Leopold Chairs

August 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I recently finished a couple of simple outdoor chairs that follow the “Leopold Bench” design made famous by the late conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold. He is credited with this simple design, and although none of his originals are still around, you still see versions of them scattered about parks and nature centers all across the United States, not to mention countless back yards. As a piece of furniture, they are quintessential utilitarian, and are simply meant to be strong and stable and easily built by anyone. Like anything, you can jazz them up with beautiful woods and add a few bells and whistles, but these were never intended to be heirloom items (mine were built with CVG Douglas-fir). Build it, stick it outside under a tree or on a deck and when it succumbs to Mother Nature, build another one.

Though most commonly seen as two-seater benches, many people have also narrowed them to be chairs as I’ve done here. I didn’t stray too far from the simple design. I did hollow the seat a little for comfort. It’s amazing how much longer you can comfortably sit on a chair or bench with a hollow seat as opposed to a flat piece of wood. Without a hollow, a cushion is almost mandatory after about 15 minutes. The back supports are also hollowed a little for comfort. The seat is angled back about 5 degrees, as much to shed rain as anything. No fancy joinery, just carriage bolts and screws keep everything together.

They are finished in milk paint with an outdoor additive. It’s been several years since I’ve used milk paint. User-friendly milk paint is not. Apparently I had forgotten that part. No matter how well you mix it, it’s still a gritty, weird consistency. Of course after I was done I realized I had forgotten to strain it through a paint strainer. Of course my challenges here were all due to my lack of experience with milk paint. Many others (especially chair makers) can do amazing things with this paint. General Finishes does make a “milk” paint that isn’t milk paint at all, but a modern acrylic paint that comes in milk-paintish colors. For those of us who grew up with latex, the General Finishes version is much more familiar. Still, the look of milk paint is unique, and you can only get that look with the real thing. And I suppose that is what keeps people going back. I set the chairs out in the sun for a few weeks to completely dry and then wiped them with a thinned spar varnish. Clear finishes are doomed to failure in any outdoor setting, and I don’t mind if the paint and the varnish gradually wear away.

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After a few coats of Ella Blue

More:
For more on Aldo Leopold’s life and work, visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation website. And scroll down on this page for a short narrative about his benches.

There are two main distributors of milk paint – The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company and The Real Milk Paint Company. Although they take a few pot shots at each other in their respective websites, I imagine the end result is much the same with either. Peter Galbert, one of those chairmakers that does amazing things with milk paint, describes the differences between the two here. He has lots of other posts about milk paint, and the beautiful finishes he puts on his world-class chairs.

Banging Something Together

June 11, 2014 Comments Off

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My list of things to build never gets any shorter. For each one that gets crossed off the list, three more get added. At one point I actually wrote them down. For some that might serve as motivation. For others it can be downright depressing. I don’t know where that list is, and it doesn’t much matter. I know what the important projects are, and those that aren’t important will get supplanted by something else anyway. My basement shop is a perfect example. I work at it spurts, then other things get priority. The important stuff will get built, eventually.

Summer brings an annual priority to building things for the outdoors. I have a few chairs that are almost done (in my classic fashion those were meant to be a quick weekend project – we are on weekend #6 at this point). The other day (while I was working on those chairs) Judy mentioned that she would like a low bench for some potted plants, rather than have them sit on the deck. As she finished explaining what she wanted, she ended with, “Now I don’t need anything fancy, just something banged together.”

I took no offense to that. My chair project is how all my “weekend” projects go. I figure out a design, and then say to myself, “Yeah, I can build that in a few days”. Weeks later I’m still chamfering edges and adding subtle curves and details here and there. But sometimes things really do need to get banged together, and function rather than form should be the priority. That isn’t advocating shoddy work, and you should never make anything intentionally ugly, but sometimes you need to pick your battles.

I went through my stash of 4/4 cedar and “banged together” these two little benches. I wouldn’t load too much weight on them (CVG red cedar is barely above balsa in strength), but for pots they should do just fine. Of course they still took longer than I anticipated, but for me they were built in light speed. I was told they are “cute”. Not a word I would personally advocate using in a critique of a woodworking piece but I’ll take it.

On a final note, I’ve added a few more tools to my For Sale page, including some squares, a bevel gauge, some nails, and an old plane iron.

