Monday, March 21, 2011

The Doldrums

There comes a time in most of my journeys - the novelty-has-worn-off, bloom-is-off-the rose, honeymoon-is-over time - when I find myself muttering “Why the hell am I doing this anyway?”
I first experienced this when hitchhiking alone around Europe in the late ‘60s. I didn’t have a plane ticket home to Canada. I was 21 years old and completely out of money, except for the “To Be Used Only in Case of Dire Emergency” Canadian $100 bill I had stashed inside my passport so I could bribe my way out of any real trouble. (Yeah, a hundred bucks went a lot farther back then, and they actually let you fly to Europe on a one-way ticket.) It was snowing – almost Christmas – and I had spent my last few dollars on a ticket in the lowest-class section on a jam-packed train traveling from Zagreb (in then-Yugoslavia) to London, where I had a friend whom I desperately hoped would put me up for a few days and help me find a job. It was something like a 36-hour trip with many stops and, being flat broke, I was resigned to going without food or drink. The compartment I was in was crammed with burly, dangerous-looking men smoking strong, hand-rolled cigarettes, and round, hairy-legged women in nubbly skirts with bulging shopping bags jammed into every available space on the floor. It would be impossible to stretch out, let alone sleep. No one spoke English. I missed my family and friends. I was tired, and afraid.
When sailing to the South Pacific, it happened in the infamous Intertropical Convergence Zone – the ITCZ – or simply “The Doldrums.”  The incessant hum of the diesel engine, the oppressive heat, the random gunshot of the drooping mainsail snapping violently from port to starboard with every  big swell, the unpredictable 30-knot squalls that would appear out of nowhere and force us 30 degrees off course – all drove us to near madness.
In the Himalayas it was the eight-day storm, the “We’re almost out of food and fuel, winter is closing in, not sure this is worth it, it’s getting hard to breathe and maybe we should go down even if the summit is so close.” time of push on or turn around.
I remember a story told by Mick Bird about rowing single-handed across the Pacific Ocean on the first leg of an epic journey that he hoped would eventually take him around the world. His 28-foot-long, six-foot-wide cold-molded boat, Reach, was a sleek and beautiful craft, designed and built here in Port Townsend by Kit Africa and Jim Franken.  It had a lovely, varnished rib across the edge of the cabin top in the center opening, right at Mick’s eye level. One day in difficult conditions somewhere in the middle of his 2000-mile journey, Mick had rowed hard and almost non-stop for 11 hours straight – at the end of which his GPS showed him to be two miles behind where he had started rowing that morning. In a fit of pique, he grabbed a Sharpie marker and scrawled “YOU CHOSE TO BE HERE!” in large letters across the shiny wood rib. Thereafter, he had to stare at those words every moment of every day, with every stroke of the oars.
This is my roundabout way of saying that, about three weeks ago, I hit the doldrums in my never-to-be-illustrious woodworking career. This – combined with the many life-tasks that so annoyingly refuse to hibernate while I amuse myself with planes and chisels and power tools – has made it difficult to maintain my energy level, let alone my weekly blogging schedule. Add to the list a serious case of spring fever, exacerbated by the never ending rain and wind and dark-again mornings (damn daylight savings time!) that has kept my masters women’s rowing crew, Tuf As Nails, off the water so far this season.
More than once I have reminded myself: “You chose to be here.”  But, while I am behind in the blog, I have continued to take copious notes and photographs in class and I intend to write more detail about all of it as time allows after the 12-week session ends.

Visits With the Masters
There have been truly remarkable days – from spending time in the workshops of some of Port Townsend’s finest woodworkers, to having some of them come to us as visiting teachers. Steve Habersetzer,  Jaap Romijn, Richard Inman and Robin McKann generously and encouragingly allowed us to invade their wonderful work spaces and shared their life’s work. Tom Dolese, of Terra Firma Design, taught a two-day session, revealing his hard-earned secrets of building beautiful and phenomenally comfortable chairs using precise loose-tenon joinery. Seth Rolland brought three days of out-of-square-chaos-is-fun revelation in the form of of steam-bending and shaping and laminating and vacuum bagging and generally coaxing wood to do all sorts of things it doesn’t naturally want to do. Dan Packard was here with his dozens of mirror-finish, razor sharp carving chisels which he allowed us to play with for two days of surface decoration and carving. John Markworth got down to the nuts and bolts (literally) of practical cabinet making techniques, introducing biscuit joiners, pocket screws and the wondrous capabilities of the Festool Domino, which is right up there with the band saw in my list of new favorite tools.
In days between, we finished our Shaker tables and have designed and begun working on our final projects: Alex is making a large tool chest, incorporating extensive hand-joinery, from several different local woods; Mark is doing a drafting table in hard maple, with circular, swing-out drawers;  Melanya has designed a desk-top stationery and writing cabinet with a variety of drawers and a tambour top; Justin is working on a sea-chest with a coopered top in multiple woods; Kia’s is a small, vacuum-laminated complex-curved bedside altar in local madrone with carved details; and I am oh-so-slowly bumbling along on a prototype for an outdoor bench (possibly to be known as “Dianne’s Folly”) that will sit on the upper deck outside the Maritime Heritage and Resource Building at the Northwest Maritime Center .
The Journey Continues
There will be no doldrums from here on. The trade winds have filled in, so to speak, and we’re cruising along above hull-speed. It seems impossible that the end of (at least) this leg of the journey is in sight.
By the way, after rowing for 64 days, Mick Bird arrived in Kona, Hawaii, and later continued to Australia and across the Indian Ocean to South Africa before abandoning his round-the-world quest in favor of being with his wife and young twin daughters. Our 1978 American team made it to the top of K2 and all returned home safely, after spending 75 days above 18,000’ elevation – something that is virtually unheard-of in the annals of mountaineering history. Our family, aboard our 53’ steel pilothouse ketch, Impossible, sailed from Port Townsend to Australia and back – an exhilarating journey of more than 20,000 miles – over a four-year period ending in September 2000.
And on the train from Zagreb so long ago, I gasped as men slipped scary-looking knives out of their jacket pockets, grinning at me sideways. Then shopping bags were opened and all manner of sausages and cheeses and bread materialized, was sliced up and passed from hand to hand (mine included), along with copious quantities of slivovitz swilled straight from the bottle. One of the Yugoslavs bribed the conductor so we wouldn’t get thrown off the train. Button accordions, mandolins and fiddles appeared and we partied for 36 hours straight, laughing and belting out Christmas Carols in English, French, Italian, German and several Eastern European languages I could not identify but sang in rather well. I arrived in London slightly hung over, hoarse, fatter than when I had left, and happier than I had ever been.
Once you get through the doldrums, it turns out, things can get really interesting.
(P.S. I will add more photos to this post tomorrow - please check back again.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Epic Fail!

