Monday, December 21, 2009

Busy busy busy... but not in the shop

So, I accepted some seasonal retail work as a short-term thing a few weeks ago. Then, a few days later, I got a call about a temp position working or a composite place in Woburn. The good news is that I have money coming in, and that the composite job is on the way to Lawrence, so it means I'll be spending time in the shop after work, once the retail thing dies off after Xmas.

The bad news? I've been working retail again. Sigh...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chair 2, part 4

So, I went in the other day to work on the new chair, and got it more or less together, and I cut an improvised seat out of some plywood to see how the final result has come together. The verdict is, it's better than the last one, in some ways, but still not there.

I also did the chopping of the legs, and once again I cut too much off of the back legs. So, I had to block it up to a comfortable angle, and then cut the front legs. Not a major issue, but a hassle nonetheless. I also cut the tops of the back legs down, which helped, I think, but probably should have been done later. And, before I got in to do more final shaping, I made plugs, and plugged all of the screw holes. 

The placement of the back on this chair was overkill... I was going for "lower," went a bit too far. AND, the shape is all wrong.

The old chair (on the left) has a back that is concave on top. BUT, the back is too high. The new chair (on the right) has a convex back, that's too low. The essence of the problem is that I'm going for good lower back support, and not getting it. The back on the new chair does come up to support the back just under the rib cage, but because the top of the back is convex, only the top part really does any work. So, the back does get supported, but only on the spine itself, which isn't very comfortable. When I sat in the old chair, I was able to make a comparison, and get a better idea of what I'm going for. I want a wider area of contact that supports the back properly. So, chair 3 will have a back that's a compromise between chair 1 and 2. Here we go again.

Because I don't want to keep chasing this around ad nauseum, and turning wood willy nilly into one uncomfortable chair after the other, I'm altering the design, again, to make the back placement a little more adjustable in the next prototype. It took a little head-scratching to figure out how I would go about doing this, but one side benefit is that I think I've managed to conceive, in concept anyway, a sort of 'chair fitter,' that I could use, if and when I build it, to size people when I build custom chairs for them. My gut-level conjecture is that people vary more in leg and arm length than they do in torso length, and that there should be a design that will fit everyone, more or less. That said, I'm aware that I have no basis for this conjecture. So, the chair measuring thing, much like the foot size measuring thing at the shoe store, should be able to confirm the theory one way or another, and allow me to build chairs that will fit people better in the meantime... when I get to that stage of business development.

On the positive side, the splay of the arms is much more comfortable than the parallel arms on the last iteration. Sitting in the chair is pretty nice, even if leaning back in it is not.

So, for now, the remaining question is how far should I take this chair towards completion? As a prototype, it's taught me a lot. BUT, it's just a prototype, and it's not a very comfortable one, at that. I can sit in it, with the plywood seat.  The thinking for now is that I'll at least finish shaping it, and oil it up. But it's not good enough, I don't think, to spend the money making an upholstered cushion that won't add as much comfort as a supportive back would give.

But who knows... maybe I'll do it anyway, just for the practice.


In other good news, the lathe is back up and running again. I managed to finish the bowl I was working on, (with dubious results) and brought it home. I'm still not the greatest bowl maker, but it is nice to have small projects that are easily completed and fun to make.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chair 2, part 3

So, this afternoon I did a lot of shaping of parts, and got the chair glued up. There were some parts of the process that weren't pretty, but it all came together.

I'm not always the most patient guy when it comes to seeing any kind of end result, so I clamped a board across the underside of the chair, to see how it felt when I sat down. Now, just having a board clamped across is not a fair estimation of a finished seat cushion. But it did give me a few insights into how the chair will feel when it's finished. For a second try, it's already several steps in the right direction away from the first one. I still have a lot of shaping and smoothing to do, but the way the arms splay out makes the chair feel less constraining. The seat is deep enough, and the way my knees fold around the front edge just feels right somehow. And the back is lower, and feels more supportive... but it's not quite where I want it yet, I think I actually want it a little higher, so there will be a third version, at least, before I start trying to do batches of these things.

So, I sat back, let the glue dry, took some notes for future reference, and then went to turn a bowl on the lathe. It's been a while since the last time I played around on the lathe, and I will say it was fun, for a while. I had a small piece of walnut that had some curl to the grain. I managed to scrape out a decently shaped bowl, with walls that were thin enough, considering my serious lack of experience with bowl making. I got the finishing process started on the inside, and I was pretty close to being ready to flip it over and finish the underside. Then the capacitor for the motor blew out and ruined all the fun. I was less than pleased. It's not catastrophically bad, it's certainly repairable with a minimum of real effort. But still, the lathe is down, and the bowl remains unfinished.

Given that it's the week before thanksgiving, I imagine the rest of the world will be pretty quiet, so I foresee a good couple of days in there this week. So there will be more to read about, soon.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Quick sketch of hard clamping in the Veritas twin screw vise.

So, I mentioned about 2 weeks ago that I would put up pictures to describe what I was talking about, when I said that it was possible to use the vise to really crunch down on something. Rather than re-edit that post, I figured it would make sense to do it this way.

Step one:

Put the object to be held into the left side of the vise. (Or, the side that does NOT have the release pin on the handle.) Both screws will rotate inwards, as shown.

Step two: Pull the release pin. This will allow the handle on the right side to spin freely, while the left side still holds with regular clamping force.

Step three: Rotate the right handle as if to loosen the jaw on that side. Because of the way the vise is built, it will actually lever the right side of the jaw out, a little bit, pivoting around the left hand screw. The force it gets from using the length of the vise as a lever will really crunch down on whatever's being held in the opposite side of the vise.

