Monthly Archives: February 2015

Don’t be Mr. Weiner

Interesting topic. One that deserves more discussion in my view. Great comments too.

Lost Art Press

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It’s easy to think that there aren’t any secrets left in woodworking. But I don’t think that’s true.

While a lot of the basic hand and machine skills are widely discussed and disseminated (thank you, Internet), a good deal of specialized and advanced knowledge is still frustratingly obscured. Here’s one small example.

When I was a junior editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine I was assigned to work with a prominent furniture-maker to help him develop his article ideas and get them into print. Standard stuff. I won’t use his name because I was raised right.

During a visit to his shop I noticed he had a lot of complex moulders and hollows and rounds planes. At that time, there were maybe four articles written about these planes that I could find. I was personally desperate to learn more, so I assumed that our readers would be as well.

The guy…

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Dream a little dream … or … What I want to be when I grow up.

Recently, the notion of what my woodworking career goals actually were, came up in an e-mail from a very close family friend to my parents, who had forwarded this blog link to him.

I have to admit, I realized that giving the issue some serious, soul searching thought, was not something I had seriously done .

Other than rediscovering my passion for woodworking and diving headlong back into it, I realized that I had not purposed to lay out for myself, just what direction I wanted to head in as a professional woodwright.

Sure, I knew I wanted to build a small shop with a table saw (got one), a good jointer (got one), a good planer (got one, getting a second), an arsenal of hand tooling, routers, dust collection, good lighting, a good bench to work on, quality wood pile to draw materials from, and an esthetically pleasing shop space from which to build…..things.

Planning the shop, researching the various tools and shop configurations, even settling on the design of my workbench and then building it, are all substantially easier to do for me, than to sit down and work out just what kind of shop I intend to have.

Along these lines I got to thinking about Thomas Moser (Thos. Moser). Thos. Moser woodworking started out in 1972 in Maine. Mr. Moser was, at the time, a collegiate professor. He took ,what was intended to be, a year long sabbatical to open a woodworking shop. Being a self taught woodworker, he chose a number of designs he felt that people would like, and then began building them for sale. This small shop built anything and everything back then. Everything from Shaker inspired furniture, to a working water wheel. Eventually running full time as a furniture making business. That year long sabbatical has lasted over 40 years.

I take this little bunny trail, extolling the virtues of one of my heroes, because Mr. Moser has been an advocate of what David Pye would call “the manufacture of risk”. ( the late David Pye was  professor of furniture design at the Royal College of Art from 1944 to 1974, and author of The Nature and Art of Workmanship)

In a nutshell, “Manufacture of risk” is the opposite of “mass production” or the “Manufacture of non-risk”. It is the difference between a cabinet made using a computer numerically controlled machine and particle board, and a cabinet made from hand selected Eastern Black Cherry, that started as rough lumber and was “worked” by a craftsman.

This is not to say that there is not a place for particle board cabinets, and CNC machinery. Not at all. It’s just that working wood without  absolute certainty of the outcome, is where the “craftsmanship” comes into play. The willingness to risk the ruin of a precious board of wood, and the careful use of tools, in the pursuit of building something special. THAT, that is where I want to apply my efforts. That is what I want as a touchstone for my fledgling business.

I am not alone in this. In my years as a professional woodworker, I have met many craftsman who started out with much the same vision. Normally, these guys would eventually sing the same refrain to me when they had tired of my enthusiasm . “Woodworkers are separated into two groups, those that work wood to make a living … and hobbyists.”

To some degree I agree with this. Guys I have known, guys who were willing to mentor me, all caution me not to be blind to the hardships that can come with the “Manufacture of Risk”. They all would tell me tails of the spiritual beatings they withstood, and the disillusionment they suffered, as they tried to maintain their passion for craftsmanship and working wood. Yet, even as they caution against allowing passion to override economics, they each to a man, had a moment where there was a distinct softening of their cynicism. An obvious bit of nostalgic wistfulness, and perhaps a remembrance of what it felt like to be in love with working wood.

So, What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to continue my journey as a woodworking craftsman. I want to build fine, handcrafted furniture. Some to my customer’s specification, some of my own design as speculation pieces.  I want to be able to take my morning cup of coffee out to my shop, and resume working on whatever piece is sitting on my bench that morning. I would like to enjoy the interaction a customer has as they lay hands on a truly handcrafted piece of furniture, built just for them. Not another one exactly like it in the world.

