Thursday, April 17, 2014

When Good Tools Go Bad.

I get the idea that for some woodworking is mostly about accuracy. Accuracy is important but it has it's place. I have never worried about how infinitesimally thin I can get my #4 to take shavings, There are times and places I take thick groatish shavings, even with my #4. Instead I worry about the line I'm shaving to and the surface left behind. Who cares how gossamer the shavings are on my shop floor and under my feet.


I bought my first marking knife in 2010. Up to that point a pencil had always worked well for me. I bought it because I'd read it was something essential for a hand tool woodworker to have and to use. I knew it was indispensable to improving my dovetail layouts. I knew it because the internet had told me so, and the internet never lies. Abraham Lincoln wrote that and I know because Facebook told me so. Facebook is also on the internet.

I bought that marking knife and tried to use it. I tried to use it just like I'd read about.


I bought that knife. I tried to use it, and it was horrible. I hated it. It stuck in the grain, It took a slice off the blade of my wooden square. It wiggled and pushed the square out of line. It slipped and cut my finger. It cut into the dovetails I was trying to trace. The damned thing was defective.

I put it back into it's plastic sheath and threw it into the drawer of a tool cabinet. The controversy was settled, I was a graphite man.


A while later I built a traditional tool chest and started to work out of it. I emptied the drawers of my tool cabinet into the tills of my chest. The Damned Marking Knife ended up with my measuring and layout tools in the top till. I spent a while moving it out of the way to grab a pencil. Then I started to pull it out of the chest every once in a while to see if it was still defective.

Once in a while grew to more often, which grew into fairly frequently.

Then on impulse bought a second marking knife at a woodworking show in Milwaukee.

That one seemed to follow the example of the first, It worked as well.


I'm proud to announce the Damned Marking Knife has learned it's lesson. It understands if it stops working again I will be forced to return it to exile. I consider this another bad tool reformed.

Now where did I put my pencil?

Ratione et Passionis
Oldwolf

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Burden of Conjecture

Here I am in near full armor doing a lecture/demonstration of medieval weaponry
 for a seventh grade class from the area. 

I've been working on notes and writing pages for a book on Medieval furniture for a long while now. Nearly too long. The issues I've had were several including the subject matter itself. I am interested in writing the book on medieval furniture that I, as a reenactor/recreationist, have always wanted to read. That carries the weight of several burdens. 

The Biggest Burden: Conjecture. Conjecture is a necessary evil, short of installing a Flux Capacitor in my pickup and going back in time to see it done for real, you have to make assumptions on history based on personal experience. One of the reasons I wear armor that's as accurate as possible and have studied and practiced the combat techniques documented in period fight manuals, (they do exist) was to expand my personal experience and reign in many of those assumptions. 

The issue with building medieval furniture, at least the stuff I'm interested circa pre-1300's, is that most of it is simply gone. There are some examples around, held tight by the museums or private collections  that own them, but the chance to experience a piece in that state, well it's difficult for a man living on this side of the pond. 

I want to write a book about pieces that have a connection to reenactors today. There needs to be the right provenance. I feel uniquely qualified to write this book, but finding the right subjects to study and build has been a slippery slope to scale. What I needed was good source material and it was sitting right in front of me the whole time. 

There is a document known as the Maciejowski Bible (it also goes by the names the Morgan Bible or the Crusader's Bible) Basically it's a picture bible that dates to somewhere between 1240 and 1250 AD. Think Medieval comic book based on the Old Testament. The really cool thing is instead of depicting the figures as being from biblical times, all flowing togas and sandals, the stories are illustrated as contemporary figures, (contemporary for 1250AD). 


It has been studied and discussed ad nauseam by medieval scholars and enthusiasts It's been an accepted source material for representations of armor, weapons, table wear, clothing, and to some extent customs. As near as I can find, nobody has looked seriously at the document as a resource for the furniture. 

This then becomes my intention, my quest if you will. I've spent the majority of my free hours over the winter studying scans of the pages available online and looking for every scrap of furniture present and there is some cool stuff hidden in the pages, some with high detail. I've drawn out several measured drawings based on the images and what I know about furniture construction. Conjecture . . .yes, but guided conjecture with purpose. 