This isn't always truly necessary, but once in a while you get an oddly shaped object that you have to saw through, or do something else that exerts a lot of force. When it comes to that, there's just no substitute for the application of fundamental physics.

More chair work

So, last night I felt like a complete fraud.

I had figured out, or so I thought, how I wanted this chair to go together. I ended up having to work through so many hack-shop crazy ideas on how to combine random pieces of wood with a crosscut fence, running it all backwards past the table saw blade... in the end, it all worked out. Chair came together. But I have to say, throwing in odd angles into a chair, and then trying to make them all fit together in three dimensions is a hassle.

I guess maybe I feel like I should look and sound as confident as someone on TV, that everything always goes to plan, and I always know exactly how things are going to go... and I'm not always that confident.

Then again, this is my first attempt at trying to build a chair in this particular way, so I guess it all works out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

More chair work... Prototype II.

On Saturday I went in and got some more work done on prototype II. Front leg joinery is done, back leg joinery is done, and I proceeded on to making a back support piece from there.

Have you ever made a mistake, thought about why you made it, and then immediately repeated your mistake? Well, I did.

I saved a chunk of the beam and left it full-thickness (about 3") to allow a lot of room to shape a big, comfy hollow into it. I measured the distance between the back legs, across the back, and cut the piece to fit. It did fit, but it was actually projecting forward, instead of backward. I wanted the hollow to extend back behind the legs, so the tops of the legs could be part of the support.

So, I took one of the spare pieces that I had lying around and repeated the cut. And, I got the same result.

The root of my problem stems from the fact that the back legs on this version come away from the back at an angle. I figured that, if the tops of the back legs curved back enough, that angling the legs outwards away from the seat would also allow that curve to widen, instead of having the legs come up parallel to each other. I was more or less right on that score, but I do need to make the curve a little stronger in the end product.

Back to the seat, because the legs are at an angle to each other, the back piece also needed to be cut at an angle to be able to join to the tops of the legs properly. In essence, there's a taper, growing bigger from front to back. Since I measured the back piece to fit the largest space, it went all the way in. Had I measured it to fit to the shorter space, and taper outwards from there, it would have been fine on the front, and been able to curve backwards from there.

The solution this time around was to resaw both pieces that had been cut wrong, and glue up a block that will curve back as I need it to. The solution next time will be to not screw it up again.


In other news, the hunt for a viable day job continues, as I work part time to get these prototypes worked out. Eventually, I plan to move (hopefully) back to full time, once I work out the details of the final product(s), marketing, business planning, and things like that. But I think it's going to be a while getting there.

I have to say, it's a hard thing to look back. A year ago, I wrote a post about the failure of my first shop in Medford. I thought I understood where I'd gone wrong as a woodworker. (Insert wry grin here.) This is a paragraph, pulled from this post, about the failure of my last shop.

"From Failure we learn; Success, not so much." The challenge for me right now is to allow the failure part to sink in, so that it's appreciated properly. Blindly going forward with my chin up and a can-do attitude is all fine and good, but I really need to figure out a few more things to make sure that this next try doesn't end the same way.

So, I worked out my woodworking failures. I can say I'm a lot better at being directed and organized when it comes to building things. But I still went blindly forward, chin up, with that can-do attitude. I think this is actually a virtuous thing. And I even think that being willing to do it blindly can be worthwhile, since I can say now that it's not always possible to see the cause of our next failure or problem. It's a process, and the important part isn't to not get knocked down. It's to remember to get back up. But being willing to run blind is different than willingly running blind.

I think my failures thus far, business-wise, come back to something that I knew early on, and forgot for one reason or another: People really like buying concrete objects. I.E. 'Would you like to buy this __________ from me." (Insert chosen object of furniture; chairs, tables, etc.) People will then either say yes, or no, or "I like it, but I want this to be different..." So, 2 of the three options are winners... because I'm not a production shop, I can alter things to cater to personal requests.

I hadn't developed many products to sell, aside from my portfolio pieces from school, and a class or two. Kind of a dumb move, in retrospect. "I can do whatever," is not an inspiring or convincing sales pitch. Doing my homework and coming up with a better plan before setting fire to a pile of money would have really saved me a lot of heartbreak.

I'm paying the price for that right now. It's my failure, I earned it. So, the project right now is to do more homework: Come up with a new plan, and a concrete end product to sell, and a plan to market and actually sell the thing. I'll be working a day job while I do this, and work in the shop when I can. Step one is to get the woodworking thing to pay for itself. Step two is to get the woodworking thing to a point where it can support me.

In the meantime, the days are getting shorter, and it will soon start to get cold in the shop. 

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Veritas Twin Screw Vise... My modifications and supplemental user's manual

Heads up to the reader: This will be one of those technical entries that's up for the sake of posterity, but will be incredibly boring and irrelevant to anyone without this particular piece of equipment. So feel free to skip this one and move on to the other postings, which will talk more about chairs, and shop stuff.


This afternoon I was in the shop working on chairs and trying to mount something in the vise. But the problem I've been having with this particular vise is that both screws have been turning independently of each other.

Mechanically, the root cause for this is grub screws that aren't able to bite into the shaft of one of the screws. The left handle is pinned through the end of the screw shaft, but behind that, there's a gear that drives/is driven by a chain. The gear on this side clamps to the shaft using 2 grub screws, oriented at 90 degrees to each other. The chain goes around this gear, linking the left screw to the right screw. The right side has a similar gear, but the gear is hooked directly to the handle by way of a retractable pin. The pin is there to allow the two screws to operate independently, within a small range. All things being equal, this arrangement would work out fine. But, all things are not typically equal, and the issue here is that the retracting pin is a stronger mechanical interface than 2 grub screws. (Thin as that pin happens to be, it's still a better lockup than friction.)

