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Gragg Video Shoot Session 3 – Dance Me A Jig

Our recent day of video recording for the Making A Gragg Chair was pretty much all about bending forms/jigs for the components of the chair.  I showed how I make the forms and why I make them the way I do, including a discussion of “spring back” and how that affects my design and layout of the forms.  Somehow that one topic managed to consume the entire day of work in the studio.

These three pictures were ones I took when I was prepping for the video shoot, but I replicated the process upstairs in the studio with the camera running.  In them I am making some form stock, the 1-inch thick double laminated sheet I make from two pieces of 1/2″ baltic birch plywood.  The finished product is what I use to cut the actual bending forms themselves.  I begin with two pieces of 24′ x 48″ x 1/2″ plywood and slather PVA on one of them, then screw them together with decking screws and fender washers.

Here is that panel after finishing along with another double laminated panel made from two pieces of 3/4″ baltic birch type plywood that serves as the ground for the bending forms.  Once they are dry overnight I remove the screws and washers and they are ready to go.  I got all of this material from the closest big box home center.

Here are some images from the session in the studio.

Knotwork Banding Workshop – Day 2

The day began with the unveiling of the parquetry backgrounds glued up just before stopping yesterday.  A bit of water on a sponge allowed the paper backing to be removed easily and quickly.  The hot hide glue had congealed nicely but was still pretty green so we placed them in front of a fan to help dry faster.

Then it was on to trimming edges, laying out the knotwork inlay and excavating the channels for the banding.

Much of the incising as done with utility knives, but Brint in particular took a liking to my shoulder knives.  He gave both of them a long test drive and had definite preferences for them.  So much so that he encouraged me to have a workshop next summer to allow the participants to make one (or two).  We will get together over the winter to work out any bugs for that workshop.

Meanwhile I was noodling around and found a donkey-dumb simple way to lay out the knotwork pattern with pieces of the banding itself as the measuring devices.  Palm meet forehead.

For Brint and John, once the excavations were far enough along it was time to create the template block for the individual pieces of the composition.

Following the guide of Roubo they took blocks of walnut and created right-angle and 45-degree channels for the banding to be sawn and planed, then placed pieces of the banding as stop blocks in the channels.  This allows for limitless production of identical elements and very fast work in creating the knotwork pattern.

And knotwork corners became manifest on the boards.

Thus endeth Day 2.

Workbench Wednesday – Opus #5 (2011) my first “Roubo”

In the title Roubo is in quotation marks because this bench was not strictly a Roubo, it was more Roubo-lite.

2011 was a turning point in my bench mania.  In the preceding quarter century I had built or salvaged only four benches.  From 2011 forward, inclusive, my inventory grew by more than a dozen.  To be sure, going from a home basement workshop footprint of slightly over 200 sq.ft. to one closer to 7,000 s.f. in The Barn probably had something to do with it, but the truth is I was simply becoming increasingly fascinated with workbenches and vises, and now had the time and space to indulge that fascination.

My first personal encounter with a Roubo bench was back in the 80s when I got to test Rob Taruleh’s bench at an event where we were both speaking.  It was intriguing but I was not then in a place to give it a go.

By around 2004/5 my successes and seniority at the SI allowed for my daily activities to become almost entirely self-directed; as long as I was productive within a broad framework of organizational priorities, did not ask for too much money to spend on my projects, and was not a trouble maker my daily activities were in great part at my own discretion.  I made certain not to abuse this freedom, I remained productive in my scholarship, projects and publishing, I obtained almost all of my discretionary funding via external collaborators, and bit my tongue on a regular basis.  (This last one was my biggest hurdle — Mrs. Barn says that one of my greatest challenges is that I am generally unsuccessful in hiding my contempt for knuckleheads and grifters).

Despite a sufficient number (4) of top-of-the-line German workbenches populating the furniture conservation studio I occupied for almost three decades at the Smithsonian Institution, my growing involvement with L’Art du Menuisier combined with the incessant evangelizing of Chris Schwarz compelled me to give the Roubo workbench a try in my own daily work space.

This is a fairly long-winded exposition as to why I made this Roubo-ish bench, it was because I wanted to.  Even then I did not cause any waves using only surplus materials laying around the storeroom or my conservation studio, or in the case of the legs from my pile at home.

By 2011 with the Roubo franchise building a head of steam I felt it was time to experiment with the form, but not really go whole hog.  Instead I took a couple days and built a Roubo-“ish” bench that was a so-so success.  My starting point was a five-foot-long slab of laboratory counter top (missing one corner) that was about to be sent to the dumpster.  Since it was only 2″ thick I backed it with a piece of 3/4″ plywood (yes, I knew even then this could be problematic, but thought I could get by with it being inside a tightly climate controlled space; little did I know that within two years I would go from climate control to climate, and lots of it) and grafted on another piece to fill the corner.

I also made the mistake of cutting the dovetailed tenons through the top at 45-degrees.  In more recent work I have stayed with 60-degrees.