One of the great things about going to school with young people is learning new slang. I love the dynamism of the English language and, though personally inclined toward writing grammatically correctly (perhaps stuffily so), I think it's cool that structure and meaning can morph into new forms that suddenly become hip and then just as suddenly date you as having grown up in the 60's. Like, who knew that "sick" could mean something good?

Anyway, I noticed that Melanya - a very talented young woman woodworker and boatbuilder - would say "Fail!" or, once in awhile, "Epic Fail!" in a mock-alarmed, tongue-in-cheek sort of way on the rare occasions that something didn't come out quite as perfectly as she'd intended. It struck me as an ideal expression - economical, slightly self-deprecating, and funny. I've adopted it and have had many occasions to use it lately.

Building the Shaker Table
For the past two weeks we have been mostly working on the Shaker style table I first introduced a couple of posts ago. It's an unassuming little thing, with a small drawer, a top and four legs. (As I learned this week, tables do NOT necessarily have to have four legs - I saw a picture of one with about 75 legs. And someone apparently made one with no legs - he hung it from the ceiling. But that's a story for another time.) You could probably buy something similar to our four-legged table at Pottery Barn for about a hundred bucks. If I paid myself the average hourly wage of a Chinese worker, my table is already worth a couple of hundred and the little step stool I made earlier must be twice that.

In any case, you wouldn't think such a quiet little thing would be so hard to build. I mean, screw four Ikea legs to a board and you've got yourself a pretty good table in under an hour. But our table not only has legs - it has about 16 other pieces that have to come together precisely in the right order and to such extreme tolerances that it's almost like, well, rocket science.

Nevertheless, by the end of last week I was feeling reasonably good about the whole thing. While I wasn't as far along in the process as most of the other students, I was at least in the game. My first encounter with the router table to make sliding dovetail joints (A.K.A. "French Dovetails") that attach the three aprons to the legs had gone smoothly, and I was quite proud of the fact that they slid together nicely, with just enough wiggle room for the thin layer of glue that would come later. I had hand-cut two half-blind, half-lap dovetails and two mortise-and-tenons to join the top and bottom blades to the front legs. I'd done more of the above for the two runners and the top kicker and, while they weren't exactly pretty, I felt as if each joint was a bit better than the last. The only issue I'd had was a mistake in calculating the length of the runners and top kicker, but I'd recalculated and cut a half inch off each before making the joints. Whew. All that remained was to cut the legs to length, taper them, fit it all together, do the big glue-up, and the carcase would be done. (No, that's not a misspelling of "carcass," though I have to admit I do feel almost dead by Friday afternoon. It's another of those Woodworking/Scrabble words that means the framework or basic structure - essentially, a box.)

I'd also - finally - managed to get the glue-up done on my step stool and it was getting close to ready for it's first coat of finish. I could hardly wait to see that quartersawn oak gleaming with 7 coats of Tim's Secret Sauce hand-rubbed varnish.

Epic Fail!
Valentine's Day starts cheerily enough, with sunshine and heart cookies all around. Jim Tolpin repeats his dovetail demo, this time cutting the whole thing so precisely and so quickly (maybe 5 minutes start to finish) that I am in awe. Each time I watch him I learn a little more - a slight adjustment of the saw blade, a refinement of the chisel position, a modification in the mark-up procedure. It is getting easier, but he says I need to practice 9,987 more before it will become automatic.

Tim lays out the next steps for the table - there are 11 of them, and finishing the carcase joinery (where I am) is number one. Still, I'm confident I should be able to get through most of them by the end of the week. Tim has spent some time over the weekend tweaking the big band saw, which was giving us all fits on Friday while we were resawing boards for the drawer sides. It turns out the cast iron table on the saw was out of adjustment due to a missing support underneath, but it is now fixed. Maintaining the power tools is a big deal - they are really a bunch of babies needing constant attention. "We think of metal as invariant," Tim says, "But it's really not. Even cast iron continues to adjust shape over time."

My table parts are on my work bench and I am anxious to do a test fit before sizing and tapering the legs. I have numbered all the parts and joints in pencil, but it is still confusing. Alex has named his with fruits and vegetables, which is easier to sort out and is a lot more fun - on the next project, I think I'll name mine after my friends. You gotta love these young people.

I get everything stacked in order and I'm pleased that the sliding dovetails still slide as I begin the assembly. It's awkward getting it together without breaking any of the delicate joints but at last it is standing, if a bit shakily, without being glued. With a bit of massaging, the corners are squared and everything lines up. All that's left is to insert the two runners and the top kicker and -- AAACK! They are half an inch too short - that half-inch I cut off Friday afternoon. WTF!*

"Fail! Epic Fail!" I groan. And suddenly feel considerably better.

There's nothing to do but cut new runners and kicker and redo the joinery. I decide to recut the bottom blade as well, since, on closer inspection, I realize I'm not so happy with my earlier effort. This time it goes faster, and I actually end up glad for the do-over. While it's hard to admit, I learned a lot from my mistake, and the end result is better.

By week's end, I've finished the carcase joinery, crosscut, trued, edge-jointed and glued-up the boards for the top, smoothed and bevelled the top with a series of hand planes, cut the board for the drawer front, and glued-up the carcase. I'm still behind the other students' progress, but still in the game.

Here is Mark's table (so far), on the left with the drawer front and pull, and mine (so far) on the right. Monday I'll build the drawer and figure out some sort of cute knob or pull.

Over the weekend I put six coats of Tim's Secret Sauce on my step stool, rubbed it out with ever-finer sandpaper (240 - 600 grit) and it now shines like a little oak jewel. One last coat of varnish and a couple of coats of Skidmore's Liquid Beeswax and it will actually be done.

