Bits and pieces

Bits and pieces

I’ve been preparing for social distancing since 1975. My barely-repressed nerd is now coming to the fore. If this is what happens in the first week imagine what I’ll be investigating by the peak? Comparative awl sharpening anyone? I could set up the microscope and look at the scratch marks made by each sharpening medium. In the meantime here’s a post about drill bits. Keep your puns to yourselves…

This is what we’re looking for: a clean hole bored at a slight angle. Most of the others are chipped. Now guess which bit made this hole and see if you’re right.

I probably make more  ⅝” holes in cylindrical bits of wood than all other woodworking joints combined. Given that I’m in the middle of a set of grates for my boat with more than a thousand half laps that’s saying something.

Because of this I’ve put quite a bit of time and testing into drill bits. About ten years ago I bought a forstner bit with a square shank that fits my brace. Brendan Gaffney has written extensively about these and there’s no point repeating it. I was so taken with that bit that I started collecting them with an eye to one day teaching ladderback classes. In ten years I’ve managed to accrue a grand total of… 2.

So a couple of years ago I decided to start testing other bits. Covid-19 has given me the time to apply a veneer of objectivity.

We need a scoring system:

  • Clean, consistent holes: very important. Chipped edges and scratches left by wandering bits are disappointing. If they don’t consistently bore the same diameter hole they’re no use. I’m double weighting this by giving a score for holes at 90° and another at about 80° – roughly the angle of stretchers into back posts.
  • Ease of use: they have to be easy to locate on a cylindrical chair leg, cut without a herculean effort and not stall. If they bind and need to be cleared the score goes down.
  • Speed: I’m measuring this in revolutions, not time. More points – lower time.
  • Cost: I’m including postage. Some of these are hard to find. More points – lower cost.
  • Availability: I thought about making this a binary score or combining it with cost. But I’ll keep it simple.

I use three species of timber most of the time: ash, oak and chestnut. Ash is disappearing from our woodlands but not yet from our timber yards. Oak is a perennial favourite and chestnut, whilst a bit prone to dents, is a great timber for chairs. If you want to know how these bits perform in your favourite species send me a piece and I’ll run the test again.

I bored four holes, 3/4″ deep with each bit in a 1 3/8″ leg blank from each species. I counted the number of revolutions each took and compared the holes. Halfway through I realised that I was using a 9/16″ Jennings bit and did them all again with the 5/8″. Then I did another set at an angle.

All holes are bored with a brace. The bits with a square shank are in an old extension. Those designed for an electric drill are in a Famag extension. None of the bits slipped in the extensions when properly tightened and the Famag extension didn’t slip in the brace.

Let’s meet the contestants.

Spade bit. The cheapest bit here. Lots of people do good work with these but I’ve never seen one used like this..

Centre bit. I threw this in because I happened to have one about the right size. In fact it’s a bit bigger than 5/8”. I had very low expectations on turned parts.

Stanley Powerbore. Jenny Alexander’s favoured bit for green wood. This isn’t green wood and these are really hard to find new. They also have only one cutter so are likely to be slow.

Gedge or Cooke’s pattern auger bit. Designed for end grain but liked by Windsor chair makers because they leave a clean hole. Interesting to sharpen.

Jennings pattern auger bit. Ubiquitous. One of my most used bits. But not for chairmaking.

Forstner bits designed for a brace. Rare, no longer made. I’ve got two so I tested both.

Famag Forstner bit. Excellent in a drill press. Saw tooth edge. I’ve been using these in a brace for a while.

Fisch Wave Forstner bit. Less saw tooth to the edge. Again, excellent in a drill press. I hoped that the wave edge gives some advantage over the saw tooth.

Wood beaver power auger bit. The most aggressive bit here with four cutters.*

Spoon bit. I didn’t even test this bit. I can make it work in flat stock. I’ve practiced with it enough so that it doesn’t wander around the workpiece but I couldn’t get it started anywhere near the mark in round stock. It’s here to say: don’t bother.

There’s one obvious bit missing: the brad point. Lots of chairmakers like these in electric drills. Curtis Buchanon and Pete Galbert both recommend they be used at full speed. Given that I’m using a brace they’re not really relevant. They’re also fiendishly expensive this large so I didn’t put them in the test. That said – if you’re using an electric drill big brad point drill bits are worth getting or grinding yourself.

Many boring hours later I had some surprising results:

BitClean/10Ease/5Speed/5Cost/5Available/5Total
Spade2215515
Centre9434323
Powerbore7411214
Gedge1251110
Jennings5353420
Forstner for brace 16321113
Forstner for brace 27341116
Famag forstner8443524
Fisch wave7333521
Wood Beaver*2253517

Not what I was expecting either!