The other root cause of my issues is that I'm simply stronger than the average guy, and I've been known to really crank down on the vise from time to time. The result is typically the same... something's in the vise, and both sides need to be individually tightened... and as a result, the grub screws scrape a little bit around the shaft. Repeat this issue a few times, and there's a small groove around the shaft, requiring that I remove the chain cover, and re-tighten the screws. There's an access window to do this, but it's a dumb idea. My logic is this: The screws should really only be tightened when the vise is actually aligned. And the best way to align the vise is to clamp it shut, tighten both sides equally, and then secure the screws where they are.

Well, eventually I tired of all this nonsense, and simply let both screws turn independently. There are certain advantages to using the vise this way, but the truth is that really, it's just better to use the thing as it's designed to be used.

So, I pulled it apart again today, and fixed the problem once and for all.

Famous last words...? Let's simply say that I have modified the vise to alleviate my issues, and pending further notice, it's working a lot better... but there are specific techniques that bear mentioning.

After removing the cover and aligning the vise per usual, I took one of the grub screws out. Using a transfer punch, I marked the location of the hole on the shaft. I then disassembled everything on the end of the shaft... Handle yoke, gear, and Jaw plate all came off. I then drilled an indentation into the surface of the shaft, to make a socket that the grub screw can mate with, and that will give more purchase to the screw. I put the gear back on, tightened the screw in place, and marked for a second indentation for the second screw. Removed the gear, drilled the shaft, and reassembled everything.

What I should have done in retrospect is used thread lock, too... but I'll do that another time if the gear develops any slop.

What I also should have done is taken better pictures, but it didn't occur to me until afterward that this was worth putting up, so the best I could do was to remove one of the grub screws. You should be able to see the socket I drilled out by looking through the hole where I removed the screw... if you click on the picture above.

In theory, this modification will give the grub screws a mechanical hold, and not just a friction hold, on the shaft. And, in theory, this end will now have a much stronger lock than the small sliding pin on the other handle. The pin is fairly small, and I've heard stories of them breaking... which is probably why a spare pin is included.

So... new vise operating procedures.

Now that the gear for the left screw has such a stronger lock on the shaft, I think it's a safer bet to use that one to tighten the vise with. The risk is that I'll tighten too hard on the right handle, and shear the pin.

So, from now on, I'll do most of the holding work towards the left of the jaw, and tighten with the left handle. The right handle should be able to follow along perfectly well, and it still has the crank handle for quickly running the jaw in and out.

Last technique, one I figured out while running each screw independently... It's possible to exert a lot more gripping force on a board (or anything else) outside of the left hand screw. (As opposed to using the space between the screws) I set up the object to be held, to the left of the left hand screw, and tighten the vise down normally. Then, I thread the right hand screw counterclockwise to move the right side of the jaw outwards. Basically, I'm using the width of the jaw as a long lever, pivoted on the left hand screw. This technique is NOT good for massive movements, and certainly not good for holding tapered work, because the design of this particular vise doesn't really allow for that. But disengaging the sliding pin on the right handle will allow the gear on that side to disengage completely, so the right hand screw can operate independently, and lever the right side of the vise outwards just enough to add a lot more pressure to whatever's being held.

(A more visual explanation is here)

Other modifications:

I made a few small design changes to the way I installed the handles. First, rather than drilling all the way through for the crank handle, I installed a threaded insert in the handle. I just think it looks cleaner. I had to shorten the crank handle bolt accordingly, but that was pretty simple.

Second handle modification. I noticed right away that using the crank handle means locking the handle in place so that it can't roll. There are brass thumbscrews that come threaded into each handle yoke, but I knew right away that these would have issues keeping the handle from spinning if they were only being used on the surface of the wooden handle, with the end result of a scratched up, screwed up looking handle, and an ongoing difficulty in using that crank handle. So, I drilled a hole in the center of each handle, and inserted a brass shelf pin socket. I think they're made by Vertex, or one of the other premium brass hardware suppliers. These sockets have holes drilled in them that are 1/4" in diameter, which fits the brass thmb screws very well. They do a great job of keeping the handles secure, and they keep the crank handle from rotating the right handle around. AND they look a lot nicer than simple holes drilled in the wood, which would most likely wallow out over time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Day 1, 2nd prototype.

I'd planned to go into the shop tomorrow, but won't be able to, so I went in today. I started with the beam at left. It's 12/4 Ash, 8 inches wide, 8 feet long. Before too long, it was broken down into smaller pieces, and I went from there. A big chunk off of the end became front legs and arm blanks. Back legs have been cut out and roughed out.

There will be a few things changed from the last iteration. Most importantly, I think, the back will be lowered. That should make it a much more comfortable chair to sit in. But most obviously will be the fact that I only had so much wood, so instead of a wooden seat, it's going to be upholstered. The wood I have will make a frame that will hold a a slip-seat. (basically, a cushion built on top of a wooden frame.)

Because the seat is being built differently, I had to do some head scratching to make sure the leg joinery would still work out ok. It took some thinking, but I think it'll work out ok. I may change my mind on that later. I need to go look at my books some more to make sure I'm not way out in left field, but I think I'm getting this right. I did end up wasting a lot of time with the head scratching though, because it came right in the middle of breaking down the lumber. 8 days ago (last time I was in the shop) I'd had a much different idea of how I was going to put everything together, and I got away from that today. I have 2 other smaller chunks of ash that I can use to fill in if I need them, but I'd like to get this right the first time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Crazy week

So, a lot has been going on, haven't been able to get to the shop this week at all.