Oh yeah...*WTF: Woodworking Total Failure

Monday, February 14, 2011

Wooden Heart

Happy Valentine's Day from your WoodWorkWoman! 
Is anyone else old enough to remember this vintage Elvis song?  (Be sure to click on the Elvis link - to see the original - it's really cute.) I passed this card out to my fellow students today and no one but me knew the tune - yikes - I must be even older than I thought! Anyway, I hope it gets stuck in your head - maybe that will get it out of mine.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Greeks and Shakers

Time has vaporized and my fourth week at Port Townsend School of Woodworking is done. It seems utterly impossible that we are already a third of the way through the 12-week program. So much new material was packed into the week's five days that I could not possibly cram it all into one blog post, plus I haven't even finished writing about week 3 yet! I'm quite a slow writer so, rather than merely touching on many subjects, I'm going to focus (mostly) on one today, namely:

Design Secrets of the Greeks & the Shakers
I know about as much about the Shakers as I do about the Greeks, which is to say almost nothing.

Sure, I have seen plenty of pictures of the Parthenon, and I stood for an hour in awe of the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre during my post-college hitch-hiking trip around Europe in 1969, which was possibly the last great year of European hitchhiking, and maybe the last year they actually let you touch the statues in the Louvre. I recently read a fascinating book of Greek history - Lords of the Sea - which more-or-less argues that Greek rowing led to the birth of democracy. I love that idea. And I loved the scene in one of the James Bond movies (I get them all mixed up) with the stone house on top of a precarious Greek cliff where the Roger-Moore-Bond ties his shoelaces into prusicks to ascend the vertical face and save the day, prior to ending up with the gorgeous Greek brunette in a fabulous yacht floating on an impossibly turquoise sea. That's about it on the Greek front.

As for the Shakers, I'm pretty sure they were a religious society along the lines of the Amish, that "Simple Gifts" is a Shaker song, and that they lived simply and made furniture. That's about it in the Shaker department.

I am about to learn a lot more about both, about the relationship of one to the other, plus dust off a few geometry concepts I haven't used much since high school math class.

Jim Tolpin enters the classroom on Tuesday morning, a lovely curved-handled wooden toolbox in hand and a long roll of paper and some thin sticks tucked under one arm. We gather around the large table at the back of the room. As he unrolls the paper and begins taping it to the table, I can't help but admire the toolbox. It is elegant, beautifully proportioned, exactly the right size for the few small tools it holds, and has three perfect dovetail joints at each corner. (The fact that I can now recognize, name and admire the execution of dovetail joints is a sign of progress, I think.) Jim removes a few items from the box: two large pairs of dividers, a circle-drawing compass with a point on one end and a pencil on the other, a small square, a pencil. He sets the sticks on the table, and I can now see that they are two pairs of two sticks joined at one end with a small hinge and marked off in equal-sized segments numbered from one to 13, one pair longer than the other.

As he is organizing these tools, Jim begins talking about our project for the week, which will be to collectively design and lay out a small side table or lamp table in the Shaker style, develop a cut list for materials, then choose and mill all the wood needed for the six identical tables our class will assemble next week. Given the fact that most of us are not even close to finishing the small benches and stools we have been working on for a couple of weeks now, and even though we will be working in teams of two and using power tools for dimensioning the wood, this seems a daunting task.

Jim says that Shaker design was a system of thinking that has been largely lost in today's furniture design. Though their pieces were built to exacting tolerances, there was very little measuring - rarely more than one parameter, such as the length of a tabletop to fit a certain space, would have been expressed in feet or inches. The rest was done with simple geometry and whole number proportions. A Shaker shop foreman might have said to a furniture maker something like: "Make a table 18 inches wide and a square and a half high." That would be all the information a skilled worker needed to create a perfectly fitted and proportioned piece, with no 13/16ths or 11/64ths involved. In fact, Jim said, most craftsmen would not have known much more math than simple arithmetic, did not have accurate measuring tools, and would not have been able to see them by candlelight anyway. Paper was expensive, if it existed at all, so designs would not have been drawn out, especially full-size. Rather, "Geometry was the language that artisans spoke in." He describes how he designed the pretty little tool box, starting with a segment of a circle for the curved handle and a length that was about right for the tools he intended to put in it. The complicated angles just fell into place.

"As far as we know," he continues, "the process has been used at least since the time of the Greeks. It is how the Parthenon was built, and the great cathedrals. " It is incredibly fast - all you need is a straightedge and a pair of dividers to draw out circles, squares and other geometric shapes that are accurately sized to the point of the dividers - perhaps a ten-thousandth of an inch. The proportions are those found in nature, those of the human body. They are Leonardo da Vinci's Vituvian Man. They are the golden rectangle and the Fibonacci sequence.  When such proportions are used, things "look right," the way the Parthenon looks, or a Shaker table, or a frame of 35mm film.

So we start with the given parameter for this project: we will design a square-top table that is 18 inches wide and a square and a half high. Jim grabs a yard stick and quickly draws an 18-inch line at the top of the paper. He then uses the dividers first to estimate half this width, refining the distance by slight adjustments until he can rotate them from the middle precisely to each end of the line, and then steps off three times this distance, perpendicular to the line. This will be the height of our table - which turns out to be 27 inches, the standard height of a side table.

Galileo's Sector
Next we have to decide the thickness of the legs. Jim spreads one of the hinged-stick tools and says that it is called a sector and was invented by Galileo.
The sector is a short-cut tool for getting whole number proportions: the sides of the sector are spread apart until you can line up one of the pairs of markings at each end of a line and then the dividers are used to measure across at another pair of lines to get that proportion. For example, to make the legs 1:9 relative to the top, we line up the "9" marks on the sector with each end of the top, then measure with the dividers at the "1" mark. This makes the legs 2" thick, which looks more Stickley-like than Shaker. So we try 1:11, which makes the legs 1-5/8" and very Shaker-like. We use this same process for the other visible parts of the table - aprons and blades - quickly arriving at a design that is pleasingly proportioned and accurately drawn.

Using geometry in the ways Jim demonstrated is so magically simple and quick that I feel a bit lightheaded. Even though I was actually quite good at math in my youth and can still do basic arithmetic in my head faster than I can use a calculator, taking accurate measurements and working with many fractions can be a real pain. The older I get, the more I have to write down, which takes time and leaves plenty of room for error. Jim mentions an essay - A Mathematician's Lament - which I read as soon as I get home. It is worth perusing, especially if you are one who grits your teeth at the mere mention of math.