The hole nearest the camera in the first photograph was bored by a centre bit. It was consistently the best. It’s also the easiest to sharpen. However there’s one criterion I didn’t measure – consistent sizes between different bits. I’ve got a couple of centre bits that are roughly 5/8″ but that’s not really good enough. I need to be able to match them, consistently to a tenon former of a caliper on the lathe. Centre bits are all old and whilst very easy to find used aren’t consistent. If you’re working on your own and only need one bit you could do a lot worse than get one of these, keep it sharp and match your tenon former to it. It’ll work well.

But if you want half a dozen bits that are interchangeable and match tenons formed on the lathe then the Famag is the one. The Fisch was disappointing. It didn’t chip out but left a fuzzy edge along the grain. Not terrible but the Famag was better.

The biggest surprise was that the modern power bits were better in a brace than the old bits designed for the purpose. Even if cost wasn’t a factor I would be using the Famag.

It’s worth noting that the Jennings excellent at 90º but with even a small angle it produced a lot of tear out.

Most disappointing was the powerbore. I paid a lot of money both to buy it and get it here. Save your pennies.

Winners

*I previously called the Armeg Wood Beaver bit a Wood Owl. I don’t own a 5/8” Wood Owl but I do have one in 1” which I use for drilling dog holes in workbenches. The bit shown here and tested is a 16mm Wood Beaver. Great for drilling fast holes at right angles to flat stock. Not ideal here.

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Tools

Tools

Chair making appeals to a laid-back crowd

Every chair making book I own shows the author sitting on a shaving horse contentedly pulling at a stick with a drawknife. On two of them it’s the cover photo. I’ve spent many happy hours doing the same myself, but a shaving horse takes up quite a bit of space in my little workshop and I rarely use it for anything but chairs. And it is the very definition of rabbit hole workshoppery: making the tool to make the thing. You can spend hours building a museum quality shaving horse before you start building chairs.

My drawknives see a little more action at the bench but they get harder to use the drier the timber so often I find a different tool if I’m not using green, ring-porous wood.

If you’re reading this you probably already have a jack plane and a workbench of some description which means you’ve already got the tools to start building chair parts.

Not needed here

While I was building this chair I tried to use common joiners’ tools before I picked up a specialist item. A couple have found their way into the kit when I felt the outlay was small and the time saving and precision were significant. So here’s the list:

Essential tools

  • Jack plane
  • Chisels: 25mm (1″), 6mm (1/4″)
  • Cross cut saw
  • Rip Saw
  • Tenon Saw
  • Mallet
  • Bevel gauge
  • Combination square
  • Awl
  • Tape measure/folding rule
  • Marking knife
  • Brace/electric drill
  • Bits:
    • 5/8″ nominal
    • 3/4″ nominal
    • 25mm (1″)
  • Bit extensions if your bits are short
  • Tenon rounder 5/8″
  • Spokeshave
  • Marking gauge
  • Craft knife
  • Leather scraps
  • Glue brush
  • Sandpaper
  • 2x quick grip clamps
  • 2x sash clamps or large F clamps
  • Cable staple gun
  • Wire cutters or heavy duty scissors
  • Wallpaper steamer (or other method of making steam)
  • Plastic bag or steam box

Optional but recommended

  • Hold fasts
  • Lump hammer
  • Deadblow mallet
  • Heavily cambered iron for jack plane
  • Concave scraper
  • Greenwood pencil
  • Steam-proof gloves

Most of this is self explanatory but a few things are worth a note:

Spokeshaves

Old and new

Modern, ‘premium’ spokeshaves have quite long soles. Their metal antecedents did not. My old £5 Record A151 is 19mm from toe to heel. My Veritas is a full 5mm longer. This makes the Veritas easier to use; all of the extra length is ahead of the iron so that it’s easier to register on the workpiece without rocking. It’s a clever design by the manufacturer that makes the learning curve much shorter. Unfortunately it makes all other curves much larger.

About as tight as the A151 will cut on a concave curve

The shorter sole of the old Record (and its Stanley cousins) means that it can create smaller radius curves. This is very helpful when smoothing the concave curve of the back slats on this chair. You could buy a round bottomed spokeshave but it’s another tool to sharpen and store and they are a bit trickier to use. Old (and new) wooden spokeshaves are limited by the size of their irons. Many have longer soles than the 151 and the length is behind the edge.

Bevel gauge

A long blade is essential

One is essential. A second is not a luxury. If you don’t have one already my recommendation is the 10″ Stanley No. 18. It locks with a screw from the bottom that runs through the stock and so sits flat either way around. It also locks solidly. They come in different lengths. For the purposes of chair making get the longest you can find.

Scrapers

20 minutes vs £7.50

To get the posts and stretchers close to round without a lathe a dedicated scraper is an excellent tool. You can buy ‘chair devils’ but it seems like such an extravagance that I never have. For under a tenner you can get a pair of precisely sized spindle scrapers. It’s hard to argue with the price but if you do get them make sure that you grind the corners off or a moment’s inattention will leave you with deep scars in your work. If you have a grinder and a bit of old saw plate or a spare cabinet scraper you can roll your own and get a much more convenient tool. I put a 5/8″ curve on one side and 1 3/8″ on the other flaring out to take a wider piece.

Not an HSE approved technique?

Steaming

It looks so tame until you fill it up and plug it in.

I’ve used a steam iron, an electric kettle with the switch taped down and several combinations of camping stoves and pans to generate steam but the easiest and safest solution is a wallpaper steamer. At about £40 you might think this is a luxury and I wouldn’t argue but if you don’t already have the makings of a jury-rigged death trap and are planning to buy something this is your best bet. You can still do yourself an enormous amount of damage but you can do it continuously and reliably from a handy flexible hose.

Chair parts cooked to perfection.

To multiply the risk of scalding injuries you can forego the traditional steam box and heat your back posts and slats in a plastic bag. This is a technique used by boat builders to steam planks in place and scales down well for the occasional chair maker. Once you catch the chair making bug you’ll quickly decide to build a box but a thin steam-filled sack of seething heat will cut out one obstacle to bending timber.

It might be time to replace those…

Rather than add to the terror by pressing into service that moth-eaten pair of old leather gloves for handling the scorching hot sticks it is definitely worth investing in a pair of bakers’ steam-proof gloves. Don’t use them for anything else; you don’t want to wear a hole in them. When faced with the collapsing pile of red-hot cling wrap that your steam bag turns into the moment you touch it, these will give you a bit of confidence, if not dexterity.

Clamps

They pull stuff apart too

Irwin Quick Grip clamps are that very rare thing in woodworking: excellent and cheap. They may not be the most robust clamps or exert the greatest force but they are incredibly useful. I keep three 600mm medium duty clamps on the bench during dry fit and glue up. I only use two but I’ve had the grips pull out on a couple which involves a couple of minutes with a screwdriver to reassemble them. It’s time you can’t afford when the glue is cooling so it’s worth having a spare on hand.

When Quick Grips aren’t strong enough to pull two pieces together you need the mechanical advantage of a screw clamp. I have a few 600mm F clamps that have a deeper reach than bar clamps and can pull even the most recalcitrant ladders into line. They’re particularly helpful on the back slat bending forms.

Tenon Rounder

This is the one specialist tool I would not be without. Even though I have three lathes (I know, I know) and generally turn chair parts to completion on them I still use a tenon former because I’ve matched it with my favourite bit. You could shave all of the tenons to size. Jenny Alexander did it this way and it can work well. But it takes a long time. Still – it’s pleasant work seated at the shaving horse. I prefer to use this tool and then scrape the transition. Here’s the maths: this chair has 24 5/8″ tenons. At £40 for the tool it’s less than £1.70 per tenon for one chair. Build four chairs and it’s under £40p. Your decision.

Bits

At most you need three sizes of bit to build a ladder back armchair: 5/8” for the stretchers, 3/4” for the arm tenons into the back posts and 1” for the front posts into the arms. But you can cut out the 3/4” if you’re happy to have a slightly skinny tenon into the back posts, as I did here.

Now you have a choice of bits. Traditionalists might like an auger bit in a brace but you risk the long lead screw coming through the opposite side of the workpiece. My favourite chairmaking bit is the square shanked Forstner bit in a brace but I can’t recommend it because you might wait for years for a 5/8” to come to the market and then you’ll have to sell a kidney. So the choice is really down to modern bits designed for high speed drills.

In an electric drill modern bits guzzle wood as if the worker’s livelihood depended on the industrial production of hamster bedding. But if you’re planning to adapt them for a brace you will find saw toothed Forstner bits rather less impressive than their single cutter ancestors. They’ll work but you might be there a while.

If you’re buying a dedicated bit don’t get it until you’ve tried the tenon former. I find a 5/8″ hole a bit sloppy for my 5/8″ tenons and so use a 15.5mm Forstner bit which is perfect (and more than .3mm smaller than 5/8”!). You can adjust them a hair but they’re finicky. Whichever bit you decide to buy get the long version or buy an extension. More on this later…

Compass planes

Compass planes

I’ve been testing curves for back slats recently. That’s meant a lot of time with my compass plane making bending forms. That plane is a chatterbox. It’s in its nature. There are so many light, movable parts only partially attached to each other that it’s a wonder the thing can stay quiet at all.

