The Son of Roy Underhill’s Mallet

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During the last class I taught at The Woodwright’s School, I think Roy got a little bored or restless. And so he asked: “Would you like me to make you a mallet?”

The answer was, of course, “Heck yes, please.”

And so Roy spent an afternoon making a mallet for me out of a chunk of live oak (one of my favorite species) as I taught the 12 students to build a Dutch tool chest. After a few hours of sawing, mortising, rasping, chiseling and finishing, Roy presented the mallet to me.

It is, of course, one of my favorite objects. I have put it to good use and, thanks to a defect in the wood, I broke off a corner of the head. No matter. Tools should be used, and so I use the other face of the mallet’s head to hit things.

In case I destroy this mallet, I took some careful measurements and made a copy in maple. I call it the Son of Roy Underhill’s Mallet. It is identical in every regard except for the species of wood and the amount of use it has seen.

And because I have been too long away from this blog, I present the plans to you for Roy’s mallet. Free of charge.

Here are the sizes for the head and the handle:

Head: 2-3/8” x 3-3/8” x 5-3/8”
Handle: 1” x 1-5/8” x 14”

You can download a pdf drawing of the mallet here:

underhill Mallet

Here are a few details not discussed on the drawing.

  1. The striking faces of the mallet head are the same angle as the tapered mortise, approximately 2.1°.
  2. The chamfers on the handle are 1/4” x 1/4”.
  3. Chamfer the top and bottom of the handle. These chamfers are 1/8” x 1/8”.
  4. The grain of the handle and head should be dead straight throughout. And free of knots and defects.
  5. The mallet is finished with linseed oil.

It’s a mighty fine mallet. Balanced in the hand and to the eye. Making one takes an afternoon of pleasant work. And doing so cements your lineage to Roy.

— Christopher Schwarz

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‘Making Things Work’ (A Review)

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I read most of Nancy R. Hiller’s “Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life” in the laundromat. Our washing machine was broken, parts strewn all over our basement floor while we tried to figure out the problem. Forgive me, as I realize what I’m about to say next is very much a first-world problem, but I missed having a working washing machine. I have three children and we’re thick into the stains of summer: dirt, grass and popsicles. Suddenly, lugging overflowing laundry baskets down our tight basement steps (oh the dreams I have of a first-floor laundry room!) seemed downright luxurious.

But, I was making things work.

I love a good memoir. I tend to overshare (sometimes rather unfortunately) so I deeply respect gritty honesty. We currently live in a world of filtered Instagram posts, our lives made beautiful, easy, golden even, with a few clicks. None of the essays in Nancy’s collection are filtered. She strips away the gloss, highlighting the truths of furniture making. She writes:

“We may do what we love every day, to paraphrase the marketing pitch of a well-known school, but as with most long-term love, ours deepens from the passion of new romance to the mature familiarity of marriage: sometimes tedious, occasionally exasperating, as much taskmaster as muse. Passion, after all, is equally about what we bear as what we embrace.”

Nancy’s tales of jobs, clients (oh, the clients!), living conditions, working conditions, employees, the minutiae of (solo) business-owning and business-running, romance, learning, personal growth, worry and problem-solving allow you to immerse yourself into the life of a talented cabinetmaker who has managed to make a living—and life—out of bettering and beautifying client’s homes with her hands, her skill, her craft.

I thought of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” while reading Nancy’s book, everything I’ve read by David Sedaris, and Nick Offerman was exactly right when noting the predicament in how one should shelve Nancy’s book: fine woodworking? Philosophy? Self-help? Etiquette? Religion? For “Making Things Work” is one of those rare reads that could easily be found in anyone’s bookshelf. Woodworker? Must-read. Small-business owner? Must-read. Graduate? Must-read. Artist? Must-read. Feminist? Must-read. Collector of fine, handmade furniture? Must-read.

Maybe it’s because I’m currently immersed in the philosophical writings of the late Charles Hayward, but Nancy manages to do what I believe many woodworkers, in particular, feel but sometimes can’t quite express: the way we work, the way we make things work, speaks greatly about who we are and how we live. Nancy’s anecdotes of a cabinetmaker’s life, her life, speaks to all of that. Because behind all the humor, flaws, talent and grit in each of her essays lies a simple truth: “It’s all problems.” How we approach our problems speaks much more about one’s self than ingenuity. And when problems do arise, we should only be so lucky to have a Nancy at our side during something as small as a tricky installation or as big as a leap of faith—if not in person, then in spirit, in the form of mantras extracted from this book.