That the Parthenon, the great cathedrals, and Shaker tables were all designed pretty much the same way - the whole thing is a revelation to me. I will never again look at one without seeing the other. I expect we will be doing quite a bit more designing like this over the coming weeks. Jim mentions that, as far as he has been able to determine, no one else is teaching this method of furniture design (perhaps another Jim Tolpin book soon?) and I feel privileged to be in this class. Remember, you heard it here first!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Power Tools!

I confess: I love power tools.

I loved my mother's yellow Mixmaster first, with the glass bowl that magically rotated one direction and then the other, a graceful dance that is absent from the hulking KitchenAid mixers of today. The Singer sewing machine was next - the Featherweight model that I wish I still had and that my quilting friends lust after - and I learned to use it at the age of four, sitting in my mother's lap with my hands on top of hers, perilously close to the piercing needle, gently guiding as the feed dog pulled the fabric beneath the presser foot. At around six or seven, I begged my father to show me how to work his power drill and, eventually, the Skil saw, which I did with strict supervision. By today's standards, though, my parents would probably be considered neglectful; from quite a young age, my sister, my brother and I regularly spent hours on end with no adult supervision at all. But using my dad's tools without permission and him close by was a sin punishable by weeks of early bedtimes and no allowance. Consequently, I quickly learned to put them back exactly as I'd found them.

One of the great things about growing up was acquiring my own tools. I bought my first sewing machine at 14 with money I earned from a two-week, 12-hours-a-day, 5-plates-at-a-time stint as a burger-wielding waitress in a food booth at the Calgary Stampede. At 16, my dad bought me a car for $35 at the police auction: a Nash Metropolitan convertible, red with a white top. The only problem was it didn't actually run. Rebuilding its engine became my mandatory summer project, my dad sitting on the porch with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other telling me which tool to use and what to do next, me cursing him under my breath. After endless hours beneath the hood and with fingernails that would not be clean for a month, I tightened the last bolt and got the nod to fire her up. It ran! That car would do 55 MPH flat out downhill with a good tail wind and it was thrilling. But every couple of hundred miles it would start missing and lurching and have no power at all. At last I bought a spark plug wrench, some screwdrivers and a crescent wrench or two, and as long as I kept the plugs clean it ran just fine. This is probably why, if I could be a character in any movie I would be Mona Lisa Vito - the Marisa Tomei character in My Cousin Vinnie - especially in the scene where she is on the witness stand in that fabulous backless purple dress and, with a little smirk and flick of the wrist, demolishes the prosecution's automobile expert witness. 

But I digress.

Designing With Dan

Monday starts with a brief surprise visit from Dan Packard, a craggy fellow with a salt and pepper beard, bottle-thick glasses and a well-broken-in ball hat, whom I know as one of the local early morning coffee guys. Tim introduces him as a meticulous craftsman, a university professor of sculpture and woodworking for more than thirty years, an artist, master carver, furniture maker and boatbuilder. You just never know who you're dealing with in this town.

Dan is here to talk about his approach to design, which he says begins with a medium that can be easily changed - paper or cardboard or sticks on the floor - so there's not too much investment of either money or effort. He grabs a roll of electrical tape and one of the cardboard mock-ups we were working on last week. With a twist of the wrist as delicate as Marisa Tomei's, he curves the tape this way and that across the cardboard surface, saying, "A line has energy in it. It will imply its continuation. Where is the line going?" As he talks, his hands draw pictures in the air. He speaks of light and shadow.  He says T-squares and triangles - which most of us used to draw our projects - are death in design.  After just a few minutes I am inspired and energized.

Here are some photos of Dan speaking to our class.

Power Tools
We are about to begin transferring our paper and cardboard designs to the boards we so lovingly purchased at Edensaw last week. This will involve multiple trips to the big power tool room and, though I don't much like the noise and having to wear a dust mask and ear protection, I find my heart beating a little faster.

Tim goes through the sequence that will make our rough boards flat and true - dimensioned lumber that will, by the end of the week, be looking more like benches or stools. Depending on the cuts each of us needs to make, we will gain experience with the jointer, planer, band saw, crosscut saw and the Big Scary Table Saw. I capitalize these words as I consider them to be the proper name of this tool, due to the evidence in this photo.
The chunk of wood protruding from the ex-wall-telephone did not grow there. It flew off the table saw and embedded itself, killing the phone, but luckily no humans. This phenomenon is known as kickback, and Tim emphasizes the procedures we absolutely must follow to minimize the risk of kickback happening to any of us. I'm pretty much convinced.

Here is Tim demonstrating the crosscut saw.

The jointer.

And the Big Scary Table Saw.

I have chosen to build my small step stool from quartersawn white oak, eliciting a fair amount of eye-rolling and comments from Tim and Jim like, "You're going to be doing a lot of sharpening." Apart from the fact that I am particularly fond of its tiger stripey figures, the reason I chose this wood is that our kitchen island is made of it and the stool will be stored and used close by. We also have quite a bit of antique oak furniture in our house. I realize it will be challenging to work - especially the mortise and tenon joints that will join the top to the two sides.

I do have a backup plan, however - a Spanish cedar board that I acquired in trade for the walnut we needed for our winding sticks - and I'm having second thoughts about the oak. To settle my mind, I decide to cut a couple of pieces off the oak board and practice making a dovetail joint with it. This takes most of the day. But the result is acceptable - the best I've done so far. I decide to go with the oak and I am elated. Alex says he's going to call me "Quartersawn" from now on and I think it's an okay nickname. "Ol' Quartersawn." That's me.


Sunday, January 23, 2011


Author's Note: If you haven't had a cup of coffee for an hour or two you might want to get one now. Things are about to get confusing.

Earlier in the week I was talking about jointing which, you'll remember, does not mean "making a joint" but, rather, making a side or edge of a board perfectly flat, usually (but not always) in preparation for joining it to another board. The next step in the process, logically enough I suppose, is actually making a joint.

Having come of age in the late sixties, I have rather fond, pleasantly hazy memories of hanging out in a few joints, and rolling a few joints - but mostly without expert instruction and never with names as colorful as lap, dovetail (through or half-blind), or mortise and tenon, all of which have now been added to my woodworking vocabulary (if not yet my skill set), along with dado, rabbet (sometimes called rebate), fillets and plowing. We will be employing a number of such joints in our next project: building a small bench or stool, which we must also design ourselves. ("A plethora of benches and stools," as Tim said.)

