Classes

Rethinking, or, “State of the Barn Address”

 

It’s been almost thirteen years since the skeleton of the barn was erected, nine years since it was outfitted with the first of more than a dozen workbenches, and over six years since the first blog post.  Now safely ensconced in my 65th year, lately I’ve been contemplating the entire enterprise, reflecting on how blessed I have been and continue to be.  Whether it is good news or bad news, after serious consideration I have no plans to change the fundamental structure of activity on the homestead for several more years, but at some point life in the mountains will simply become too physically taxing and the barn and cabin will be in my rear-view mirror.  Until then, however, it is still full(?) speed ahead with a big smile on my face, albeit not necessarily in the exact same direction nor the exact same speed.  I’m working just as hard as I did when I was 30, but the output is demonstrably less.   My Mom is 102 and lucid so I’ve got to think about another forty years of engagement and productivity.

Here is a sketch of what future activities might look like.  No telling if it is accurate.

Conservation Projects

Early on I maintained a fairly vibrant furniture and decorative arts conservation practice but have no plans to continue much of that except for specific projects and clients.  Yes, I will continue to work with the private collection of tortoiseshell boxes that I’ve been working on for more than a decade.  Recently I was approached to collaborate on a couple high profile on-site projects and if those move forward, fine. I love it but at this point I’ve got other things I want to do on the priority list.  And I want to truly perfect my artificial tortoisehell.  And I want to explore new uses of materials in furniture preservation.  And invent new materials, or novel uses of existing materials.   And, and, and…

Making Furniture

I make no claim as a furniture maker of any note, but I hope to concentrate on making more in the future.  I would love to maintain a small output of Gragg chairs every year, and even modify them and take them in directions Samuel Gragg never went.  I also have enough vintage mahogany for eight more Daniel Webster Desks, so perhaps there are some clients who might want one.  Only time will tell.  I’ve always had a hankering to make some furniture in the milieu of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Alar Aalto, so maybe that becomes part of the equation.  And I have these sketches for pieces representing a collision of Roubo and Krenov while they are sitting on the porch of a Japanese temple.  And Mrs. Barn has a list of things she would like for the cabin.  And exploring parquetry more intensely.   And finally get pretty good at woodworking in general.  And, and, and…

Metal Work

I’ve always had a interest in metalworking since my boyhood when I would spend time with my Dad in his shed, melting lead weights and doing a little brazing and welding.  Many of those skills have grown fallow but I am trying to get them back and take them to new places.  My love of tool making has been rearing its lovely head in recent times and I have every intention of bringing that focus closer to the bullseye.  And part of that has to include getting my foundry back on-line.  And tuning up all my machine tools like my machinists’ lathes and mill.  And getting really good at brazing and silver soldering, maybe even welding.  And, and, and…

Finishing Adventures

I remain committed to looking both backwards and forwards into the realm of finishing materials, ancient and super modern.  I truly believe Mel’s Wax to be a transformative furniture care and preservation product for which I have not yet discovered the key to marketing.  But I will keep at it because of my knowledge of its performance and my commitment to Mel’s vision for it.  And as for beeswax and shellac wax? Finishing with them may be among the oldest and simplest methods, but they can be extremely difficult and I cannot pretend to have mastered them.  And what about my fascination with urushi and its non-allergenic analogs and the beautiful things I want to make from them?  And what about the fifty bazillion things I do not know about shellac?And, and and…

Writing

My plate of writing projects is full to overflowing, building on a strong foundation of completed works.  Notwithstanding my current struggles with the manuscript for A Period Finisher’s Manual, due entirely to my having too much esoteric material to include in a reasonably consumable book (really, how much solvent thermodynamics does the typical woodworker need to know?), I enjoy every minute I am writing even when it is driving me crazy.  I’d better because my collaborator Michele Pagan is one full book ahead of me in the Roubo Series.  And there are two or three more volumes after that one.  And some day I need to finish the almost-completed manuscript for A Furniture Conservation Primer created with a colleague while at the SI and thus will be necessarily distributed for free via the web site.  And what about my treatise on the technology and preservation of ivory and tortoiseshell?  And the dozen mystery/thriller novels I have already plotted out?  And who knows how many short stories about the life of First Century craftsman Joshua BarJoseph?  And, and, and…