I have no illusions as to becoming as financially successful as Thomas Moser. He would even tell you that he is someone who was at the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time back in 1972. Of course, he was a very determined and shrewd business man to have kept his shop thriving and growing all these years.

However, I do believe that I can build a business that operates using the “Manufacture of Risk”, and still pay my bills, put food on the table, and maybe even put a little aside to retire on someday. That would be a successful business in my view.

That is what I would like to be when I grow up. Someone who uses their hands to work wood, and craft pieces of esthetically pleasing, heirloom quality fine furniture built to last generations. Totally doable.

Getting “Benched”.

In my previous post, I decided to use this blog to hash out some of the questions needing answers, and issues needing decisions, in my quest to build a fine bench for my new shop.

The three benches I decided to ponder over are the usual suspects, as it turns out, that most woodworkers turn to as their “go-to’s” for bench building.
There are good reasons for this. All three are time honored. All three share similar lumber requirements. All three are fairly easy to fabricate.

Their differences are based in the type of woodworking a woodwright chooses to do. For example, The Roubo bench, has enjoyed a resurgence among woodworkers who primarily use hand tools to do their wood dimensioning, and joinery. The bench has a monstrously thick top, often way over 4 inches thick, 5 inches to 7 inches being fairly normal,  which makes for a VERY stable body of mass that is perfect for the racking forces that hand planing and hand sawing place on a bench. Not to mention that the legs are rock solid with their equally heavy dimensions. A stout bench to say the least. Vises built to hold long and short boards for various operations. The front vise, often referred to as a “Leg Vise”. Is wonderful for holding long boards for jointing edges, or also for vertically holding tall boards for dovetailing. The vise on the other end of the bench, usually referred to as a “Wagon Vise”, is used in concert with a row or rows of bench “dog” holes in the top, to pinch boards flat on the top of the bench for smoothing. A very robust bench, and also one that has deep historical value best experienced by reading author Christopher Schwarz’s description of it in either of his workbench books.

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The traditional European bench has some allure for me. It calls out to me sometimes. The comparative lightness of it juxtaposed against the image of the  weight of the Roubo, feels less brutal, less imposing. perhaps a little more “fine”.
This bench normally features a top in the 3 to 5 inch thick range. Often times they can be found with an apron that wraps around the top, which is actually much thinner in the middle, and only appears to be very thick due to the apron. This saves in lumber costs, but at the expense of heft, which is actually a very, very good thing for someone cutting joints on the bench.
The front, “L” shaped vise, called a shoulder vise, is wonderful for holding those taller boards for dovetailing or other joint cutting. Much like the Roubo’s leg vise. My problem with this is, that it requires a third leg to be added to the trestle, that juts out awkwardly in a small shop space. I love this design, but it is really much better suited to a shop that allows full, 360 degree access to the bench. I am positive I would be bruised in my “quality places” trying to live with this type of bench in such a small shop as I have planned. The second vise, on the right hand side, functions much like the Roubo’s Wagon vise. It is called an “END VISE” and works with a line of holes (like the Roubo) to pinch boards flat on the bench top for planing and other hand work. This vise, too, has issues traditionally. Over time, it has a habit of sagging, and becoming somewhat high maintenance.  Not to mention that when opened, it would intrude too much into an already tight space in my proposed shop space.

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Bench with “SHOULDER VISE” at the left hand position.

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Bench with “END VISE” in the right hand position.

This leaves me with a hybrid type bench, which I think is best for the combined machine work, and hand work that I tend to do. I like both the thick top I have  planned in my mind’s eye, as well as a scaled up rendition of the traditional trestle frame that holds it up. Add to that a couple of rows of bench dog, and hold fast holes in the top, a high quality face vise as shown in the picture below, and a full width end vise just like the one pictured on the acorn bench below, and I think that that would best fit the operations I generally find myself engaging in.

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The bench pictured above, is equipped with the more traditional “End Vise”. I may consider this type of vise, since learning that Lie Nielsen has improved on this original design, and that it is both “sag proof”, as well as less intrusive in it’s dimension. (it is also hellishly expensive) Otherwise, I think that a vise like the one pictured below, is more suitable to my needs.

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So, there you have it. A short little treatise on the three benches that float in and out of favor in my mind several times a day. The desire is always the same. BUILD THE BENCH!!! But the dance partner is continuously changing. I think that as the time approaches to actually begin acquiring and working the wood , I will have settled on a design. Odds are it will be the hybrid, if for no other reason, than because it meets all my needs, and is very close to what I had built the first time around. It is comfortable.

