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Workbench Wednesday – Shannon’s Bench

This is the rare occasion where Workbench Wednesday features someone else’s workbench.

In my years of serious woodworking I have seen three fundamentally new workbench forms come on to the scene.

First is the torsion box which, to my knowledge, was popularized by Ian Kirby.  I have employed that technology in my first and still favorite workbench, and in another larger bench built for my friend Tom, and is the basis for my ultimate portable benches, now entering their fourth generation.  The torsion box is an elegant high-performance idea, and I am glad I know of it.  It has certainly served me well.

Second is the workbench/modular working system by trim carpenter Ron Paulk, whose mobile workshop is a wonder of ingenuity.

But the focus of this post is the idea I find the most exquisite and innovative of all, Shannon Rogers’ “apartment” or “joinery” workbench.  I saw an early prototype in 2009(?) and was immediately captivated by the concept.  The final version is downright seductive in its genius and capability.  Ever since seeing it in its final glory at a regional SAPFM meeting in 2011, making it has been on my “to do” list.

I’m not sure exactly when I will get to making one, but you can be assured that the day is coming in the not-too-distant future.

Thank you, Shannon, for unfurling your creative power and unleashing this brilliant design on the rest of the world.  I simply cannot think of a better solution to full-spectrum woodworking in such a small footprint.  The video is an excellent tutorial of the set-up’s capabilities.

Winter Project – Gragg Chair Drawings

One of my many projects for this winter is creating of a set of full-scale construction drawings of the Gragg Chair to sell in the Barn Store (not cheap), and provide to last year’s workshop students.

I have a number of full-scale drawings and tracings from the Smithsonian chair, in my opinion the best condition of the extant chairs, but these are just working drawings for me to use.  I need to create a set that would inform the craftsman out in Topeka or Peoria or even, heaven forbid, California.

I’ve got the roll of drawing paper, I located a shop over the mountains to replicate them (in the old days these were known as “blueprint shops,” but like film photography this is an extinct technology; it’s all bitmap imaging/printing, now), and I’ve got a big flat space up in the barn attic on which to work.  At this point I’m just waiting on some warmer, sunny days to heat the space enough to work there for more than five minutes.  Were I less of a Luddite I would probably try to learn SketchUp for the task but at this point I am just trying not to forget the compewder stuff I already know.

An ancillary project that excites me is creating a half-scale version of the chair for my soon-to-arrive grandson to use once he becomes a toddler.  That will require a whole new set of drawings and bending forms.  I cannot wait to get that up to speed, by my calculation I’ve got about 24 months to get that done.

Tortoiseshell’s Cousin

I really enjoyed this new video from Townsend’s channel.  The point he makes repeatedly is that tortoiseshell and horn are truly natural plastics that can be shaped by thermodynamic forces of heat and pressure.  Chemically they are very similar, mostly keratin, but morphologically they are quite different.  Historically horn was used to mimic tortoiseshell for decorative veneers by painting the mottled pattern on the verso.

Winter Projects (and well beyond) – Ripplin’

Making ripple moldings, and by extension perfecting my ripple molding cutting machine, is going to be part of my life for as long as it takes me to arrive at the horizon.  I am comfortable with the concept of my ripple cutter and will extend the invitation to my fellow ripplistas to spend some more time in the barn this winter/spring as I follow this trail.

In my current episode of rearrangeritis (my favorite Stumpy Nubs term) I’ve moved my machine into the heated studio in proximity to my finishing bench so I do not have that excuse to prevent me from noodlin’ it at my leisure.   Well, if I had any leisure.

Thanks to some barbarian who chopped up (!) a First Edition L’Art du Menuisier, (!!) and should be condemned to copy the encyclopedia by hand a la The Adventure of the Red Headed League, I’ve got a lot of original Roubo prints to frame, mat and mount for a display gallery at the top of the cabin stairs, so I’d better get to it.  This includes the plate of the ripple molding machine itself drawn and engraved by Roubo himself somewhat fancifully, given that he had never seen one in person and was simply imagining what it might be.

