Historic Woodfinishing Workshop Day 2

The primary work of Day 2 was building up the finishes in preparation for the rubbing-out and toning of the final day.

The first task was to scrape the large shellacked panels with disposable razor blades to get them smooth as silk for the final application session to follow.  True enough, disposable razor blades are not historically precise but scraping is, and using the disposable blades is the best way I can get the process integrated into the workshop.  If done carefully the resulting surface is pretty much a flawless ground for the final layers of varnish.

We then moved on to some tables legs to get a little time in on working with “in the round” components.  These are often a challenge for inexperienced and old-time finishers alike, but one key to success in this regard is a light touch and the right brush.  I’ve found that a rounded-tip brush, sometimes called a “Filbert mop” with good bristle drape results in a near-perfect application every time.

The fellows worked so fast we had time to insert a couple of exercises, one being the use of molten wax on tables legs.  We let a hair dryer substitute for a red-hot poker, but the results were acceptable.

Raised panel doors are also a sometime headache, but once you get the hang of the routine it works out pretty well.

Finally it was time to start on the spirit varnish pad polishing, a/k/a “French” polishing.  Each of the students constructed their own pad from cotton wadding, then charged it with the spirit varnish.  (This led to a fairly involved discussion about the fabrics that are best suited for which tasks in the finishing room.  I asked my long time friend and Roubo colleague Michele Pagan, a textilian for as long as I have been a woodfinisher, to write a blog post on the topic.  I will post it probably next week.)

By tapping it on their palm they knew when it was ready to go.  And, it gives a lovely sheen to the palm.

The boards they had prepared on Day 1 were partially wax-filled and partially raw-but-burnished wood.  Since so much of spirit varnish polishing is “feel” there was not much to do but turn them loose.

Before long there was a-glist’nin’ all over the place.

Another exercise that frankly I have never been able to get perfect was to fill the grain with beeswax and powdered colorant, pressed in to the wood grain with a polissoir.  I need to work on this concept a little more, although Roubo promises success.

And with that we were done with Day 2.

New Tool For Making Backsaws (And Much More)

Six years ago when I wrote my article in American Period Furniture on making my own dovetail saw I had the advantage of access to an ultra-sweet 12-inch Houdaille precision shear and a matching 12-inch brake.  I loved those tools and have been looking for the pair ever since I left Mordor, preferably for a modest outlay.  Alas, even used these run about $2k for the pair, with the new showroom price north of  $6k.  If I ever find them for next to nothing I will still pick them up, but that is an unlikely occurrence.  I believe Houdialle is now re-branded as Di-Acro but I cannot be certain.

Many moons ago I got a notice from Micro-Mark that they were discontinuing the very tool I wanted, and it was on sale at a very deep discount.  The tool in question was a mini-shear/brake for sheet metal, precisely the kind of tool I could use when making, or teaching the making of, petite dovetail saws.  The width capacity of the tool is 8 inches, which pretty much defines “petite” when it comes to saws.

I recently unpacked it and gave it a try.  Very, very nice.  I am fairly certain that this unit was manufactured by Baileigh, as theirs seems identical in every way.

The uses of this tool are many, from cleanly cutting spring steel coils to length and width for the saw plates, to bending brass backs for the saw structure.  I make saws with a folded 1/16″ back, which is a bit stout for this little tool, but if I anneal it first there seems to be no problem.

I’ll be using the tool in the near future as I build another saw in practice for the upcoming workshop Making A Petite Dovetail Saw, June 8-10.  I’ve got one opening for that class, so if it interests you drop me a note.

Nicholson Prototype Face Vise Construction

The vises I had in mind for the Nicholson prototype were simple in concept and construction.  The face vise was simply two pieces of SYP 2x stock leftover from the bench construction.  I glued these together with my typical clamping of deck screws and fender washers, then drilled 1-1/2″ holes for the screw-stock to pass completely through.

The threaded holes in the apron were drilled at 1-3/8″, then tapped with the tool provided in the Beale kit.  I already had an oversized tap handle from a set of giant taps and dies I’ve had since forever.

