Lots of the time at the museum, people see me working with hand tools and have no reference point for what they are seeing. It’s out of their experience…
Then, days like yesterday, it clicks. I spent almost an hour talking with a group from Concord Massachusetts and Transylvania – these folks were of Hungarian descent, and several knew my tools and their uses. It was great fun for me. I got a very nice letter tonight from Rodger Mattlage, showing me a selection of carved gates that they described to me. They didn’t know to tell me the best part – they have birdhouses cut in the top sections!
Here’s Rodger’s letter:
Many thanks for your demonstrations and conversation with our group from Concord, MA and Székelykeresztúr Transylvania yesterday!! It was a real pleasure for me and others to talk with you and be in your shop and to see you working.
Here is a starter page for info about Székely gates (Székelykapu in Hungarian) in the Transylvania of what is now Romania, but up to WW I was part of Hungary.
Lately I’ve been able to use some of my all-time 2nd-favorite local hardwood. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog a while know that it isn’t walnut.
It’s ash. Down here in southeastern New England it’s white ash. My whole furniture career I have used this wood, at first I made JA-inspired ladderback chairs out of it quite often. Way back when…
At the museum, I have mostly used it for turned chairs, like these three-legged monsters.
Four legs too.
It turns so nicely, not as well as maple, but the combination of strength, dead-straight grain, great splitting ability, and good turning details makes it well suited for chair work.
I have done some joinery with it from time-to-time, recently I put up some photos of my bedstead at home, and it has lots of ash components.
I have a joint stool frame made from ash too. Historically, you find some joiner’s work in it. Not a lot, but some. It has little decay resistance, especially compared to oak. Victor Chinnery told me that this chest at the Wadsworth Atheneum is made of ash. It’s eaten alive, so maybe Vic was right.
But there were several years, maybe 6 or 8, where I made lots and lots of baskets from ash, in addition to the chair work.
Traditionally, basket splints were pounded from the whole log, crushing the early wood pores to separate the growth rings into splints for weaving. Here is the end grain, showing the ring-porous growth rings. It’s the open pores of the spring wood that crushes, leaving the more dense growth as the splint.
That’s the best method to use if all you want from the log is basket splints. There’s very little waste that way. But if you want to make some chair parts from the same log, it’s best to rive out blanks and work them this way & that – some shaved & turned into chair work, tool handles, and others pounded apart into splints.
Many visitors to my shop comment on the smells of the wood. I don’t notice them as much as most folks just walking in. But this ash log I can smell, mostly because it’s not that often that I have some. And the scent of it brings back great memories of my earlier days at green woodworking. Funny how olfactory stuff is so tied to memory.
With the onslaught of the Emerald Ash Borer problem, I have often thought of how much I like ash timber, and how I would miss it if it disappears. Such a shame if future woodworkers won’t get to use wood like this. To that end, I am trying to make the most of each log I get from ash. Hoping that somehow the objects can stand if the tree is gone…it has made me re-think my feelings about the romantic sound of a wooden baseball bat making contact with the ball. Ash is the “traditional” wood for bats, ideally suited for it. But given the dubious lifespan of a bat, I think we’re better off with chairs, baskets – let’s aim for something that’ll be around a while
This log is going into some tool handles, a cupboard, a joined stool and some baskets. I guess I should make some shaved chairs from it for old times’ sake too…
Here’s some video shot by my friend Rick McKee from the Plantation showing how I pound apart the splints.
I have said it before, but be sure to go read Rick’s blog the Riven Word. I don’t miss a post – great tone, filled with fun and information.
And and I don’t miss it a bit. September is my favorite time of year. Once Labor Day is over, I can go to the beach. And this September we had a long string of perfect weather. So I took every chance I had to get out to the beach…
Meanwhile, on the blog I sold tools & spoons. And then packed tools. And packed spoons. I went to the post office a lot. and worked, and helped with the transition to first grade.
So the blog has been neglected. But here are more September pictures.
Here’s the bird all the fuss is about. If you read this blog, you know who’s side I’m on…the bird has to live here. We can drive elsewhere…
And back at the house, the view across the river is at its best as well. None of the mon0-chromatic summer color.
