When we set out to build a workbench for the Cincinnati Museum’s Center’s exhibit on Henry Boyd, I figured that Megan and I would do most of the work. Yes, we had invited the public to help, but usually that involves them heckling us: “I bet that would be easier if you had a nail gun!”
But these were Lost Art Press readers.
About 15 minutes after we unlocked the doors we had a small crowd in the bench room looking over the parts and my construction drawings. I glanced at Joe Grittani, one of our loyal local readers, and I asked if he’d saw the workbench’s aprons to shape. He took the panel saw from my hands and went to it.
I looked over at another pair of readers. “Would you plane up these legs?” They took my jack plane and went to it. Within a couple hours, we had entire teams of people sawing, planing, boring and nailing the parts of the workbench together. I had to put the brakes on the activity to make sure we didn’t finish it before lunch so that other people could help work on it.
For me, this felt like the first ray of sunshine since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Here we were, working as a community to build a workbench that would help educate others about one of the most important (and lesser known) black furniture makers in the Midwest.
During that morning, we talked about Boyd and the hardships he faced. And the historical stew of 19th century techniques, tools and materials we were using to make the bench so that it might have looked at home in Boyd’s workshop on Broadway Street in Cincinnati.
Sometime during that Saturday afternoon, we turned the bench onto its four legs, and I called the bench done (for now). I still have to clean up the joints and add a face vise and a planing stop. But the bench is solid and looks like how I envisioned it.
And the most surprising thing was how difficult it was to build: All I had to do was ask for help.
The following is excerpted from “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” by Christopher Schwarz – it’s a short sidebar from the chapter on building a staked sawbench (the sawbench, which also works as a stool, is more than a handy shop accessory; it’s a great introduction to making staked furniture of all sorts, including chairs).
There are historic furniture forms out there that have been around for almost 1,000 years that don’t get written about much. They are simple to make. They have clean lines. And they can be shockingly modern. This book explores 18 of these forms – a bed, dining tables, chairs, chests, desks, shelving, stools – and offers a deep exploration into the two construction techniques used to make these pieces that have been forgotten, neglected or rejected.
You can build an entire houseful of furniture using these two methods – what we call “staked” and ”boarded” furniture. They are shockingly simple for the beginner. They don’t require a lot of tools. And they produce objects that have endured centuries of hard use.
But this isn’t really a book of plans. “The Anarchist’s Design Book” shows you the overarching patterns behind these 18 pieces. It gives you the road map for designing your own pieces. (Which is what we did before we had plans.)
Once you own a pair of sawbenches you will wonder how you worked without them. Even if you don’t do much work with handsaws, sawbenches are handy platforms for projects in progress, stacking parts and sitting on while you work.
But most people use them for handsaw work. Here are some tips on sawing with them. If your sawbenches are different heights (even slightly) then work on the tall one and use the shorter one to support your work. If you work on the shorter one, your saw will constantly get pinched in its kerf.
When crosscutting on a sawbench, your legs are the clamps. Bend your off leg and rest it on top of the work on the sawbench. Pull your dominant leg up to contact the work (if possible) so the work presses against your leg.
Now you can saw the piece and it will remain stable. Your off leg supplies the downward pressure. Your dominant leg prevents the work from sliding laterally as you saw toward yourself.
I’m not a fan of ripping on sawbenches. I prefer to rip at the bench. If you do need to make long rips on the sawbench, I find it best to have three sawbenches: one to work on that is between a second that is infeed support and a third that is outfeed support.
One style of French ripping has the worker sitting on the work on the sawbench. Note that the saw’s teeth are pointed away from the operator.
I use my sawbenches for many other operations. One of my favorites: I place an assembled carcase on two sawbenches and brace the carcase against the workbench. I can then easily plane the carcase to level its dovetail joints or whatever is sticking up. Or, if that doesn’t quite work, the sawbench can be a spacer between the carcase and the bench.
James Krenov (1920-2009) was one of the most influential woodworking writers, instructors and designers of the 20th century. His best-selling books – starting with “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” – inspired tens of thousands of people to pick up the tools and build things to the highest standard.
Yet, little is known about his life, except for a few details mentioned in his books.