I've identified ten separate pieces in the pages. My goal for the next several months is to build at least eight of these pieces, document the process thoroughly, and write them up into a manuscript over the winter months. For certain I will be writing about some of the process and pieces here. But before I get into the furniture I wanted to show a couple things I found interesting. 


The first is Noah building the Ark. He is obviously hewing a riven plank and there is another axe and spoon auger in the foreground. The workbench he's using is of a variety I hear refereed to as Roman, but I believe was fairly ubiquitous in Medieval Europe until the upswing of full blown cabinetmaking. Two things are especially interesting to me here. The first is the saw bench supporting the Ark up off the ground. I like the simple design and I'm certain I've seen Chris Schwarz build one that could be mistaken for it. 

The second thing is the plank supported on edge to the workbench. I'd say its unclear for certain if Noah is hewing the board he has one leg proped up on or the board supported on the bench, but I have not seen a historical representation of a board supported for edge work on a bench such as this. I'm not sure if the upright bits are clamping the board or just dogs supporting the backside. 


The next is a scene of masons at work erecting a tower I like this because it shows workmen in their clothes and more tools. Including this beauty. . . 



While I was busy making squares I figured I should go ahead and make a copy of this one too. 


My first step on the journey complete. Now to simply continue to put one foot before the other. 


Ratione et Passionis
Oldwolf

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"A" Stands For Icon


 I've read the story Chris Schwarz wrote about the Anarchy Square several times. In my romantic, failed fiction writer mind I picture a chorus of angels harmonizing their "Ahhh"'s as he opened his email from Patrick Leach and found the icon for his book "The Anarchist's Tool Chest."

I see the Anarchy Square popping up in all kinds of places these days. They kind of stand as a secret handshake for a specific cloister of the woodworking collective. A Schwarzian cult that bides its time like a sleeper cell, waiting for the beginning days of the zombie apocalypse when we can fill our hands with dovetail saws and razor sharp chisels to defend humanity and bring about a new and lasting Luddite utopia.

Ummm. . . . sorry, my imagination seems to be getting the better of me this afternoon.



In seriousness, I do find it fun to spy this square out in the wild. You'll see it in the back ground of pictures inside shops and hanging on the wall in shop tour videos on YouTube and every time I notice it I smile.

I've been taken with this square since I first saw Chris write about it on his Popular Woodworking blog. I build a pair of them almost three years ago to the day, (Read the entry HERE) a full size and a half size one. The older ones were built from some African Mahogany scraps. I've been making a couple sets of wooden squares lately and decided to make myself a new version of the Anarchy Square. This time I was able to get the walnut to the more correct width and give the tool the strong posture it deserves.

I've built several wooden squares lately and I've found it to be a good, back to basics endeavor. A little bit like NBA players will still spend hours shooting free throws. I've gathered quite a collection of wooden squares over all now.


In addition to my three versions of the Anarchy Square. I have a Roubo Square I built three years ago, and the square I bought from Jim Tolpin.


I built the full set of three squares from the Benjamin Seaton Tool Chest, accurate to the measurements given in the book. The large and medium squares are massive. Bigger than my steel carpenter square with the blade on the large one measuring 30 1/2" long. The double tenon on these was a cool challenge.

The best thing I took away from this squaring exercise was enjoying how far my skills have come. Sawing a straight line for a tenon or half lap was something I really had to concentrate on last time I built squares. This time around the sawing and paring came easy. I could see whether my surfaces were straight and square without really measuring. I'm proud of how far I've some in using and understanding my hand tools. Things I worried about so much in the past have now taken a back seat to bigger and better concerns, like proportion and the execution of details.