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A Few Good Things Going On

April 12, 2014 Comments Off

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Photo courtesy kestreltool.com

Occasionally I stumble upon some interesting crowdfunding campaigns that catch my eye. I thought I would mention a few here in case anyone was interested in donating a few dollars. Kestrel Tool is a small toolmaking shop on Lopez Island in Washington. It began when Gregg Blomberg started making crooked knives and adzes to help keep the amazing Northwest Coast wood carving tradition alive. He is now ready to transition the business to new owner and tool maker Charlie Prince. It’s heartening to see a small business such as this continuing to the next generation. We’ve all heard of the small artisan shops that retire along with their founder. I’d like to think that is the exception rather than the rule. Kestrel Tool launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to help with the transition. At the very least it’s worth watching the video and reading their page on Indiegogo.

Somewhat related to woodworking is the Kickstarter campaign for the trio band Underhill Rose. One third of that trio is Eleanor, Roy Underhill’s daughter. If you a reader of Roy’s books you might recognize Eleanor’s name as she was the illustrator of the detailed drawings in Roy’s last book, The Woodwright’s Guide, Working Wood with Wedge & Edge. Talented girl, that Eleanor. They have a lot of money to raise in just two weeks – I hope there is enough time left to reach their goal.

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A little while back I posted about a herd of goats here in Portland that were occupying an empty lot. Well, progress demands that lot be developed, and in a few years a shiny new apartment and retail complex will open. Ground breaking will begin soon, so the goats need to move. After month’s of searching, a new home was found for the goats in another neighborhood here in Portland. The herd’s caretakers started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help with the move, and to provide some nice amenities at their new home. Each morning on the walk into work we make a point to stop by and see the goats. I’ll miss having them around.

Portland, OR is absolutely chock full of volunteer efforts and campaigns. It’s one of the things that ties the community together, and gives each neighborhood a point of pride. It’s funny how our support changes over the years, however. When we’re young we don’t have much money. We’re fresh out of school, just starting our careers and trying to make do on an entry-level salary. But while we may not have much extra cash, we typically have more time on our hands, so we volunteer that to the cause of choice. As we grow older, however, things slowly reverse. We tend to make more money, but “free” time becomes more and more precious. And so we volunteer with our checkbook, and donate our money instead of our time. Volunteer organizations need both, of course, and it’s up to each of us to try and reach a balance as best we can.

On a final note, it’s been a really nice spring here in Oregon, and the cherry trees and lilacs are in full bloom here in the neighborhood.

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Exhibition of Japanese Calligraphy

March 16, 2014 Comments Off

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This weekend we attended a demonstration on Japanese calligraphy at the Portland Japanese Garden by Master Yoshiyasu Fujii of the Meito Shodo Kai, a non-profit organization established in 1996 by students of the Akashi USA calligraphy schools. His wife Naoko began the presentation by displaying traditional Chinese characters that go back thousands of years. Japanese calligraphy traces its roots to the traditional Chinese art form. One of the more formal pieces that Fujii-sensei made during the presentation was his interpretation of ancient Chinese poetry.

Like any craft, it takes years of practice to truly become a master. They described how new students will often draw the same piece dozens of times to get it right. The same piece, over and over, each time being instructed on how to improve. It was truly incredible to see the speed at which Fujii-sensei used his brushes. At one point the moderator noted that it takes years to develop that speed and accuracy. While the final composure might seem random collection of characters, they all require a delicate symmetry. The spacing of each character, its size, the tapering and weight of each brushstroke – all of these are of paramount importance to bring the whole scene together.  It’s always a true pleasure to see a master craftsman work in front of your own eyes.

Yoshiyasu Fujii has a blog here, and if you open it in Google Chrome it will be (roughly) translated to English or perhaps whichever language you choose. The Facebook page for the Meito Shodo Kai is here, and there are some nice videos showing the brush strokes in action (and most of the site is in English). And a good article on Fujii-sensei from the Seattle Times can be found here.

Pictures of the exhibition and demonstration are below, followed by some pictures of the Portland Japanese, one of the most authentic and beautiful examples of such a garden outside of Japan. Oh, and the picture of Fujii-sensei holding up a brush – that brush is made of Chinese goat hair and costs $10,000. That kind of makes the complaints on woodworking forums about the price of Lie Nielsen plane look rather silly.

