Archive: » 2016 » January

A Captivating 40 Minutes

My varied curiosities take me to peculiar places on the web.  Last night I found these three videos demonstrating the fabrication of Chinese brushes.  While I have no particular interest in Chinese watercolor brushes per se, I do find the topic of brushes fascinating, and found the 40 minutes spent watching this master brush maker do his magic to be captivating.

I have been trying my hand at making some Chinese laquering brushes, and will blog about those in due time.

The Chrestomathy Expands

Like most long-time woodworkers I am asked occasionally by an aspiring or nascent woodworker, or more often their friends and family, “What should I (they) study to get them going?”

Though each instance may have its own idiosyncrasies, in recent years my answer has been to steer the inquisitor towards three sources: Chris Schwarz’ “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” which gives an excellent foundational overview for the complete furniture making enterprise, “The Naked Woodworker” video by Mike Siemsen, providing an innovative seat-of-the-pants indoctrination to getting started cheaply, and one of the James Kernov Trilogy as sheer inspiration as it was the source for much of my own early exploration.


A recent addition to my library demands that I add a fourth citation to the chrestomathy for learning the language of woodworking: “The Minimalist Woodworker “ by Vic Tesolin.  The subtitle and rear cover title say it all.  “Essential tools & smart shop ideas for building with less,” and “Keep it simple.  Build more with less.”


Tesolin’s writing is spare, concise, yet wonderfully descriptive.  The photographic illustrations accomplish that which I know to be exceedingly difficult at times (and often poorly in craft technique books), it communicates exactly what the author is trying to convey and precisely what the reader needs to learn from it.  In my opinion there is simply no way any earnest reader could peruse this book and not comprehend fully what the book means to teach.

I was hooked on the first page of the Introduction, containing some superb evangelism.

The truth about woodworking is that you don’t need a single machine or power tool to woodwork.  There, I said it.  What you do need is about 40 square feet of space for a workbench and some hand tools.  

He follows this with a section “Woodworking vs. Wood Machining,” a dichotomy I have been contemplating for a long time.


After a review of spaces needed, a list of the minimalist’s tool kit, and a review of sharpening — a skill I increasingly contend is THE gateway skill for everything wood-craft related — Tesolin walks the reader through a series of simple projects that will not only outfit the shop with vital accouterments but will also outfit the reader with the skills to make almost anything furniture-wise.  Making a saw bent (saw horse) and saw bench, making a shooting board/bench hook, making a wooden mallet, making a workbench, and finally building a small shelf for your tools.

No book is flawless, but The Minimalist Woodworker comes awfully close.  Clearly Tesolin’s emphasis is on preparing the reader for a lifetime of skilled craftsmanship in the rectilinear world as there is little discussion, or tools for that matter, in developing a facility for creating curvilinear and serpentine forms.  It’s all about the fundamentals of flat, true, and smooth.  I believe that the mere inclusion of one tool and its use, the spokeshave, would have addressed this lacuna.  Perhaps that will be in a subsequent title.  Could there be a “Minimalist Furniture Maker” in the works?  I certainly don’t know, but if there is put me down for several copies.

I made my first crude piece of furniture almost fifty years ago and have been earning a living in furniture restoration for more than forty, and “The Minimalist Woodworker” brought me nuggets to add to my treasure trove and motivated me all over again.

Kudos, Vic Tesolin.  Kudos.

Beeswax Processing, Part 3


With  substantial stock of purified beeswax in the kitchen, Mrs. Barn jumps into action.


Using a standard cooking pot, she drapes a fine weave linen into the pot as one last filter medium then places the beeswax chunks inside to melt them in preparation of making the blocks.


We currently have five silicone molds for making the cast blocks.  One of these days I will need to make some more molds of the original carved block we use as the model for the final product.



Using a dedicated set of tools, Mrs. Barn fills each of the rubber molds to the level she has learned to be the quantity of 1/4 pound.  It takes about a half hour to get the cast blocks cooled and removed from the molds.


Literally each block is weighed to confirm the weight at 1/4 pound plus 3 or four percent, making sure that every block is a fair product.  If they are not, their weight is adjusted as necessary.



