Morality and Craftsmanship

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Sam Maloof in his workshop, January 2003

“I try to live right. I always try to adhere to what I think is right, and that, to me, is the most important part of creative work. So much of me goes into each piece that I make that in making each new piece, a renewal takes place. So it continues: a renewal in my commitment to my work and what I believe.” —Sam Maloof

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Woodworking on a Grand Scale

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“Joinery and Wood Carving on a Grand Scale”

“The completion of the new altar canopy in St. Paul’s Cathedral in May of this year [1958] was an event of considerable importance in the world of woodwork. This great structure is 54 ft. high by 26 ft. wide and is supported by groups of corinthian pillars, amongst which are four spiral columns with wreaths of bay leaves carved between the bines. Each column was built up of twenty-two sectors put together cooper fashion and assembled with Aerolite 300 synthetic resin glue.

“The job of turning great columns of this size had its own special problems, not the least of which was a lathe big enough for the purpose. Much of the spiral was cut by a device travelling in a slide rest. This left on a sort of spiral collar (see hollow nearest camera) in which the projecting bay leaves could be carved.

“The completion of a magnificent structure of this kind is an effective reply to those who claim that there are no woodworkers left in the country capable of tackling some of the fine joinery and cabinet work left to us by past generations.”

— “Windmills of the Skyline,” Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, July 1958

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A Matter of Proportion

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“Boy using right angle square in woodworking shop at the homestead school. Dailey, W.V.” Dec. 1941. Photo by: Arthur Rothstein. Photo courtesy of: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34- 024421-D.

“A craftsman may have an excellent knowledge of the standard measurements for all ordinary articles of furniture and yet fail to produce beauty in his work because of the lack of that artistic perception which we call a sense of proportion.”

— “A Matter of Proportion,” Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1937

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Why I married my sister

In honor of Chris’s sojourn in the land of beer and sausages, as Derek Jones recently called it, here’s a post on sausage making.

Making Things Work

I published my latest book in March. Publishing it myself was the last thing I originally had in mind. I’m well aware of the stigma attached to self-publishing. Chris Schwarz puts it as starkly as anyone ever has: “In the media world, publishing your own book is akin to marrying your sister. Most self-published books are about encounters with aliens that involve wax paper and Wesson oil, or Klingon wildlife poetry, or recipes for curing cancer with celery salt.”

With Maggie 1963 She’s the one without the fake smile.

The book was a longstanding thorn in my side, albeit a thorn of my own placing. I started working on it a dozen years ago, fitting the writing in around the edges of my daily work. The book would respond to two of my professional peeves: (1) the widespread public ignorance of what it costs to make things when you’re doing so for…

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2 Roman Workbenches at Saalburg Museum

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While I’ve known about the surviving Roman workbenches at Saalburg Museum since reading W.L. Goodman’s classic “The History of Woodworking Tools” (1964) many years ago, I never thought I’d get to examine the benches in detail.

On Thursday, archaeologist Rüdiger Schwarz unlocked the warren of climate-controlled chambers under one of the buildings of the reconstructed Roman fort and led me, Görge Jonuschat and Bengt Nilsson past thousands of Roman artifacts organized on shelves, in drawers and in boxes.

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And then there they were. Black from their time buried in well No. 49 outside the walls of the fort. Distorted from their return to the atmosphere after they were excavated in 1901. But solid oak workbenches, nonetheless. (We should all look so good after 1,839 years, give or take.)

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Rüdiger, a trained furniture maker, graciously allowed us as much time as we needed to examine the benches, take photographs and write down measurements. For me, what was most shocking is how completely familiar the low benches seemed, especially now that I have a low bench in my shop. The legs were exactly where I would put them. The mortise for the planing stop – ditto. And the width (varying from 11” to 12”) was just right for me to straddle.

Both of the benches had split across the middle of their lengths – perhaps from their time in the well or when they were put down the well. One bench has been repaired since recovery; the other left as-is. The legs on both of the benches were added sometime after they were recovered from the well.

There is a lot that we don’t know about the benches. Why were they put in the well in the first place? There are a few theories – perhaps to protect them during an attack. Perhaps to hide them so they were not cut up and used to build defenses during the decline and eventual abandonment of the fort about 260.

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Looking for tool marks on the surface of the bench.

What were the odd notches on one edge of one of the benches used for – if anything? What did the planing stop look like? Exactly how long were the legs?

These questions (and more) are going to be addressed in detail in my forthcoming book on Roman workbenches. I took enough measurements that I’ll be able to build a fairly close reproduction – copying the leg placement, plus the overall size and shape of the top.

I doubt that a reproduction will give us a lot of definite answers. But it should confirm again that this style of bench is part of a long and still-living woodworking tradition.

— Christopher Schwarz

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The Manner of Planing and Trying a Piece of Stuff Square

 

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First face. Planing across the grain is easy work. Work the high spots until they’re the same as the low spots on one face of the board.

This is an excerpt from “The Art of Joinery” by Joseph Moxon; commentary by Christopher Schwarz. 

Now we get to the fun part: Putting the tools to use. Moxon’s first “exercise” is to plane a large piece of wood square to transform it from a rough pitsawn board to a piece of finished work. Below is my reading of Moxon’s method. There are some steps missing that might be familiar to modern hand-tool users, such as checking for twist with winding sticks. Moxon confirms the board is true by eye (just wink) and with a ruler that is anywhere from 2′ to 7′ long. Your eye (and a 7′ ruler) are powerful measuring devices, though I prefer winding sticks for high-tolerance work.