Roughing in the curve with spokeshaves

Most plane makers go to great lengths to make their tools out of heavy, solid lumps of stuff. It keeps the chatter to a minimum. Compass planes are not built the same way.

The handles on my straight spokeshave show a lot more wear than on the round-bottomed tool. You can get quite a lot of curve before you need the curved sole.
Cambered iron

But there are things you can do. Starting with low expectations helps!

I used to think of my Record 020 as a jack plane. I expected it to do a lot of work quite quickly and give me a decent result. These days I see it more like a jointer plane. I use it for the last few shavings to get the final shape. The curve comes from a bandsaw, jigsaw or bowsaw followed by spokeshaves. They are my jack planes for curves.

As with all edge tools start with the sharpest iron you can hone. It won’t solve everything but at least you’ll know that’s not one of the issues. Grind and hone it like a jointer plane iron – with a small camber. Rather than trying to take a full width shaving I work the high spots and check for square frequently. I don’t expect to get beautiful long ribbons from end to end. Given that we’re making a curve the grain direction will change at some point and these things don’t go up hill!

The mouth and bed aren’t flush. Not ideal but it works.

If you’ve got a sharp, cambered iron, lightly set, you’re cutting downhill and you’re still getting chatter there are a couple of things worth investigating. The mouth of the plane is a magnet for resin. It builds up and needs to be scraped out. There’s little you can do about the step between the mouth and the frog. The frog has no fore and aft adjustment. I’ve tried shimming it with mylar and sheets of tin foil. Not worth the effort. Make sure that the cap iron fits well and the lever cap is tight.

With the mouth clean have a look at the peened pins that hold the frog to the sole. With the sole set for a concave curve these can stick out and catch. You won’t notice it when planing but it can’t help the chatter. You can sand the sole much as you might lap a smoothing plane. I didn’t notice a lot of difference but it can’t hurt.

And finally, with the plane perfectly set up a squiggle of wax on that rather rough sole makes the world of difference.

Not the most satisfying shavings but it’s the curve we’re interested in
Sharpening a router plane iron

Sharpening a router plane iron

I just watched a video by Vic Teselin and Fine Woodworking on sharpening a router plane blade. I do it differently and thought I’d stick my oar in.

‘My method’ (I’m sure others do it the same way and have done for longer) reduces the strength of the iron a bit though I’m not sure it matters much. But it’s everso easy and doesn’t require jigs or sanding drums. Vic sharpens the upper part of the iron which is probably the manufacturers’ intention. I don’t. Sorry manufacturers.

Sharpening seems to be very contentious so just for the record: I don’t mind if you don’t do it this way. I don’t want you to change if you like your way. I’m not a terrible person because I do it this way and I’m happy to concede that your way may be just as good if not better. Has that covered everything?

Flattening

Flattening

If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I’m building a Moravian workbench. I’m not writing about it here because it’s been so well covered by Will Myers in his step-by-step guide on wkfinetools.com and his video with Joshua Farnsworth.

I will be writing about the end vice I’m building which might be useful to those who haven’t yet fitted a vicious toothed planing stop and doe’s foot to their bench.

Checking for flat
Planes come with a built-in reference edge

 

Yesterday I was at Richard Arnold’s open day and listened to Oli Sparks talking about flattening the ways on his milling machine. He does this by hand marking the high spots using machinist’s dye and a very flat reference plate.

I have been struggling to find a way to measure the flatness of my workbench top end to end. Checking for wind and flatness side to side is easy.

 

Winding?

That’s straight enough for a six foot bench!

But other than squinting I have no way to check flat along the length of the bench. On the drive home yesterday inspiration struck. A piece of string, pulled taught will let me see hollow and humps. When I was fishing out a crayon to mark the spots shown by the string I found my chalk line. Even better. Pulled taught and dragged across the bench this showed up the humps very quickly.

 

 

IMG_2273

With the humps nicely coloured in I could flatten them out. I was a bit worried that I was making a rod for my own back. How flat does a workbench need to be? (That’s a rhetorical question – I’m happy with my own answer!) The chalk line quickly revealed that the ends were high. With a bit of planing I started to see the humps in the middle.

 

Planing
Plane until the blue has gone

I often find myself chasing my tail when flattening long wide pieces. I go too far on one section and then have to level the rest to it. With this method I did a lot less planing and a lot more checking (which is considerably less tiring!).

