s thickness from 6mm (1/4″) along the back to 3mm (1/8″) toward the edge. Feel the thickness with your fingers. A butter knife must be flexible or it will be too stiff to use. Cut or saw off the excess handle material and carve the bevels. The handle should be 16mm to 22mm (5/8″ to 7/8″) thick and have a total length of 170mm to 180mm (6-3/4″ to 7-1/16″).

CARVING AWAY FROM YOURSELF
Apart from the common elbow grip, there are some powerful and safe grips known as the power grip and the scissor grip.

Note that safety is important. The grips must be safe in your hand to give you the confidence to use the knife with the strength that is needed to cut through the wood. There are several tricks to get strength and controlled cuts, depending on the object you are making and the carving challenges.

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Power grip.


Power grip
Hold the knife close to the blade. Drive the knife powerfully with a straight arm, without bending your elbow. Use the muscles in your shoulder and back. Lift your shoulder and carve downward with a smooth and firm movement. Tilt the tip of the blade upwards and skew the knife as you slice. The slicing action is from the handle toward the tip. Be sure that the bevel is riding on the wood. The concave bevel is supporting the cutting edge. This is one of the most common grips.

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Scissor grip.


Scissor grip
This is a grip providing good strength and, above all, control. Hold the knife in your hand with your palm facing upward and with the edge facing outward. Be sure that your thumb is on top of the handle. Take the material in one hand and the knife in the other, forming a pair of scissors in front of your chest. Curl your shoulders in a little and press your hands to your chest. Start the cut from the base toward the tip while you pull both the blank and the knife.

Slide your forearms along your body and feel how your shoulder blades and your shoulders pull back. This action helps your forearms to lever the cut, using large muscles. Press your knuckles onto your body. It is a combination of pulling the blank and slicing with the knife that makes the cut. If you want to make short stops, for example in the transition between the bowl and stem, press your knife hand firmly to your body, adding friction to stop. This is a strong grip.

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Pull grip.


CARVING TOWARD YOURSELF
Pull grip Hold the far end of the blank with your off hand and support it against your chest. The thumb of the knife hand rests on top of the handle and the tip of the knife is tilted away from the body. This way the base of the thumb hits the body before the knife releases from the wood. To provide safety, tuck your forearms against your ribs. Pull the knife toward your body and let the edge run from base to tip. While pressing and sliding with the forearm of the carving hand toward your chest, your wrist remains stiff. Press the bevel into the wood while you carve. This provides good support and a nice surface.

FINISH
Decorate and paint the handle with linseed oil paint, but don’t paint the blade or you will paint your food! Once the paint is dry, place the spatula blade in linseed oil and soak for a couple hours. The linseed oil must be foodgrade – raw, cold-pressed and sun-thickened. (In the U.S., food-grade linseed oil is usually labeled as flaxseed oil.) Wipe off the excess oil with a rag or paper towel. Dispose of oily rags properly.

Meghan Bates

Posted in Sloyd in Wood | 2 Comments

Shun the Copycats

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Recently a new crop of Tite-Mark ripoffs have entered the market. They’re half the price of the real thing, have folksy American brand names and are made in Taiwan.

The easy knee-jerk reaction is to blame the Far East for these rip-off products. But I can assure you that Chinese and Taiwanese factories are not the first ones to blame. In my years of covering the Asian tool manufacturing market I learned how these products get made.

  1. A North American or European person seeks to rip off a product and make money by pirating someone else’s intellectual property.
  2. They send an original tool to one of the many Far East companies that specialize in tools and ask if the object can be made for $20 or some crazy low price.
  3. The factory says yes and makes it.
  4. (The final step is an important one) We buy it.

If I were still a woodworking journalist, I’d buy some of these copycat products and examine the way they were made to prove my point. But these days I don’t want to give these guys even one measly sale.

So honestly, if you care about the future of domestic hand-tool manufacturing in North America, don’t support these clowns. Otherwise, Godspeed to Walmart.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Uncategorized | 45 Comments

Don’t Buy Our Hammer (But do Buy One)

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Sorry our lump hammer isn’t $5 and won’t wash your truck or cream your spinach.

And if you think that $85 or $90 is crazy for something made by hand in the United States in small batches, then I wish you Godspeed to Walmart.

So after you’re done telling the kids to get off your lawn, get on eBay and buy a used engineer’s hammer with a head that weighs 2-1/2 lbs. (or 1,000 grams for the metricated woodworker). Cut the handle down so it’s about 9” or so long below the head. Clean up the thing and re-wedge the head.

Then put it on your bench.

A metal hammer of this size will save your skin the next time an assembly freezes up during glue-up or won’t come apart. My lump hammer has rescued many workbenches, chairs and dovetailed joints from disaster because it can go almost anywhere and it always outpunches a wooden mallet.

Use it to set your holdfasts (and ignore the people who say you can’t hit metal with metal. Perhaps they’ve never driven a nail or worked on an anvil). Speaking of anvils, use the side of the lump hammer as a small anvil to set rivets or clench nails.

