As we head off to Handworks 2017, I find myself really looking forward to the feeling I have had at the two previous Handworks show, namely, being part of a community.
In a way, it's not a shock that the marvelous tool show that Jameel, Father John and the whole Handworks team have developed should inspire such a feeling. After all, we assemble together from all parts of the country, diverse in our backgrounds, political views and other interests, but united in our great appreciation and involvement in woodworking and hand tools. For the time we are together, our unity and sense of purpose is evident.
Surprisingly, lately I have been feeling a sense of community from a less obvious (to me, anyway) source: Instagram. Tools for Working Wood's Instagram account was built up by thirtysomething TFWWers, visual artists who were already on Instagram. Initially Instagram participation seemed like one more item on a Things To Do list, so I wasn’t sold. But more recently I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed playing - both as a exhibitor and as a viewer.
Look! There’s a beautiful piece of furniture handcrafted in Australia. Look! Flowers and produce from Hepzibah Farms, the Talledega, Alabama farm owned by Charlie, TFWW’s very first employee. Look, there’s an amazing guitar crafted by our customer. Look, a new Lost Art Press book. A new tool, a new cabinet, a new celebrant of our ancient craft of woodworking.
By giving me a chance to see their work, and by tipping their hats - with “likes,” comments, and questions - to my news, we establish community.
Over the next couple of days some of us with come full circle, as Instagram friends meet in person for the first time at Handworks -- and real-life admirers become Instagram followers. These actions will add a welcome new dimension to our relationships, but fundamentally we already have something important in place: a shared sense of community.
The picture above is of a miniature toolkit and other items by Bill Robertson, who showed off some of his work at Handworks 2015. One of the nation's foremost miniaturists, he works to dollhouse scale so that lathe is only a few inches long. Everything Bill makes actually works - which is totally amazing. I am looking forward to seeing him again this week.
We’re busy packing up the pallets to head to Amana, ready before we are for Handworks 2017. Handworks has a special atmosphere, one that reminds us of the best features of woodworking and living as craftspeople. We don’t have a road team, so it’s always a scramble for us. But it’s well worth it. We really feel moved to be part of this community and grateful to Jameel and Father John and the rest of the Handworks team for establishing such a meaningful show.
Some of the things we’re packing: first, we have a new poster! It’s a limited edition (100 copies - actually 99 ), three-color silk-screened, 19” x 25” poster, printed on 140 lb paper (very heavy) from the French Paper Company - that is, not from France but rather the French family who have been making paper in Michigan since 1871. Plane spotting is the responsibility of every woodworker, and this poster will help keep you vigilant about which planes are hanging in your shop or house. (the poster isn't on the website yet but will be next week before the show).
Another new addition to our treasure chest: spoon carving knives from Ben and Lois Orford. Periodically people ask me about the future of woodworking, and one aspect of woodworking that is growing ever more popular is spoon carving. Newcomers to woodworking are learning what veteran woodworkers know: It’s wonderful to use your hands and craft something useful out of wood. And let’s be fair, greenwood is much more forgiving than hardwoods, and a spoon project is much faster than a highboy. Orford tools have a wide global following, and we are the only place in the US to sell Orford sloyd and crook knives. We’ll also be bringing spoon carving knives and froes by Ray Iles. We like to offer you choices!
We’ll also be bringing lots of our most popular tools - Gramercy Tools holdfasts, saws, saw vises, hardware store saws, and finishing supplies, T shirts (a customer with already owns one of our Gramercy T shirts came by today to buy a shirt for his buddy and another one for himself, and declared, “This is the best T shirt ever.”), and more.
I went back to the Cloisers this past Sunday to see the Small Wonders exhibit again and also to hear a talk on the miniatures by David Esterly and Pete Dandridge. David Esterly a master carver and sculptor who has been looking at how one goes about making such small items, and Pete Dandridge is the Metropolitan Museum conservator who handled, cleaned, researched, and took apart these tiny carvings.
I attended with my friend Jeff Peachey, who is an acclaimed bookbinder with extensive knowledge of historic tools and techniques.
I learned a lot from the presentation, and also developed a few of my own theories.
The first thing I learned was that these little wonders were pretty sturdy, presumably because boxwood is a very strong and dense wood. Some of the carvings show a lot of wear. I would have thought that the fragile carvings inside would be prone to damage if the beads were shook or exposed to shock. Apparently not.
