Tomorrow night (I am writing this on Monday evening, October 9th), I will be teaching dovetailing. This Saturday I will be teaching a free class called "Introduction to Hand Tools" for the first time. So I have teaching on my brain. I've taught the dovetailing class before, so I know what's on tomorrow night. It's the second session, and we'll be learning about body movement and sawing straight. This afternoon I checked to make sure that all the wood we need is ready, and Tuesday need to double check that class saws are ready to rumba.
It's the Saturday class that preoccupies me a bit. The class is in response to the many people over the years who have come to our showroom, for themselves or looking for a gift, who are trying to wrap their heads around the idea of using hand tools. They sincerely want to expand their horizons. Sometimes they are familiar only with what Home Depot stocks and hand held power tools. This applies to professionals and amateurs alike. Many are perplexed by the idea what you can actually build anything by hand. Of course, misconception about hand tools are formed by never seeing the tools in efficient operation. You can drill a hole with an electric drill even if the bit is dull and the drill is noisy. But it isn't patently obvious how to work a brace or a bit so it's fun. We have a reputation and a lot of showroom and warehouse space devoted to hand tools, so the curiosity is natural.
What can I do to give people what they've come to discover? I have to get and hold people's attention. I have to make hand tool skill look like obtainable. I have to show the distinction between cheap knockoff tools that don't work well and quality hand tools. And - particularly for the amateurs - I have to show that the basic operations of woodworking by hand, operations that can be performed in a small apartment or shop, don't have to be painful, and can result in good results.
I try to be practical, not (just) philosophical.
I should teach how to measure accurately but I am afraid it isn't sexy enough to keep a class engaged. People want to see sawdust!
I think I want to teach people how to start a cut with a handsaw. That's a big problem people have. They try cutting something and since they can't start the saw they never get to the joyous moment when they can advance easily through the wood.
I think I want to teach people how to set a hinge because that gives me a chance to demonstrate marking out and chiseling to a line. And it's easier than setting up a router.
I think I want to show people how to clamp their work. It's not very sexy but it's pretty useful. I know some tricks with a few clamps that let you set up anywhere even at the kitchen table.
I will have to plane something - wood shavings are sexy. And if I rub the shavings on the wood I can show a wonderful burnished surface.
And of course I plan to drill a big hole with a brace and bit, showing how to not splinter out at the end and also how a ratchet brace really helps with those large holes.
I think that's all I can do in a couple of hours. My main goal, of course, is to inspire. I hope that at least a few of the attendees will look at what I am doing, try it themselves and then go home, take the plunge and start building stuff.
If you are in the area this Saturday, you're invited to the class! For more details click here.
I've been working with wood since I was a kid. I took my first woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y when I was 6 years old. I've been taking classes and building stuff for over 35 years. For the last 17 I have been working at Tools for Working Wood. In that time, new tools and new techniques have come on the market. By and large I have ignored them in my personal work. However, I haven't ignored everything, and my methods of work have in certain areas changed dramatically for the better. I've broken up my list of ten things into three posts so I don't drone on and on here. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here
When I was I school, we would go out of our way not to grind anything. The grinding wheel was smooth, the sharpening jig was very hard to set up, and without exercising extreme care, burning the tool was the norm. Around 2003 or so, Barry Iles of Ashley Iles Edge Tools taught me how to grind like a pro. (I later wrote about this technique for Fine Woodworking magazine and on my blog. This was a revelation for me and I started hollow grinding everything. Most of my sharpening kit became unnecessary. I helped develop the Norton 3X wheels which use seeded gel technology for cooler grinding, and they were a big step forward too. Then a few years ago I heard about CBN wheels, which are aluminum wheels with CBN crystals bonded to them. This innovation was great. The new wheels ran cooler than the 3X wheels and required no maintenance. No dressing or anything! The only trade-offs that I can think of are that they cost a lot more than regular wheels; you can't use them for non-ferrous metals (they clog); and they don't have the crown that Barry Iles showed me makes grinding so easy. I had some crowned CBN wheels made and I was sold! The non-ferrous problem is solved by changing only one wheel on a grinder to CBN. The cost is still, understandably, a deterrent to lots of people, but if you have the budget I cannot imagine why you would not switch.
The next couple of items are all tied together in how I make joints now vs thirty years ago.