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How I ‘Met’ John Brown

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I never got to meet John Brown. Truth be told, I didn’t hear of his name until several years after his death. But I’m starting to feel like I know the man.

My first introduction to John Brown, and to Welsh Stick Chairs, was as I imagine it was for many woodworkers, a blog post Chris wrote. These unusual chairs were nothing like I’d ever seen before – theirs was a dynamic form, suggesting a feral energy coiled within the sticks, waiting to spring out. I was intrigued, but at that time focusing on lutherie, so I mentally filed the chair away for another day. A little over a year later and John Brown was again mentioned on the Lost Art Press blog, this time in the context of his influential, if hard to find, book Welsh Stick Chairs. Then I bought a copy of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and opened the cover to find a dedication to John inside. I was just starting to think about building furniture in addition to my usual workshop diet of lutherie, and my interest was piqued, but I still knew precious little about John or his chairs.

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All of that has changed in the past twelve months since I joined the team for the Life & Work of John Brown. The chairs still fascinate me, and I cannot wait to start building some with my co-author Chris Williams. And I feel that I am starting to know John a little. Over the past year we have combed through all of John’s articles for Good Woodworking, his book (yes copies are still out there if you search for them, yes you will get gouged for a tatty second hand copy), his article for Fine Woodworking, and his correspondence. All of this is a great starting point for getting to grips with John’s passion for hand tool work, his vision of the Anarchist Woodworker, and the importance he placed in the Welsh-ness of his chairs. But all of that only presents half a picture – it tells you how John perceived himself and his work, a perspective which is incredibly important. But unless you have exceptional self awareness, your writing and correspondence will never tell the reader how other people perceive you.

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And so I’ve spent the weekend on a research trip to deepest Pembrokeshire, where John spent many of his chair making years. This trip has been revelationary, giving my understanding of John context in terms of both space and relationships – we saw the house he lived in when he first started building Welsh Stick Chairs, and the countryside that he wrote so passionately about in Good Woodworking. We also spent time with some of John’s family and friends, talking about John’s path as a woodworker and chairmaker, and his motivation and philosphy in craft, trying to understand the man behind the Anarchist Woodworker. One of the joys of carrying out interviews is not just answering the big questions you came armed with, but the incidental details, or stories that you never thought to ask. Yesterday I sat in a Welsh kitchen, enthralled while John’s first wife unveilled the very first thing John had made from wood – a simple lidded cotton box held together with small tacks, and which is still in use today. It was a powerful reminder that even great makers do not start out building masterpieces – they have to start with simple projects just like the rest of us.

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There is a responsibility when writing about someone other than yourself. To write with integrity, you must approach the subject both sympathetically and honestly, critically but without judging. Above all, it must be accurate. In many ways this is not dissimilar to researching and writing history (one of my very first loves), only in a much more modern setting. Tracking down answers to our questions, and uncovering what should be a rich and vibrant narrative, is thrilling. We won’t be writing a full biography of John Brown – that would take several volumes, and much of it is not relevant to John Brown the chairmaker. But as someone who’s craft was more than just what he did with his hands, he is in many ways indivisible from his work. And so we are going to tell the story of Chairman Brown, and to hopefully prompt a well deserved re-evaluation of his impact on the craft.

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Yesterday would have been John Brown’s 85th birthday – a fact that I did not learn until after we arranged the field trip several months ago. But it felt very apt that on what would have been his birthday, I finally saw several of John’s chairs in the flesh for the first time. Running my hands over the smoothed arms, feeling the rough-sawn surface of the underneath of the seat, and yes sitting in, John’s chairs transformed for me a lot of his writing from abstract concept to real craft. These chairs have power, very much like the words of the man who made them. This is a power, and an ethos, which we hope to convey in the Life & Work of John Brown.

I cannot wait to bring you all along for the journey.

— Kieran Binnie, Over the Wireless

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Over the Wireless

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I never got to meet John Brown. Truth be told, I didn’t hear of his name until several years after his death. But I’m starting to feel like I know the man.

