Well, it’s time to finish a few things, or I will be over-run and have to admit defeat. First off is the walnut high chair. I finished the drawboring and pinning of the frame, and made the seat for it yesterday.
We’ve looked at drawboring before of course, it is critical to this way of woodworking. Here I am marking the location of the pin hole on the tenon.
Then I knock the joint back apart, and bore this hole slightly closer to the tenon shoulder than the marks indicate.
Here I am shaving pin stock, my method uses a large framing chisel; this one’s 2” wide and about 15” long. It’s quite heavy. The weight of the chisel helps with the downward momentum; I find that when I use a lighter chisel I have to push harder. It took some careful culling to get straight-enough grain in the walnut to split the pin stock.
Assembling the frame is a matter of pulling the joints tight with temporary metal drawbore pins, then one by one driving in the tapered wooden pins.
A really good fit will shred the pins like this one did:
I made the seat from a piece of the resawn walnut – didn’t get photos of that process; but it took much fiddling to get the fit the way I wanted it…now to peg it to the seat rails, then fasten the arms in place.
I began assembling the walnut high chair the other day. Here I am knocking it together to mark the drawboring.
I pinned the rear section together first. These pins fall in a carved molding, so I wanted to trim them with a gouge instead of the usual chisel.
Once I got the rear frame assembled, I started in on some fine detail trimming here & there. I want the tops of the rear stiles to blend into the shape of the crest rail; and this is most easily done as one unit, rather than in pieces. Here I am using a knife to bevel the shape.
bevels on rear stile
The grip here is from spoon-carving; but applies here as well.
knife grip detail
I’m consciously going around all the edges & breaking them some with a chisel or plane; figuring the high chair will be around a while, and I wouldn’t want the children running their hands along any crisp edges. I usually “break” corners anyway, but in this case perhaps a little more than usual.
This blog post is not what it started out to be…but it’s related. So for now, a bit about how & why I try to document the work I do.
Writing this blog is an extension of work I did with Jennie Alexander way back when. We first explored the world of 17th-c joinery together starting in the late 1980s. I lived at the time in Hingham Massachusetts, and Alexander was then, and is still, in Baltimore MD. So we were 500 miles apart; both had day jobs, and so were only together about two weeks out of the year, sometimes a little more…but not much.
Our method developed as we went. We’d try to spend time in museum collections; I did the bulk of my studies up here at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Alexander often down at Winterthur Museum near Wilmington DE. Other collections were fit in as the opportunities arose. We would photograph as much as we could, then copy the slides, mail them off to each other, and write our notes about each object we studied. So a range of stops along the way; photography place for film & developing, then it was off to the photocopier for the notes, and the post office to shuffle the whole thing up & down the Atlantic seaboard. Then wait for the other end to receive the stuff, digest it, and reply, as time permitted. As we got more involved, it also entailed lengthy phone calls each week. And notes from them…& searching reading materials, etc. All of that seems arcane now; and that aspect of our story is not unique – all researchers have experienced a huge change in methods since the digital age has overcome us.
In our studies we were fortunate to have great curatorial assistance most anywhere we went at the time. Nowadays, curators are more restricted in how much time they have for visiting “scholars” – I think we’d be hard pressed to get such free access to period objects if we were starting out today.
I am not a photographer, I learned much of what I know from Alexander. We shot slides because Alexander had been asked to speak from time to time to woodworking groups, furniture history students, that sort of thing. So we wanted to have slides of the original artifacts, tool use in artwork, and experimentation in our shops. So we practiced shooting in our shops, with lights, tripods and cable-release fittings on our cameras. And threw out many slides along the way. And bundles of money too, in film & developing. (here’s a JA stool upholstered by our friend Bob Trent.)
In the beginning, there were many levels of learning going on, photos, woodworking, the history angle and the documentary research. In hindsight, being far apart really helped us. The process and setup really dictated that we needed to write our ideas down. That really meant we had to think things through, or we’d be sure to get a thorough trashing in the next go-round, as in “what on earth did you mean by….”
We had the chance to teach workshops, present lectures, etc from time to time. It was never boring – I’ll leave it at that! The last time was at Colonial Williamsburg in 2007:
Over the years, I have tried to keep up with documenting what I do, and how I arrived at doing it that way. Ironically, for many years museum work actually got in the way of this level of documentation. Working in front of the public limits how much time I can devote to the additional work of photography and writing. Sometimes the research/documentation aspect of things is for publication, like the American Furniture articles I have done; and more recently it has been for woodworking publications, primarily Popular Woodworking Magazine. Certainly things have changed over time. For me, the digital camera has made a huge difference – my shots in the shop are now much better than in the film/slides era.
I started the blog about 2 ½ years ago, and just like our earlier notes and photos, it centers on 17th-century joinery practices; but also includes related stuff with a focus on hand tools and green wood. And detours regularly abound. But for me, all along it has been in my mind that the blog is a way for me to keep Alexander connected to the woodworking/research and ideas. Time has done its thing, and Jennie’s shop time is mostly in the past now. We spoke just last night, and Alexander has no complaints – “life the past few months has been the best ever…” or words to that effect.
