Monday, January 31, 2011

Master of the Craft

Call it delusion, hubris, ego, whatever you will, but I have mastered the craft.


 That's right, I can make the perfect poached egg. When Andy Jack was here over the summer, we had a friendly competition to see who could make the best poached egg. I was a bit new to the open pot of water technique, so my early eggs were a bit mangled. What I was lacking was the right tool!

Recently, I was carving into this amazing crook from an apple tree when I realized that it was too shallow too be a ladle and too bent to be a server, so I decided that I'd give a strainer a shot. To make the holes, I drilled out the pattern and then used my little plumbers reamer to get the size. But, I didn't like the ragged look of the holes, so I used my torch to heat an old file that I ground to a taper and singed the insides, which created a lovely contrast and it was fun to boot!

So as usual, I'll let you in on my secret. First, go wrestle an egg from your chicken. My girls have defied all expectation and kept laying without heat or light. Treat your workers right!

First, boil the water to a rolling boil and then use end of the handle to swirl the water. Add a dash of vinegar (which helps the whites stay together).

Then, dump the egg or eggs in the middle of the whirlpool and use the handle again to get the whirlpool moving again.

Then, turn down the heat and cover for about 2 minutes. Then grab your trusty strainer spoon and fish em out. Take that Andy!

Besides my strainer, I've been making other applewood spoons recently for the Spoons for Hunger Project. Here is the next entry for the drawing.

It's all heart wood and I think it will make a great little stirrer and server. 

This one is $35, plus $6 shipping, all of the proceeds going to Heifer International to purchase a flock of chickens, so that my poaching method can become known around the world. For more info on the project please look at the sidebar.

Thanks to everyone who keeps entering the drawing, I appreciate your patience and wish you luck!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fighting Back

When I got into the shop this morning the building was "cold soaked" as my pilot friend Gerry would say. I was out of the shop for two days in a row and that was enough. Luckily, I'd thought ahead and brought my stones and steamer in the house. I probably should have just poured out the water, but I know how much my wife likes seeing woodworking tools in the kitchen.

I realized that the walnut rocker that I am making would hit a dead stop if I didn't get the seat glued up. My preference is to use hot hide glue for this, but I didn't want to take all day to get the shop warm enough to glue up. So I snuck into the house with my glue pot and clamps to get the job done.

This is a photo before gluing. I don't think two spring clamps would get the job done. But I am rather proud of my screw clamp improvisation!

There's two things to remember when doing this. Hide glue, even fresh, smells bad to spouses. So get it out of the house before they return. Also, if you leave the glued up joint in the house, your dogs will lick the joints clean. I brought it back to the shop , foreseeing the dog issue.

From what I've read, it's most important that the glue is still flowing when the joint is assembled and clamped. After the glue gels, which is in a minute or so, much of the bond is established, but you still need to avoid shocking it for 24 hours or so. Yeah, the hide glue has some foibles, but at least I can control them and in the end, I love seeing the cut offs where the wood breaks as opposed to the glue line.

Working with the walnut feels like having cake for breakfast. I tuned up my No# 8 Bailey and dedicated it to edge jointing. I pulled it off the shelf and felt like I had a weapon!

My other stab at winter actually has to do with a bottle of Titebond 3 that I bought recently. I looked for a date on it but couldn't find one, first mistake. Then I glued up a seat with it anyway, second mistake. When I saw the cutoff break cleanly on the glue line, I sawed back through the joint, planed it again and glued it with hide glue. Ah, the joy of doing something twice!

But in the name of preserving the bottle (I'll do some sample joints to test it's strength, who knows, maybe the failure was mine) I used this little trick. I'd love to build a cabinet above my kiln to capture the escaping heat and humidity, but until then, an old plastic bottle will do.

I just make sure that one of the holes is below the cover bottle and that's enough to keep the stuff from freezing, which I know will ruin it. Take that Old Man Winter, by the way, if you don't mind, you can dump all the snow you want, just leave my driveway out of it... please.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Winter Blues

I don't know about you, but this week brought the winter blues along with it. We keep getting snow, not too bad, just enough to be a pain. Even my intrepid caprines have been expressing dismay.

This week I had Dean Stampfli from Ohio in the shop building a continuous arm. Below, he is using the reamer in the brace. I am becoming a real fan of this set up. The shame is, Dean has no idea how tough a learning curve most folks face reaming, He just flew right through it! I think that having the central hold on the brace makes all the difference.

