Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Some pictures from the workshop...

I just wanted to post a few pictures taken over the last couple of weeks at the workshop to give an idea of what life is like there every day. As you can see, it's pretty awesome...

Second-year student Josh is deep in thought as he contemplates his wall cabinet mock-up. The dude has skills.
While waiting for a glue-up to set on the mortise (right), I made a plane iron hammer out of some scrap maple and a piece of brass.
Classmate Jess shows off her 'perfect board.' What a champ!
Evidence that my homemade hand planes are working well.
I named this one 'Janet.' No idea why.
Second-year student Tobyn, looking badass in his shop apron, contemplates the comfort factor of the chair he has mocked-up before beginning work on the real thing.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lessons in Plane-Making

Once our tools were sharp, and the process of sharpening was ingrained in our heads, we began the process of making our own planes – and we spent most of a week doing it, building a smoothing and jointer plane. One is designed to prepare final surfaces for the eye, the other to flatten edges of boards for joining, or jointing.
There are rules in plane-making but there is also a freedom.
 The rules revolve around the specific angle for the throat and ramp, the amount of space between the blade and the mouth, the spindle and the blade assemble, and the flatness of that sole, etc.
But beyond that there’s a freedom. The planes could take any shape that suited the maker.
Some people sketched out the shape, then cut them on the band saw, using it as a carving machine to leave big, rough cuts and stylistic jagged edges on the final product.
Others went into great detail in their designs, with fancy curves, handles and etchings.
And others followed the Krenovian approach, with all the artistry contained in the relationships between the different components -- the body of the plane little more than a block of wood with slightly rounded edges and a rough symmetry.
All were beautiful and useful in their own way, and each reflected the owner’s personality in some measure.
Our instructor Greg told us about a plane Krenov himself made, one of many, but which performed well for years and became a favourite.
“He just got it right on that one – I don’t even think Krenov himself could really tell you why,” said Greg.
There was just something about it, he said. The angles, the geometry, the relationships between the various parts. It worked, as Krenov would say, like a fine instrument.
Mine, just a few days old now, have already become an extension of myself. The way they fit in my hand, the finicky way the blades need to be tapped, backed out, tapped again, tried and tried until the perfect shaving is produced, the way they seem to jump to the work when tuned just so.
But more importantly, it’s the effect they have on a board that is so incredible. A piece of wood, surfaced in a planer or jointer in the machine shop and appearing perfectly fine to the eye, comes alive when the hand planer is used.
Something happens. The board begins to glow, the facets reflecting the light and revealing a warmth that was always there beneath the surface but that a machine simple didn’t have the ability to unveil.
It’s a beautiful thing and a blessing to hold the tools in my hands and know that these things, built to do work, are successful at that objective. I want to be that way too.

The Fine Art of Sharpening

One of the first things we learned at College of the Redwoods was how to sharpen tools, as well as the why and the when.
There’s a very specific process that begins with flattening the back of a chisel or plane blade. And by flattening, I mean just that. Taking a piece of flat iron, factory cut, and scraping it across three or more stones of varying coarseness for literally hours on end to remove any bumps or hollows.
Even the tiniest discrepancy in that surface will affect the performance of the blade. In a plane blade, it will cause it to sit unevenly against the chip breaker, meaning the blade will be at an angle where it protrudes from the sole of the plane, and it will always be a challenge to make that blade cut the way it was intended to – smoothly, evenly, taking tiny, gossamer-thin shavings from the surface of a board and leaving behind a glimmering, glowing surface.
With a chisel, the effect will be similar. The back of the chisel is the reference surface for every cut it makes. If that reference surface is crowned, cupped, or otherwise uneven, it will be that much harder to get a sharp, clean cut, such as when chopping dovetails or cleaning out a mortise.
Those hours and hours of work, hunched over a bench, scraping a blade against a wet stone, eventually, somehow result in a surface that is smooth, flat, and shines or reflects like a mirror. It’s a beautiful thing.
But it’s also just the start. Next, the blade must actually be sharpened – another lengthy process that takes time and energy and a lot of care and attention to get right.
But when it’s all done properly, the process results in a kind of alchemy – a piece of steel becoming so much more – a tool that can help an artist or craftsman create beautiful, lasting, meaningful things.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

At home in the Redwoods...

About two years ago I came across the name James Krenov in Fine Woodworking Magazine. It was a quotation from one of his books, describing his desire to create things that mattered, things of quality and value that could be passed down to future generations, and about the remnant of people that appreciate those sort of creations.

The words resonated with me and I ordered the book, titled "A Cabinet Maker's Notebook," in which Krenov describes his philosophy of woodworking -- an approach that has landed his simple, understated, but brilliant works in museums and art galleries around the world.

The words in that book must have done something to my soul. Because now, two years later, here I am, in Fort Bragg, California, enrolled in the fine woodworking and cabinetry program at the College of the Redwoods -- a program started by James Krenov himself, and since his passing, taught by instructors who studied under him.

This sleepy little coastal town, four hours north of San Francisco, surrounded by redwood forests, national parks, and occupied by loggers, fishermen, surfers and woodworkers, will be my home for the next year as I study the craft and try to emulate some of the values he espoused.

In this blog I'll describe the adventures, lessons, joys and frustrations along the journey. Can't wait to see where this goes!

Here's the quotation from Krenov that started it all:

"Fine things in wood are important, not only aesthetically, as oddities or rarities, but because we are becoming aware of the fact that much of our life is spent buying and discarding, and buying again, things that are not good. Some of us long to have at least something, somewhere, which will give us harmony and a sense of durability – I won’t say permanence, but durability – things that, through the years, become more and more beautiful, things we can leave to our children."