WIA Day 0 Minus 1 – Chris Vesper

On the eve of departing for Woodworking in America we were delighted to host a brief visit from Chris Vesper, toolmaker extraordinaire whose handiworks are simply the standard in my opinion.  Chris wrote me about a month ago saying he was flying into Richmond as the terminus for his flight from Australia, and after 36 hours in the Williamsburg area we saw his headlights peeking up the driveway.  His navigation was mighty good as we are pretty much beyond cell service, but apparently not beyond satellite.  I need to remember that fact…


Chris had an amazing tale of woe relating to his two suitcases of tools being confiscated by the Customs clowns in Dallas.  He hoped but did not know for sure the tools would show up in time to set up his booth.  As you can see from the picture above, in the end it did work out although he had to pony up some pretty serious unexpected express shipping fees.

After dining we set about to commencing to talk, and it was well past midnight when we turned in.  the next morning we toured the barn and then he headed off for Winston Salem.  We followed him a couple of hours later, arriving just in time for a late supper with the friends we were visiting.

Making Tortoiseshell, er, Tordonshell

We’ve got a weekend workshop on Boullework Marquetry coming up at The Barn the first weekend of October. Recently I made a batch of artificial tortoiseshell for us to use in that workshop, with at least two pieces for each participant.  One of the exercises for the weekend will be to make another batch so that each attendee can make their own once they get back home.


My method is described somewhat in an article I will post next week in the Writings section of the web site, but here again is how I did it this time.  Start with a flat clean surface with a sheet of mylar on which to cast the artificial shell on.


Cast out the material on the mylar,


then create the pattern.  The upper row of scutes is made to mimic “hawksbill” turtles, and the lower row “greenback” turtles.  Once that is firm, cast a second layer of polymer on top of the pattern to complete the composite, and you are done.

PS  –  I purposefully left out all the chemistry stuff.  It’s in the article

PPS  If you are interested in joining us for the course, drop me a line through the “Contact” function of the web site.


We all have quirks, but one of mine is the irrational fear of running out of stuff to talk about whenever I am making a presentation.  Notwithstanding the fact that I have never run out of words before the end of my previous two hundred presentations, I still try to prepare such that I can “wing it” if ever I do.


So, in preparing for the upcoming presentations at WIA I have been working assiduously for both the historic finishing and gold leafing talks.  Just the supplies and examples for the historic finishing talk seems somewhat overkill, but don’t bother to argue with me.  It’s what I do.


I even hand-planed some boards from the lumber pile,


and made a couple of parquetry panels to make sure I had things to work on while the crowds are watching.


I might’ve gone even nuttier with the gold leaf demo, starting with mixing up traditional gesso by putting 10% glue granules in a jar,


Adding water until full,


and soaking over night.


I cooked it,


added calcium carbonate/whiting,


and started preparing step-by-step examples so that I can walk the attendees through the entire process from start to finish, ending with the toning of the newly applied 23 karat gold leaf..

If you are at WIA make sure to say “Hi” and tell me you read the blog.




A Peek Into the World of Henry Studley

Now that the rough/first draft of VIRTUOSO: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley is in the computer I can now focus on those areas of the manuscript that need beefing up.  One of those areas was the dearth of description regarding the possible daily activities of Studley in the Poole Piano Company when he was building the tool cabinet and work bench.  That information has been very hard to find.


Fortunately I came across a shop in Charlottesville, two hours away, that was dedicated to the restoration, preservation, and care of fine old pianos.  Owner Tom Shaw (right) and historical piano specialist Randolph Byrd (left) were a tremendous source of encouragement and information.  Their framed poster of the Studley cabinet is jut out of sight on the right.


What made me excited to visit them was the breadth of their activities, plus the fact that Tom’s grandfather was a piano craftsman in Boston beginning in 1907, in other words, a contemporary of Studley’s.  Here Tom is proudly showing me his grandfather’s piano tool kit, which his grandfather made himself.  It put food on the table, and you can’t ask for much more than that.


The one and only known portrait of Studley depicts him as an “action man” at the Poole Piano Company.  His task would have been to assemble a kit like this one (this is for a grand piano, but you get the idea) into a perfectly functioning mechanism that would produce beautiful noise whenever the keys were pressed down.



I even got to see the working of one of the tools identical to Studley’s for adjusting some part of the action mechanism.


One of the final steps before assembling the action is “sighting the hammers” in order to make sure they are aligned and evenly graduated.  While this is for a grand piano action, the process for an upright would be conceptually identical.