The Wikipedia entry on the beads suggests that each took 30 years to complete. This defies common sense: who could have spent their entire career on one carving? The panelists thought that almost all the beads were made over a 30 or so year period, possibly by one maker or one shop. (The works are not signed.) Why the carvings stopped being made is a mystery, with several theories proposed. Perhaps the maker retired and nobody picked up the creative baton. Another idea: the carvings fell out of fashion. At the time the Netherlands, where the carvings originate, was going through the throes of a Protestant reformation; fancy decorated prayer beads would have fallen out of use and fashion.
The exhibit includes a miniature diorama of tools (damaged) examples of the work of a Miniaturist named Ottavino Jannella C. 1654-60(see above). Are these miniature tools the actual type of tool used to carve these types of miniatures? The panelists thought possibly they were. Peachey and I thought there was no chance this was the case: the tools' handles were simply too small. When you work on miniatures, the carving tools might have been tiny but it is far easier to mount them in full sized handles.
The other thought I had was about magnification. Next to the the case of tools is a pair of cracked spectacles. In those days magnifiers existed, although given my own nearsightedness I cannot imagine anyone wearing the crude lenses of the 16th century for any length of time without getting painful eyestrain. We also know from 19th century documentation that a woodworker who wore spectacles would be considered handicapped and would not be able to keep a job. I don't have documentation saying this was also the case in the 16th century, but I can't see why it would not be. My own thought is that a trained carver who was nearsighted would love working on miniatures. The general consensus was that the carvers worked on raised benches (like jewelers). A raised bench would bring it close to focus. A nearsighted carver would have a distinct advantage over a carver with normal eyesight for this kind of detail work. Of course a magnifier would be helpful but there is a big difference between occasionally using a glass versus having to stare all day though crappy glass.
On the actual carving, most of the detail was done in layers that were then assembled. David Esterly showed a bit of boxwood where he laid out part of one layer and then started carving. What he actually did was lay out the design on a larger piece of material so he had tabs on either side of the actual work that could be used to clamp down the wood and would be removed later. He also categorically stated that carving the boxwood by holding it your hand and carving with the other wouldn't work because the boxwood is so hard you would need a rigid setup to make any progress.
When you get down to tiny details the carvings lose a lot of detail. Eyes are suggested but they don't have the detail of a larger carved eye; foliage is suggested, but not leaf by leaf. However, when you look at the piece from a normal close distance, the overall tableau suggests incredible detail, which is exactly the effect you want. So from a carving perspective, the resolution does stop, but from a viewer perspective the detail is amazing.
Pete, the conservator, has handled the miniatures and made a short film on how the balls were assembled. In general they were carved from layers, which were put together and could be taken apart (when you removed the right pegs in the right order). The outer shell would have been turned and then carved. By themselves, the shells are very beautiful and tricky carvings. Each layer they would have been sawn to rough size, as much waste as possible drilled out, and then the details carved. Spears, swords, and other small details were fitted separately at the end. I say fitted because they were not glued on, but rather fitted into a socket or hole.
Pete did tell me that the reason that the bead in Whittling and Woodcarving was disassembled was the research has shown that the bead as originally exhibited was actually assembled later, improperly from a multiple sources. Currently there are not plans to reassemble it, and it will stay as a construction study. I understand the logic but I am bummed about that.
In other news this coming weekend (May 6) we are having a free class on using Lockwood Dyes. It will be taught by Herb and Jesse from Lockwood. Staining and dying wood is a bit of magic for many woodworkers so having it explained by the experts is useful.
In June, we're offering two all day modern construction classes. Since they're comprehensive all-day classes, they aren't free, but I think they are well worth the cost for anyone wanting to do modern construction. The first class is about how to design and build a Kitchen Cabinet (you go home with a small cabinet). The second class is building a Zig-Zag chair (you go home with a chair). In both cases you will be using Festool portable power tools to precisely cut and join your work. Being portable, Festool is the perfect system for someone who doesn't have the space for large stationary saws. Click here and here for more details.
Finally, if you do carve miniatures or any small work, take a look at our OptiVisors or OptiSights. Don't be like Medieval or Renaissance craftsman, who were peering through Coke bottle bottoms (an analogy that doesn't work well in the days of plastic soda containers, but you know what I mean) when you could easily slip these viewers on. They've made a real difference to me personally. I had thought I was unable to do close work anymore, but with the Optivisor I find I am back in the game.