After years of research and more than 150 interviews, Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney has produced the first and definitive biography of Krenov, featuring historical documents, press clippings and hundreds of historical photographs. Gaffney traces Krenov’s life from his birth in a small village in far-flung Russia, to China, Seattle, Alaska, Sweden and finally to Northern California where he founded the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program (now The Krenov School).
“James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints” brims with the details of Krenov’s life that, until now, were known only to close friends and family.
In the fall of 1981, 22 students arrived at the new building at the end of Alger Street in Fort Bragg to begin the first year of The College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program. The small shop was equipped with all of the elements Hoke and Kavanaugh had procured to Krenov’s specifications. The northern end of the building housed a wood room with two bays (one for exotic woods and one for locally sourced lumber), a small office, a supply room, a bay of lockers that would be swapped out for a small kitchenette after the first two years, two bathrooms and a neutral entry space that housed a table for informal lunches and the school’s library of craft books. In the middle of the building was the heart of the school, a large bench room, outfitted with 22 new cabinets, stools, bench lights and workbenches. Through the back doors on the eastern side of the bench room was a small field that backed up onto a bluff overlooking Pudding Creek; out of the front doors on the western side was a small yard, in which a volleyball court would soon be installed. Through double doors at the southern end of the bench room was the machine room, housing a number of new machines: a drill press, an 18″ planer, a large jointer, band saws, mortisers and table saws. These were joined by a few of Krenov’s machines from his basement workshop in Bromma: a small planer, jointer, band saw and combination table saw/mortiser.
The school’s layout and arrangement would hardly change in the coming decades. A small outbuilding for storing air-dried planks and a small finishing and storage room attached to the southern end of the building would be the only significant additions to the building’s footprint through the years. The environment built out in that first year remained almost unchanged over the next four decades, visiting alumni often remarking on the time capsule-like quality of the space.
Down the eastern and western sides of the bench room, carefully placed windows and skylights allowed a flood of natural light, raised above the level of the tool cabinets and out of a direct line that would cause unwanted glare. Each source of natural light was outfitted with a shade that could be drawn to cover the window, allowing for slide presentations and more controlled lighting when work was exhibited and photographed. At the front of the bench room, just inside the main entrance, was the teacher’s bench, where Michael Burns, Crispin Hollinshead, Robert Lasso and Krenov would begin lecturing and teaching.
The first cohort to attend the school came from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like Paul Reiber, were local craftspeople, thrilled at the prospect of an affordable education in fine woodworking, not necessarily drawn to the program by Krenov’s presence. Others, like Hoke, had upended their lives to come to study with Krenov on the remote Mendocino coast, and many had been excitedly awaiting the program’s opening. There was an overwhelming feeling among the first class that they were a pioneering group, entering at the ground floor of what was, by all accounts, a new kind of woodworking program. Nationally, the school was novel in its affordability, being a community college education. Furthermore, Krenov’s name and reputation would be a unique draw for the school, one that would save another key expense in opening such a program: advertising. Krenov’s presence would prove to be enough to attract a wide audience, augmented in part by the thriving local craft scene and the craftspeople relocating to the area. Furthermore, the program was affordable. For California residents, the program cost $100 for the two-semester program; for out-of-state attendees, the program was just more than $3,000, well less than the tuition of established programs elsewhere.
In addition to its affordability and high standards, there was also the emphasis on Krenov’s “quiet expression and enjoyment and sensitivity,” as he told a reporter covering the new program. That emphasis was different from other schools. It was more concerned with personal pursuit and enrichment, and acknowledged that it was not strictly vocational training for professionals. While there was an air of excitement and novelty in the introductory year, it was attenuated by the consideration that the school’s faculty and students were still gaining their footing. Hoke, Burns, Hollinshead and Lasso were learning Krenov’s process and peculiarities. There was little disagreement among the faculty about Krenov’s work and philosophy, but each of the faculty members was still learning how to interact with Krenov as a colleague. Krenov could inspire and raise the spirits of a student doing his or her best work, but it was often the other instructors who would bolster those students struggling with the high standards put forth by Krenov’s demanding eye and approach. Krenov made no attempt to disguise his judgment of the choices made by students, and encouraged them to pursue the same rigorous and uncompromising goals he had set for himself.
