Writing Desk – Polishing and Assembly

Once the finishing process was essentially complete it was time to rub out the surfaces and glue-up the desk.  Since my goal for the surface was to present an unfilled, lightly-worn, ancient-but-well-cared-for appearance and character I rubbed down all the surfaces to accomplish those ends.

My typical procedure for this undertaking is to abrade the surface with ultra-fine steel wool saturated with paste wax or conversely a 4F pumice/paste wax blend, incorporating or succeeded by the inclusion of tripoli/rottenstone to leave subtle traces of “ancient schmutz” in the crevices.

In this instance I mixed up a paste wax/rottenstone blend to use with the steel wool, and proceeded to rub every exposed surface until the outcome arrived at the destination I was aiming for.

The “glow” and subtle grain of the resultant surface was so glorious I had to just look at it for a while.

This comparison of a rubbed-out (L) vs. raw surface (R) is demonstrative of the transformation.

This is the address I was looking for.

With the finishing mostly done I glued everything together with hide glue, and suddenly there was a complete piece of furniture staring me straight in the eye.  There were only a couple of final steps to take, applying another round of pad finishing to the writing surface before rubbing that out, and buffing off the rottenstone-laced dried paste wax.

Flo’s Wet Kiss

Although we live 400 miles from the landfall for Hurricane Florence (and I rejoice that the casualties were as low as they were — great job local authorities and emergency preparedness folks!) the resulting weather system sat over us and parked several inches of rain on an already sodden landscape.  Our usually gentle stream was a roiling whitewater rapids and the spillway was flowing in full force.  Here’s what it looked like at the homestead.

One of the weirdest moments was when it was pouring rain with the sun shining.

Intro To The Video Empire

One of the exciting developments at The Barn on White Run in recent months has been our ongoing embrace of video as a teaching device to share what I’m doing with you. Here is the introductory video “blurb” to give you a hint as to where we will be going over the coming months and years (depending on my health, wealth, and wits). My long-term plan is to produce a completed video over several months, then post a chapter of it on-line, perhaps one per week, until the entire contents are available. Then, move on to the next video until I run out of things to teach and show.

We are this close (fingers 1/64″ apart) to having the first one ready to go.  It’s roughly 110 minutes long, divided into thirteen chapters with the first one appearing some time next week I hope.  Since it is our first effort I will be posting these video chapters for free, but subsequent offerings will have a modest price tag.  More details about that later.

I hope you will find the viewing as enjoyable as I am finding the making.

Introducing the Video Enterprise

Workbench Wednesday – #7 (2011) Roubo Sawing Bench

In great part due to the rapidly forming manuscript for To Make As Perfectly As Possible – Roubo On Marquetry and the number of my essays describing the seemingly arcane practices of 18th Parisian workshops, in 2011 I built a slightly diminutive (2/3 scale) version of Roubo’s sawing bench as illustrated in Plate 278, Figures 10 and 11.  The dimensions for my version were determined by the space in my basement workshop; I now wish I had made it full sized.  Doing so would have doubled the mass of the bench, and in this instance mass is really the only important thing.  The construction was real meatball woodworking, I simply fit and fastened together 4×6 tulip poplar stock then drilled holes for the vise screws all the way through the top horizontally.  For the female threads I simply used the wooden vise nuts that came with the threaded screws.

This workbench has only one purpose and function, to hold a work piece firmly while it is being resawn.  What we found immediately in battle was that the bench vise did a fine job of holding the work piece in its jaws tightly.  Unfortunately the bench was simply too light to perform well in action as the whole thing danced around the shop with every saw stroke.  The only way we could get it to work was placing anti-skid pads underneath each leg and then loading it up with as much weight as was handy.  Currently this sawing bench is the storage home for several hundred pounds of fire bricks I keep handy.

Roubo alludes to this problem himself, extolling the virtues of massive weights being stored on or under the bench to hold it steady, or even more likely bolting the entire unit to floor.  In my old basement shop this made no sense on the concrete floor in a tiny space, it makes more sense now that I have wooden floors and lots of them.

Most recently I used the saw bench during my demo at Working Wood in the 18th Century at Colonial Williamsburg, employing an attendee as my stabilizing weight.  In preparation for that demo, and in response to my having cannibalized the unit to use the original vise screws on other benches, I made new screws and screw nuts with my Bealle threading unit.

I cannot say I have used this bench enough to become facile at resawing veneer, the best I can do is about eight leaves per inch.  Only time will tell if I ever get to the point where I can saw a dozen leaves to the inch like the old timers, but if I do this bench or one like it will be part of the equation.

