So many mistakes – A case for the “Groaner”

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“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.

Doing what we do best

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Hey Folks,

My most experienced and cooperative chair model (Peggy Tzu) and I are back in the shop and working to revisit our best seller, the outdoor Dock Chair. It’s no secret that the strictures of the current pandemic have had a depressing effect on motivation and productivity. So completing a chair today was cause for a small celebration.

Making a run of these chairs requires a lot of repetitive work to prep and assemble all of the parts. Often, such tasks can themselves be a drag and dampen motivation. But given recent events, losing myself in a repetitive task is oddly comforting, and when it ends in a finished chair, my spirits get an instant lift. Actually, just sitting in one of these surprisingly comfortable chairs is a reward in itself.

One down, and four to go in this run.
Cheers,
Tom

 

Slumps are like a soft bed,…

…easy to get into, but hard to get out of. -Johnny Bench

I sympathize with anyone in a slump as I’ve been in something of a slump myself for the past few months. I suppose that I could blame the global pandemic, or some recent failures at basket making, bread baking (yes, I too have made sourdough), or just about anything else. It doesn’t really matter why though, does it? When you’re off your game, you can either wallow in it, or you can put your head down and plow on.

Often, when I’m lacking motivation, I’ll tell myself that dredging up some sort of artificial enthusiasm will only produce mediocre results and prolonged misery. In truth, enthusiasm is a product of success, and in order to succeed you need to attempt, …something, anything. Sometimes, a fortuitous event will help to pull yourself up. In my case, it was an email from a potential customer. I recently got a request for some dock chairs, one of my more popular offerings that I am comfortably competent with, and which I enjoy making .

So, apathy conquered, I now need to take on inertia. Wish me luck.

Now for something completely different…

Or, what are you doing to stay sane?

Hey Folks,

Gerontologists tell us that in order to keep our minds sharp we need to pose new challenges, to exercise the areas of our brains that may have been under used over time. Some folks do crossword puzzles, others study music, or foreign languages. For those unfortunates that have suffered physical and mental disability, simple iterative processes such as knitting or basket weaving have traditionally been prescribed as occupational therapy.

Iterative incremental processes like basket weaving, knitting; brick laying are all fundamentally different from woodworking. In the iterative processes each increment has a small influence in defining the final shape. Whereas in woodworking each component is manufactured to a prescribed shape, contributing to the precisely conceived shape of the whole. Very different mental processes are required to achieve the end result.

This week, I decided to try my hand at basket weaving. At first, it was anything but therapeutic. Frustration and failure dogged my first attempts. Fortunately, basket weaving is somewhat akin to knitting, in that, if something doesn’t look right, you can disassemble it and start over. A quality that I was to take advantage of more than once.

Eventually, I learned to look at my emerging project with a different eye, seeing the incremental change with each row and making adjustments in a timely fashion. In this way, basket weaving is a bit like spoon carving. Once I adopted this method, and mindset, progress was much more satisfying and the end product was more easily envisioned.

I think the end result is not unattractive and yet hopefully functional. The basket is supposed to appear, “somewhat pregnant” or “pot bellied”. I may have erred on the side of corpulence but perhaps to my aesthetic that’s more familiar.

Cheers,
Tom

Le Chaise Du Chien*

fullsizeoutput_654*The C(hair) of the dog.

Hey Folks,

Well, the set of dining chairs is nearly finished.  If their prototype was Le Chaise d’Enfer (The Chair from Hell), then this must surely be the cure.  As usual, my favorite chair model Peggy Tzu got the job.

I’ve made some significant improvements over Le Chaise d’Enfer; a more comfortable curve to the crest rail, tapered spindles for better aesthetics, and a better pitch angle to the seat for more comfort.

The chairs are made of black ash; the octagonal legs have conical tenons wedged into the seat pan for a very secure fit.  The color is black milk paint, and they are ready for their last coats of polyurethane.

I’ve been taking my time with this project largely because I’m unsure as to when I will be able to get lumber for my next one, whatever it might be.  I’m also torn between something modest or something ambitious.  For the time being, perhaps modesty should prevail.

 

Grandmother’s war horse rides again

Hey Folks,

Today’s post is not about woodworking because there are more important things going on in the world.  Okay, there is always something more important, but events of late seem to be affecting all of us, all at once.

So instead of dining chairs and such, I’ve been making face masks to reduce the possibility of corona virus transmission.  And I’ve resurrected my paternal grandmother’s old treadle sewing machine to tackle the task.

First of all, let me say that I have a new appreciation for Grandma’s dexterity and coordination.  Working a treadle sewing machine is not like working a treadle lathe and is more like walking and chewing gum at the same time.  That is to say two very different things going on at once.