“A woodworker first must learn the alphabet,” Krenov told the Sacramento Bee in 1986, speaking about his prescribed steps in beginning a woodworking practice. “Then a little spelling, then a little grammar. Then maybe you will write a little poetry.” Krenov was wary of some students’ desire to move too quickly, or to begin exploring less conservative or traditional approaches. To temper this overextension, the first projects were limited in scope; they had to be “simple, small, solid (not veneered) and ‘sweet.’” Students who arrived with the aim of studying with Krenov had a wide variety of impressions of the man they met. Those with the most idealistic impression of Krenov’s philosophy were often surprised by Krenov’s forceful emphasis on technique and an unwillingness to compromise his standards when applied to student work. In the environment of the Mendocino coast, which proffered an egalitarian philosophy of inclusion, Krenov’s teaching style might have been perceived as an older and more “top-down” approach. Of course, the school had been built around his presence, and he was explicitly placed as the lead instructor and lecturer at the school.
“Some of them clearly had difficulty dealing with Krenov’s sometimes temperamental nature, especially after having formed an image of him based on his writings,” wrote Paul Bertorelli in his 1983 comparison of Krenov’s and Wendell Castle’s different teaching approaches for Fine Woodworking. “‘I think we all went in expecting a guru of woodworking,’ [Ken] Walker said, ‘but we found Jim to be a real person with all the same problems, conflicts and idiosyncrasies as the rest of us.’”
Michael Burns became a source of encouragement for students who had difficulties with Krenov’s critique; while Burns held a high standard and perception of the work the students could attain, he also took on a role of mediator and motivator. When a student encountered resistance or a negative critique of their work from Krenov, Burns often invited them out to the back of the school for encouragement or a beer.
“Most of his students, once past the first terrors of His Judgments, just call him Jim,” Glenn Gordon wrote in his 1985 profile of Krenov and the school for Fine Woodworking. Those who were able to endure Krenov’s demanding standards and frankness in feedback were rewarded by his talents as a lecturer and his “ability to enable students to do their best,” as one alumnus of the school remembers. Many students from the first years encountered a sensitivity and passion in his teaching that bolstered and raised their own considerations of what they could accomplish. In Krenov, they saw the spirited and impassioned craftsperson from the books, no less idealistic in person. Many came with the expectation to work in concert with Krenov’s philosophy and approach, and accepted a narrower focus of aesthetics and processes closely aligned with Krenov. Krenov did not demand that students emulate his exact aesthetic; in fact, he was often most critical or demanding of students who reproduced his designs, which rarely met his standards.
“If you’re going to do something that someone else has done, because you really like it, then maybe the best thing to do is not to tinker with it too much and start from scratch instead,” Krenov would later say in a 1994 lecture. “Just say, well, okay, I’ve got this thing in the back of my head, but what I’m gonna do is going to be different enough, and good enough, to where it will stand on its own and it’s not just a bad imitation.”
This delightful 1935 film documents several aspects of the chairmaking trade in Great Britain with a knowledgeable narrator and some great shots of people at work in the forest and the workshop.
Titled “Chair Bodging and Chair Making in the Chiltern Hills,” the film begins in the woods as bodgers break down tree trunks into leg blanks that are then turned and dried in their camp. This aspect of chairmaking – as a form of romantic camping – is on full display here.
Though it’s obviously difficult work, the bodgers seem to be enjoying the process. Some of the best shots include them tapping a beech tree to get water for their grindstone. And making tea using the scraps from the work.
From there the film moves inside, first to a small shop that makes legs both by splitting the work and sawing the blanks out with a circular saw. Finally, the film shifts to a more mechanized factory setting that shows a giant reciprocating saw for making seat blanks. Plus some nice handwork at the bench and some assembly.
Don’t bother turning on the film’s automatic captioning (well do, if you have been drinking and want a laugh).
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Hat tip to Andy Uhl for pointing me to this film, which I have somehow missed before.
If I owned only one set of woodworking books, it would be the four texts edited by Charles Hayward that we titled “The Woodworker: The Charles Hayward Years Vols. I-IV.” These four books cover everything – and I mean everything – that you need to get started in woodworking and to grow as a craftsman.