My first introduction to John Brown, and to Welsh Stick Chairs, was as I imagine it was for many woodworkers, a blog post Chris wrote. These unusual chairs were nothing like I’d ever seen before – theirs was a dynamic form, suggesting a feral energy coiled within the sticks, waiting to spring out. I was intrigued, but at that time focusing on lutherie, so I mentally filed the chair away for another day. A little over a year later and John Brown was again mentioned on the Lost Art Press blog, this time in the context of his influential, if hard to find, book Welsh Stick Chairs. Then I bought a copy of The Anarchist’s Tool…

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Live and Learn

Making Things Work

Some people have the vague notion that when you’ve been a woodworker for decades, you know how to do everything. If only. No one knows how to do everything. Experience in a variety of techniques may be transferable to new forms, but just because a technique will work does not mean it’s especially good in structural or aesthetic terms, let alone efficient to use in specific circumstances.

When faced with a woodworking mystery–say, a look I want for a finish, or some convincing 3-D effect I’d like to produce in an 1/8-inch-deep relief carving–I like to try to answer the question for myself before I seek the answer from others. The effort of thinking a problem through will often give me deeper insight into methods others recommend, and it’s especially satisfying when I find that “my” method is the one used by other woodworkers I respect.

I’ve enjoyed a few…

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The Sad Tale of Tom Turkey

Making Things Work

Warning: The following is not about woodworking, so if you wish to limit your reading to that subject, you may prefer to substitute an installment of Routers I Have Loved (my personal favorite was my 1980 Elu) or wait for Chris’s next post about Roman Workbenches (which I am, in all seriousness, eagerly anticipating). This anecdote was excised from Making Things Work on the grounds that too much of a good thing is, well, sometimes too much. It will be included in a future collection. Also, you probably won’t want to read this story while eating.

A few days after Thanksgiving, my phone rang. “Oh, hello, Nancy.” It was Andrew, my client at the time. His tone was suspiciously cheerful considering our recent contretemps over the installation of his 1.6 gallon per flush toilet.*

“Look, I hate to ask you, but there’s no one else I can call. I had…

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Little Wooden Boxes

Ink well, New Kingdom, Egypt. H-4.5 cm x L-12.2 cm x D-5.6 cm (1-3/4″ x 4-13/16″ x 2-3/16″). British Museum.

I like to study the everday objects on display in museums and my favorites are the small boxes and containers used to hold all manner of things: keepsakes, love letters, poison, cosmetics and so on.

In ancient Egypt many of the little boxes recovered from tombs were used to hold various cosmetic pastes used by women and men (aka guyliner).

Duck box, New Kingdom, Egypt. H-9.5 cm x D-9 cm x W-15 cm (3-3/4″ x 3-7/16″ x 6″). British Museum.

Boxes were often carved into animal forms with decorated swivel tops secured with wooden pins. The incised wings of this duck-shaped box swing out to reveal the interior.

Plant life was also an inspiration for the shape of these boxes.

Cucumber box, New Kingdom, Egypt. British Museum.

The cucumber still has green pigment in the grooves providing another detail on the amount of work that went into these boxes. The dimensions are: H-3.5 cm x D-7 cm x W-3.5 cm (1-3/8″ x 6.9″ x 1-3/8″).

Middle Kingdom, Egypt. MetMuseum.

Not all the boxes were carved or extremely small. This joined box has a sliding lid and is one of the larger ancient Egyptian boxes in this line-up. The interior has three holders probably for glass vials. The dimensions are: H-18 cm x L-24.5 cm x W-15.5 cm (7-1/16″ x 9-5/8″ x 6-1/8″).

As noted above the boxes from Ancient Egypt were found in tombs and were made to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. They were also items of luxury made of imported woods, ivory and faience.

Round cosmetic boxes, New Kingdom, Egypt. MetMuesum.

Two boxes of similar design: wood on the left, ivory on the on the right. Both with pinned swivel lids and compass-incised designs. The dimensions of the wooden box, including the tabs, are: H-5 cm x W-12.2 cm, base diameter-4.8 cm (1-15/16″ x 4-13/16 cm, base diameter 1-7/8″).

Duck box, all sides, New Kingdom, Egypt. British Museum.

The last box before springing into not-as-ancient times is titled the Trussed Duck. I prefer Resting Duck. It is an extraordinary shape. If I were to order a duck box to hold my mascara, or rather kohl, I would not think to order it in the shape of an entree for dinner. For such a small package it has incredible detail. Dimensions are: L-10.8 cm x W-5 cm (4-1/4″ x 2″).