Then one day, when you’re feeling randy, try using it for mortising. Don’t swing it. Just drop it on your chisel handle. Set wedges with it. Swage hinges.

And because this isn’t a Ronco commercial, you can now use your imagination for some other bulleted items.

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You might be wondering: Why are we making a lump hammer if there are used ones (and cheesy new ones) available for less? For the same reason we make our own furniture when there are antiques and cheesy flat-pack furniture available for less.

And one more thing…. Nah, I’m gonna drink a beer.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Crucible Tool, Uncategorized | 49 Comments

Compensating for Movement

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This is an excerpt from “With the Grain” by Christian Becksvoort. 

With a background in forestry, wood technology, furniture construction and restoration and many decades of joinery, I’ve developed a system of case construction that fully allows solid-wood panels to move throughout the seasons. None of it is entirely original, most is borrowed from antique builders, some is common sense and a minute portion (expansion washers, for example) is my solution to age-old problems. No case I’ve ever restored utilized all of the described techniques, so this is more or less a compilation of the best joinery I’ve had the privilege to restore and learn from.

Once the panels are glued, sanded and cut to size, construction can begin. Edges need to be cut parallel and ends perfectly square. The best sides should be oriented toward the outside and so marked. Then rabbets are cut on the inner back edges to accept the case back. The joints to attach the top to the sides can be a screwed butt joint, single or double rabbet joint, through- or half-blind dovetails, or even a splined miter. If the case is to sit on an applied bracket base, the same joinery can be used for the bottom.

Before gluing the top to the sides, a bit of planning is in order. This is the time to cut matching dados and grooves for any interior dividers, shelves, or web frames to support drawers. If the case side runs all the way to the floor, the bottom is usually dadoed or secured with sliding dovetails 4″-6″ (10-15 cm) from the floor. In either instance, glue or screw blocks (shown below) should be used underneath to strengthen the joint. Once all the interior joinery is cut, the four sides of the case can be glued and assembled.

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A web frame (shown at top) consists of four or five narrow pieces dovetailed and mortised and tenoned together to support drawers. Although extra work, they do save both material and considerable weight. The preferred method of building web frames to give maximum support to the drawers, yet allow the cabinet sides to fully expand and contract, is as follows:

The horizontal side-to-side frame members have dovetails on both ends and mortises on the inside edges, right next to the dovetails. The front-to-back drawer runners are tenoned on both ends. The shoulder-to-shoulder dimension of the runners should be slightly less than the distance between the front and back frame members. On the case interior, there should be four short dovetail slots (two per side, to accept the side-to-side frame members), connected by a shallow dado, roughly 1/8″ deep (.32 cm).

To assemble: The front side–to-side piece is glued first. When the dovetails bottom out, the front of the case and the just-installed member should be flush. Next, glue is spread into the front mortises. Then the drawer runners are inserted into the side dados and the front tenon is slid into the front mortise, both left and right runners. Lastly, the back side-to-side frame member is glued into the dovetail slots. The back mortise and tenon are not glued. This allows the joint to telescope in and out, as the case sides expand and contract. The gap between the runners and the back frame member could be as much as 1/8″ to 1/4″ (.32 to .64 cm) if the panels are close to 14 percent MC, and will most likely shrink; smaller if the side panels are closer to 6 percent MC and expansion is anticipated.

A final word about case bottoms: If a solid wood bottom is used, glue blocks should be installed. If, however, a web frame is preferred to save weight, then a dust panel should be incorporated to seal the bottom. Grooves should be cut on the inner portion of the web frame, and a panel fitted during assembly to seal out dust and dirt. Generally speaking, dust panels are not required on other interior web frames.

At each step of construction the case should be checked for squareness. Small errors tend to accumulate if not rectified from the start. Before fitting the back, the case should be carefully checked to be sure it is square. Assuming that both sides are identical in length, and the top and bottom widths are the same, then simple diagonal measurements will point out any errors. Measure from the top left corner of the case to the bottom right, then from the top right to the bottom-left corner. If the two measurements do not match, a clamp between the two longer corners should pull it into position. Re-check the measurements before proceeding to build and install the back of the case.

Meghan Bates

Posted in With the Grain | 3 Comments

The Last Handful of Stickers

DISOBEY-StickerMy daughter Maddy says she has about 50 sets of stickers left. So this is the last call for this batch.

With Maddy moving to New England, she had to give up her Post Office box in Ohio (if you mail money to the old P.O. box it will be returned to you automatically by USPS). But she has kept up her etsy store. A set of stickers is $6 delivered. She also ships internationally.

After graduating from Ohio State University, Maddy is now in the working world and supporting a new kitten named Chickpea.

Also, for those of you who pay attention to stuff, Maddy made it through college without a penny of debt. That was thanks to her hard work, help from her parents and your help with her sticker business. You paid for many books, turkey sandwiches and (likely) a few beers.

Thank you.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments