If the form itself is lacking, the best wood in the world will not make up for it.
This quote (and the title of this post) was taken from George Walker’s Design Matters column in the April 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. Truer words were never spoken. So often when we find a really special piece of lumber, we get so focussed on showcasing it, that we miss the bigger picture.
This doesn’t just apply to a really nice piece of wood though. It extends to any decorative element, be it moldings, carvings, inlay, decorative painting and stenciling, or contrasting wood species. Basically, any element who’s main purpose is to highlight. No matter how well done or how numerous these elements, they can’t improve a bad form.
We should even include joinery in this discussion these days. Woodworkers today are obsessed with showy joinery. Air tight dovetails, pillowed through mortise and tenon joints, and fancy ebony pegs are indeed nice to look at, especially to other woodworkers. But if the overall proportions and basic structure of the piece are lacking, it really doesn’t matter how perfect your hand cut dovetails are. Flawless skin cannot improve poor bone structure.
On the other hand, if the underlying form is good, you can get away with a less than perfect complexion. Just look at much of the best furniture in museums. It can be riddled with over sawn dovetails, surface tear out, and inconsistent turnings, and be made with boring figureless wood. But the piece can still be exemplary because its basic form is well executed.
So thank you George for bringing this topic up! In my opinion it’s an all too important topic that is not discussed often enough.
I’m really glad to see Chris writing about this form. I’ve been a fan of what Chris has come to call staked furniture for a long time. I was first introduced to the form through Roy Underhill’s early books and shows. And since that time I’ve built several items (mostly for the shop) using this method of construction. One of them actually pre-dates this blog, though I wrote an article on it several years later to capture the process.
This saw bench was actually my second attempt at building a saw bench in this style. My first was built around 2005 or 2006 and did not have the additional stretchers. It was much more similar to the ones Chris has been building. I added the stretchers because I determined that legs made from home center 2x material do not do all that well in this design without the stretchers. The soft, spongy material has too much flex in it to be used without stretchers. The thinner 1-1/2″ top doesn’t help either. Using good hardwood, especially riven, and a thicker top, solves this problem. However, even with the shortcomings of using construction grade softwood, the sawbench pictured above is still in use today, and the joinery is still tight and solid, though it is about time I replaced the bench as the top is all chewed up from hatchet blows, saw cuts, auger bits, random oils, varnishes and glues, and other [ab]use that it has been put through in the last 8 or so years.
Another one of my earlier “staked” pieces was my shave horse. In fact, the shave horse was one of the very first items I wrote about on the blog when it was first started. I’m still using it today, the legs are still tight and solid. There’s some flex when I sit, but again, this has more to do with the softwood construction lumber used to build the bench rather than the method of construction.
The thing I like so much about this method of construction is the simplicity of it. A sawbench like this can be built in just a few hours. The one pictured above was built in a single day, maybe 6 hours of work, even with the three added stretchers. Once built and assembled, the bench is very lightweight, but at the same time, the structure is extremely stiff and rigid, making for a very sturdy work surface. I also like the aesthetic of the style. There’s a simple elegance to it. While I like high style period furniture as well, I don’t keep much of it in my own home. The simpler, less decorated, “country” style pieces are more my taste for my own home. The higher style pieces (like the ball & claw stuff I’ve done) are fun to build, but I don’t really want most of it in my house. So I’m excited to see what else Chris has in store for his upcoming book. It sounds like the stuff he’ll be including is exactly the stuff that interests me most. High style, fancy stuff is nice. But the simple elegance of the less ornate “country” stuff is a bit more my speed.
Earlier this year, the museum I volunteer at took down a red oak tree on site. So throughout the volunteer season, we’ve been working on several projects from the wood that we split out of that tree. I’ve been working on a carved box (you can call it a bible box, or document box or whatever, but it’s just a box). I worked on carving the front panel over the weekend. The design was inspired by the work frequently done by Peter Follansbee. I’m not a big fan of working with oak in general, at least when it is sawn and dried. But working with green, riven stock is fun. It’s a different skill set from fine cabinetmaking really. And while I don’t like the look of flat sawn, kiln dried oak at all, I love the look of the riven stuff. So different.
Last night I finished up my 18th century style jack plane. This plane actually got its start almost two years ago when a friend offered up some quarter sawn beech planks to those of us volunteering at the museum that particular Sunday. The planks were nice. Not perfect, but I thought they’d possibly make some nice planes. They were almost 20/4 square and about 5′ or so long. So I cut the plank into a few shorter sections that would be a good size for plane blanks and set them aside to dry for awhile. They warped and checked quite badly as they dried (as beech is notorious for doing), but since they were cut significantly over sized and about 5″ square, there was enough extra material to saw away to get a good plane blank.
The second push to make this plane came a couple of months ago. I had mentioned to a friend at a CJWA meeting that I was thinking about making a new single iron smooth plane and trying to find a laminated 1-3/4″ single iron to make it with. As we were talking he told me not to go buying anything just yet because he just happened to have a few extra irons that he’d be willing to give me the pick of at our next meeting. As promised, he brought in about 4 orphaned laminated single irons for me to look through at the next meeting, and in addition to the one single iron that I chose, he also graciously gave me the Sandusky Tool Co. plane pictured above.