Greco-Roman or possibly Coptic, Egypt. British Museum.

Another joined (and very petite) box with a sliding lid. Dimensions are: H-5.5 cm x D-4cm x W-4.5 cm (2-3/8″ x 1-9/16″ x 1-1/2″).

Turtle box, 7th-century, Thebes. MetMuseum.

The Met Museum does not identify this as a turtle box, but that is what it is. The box is carved with both top and sides incised. Here again, the lid swivels to the side but we have the addition of  the turtle’s head acting as the closing mechanism. Dimensions are: H-5.4 cm x W-14.9 cm x D-7.3 cm (2-1/8″ x 5-7/8″ x 2-7/8″).

If, like Chris, you might have inadvertently squashed a brother turtle on the roadway you should probably make this turtle box.

Kerala salt box.

Moving on to India and a very traditional box for the kitchen. Although the box is not dated it is likely 19th- or 20th-century. The box is carved in the shape of a leaf and the pin for the swivel lid is topped with a bud.

Masala-dabba spice box.

Another box for the kitchen from India, dated 20th-century. The interior is divided to separate the various spices used on a daily basis in Indian cuisine. I’m telling you, that swivel lid has worked for thousands of years.

Birchbark and cedar box, 19th-century. MetMuseum.

This is a Micmac box from Ontario, Canada with etched birchbark sides and cedar base and lid. The bark is sewn with reeds. The Micmac are an Algonquin-speaking people.

Nutmeg box, 19th-century, English. Opus Antiques.

Keeping a pocket-sized nutmeg box was the thing to have in the 19th century. A small dusting of nutmeg was added to any dish needing just a bit of spicey sweetness. One nutmeg was stored in the bottom section, the grater was the middle portion, then the top went on. Some people (my mother) sneak nutmeg into a dish (eggplant parmigiana) and then laugh when others (me) can’t figure out why my dish tastes different. The dimensions are (the box, not my mother): L-7 cm, diameter at top-2.5 cm (2-3/4″, top diameter-1″).

From Denzil Grant Antiques.

Whomever made this pallet for the artist was a very good friend indeed.

Earlier in the year I wrote about a 2,400-year-old heart-shaped box recovered from a shipwreck. One of the archaeologist involved in the research figured out how the box was made. You can read about it here.

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Historical Images, Personal Favorites | 8 Comments

FEATURES IN FURNITURE: CARVINGS AND TURNINGS

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FIG. 1. EXAMPLES OF EARLY CARVING. (A) Early Gothic, XIV or XV century. (B) Incised Work. (C) Jacobean. (D) A Favourite Tudor Ornament. (E) Simple Tudor Edging. (F) Elizabethan Design in Low Relief.

This is an excerpt from “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years: Volume IV” published by Lost Art Press.

From the earliest pre-historic ages man has tried to express himself in some form of decoration, first in flint and then in wood. To a large extent he is dated and the degree of his culture determined by what he has left to trace his existence.

Woodcarving has been a feature in every civilisation, and all through the centuries we find that days, weeks and often months might be spent on the knife decoration of some weapon, tool, paddle, or domestic utensil. It is interesting to note, however, that, when carving first became a recognised craft in Europe, it was devoted to church woodwork long before it reached the humble home. In our own country little carved furniture can be traced further back than the sixteenth century although many earlier church coffers, chests, and seats with carved decoration are to be found.

Just, too, as woodwork design was borrowed from models in stone, the carpenter in his carving followed the prevalent Gothic mode. Early Tudor carving is almost exclusively Gothic in character (Fig. 1, A and B). Occasionally we find crude representations of figures, or of horses, deer, or birds, and sometimes a medallion with a bas-relief head; but as a rule the carver, timid of freedom, restricted himself to geometrical patterns (Fig. 1, C, D, E). Of these there is a great variety, many showing marked ingenuity, but it was not till the Elizabethan period that we have something of the freedom indicated in the type of design shown at F. The “linenfold” panel had been common from an earlier period, but in Elizabethan times cupboards, buffets, four-post bedsteads were freely carved, the bulbous form of pillar and leg (Fig. 3, K) being a feature of the period.