Winter Projects (and well beyond) – Honing (skills, not tool edges)

When it comes to workshop skills, perhaps like some (?)/many (?)/ most (?)/all (?) of you I think of myself deficient in every respect, certainly compared to where I want to be.  Some of the skills I intend to practice more in the future include engraving and checkering.  The checkering is pretty straightforward, the tool kit is small and all you need is a workpiece and a vise to hold it.  Got those.  Oh, and dozens/hundreds/thousands of hours at the bench doing the repetitions that impart skill.  By the way, none of these pathways require talent, a good thing since I am sparse in that category.  But skill? I can do that especially since so many of the practices in my shop are inter-related and cross-re-enforcing.

Just do it, stoopid.

Engraving is a little involved since it requires freehand facility at the micro scale.  In addition to my pretty compete set of hand gravers I also have a first-generation Lindsay Air Graver, one of the most astounding tools I have ever encountered.  Think of a road construction jackhammer.  Now miniaturize it down to palm sized, and instead of an asphalt splitting tip it has a precision engraving tip.  Now you have a Lindsay Air Graver.  I bought a used one and its companion Silent Aire Compressor almost twenty years ago for a couple of conservation/replication projects that would require enhancing some well-worn engraving, and they sufficed brilliantly.  I never became fully facile with the tool, the project did not require full-range ability but rather simply tracing some worn lines, and to be truthful I did not have the time to dedicate at the microscope to make my lines fluid.

My first step down this path was to get my compressor tuned up and ready to go.

Done.  The beauty of this compressor is that it is literally so quiet it can reside in the shop next to the bench.  It’s about as loud as a refrigerator and is frequently used in dentist’s offices.

The next pathway is checkering, to me a much simpler enterprise than is engraving.  Still, I need to spend more time working at full scale/full speed on gunstocks and tools for it to become second nature.

Some years ago my friend Tred deposited a classical French marquetry chevalet in my space, and I played with it a bit.  I simply need to spend more hours in the seat using it to become good at it.  The kinesiology of the tool is foreign to me as I have spent the past 45 years cutting marquetry in the up-and-down motion.  That much muscle memory is a challenge to overcome.  If I am going to have a variable-speed, hand-powered machine take up more space than a table saw, I’d better make use of it.

I do not pretend to even aspire to follow the masters well, but I can certainly and earnestly be inspired by them.

Finally, for this post at least, I come to the area where talent would be a great help — drawing and decorative painting.  In order to most fully exploit my efforts at replicating urushi laquerwork I need to be able to draw and paint much better than I can now.  I hope that more hours of practice will yield a more amenable result, even if it is simply copywork.

I think I am able to reach that level of competence: this is an unfinished class exercise, a pastiche of a Johannes Vermeer painting I executed in college almost 40 years ago.

Armed with my stack of pattern books I will head down this path and hopefully not wind up in the ditch.  Good thing I am planning on working in the shop another 35 years.


It’s been a weather-y week at the homestead.  We raced home from a family visit to be here in time for Sunday’s snowstorm, which turned out to be the real deal — 11 inches followed a day later by several more.  A good part of every day this week has been spent dealing with the aftermath.  Perhaps the most invigorating (?) sessions have been those behind the controls of the snow blower clearing the few hundred yards of driveway from the gate to the cabin and then on up the hill to the barn.  On Monday the swirling wind was howling but the snow needed to be cleared so I was always getting a face full of the blown snow regardless of which way I pointed the chute.

When I came in for lunch my beard and moustache were solid blocks of ice, and it took through lunch for it all to melt off.

It was warmer yesterday and rained last night before getting cold again, shrink wrapping everything in a glaze of ice.  Even hiking up to the barn was an exercise in caution.  Upcoming is our annual week of frigid temperatures with nightly lows near or below zero.  Nothing like the -15 in my home town, but certainly cold enough.

This Book Stinks

A while ago in my quest to gather pertinent books regarding the artistry of the World of Roubo, and in fact the larger portrait of the culture surrounding him (in part due to my desire to replicate the work, in part due to my ongoing efforts to write a novel for which one thread involves Parisian cabinetmaking c.1770), I went on a sustained book-buying spree.  For the most part that spree has ended with only one or two exceptions, and my absence from has led them to send me a “Get Well Soon” card.  Just kidding about that, but it had been a very long while before a recent purchase or two.

One of my last purchases perhaps three or four years ago was, at that time, a somewhat hard-to-find book that was equally hard-to-afford.  While browsing my barn library a couple weeks ago a faint familiar stench prompted the memory of this book.  When it first arrived and I opened the package I knew immediately why I could afford it.  Yes, it was in poor physical condition, but I knew that already.  What I did not know at the time was the someone had doused the volume with perfume, and I mean doused.  It was probably to disguise up the odor of mildew or rodent urine/feces or who knows what.  When I first opened it the perfume actually burned my eyes it was so strong.


I bagged it back up and set it aside to deal with it “another day.”  Since coming across it again, and desiring to actually read it without wearing a gas mask, I splayed it out on a bench way away from my work space.  I checked it gain and it is still odoriferous.   I think I will have to put it inside a sealed rubber tub with a lot of activated charcoal and probably swap out the charcoal a time or four to extract the stench enough for me to hold it at reading distance.


I’ll let you know how that goes.

Workbench Wednesday – Storage Cabinet Under the Roubo

No, I have not forgotten the Ultimate Portable Workbench and will return to it very soon, but last week I spent a day resolving one of my frustrations with the massive oak Roubo bench.  Until now I have just had open storge underneath it, and even though I put contents in boxes and milk crates it was not a particularly useful setup.  Given my intention to reorient priorities in the shop and gather all my marquetry tools into one place, now was the time to make a change.

Way back in time I acquired a large number of drawers from surplused (read: thrown away) museum collection storage cabinets and have used them variously as cabinets themselves with a piano hinge, parts trays, etc.  In this instance I tossed together a cabinet box into which I could place five 24″ deep x 36″ wide drawers to hold marquetry and parquetry tools and jigs.  It was nothing special, just Baltic birch sheet stock and aluminum angle drawer supports.

I am pleased with the new accessory for the bench and shop and await my own decision on drawer pulls to complete the project.  Sometimes I am a fussy client.

Winter Project – Steampunk Weighted Infill Mallet

While watching a Bob Rozaieski video the other day my eye was drawn to the mallet he was using.  So I sez to myself, “Self, you gotta make yourself something like that!”

So I will.  Probably late next week.  Stay tuned.

Winter Project – Solar Heat (?) for Scrounging BTUs

In a perfect world, 1) all the bents of the barn would be equally spaced, and 2) if #1 is not the case then the larger of the side bents, the one where my shop resides, would be on the south side of the building.  Alas, such is not the case.  When the barn was assembled and erected, what I got was what I got.  My shop is on the north side of the barn, and in the winter vis-a-vie the sun nary the twain shall meet except for perhaps three hours after dawn (east-ish wall) and four hours before dusk (west-ish wall).  As for the smaller space in the south side of the barn, the one ostensibly dedicated for a classroom, the solar/thermal gain is immense with full wall exposure to sunlight and a complete row of clerestory windows all the way around.  Given enough motivation I could probably move my shop there, but it is a smaller space and the heating stove is underneath the current shop, the classroom is entirely uninsulated…  I just had not experienced the alpine winters (near-zero lows are common) before setting up shop or things might be different.  Sigh.

Between my propane wall furnace keeping the overnight shop temps in the upper 30s for about $2/night (no real desire to heat more aggressively with it through the day as delivered propane is topping $5/gallon!), my kerosene heater (frankly astonishingly effective; I am pretty certain I could heat my shop with it alone for about $5/day, but that open flame thing…) and my wood/coal stove in the basement under the shop I can keep the temps congenial 99% of the time.  Nevertheless, my ongoing hunt for BTUs remains, well, ongoing.  The other day when it was single digits with a stiff breeze outside it was a challenge despite 3″ XPS insulation in the walls and ceiling, new tighter doors, and a relentless hunt for crevices to caulk.

Many years ago my friend Tred told me of a set-up whereby direct solar heat could be harvested and introduced into the interior space via a ducted “greenhouse” panel.  This video shows the concept.  My plan is to modify that construction to build and install a couple of solar thermal collectors, one on the northeast corner of the barn (near the vise end of my Roubo bench) and the other on the wall nearest my Waxerie at the other end of the shop.  For the former I expect I can harvest BTUs two or three hours each morning, and the latter perhaps four hours each mid-day and afternoon.  Any BTUs I can garner without ongoing effort is a winner to me.  A few years ago I made a solar oven to melt beeswax and it wound up melting the case for the digital thermometer (!), so I am optimistic that these units can be useful.

I think I just might start this project later today.  I’ll check to see if I have all the materials on hand that I need.