Web

My first of almost 1,200 web posts went up six-and-a-half years ago, which I understand in the world of hobbyist blogging, where blogs come and go like the tides, puts me as some sort of  Methuselah.  But certainly not in the same class as The Accidental Woodworker, who has been blogging daily for even longer IIRC.  Ralph, I tip my hat to you, sir.

I once thought the web site/blog would be a useful portal for soliloquies about my projects and things I’ve learned over a long and rewarding career, but now I am not so sure.  A while back I decided to make a concerted effort to blog at least five times a week for a year, and I think I came pretty close.  Surely this would increase my web traffic!  Well, not so much.  At the end of this effort my web traffic was 2% lower than when it began.  Despite fairly consistent blogging my visitorship has dropped by almost half over the past four-plus years.    So I just scratch my head.  I’m not whining, but instead recognizing that the flock who is interested in my musings is shrinking, not growing.  Oh well.  This is not a good or bad thing, it is just a thing, helpful in me making decisions about priorities.  I have no plans to really change anything about the blog, we’ll just wait and see where it goes.  When I am not somewhere else, with someone else, or doing something else, I will blog.

Recently I was chatting with someone who informed me that web sites and blogs are now passe and the currency du jour is the unholy trio of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  Given that and my antipathy towards the latter two it is likely that I will undertake the former at some near date (yes, I know the relationship between Instagram and Stalkerbook) .  Something inside me rebels at the notion of validating the post-literate world, however.  Still, the economic treatise presented by Larry the Liquidator is not only dramatic but accurate.  Even the Professional Refinisher’s Group is moving forward, transitioning from a moderated email forum to a private Facebook Group, which will leave me behind.  But they will survive without me and I intend to maintain contact with that circle of fellowship regardless.

Trouble is, I am by temperament a bizarre mélange of buggy whip maker and hardline “emergent order” Hayekian.  Hmmm.  Not really sure how that works out.

Workshops

Integral to my vision for the barn was to have it be a place of learning.  As the facility was coming together, whenever I spoke to any kind of woodworking gathering the verbal response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  The reality that unfolded was anything but.  I now realize that my vision was a faulty one and the enthusiasm was superficial.  Quite bluntly, almost no one wants to come to such an isolated location where local amenities are practically nonexistent, to spend a few days engaging in subjects I want to teach.  Fair enough, the barn is too remote and my topics are too arcane.  Like I said before, this is not a good thing or a bad thing, but just an instructive  thing to add to the equation.

As a result and in recognition of reality I plan to deemphasize workshops at the barn, perhaps even eliminating them altogether, notwithstanding that I created dedicated spaces for the undertaking.  Should a small group of enthusiasts approach me with the request to teach them, I will do so.  That is precisely what a quartet of guys have done for next June.  And, I might do an occasional blockbuster-type workshop (a Gragg chair class would be such an example, if that ever occurs; I had thought a ripple molding machine class might be such an event, but with zero response…), or I might travel a bit to teach but otherwise that part of the portfolio is likely to close.  Not definitely, but likely.

Videos

Hence my transition to teaching via video.  If I cannot get folks to come here perhaps my best strategy is to go to them.  I have a multitude of ideas (more than twenty full-length [>30 mins.]video concepts on the list) and a brilliant local collaborator to work with.  I am committed to this path to the degree that I have the time, energy, and resources.

Further I have decided that making shorter, self-produced and thus less polished “shop technique videos” might be a useful undertaking to post on donsbarn.com, youtube or Vimeo.  I will explore this avenue in the coming weeks and months.