I did build one other square over this past week. One sourced from my own little epiphany, complete with angels singing, well maybe not angels, but inspiration, answers, and plans instead. More about that soon, but in the meantime, lets see if anyone can guess the historical inspiration for this square. . . (Hint: In the historical context, the square is not being used by a woodworking craftsman, but some other trade. This reference is significantly older than Roubo or Moxon)




Ratione et Passionis
Oldwolf

Monday, March 24, 2014

Squaring Up


It feels like forever since I've spent real quality time in the shop working on something. Over the winter I joined in the one day shop stool build off and built something a little Roubo for a Popular Woodworking article. In essence it adds up to around four to five shop days since last fall. I needed a little break to recharge my batteries, do some reading and research, and I got that. I'm feeling ready to start rolling and I've banked up a truck full of ideas from here.

But starting again after a break is a little daunting. I haven't meaningfully flexed my shop muscles, mental or physical, in a bit. I wanted to go out and start something in the shop, but I knew I wasn't ready to start a big project yet.

Then the mail arrived, and with it my purchase from the Jim Tolpin Spring Cleaning Tool Sale. A wooden square handmade by the man himself. 

As I took it out to the shop and took a few pictures of it I thought about how I hadn't made a wooden square in a couple years. I'd been thinking about the process again lately, but I hadn't taken the time to make any. That changed today and I knew right where to start.

The book "The Tool Chest Of Benjamin Seaton" is fascinating in what it tells you and what it doesn't. The info is all there, but the layout is a little stuffy and it's short on some details I would like to see better. (I still don't understand where the dovetail marker hides in the chest, though the book talks about it quite a bit) The three Try Squares found in the chest are an oddity to my modern eyes. their proportions just seem out of whack on the page, but their joinery is very cool. Double through tenons anyone. 

I've wanted to build a full set of three, all the same sizes found in the chest, to see and feel for myself if the proportions look better in real life, and work well for shop layouts. plus it's a chance to flex some muscles again and get the sawdust back under my fingernails.

 Recently I got my hands on some good black walnut, more than I needed for the intended project, What I had would be perfect to make a set of Seaton Squares, another A is for Anarchy square, and probably a couple Roubo or Moxon style squares as well. I had the day free and I was itching to do something meaningful in the shop so I threw myself into the process. I went inside and grabbed my copy of the Benjamin Seaton book, took some notes and started off to the races

The caveat is that I was more neglectful of my documentation than usual. I took some photos, but not many. In essence I broke down the walnut into blanks to make the components for the three squares. I used my bandsaw to resaw some walnut down to 1/4" thick for the blades and I planed all my surfaces square and true for both the blades and the beams.


Then I started to layout the joinery between the blade and beam for the smallest of the squares. I knifed a line so the blade would pass about an 1/8" beyond the beam so I could plane it even after assembly.


The blade itself is wider than one would think, nearly 3". but the measurements for laying out the twin tenons is not included. The only measurement is the blade sticks out .39 of an inch past the end of the beam. I decided to give some account to planing the blade square after assembly and rounded this number up to 1/2" then doubled it for the amount housed in the blade.

Extrapolating from that I sized the gap between the tenons at around a 1/2" and the housing cut to hide the mortise on the inside of the blade at 1/4".


I laid out the cuts and sawed them out like I would a dovetail. Then I used the tenons to mark out for my mortises.


I hadn't realized how long it's been since I've chopped out a mortise by hand. Any larger mortises I've made in the last few years I've drilled out first. It went very well, slowly, but very well. In the end I got the tight fit I needed and in my excitement I banged the glade home solidly, to the point where taking it apart would most likely destroy it.

So I planed down the proud ends and pondered my options. I'd banged the sucker home before I'd applied any glue. Sure it was a tight fit and would hold fine, but a square that develops a wiggle in the blade is no good to anyone. So I went off script a little.

I made three pins from pine, thinking the lighter wood would be a nice accent. I drilled three holes through the beam and blade and I glued those pins in place and trimmed them flush. Now I had to cut my chamfer on three sides of the beam with the blade in place.


I cut the end grain chamfers with a paring chisel and the long grain with a block plane. By then I had to pick up and wrap up for the day. Chores to do don't you know. but tomorrow I'll square up the blade to the beam and have the smallest of the Seaton Squares done. Then it's on to momma bear and pappa bear.

This is feeling good.

Anyone want a set?

Ratione et Passionis
Oldwolf

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Material I Used To Dream About.

