Sweet Home (from) Alabama

Whew! Concluding a few months of mostly traveling we got back to Shangri-la late Sunday evening after driving non-stop from Alabama, where L’il T’s family just moved (we were “helping,” a/k/a grandparenting L’il T and his brother).  Travel advisory — avoid Chattanooga if at all possible, the construction and attendant constriction made it a more than an hour of stop and go experience at 97 degrees.

I am looking forward to resuming some semblance of norma life, including full days in the shop.  This is made possible by the cessation of travel for most of the foreseeable future, along with finding a sturdy Mennonite lad to do most of the yard work.  We were spending 3-4 days a week just keeping the grass cut, brush beat back, and trimming the edges.  This young man could do what is necessary in 3-4 hours, rather than 3-4 days.  Oh, to have the exuberance and fortitude of the young!  That plus a $10k lawnmower makes a big difference.

Other than routine chores around the homestead I’ll be preparing for a Labor Day Weekend shindig at my friend Tim’s place, celebrating the historic crafts of our ancestors.  I’ll be assembling a vintage-form tool kit to fit into my antique cabinetmaker’s tool chest which has been used as storage for the past couple decades.  So, I’ll be there with tools and one of my Nicholson workbenches, in period costume, probably making a small dowry chest.  If you are in the region, stop on by.

In addition I’ll be ramping up for my only teaching event of the year, a 3-day Introduction to Historic Woodfinishing workshop near Charlottesville VA.

And resuming work on my magnum opus tool cabinet, and oh by the way L’il T is now big enough to use a step stool to wash his hands and brush his teeth.  The ones I made for his mom and aunt are still in service after 35+ years.

And my traveling tool kit needs completing.  As do a couple of Gragg chairs.  And those half-finished Studley mallet exercises, and the patterns for the genuine replicas.  And the custom oculars for my rifle scopes, bypassing the now nearly defunct right eye (dominant).  And the boat load of writing and editing staring me in the face.  And setting up a video system to make in-shop vids after I get the Gragg video edited.  And tuning my ripple molder.

And, and, and…

Historic Woodfinishing Workshop – Day 2

Day 2 began with scraping the large panels with razor blades to get them really smooth, followed by a final “inning” of 5 or 6 coats of shellac varnish, giving a total application of about 15 coats.  These were then set aside for final rub-out at the conclusion of Day 3.

We then moved on to brushing a few coats of varnish on turnings and embossed moldings to introduce the notion of using an oval tip brush on undulating surfaces.  The right tool makes all the difference.

Smaller panels were varnished in preparation for further exercises; the plywood panel was for water/wax polishing (we never got to that one since we ran out of time) and the mahogany panel was for spirit varnish pad polishing.

The final event of the day was applying, scraping, and buffing a molten beeswax foundation to these solid cherry panels in preparation for subsequent pad polishing.  Prior to the advent of plaster-like grain fillers in the late 19th century, beeswax was the grain filler for almost all glossy finishes.

It might not sound like much but these activities did fill the whole day.

Thus endeth Day 2.

Another Woodfinishing Workshop in the Books – Day 1`

I recently had the great opportunity to teach my 3-day Introduction to Historic Woodfinishing workshop at Joshua Farnsworth’s Wood and Shop school.  I have probably taught this class twenty or thirty times, having settled on a base syllabus long ago but continuing to tweak it a smidge every so often.  I’ll post it in one of the upcoming blogs once I can figure out how to make a screen capture image.

The first day is mostly consumed with my (in?)famous exercise of finishing a 24″ x 48″ piece of birch plywood with a 1-inch brush, beginning the day’s activities with five or six coats of 1-1/2 lb shellac.  (sorry, I forgot to take pics of this step)

This is followed in short order with exercises in using pumice blocks to “sand” the surfaces, polissoirs to burnish the surface, and a generous application of molten beeswax.

Late in the afternoon the big panels are sanded lightly to remove any fuzz or debris, followed by another five or six coats of the same shellac.

The day was completed with some wax scraping, partly in preparation for processes yet to come.

Workshop Prep

For the past three weeks I’ve been spending all my available shop time preparing for next week’s Introduction to Historic Woodfinishing workshop over the mountains at Joshua Farnsworth’s Wood and Shop school.  If you have ever traveled to teach a workshop you know how involved it can be to assemble and pack all the requisite supplies and syllabus exercises for each student, all the more complicated since you won’t be “at home” and could go into the next room for anything you forgot to have set out.