It seemed so simple, two holes in the jaw, two holes in the apron.  Sigh.  I somehow managed to drill one of the threaded holes in the apron directly into the end of one of the battens underneath the top.  D’oh.  I had to cut the jaw to remove that hole, and drill another hole in the apron for the new screw location.  That’s why you build prototypes.  Given that we were going to be building perhaps as many as a dozen benches in the Arkansas workshop, it was good to get this mistake out the of the way now.  I’ll leave that hole in place as a reminder of my own hubris.  Not exactly a Saint Jerome “Memento Mori” moment, but a humbling touchstone nevertheless.

Back to the construction and assembly of the face vise.

My strategy was to assemble the screw unit as a whole, hub and handle hole included, before cutting the screws.  That worked out pretty well.  For the handle hubs I made four identical pieces of SYP 2x stock cut 4″x 4″.  I drilled the 1-1/2″ hole in the center of each of these four pieces, on two the holes went all the way through, on two they went 3/4 of the way through.

I set up the miter gauge on the table saw to make octagons out of the squares.

I glued the whole unit together with yellow glue.

The 1-1/16″ hole for the 1″ dowel handle was drilled on the drill press and then I could use a temporary handle to turn the unit as I cut the threads on the Beale unit.

The handles were outfitted with rubber chair tips on the ends and the vise was put in its place.

The Spirit of Meldrim Thomson

Having been a hard core political junkie most of my life (an affliction that is diminishing with time and distance from Mordor), one of my favorite political figures of modern times was Meldrim Thomson.  He was the crusty governor of New Hampshire who was in office while I matriculated as a PolySci/EconHist student during my first attempt to get through college.  Thomson was, by all accounts, a congenial man who was either principled or retrograde depending, I suppose, on whether or not you shared his perspective on things.  There was a tale circulating during his career that in response to an accusation that his “attitudes were from the 19th century” he retorted that the critic was two centuries too late.  I admired that about him.

Flash forward to a couple weeks ago.  We were in Costco with our daughter who has been urging us to join modernity for some while now, and it was time to discard our vintage flip-phones and get “smart” phones.  Given our desire for a navigating device to travel with us and a tool that could actually read text messages from iPhones (our vintage phones would not), we finally relented.  It was difficult as there was some residual emotional attachment to the old technology.  Besides, it worked well on the wagon train and still made phone calls when we wanted, more or less.

So now we are part of Modernity, an uncomfortable position given how much of it I am at war with.  But, both daughters assured us that it would revolutionize our lives, and, “Besides Daddy, you can Instagram and Tweet!”   My interest in becoming a twit is in the negative integer range, but all my woodworking friends tell me that I “have to Instagram.”

We’ll see about that.

But for now, there is no communication technology revolution in my life.  I had no cell service at the cabin or barn before, I still have no cell service.  And now I guess I have to learn about this Instagram thing.


Nicholson Prototype Vise(s) Construction – The Screw Stock

With the workbench itself completed it was time to move on to the two twin-screw vises for the unit, one face vise and one “Moxon” vise for temporary use on top of the bench.

My first consideration was the stock for the screws themselves.  For all the screw making on this unit I used 1-1/2″ tulip poplar dowels from Lowes; it was clear, straight, cheap and readily available.  But, in a previous undertaking of refitting my Roubo saw-bench with new screws, I had observed ferocious tear-out when using the Beall Wood Threader due to the softness of the wood.  I think the Beall system was designed for use on dense hardwoods like maple or tight-grain oak, but all that meant was that I had to turn tulip poplar into something that behaved like a harder, tighter grain wood.

My resolution of the “tear out” problem was to impregnated the dowels with a dilute solution of epoxy and acetone.  I mixed a small batch of epoxy, thinned it 50/50 with acetone and brushed it on the dowels.  It soaked in well, and was hard in 24 hours.  The result was to reduce “tear out” by more than 90%.

