Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Language Barrier

This week I am excited to have John Waters from Melbourne, Australia in the shop making a chair with me. John is a fantastic furniture maker, you can see his work at

It wasn't a couple of hours before I realized that we'd have a special problem in communicating, with numbers that is. I remember being a schoolchild in the late seventies and listening to the hype around the switch to metric that was going to happen in the U.S.. Well, we all know how that went.

I did get a chance to work with the metric system while building a sculpture for a German artist (he was dead at the time, but that's another story). At first it seemed odd, mainly because I didn't have an inherent sense of the distances being shown in the drawings, but then it hit me, one number, it's all one number! There's no need to know conversions or even better fractions. Each number says it all, just look at the decimal place and get to work.

When I started to tell John that the ends of the spindles that we were shaving in green wood needed to be oversized to nine sixteenths of an inch because they would later shrink to just above one half, I laughed a bit. It must sound absurd, kind of like I feel when I hear someone refer to their weight in "stone".

Most woodworkers take a bit of pride in their ability to sight measurements (or is it just me?). It's like a musician, they know where to find the e string, well, I know what five eighths looks like. So to keep John in his comfort zone, I started using my vernier caliper (I won't allow dial calipers around any more, I break them like bread) to translate the numbers. It worked out fine.

I do like the way that imperial scales offer so many different length lines to read, I find this helps me locate the measurement quickly, but who's to say that in time I wouldn't be able to read the metric just as easily with some practice. But something tells me that it will be a while before we make "the switch" besides what would I do with the part of my brain hardwired to know what a heavy nine sixteenths looks like?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Good Fences

I have had an email exchange with Jameel Abraham that brought to mind an old story. Jameel is a maker of exquisite Ouds. If you have not seen them, you simply must. Visit Khalaf Oud Luthiery Blog

In our exchange, I was reminded of my time in New York City, when I shared a tiny storefront space with a guitar maker. It was as I jealously watched my shopmate, Justin Gunn, craft his arch top guitars with his hand tools in a 10'X10' workspace that I realized that I had to find my own answer to my desire to make an enduring object of beauty and value in wood with the tools that I loved using. It was in this small space that I made my first chair.

It was also in this space that I met Eddie Boros. Eddie was a fixture in the East Village, living in the apartment where he was born (until his death in 2007) and making art the only way he knew how, out of the refuse of the city streets. Eddie created the tower of toys that you may have seen on the beginning sequence of NYPD Blue. He was a real character, like one of the Bowery Boys, only in sandals and a string of pearls.

I got to be friends with Eddie as he would visit our shop, he even made me the sculpture that you see in the image. Eddie was the real deal. He made things with a natural ease that most artists would kill for, imaginative and complex yet simple. When he asked me what I'd like, I said that I thought my wife would like a horse. A couple of weeks later he brought this work to me. He said that he couldn't figure out how to finish it, so he made a worker perpetually toiling on it. He made this with a few dull tools and a bottle of glue. It's a prized possession. If I could make sculpture like this, I would.

But back to my story, one day Eddie came into the shop to find my shopmate Justin playing around on my small lathe. He berated Justin for toying around with this "dangerous" tool. He turned to me and said, "It's ok for you, you're like a carpenter, a fence builder, he's an artist!"

Perhaps it seems strange, because their work is so different, but when I look at Jameel's Ouds or Eddies horse, I have a similar feeling, perhaps it's the humbling presence of art, or maybe just the burning need to build a fence.

In Praise of Cherry

There are three chairs in my shop waiting to go out and a flurry of oiling and rubbing happening to get them ready. Each time that the oil hits the cherry, it glows a bit deeper and richer, which is good fun (although rubbing the oil off is another matter!). While building these chairs, I couldn't resist placing the lovely inclusions and markings in prominent places. I've talked before about the difference between designing for a painted piece and one left natural. In my book, they both have their strong suits, but in this case, I have had a lot of fun leaning on the appearance of the wood to accent the design. Below is the front right leg of the rocker that I am crating up tomorrow.

It's like a little painting! Of course, the other desirable aspect of working with cherry is the color and patina that only time can truly bring. The photo above and the two below are a timeline of the color shift. I made the chair above a few months ago, the one below has been finished for about 5 weeks and the third is about 1 week old. The longer that the cherry is left unoiled and exposed to the air, the quicker it seems to take the color, although, in time, it all seems to even out.

