Aiming for Amana – Waxing Insights

Mrs. Barn and I are diligently purifying and packaging wax for our upcoming trip to Amana.  I thought I might present a refresher post about how we go from bottom-of-the-bucket beeswax from a honey factory to the spectacular golden blocks all wrapped up nicely.

The starting point is this completely unprocessed material from the honey factory, known as “slum gum” in the jargon of the trade.  It has wonderful beeswax along with the bee bodies, dirt, and other contaminants from the factory honey-extraction process.  My goal for the end product depends on beginning with superb and unmodified raw materials; I do not want to modify the wax with solvents or other chemicals like bleaches.  We rely solely on gentle heating to melt the wax multiple filtrations to make it glorious.  What you see is what you get.

The first step is to break up the big hunks to melt them in my biggest Crock Pot so that I have roughly half water/half raw, dirty beeswax.  By melting the wax in a water bath I can get any water-soluble components out, and it makes the first filtering much easier as I ladle out the steaming solution through a pasta strainer into a cake pan to cool.

As you can see, I get a lot of bee parts in the strainer in the first filtering.

No real effort is made to filter out any dirt at this point, the molten wax/water mixture allows the grit to fall to the bottom of the pan/block and it is embedded there when the block is cooled.  I scraped this layer off with a hunting knife which removes more than 95% of the particulate contaminants.

After the block has fully hardened, I can break it up and melt the pieces in the deep fryer, set at about 160*F.

Once that is melted, I filter it through paper towels inside another pasta strainer (I use a lot of paper towels and pasta strainers in this process.)  This results in a clear, golden waxy nectar in a cookie pan.

One ancillary benefit to my process is the large inventory of wax-infused paper towels that serve as my daily firestarter in the winter.

After cooling overnight, I pop out the sheet of beautiful beeswax and deliver it to Mrs. Barn in the kitchen.  She melts and filters the wax one more time before casting the blocks, which are then wrapped and ready for you.

Still Smilin’ After All These Years (not woodworking)

Recently while riffling through some old paperwork, I came across one of my favorite cartoons of all time, from the monumental cartoonists Mal Ent.  I see him in the class of Gary Larson.

I still get a big smile whenever I see this, even after almost 40 years of having this taped on my office wall.

It’s now taped to my shop door.

The relevance of the sentiment is nearly endless.

Aiming For Amana – Bandsaw Parquetry

During my recent Introduction to Historic Woodfinishing workshop I used a parquetry panel to demonstrate the substrate preparation processes and found it so useful that I said to myself, “Self, you should do this demo at Handworks.”  In the blink of an eye, I committed myself to cranking out six more parquetry panels in a very short time.  I will do four (hopefully identical) demos of French wax finishing, at 11AM and 3PM both days.  My plan is to take a panel from rough parquetry to gleaming in about 20-30 minutes using analogs to the tools, techniques, and materials available to a Parisian atelier.

With an audience looking over my shoulder.

Wish me luck.

In the meantime I had to actually fabricate six parquetry panels; four for the demo sessions, one more to remain “raw” and a sixth to be completed in advance to use as a showpiece.  The only ways I could conceive to finish such an undertaking were 1) cutting parquetry lozenges by hand for several days running, or 2) use my bandsaw or table saw to gang-cut stacks of lozenges.  After initial trials I decided to follow path #2 with my little Delta benchtop bandsaw.

I’ve used my bandsaw for ripping parquetry and banding stock strips before, but could I tune the machine to actually create the diamond lozenges themselves?  Let’s FAFO (Fool Around and Find Out).  *Spoiler Alert!* – the result was so successful that it will likely be my standard procedure from now on.  My days of hand cutting individual diamond lozenges may be over.

I first fabricated a crosscut sled for the bandsaw from some scraps of maple runners and mahogany plywood.  I ran this through the saw approximately halfway, then inserted my thin 6″ machinists’ rule into the kerf to serve as the reference line.

Taping a 30-60-90 triangle in place against the reference line, to make sure nothing moved, I tacked a fence to the sled at 60-degrees to the kerf.  I often use tacks rather than glue in cases like this because I can induce micro adjustments with a hammer when necessary.

Using the newly installed fence I cut a 60-degree stop block to use whenever I want to cut 60-120-60-120 lozenges.  For any particular composition of parquetry I cut a slice of the veneer strip then rotate it and place it against the blade to establish the placement of the stop block against the fence.  One good/bad feature of the little bandsaw is that the blades are very thin with almost zero tooth set.  Not good when making rough cuts in irregular stock, excellent when making precision cuts in identically prepared stock strips.

With the machine set up and the test cuts made to assure the angles and dimensions were spot-on I was able to saw five or six diamonds at a time and filled my shoebox-size bin in about 20 minutes.

With the stock elements in-hand I laid out cross-lines on paper and got to work.

I find the cross-lines to be exceedingly helpful keeping myself on track as I glue down the diamond lozenges to the paper.  Any irregularity, no matter how miniscule, compounds and amplifies.  Hence the guidelines to keep me on track.  With precise diamonds and the cross-lines I could compose a complete foot-square panel in a little over a half hour.

Trimming off the projecting elements with a veneer saw and Japanese knife the next morning I now had six compositions ready to glue down, in this case to 1/2″ Baltich birch plywood.