Pistol Grip Saws
I learned on gent's saws. Gent's saws have two advantages for beginners: they are inexpensive and they are easier to use than a lot of other options. By easier to use, I mean easier to saw straight with. However, the straight handle, which great for enabling sawing straight, does so at a compromise is speed and comfort. I currently use our Gramercy dovetail saw. It seems as easy to use as a gent's saw but with more comfort and power.
Cutting Waste with a Coping Saw
I was taught to chisel dovetail waste out. It's not hard. I know a lot of people who use fret saws to remove most of the waste of a through dovetail. It does make chiseling to the final base line a little easier, but I have always hated the fragile blades. Using a bow saw or a coping saw isn't as straightforward. You kind of have to do two cuts, and the baseline needs to be chiseled anyway. It's a lot faster than using a fretsaw and you don't break blades. Start on one side of the waste, a little in from the edge of the joint, saw diagonally down until you touch - but not cut into - the saw kerf on the opposite side of the joint. Then, starting on that side, cut straight across the waste, removing the bulk of it all. BTW, the secret to a good coping saw is a sharp good blade.
No Layout Dovetails
When I studied woodworking, we measured compulsively. We spent weeks carefully cutting to a line and then chiseling out. As I have written in recent blogs, I discovered that the less I thought about it, the easier it was to saw straight. It was a huge wake-up call for me. My new model is treating sawing dovetails and everything else like a sport, in which practice, follow through, and instinct trump compulsive attention to analytic detail. This is the approach I use in my classes. We have had great success, and I can't imagine going back thee other way. It's true that there are some joints that do require compulsive measurement - a twisted dovetail for example - but once the hand skill are practiced, and the muscles know what they are doing, scribe lines and measurement became a welcome guide instead of an impossible standard to meet.
Has your woodworking changed over the years too? I welcome your comments.
New week - Number 10.
I've been working with wood since I was a kid. I took my first woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y when I was 6 years old. I've been taking classes and building stuff for over 35 years. For the last 17 I have been working at Tools for Working Wood. In that time, new tools and new techniques have come on the market. By and large I have ignored them in my personal work. However, I haven't ignored everything, and my methods of work have in certain areas changed dramatically for the better. I've broken up my list of ten things into three posts so I don't drone on and on here. This is part two. Part 1 is here
When I studied in school, the idea of a powered joining system was an anathema to teachers and students of traditional methods. At the time, there weren't many options -- dowel joints were the most prominent. The Metropolitan Museum's Study Collection had Frank Lloyd Wright chairs that used dowel joints to hold the backs together. What made me notice this? The chairs were coming apart.
Towards the end of my studying time, Lamello biscuit joiners started gaining popularity, and by the 1990's biscuits had become the go-to method for joining cabinets. Many cabinet shops had stationary mortisers for floating tenons for stronger joints.
Then Festool introduced the Domino into the US in the first years of the 21st century. It was a portable, accurate machine for installing floating tenons. This was a game changer. I was so impressed with Festool's innovation that when I opened TFWW, a center for hand tools, I decided to add Festool to the mix. Over the years as a Festool dealer and user my faith in the system hasn't been challenged. We routinely use Dominos in our own shop for all sorts of construction. There are cases where manually cutting a mortise is easier, usually when working with bizarro angles, and there is the satisfaction of chopping a mortise by hand. The system isn't cheap, either. But for me, the Domino me is an enabler of projects I would not ordinarily have the time for.
I am getting older - better than the alternative - and for the past five years or so I haven't been able to see detail. My eyesight has been bad since third grade, but worsened with time. About ten years ago I started wearing continuous bifocals for reading. I also have a pair of computer glasses for focusing on my computer screen and reading . Close-up work become impossible until I re-discovered what everyone else in the same situation had already re-discovered: Magnification! Specifically, the Optivisor, which we now stock. They are surprisingly comfortable. I use a number 5 (2 1/2x magnification) with a headlamp. It makes a huge difference for small work. For just doing things like sharpening a saw, lesser magnification a #2 (which only magnifices 1.5x which isn't much at all) is a game changer for me. The lower magnification gives me a greater working distance which is nice. I wear them over my glasses. They are US-made and are of sufficiently high quality so I don't get eyestrain. I don't know what I would do without them. The game changing was especially sweet because between the time I noticed I could not do close work anymore and getting the Optivior, I went through an unhappy period of thinking that my woodworking days were behind me. I live in an apartment and I don't really need more furniture, but carving and miniatures have always held an attraction. I had been hoping that I would become good enough at relief carving to really enjoy the results of doing it - something not possible without magnification.
