My daughter Katherine and I have just completed shooting and editing a short and free video on how I sharpen a card scraper. This technique works for both curved and rectangular scrapers.
This video shows a slightly easier way to deal with the faces of the card scraper. Several years ago when I started studying the burnishing of wood and other organic materials, I started wondering if a carbide burnisher was able to smooth and polish steel to the degree that fine sharpening stones do.
After a few years of experimentation with this technique, I have concluded that it works. And it works really well. I have stopped stoning the faces of my scrapers. So now my technique is to:
Burnish the faces of the scraper to fold any hook or burr up onto the edge of the scraper.
Stone the edge with a #1,000-grit waterstone to remove the fatigued metal and to cut a square and sharp arris (aka a corner). Then polish the edge with a #5,000-grit waterstone.
Burnish the faces of the scraper to polish the steel faces and start deforming the metal up to the edge to make the cutting hook easier to turn.
Burnish the edge with the burnisher parallel to the floor and edge of the tool.
Tilt the burnisher 7° to 10° to turn the cutting hook.
After sharpening hundreds of edges, I can report that the burnisher polishes the steel like a mirror. And the edge continues to improve with every sharpening as the polish improves on the faces of the tool.
I haven’t tried this with high-speed steel (HSS) burnishers, only the carbide ones. So feel free to experiment yourself. I suspect the HSS burnishers will work fine, as long as they are harder than the steel in the scraper.
Most people who write books (at least, books of non-fiction) give some thought as they write to who their readers will be. For authors, it’s partly a matter of doing our best to convey as clearly as possible the particular kinds of information our readers will likely find useful. It’s also important for marketing.
Even so, few books are intended for just one kind of reader. “Kitchen Think” has much to offer anyone interested in kitchen design, regardless of whether you’re planning to remodel your kitchen. There are hundreds of luscious images to enjoy, rich in practical ideas and inspiration. The book will certainly be of interest to homeowners thinking about remodeling their kitchen, with analysis of areas that typically present problems and suggestions for how to enhance the pleasure of work involved in preparing meals. “Kitchen Think” offers a wealth of information and assistance for those new to remodeling, but it also has a few hard-won gems for those with a career of professional work behind them. And as a book for Lost Art Press, there’s also hands-on guidance, with chapters on how to start thinking about a remodel all the way through to how to build and install cabinets.
One type of reader who stands to gain a lot from the book is the spare-time woodworker who wants to build her or his own cabinets. So we made sure to include among the case studies a woodworker who fits into this category (or did, before she lost her job to downsizing and attended a nine-month intensive training at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and started her own business, Denise Gaul Design). Denise Gaul and Alice Collins hired me to help with their cabinet design, reworking an impractical and uninviting layout. They chose quartersawn teak for their face species. Once the cabinet drawings were complete, they remodeled the kitchen, doing most of the work themselves. They tore out the cabinets and counters, jackhammered up the tile floor and gutted the room to the studs. Then Denise built the new cabinets over several months, installed them and acted as general contractor for the flooring, electrical and plumbing subs.
I was 16 when I started my apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner in 1986. I had an early passion for woodwork – or at least I enjoyed woodwork at school (it was probably the only subject I enjoyed). I was fortunate in that my employer had a joiner’s workshop as well as a team of both bench joiners and site carpenters. My foreman took an instant liking to me, which was fortunate. He had done his apprenticeship just after World War II with a local village carpenter. His master had also been the undertaker and wheelwright in his village. I can remember looking into his wooden toolbox with awe. His tools were nothing like the tools I had been given by my employer. A Stanley No. 8 was like a giant compared to my No. 4. Boxwood-handled chisels; mine were blue plastic. Various handsaws all with wooden handles. I was curious about all of these hand tools and eager to learn how to sharpen and set them proficiently.
The workshop was fully mechanised but, on reflection, quite basic. The bulk of the work was the construction of box sash windows in the Georgian style – and always made to match the existing ones. On reflection it was an interesting mix of power and hand tools, which was definitely unusual for the time. It was a good grounding for the future.