Alexander & I are pretty square on where we have stood all these years; but it’s worth saying publicly that I owe my livelihood to the nudge of (John) Jennie Alexander. Joinery is by no means lucrative, but I don’t measure work that way (thankfully) – for me work is best when it’s creative, challenging and growing. Joinery has done all that for me, and I see it continuing to do so for a long time. I like to joke that Alexander & I taught each other the craft of joinery, without either of us knowing how to do it. And so here it is, not a fettschrift, but just a thank you, JA.
In 1999 Mack Headley wrote an article for American Furniture about the layout, organization and setup of an 18th-century cabinetmaker’s shop He used documentary evidence, engravings, and archaeology as the basis for his findings, as well as things like the photos of the Dominy workshop in East Hampton Long Island before its contents were moved to the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington DE. [see Mack Headley, “Eighteenth-Century Cabinet Shops and the Furniture-Making Trades in Newport, Rhode Island” in American Furniture edited by Luke Beckerdite (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1999), pp. 17-37.]
I found Headley’s article inspiring, and sought to do something similar for the 17th-century joiners’ works. My article “Manuscripts, Marks, and Material Culture: Understanding the Joiner’s Trade in Seventeenth-Century America” in American Furniture, edited by Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2002), pp. 125-146 really concentrated on tools and tool evidence. The reason for this is that we know next to nothing about joiners’ shops – the physical space, the number of workmen, etc.
Nowadays, most woodworkers set up their shops in a pre-existing space, adapting it this way & that to fit the type of work they do. Like many, I started out in a basement workshop. Years later, I moved to the 2nd floor of an overgrown chicken coop. Then in 1994 I moved into the workshop I now use in the museum. Working in a living history museum means that my workspace is also a display space. 8 months out of the year, streams of visitors come through to see various craftspeople at work. This affects how I set up the shop. Unlike the cabinetmakers at colonial Williamsburg, I am not attempting to recreate a known workshop…. I work in a funny old carriage house, not in a recreated 17th-century wooden building.
Having my shop as a display space creates some challenges when setting up the benches, lathe and other fixtures. For instance, the windows are behind me, really a poor choice all around, but one that couldn’t be avoided.
My bench is free-standing, running parallel to the railing from which museum visitors approach my workspace. I keep the bench back just far enough so that it’s out of reach, but close enough for ease of viewing, and within reach of me handing them things to see up close. It also leaves space for me to scoot around and have closer contact with them…
The building is brick, which makes hanging stuff tricky. Here and there are sections of boards that tools hang from; naturally the one right behind my bench holds stuff I use most often. Under this set is a workbench that I have used some this winter, but during the season it will really just be a place to pile things…tucked to the left is a rack for short boards (30″ and less) stored on edge.
Most of the work I do involves converting riven oak into boards. Lots of hatchet work and plane work, usually switching from one to the other again & again. I was taught to really keep track of the hatchet – at Country Workshops we always kept a leather guard on them when we put them down. There you have 8-12 students roaming around the workshop, and the chance for an errant bump against a hatchet left lying around was always a possibility. I have adapted that notion in my shop, and the hatchet is always either in my hand, or hanging on the wall behind me. Almost never anywhere else.
When I am done hewing and ready to plane this board, first thing is the hatchet goes back on the wall. Working in front of (sometimes thousands of) visitors each day, it’s easy to get distracted, so I have trained myself to always put the hatchet back. In these photos, I think you’ll be able to see the proximity of the workbench, the hewing stump/block and the spot on the wall where the hatchet hangs (see it right above my head in this photo) I think of the block, the bench and the wall rack like the “work triangle” of kitchen design…in my shop these are all within a step or two.
Other tools hang nearby as well.
And planes and marking tools are on a shelf under the bench. Yes, it collects dust and shavings. Every few months I pull them out & sweep under there. It’s not a big deal. The marking gauges and other small tools are stored in an open box; rulers, awls, chalklines – that sort of thing. then mallets and big stuff with no sharp edges.
There’s really another whole section of my shop that has a lathe in it, and a whole lot of tool storage and projects hanging around. part storage, part display – other than turning it really isn’t part of my “work” space. But I’m glad I have it. Oh, and books too. and camera equipment. So I guess I use it, jut not actively. So that’s the bulk of how my shop is set up, essentially by default. I often think of my fantasy shop at home. First thing I’d add would be a framed ceiling to hang stuff from…that’s what I miss from the chicken coop, but not the cold and the mice.
Another link I’ve been meaning to send is our friend Paula’s new site about baking in ovens she’s made herself, and who-knows-what-all. There’s oak in her pictures, but it’s on fire. I complained there were no birds, but she says there’s a turkey on the front page. I say that’s a technicality. It’s a website/blog combo, so take a look if you’re inclined. It’s good stuff. http://www.themagnificentleaven.com/Site/WELCOME.html