Clamp front chest 5: finishing

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Like many woodworkers, I suspect, I stick to what I know when the time comes to coat the project I’ve sweated, sworn and bled over, with finish. In my case it’s usually three coats of Osmo and one coat of homemade carnauba wax for furniture. Boats get as many coats of Sadolin Ultra as I my patience allows on the bright work.

2018, however, will be the year in which I spread my finishing wings (and get them covered in noxious chemicals which bring me back to Earth). I have a French polishing course booked and am trying something on this chest that is deeply out of character.

Usually I’m with Tony Konovaloff where changing the colour of wood is concerned, “If you want a different colour, choose a different wood.” And I’m certainly not about to start staining beautiful English oak. However I really want to keep this piece light. There seems to be a fashion for adding ‘patina’ to new wood. Black wax is rubbed into the grain to imitate age. Patina is another word for dirt. I grew up in schools with acres of oak panelling and much of it was so darkened by smoke and the paw prints of small boys that it was rather oppressive. My reaction to this is to keep oak as light as possible.

To this end I’m (brace yourself) liming this chest.

Our front hall is not a particularly light place and we want this shoe box to brighten it, not lurk in the corner slowly ‘patinating’. So rather than let the grain fill up with dirt I’m going to charge it with lime wax.

Lime wax has a bad reputation. Beloved of shabby chicists it usually gets smeared onto antique furniture that was hoping for a quiet retirement and instead had to be ‘reinvented’ by someone who finishes every sentence with question mark. I want a rather more subtle effect than shabby chicistas usually go for. To this end I’m prefinishing all the pieces in an effort to control the intensity of the colour and keep the big blobs of wax that get stuck in the corners off my chest.

Shabby chicartistes recommend ‘opening the grain’ with a brass brush so that it accepts more liming wax. Instead I sanded to 240. Then I smeared on the wax, across the grain, rubbed it in and off and then took some 0000 steel wool to it. I would usually use a grey pad for this but I’m running low and accidentally bought a lifetime’s supply of steel wool several years ago. (Caveat:  never use steel wool directly on unsealed oak. Just don’t.)

The steel wool removes most of the liming wax. You can control it quite carefully. Then I applied carnauba wax. This uses D Limonene as a solvent and that also removes some of the liming wax. If the area you’re working on has a bit too much white in the grain you can knock it back a little by applying and rubbing off more carnauba wax.

One last polish brings up a shine and the job’s done.

 

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‘The possibilities are endless’ stage. Just shellac, rubbed out.

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The ’Oh my God, what have I done?’ stage. Applying the liming wax.

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The ‘I’m a terrible person. This oak tree gave its life for my project and I’ve defiled its memory.’ stage. Rubbing in and off the liming wax.

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The ‘Perhaps this is salvageable.’ stage. Rubbing off the liming wax with steel wool.

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The ‘Actually I rather like this’ stage. Rubbing in carnauba wax.

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The ‘I wonder if anyone will notice the hours of work I put into this’ stage. Buffing the carnauba wax.

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Clamp front chest 4: dry fit

Clamp front chest dry fitProgress over the last few months has been slow and sporadic. Today I reached a milestone: the first dry fit. It wasn’t intentional; I don’t like joinery to suffer more abuse than absolutely necessary but I needed to put it together to transfer some lines to between the front, back and the ends.

This is a bit of joinery I’ve been worrying about and looking forward to in equal measure. I drew it out, at one quarter scale, before I started so I knew it should work. But those are famous last words.  The style/leg joins the front and back to the sides. A simple groove in the long grain of the bottom panels on the faces and ends  is easy to cut with a plough plane. But this groove must be carried through the leg. There are two mortices and tenons to navigate as well so it was always going to be interesting.

Fortunately it was less than exciting. Having ploughed the grooves in the front and back panels I put the styles on and marked the housing. Once I chopped them I assembled the whole shooting match in order to make sure everything lined up and to mark the grooves for the end pieces.