Workpieces for a dozen exercises, brushes, resins, waxes, polissoirs, solvents, abrasives, scrapers, rags of a dozen different types, cases of jars, etc,, etc., etc.  I have not counted them precisely but at this point I would guess I am closing in on 20 bins of materials.  Were I so inclined I could create a giant artistic collage in the driveway and crank up Set The Controls For The Heart of The Sun.  Unless you are of a certain vintage that last reference is probably just gibberish.

While I have made headway in my battles to find acceptable and affordable plywood to use as exercise workpieces, not great but better (good plywood for class exercises would raise the per-pupil materials cost to well over $200 instead of the ~$75 it is now) so instead this time I grabbed some pieces of mahogany and cherry from my stashes of “pieces too small to really make stuff from” and resawed and planed them so each student could have at least some of each.  Pad polishing on inferior plywood just doesn’t cut it.

Tomorrow after church I will load my pickup to the gunwales and head back into civilization to set up, then begin teaching at 9AM Monday.

Pictures From An Exhibition (of Wood Finishing)

One of the problems(?) of teaching workshops is that I often get so involved that I fail to take adequate pictures of the goings on.  In the case of the recent wood finishing workshop at the barn I failed to take a single picture, but student Pat took some with her phone and forwarded them on to me.  So, with gratitude to her I present them to you.

Like almost all those who encounter my collection of shellacs, she was captivated.  How could you not be?

One of my demonstrations was cold rubbing wax onto undulating surfaces, then dispersing said wax by melting it with a hair dryer and buffing it with a rag.  (Historically the wax melting would have been accomplished by passing a hot iron over the surface) The result is, to my senses, a pleasing one.

Here is her walnut panel in the early stages of pad polishing, a/k/a/ “French polishing.”  The molten wax grain filling has been completed and the first pass of a loaded shellac pad has been applied.

One of the most effective exercises in the workshop is building up an excellent shellac finish on a 24″ x 48″ plywood panel with a 1″ brush, then polishing out each quarter with differing abrasive/wax regimens.


The FinalOne, In The Books

Yesterday brought the close of the Workshop Era at the Barn on White Run, due to my previously recounted business insurance cancellation.  We had a grand time working in the world of historic finishing.

The students undertook my now pretty-much-locked-in-stone curriculum for the three-day class, a syllabus I settled on many years ago.  It involved lots of surface preparation with pumice blocks and polissoirs, brushing shellac varnish, melting beeswax, scraping, pad polishing, rubbing out, and making some hand-made sandpaper.

I believe a good time was had by all, with much learning, fears overcome, and confidence instilled.  The results are a feast for the senses.

I will be teaching the same workshop in a few weeks over in the Charlottesville area at Wood and Shop.

Upcoming “Historical Woodfinishing” Workshops

Here’s a quick reminder about the two upcoming workshops focusing on shellac and wax finishing.

The workshop at the barn (my final one here due to my already recounted business insurance termination) will be June 19-21.  For that workshop contact me directly.

The identical workshop will be held at Joshua Farnsworth’s school/shop in Earlysville VA, July 17-19.  Contact Joshua for registration and other information.

I hope to see you there.

Plywood Agonistes

Many, many moons ago I settled on a curriculum for my workshops on Historic Woodfinishing, a curriculum based on a series of finishing exercises that would yield a set of sample boards for each student to keep.  I originally instructed each student to bring a small finishing project for us to work on during the class, but the wild variety of those projects made it too troublesome to make sure everyone got the learning experience I had in mind.  Hence, the plywood panels.

For the first 25+ years this syllabus worked just fine as good quality plywood for the sample boards was easily and inexpensively obtained.  I would buy a stack of 24″x48″ birch or luan panels to use (frequently I could find luan plywood that was very mahogany-like) and all was well.  The first chink in that regimen was after the Iraq war when vast quantities of building supplies in the mid-Atlantic were going overseas to rebuild that region, but even though local inventories were diminished and prices increased I could find the necessary materials.  After that stretch things got better again and I could find pretty good 24″x48″x 1/4″ birch panels for around $9 and luan panels of the same dimension for about $5.

Then came the increasing disruptions with industrial inventories, culminating with the imposed collapse of the supply chain three years ago.  Ever since it has been a real chore to find the requisite supplies for a workshop at a reasonable price.  As a result I have always been on the hunt for acceptably good quality/affordable plywood for use in the classes, frequently “stopping in for a look” at almost every lumber yard to check out their inventory.  There was a stretch of time where even garbage inventory was running almost $40 for the birch panels and $25 for the luan.  The culmination of my struggles played out in my most recent workshop last month when the supply of materials I could find was really not acceptable for the workshop outcome I desired, to the point where I apologized to the students and will in fact be making a new set of sample boards to send to each of them.

