Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Krenov on making furniture for 'Those People'

Just wanted to share something I read recently by James Krenov, about what he calls ‘Those People’ and the notion that fine woodworkers often struggle with making furniture for the very rich – because they are among the few who can afford it – and how that isn’t always a pleasant circumstance.
Here are his thoughts on that:
“Traveling reminds me again that there is little or no connection between wealth and that thing called good taste. Nor does money make someone a better person, or a worse person either. What it probably amounts to, for some of us at least, is that we are doing honest work, out best, with feeling in it, and we hope to meet people who will appreciate and want it. Some poor people with whom we get along very well will understand and say that they are sorry, but….
“Another person, of modest means perhaps, might ask to pay a bit at a time, and something tells us to trust him or her. Wealthy people come and ask the wrong questions and we feel so uneasy that some of us just do not care to let them have the piece, But there are also some with money and taste and a simple warmth that gets through our ‘those people” filter: we enjoy telling them about our work, they listen – there is contact, a kind of understanding.
“Nothing else matters, really. It is all about people…the only qualification being that they are the kind of people who do not make us unhappy at our work or about our work – this is vital.” – James krenov (The Impractical Cabinetmaker)
I just liked those words and the sentiment behind them. Hope you do too.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How To Turn a Sow's Ear Into a Silk Purse

My 'sow's ear,' right, and the frame and panel clamped together for glue-up, to the left.
There’s an old saying that goes like this: ‘You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.’
I always liked the expression because it’s so visual, you can’t help but picture the process of trying to do just that, and the grotesque, inevitable end result.
Our last assignment before moving on to our first major project was called the ‘Sow’s Ear’ exercise.
We were given a big chunk of poplar – an inexpensive, generally unattractive wood most people consider to be ‘paint grade,’ and given a list of smaller boards to mill out of the thick, heavy plank.
Then, we surfaced the wood, made our final cuts, and prepared to join the pieces into a cabinet, starting with the frame – essentially two sides and a top and bottom, joined together with dowels.
Once that was done, we constructed a frame-and-panel for the back of the cabinet, and decided on design elements such as shelves and doors. Some students even decided to make drawers.
Essentially, the assignment was meant to pull together a bunch of the skills we had learned, teach us some vital new ones, and give us the experience of building a complete piece from start to finish, before moving on to the real thing.
It was a lot of fun, but also stressful. We’re lucky enough to be enrolled at one of the more esteemed and well-known woodworking schools in the U.S., and the pedigree here is high. A lot of incredible woodworkers have come through here and made names and successful careers for themselves. Most of us want to do that too.
As a result, there’s a general desire among people here to do everything well. Which is where the name of the exercise comes from. Even though this is essentially just practice, many of us stressed over our little cabinets, lost sleep, spent days struggling with certain details. All in an effort to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse – something we all know is impossible.
But anyway, in the end, though it’s made with cheap, unattractive wood, there’s something about this little creation that makes me happy, looking at it sitting beside my workbench.
Maybe it’s because it represents another step in this journey of becoming a woodworker, and the process of accepting that the struggle towards perfection is sometimes enough.
The final product!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Coopering -- Or how flat surfaces become round

I continue to be amazed by what can be done with wood when the proper tools and techniques are used. The latest thing to blow my mind is coopering.
The word comes from the name for barrel-makers because it incorporates some of their techniques for creating curves with wood.
It’s really simple. You figure out the curve you want and sketch it on a piece of paper. Then you take a flat board and mark it out in sections to be cut lengthwise, typically with smaller pieces (they’re called ‘staves’) near the outside, and wider ones in the middle.
Then you cut the staves out of the board, rearrange the pieces along the curve you want. Then you cut the edges of each board on an angle to create the curve, and rejoin them together with glue.
Benchmate Jim glues up his coopered door. The process takes time as only two or three staves can be clamped and glued at a time. The mating edge of each individual piece has been cut on an angle, or bevel, to make the curve.
And boom, you have the rough beginnings of a curve.
Of course at this stage the board is still faceted with the flat surfaces from each of the individual staves, and needs to be planed down with a round-bottom plane on the inside, a smoothing plane on the outside, then scraped and sanded until a perfectly smooth curve is achieved.
Using my round-bottom or coopering plane to turn the flats into curves.