My first encounter with shellac was with a small bottle of hobby store shellac that might have been purchased during the Eisenhower administration. When I tried to use it during the Johnson administration it seemed to just lie there and not dry at all. Shellac was a mystery until maybe ten years ago. At that time I started understanding the difference between what you got in bottles pre-mixed, and what you could do if you mixed up shellac flakes with good alcohol yourself. While I had seen French polish in museums, it was only then that I saw fellow woodworkers finish their work with French polish. For the first time I really understood how wonderful shellac could be. Since that time I basically have three go-to finishes. Finishing oil, for anything that I want a matte finish on and anything walnut. Polyurethane from a can, for anything I just need to keep clean of fingerprints and I don't care about. And fresh shellac, mixed up from de-waxed shellac flakes as needed, French polished, or just brushed on and rubbed out. That's my classy finish. I still love my oil finishes but a shellac finish is just classier on so many levels.
That's all for now. More to come next time. What are your gamechangers?
I've been working with wood since I was a kid. I took my first woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y when I was 6 years old. I've been taking classes and building stuff for over 35 years. For the last 17 I have been working at Tools for Working Wood. In that time, new tools and new techniques have come on the market. By and large I have ignored them in my personal work. However, I haven't ignored everything, and my methods of work have in certain areas changed dramatically for the better. I'll break up my list of ten things into three posts so I don't drone on and on here.
I learned on Arkansas stones and I still use them for sharpening carving tools. I really love the feel of the stones. But during the 1990 - 2010 era, I mostly used water stones. Over the years I used many different brands, but nonetheless all water stones. I still use water stones in the kitchen for sharpening knives, but for woodworking tools and when I teach sharpening I use diamond stones do all the rough work. I use an 8000 grit finishing stone at the end because I don't think the 8000 grit diamond stones are nearly as fine, but diamonds do everything else. You can read about my experiments here.
Diamond paste works well but it's too messy for me, and I worry about getting it into my eye. I don't use lapping film, although it's great and popular. For the amount of sharpening I do, it's not practical: I would just blow through too much film. I think lapping film is best for low cost-of-entry on a professional system and for traveling. Some people love lapping film because it's largely maintenance free. It also works well for odd profiles, but it's not for me. The major problem I used to have with diamond stones is that they would wear out quickly and weren't flat. The DMT Dia-Sharp stones solve the latter problem, and by not using them to flatten water stones I solve the former problem. DMT makes lapping plates for flattening water stones, but currently I don't have one (I should but I don't).
The main reason for the switch to diamonds is that I am a lazy sod who is always in a rush. My water stones got out of flat. Water was sloshing everywhere - I didn't do the needed regular flattening and I didn't have a good place for a bucket of water stones. I love Arkansas stones a lot, but for regular chisels and plane blades, I find them slow. For carving tools, diamonds can replace a medium India stone, but diamonds, while cutting fast, leave scratches which would add in a step or two.
I grew up on Titebond. Back in the 1980's we all felt so superior to those DIYers who still used - horrors! - Elmer's glue, while, we used real wood glue for gluing up our projects. And it was yellow too! What I hated then, and now, about Titebond is that if you ever got it on the wrong spot, you'd have the big hassle of cleaning the wood so that it could take finish. I still use Titebond for gluing Dominos and some other general tasks. But if there is any risk of surface contamination, I much prefer hide glue. Being mostly transparent to finishes = a massive time-saver for me. I don't use hot glue. I suppose I should, but I don't have a place to put the glue pot. I do most of my woodworking snatching odd moments and I just can't think ahead to soak glue pellets. (Why is it that every time I think of the word "pellets," I think of hamsters?) But Old Brown Glue is great stuff, is real hide glue, and put putting it out in the sun or on a radiator for a minute makes it perfect to use. So that's what I do.
When I first studied woodworking, it was generally accepted that sawing dovetails by hand was perfectly acceptable, but milling timber and cutting it by hand was a waste of time -- and really impossible to do well. However, in the early days of TFWW, I needed to build a couple of projects and for the first time I didn't have access to a table saw. At the same time, there was a major revival in backsaw manufacture, and a real re-evaluation of handsaws in general. On those early projects I ended up sawing lots and lots of maple by hand, and by the end of the project I was reasonably good at it. These days, I am much more likely to grab a handsaw than to wander back to see if the bandsaw is free. For plywood, I use a Festool plunge saw, but for everything else, I pretty much use our Hardware Store Saw. (I have wonderful Disston saws in my toolbox, but the display Hardware Store saw is physically closer and cuts faster). These days I expect myself to cut square by eye. Then normal procedure is to use a shooting board to complete the job (if real accuracy is needed).