Even the “feel” of the impregnated screw stock was better when feeding through the cutter.  With this problem addressed I could charge forward.  Goo thing, as I not only had to make the four screws for the prototype bench but for another ten benches as well in order to get ready for the Arkansas workshop.

Writing Desk — Shelf

The final few steps of the construction phase of the desk project were to make and fit the mid-level shelf, make install the single and double beading moldings on the box, turn and install the spindles that suspended the shelf from the underside of the writing box, and turn the roundels that adorned the “ears” of the legs.  Each of these operations will be dealt with separately beginning with the shelf (I’m not sure I’m getting the blogging order correct, but you’ll get the whole picture by the time I finish).

The mid-level solid slab shelf was partly cantilevered off the “leg” units, fitted into notches on the double bead moldings on the edge of the leg and sitting on simple glue-block brackets on the insides of the legs.  Placing and affixing the shelf was pretty fussy work, nothing especially complex but the key was working slowly and carefully.  I started by tacking a scrap into the location of the support blocks on the legs and rested the shelf slab on them to get the notching on the moldings correct, easily.  (The actual finished mahogany support blocks will be visible in the offering about the spindles upcoming)

With the shelf slab sitting on the temporary supports I marked the locations of the notches on the moldings with a fine saw, then excavated with the saw and chisels.

The fit was darned near perfect, especially once I beveled the contact edge on the shelf where it connected with the notch.

At this point the only further work on the shelf per se was to add double beading on the edges, using a bronze scratch stock tool from LNT, followed by my home made scratch stock to removed the shoulders of the profile.

Historic Woodfinishing Workshop Day 1

Recently I hosted my almost-annual three-day Historic Woodfinishing workshop at The Barn.  Due to family medical emergencies three of the five registrants were unable to attend.  This, combined with some seasonably chilly weather (holding this the final weekend of April was an experiment that will not be replicated), led me to relocate the event into my heated workshop rather than the unheated classroom space.  That actually added to the intimate atmosphere of the session.

My syllabus for this workshop is pretty well established after this many iterations.  Given the brevity of the schedule I restrict it to only two major finish materials, shellac and wax.  Next year I am penciled in to teach a longer workshop at MASW so we can explore the topic more broadly, but for now this is what we cover.  As always my objectives are to 1) present finishing as a structured enterprise, to familiarize the participants with my approach to finishing and remove any hurdles of intimidation, and 2) provide some hands-on/muscle memory experiences to impart confidence for once they are back home.

One of the foundational exercises is to brush shellac spirit varnish on a 24″ x 48″ plywood panel that is straight from the bin at the lumber yard with only the most cursory preparations of sanding with 220 paper for a coupe minutes.  The objective is to build up enough finish in three sessions, two on Day 1 and one on Day 2, to provide a great base or polishing out on Day 3.  Each of the three sessions results in about a half dozen applications of varnish.  In between the first two application sessions on Day 1, the dried varnish is lightly rubbed with dry pumice to remove and nits that are there.

Other Day 1 exercises include burnishing a mahogany panel with a polissoir, with a polissoir and wax, and applying a layer of molten wax to fill the grain and serve as a final coating.

Thus endeth Day 1.  Now on to Day 2.

Williams the Wonk and the Chocolate Factory

On our recent visit to northern California our daughter had arranged for us to tour the Dick Taylor Chocolate emporium, a successful and growing enterprise operated by two former woodworkers and (still current) musicians, Adam Dick and Dustin Taylor.   Dustin gave us the tour, which is normally  full but for whatever reason on this day we were the only ones.

Dustin’s enthusiasm for fine craft, whether it be furniture making, house restoring, boat building, or chocolatiering was evident with every gesture and utterance.  Learning that I was a woodworker he spent extra time describing their loving acquisition and restoration of much of their vintage equipment.

We began in the shipping, roasting and grinding room at the back.  The shelves were loaded with raw beans from around the globe.

One of their pride and joy machines is this bean roaster, converted from a turn of the century coffee roaster.  I got the feeling Dustin could have talked about this device for a long, long time.