During one of my terms at the local technical college, I took out a book from the library on furniture making by Aldren A. Watson. The book stirred something inside me, and I started to get interested in furniture making. But I was unsure what I wanted to make. I remember well buying my first lathe at 17 and teaching myself how to turn in the garden shed. Peter Child’s book “The Craftsman Woodturner” was a godsend to me at the time because I didn’t know anyone who turned.
Nearing the completion of my apprenticeship, I also had a possible promising rugby career ahead of me. But then I told my father that I didn’t want to play rugby anymore. As punishment, the garden shed was locked so I couldn’t do any turning. My solution: I unscrewed the shed roof and climbed in. My father shook his head, and he later left me and my mum for good. This, in turn, had a profound negative effect on me and, for various personal reasons, I left my employer. Anxiety was to be a constant shadow from that point on.
I spent a few years doing various carpentry jobs, but I was somewhat lost and depressed. It was at this point whilst at a local sawmill I was told of a man in Pembrokeshire who made chairs by hand and had no electricity. He went on to tell me about how the chairmaker ran a band saw off an old tractor and was a real character. I was intrigued, but my life carried on as normal, going from job to job as an itinerant tradesman – totally uninspired with the work.
I started to tinker with cabinetwork while using my mother’s kitchen as my workshop. My bench was the kitchen table, along with a Black & Decker Workmate as a vice. I decided to build a chair, but as to what type I had no idea. I knew that elm was a chair timber, so I rang the sawmill to see if they had any. I soon found myself in familiar territory in Pembrokeshire, humping large planks of timber around and rejecting lots of it. My few years in the workshop told me that planks come in 9″ x 2″ etc. and were mostly flat and sound. I quickly learned that local native hardwoods were anything but, and they were difficult to find and process.
During that visit, the sawmill owner told me over a cup of tea about “John Brown,” the mythical wild man and chairmaker. At last I had a name! John Brown was a customer of the mill owner and had recently bought a large amount of elm. I was told that he had written a book about chairs, plus where in Pembrokeshire he lived and sold his chairs. I learned of his Fordson Major tractor that ran his band saw and about how difficult he could be.
This time I was hooked! On my journey home from the mill, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could learn more about John Brown and his chairs, and possibly get to meet him. It would, alas, be several years before that happened.
The Book ‘Welsh Stick Chairs’ I decided to head west again to North Pembrokeshire, where I was told that a gallery in Fishguard sold John Brown’s chairs and copies of his book, “Welsh Stick Chairs.” I was in my early 20s by then. I still didn’t know who I was or where I was going. I was Welsh, insecure and awkward in speaking to people (particularly intelligent ones). But I knew that I had a calling, and I needed to make this trip.
I entered Workshop Wales gallery in Fishguard and felt completely out of my depth with all of the artwork on show. Fortunately, I was the only customer. I shuffled around the gallery nervously, but could see neither a chair nor a book. I heard footsteps and then a voice: “Can I help?”
I mumbled that I had come to buy a book on chairs. I was told they had sold out of both the book and the chairs. The voice was John Cleal, the owner and resident artist. Cleal picked up the telephone and rang John Brown – sometimes we call him “JB” – to ask him if I could call at his home to pick up a copy of his book. I almost ran from the gallery in horror. I couldn’t possibly meet this guy. I wouldn’t know what to say.
I stuck it out and was told that the bookshop in Newport would have the book. I thanked John Cleal and left. It’s a short journey between the towns, yet a spectacular one. The sea is visible for large parts of the journey, with the formidable Dinas mountain on the other side. I reached Newport, parked the car and went for a cup of tea in the cafe. I found the bookshop on the main street and headed in. I held the door for someone, and because I was nervous, didn’t pay much attention to the person.
I was greeted by the owners, who were very welcoming, and asked how could they help. I asked for a copy of “Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown. I was shocked when they replied, “That was John Brown who had just left.” He had just dropped off a box of books. I was slightly taken aback, yet relieved not to have met him.
