Simple American

Another in my series of posts related to kitchens

Making Things Work

Hiestand kitchen in progress Nearly ready for paint. This cabinet is in the kitchen of a 1915 house. The casework is made from formaldehyde-free, American-made veneer-core plywood with solid maple doors, drawers, and finished panels. The counters on this and its partner across the room are reclaimed heart pine finished with Osmo Polyx oil. In the interest of having this cabinet in particular flow seamlessly into the original fabric of the kitchen, I replicated the top section of the window trim to use as a crown.

The other night I arrived home from my current kitchen job in Indianapolis to find a piece of mail from a friend. Inside was a clipping from the New York Times of November 7 titled “Craving a ‘Downton Abbey’ Scullery.” I gave the article, written by Penelope Green, a quick read; it deals with last year’s opening of a stateside showroom for British cabinetmaking company Plain English.

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‘Welsh Stick Chairs’ Available in the U.K.

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You can now order the Lost Art Press version of “Welsh Stick Chairs” in the U.K. and Europe through Classic Hand Tools in Suffolk. Classic Hand Tools is currently taking pre-orders and will ship those out when the books arrive there (we hope in December).

We are also offering this book to our distributors world-wide, though I don’t have any information on if they have agreed to carry it.

We are especially happy that the book can now be purchased in Wales, which is where John Brown was from and where he wrote this important little book.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Who is the Father?

Plate-14

Plate 14. St. Fagans. “Pura Wallia …” These three arm-chairs are all of similar type: (a) is from Caernarvonshire; (b) from Cardiganshire, and (c) from Radnorshire. They represent a total Welshness from the mid 18th century.


This is an excerpt from “Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown. 

Tracing the provenance of individual country chairs is a complicated business, probably with few exceptions, impossible. There is no scholarly standard work to refer to. Chairs with similar characteristics are found in different parts of the country (Plate 14). They cannot, with any certainty, be regionalised. Carmarthenshire, with large areas of good farming land and a high proportion of better houses, is known for the quality and elegance of its locally-built furniture. Chairs found in the county, whilst unmistakably Welsh, have a greater sophistication than those made in the more remote parts further north (Plate 20). Dating Welsh stick chairs is very difficult. Whether these Carmarthenshire chairs were made concurrently with their more ‘folk art’ cousins from further north is difficult to say, but it looks as though they might have been. There is the possibility of another regional style. Some Welsh chairs have a wide lozenge- shaped seat, with only three or four untapered, heavier long sticks at the back. This type appears to come from the north (Plate 8, a & c).

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Plate 20. St. Fagans. A pair of chairs from Carmarthenshire, probably dating from the last quarter of the 18th century.

As the standard of living improved, throughout Wales primitive furniture and chairs were made. By whom and for whom it is difficult to say. For certain, these items did not find their way into the squire’s house and they were almost entirely rural. The one thing about the chairs is that they all fulfilled the strict definition of ‘Windsor’, in that they grew from a solid wooden seat, having legs and sticks socketed into that seat. The termination of the long back sticks was normally a comb, that is a piece of wood, sometimes curved, sometimes straight, into which the tops of the sticks were mortised. Rarely, a few later chairs have a steamed bow or hoop (Plates 16 & 20). Many of the chairs terminated at the arm, that is the rear sticks did not come up to the level of shoulders or head. These arm-chairs, quite common, are the forerunner of the smoker’s bow or captain’s chair (Plate 14).

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Plate 8. St. Fagans. (a) and (c) are examples of chairs which seem to come from mid to north Wales and have three or four heavy untapped sticks; (b) is a handsome chair with a slightly ‘saddled’ seat. Chair (d) has great charm, and has been ‘modified’. The heavy arm and turned posts are interesting.