These past few weeks have been totally crazy. In the front of our shop, we're busy building three workbenches and their accoutrements for Handworks in Amana next month. In the back of the shop we're busy making saws and other stock for the show. This coming Saturday is the massive Festool Roadshow (free food, drink, gift bags, etc. - check it out) and that requires tons of legwork too. We also started a new blog of videos we found on various woodworking topics that we think others might find interesting too.
I have been going to the Metropolitan Museum since my youth – I grew up a few blocks away in a small tenement that is now the parking garage for a fancy building. I’m also a big fan of The Cloisters, the Met’s affiliated museum near the northern tip of Manhattan. The Cloisters is made up of cloisters excavated from French monasteries, indoor chapels and contemplation gardens filled with plantings of fruit trees and medicinal herbs that would have been used in medieval Europe. I like to visit the Cloisters every year or so and take in the ambiance of the gorgeous architecture, tapestries and other art.
The first and still favorite book of carving I ever owned (when I was about 8) Whittling and Woodcarving by E. J. Tangerman, which had a picture of a miniature boxwood carving from the late 15th/early 16th century from the Met's collection. It's about 2" in diameter. When I visited the Met regularly as a kid, I made it a point to search out the carving. As an adult I would regularly stop by to see it at and I'd always be filled with wonder. So I was determined to catch the show about these boxwood carvings,"Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures." The show is a joint project organized by the Met, Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and will be held in all three museums (and maybe others). The micro-carvings include prayer beads, altarpieces, coffins, skulls and other tiny creations. They are shockingly intricate and shockingly tiny. Some open up to reveal intricate tableaux. The next time I see a walnut shell, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t see an elaborate carved crucifixion within.
The carvings were both popular and mysterious in their own time. Henry VIII was a fan, as were many other rich and royal collectors. But the artists, and their techniques, were largely unknown. As a Dutch collector in the 17th century complained, “It is regrettable that the maker of this ingenious piece has not made himself known with any sign.” More recently, conservators and historians used CT scans and other scientific tests to analyze over 100 of the micro-carvings, and learned some interesting things about the carvers’ techniques. The most complex carvings were made in layers, with a given layer containing different figures of the tableau. The layers were then installed with tiny pegs and glued, but made to seem as if everything were carved from a single block of wood. If the carver needed access to a hard-to-reach area, he incorporated slits through which he could pole a tool through, then artfully concealed the slit in the artwork. Conservators discovered less careful, even somewhat shoddy work such as multiple holes, in some of the carvings’ undersides.. But peeking behind the curtain is possible only to those who dismantle the carvings, leaving the rest of us to marvel at the illusion of perfection.
According to a New York Times article about the exhibit, “The original woodcarvers used foot-powered lathes, magnifying glasses made of quartz, and miniature chisels, hooks, saws and drills. The works were so detailed that individual feathers are visible on angel wings, and dragon skins are textured with thick scales. Crumbling shacks are shown with shingles missing from their gabled roofs. Crenelated spires have scalloped molding tucked along their doorways, and there are deep grout lines between bricks. Saints’ robes and soldiers’ uniforms are trimmed with buttons and embroidery, and there are nearly microscopic representations of jewelry and rosary beads.”
For me, aside from my longstanding interest in one of the beads - in fact the the very one that the curators disassembled for the show - the amazing realism of the miniatures is one of the most exciting aspects of the carvings. There are also many other thrilling aspects. They have remarkable grace and fluidity. And although everything is off limits to grubby hands, some of the components within the dioramas, such as doves displayed in birdcages, can move around.
This coming Sunday (the day after the Festool Roadshow) I am going back to the Cloisters to hear a talk on these carvings by David Esterly, a scholar and master carver. I am looking forward to his insights on these miniatures. In part two of this blog I expect to have something interesting to report back.
This week I wanted to share a round-up of news 'n' bits.
We're excited to announce that we're about to offer spoon carving tools from Ben & Lois Orford, British toolmakers and leatherworkers based in Herefordshire. You can't beat spoon carving in its ability to produce something beautiful and useful quickly. As some have said, just take some green wood, carve away the part that isn't a spoon, then soak in 100% pure linseed oil (not boiled linseed oil which is toxic). We currently stock spoon carving tools by Ray Iles but we love the Orford tools too and we wanted to give you all the options we could.
While we are on the subject of spooncarving the video above is a short, delightful video that features a young couple who carve spoons, sell their wares at markets, and travel around, enjoying their craft, their freedom and each other.
In other news, new Festool prices will be in effect April 1st. If you're thinking about purchasing a Domino, TS55 or a router, now is a good time to take advantage of the pricing. While we are out of some items router tables, for example, as long as the order it placed before the first we will honor the older price even if the item is backordered. The new Domino Connectors are being introduced in the US along with new batteries, and a rugged Bluetooth radio.