Thanks to all who have responded to the spoon project. I appreciate it.I finally got around to shooting some spoons that I have in a basket here. Several of you have written worrying that you “missed” the spoons sales. I continue to carve spoons all the time, in spare time. Not much of that lately, with first grade having started, and the tool sale I have been running on the blog as well. But there’s more coming after these. Follow the link, https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/spoons-for-sale-september/ or go to the spoon page on the top banner of the blog’s front page. Email me with any questions. If you want to purchase one of these spoons, just fill out a comment, or send an email. they both get to the same place.
If for any reason, anyone is ever unhappy with their spoons from me, I’ll gladly take them back & refund your money. No questions, no hassles. These are for fun, so I don’t want any problems. I can always house more spoons here…
All of them are finished with food-grade flax oil. If you prefer another finish, email me and we can look into a spoon to suit.
“I am pretty sure IF a woodworker in the 17th century would have had access to a table saw – he would have used it.”
Recently the above quote was included in a string of comments to a post Chris Schwarz wrote about the joint stool book. http://blog.lostartpress.com/2012/09/07/without-a-scrap-of-crap/
I hear this line of thinking again & again when people see the way I work and hear some of the reasoning behind my methods. It doesn’t bother me much when people express this idea, but I think it’s pretty much meaningless. I decided to add my two cents’ worth – here’s some of it.
I make reproductions of seventeenth-century furniture from England both Old and New. I have no interest in going back in time to the 17th century. (What? No Grateful Dead? Arrrrgghhh…) But I love the furniture from that period. For nearly 25 years I have been fascinated by this work, and the idea that it can be made with timber containing a significantly higher moisture content than what many of us are used to. In my on-going study of this work the idea has been to understand what it took to make this stuff in the first place. That means using a tool kit that is as close to the period tools as reasonably possible. I have some handmade tools, but nowhere near a full set. Probably never will have…most of my toolkit is a mixture of 19th-21st-century tools.
Now about the notion of studying period pieces for reproduction purposes. I have no qualm with folks who want to use tablesaws and other “modern” (I dislike the term “power” – my hatchet is quite powerful…) tools. If that’s how people want to work that’s fine with me. But that hinders your understanding of period furniture work. Usually you can see in a finished piece if the work was machined, even when skimmed by hand as the final finish. I am not interested in going whole-hog back to the 17th century. I like comfortable shoes, I have a nice anti-fatigue mat at my bench…I have done woodworking with the raking light from the windows versus electric light. I like it, but my shop is not my own, so that’s out of my hands. Overhead light I find annoying. But for the edge tools and the wood – I try to get them closely aligned with period practice. I study surviving pieces in detail whenever I get near them. I continue to find things on pieces that I have known for over 20 years.
To understand the significance in the period of a carved joined chest, we should know something about how much time it takes to make it. The most direct and effective way to gather that information is to make many of them, in something close to a period manner. Only then will we get it. My friend Ted Curtin made his first joined chest umpteen years ago at Plimoth Plantation. If I remember correctly he said it took a couple hundred hours. If he had stopped at one, then we’d have a skewed view of the chest’s worth. Over time, Ted got fast (til he became a school teacher!) and he & I reached a point at which either of us could make a chest in about 60-75 hours.
I’ve specialized in using green, riven oak. I have built joined work using pitsawn oak, millsawn oak & other woods, air-dried, kiln-dried. Quartersawn, flatsawn and in-between. All of it. My preference is riven green oak. It’s the best there is.
I nowadays buy a log from the sawmill, and use a chainsaw for cross-cutting the 2-foot diameter oaks that I tend to use. I have in the past felled trees and cross-cut logs this size with handsaws. I don’t intend to do it again. That means once a month or so for about half-an-hour I use a “power tool.” I hate the use of them, cantankerous to start and maintain. Loud, rumbly & noxious. But worth it to get the log to length. My preferred method is to get someone else to take the chainsaw to the log. Once it’s cut to length and I have split it into quarters, I do any further cross-cuts with a handsaw.