The irregularity of handsawn veneer (or bandsawn for us modernes), regardless of how carefully executed, is why the ancient ebenistes saw the toothing plane as the first woodfinishing tool to be employed.

On to mounting the parquetry panels face down on the plywood.  All the gluing for this project was done with 251 gws hot hide glue.

Final trimming in situ was followed by banding and perimeter strips.  I work two sides at a time, trim the ends of those two sides at 45-degree angles, then cut and trimmed the remaining pair of sides.  It took me a lot longer to do the banding and perimeter strips than to compose the original parquetry.

And with that I am now the proud possessor of six parquetry panels for showing-and-telling.  If you are at Handworks stop by and take a look.  I’ll be in the center aisle of the Festhalle.

A Peculiar Convergence – Channeling Eames

A couple of months ago while doing some heavy yard work I must’ve done something to my left wrist without realizing it, but the next morning when I awoke it – in the words of my sainted  foulmouthed (/s) mother – “hurt like a stinker.”  I babied it for a couple weeks with no improvement.  Since the MRI in the barn was on the fritz I had no way to know what the injury/damage was.  Cracked bone?  Muscle strain?  Bone bruise?  Ligament or tendon issue?  Pinched nerve? I had no way to determine which it was but guessed that immobilizing it was the strategy for almost all of it.

So, I ordered a semi-rigid wrist brace from the pharmacy, which helped a bit but not really enough.  I figured that to really do the trick the wrist needed to be more immobilized than the wrist brace which, even though there was a metal armature, allowed more lateral movement than I wanted.  When moving my hand in a curling motion there was no discomfort, but when there was lateral stress or strain there was considerable discomfort.  Oddly, the worst pain came from buttoning the right sleeve cuff with my left hand, then it hurt like a hot coal.

I decided to call up the ghost of Charles Eames, who got his big break in the molded/laminated furniture world with a government contract to make form-fitted splints and such for battlefield injuries.

Following his creativity, I pulled on a nitrile glove over the affected hand and wrist and laid up a fiberglass resin/linen on the bias (4 layers) sheath on the top of my wrist, essentially making half of a wrist cast like I wore when breaking my arm several years ago.  Once I had the laminate assembled I wrapped it in a release film, and then placed inside the elastic straps of the wrist brace to make sure it was a perfect fit once hardened.

BTW – fiberglass resin is VERY exothermic.  There were a couple times I thought I might have to call the whole thing off due to the heat.  Plus, it took much longer to harden than I first estimated, 2-3 hours.

After the new rigid sheath was mostly set I trimmed it with some heavy shears and faced it with some heavy felt from my scrap bin and put it on.  I wore the brace/half-cast combo for almost two weeks, and it seemed to be the solution as the wrist is now almost fully recovered.

Thanks to the inspiration of and from Charles Eames for more than just my iconic writing chair.

Latest Gabfest (definitely NOT woodworking)

For those of you inclined toward pungent and iconoclastic social and political commentary, my latest interview with longtime friend Brian Wilson is now posted on his Something Completely Different podcast.

As always I will not link to it, you have to show the desire and initiative to get it for yourself.  I will not be accused of imposing my social, religious, or political views on you.

At least not this time.

No whining.  You have been warned.

The Taffy-puller at Work

As a fan of handmade shellac, I try to be ever mindful that someone’s career-path led to a place where they are standing in front of an open charcoal fire hearth “the “bhatta”) while handling molten shellac.  This video presents a little different process than I was familiar with, but is compelling nonetheless.

This makes me thankful for the products these people make, and that I live in a different place and time.  My Iowa/Minnesota blood practically curdles at the thought of working in this environment but I celebrate them for doing so.   As the Hayekian framework posits, humans choose paths they perceive as beneficial compared to the alternatives.  The same can probably be said for lacquerworkers given my extreme sensitivity to urushiol.


Historic Woodfinishing – Day 3

Day 3 of the Historic Woodfinishing  workshop brings all the exercises to completion/fruition.   Well, as many as we can get to.  Even though the core syllabus has been set for a long time I continue to tinker at the edges, adding or subtracting projects to enhance the learning experience.

This included prepping and continuing spirit varnish pad polishing, often called “French polishing” although I am pretty sure it was originally an English technique.

One of the most fun aspects of the class was introducing the students to tar, the most common brown part of the “brown and shiny” construct.  Diluted whit “white spirits” a/k/a naphtha/mineral spirits/turpentine the concoction is a great glaze of a rich brown color.

Finally came the time for rubbing out three of the quarters of the large [panel, including rubbing with Liberon 0000 steel wool infused with paste wax, rottenstone/tripoli abrasive in a white spirit slurry followed by paste wax, and a pumice polishing followed by spirit varnish pad polishing.

That about wraps it up.

BTW, here is a screen shot of my latest version of the syllabus, updated even since this workshop.  So, if you attend an Introduction to Historic Woodfinishing workshop this will be the regimen.

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.

Copal Varnish (repost from Steve Voigt)

My friend, planemaker Steve Voigt, has joined me in the rabbit hole of historic varnishes.  His latest adventure is about making copal varnish, and you can follow it at his blog.

Highly recommended.

Making Copal Varnishes



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.