Sunday, June 28, 2015

Some Alsatian Tools and Furniture

Recently, my wife and I spent a few days in Alsace. One of the highlights was a trip to the wine village of Mittelbergheim. We were there for the wine and scenery, but there was an unexpected detour when we walked past this sign:

Note the horned plane, symbol of a joiner (or menuiserie in French). We poked our heads in and asked if we could look around. Instead, we got a 40 minute tour of the shop from Henri, the owner (sadly, I did not get a picture of him).

Most of the shop was given over to production power tools (a fact that seemed to sadden Henri--he said it was no fun any more), but there were a few hand tool highlights. Here's an old bench:

This bench is Continental-style, with recessed base and tool tray, but it has a leg vise, more characteristic of French benches. The other benches in the shop had shoulder vises. When I asked Henri about this, he said "well, we were three times part of Germany."

At one point, I noticed an old horned smoother and asked Henri about it. We briefly discussed handplanes, and a few minutes later, he gave me one! What a wonderful gift!

The most interesting thing about this plane is the French-style double iron, which uses a complicated screw mechanism to regulate the distance between chipbreaker and iron. I've seen pictures of these irons, but never expected to own one.

Interestingly, the chipbreaker does not clamp to the iron; it just nestles in the chipbreaker slot. There is a little "nipple" at the top of the slot that fits into a detente in the top of the screw. The mechanism is quite precise: I would guess there is only about .003" worth of play.

The same family also ran a cabinet-making shop (or ebenisterie). They sold very stylish modern furniture. I quite like this chair:

They also had a small museum dedicated to traditional tools. Most interesting were four display boards of various hand tools. First, menuiserie:

Then ebeniste:

Then charpentier (carpenter):

And finally tonnelier (cooper).

There was a great wheel lathe:

And an enormous cooper's plane.

The cutting iron of the cooper's plane was huge, more than 6" wide (my shoe conveniently shows the scale).

Finally, here's a Rouboesque frame saw, with sister-in-law and wife:

While visiting several of the town's wineries, I noticed that they all had the same style of chairs. Apparently, these are traditional Alsatian chairs.

What is really interesting about these is the joinery. Christopher Schwarz has recently written about the use of sliding dovetail battens in medieval furniture. These chairs combine the battens with a wedged tenons to secure the back to the seat.

The tenon on the bottom of the chair back goes through both the seat and the sliding battens, and is wedged in place with a key.

All in all, it was a pretty fascinating day. And the wine was yummy too!

Friday, June 26, 2015

My Fanback Turned into a Birdcage!

Recently one of my favorite bloggers, D.B. Laney, posted a "gallery of unfinished work"--piles of unfinished tables and chairs. When I saw that, I didn't feel quite so bad about my unfinished chair(s), which have been collecting dust for quite a while, due to my obsession with building traditional handplanes. But I recently got off my duff and managed to get one of the chairs glued up.

Originally, I planned to build a sort of Modernist fanback Windsor, along the lines of Nakashima's New Chair or Moser's Eastward chair. But after I mocked up the chair (seen in this post), I was pretty underwhelmed with the result. I hemmed and hawed and thought it over for weeks, and then I finally did something radical: I ripped my crest rail into two halves and made a Modernist birdcage Windsor instead. Haven't put any finish on it yet, but here it is, all glued up:

Darn it, something got in the way in this picture!

I'm viewing this chair as a prototype--I want to make some changes for the next one. The biggest change will be to add an inch between the two crest rails. Also, the stretcher tenons have shoulders, and I hate those, so I'll get rid of them. There are a few other minor changes as well. But overall, I'm pretty satisfied.

Now I need to figure out what to finish the chair with. I'll have to mull that over for a while…

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Everything You Need to Know is Free

I try not to do "opinion pieces" on this blog, but today I am a little more exercised than usual by the profusion of people who want to sell you basic woodworking instruction and advice.

The Intertubes are awash with gurus, hucksters, and opportunists who want to sell you hand tool videos, online subscriptions, courses, plans, and who knows what. A lot of these people are not experts, and all of them are recycling the same projects and techniques that have been around for a century or more. Some of them have mastered the art of making you feel, for $19.95 a month, that you are a part of a select group. The hipster guy with dreads and new age beats, and the crusty English guy with his bucolic reminiscences of apprenticeship, are both selling you the same thing: Atmosphere. It's impressive, really.

So here is my advice to any beginning hand tool woodworker: Everything you need to know is free.

The best place to start is your local public library. You do have a library card, right? Because they would love to have your business. You're likely to find all sorts of things that aren't online. Of course, online resources are great too. There are lots of public domain books. There are blogs and youtube videos. Woodworking publications like Fine Woodworking and Popular Woodworking have tons of free resources.

But the most important thing is practice. Do you want to learn to cut dovetails? You don't need to buy a bunch a videos. You just need to read a couple descriptions of the process. You may find it helpful to watch a couple free 3-minute videos by Rob Cosman, Frank Klausz, or others (Kari Hultman has a nice one as I recall). Then you need to get some wood and practice, over and over, until you are proficient. The process for cutting dovetails hasn't changed for a couple centuries. Nobody has any magic  bullets that will substitute for hands-on, hard knocks learning.

Do you want to learn to sharpen a saw? Same deal. You don't need a course or a video. Head over to Pete Taran's Vintage Saws website and read the sharpening guide. Matt Cianci (on WK Fine Tools) and Daryl Weir have good online tutorials as well. Then make yourself a saw vise out of some scrap, get some files, and practice. Your first saw will probably look like crap. It will probably cut pretty well though. After a dozen saws, your efforts will be almost indistinguishable from those of the people who charge $50 per sharpening.

Now, am I saying you should never buy a book or a video? Of course not. I love buying those things, if it's something special, or just something that I think will be a fun read. But please, don't give some guy your money because you think only he can teach you to chop mortises and saw tenons.

I know I've included no links and very few specific titles in this post. Tough love, baby. Do your own research. To learn to make almost anything, you will have to pay, with effort, perseverance, frustration, and even temporary failure. But you don't have to pay with money. Save your money for tools and wood.