Once the big humps had disappeared and the chalk line was just colouring the whole bench blue I switched from the scrub to the jointer plane and made a couple more passes until the blue had disappeared. You’ve got to be sure that you’ve got the thickness to carry on planing once the humps have gone because that chalk gets everywhere and you’re going to need a final pass to get rid of it. On a 4 inch workbench top that’s not really a problem.

IMG_2294

Caveat: the blue gets stuck in the tearout. But this is workbench, not a piano.

Clamp front chest 7: the spreadsheet!

Clamp front chest 7: the spreadsheet!

The consumer may assume their consumption pattern sets them apart from the rest of society, marking them as an individual, but this is a fallacy. Consumption is one of our most creative and most restrictive practices. Due to this fact it must be concluded that consumer driven production of self is less to do with “who am I” and more with “who are we” or “with whom do I belong.” There is no such thing as individualization no matter what we may think.

Todd, D. 2012

 IMG_1893
 I don’t like cutting lists. Many amateurs, myself included, work wood to have something individual, something that says something about us (who knows what?). Building from a cutting list or a set of plans in a book or magazine gives us the illusion of creativity. But that creativity is restricted by the choice available.
Ultimately we are building someone else’s design. What kind of individualism is this that we conform to someone else’s notion of individualism?
But what is the alternative? A thorough grounding in the principles of design? Will this liberate us from the “restrictive practices” of buying furniture from the multinational corporation or building it to the designs laid out by other woodworkers? Or are we then just subject to the same set of principles by which they operate?
Let’s break free from the cutting list!
And how shall we throw off the shackles of our corporate overlords? With a spreadsheet of course!

This spreadsheet will enable you to enter dimensions for a clamp front chest of your own ‘design’. You might not be able to enter your desired dimension into the embedded sheet above (it’s a little temperamental).  If you want to try it out click here to go to the full, unabridged Google Sheets version.

If the figures you enter are changing it’s because someone else is using it. If you want to keep your own dimensions use the link above and download the spreadsheet (File/Download as…) or open a copy in Google Sheets (File/Make a copy…).

You can select the outside dimensions of the chest you want to build, decide if you want to make clamped (breadboard) ends for your lid and choose the length of the legs in relation to the rest of the chest. As you enter this data the spreadsheet will work out your cut list and spit it out in an easily digested table. Voila, instant liberation from the strictures of design dogma and the restrictions on your identity of consumer culture. You lucky thing.

But it won’t draw it for you.

Bear in mind that the spreadsheet doesn’t care about proportion or aesthetics. It has some concept of the required thickness of planking for different sized chests but it’s not very bright (I shouldn’t anthropomorphise my spreadsheets, they hate that). Magazine writers/woodworkers are better at this sort of thing than spreadsheets (there’s feint praise!).

Caveat utilitor

I don’t guarantee the results of this spreadsheet in any way. If you use it to design a series of chests to sell from your burgeoning Etsy store and have several cubic metres of timber cut to length only to discover that the I haven’t calculated the tenon length correctly or included the lid overhang it’s entirely on you.

Last word

Please don’t use this. Draw a chest using your own hands and eyes. It will be better and it will be yours.

But if you do use it please let me know how it goes!

 

The Workbench

The Workbench

“After a while you can get used to anything.” Albert Camus, The Stranger

I’m thinking of rickety workbenches, not being incarcerated in an Algerian prison for murder, but you take the point: I have a high tolerance for ropey workbenches.
But I’ve finally been jolted into building a better bench. I’d like to extend the Camus analogy by making a parallel between my passive acceptance of the wobblyness of my bench and Meursault’s sleep-walk towards his own execution but that would require me to draw a link between him waking from his ennui by shouting at a priest delivering his last rights and my own renaissance. My shame was far more twenty-first century: flamed on YouTube for a shaky bench. Twice. It’s amazing what people can get cross about.
So before I launch into this timber framing project let’s take a look at what led up to it. It started here:

84401189-47B8-47C4-85AE-74685844301B

Dad likes Workmates so much that he owns two. And modifies them. He had a blue one when we were kids. I wonder what happened to it. We did a lot of work on that bench.

Picnic bench

This isn’t the one we used. It didn’t survive the abuse.

Despite the Workmate a lot of my early woodworking was done on a picnic table. They make surprisingly good workbenches. The seats are at the perfect height for breaking down stock with a hand saw and the table-top has gaps between every slat. On some tables these are big enough for clamp. If you’re careful you can line the gaps up with the circular saw kerf. If you’re not you learn how to repair picnic tables.