Here is his finished chair.

And for those of you eagerly awaiting the drawing from the most recent spoon, the Chair Notes covergirl, in her finest sweatshirt and knit hat, picked Mark Fasching's name out of the hat! Thanks again to all those who put their name in. I'll be posting a new spoon this week.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More Drawknife Grinding

Sometimes I have a tough time filling my time when a student is in the shop. While they are completing a task, often the time is too short to get my head into my own work, so I turn to tuning up tools, which is an easy task to take up or put down, and it's always in need.

A while back Steve Kinnane, a student at North Bennet Street sent in his solution to grinding his drawknife. I thought it was great and posted it here.

Recently, I came up with my own spin on the idea that works for curved as well as straight blades.

I've reduced the "fence" to a small block of wood with a square notch cut out of the end. The surfaces of the notch are curved, as you can see below. The first step in grinding a drawknife is to smooth the surface on the back, opposite the edge because this is what rides in the notch. I do this with a file and then polish it on the Bear Tex wheel and buffer.

Then I attach the block to the tool rest and move it closer to the wheel until the wheel touches the center of the bevel. In keeping with my original post about my half assed jigging, I have been using the junky little pine block for a few months now. But at some point I plan to make an ebony version with brass inlays, maybe some Mother of pearl, we'll see...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Two Ideas, One Great and One Questionable

I received an email from Paul Linden with this link to Drew Langsners blog that shows an idea so simple, yet smart, that I am not surprised that it came from Japan.


I've always wanted an indoor brake for smaller work, especially on days like Monday, when it was extremely cold and we had two chairs worth of parts to bust out. So, I cut a few kerfs in a large chunk of wood left over from the barn and had an instant brake!  When it's not in use, it becomes a low bench for sitting by the fire, not a bad alternative use. Thanks Paul and Drew for the enlightenment.

Now, it's into the breach. A recent commenter asked about a previously mentioned topic of the "preload" that some folks put into their undercarraige. I said that I'd address it later, but I suppose I let it go, and maybe for good reason. This is one of those contentious techniques that seems to bring out the partisan in folks, so I am loathe to go there.

For those who don't know, the idea is this. Add some nominal length to your stretchers and the legs will be under an outward tension that will resist spreading in use. Sounds fine, and I'm sure that in most cases, it doesn't hurt to do it. So why don't I do it?

It comes down the question, "What holds the chair together?" I think well sized joints with the proper moisture content hold together chairs. For instance, would you ever put an unglued,  undersized tenon in a mortise under "preload" and expect the legs not to spread when sat upon? Taking it just a hair further, ask yourself, what does wood do when stressed into a position? It tends to relax and remember the shape. So whatever benefit that you might gain from the "preload" is either minor or short lived.

"So what?" you might ask, if it doesn't cause problems, why not use it. Well, I'm not convinced that it doesn't cause problems. One problem that I see is the possibility that when the joints are as tight as they should be, that the amount that the "preload" misaligns the parts might be enough to cause one or more joints to not seat properly.
But the greater problem that I see stems from our common humanity, which in my experience says that relying on "preload" might become an excuse for some sloppy joinery habits. Misalignment can temporarily mask a baggy joint. I've found that insuring the proper sizing and moisture content of a tenon takes more care than adding a quarter inch to the stretcher length. There are plenty of ladderback chairs that have stood the test of time without the benefit of glue, just good joinery. So for me, that is the benchmark and where I choose to put my energy and reliance.

So there's it is, you might disagree, you might not care (which is basically my take), but more importantly, if you are like me, you make chairs to embrace a quiet and humbling experience where the process is the pleasure and the rigid world of flat and square gives way to curves and most importantly, flexibility.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Friend or Foe

Rot, I've fought it for the last ten years. That terrible feeling I'd get when splitting open a maple log in August to find the black streaks that mark the beginning of spalting. Now I know that you bowl folks are crazy for the stuff, but to me, it just meant rot. I couldn't put the stuff in my chairs for fear of the weakening effect of the degradation. I suppose that this influenced my inability to see it as "beautiful"

But now, all that has changed. I've found that most of my apple trees exhibit at least some spalting down near the base of the trunk. I still seemed to avoid the stuff, but the other day I came across this little piece.  I love not only the way that the heartwood looks, but the way that the pristine sapwood reflects the concept of the living sapwood being protected from rot until it's cut down.

