It’s approaching that time again, wherein I drag the lathe out from under the bench and enter the vortex of wood turning. I call it the vortex because as it spins it tends to draw you in with instant gratification, causing you to forget about any other type of wood work. My annual entry into the abyss usually coincides with the approach of the holidays and my lack of any otherwise meaningful woodworking gifts.
In the past, I have made Christmas nutcrackers, snowmen and mice (think Nutcracker nemesis). Last year, the fad all over the internet was gnomes. I tried to avoid contributing to the hype, but his year I’ve run out of excuses.
Turned gnomes tend to be nearly featureless, hatted and hairy. I say “nearly” featureless as they have one distinctive feature, that being a prominent proboscis.
My gnomes are made of cherry, with hats of sapele, or bubinga and noses of cherry or sapele. Since there are dozens of YouTube videos available demonstrating how to turn them, I’ll limit my how-to discussion to making ordinary gnomes into holiday gnomes with a holly sprig hat badge.
First, pick up a few wooden coffee stirrers from your local barista. Then cut the tip using a sharp gouge (a #7 in this case). The side cuts were made with a slightly tighter curved gouge. A little paint and some Duco™ cement, and the badge is finished. One note: I do paint the holly berries after the leaves are glued in place as they are easier to handle then.
I have a few more to make before I can comfortably say I’ve met my Christmas quota so some variation in woods and beards may be in store.
If you follow this blog, you may remember that I wrote of receiving An Unexpected Christmas Gift last December, wherein I described a gift of wormy American chestnut. Since wormy wood is nearly always from dead or moribund trees it is thus often unpredictable in terms of its hardness and integrity. Fortunately, the gifted wood was in good shape and I was able to make a reciprocal gift from it.
I decided on a keepsake box as a memorial to the gentleman whose bookcase provided the lumber.
The box measures 10 x 16 x 6 inches. The corners are simple miters, reinforced with wenge keys. The top is a telescopic fit, modified for hinges and a latch. The brass hardware is chemically blackened to match the natural colors of the wood.
Inside, there is a lift out till, divided into three compartments. The bottoms of the till and the box are coated with black velvet flocking.
In the lid is a compartment for photos and letters.
The entire box is finished with Anarchist’s Daughter Soft Wax™ (linseed oil/beeswax)and buffed with a brown paper bag (You read that right, and it works great! Try it sometime). The finish is ideal for objects that will be touched, as I hope this one will be, often.
Sometimes you have to say goodbye. The staked leg dining chairs that I made in the image of the Chais d’Enfer have departed for points east. They are a wedding gift for my youngest nephew and his bride.
Not having ever shipped any of my furniture before, I was a bit apprehensive as to how I should prepare them. Should I do a full crate, a pallet, or a sheathed pallet? How do I best protect them from chafe?
I ended up building a pallet and creating some sockets padded with old wool socks (does that make them sock-ettes?) and fastening them to the pallet deck. I then padded the chairs with some old towels and bound them with plastic stretch wrap. The whole assembly was secured to the pallet with a ratchet strap, and finally covered with a moving blanket and wrapped completely in wider stretch wrap.
I was relieved to hear that they arrived across the country in good shape, so I can bid adieu to my four little creations.
PS. At the rehearsal dinner, my nephew was awed that I built the pallet (sigh). Sometimes creations are just their own reward.
Apple blossoms are budding, artichokes are sprouting, the yard (weeds) needs mowing, and outdoor chairs are getting their first coat of color. As usual, we have Insignia Yellow, Acapulco Blue, and Alarm Red. The first of these should be ready for sale by the end of the week, thanks to some reserved parts from my last production run. Which was by the way, just after the start of the pandemic in 2020. It’s hard to believe that it was so long ago.
Case in point, Kris’ long awaited file cabinet which was promised for Christmas, …two years ago. I should correct myself, it’s not that it took two years to build, but that it took two years to get around to it.