Tony and Eiry at the bookstore started telling me about JB and that they had a bought a chair from him. Did I want to see it? I was ushered into a side room where this chair sat, like a vision to me. I was in awe of it and of the whole situation. I forget how long I was in the bookshop, but I ended up going home with my copy of “Welsh Stick Chairs” safely in the car and a head full of enlightenment. It’s strange how one chair, a man and some woodwork can help find a happy place in your brain, and that it’s somewhere you can go to visit when times are difficult. These three things in no doubt changed the course of my life.
I read the book over and over, trawled through the photos again and again. I started to purchase Good Woodworking magazine, where JB wrote monthly columns. It was nail-biting stuff, waiting to see what he would get up to each month. His writing was like a monthly fix, but more like a healing rather than a high.
Considering how wistfully many adults talk about youth, you’d think it really was carefree.
Was your youth carefree? Mine wasn’t. Aside from the usual complement of jobs, household chores and emotional Sturm und Drang, I was beset by concern about ecological devastation from the age of about 8, and about war and violence of all kinds. How can your heart not be broken by news of people being killed at a wedding or while having a pint at the pub, or wild animals dying in a human-caused conflagration?
Beyond this, the clear horizon of seemingly endless possibilities that causes so many adults to wax nostalgic about youth felt more like a burden to me. How should I plot my course when I had no idea what I “wanted” to do? What would be an ethical and meaningful way to make a living? As I went from one job to another, I quickly got a feel for the work that didn’t suit me. But it was far more difficult to imagine a line of work I might be capable of pursuing over the long term that would give me a sense of contributing, somehow – and one that wouldn’t quickly become depressingly routine.
A recent conversation with a young furniture designer-maker in England revived these memories and reminded me how glad I am to be (gulp) 61. Harriet (“Hattie”) Speed contacted me after she read Making Things Work – she wanted to interview me in connection with her project This Girl Makes. I looked up the website; it was clearly a worthwhile endeavor with which I’d be glad to help out. But when she sent a list of questions, each carefully related to an excerpt from the book, I was blown away by her thoughtfulness and how keenly the book had resonated with her. For example:
“Did you go through the mid-twenties crisis (as I am experiencing)? E.g. doubting yourself and your chosen career, questioning if you are ‘enough,’ losing motivation, falling out of love with making, feeling disenamoured with the ‘scene’/the ‘industry’?”
Excerpt from Making Things Work: With this change came a creeping return of the perfectionism I’d cultivated during my City & Guilds training. “Is this good enough?” I’d asked Mr. Williams in those days, handing him my latest effort at a dovetail or miter. In his soft Welsh accent he always threw the question back to me: “Do you consider it good enough? If you need to ask the question, you most likely know the answer.”
Perhaps you were expecting something technical: “Invest in a SawStop” or “Tails before pins.” With me, it’s always more existential.
I couldn’t help thinking this person would make a great career counselor (or shrink). And I was intrigued by what she’d revealed about her situation. As someone who gets her share of correspondence from woodworkers of all ages asking for my thoughts about going into furniture making as a livelihood, I sometimes feel like a therapist saying it’s OK – and in many cases, better – to save woodworking for your spare time. Fortunately, Christopher Schwarz agreed that as a thoughtful young person with formal training and an impressive list of awards, who is finding her way in the world as a woodworker, Hattie would make a good profile for this series.
Hattie was born in Hexham, Northumberland, a town Wikipedia describes as dominated by Hexham Abbey, a Gothic confection constructed in the 12th century. The youngest of three sisters, she came along in 1995. For her A-level studies (the rough equivalent of junior and senior years in high school in the States) at Hexham High School, she did Product Design. Her first project was a light; the second, a chair. It was the chair that hooked her. She wanted to make furniture.