The process of inspiration is amazing. Many people inspired me to start woodworking, and many more have inspired the different paths I've taken in woodworking. One of my first and most significant inspirations was Norm Abram and the New Yankee Workshop show. Though I have matured, realized my own proclivities and diverged from the Yankee Trail, I still own Mr. Abram gratitude for making woodworking seem both accessible enough to attempt and mysterious enough to hold my curiosity.

Many talk about Norm's "toys" with envy or distain. In his defense I think it's an interesting challenge to find a way to build one off pieces of furniture that were originally built by hand and use only power tools to accomplish it. I still smile at the ingenuity of the episode where Norm combined the use of the lathe and a router suspended in a jig, on it's side, to make a round raised edge table top (was that for a Martha Washington candlestand or something different?) 


No matter how you feel about tools, whether power, hand, or hybrid, you have to appreciate the engineering that went into that. 

I have learned not to begrudge Norm his tools or his process. It doesn't matter how you work, only that you do work. What alway made me so envious, and still does to some degree, was the amazing stock he was able to get his hands on. The years when I watched the most he was heavy into the reclaimed lumber. Resawing beams of century old chestnut on the bandsaw and surface planing wide pine floor boards just enough to remove the dirt, but not the patina. Pretty amazing stuff. 

In between bursts of polar vortex, I've spent 2014 working on a project and article for Popular Woodworking Magazine. I needed thick stock for this build, like 3" thick, and I needed it to be perfect. After trying several compromises I came to the realization there would be no substitute for the real thing this historical accuracy of what I was trying to build demanded it. The problem, I had no idea where to get good stock in that thickness. 

So I started, desperately asking around to other gentleman woodwrights in my area and managed to get my hands on just what I needed. 


It's a beam of southern yellow pine, nearly 3" thick and 5" wide. It was a little over 8 foot long when I bought it. The growth rings are super tight and straight, there's not a hint of knot on it. The beam was from the original Schwinn bicycle factory in Chicago. As near as I can find, that puts the beam as part of a building around 1895. 

That makes a little piece of history to build something from history. 


The wood was so stable and so fun to work with. The shavings I was able to take off of it were perfect and aromatic. The scent of sap from this century old beam surrounded my workbench.

I only used 4' of the beam for the magazine build. This leaves another 4' behind for my nefarious purposes. I'm still deciding what I can do with it and how to stretch it as far as possible. Part of me is thinking resawing into parts for wooden squares and part of me is thinking about building a repeat of what the other half went to.  

More on that soon. 




Ratione et Passionis
Oldwolf



Off Into The Blue


In a few hours I board a plane leaving for a week in Nicaragua. I understand most peoples years start on January 1st, but the last couple years it seems my year begins in the spring with this trip.

I'm not a tourist, though I do often go by the moniker "estupido gringo" while in country. I am part of a medical mission trip.  I'll be facilitating the work of surgeon and two residents as they perform corrective podiatric surgeries. That means I'll be setting up the supplies, cleaning and sterilizing the instrumentation and implants, and occasionally assisting with the surgeries. The assisting part is closer to what I do everyday at the hospital.

This will be my third time going. It's an amazing experience everytime. Inspirational and  exhausting. This time I've upped my stress ante by bringing along my oldest daughter. At 17 years old it should be an eye widening, "it's a big world" experience for her. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in this hemisphere, it used to be the poorest before earthquakes leveled Haiti. There is all the things imaginable that accompany crushing poverty. But there are beautiful, hopeful things too and you are reminded that where there is life, there is hope, and that people are people no matter where you meet them.

It turns out I may have a different mission next spring so this will be my last trip back for a couple years.

But this is a woodworking blog, so where's the sawdust, the tools, the furniture? Well of course my camera comes with me, and of course I take pictures of furniture and architectural elements. Depending on where you are in country the furniture has some distinctive features, but I would say the majority could easily be identified in a range from gothic medieval to the arts and crafts style.

I've gathered some from my past trips below. Click on the photos to see larger images.

Grenada:








Hotel St. Thomas, Matagalpa







Catholic Cathedral, Matagalpa:



Selva Negra Plantation







Ratione et Passionis
Oldwolf