Procrastination and performance anxiety (fear of failure) are powerful forces that most of us try to ignore, that is until they smack you upside the head. In my case, I generally dread designing anything. Too often, my method of design requires a lot of trial and error. Too much error, and I get discouraged and set things aside to further ruminate upon how to proceed. I also know that if I start a new project while setting aside a problem project, the problem will never be resolved. Therefore everything comes to a halt whilst denial and sulking take their toll on my productivity. Often during these periods of stagnation I turn to the kitchen to relieve my creative urges, that is until Kris has had enough of my messing about and gently encourages (relentlessly shames) me back to the shop.
The file cabinet started as a mock up, as do most of my projects, which revealed a number of design flaws and procedural errors. Thus followed a period of sulking and self doubt that resulted in a number of kitchen forays into the culinary unknown. Eventually, failure in the kitchen became more embarrassing than failure in the shop, so back the the shop I went.
The resulting file cabinet is a companion piece to the bookcase pictured above. Both pieces are frame and panel construction with cherry and douglas fir (the pulls are wenge). It’s hard to imagine, but the file cabinet will eventually darken with age to match the bookcase perfectly. The cherry will redden and the doug fir will change from pink, to a burnt orange color. The patination of this cherry/doug fir combination is one of its more satisfying attributes and makes it fun to work with.
Now I have to choose from the number of projects that I’ve put off for the past two years.
Earlier this week I got an email out of the blue from a shop neighbor who said that she walks by my shop daily and looks in the window to see what’s new. She also mentioned that she was dismantling her father’s old library shelves that were made of Wormy American Chestnut …and would I like to have them?
Now, in case you’re unfamiliar with American Chestnut, it was one of our nation’s premier furniture woods up until sometime after 1904. That’s when an asian chestnut blight was introduced to North America and within 40 years, the American Chestnut population was wiped out. Wormy Chestnut is caused by wood boring insects that infested dead and moribund trees.
So, as you may have gathered, they don’t make ’em any more and American Chestnut is only found now as reclaimed lumber, usually as Wormy Chestnut.
So far, my neighbor has given me over 65 board feet of free Wormy Chestnut. Most of it is an honest 1″ thick and some of the boards are 11″ wide. She says she’s still downsizing and may have more to donate.
I told her that I not only appreciate the gift but also the provenance and sentiment that goes with the remnants of her father’s library. She said that she was glad that I would be able to make something nice with it. I’m thinking some Limbert Taberets would be nice, perhaps also some boxes.
You never know when something nice will drop into your lap.
I’m making reindeer again this year. It’s been about five years since the last time I played around with these guys. Checking in on the recipients of the last batch revealed that nearly all of them were missing an antler, or two. The problem is that they are a bit top heavy and when they fall over the antlers can break. So this year the reindeer will be fitted with eyelets and lanyards for hanging on the Christmas tree. Hopefully, this will ensure their longevity. If you would like to see how I make the tiny eyelets for hanging ornaments, you can check out my tutorial here.
This year I have been finishing up the ornaments while volunteering at the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) Community Woodshop. The idea is to have a shop open for the community to use, but we still need to fill Shop Steward positions to ensure everyone’s safety and fair use. So if you have skills and an interest in volunteering we could use you.
Last weekend saw me back in class, this time teaching how to build a modular worm bin. The class was originally planned to be in the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) community wood shop. But because of pandemic restrictions we decided to hold it on the stairway landing just outside the door. The weather cooperated, so things went well.
(Yours truly in the grey fedora)
We had also planned for as many as eight students but were only able to sign up two for this class. This actually worked to everyone’s advantage as: 1. We were still shaking out the bugs on our presentation. 2. The students, essentially beginners, were able to get more one on one instruction.
Both students took home a five frame worm bin with top. All in all a complete success. The students expressed genuine pride in their accomplishments and gained the skills and confidence needed to advance their woodworking experience.
