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.
The traditional way of learning to carve was via an apprenticeship. Some kid who thought, or whose parents thought, that he had some talent for sculpture would be apprenticed at age 14 to a master carver. Ideally, seven years later the kid would be able to carve well enough and fast enough to make a living. Very talented youngsters, such as the young Grinling Gibbons, even had sponsors pay for their training. Amateur carving became a popular hobby in the 19th century, when shorter working hours made hobbies possible and the Arts & Crafts movement made craft hobbies attractive.
When I was a young woodworker, you could study carving in three ways:
In person at a class:
When I studied at the Craft Students League, carving was always a popular course. In-person craft classes provide the opportunity to for a teacher (and your classmates) to observe you carving and suggest ideas and techniques to improve. It's certainly the best means of instruction. But nowadays many carving programs (like the Craft Students League) have closed, and realistic carving and decorative architectural woodwork have decidedly gone out of fashion. Longer work hours may make evening classes difficult, even if you are lucky enough to live near a class. One-time workshops and seminars can be treats, but they don't have the regular weekly practice that a local class can have.
From books and magazines:
This is a fine way of learning and still has tremendous value. Carving magazines are a great source of ideas and designs, overviews on tools, and written instruction. They fall short, however, because a picture or drawing, even a before-during-and after picture, cannot always illuminate the particular misunderstanding a student has on a specific area. I had that issue myself with lettering. I went back and forth over one paragraph and I still did not get how to do serifs without breaking off a bit. Obviously the writer (Chris Pye - who is and awesome writer of instructions) missed the particular situation that a thickheaded student could miss.
From videos -- VHS and television shows back in the day, and in the modern world, DVDs: DVDs are the best of the video presentations. You can see the project being made, and things that are hard to understand on the written page can be easily demonstrated. Professionally shot and edited videos, traditionally 45 minutes or longer, are expensive to make (and so their cost must be recouped) and generally designed for linear watching on a computer (or old school DVD player). Increasingly this is not how people consume "content" - viewers expect to be able to find short videos focusing on particular issues that can be watched on a phone or tablet.
But here comes an entirely new method.
A couple of years ago, Chris Pye set up a subscription website to teach carving. The site now offers several hundred videos, all short. You can watch them in a curated sequence, or individually to answer a question, or randomly to see what's up. This is how I sorted my serif problem. I just watched the snippet I needed on serifs and I was done. I didn't have to wait for a DVD to arrive in the mail, and I could watch it at my bench until I got it.
I realize the obvious rejoinder to the idea of subscribing to a service is, "Why would I pay for video when I can get it all for free on YouTube?" This is a valid point. There are three main advantages to subscribing rather than viewing on YouTube.
The first reason is coherence. If perchance you were to wake up one morning and have a burning desire to make a nameplate, you might type "how to carve letters into wood" into YouTube. You would immediately get a list of credible videos. Some might be good, but most topics get a mix of good, off-topic and waste of time. You could probably muddle through and learn a bit.
But this isn't what really learning carving is about. It's a question of coherence. A good teacher will want you to understand sharp tools, which tools, lettering fonts, basic technique, and then more complicated approaches. The whole point of a website devoted to teaching carving as taught by one person is to get the benefit of your instructor's worldview and best practices. You get the sequence of lessons you need to really master the breath of a skill, and -- because all the lessons are taught by the same person or school -- the approach is consistent. YouTube, for all it's many wonders, gives a platform for every approach and method on the planet, and consequently it lacks consistency and depth. I am learning to carve the Pye way. It's not the only way to learn, there are several excellent sites on learning to carve via subscription. But as I know from previous experiences, Pye's approach really speaks to me, and with each video and my practice, I am slowly building forward. I am not learning every possible way to do something, but one way, that works and can expand.
The second service that you get with a subscription is that you can ask questions. If you have a problem you can email Chris and get answers.
