Finishing Workshop @ CW – Making Sandpaper

In preparing for the sessions at The Anthony Hay Shop of CW I decided at the last minute to toss in the materials needed to make sandpaper, not knowing whitener or not there would be any interest.  It turned out that a lot of the participants were indeed interested, and several told me a very common question from the visiting public was some variation of, “Did they have sandpaper in the old days?”

So I’m glad I had what was needed.

We started with moderate weight rag paper, albeit machine made, not hand cast (maybe next time).

Wetting the paper both sides relaxed it so it would pucker less when the hot glue was applied to one side.

We were using 135 gws glue since it had plenty of adhesion properties plus was much more flexible than higher grades, making it more usable since it would not fracture when bent.

Once the glue has been on the paper long enough such that it is tacky but not wet, the surface is sprinkled with fine frit, the ground glass that was often used as the abrasive for some ancient sandpapers (hence the common terminology of “glass paper”).  You want the glue tacky enough to adhere the frit, but not wet enough to soak into it and turn it into a big chunk on the surface.

The glued sheet with frit is shaken or brushed so that the frit covers the whole surface, and the piece is set aside.  Once the glue has hardened adequately the excess frit is brushed or shaken off and the sheet is allowed to dry fully.

And voila’, you have a genuine new piece of antique sandpaper about 180 grit.






Finishing Workshop @ CW – Grain Filling 2

“Cold wax” grain filling with a rush polisher was integral to the finishing practices of the ancients.  It was primarily used to finish solid wood cabinetry as opposed to the hot wax method, which was generally restricted to fancier work like marquetry.

The process is so simple that there is almost no explaining to do.  The precursor step is to plane, scrape, and in some rare instances scour the wood with abrasives like sharkskin, glass paper, or horsetail rush.  Then,  the wood surface is scrubbed with  a block of beeswax until there is a generous, but not continuous, deposit.

Taking the fiber polisher in-hand the surface is rubbed with as much pressure and vigor for as long as you can manage, first working at a slight angle to the grain, then its opposite angle, then finally with the grain.  The friction developed at the point of contact between the tip of the polisher and the wood generates enough heat to turn the wax buttery and presses it down into the grain, filling it.

In some instances, as I had them do in this exercise, the surface is sprinkled with a colorant, usually powdered pigment or resin that has been ground into a fine flour.  In this case I had them use some raw umber pigment to accentuate the technique (in the real world the colorant would be selected to best fit the coloration of the wood).

When finished any excess wax would be scraped off then the surface buffed with linen and wool rags until there is a uniform gloss.

For most plain solid wood furniture and cabinetry, this actually sufficed as the finished surface and nothing more would be done.  You can see the resulting surface at the upper left corner of this sample board.

Finishing Workshop @ CW – Grain Filling 1

One of the aspects of  finishing that has occupied the interests of woodworkers for centuries has been the quest for executing a smooth and glossy surface.  Part and parcel of that effort has been to diminish the texture of the wood itself, hence the need for grain filling.  Its importance and vagaries were such that I have introduced two disparate exercises into my teaching, both of which were pretty explicitly described in the historical literature.  As done by the ancients, the quest for a non-contaminating grain filler with both enough hardness and flexibility to fulfill the task led them to employ purified beeswax as the backbone for the fill material.

The first exercise was to prepare the base for spirit varnish pad polishing, sometimes known in our vernacular as “French polishing.”  In this instance the objective is to flow molten beeswax onto the surface, then scrape off any excess in readying for the pad polishing.  Historically they would have used a tool similar to a roofers’ soldering iron, albeit a bit more flattened at the end such that it resembles more closely something like our modern electric tacking iron.



So that is what I use.  First the molten wax is drizzled onto the surface by rubbing the hot iron against the block of beeswax, followed by working the iron over the entire surface.

When the entire surface has been saturated with molten wax, the heel of the iron is used to squeegee off any excess and the piece is allowed to cool.  Then using a scraper sans burr, the surface is cleaned fully down to the wood fibers.  Historically this scraper would have been steel or brass, but equally viable now is a piece of plexiglass with a nicely prepared edge.

With a final buffing with a piece of coarse linen or something similar, the end result is a surface ready for the spirit varnish pad polishing to come.

Book Signing at LAP Storefront


I’ve decided to trek to Covington KY this coming Saturday to sign Roubo and Studley books at the Lost Art Press storefront open-house (and pick up my own copies of the Deluxe version of the new Roubo volume).  I should be there from mid-morning through mid-afternoon if you want me to sign your book.

Actually, I’ll be there even if you don’t want me to sign your book.

Finishing Workshop @CW – Surface Prep With a Fiber Bundle

The hurdle of working out-of-order on some exercises was one the CW folks had no problem with, an accommodation I credit to their being interrupted almost minute-by-minute when the shops are open.  Apparently the concept of continuity is nearly irrelevant for much of their work.  I am particularly impressed with their ability to work in in such a crowded, dimly lit space.  I know I was having trouble photographing them.