The Homestead

With several buildings, several gardens, and a power system to maintain and improve there is never a shortage of things to do here on the homestead.  I want to build/expand more garden capacity for Mrs. Barn to spend time doing the thing she loves best.  And fruit and nut orchards.  And I want to finish creating a rifle scope for shooters like me who have lost most of the vision in their dominant eye.  And another hydro turbine downstream from the current one.

And, and, and that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject.

That is The State of the Barn Address, 2019.  To quote one of Mel’s favorite songs, “The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”  Yes it is.  I am living the dream.

Historic Finishing Day 3

In one sense the learning velocity for Day 3 is the same as Day 1 and Day 2, but the psychological impact of everything coming together in a beautiful outcome is almost incalculable.  One thing I am mindful of is that most Day 3s of workshops are structured to make sure any meaningful instruction occurs by mid-day, as the typical impetus is for folks to start heading back home sometime in the afternoon.  Sometimes students will stay  until evening, but in this case all three had lengthy drives home (two to central NC and one to CT) and headed out mid-afternoon to get home before dark.


If I had to summarize the events of the third day it would be encapsulated in the word “rubbing.”  The central focus of that action was the very large panels that had been varnished with brushed shellac the previous days.  These panels were divided into four sections to be finished off with different rubbing protocols, including making and using abrasive pads for pumice and Tripoli/rottenstone, both with and without paste wax.   Another section was burnished/abraded with Liberon 0000 steel wool and paste wax.

Though I knew the results in advance the students did not, and their excitement at seeing the results of their own hand work was most gratifying.

One student even brought a sample panel from his previous finish work and compared it to the panels we completed during the workshop.  Needless to say the smile could not be wiped from his face.  I didn’t quite get the camera angle perfect but you get the point between the almist gritty, brassy smaller panel and his new lustrous, almost glowing surface.

Our final chapter of the workshop was shellac spirit varnish pad polishing, a/k/a “French polishing.”  As with the other pad-based processes, rubbing out with tripoli or pumice, they each made their own spirit varnishing pad.   All these pads were made with vintage linen outer cloths and new cotton wadding inner cores, and all these were theirs to take home in a small sealed glass jar.  These pads should serve them well for many years to come.

Spirit varnish pad polishing is very definitely a technique requiring an informed “feel” about how it is supposed to progress.  Even though this was an introductory effort for all three students, they really took to it with enthusiasm and excellent outcomes being the result.  It was delightful to see the smiles and satisfaction of accomplishment.

Though I failed to get a final photo of us all, along with their sample boards going home with them, I believe it was a woodworking-life-changing experience for them.  As I told them at the outset, my primary goal was to give them confidence at the finishing bench and dispel any intimidation they might have in that regard.  If their notes to me afterward were any indication, it was a success.

I want to thank for your “Historic Finishing Course” at the Barn last week.  It was over the top in how it exceeded my expectations; by the end of the workshop I was seeing the process you taught working to a superb result under my own hand.  A really cool result–and well worth three days of my time to learn it. 

And,

I want to thank you for an awesome class!  The fellowship was really great and I came away much more confident applying a lovely shellac finish.

 

 

Historic Finishing Day 2

[Yup, my compewder power cord arrived from South Carolina and I am back in bidnez. — DCW]

Day 2 included the continuation of previous exercises begun on Day 1 and the addition of some new ones to fill out the syllabus.

With the large panels having already been built with two innings of brushed finishing the preparation for the final application of brushed shellac was underway with the surface being scraped.  I find scraping to be a “lost art” among contemporary finishers for the most part, although it was a very common weapon in the quiver of an 18th century craftsman.  For convenience sake I/we used disposable single edged razors from the hardware store that I buy by the hundreds.

For the final application of the shellac varnish I had them switch from a 21st century nylon/sable blend watercolor brush to an oval bristle brush, much closer in style to that of 250 years ago.  This gives the students a variety of experiences for similar tasks.