Yes, I know this is mahogany lumber, but it does reflect the quality of plywood I was looking for.  Pad polishing on an exquisite surface makes the whole enterprise a resounding success.

Recently while visiting my daughter I was pleased to find some better-quality plywood panels at a less heart-attack-inducing price and bought a stack that should serve me well for the summer upcoming.  Still, while visiting her I called around to find some premium plywood, either mahogany or walnut, to provide one or two small pieces for each student to go along with the luan and birch.  Much to my delight I found a place about twenty miles away that had what I wanted!  I arranged to go there last Friday to pick up a couple of sheets.

As I piece together the threads of the story, the lumberyard was a father-and-son operation that was based on them building custom cabinetry.  Over the years they had built a sideline of ordering excess materials for their projects into a thriving but small premium lumber and plywood operation.  It was with great anticipation that I set out for their place.  Little did I know at that moment that an electrical fire two days earlier had burned their shop and warehouse to the ground, destroying all the tools and machines they used for their cabinetmaking and all of the inventory in the connected small warehouse.  It was clear that they were still in shock, but hopeful that they could rebuilt their business with help from friends and customers who were already giving them tools and machines to get the ball rolling.  The hardest nut to crack will be their status as completely uninsured.  They will have to rebuild completely on their own resources.

The conversation with them, looking out over the still freshly burned building, made me reflect on two other catastrophic fires in recent years.  First was that of my penpal from the Great California Fire three years ago, when it wasn’t just his shop that burned down, the whole town was left looking like Hiroshima.  A second was a shop fire for a notable furniture maker in NYC.  In the latter case I contributed substantially to the GoFundMe effort, in the former I packaged and sent several boxes of tools and supplies to help a comrade-in-arms get going again.

Which somehow brings me back to the status of activities at the barn.  I spoke yesterday with my faithful insurance agent who confirmed that the carrier for the business activities of the barn has terminated my coverage, and despite his yeomanlike efforts he cannot find another carrier to provide me with business liability insurance.  Goodbye workshops.

Plus, these vignettes have drawn my attention to be even more conscientious regarding to fire risk in my own shop.

Lastly, it reconfirmed for me the virtue of us taking care of each other in times of need.  I have very little sympathy for the indolent, but an immense inclination to care for those to whom care is needed.  I hope you will as well.

Teaching Updates and Reminder

A couple weeks ago I had a terrific three days teaching “Shellac Finishing” to members of the Howard County (MD) Woodworker’s Guild.  A good time was had by all, but alas I left my camera behind so I have no pics to chare.

My teaching calendar for the remainder of the year is as follows:

May 20 The H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet and Workbench banquet presentation for the Annual Meeting of the Early American Industries Association, Staunton VA

June 19-21  Historic Woodfinishing 3-day workshop for the regional chapter of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, at the Barn

July 17-19  Historic Woodfinishing 3-day workshop at Wood & Shop, Earlysville VA

August 21-23  Introduction to Parquetry  3-day workshop at Wood & Shop, Earlysville VA

I hope to see you there.


About Raining and Pouring

After three years of near-drought conditions (twice last year, once the previous year) I am suddenly deluged with opportunities to teach and present this year. In addition to those I have previously mentioned, there will be a third Historic Woodfinishing workshop, this one at the Barn(!), commissioned by the regional chapter of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers.  They’ve had a month to get their members into the class and now I can open it up to the general audience for the last couple of slots.  My neighbor is coming over this afternoon to help me rearrange the classroom and move some workbenches down from the fourth floor.

I’m also going to be the banquet presenter for this year’s Annual Meeting of the Early American Industries Association, speaking on the topic of the incomparable Henry O. Studley tool cabinet and workbench.

I even declined a gracious invitation to teach out on the West Coast and another out in the Heartland, but my days of that kind of travel for teaching are over.

When it rains, it pours.

So, here’s what my upcoming teaching/presenting schedule looks like:

April 12-14  Historic Woodfinishing 3-day workshop for the Howard County Woodworkers Guild, Columbia MD


May 20 The H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet and Workbench banquet presentation for the Annual Meeting of the Early American Industries Association, Staunton VA


June 19-21  Historic Woodfinishing 3-day workshop for the regional chapter of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, at the Barn


July 17-19  Historic Woodfinishing 3-day workshop at Wood & Shop, Earlysville VA


August 21-23  Introduction to Parquetry  3-day workshop at Wood & Shop, Earlysville VA


September 1&2  Handworks 2023, Amana IA (yes, I know this involves long-distance travel but I’ve been committed to this for several years)