After a brief, fascinating digression into the Fibonacci Series (don't ask), we begin by considering the different ways to join wood - namely with fasteners (like screws or nails), glue, or mechanical joints - and the various merits of each. Our focus is on mechanical joints, which we will make at first using hand tools, and later with the big power tools over on the Dark Side.

Precision Sawing
In order to make a good mechanical joint, we must learn to fit the pieces snugly enough so that glue (if used) will be able to do its job, or the shape and tightness of the joint itself will hold the pieces together, as in Japanese-style joinery. This necessitates a degree of precision in sawing and chisel work that seems unattainable by the average human. Nevertheless, in very little time, Jim demonstrates accurate marking - with a sharp knife, a marking gauge and pencil - and saws right to the line, leaving only a thin shaving or two to remove by using the plane on edge on the shooting board. We practice with our dovetail saws as well as the Japanese ones until we can make an accurate, straight cut. Did I mention that Japanese style saws cut on the pull stroke while western ones cut on the push? (Jim says this is because westerners are so pushy.)

Lap Joints
Tim takes over the demonstration of the full lap joint, which is used to join two boards intersecting on their flat sides usually at right angles to one another. It requires cutting notches in each board that are exactly the depth of half the thickness of the corresponding board and just wide enough to allow the corresponding slot to fit into the corresponding slot without enough space left over to stick a piece of paper in between. The sides of the notch can be cut using the precision sawing technique we have just observed. But the bottom must be done with a chisel and made as smooth and true as the face of the notch that will nestle against it. Ridiculous.

Here is Tim chiseling out the center of the first notch.

And making the cut more precise.

And doing the final paring with the chisel.

At my own workbench I spend an inordinate amount of time sawing and chiseling and chiseling some more. While I am definitely appreciating the micro-bevel on my newly sharpened 3/4-inch chisel, and sort of getting it to behave, I have a lot of trouble avoiding paring away too much wood. Despite my attempts to mimic exactly Jim's and Tim's technique, little bits keep tearing out at the end of the stroke, creating ugly divots where there should be nothing but silky smoothness, and causing me to mutter out loud words that I have valiantly been repressing  in here - so far. By the end of the day I have not only not finished the half-lap and full lap joints we have been practicing, I have yet to put a coat of shellac on my winding sticks, or sand and put the second coat of shellac on my straightedge. I think of something Tim mentioned a day or two ago: that we should keep in mind "appropriate accuracy" - that is, be aware of the degree of accuracy that is appropriate to the job - and perhaps this is good enough for where I'm at right now. Still, at this rate, if I were trying to earn a living as a woodworker, I would be starving.

I am including these photos of my first joints, only in the hope that by the end of the 12-week course I will be able to show you examples that are truly good enough that you will be able to tell the difference.

The full lap joint.

The half lap, or fillet, joint, with Jim's (Whittaker's) handmade mallet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A Plethora of Benches and Stools
In between working on our various practice projects, we have begun contemplating the design of our bench or stool. It is to be made from no more than four boards, joined at right angles, using at least two of the more complex joints we are learning this week - such as dovetails or mortise and tenon. I decide early on to make a small step stool, as I need one in the kitchen to reach the high shelves. Also, our house is fairly small and already crowded with furniture, so I can't bring in anything new unless it has a place to live; I have a spot in mind where I could tuck a small stool under an antique table where it will be handy.

But by Tuesday afternoon I am feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. In a week or so we will have to complete this project, with more complex joints, a lot of decision making, fitting and finishing. Jim and Tim have brought in samples of some of the pieces they have made for this type of exercise. They are beautiful. And intimidating. Given the amount of time it took me to half-make a couple of simple joints, badly, I cannot see how I will be able to get it done.

Tim asks us to make some quick sketches of ideas - nothing fancy or finished. My brain is full of concrete and the ideas do not come. I have, with a certain amount of self-discipline over the years, taught myself to step back and not worry when I feel this way - I know the ideas WILL come. Eventually. But often it takes sleeping on it, or doing something else for awhile. I doodle with my pencil, getting nowhere. Presently, we share our sketches with the class and gently critique them. Some are truly inspired.

With the help of my classmates' feedback, the mental concrete cracks a bit and I make some progress. We are to work on our design at home and be ready to make a full-size mock-up out of cardboard the next day. Tim also wants us to do at least eight more quick sketches.

Perhaps it is the glass of wine I have with dinner; I manage to work out a few of the kinks in my design and go to bed having completly forgotten about the eight quick sketches, but at least satisfied that the cardboard mock-up will work. Somewhere around 2:00 a.m. I wake up and remember the eight sketches. Shit. But as I drift back to sleep, a silly idea pops into my head and I start to smile. In the morning as my coffee is brewing, I grab a piece of paper and quickly sketch out eight silly little benches and stools before the first cup of coffee is poured.

We spend the morning building cardboard mock-ups. Here I am with mine. (Notice I am wearing my first pair of Carhartts and my favorite Wooden Boat Festival T-shirt!)

By lunch time the rain has stopped, the sun is shining and we line up our gorgeous creations on the stoop for a group photo.

L to R: Justin, me, Alex, Melanya, Kia, Mark. (Note: Melanya arrived at the beginning of this week, having driven from Kentucky last week. She already has considerable woodworking experience- she spent two years at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, first as an intern and then as a full-time student.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Winding Sticks

I can't believe how fast the week flew by.

This time of year (i.e. not rowing season) I usually walk with some of my Tuf As Nails rowing crew at 6:30 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. But Wednesday night I set my alarm for 7:00 AM, thinking the NEXT day was Wednesday. I didn't figure out it was Thursday morning until I looked at my phone. Sorry ladies -- I'll try to do better this week!

I have been astonished each day to see the hands of the clock pointing straight up when Jim or Tim says: "Well, it looks like it's time for a lunch break," especially since we have actually accomplished quite a bit in the preceding three-plus hours.

Thursday started with a quick primer (which Tim, in his Monty Pythonesqe accent, pronounces "primmer") on the wonderful world of adhesives. We made a chart with types of glues down the side and characteristics across the top, the result of which is that I will probably never use the evil Gorilla Glue again. This was in preparation for doing our first glue-up in the course of constructing a pair of winding sticks, the purpose of which I will explain presently.