But in the woodpile and the shop, handtools are the way to go for me. It comes down to how I want to spend my time. Personally, I have no interest in working with machines. I dislike the noise and the dust. I’d much rather spend my time listening to the sound of a hatchet over that of the tablesaw, a plane over a planer, and so on.
I have been lucky beyond imagination in that I make my living doing woodworking that doesn’t have to meet a bottom line. I build furniture in a museum. People pay money to come see, among other things, my work. But, if this were not my living, I’d be like many people out there on the web – working wood with hand tools for my enjoyment. Period. I often maintain that if I had to sell my furniture to make my living, it would not work the way I do it.
I’m not trying to convert anyone from machines to hand tools. I think that for the amatuer it’s a great way to work wood, but all I am doing is showing folks how I do what I do. What people do with that information is up to them. Sort of a “Take what you need & leave the rest” situation.
While I was thinking about this subject & writing this post, I came across a short piece I wrote when Woodwork magazine did a feature on my work…I’ve posted it as a page here, and if you’d care to go back & see what I wrote in 2004 have a look. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/hand-tools-green-wood/
I often get asked about what woods besides oak will work for the joinery methods I use. I have little experience with non-oak joinery woods. But recently I was sifting through some digital files, and found these shots of our bedstead. I built it about 12 years ago. Our house is too small to rear back & shoot the whole bedstead – so you get some detail shots only.
I contrived the construction. Period bedsteads are often assembled with iron bolts through the stiles into captured nuts buried in the long rails. I chose to sidestep those issues and use a through tenon with a wedge. But the format of the footboard here is just a chest front really, with extended stiles above. The stiles and long rails are ash, the panels and muntins are red oak. I worked the ash just as I did the oak; riven radially, hewn & planed. Drawbored mortise & tenons. Over time the color discrepancy gets muted. The footboard is four panels wide, the center muntin is wider than the other two muntins.
The headboard was designed around the two horizontal panels that I had. These are white oak, the stiles and brackets are red oak and the long rails are ash again. Behind the bedding is a single white pine panel reaching down to a lower rail. That’s probably ash too, though I forget. I designed this headboard based on our room, and I didn’t want it to block the row of windows above that look out at the river. So I added a row of turned spindles trapped between two rails.
The long rails are 2 x 8s, again in oak. I screwed two long ledger strips of oak to the inside of these rails, and have loose boards sitting across these ledger strips to support the bedding.
Ash is an all-time favorite wood of mine. Unfortunately it’s under attack these days. Lots of it is being cut, let’s hope it gets used for something other than firewood & chips. See the website here for the latest on the Emerald Ash Borer. http://www.emeraldashborer.info/
One thing Jennie Alexander knows is drawknives for chairmaking. After a brief stint at turned chairs many many years ago, JA switched to shaving chairs at the shaving horse. Like this:
I don’t know the date when the turned chairs were done, & shaved chairs begun, but it pre-dates the 1978 release of Make a Chair from a Tree. And all the students (me included in 1980) made them that way…
When Tom Lie-Nielsen was researching drawknives to make for sale, he got a hold of Alexander. Jennie sent some Witherby 8″ knives up to Maine for testing – and now look at the drawknives Lie-Nielsen makes. They are based on the Witherby drawknife courtesy of JA.
We have a small batch of drawknives for sale, these are not your ordinary antique clunkers, neglected in barns and garages for decades. These tools are in great shape. Tuned & sharpened for the most part…so go get the DVD on chairmaking, grab one of these knives and off you go….
I remember when I didn’t even know who Chris Schwarz was…the last time I had an apprentice at the museum, (2008, Quinn the Eskimo) he kept harping about some B&W magazine that I should read and the hand-tool nut who runs it. I have a filter built into my head that is triggered by the words “You should…” – it kicks in & I never hear the end of a sentence that starts that way…so I dismissed the suggestion out of hand.
Anyway, after some time my resolve buckled & I looked into this Schwarz character. Read some blog about his work…as I recall he was working quartersawn oak when I read it…but it was Mission stuff or something like that.