Still, I really do have to admit that both the traditional European bench, and strangely, the Roubo, both continue to make committing to a design very, very difficult.

THIS….this is the fun part prior to cutting wood and building it. I LOVE the research and the mental gymnastics I go through planning, and imagining the pro’s and con’s of each design. Ultimately having built all three over and over in my head. Using them, mentally, after construction, trying to intuit which will best fit my style of work AND give me the aesthetic pleasure that is so very crucial to me. What a lovely place to be mentally.

Enjoy the pictures. I have finally figured out how to post them here. Talk about a time sink, searching out all the possibilities online. Lots of woodworking workbench “porn” out there……so fun.

As promised, the workbench fetish muse.

One of the first addictions a woodworker sometimes falls prey to, is that of the workbench. At least in my case this is true.

Sure, I also have a profound addiction to tools, both powered by hand, and also powered by electrons. A truly deep seeded addiction, I assure you.

However, ever since I discovered the joy of working wood, I have continued to have this affinity for building  workbenches.

Describing workbenches in the plural is hard to swallow for some. After all, one should only have to build one or two, maybe three at most, in a lifetime. Build them to last. Build them to stand the test of time. The cost of lumber, the time invested in building it alone, should be the limiting factor.
Yet, it is an addiction. I proudly pronounce now, that I am QUITE sure I will build at least two for this new shop(and the proposed addition to it later).

All this fails to mention the delightfully agonizing process of deciding on a style. Traditional European/Scandinavian/German? The most recent rediscovery of the Roubo bench?

The masochistic delight in deciding on the particulars of size and scale. Taller for every day use? Shorter for hand work? 6′ long? 7′ long? 8′ long? Longer?

The endless hand wringing over what wood to use. Traditional European Beech? Rock Maple? Ash? White Oak?
Or do I use Southern Yellow Pine or Douglas Fir?

I know of at least three books that have been written on these very subjects. It is a wonderfully absorbing subject. I absolutely love it!

Once upon a time, when I was just starting out, I “had” to build a bench for myself as I had just dropped close to ten thousand dollars on fine European woodworking equipment. It was obvious I needed a bench, but being cash poor, I had no means to purchase the wood needed for what I wanted to build.

Enter good fortune(aka dumb luck).

One of the MANY things my parents left behind when they moved out of the family home(purchased by my first wife and me) was a very well built, laminated maple dining table top. 7′ long, nearly 2 inches thick and wide enough for me to rip roughly 4″ off each side to finish out at about 28″ or so wide. I also ended up laminating those two, long pieces of “fall” to the underside of the bench to serve as both a face for the vises, as well as to simulate a proper 4″ thick top. Aesthetics do help with the whole experience of woodworking.

I then built a proper trestle base for this top. Replete with hand chopped mortises and lovingly hand cut tenons. Ultimately this bench ended up being simply lovely. A good strong full width end vice, and a wonderful face vise completed the build. I loved this Euro/Scandi/Acorn style bench.

I loved it not just because I had built it, but also because it was breathing new life into something that had been with my family for years, and had survived the trek from Cleveland to Colorado.

So, now that I am rebuilding my wood shop, I find myself in the joyous place of getting to build another bench for myself.

All of the weeping and gnashing of teeth has returned. I am again torn by all the options available. A wondrous place to be indeed.

As it is right now, I am leaning to a very similar reproduction of that original bench. That is my starting place, though the sirens call of other styles is very loud indeed.

As I progress, since there is little rush, I find myself mulling the Acorn style (which was the closest style to what I had built originally) and the Roubo style as the current frontrunners. Though, I must confess that a true, traditional Scandinavian bench tugs at me for consideration.

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Acorn Bench

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Roubo bench

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Traditional European bench.

Understanding that so much has already been written about workbenches in general, I think I may take these three bench types and work through my personal decision making machinations here in this blog…..lucky you!

I will try to limit it to these three archetypes, but no promises. There are always other chooses to agonize over out there. Don’t think for one minute that I am immune to their guile.

More to come.

MOVING RIGHT ALONG……

Red Rocks Community College’s Fine Woodworking program is awesome!  I am a good way through this intensive introductory class just now, and loving every minute of it. The Intro to Fine Woodworking class is the gate keeper to all that is woodworking goodness at RRCC. Degree seeking students must go through this class in order to be able to have access to the rest of the class offerings.