I presented a very brief demonstration of using a pumice block to prepare the raw wood, which yielded a surface that was surprisingly (to them) smooth.

Then on to the molten wax portion of the program, wherein they prepared two sample boards for different purposes.  The first was to create a “wax only” finish which I think is the most difficult finish to do well, and secondly to fill the grain for a panel to be pad polished tomorrow on Day3.

While the wax was cooling the students moved on to a pair of exercises designed to give them facility at complex surfaces.  The first was to varnish a carved and turned spindle and the second a frame-and-panel door.

While they were doing that I was playing some more with molten wax finishes.  Like I said, it is difficult to get perfect.

Late in the afternoon we saw this “meal on wheels” right outside the shop.  Clearly they are terrified of human proximity.

Thus endeth Day 2.

Historic Finishing Day 1

 

Last week was my almost-annual workshop in Historic Finishing, three days spent introducing the notions of systematic work with shellac and beeswax.  This year I had three students which allowed for a lot of great fellowship and one-on-one instruction and problem solving.

It began with a discussion of the strategy of finishing I developed many years past, emphasizing the Six Simple Rules for Perfect Finishing.  As always my goal is to not only teach and inform, but to change attitudes.  Usually woodworkers are indifferent at best and terrified at worst to finishing, and again this year I saw the students leave with a whole new level of confidence.  I cannot say they departed with my own mindset of looking forward to any finishing task, but at least they were no longer fearful of it.

After the opening lecture they got to working on the first of a dozen exercises I had devised for them.  This one was brushing shellac on a large panel, building up about a dozen coats in three application sessions, or “innings.”  Using only a one-inch brush this exercise develops excellent hand skills at applying a finish evenly over a very large area, and lays the foundation for some Day 3 exercises.

We then moved on to the means of preparing surfaces in general (the initial large panel exercise has to fall a bit out of order since it required three sessions to complete the applications; the start of Day 1, the end of Day 1, and the start of Day 2).  Thus much of the day was spent building up Popeye-like forearms, a/k/a using a polissoir.

I also demonstrated the use of a pumice block for smoothing wood.  This was a very common procedure in ancient days, an analog to our own use of sandpaper.

Preparing panels with the polissoirs and then a polissoirs-plus-cold-beeswax occupied much of that afternoon, followed by a light sanding of the large panel and re-application of the 2-pound shellac from the morning.

And thus endeth Day 1.

Ready For Class

Historic Woodfinishing workshop starts in an hour or so and I’m rarin’ to go.

the classroom is all set

some show-n-tell

my ultra-high-tech syllabus

Cleaning A Brazed/Soldered Joint (Making Roubo Squares sidebar)

I use some version of the following techniques for cleaning the interior corners of a soldered/brazed joint such as that created at the shoe-and-beam joint for the Roubo squares.  If my brazing technique is on its game this only takes a couple minutes from start to finish.  If not, more minutes.  Actually, were I a better metalsmith there would be no cleanup at all, but this is the kind of joint I usually have after the torch work.

My first step is to clean the excess solder with a half-round Vixen file, which is the metalworking version of a float.  I lay the flat side of the file down flat on the workpiece and press the edge between the flat and half-round sides into the joint to remove any excess.  Then I repeat it on the other flat face.

Once any excess solder is cleaned off I strike the joint with a diamond shaped burin, or engraver, to establish a nice clean corner.  The spatial circumstance of the task does not allow for me to hold the burin properly, I just hold it sorta like a paring chisel.

Finally I find the halfway angle for a triangle fie and undercut the joint ever so slightly for an elegantly clean look.

After that I’ve got a nice surface ready for polishing with a light abrasive to make it finished.  Once I get the edges finished this one will be ready to go.