The stack of cooled blocks is individually wrapped in packaging we designed and are very happy with.

And that’s it!

Processing Beeswax, Part 2

With the water soluble contaminants dealt with and the multitude of bee carcasses and large particulate matter screened out, and the smaller particulate matter concentrated into a thin layer at the bottom of the slab of cooled beeswax, it’s time to turn the half-cleaned raw material into a purified and pristine mass for Mrs. Barn to work her magic.




With a common bench knife I scrape off the thin layer of grit that formed on the bottom of the molten block as it was cooling.



The remaining slabs are broken into smaller pieces and put into the cooking pot to melt them.


Once the clean(er) material is melted, I prepare the larger sieve through which it will then be ladled.  In this step I use the common blue shop paper towels as my filter.  This material works perfectly: it is inexpensive, so I do not hesitate to swap it out with every new flat I am pouring, and it does a remarkable job of filtering out the last remaining particulates.  I learned early on to have a dedicated set of pots, ladles, and sieves for both the dirty preliminary steps and this final clean step.  It makes all the difference in the world!


Scooping up a ladle full of the cleaner molten wax, I pour that into the sieve and, through the filter paper, a clean aluminum baking tray.


The performance of the filter paper, at a few pennies per flat, it what makes this all possible.


The golden transparent (and thus pure) molten beeswax in the flat is a joy to see.  Like I said, I swap out the filter paper with each new flat being poured.  This used up  filter paper is not wasted, it becomes fire starters for the wood stove in the shop.


The result?  judge for yourself.


At the end of each day of wax rendering I break up the thin, pure slabs, place them in large freezer bags, and carry them down the hill to be turned into the blocks we make available to you.

Next time: making a packaged product.

Processing Beeswax From Beginning to End – Part 1


Around Thanksgiving I got a note from Chris Schwarz as he was assembling his annual list of a dozen Christmas gift recommendations for his legion of blog readers.  His question to me concerned the availability of our hand-processed beeswax.  Fortunately we had a large inventory on hand, probably 150 or 175 units.  Good thing as those enthusiastic followers pretty near cleaned out the cupboard.  In fact, they did clean out the inventory of polissoirs, but that’s another topic.

We received wonderful feedback on the beeswax, along with the questions about how we process it.  I’ve blogged about it before, but this time I wanted to cover the topic in a fairly detailed manner.  I could say that we rely on an expensive, state of the art “High Pressure Reverse Osmosis Turbo Encabulator” but that would be a falsehood.  The highest tech component in the process is probably the pasta strainer.


I order raw beeswax several hundred pounds at a time, directly from the honey processing plant.  I want it raw as I can achieve the product I want, unmodified from the original bee product except for the removal of contaminants.  As such, it comes pretty well infused with propolis, honey, and bee carcasses by the gazillion.  Getting rid of this is the first step.


Since much of the contamination is water soluble I melt the raw beeswax into a large crock pot with water, with proportions about 1/3 water and 2/3 bulk beeswax.  The heated water bath dissolves the honey out of the dirty molten mass.



Also once the pot-full is completely liquid the bee carcasses float to the top of the stew, to be scraped off the top with a pasta screen.



Once that is done I ladle the hot dirty wax/water stew through another pasta screen into an aluminum lasagna pan.

I make sure to not agitate the pan while the mess is cooling.  I am counting on the water soluble contaminants remaining in the water phase that separates out underneath the wax as it cools and solidifies on top of the pan.  In addition, the water-insoluble particulate contaminants settle to the bottom of the wax block.



This simple approach results in several near-simultaneous accomplishments; it removes the bee carcasses, it dissolves and removes the honey and any other water soluble materials, and it separates the non-soluble particles.

Up next: yielding purified wax.

2016, A Year of “Making”

A review of 2015 is easy.


First half – all HO Studley book and exhibit, all the time.  Turned 60, meaning I have only 40-45 good years of woodworking left.  Better get cracking!


Second half – busted hip; Roubo on Furniture Making; conserving tortoiseshell


Lots of miles, lots of presentations.

