Hey, Rake!

I left home yesterday for a two-week business trip, and I’m already missing my workshop. (Okay, so I’m missing my wife and kids, too!) Maybe this is a chance to update the blog with some recent work.

With a functional (if not yet painted) tool chest, it was time to pick back up on a neglected project: my hay rake table. I know, I started this project well over a year ago. Let’s just say the cobbler’s children may finally get new shoes this fall.

The hay rake stretchers came together relatively easily. I was pleased with the way the legs came together with the stretchers.

The base is now nearly complete. I need to complete the scroll detail at the ends of the top bars that support the tabletop, and join those to the legs.

I’m tempted to embellish these scrolls with more detailed spiral carvings, since they already suggest the volutes of an Ionic column. I’m really torn here: I’d been looking forward to adding carving to my work, and the minimal carving to define the scroll went very quickly. I worry a bit that an overtly Classical reference would seem a little out of place on an Arts and Crafts piece. It could work, especially in the context of the volutes on a Windsor chair.

What do you think? Stop with the scrolls as they are, or continue to carve a more intricate volute?

Hay Rake Table: Some Mid-Project Reflection

It’s been nearly two weeks since the end of my sabbatical and my return to part-time woodworking. Even though my project isn’t complete, it seems like a good time to look back.

Over the past six weeks, I’ve learned some great things. I learned that I like the feel of old tee shirts, preferably at least ten years old. I learned that my daughter is old enough to mow the lawn, and she does a good job of it.

I also learned quite a bit about my woodworking practice, and what I can improve for the next project, and that’s what I want to focus on in this post.

I haven’t completed my hay rake table, but I’m pleased with my progress. The table top is glued up; the stretchers and legs are milled, mortised, and tenoned, but not yet assembled. Next up is to chamfer the legs and stretcher pieces. I also need to make the breadboard ends and inlay the splines, and of course apply the finish.

stretcher

I gained a great appreciation for my local lumber dealers. Had I been working with store-bought lumber, I likely would have saved a considerable amount of time spent planing. I didn’t anticipate the amount of twist I would encounter in this wood, or the extra boards I would plane when I encountered defects in other boards.

On the other hand, I discovered some time-saving work methods as I went that will make the next project more efficient. For example, it finally hit home that by ripping a wider board close to final width, the twist in the board becomes easier to manage. (For the ripping operation, it worked well to follow a chalk line on my bandsaw, knowing that I would joint the edge by hand later.) It was helpful that I’d decided on a table top composed of four 10″-wide boards.

Given that decision, I suppose I could have taken my lumber to my dad’s shop and used his 12″ jointer, but I tend to make large, expensive wedges on powered jointers. I’m sure some coaching would sort out that tendency, and as coaches go, I’ve been fortunate to have my dad to learn from. However, the results I achieve by hand and the satisfaction I get from the process are what keep me at it.

Three weeks is the longest stretch in which I’d worked consecutive full time in the workshop. Working full time is much different from the evening and weekend work I was used to. For the three months prior to my sabbatical, I’d been woodworking in the mornings before work, which forced me to think in ninety minute increments.

The ninety minute mark is not an arbitrary measure for me. Ninety minutes turned out to be the amount of time required to accomplish a meaningful unit of work in the shop. Less time and I found that I didn’t have a chance to get into the flow of the work. More time, and I either wasn’t getting enough sleep or I was showing up late for work.

One of those ninety minute tasks I’m looking forward to is applying a coat of finish. For the finish, I’m leaning toward Tried and True Original Wood Finish. On my sample piece, it imparted a warm glow that should contribute nicely to the character of this project.

Planing is Everything

“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” -Dwight Eisenhower

After a week of volunteering, I jumped headlong into my sabbatical project, a dining room table inspired by Sidney Barnsley’s hay rake table. So far, it’s felt like planing is everything.

One of my goals for this project was to use the swamp white oak lumber I harvested in 2008. Many of those boards were wide planks, 12″ and wider, with a few that were 17″ wide and over 8′ long. At 2″ thick, these widest boards weighed in at 90 lbs each, so this first week has been mostly about wrestling big planks, jointing them flat and planing them to a uniform thickness.