They are a magical blend of “old ways”and “new ways”, combining finely crafted chocolates with state of the art technology.  This high-tech chocolate melting vat was the largest glue pot I had ever seen.

I think this was a 5kg block of raw processed chocolate, awaiting further processing into the final product.  As were hundreds of its siblings.

One striking artifact in their show room was a vintage letter press.  When they first started they decided that they wanted a certain “look” to their packaging and that look depended on letterpress wrappings.  They still have a local friend produce all their wrappings on another letter press they bought for her to use.

Given our attitude that “there is no such thing as bad chocolate, just some is a lot better than others”  (the darker the better for us) Justin’s recitation of their production and products was fascinating to us, and the treat of being able to sample all their products as we finished the tour was pretty seductive..

We bought their “Chocolate Library” with a bar of each of their products.  We’re told that they will be moving into a much larger facility and increasing their product line in the coming months.  I think their foray into milk chocolate is unappealing (it’s a waste of both milk and chocolate, IMHO) but given their continued growth I cannot doubt their vision nor marketing acuity.

They will be selling t-shirts with this new logo some time this summer and you can believe that I will get me a few.

Woodworking and dark chocolate, a pretty divine melange.

Nicholson Prototype Construction III

The final 90 minutes of construction for the Nicholson was to finish the legs and top.  It was all easy enough to do.

I wanted to get the top planks on first, and to do that I needed to achieve a crisp, straight edges for the center joint.  Were my big table saw or jointer up and running I would have simply run them through one of them to remove the rounded edge, but I have not yet installed those outlets in the basement shop (and have learned to live without those machines for more than four years).  Instead I clamped the boards one at a time to the front apron of the bench and planed them with a jointer plane until they were what I wanted.

I then screwed the top boards to the cross battens.  I made sure to bury the screw heads pretty deep so the top could be smoothed with a hand plane without any concern for hitting them and nicking the iron.

I then rolled the bench onto its back on top of my short sawbench type stools, and glued and screwed the outer leg lamina in place.  As with almost every undertaking of this sort, I used decking screws and fender washers as the clamping forces.  Once the glue is dry I simply back out the crews and pry off the washers and put each in their proper container for use the next time.

A minute or two planing off the lumber mill chatter marks and I was ready to drill the holdfast holes, for which I used this exotically engineered jig.

While the bench was on its side I trimmed all the legs to length.

Back up its feet, I checked to make sure the top was flat, albeit not really smooth as there was a bit of mill chatter. I touched it lightly with a smoother plane to get it, well, smooth, followed by a quick covering with the toothing plane.

I cannot remember exactly why I took this picture of the bench upside down, but it does give you a good view of the entire undercarriage.

After drilling the holdfast holes in the top, through the planks and battens, and the construction of the bench proper was finished.  Now it was time to move on to the twin screw corner vise.

Gragg Chair Video Day 1

Recently we had our first day of production for the “Making A Gragg Chair” video.  We had been waiting for several weeks to get a beautiful day to film outside while I harvested the wood for making the chairs that will be documented in the video.  Full disclosure — I will actually be making three chairs more or less simultaneously so that we can use subsequent production days most efficiently, getting several consecutive steps recorded on the same day by having three chairs at different points of the construction.

So this beautiful day was spent splitting wood up the mountain with wedges and sledges, then on to a mallet and froe in the riving brake next to the barn.  The setup for the latter was new to me so it was a bit awkward getting into the swing of things, but due to the magic of video editing it might actually look like I know what I am doing.

We also shot the introduction to a Special Feature we will be including on the video, and probably on the web as well, as we record the entire process of me conserving my own damaged chair.

One of the things I am trying to keep track of is the amount of time it will take me to build one chair from start to finish.  I would love to teach a workshop on building Gragg chairs but I need to get the time down to seven days max, six days preferably.  I suppose once these chairs get down I will build one from scratch as fast as I can to see if it is a reasonable project for a workshop.