Step One: True One Face

You begin with the fore plane and set it so it will take a shaving that is the thickness “of an old coined shilling,” a bit more than 1∕ 32″ thick. If the grain is difficult, reduce the cut to “the thickness of an old groat,” or less than 1∕ 32″. If the board is warped or cupped, you need to plane across the grain – what Moxon calls “traversing” – to bring the high spots down to the low spots on your first face.

Moxon says you should check your work by sighting down the face of the board either with one eye, with a 2′-long ruler or with a piece of straight stock that is as long as the piece you are working.

When the first face is flat, you should refine the face a bit. First set the fore plane to a lighter shaving and plane the board. Then use a jointer plane. Traverse across the grain for wide panels or work at angles – corner to-corner – for narrow stock. Then finish that first face with a smoothing plane if necessary. Work with the grain; overlap your strokes.


Step Two: Straighten One Edge

Next you should straighten one long edge. Use a try square to find the high spots (called the “risings”) on the edge. Reduce these with a fore plane or (in extreme cases) with a hatchet, Moxon writes. (Some woodworkers might use a drawknife or scrub plane here.) Follow this up with a jointer plane and smoothing plane.


Step Three: Work the Other Edge

Now use a marking gauge or panel gauge to scribe the finished width of the board. The gauge’s head rides on the finished edge and marks a line parallel to it. You also should strike this same line on the rough face. Now work this edge down to your scribe line. Use a hatchet if you have lots of material to remove; or use a fore, jointer and smoothing plane if there isn’t much waste.

Step Four: The Final Face

With one face and two edges completed, use your marking gauge to scribe the finished thickness on your two completed edges. Press the gauge firmly against your first face to make these marks. Then use a fore, jointer and smoothing plane to dress the fourth face.

Meghan Bates

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The Art of Mastery

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Jennie Alexander’s two-slat post-and-rung shaved chair.

Niels Henrik David Bohr, a Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for his work on atomic structures once said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”

It reminded me of something Jennie Alexander said during a recent phone conversation for our Meet the Author series, something I didn’t use: “Isn’t this interesting? I’ve only made one type of stool. I’ve only made one type of one-slat chair. And I’ve only made one kind of two-slat post-and-rung chair. And that’s it! I’ve never made a rocking chair. I’ve never made a piece of furniture. I’ve done the same thing over and over and over and it changes, changes, changes—when it’s ready to change. And that’s kind of weird.”

Maybe. But maybe not.

In 2004, while working at Popular Woodworking magazine, I visited chairmaker Brian Boggs (who, by the way, was inspired by Alexander’s book “Make a Chair from a Tree”). At the time of my visit, Boggs’ primary focus was chairs, specifically Appalachian-style ladderback chairs with a contemporary flair. And by that point he had dedicated years of his life to not only building them, but improving them. Improvements came in the form of design, yes, but also tools (Lie-Nielsen still sells the Boggs Curved Spokeshave), joints (his “universal joint” features double offset tenons and housed shoulders) and machines (his hickory bark stripper took 12 years to develop). All of this, simply to make a better chair.

I’m all over the place. There was the Christmas I asked for embroidery supplies. Come Valentine’s Day I tried to embroider my husband a single heart on cardstock. There was a lot of cursing involved, some blood and I don’t think I’ve touched the supplies since.

I rowed for two quarters at college. I took a short evening class on astronomy and spent a few years volunteering at the Cincinnati Observatory until I came to the conclusion that I enjoyed the poetry of stars much more so than the math. Every time I run I think, I should run a marathon.

I find many things to be fascinating. One look at Half Dome and I want to climb it. One meditation class and I’m looking up ashrams in India. One world religion class and I want to enroll in seminary, become a Buddhist and define myself as atheist, all at once.

I suppose this is why I was drawn to writing. For a short while I get to live vicariously in the life of another. And not always, but often, that other is being written about because of their ability to narrow their focus so much that they become an expert, even if that wasn’t their intention. Perhaps this is behind all brilliance.

There’s validity in trying it all. But I’ve also learned that there’s validity in finding a niche. There’s validity in devoting a large part of your life to 17th century joinery. And Welsh stick chairs. And carving acanthus leaves. And making macaroons. And growing the perfect tomato.

Alexander may only have made one type of stool. And one type of one-slat chair. And one type of two-slat post-and-rung chair. But her dedication to doing the same thing “over and over and over,” while allowing it to change and improve while also studying and theorizing and, dare we say, obsessing, has benefitted all those who point to “Make a Chair from a Tree” as inspiration. That type of devotion is why we can buy copper tacks from John Wilson. And moulding planes from Matt Bickford. And letterpress printed books.

I think all experts see what Alexander calls “the flash.” The niche, for them, fulfills. “There is a spirit of shaving wood that fills a place in me that otherwise is not filled as a person, as a thinker, as a human being,” Alexander says.

Coupled with, of course, hard work, dedication and simply showing up at the bench, again and again and again. As Charles Hayward wrote in a 1936 issue of The Woodworker magazine: “Continued application and perseverance do really bring mastery, and in these summer months, when practical work has been thrust into the background, we can still consolidate and even advance our work.”

— Kara Gebhart Uhl

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