Tuesday, January 26, 2010

More musing than usual

Hand tool furniture, or furniture made by hand tools. I was reminded of my long-stabled hobby horse (see previous blog entry) and have been mulling over the thing again. In the current furniture climate, taste leans towards the simpler design. Florid mouldings, veneer and painted effects are out; clean lines, solid wood and 'expressed joinery' are in.

I should make a confession here. I'm not sure if the term is recent, or I'd just forgotten it during my break from woodworking, but when I first read of 'expressed joinery' in my magazine catch-up I thought for some minutes it was something to do with the speed at which it was cut... D'oh.

Now I'm a bit dichotomous about exposed joinery. I think it can look fabulous, often as an accent in an otherwise fairly boring slab of timber. But I also think it's in real danger of being as overused as mouldings ever were. In this age when available timber, and inclination, is meaning we use more and more highly-figured woods, why not let the wood do the talking with one clear voice? Does shouting against a panel of figured walnut with 16 through tenons with contrasting wedges really improve it? Okay, so I possibly exaggerate, but I'm betting many woodworkers can think of a real-world example they've seen that has started along that road.

A more worrying possibility arising out of this desire for visible joinery is one of simple craftsmanship - using the wrong joint or the right joint the wrong way because it 'looks better'. Now at the moment the only examples I can think of are in tool cabinets - and one may have been a simple error of layout and not a design choice - but one was certainly done deliberately, and it makes me wince. Viz: Cutting drawer dovetails so the tails show at the front. i.e. Completely disregarding the mechanical advantage of dovetails. For heaven's sakes, why not just dowel the thing together and put some self-adhesive tails on the front and be done? Ack.

Now obviously that's a bit extreme and it's hardly widespread - yet. But will 'expressed joinery', in its own way, end up being taken to similar extremes as the mouldings and use of poor machine joints did before it? Will it become a by-word for all that's bad in furniture as the new age of real furniture advances in a cloud of ogees and ovolos? Okay, probably not, but don't say I didn't warn ya...

Anyway, one argument seems to be that designing modern furniture with hand tools in mind is rendered difficult because of this desire for visible joinery, clean lines and no mouldings. This floated into my mind over the weekend in particular. On the one hand I was reading the Lost Art Press reprint of 'The Joiner and Cabinetmaker', and on the other I went out to lunch at a local hotel.

Yes, it wasn't bad, thanks. The game terrine is recommended. The furniture though? Variable. One monstrosity clubbed me about the head and demanded to be recorded for posterity - a cursory inspection suggests it's not particularly old and someone went mad with the off-the-shelf mouldings. Somehow it doesn't speak of time-served craftsmen labouring over a carving bench, and I think I detected some machinery in it's manufacture. All told, pretty ghastly.

Meanwhile, in 'The Joiner and Cabinetmaker', the hero of the piece ends up building a chest of drawers as his final demonstration of how much he's learnt. And thus, because of the nature of the reprint, so does Chris Schwarz - and so I've swiped the photograph of his version from his blog (do hope he doesn't mind).

So what do we have from this piece of design from 1839? Clean lines, no mouldings and... exposed joinery. And it's all made with hand tools. Okay, so the original text suggests a paint effect and a bit of simple moulding round the base, but it works with this modern interpretation perfectly well. Now if I'm reading what Chris wrote correctly, he actually cut stopped housings (dadoes) for the drawer dividers, only to realise that actually they should have gone the whole depth of the carcass. Which kinda feels like it makes my point for me - we have a tendency to think like power tool users and make furniture accordingly.

Now I can't design stuff to save my life; I have enough of a learning curve on my hands trying to make things. The requirement for the amateur woodworker to master so many diverse skills that a professional cabinetmaker of the old school would have never contemplated tackling is another hobby horse in the stable. The last thing we should feel obliged to be is designers as well. But I digress. What I mean is I can't sit down and come up with the next big thing in furniture trends - I don't have the skill. But history tells us it'll happen, and it has been known to be influenced by the trends in woodworking tools before now. At the moment that really does seem to be using hand tools, so wouldn't it be lovely if the next trend was modern furniture designed to get the best out of old tools?

But in the mean time it seems we have 1839 to draw on... ;)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Opinions; everyone's got them.