Friday will be different.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Time to build a chair

So, in the background behind the most recent chair is a beam. It's 8" wide, 8 feet long, 12/4 Ash.

It took me something close to an hour to figure out how best to break it down, so that I can minimize the amount of waste that's involved in the next chair.

And, as I get the kinks worked out, I've also been making a hell of a mess on some old C/DX plywood with magic markers, trying to figure out how to alter my patterns and such.

Lame post this time, but I spent most of the day in the shop without anything worth taking a picture of.

Anyway, stay tuned... new chair work coming soon.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The chair is done. Time to build a chair.

So the prototype is done. It sits ok, but it has issues. It's a little prone to tipping over now that the back legs are trimmed to a good length. The seat angle is comfortable, and encourages the sitter to slump comfortably in the chair... only it's not so comfortable to slump in. Originally, the back of the chair was supposed to offer back support, but I mounted it too high, and couldn't find a reasonable way to add spindles or re-mount the back. I'll figure something out at some point, but for now, I've already learned a lot about chair design that's going to go into the next chair, so the mindset right now is that I'm not going to put too much more effort into something that has already consumed so much. There's little to be gained (Aside form a more comfortable chair) from trying to get much more out of this iteration. The next version will be better.

I've pulled out an 8' beam of Ash that was in the racks, and the debate now is, do I buy more lumber for a full wooden seat, or do I buy webbing, and go for an upholstered version?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Learning, always learning...

This chair prototype thing has been very educational. That is, I'm finding new mistakes every day.

Yesterday, I did a lot more shaping, and I trimmed the back legs. I trimmed at a pretty steep angle, taking something like 4" off of the legs, and a few things became immediately apparent.

-The seat angle was VERY comfortable. That said, I do still need to resolve the back support issue. The seat board does a great job of scooping a person off of their feet, but there is a very pronounced (and well enunciated) need to have something to finish the scooping job at the back end of the chair... and preferably in a way that is as comfortable as the rest of the chair.

-The seat is too short, as the back legs contact the floor at a point that is forward enough to render a very tippy feeling chair. Great if it's a rocking chair. But not entirely comfortable, since it's not.

-The back legs aren't curved enough, or aren't curved in the right direction. They curve downward, and meet the floor at something close to a 90 degree angle, instead of curving/canting back, and adding more stability.

-The front legs are now at a very rakish angle. This may be normal, I'm not sure, but it does look a little weird.

I will say that the whole exercise has been great, and it's got me thinking about other designs, and how else I would make the chair. But it also has me thinking that, long-term, I'm going to have to incorporate wood-bending into my designs, so once again, the onus is upon me to go looking for logs. Sighhhhh...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Vein slapping junkie

So, I've been using the bench I built last year for a while now. It's great, I love it.

But, my recent foray into chairs, and chair shaping has gotten me thinking again. You see, I've been sitting on yet another vise for a while, that I've been wanting to use, but hadn't gotten around to using yet. I've got an Emmert pattern-maker's vise. In essence, these are some of the most versatile vises known to man, and they can swivel in several different directions. In short, they're perfect for weirdly shaped parts, such as those that I'm making now. And I've found myself thinking about it while shaping these parts.

Installing one of these monsters is a trial in and of itself. That's one reason I'd put it off. And they're incredibly heavy, and have been known to warp 2" thick bench tops over time. That's why I haven't wanted to mount it to the bench I have now. I've been thinking about mounting it to the Sjoberg that I've been keeping in the machine room, maybe, and swapping benches after that. But I haven't gone through with that yet.

Then I was bouncing my merry way around the web, and was reminded of yet another vise I'd had my eye on for a while... ( and had to pull myself out of my reverie. I think it's quite possible that I have a woodworking tool problem.

"Hi, I'm James, and I'm a tool junkie..."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Shaping, scraping, rasping, filing...

Shaping this chair so far has been fun, frustrating, illuminating, educational, and so on.  It's a part time gig, while I look for a new day job, so it's slower going than it normally would be.

I've spent a lot of time working things over with a rasp, which is pretty slow going. I've conceded to myself that this chair is going to take a long damn time. And I'm diligently taking notes as things occur to me, so that next time, I can have a lot more of this work done before any of it gets glued together. There are faster ways to get that work accomplished, but most of the methods I'm familiar with apply to individual parts, not assembled chairs. The moral of the story is that you have to do things the wrong way sometimes to learn how to do them the right way.

On a less fortunate note, as the chair is built right now, it's just not going to be comfortable. The back is set too high to be supportive, and what I noticed when I tried it out is that I end up slumping into the open space underneath the back... which just doesn't make for a good time. So, I'm torn right now. Any fix that I put in place will involve cutting and re-working a partially shaped piece. So, some work is going to have to get edited out... that much is clear. But how much editing, and for what gain, is the real question.

I could saw the back out of the chair, move it down to a more comfortable location, and hope that it'll be a structurally sound modification. After that, I'd have to trim the tops of the legs down some. But I also think the top part of the legs isn't curved back far enough. So even moving the back part downward may not actually solve anything.

Style-wise, I think the legs come up too sharply. If the top section curved back a bit more, I think it would make for a more comfortable chair. But I also think it would help make the arm joint (where the arm meets the back leg) look a little more graceful, if they came together in a way that didn't remind me of someone hunching their shoulders.