The intro class starts out with a heavy emphasis on hand tools. Sharpening, fitting, tuning, etc. are the foundation of this class. A small stool project is the culmination of this course of study for the initial hand tool portion of the class. The small stool is to be fabricated entirely by use of hand tools. EXACTLY what I was hoping for when I signed up for this course.
later in the class, we get to learn to use the big boy toys, so rest easy, more adventure is to follow.

I am going after an actual degree in fine woodworking. While I have a great deal of practical experience in professional woodworking and cabinetmaking, I felt the need to “make it official” by adding some alphabet soup to the end of my name.

I had considered College of the Red Woods, RSDI, and several other well known schools. However, cost, logistics and the discovery that RRCC had a world class program, made the decision very, very easy for me. The shop is incredibly well outfitted, the staff, at least so far, has been exceptionally well versed in woodcraft, and the cost for an instate student all combine to make this an incredible match for me.

I know this sounds like a commercial for the school, but I can not say enough about my experience there so far. If anyone has any interest in going after fine woodworking certificates or a degree in fine woodworking, you owe it to yourself to at least give RRCC a look see. Even out of state tuition is a real bargain when compared to the other, more vaunted, programs out there. Before you commit to any program on either of the coasts, or in the south, it would be a very good idea to look into Red Rock’s program.

That’s all for today. I am recovering from some lower back surgery(ish) procedures. So I am letting things in my lumbar settle out this weekend, rather than jumping into the new shop space to get things moved along. I hope to post up a rambling on the progress I am making on workbench design and plans. With any luck, this will include some pictures too….fingers crossed.

WHEEEEEEW!!!!!! (Or, Jeeze it’s been a while.)

Well, It has been a little while since I first began this Blog. A bunch has happened since then. Most of which I will get to later in this post.

First off, I was rereading my previous posts. I must admit to being a bit embarrassed about their general composition. Normally, I pride myself on my ability to get ideas to paper with both passion and precision. I regret to say, that the previous three posts do not rise to this standard. In future, I will be making a much more focused effort to craft these posts with the same care and love that I use in my woodworking.

OK, so classes at Red Rocks Community College are progressing rapidly. To say that their Introduction to Fine  Woodworking class is akin to drinking from a fire hose is a bit of an understatement. In the beginning of this class, the focus is entirely on wood anatomy, drying practices, selection and purchasing, followed by an introduction to hand tools. The hand tooling portion of this class, so far, is really the meat and potatoes of what I wanted to get out of this class.

let me back up just a little. I have mentioned that I have been a woodworker for the better part of 20 years (ish). While I have largely enjoyed my career as a woodworker, I always had one glaring omission that I really, REALLY wanted to address. This was the effective and efficient use of hand tooling in an actual production environment. Now, this class will not be the end all and be all of my had tool use. But it does serve to fill some gaps in my education.

For starters, I have been very pleased that the professors have been so militant about blade sharpening. Recently, an entire class period (4 hours) was dedicated to what the instructors say, is just the very tip top of the iceberg. FOUR HOURS!
Now, this might sound a little excessive. Perhaps even boring. This class was neither. For me, it was exactly why I enrolled in this class. It is the minutia of woodworking that causes some sexual arousal in my loins. Things like grain orientation, wood movement, various differences in cutting tools, and of course, sharpening.

The deadline for our first project is approaching. It is a small footstool. On it’s face, this sounds easy. On the contrary, there will be ten….count them ten….through tenons used in it’s construction. Have I mentioned that this project will be built using nothing but hand tools?  This is the most daunting facet of this project to this avowed machine junkie. Using hand planes to “6-square” boards is a bit of a challenge for me so far, but I am showing promise the more I do it. No wedges created yet. Hand saws to crosscut and rip boards have proven to be surprisingly efficient to use for rough dimensioning of lumber, and at some point, the use of chisels to chop out all those mortises……oh joy! One of the wonderful aspects of this class, has been that we are not only learning the basics of the efficient use of hand tools, but, we are learning the nuances of using these tools. Patience, pace, and attention to not just the tool, but also, and perhaps more importantly, what the tool does to the wood as well. For example, when chopping a mortise, we are told to begin the cut a bit forward of the mark out line, so as not to “crush” the wood fibers at the end of the mortise. This is the type of woodworking goodies I have been hoping for.

So there you have it, a short but sweet recap of some of how this class has been progressing. Very interesting, very engaging, and very fast paced. As soon as I can, I will also post up something regarding progress in the new workshop, and the progress on deciding on, and design of the new workbench too.