I'll continue my list next time. What's on your list? I love traditional methods for doing stuff. I love history and the feeling that I am walking in the footsteps of those who went before us. On the other hand, I have limited time do build anything. and I value efficiency. I personally like developing hand skills rather than getting single purpose tools, and I am continually learning. So that's why I've change the way I work, and I will continue to change (I hope).
Traditionally, professional joiners and cabinet makers weren't trained the same way we train adults in woodworking nowadays. First of all, joiners and cabinetmakers began their training at much younger ages. Training consisted of a combination of observation and practice and lasted several years. "Practice," of course, sounds a lot less boring than "repetition," but the two are the same thing. Certain tools that are pretty common today didn't exist. Dovetail gauges, honing guides, and magnetic saw guides, commonly used for joinery nowadays, are all inventions for the amatuer market.
There is nothing wrong with contemporary methods. There is no reason for anyone to suggest that there is only one true way, but I personally have always been interested in pre-industrial professional practice. I'm sort of like the amateur golfer who wants to be able to hold my own on a pro course. I know the idea is laughable - I will never be able to compete with the pros - but I want to at least be in the ballpark (or golf course).
When I studied years ago I did it the old fashioned way. very slowly, trying for perfection, and intellectualizing every move. Then after I read the Joiner and Cabinetmaker I started thinking about professional training. Trusting yourself, not trying for perfection the first day out - which can be paralying for many, but just trying to do decent apprentice work. Learn how to saw straight. Learn how to do very accurate and consistent layout. What shocked me was how possible it was to get good via planning and practice. I wanted to teach this method of instruction and see its effects on other students. So I developed a multi-part class, Mastering Dovetails, which is finishing up this week. The only tools we use in the class are a dovetail saw, marking gauge, a few chisels, layout knife, and a pencil, with the optional use of a coping saw. Waste on the tail board was done by sawing into the waste with a dovetail saw and making chiseling a little easier. I demonstrated using a coping saw for waste, and some students opted to use that for their tails.
For the first three hours of the class, students were instructed in how to saw straight and use a marking gauge. This was all about hand-eye-body coordination, and how to work with your entire posture so that sawing straight is a natural and expected phenomenon. Then we spent the next three hours cutting a simple through dovetail without marking anything, except waste and where to cut the pins from the tails. The square was used after the fact to check our work, not to lay it out. With the dovetail done, the students took six sets of wood home to work on a daily dovetail homework. For the final three hour session, the students all did a blind dovetail.
I was really impressed by how easily the students learned to saw square. Not perfectly square, but absolutely decent. Their initial dovetails mostly went together without trouble. Everyone came in with pretty well done homework. The blind dovetail (which is exactly like a through dovetail except you have to mark out the top of the tails too, and borrow the teachers skew chisels for the corners) went together for all the students far more easily than I thought. When I studied woodworking, it took ages to get to this point. My students had no trouble. So I am really pleased with the approach and I think it is worth pursuing.
What students liked best about the class is the attention to body movement. One commented that understanding that attention to accurate layout and learning how to saw straight and consistently raises the mist on all joinery, of any complexity and makes it accessible. Where I fell short was I should have written a cheat sheet for the steps in doing the homework. I will for next time (this fall). I also left out some tidbits of information that I ended up sharing a little belatedly. So a cheat sheet would be good.
Another learning experience was the discovery that students didn't all have sharp chisels. So in October, the next time I teach this class I will add in an initial segment on grinding and sharpening. We do offer these classes for free - we have a free grinding class coming up on September 9th - but in the limited-enrollment Dovetail class, the students will be able to grind and sharpen up their own chisels too.
Overall I am really proud on how well everyone did. What's really cool for a teacher is seeing students who never even owned tools before, who are doing the homework on a kitchen table to a couple of clamps, do great work.
Nowadays the Museum of Modern Art, aka MoMA, is well known for a rarified take on expensive modern art. I try to go visit MoMA several times a year (natives and savvy tourists know when the $25 admission fee is waived) and often feel frustrated by the insularity and smug self-consciousness of the art. Interestingly, at its inception MoMA very assertively proposed a very different model. It conceived of itself as a place whose mission was “educational in the broadest, least academic sense,” in the words of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MoMA’s founding director.