Now last week I admitted to having gone slightly mad with the credit card - and completely forgot that there was yet another book on order, which duly turned up. Made By Hand, Furniture Projects from the Unplugged Workshop by Tom Fidgen. As soon as I ran across reference to it, I was excited to read it - at last, a book of projects written with hand tools in mind. Unfortunately I was disappointed.

You see I have this, quite probably erroneous, notion that a project for making with hand tools should be aimed to get the best out them. Taking advantage of the efficiency that a dedicated tool - like a plough or rebate - can bring to a project. Using designs and joinery that make the best of them. But there I am, faced with lots of stopped housings and grooves again, just like every power tool project in every magazine and book. All of which seem calculated just make you regard the plough as a bog awful tool and where the devil did I out the spanner for the router...? Or at least it does to me. Which is why I was so happy when I thought it was a book of hand tool projects, not just projects built with hand tools. I confess I gave up reading them after the first two or three and just looked at the photographs.

The projects themselves are an interesting selection, and cover lots of techniques pretty well. The tool box design with the built-in shooting board is clever, although where in Hades I could find the hinges I have no idea. Having them all in one picture to get an idea of relative size is very helpful. I'll draw a veil over the actual designs, 'cos not everyone's taste is the same. I will say that the gallery proves that Mr Fidgen is no mean craftsman, but any small table that can be described with reference to Shaker, Japanese and Arts & Crafts is always going to be a challenge to pull off...

But none of that bothers me as much as the basic things, like terminology. Please, please don't describe a short-arsed planing board as a bench hook and a bench hook as a mitre hook - woodworking terminology is confused enough as it is, isn't it? A groove is not a dado, even if you are used to cutting it with a dado head in a tablesaur. And the contrasting wood on a set of winding sticks isn't to make it look pretty - the sticks are supposed to contrast with each other not themselves. It's just totally missing the point and - as you may be able to tell - drives me up the wall. I also fail to understand the point in having 'how to' sections, such as dovetailing, that are essentially someone else's teaching. Just say 'Buy Rob Cosman's DVD' and have done.

I wanted to love it, I really did, but too much of it made me grind my teeth. I'm sure there are loads of folks who absolutely love it and are sharpening their quills to tell me so even now, and that's good (Good that you like it, not that you're going to attack me with sharpened feathers!) I hope it gets more people to eschew their power cords for a change. But it's not for me.

It did get me wondering though, about what happened to the manuscript for a book on making furniture with hand tools called Chisel, Mallet, Plane and Saw written by Tony Konovaloff that John Brown wrote about back in September 1997. Like JB himself, TK was a bit too far ahead of the game then, hand tools still be regarded as old fashioned and past their sell-by-date. At the time he was making furniture entirely by hand in a workshop so small that larger pieces had to be built in two parts and joined with sliding dovetails. If you want to see the quality of work he produced just with hand tools and have The Toolbox Book, then you'll find his gorgeous tool chest detailed therein. Try not to dribble too much...

And finally, while I'm spouting off opinions on stuff I've bought, a small review of the Quangsheng No.3 Bedrock Pattern Smoothing Plane over on UK Workshop from yours truly. And a pretty picture to go with it...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Credit Crunch

So once again a bit of snow and the entire country ground to a halt. Honestly, I couldn't look a Scandinavian or Canadian in the eye at the moment, really I couldn't. Most annoyingly of all, down here in these mild climes, we probably struggled to get an inch and a half all told - just enough to be irritating but not nearly enough to be fun. Anyway, by roundabout means this resulted in my having some time on my hands, in which I finally caught up with my two-year backlog of woodworking magazines.

Now I'm used to reading magazines that are a little out of date; some of my favourites are over 80 years old. In fact you might say I actually prefer them. They're somehow a more calming read; there's not the imperative to be up with the latest thing all the time. For example, any magazine or blog that Chris Schwarz has anything to do with is the total antithesis of that. Not in a bad way, I hasten to add; he's done more to get folks to think beyond the power cord than most. But boy, can it get expensive for the tool butterfly, like wot I am. Indeed I find the whole getting-back-into-woodworking thing is already starting to cost me money and you'll have noticed I haven't actually made anything yet.