This gave the first glimpse of what it will look like. Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to carry it across the back garden (hardly an epic journey) through the house (again – not a great marathon) and put in the front hall – just to see how it looks.

But that photograph will wait for another day.

Clamp front chest 3: movement

I was really hoping to get to some joinery done this weekend. But the best laid plans…

This design is definitely utilitarian but it won’t tolerate this much movement. So I’ve planed the offending pieces back into line and will give them another week to think about what they’ve done and decide whether they really want to be a part of this project…

Clamp Front Chest 1: A bit of background

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C14th Oak Clamp Front Chest. Image courtesy of Marhamchurch Antiques

It’s time to rediscover the clamp-front chest

Lurking in the furniture record somewhere between the six-board and its heir, the frame and panel, lies the clamp-front chest or hutch. Without the cross-grain problems of its older relative or the need for thicker timber, like its younger sibling, the clamp-front chest offers some opportunities for the modern woodworker.

Six board chests are either constrained by the width of the boards available or require panels glued up from narrower boards. With its grooved and pegged joinery the clamp front chest requires little or no glue, can be scaled up or down with very few problems and needs only a small tool kit with no clamps to complete.

Described by one antiques dealer as a form of ‘proto-joinery’ they are relatively simple to build. Clamp-front chests or arks, as the curved lid variants are sometimes known, appeared in the late medieval or early middle ages. Several period pieces survive today in museums, antique dealerships and private collections; their longevity is a testament to their design. Many surviving examples are from churches and country estates across Europe. Some measure up to six feet wide and use timbers two inches thick but much smaller chests, under 30 inches also survive.

The majority of existing examples date from between the 13th and 17th centuries. Six plank chests from the same period are at least as common but with one key difference. Many of the surviving chests are heavily bound with iron straps. Few such chests exist that were only nailed or pegged together without the metal reinforcement. Yet a surprising number of clamp fronts, that use only pegs or nails as fasteners, are still going strong. This highlights the advantages the design has. Six board chests suffer from cross grain movement. The grain on the end boards runs vertically but the sides, with their grain orientated at 90 degrees, move with the seasons causing splits and loosening fastenings. Often the solution was heavy, iron corner straps. Few large chests have survived without this crutch. Hutches from the period sometimes exhibit splits along their front or back boards but these are rarely terminal and some careful planning with slotted peg holes, as might be done on a clamped (or bread board) table top, will prevent them.

The frame and panel chest superseded the clamp front but it may now be time to revisit this design. It makes conservative use of timber. The rails are often the same thickness as front and back panels which can be made from several boards and need nothing more than a tongue and groove or even a shiplapped edge. The joinery is as simple as it gets. Front and back panels are given a tongue on each end, grooves are cut into the rails and each assembly is pegged together. Different solutions have been tried to keep the front and back together and the ends on. Without the material for pegs other techniques have been used: mortice and tenon stiles, dovetails on either end of a stretcher and occasionally a metal strap.

Clamp front chest drawingThe chest I’m building is designed as a boot box for the front hall but it can be scaled up very easily. The construction would work well for a tool chest or blanket box. With creative use of different thicknesses of timber in the panels you can create runners for tills or shelves as we’ll see later. I wouldn’t use timber less than ¾” thick for the uprights . You’ll be ploughing grooves, pegging through and cutting tenons in it and you’ll need the thickness but 5/8″ will be fine for the panels.

I started with the internal dimensions needed to store six pairs of shoes or boots without creating an obstacle course in our narrow front hall. Change any of the dimensions to suit your own project but think carefully about the width of the four corner posts. These must be wide enough to accommodate the groove that takes the front and back boards and have enough left to accept the wedged mortice and tenons for the side boards. Anything less than three inches will give you some concerns.

The end boards are set in from the outside of the posts so you’ll lose a little internal space. Bear this in mind if your internal dimensions are critical.

