As we enter the last few days of December 2012, I have found myself with more spare time than I can stand (a good thing by the way). Luckily this spare time lends itself to building and creating out of wood. In the process of building furniture one ends up with many scraps of wood. Lots of these pieces are long and slender, which is perfect if one wants to make an “end-grain” cutting board. This is done by first gluing up a panel about 11 inches wide, 35 inches long and 3/4 of an inch thick. This panel is then sliced on the perpendicular into 1.5 inch strips. The strips when stood on end can be glued together in an alternating fashion to make a cutting board of great visual interest. The end grain makes for a very durable cutting surface that doesn’t dull knives the way long grain does. As one chops on end grain, the edge of the knife fits between the wood fibers in a wedge like fashion instead of severing the wood fibers as in a conventional long grain cutting board. This also has the advantage of preserving the surface of the cutting board and preventing it from being hollowed out, which makes chopping a pain as the middle of the knife is no longer able to reach the board surface. The finish on this cutting board is a linseed and beeswax blend I use on all kitchen ware for its lack of toxicity and ability to bring out the beauty of the wood.
About three years ago I acquired some small Bradford Pear logs from a friend of mine. I sawed up the wood and let it dry for about two years before I did anything with it. The first project out of the wood was a small shelf I have. These candle sticks are the latest thing I’ve made from this delightful golden species.
Pear has a very light yellowish white color with ruddy hues in some places. As the wood ages it takes on a golden color as though the wood was slightly roasted. The grain of pear is very fine and takes a nice finish from steal wool on the lathe. This pair of sticks required only one coat of oil, although I’m inclined to give them a rub down with wax as well.
The form of these candle sticks is a departure from what I’ve turned so far. Up to this point all my turnings have had several distinct details; beads, coves, sharp defined transitions etc. The form of these pieces is continuous and uninterrupted from top to bottom. The point on the candle sticks where the form is constricted is the result of conscientious proportioning. I wanted the ratio of the length of the bottom section to be about 1.6 times longer than the top, in order to take advantage of the “golden ratio,” which is often more harmonious than other dimensions.
Today I finished my second salt and pepper shaker set. The first one I made has been used on my table for five years. It is a simple box with a trapezoidal piece of wood that closes in the bottom after it is filled.
This design utilizes a piece of ebony that slides in and out to open the shakers. There is a hole in the bottom of the shakers that allows the ebony to be pushed out with a pen or dowel, then it is slid back to close the shaker. The ebony pieces are held in place by friction. The woods I used are curly maple and walnut. Both shakers have ebony closures.
With seven days til Christmas I have met my deadline and am finished with the cherry armoire. This has been one of the most labor intensive, ambitious projects I’ve undertaken. I continue to learn through mistakes and see the value in failure. I heard someone talking about something called “failure value” the other day and it appeals to me in light of all the things that go wrong in life. Its ok to mess up as long as I gain something from it and grow through careful reflection. I like to impress upon my students the importance of learning through mistakes and seeing the value in not getting and answer “right.” I prefer they see how they got where they are and that there was value in reaching the apparent dead end. I found myself at many apparent dead ends this go ’round. Holes where there shouldn’t be holes, split boards where no splits were welcome. All valuable lessons I’ll carry with me into the next project.
As I gave my students their end of course tests this week, I found myself noticing questions on topics I somehow missed during the course of the semester. The sting of realizing my own personal responsibility for the failure of my students regarding a particular question is very motivating. There was a high “Failure Value” in that experience. I now appreciate the importance of a thorough and systematic approach to instruction and will raise my own standards next time I teach that particular subject.
I think like lots of folks, I like to have plenty of control over things and outcomes. Woodworking is a good exercise in realizing how little I control in the grand scheme. Things move, swell, crack, don’t fit together, I bloody my knuckles and hit my head on things, inhale too much dust and smash my fingers in the cold (a terrible delayed pain sensation). I’m sure my experience is not unique, I mean that of frustration and occasional futility. The constant tug of entropy on our lives. But what we gain by putting energy back into the system and fighting against it. The value in failure, the satisfaction of completion.