What is it that makes these chairs so attractive that now they have become highly sought after collectors’ items? Could it be some extension of the old Celtic art which makes them so appealing? – a naive folk art uncluttered by association with the contemporary urban styles. Many characteristics of the design are extremely good, and represent what we look for today in a well proportioned chair. The most obvious feature is that the legs are set well into the seat with a good rake. The English chair has the legs at the corners, and they are more upright. This is not so elegant. Stretchers to strengthen the legs were sometimes used; there seem to be no rules. When English goods and ideas reached the country village, the rural craftsman was influenced to use some design, and some of the chairs began to lose their spontaneity (Plate 16).

Plate-16

Plate 16. Windsor Handbook. This chair illustrates what happens when a country-maker tries to copy his more sophisticated cousins. This is an English chair, made in Wales.

Rural poverty and religious bigotry have triggered much migration of Welsh people, mainly to the New World. In the 1670s, Quakers from Montgomeryshire and Meirionethshire were central to the formation of Pennsylvania. William Penn’s deputy was a Welshman called Thomas Lloyd. Later came the ‘Welsh Tract’ and, in 1786, it was claimed that there were over 900 Welsh Baptist chapels in Pennsylvania and the adjoining states. Welsh shipowners ran a continual service between Pennsylvania and Wales. From north Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire large scale migrations took place to the Welsh Liberty settlement. Printing in the Welsh language went on in Pennsylvania into this century.

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Plate 15. “Windsor Handbook.” The English chair. Wallace Nutting was very unkind about this chair. There are much worse shapes of English Windsor. This one is quite nice. Note the splat.

Throughout the United States, Windsor chairs are much more widely seen than in Britain. Furthermore, they are to be found in the best parlours. The class distinction does not exist there. In court-houses and banqueting rooms, hotels and country clubs, American Windsors are in all the best places. There are many unique American-designed Windsors, and the industry or craft started in Pennsylvania. This in itself would not be important were it not for the fact that in two respects American Windsor chairs are similar to Welsh stick chairs. Firstly, there are no splats in the back of either sort. The splat is peculiar to English regional chairs and Wycombe chairs. Secondly, a common feature is the rake, or splay, of the legs. A collector of American chairs, the Reverend Wallace Nutting, wrote a book on the subject in 1917. He illustrates a bow-back English Windsor chair with a pierced splat (Plate 15). Under ‘merit’ he says, “The English Windsors lack grace. Observe how stubby and shapeless the arms are. The bow is very heavy without being stronger for its purpose than a lighter one. The splat is peculiar to the English type. The legs are a very poor feature. They are too nearly vertical, and start too near the corner of the seat for strength or beauty, and their turnings are very clumsy …” The oft repeated statement that American Windsors derive from the English chair could be in error. For historical reasons, and because of similarities in design, there seems to be a more direct link between the Welsh chair and the American Windsor. Perhaps the English version is the cousin, and the Welsh chair is the father!

Meghan Bates

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Clean & True Critical Surfaces of a Jack Plane: Part 2

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My normal schtick on fixing up an old jack plane goes something like this:

Me (showing a jack plane to someone across the room): “Hey, does this sole look flat to you?”

Student: “Uh, I guess so?”

Me: “Then it’s ready to go to work.”

The above is a bit of hyperbole, but it is mostly true. Jack planes require the least amount of tuning to work really well. The reason? They take a coarse shaving, so the sole doesn’t have to be particularly flat for them to perform their duties. If you are in a hurry, you can usually grind and hone the iron and just go to work.

But I love my jack plane, and so I like to do a little work so that the controls move smoothly and the parts fit together nicely. If you think this is an admirable goal, read on.

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A clean and oiled screw for the brass adjuster makes using the plane a much nicer experience.

Disassembly & Cleaning

Most jack planes have had a hard life and have had shavings and dust rammed into every possible orifice. A simple cleaning works wonders.

Take apart the entire plane. If something can be unscrewed, unscrew it. Remove the frog, the knob and tote. Unwind the blade-adjustment nut all the way (it likely will come off). Remove the screws that affix and adjust the frog.