The drawing developed from the size of chest needed and the timber I had on hand. I use air dried oak a lot. These boards had been sitting in the timber yard for a couple of years before I bought them and then in my workshop for at least a year after that. I started by choosing the prettiest bits of timber for the lid, then the front, posts, ends and back in that order. The bottom can be built out of old pallets – don’t waste your best stock on the bit no one will see. In my case it will be a rather over-complicated grate to allow air circulation to sweaty shoes and to make cleaning a bit easier.

Next time we’ll have a look at the design and joinery in a bit more detail and then start planing some oak.

A few examples of clamp-front chests

Hutch chests in Kloster Isenhagen

15th Century Oak Chest Sold by Period Oak Antiques

Early medieval chest sold by Marhamchurch Antiques

14th Century Oak Chest sold by Marhamchurch Antiques

13th Century Safe Deposit Chest at Merton College, Oxford

Welcome!

Yesterday my inbox exploded.

My alert settings from this blog and my YouTube channel default to sending me an email every time someone subscribes, likes or comments. I should have changed this before Nancy wrote nice things about me on the Lost Art Press blog.

You know Nancy Hiller of course. Saying that she has an interesting and varied life is akin to saying the Rolling Stones are well travelled: technically accurate but fails to convey the talent, the highs and lows and the enormous sense of fun.

So if you’re here because of her: Welcome. And if you’ve been here for a while: Apologies –  it’s high time I introduced myself:

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I’m St.John. Pronounced ‘sinjon’. David Haig gets it right in Four Weddings and a Funeral at 1.52 here.

As if blogging isn’t self-indulgent and narcissistic enough blogging about the reasons for blogging is downright solipsistic but I’m going to allow myself a moment’s self-indulgence and then get on with the scheduled programme.

I write this because I want others to do the same. I like reading about and watching other people woodworking, particularly with hand tools. By posting my own work I hope others feel less self conscious about posting theirs. As the man said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The change I want to see is more hand tool wood work online. So here it is. (Not exactly high level aspirations I’ll grant you).

So what can you expect to see and read here?

My woodwork started when my father, brother and I built a boat together during a long summer holiday when I was twelve. Since then it’s mostly been about boats. Along the way furniture has, by necessity and then interest, has taken over. Vernacular furniture dominates. I’m far more interested in the chairs of Philip Clisset than of Thomas Chippendale.

Over the next few months I’m planning to build (and write about) a clamp-front chest, a Clisset style chair or two, a bookcase (though it’s not going to get many column inches – it’s pretty much straight out of The Anarchist’s Design Book) and some odds and ends.

I’m also starting an occasional series entitled Tools they should make again. I’d rather this blog was about techniques than tools but since Nancy and Chris have given me a platform I thought I’d at least try to attract the attention of some passing tool makers for my own ends.

If you have any questions, suggestions or general encouragement feel free to comment.

Lovely to see you all here!

 

 

Medieval woodworking part 5: pole lathe

Medieval woodworking part 5: pole lathe

No demonstration of medieval woodworking would be complete without a pole lathe.

I have spent quite a lot of hours this summer building an adapted version of Roy Underhill’s double spring pole lathe. It’s by no means medieval but it demonstrates the concept. And it doesn’t require a 20′ long sapling.

Yesterday was the culmination of the work I have been doing. I spent several happy hours demonstrating joinery and pole lathe turning at Fen Ditton 800. It was an exceptionally successful, well-organised and enjoyable event and I was delighted by the reception my little stand got.

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While I was setting up a gentleman in his seventies arrived and started asking a lot of very astute questions. It became clear that he had been a joiner for most of his working life and he was delighted to see someone working with hand tools. We spent about fifteen minutes talking about his career, the huge workshop he had spent much of his adult life in and, inevitably, the decline of crafts and trades in the U.K. He set the tone for the day: interested, insightful people testing and extending my knowledge in the nicest way possible.