Battles With Bears

Some days you eat the bear…


And some days the bear eats you.

As I dive ever deeper into producing Gragg chairs, currently two on commission and another for myself with hopes of including this item in The Barn Store in the coming months/years (and even entertaining thoughts about offering a Make A Gragg Chair workshop as soon as the summer/autumn of 2020; first, I have to make one from start to finish in a week myself), I realize all the more how close Gragg was coming to the limits of what can be accomplished with wood as the raw material.  Given the extremity of the bends involved, including the main serpentine element with two 90-degree four-inch-radius bends within a foot of each other and a180-degree four-inch-radius bend for the arms, working out the routine is a critical process.

I recall the first time I tried this almost a decade ago on the original Gragg repro prototype, in front of my Smithsonian colleagues no less, I broke every single piece of the ash I took from our prized lumber inventory in the conservation studio.  Every.  Single.  Piece.  Not to mention breaking several of the bending form elements which had been woefully under-built.  It was not my proudest moment of professional accomplishment but drove me on to get it right.

Even now I test the boundaries, trying riven and sawn kiln-dried oak (at the bottom of the pile in the truck), trying ancient/recycled but possibly air dried oak salvaged from a derelict weaving loom,

trying oak I harvested several years ago but have kept from seasoning fully, first cross-stacked outside and now residing in the basement/first floor of the barn,

and finally using oak I harvested this year.  Through it all my batting average kept improving.

I’ve heard my friend Bruce Hoadley tell the story of a small manufacturer who was plagued with broken elements resulting from very tight bends after steaming.  The punch line was that after going to watch the definitive practitioner for making the identical items, the manufacturer said with a smile something to the effect of, “He breaks most of them too!”

I encountered the same thing with the Gragg chair elements.  Some stock bends like taffy, some breaks like crystal.  I am moving more toward the former than the latter, but it is exasperating all the same.  At least the failures make good kindling.

Yesterday afternoon my success rate was 92% with only a single stick making it into the failure pile.  By observing the character of the pieces being bent, the stresses of the bending itself combined with the addition of bending straps, this is an outcome I can live with.

Still, the pile of kindling grows, just not as fast as in the past.

I am definitely gaining ground on the bears.

2nd Annual Ripple Molding Soiree – I

We recently convened our second Ripple Molding Think Tank at The Barn and great progress was made.  The aggregate objectives were both vague and simple, to explore the world of making machines to fabricate ripple moldings.   On an individual context I was looking to build my own version of a 17th century machine, as was Travis.  Sharon wanted to start fabrication a petite version suitable for bench-top mounting and produce diminutive moldings for her own artistry.

Since last year’s confab John had already built a fully functional wave/ripple molding machine and wanted to improve its design and performance.

Starting first thing Monday morning Travis and I started cutting up some of my pile of SYP into machine structural parts, stopping to assist John in assembling his unit.  By lunch time we were constructing our machine bases, both generally in tune with my First Edition Roubo prints depicting Roubo’s interpretation of a machine he had never seen.

Meanwhile John was deep into squeezing that last 10% of performance from his machine built in the aftermath of the International Ripple Molding Association first gathering.  He had already nailed the ripple effect (up and down), now he was trying to dial in the wave effect (side to side).

Sharon arrived late on Day 1 just in time for dinner of Mrs. Barn’s outstanding cooking, and we were able to hit the ground running even faster on Day 2.

The first thing we did then was to record John giving us the walk through of his design ideas and manifestations.

He was effusive in extolling the outrigger arm he integrated into the cutter head, stabilizing the front-to-back flexing inherent in the cutting, and a robust drive with a drive gear and a rack mounted to the underside of the moving platen.  That was an unbelievably useful exercise as we were able to get the big picture in a linear fashion as to his working and thinking about the problem, which in turn informed and directed our labors through the week.

Once everyone got back to working on their machines I began devising a system for creating the scalloped patterns that were necessary for cutting the ripple moldings.  First I cut a dozen identical 8-foot strips from 1/2″ baltic birch plywood to use as the stock, then double-impregnated one edge with dilute epoxy to provide for a cleaner edge when the patterns were made.

I came up with a handy jig for making the precision patterns on the drill press.

Meanwhile machines were beginning to take shape all over the place.