I'm afraid that this little spoon isn't going to make the spoon drawings, the Chairnotes covergirl used her veto power on that one (I guess there is a price to be paid for filling the living room with shavings!)

But here is the latest entry into the Spoons for Hunger drawing,

Once again, it's applewood, all heart this time,

This spoon is $50 plus $6 shipping.

I enjoyed playing with the slightly conical bowl on this one,

For more info on the project and how to enter, please click here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Congratulations Kevin Adams, his name was drawn from the hat this morning in our celebrity packed ceremony! He will soon be serving up heaping mounds of scalloped potatoes with his new spoon and a bunch of chickens will be on their way to their new home. Thanks for all of you who wrote in!

 I've got another spoon (or 5 in the works, so stay tuned for another drawing soon)

Here is the walnut crest that I bent with my strap form. I was blown away by the way that it held the knot at the top of the crest so perfectly. I had my student stand by with a clamp and as the bend got to the position of the knot, he clamped directly over the knot and then I finished the bend.

Knots tend to kink a bend and cause a break, which is why I am so impressed with this result.

I had a visitor to the shop yesterday. Fine Woodworking sent Ed Pirnik out to shoot a couple of videos to go along with the articles that are coming out soon.

I must admit that it was a bit awkward for me to shoot a video with all of the bright lights and a cameraman, but he was very professional and I think that the videos will be great. Thanks Ed!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Seat Glue Ups Revisited

When I am looking for seat material, there are a few factors that come into play. First of all, it should be uneventful wood, from a straight tree that has been sawn straight along the fibers, or as close as possible. I know that in flat work, highly figured wood is prized, but I'll be carving into this wood, and the more settled the grain, the more the grain will highlight the contours.

My other concern is width. Most of my seats are just below 20" across, so I look for two basic widths to conserve material. Full 20" wide seats are great, but they are tough to come by, expensive and because they tend to come from the area nearest the pith, they tend to warp more than I like, leaving me some delicate planing to get the final thickness.

My second choice is a 10" plank, and I'll show here how I crosscut, split and assemble it to match the grain. Here is the plank, crosscut for the length that I need into two pieces. Then I split one piece and roll the halves outward as you can see the arrows directing.

Here is the position after I roll them out.

Then I slide the other piece up between the halved piece and that is the orientation of my glue up.
If the board is relatively straightgrained, you'll see that the angle that the growth rings leave the center piece will be complimented by the way that they move into the outer pieces. Below is the piece glued up.

This method moves the boards around in such a way that I often find that I can't plane them all the same direction on the face. But I find this to be the case with most one piece seats anyway. This is caused by sawing a straight board out of a slightly twisted tree. But whatever the issue, it almost always subsides when the carving starts, because the angle of the side of the seat bowl cuts across the fibers anyway, regardless of whether they are subtly ascending or descending.

Here is the planed seat.

My goal in this is not to completely erase the joint, but at least to make the viewer have to look twice to see it. It's just one more spot where a little care and craftsmanship can enhance the whole impact.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One Bright Sunny Day

So there I am, cutting an air dried beech plank on my bandsaw to get some stretcher material, when I hear that horrid sound of metal on metal. After some wrestling, I get the piece off of the saw and split it open to find a fully embedded framing nail! It's painful enough that I'll have to change the blade, but this was a brand new Woodslicer that I hadn't even wrecked making spoons yet.

 Now, the Buddhist in me says that all things are connected, both the blade and the nail came from the soil and out of the soil grew the wood which I'll use to make the money that I'll have to spend on a new blade, and.....honestly, it didn't help.

Upon further inspection of the rest of my beech planks, I found a host of nails spaced at about the distance that you'd place them to fashion a ladder, perhaps to a treefort. And I started thinking of some sunny day back in the mid seventies, when it was perfectly likely that I was somewhere in the woods pounding nails in some poor tree.

Then I imagined what I'd say to young me, after all, this might the pivotal moment that he realizes that he wants to spend his life butchering wood.
"Hey kid" I'd say "next Christmas, you might consider just asking for $5, rather than the Stretch Armstrong doll, that you're just going to dissect anyway. By the way, the stuff inside looks like jelly, but trust me, it isn't.
Then, take the five dollars and bet it on the Americans to win gold in Hockey at the 1980 Olympics, I know, I know, no one can beat the Russians, but just do it, geesh, I have no idea how my mother put up with you. 