Do the twist.

Had I gone to the lumber yard and purchased the lumber, I could have picked boards with less twist or fewer defects, but I wouldn’t have had the same connection to the wood – wood I’ve taken from tree trunk to planks, and now to table.

bushels of shavings

What’s emerging from the bushels of shavings are four boards, each with a gentle arc to the grain that will come together to suggest an ellipse in the rectangular tabletop and provide an interesting counterpoint to the series of butterfly splines I’ll inlay down the center of the table.

elliptical grain pattern

I’ll edge joint and rip each to 10″ wide before the glue-up. Given the amount of twist I had to contend with, it wasn’t practical to insist on using the full width of those 17″ boards. It turned out to be a good decision, granting me much more flexibility and permission.

My initial plan was to do the project in the remaining three weeks I’d have after my week of service, allowing about a week for the top, a week for the base, and a week for the finish. This plan gave me plenty of flexibility: if I need to, I can apply the finish once I return to work. I also left my weekends free in this plan, so if it’s close, I can work through my two remaining weekends.

While I underestimated the work It would take to joint the tabletop pieces, I learned a lot for the next project, and I’m grateful for the flexibility I left in my plan at the start.

Thirty Days

I’m one weekend in to a month-long sabbatical, and catching up on my blog is one of a few goals I have for my time. Over the course of the month, I’ll spend a week with my local Habitat for Humanity, followed by three weeks of woodworking.

The main project I’ll focus on is a dining room table. I fell in love with Sidney Barnsley’s Hay Rake table. I love the honesty of the construction and materials. There is no pretension in the design, no game being played; just an homage to honest work and work’s reward. It seemed the perfect use for the swamp white oak I harvested in the summer of 2008.

In the interest of time, I’ll be taking cues from Don Weber’s rendition, published in the February 2009 issue of Popular Woodworking. The design is available on the magazine’s website.

I’ll deviate somewhat from the plan by making the table about 20″ longer than the one Weber built. The extra length will make optimal use of the space in our dining room without overwhelming it. And that is the beauty of a custom-made piece. You get a piece that will last a lifetime without wearing out its welcome.

To get to this point, I’ve been busily finishing up old projects, tidying up and rearranging to find a better flow. My back saws are tuned up, my workbench is finally complete, and I’m no longer tripping over redundant tools. I’ll take some time this week to make some final preparations, and then we’re off to the races.

Taking Up the Challenge

Earlier I posed the question “what would I need to do–what skills would I need to develop–to allow me to get rid of my radial arm saw?”  This beast of a machine serves one purpose in my shop: it makes a nice, clean crosscut.  When making furniture, that’s an important result to aim for, but artisans have been making clean and accurate crosscuts for centuries, and with much simpler tooling that didn’t take up as much space as a horse. 

So here’s what I came up with.  Over the next six months, I’m resolving to crosscut exclusively by hand.  I own a few crosscut hand saws, and I know how to sharpen them. Along the way, I’ll build a pair of saw benches to get the work down to the right height, and I’ll build a better saw vise to speed up sharpening.  I’ll experiment with more saws: coarser teeth to go faster, finer teeth to get closer to a final finish with less planing of end grain.  With six months of focused, intentional practice, I should get pretty good at it.

I’ll start here by recording a baseline of my skills. 

sawing to the line
Here I’m about 60% through a crosscut in a hard maple board. I’ve come close to sawing to the line, but there’s definitely room to grow.
a little ragged

I'm a couple of degrees away from my line by the end of the cut, and I was a couple of degrees off from plumb. Those inaccuracies left me with some planing to do to get a nice finished surface.

nearly finished surface

Since this will be the tail board for blind dovetails, I didn't need the edge grain to be perfect, so there are a few marks from the saw remaining.

I suspect the saw benches will make a significant difference.  I’ll get to those once I clear out a backlog of other projects.

A Call to Arms

Turning my attention back to the community of woodworkers after a hiatus, I found that much had changed. The economy has taken its toll on our collective spirits, making us practical and limiting our vision.