I’ve been woodworking for nearly 30 years, and when I have question about how to do a certain operation, these books are where I turn.
Collecting this information into the four volumes was an epic tale in itself. The four books are made up of the best magazine articles on handwork from The Woodworker, a British woodworking magazine that Charles Hayward largely wrote himself. We had to comb through 30 years of monthly magazines and sort out the best articles. Organize them. Scan images and retype the articles and then assemble them into these huge volumes.
Of all the tools in the kit the saw is probably the most difficult to control, and it is certainly the most easily damaged by abuse. Remember that, apart from proper handling, a saw should not be given work for which it is unsuitable.
Since the general modern practice is to buy prepared timber ready cut to size the need for many saws has passed. Still, it is necessary to be prepared to do a certain amount of cutting up, and a cross-cut handsaw is advisable.
Handsaws. If you propose to have one saw only, the panel saw is probably the best investment. If you can have two (and it is better) choose a panel saw and a larger cross-cut saw. The latter will do for the general cutting up of larger timber—you can use it for ripping with the grain as well as crosscutting. It is rather slower at this than the ripsaw, but most men are agreed that the latter is an unnecessary expense nowadays.
For the cross-cut select a saw of about 26 ins. length, with a tooth size of 8 or 9 points to the inch. It will cut quite fast enough for the limited amount of cutting out you need to do, yet it is not so coarse as to tear out the grain. Fig. 2, A, shows the overhand method being used to rip out a set of stiles. Cabinet makers usually prefer this as it is less back-aching than bending over trestles.
The panel saw comes in for a good many jobs. Its fine teeth make it far less liable to splinter out the grain, a feature specially valuable when sawing across the grain of brittle hardwoods. For the same reason it is invaluable for thin wood which would probably split if a coarse toothed saw were used.
Plywood again can be sawn with it without danger of the layers being forced apart. Another use is that of sawing the larger tenons—in fact, it can be used for any of the work for which the tenon saw would be too light. A 20 in. length with a teeth of 12 points to the inch is a good all-round size.
Back Saws. These are required for the general bench work of cutting smaller pieces of wood to size and sawing joints. The blade is of a finer gauge than a handsaw and the teeth are smaller so that it makes a much finer cut. It is kept stiff by the iron or brass back. You need two; a tenon saw and a dovetail saw. The former is used for all the larger bench work sawing. A length of 14 ins. is recommended and a tooth size of about 14 points to the inch. Lighter work is done with the dovetail saw; dovetails, small mitres, in fact, any job requiring a fine cut. A small saw—say, 8 in.—with extra fine teeth is recommended. It might have 20-22 points to the inch. This will give it an extremely fine cut, making it ideal for small joints, but take care that it is not abused by giving it work which is too heavy.
Bow and Padsaws. These are needed for cutting shapes, and of the two the bowsaw is infinitely the better tool. There are, however, one or two jobs for which it cannot be used, and it is for these that the pad or keyhole saw is needed. First the bow saw. The exact size does not matter a great deal; a blade length of 12 ins. is a good average size. Its advantage is that, since it is kept taut by the tension of the cord at the top which is twisted tourniquet fashion, the blade can be narrow, this enabling it to negotiate quick curves. Furthermore there is no danger of its becoming buckled by the pressure put upon it. It can be used for internal cuts because the rivets holding the blade can be withdrawn, enabling the blade to be passed through a hole.
The only restriction is that it cannot be used internally at a distance from the edge greater than that between the blade and the centre bar. For this work the keyhole saw is necessary. This has necessarily to have a somewhat coarse blade because it has nothing beyond its own stiffness to keep it straight. The rule in using it is to give the blade the minimum projection consistent with a reasonable stroke. It helps to avoid buckling. A typical everyday use is that of sawing the lower part of a keyhole after boring the hole at the top. Here it would not be worth the bother of threading in the bow saw for two short cuts.
It is not advisable for the reader to sharpen his own saws—he will probable do more harm than good unless he has had some experience. A common practice is for cabinet makers to sharpen their own saws twice and then to send them away every time after that. The point is that if a saw gets into bad condition-uneven teeth and so on-the sharpener charges more to put it right, so that it is not an economy in the long run to do it oneself. This applies specially to the saws with small teeth.