Throughout the different periods it is instructive to note how well adapted the decorative carving was to the general design. In early Tudor days the carpenter trusted largely to simple incised work or gouge cuts, and little was attempted in the way of modelling. Even during Queen Elizabeth’s time carving was kept in low relief, and it was not till the somewhat heavier Dutch influence was felt in the Jacobean age that we find bolder scroll and leaf work.

Mouldings were freely carved, their differing contours offering scope for individual enterprise. As the tool kit developed work tended to become more delicate, till in time certain cabinet makers specialised in carving. The amazing work of Grinling Gibbons in the the seventeenth century may be regarded as exceptional. Influenced by Italian and French modes he was, in a sense, before his time, and no other English woodcarver has ever reached his fame. The brothers Adam introduced a new technique towards the end of the eighteenth century, and their delicate husk festoons and pendants in conjunction with graceful vases, paterae and fluting are more typically British than any other form of decoration bequeathed to us (see Fig. 2).

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FIG. 2. TYPICAL FRIEZE OF THE ADAM PERIOD (LATE XVIII CENTURY) Note the use of severe fluting in contrast to the free husk ornament. Adam chimney pieces were almost invariably treated in this way.

Has the carver disappeared? Practically so—at least for the moment. During the nineteenth century he had to rely chiefly on the designer who, discarding earlier British motifs, showed a leaning towards the conventional and more elaborate Italian models. The introduction of manufactured pressed carvings shocked the purist; and later, when “strip detail” came to take the place of hand-carved mouldings, the craft became suspect. This, with the high cost of labour after the 1914 war, drove the woodcarver from the field—an irreparable loss till, perchance, the world again becomes rich.

Turning. There can be little doubt that, to the potter’s wheel, we owe the origin of wood turning. The earliest form of pole lathe, too, has lingered to the present day and may still be found in our woodlands. In the development of wood turning one point to observe is that it did not follow architectural features in stone so closely as, say, cornices, pediments, and mouldings. The craftsman soon discovered that, in wood, much more was possible than in stone. Thus, unless the design was definitely based on some architectural model, the woodworker struck out on a line of his own. This became more noticeable when domestic furniture came to be decorated. On ecclesiastical woodwork the line of the architectural column, tapering from plinth to capital, was followed; but, even from early Tudor days, we find that, in the case of turned legs, the taper was inverted. This is seen in examples such as A, B, E, G and H at Fig. 3. When, however, the turning took the form of a baluster (see D) the taper was usually reversed, or (as in K) the columnar part kept throughout at the same diameter. This freedom from the rigidity of classical Greek and Roman models has been a feature in turning down through the centuries.

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FIG. 3. TURNED WORK DURING THE VARIOUS PERIODS. (A) Early Tudor. (B) Elizabethan (also Flemish). (C) Jacobean Twist Turning. (D) Jacobean. (E) William and Mary Period. (F) Chippendale Grouped-Pillar Leg. (G) Leg of the Adam Period. (H) Delicate Sheraton Leg. (J) Split Turning (Jacobean). (K) Elizabethan bulbous column.

In an article which is a mere sketch it is impossible to do more than indicate the features of different periods. Examples, however, are well worth close study whenever one has the opportunity. Very few people understand the problem involved in planning a graceful piece of turning. Everything depends of line and proportion. One thing to remember is that the diameter is the same from whatever angle the column is viewed. On paper, in elevation, a 2 in. square leg looks the same as a turned one of 2 in. diameter; but, when seen from an angle in the finished piece, the turned one appears to be only about two-thirds as heavy as the other. This the designer often overlooks, although he is more apt to make the square leg too heavy than the turned one too light.

The early craftsmen played for safety, and thus in Tudor, Elizabethan and early Jacobean days we find turnings of the “bulbous” type which bordered on the heavy side. A change emerged during the reigns of William and Mary and Queen Anne, till, later, Sheraton gave us examples which, in delicacy, have never been surpassed. Early Stuart work came largely under Flemish influence, but the typical Jacobean “twist” turning, continued through Queen Anne’s reign, gave us a form which has ever since been popular. The nineteenth century failed to produce any new pleasing model, the tendency being to accumulate members without any real meaning. Mass production rather cheapened the craft, furniture makers finding it easier to purchase a set of stock legs than to turn new ones from designs of their own. For this reason it is well to keep before us the old models in which every detail was considered in its relation to the whole piece.

Meghan Bates

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