Making Roubo Squares – Day 3

 

Day 3 was almost entirely a continuation of Day 2, bringing the squares closer to completion.  It was pretty insistent that each student had at least one square all the way done to guide them once they got back home.  I’m pretty sure each of them headed hme with at least a couple finished.

There was a little sawing as the shoes were trimmed as necessary following their brazing.

The sounds of filing and sanding permeated the air as squares were trued, followed by the gentler sanding with finer paper in getting the surfaces polished to the point of being “done.”

As we continued our work we were able to reflect on a grand time of fellowship and learning.

Thanks for a great workshop, gentlemen.  Counting my own projects, I think the grand total for the weekend was 30 squares, eight or nine triangles, and several pounds of scraps and filings.

Now it’s time to turn my attentions to this month’s workshop on Historic Finishing.

“Measuring Is The Enemy,” or, Truing A Triangle

One of the tools emerging from the recent Making Roubo Squares workshop was a diminutive 30-60-90 triangle.  This tool is integral to much of my/our shop life for areas ranging from cubic/pinwheel parquetry to laying out the dovetailed tenons of a Roubo bench leg-and-slab double mortise-and-tenon construction.

With the surplus rectangle of brass plate left over from the making of our nested set of cabinetmaker’s squares during the workshop there was plenty of brass plate left over for making other, smaller layout tools.  Included in these were some small triangles that were roughly laid out with a plastic drafting triangle and rough cut on the bandsaw.

I took the opportunity to demonstrate the truing of the triangle to the workshop students, reminding them of the simple truths they learned decades ago in seventh grade Geometry class.  Instead of using a micrometer or something similar to establish the tringle side lengths, a much easier, simpler, faster, and frankly more accurate method is only a compass or divider away.

After establishing the perfect square corner between the two shorter legs of the triangle it was possible to achieve a perfect set of 30-60 degree angles by using just a scrap piece of plywood, a pencil, and a set of dividers.  For work like this I almost always revert to a pair of dividers from an antique navigational drafting set that I bought for practically nothing many years ago.  These German Silver (alloy of brass plus nickel) tools are simply lovely and a pleasure to the eye and the hand.

First I traced the rough triangle onto a piece of scrap plywood, and set my dividers to the exact length of the shorter side adjacent to the right angle.

Then swinging the dividers to the hypotenuse I stepped off two of those lengths.  If you will recall, for a perfect 30-60-90 triangle the hypotenuse is exactly two time longer than the shorter side of the right angle.

Once I determined that two-times-longer distance along the hypotenuse I re-set my dividers to this exact distance then transferred it to the longer side of the right angle, redrew the hypotenuse on the plywood, then transferred it to the brass.

Five minutes later I had cut and filed the new hypotenuse and had a perfect 30-60-90 triangle ready to braze on the foot and put to use in a multitude of applications.

All with zero measuring, although to be honest I did grab my dial caliper afterwards to check.  I wound up being off by almost 0.002″ which probably amounts to a couple seconds or so of angle degree (or, about 1/1800th of a degree).   I can live with that.

To quote my mentor in the pattern shop, John Kuzma (cleaned up considerably for a family-friendly venue), “Measuring is the enemy.  Layout and transfer are your friends.”

I cannot recall my 7th grade Geometry teacher’s name but I do remember Mr. Fiske, who taught me Trigonometry in 11th grade almost fifty years ago.  Together these men impressed on me the importance of triangles in every-day life.  Thank you, gentlemen.

Making Roubo Squares – Day 2

By the start of the second day everyone’s trains were barreling down the tracks and all we had to do was keep on keeping on.   Even as I entered the barn the sounds of sawing, filing, and sanding filled the air.

I had given each of the students one of these DARPA funded, MIT developed tools to work on the ogee tips at either end of the squares.  One side was flat and the other was round, and when wrapped with sandpaper the tool was perfect for the task of finishing the shape.  The uninitiated might think these were simply a 3/8″ dowel split in half on the bandsaw, but they would be properly ignorant of the national security dark technology pedigree of the tool.

