furniture making

Huh, Never Had This Problem Before

Last winter I started to finish the doors for Mrs. Barn’s clothes cabinet I built many moons ago using recycled chestnut lumber, warts and all, from an old, dismantled shack on the hill.

After preparing the doors (built as a single unit then sawn apart) with some scraping and burnishing with a polissoir, I laid down a seal coat of gloss Pratt & Lambert 38 varnish, a long-time favorite of mine, which I sanded lightly once it was hard (oil/resin coatings do not dry so much as they harden via chemical reaction).

I applied what I thought would be the top coat of Pratt & Lambert 38 “Dull” varnish because that would leave the surface looking most like raw wood, and set the still-wet doors aside to resume work “some day.”  Well, “some day” was a couple weeks ago.  To say the least I was surprised at the outcome of my previous work.

The evidence of age and deterioration that I had purposely left on the surface as an aesthetic design element had turned completely white.  What happened was that the wet varnish pooled in the recesses and the flatting agent, almost certainly a microscopically fine silica, was present to such a degree that it imparted total opacity to the finish film in those areas.

I’m pretty sure I know how to solve the problem, but I have never encountered something like this before.

Stay tuned.

Plywood-in-Waiting

 

Over many years due to some fortuitous opportunities, including the generosity (?) of fellow woodworkers cleaning out their stashes of stuff, I have managed to acquire an awful lot of veneers.  Those that are unusual or rare go one place in the barn, but the large majority is mundane and gets stacked on a pair of cot bases on the floor directly overhead of my studio space.  There is nothing special about this pile of veneers other than the fact that for the most part this is vintage, heavier weight material than you would routinely find today.  Most of it is in the range of 1/20″ to 1/30″, in poplar, walnut, maple, ash, cherry, and birch.

Even If I was manufacturing furniture, I would never use all this up.

So, what to do?

I’ve been contemplating making small, elegant boxes, mostly with either parquetry/marquetry or fuaxrushi presentation surfaces.  Some of the boxes would be straightforward cubic shapes, others bombe’.  What better foundation for these decorative techniques than ultra-high-quality veneer-core plywood?  I have long believed that a static substrate of high-quality plywood is superior to a dynamic solid wood substrate with its inexorable rheological response to environmental moisture change.  I could spend the big bucks to get marine or aircraft plywood, or I could just make my own.

So, I will.  I have had excellent success in the past making small epoxy/veneer plywood panels for little projects and will now make that my SOP for fancy little jewel boxes.  For larger pieces, say 12″ x 18″ or maybe a little larger, I will need to make a veneer press.  For bombe’ panels I will need to construct forms and devise a vacuum press.

In the end, it is all just more fascinating stuff to do in the adventure that is life at the barn.

 

Tool Cabinet – Building the Box(es)

The tool cabinet is really three big boxes, one being the main box of 48″x42″x14″, and the two outer hinged boxes are each 48″x20-1/2″ x 4″.  I built the big box first and outsmarted myself some, a lesson I learned in time to change the way I built the two door boxes.

Beginning with four pieces of 48″x24″x3/4″ Baltic birch-ish plywood panels from the big box store, I ripped them all to 14″ wide and sawed rebates on the back edges to accept the 1/2″ back panel.  I ripped a fifth 3/4″ panel to be 1/2″ narrower than the outer box elements in order to allow for the 1/2″ back panel since it serves as the center stile.

It was at this point when I outsmarted myself and wasted a lot of time to no great purpose when I decided to miter the corners.  This was simply unnecessary and a step I avoided when building the matched door boxes.  Given the set-up of my shop the only way I could cut miters on the ends of the box panels was to use my battery-powered circular saw, which is an excellent tool that works just fine.  The time sink was in getting the 45-degree cut just right in order to accomplish the 90-degree corner.   After some test cuts I got it right and had the four outer panels ready for assembly.

Once that was done I cut the dadoes in the top and bottom panels to receive the interior center vertical panel, cutting the shoulders with a Japanese saw, excavating with a router plane then finishing it off with a small dado plane.

I assembled the back panel from two pieces of 48″x24″x1/2″ plywood, using PVA adhesive and pinch dogs to hold the together while the adhesive sets.  Pinch dogs are one of the treasures I discovered in the pattern shop, along with using nails and screws for clamping stacked elements together for painted curvilinear structures.  In this case it’s not painted stack laminations, but the surfaces will be obscured entirely by veneerwork.

With all that complete the entire structure was assembled using PVA adhesive (I cannot assure that the tool cabinet will always be in the best atmospheric environment) and deck screws.  I chuckle with the gasping and pearl clutching I am sensing out in the fruited plain.  I augmented the corners with full-length mitered glue bocks using nails and PVA.