2016 (and beyond) is destined to be different for many reasons, not the least of which are 1) my commitment to travel much, much less, and 2) for the first time in my life I will be concentrating on making furniture for an extended period.  Up to now I’ve mostly been repairing and conserving furniture to the detriment of making it.  My fascination with historic techniques of artistry and artisanry have yielded a fairly broad and deep vocabulary; the time has come to take that lexicon and transform it into real material culture, not simply a stack of sample boards and a library to die for.

When I read the woodworking blogs that interest me (I generally avoid woodworking discussion forums as I cannot spare any intelligence or knowledge, and I observe that these sites make you stupider and less knowledgeable by the minute, but I might not frequent the right ones), I am awestruck by the productive output of some woodworkers.

Take Joe McGlynn, whose apparently now-inactive blog McGlynn on Making made me wonder what in the world he was eating.  It seemed that he was making a new piece every week.  And the Accidental Woodworker?  I am becoming convinced that Ralph is a zombie/vampire hybrid because he must never, ever sleep.  No other explanation suffices for how he can get so much really good work done.  And blog about it!   How about Jonas Jensen?  He makes more (and better) furniture with a hack saw in the machine shop of a ship bouncing around the North Sea, using wood salvaged from crates down in the cargo hold than 99% of woodworkers can accomplish in a perfect woodworking studio.

These will be my heroes on a daily basis as I have already begun a regimen of making perhaps as many as a dozen pieces this year.


The first clients in line were the two who commissioned Gragg chairs.  I would like for this to become a yearly affair as I find these so challenging that I cannot imagine getting tired of them for many years.  Especially since they are such fertile soil for adaptations.


The next project is from a client who commissioned me to make a replica of an early 19th Century mahogany desk, similar to one I worked on a few years ago.  The excellent mahogany has been obtained, the templates made, the turning has begun, and the first (full blind) dovetails will be undertaken in a fortnight or so.

Finally (last on this list, but not in the priority) comes several pieces commissioned by Mrs. Barn for the cabin.  Most will be made from salvaged chestnut and white oak, beginning with a simple shelving cabinet for the kitchen to get warmed up, then some nicer book cases for the living room, moving on to a pair of modified Schwarzian Dutch tool chests as bedroom cabinets.  And maybe a coffee table for the living room.  And those four cherry chairs for the dining room suite…


What Every Deck Screw Yearns to Become


This week I received a very special gift from my friend Derek; a titanium lag screw typical for hip reconstruction surgery.


We suspect it is very close if not identical to the ones in my hip.


I was especially struck by the mean looking business-end of the screw, and the fact that it is hollow on it full length. At one time in my life I was a patternmaker for a foundry that manufactured dredging machines, and this looks strikingly similar to the cutterhead on a dredge excavator.

This baby is definitely going into my Hall of Fame and Shame.

Oops, Forgot a Pic Last Night

In recounting the progress of the conservation of the domed lid tortoiseshell box with a pair of cracks, I forgot to include the picture of the underside with the tissue paper backing.  Sorry about that.  The compewder undoubtedly did what I instructed it to do.



The backing in the lower left is a single layer of high-strength Japanese tissue paper fully encapsulated in hide glue.  Since this fracture remained essentially “in plane” a single layer of backing support was adequate.

The lower right section is a double layer of tissue paper which needs a second saturating application to make it less visible.  Since this fracture was not “in plane” the second lamina of the glue/tissue composite was necessary.

Tortoiseshell Conservation Series – A Domed Box With Cracked Shell (Part 4)

With the outer “cast” in place I could progress to adding an inner support behind the crack (it turned out there were two cracks; I dealt with them identically).


Three of the materials tested: fine linen (L), tight fine nylon (R), and loose nylon “sheer” (B).

I knew I would be using 192g hot animal hide glue for the support, and spent a little time testing several support fabrics to evaluate them for both performance and appearance.  I had expected nylon sheer fabric to be the best, but it was not.  In the end I went with Japanese tissue paper with variable fibers.  Three layers of this affixed to an area slightly larger than the fracture ended this chapter of the treatment.

A quick note on using tissue paper for such a repair.  It is much better to tear the edges of the patching paper rather than cutting them.  This allows for a tapered edge on the patch, which both looks and performs better.


Up next: removing the outer “cast” and inpainting the inner support.