Then, put the winnings in a savings bond, cash it in 2010 and buy a top of the line metal detector, you numbskull. Oh, and one more thing, in 1993, when the girl in the tight sweater beats you at pool, take a deep breath and accept the defeat with grace, you'll hear this story for the rest of your life...if you're lucky."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Promises Kept, finally

As promised, here is a short video that demonstrates the factors in play when splitting green wood for chair parts. Please be kind if I butcher the physics a bit and remember, we're chairmakers, not aerospace engineers (even though you might be!)
It may not be my slickest editing job, but hopefully it will help clear up a bit about using the froe and getting more parts from less wood.

And here is the next spoon for sale in the Spoons for Hunger Project! I keep learning so much while making these things that I just can't resist.

It's a great size for everyday use in the pan and on the table. Once again, it's applewood (I am blessed with apple trees!) and I am asking $45 and $5 shipping.

If you are interested, please put spoon in the subject bar and email me at


I may not get back to you (last time I answered 15 emails!), but rest assured, I got your name and will announce the winner in about 4 days. Thanks

And the Winner is...

This weekend the Chairnotes covergirl drew John Andersons name from the hat thereby ending our second spoon drawing. Congratulations John! Thanks to all the others who entered their names and rest assured, my fidgety nature will assure more spoons for sale soon. That is, if I can tear myself away from my friends...

As before, the proceeds of this sale will go to Heifer International, which provides livestock to folks in the developing world. We have directed these funds to buy chickens. I will be reviewing the other organizations that readers have suggested and hopefully broaden the giving destinations.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A little support goes a Long way

"Have you ever used straps while steam bending?" It's a question that I've gotten countless times, and I've always had a simple "nope" for an answer. The reason being that I avoided the types of work that call for strap support. The riven, green, ring porous hardwoods that I work with and the shapes that I make from them have never been a problem to work out. But times change, and two broken crests made of kiln dried, sawn walnut later, I decided to take the plunge.

The first question was what to use for the actual strap. I've read about it and it seemed to me that the advice was a bit of overkill. In my usual, whatever's around kind of way, I use a piece of heavy flashing that was left over from the ridge cap of my shop. The strap needs to easily conform to the shape of the workpiece but without stretching or tearing.

Which brings me to the concept of why straps work and what they do. The straps really do two things, one is that they support any fibers that might have exposed endgrain on the surface and keep them from breaking away, but more importantly, by restraining the length of the expanding surface, it actually shifts the neutral point closer to the outer surface. This neutral point normally lies somewhere near the center of the piece where the expansion switches to compression. Hopefully I haven't mangled the science of this too badly. Truthfully, you don't need to understand it, just know what parts of the process are non negotiable!

In making the form, I decided to attach one end of the strap and create a stop for the workpiece, that way, I only have to wrangle one end of the rig while bending. I sandwiched the steel between a plywood block and the form and screwed through with 5 screws. I also folded over a flap on the end and screwed it as well.

Besides securing the strap to the form and handle firmly, the next most important detail is that the length of the strap is slightly shorter than the workpiece. This insures a tight grip on the outer surface. Below you can see that without pressure on the handle, the stop doesn't sit flat on the end of the walnut.

Here is the piece bent after one hour of steaming. The strap worked like a charm, actually too well. There was a small knot in the middle of the compression face and it formed a small kink in the bend, which, left unattended would have led to some marring that I might not have been able to shave out. So as soon as I saw the kink, I threw another clamp in the middle of the bend to contain it. Lesson learned, watch the bend!

The tight grip of the strap is very reassuring.

Now that I see how effective this can be, I might just find some other uses for it, but frankly, I still like bending riven oak better.

Here is the next spoon available in my Spoons for Hunger project. Thanks for all of you who participated in the first drawing. This one is apple wood and while delicate looking, will be very useful and durable in the kitchen. It's one of my favorite shapes and works well sauteing as well as serving.

This one is $40 plus $6 shipping and as before, all proceeds will be donated to charity. I will take names for the next 3 days at and then pick one from a hat to choose the winner.

There are some lovely dark streaks and details in the bowl and handle.

I have another large ladle drying as well as some smaller offerings!