Third reason is one of support and belonging. By supporting a teacher's subscription service, you enable more videos to be produced. The money goes straight to the teacher and goes a lot further. Because there is a revenue stream, production values are professional, and the topics covered can have both breadth and depth. And at the same time you are belonging to something. The school of carving that Chris has established, even though it's virtual, has a style and a method, and you now have studied and learned in the same way as all his other students. If you get together for a reunion, you can sing the old school songs and understand and support each other's carving in a way that schoolmates can. And as a matter of fact, that's why I periodically write about his site. I am learning to carve; I really like his approach; and like a good alumnus, I want to give something back so I work the old school tie into all the conversations I can.
N.B. The videos in this blog are from several sample lessons Chris has put on YouTube.
One of the crappy things about using old planes is that a tremendous percentage are worn out. A steel mitre plane (or "infill" to use the modern phrase) unless made by a modern maker will probably be at least 150 years old. Norris, Spiers, and a few other makers continued making mitre planes up until the mid twentieth century but those are rare beasts. The average mitre plane you come across will be pre 1850.
Rotten wood can be replaced, but the most important feature of a mitre or a shoulder plane is a fine mouth. And not just a kind of fine mouth, the finest of mouths, especially if you are using the plane on end grain. The planes in the picture have mouths (with the irons withdrawn) ranging from a fat 1/64" to a fat 1/32". That's very fine.
Let's talk about fine mouths for a second. First of all it is pretty well understood that a super fine mouth on a smoothing plane breaks the shaving and reduces tearout. All well and good. But what about mitre, shoulder, and block planes? All of them are bevel up and used primarily for planing endgrain. Certainly there is no need for a fine mouth if the shaving is endgrain and will disintegrate on its own.
So why do unaltered historical examples of mitre and should planes have such extremely fine mouths?
There are two dimensions that concern us: the open space from the front of the blade to the lip of the throat - the effective mouth. And the absolute mouth opening when the blade is removed. As you can see from the photographs the mouths of these planes - a late 18th century mitre plane and a C. 1920's Norris shoulder plane are ridiculously fine and I would say this is typical of any infill in good condition that I know of. You do get planes that are worn out, planes where someone has widened the mouth, but for any infill plane in basic decent condition a very fine mouth is to be expected.
As we've stated before, planing endgrain doesn't require a plane with a fine mouth, but there are two very important reasons for having a fine mouth, especially when planing with a bevel-up plane.
Extending the iron sole of a plane as far as possible under a bevel up blade gives the blade more support and makes it less likely to chatter. Steel-soled planes can do this easily, but cast planes can't - unless they have a steel sole (like the shoulder plane in the picture). With a bevel down iron, there is a lot of support in the blade to prevent the very tip from bending and chattering. On a bevel up plane, on the other hand, the iron wants to bend and chatter around the edge of the sole. The more support the sole gives the iron, the more strength the iron has at the cutting edge -- and the better the plane will work. Cast mitre planes, by the very nature of a casting, cannot get as close to total support as a steel-soled dovetailed plane, where the steel sole can taper to a knife edge.
Controlling the cut:
If you are planing endgrain, especially if you are holding the plane in one hand and wood in the other, and you hold the plane perfectly against the wood when you start your stroke, you can determine the exact thickness of your cut by setting your plane iron. But if you are even slightly off and the plane is tilted on the wood, your shaving thickness will increase depending on the size of the plane mouth. The second drawing shows an exaggerated example of this. The practical effect of this is that you try to take a fine shaving and your plane jams, skids off the end, and takes an uneven chunk off the edge. Worse, you can damage that nice low angle cutting edge on your iron. A very fine mouth mitigates this and makes the plane easier to use, even if you aren't perfectly sitting on the wood. There is simply less space for the wood to jam into.
These points are small and minor. I understand that. But I get frustrated when someone compares the performance of a worn out 200 year old plane to an new modern plane, possibly of a lesser design. If you are in the market for a mitre plane, or a shoulder plane, make sure the overall mouth is minuscule. Also make sure that the iron and wedge match the plane. It's not at all uncommon for an old infill to have a replaced blade and/or wedge. Just normal use can cause this. Mitre planes had tapered irons and the original iron and wedge would have been fitted together so that you get continuous contact on the bridge. When properly fitted, the iron will set properly, hold its setting, and be easily adjusted. An ill fitting wedge just won't work right. If a parallel iron had been used to replace what was supposed to be a tapered iron, you will never get proper action without adjusting the wedge. Depending on circumstances, you will probably have a replacement iron with the original wedge. If you do and they don't fit, just put the original wedge in a safe place for when you resell the plane, and make a new wedge. Most shoulder planes used parallel irons so any replacement should fit it properly. Check before buying.