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Old Tool Catalogs

March 11, 2014 § 4 Comments

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1958

When researching old woodworking machinery, the best resource on the web is VintageMachinery.org. Dedicated tool owners have collected a wonderful repository of information, including photographs, how-to’s, manuals, and tons of other things. Also included is a great collection of vintage publications from hundreds of manufacturers. When you are trying to gather information on an old hunk of iron, these publications are an incredibly helpful resource. Long before the world wide web, catalogs were one of the best ways for a company to market itself. As a kid I remember discovering old Sears catalogs in our basement that my father had saved. The amount of detail in some of those catalogs was astounding. The publications, especially the general tool line catalogs, are also a great window into the social paradigms of the time. Browsing the catalogs you can literally see how attitudes and perceptions change through the years. And looking back now through a historical lens, some of them are downright hilarious. Delta Rockwell and their Homecraft series of tools had some of the best, especially in the mid- to late-50’s, at the height of the “Mad Men” era. Below are a few of my favorite exerts. The images are authentic pages from the catalogs. The sarcastic captions and commentary that accompany each one are all me.

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“The way that man can handle a key chuck, I’m the luckiest woman in the world.”

This is pretty typical of how shops were depicted in these ads. They were large, perfectly organized, not a speck of sawdust or a stray shaving to be found. Keep in mind these were the days largely before dust collectors. These spaces looked more like chemistry labs than wood shops.

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1958

“Here at Delta Manufacturing, we understand that women and kids may be interested in working in the shop as well. But please understand that every photograph you will see in this catalog will show only the male head of the household using our equipment.”

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1955

Seriously I have no idea what the hell is going on in this picture. Is that upholstery the woman is admiring, or wall paper? I was also befuddled by what appears to be a drill press mounted to a table saw. Then I turned to page 14 of the catalog and saw…

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1955

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1955

…Delta Rockwell’s ancestral ShopSmith. I love the first bullet point, “At last here is an appliance for the man of the house…” Yes, with the women selfishly hogging all the other appliances of the house.

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Rockwell Homecraft Power Tools General Catalog – 1949

DRUDGERY! And what is up with that workbench? If you’re going to have a 2″ top, I’m not sure I would recommend attaching boards together in a cross-grain fashion like that. If humidity never changes I guess it would be fine.

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1958

This is one of my favorites. At least in this household, that’s as far as the woman can go down those steps (unless the laundry room is down there, of course). To be fair, that is very strategic vantage point, as she can both watch her husband expertly fit that drawer into a cabinet, while also keeping an eye on the oven and the kids. And again we have the all-in-one DeltaShop!

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1958

“Ok, honey, a little to the left, now the other way, a little quicker, not that fast, you need to anticipate the curve, now rotate more, more, now back off a little…you know what, I’ll do this one.”

The choice of tools here is not by accident. Scroll saws are one of the most benign power tools, and they strongly resemble a sewing machine, a tool any self-respecting woman should be well-versed with anyway. And in the next year’s catalog we have…

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1959

“This used to be mommy’s job, but now that you two are old enough, she can get back to other things.”

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Delta Rockwell General Tool Catalog – 1962

Just awesome. This is from the 1962 catalog. I’m guessing men had become highly suspicious of these newfangled “dust collectors” that curiously just looked like big vacuum cleaners. Also at this point the “Homecraft” line is now being called “Light Industrial”. (Someone can correct me on when that term was actually dropped).

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Rockwell Homecraft Power Tools General Catalog – 1949

I don’t have anything snarky to say about this one. Honestly, I think it’s a great little scene. That kid looks proud of his birdhouse, as well he should. I would bet that not 1 in 100 kids his age today could build that, much less have parents or schools to teach him how.

While we are glad some of those cultural ideals are no longer with us, we certainly miss the quality of the machines that were produced during this era, among other things. As woodworking hand tools had began their slow, steady decline years before, small shop machinery was still a point of pride in this country. In subsequent years that began to wane as well. Cast iron gave way to pot metal, steel and aluminum became thick plastic, and bakelite was replaced with even thinner plastic. Manufacturing moved overseas, and well, we all know the rest of the story. There are still professional and industrial sized woodworking machines being made in this country, like Northfield, but for the exception of ShopSmith, we have little that resembles the Delta Homecraft line of yesteryear for the small home workshop.

While I’m poking fun here at these catalogs, I don’t mean to criticize Delta Rockwell in any way. That was the era, and their marketing efforts reflected the time. It’s easy to look at them now and laugh, and at the same time feel a sense of superiority towards these antiquated ideas. And yet it was interesting to see the turnout at the last local woodworkers Guild meeting here in town. Towards the end of the meeting, they proudly announced an estimated crowd of 120, which was followed by some light applause. But as I looked around, I saw a grand total of two women, and perhaps one person under the age of 25. Maybe in some respects, at least as far as woodworking is concerned, we haven’t come too far at all.

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