One of my most recent distractions has been the shaping of spinning wood otherwise known as turning. I’ve been making as many candle sticks as I can lately. Turning is a great way to wind down after laboring over a piece of casework.
I recently took my lathe apart, adjusted a few parts and reassembled it and managed to improve the performance, which has made turning easier and faster. So far cherry is my favorite wood to turn. Walnut is nice but often after sanding still has fibers on the surface that were missed due to the structure of the wood. These make for a rough surface. I had the same experience with sycamore. The only maple I’ve turned so far was a failure, when a large chunk was taken off by the gouge.
Most of my designs so far are dictated by the dimensions of the tool. I’ll frequently use the width of the skew chisel to mark out the width of beads and coves.
When approaching the final steps in the turning process one can use friction to burn parts of the turning to darken and highlight them. That’s what I’ve done on these cherry candle sticks. I like to emphasize the high points which makes for a nice contrast against the warm light cherry. The candles are simple emergency candles from the store, 3/4 inches in diameter.
So far the biggest challenge in turning has been replicating shapes, maintaining the symmetry between the two pieces. I find that I will often turn one piece, take it off the lathe, turn the second, compare the two then remount the first and make adjustments in response to the second. In the end the one of the pair with the smaller dimensions however slight will guide me in shaping the other.
My finish on most turnings so far has been Tried and True’s linseed oil and bee’s wax finish. One coat and we’re ready to light up a room.
I’ve been drinking a lot more coffee here lately. The end of my semester is fast approaching and the pressure of testing is palpable. Teaching high school and trying to build two large pieces of furniture (and a smaller hall table) have really been taxing my resources physically and spiritually. I was relieved to move this entertainment cabinet out of my basement and into the living room for photographing.
When I work on a large piece like this (five feet wide) my awareness of the space limitations of my shop becomes heightened. I’ve found work flow and transitions through my space to be very important, so when there is something large in the way, woodworking can become frustrating. I learn with each new piece that I am both incredibly limited in what I can do, yet very capable of overcoming new challenges in design and structure. I enjoy the freedom and spontaneity I bring to my work, but often don’t think several steps ahead and that can lead to mistakes.
Existentialism does not always mix well with woodworking. Sometimes I wonder how big a mistake I would need to make to get me to start making more thorough plans. So far a rough sketch is all I need and room to take the next step.
I’ll have a cherry armoire to finish building next. At 6.5 feet tall and 5 wide, it will be quite a bit more imposing than the entertainment center and already I feel the deadline encroaching on my piece of mind. More to come on this later.
Earlier this week I finished constructing a pair of walnut and maple hall tables. These tables are for a couple in Maggie Valley who wanted them for the main entryway to their home. It was very enjoyable to work with and get to know them and help beautify their home.
Each table is 30 inches high, 12 inches wide and the lengths are 34 and 48 inches. The materials are walnut for the tops and legs and maple. Once again I used draw-bored mortise and tenon joinery on these tables, which facilitated the glue up process. The legs are slightly tapered and the aprons curved upward a bit. Additionally the tops have their underside beveled. All these elements together give the tables a more graceful feel than one would achieve with mere straight lines.
I am using Danish oil to finish these tables followed by paste wax to add more luster and protection. I’ve not used Danish oil before so there is an element of uncertainty, but so far I’m fond of the finish produced.
With each piece I build I feel like I achieve a greater unity of design, harmony of proportions and deliberateness in my construction methods. I see influences of shaker and federal styles recurring in my work as well as the influence of Thomas Moser, whose site I have linked on my blog page. I’ve spent hours pouring over Moser’s designs, which inspire me to achieve a higher level of craftsmanship with each new piece I build. With each piece I build I discover something new, whether an easier way to cut tenons or what kind of forces will split the top of a table leg.
Carpentry is the unity of trees, blades and human expression.