I could also work on scabbing in some spindles, to try to add back support underneath the back as it is now, without chopping anything out. I'm not 100% sold on this idea either, though.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Slow, steady progress

The Maloof inspired chair is basically assembled, but there's going to be a lot of shaping to do.

The process so far has inspired a lot of note-taking, and most of it reads the same. "Did this today. Need to do it differently next time." The recipe has been pretty simple: Add one poorly thought out solution to a dumb mistake, and top off with an awkward fix. Repeat as necessary. None of it is really brain surgery, but all of it is pretty necessary, really. I have to work through all of the obvious mistakes, so I can streamline the process for next time. Then I get to tackle the really insidious, not-so obvious mistakes.

BUT, the note-taking has been pretty productive, I have a much clearer idea of what the process will look like next time, which is very helpful. And I think it's going to lead to a lot of design evolutions as I play with new ideas. Once the chair is done, I'll be able to write up a procedure for the next one, including all of the proposed changes, which will hopefully make the next build a lot smoother.

The other problem I've had so far is that I really under-shaped things before gluing up. It's the first version, and that's one good reason, but the truth is, I got ahead of myself with the glue-up. I could have done a simple dry-fit, marked things to be pared away on the band saw, and glued everything up when it was a lot closer to the desired final shape. But, I didn't. I wanted to see how the joinery worked, and have an assembled chair that I could sit in. All things considered, it's not the end of the world. But it is going to slow me down a bit, because I'm going to have to fight tooth and nail through the rest of the work I have to do; chiseling, rasping, filing, and scraping, followed by a crapload of sanding. It's proving to be a good exercise in sculpting, but it's also one I'd like to avoid when I start working with maple, which will be a lot harder to shape than poplar. So, next time, I'll spend a lot more time getting the shape right before I put it together.

Then, after all the sanding, I get to try to put a decent finish on the finished product... which means it'll probably be paint of some kind. For the un-initiated, poplar's not so good at presenting smooth surfaces, so a varnish will probably look horrible. Paint is just thick enough that I might be able to make it work. That, or a skim coat of bondo, and a some auto body touch up paint. Maybe a little bit of metal flake thrown in for good measure... or maybe a flame job...

Thursday, September 24, 2009


So, as I mentioned in the last post, I'm working on something again.

I needed something to do, and I sat at my bench for a while, trying to figure out just what kind of work I really wanted to be doing. If the shop is going to be a side enterprise, I need a regular product to sell. I thought about it some more, and realized that the two projects I was most excited about getting into, on a production level, were chair projects.

One project is a design by Brian Boggs. He told us in class that he didn't mind if we re-produced the work we did in class and sold it, but he didn't want us knocking off the designs he makes in his own shop. So, once I make a few of them, for myself or for friends, I'll start playing with the design, and work out something new that I'll enjoy making, and see if it sells.

For now, I'm working on a chair that's roughly based on chairs that were made by Sam Maloof. I've seen other people selling rockers and other chairs that were clearly related to Maloof's body of work being sold at craft fairs. But it's not really surprising, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. He made his methods absolutely transparent for everyone to see, and use. He wrote articles, books, and even did consented to have video taken of him, at work in his shop, doing some of the things he's known for doing. His leg joints in particular were a hallmark of his work, and they're something he covered thoroughly in the video. His logic, as he explained it, was that he wanted the information out there, so that others could learn from his mistakes, and not have to waste as much time as he did learning what he knows.

I plan on approaching this in the same spirit as I described with regard to the Boggs chairs. I don't plan on being a knock-off artist. But I do need a point of departure, and Sam Maloof's chairs were stunningly beautiful. If I can do justice to the spirit of his designs, I think that's a pretty good point to jump from.

The chair I'm currently building is made out of Poplar, because it's a prototype, and I'm learning all of this the hard way. Cut, patch, cut, re-cut, and so forth. It's not going to be the straightest route. But, and this is something new, I've been taking the time for the past few nights, to sit down, have a drink, and write down everything I'd done that day, the mistakes I made, and the things I'd thought of along the way. It's the way I should have been doing things, starting way back.

At the moment, I've gotten the leg joints as close to finished as they're going to get. I made a few mistakes while figuring them out, but I managed to get them right, I think. And I understand enough about how they work that the next time will go a lot more smoothly. I also have the seat glued up, and ready to be ripped apart again. The rough shape is there, but the seat as a whole is entirely too wide, I think. I still have joinery to cut for the arms, and shaping to do. And I need to mount a back to the legs, which will be interesting, given that I went ahead and shaped the back legs without giving thought to mating surfaces. So, I'll have to work around that.

In short, this project kinda reminds me of the stool I got half-built a while back. I still need to revisit that project, but one thing at a time... For now, I'm moving forward, making mistakes, learning from them, and writing everything down, so I can put the lessons to use next time around. I think that's a pretty good analogy for everything that's going on right now, whether it's me trying to balance work and shop time, or trying to learn how to build chairs, or learning to prototype and set up a production line.

One parting thought. I talked a lot to Brian Boggs when I took a class from him 2 years and more ago. It was a whirlwind class, but I managed to catch him for a moment during lunch, to explain that I was about to set up a brand new shop of my very own. He said that chairs were a great way to get going. The reason, he said, was that if you can make $10,000 on chairs, that's a lot of chairs... and a lot of your work that's out in the world, making your reputation. On the other hand, $10,000 worth of case pieces is maybe 2 or 3 pieces. And they don't get used as much as chairs would.

One more reason that chairs are so good, and this is something that was implied by the nature of the class that Brian was teaching, they lend themselves to being made in batches. And once you've made one, the patterns and the process have already been made to help make more. The design process doesn't have to be repeated.