Now fetch some cleaning tools. I use an old toothbrush, a coarse brass-bristle brush and some sort of liquid – Simple Green, mineral spirits, machine oil, WD-40 or anything else that is metal-friendly. Scrub the parts first with a toothbrush and solvent. Then use the brass-bristle brush (soaked with liquid) to clean the threads of every screw down to bare, shiny, lovely metal.

If the tapped holes in the plane are filled with gunk, clean those out with a bristled brush and some liquid. Bare metal is the goal.

Lubricate the screw threads with a light coat of machine oil.

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Usually the frog isn’t much of a problem. But a little flattening doesn’t hurt. Here’s my progress after 5 seconds on #80 sandpaper.

Check the Frog

The frog of your jack plane is its heart. The bedding surface for the iron needs to be flat or perhaps slightly concave from end to end. If it is convex, the cutter might (or might not) chatter.

Before you get your panties in a wad about flattening the frog’s bedding surface, it’s important to understand what’s important about the cutter. Does the cutter need to be perfectly bedded on the entire iron? No. Does the cutter need to be bedded at two points on the frog? Not in my experience (though I used to think this was true). What’s important is that the cutter, chipbreaker and lever cap are all bedded tightly to the frog in the area right behind the mouth of the tool. If the cutter is secured there, you’re probably going to be OK, even if it’s not in full contact on the rest of the frog.

Lucky for us, the way a plane works helps ensure that cutter is firmly held exactly where it needs to be firmly held. The lever cap presses everything down at the right spot. So even if you have a crap-ish plane, you can tighten the grip of the lever cap to get the tool to work. The problem with that super-tighten-this strategy is that when the lever cap is really tight, you cannot adjust the position of the cutter. That is a pain.

My goal is to tune the plane so you can both easily adjust the cutting depth and the cutter won’t chatter. I have found that flattening the frog’s bedding surface helps me achieve my goal.

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The completed frog surface.

Remove the screw in the middle of the frog (if you haven’t already). Rub the wide, flat surface of the frog on a diamond stone, coarse sharpening stone or some #80 paper stuck to a piece of granite. Flatten it as best you can (the lateral adjustment mechanism will get in the way of doing this easily). This is quick work – cast iron cuts quickly – and the work can only help the tool’s performance.

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I can feel if the frog and back of the mouth are perfectly aligned on both sides of the mouth.

Attach the frog to the plane’s body. Position the frog so the tool’s mouth will be quite open. But don’t position the frog so far back that the plane iron cannot sit flat on the frog. For me, I position the frog so it is in the same plane as the back edge of the plane’s mouth. This position ensures that the iron will have free movement and will sit flat on the frog.

Tighten the frog’s screws tightly. Many people skip this step (by accident). Attach the the plane’s tote and front knob. Assemble the iron and chipbreaker. Secure them with the lever cap. Adjust the adjustment screw in the center of it all so that the cutter will move but is still held tightly.

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So this is a little meta – I’m using a printout of this story to check the flatness of the plane’s sole. Copy paper is 3.5 thou thick. Not sure where my feeler gauges wandered off to.

Check the Sole

I hesitate to wade into this thicket. Does the sole have to be NASA flat to work? No. But if I had to choose a plane with a flat-ish sole or an unflat sole, I will choose the flatter sole every time. Bottom line: A little flattening doesn’t hurt. And it might help.

But before you rush out to buy some of the this, that or the other supplies for flattening a sole, give the sole a good gander. Here’s how.

You need a metal straightedge and feeler gauges. Retract the iron so it’s not in the way. Place the plane upside down in a bench vise and squeeze it just enough to hold it in place. Place the straightedge on the sole of the tool and try to fit a .002” gauge under the straightedge at various locations. Move the straightedge around.

After a few pokes with the feeler gauge, you will know what the sole looks like to a .002” feeler gauge.

Switch to a .004” feeler gauge and repeat the test. Then a .006”. Now stop. You now know where the low spots are on the plane’s sole. If you have low spots that a .006” feeler gauge can find (many planes do not) then you might consider flattening the sole a bit.

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A 36″ length of marble threshold ($9 at the home center) is an excellent plate on which to affix your sandpaper.

