Archive: » 2018 » October

New Product – Pure Shellac Wax

Over the next several weeks I’ll be offering in The Store several new but inter-related products for sale.

The first of these will be solid 1/4 pound blocks of pure shellac wax which I import directly from the manufacturer in India then process a slight bit for final purity and configuration into the 1/4 pound blocks.  I am making this available at the request of fellow finishers and artisans who want to play with this material, the second hardest wax naturally occurring in nature (carnauba being the hardest and hardest to use and integrate into formulations).

I expect pure shellac wax to be available for order on The Store page on or about November 1.  At that time I will tell the tale of finding a supplier and the machinations necessary to pay for and get a quarter ton sent from India and arrive in the hinterlands of the Virginia Highlands.  It was truly a leap of faith.

The price for the pure shellac wax will be $19 per quarter pound packaged block, domestic shipping included.  For international orders please contact me for further shipping cost estimates.

Workbench Wednesday – #10 (2013) FORP Bench, The Making

As we tried to acclimate to the choking heat of July in south Georgia the work on our individual Roubo benches took hold.  With the slab tops readied by the monster Stratoplaner machine that surfaced all four sides, it was now incumbent on us (me) to glue two of the slabs together to make the top.  Unlike the rest of the crew who chose the mega jointer and PVA for any gluing they needed I worked with a hand plane and hot hide glue.


By the next morning I had a complete slab ready for trimming to the right dimension.  I must say that operating a 16″ circular saw is a pretty unforgettable experience.

Then it was on to giant joinery, all of the time.  Working with Jeff Miller, he and I created a sled jig to cut the dovetailed leg tenons on a giant bandsaw, reducing the time for producing that from a few hours to a couple minutes.

Otherwise the leg-top tenons were simply a matter of sawing and chopping.  My old faithful tulipwood mallet was up to the task.

By the third day things were looking positive for getting the unit up on its feet before the week ended.  Once again I took a different tack than the others when it came to the stretchers.  I inset dovetailed stretchers into the surface of the legs rather than the mortise and tenon route, and idea I gleaned from Bob Lang’s video on his modern workbench.  By the end of the day I had the legs all fitted together and was ready for chopping the mortises through the top, which I was set to begin in the morning.

That’s when disruption occurred.

Thursday morning I awoke with my right eye badly inflamed, and told my housemates Raney and Chris that I needed to find an eye doctor.  Right now.   That eye is my more “at risk” of the pair, having undergone at that point 19 surgical procedures according to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and inflammation was absolutely an enemy.  (The history of that eye proves to me that I’ve got backbone, having gone through all those surgeries and being asleep for only one of them.  Nothing proves your stones quite like complying with, “Now Mr. Williams, hold your head very still and stare straight ahead without blinking while I cut into your eye with this scalpel.  You’ll feel a little sting.” Yeah, that shows your stuff.  Well, that and once facing down a drunk with a gun.)  Thanks to Chris’ smart phone we found a surgical/eye clinic about thirty miles away that could see me “immediately” and thanks to Raney’s generosity in setting aside his own day of working on the bench he drove me there for the appointment.  It took much of the day to undergo the examination (they found no foundational cause for the inflammation) and after getting some medication we headed back to the shop for the end of the day.

Needless to say my heavy work for the week was finished, having lost the entire Thursday to cultivating the screaming headache that hung on into Friday.  I wanted to get back home ASAP to let my own eye doctors on Monday take a look so I spent Friday morning packing up and hit the road that afternoon.  By Saturday afternoon I was back at the barn, having arranged with a friend to bring some of his bubba buddies to help me unload the bench top.  They were ribbing me about needing hep for moving the top, until they set their beers aside and picked it up.  Their grunts and curses soon quieted their ridicule.

The pieces of the bench were ensconced in the barn and remained essentially untouched for more than three years until I could return to it and finish it up.

And they never did find out what riled up my eye.  Sometimes the meat machines we live inside of just get cantankerous.

Summer 2019 Workshops at the Barn

I have settled on the topics and approximate schedule for next summer’s classes here in the hinterlands, with three of the four classes emphasizing toolmaking.  I will post about them in greater detail in the near future.  One minor change I’ll be instituting next year is that three-day workshops will now be Thursday-Friday-Saturday rather than Friday-Saturday-Sunday as before.

June’s class will be a metalworking event, Making A Nested Set of Roubo’s Squares.   The objective will be for each attendee to create a set of four or five solid brass footed squares, the sort illustrated in Roubo’s Plate 308, Figure 2.  The special emphasis will be on silver soldering, a transforming skill for the toolmaker’s shop.  The tentative dates for this are June 6-8 or 20-22, $375 + $25 for materials.