The plane has two main issues rendering it unusable. It has a pretty significant crack in the right cheek & abutment (hidden by the wedge above), and the bottom of the wedge is broken off. He wasn’t overly concerned about the plane and told me to do whatever I wanted with it (I think his words were “…burn it if you want, I don’t really care about it”). When I took the plane home, I looked it over and determined that it could be repaired and made into a decent user with a bit of work. However, when I looked at the iron, I decided otherwise.
The 1-3/4″ double iron that came with the plane was in need of a light cleaning, grinding and sharpening. But after cleaning it up a bit, it was in practically new condition. The iron showed very little sign of use and was more or less full length. The chipbreaker was pristine, as was the chipbreaker screw, having narry a scratch and a perfectly unmangled slot. But most importantly, the iron was laminated clear up to the chipbreaker slot. This iron was just too perfect to be put back into a mediocre plane. So instead, I decided to make a new one.
Made of the quarter sawn beech noted above, the plane is 15″ long, about 2-5/16″ wide and about 2-5/8″ tall. The grain is oriented so the bark side is on the sole and the heart side is on the top. The blank is so perfectly quartered it almost appears riven except for the radial grain on the sides that slopes down from the toe to the heel. The double iron is 1-3/4″ wide, ground with about an 8″ radius on its edge, and as noted above, it is of laminated construction.
As described in my previous post, the grain of the handle is aligned vertically in the typical 18th century style. It is tenoned about 1-1/2″ into the body and drawbored with two oak pegs. Also, typical of 18th century planes, the handle is offset to the right side of the body rather than centered. This configuration provides for better balance in use but also favors right handed use (it can be used by southpaws, just not as ergonomically).
The corner chamfers are big and wide. This is one of the features that was minimized or eliminated in 19th century planes to reduce the cost of manufacture. However, the wide chamfers with their small carved termination really give the plane the “right” look, in my opinion. They also make the plane much more comfortable to use than later planes lacking this detail.
The strike button is ebony, because I had it. It’s oriented so that it’s end grain is on top to give it the most strength. It is set into the body about 3/4″ to 1″ (I don’t really remember to be honest). The chamfered corners on the strike button just prevent the corners from splitting off. The final detail is a small carved ornamental detail on the front of the throat. I’ve seen this referred to as a “bowtie” somewhere before, but I can’t remember where. It’s a nice little detail that is on the jack plane that I’ve been using for years, and I really like the look it gives the plane, so I added it here. It’s not a typical feature of English planes, but I think it’s a nice touch, so I will make it a feature of my planes.
Overall, I’m quite happy with how the plane turned out. It’s not perfect, and I will tweak some of the features on planes that I make in the future. But for now, it’s a vast improvement over what I have been using, and it’s another tool in my arsenal that I can say I made myself.
Mitered frames can be a challenge to build without specialized equipment. Furniture moldings are typically only applied on three sides of the piece, requiring only two mitered corners. Frames, however, require that all 4 corners are perfectly mitered. Even without the specialized miter trimming machines that are used by professional picture framers, the home woodworker can still make frames using a few simple common workshop appliances and techniques. That’s exactly what I do in today’s show, as I build a frame fitting for a Mother’s Day gift that my girls gave to my wife.
Making moldings is one of the tasks we do as woodworkers that seems to intimidate many who are new to hand work. Lets face it, it’s pretty darn easy to chuck up a router bit in a router table and make miles of the stuff. But when you do it by hand, it’s not always so straight forward. Complex molding planes that cut the desired shape make the job pretty easy. But there’s still the challenge of holding the plane at the proper spring angle while you walk along planing an 8′ length of stock. Hollows and rounds are a bit simpler in terms of sharpening and tuning up the tools, but they take a bit more finesse to get a consistent profile along a long length than a dedicated complex molder.
I have and use both of these options, but sometimes a particular piece just calls for something simpler. Such is the case with the joint stool I started building some time back. The upper aprons and lower stretchers both get a molding cut into their face. This can certainly be done with the right molding planes, but as I looked at the profiles I needed to cut to match the original, not having those particular profiles in a complex molder, I realized it would take a very small hollow and round pair and a snipe bill for the upper aprons and two different pair of hollows and rounds and a snipe bill for the lower stretchers. That’s seven planes. And while I have the planes I would have needed, I knew this was not likely how the moldings were done on the original back in 1650. No, I think they would have used an even simpler tool. Enter the lowly scratch stock.
If you’re just getting into hand work and you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by all those molding planes, you can breathe easy. While you won’t be using a scratch stock to make that cornice on the Chippendale high chest you’ve had your eye on, you can make a fair variety of simpler decorative elements with nothing more than a scrap piece of wood and an old worn out hand saw or an extra card scraper.
Now the million dollar question. Should you push a scratch stock or pull it?