So, I'm pretty happy for now. I still have a lot to figure out, but I'm getting there.

Back in the Saddle Again...

Ugh, again. What a month, again.

So, on Septembe 2, Ariel started nursing school again. And, I got laid off from the composites job.

There wasn't much of a story to the whole thing. The custom composite shop, where I was working, is an offshoot of a boat building shop. The boat building industry is in the crapper, so my guess is that the owners are looking for a new way to make a living, and they're using the boat shop to fund the new shop until it gets off the ground. But on the day they laid me off, they were working on the last boat that they had on order, so money's drying up. Full timers were already taking time off, and there was a general round of layoffs. I was told that I'm a smart guy, very skilled, they like having me around, and when things pick up, they'd love to have me back. But for now, I don't have a job there anymore. I'm in the process of looking for something new in another field of manufacturing, but we'll see what shakes out. If I can get a decent job somewhere, I'll pretty much take it.

After 9/2/9, I spent a week or so moving the rest of our stuff into the new apartment, and getting it settled. Or more so, anyway, we're still getting things settled. And after that, I started job hunting. I'm still looking for work, but I figured it was high time I went back and faced the shop.


My first night back in the shop was about a week and a half ago, give or take. I didn't have any outstanding projects on deck. I'm still waiting to hear back about the reclaimed lumber job, but things are hectic all over, so I still have faith that I'll hear from him. And, basically, I felt bummed out, just being in there. And I couldn't put my finger on why, for a day or two.

Basically, I felt like I'd abandoned woodworking for composites. Even though the woodworking thing is such an ingrained part of who I am, I cut it off, for a month and a half, while I was working the new job, and packing the old apartment. I'd been more committed to the composite shop than I'd intended to be, I think. So going back to the shop felt like returning to a woman I'd been cheating on, in a way, after the new affair had come undone. I was embarrassed, ashamed, madder about being laid off than I'd realized, and I really didn't feel comfortable in the shop space. I looked around, and felt almost like the whole thing had been a waste of time, despite knowing that it wasn't.

At the end of the day, it's hard sometimes, to do the things you love. And sometimes it means doing something else for a while. It's hard to remember that, sometimes.

Anyway, I've been in the shop for a few days now, part-time. I'm still job-hunting, but now that the move is over, and Ariel is back in school, I have time in the evenings again, and I'll have time, I hope, on the weekends, to go in and get things done.

The first step, at this point, is to get my woodworking to be self-sustaining, even if it's not really paying enough to sustain the rest of my life. Basically, it's a part-time small business, for the sole purpose of keeping it going. And we'll see where it goes from there.

Sorry for not posting for so long. It's not that things haven't been happening, but I consider this to be my woodworking blog, primarily. And now that I'm actually working on something again, I'll have more to write about in here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ugh... what a month.

So, here it is about a month later.

The new job is going well. I think I'm learning at a reasonable pace, and the more I hear about the project I'm working on, and the potential for growth in both short and long term, I think I did the right thing. It has the potential to be a really great opportunity career-wise, and I think I'm learning and will continue to learn things that will help my furniture career long-term. Some of that is related to composite use in general. And some of it is related to setting up production processes.

Over the past year or two, I've learned a small amount about how to set up a production shop versus a custom shop, but never really managed to sink my teeth fully into it, because, in essence, I really wanted to play, and be able to build what I want. The new job means that I'll be able to build what I want, and pretty soon. But I think that what I'll want, long-term, is to build up a production system to build chairs, and a few other things. But, so far there's been no time spent in the shop.

Why not? About a month ago I discovered, to my dismay, that my current landlady has no real control over the renovation schedule for her house. Even though we were promised multiple times in April and May that it would be wrapped up over the summer, there's still painting to do, and a chimney to rebuild, and I don't even think the last guy is really finished with the work he has to do, and it's almost September at this point. So, I decided to move out, so that Ariel and I can move into a quieter, more stable home. So I've been careening for the past month through the process of finding a new place that I like, submitting applications, packing up our belongings, and moving what I can into a short term storage locker in advance of the actual moving date. The idea was to minimize the potential for catastrophic aftermath, since I thought we'd have to make the move on 9/1, and Ariel starts year two of nursing school on the day after that.

We still get a steady stream of apologies from the landlady, even now, after we've signed a new lease on a (GREAT!!) new apartment, and even after we've managed to come to a reasonable settlement that will get me out of my lease here.

I'll be moving into the new apartment over the first week or two of September. After that, I imagine the shop will have cooled down enough that I'll be able to work, and be there in time to celebrate the 1 year anniversary of the doors opening in Lawrence.

More good news...

6 months ago, I posted about a potential client who had some reclaimed lumber from a family homestead barn. We met, I liked him, he seemed to like me, and it sounded like we had a plan. Then things fell apart. He was busy, I was tied up with the built-in project, and we lost touch. Well, I've heard from him recently, he's still interested. I told him I was really tied up right now, but that I would be able to get going on his project in early September. So, there will be work to do when I get back into the shop. And really, just hearing from him was great... I really liked him, and I was really excited by the project. I still am, so it's great to know that it's still on, albeit with a new timetable.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


So, there's been a small whirlwind of activity lately. Things at the shop were very slow. Blame my inexperience as a business owner, lack of ability to market appropriately, or anything else you like, the truth is, the shop was struggling as an enterprise. And I needed to find a way to bridge the financial gap, so to speak.

