When people who teach woodworking get together for a beer, there is an inevitable discussion that is about as fruitful as the pins-first or tail-first dovetail debate.
Here’s the teachers’ debate: Should woodworking classes focus on building skills or instead emphasize getting a project complete and out the door?
During the last 10 years that I’ve been teaching I have tried to see if I could do both – teach skills and “git ‘er done.” But I can tell you this: It involves a lot of yelling with a horrible German accent to make it happen.
This week I wrapped up a class with beginning woodworkers that was designed to teach 16 students a lot of basic hand-tool skills and also to build a traditional nailed-together tool chest using only hand tools. I think we almost succeeded at doing both. (Download all the plans and instructions for this chest for free here.)
The class was at Bridgwater College in Bridgwater, England, and put on by the New English Workshop. The class was offered at a very low cost (95 pounds for five days) to make it possible for young and aspiring woodworkers to afford. I think seven of the students camped during the week to save money.
Before I launch into some of the cool stuff we all learned, I have to thank Paul Mayon and Derek Jones of New English Workshop for allowing this class to happen. In the end, I think all three of us lost money on the class, but that’s OK. The students were thrilled with their new skills and their chest.
Day 1: Panel pandemonium. We had more than 60 panels to glue up for the chest but only about 20 or so clamps for the job. Solution: Spring joints. By hollowing out the edge of each joint with a handplane we could glue up each panel using only one clamp. The easiest way to do this is with a trick that Bob Van Dyke showed me: Clamp the lowest board of the panel in your face vise. Glue up the panel vertically in the vise and clamp it all up in the vise. It’s a brilliant space-saving solution.
Day 2: The day of the jack. Some of the stock we used had some variations in thickness, and some of the students had some panel joints where the seams didn’t line up perfectly. So we took a detour to the grinder to make more than a dozen newly minted fore planes with a radically curved iron.
Many woodworkers I teach are afraid of the grinder. But these students didn’t know to be afraid. It was nice to see them just step up to the machine and do beautiful work at their first go (you can do it, too).
Day 3: Rebates by saw, chisel and plane. After teaching hand-cut rabbets (rebates over here) for many years, I’ve concluded it is difficult to expect perfection on the first go. So I’ve switched to teaching cross-grain rabbets and dados using a fence, a saw and a plane to remove the waste.
This week we experimented with using a block of wood to press the sawplate against the fence. Every rebate wall was dead 90° as a result. I am quite happy with this technique. A few of us began assembling the carcase on day three but….
Day 4: I am so hammered. We nailed the chests together with hammer and cut nails. We imported some Tremont clinch roseheads for the job, but one of the students brought some interesting nails that looked exactly like a Roman nail but were machine-made. Crazy. More details on these nails after I find out where his parents bought them.
We also attached the shiplapped bottoms and learned about beading planes. Beading is a sickness. One of the students who likes modern furniture said: “I don’t want to like the bead, but I can’t help myself.”
Day 5: Finishing. Thanks to the hard work of one of the students, we were able to bring in some amazing casein-based paint that we tinted in class and applied with foam rollers. Lucky for us England has an industry that caters to the historic trades. So we bought the most amazing milk paint I’ve ever used for a small fraction of the cost I pay in the States. (I don’t have the name of the company with me – I’m in a hotel. When I find it I’ll post it here.)
The class was a bit tiring. Or let me put it this way: I’m looking forward to a relaxing time on Monday teaching a workbench-making course with hundreds of pounds of ash to throw around.
— Christopher Schwarz