Regarding Possessions

I am unapologetically fascinated with “tiny house” videos on, and have been known to squander the better part of an evening watching them.  While I think for the most part the actual “Tiny House Movement” is silliness on steroids, featuring IMHO a disproportionate number of people longing to recapture pre-adolescent tree-house lives, I find many of the design solutions to the problem inspiring.  Still, the lives many of these enthusiasts lead are as alien to me as space creatures.  The thing that I think about the most is the de-cluttering gospel that virtually all of them preach.  It appears that none of them have any interests or hobbies outside of some weird combination of ascetic living/working and socializing, some as vagabonds in constant travel (Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell to me) or even worse, in a megalopolis living in a closet surrounded by people.

Sure, we may all have too much stuff and much more space than we “need” and are too materialistic, but the thought of jettisoning my possessions and reducing my life to a Lowe’s storage shed leaves me non-plussed.  Come on, I have thousands of tools, virtually all of which get used with some degree of regularity during my productive days (I have to wonder how many of these folks have other domiciles or storage units somewhere.)

Divesting myself of all my possessions would be impoverishing, and not just in the material sense.  It would rob me of those things that give me great pleasure on several levels, like this hammer for example.  It was a gift years ago from my long-time friend, MikeM, who custom-made it to fit my hand and my needs.  He crafted it to be both exquisitely functional and beautiful with its hand-fashioned curly maple handle and brightly polished head (which I think was salvaged probably from a bucket of old tools) , and I use it several times almost every day as a utilitarian implement that always does its job.  When I do I get to reminisce about our decades of friendship, and that is a different treasure.

I have other possessions with similar importance to me, some tools, some books, some mementos of other kinds.  They are all powerful touchstones in my life.

But, if ever I get reduced to living in a shed, um, Tiny House, odds are pretty good this hammer is going with me.

Gragg Chair Video Session 4 – Fitting and Assembling I

Our latest day of video recording dealt with the beginnings of assembling the pieces into a whole chair, including fitting the individual pieces together to fit the master template based on the many Gragg chairs I have examined over the years.

Once we moved on to fabricating the cross pieces things got fussy.

Chris wrapped up the day by taking some detailed footage of my shaving beam, my primary stock preparation tool for the project.

Black Swan Event Final(?) Report

Hmmm, two posts sans images in one week.

I’m not sure where exactly I left this tale of my formerly dysfunctional hybrid power system for the barn, but following the replacement of the solar controller guts by the manufacturer after they found ants had shorted out the main circuit board, the reconditioned unit was returned to me.  As we were about to leave town for several days I hurriedly installed it to give it a test drive.

It would not even turn on.  I stewed about that for several days.

On our return after traveling I reached out to the manufacturer’s support tekkies and related the situation, with resolute firmness and precise language.  After a brief silence from them they sent me a shipping label and I sent the unit to them.  Again.

Two weeks later it arrived back with the cryptic note that a disconnected fitting had been connected.  So much for the assertion that the unit had been previously tested, don’t you think?

Again we were on the cusp of leaving town for a few days, but at dusk I installed the newly re-repaired unit.  At least this time it turned on!  There was great joy in Mudville.  That it would not perform any controller function was not especially disconcerting since the evening was fast approaching and the unit normally puts itself to sleep for the night once the photon levels get lower than net operating power.

Assuming that the system would wake up with the morning sunshine I left everything status quo and left town.

Big mistake, but then you know what assuming does.

On our return three days later I discovered that not only was the solar system not turned on and functioning well, the entire system had shut down because the batteries had been drained to the point where, well, the system turns itself off in order to protect the batteries from harm.  Now, this is not a cluster of AA batteries.  These are four monster huge batteries, each weighing about 150 pounds.  Something was amiss.

Side note – when the troubles first began I tested the circuit from the solar panels to the control input terminals and noted the voltage.  It was fine (~100 volts at solar noon on a clear day).  In the follow up testing I was finding voltage variations not unusual for solar systems given that the voltage output varies with the intensity of the sunlight.   Just keep that in mind for future reference.

I contacted the tech weasels again, and spoke to them with increased fervor.  I was given a series of diagnostic exercises which I executed while I insisted the tekkie remained on the line, waiting for me to walk to the system, make the test and return from the power house fifty yards away.  Zilch, zero, nada.  The unit would not perform its functions even though it powered itself up.  The input voltage numbers were a bit low (~60), but certainly enough to jolt the system to action.  But it was not responding no matter what the tekkie told me to try.

“Would you like to return it to us for an further evaluation?” I was asked.

“What I want is for you to send me a unit that actually works,” I replied.