Three weeks ago Tuesday, I found an ad on craigslist for a job that sounded interesting. I emailed, not really sure what I thought of the idea. Wednesday I heard back. Thursday I interviewed, and Friday I agreed to start the following Monday. The job is work with composite materials, building a prototype of some new green power generation equipment in a nearby shop that's part of a boatbuilding company. I don't know what I'm allowed to say, if anything, about who's who, what's what, etc, though I'll have to ask about that if I'm going to be able to say anything about it moving forward. The work is interesting at times, and not at others. It's kinda like woodworking in that regard. There's a lot of work cutting fiberglass cloth, which is itchy work. There's the layup, which is done dry in our case. And then the whole thing is vacuum bagged, and infused with resin. I'd done some vacuum bag work in school, but never anything like this, so I was intrigued. And I'm hoping that some of it will be useful in my furniture.

The work day at the boatyard starts at 6 and runs until 2:30 in the afternoon, which gives me enough time to go home, shower off the itchies, and bomb out to my shop before the rush hour crowd arrives to park their cars on the highway. So I have the time to work in the shop. For now, I'm trying to figure out what that means. Lacking the ability to gauge my schedule at the moment, I've utterly thrown out the idea of commission work. I don't like open-ended schedules, and I don't like to commit myself to a project if I don't know when it'll be delivered. So, I'm pondering thoughts of working on things for myself, and/or small production run projects, so I can work both on production techniques, and on sales.

One of the other nice things about the boatyard job, the current project is a prototype, and assuming all goes well, we'll be moving into a larger scale production phase in due time, so I'll get to help set things up and get them going. I'll be part of a production machine that does require a human hand. And I'll get to learn a lot about composite work in the meantime. And hopefully some of that experience will transfer over to the furniture shop, too.

So, that's what's been going on with me. There are still projects in the works, but they'll be slow-moving for now. I have the occasional afternoon for the foreseeable future, since my weekends have all been occupied with various things for the next month or so. Once my girlfriend is back in school full time, I expect my schedule will loosen up a bit. But for now, I'll be taking my time, and trying to get things re-positioned in my life while I adapt to the current arrangement.

Thanks for reading so far, and I'll try to keep things coming at a reasonable enough rate that the blog is still interesting, and readable. I know there have been some long interludes in the past while I got things moved around, but I want to keep things in the shop going a lot more, I'm sure, than you want to read about them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Last Wednesday and Thursday I got going on finishing this table. last Friday I brought it home. I got lucky, it turned out to be as cool as I'd hoped when I set out, and the black finish on the legs worked the way I thought it would. It was one of those cases where I knew it had the possibility of going either way, and still went with my gut instinct. So it's reassuring to know my instinct worked out on this one.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Coffee table base

The crazy joint that holds everything together was a real head scratcher, as I said before. Getting it all laid out and cut was an adventure, too, but it turned out pretty well. When the cross pieces supporting the top slide into place, it locks everything up nicely, which made for a pretty simple assembly in the end.

I hand-planed the pieces for the base this morning, so they're ready for staining, and got the last of the joinery fitted and glued up this afternoon. All things considered, it went really smoothly.

Next step is to work out the points where the top will be attached to the base, and then I can start staining and finishing. I'm not 100% sold on the proportions as it is, but I still have yet to stain the base, and put the finish on everything, and that can really change the way something looks... So I have hope that things will unfold well.

A topic that's near and dear to my heart

So, this weekend I got an email from a message board that I haven't heard from in a long time, that deals with pocket knives. I used to be a knife nut, I have several, and I use them daily, for perfectly legal and useful purposes. As a woodworker, I think they're really useful. As a human being, I think they're one of our most fundamental tools, and I think, philosophically speaking, one of the most important.

The email that I got explained that Customs, in their infinite wisdom, is trying to classify any pocket knife that can be opened with one hand (which is 80% of the knife market) as a switchblade knife... making millions of knife carrying people into criminals.

I hate to be one of those guys who puts their politics front and center. I figure everyone has an opinion, and a thinking mind of their own, so it's not for me to try to shape how they think and feel. It feels obnoxious.

But this is a real issue for me. I realize that many people view knives as scary things, and I think it's sad. A pocket knife used to be the hallmark of a good scout, or a competent person who used his hands. Knives are tools, first and foremost, and I generally think that everyone should at least learn how to use one. Learning to use something that demands caution or forethought is something that I think is a really important part of being a modern day human... let alone part of a democracy.

Then again, it seems to be considered a basic human right these days for people to be able to drive a large automobile while texting on their cell phone. So I'm not so sure that I'm on the same page as the rest of society.

I know that some people perceive knives to be dangerous weapons. But I genuinely believe this to be one of those 'eye of the beholder' type things. I think that, in the hands of an angry human, that just about anything is a dangerous weapon... or can be. To my eye, it's the intent that defines a weapon... not it's physical form. I've had a few conversations with people to this effect. Chairs, table legs, shoelaces, extension cords, kitchen implements of many kinds, wrenches, screwdrivers, pointy sticks, broken glass in any form, belts with big buckles, sports equipment of various kinds, belts with small buckles... any of these can be used to cause injury, or death. I'm sure that, lacking anything else, a person could be strangled with a few sheets of twisted up newspaper, like the daily metro. Not what they had in mind when the phrase "power of the press," was coined, I'm sure. We don't perceive these things to be threatening. Nor should we... it's the guy with the bloodshot eyes who's trying to kill someone that's threatening. Not the granny with the knitting needles.

This isn't the "guns don't kill people, people kill people," argument. Or, it's not meant to be. But the truth is that knives are much more easy to use in a positive, constructive, helpful way, than a gun is. I'm not a gun nut. I do believe in the second amendment, but I really believe that this is a whole other class of offense. I don't think that outlawing such a broad range of pocket knives is at all rational or useful... but they're trying to do it anyway.

