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!