Many bevel up planes have cosmetic issues that don't matter, including damaged wooden parts (easily replaced) and misaligned wedges (easily adjusted). But - unlike a bevel down plane - bevel up planes with wide mouths can't be fixed with a thicker iron. You might like the feel of the plane but it won't get the action you would have gotten two centuries ago. Flattening a sole of a bevel up plane can easily, accidentally, widen the mouth. The steel sole behind the blade forms a knife edge and can be damaged. Unlike cast planes which can easily warp over time, steel planes stay pretty flat. A few pits and dings aren't worth worrying about. I would stone down any raised dings, but otherwise leave the sole alone. Before you try to flatten anything see how the plane works.
This past weekend, in spite of coming down with a cold, I needed to get out of the house and went to see A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde at MOMA. I should mention that if you are a NYC resident you can get a NYCID card which among other benefits gets you a free one year membership to MOMA. Which means in spite of being sick, I could pop in for an hour and a half, see the exhibit for free and not feel I had to spend all day because I paid a $25 admission fee (though it's free on Friday evenings).
I am a huge fan of Futurism in general so it was obvious I would want to see this exhibit before it closed. But while I was walking through the show I had a thought. Context! The exhibit consisted of pieces expressly made as "art" for gallery shows and other pieces - posters, books, and costume designs - that a century later are recognized as art and included at the show. I realized that I gravitated toward the posters, books and a dining set, my favorite piece, that I absolutely would love to have. I didn't get anything out of the pure art pieces (although a paper sculpture of a head was very cool).
What I realized is that the work intended for public consumption at the time had context. The artists and designers were trying to convey a message and they used the new vocabulary of the avant-garde to express the thought. And the works are POWERFUL. But the gallery material seems far more tentative and maybe experimental (and 15 years earlier, which might have something to do with it). They certainly doesn't hit me over the head. The context is different. The work was intended for a more limited audience that wanted to see "art" and was more forgiving and more indulgent. The message of the work is about the artist, not about some performance the artist was asked to promote in a poster.
Pondering this thought I went to test my theory.
The picture at the top of this blog is of a 1961 E-Type Jaguar, which is the centerpiece of an exhibit from the museum's collection of art from the 1960's. The car had the same impact as the avant-garde posters. First of all, the very fact the Jag was on exhibit shows us that it is now considered art. (To be fair, the car has been part of the MOMA design collection since the late 60's). It blows away everything else in the hall. While the works on the wall might define the 1960's for artists and collectors, for me at least the design vocabulary of the 60's was set by items such as this car. It influenced real world design much more than any art piece on display.
Maybe if I had to draw a conclusion, it would be that the art on the wall is commentary on what the artists saw and felt at the time, but the pieces from the outside world are what changed the world.
Just before leaving I stopped for a minute to see "Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh, probably one of the top five most famous pictures in the world. Many people stopped to look and take a picture of it. It didn't have to compete with any objects in the room, and it comes from a time when single paintings drew huge crowds (although not to impressionist work). My son, who is twelve and considers walking around a museum to be mind-boggingly boring, really had a hard time grasping that the picture behind the glass was the original painting and that was what was special about it. Times have changed and I think the ubiquity of electronic images make seeing the real thing less unique, less special. Seeing furniture in real life 3D on the other hand is still something the internet hasn't mastered. Although maybe with VR coming soon, maybe it will.
Modern furniture designers and makers are constantly being told that what they do is craft and not art. Woodworking certainly is craft, but as the Jag shows us, sometimes it's art. It's also pretty hard to make a piece of furniture that when people look at it they go "WOW."
But when they do: "WOW!"