Once the unit was assembled I flattened the undulating top with a fore plane and a jointer, before finally surfacing it with a toother.

For the leg vise I used a vintage vise screw I had in my collection, but made the movable jaw out of some oak that was laying around.

For the next almost-two-years this was my everyday workbench and I liked it a fair bit, and it provided the validation I needed to develop my experience even further. It was a little too small and lightweight, issues that have been addresses in subsequent models.

When I departed the Smithsonian they had no interest in keeping this workbench for the furniture conservation studio so I just loaded it up with all my stuff and took it to The Barn.  Soon enough the unregulated climate there wreaked its havoc on the composite top, crowning it almost a half inch.  With a little time and a scrub plane this was resolved.  It has remained pretty flat over the past three years.

The bench is too small and unrefined for my work now, although it is in the inventory.  It’s at the end of the classroom, and at the moment I have it set up with a Moxon vise on top for saw sharpening and making.  The leg vise was removed, being both in the way and needed for another project.


Caning, a Diminishing Craft (and thus a business opportunity?)

One of the more memorable vignettes from creating With All The Precision Possible: Roubo On Furniture Making was when we were working through the section of chair caning, a topic both Michele and I have plenty of experience.

We found Roubo’s to be perhaps the most concise description of the process from beginning-to-end, starting with the raw bamboo and ending with the final seat decks and backs.

I thought of Roubo’s passage when I came across this video of preparing bamboo for basket weaving, with is really just chair seat caning with a curve.

The problem of finding artisans to undertake chair caning is a frequent topic on the Professional Refinishers Forum as many of the craft practitioners are retiring or dying with few successors in the pipeline.  I remain convinced that this is a tremendous business opportunity for a number of folks interested in self-directed employment.

The space needs for a caning studio are small — a single work table with area to walk around it (like a dining table) is about all you need to get started for the work itself (storing work pieces is obviously a different matter altogether).  The inventory is not excessive, and the varieties of work possibility are darned near endless.  I’m guessing that with a modest amount of practice and some diligence in making connections with the nearby refinishing and antique restoration markets a competent chair caner could work as much or little as they wanted, with income levels probably in the $200-$500/day range.  If they are conscientious and add a little rush weaving to their palette the work will never stop coming IMHO.

The Week Before Ripplemania II

The second annual gathering of Rippleistas convenes a week from today, and I am readying the barn classroom and main room.  I’ve heard back from all three of last year’s participants and they hope to be here, along with one other person who will drop by if he can.  I’ve had no other confirmation of attendees wanting to join us even though the event is open-invitation and tuition-free so perhaps the charm of ripple moldings is less than I thought.

Although I no longer have the Winterthur Museum ripple molding cutter here, it having been made functional and returned, I know that one of our posse wants to experiment with a bench-top version of a ripple molding cutter, another will be perfecting his own machine built since last year, and two of us will no doubt be working on a new machine and revisiting my own machine design from last year.

I’ve ordered a pile of the nece$$ary hardware from McMa$ter-Carr so we should have everything we need to have a week of productive fellowship and undulating creativity.

Stay tuned.

Polissoirs Custom-Made For Spoon Carvers

Early last week I was contacted by two separate spoon carvers asking about customizing Roubo’s polissoirs for their needs.  I do not know if this is a point of discussion among spoonsters or both of these creative folks arrived a the same point at the same time.  I gave it a try, and both orders have been sent off.

Given their descriptions of their needs I started by looking through all of the turner’s polissoirs I had on-hand, selecting the three with the longest bristles.  Ostensibly these are designed to have 1/4″ bristles that can be gently domed for polishing the concave contours of bowl turnings, but in this case the crown needed to be dramatically more pronounced to fit into the bowl of the spoon.  Since all of the polissoirs are hand-made there were minute variations in them, I wanted the ones that were a smidge longer (its a technical term you might not recognize) to accentuate the curve that could be imposed on them.  Longer bristles allowed for a higher crown, so that is where I started.

With the first test I discovered that a very dramatic crown was possible.  I worked cautiously to impart the contour I though they needed and arrived at a point that made sense to me.

The test subject got pretty dirty and the label beat up so on the subsequent two I first wrapped them with aluminum foil to provide a bit of protection.

I hope these work for the spoon makers, if not I guess I will hear back from them.  Of course the unmodified end can serve to burnish the flat and convex surfaces of their spoons.

My practice polissoir remains on my workbench and I will carve a spoon-sized shape to see how well it works.

Stay tuned.

Gragg: Not Just A Chair, But Kindling and Tinder Too!

As the Gragg Chair(s) project progresses (two being built on commission, a third for myself as an experiment in porch furniture) I was noticing recently that it is not simply an opportunity to make (and video record the making of) a challenging and iconic piece of the American design pantheon.  It is also a means of building the inventory of kindling and tinder that becomes part of everyday life during the alpine winters at The Homestead on White Run.  The wood stove will likely be lit in the evenings in another six weeks, and get its final seasonal clean-out next April or May.  That’s a lot of tinder.