She took his suggestion and went through a three-year bachelor’s of arts training in furniture design and making. To cover the course fees (each year of tuition at Rycotewood cost her £6,000-£7,000), she got a student loan. Hattie was one of three women in her year, some of them mature students (i.e., older than the typical students, who were recent high school grads or in their early to mid 20s). “I think that’s why it was such a positive experience,” she remarks; “there was such a mix of ages and backgrounds.” She learned as much from her peers as from the tutors.
She describes the training as “very traditional.” Hattie was particularly influenced by tutor Dr. Lynn Jones, who’s best known as the designer of a chair for breastfeeding women. “Her approach is so specific to each person she works with, she really listens and tries to understand who you are and what you are about,” she says of Dr. Jones. “She would often give me advice on projects I was doing alongside my studies, which meant her guidance was really holistic and I was able to benefit from resources outside of the college. It was also one of the first times I had met another woman in furniture, who shared my aesthetic style and love of resourcefulness! I guess we just clicked. She is now a very good friend. I must say though that all the staff at Rycotewood were VERY good and very committed to my learning – [it’s] worth mentioning Joseph Bray, the course leader; John Barns, the machine-training tutor/jig maker extraordinaire; and Drew Smith, CAD and design tutor.”
The training was also quite competitive. “I felt I really had something to prove,” she says. “College taught me resilience, as I hadn’t done furniture making before,” she wrote for a testimonial on the Rycotewood website. “I kept trying, and eventually got up to a good standard. The tutors and staff are really amazing.” She spent the summer holidays following her first year at Rycotewood gaining work experience at Robinson-Gay, and told Stephen that he had changed her life.
The training at Rycotewood focused on hand tools to start, after which students added small equipment such as biscuit joiners. Following this basic training in techniques, they moved on to projects that involved designing and building to briefs. Her projects included bedside cabinets, a pair of reading stools called “HINNY” and “Corkey’s Cabinet,” her final design-build project, which she partnered with a related 5,000-word dissertation.
“Corkey’s Cabinet” explored how craft can help those who have been bereaved, a subject with which Hattie has personal experience, having lost her father when she was just 14. She designed and built a collector’s cabinet for keeping mementos of a loved one, the whole thing constituting a kind of therapy. “It ended up winning quite a few rewards,” she says, adding modestly, “so that was quite good.” Quite good, indeed. Rycotewood has its own annual award for graduating students; she won best in show. She also won best in show for the Young Furniture Makers Award that year. Following these exhibitions, she showed the piece as part of a show of furniture and artworks in wood at Messums Gallery, a contemporary arts center housed in a jaw-droppingly lovely 13th-century tithe barn and adjacent dairy barn in the rolling hills of Wiltshire.
After this series of high-profile exhibitions, the prize-winning collector’s cabinet currently lives in her room, where the frame serves as a clothes horse and the top stores makeup.
Hattie lives in a shared house in Oxford with three others. In a few weeks she’ll be moving to a larger house with 10 occupants that she calls “a sort of art commune-type thing. I met the girl that set it up when we started a punk band that ended up being quite short-lived, but I went on to meet other people in their community.” When a room became available, Hattie jumped at the chance to be part of the household.
For now, she has two part-time jobs. One will be familiar to many graduates of furniture making courses: on Saturdays she teaches furniture design and making to young people at her former college, Rycotewood. Her other job is less typical: three days a week, she does therapeutic woodworking with patients at a neuro-rehab center that’s part of the National Health Service. She’s typically working with in-patients who have suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries, as well as working with out-patients who experience other neurological conditions, such as MS. “There is a real mix; some patients are in wheelchairs and have good cognitive function, whereas others may have good limb function, but might struggle to communicate or have difficulties with vision or spatial awareness.” The workshop is in the ward; she collects the patients from their rooms and brings them to the workspace. They have a few set projects – a bird box, for example, a trinket box and a picture frame – and are encouraged to be creative in how they personalize them. Those who wish to customize their work are free to do so. They use a hand-powered miter saw for the cutting; the frame ensures it’s well within the capabilities of even those in lower-functioning cognitive states. “It’s pretty impressive what you can achieve,” Hattie remarks. “I find it really interesting as a designer-maker. You’d think it would be repetitive, but each person’s different, and the way you go about doing things is different for every person. It’s a form of therapy, so you get to learn about [them] and talk with them. It’s really social.”