After a few minutes on hold I was told that a new unit was being sent to replace the old one.  It arrived a week later, smack dab in the middle of the ripple molding soiree (we had been using the hydro power and gas generator for that).  Anxiously I installed the unit at high noon on a brilliant sunny day, checking and double checking my wiring connections.  I threw the switches in anticipation of, something.

The unit turned on but refused to perform its function.

To say I was disappointed is to gloss over my mindset.  I took a couple hours to gather my thoughts, called the engineer who had helped design and install the system, dismantled the breaker box and re-took the circuit readings.  But something weird was happening with the readings.  They varied wildly and continued to drop regardless of the sun shine.  40 volts.  32 volts.  26 volts.  50 volts.  20 volts.  48 volts.  24 volts.  39 volts. 22 volts.

Second side note – the buried cable from the solar panel array to the power house was a type specifically certified for direct burial, no conduit required.

Third side note — when digging the trench for the cable with a rented trencher, the trencher broke in less than a minute due to the rocky soil.

With my friend Brint’s help we took some cable and bypassed the buried cable to connect the solar array bus on the side of the cabin directly to the power controller.

It read ~90-100 volts.

Something, somehow, the circuit had been breached, and through trial and error we determined that it was somewhere in the 75-foot buried section, not in the open cable that was suspended underneath the bridge over the creek.  We grafted in the new cable to replace the buried cable, this time enclosing all of it entirely in conduit sealed from the fuse bus to the power house.  This will be buried as time and weather permit.  The new circuit worked perfectly and at solar noon the next day the panels were cranking out over 1300 watts, pretty astounding given that it was September and the theoretical capacity rating for the panel array is 1410 watts.

So now I have a fully functioning doubly redundant power system for the barn; hydro turbine, solar panels, and gas generator.  As a friend once quipped, “The problem with being your own power company is that you are your own power company.”  Every part of it  must be maintained and attended to, but through it all my appreciation for the aggregate utility grid is immense.  Although this has been a supremely frustrating episode I find that my understanding of every part of my system has been enhanced immeasurably.

Last side note — in retrospective contemplations we have arrived at the un-provable conclusion that somewhere in the original underground cable a sharp rock had encountered the cable and through essentially micro-seismic vibrations had eventually breached the sheath of that cable.  Not enough to cut the circuit entirely, but enough to ground it, the amount of the grounding discharge probably dependent on temperature and soil moisture.  As I said that is un-provable but does explain a lot; varying voltage, draining the battery bank, failure to wake up, etc.

Workbench Wednesday – A Detour

Before I move forward to discuss the next workbench in my inventory let me be diverted to discuss the retro-fitting of a previous bench, my Smithsonian Roubo, such that its location, role and function in the studio are completely new and immensely more valued.  Over time the bench had come to occupy the end of the classroom space, primarily because it was the only bench I had that could fit there.  It was not really large enough to suffice as a student bench for workshops so instead I employed it primarily for metal-working type projects including saw making and sharpening, hardware mounting, parts fabrication, etc.  (sorry for the lousy picture; I had already removed the leg vise for another bench, replacing it here with a Record 53)

When I recently removed the generic end vise and mounted instead the ~125 lb.  Emmert Universal Vise in its place, one piece of a convoluted equation began to take shape.  I knew the vise needed a robust platform and this little-used bench performs the function perfectly.

A second element in this equation was expanding the work space on the side of the barn housing my shop; I reorganized it so that my own shop would extend an additional nine feet to include the full footprint of the 14′ x 36′ bay in the timber frame.  (Of course that meant that I needed more workbenches there.  Stay tuned on that one.)

A third component in the equation was a beloved niece-in-law had expressed an interest in learning woodworking (actually I have four beloved nieces-in-law, but this is one in particular).  The odds are pretty good the second of the petite Roubos I built originally for my Handworks booth would eventually end up in their apartment.  So, I removed it from the critical space it occupied adjacent to my third child before it became too disruptive to do so.  I moved that little bench down into the newly opened space, for the time being.

Since nature abhors a vacuum something needed to go into that space previously occupied by the petite Roubo.  Hmm, I really did like having a metalworking-ish bench in the middle of my herd of woodworking benches…  Palm, meet forehead.  Soon I had the old, almost extraneous Roubo bench relocated, revived and recommissioned, sitting where it will be used daily.  I removed the second vise and stocked the space underneath with a lot of my mechanicky tools.

I have additional plans for this bench which I will chronicle when they unfold.

Here is a gallery of the Emmert Universal Vise showing off its moves.