With every stick that goes into the chairs there is an equal amount of material split, shaved, or planed away.  I faithfully break down the stick-sized material into kindling and box that up, and the tinder, so vital to reviving the fire in the wood stove every morning, winds up in large trash bags.  All of this goes into storage in the lower barn to be used as needed.  Each chair produces about three bags of tinder and a box of kindling.  Some day I will mock up all the individual elements to see how much finished stock it actually takes.  I’m guessing about as much as a single 2×6.

Knotwork Banding Workshop – Day 1

Three weekends ago I taught the workshop Knotwork Banded Inlays, based on Roubo’s Plate 287.  This was the first time I had taught this particular subject, although I had shown it many times before.  But, working it through from beginning to end with students was a challenge.  Fortunately I had not only some of my previous exercises but also my print that had been removed from a mutilated First Edition of L’Art du Menuisier to use as guidance.

The only way I could figure out how to get all the way through the exercise for the students was to give them a head start, so even before they arrived I had fabricated panels with the backgrounds already made and glued down.  With those ready to go I had the students begin at the beginning, creating their own parquetry backgrounds so they would have the full experience of the process.

This started with cutting the veneer strips needed for the parallelogram lozenges that comprise the pattern.  Once again my tiny band saw served us well, with each student making their own stock.  After three or four passes on the band saw they shot the edge of the lumber and again returned to the saw until the had enough raw material to proceed.

After that it was cutting 60-120-60-120 lozenges by the score.

While one was occupied with cutting their parquetry elements the other glued up the materials for making the banding slices for use later on.

Then on to building the parquetry backgrounds in earnest, gluing down the elements to kraft paper backgrounds.  Once those were complete they were set aside until the end of the day.

They then turned their attention to the already-prepared panels to trim them and begin the layout of the knotwork corner compositions.  I had a number of veneer saws to try out, and the Japanese mortising saw and the Gramercy heavyweight French style veneer saw (the “King Kong” model) were much admired.

Soon the knotwork pattern layouts emerged.

We then glued the new parquetry backgrounds to plywood substrates for them to play with tomorrow and called it a day.

Workbench Wednesday — Bench #4 (2008), Tom’s Bench

More than a dozen years ago I crossed paths with Tom, a retired police detective and rustic woodworker (that’s a description of the style in which he generally worked, not a commentary on his considerable skills.)  Tom had a booth at a community yard sale selling some of his tools and, well, you know how the rest of that story goes.

Shortly thereafter we started spending Wednesday evenings in his shop making sawdust, sharpening tools, making and repurposing tools, and on occasion solving some global problem.  Or more likely, just working on projects while we enjoyed each others’ silent company.

When we started that routine that lasted for a decade until we moved to The Fortress of Solitude, Tom’s shop was set up for him to work pretty much alone so one of our first projects together was to build another good workbench for me to use.  Projecting from my own Old Faithful I designed and built a larger torsion-box-top bench on a petty standard base.  Over a period of several Wednesday nights the bench took form until it was ready for battle.

Tom had never built a torsion box and was fascinated by the whole concept and process, especially when all the parts of the 1/2 baltic birch box were glued together into a 60″ x 24″ x 5″ thick whole.  Once that was done I affixed the 60-inch twin screw vise to one of the bench faces (I had obviously already prepared the holes inside the box grid before glue-up) and suddenly he had another unique high performance tool added to his shop.  I think we had it sitting on a pair of sawhorse for a couple weeks while I used it to fabricate the base, but before long it was all together and sitting on the floor for me to use.

Well, he used it a fair bit as well.  Eventually Tom added a pair of rising stops to either end of the bench and I added a shelf underneath and it was done and put to work immediately.

For several years it served me well in Tom’s shop and I fully intended to leave it behind and for it to become part of his inventory when we moved away.  (My weekly evening in Tom’s workshop was one of a very few things in Mordor I left behind with regret).  Tom promised to visit The Barn and in fact he came a fair bit early on, and he had come several times to work on the barn with me.

On his first trip to work in the barn he surprised me by bringing the bench with him.  He said he wanted to make sure he would always have a workbench whenever he came for a visit, which has not been as frequent as I would like.

But the bench is sitting in the barn, just waiting for him to join me.  Maybe a little cluttered, but ready and waiting.

One Day A Week

It’s getting to be that time of year when I will spend a day a week or so for the next dozen weeks building up the firewood inventory.  I still have a half dozen more trees on the ground from last year to cut up and that should do for this coming winter but I want to get a good jump on the following one.

Last week in between thunderstorms I sliced up a 24″ maple and an 18″ locust, both tall and a ton apiece, probably three pickup loads together.  Now I’m just waiting for the ground to get dry enough for the truck to get to them.

Way up the hill I still have several logs I thought might work for making Gragg chairs but the first couple bolts were not promising so the rest will instead provide heat.  I’ve got another promising one for the chairs, though.  Really long and straight.

We’ve got some sort of walnut blight going on here, so there will be some of them getting the axe this year.