But first a short digression on woodworking terminology. The word jointing has been bandied about quite a bit in the past few days, sometimes accompanied by edge, as in edge jointing. It didn't make much sense to me - I sort of assumed it to be a mispronunciation of joining, except that it was often said when we weren't joining anything to anything else. Maybe, I thought, it is one of those irritating nouns-turned-into-verbs that are cropping up everywhere these days. Finally I had to ask. Imagine my astonishment: it's actually a technical term that means making the side or edge of a board flat and true, presumably so it can be joined to another board. But it's also called jointing if you have no intention of joining it to anything else and you're just making the board flat and true for the heck of it. Logically enough, I suppose, a jointer is a machine (not a person) that makes boards flat and true. This is the sort of stuff that keeps me awake at night. (Scrabble note: yes, you CAN add "ing" to "joint" the next time it pops up on the board.)

We'll be doing a lot of jointing as we make our second tool: winding sticks. Winding sticks are two boards set on edge, about 18 inches long, 3/4 inch thick at the bottom tapering to 1/2 inch or so at the top, and two inches high. One of them is made of light colored wood - alder in our case - and the other is dark - we are using walnut. The dark stick has a sliver of the alder glued to it's top, making it about 1/4 inch taller. There is a small copper rosehead nail centered in the top of each board. Except for the light strip along the top of the dark board, the two pieces are identical in size and shape, their edges perfectly parallel. They are pleasing to hold, sit on the workbench without wobbling or falling over and make a satisfying plink when you pick them up in one hand. When you set them across a surface - a board, for example - perpendicular to its edge and with a bit of space between the sticks, they are  extraordinarily good at revealing any twist, or wind, in that surface. All you have to do is sight across them and line up the copper nailheads. If the shorter, light-colored stick is closest to you, you'll see a dark line of walnut below the light cap of the taller stick. It is quite easy to see if that dark line is even, or thicker at one end than the other. They are elegant, simple and useful.

We start, as on our straightedge project, by choosing sections of the fat alder boards. But this time the choosing and marking goes quicker and we set to work with the ripping and cross cut saws. The sawing goes faster too, and all of us are getting the hang of the rhythm and taking the weight off the saw blade. It sounds like some of the men I've slept with. (But not recently, of course. Not for a long time. On a climbing expedition or a sailing trip or something.) In any case, I'm pleased to report that I can now saw a pretty straight line with both types of saw, something I have never been able to do with a hand saw before.

Once we have the rough pieces cut approximately to size, we start jointing the boards with our hand planes. We take a pass or two along the edges of the boards with the plane angled about 45 degrees. This is known as spelching. (I am not making this up.) Its purpose is to prevent tear-out as we use the scrub plane across the grain to quickly remove excess material. Jim has us draw quick lines - or telltales - across the board with our wax pencil so we can tell which areas are higher or lower as we plane.

We keep checking the board for flatness by laying the flattened side down on the bench and trying to rock it back and forth; we also use our straightedges against the board and hold it up to the light to check for any gaps. When we are satisfied that one side is truly flat, we are to use marking gauges all around the edges to knife a hairline that is parallel to our newly jointed side, which is now called the reference surface. Jim shows us how to use our planes to cut the edges just barely "to the line" - and then draw little hash marks with the wax pencil. Then all we have to do is plane the middle of the board flat, gradually removing the marks around the edges. We will now have two reference surfaces that we can work from to do the edge jointing on our boards.

At first, I have trouble getting the small knife in the marking gauge to the right position. Jim taps it on the work bench and calls it a Vernier Adjustment - named after Vern, some guy in Minnesota. I'm not sure whether or not he is joking.

By the end of the day, we have the walnut and the alder boards jointed all around: they are ready for gluing - joining - together, a process known, sensibly, as joinery. I gather that one of the marks of a good joiner is that his/her joints more-or-less disappear in the wood, leading to joinery nirvana.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Each day begins with a bit of hand work on our project just to warm up. By Friday I am greeting my particular pieces of wood like old friends and I'm so happy to see them when I walk into the workshop.

After a half-hour or so, Tim or Jim gives a short talk or demonstration having to do with the day's lessons. Today Tim discusses the English categorizations and names of various types of woodworkers, and the traditional apprentice and guild system that produced generations of bodgers, carpenters, joiners and cabinetmakers. (Bodger: a woodworker who uses green - not dried - wood. And yet another Scrabble word!)

Glue Up
Jim takes over with a demonstration of correct gluing procedure with the yellow wood glue we will use to join the alder stick to the walnut. Once again, there are so many simple tricks of the trade that would have saved me a lot of grief over the years had I learned them earlier. We get everything glued up and then break for Friday pot luck lunch.

The sun has come out and it is warm enough to eat outside. It is Justin's birthday - I've brought a Milky Way Cake (my sons' favorite birthday cake) as my contribution to the pot luck. Kia has made a wonderful salad with beets, squash, cilantro and parsley from her garden and wild rice from China. Alex has created a delicious squash and wild mushroom soup, with toasted hazelnuts  and a morel mushroom on top. Mark has brought a fabulous loaf of bread from Pane d'Amore. There are local cheeses, a fresh bean salad, home made prosciutto. It is an incredible bounty of local and freshly made food. I begin to wonder if anyone will want to eat a cake that has almost nothing "natural" in it - other than a few eggs, and some butter, it is made from a cake mix, a pudding mix, and four melted Milky Way bars. But we sing happy birthday and most of the cake disappears.

Jim does a saw-sharpening demonstration and we spend our last afternoon of the week learning how to taper the winding sticks and do the rip cut that will leave the thin strip of alder joined to the walnut.

