Begin at the Bottom (or Back)

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Even on my final project – pre-worm-food – I’m sure I’ll remind myself to “begin at the bottom or the back.”

What does that mean? Basically, whenever I perform an operation that will be repeated, I start by working the least-visible area. In a blanket chest, that means dovetailing the least-visible back corner first. When fitting drawers, I begin with the bottom drawer (which is the hardest to see when you are standing before the finished item). When installing hardware, I begin with the hinge, plate or pull that is hardest to see.

This should be obvious to everyone all the time. But when I teach classes and observe other woodworkers, almost all of them begin instead with the most visible joint, drawer, hinge etc.

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Today I started installing all the strapwork and corner guards on this Nicholson three-tiered campaign chest. And I remembered to begin by first chopping out the mortises that will eventually face the wall. That allowed me to warm up and work out any details of my chopping and fitting process.

As luck would have it, these mortises (which no one else will see) also happened to be my most-perfect ones.

So drat. But still, always begin work at the bottom or back.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments

‘Frog Backs to Turkey Legs’

William Buttre trade label, 1813-1814. From the Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur.

High-backs, low-backs, ball-backs, sack-backs, crown backs. The terms used by chairmakers to describe the details of a chair are various and often confusing. The 1996 issue of American Furniture included a meaty article by Nancy Goyne Evans (author of many books and article on chairs) titled ‘Frog Backs to Turkey Legs: The Nomenclature of Vernacular Furniture 1740-1850.’

You can read the full article here.

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Furniture Styles, Historical Images | 3 Comments

Wisdom from the Verge

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“It takes half a fool to make chairs and a whole fool to make baskets.”

— Verge, an Appalachian chairmaker as quoted in “Craftsman of the Cumberlands” (University of Kentucky) by Michael Owen Jones

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

I’d be Lost Without Jack

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The handplane I use the most is the one that receives the least love.

My old Stanley jack plane, a $12 purchase at a Kentucky fair, has its original chipbreaker and iron, which is just about sharpened down to a nub. When I disassembled the plane yesterday I noticed that its iron was so dull that its edge looked almost rounded over. The chipbreaker was covered in sap. Even the lever cap had to be scraped clean of sticky debris.

I usually sharpen it only two or three times a year – more if someone asks me for a lesson in sharpening curved irons.

While some of you might be on the verge of calling the Abuse Line for Handplanes (800-241-TOOL), I can assure you that this is the sort of working relationship that jack planes love and thrive on. Even when slightly neglected, they work like crazy.

And my jack plane sees a ton of use, even on commercial jobs.

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This campaign chest I’m finishing up has three separate units for drawers, seven drawers and what seems like an acre of secondary/interior surfaces. When it came to cleaning up all these surfaces, the jack was my first and only choice.

I’d go broke if I smooth planed all the drawer bottoms – inside and out. These were glued-up panels, so they had to get cleaned up. And they had to fit perfectly in their grooves.

The jack does this work in one or (at most) two passes on a board. No other tool – electric or otherwise – can leave such a pleasant surface with that speed. That is, unless you prefer an #80 belt-sanded surface, which is honestly an option if you prefer power sanding – I don’t. (I’m sure some of you are saying, “But what about widebelt sanding machines?” Come talk to me in person, and we’ll chat.)

When my customer reaches into these drawers, he might feel the soft undulations left by the curved iron on the drawer bottoms. He might think nothing of it. Or he might think “huh, handwork.”

Here’s what I think when I feel those undulations: “Thanks, Jack.”

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Comments

Lump Hammers Back in Stock

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We have just delivered a big batch to our warehouse – you can buy yours here. If these sell out, know that we have a second big batch that is almost done. We just need to do some quality control inspections and package them up.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Crucible Tool, Uncategorized

An Uncertain Element

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It’s funny how words don’t change but the reader does. About 18 years ago, I can distinctly recall reading John Brown’s column titled “An Uncertain Element of Success” in Good Woodworking (April 2001, issue 107) and being blown away.

The column opens with a poem by D.H. Lawrence (who the heck begins a woodworking column with a poem?) and delves into a discussion of handwork and mistakes of the hand. Because the poem is about as good a chairmaking poem as you’ll find, here it is:

What is He?

What is he?
– A man, of course.
Yes, but what does he do?
– He lives and is a man.
Oh quite! But he must work. He must have a job of some sort
– Why?
Because obviously he’s not one of the leisured classes.
– I don’t know. He has lots of leisure. And he makes quite beautiful chairs.
There you are then! He’s a cabinet maker.
– No, no
Anyhow a carpenter and a joiner.
– Not at all.
But you said so
– What did I say?
That he made chairs and was a joiner and carpenter
– I said he made chairs, but I did not say he was a carpenter.
All right then he is just an amateur?
– Perhaps! Would you say a thrush was a professional flautist, or just an amateur?
I’d say it was just a bird
– And I say he is just a man.
All right! You always did quibble.

John Brown opened this particular column with: “A good friend told me about this poem.” And at the time I thought nothing of it. As it turns out, the “good friend” was Chris Williams, who is writing the book “The Life & Work of John Brown,” which we hope to release early next year.

Chris was more than just a good friend to JB, and he is a chairmaker who is both attached to John Brown through long history and is apart from him in a lot of ways. When we set out to publish this book about John Brown, the early discussions were to provide a woodworking biography of John Brown and show how his work had progressed incredibly since the publication of “Welsh Stick Chairs” in 1990.

What has transpired since is difficult to explain in words. Chris Williams is forever tethered to John Brown, and his forthcoming book will be true to the spirit and memory of this great man.

But what I have learned during the last four years of knowing Chris is that he is more than just an observer of the John Brown story. He is today a very different chairmaker than John Brown. Here’s my best explanation. I’m sure I’ll get it wrong.

Chris is forever indebted to JB. Every sentence he speaks about chairmaking is suffused with the foundation that JB laid. But Chris’s work travels in a different arc than his teacher’s. And this is at the absolute insistence of JB himself. You’ll see all this in Chris’s book.

In the meantime, read the poem a few more times. Scrawl it on the wall of your shop. And wait patiently for Chris’s book.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in John Brown Book, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Animals in the Workshop*

*Updated to correct fox-wedged tenon.

The natural world provides a huge vocabulary to help us describe what we do and make. Birdseye can be a pattern in maple, a textile and a chile. In the workshop, names of animals (or parts there of) are a shorthand to describe details on furniture, components of tools and workbench appliances.

With input from Chris Schwarz I put together a collage of animal-inspired woodworking features, tools and one misinformed rabbit.

You are free to print this, however, I can’t guarantee resolution on a very large print.

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Uncategorized | 27 Comments