Gentlemen, thank you for pushing back the boundaries of my ignorance considerably.  A copy of the book will wing its way to you when it is available.

Power System Upgrade Complete

This week was a time of delightful camaraderie and productivity around the homestead as the firewood pile grew immensely, thanks to the ministrations of my  Bible-study friend BobK and his mondo chainsaw (back in the ‘burbs my Stihl was the Beast of the East, but out here it is just a toy.)  With Bob’s help we felled a number of locust trees on the perimeter of the front yard, and removed the sections of the raggedy old walnut overhanging the power system.


Following that came the arrival of my dear friends Bill Robillard and Dave Reeves for a few days of fellowship and power system upgrade as the new bank of solar panels was installed.   Immediately on arrival Dave and I spent an hour at the wood splitter processing the two truckloads of firewood Bob and I had compiled.  But as soon as Bill arrived the next morning the power work began in earnest.  The current bank is almost perfectly oriented for summer power, but the new bank will be much more amenable for winter power production as it is inclined several degrees.  if that is not adequate I will raise that angle to be more efficient with the low winter sun.


However, even prior to their coming I had to dig out and inventory all the parts and supplies I had purchased for this project last year.  Fortunately I was able to put my hands on everything on the invoice.


Installing the framework to hold the panels to roof was fairly straightforward measuring, drilling, caulking, and bolting.  And of course, it was the hottest, sunniest day of the summer.  Handling the panels and the tools was at times unpleasant due to their heat, but we got it done shortly after lunch.


We then draped the older bank of panels and shut the entire system down so there would be no risk of shock to Bill as he integrated the two sets of solar panels and upgraded the electronics connections in the power closet.  His career as an electro/mechanical engineer has certainly been a tremendous resource for me and all his friends.


Combining this improvement with the new gargantuan 192-pound batteries I installed last spring should bring the system up to snuff.  Perhaps over the winter I will get the second hydroturbine built downstream about 100 feet from the current one, gaining perhaps another 30% electricity from the hydro function.

When I first became interested in off-grid living more than four decades ago, efficient solar and microhydro electricity were pipe dreams, and I remember an article titled something like “Will Solar Panels Every Break the $10/Watt Barrier?”  My panels are now six or seven year old technology, and they were in effect about 70 cents/watt, and the microhydro thurbine about a dollar a watt at maximum output.  Newer ones are even better, of course.  I can only imagine what the inventive American spirit will accomplish in the future out of necessity as the current knuckleheaded political establishment ramps up its obstruction to efficient industrial-scale energy.  Come 2015 and 2016 as the War on Coal begins shutting down 3/4th’s of the nation’s electricity output…  I decry the duplicity of political figures, but wouldn’t you know the one time a national politician keeps his promise, it is to fulfill a vow to send the energy costs skyrocketing.

On Friday bill and Dave and I even had a bit of spare time to 1) solve the world’s problem, which we did with insightful alacrity, and 2) allow me to demonstrate to them my technique for sharpening edge tools.  They seemed to appreciate it and went home with another skill set in their quiver.

I’ll know how much of an improvement this was to the system when the sun comes out later in the week.  Until then I will just have to wait and anticipate.

Thanks guys, your accounts in the Bank of Don are full to the brim.

A Simple Solution to a Common Problem: Replacing a Rocker

Some friends have a century-old painted wicker rocker that is a prized accent on their front porch, and one of the rockers broke.  Several times.


I find that many of these old rockers are made from “run of the mill” lumber which can be good or bad, and when they are bad there is just no fixing them.  So, I made a new one.


I began by tracing the remaining sound rocker on a piece of 2x framing lumber and band sawing the  bottom profile into the 2x and ripped a number of strips from the same 2x board to build up a new laminated rocker (the only time I have used the table saw in a couple of months).


Using the just-sawn contour as the form, I laminated a four-ply rocker from the strips using yellow PVA as it was going to be exposed to the porch environment.  I clamped it all together, wrapped in wax paper to make sure it comes apart as it should, and let it sit until the glue was hard.  A couple days later it popped free just fine.


Pinching the rough laminated piece in the four dogs of my vise I planed and shaped it in just a few minutes.


My first step was to clean up the glue squeeze-out with a plane which took 30 seconds per side.


Once that was done I traced the original rocker again to determine the front to back taper.


With a spokeshave I achieved the desired taper line in a few minutes.


Getting the holes of the right size in the right place, I finished off the project with some final shaping with spokeshaves and rasps, and it was ready to be sent home.




