Quick interruption. I have set this website up in chronological order. If you’d rather jump to the latest posts, please use the archive links to the right.
My introduction to woodworking was watching Norm Abram on the New Yankee Workshop and Roy Underhill on the Woodwright Shop on my local public TV station. At the time I was also watching This Old House (when Bob Vila was still on). Even though I did grow up around construction (grandfather was a carpenter, father was an electrician), I went in a different direction until much later in life.
Like most everything else I’ve been curious about, I was very academic (read nerdy) in how I pursued woodworking. Before I purchased any tool or lumber, I read about furniture making and woodworking in general. I followed Norm, Bob, and Roy and then through them, I learned of other woodworkers and scoured the Internet for content. I picked up on Tom Fidgen, Paul Sellers, Elia Bizzarri, Curtis Buchanon and many others. I lurked on dozens of woodworking forums, watched videos and bought books until I was ready to start buying tools.
I loved my job in IT but knew I needed something to take the edge off after a tough day/week/month, so as I chose my first tools I already knew that I would be primarily unplugged as my intent was to have a quiet (as opposed to the loud datacenter) and relaxing introduction to my new hobby. That said, I did follow the recommendations of a few online and fitted my shop with a 14-inch bandsaw, a 12-inch planer (thicknesser) and a benchtop mortiser and drill press. Of those power tools, the only one I really ended up using on a regular basis was the bandsaw (and to a much lesser extent, the planer).
This blog is about the path I’ve taken as a woodworker. I’ll talk about projects, books, videos, pretty much anything related to woodworking.
My first real woodworking project after my workbench was a rocking horse for my grandkids. I started in the fall of 2014 and finished in the spring of 2015. I bought a plan online at Toy Making Plans and can really recommend them.
The lumber is ash and poplar, ash for the rockers, saddle and smaller pieces with poplar for the body.
This project was such a great experience that I knew I wanted to take on something quite a bit more aggressive. As I look back on it, I see so many things that just bug the crap out of me, but it was something for the grandbabies and it serves its purpose well.
And even though UPS did their darndest to destroy it before reaching my daughter, my son-in-law was able to glue up the broken feet and the kids were able to use the horse. Apparently a box rated for 250 pounds with masses of stuffing and signs saying this end up and don’t stack, don’t mean squat to them.
One modification I’d make is to carve the rockers to be a bit more ‘rockery’. I don’t want the kids to go flying off the horse, but I also don’t want them to get bored. All in all a successful first real woodworking project, aside from the workbench.
My first piece of furniture was a Mission (Arts and Crafts) style Prairie Settle that I started in 2014 and finished in 2016. I had been reading about the Stickleys and was drawn to the American Arts and Crafts so I wanted my first piece to be of that style.
I had been through the old Stickley catalogues online and did some searches for mission style plans. I waffled between chairs, bookcases, tables, and couches (settles). I thunk and thunk and thunk some more, then I talked to Holly incessantly until she said, “just do something and stop talking about it!” I took that as a mild suggestion that it might possibly be time to stop thinking about it and just make a command decision.
I ended up purchasing several sets of plans from Popular Woodworking, Wood Magazine, and one from a website dedicated to furniture plans. I then took bits from each plan and some bits and bobs from other plans I’d seen and came up with my plan. I didn’t want it to look like every other settle I’d seen, so I modified the spindles, length, and seat frame.
I didn’t want to spend the extra on White Oak, so I chose Red Oak. Even though it was good lumber, I didn’t like working with it nearly as much as the Ash I’d worked with earlier. A lot splinteryer than the Ash.
I started this before I had finished the rocking horse, so it began its life in the basement. One thing about choosing something this size was that I could not do any final glue up in the basement because then I would not be able to get it out, so it ended up being a good thing that it took 9 months to finish.
I started with my very favorite part of any project, prepping the lumber.
Since this was a piece of Stickley Mission Style furniture there were many, many mortise and tenon joints.
Neither Holly or I like carpeting so when we bought our house, we knew we would have to replace the carpeting on the upper floor where all of the bedrooms were. We had shopped around and discussed the different looks, the durability, and the cost and finally happened upon a sale at a local lumber yard. We found some cabin grade ash and liked the look. First, cabin grade for flooring is about the lowest rung on the ladder, so we knew that there would be splits, cracks, checks, stains, visible saw cuts, but mostly it would contain wood with varying colour. That is what we were looking for, so we calculated what we would need and bought it. We took it home and let it acclimate for about six months before finally getting started.
