Batman coat rack

Here in our household, we have a coat problem. A serious coat problem. Too many coats, not enough closet or hanging space. Coats end up strewn on the ground (where guess who get to pick them up), or stuffed into a too-crowded closet. This coat rack was my partial solution to the problem (though I’ve since discovered that the number of coats in a household is apparently exponentially proportional to the number of places to hang them). Anyway, I was feeling whimsical and wanted to get my curves on so I designed a piece with a batman feel – complimented by the bat coat hook I found at Hippo hardware here in Portland. The wood was from a locally harvested white oak. It was a streaked and knotty piece, but I like the way the imperfections look on the finished rack. The rack also holds my collection of African walking sticks and various umbrellas.

Now if I cold only get all those shoes organized…

Coat rack – Oregon white oak with cast iron hardware

Detail, Leg braces

Detail, top

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To build a chair…

I am taking a course on chair design from Pacific Northwest College of Arts (PNCA). This course differs from the more craft oriented courses I’ve tried in the past. It’s taught at an art school, by an art major. There is no discussion about joinery or materials. Basic ergonomics are covered in a two-page handout. Many of the students wear tight, brightly colored pants and have t-shirts with artistically-designed ironic sayings. I feel a little out of place there with my carharts and wool. Still, I thought; it would be good for me to approach the craft from a different perspective.

We started out with a series of 100 quick sketches. Of these, we narrowed possibilities down to 4, re-sketched each a dozen or so times, and selected one for construction. The idea was to build a mock-up of an actual chair – quick and dirty. I’ve been enamored of late of the Appalachian ladder-back chairs by Brian Boggs (The Boggs Collective), and Russ Filbeck and my selection for mock-up is derivative of that style.

Russ Filbeck; Large Ebonized Rocker

Brian Boggs Classic Ladderback chair

Balsa Wood and hot glue chair model- brought to you by the good folks at Ridgid Tools.

I wanted however to do a three-slat chair with a carved seat.  I wanted arm rests, but they needed to be low enough such that the chair fits under a standard dining room table. The arm rests should also not get in the way when playing a stringed instrument such as a guitar.  I envision a chair that could be used at the dining table and also on the front porch.

Our class supplied materials were plywood and two-by-fours, and I supplemented this with the purchase of a small amount of bamboo veneer from Bamboo Revolution. I hope to experiment with this new materials workability and applicability to fine furniture.

I knew that the material limitations would mean that my mock up would provide limited information about the necessary solid-wood joinery. Instead, I thought I might investigate the optimal seat angle, arm-rest height, and rear leg splay, sweep and height. I also hoped to figure out the placement, angle and radius of the ladders making up the back.  If I could nail these angles and proportions in a mock up I’d save considerable effort and expensive materials when it came time to build the chair for real. At least, this is what I hope to discover…I’ve got 3 weeks left of class.

Here are a few shots of what I’ve come up with thus far. As you can see- my obsession with this craft is spilling out into other areas of the basement. And one of these days I’ll get a decent camera instead of using my iPhone…

Rear legs splayed at 6 degrees and angled relative to seat by 12 degrees. At this point I’ve left a bunch of “meat” on the top half of the rear legs in order to leave room for back-rest placement.

Figuring arm height- rear legs have not yet been splayed and are inset too shallow on the seat.

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Toy box with milk paint

I promised my oldest girl a box, and that she could help me build it. We sat down together with paper and markers and sketched out what she wanted. I found some Southern Yellow Pine at Crosscut lumber for a reasonable price and this is what resulted. Somewhat surprisingly, I loved working with the pine – it was quick and easy to to the hand-cut dovetails joining the carcase and skirt. In fact, all the joinery for the box was completed in about 20 hours, and everything was done by hand except for the initial milling of the lumber. Madeline (my girl), helped with some of the sawing and the painting. She’s still a little young for chisel work, but she seemed to enjoy helping out with the sawing of the dovetails. This is the first project on which I’ve used milk paint and I’ve got to say, I love the stuff! I used a coat of lamp black then two of brick red. I love how the black shows through. I made three tills/boxes for the interior. Madeline currently uses the box for toys, but I am hopeful she will take it to Stanford with her when she’s ready…

This has become one of my favorite projects, and I’d like to build a few more. I figure with time and materials I could produce these for sale at about $500-$600 (without the tills). I’m planning on doing another, larger one for use as a coffee table in our family room.