Take the magazines; well it seems I only had a one year sub to Woodworking and so felt compelled to order the four issues from 2009 to get back up to date. Yes, I hesitated over the CD instead, but a good deal of the joy of the magazine is the beautiful presentation and feel of it; it puts you in the right frame of mind to at least try and create work of beauty, even if you fail spectacularly... The cost of shipping was almost as much as the cost of the magazines though. Ouch. Then I find out the Lost Art Press (that man again) has a couple of interesting volumes in print, and what with one thing and another it seems a shame not to have a copy, doesn't it? Then just before Christmas Workshop Heaven, always a site of danger to this magpie, gets in a new and intriguing line of planes, and somehow I found I'd ordered one. Which I don't need, didn't - up 'til that moment - want and now feel I really ought to review to make it at least seem like there was a plan.

I know. I'm kidding no-one; not even myself...

And now I'm finally pottering round the workshop again I find a chuck key has gone walkies; some wandering knockers from the tin mines have chewed up my screwdrivers (or it might have been the old man, but he ain't confessing if it was...); all my glue is at least two-years old and well beyond use; someone's walked off with the methylated spirits - or possibly drunk it; and not to put too fine a point on it there's a considerable order from Axminster accumulating on the back of an envelope. And an order from them is almost as dangerous a thing to start as a visit to the aforementioned Workshop Heaven.

So while I may have missed a good deal by being on the woodworking wagon for bit, there have been benefits. Solvency, for instance... ;)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

For Christmas, Santa gave me...

Well you know that. But everyone else and their Aunt Lillian seems to have acquired a combination plane over the holiday period and I've had a rash of emails on the blighters. Which is fine, 'cos I like 'em lots as you know, but on the other hand after my long layoff there are great gaping holes in my memory of what's what...

So when one emailer asked about the Shaving Deflector on a Record 050, I was faced with a long-distance diagnosis without the aid of an example of said plane.

Yes, kiddies, this user doesn't have a Record 050.
You may gasp here -> <-

I had a mental aberration one day some years ago and sold it. Sigh. Anyway... Of course muggins here managed to have completely forgotten that the Stanley 50 has one too, hadn't she? D'oh. So I spent a couple of days trying to imagine the problem in the abstract - don't try that at home. No, really, don't. I imagine it's akin to trying to knit with spaghetti.

Anyway, by some stroke of serendipity, someone else emailed about the same part in reference to a Stanley 50, jogged what passes for my memory and I hot-footed it to the cold workshop to finally look at the problem in the flesh. I ended up taking a few pics of the set up 'cos trying to discuss this thing without the aid of pictures is a bit of a nightmare, which I might as well include here because it's amazing how often I find it handy to refer back to the archive.

Now in Planecraft - subtle advertising and how-to manual on the complete line of Record hand planes - it helpfully says:

The Shaving Deflector.
When tonguing, under certain conditions it may be found that whilst the shavings clear themselves from the right-hand prong, there may be a tendency for them to fail to clear themselves from the other prong. Should this be experienced, the Shaving Deflector provided can be attached. The Shaving Deflector should be set *close up* to the face of the iron, to act as a cap iron (chip breaker); and care must be taken that no gap is left, as a gap will result in worse choking. The deflector acts as a guide to clear the shavings. The bottom of the deflector should be set a trifle below the face of the runners of the plane. When the iron is properly ground and sharpened, and correctly set for depth, it will be found under most conditions that the operation of tonguing can be performed quite satisfactorily without the aid of the deflector.

Which is great. But below the skate? Really? Obviously mine doesn't, and neither does my correspondent's, but would you really want it to anyway? I must admit at this point that despite obviously being a user and not a collector, I've never actually used the T&G facilities of a 50 or 050, never mind the Shaving Deflector. So on the off-chance, has anyone out there in blog land got any actual experience of the thing? Does it want to set below the level of the skate on yours? Anyone fettled one of these things to work? Because it seems to me it's in need of some careful filing of the ramped part that rests against the cutter, both to improve the fit of it to the back of the cutter, and to lower it. But I'm loath to do so and possibly make things worse. After all small parts like these don't exactly grow on trees. Any input gratefully received, because at some point I think I'm really going to have to do something about a page on the 50/050 for Combi Plane Central and quite honestly they're my least favourite and I don't want to spend longer on it that absolutely necessary...

I know. Shocking , innit? What a way to start the year ;)