One bright, shining exception was Chris Schwarz’s move this year to leave his role as Executive Editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine and focus on his side venture, Lost Art Press. This move was inevitable: Schwarz simply has too much to say to be beholden to a corporate definition of success. Magazines must court the advertising dollars of tool makers, and that extension of consumer culture–upside down in its assertion that artisans are first and foremost consumers–is in direct conflict with the soul of Craft.

The Anarchist's Tool Chest

In that vein, Schwarz’s new book, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, is a must-read, a call to arms for furnituremakers. There is an edge to this book, not in the “pitchforks and torches” sense of tearing down governments, but in it’s assertion that artisans in wood must be the masters of their tools, not slaves to tool conglomerates. There is a broader critique too of mass-produced furniture, which may be preaching to the choir; nevertheless, even the choir needs a sermon sometimes.

Schwarz challenges us to break out of our consumer mindset when we think about our tools, proposing that each tool must pay its share of the rent in our workshops. A central premise of the book is that for the joiner focused on casework, there is a basic set of hand tools that will get us pretty far, and that we should look to machines as apprentices. If they don’t save us significant labor, they’re making a mess and taking up space.

There is an intellectual spirit to Schwarz’s writing that I appreciate, though not every woodworker will. Schwarz does his research, and quotes sources from the entire written history of the craft, much of it pre-industrial. He takes that research into the workshop, and comes back with confident assertions that, yes, there is a better way. This is challenging to readers accustomed to the pandering of the magazines, but there is a healthy way to interact with Schwarz’s assertions. It takes an open mind and a willingness to question our skills and methods.

For example, early in the book, Schwarz details how he sold off much of his tool collection, paring down to essential tools that “paid the rent.” While some of these moves would be gut-wrenching to the average home putterer, Schwarz is not sentimental about it. Out goes the miter saw and the router table. He even questions the supremacy of his table saw, the true sovereign of most home shops. “Once you foresake plywood,” he says, “your shop can change.” He moved the table saw against the wall, which “opened up a dance floor in the center of my shop.”

This got me thinking about my own workshop, a one-car garage I (hypothetically) share with my wife’s car. The car hasn’t fit in there for several years, pushed out by my big machines. Car aside, it’s cumbersome to make furniture out there, it’s so crowded. The two biggest beasts in my shop are the table saw and the radial arm saw. The table saw is a 70s-era cabinet saw with extension rails ideal for plywood sheets. I’ve taken to breaking down plywood with a circular saw, though, because I find it safer to move the tool than to move a full sheet of plywood. If I don’t use the table saw for breaking down plywood, can I shorten the rails and reclaim some space?

The radial arm saw, a 50s-era machine set up on a platform at the back of the garage, takes up every bit as much real estate as the table saw, and the only operation I use it for is crosscutting to length. I began to ask myself, “what would I need to do–what skills would I need to develop–to allow me to get rid of my radial arm saw?” More on that later.

I’d come to the book curious to learn what Schwarz’s short list of tools would be.  I wasn’t quite so ready to accept his assertion that a traditional tool chest was the best way to store them.  That’s great for him, I thought to myself. He’s working out of his basement, and it’s probably harder to hang cabinets on the walls.  It’s floor space that’s a premium in my shop. Slowly, the tumblers began to fall into place.  The more I thought about what I could remove from my workshop, the more I realized that the tool chest may in fact be the ideal storage method.

Suffice it to say, I plan to take up Schwarz’s latest challenge, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be a better and happier craftsman for it.  If my wife can park in the garage again, she’ll be happier too.

Ah, the irony. As I was composing this post, the power went out, further taunting me to reduce my dependence on machinery.

David’s Bed

One of my current projects is a twin-sized bed made of walnut with birds-eye maple panels. 

 I envisioned this piece largely by imagining the combination of elements I wanted to incorporate.  I knew I wanted through-tenons in walnut, wedged with maple.  I knew I wanted square posts which stood proud of the rails, and I knew I wanted complementary wood tones.

You can keep up with this project here.