Since I had no idea how long it would take to finish the project (3 bedrooms and a landing at the top of the stairway) I bought the nail guns, which was a good idea because it took much longer than planned. I was able to sell them for nearly as much as I paid.
Because it was cabin grade, the pieces were much shorter than your standard flooring, but this actually created a look that we liked, with a lot of variation. We picked up some liner to go under the flooring and enough quarter round for the rooms and landing.
Next, I started to sort the flooring. This was a mess, but I was able to sort by size, colour, and defects and that helped significantly. I was able to take those sorted piles and use them in each of the bedrooms to give each a different look. The smallest room got the lightest colour pieces and the master got the darkest and most interesting grain.
The look was actually better than we had imagined.
I had been planning to make a chair in the same style of the Prairie Settle because I wanted to fix a few mistakes I’d made with the couch and I just wanted the chair because it’s cool. I still went for the Red Oak because I’m a glutton for punishment. Actually, I don’t remember why I still went with Red Oak, but I’m sure I had a very good reason. There were some measurements for the chair that came with the original plans I’d bought for the Prairie Settle, so I basically made it as a very short version of the Settle.
The build process for this one was rather sporadic, as we moved twice while making it. I started out with the spacious and wonderful garage and basement combo that was a dream.
We then moved to a smaller place with no basement. This was not too much of an issue except in the winter. The garage was not insulated and we were not allowed to heat it (we were renting).
When the temperature drops below 10 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period it is difficult to use iron or steel tools. That winter we had snow and cold snaps so I ended up bringing the chair into the house to work on. This introduced some interesting obstacles but also got me thinking about what woodworking and furniture making meant to me and how motivated and dedicated I might or might not be.
But that was not the last move in this build. Alas, we had one more move to go before I finished the chair.
Our final move before the chair was finished was into an apartment. This kind of downsizing introduced so many new challenges and compromises that I honestly think this is where I cemented my love of woodworking.
Our downsizing was all part of a grander scheme so it was all self-induced and not due to a personal crisis or anything.
I’m going to use the constant moving as an excuse (not a legitimate reason, but an excuse) for some of the issues I had with the chair build. Lack of decent lighting was a constant obstacle and unfortunately, it reared its ugly head during the worst time possible, while I was sanding and finishing. I wanted to try something different and the plan was to use some amber shellac and then a brown wax to kill the orange. As you can already see, my plans went awry and my time limitations kept me from getting the wax on. This was one of those moments where I really questioned some of my life choices. In the badly lit apartment it looked very nearly like I wanted, but as soon as I got it outside and into some halfway decent light, I damn near cried.
But I get ahead of myself. The build itself was fairly uneventful.
Again, prepping and dimensioning the lumber by hand was the fun part. I cut the grooves and spindle channels with mallet and chisel, like the Settle project.
The cauls I’m using here are actually all that remained from a coffee table we got from World Market. A lot of their furniture is made of Rubberwood. When Rubberwood trees are finished providing latex, after 20 to 30 years, they used to be burned. Now they are being used in furniture, especially those in the plantations in Asia. What I saw of the wood in this furniture (that I destroyed and used for cauls) is that the colour could be interesting, but not necessarily pretty. It’s a fairly tight grain and not as splintery as Red Oak. It works easily with hand tools and sands well. Since the colour can be kind of offputting, it’s usually heavily stained.
Just as I was getting ready to start my dry fitting of the frame, the temperature dropped and I was forced indoors. This is where I had to be creative and compromise on some things that I would normally do. Without a large surface on which to rotate, flip, support, and clamp, I had to make sure that I had clearance whenever I wanted to move the chair because the clamps might bang into or damage something in the room. This meant that my clamping was not as aggressive as I would have liked and eventually required modification (fixing).
Once again, the 1/4 sawn Red Oak was beautiful.
I made sure to get the medullary rays to flow away from the chair on each arm. Kind of a nice effect.
This is where we moved once again, so the next piece of the puzzle was done at the aparment. Here I started with the seat frame, doing the same weaving and materials as last time. If something works, go with it.