Madeline’s toy chest

Toy chest, open showing inner tills.

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The Rogowski stool class at NW Woodworking Studio

I finished a week long class at the Northwest woodworking Studio making a Rogowski stool and taught by the man himself; Gary. I highly recommend the class, as it was a great introduction to compound angle joinery, and the stool looks fantastic! Here are a few shots of the stool (some in progress);

Stool detail showing proud rosewood-wedged through-tenons. Photo courtesy of Deborah Alexander

 

Everyone enjoys a good sit.

Mortising jig for legs

Parts

Legs and stretchers glued up with wedges installed

Legs and stretchers glued up with wedges installed

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Curved bedside table

A friend gifted me a bunch of red oak and I promised I’d build something different with it. Since red oak is a relatively cheap wood, I thought i’d use it to experiment with an idea I had some time ago – a ‘proof of concept’ if you will. This was the result. I had to figure out how to do hand-cut dovetails on a curved surface as well as how to best darken the oak and mahogany I used for the handle and feet.  I hung the drawer from the top of the carcase – something new to me as well. I’m pretty happy with the result, though I think I should have slimmed the handle a bit more. I confirmed that red oak does not dovetail cleanly (it splinters to easily), and thus the joints are a little gappy.  However, I feel confident that if/when I do this in a wood like walnut or cherry it will work out just fine. Actually the piece I’m dying to make is of bamboo. Any takers?  I’ve got about 40 hours into this piece.

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Handcraft and the politics of marketing

Pottery Barn Farmhouse Table

The other day I stumbled upon an add for a desk on craigslist that had been copied verbatim from the original Pottery Barn add. Unbelievingly, I found the item at PotteryBarn (no longer available, but here) to ensure that the marketing copy was indeed real. Even though we are exposed by the same sort of dishonest marketing every day as Americans, the description for this item for some reason really got under my skin. Are we really as a society so uneducated as consumers that we fall for this stuff? Judging by the success of stores like PotteryBarn, I’d guess the answer is “yes”. For that reason, I’d like to point out what bothers me about the copy, line-by-line. The original copy is in bold text, and my comments are in italics;

With its timeless sensibility, our Farmhouse Desk & Hutch is at once beautiful and practical.

  • Expertly crafted with solid wood turned legs. (Why this is a feature worth pointing out is beyond me. I guess these days, if any portion of a a piece of furniture is actually made of real wood it is worth highlighting, as it’s so rare. By the way, the type of wood is never specified, most likely because it is made of a low quality species- a hunch substantiated by the heavy stains used on their furniture
  • Optional hutch (sold separately) features slots to keep smaller items organized. (Wow! Real slots!)
  • Our exclusive finishes are applied by hand for exceptional richness, durability and depth of color. (I’m certain that the phrase “applied by hand” means applied by spray gun in a factory by a technician staining hundreds of pieces at once).
  • Rigorously tested to meet or exceed the highest industry safety standards. (This means that the desk does not have sharp corners, lead paint, protruding nails, etc. This is NOT a mark of quality, rather it highlights the fact that without these standards, companies like this would happily injure or poison our children if it meant they could make another buck.  By the way, any product sold in large quantities in the USA has to meet these standards, so why this a “feature” is beyond me)
  • Masterfully crafted with triangle corner blocking for structural integrity. (Seriously; masterly crafted? Corner blocking is a small piece of wood added behind the table aprons to solidify the joint where the legs meet the table. The need for triangle corner joints hints at the fact that the joinery in this spot is sub-standard. A properly executed mortise and tenon joint would have no need for triangle corner blocking. What is so “masterly” about that?)
  • Built from solid wood, wood veneers and MDF, an engineered wood that lends exceptional strength and ensures that the desk and hutch will endure over time. (Oh. My. God. These people have no shame at all. MDF is basically sawdust that is held together with glue. It is hands down the lowest quality and cheapest way to build a piece of furniture. It is not a strong substance, and will NOT endure over time. Screws placed in MDF will pull out and MDF will sag when any substantial weight is applied. MDF’s one advantage is that is does not expand and contract with seasonal weather changes, so it is an ideal substrate for veneer. Modern veneers, by the way, are about 1/32 an inch thick or less. They scratch easy, and once a scratch penetrates the veneer thickness into the MDF, it can not be easily repaired. Forget about ever refinishing an item with modern veneer. The act of sanding will quickly wear through the veneer and expose the underlying MDF).
  • All wood is kiln dried for added strength and lasting beauty. (Wow; kiln dried! Most furniture these days is made from kiln dried wood. Kiln drying, by the way, adds no strength or durability to wood compared to the same species that has been air-dried. In fact, air-dried wood has many advantages – kiln drying can often lead to stress cracks inside a piece of lumber).
  • Drawers feature English dovetail joinery and smooth glides. (I’ve no beef with dovetails. However, I have no idea what an “english” dovetail is. More marketing schlock).
  • The use of veneers results in high-quality furniture with flawless surfaces and consistent color tones. (Here is a tip; if you see a piece of modern production furniture for sale with veneers; run, don’t walk away from it. It’s crap. Antique pieces often used veneers, but the veneers were much thicker and would stand up to abuse over time. Custom pieces built with veneers usually use shop-made veneers, which will be cut the same way as those used on antique pieces).