Short of a decent vice what’s not to like? Some are a bit wobbly and perhaps that’s where my existential malaise started.
At school, like every child of my generation, I used the standard British joiners’ bench. One vice, a tool well and a brush. Sweeping up was as much a part of woodwork classes as learning to saw straight. It was here that I learnt to love tool wells. And sweeping.

Sawhorse workbench

Camus notwithstanding I never got used to the Japanese saw (it doesn’t help that it doesn’t match the bench hook) and my tolerance for these two terrible squares didn’t last longer than this project.

As an adult with limited storage space I went back to the Workmate but as projects got bigger space remained tight and I built a sawhorse workbench: two strips of plywood bolted to sawhorses with insert nuts in the tops. This was surprisingly robust; it barely moved. I put this down to the number of legs. But it still didn’t have a vice or any decent workholding other than clamps. So I built a ‘lightweight’ folding bench. Originally it had a crochet and no vice. (There are proponents of viceless woodworking out there: people who encourage beginners to take up a craft with one hand tied behind their backs. I have bad words for them.) So after a few years I installed a massive Record 53 on the front of my lightweight bench. This led to the hole in the workshop floor and the floorboard repair I did last year.

 

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Matriphagy is not uncommon with workbenches.

During my last project I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I used the bench and what I wanted to keep and change.

 

Staying

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Tool tray

I like my tools on the bench, not the floor. Wells and trays fill up with shavings, reduce the usable space on your bench and allow bad habits to form but I don’t care. I like them and I’m sticking with them.

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 Holdfasts and holes

All holes will be round, or more accurately, cylindrical. With astonishing timing Simon James decided to start making 1″ holdfasts at a sensible price when I bought the timber for the bench. I’ve been using the late Richard Tomes’ 3/4″ holdfasts for several years and if Simon James’ version are as good I’ll be delighted. They are absolutely massive and won’t need much of a tap to set them solidly.

 

Tail vice

I use a Veritas inset vice and bench dogs. It’s slow but excellent value and with a clever two position dog. I’m sure a batten and toothed stop work but one can grow used to luxury as well as privation and my next end vice will bigger and better.

Portable

More on this later.

Going

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Never been used

Apron

I only use one of the holes on the apron a lot and it will be in the leg of my next bench. The others are largely redundant. I used them more before I installed the vice.

 

 

 

 

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The old bench is starting to feel a bit emasculated

Lightweight

Colin Chapman said “Simplify, then add lightness.” But he was building things to move – quickly. Two inches of ash aren’t enough to stop a bench roaming around the workshop. The legs will be four times the cross sectional area and the top twice as thick.

Folding

I’ve been procrastinating about this for years. I wanted something very heavy but portable. Hard to achieve.

I do occasional demonstrations but most of my itinerant woodwork has been done at the boatyard. For several years I thought I’d build a massive French bench with wheels and floor locks. Then I realised that although I could get it out of the workshop, across the garden and through the kitchen it would never turn the corner in the hallway of our Victorian terrace (row house).
Then Will Myers published a terrific account of building his Moravian workbench. It’s been on my list for a while and I’ve finally got a gap between projects. It has everything I want: weight, portability, a tool tray and great workholding.
Will built his from white pine. I’m making my life more difficult (and expensive) by using oak. But it adds weight and weight is good.
I have an idea for a pair of wheels that fit on an axle that passes through a dog hole. This should make the four inch laminated top a bit more mobile.

I’ve glued up one set of legs. Eventually it will have two sets: high and low, carving and joinery. Don’t hold your breath; it’s a big project. But waiting is something you can get used to.

 

 

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.

 

Medieval woodworking part 4: plank chest 2

Medieval woodworking part 4: plank chest 2

My nearest and dearest tell me that I have a lot of tools (they’re too polite to say “too many”). Each one, I say in my defence, has a purpose. No two are identical.

However there’s no doubt that there is some redundancy in the ranks. ‘Efficiency savings’ could be made. Some are more flexible than others. Chisels, for example can do a host of different tasks but require more skill to do some of those tasks well. Other tools perform only one task but they’re easier to use. Let’s take cutting a housing (dado if you’re American) as an example:

  1. Knife two parallel lines, chisel a wall to guide a saw, saw to depth, chisel out the waste (using a mallet), use a router plane to level the bottom. Six tools, one of which probably didn’t exist in medieval times.
  2. Clamp or nail a batten across the board. Use a dedicated dado plane to depth. Only two tools (if you don’t count the batten) but the clamps and dado plane are relatively recent inventions. The dado plane is about as dedicated a tool as you’ll find. It just cuts housings. At a specific width. Not adjustable.
  3. Clamp or nail a batten across the board. Spend half an hour setting up an electric router. Spend ten minutes finding and putting on protective clothing (mask, goggles, ear defenders, chainsaw trousers). Spend 30 seconds in abject, gibbering terror cutting the housing. Have a cup of weak tea while you recover.
  4. Get good with a chisel. ‘Knife’ the lines with the chisel, chop out the waste with the chisel. Level the bottom with the chisel.