Quite a difference from the first image to the third. The photos also highlight some more of the lovely markings that I've been coming across while finishing the chairs.

Below is one that I came across under one of the arms. Just like in painting, I believe that you can't finish what you aren't looking at, so I spend a lot of time contorting myself to see the areas that oil just loves to pool in.

One benefit of using turnings in the natural chairs is that you get to see the tangential and radial planes in their full glory. Here's the radial plane on a chair leg.

Here is the arm of the rocker. I'm showing it to demonstrate the level of sheen that I like to achieve on the finished piece. Normally, I send chairs out the door slightly shinier than I actually like, knowing that the finish tends to dull in the first year.
This brings up a question that I often field about the varnish oil mix. The simplest answer is to mix 1/3 oil, 1/3 spar varnish and 1/3 mineral spirits. But that doesn't really cover the whole story.

The oil is affected by the three ingredients to different ends. Too much varnish and the oil will build a finish in fewer coats but be difficult to handle and will tack up too quickly to remove easily. Too much tung or linseed (boiled will cure faster but has driers) and the oil will be easier to remove but the finish will take more coats to build. The mineral spirits thin the oil to help it flow and soak in, I like a thin first coat to soak in more deeply, but too much spirits in the final mix will require more coats to build the finish as well. So just like any tool in your shop, which needs proper selection and care to achieve the task at hand, subtle adjustments to the oil can help turn finishing into something besides mindless rubbing...and rubbing.

Monday, May 18, 2009

His n Hers

To those who live in NYC, this is no news, but living in the city requires a different sense of priorities when it comes to the objects in your life. Imagine stuffing your whole life into a 500 square foot apartment. Sue and I used to joke that the apartment could be spotless, but if you put your keys on the kitchen counter it looked trashed!
So when a city dweller asks for something special, I feel flattered that I will get to influence a portion of that valuable space.
Last fall I took an interesting order for a couple of chairs. The customer was attracted to the rod back in cherry that I make, but wanted to have one for himself and one, with slight modifications for his girlfriend. So I introduced some curves, slimmed the chair down a bit and reshaped the seat. Here's the results...

He'll be driving up this Friday to pick them up, until then, I'll be oiling them and imagining her face when he shows her the chair he had made "for her".

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Not Quite Business as Usual

Things are buzzing around the house and shop these days! Obviously lots of teaching and chair building, but now, with another great review of the Galbert Caliper on the Popular Woodworking site, we are humming like a beehive (it looks like I won't have time this year to put in actual beehives, but there's always next year). This is our best review yet!
If you haven't been to the web page for the Caliper lately, the introductory price is set to expire on July 1st. I'm committed to keeping the tool produced in the U.S., I take pride in adding to our manufacturing base, in my own small way. This fall, you will be seeing the Caliper available with some of your favorite retailers as well as through my web site.

There are a few spaces left at the classes that I will be teaching with Curtis Buchanan this summer. We have a lot of fun when we teach together and think that our different approaches make for a great learning opportunity, I hope to see you there.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dings and Things

Last week, Frank Sharpe was in the shop with me making a continuous arm. Here he is cutting v notches with the skew. I'll be covering more in the skew video series soon. Below is the spindle deck of Franks chair. The soft white pine dings and dents very easily and often despite all best attempts to protect it. It would seem that planing to the bottom of the dings or "sanding them out" would be the solution. But it's just the beginning of the problem!

Here is a short photo series showing the issue. Especially when using water based milk paint, the dings can come back to haunt you when you think you've planed them out. What happens is that the fibers compress and later pop back out when the water soaks in.

Here, I've made an intentional ding in some pine.

Then, I planed to the lowest level of the indentation (or close to it, for visual sake)

Next, I steamed the ding out with a wet paper towel and an iron.

And here is the ding now sitting proud of the surface. To avoid this little surprise after painting, the steps shown must be switched around a bit. Steam the surface first to raise the dings back to the level of the surrounding areas and then plane them out. This way they won't find their second life after the painting is done!

Here is Frank with his finished chair, obviously happy to have those dings out!

And what would a posting be without a shot of the Chair Notes Covergirl with Mikey the goat. They love their afternoon hikes (they start wailing and screaming around 3 o'clock) and they love to eat pine needles.