On Saturday, April 29, we'll be hosting the Festool Roadshow. We'll have a trailer full of Festool tools to play with, along with workstations and Festool trainers to stump. WE will be offering food and Festool will be providing some giftbags. If you're in the New York area, come join us. We think it will be a fun time. And if nothing else an excuse to visit Brooklyn, wander around, see some stuff and sample some of the local dining. See more information here.
That concludes this week's round-up; next time I'll be back to more typical blog fare. Stay tuned!
I try to write a new entry for my blog every week. I also try to make it useful or at least not boring. Sometimes I succeed. However because it's a weekly thing lots of content gets rolled under the covers and after a time lost. So this week I decided to take one of the earliest blogs I every wrote (#8 from a decade ago) and bring it current again. Yes I know everyone hates when magazines to a yearly article on the same subject again and again, but like magazines we have a lot of new readers who haven't see this topic.
(note: I shot a video for this yesterday but I didn't get a chance to finish editing it so check back over the weekend and I should have added it in).
Every time someone comes in and buys a marking or mortise gauge, I give them a quick demo on how to use it. It's not unusual for customers to know they need a gauge, but not how to use one. It's not their fault. There is a hell of a lot of misinformation on this subject, and using a gauge properly isn't intuitive.
The goal of a gauge is to provide a line that is just deep enough to catch a chisel or a pencil. Some people like deep cuts with a knife, but the deeper the gauge line, the more you will have to plane the finished surface - otherwise finish will catch in the line and the entire world will see the gauge line. The great woodworking writer Charles H. Hayward noted that when he apprenticed (around 1910) visible gauge lines in a finished work was considered sloppy but it was a common practice. These days, it is all too common and perversely considered a proud mark of "hand craftsmanship."
The problem that people have in using gauges is that when the gauge sits square on the wood, its pin will dig in, follow the grain, wobble, and give you a jerky cut. So various woodworking gurus have advocated filing the pins really short, so even if the gauge sort of works, you can't see where you are going; filing them into knives, so you get a deep line that is hard to get rid of later; remounting the pins on a diagonal; and giving up entirely and using a wheel gauge.
Here is how you really solve this problem:
1) Set the fence to the right setting.
2) With your hand curled around the fence and beam, tilt the gauge away from you and rest it on the long cornered edge of the beam (the corner away from you). The picture and diagram should make this easier to understand.
3) Put pressure on the fence in so the gauge is tight against the wood, and with the corner of the bean firmly on the wood, tilt the gauge towards you. With this method, with all the pressure going into the fence and edge of the beam, it is trivial to control the pressure on the pin. You can have a tiny bit of pressure on the pin that just leaves a mark for smooth visible wood, or you can just as easily bear down on with more pressure for rough wood so that you get a mark you can see.
3) Then push the gauge away from you, always keeping the long edge of the beam on the word. You push the gauge away from you so that you can see what you are doing. And of course with the pin tilted it won't dig into the wood.
4) You don't want the gauge to go off the the end of the board, because once the beam goes off the wood, you will lose control. So stop just before the end of the line and repeat from the other end of the board this time tilting the gauge towards you.
5) It's better to have a light mark than a dark one. If you have trouble seeing your scribe mark, just run a very sharp pencil in the groove.
6) That's it. A sharp pin isn't super important because in general you want a thin shallow line, but that's a personal preference. I don't think I have ever sharpened a pin in my life.
We sell gauges from about $15 and up. They all work. If you are getting just one gauge, I would suggest the Marples screw adjustable combination gauge. The screw adjust allows you to set the width of a mortise independently of the fence setting, which is a real boon. However, in a pinch all the gauges we sell work. You don't need the fancier Trial 1, although I do like the weight of it. Colen Clenton's gauges feel wonderful in the hand. You won't regret the purchase, but it's certainly a next gauge to get, when you settled into joinery and have the urge to splurge. Over the years I have acquired a lot of gauges because I will set a gauge to particular measure, and then put a piece of tape over the thumbscrew so that I don't accidentally move it, and I'll recognize that it's set for a particular project. On a long project, I can tie up gauges for months, so I have a bunch of gauges.
You'll see over the years and over your projects a hierarchy of favorite and "others" will naturally emerge.
PS - The scribe line in the picture looks a little ratty because it took a bunch of tries to get a shot in focus.