July’s class will be my annual offering of Historic Wood Finishing.  Each participant will complete a series of exercises I have devised for the most efficient learning experience to overcome finishing fears and difficulties.  Of particular importance are the aspects of surface preparation and the use and application of wax and spirit varnish finishes using the techniques of the 1700s.  Probably July 11-13, $375.

In August we will continue the pursuit of Roubo’s tool kit, this time Making and Using Roubo’s Shoulder Knife.  I have no way to know exactly how prevalent was this tool’s use in ancient days, but I suspect more than I can imagine.  Each participant will fabricate a shoulder knife to fit their own torso, so its use can be both the most comfortable and the most effective.  Probably August 15-17, $375.

The final class for the year will be a week-long Build A Ripple Molding Cutter.  As I have been pursuing this topic and blogging about it, fellow ripple-ista John Hurn and I have settled on a compact design we think can be built by every attendee in a five-day session.  Together we will be teaching the process of ripple moldings and fabricating the machines that make them.  September 23-27, $750 plus $200 materials fee.

Save the dates and drop me a line for more information.

Boullework Class – Day 1

Every three or four years I teach my approach to Boullework, a branch of marquetry technically known by its original Italian title of tarsia a incastro (literally “interlocking inlay”) that was so prominent in the 17th and 18th Centuries .  This identifier probably comes from the fact that all the elements of the composition — positive, negative, and sometimes additional accents — are cut simultaneously and do in fact “interlock” with each other.  I always cut my marquetry vertically by free-form rather than horizontally on the chevalet, due to the fact that I have almost fifty years of muscle memory doing it the way I do it.  This approach also has the advantage of allowing newcomers to begin work with only a flat board as a sawing platform, a frame saw, and some tiny saw blades, investing very little resources to begin.

My approach also has the component of using a persuasive imitation tortoiseshell (nicknamed “tordonshell) I invented several years ago to compensate for the fact that true sea turtle shell is a proscribed material as a result of the world-wide adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species adopted in 1975, essentially forbidding any commerce or other transactions involving the two species of turtle shells integral to Boullework.

That is where the three-day workshop begins, with a brief chemistry/materials science lesson on protein macro-molecules and their polymerization and the morphology of tortoiseshell.

Using materials I prepared in advance, and the addition of ingredients at the moment, the attendees begin the lengthy process of making their own to take home with them afterward (this recounting of that is condensed from work over the three days).

First they cast out a film that would become tordonshell, then created the pattern endemic to the material.

After watching me make a piece they set about to making their own.  The results were gratifying.

The process took them the three days to get finished, in part because the chemistry was fighting me.  In all the times I’ve made tordonshell I had not wrestled with the fundamental exothermic nature of the polymerization, but it was sure rearing its ugly head this time.

We then assembled 4″ x 4″ packets to saw (I was working alongside the attendees, I find they like me to be working on the same type project so they can peek over my should if necessary), consisting of a 1/32″ annealed brass sheet, a piece of tordonshell, and a 1/8″ plywood support.  All of this was wrapped with veneer tape and the mirror-pattern of their initial was glued on to the surface with stick glue.

This approach requires beginning the sawing at the center of the composition, so a tiny hole had to be drilled with my ancient mini-eggbeater drill.

Once that was completed the saw frame was set-up and a 0000 blade was fed through the hole and the frame tightened down.   this can be a frustrating task the first time, requiring four hands until you get the hang of it.. After that, no problem.

After waxing the backside of the blade the sawing (and blade breaking) began in earnest.  There is a real “touch” to sawing like this, so indeed the blades were snapping right and left.  Not a problem, I was expecting it.  I provided the tools and blades for the most part, but John had recently purchased a new Knew Concepts saw and was giving it its first road test.

Joe had an intriguing saw from Green Lion, I only wish I’d had a chance to test drive it myself but Joe kept it busy.  I think I may have to get one, just to round out my inventory.  For the most part the others used Knew Concepts saws from my collection.

The sawing continued apace until Mrs. Barn called us to supper.

And that was the end of Day 1.

I Don’t Do Windows (often enough)


For some reason I recently had to wipe something off of one of the windows in the shop and was astounded at the resultant change.  So I picked up a wetted sponge and placed a drop of detergent on it and scrubbed the whole thing.  Wow!  I’m guessing you can discern which of the four windows this was.

I immediately asked myself, “Self, when did you clean the windows last?”  So I answered, “Self, I am pretty sure  they were cleaned when Craig and I built the frames and installed the glass back in 2008.”  Further self-interrogation did not reveal any window housekeeping during the intervening decade.