One of the concepts I was trying to persuade them to incorporate into their work protocol was burnishing the surfaces with a bound bundle of plant fibers, a recent addition to my tool kit as a result of copying some of Roubo’s techniques employing a tool he called a polissoir.  The same tool is known across the globe, going back several centuries in the Orient and certainly known in Occidental workshops for almost as long, making it a perfect fit for their interpretation of the English mid-18th Century Anthony Hay Shop in Williamsburg.

I had plenty of sorghum polishers in hand so everyone got their own to prep and use.

As is always the case the results were impressive as the tips were prepped with a sheet of fine abrasive paper, and then the raw hand-planed surfaces rubbed with the smoothed bundle.

BTW, one of the videos I am thinking of shooting is titled The Compleat Polissoir, which will be a much more in-depth exposition on the topic than I addressed in my earlier video.

The prepped polissoirs were employed later on as we explored the role of wax grain filling.

Finishing Workshop @ CW – Brushing Exercise

The syllabus for a two or three day workshop is necessarily limited to those practices that can be accomplished within that time frame, excluding anything dealing with oil-based finishes.  Accordingly I restrict the materials covered to include only spirit varnishes and wax.

The first exercise begun is applying a premium brushed finish with shellac.  Since I have scads of it we used Lemon #1 shellac dissolved in either 190 proof grain alcohol or premium alcohol blends (I am testing a custom blend solvent sample from a proprietary manufacturer based on my input, and thus far it is looking good.)  We mixed our solution with the general proportions of one part powdered resin to two parts solvent, which yields a roughly 2 pound cut.

My technique of brushing includes a surprisingly small brush applying the varnish in sections arranged in a serpentine pattern over the complete surface, blending the margins of each sector along the way.  A detailed verbal description would take several paragraphs if not pages, you’ll just have to see me do it some time.  When done, if the starting point is not wet, repeat the application process until the starting point is still wet when you get to the end of the application.  I call this unit “one inning” of finishing,  which can be as many as a half dozen consecutive applications depending on the situation, and a complete brushed shellac finish usually takes three or four innings to get to the sublime.

Given the schedule for this workshop, the first inning was at the beginning of Day 1.

A light sanding of the first inning and the application of the second inning at the end of Day 1,  (note the wetness being ascertained via direct touch; if the surface is tacky, do it again.  If it is wet, you are done.)


and the second light sanding and the third inning at the beginning of Day 2.

With this approach we were able to get a great foundation of a hand-rubbed surface that glowed at the end of the workshop.

Stay tuned.

Finishing Workshop @ CW

Immediately in the aftermath of my frustratingly brief presentation at the last annual Working Wood in the 18th Century at Colonial Williamsburg, I received two invitations from Hay Shop Master Kaare Loftheim to return.

The first of these was for a two-day closed workshop for CW artisans last month where I would present demonstrations and hands-on exercises for my approach to historic finishing.  I was delighted to be there, as craftsmen from the Anthony Hay Shop, the gunsmith, the housewrights and joiners, and the wheelwright shops packed into the Hay shop for two days of intense work on transparent finishes.  Normally I like to make it a three day event, but two days was all they had so we worked with it.

Over the next several posts I will recount the exercises that are my normal syllabus.

Evolution of a Space and Project Concept

The finished fourth floor was fairly late addition to the spatial configuration of the barn.  Originally I was content to leave it open all the way to the roof peak, providing almost 30 feet of soaring space from the main floor.

About 3-1/2 years ago Mrs. Barn suggested that I go ahead and finish off the entirety of the fourth floor instead of leaving it as some cobbled together staging for high work.  She being the smartest woman I know, I followed that advice.

I used the space for a subsequent Groopstock gathering but ever since it had served only as a place to put junk for which I could not find another home.  Ironically the completion of the floor deck made the space inside the barn seem even larger than before.

With the evolving ideas for undertaking video as a teaching tool, completing the space became a priority whose fulfillment was fairly straightforward.  One day with John and another by myself was all it took.

The video enterprise is less simple from a business perspective.  My very tight content model provides for professional production at a comparatively modest cost, but it is not free.  Even though I do not necessarily need to derive substantial revenue from video, it’s just a bit too expensive for me to treat it as a hobby to create any more than an occasional clip, and my vision of providing substantive learning resources was a fair bit more than that.  I am still mulling over a number of models for how to move forward with the project from a financial perspective.  They are by no means an exhaustive survey, mostly because my perspective on this is so limited.

The first option, and the one apparently favored by some woodworkers posting video on line, is to create product with essentially no production value or scripting, and simply give it all away via Youtube or Vimeo.  In some cases this works magnificently, but others, not so much.  Since I am committed to doing this first-rate if I do it at all, this was not something I gave any real consideration.  I might create short videos on occasion as free content that is not the route for fulfilling the objectives I have in mind.