But when it’s complete, it’s a beautiful thing. And when it’s done properly, the boards repositioned so the grain matches up, it almost looks as though it grew that way or was carved out of a solid piece. Amazing!
The finished board, ready to be hung as a door on a small cabinet!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Dovetail joints and other things that come together and become strong

In the old days, cabinetry was actually called ‘joinery,’ because at it’s heart, that’s what it is – putting pieces of wood together in as permanent a way as possible.
And so we have been learning the fundamentals of that process, beginning with mortise and tenons (through-mortise, haunch-mortise and stop-mortise) – a basic, fundamental joint that looks like this:

A day after that, we had our first lesson on dovetails. And many of us, including myself, slept restlessly the night before. It’s intimidating. Dovetails are simple, yet complicated, fragile, yet incredibly strong when mated, and though many amateur woodworkers claim to be able to make them, few have mastered the skill.
Of course, our instructor Jim Budlong made it look easy, marking out, sawing, then chiseling a set of near perfect dovetails in front of the entire class, in about 20 minutes.
Instructor Jim Budlong demonstrates proper dovetail-technique. True story: He once tried to mess up his dovetails in order to show the class how to fix them -- but accidentally made perfect ones. Amazing.
It took the rest of us, and myself, much longer to get anywhere near acceptable, let alone perfect.
A dovetail joint is considered a ‘mechanical joint.’ It’s called that because two pieces of wood are held together not simply by glue or dowels, but by a series of pins and tails that lock together in such a way that the pressure exerted on them, say in a dresser drawer, actually serves to make the joint tighter over the years, not looser.
But because of that, they are difficult to make, with complicated angles and often dozens of surfaces required to meet perfectly in order for the join to look good.
There’s a reason perfect dovetails are seen as a mark of true craftsmanship, even though they are usually hidden away in the back of a drawer in a cabinet or dresser. When done well, they are sophisticated, beautiful, and add strength and durability to a piece of furniture for decades, even centuries to come.
Done poorly, they can cause fractures or cracks as the two pieces of ill-fitting wood are forced together. If the dovetails themselves are too small, too thin, their strength gives way to fragility. If the dovetails are too large, too evenly spaced, or poorly laid-out, they become clunky and awkward to the eye regardless of how perfectly they were cut.
In the examples we were shown from past years’ students, there is one that was particularly disheartening. A set of dovetails, perfectly cut, fitting together like a glove, were labelled by some heartless instructor as being “too perfect, looks machined.” Unbelievable!
A dovetail, at its best, is not cut on a router jig or by a giant machine in a factory somewhere. Rather, it’s the work of a careful craftsman who cares about little details, such as the size of the pins and the fact the pins on the outside of the joint should be closer together than those on the inside, because there is greater stress.
A craftsman knows these things and takes them into account, and the final product reveals that. A drawer cut by a machine simply doesn’t have the same effect. Or at least that’s what we’re being taught, brainwashed really, as our instructor joked recently.
I’ll take it. The challenge is fun, despite the frustration, and getting it right in the end is so worth the effort.
And the hope is that all these various components of our woodworking education, from sharpening to tool-making, planing and joinery, will all add up and eventually come together, like the two sides of a dovetail joint, and create a firm, long-lasting bond that will only get stronger in the years to come.
Some of my many dovetail attempts!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Measure Twice, Cut Twice

So there's an expression used in general construction or woodworking: Measure twice, cut once.
It basically means, be extra careful before you cut, so you get it right the first time.

Today I invented a new version of that time-tested cliche: Measure twice, cut twice. Basically, it means measure twice, but leave enough of a margin for error, so that if you have to cut twice, you're able to do so.

Luckily, I was able to. We spent the last couple of days making round-bottom coopering planes. These are more complicated than the planes we've previously made, and are used to make curved doors, which are pretty much the coolest thing ever.

Once mine was cut, laid out, glued up and ready to go, I sketched out a shape that a liked and headed into the machine shop to cut it out. I even showed it to my benchmate Jim and a friend Max, and they both liked it.

I cut it out on the band saw and walked back to my bench feeling pretty awesome about it, when I suddenly realized it was backwards. I had completely reversed it, and the plane's shape suddenly made no sense at all.

I quickly put it under my bench and sat down, feeling miserable. Jim took one look at me and said 'where's your plane??' thinking I had thrown it in the trash.

I pulled it out and showed it to him, and he studied it for a minute before breaking out laughing. He's normally a pretty polite guy, but couldn't control it. I don't blame him, I busted out too, and pretty soon a group had gathered around, all laughing at my mistake.

Then Laura, our instructor and the director of the program, came over asking to see me 'Canadian pull plane,' had a good laugh and quickly showed me how I could fix it.

In the end, all was well because I had enough material to change the shape and reverse the direction -- essentially, to fix my mistake. The lesson: Measure twice, cut twice.