Another thing goes on my “Do/Make/Buy” list hanging in the shop.  One window down, 67 to go.

Workbench Wednesday – #10 (2013) FORP Bench, The Wood!

The stage and setting for the 2013 French Oak Roubo Project workbench build has been covered like a blanket around the woodworking bogosphere so I do not need to address it again here.  Just do a search for “french oak roubo project” in your favorite surveillance vehicle/search engine and you will get a multitude of responses, probably somewhere north of 25,000 citations including blogs from about a half dozen of the participants including me.  Now I’ll spend a couple of posts discussing the making of the bench, then one on the using of it.

Our raw material was oak harvested from France following the catastrophic Christmas ice storm of 1999, which destroyed over 10,000 trees in the forests around Versailles alone.  The trees were harvested and the lumber placed in storage, eventually purchased and exported to the US by entrepreneur Bo Childs, our host for the event who in concert with Jameel Abraham made it available to us.  The most mature trees were likely alive even during the lifetime of Roubo himself, and some amatuer dendrochronology on at least one of the slabs put the seedling of the giant timber back to the Napoleanic era.  Safe to say that none of us had ever encountered lumber like this before.  These imported slabs measured up to sixteen feet long, two feet wide and six inches thick.

Soon enough on that sweltering July week we were coordinating into teams preparing the stock for the battle ahead.  The end point?  Slab topped benches made from almost 250-year old white oak, weighing in at about 500 pounds.  Impressive.  Fortunately thanks to his business Bo had the full range of machinery on hand, ranging from the forklifts needed to move these half-ton slabs around and the bandsaw mill to render them into rough slabs.

Beyond the material handling aspects, Wyatt Childs, Inc, possessed stock preparation capacity beyond anything I had ever seen outside of a full-scale furniture factory.

Before you knew it we all had slabs and legs roughed out, ready for us to get to work.  Mine is the one farthest from the camera.

A Cabinet for Mrs. Barn – Lumber Prep and Initial Construction

Once it was time to begin construction of the cabinet I looked through my pile of salvaged chestnut and hauled the necessary pieces up the hill.  I rough cut pieces to size; there is no point in preparing an eight foot board when all you need is five feet.  With the pile on a pair of sawhorses I carefully examined each one, both sides, to locate any wayward nails left behind.  Fortunately my initial cleaning efforts at the salvage site were pretty good, I found only a couple of metal pieces left.  But even these would have torqued me off to hit them with a plane or chisel.

Prepping the lumber for further work was straightforward and pretty fast, all the more simplified by both chestnut’s relative softness and almost a century of seasoning for these particular boards.   I made the panel stock from the 1x roof sheathing material and the frames for the frame-and-panel construction from sections of rafter lumber.  My newly up-on-its-feet FORP Roubo bench was the platform for most of the work on this cabinet, even though all the amenities (leg vise, planing stop, etc.) were not (and are not) completed.  It is a most wonderful tool, and coincidentally the focus of tomorrow’s workbench, and probably the next couple ones as well.

It all moved smoothly along to the point where I was shooting the dadoes for the panel insets and sawing and chopping the mortises and tenons for the joinery itself.  It was simple but robust construction; tapered panels sitting in continuous dadoes in the posts and ends of the frames, which were held together with hide glue.

The details of the stylistic “design” were in keeping with the setting and intention, it was going to rest in a small room simply furnished, in a renovated cabin from the late 19th Century.  To that end the “design” details were really all about proportion and crisp lines, with the only “ornamentation” being the presence of crisp beveled edges for most edges.  Combined with the fairly careful surface treatment of the vintage gnarly wood the overall effect was not unpleasant.

Now it was on to the shelves and doors.

Building Gragg’s “Elastic” Chairs — Harvesting the Wood 1

Much like the recently concluded account of replicating the early 19th Century legislator’s writing desk, over the next few months I will run a series of posts recounting the c.1810 Gragg “Elastic” chairs I am currently replicating in the shop.  Though I have posted on Gragg chairs several times over the life of this blog I am hoping this series will renew your interest in them.

The story for these chairs (I am building two commissioned by clients and another for myself) goes back to a couple years after the completion of the original replica I finished in 2011.  I published the proceedings of the project in that year’s American Period Furniture, the flagship publication from the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, you can read that article here.  I am still pleased with that article but en toto these posts should be dramatically more complete in both my descriptions of work, with the continued refinement of technique and process,  and my reflections on the challenges of making these chairs.

While reverse-engineering Gragg’s methods I learned a lot about not only how he worked, a combination of sinuous elegance and brute force, but also the kind of wood that would be best suited for making these iconic chairs.  Like Gragg I confirmed the material that suited the project best was something like air dried red oak from very large trees (he used red oak, white oak, ash, and IIRC hickory).  I remain so fascinated by the form that I continue exploring other routes to the same end point and will comment on those paths as appropriate.