I get a big charge out of being able to pass on what I know and helping to build our local woodworking community. I’m looking forward to our next class.
So… the mock-up file cabinet, which I described in the last blog post, is now thankfully finished. As de rigueur for my mock-ups, it has become a legacy to the labor of learning. Or, as my former boss and charter skipper once termed,
“Just another FOG*”
As with all my mock-ups made of relatively inexpensive construction lumber, it is finished with Old Fashioned Milk Paint. Thank goodness for paint, it hides evidence of all the little FOGs that constitute a learning experience.
However, some evidence cannot be hidden, which bring us to the title of this post. When I was struggling with the design of the file cabinet, I patterned it after an older design from the antiquity of office furniture. My thinking was to get as close to first principles as possible and use a classic piece as a model. Hence, the width of my file drawers is a “perfect” fit to the width of a commonly use file folder.
Unfortunately today’s commonly used file folders now require a wire armature to hang from, something not seen in the office era of my model. In order to accommodate the wire armature, I will hereafter need to add an inch to the width of my file drawers in the final version of the file cabinet. So [sigh] just another FOG.
*FOG – (expletive participial) Opportunity for Growth
“In every amateur boatbuilding shop there should be a “moaning chair”; this should be a comfortable seat from which the boat can be easily seen and which the builder can sit, smoke, chew, drink, or swear as the moment demands. Here he should rest often and think about his next job. The plans should be at hand and here he can lay out his work. By so doing he will often be able to see mistakes before they are serious and avoid the curse of all amateur boatbuilders: starting a job before figuring out what has to be done to get it right.”
Boatbuilding: A Complete Handbook of Wooden Boat Construction, by Howard Chapelle (1941) W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
It’s no secret that most of my work is manufactured to the designs of others more capable than myself. I am generally content to follow directions, and focus my efforts toward improving my skills as a fabricator. Occasionally however, I will try my hand at design, usually to emulate a design that I have found attractive or to accompany a piece that I have already made; sometimes for both reasons at once.
Such is the case with my current project, a file cabinet to match the bookcase that I made for our home office several years ago. The bookcase was a published design that featured cherry rails and stiles and douglas fir infill panels. The piece has aged nicely, and since Kris asked for a new file cabinet, I decided to design/build one that would match the bookcase.
Now a bookcase and a file cabinet are both carcass construction and they have many elements in common. The biggest difference is the mounting of drawer slides and the accommodation of moving loads in the file cabinet. Specifically, you don’t want the whole thing to fall over when you open a drawer full of heavy paper.
Which brings us to the Groaner, my version of Chapelle’s “moaning chair”. I call it the Groaner because it usually comes into use a bit after the fact. Meaning, I have already made that mistake which I should have found by first sitting in the chair and studying my design.
When I started this project I had the best intentions of designing to detail on paper (pixels) and then executing a flawless concept directly into the finished product. Unfortunately, my poorly disciplined mind occasionally glosses over difficult design details, subconsciously hoping that things will work out eventually. They usually don’t.
I started by cutting my hand selected cherry boards to precise dimensions and laying out marks to cut the mortises and tenons for the joinery. As I was about to start cutting tenons, I was suddenly overcome with a sense of misgiving; that I didn’t know the outcome of what I was doing. So, as is my usual practice when venturing into the unknown, I decided to build a mock-up made of relatively cheap construction lumber to find out where the demons lay. Immediately, I started to find multiple errors and miscalculations, normally a good thing in a mock-up. However in this case, I had made the mistake of cutting my expensive stock to final dimensions and thus committing myself before I thoroughly knew what I was doing.
I spent the last half hour of the day just sitting in the Groaner, staring at the mock-up, contemplating alterations to the original design and how was I going to make it work with the already prepared stock. It may be a bit late, but I think the time in the Groaner was well spent and perhaps with a little more time, I’ll have it worked out. Stay tuned.