But let’s go back a bit. After graduating from Rycotewood in 2018, Hattie took a job as a design engineer at Ercol, one of England’s best-known furniture manufacturers, which has been around since the 1940s and is still a major provider of home furnishings today. Ercol is a big supporter of Rycotewood; they do a lot of live projects, which says something about the company’s interest in staying relevant as tastes and ideas about furniture change. The chairman and head of design were at Hattie’s graduating show; she caught their eye because she won three awards. (It’s hard not to make an impression when you keep being called up to the stage.) When she saw a job opening in the design team, she applied, a move for which she credits a furniture designer friend, Alys Bryan, whom Hattie met during her first year at university; Alys, too, was a student of Dr. Jones.
By way of illustrating the gulf between what many imagine the job entailed and its reality, she offers the following: “’Oh, you’re a designer!’” friends would say. “No, actually, I’m a design engineer,” she’d reply; “I’m looking at what kind of screws we’re going to need.” As middle-person between the designer and the production team, she prepared technical drawings and did modeling on CAD, helped with bills of materials and sent them to the purchasing department. If the company was putting on an exhibition, she might design stands for the pieces, or help lay the show out.
“I definitely felt like, reading the job description, I could do that role,” Hattie reflects. “I went into it knowing I was going to learn a lot, but it was out of my comfort zone and what I would expect of myself. The skill set I thought I had – it was going to teach me the skills I didn’t have.”
As she settled into the job, the compartmentalization of the industrial work context chafed. “I like the holistic approach of doing every single part of the process and seeing it from start to finish. Although you did get to see the furniture being made, you weren’t involved in the making.” She’d spent three years in college making every day, always feeling she had something to prove. “When you’re a woman, people think you’re going to be a designer. So I worked really hard at learning to make.” And now she was in a job where several layers of intermediaries stood between her and the making.
On the other hand, she says, “they were really supportive in giving me opportunities and supporting projects I was doing outside of my job.” For instance, when she had an exhibition, they paid for printing for the exhibition, including postcards and artwork. They provided sponsorship so she could participate in the Young Professional Industry Experience, a three-week tour around furniture factories and showrooms, most of them larger operations but some smaller shops with 10 or so people on the shop floor. When a Design Technology teacher from Didcot Girls’ School approached her to ask whether she would run a workshop with her students, Ercol allowed her to do it on company time and provided two members of staff, as well as materials (“we used their waste components,” says Hattie – and what better use to make of waste than teaching people to build things?) to run the project. “That was probably the best thing I did while I was at Ercol. It made me realize that I enjoy being in a learning environment and working with people to create their own designs. Because the school was same-sex, we were running the workshop for approx 15 GCSE students (ages 14 and 15). Seeing that many girls in the workshop cracking on with the design-and-make project we had set was so exciting! It was a stark contrast to the factory floor.”
Feeling a bit of burn out, Hattie took four months out to reset. “I had no other job lined up. But a friend, who I studied at Rycotewood with, told me he was planning on leaving his job (the NHS role) to go travelling, which just so happened to be around the time I was thinking of leaving Ercol. I had already heard of the hospital’s workshop when the workshop manager had visited Rycotewood in my second year. And I had been in contact with him when I was doing my research into craft and bereavement, as I referenced a study the hospital carried out with its patients in my final essay. Whilst waiting to hear about the NHS role, I also contacted Rycotewood and asked if they had any work suitable for me, which resulted in the Saturday Club role.”
The lockdown proved a time for Hattie to do a lot of thinking and working through emotional stuff. Her job with the NHS has continued – she wears full PPE: mask, goggles, apron, gloves. But there has been no teaching at Rycotewood since the lockdown began. (She points out that those Saturday classes wouldn’t have been happening during the summer anyway.) At this point, she hopes to apply for a full-time role at the NHS and teach evening classes at Rycotewood on the side. To get there, she needs a teaching qualification. So she decided to do a post-graduate certificate of education through the City of Oxford College, where Rycotewood is based. She’ll be studying part-time over the next two years, while keeping her current jobs.