While researching this blog post, I stumbled upon an excellent article written for Smart Money magazine called Pottery Barn Unstuffed. The author took several pieces of furniture from stores like Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and Crate and Barrel, and tore them apart with a team of craftsmen to investigate how they were made and from what. It’s an eye-opening read. It seems these stores used to sell low quality furniture for low prices -a reasonable proposition in my mind. However, the stores have changed their marketing ploys to appeal to a wealthier demographic and have increased their prices without increasing the quality of their furniture. Now you can spend $6000 on crap at these stores and be none the wiser (until the piece falls apart that is). It’s all about marketing these days, and as I’ve shown above, the marketing is full of lies and other deceptions.

So, surprise, surprise; marketers think most consumers are idiots (perhaps they are right).  But what do handcrafts have to do with politics? A recent article in the New York Times regarding the decline of craftsmanship in the USA (here) sheds some light on the issue. I won’t summarize, other than to say that the decline of manufacturing in America was a trend encouraged by both political parties (who are after all equally beholden to their wealthy overlords).

I found another excellent read about the value of having real handmade items in our homes by a blogger and furniture maker named German Roy (here). It offers a bit of respite from all the negativity swirling around my brain after writing all that stuff above.

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Saturday mornings

Thanks in no small part to the KBOO bluegrass and Grateful Dead show (http://kboo.fm/ProgramGenre/Bluegrass), I love spending saturdays in the shop. It’s a rare occasion when I get more than an hour or two, and today my wife let me have the whole morning and part of the afternoon to get the screen door I’ve been building finished. Even thought the sun is shining outside, the sounds of bluegrass combined with my excitement at building something cool makes these mornings some of my favorites. This week I am finishing up a commission for a screen door of mahogany in the same style I built the door for my own house.  I put one final gel-coat of stain on the piece, then installed the ebony plugs. After the gel-stain dried I hung it outside on my kids playset for the first coat of spar varnish. I think it’s coming out beautifully!

Screen door of African mahogany with ebony plugs.

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Wall cabinet in walnut

I completed a nw woodworking studio class on hand tools taught by Jack Reynolds, and this was the result. All of this was made from scrap wood I had in my pile.  The carcase and interior is mostly Oregon black walnut.  I handcut all the dovetails, and steam-bent the ash salts on the door. The pulls are made of wenge and were shaped by hand.  Everything is finished in oil with a oil/varnish topcoat for moisture resistance. I love it when I can splurge with nice wood and do a tongue and groove solid wood back! Meant to keep medicines and sharp things away from our quickly growing and grasping children’s hands.

Birds-eye maple drawer front with wenge pull.

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The Funky Monkey and the Low Box

The tall one I’m keeping for myself. Its made of quarter sawn white oak, walnut, poplar and ipe. The low one is a gift for my brother-in-law (a late holiday gift), and is made of mahogany and spalted mahogany with a wenge handle.  Feels good to get these out of the queue!

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Finishing

No, not finishing as in shellac, varnish, etc., Finishing in terms of completing. It’s always that last 10% that gets put off due to the urge to get started with something new. Slow down…slow down…

Unfinished mahogany Jewelry box - mahogany, and spalted unknown billet wood.

Pair of unfinished boxes with drawers - Walnut, maple, quarter sawn white oak and zebrawood

Unfinished Box. Mahogany, unknown spalted ship billet wood, and wenge

Unfinished hanging cabinet in walnut, birds-eye maple and steam-bent ash

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