Now, a few years later, & look at me. I got Popular Woodworking & wrote articles for them. Went to their WIA gigs. Got a Lost Art Press hat,
and a Lost Art Press T-shirt.
I even got a Lost Art Press book:
I read the book about tool chests & after 20 years in one shop, I took most of my tools off the wall & built a chest after reading the Lost Art Press book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.
I’m like a sheep or lemming or something. Next is probably a Lost Art Press decoder ring …
Then when Chris wrote about his “layout” square, I balked. I had never heard that term before for one thing. Squares are squares, unless they are “iron squares” or “wooden squares” in the period I study. Plus his thing looked more like a level to me than any practical joiners’ tool. Moxon has a level in the section on carpenters’ tools. (top left, below) But I don’t need a level. Moxon’s level doesn’t look like a giant letter “A”.
But Andres Felebien’s does, 1676 in Paris.
I had long known this Dutch painting of a weaver’s loom and surroundings. I studied this for the busted-up chair and the simple cupboard, but had noted the level hanging on the wall behind the loom.
I sent it to Chris a few weeks ago, & he posted a bit about how he uses the his square. Then I started to see it differently. So with some idea of how it’s used, and the Felebien engraving – I jumped on the bandwagon & decided to make one of the fool things.
But it’s so boring a device. I used (no surprise) riven quartered oak. I thought the “ogee everywhere” bit was too much, so I deleted 2 ogee cut-outs on the top edge of the brace. I cut the ogees with a backsaw, chisel & knife. I can’t be bothered with a rasp or file.
I still thought it was painfully dull, so I carved it. Now it looks like something.
Imagine the situation – I cooked up the idea to sell Alexander’s tools here. I offered to do the work – shooting the tools, writing the posts, researching the histories and pricing. Post office, etc. I get a small percentage and I am not complaining. the problem is that I get to sift through the boxes & boxes of tools that have arrived to see what’s inside. Each day I open the boxes, I see something & think – “wow – I don’t have one of these..maybe I should keep this one.” – it’s tool lust for sure. So tonight I am putting some things up here so you folks can help me resist the urge to fill my already over-crowded shop with even more tools.
NOW – for a serious part. Jennie & I are quite pleased to offer these tools here. We have spoken many times over the years about what to do with these tools. The default was going to be they would come to me & Nathaniel Krausse, who has been a fixture in Jennie’s shop since I got my job at Plimoth back in the mid-1990s. But when we first discussed the tools’ future, the idea of a blog did not exist.
Lo & behold, an audience has come to us from out of the blue & we are grateful for the attention & enthusiasm. So we came up with the idea to offer the tools to you folks before trying to sell them out in the world. Your response has confirmed our gut feelings. We thank you. If for any reason, someone gets a tool that they decide isn’t what they expected, or are otherwise dis-satisfied, send it back to me & I will refund your purchase price. No questions asked. I do not want to be a tool dealer, this is just a preemptive house-cleaning. When these tools finally wind down, then I am out of this racket.
I know the posts lately are thin on content, and heavy on commerce. When the tools disperse, there will be the concentrated attention back to shop-work. & birds.
The tool sale continues. With the wooden planes and other tools closely associated with how I work, I have a pretty good idea about value, condition etc when it comes time to post Jennie Alexander’s tools here. Like most of us, at an early point in my woodworking career I had a bunch of Stanley tools. My father worked in a hardware store from 1942-1975. So there were lots of them around when I was growing up.
But I haven’t really used them in years. Sold some decades ago when I was broke. Thus offering this first batch of Stanley tools from Alexander I am out of my reach to some extent. I spent a lot of time on the web, just like any of us, researching these tools. There, prices are pretty varied. So I priced these somewhat based on what I found on the web, and on the condition of the tools. Not sure if these tools appeal to the readers here; but we’ll find out. I dread going to Ebay to sell them. what a headache. But if this doesn’t work then maybe that’s the next move. Because there are lots more Stanley tools coming. Spokeshaves, lots of spokeshaves. Here’s the first batch.