I own an intriguing book published by MoMA in 1951, “How to Make Objects of Wood,” in keeping with this mission.
The book was the third in the series, “Art for Beginners,” which was “planned as a means of self-instruction for persons working on their own and as an aid for the teacher in directing large groups.” The authors of the book included Victor D’Amico, a progressive educator who began working as the director of MoMA’s Education Project. In that capacity created several outreach programs, including MoMA’s War Veterans’ Art Center and its successor entity when the veterans’ center disbanded in 1948, the People’s Art Center.
The book’s other two authors, Kendall T. Bassett and Arthur B. Thurman, were affiliated with War Veterans’ Art Center; Bassett was also affiliated with the People’s Art Center.
I must confess that I was struck by these entities’ names, which certainly evoke another era. MoMA has an extensive education program to this day, but the activities, which include a lovely program for kids and on-line and in-person classes for all ages, really focus on art appreciation. Hands-on craft is generally restricted to kids' projects. I couldn’t find MoMA classes for adults that promoted craft as something to do oneself, rather than something to admire when an expert creates it. But the War Veterans’ Art Center and the People’s Art Center promoted the idea that art could be made by all sorts of regular people. Rather than just copying what was in a gallery (the traditional museum approach), students at these Centers worked in a workshop to develop their craft and creativity.
According to this press release announcing the War Veterans’ Art Center’s first art show, “The Art Center has a twofold object: to give veterans an opportunity for personal satisfaction in creating some form of art; and to provide preliminary professional training in the fundamentals both of fine and applied art.”
The center, which was founded in 1944, 15 years after MoMA’s founding, was open free of charge (for both instruction and materials) to all returned service men and women. The press release described the center as “ a place where returned service men and women not only learn but produce painting, sculpture, ceramics, industrial design, jewelry, silk screen printing, graphic arts and allied subjects.”
The first year’s divisions included Design Workshop; Drawing and Painting; Graphic Arts; Jewelry and Metalwork; Lettering, Layout, and Typography; Orientation; Sculpture & Ceramics; Silk Screen Printing; Wood Engraving and Book Illustration; and Woodworking Design (taught by Kendall T. Bassett). A typical student was a veteran who prior to the war worked as a farmer but “doesn't want to go back to farming and has decided that our class in Woodworking Design offers him an opportunity to develop a new vocation.” Another student mentioned by the administration suffered an eye injury in combat and was cautioned to avoid heavy labor. “Attracted by the class in Woodworking Design, he came to the Center where he hopes to learn to make toys and small furniture, thus using his skill without physical strain.” Response and Responsibility: The War Veterans' Art Center at the Museum of Modern Art (1944-1948), a master's thesis written about the center, noted that veterans were screened but allowed to enroll at any point of the class and proceed at their own pace at projects that were organized for increased complexity -- a system Victor D’Amico developed specifically for veterans, although it has obvious echoes in progressive child education generally.
In its excitement about its individual-centered approach, MoMA proposed to distribute pamphlets directly to veterans for self-instruction; the publication project then grew into the “Art for Beginners” series, a partnership with Simon & Shuster for publication of books for the general public. How to Make Pottery and Ceramic Sculpture, published in December 1947, was the first. I have that book and another book from the series, How to Make Modern Jewelry in their 1960s paperback editions. (The series includes another book, How to Draw and Paint.)
What did the books have to say?
How to Make Objects of Wood is a notably straightforward book. There isn’t chat about the philosophy of woodworking. The text, which addresses design and construction techniques, and the numerous black & white photographs and sketches, all come right to the point.The tone is encouraging in its matter-of-fact belief that the reader can accomplish a great deal if he or she follows the instruction. The participants from the War Veterans’ Art Center were, after all, experienced at following commands.
The projects start out with a joint and eventually graduate to a desk and dollhouse. You can do it, the book suggests. We believe in you.
Although MoMA’s progressive centers had broad support from its trustees, including members of the Rockefeller family, they withered away with the retirement of their chief champion, Victor D’Amico. The redemptive project of making “objects of wood,” as the humble title called them, was forgotten.
Nowadays we have plenty of veterans, plenty of art museums and a profession called “art therapy” that requires a master’s degree. But we don’t teach woodworking at museums, and we generally separate therapy from vocational training or just evening education. Programs like the War Veterans’ Art Center or the People’s Art Center ended up unable to survive the absence of their charismatic leader, but the ideas they represented deserve a resurrection.
|The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.|