FORP II: The Anticipation Begins

The Benchcrafted folks opened the registration for the November 2015 reprise of the amazing French Oak Roubo Project I was privileged to to participate in last year (and no, my own bench is not yet finished.  It has been languishing for the past 14 months while other things have been closer to the top of the “Get This Done Now!” pile).

c mondo dovetail

I will once again be part of the teaching-and-helping team, along with Jameel Abraham, Raney Nelson, Chris Schwarz, Jon Fiant, Will Myers, Jeff Miller, Ron Brese, and our incomparable host Bo Childs.

c slabs galore

I was outside working all day today, and just now saw the posting for the registration being opened, and the posting indicating that all the slots were filled.

My only sage advice is to make sure to wear clothes you do not mind getting stained.  This oak was so rich in tannins that everything I wore then still has a faded black tint to it, but given my wardrobe that’s no big deal.

Between Roubo 2, VIRTUOSO, The Studley tool cabinet exhibit, and probably Roubo 3, 2015 looks to be a mighty exciting year.

Studley Research Whirlwind Trip Part 2


cIMG_6814Ninety miles from the Studley-era piano maker’s workbench was the finest Studley-inspired tool cabinet I have seen.  No, it wasn’t Studley, nothing else is, and it is not yet finished as there are still many tools destined for it, but I cannot imagine any serious woodworker not wanting this hanging on the wall above their bench.

The  maker is a tremendously skilled fellow whose other projects revealed that like Studley, he enjoyed making intricate and complex things.

Oh, and all the screws are clocked.  He wouldn’t bite on my suggestion that this revealed he was anal-retentive/compulsive, he merely replied that it was attention to detail.  He was a great sport about the whole thing, and I truly enjoyed my time with him and hope he will make it to the exhibit next spring.


Yup, it’ll be in the book too, in far greater detail and length.

Back home now, and finishing the first rough draft of the whole book tomorrow!

A Different Kind of, um, Woodworking

This will be our first full winter in the Virginia Highlands, where it gets “upstate New York cold.”  For the past few weeks the sound of chainsaws and log splitters has been a constant drone in the background of the valley atmosphere, as the locals are getting ready for intense global cooling.  Me too.  In addition to the firewood already stacked in the storage shed next to the cabin, other piles of split wood are growing around the homestead.


Last winter was perhaps the coldest in a century here, and the woolly worms, walnut trees, and Farmer’s Almanac are all projecting an even colder winter this time around.


Walnut trees?  Yep, by mid August they were already turning yellow and the leaves are now falling in a constant wave.   Hence, concerns for an even worse winter.  That would be pretty brutal, as at least on three occasions last winter the dusk to dawn temperature here in the holler was 20 degrees below zero.


Given the cold-nature of my bride the need for firewood and lots of it is riding high at the moment.  Yesterday was one of those times when I hunted and gathered firewood.  In the morning I went to my friend Mike’s farm and he cut down two trees, one maple and one beech and helped me load my truck to the gills.  I’ve never bottomed-out my 4WD s10 before, but it was yesterday.


When I finished splitting that (our altitude lets split wood dry really fast!) I went up the hill to work on a giant maple that fell last winter.  So far it has yielded two truck loads and will probably get another two by the time it is all done.  For scale, the log on the ground is 16″ by about 15 feet long, and the larger of the two trunks still on the root ball is about 24″.  It’s stretching my 14″ Stihl chainsaw to the limit.  It might be time to get another, larger one.  But for now as long as I keep the chain sharp it is doing okay.

How much wood do we need to keep the home fires burning non-stop for five-plus months?  We will find out, but the other night at Bible Study one of the fellows indicated that he had put up 19 cords of wood.  I certainly hope he needs a lot more than we do.  Otherwise I am only about 1/3 of the way there.  Fortunately(?) I want to clear more space on the south side of the barn for more winter light, so a bunch of trees will be coming down next week.

Studley Research Whirlwind Trip Part 1

Monday just after dawn I hit the road for a longish drive into the Heart of Dixie to see a workbench.  The owner had contacted me through the Lost Art Press web site indicating he had a really fancy Studley-era piano makers work bench.  So of course I had to go see it.


He was right.  It was spectacular.  Other than Studley’s, all the other piano maker’s benches I had seen were at least in part “store bought.”  Not this one, it was all craftsman-made.  By a mighty good craftsman.


With its burled veneers on the drawers, delicate a whisper tight dovetails, superb cast drawer pulls, and the really neat tool rack, it was a work of art.

And yes, it will be featured in the book, in a Gallery of Piano-maker’s Benches.