Here’s how I do it. Please note, I am not a machinist or pretend to be.

Go to the home center with a nice straight steel 12” ruler and visit the tile section. Find a cheap pile of 12”-square granite tile (usually $4 or less), or a piece of granite threshold (about $9). Probe the pile and search for one tile that is flat. It won’t take long.

Go to the sandpaper section and buy some belt sander paper intended for stainless steel. Usually #80 grit is good. Go to the adhesive section and get some aerosol adhesive (3M makes some). Pay for it all.

At home, adhere the sandpaper to the tile. Now you can flatten plane soles so they are good enough for woodworking. Rub the sole on the sandpaper. Use circular and linear motions. Check your work with the straightedge and feeler gauges. You should be able to get the sole quite flat in less time than it takes to get a pizza delivered.

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The sole after 15 seconds of flattening. It was pretty much dead flat to begin with.

Clean the sole with oil and a rag. You probably have some grit and crap inside the frog now. So take apart the whole tool, clean it and wait for my next installment on sharpening the iron and preparing the cap iron and chipbreaker.

— Christopher Schwarz

The Jack Plane Series

The Jack Plane You Really Need: Part 1
Clean & True Critical Surfaces: Part 2
Grind the Iron & Fit the Chipbreaker: Part 3
Set Up & Use: Part 4

 

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More Classes – Here & Abroad

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All my classes at the Covington, Ky., storefront are full (I highly recommend you join the waitlist here – people’s lives can change dramatically in a moment). But I now have classes in Germany and Florida that have opened their registration for 2020.

All of these are classes that I’ve never taught before (always fun). Here are the details:

Japanese Siding-lid Box, Feb. 22-23, 2020
Florida School of Woodwork, Tampa, Fla.

In this class we’ll make a reproduction of a Japanese sliding-lid box I measured while I was overseas. It’s a fun project to make. Though the joinery is simple – finger joints and steel dome-head nails – the real challenge is keeping all the details crisp and producing beautiful surfaces.

Staked Worktable, June 30-July 4, 2020

Dictum, Niederalteich, Germany

The Staked Worktable from “The Anarchist’s Design Book” is one of my favorite original designs. And I’m excited that Dictum has agreed to run this course. It’s a bit of a challenging project because of the sheer scale of the materials – large legs, large compound-angle mortises and some big sliding dovetails. The class takes place on the grounds of a beautiful monastery in Niederalteich, Germany.

Introduction to Chairmaking, July 5-8, 2020

Dictum, Munich, Germany

This four-day class is a solid introduction to making contemporary chairs using traditional methods. We’ll get into basic steam-bending, compound-angle joinery, tapered mortise-and-tenon construction and saddling a seat. Because we are building a side chair (instead of a more involved armchair) the pace will be less brutal and we’ll be able to explore alternative methods throughout the week. The classroom is in the heart of Munich, right by a large train station with lots of places to eat and things to do. So bringing your family might be a good idea.

In the coming weeks, I hope to announce three more classes for 2020 – two in the United States and one in the United Kingdom. We are still working out the details, and then I’ll announce them here.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Reminder: Storefront Open Tomorrow

DTsThe Lost Art Press storefront is open tomorrow (Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019) from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. for all your woodworking questions and holiday (or personal) shopping needs (in addition to the Lost Art Press books, we have a Crucible Tool lump hammer or two, some scrapers and burnishers, and five holdfasts).

Brendan Gaffney has a chair (or nine) on which he’s working, and I’ll be finishing up the tills on the XL Anarchist’s Tool Chest I’m making for a customer, then – depending on how busy we are – installing the hinges on the lid, and the rest of the hardware. And possibly mixing up some milk paint.

At 2 p.m., I’ll give a free presentation on cutting through dovetails – and tricks for fitting them. (I promise there will be no Shakespeare jokes.)

And late in the day, it’s possible the globe-hopping Christopher Schwarz will make a brief appearance (but only if his plane is on time and he’s not too tuckered out).

We’re at 837 Willard St., Covington, Ky., 41011.

