Archive: » 2018 » September

Writing Desk – Finis

The light at the end of the tunnel was glowing brighter with every day.

I created an archival label for the desk, describing its antecedent heritage, the making process, the patrons, and me as the maker.  I glued it into the drawer and with that the creation of the desk was complete.

After that the only tasks were the glamour (?) photography, including the obligatory selfie, and delivering it to its new home.

All it took was almost two years from the initial client inquiry, my suffering and recovering from a broken hip the first year and a broken arm the second, a pile of prototyping, and a ton of hand-work as the project mandated.

I was not displeased with the ultimate outcome.

Throughout the project and its aftermath I assiduously acquired enough vintage select genuine mahogany, stored mostly underneath my planing beam, to make another half-dozen of the desks.  All I need now are the clients to make it happen.  If you know anyone who wants one, let me (or them) know.


A Cabinet For Mrs. Barn — The Wood

One of the challenges of “downsizing” is finding furniture to hold your stuff and fit in the new, smaller space.  This was particularly nettlesome for us as we moved from a 16′ x 24′ bedroom to one that was half that size.  For several years we had been searching antique shops for a small cabinet to hold some of Mrs. Barn’s clothing (fortunately we are blessed with two large closets here) but never could find something to fit nicely.  There ws only one place in our little bedroom for such a cabinet, and the size was very specifically determined by that space.

Instead she did something that had not occurred in more than three decades of connubial bliss — she asked me to make a piece of furniture for her.  Not just a piece of furniture but one made from vintage chestnut, a wood she likes very much.

So I did.

My source of vintage chestnut was unsurprisingly the old shack that my brother, nephew and I tore down three summers ago, a grand week of camaraderie whose ending punctuation was me laying in the hospital with a broken hip.  The shack had been a living quarters, probably in the 1930s according to the newspapers pasted to the wall.  The entire roof structure was chestnut, and the walls and floors were white oak.  The haul was pretty impressive.

In the intervening time the wood was stacked nicely in the lower log barn awaiting my attentions.

Up next – prepping the stock and joinery

Workbench Wednesday – #8 (2012) The Planing Beam

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of a beefy planing beam ever since I learned of the concept by Toshio Odate in his book Japanese Woodworking Tools.  With the advent of the barn becoming a reality I knew early on I wanted one here too, albeit slightly modified to fit my work.  In 2007 with the barn en route I went to a sawmill and bought a number of large SYP timbers to use if necessary during the assembly and erection of the barn, but the barn broker included several surplus timbers from his inventory so I wound up with a pile of mondo timbers that were partly seasoned by the time I was able to make the planing beam in 2012.

My starting point was one of the 8-foot southern yellow pine 8x10s from the pile.  Since I had none of the industrial scale machinery needed to handle the work piece I just put it up on my bench and started to make it square, flat, and straight by using hand planes.  It was heavy enough to stay in place all by itself, and hand planing was a real workout.

Coincident with that was making some half-trestles to place it on when it got finished.  The tail ends of the fixtures were fastened to the wall and the dovetailed legs simply sat on the floor.


The beam itself just sits in place on top of a pair of anti-skid pads, needing not much else to stay in place.

I soon added some planing stops, first in the form of counter-sunk screws then with a rising dog at the end, made for scraps of tongue-and-groove flooring, and put the tool to work.  Visitors from near and far came to see it in action.

It was/is a crazy simple but high-performance work accessory, and if push came to shove I could probably get by with just this (I have also added some holes of holdfasts).  It turns out I rarely need to use it to its fullest, but it would be perfect for its function at whatever length I might need.

The only downside is that a timber this massive needs occasional care as it continues to equilibrate to the environment as it seasons.  A local tradition here in the mountains is that lumber needs one year of seasoning for the first inch, an additional two years for the second inch, and so forth.  By that rubric this beam should be pretty well settled in another three decades.  In the mean time I need to touch it up every couple of years with a fore plane and a toother..

A Different Kind Of Sharpening (for a different kind of “woodworking”)

It’s been a preposterously wet early autumn and my routine of firewood processing has been disrupted mightily.  It’s looking like there may be some break in the daily rain perhaps next month some time, at which time I will dive in with vigor in pursuit of my goal of cutting two years’ worth of firewood, which must be a dozen tons or so.  This is a pile of 24″ diameter bolts I cut the last nice day we had almost a month ago.

This year I have acquired a specialized sharpening tool to make my work faster.   Harvesting wood in the mountains is a challenge, not the least being that when trees are brought down the ground underneath them is rocky, rocks being our primary agricultural product here.  No matter how carefully you work with a chain saw it is only a matter of time before you nick the rocky soil with the running saw, inflicting great damage to the saw chain which requires a pretty thorough re-sharpening.   And, my saw is slightly under powered (read: “lighter than a concrete block”) which means I need the cutting to be as efficient as possible.

I’m pretty good at chain sharpening but I am not fast, so I explored this tool with great interest.    Though pricey, roughly the same as a high quality sharpening stone for my finer woodworking tools, it has proven to be absolutely worth it for me.  Acting as a reverse pencil sharpener that attaches directly to the saw bar and sharpening each tooth hollow with a quick turn of the carbide bit, then moving on to the next indexed tooth with alacrity, I can get even a damaged chain ready in a couple minutes.

Here is the whole process demonstrated in near-real-time.

2nd Ripple Molding Mania – II

It’s hard to write about the second have of this year’s Ripple Molding Mania since the prose would consist of, “Well, we kept on working and trying new things.”

With music in the background we were all busy little elves.

Travis used a definitive resource as his guide for moving forward with steady determination.

We brought up my bench-top drill press so we would have two of them available, which was needed at several points in the week.

Soon Travis’ machine began to take shape. eventually assuming its completed form by week’s end.

Of particular interest were his innovations for the follower and a home-built cutting iron advancer made from available parts from the farm and hardware store.

Working from an entirely different concept, the objective being a diminutive bench-top model, Sharon took to drawing out the problem and solution by creating technical illustrations that were themselves works of art.   She has promised to share them with us once they are finished.

Meanwhile John disassembled and re-assembled his cutter head several times, trying to wring the last bits of flex out of the wave cutting function.

By the time we parted everyone was well on the way to have a functioning/better functioning machine.  We have kept in touch since then, and continue to spur each other on with innovative brainstorming becoming manifest in reality.

We can hardly wait for our next conclave, when we expect it to be more of a show-and-tell rather than a think-and-build.

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.