IMG_3081I had two housings to cut. If this were not a masochistic act of reenactment and I were using a milder wood than oak I would have taken option 2. In the spirit of the thing I tried to only use tools I have evidence for having existed at the time. Option 4 it is.

Oddly I didn’t take a photograph of the result. It works but it’s not pretty.

Here’s the start of the second housing using option 1. I convinced myself that a plane, as they say, is just a chisel in a jig. Any idiot can find a video of Paul Sellers making a router plane with a block of wood, a chisel and a wedge on YouTube. What’s that you say? They didn’t have YouTube in the thirteenth century? Arrant pedantry.

With four rebates to cut I tried the chisel method again. This is easier than the housings. It’s a lot like cutting half blind dovetails but without the worry about nice crisp tails. I did even it up with a shoulder plane. And then used a moving fillister for the other three.

IMG_3101I marked the semi-circles for the feet with a pair of compasses. All period-correct so far. I’ve seen evidence of bow saws from the period but not a turning saw as such so I decided to see if I could form them with a saw, chisels and gouge. Kerfing went swiftly. Chiselling the waste out was quick as well. Fortunately I have a very large carving gouge at a fractionally quicker sweep than the chosen curve. Again – very straightforward.IMG_3116 I don’t think that a turning saw would have saved me a great deal of time and I’m much more confident with a gouge than a thin blade in 3/4″ of oak.

I did cheat a little bit and chamfered one curve with a spokeshave. The other I did with a chisel.

The only joinery left was to peg it all together. At this point I gained a lot of respect for the medieval joiner. The rebates on the ends of the front and back panels are there to help when assembling.

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Tight when made but worked a little looser by the time the chest was assembled.

Nevertheless unless the boards are dead flat and the rebates dead square putting this together without clamps would be next to impossible. I spent a lot of time with shoulder planes fettling every joint. A modern woodworker with good glues and a rack of clamps would pull a half millimetre gap closed and drive home a fastening, content in the knowledge that it wouldn’t show its seams before the customer got it home. The medieval craftsman had to get the joints perfect just to be able to drill the holes for the pegs. Some antique dealers use the word “primitive” to describe pre-industrial furniture with little ornamentation. One should earn the right to use that word about someone else’s work.

Sat astride my low workbench, the boards resting against pegs and being held by my knees I managed to drill a couple of holes. With a dowel at each end of the board holding it fast the others went in more easily. With a now-familiar sigh of relief I went back to my joiner’s bench and my clamps for the other three ends.

There’s surprisingly little joinery in a six board chest. With a jointer, thickness planer and a dado stack in a table saw (I wonder if the dado stack will be legalised in the U.K. Post-Bexit?) I imagine it would take less than an afternoon. For the pre-industrial craftsman with a frame saw, chisel, mallet and auger it’s a somewhat greater endeavour.

With the edges chamfered and the rougher grain scraped I put on some finish. The use of linseed oil was widespread in this period but its use on furniture is, as far as I know, undocumented. In the C12th Theophilus1 wrote in his treatise for artists that using linseed oil on wood is ‘tedious’. Boiling linseed oil to speed up polymerisation was known in the Middle Ages, as was adding lead to do the same thing, but Theophilus was apparently using it raw.

1. Theophilus (C12th) On divers arts Republished by Dover Art Instruction (2000)

Medieval Woodworking Part 3: plank chest 1

One down. At least three to go. The list of projects for this demonstration gets longer every time I open a book. With the workbench finished I’ve turned my attention to some ‘flat work’. Staked stools and demonstration tools  can wait. There are at least three chests I’d like to build for this: a Viking piece based on the Mastermyer chest, a clamp-front and this project.

I’m writing this half way through building  it and have I realised that I’m going to have to do it twice. Once to have a complete chest to show and then again to demonstrate the process. Fortunately it’s about as easy as furniture construction gets: a ‘six board’, ‘six plank’, ‘slab-end’ or just ‘boarded’ or ‘plank’ chest. Six bits of wood and some fastenings.

I’ve taken the opportunity to try a variety of techniques. There are several surviving chests that use pegs and at least as many that are nailed from around the period we’re interested in. Copper rivets1 were also in use and since I’ve got plenty kicking around from boatbuilding projects I’m hoping to squeeze some in. Two chests may not be enough.

