I had to go and make it my own.

A few weekends ago I was doing some final fitting for the lid of my tool chest, and I just wasn’t happy with it. No matter what I did to shape the tenon shoulders, I just couldn’t get a nice crisp joint. In retrospect, the tongue-and-groove joint between the frame and panel may have been too tight, causing binding that prevented the mortise pieces from being drawn all the way in. Taking a few shavings from the bottom of the panel probably would have made for a more slip fit and allowed the frame to come together more tightly.

Shrugging shoulders

Shrugging shoulders

The thing was, though, I wasn’t happy with the grain of the wood I chose for the frame, anyway. I really didn’t end up with great frame pieces, and I ended up with plain-sawn boards that weren’t telling a coherent story at all.

On top of that, this was the first project of any size I’d attempted from poplar, and I haven’t enjoyed it. If I had it to do again, I would make the extra effort to find some tight-grained eastern white pine, which I enjoy much more. The poplar seemed very stringy, bending and crushing instead of slicing or chopping under the chisel. With more experience, I’m sure I’d learn some tricks for overcoming that tendency, but the project was dragging on and I was ready to move on.

It was time to start over on the frame, so I followed my instincts and reached in to my stash for some walnut.

I stewed about it that Sunday evening and Monday morning, thinking about how to move forward. After some encouragement from my family (they’re handy that way), I pulled out some of my remaining walnut stock on Monday evening. It was all rough-sawn, so I planed a small area with my block plane to get a sense of the grain.

I discovered these beautiful black streaks running through the board in arcs just long enough for the pieces of the frame.

I discovered these beautiful black streaks running through the board in arcs just long enough for the pieces of the frame.

I found some pieces with strong linear grain that looked promising. There were some knots to work around, but as I measured, I found that the knots fell nicely between sections of arcing riftsawn grain in a way that offered good lengths for each piece of the frame.

Composing with the help of blue painter's tape.

Composing with the help of blue painter’s tape.

The next weekend I got enough time in the workshop to fit the tenons for the new frame. I made sure to adjust the thickness of the panel for a slip fit in the frame, which came together sweetly. I glued up the lid early Sunday evening and celebrated with a beer.

Put a lid down on it. Everything'll be alright.

Put a lid down on it. Everything’ll be alright.

There are differing opinions on whether to keep lumber on hand or to buy it per project. As small as my shop is, there’s a certain logic to taking a just-in-time approach, having only the material on-hand that you’ll use for your current project. The thing is, though, the just-in-time approach doesn’t give me the freedom to explore and compose the way I can with a generous stash of wood. I find myself making compromises, settling for what the lumber retailer has on hand. (The one exception I find to this is sheet goods. I hate having a bunch of plywood hanging around.)

It’s just about time to refresh my stash of walnut, and when the opportunity arises, I’m sure Bonny will lend a sympathetic ear.

Having the lid glued together has accelerated this project, which is good because it’s time for this chest to start paying some rent. I took the time to shim up the left rear wheel so that the chest sits level, and then I moved on to making the wall for the wooden planes at the back of the chest. For the wall, I planed a thin piece of Douglas fir, ripped it to four inches wide, and made cleats from the offcut. The Douglas fir was reclaimed from a workbench a friend of mine gave me that had been his grandfather’s. It was a rough piece made from dimensional lumber, so this has been an exercise in “upcycling.”

I see a saw till.

Son, it’s time you started earning your keep.

The saw till is more reclaimed lumber from that workbench, including a piece of eastern white pine for the wall, which planed very sweetly.

Tomorrow, I plan to move on to the dovetails for the large sliding till.

Krenov on Composition

Lately I’ve been rereading Jim Krenov‘s The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking.  I’m not typically one who rereads books, but in the past few years I’ve found that there are some books that continue to unfold for us with each reading.

When I first discovered Krenov, I devoured his books in quick succession.  In his books I found a kindred spirit, one who would argue that yes, it is important how we feel about the work we’re doing.  In comimg back to him, I wanted to tease out the finer points he has to share.

