February 22, 2015 § 1 Comment
One unfinished project that spent an embarrassingly long time sitting in the shop was a blanket chest I built as part of a two-day class. It was mostly done except for a little fine tuning, assembly, and a finish. A little while back I finally completed the chest. The construction is standard for a blanket chest – four sides dovetailed together, fitted with a plywood bottom and a solid one-piece top. I decided to try a milk paint finish for the outside. The wood is alder, and three narrower boards were glued up to the get the requisite width for both the sides and top. Not a lot of care was taken in matching the grain, so the narrow boards would have certainly been evident with a clear finish.
Several years ago Peter Galbert described a recipe for a brown milk paint finish that he used on some of his Windsor chairs. I kept that in the back of my mind for some future project, and well, the future was now as I figured it would be perfect for this chest. Click on the link above for the recipe, but it basically involves a combination of black and red milk paints, and using a stain rather than straight water for mixing with the paint. He used Van Dyke brown crystals for the stain; I substituted TransTint walnut dye instead. Like all milk paint adventures, I was skeptical all along the way. Then after the final coats of oil and varnish, the whole thing really came together. There is one thing I didn’t get right. Peter describes applying the stain to the wood as an initial step. I did this with the dye but I didn’t get a nice even coat, and there was rather splotchy in places. And sure enough, that unevenness cascaded all the way through all the layers of paint. If I use this recipe next time I’ll probably just skip the initial stain, and just start with the paint.
For the inside, I just applied several coats of shellac. I also fit some thin aromatic cedar half-lapped boards to the bottom in keeping with the spirit of a blanket chest. I like working with alder, a tree native to the Pacific Northwest. It’s easy to work and relatively inexpensive. It is often used a secondary wood, much the same as poplar. Unlike poplar, however, alder is quite attractive and can certainly stand on its own as a primary wood. Alder is quite soft, however, and the alder tree does not get particularly large, so wide boards are very uncommon.
April 12, 2014 Comments Off on A Few Good Things Going On
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.
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.
March 16, 2014 Comments Off on Exhibition of Japanese Calligraphy
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 Garden, 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.
March 11, 2014 § 4 Comments
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.
“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.
“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.”
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…
…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.
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.
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!
“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…
“This used to be mommy’s job, but now that you two are old enough, she can get back to other things.”
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).
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.
November 29, 2013 § 2 Comments
In the United States we have this bizarre yearly ritual where thousands of people wait in line for hours and then stampede each other to get into large retail stores. These same stores are open every other day of the year, but on this particular day the stores entice customers by putting things on sale. Of course they have sales at countless other times during the year, but this one comes at the holiday season, when people have an especially strong urge to buy things. We are told that consumerism accounts for 70% of the American economy. In that sense you could look at these crazed shoppers as economic patriots, doing their duty for country. Some of us see over-consumerism in this country as a disease, and Black Friday looks more and more ridiculous each year.
There is a great William Morris quote on Robin Wood’s home page that reads, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I try to remind myself of this when I look at all the plastic tubs of stuff in our basement, or the countless things squirreled away in drawers throughout the house. And I wonder about all those things being stuffed into shopping carts today. Will any of it still be useful just a few years from now, or rather shoved into a dark corner in the basement or garage? And how much of it will soon find its way to a landfill? I doubt that anything being purchased today is beautiful.
I’m currently reading The Art of Japanese Joinery by Kiyosi Seike. He talks about the importance of space, or ma in Japanese art and culture. To the Japanese, an “empty” space is of vital importance to the whole. In American culture empty spaces are seen as a waste, and must be immediately filled with something. There are some who believe that parks and open space in cities is nothing more than squandering property that instead could be making somebody money. And give us a 5,000 square-foot house, and we’ll accumulate so much junk in a few years there won’t be any empty areas left.
In our house the Black Friday tradition (if two years makes a tradition) is to stay home and brew beer. We do buy grains and yeast from our local home brew supplier, so in a small way we’re part of this tribute to American consumerism. But in 4-5 months we’ll crack open a bottle of our own Scottish Ale, and that beer will certainly be useful and beautiful.