A bit over a year after finishing my first full-blown Gragg my neighbor Bob told me he was having several  over-mature oak trees removed from his yard.  Though still mostly-healthy their decline was underway and it was only a matter of time before they became an imminent threat to his house.   When the lumberjacks arrived I asked if the boles could be sectioned into five or six foot pieces and left intact on the ground for me to harvest.   I had to be elsewhere for much of the day so I did not get to watch them bring these behemoths down.

When I returned home later that day I inspected the bolts with anticipation, and spoke with Bob (and his teen-aged grandchildren who were lounging around) that I would be arriving after dinner to begin the harvesting.  I’m not suggesting the yutes did not believe me when I showed up with a sledge and a bag of steel wedges and wooden gloats and told them I would be turning these 5,000 pound hunks into manageable pieces from which I would eventually make chairs, but truth be told the looks on their faces indicated they did not believe me.  Over the next couple of days their eyes bugged wide more than once.

Finally A Set of Mortise Chisels I Like — All I Had To Do Was Make Them

I have always found making mortise-and-tenon constructs to be more irksome than dovetails.  After decades of struggling and countless m&ts I came to realize that much of my animus was due to mortising chisels themselves — they simply were not amenable to the work I was undertaking most of the time.  Traditional “pigsticker” mortising chisels seemed akin to sticking a piece of steel into a rolling pin and using that to make a rectangular hole.  That approach works for some things, things I do only rarely, but in the diminutive work such as fitting the steam bent slats of Gragg chairs into their crest rails working with oversized pigstickers was not conducive, for me, to good controllable work.  Truthfully I got so frustrated that earlier this year I gave my complete set of vintage pigstickers to Steve Voigt.

Instead I made myself a new set of mortising chisels more in keeping with the work that I do.  And it all started with a derelict bunch of plow plane irons I’ve been assembling in recent years.  Such irons are usually available for little money, especially if the ends are completely boogered up.  Taking the pile that I had, I marked them all at the same length and noted their width.  It was pretty clear I could have a wonderful set of precisely graduated sizes perfectly suited for the work I do, at least 99% of it.  For the other 1% I have a couple more “standard” sized chisels, but who knows now if I will ever use them for anything but large scale timber framing.

After marking them all to the same length with tape I cut them with an abrasive disk in my micro-rotary (yes, that is my new Emmert Universal Vise; it is real and it is spectacular).  It took three disks and fifteen minutes before I had the raw stock to make the set of chisels.

Up next — wood handles from the scrap box.  Tulipwood?  Bocote?  Brazilian Rosewood?

Old Timey Screws

My general bias when contemplating screws at the hardware store is that the only versions of the fastners that are “high quality” are decking screws, which indeed I use a lot for making jigs and serving as clamps for laminating and such.  Trying to find old-format slotted flat head wood screws there is a fools errand.  Not only is everything a Phillips head, but the quality of the screw material itself is so sub-par that I (and probably you) have countless tales of screws wringing off as soon as you bear down on them.  It’s not really the fault of the hardware store owners, my store back in Maryland has owners who have become good friends over the years and I talk to them often about their products, but they have very limited options in their product pipeline.  For screws those options are usually a choice between mediocre products and products they would not even deign to have on their shelves.

As a result I had begun lurking for lots of old fashioned screws, stopping at garage sales and on-line auctions with modest  success.  This container is filled with the sorted contents of one such purchase on-line.  It is all useful but not a systematic selection.  Often I find boxes of NOS screws on ebay but the prices can be stratospheric.

Given my own psychopathology and domicile remoteness (I want to have a full range of fasteners at my disposal at all times) I have the habit of buying a full box whenever I needed a half dozen of somethings, guaranteeing they would be ready for me next time.  They don’t go bad, and the nook underneath the stairs to the third floor resembles a mini-hardware store.  The racks in between the joists around the corner hold several hundred linear feet of metal bar stock and the like.

Some time ago I was discussing my frustration with with cheap hardware store screw with Jim Moon and he pointed me in a most excellent direction — Blacksmith Bolt and Rivet.  They might be already well-known in the wood world or to you but it was news to me.  I have since made several purchases from them and have been pleased with their products and service.  My inventory of screws from them is growing slowly, once again whenever I need some I order three or four times as many and put the extras in a labeled box to go into the correct drawer in my mini-hardware store.

Since I do not solicit nor accept advertisers for this site I am delighted to give you a heads up with this unsolicited endorsement.