Or better yet, learn from my mistake and get it right the first time.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Impossibility of The Perfect Board

One of the most difficult exercises we worked on in the first few weeks of our time here was called The Perfect Board.
And it’s really just as it sounds. The project begins with a small maple board, roughly cut to about 12 by 10 inches.
Our challenge was to rip it down the centre on the bandsaw, then join it back together along the ripped edges, using our new planes to smooth and flatten those edges until they mated perfectly – the joint nearly invisible to the eye.
Once that was complete and the board had been glued back together, we moved on to planing the two sides -- using our new smoothing planes to remove any ripples, high and low spots, and machine marks -- until those two surfaces were flat, free of ridges, and gleamed and shimmered the way only a perfectly tuned plane can make them.
Once that was finished, and believe me, these were all hours-long steps, the board’s edges must be flattened, made to be 90 degrees and perfectly parallel to their opposing edges.
I spent four days wrestling with this project. It was painful, frustrating, exasperating, and often seemed to be a hopeless and useless task.
I knew it wasn’t, though. In my heart, I knew I was learning valuable lessons about how to use my planes, how to adjust and tune them, how to take an imperfect surface and make it into something beautiful.
ButI won’t say ‘perfect,’ because although that’s the name of this exercise, it’s really not accurate.
There’s no such thing as a truly ‘perfect’ board. Our tools may not be precise enough to measure or identify the imperfections, but they are there. Wood, a living thing which still absorbs and emits moisture long after it goes from being a tree to a plank of wood, continuously moves, change and shifts.
That flattened surface, so wonderful one day, such a badge of accomplishment and skill, may be cupped or crowned the next as a result of nothing more than a slight change in humidity.
And that’s the real lesson we were being taught – that perfect isn’t necessarily something to be achieved in woodworking, but rather the goal is to get as close to it, in as beautiful, practical and as useful a way as possible.
Sarah Marriage, a student who finished her time at the school last year, put it this way in her own blog about the exercise:
“What I liked about the idea of the perfect board exercise is that there is no pretense of possibility. There is no romantic notion of some sort of actual attainment of perfection, just the romance of accepting the impossibility.”
At the College of the Redwoods we are taught to strive for perfection, and a craftsman always should if he or she values their work and seeks to do it well. But true perfection may lie not in the accomplishing of that goal, but in the striving towards it.
After all it’s in the striving that the skills are learned, the battles are fought, challenges overcome, and where the piece is refined and developed and pushed towards that standard.
And in the end it’s the complete piece, with all those millions of large, small and microscopic imperfections, that adds up to something that as a whole, could be called beautiful, and even perhaps, perfect.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Elephants for everyone!

Every Friday we do something at College of the Redwoods called 'Elephants.' It's a simple event -- at 5:30, once the shop has been cleaned up, everyone gathers at the firepit and barbecue area beside the school, and we consume beverages and eat food and celebrate the accomplishments of the week (or try to forget the failures.)

Current students, former students, staff, local woodworkers, friends of the school -- pretty much everyone and anyone is invited and usually they all show up.

It's a great tradition that has been going on for years, and allegedly derives its name from the beer made by Carlsberg, a Swedish company, that was once much more common and easy to obtain around these parts. James Krenov, the legendary cabinetmaker who founded our school, studied cabinetry in Sweden, so the legend kind of makes sense.

Elephant beer is a lot harder to find these days in Northern California, where so many micro-breweries are doing such good work, but nonetheless the tradition and name continue.

Last Friday, while we were enjoying Elephants the event, and also coincidentally Elephants the  beer, since a student's father dropped off an entire case he specially ordered as a generous gift, something awesome happened.

A former student arrived at the gathering carrying a giant white cooler full of beer, which he ceremoniously set down on the picnic table.

He then climbed on a bench, got everyone's attention, and said "I just got a sweet woodworking job, and it's all thanks to College of the Redwoods. So everything in that white cooler is up for grabs!"

Even though most of us had never met this man, he wanted to celebrate with us and share his good fortune with those who are studying at his alma mater, and who are also hoping to follow in his footsteps and one day obtain a 'sweet job' in the field.

It made me proud to be part of a woodworking program that has such a community of support built up around it. And also, we got free beer, which is always great.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Perfect 'Enough'?

"Sometimes almost perfect is perfect enough."

That's a quote from Friday morning, when one of the second-year students, Josh, was presenting a beautiful bench he designed and built as a quick project to start off the year. I say quick, but he still put about 50 hours of hard work into the piece, which was a commission for a friend.

Josh was describing the concept, the clients' desires for the piece, and the setting where it would live -- in a busy part of a family home with young children.

He also talked about the challenges he faced with the project, and some of the mistakes he made and  a couple of aspects of the finished product where he felt he could have perhaps done better.

That's when Laura Mays, one of our instructors and the director of the program, spoke up and said Josh was being a bit hard on himself. She suggested the piece was perhaps not perfect, but was easily perfect enough for its purpose.

Woodworkers, especially those that come out of this program, can become a bit OCD about their work, with the tendency to sometimes toil endlessly in pursuit of a level of perfection that isn't always necessary, financially viable, or even possible.

Part of the purpose of this whole becoming-a-woodworker thing, Laura seemed to be saying, is learning to recognize when it's time to simply stand back, be satisfied, and say 'ship it!' before moving on to the next project.

More on the whole idea of 'perfection' in woodworking coming soon in a future post...
Josh presenting his bench in the shop at College of the Redwoods.