— Fitz

p.s. Plus a reminder that tomorrow and December 14 are the last days on which the storefront will be open until June 13, 2020 (we’re planning to be slightly less busy 2020).

p.p.s. Yes, I know those pins in the picture are far too far above the Moxon vise…but the piece is almost as tall as am I, so no choice.

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An Introduction to the Construction

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Here is an English-style set-up for mortising. The handscrew grasps the workpiece plus a second block that is pinched in your face vise. Like many of the best techniques, this one I learned from a traditionally trained woodworker.


This is an excerpt from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” by Anon, Christopher Schwarz, and Joel Moskowitz.

When I decided to build the three projects featured in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” my plan was to assume the role of Thomas W., the book’s young apprentice. I was going to venture forth with a tabula rasa in hand and discard the woodworking knowledge I’d accumulated since childhood, including my preferences for certain techniques and tools. And I would simply build the three projects as Thomas did, and see what I could learn by spending about five months in his shoes.

But as with all projects, things rarely get built “to the print.”

As I started building the Chest of Drawers, which took more than two months of nights and weekends, my youngest daughter started following me whenever I would traipse down the stairwell to my workshop below our living room.

Katy, 8, would watch me work, clean up behind me and ask questions. Then one day as I was paring out some garbage from between some dovetail pins, she asked if she could try it. I handed her the chisel, cradled her hands in mine and let her feel what it was like to slice the end grain of American black cherry.

After making five or so cuts together she asked to do it herself. It was like the time I let go of the handlebars while teaching her to ride a bike. My hands hovered over hers and my mind raced. What the heck was I thinking? Did I think I could catch the chisel before it dove into someplace it wasn’t supposed to go? Surely, I thought, one of us is going to the emergency room this evening.

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Some of the tools of the English joiner from Peter Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion” (1832). Note how the blades of the backsaws taper or cant from heel to toe.

Nothing bad happened. Katy pared close to the baseline, and I told her I would finish the job. She asked if she could borrow a saw and wood to practice at the far corner of my bench while I finished up. I agreed.

And it was at this moment that this whole book changed. Throughout the rest of the project I treated Katy as much like an apprentice as I could. She warmed the hide glue. She assisted with glue-ups. She kept the shop clean.

But most of all she asked an endless stream of questions about planes, saws, chisels and wood. When I didn’t have anything for her to do, she would practice planing or sawing on some scrap pine. I kept watch over her out of the corner of my eye and would correct a wayward stance or grip. When I performed an operation, such as sharpening my smoothing plane, I let her watch. Then I asked her to imitate me and sharpen a block plane blade.

I didn’t dive deep into the theory behind everything. I just showed her the best practices I knew, with all the shortcuts and warnings I could think of. Theory, I figured, was something that could come with later study on her part.

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All of these tools are essential to building the three projects in this book. Perhaps the most important tool is the workbench. Shown is the famous English workbench design from Peter Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion.”

It wasn’t long before I realized I should take a different tack with my contribution to “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.” Instead of merely mimicking Thomas’s behavior, I decided to expand my reach. Yes, I would cut dovetails the way that Thomas did. But I would also cut dovetails the way I was taught. And I would compare the approaches and examines the advantages and disadvantages of each.

There wouldn’t be any way I could turn the book into a survey of all the joinery methods out there (that would be a much longer book). But I could offer this book as a guide for my daughter and other woodworkers who wish to explore hand work through two sets of hands.

Here in these pages is what I have learned during my long internship as the editor of two woodworking magazines. As a guy who has gotten to visit the shops of fantastic woodworkers all over the world. As a guy who reads old woodworking books like they were written by Dean Koontz.

And here also is how one anonymous but knowledgeable writer thought woodworking and joinery should be done circa 1839.

There are lessons to be learned from both approaches. And Katy, I hope that by the time you are old enough to read this that you are able to decide for yourself how to go forward in the craft.

Meghan Bates

Posted in The Joiner & Cabinet Maker | 7 Comments