I learned my lesson with the bog box so I assembled the doors with butt joints and glued-and-screwed.

Whew, all the pieces fit together.  The thing is so big I shoulda called it “the tool closet.”

Tool Cabinet – Construction Choices

When it comes to large scale furniture making, or at least when there are large expanses of flat elements such as sides, doors and backs of larger cabinetry, one of the constant challenges to makers is adapting to the movement of wood through the seasons by means of various assemblages.  Long ago I developed the attitude it would be more efficient and more successful to use wood re-formatted to simply not move in response to environmental moisture.  In other words, to use good quality plywood.  That might make me a heretic in the fine woodworking world, and I will give that accusation all the consideration it deserves.

Okay, I am done with that consideration.  As pundit Mollie Hemingway once remarked, “My spiritual gift is not caring what you think about anything.”  That pretty much summarizes my attitude towards plywood as a legitimate fine construction material.

Frankly it is not a concern for most of my projects given the scale of my work.  That said I have begun experimenting with home-made plywood even for some of my smaller work, consuming my copious inventory of veneers and marine epoxy to make nearly indestructible plywood like this.  I will be blogging about this undertaking in the near future.

Sure, I know how to make frame-and-panel furniture and use it when it is stylistically appropriate, but otherwise I move on using good plywood for the panels of my projects.  This becomes even more imperative for me when the ultimate purpose of the project is to express the decorative surface, either marquetry or japanning/fauxrushi.   I just want the seasons to unfold with the carcass substrate not even noticing.

 

Over my 50 years of restoring and conserving ancient furniture I have seen far too many instances of a solid wood carcasses tearing apart the decorative surface to go down that road in my own work, as in this 19th Century French desk.  Given the prominence of decorative veneerwork on my cabinet this phenomenon was one I did not seek to replicate.

This brings me to the construction choices for my tool cabinet, in some ways to be the culmination of my “making” undertakings.  In point of fact this will be a huge (for me) simple box measuring roughly 48″ high x 42″ wide x 15″ deep.  The cabinet has two purposes; 1) to hold as many woodworking tools as I can possibly cram in there on 12 (!) swinging panels, and 2) express the aesthetic of traditional Roubo/Roentgen parquetry (outside) combined with HO Studley’s inspirational aesthetic (inside).  For this reason, I need a structure that is both robust and exceedingly stable if I want the cabinet to redound to my descendants.  This pretty much means that I build the box and its doors out of Baltic birch plywood, for the most part 3/4″.

When you merge that preference with the additional facts that I am not set up to do large scale millwork combined with the ready availability of 24″ x 48″ “project panels” at the Big Blue Box store, my path forward was pretty self-evident.

Now the only real question is, “How many months with this adventure consume?”

Stay tuned to find out.

Winter Projects (and well beyond) – Pushing the Boundaries of Graggsylvania

Sorry, I accidentally posted this headline last week with no content.  Here is the content.

I find everything about the Gragg Chair to be compelling, from its aesthetic sinuous elegance and innovative form to the engineering brilliance and the craft challenge itself.  But, could the same form and concepts be taken to different places?  What else could be accomplished in the territory of Graggsylvania?

I intend to find out.

I am not the first person to ponder an exploration down this path, beginning with Samuel Gragg himself, who constructed this unsuccessful (to me eye, at least) settee. I fully intend to make a four-unit settee employing the fully steam bent structural integers rather that the partial one he employed.  Actually, that might be a post-winter project as I would have to do it on the unheated fourth floor which I promise you is not someplace to be desired as a workspace once the chills set in, although that might just work for steam bending the parts.  If I can clear space in my heated studio, however…

And how about a Gragg Rocker?  I’ve mocked one up and have bent the rockers for it, now it only takes time and energy.

What’s next, Gragg porch chairs?  Gragg footstools?  Gragg plant stands?  Gragg child’s chair (now that is really intriguing)?  The options boggle the mind and fuel the imagination.

Gragg Chair Workshop 6

Our final day of the workshop opened with our recognition that no one would be 100% completed with the chair construction, but everyone was close with the demonstrations of the last tasks to be completed.

This list included adding the front stretcher and rear rungs along with all the intermediate seat slats, insertion of four triangular glue blocks associated with the arms, followed by all the sculpting required after all the construction is finished and glued up.

I forgot to mention earlier that one of the fellows brought a nicely finished Studelyesque mallet, based on the castings by Bill Martley that I blogged about earlier.  The mallet came in handy a great many times.

It was a great week of fellowship, comradery and loads of creative work.   Throughout the six days we jointly noted a number of places in the syllabus where en toto a few hours could probably be shaved off the schedule.  So if there is interest I would be glad to offer the workshop again, but even better.