Marhamchurch plank chest on white

A starting point: riven oak late medieval plank chest. Courtesy of Marhamchurch Antiques.

This chest will come from a single rough-sawn board. It is definitely a small chest;  height and depth are dictated by the available timber. The inspiration for this piece is from two different chests (above and below) that have been sold by Marhamchurch Antiques in Devon. They’re a bit later than the period we’re interested in but the only strong sign of this are the trefoil arches on the first chest that form the feet. Other than that either could have been built hundreds of years earlier.

Marhamchurch flat sawn chestSix board chests are built with simple construction rather than longevity in mind. The grain on the sides is perpendicular to the grain on the ends. The movement of the timber will eventually cause the fastenings to loosen and the boards to split. Despite this many survive because there are ways around this:

  • Version 2Keep it small. The narrower the long planks the less movement there will be and so the fastenings are more likely to be able to resist the seasonal changes and the  boards won’t split. I estimate that the front board from the riven oak chest from  Marhamchurch Antiques is about 18′ high and even in riven stock that creates a lot of movement causing a split near the bottom.
  • Build it from cleft (riven) or rift-sawn stock. Movement across the grain in the tangential plain (at a tangent to the growth rings of the tree) is twice that in the radial plain (a straight line going from the middle of the tree to the bark). Radially cleft, or riven, timber was common in Anglo-Scandinavian England2. This means that the pieces will inevitably be narrower than flat-sawn panels and the movement will be significantly reduced. You can see this in the first chest to the right but not in the second which appears to be built of flat sawn boards. In the second chest the sides may have shrunk away from the notches at the bottom leaving a gap. In the first they have not.
  • Marhamchurch flat sawn chest strapsUse metal straps. Many surviving large six board chests have substantial metal reinforcements. However a lot of these are ecclesiastical pieces or come from the estates of powerful and wealthy individuals. They are not the focus of this demonstration. The second chest from Marhamchurch compensates for its flat sawn grain by reinforcing the joints at the top. It’s hard to know whether this was done at the time of manufacture or later as the joints worked loose with the seasons. The position of the strap over the nail and the difference between the two nails suggests the latter.

The design of this chest is dictated by the timber. Though the Egyptians had glue thousands of years before this time period I can find no evidence that the Anglo-Saxond or Anglo-Scandinavians did. Even if they did it was animal glue and would have faired poorly in the damp. That means that wide panels made up from a number of boards were not used. The front of a chest was as long and as high as the planks as the widest board you could get from a tree.

Forklift and boardTime spent picking through boards at the timber yard is well rewarded. (And so is being nice to the man with the huge forklift. I learnt a lot from him that day.) I wanted to select wide stock with vertical grain. Access to large-diameter fresh cut oak is rare so riven stock is out of the question and that left me searching for the widest boards sawn from the middle of the log.

With a newly commissioned low bench sitting in the garden I started by trying to work the boards to their final dimensions in a manner that might be familiar to a medieval joiner. Sawing went well. It’s little more than a giant saw bench and I’m comfortable using it as such. Heavy planing was more of an issue. Bent forward, pushing a plane with just my arms was hard and uncomfortable work. When standing at the traditional joiner’s bench many more of my muscles help out. The much bigger and more resilient muscles of my legs do a lot of the work.

Frustrated and realising that I would wake up the next day aching and with much less work done than I had planned I went back to my familiar friend – the joiner’s bench. There is plenty of time to play with the low bench between now and the  demonstration.

Stickered oak.jpgI planed each piece to just over 3/4′ leaving a little spare to remove once the boards had moved a little more. A couple of weeks in stick and they were ready for joinery.

This gave me a bit of time to decide on fastenings. Chris Schwarz3 asserts that nails are the the secret to surviving chests’ longevity. They “allow you to get away with serious crimes of wood movement… a nail will allow the wood to expand and contract, bending back and forth through the yearly humidity cycles.” This also means that they will loosen over time. But it’s the best of a bad job.

Dowel plate

Not a medieval dowel plate. Its laser cut descendant.

Nails were made by blacksmiths, each one hand forged. So if a joiner wants to join a chest with nails s/he must buy (or trade for) them. But a dowel plate is a one-off purchase and then you’ve got pegs for life.

There aren’t enough extant medieval plank chests to be able to draw a conclusion about what was used more – pegs or nails – but in the interest of self-reliance I’ve used the trunnels for this chest.

Next time: joinery.

 

1. “Radially split offcuts of other species include… an alder fragment with 30-40 copper alloy rivets embedded in it…” Morris, C., Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York p. 2221-2223
2. “Most conversion of wood for artefacts was done by radial splitting…” Morris, C., Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York p. 2104
3.