We’re currently living near Edinburgh, Scotland where I am attending the Chippendale International School of Furniture, something that my wife and I had been planning for a while. This has been a dream come true for me and I’ve been drinking from the firehose since class started. I’m enrolled in the professional course that includes the following:
Timber identification & timber technology Tool and Machinery induction Sharpening 3D/Perspective drawing The fundamentals of joinery Woodturning Cabinet Making Carcass construction How to make a dovetailed drawer & hang a cabinet door Restoration/conservation of antique furniture Steam bending & Laminating Veneering techniques Fretwork Marquetry & Parquetry Oyster & Boulle work Inlaying (Brass, Ivory & Mother of Pearl) Woodcarving Gilding Windsor chair making Leatherwork Finishing techniques (Oil, Wax, Shellac, Spray lacquer, Staining & Colour matching) Business skills, pricing & customer care Branding, PR & Marketing, and website development & management Machinery maintenance How to set up a workshop
I didn’t realize it at the time, but furniture restoration and repair are the most challenging, fulfilling and enjoyable activities related to woodworking that I’ve found so far. That doesn’t mean I won’t find something else along the way but for now…
The school is also a working business that does restorations and repairs and I was given the opportunity to fix a chair that was brought in. At first, I was quite a bit nervous that I would screw something up that was irreparable but with Graham and Clare’s wonderful tutelage I was able to take this project on. Graham and Clare are the school’s repair and restoration experts and it is a very common sight to see them working on pieces. We all know that all we have to do is ask and we can take part in any repairs or restoration that comes in.
First thing I did was to remove the front frame to enable easier access to the damage.
The next step was to create a mortise into the portion of the frame where the tenon snapped and then to remove the broken portion of the tenon from the leg.
After the loose tenon had been glued and set overnight, I fit the front section to the rest of the frame to see how the break would come together.
The next step was to go ahead and glue this up and let it set overnight. I then took a bit of scrap mahogany and fit it to the opening.
Next, I began colouring the new patch with water-based dies and sanded (exposed) old material to help blend.
I used Yellow, Van Dyke Brown, and Walnut.
I then put 3 coats of shellac (dewaxed) on and blended with the french polish mouse (3 swipes with the mouse over the repair and into the old part of the frame).
The next day I roughed it up to take the shine off. Used some pigments with shellac and coloured wax to blend in and fill the smaller areas. Then White Wax over the repaired area and buff.
One of the most valuable things I’ve gained from being a student at the Chippendale International School of Furniture is access to antique, and even ancient, furniture that I’d only ever seen in books and online. We have visited homes and museums and have enjoyed access to furniture that I didn’t know existed. We have also had access outside of school to auctions and antique shops where I’ve fondled and caressed (not in a creepy way) beautiful antiques and vintage pieces of furniture for much longer than was appropriate.
I’ve been taught since I was young that when at any museum, or in the vicinity of delicate antiques, you ‘look but don’t touch‘ , so it’s been an amazing treat to be able to visit museums and homes and have that extra bit of access where you can touch the pieces, pick them up, turn them over and look at the underbelly because, in order to really understand how furniture was made, you have to look under, inside, and behind that piece. I first learned this from a blog, Pegs and Tails, that I’ve been following for a few years, and also from Peter Follansbee’s blog but since starting my furniture class I’ve had a chance to experience this first hand.
I’ve been able to see and help work on some wonderful pieces of furniture that have come in the School since I began my classes. From damaged chairs to cabinets, desks, dressers, and tables, they have all fascinated and intrigued me, but one particular moment that stands out to me is when a late 18th C. (around 1780) Italian table came in for repair/restoration. I’d not seen a piece like this before, but was immediately drawn to it because as soon as I started looking closely I could see so many wonderful and intriguing things about it.
But the one thing that caught my eye was when I saw some holes in the veneer and marquetry that didn’t look like normal wear and tear.
I knew that I remembered seeing this somewhere, so I went back to some blogs I follow and found it in the Pegs and Tails blog in a post called “A Thorny Subject” dated 15 Jan 2012. He talks about veneer pins, which were used in period veneer work. They were made of thin sheet steel and guillotined or sheared with a taper. The edges were sharp enough to cut fingers so they were made to cut through the veneer instead of wedging into it. I’ve not found any sheered veneer pins for sale today (only round), but it may just be that my Google-Fu skills are rusty.
Per the article, the veneer pins were often used on uncooperative veneer in corners, on either side of a split or joint, or anywhere the veneer refused to cooperate.
This was one of those ‘Eureka’ moments for me and just drove home the fact that I’m intrigued by the methods and tools used by pre-industrial furniture makers and crafts people. I was fairly bouncing around the table, babbling like an idiot about these pin holes because it tied together things I’d read about to things I was able to experience. And quite often, making it real is the catalyst for education.