Gragg Chair Workshop 5

With the incorporation of the continuous seat/back slats the artifacts began to adopt the true character of a Gragg chair.

There’s not really a lot to say about the process; you thin the vertical sections to impart the requisite springiness (this is where clamping/vise weirdness is a feature, not a bug), mark, cut and excavate the dado troughs in the rear seat rail, and lay out the half-blind dovetails on the front set rail and the mortises in the crest rail.  It sounds so mundane to describe many hours of intense work thusly.

One “complication” is that the slats must be off-set front-to-back so that they are staggered in order to impart the “elastic” leaf spring function to the chair as a whole.  The is accomplished by using spacers between the slats just above the rear seat rail.  Only after this configuration is achieved can the half-blind dovetails in the front seat rail be layed out and cut.

The dovetails themselves are a piece of cake, literally a minute or two per joint.  The pocket mortises chopped into the rear edge of the front seat rail are a bit more involved but still not hysterically complex.

Once this is done the tops of the slats can be marked and the tenons cut.

Gragg Chair Workshop 4

Fitting and shaping the cross-chair elements is at the heart of turning this pile of parts into a structural construct capable of supporting a sitting body.  This takes a lot of time.

As the cross-chair structural elements were added and shaped it was time to move on to the work of shaping and thinning the continuous seat/back slats.  My experience has been that these must be bent full thickness over the whole length, then the section beginning with and above the rear seat rail must be thinned by hand, usually with spokeshaves or drawknives to the point where they are appropriately springy.   Concurrent with this step is cutting the dado troughs for the slats in the rear seat rail and there is a fair bit of back and forth getting them to fit properly and be properly springy so that it can all go together in the end.

Since one of the students had very limited experience with steam bending I loaded up the steam box with chair parts and went through the entire process with him so that he could get the “feel” of how each of the parts was cooked and formed.

Gragg Chair Workshop 3

By Day 3 we were deep into the woods of Fussyville as curved and tapered parts had to be individually fitted to each other.  There was no straightforward way to do this, you just gotta nibble away and sneak up on it.

With the front seat rail being the easiest cross chair element to fabricate and fit, it was time to move on to the rear seat ail and the crest rail.  One of these is simple, straightforward and only takes a short time to get roughed and begin the shaping.  The other is a complete pain in the kiester.  These can be addressed in whatever order you choose, and in fact the students chose different orders.

The easier one is the crest rail, which like the front seat rail is a glorified rabbet/lap joint for an element that is afterwards cut on the curve and the profile.

The royal pain is encountered when cutting and fitting the rear seat rail, an exercise that can take the better part of a day.  I am convinced Gragg found a simple way to do this, perhaps even an easy way, but I have not yet re-engineered it so thus far.  I’ve built eight chairs and every one is a struggle at this point.

 

Finally the pieces get screwed together temporarily in order to move on to the next steps.  Though it might feel like you are on the home stretch now, unfortunately you have just barely arrived at the halfway point in the construction process.

Gragg Chair Workshop 2

 

Early on Day 2 everyone had their side units assembled and thus began one of the more frustrating parts — getting the baby up on its feet.  As I often say about Gragg chairs, you are not so much constructing a chair as you are assembling curvilinear sculpture in three-dimensional space.

To assist in the process I had constructed for each student an assembly jig including four stirrups indicating the location of the four feet.  Combined with a few diagonal struts held in place by spring clamps, the correct posture was assured with the use of a bevel gauge to make sure each side was canting in the proper direction at the correct inclination.  Now it was time to start fabricating and fitting the cross-chair elements, the front seat rail, the rear seat rail, and the crest rail.  It sounds so simple but when you start fitting structural elements to curved and tapered components it suddenly is much less simple.

I learned two important items today to add to the “To Do” list in case I ever host this workshop again: 1) make a story stick for each student so they do not have to spend so much time measuring and remeasuring, and 2) have a fully dis-assemble-able chair so that it is quicker for me to explain how the parts fit together.  I am working on that project right now.  Perhaps a third thing is the hindrance of always working alone, repeatedly I would find myself forgetting to say out loud parts of the conversations going on inside my had, conversations that actually yield useful information about the “whys” and “hows ” of doing things.

The easiest of the cross-chair structural elements is the front seat rail, so that is where I had the students begin.  I had found that using a Zyliss vise is most beneficial to the Gragg chair building process so I made sure each workbench was outfitted with one.  By the end of the class each student was a big fan of the tool.

Near the end of the day it was a thrill to see the inventory of chair forms emerging on the assembly table.