Taking on the bigger picture: This Girl Makes
Hattie started This Girl Makes in 2016, during the second year of her degree. She’d visited the London Design Fair at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane and spoken with the women makers; all agreed there should be a blog promoting women in craft. “You hear about all these men and you can reel off the names,” she says. “But not women. I did a lot of it for my own personal interest because I wanted to find other women who were interested in what I was interested in.”
She decided to put on workshops that would encourage women to get involved. Lacking her own workshop, she couldn’t have people come to her, so she went to them, approaching galleries and museums, community spaces, with proposals to engage members of the public. To save time during the events themselves, she put together kits of parts in her room in the shared house. The first project was a three-legged milking stool; the second, a toolbox made of plywood. In a two-hour session, participants would assemble these kits, as an introduction to the satisfactions of building something useful and practical for themselves.
It’s important to Hattie that the events be inclusive and accessible. For some of these events, she has managed to obtain funding, which allows low-income people to participate. Others are ticketed. At this point she’s done more than 20. They’ve gone really well, she says; she often fills every spot available. “There are a lot of schools where you can learn to make high-end furniture [that] cost thousands of pounds,” she notes. In contrast, these two-hour courses are accessible to kids and complete beginners. “There’s definitely a demand for it. I want to keep doing it as a side thing.”
Parents tell her schools don’t offer this kind of teaching any more. Their workshops aren’t well resourced, or they’ve been entirely shut down. There’s a lack of teachers who can teach these skills; everything has shifted to digital. “Everyone at school will learn to use a laser cutter, but won’t necessarily learn to sharpen a chisel or set a plane.”
Reflecting on where she stands at this moment, Hattie is keenly aware that she’s on a road less traveled. “At formal furniture training colleges you’re going to learn to make fine furniture so you can get a job making furniture for the 0.1%. It’s unlikely this furniture will ever be used. It’s superficial and made for people to show off. But there’s a market for that. There’s [also] a reduced middle class, and therefore market, for bespoke, handmade furniture. Some people are totally fine with that, because they just want to make what they want to make and they don’t question the ethics. But that didn’t sit comfortably with me.”
She was training to be part of that scene, but she didn’t want to be part of it. She thought that working at Ercol, which makes well-designed furniture that is more affordable, more vernacular and functional, would align better with her values. But various aspects of that work jangled, too.
She’s quick to acknowledge that she’s pursuing a different path from many furniture design students. “Having studied on a bespoke furniture making course, you don’t do design for industry!” There are different standards and materials – the whole perspective is far more commercial. Having been trained to use hand tools, she was now designing for CNC production. It was also her first experience in a corporate environment. “Because my parents are both self-employed, it was my first experience of being in a pecking order. Also, the office environment – that was totally not me. So that was a bit of an education. A lot of positives came out of it, but it was a very tough year.”
A few weeks ago, Hattie and her family observed the 10th anniversary of her dad’s death. “When I had my exhibition last year…the last line of my thank you speech was ‘thanks mum and dad, for bringing me into the world.’” She’s grateful for opportunities her parents have given her. “My mum is very tough-love. In her not being a typical mum she’s made me more independent… It’s a silver lining of something that could be viewed as more negative.” She describes her dad, a quantity surveyor who worked with architects to calculate materials needed for given jobs, as “a man of real integrity. Very honest. He had a very big heart. Even in business, he had really good relationships with people he worked with. He had his own business, working in construction…but approached everything with a real sense of humor and playfulness and would always find ways of incorporating creativity into his days. I definitely wouldn’t have achieved as much as I have had he not been my dad, and had he not died. If you lose a parent when you’re younger you grow up quite quickly, and you also learn the value of life.”
I, for one, will be watching with interest where Hattie goes.