The big difference between the lathe and the sewing machine is that the lathe only drives on the down stroke while the sewing machine is a full 360º crank.  If you lack momentum, you can dead stop, or worse, backup.  This old treadle machine has a shuttle bobbin and does not backstitch so the thread usually breaks at that point.

Grandma’s old machine is a Davis, which predates Singer by about a generation.  The latest patent engraved on it is 1835.  You can read an interesting article about the Davis Co. here.

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The cabinet is made of some beautiful sections of quarter sawn white oak, with extensive ray flecks.  The front is ornately shaped and the center drawer has hand carved reliefs.  The fronts of the side drawers are veneered.  The machine itself is brought up to table height by an ingenious chain link elevator mechanism.

Of course, after about ten minutes, the age old leather drive belt gave out.  Upon examination it appears to have been repaired twice in its life, so I retired it and fabricated a makeshift temporary until a new one arrives.  It seems that you really can buy anything on line these days.

Cheers,
Tom

Some assembly required

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Hey Folks,

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that for the past two months I’ve been working on a set of dining chairs to go with the staked leg tables that I have for sale at the shop.  The chairs (and tables) are the design of Christopher Schwarz, from his book, “The Anarchist Design Book”, available from Lost Art Press.  This is the same design as used for Le Chaise d’Enfer.

This is only the second set of dining chairs that I have built, the last one was thirty (yes 30) years ago and is still functioning well, so that’s an encouragement.  The big difference is that these chairs require a great deal more hand work than most as they were designed to be built by hand.  They also have a number compound angles that complicate their construction.

Normally, when building repetitive objects, there is some saving in cost or labor in scaling up production.  In building these chairs however, making five chairs really is five times the work!

So to tally up, that’s:

 Five chair seats.
Five steam bent crest rails.
Twenty back spindles.
Twenty legs.
Twenty wedges.
Twenty pins.
Eighty holes bored.
Eighty tenons turned.
Twenty holes taper reamed.
Twenty matching tapers turned.
Forty tapers planed.
Forty additional facets planed.

Did I leave anything out?  Oh yeah, there’s a couple of spares of most everything in case of accidents.

As I mentioned, assembly comes next then finishing.  This is not over by a long shot, but perhaps, “…it is the end of the beginning”.

Cheers,
Tom

Four down, eighteen to go

Legs that is (are).

My current project is a set of dining side chairs to complement the round, staked leg tables that I currently have for sale.  These chairs are from Christopher Schwarz, “Anarchist Design Book” and are the same design as “le chaise d’enfer”, which I made as a practice/prototype.  I am making five chairs and so I need twenty legs, plus a couple for insurance.

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After the legs are roughed out square and cut to length, they are tapered on the jointer.  Then comes the fun part, planing the squares into octagons.

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This part is done by hand and takes a bit of time and some muscle, …muscles that I haven’t used for awhile, or so my body reminds me.  The wood is black ash and planes well but does create a good deal of friction.  Fortunately, a quick rub down with a wad of waxed paper makes things go surprisingly smoother.

BTW- that pile of shavings is from two legs and each one represents a single stroke with the plane.

My latest woodworking project

Well, sort of anyway.

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In case you haven’t been following Seattle weather lately, it’s rained steadily for over 30 days, and it’s been chilly.  Since I’ve no desire to be electrocuted by my chainsaw in a downpour, my wood box has run empty.  Today was pretty decent by Seattle standards (i.e. dry), so the day was spent cutting firewood.

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Actually, being cooped up all that time gave me an opportunity to carve a kitchen spoon for a couple of friends with a surplus of chickens.  I sensed that there’s a lot of chicken soup in their futures.  It’s made from a green piece of red alder firewood that I nicked from their farm a couple of weeks ago.

Congratulations, you’ve got worms !

So, I gave the mother of my god-daughters a worm bin for Christmas.  It’s nearly identical to the one which I described in my previous post.  The only significant difference is that this one came with a half pound of red wiggler composting worms.

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We packed up the bin (and other gifts) and embarked upon a long road trip from Seattle to Huntington Beach, California; five days away.  The worms were ordered before we left, with explicit instruction that they should arrive the day AFTER Christmas.  So what could go wrong?

Well, after two days on the road, we were eating dinner in the hotel restaurant when I got a text from the lady herself reading…,

“Did you guys send me a box of worms?”

I immediately thought, “Is there anyway for things to go more sideways than this? Now I have some explaining to do.”  She said that fortunately she had a glass of wine in hand to soften the blow.  What could I do but wish her a Merry Christmas and suggest that they go best with red wine?

Amazingly, the worms survived for another five days in their box, until we could set up the bin and give them a proper home.  As Kris reminds me, it’s the unexpected that you remember in the long run.