Sharpening the Plane
I spend a lot of time sharpening my plane blade. I start out re-establishing the primary bevel at an incorrect angle. It takes much longer to get back to the starting point than it would have to do the whole job if I had started correctly to begin with. (At the beginning of the week Tim said: "Early failure is good." I am proving to be a good student!) But, after a lot of back and forth on the various grades of sandpaper, the primary bevel is restored, the micro-bevel gleams like a mirror and my plane produces translucent curls with an ease I could only have imagined a few short days ago. The whole thing is, however, hell on manicures.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making a Straightedge

For the past two days we have been making straightedges, which are not to be confused with (but do have) straight edges. The straightedge is a tool for, well, helping you make straight edges and, as such, must have at least one straight edge. You can go to Henery Hardware, about 5 minutes drive from the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, and buy for a few bucks a yard stick or a three-foot level, both of which (you might reasonably assume) have at least one straight edge. But, being immersed in the world of traditional hand woodworking at this point in the course, we are learning to understand, make, and use some of the tools that have evolved over centuries and been found useful by generations of woodworkers. Many of the techniques were developed in the days before electric lights, eyeglasses, or accurate measuring instruments when much of the work was done by feel. Layouts were done with dividers and knives rather than rulers and pencils, and working with hand tools didn't really require numbers. As Jim Tolpin noted, "Machines need numbers. We need physical reality."

Our straightedge will be made of alder wood. It will be three feet in length and about three inches in width, with a curved top, a four-finger hole in the middle, holes at each end for hanging, and a perfectly flat, straight bottom that will allow it to sit solidly on the perfectly flat work bench without even a sliver of light showing beneath. Jim assures us we will use it with pleasure for the rest of our lives, and I have to admit I don't usually feel that way about yard sticks and levels.

Choosing Wood
The first task is to choose our wood. As you can probably guess, we are not going to the lumber yard to pick up a few 1x4s. We are staring at a half dozen or so slabs of alder, rough sawn, bark still on, about 10 feet long, a foot wide, and an inch and a half or so thick, that are leaning against the workshop wall. One by one, we lift the boards onto the workbench and gather 'round. Jim points out some of the attributes of each, shows the grain patterns, knots and other features that must be taken into consideration as we figure out which parts to use. We have a straightedge that Jim made to use as a template and we move it about on the big board to see where we can most efficiently cut three rectangles a little bigger than we need. We will eventually slice, or resaw, each rectangle into two thinner pieces to make a total of six straightedges. We mark them out with a wax pencil -- one of those funny ones like I used in first grade that have a string you pull and paper that unwinds to expose a bit more nib. This pencil will become a good friend over the next two days.

Here are Alex, Kia, Justin and Mark working on the layout, using Jim's straightedge as a template.

We draw two parallel lines for our cut lines so you can saw between the lines instead of trying to follow one line. (So simple -- why did I not know this before?)  As you can probably guess, we are not going to saw this giant chunk of wood with a table saw. We carry the board to the saw bench, which is about knee high, and set it down flat on top.

Saws and Sawing
Jim grabs a couple of hand saws and explains the difference between a cross cut saw and a ripping saw, while simultaneously giving us a mini-history of saws, saw construction, sharpening techniques, setting saw teeth and why saws are the length they are -- namely, how far up the average woodworker ( 5'9" right-handed male, I think) can comfortably lift his elbow and how far he can push down without the tip of the saw hitting the floor. He plants his knee firmly on the big board and proceeds to take a few strokes. In just a few seconds he has cut a neat slot several inches in. As I watch Jim's fluid motion, a memory of my father, a jack-of-all-trades carpenter, floats into my consciousness -- I wonder how many times as a child I watched him make the exact same motion?

We take turns at the saw bench and make remarkably quick work of cutting out the rectangles. I find it pretty effortless, really, once I figure out how to relax and take smooth strokes, letting the saw do the work. It probably would have taken more time to find and put on ear protectors and dust mask, dig out the extension cord and do it with a Skilsaw. Of course, the hand saws in this workshop are religious objects, and hence, remarkably sharp.

Here is Jim, demonstrating how to start a cross cut.

The Dark Side
I don't want to give the impression that power tools are taboo in this workshop -- in fact, we are about to use one for the next step: resawing the thick boards into two thinner boards with the use of a band saw.  But first we must flatten one side of the rough board -- the reference side that will run against the "fence" of the band saw -- and one edge, which must be flat and perpendicular to the reference side. We do this at our work benches using a menu of hand planes, a tiny T-square, and that blue wax pencil with which we scribble squiggly lines on the board so we can tell which areas are still low after we run the plane over the board a few times.

At last it is time to go to the Dark Side. We grab our ear muffs and face masks and approach The Beast. Jim explains safety procedures and we take turns running a board through the saw. It's noisy, to be sure, but it does its job in exemplary fashion. It turns out I like this tool. A lot.

Alex at the band saw.

We each choose one of the now-thinner boards that will be our very own, from now on and for the rest of our lives. We will become intimately acquainted with this board. We will have a relationship with this board that may outlast some marriages. The day ends with a demonstration of the brace and bit we will use to drill the hang-up holes and start the finger holes in our soon-to-be straightedge.

With the threat of a snowstorm, our meeting in Seattle is cancelled and I am grateful. I head home, bake a 26th birthday cake for our son, Leif Whittaker, eat leftovers for dinner, watch a movie, and fall into bed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Today we spend the entire day flattening, cutting, shaping, squaring, smoothing and putting the first coat of finish on our straightedges. In the process, we practice with a variety of tools: several sizes of bench planes, a block plane, draw knives, spoke shaves, a Japanese keyhole saw, a coping saw, a card scraper, rasps and files, brace and bit a pinch of sandpaper and the ubiquitous blue wax pencil. I learn a lot of technical details about hand planes that I don't fully understand yet (but I know I want at least four) and another bit of plane terminology -- snipe: clipping the ends of the board with the plane -- ouch.

Here is a shaving from one of the last passes I made with the #4-1/2 smoothing plane. Jim is measuring it with a digital caliper. It is one thousandth of an inch thick!

The sun peeks out briefly at lunch time and Kia sits outside playing her banjo, her lovely voice drifting into the workshop as I eat my sandwich and slice of birthday cake.

By late afternoon, everyone has finally arrived at the "good enough" stage. We sign our names on our almost finished straightedges and take turns applying a coat of shellac and hanging them on a rack to dry. We'll apply additional coats until they gleam golden.

Here are the straightedges we made -- mine is second from the right.