Second is the option of trying to find advertisers or sponsors for the web site as a whole and/or the videos in particular.  I find advertising footprints on the web to be aggravating, and since my subject matter is so arcane it is probably not a likely avenue for me.

Third might be the option of placing the videos behind a subscription paywall available for members only.  Frankly I do not know enough about the technology and psychology involved, and need to converse with video bloggers who have trod this path.  I suspect that having a subscriber base renders one a complete slave to those subscribers who want more and more and more content.  Yesterday.  I subscribe to (and pay for) a couple news-ish podcasts, and while I appreciate and value the content it still sorta rubs me the wrong way for reasons I cannot fully identify.  I only hope it is not some incipient residue from living in an entitlement society.

Fourth, given the structure and content I am noodling for the videos, I am finding the Pay Per View concept to resonate most strongly with me.  I am envisioning a series of periodic videos produced at my own pace — about a dozen topics thus far — that are perhaps 90 to 120 minutes long, divided into quarter-hour-ish chapters.  Perhaps each chapter could be downloaded for 99 cents and the entire continuous video for $6.99-$9.99.  I’m pretty certain that this model would require teasers to be on Youtube and Vimeo.

Given my unfamiliarity with a lot of the attendant technology and marketing for these types of ventures, I am sure there are a multitude of creative ideas along these lines and I look forward to pushing back the boundaries of my own ignorance.

If you have any productive morsels to threw into the stew pot, let me know here to start the conversation.

Not Exactly MGM…

Mrs. Barn calls it ADD, I call it Hyper-curiosity.  Whatever it is, it means that sometimes I have a tough time turning my brain off, which in turn has an ancillary side effect of insomnia.  And, an inability to concentrate fully when I’m watching a movie or such (tonight it’s an Eastwood bullet-fest — obviously Mrs. Barn is out of town) and I usually have a note pad nearby to capture my fragmented musings.  A few of these and I have an idea, a few ideas and I have  concept, and a concept usually turns into a project of some sort.

Here are some landmarks on the conceptual map that is taking shape for one possible future project for The Barn based on observations, whimsy, and experience.  Consider the following:

  1. I’ve had the amazing opportunity over a great career spanning almost five decades that enabled aggressive learning and allowed/required creative, interdisciplinary  problem solving
  2. I retired five years ago with plenty of fuel left in the tank.  Since then I’ve published three books (with at least five more manuscripts in the pipeline, maybe even as many as a dozen if I get back to writing fiction), filmed three videos, and created a unique exhibit.
  3. Now freed from the immediacy of most deadlines (I’m still writing a ton, but the deadlines of the Roubo and Studley books were imminent and the Studley exhibit deadline was inflexible) and recovered from two serious injuries, I can now let my mind wander and creative juices flow unfettered

4. I have a big barn in a beautiful setting and have been encouraged to organize workshops to pass on what I learned over the years.  Those who have attended the workshops give me great feedback about the experience and the setting.

5. But, most folks are unwilling to come to The Barn for workshops, for what ever reason; distance, remoteness, time, topic.  Last summer two of the four workshops I had scheduled were cancelled due to lack of interest, this year it was three of five scheduled workshops cancelled.  I will probably never cease offering them, maybe just a couple every summer, but it’s pretty clear workshops at The Barn are likely not a big part of the equation going forward..

6. I still enjoy greatly transmitting to willing learners the stuff taking up space between my ears and energizing my hands.

7. I go places to teach occasionally, but my aversion to travel makes this an unlikely major component of my future plans.  Plus, I generally expect hosts/classes to compensate me similarly to conservation clients, and that is a deal breaker a lot of the time.  Think of it as the intersection between Opportunity Costs and Comparative Advantage.

8. I am comfortable speaking to audiences, whether the audience is people or cameras.  I hope my previous videos confirm that self-assessment.

9. A talented (and eager) young videographer has returned home to the hills after honing his craft at college and in commercial work.  Given that about 39,614 guys are out there making woodworking videos, some with negative production value or informational organization, I’m thinking there may be some fertile territory for our collaboration given his expertise and my idiosyncratic interests.

10. The cavernous fourth floor of The Barn ( 18′ x 38′ with 17′ cathedral ceiling) served mostly as an attic for the past few years.

With those things simmering in the pot, I have decided to turn the fourth floor into a video studio.  Mostly that involved cleaning out the stuff being stored there, doing a bit of painting, and finishing the wiring.  If nothing comes of this, at least I got the attic cleaned, painted, and wired.

Stay tuned.

More Ripple Molding Success

While I was fussing with the Roubo bench, John was in the adjacent space being utterly productive in tuning up the Winterthur ripple molding machine.  His success was such that he was able to concentrate on running samples with a variety of the cutters that my long time friend Cor van Horne made when he built the machine.


Our plan is for John and me to feature and demonstrate this machine at the upcoming Working Wood in the 18th Century conference at Colonial Williamsburg in early 2018.