I don't expect that I'll change people's minds with my ranting and raving here. I can hope, but I'm sure there are people who wouldn't mind if pocket knives were made illegal. That said, if there are any of you who find this concept distasteful, I beg, I implore you... look at the link posted above. Write a couple of emails. It's not a lot of time out of your day, and it's really worth doing.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Coffee table day 3, serious head scratching.

So, the top of the table got glued up on Friday, and while it still needs to be sanded, it looks good, and I'm pretty happy about that.

Later Friday and most of yesterday, I spent my time trying to figure out what sort of base to put under the table, so it would look good, and proportionally... nice. And once I figured that out, I had to figure out how to put it together... which was today's task.

The base itself is relatively simple in appearance, but there's a lot of joinery issues, since I don't want to just screw everything together. So, today I spent my time trying to do an accurate drawing in an isometric view... which is a fancy way of saying "quasi-3-D." It's what draftspersons used before we had computer rendering.

I still need to get around to learning how to render things on a computer, but I can say that I think that drawing everything out on paper is inordinately helpful, especially on things like this. It's helpful because it forces me to basically build the object on paper, and deconstruct it... and it highlights the areas where I don't entirely understand what's going on immediately. And it's much better to have that happen on paper than once I start cutting wood.

So, here's the photo summarizing the past day or two. Sketches on yellow paper, followed by more drawing on a large piece of 'real' paper. The isometric drawings are the dark lines. There's more on the rest of the page, but it doesn't show up as clearly, it's not as dark, or as dense.

And, there's a seagull feather. We've been finding a few of them in the shop lately... I guess Harvey's been busy. :)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Coffee table, day one.

So, I'm still waiting to hear back from a client about choosing a final design for a project, so I took this afternoon to work on a coffee table for my house.

The slab is a piece of English brown oak I bought a couple of years ago in Pennsylvania, shortly after I left school. It's gorgeous, and perfectly quarter-sawn, but the problem is that it's the exact center of the tree, dead center.

For those that don't know much about wood, I'll explain a few things.

Quarter-sawn means the board is cut radially from the center of the tree, so that the growth rings are running perpendicular to the board. This minimizes wood movement, so warping isn't as much of an issue. It also reveals the medullary rays of the tree, which are cells running radially out from the center of the tree. In the picture at left, they appear on the sides of the photo. For the tree, they transport water and other things between rings, moving minerals and other things into the inner layers. For furniture, well, they look pretty cool. Oak in particular has some spectacular medullary rays, which is one of the reasons that quarter-sawn oak figured so prominently in furniture from the arts and crafts period. Stickley furniture in particular used a lot of quarter-sawn oak.

The pith of the tree is the exact center of the trunk. Typically, it's very unstable, and prone to splitting. And, sure enough, as you can see in the picture, it did. When I bought the board, this had already happened, but the rest of the board promised to be really, really gorgeous, so I bought it anyway. And sure enough, when I splashed it with some water, the real colors came out. But so did some of the issues.

The rest of the pictures show me going thorough the process of figuring out where I wanted to put in wooden dovetailed "butterfly" joints to hold the slab together as a table top, cutting mortises, and inserting the butterfies. At that point, it was time to go home. But this is just the start of what will clearly be a pretty cool looking table, so I'm sure there will be more to come about this in the future.

Apologies about all the text squished into the sides. Next time I'll do a better job of organizing this.

Luckily for me, the split down the middle was pretty straight- forward. It was more or less continuous for the length of the board, and it was pretty clear that the two halves would come apart pretty easily.

The wood is still wet in this photo, but this is a good approximation of what the final color will look like... this table is going to look really good.

There were a few parts I had to saw through to separate the two halves, but they came apart pretty cleanly.

I used a jigsaw to make the cuts. But I had to loosen the base to let the saw tilt back and forth, because the orientation of the crack changed along the length of the board.

Inside the crack, things were a little gross. Some of the wood had either rotted, or gotten some kind of fungus. I'm not sure which.

I was able to scrape out the gunk and softer spots with a small drawknife and a couple of card scrapers.

Once everything had been cleaned up, the resulting gap is a little wider, anda little uneven, but very organic looking. Honestly, I wasn't sure how it would look, but it looks pretty cool.

It's funny... sometimes working with the wood, and allowing it to dictate some of the form makes the work easier, and helps make the final product look a little more interesting.

I used colored paper (actually, pink post-its) to cut different sized and shaped butterflies. these are the ones I settled on.

The butterflies have to be pretty thick, since they're going to provide some rigidity across the gap. The top will also be supported from underneath, but this ensures that the top itself still acts as a solid piece.

Originally, I tried cutting them out of the scraps left over from trimming the board down, but those scraps were full of cracks, and they didn't look like they'd hold up very well. So these ones are cut from quarter-sawn white oak.

Butterflies mortised into place. I haven't glued anything up yet, because I want to fine tune one of the butterflies. It's easy to lay things out and get them to fit in tightly as individuals. But one of them doesn't fit quite right when everything is together, so I may have to cut a new one to make it fit.

One more shot. This one gives a better idea of what the gap looks like.


So, the solution to the contact cement thing was much easier than I'd thought.

Turns out, I needed two things.

-Someone else to help lift the vinyl sheet.
-A series of sticks to place underneath between the sheet and the board, once the cement was dry enough to work with.

After that, remove a few sticks, flatten out a section. Remove a few more, and so on...

And Voila, brand new drafting board. The parallel rule came from the board I had on the desk, and all I had to do was add a longer cable.