Tomorrow we'll start a new project. And use our new tool!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Planes, Chisels & Sharpening Things

Design Note: A few of my helpful readers on Day One pointed out that they were having trouble seeing some of the text, especially on the wood background. I have a very nice, large monitor, so it is hard to know what it looks like on other screens. As it happens, I am particularly fond of that wood background and I'd hate to get rid of it. It is a photograph of the hull of a Pocock Cedar Single built by Steve Chapin -- specifically, two book-matched planks of clear, vertical tight-grain, old growth Western red cedar, 3/32" thick. It inspires me every time I see it. So I have changed some of the fonts and other colors (within the design constraints provided by Blogger) and I hope it is now easier to see everything. Please let me know.

Wow. Today was a great day.

But before I tell you what happened, I'll tell you what didn't happen. I didn't feel frustrated, not even once. I didn't feel bored or tired, not at all. Despite standing most of the day, my feet didn't hurt. I didn't worry about the next task. I didn't gnash my teeth or say a single nasty word about computers/Microsoft/Windows 7/Bill Gates -- not out loud, not even in my head. From 9 to 5, I didn't write or answer a single email or make a single phone call (other than to Jim at lunch time). I didn't play Brickbreaker on my BlackBerry. I didn't hear the word "Arizona" or see a screen with moving images on it. I didn't drink too much coffee or crave chocolate at 2:30. I didn't cut off any of my fingers, or anyone else's.

What I did do was what I love as much as anything: learn new things from really good teachers. In other words, it was pretty much heaven.

The day starts with introductions -- there are six students and a group of three rotating teachers: Tim Lawson, Jim Tolpin, and John Marckworth, master woodworkers all, and really nice guys besides. We students say a bit about ourselves and our woodworking experience (or lack of it, in my case). One student, Kia, says her goal is to become a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments, which was a new word to me. Another plans to build wooden harps -- replicas of ancient instruments. Others are interested in furniture or tool-making. For my part, I just want to learn to use the tools and maybe figure out a way to incorporate my photographic work into useful three-dimensional objects, rather than flat things to hang on a wall or look at on a screen.

Introductions dispensed with, Tim takes the floor, goes over the basic safety practices and talks about how the class will be structured. He says we are there to "Explore. Play. Find Out. Discover." We will spend the first week learning the basic tools, and making some of our own -- a straight edge, winding sticks, and a bench hook -- plus how to sharpen things. Then we'll build a small bench or step stool, using various joinery techniques, followed by frame and panel cabinets and finally move into machine joinery and our Big Project. We'll also get to visit some local woodworkers' shops and maybe help fell a tree and mill it into lumber.

Tim talks more about the school's philosophical approach to woodworking. "Your head must be in the game," he says. "If you find your mind wandering, stop and go outside for a minute." "Using hand tools," he continues, "draws you into an immediate and personal, intimate relationship with wood." Other nuggets I wrote down: "This is a learning environment -- try it." "We will focus more on the process than the project, especially for the first few weeks." And this last one comes from Tim's background in the software industry: "Early failure is good." No problem there, I figure.

The Tools
Now we get to the exciting part: the tools. We arrange ourselves around one bench where Tim and Jim have set out gray plastic bins for each student, plus an array of individual tools . They name each tool and briefly explain its use. We students take our bins back to our workbenches and put "our" tools in the drawers. (Did I mention that each of us has our very own workbench for the duration, and that they are things of beauty --about six feet long, with thick, perfectly flat tops and various vices, holes and dogs?) You can see a list of the tools used in the course on the Port Townsend School of Woodworking Web site. Here is a photo of Jim and Tim with them.

Jim takes a few minutes to explain the various parts of the plane (we start with smoothing planes, but we also have small block planes in our kit -- who knew there were so many different kinds?) and then demonstrates how to adjust the blade and begin planing a rough board. First we have to figure out which direction to push the plane. This turns out to be harder than you might think but is made clearer by Jim holding up a handful of plastic drinking straws tied in a bunch, which he rotates this way and that to help us visualize how the wood grain works. He then demonstrates body and hand positions and body movement, which is actually what is doing the pushing. After a few passes, he has a beautiful curl of wood rising out of the top of the plane like smoke curling from a campfire. I have a feeling it is not going to be as easy as he makes it look. He tells us to listen to the plane as he draws it along the board, first with the grain and then against; there is a noticeable difference in pitch. He says the sound the plane makes when going the right direction is called snick, a technical term, another new word for the day -- and a pretty good one to add to the Scrabble repertoire.

At last we get to start working on a board ourselves. I feel awkward at first but Tim comes around and gives gentle pointers. My plane keeps jerking to a stop at one spot where there is a small knot in the board. Someone says I got a bad board. Tim helps me adjust the blade, and my technique, and presently I am able to push the plane all the way along the board without stopping. A pile of lovely shavings collects on my bench and the board is getting really smooth, quite quickly -- no sandpaper involved!
In what seems like no time at all, it is lunch time. I'm not very hungry, but I get out my little yellow lunch bag, take out a sandwich and a banana and begin eating. It is the best sandwich I have ever had. The banana's pretty good, too, and I eat it quickly. I grab my down jacket, step outside and walk to the top of Artillery Hill (the school is in Fort Worden State Park). Though it is a cold, gray day, the view is sublime.

In the afternoon, we dive right into sharpening which, I gather, is sort of a religion among woodworkers. Tim does the demonstration with one of my new chisels, so that's one less for me to sharpen. He and Jim talk about their differences of opinion on the best sharpening jigs -- apparently there are various sects in this particular religion. Jim quotes Groucho Marx: "I have my opinions, And if you don't like 'em, I have others." My kind of religion!

Anyhow, the whole process is painstaking, involving several new additions to my vocabulary and multiple passes of chisel back and forth on ever-finer grades of sticky-back sandpaper stuck to book-size sheets of 1/4" plate glass, followed by further smoothing and polishing on wet stones, culminating in the piece de resistance: the micro-bevel. Having completed this entire rigamarole, Tim proceeds to shave a few hairs off his arm with my freshly lapped, polished and micro-beveled chisel, which certainly seems sharp enough to me. Here is the tip of my half-inch chisel, after the sandpaper but before the wet-stone and micro-beveling.
We spend the rest of the afternoon sharpening our own chisels and doing more planing on our boards. By the end of the day I can't stop smiling.

Tomorrow and from now on we will start class a half-hour earlier so we have time to warm-up with a bit of hand work before the teachers begin. I will probably not be able to write tomorrow as we have an evening obligation in Seattle. Next task is to figure out how to do this from my BlackBerry, I suppose. Not while I'm driving though -- I promise.