In particular, his approach to composition is unusual in the world of woodworking.  While many woodworkers begin with the form in mind, perhaps with a measured drawing, Krenov starts from the material: the wood itself.  What does the wood ask for?

One way to go about this is to proceed by stages.  You have looked at the wood time and again.  Regardless of whether you have a definite piece to make, or a first idea, you sense what you are looking for, have a fair image of the colors and shapes, the mood you want.

Here he has been writing at length on the color and variation in wood, and also the texture and movement of wood, how it can warp as you cut into it, depending on its moisture content. 

Develop the habit of caution.  Divide the most important elements of the piece, and the wood for these, into a relationship that makes sense.  Making a cabinet with unbroken surfaces, you’ll be more interested in wood with color than in wood which is plain.  You may envisage the way it should be, the door or doors with ripples of color to enhance surface and shape, the sides in some interesting relation to the front. 

Concentrate on these.  Re-saw first the wood for those doors.  Look for faults; look again.  Then saw what you need for the sides.  Study what you have.  Now, maybe, make those doors–just to be sure this most important part is right.  Take another step: a back piece with frame and panel may be more vital than the top and bottom pieces; choose the wood for the panel with this in mind.  If you are sure all is as you want, go on sawing for the other parts: top, bottom, shelves, etc.

What emerges is a reverence for the mystery of wood, and a process that celebrates this mystery.  Wood in this way is more than simply a material; it is the idea itself, and the form of a finished Krenov cabinet is intended to express the idea in the wood itself.

Getting into this matter of listening to wood, of composing, weaving together an intention with what you and your chosen wood have to say, is an experience difficult to describe.  To me, it is the essence of working with wood.

Krenov has described himself as an enthusiast.  His enthusiasm for wood, its beauty and mystery, has shaped his approach to composition and allowed him to create enduring objects that, in their simplicity, showcase the wood itself.  Although he announced his retirement from cabinetmaking a year ago, his influence endures.

A Process for Composition

English woodcarver and educator Chris Pye has written several books and online guides to woodcarving, including his Woodcarving Fundamentals.   (If you’re not interested in woodcarving specifically, stay with me here.) There and elsewhere he describes the woodcarving concept of “bosting in”, the stage in which the carver establishes the relationship among the various elements of the carving, before carving any details. 

To ‘bost’ means to create the main forms, three-dimensional masses, and planes of a carving; and placing them, with their inherent motions and directions, all in correct relationship to each other. 

Chris provides the example of a student attempting to carve a human face.  According to his process:

Before the iris goes in, the bony shape of the skull, the muscles, the egg-like lump of the eyeball and so on, these must be formed, bosted in. The shape, dynamics of the head must ‘read true’ – that is what the bosting is all about.

I like this example.  It’s both familiar and immediately illustrative of the concept.  What he describes here is not working from a blueprint.  It is an approach to creating that engages the senses and skills of the creator throughout the process.

“Bosting in” falls within the larger process he describes in his book, Elements of Woodcarving.  This process begins with roughing out the waste, followed by bosting in, followed by modelling individual elements, and resulting in detailing. 

Chris has stated that he would like to retain the term “bosting” as a specialized term within woodcarving.  I think he’s on to something more broadly applicable in the creative process, so I’ll use the more generic term “sketching”, which he says is the original meaning of the word.

This strategy of “sketching in” – establishing the masses, planes, and movement of a piece – works in many different applications. 

I see it at work in Jim Krenov’s The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, in which he describes composing a cabinet from the starting point of a coopered door.  “Since I have gotten into such work, the prospect of returning to it each time I find a ‘beginning’ in a plank or planks is ever more exciting.”

As a writer I’ve used a similar process, leaving myself sketches of an idea that needs elaboration, while establishing the overall flow and movement from one idea from another.  During later passes through the piece of writing, I’ll come back and elaborate on each of these sketches, gradually giving definition to the whole.

I’ve even used this process as a software engineer, roughing out the various components, sketching the basic movement of the application, and gradually working it down to finer and finer detail.