Pretty soon the tips were more-or-less derived.

One procedure that was replicated perhaps a hundred times that day was returning to the abrasive covered granite blocks to bring the squares closer to “true,” a process that would be continued until after the torch work and the “square-ness” was perfected versus the Vesper final word square.

Len was the first to get the brilliant idea of creating a 30-60-90 triangle from the remaining scrap of rectangular brass plate left over from the four nested squares.  Using my older version of the Knew Concepts Mark III saw he set to work and soon had the inside design cut out.

Meanwhile Dave, John and Pete got their tips shaped and polished.

Len finished the interior of the piercing of the triangle.

All the while the pile of brass filings and shavings built up at every work station.  This continued until the very end and we compiled an impressive pile of scraps and waste filings, I’d estimate somewhere around five pounds worth.

All of this was prelude for the tasks presented after lunch as the shoes for the beams were brazed in place with silver containing solder.  Once the mating surfaces were perfected it was time to move to the torch work stations.

The set-up was designed for efficient and safe torch work.  I will blog about making a perfect set-up for bench top brazing in the next couple of weeks.

Fortunately I had all the things I needed on hand; fire bricks, kiln shelves to use as brazing platforms, and inexpensive lazy susan bearings so each place could turn.  I placed three work stations on top of cement backer board from a home improvement center.  For this project it was important to isolate the workpieces from the shelf and the bricks as much as possible to reduce the amount of heat loss from direct contact during the brazing.  That is why the work pieces are raised up from the shelf by two small pieces of scrap brass.

After slathering on the flux to the contact edge of the square it was placed on the horizontally situated shoe, in the center.  Then the torch was lit and the heat turned up.  We were using both propane and MAPP torches, the first was fine and the second faster.

Once the assemblage was heated up and the brass began to get a coppery tone it was time to simply flow the coiled solder into the back side of the joint and let the heat draw it underneath the joint toward the flame.

Dave gave the quenched joint a fierce testing, and was impressed at the strength of it.

Then everyone set to brazing on the bases of their respective squares, then began the cleaning up process.

And that’s how we spent the rest of Day 2.

Making Roubo Squares – Day 1

Last week I hosted a workshop that reflected my peculiarities as a craftsman, a woodworker who loves metal work.  Four skilled craftsmen, Dave, John, Len, and Pete joined me for three terrific days of fellowship and making.  In this case making a nested set of Roubo-esque solid brass squares a la Plate 308, Figure 2.

The starting point for the three days was a 9″x12″x1/8″ brass plate.

Using my puny table saw and sled with a waste block to reduce the shrapnel, everyone cut a series of descending size squares.

After the table saw cuts, stopped to avoid over-cutting at the intersection of the inner edges, the cuts were finished with deep-throat fret saws and #6 jeweler’s blades which I provided.   Pete had his wondrous Knew Concepts coping saw that worked like a charm.

And then the filing began.  To protect the inner corner of the squares we ground off one edge of the mill files that everyone brought, starting with the disc sander followed by a diamond stone.  This allowed for pretty aggressive work in the corners.

The filing was done on both inside corners of the cut squares and the outside corners of the remaining rectangles in preparation for cutting out the next smaller square, followed by truing on sandpaper over a granite block.  (You can see the sublime Vesper square that was our “final word” truing reference for the workshop.)

This scene pretty much sums up the whole day.  I was working right alongside the students making another set of the squares.  I find this approach works best for the students to see me working on the same exact project, several times they came to look over my shoulder at some point in the day.

Before long everyone had their four rough squares ready for the next step, which was to trace and cut the offset/stepped ogees on each end.  The small rectangle of brass remaining from the first four squares could be used later for a petite pair of squares and a couple of 30-60-90 triangles.

These were roughed out on the bandsaw, ready for filing the rest of the way.

That’s where we were at the end of the first day.

Stay tuned for Day 2.