Figure Can’t Trump Form

If the form itself is lacking, the best wood in the world will not make up for it.
-George Walker

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.

Even though this chest was built with fairly straight grained, "boring" wood, the overall form is very well proportioned and executed to my eye, making it much more appealing than something with wildly figured grain that has been over used, or used in a poorly proportioned piece.
Even though this chest was built with fairly straight grained, “boring” wood, the overall form is very well proportioned and executed to my eye, making it much more appealing than something with wildly figured grain that has been over used, or used in a poorly proportioned piece. Photo courtesy of H.L. Chalfant Antiques.

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.

A Little 17th Century Carving

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.
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Molding Planes & Mahogany: Chocolate SoufflĂ©

Molding planes.

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Over my years of acquiring and tuning old molding planes, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re very similar to our children. Sometimes when tuning up an old molding plane, they’re very well behaved, doing exactly what you ask them to without a single struggle. Other times, they’re defiant, ornery, and make you want to pull out what’s left of your hair. So it was with these three. One was the good little child while the other two were the devil twins. Still, when they’re finally all cleaned up and on their best behavior, there’s nothing in life (or in woodworking) that can bring a parent more pleasure than their children (or their molding planes).

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Mahogany: Hand Tool Chocolate

A few weeks ago I wrote about one of the hand tool devil woods, hard maple. Well, if hard maple is the over cooked steak of hand tool woods, mahogany is the chocolate. It’s rich, smooth, and sweet to work. If I had to choose only a single species of wood that I could work with for the rest of my days, it would be mahogany.

If you’ve never worked with it before, the genuine South American stuff I mean, not the African species that sometimes gets passed off for the good stuff, you really owe it to yourself to do so. Is it pricey? Maybe a little. But good mahogany is worth every penny, and then some. Try it for yourself and I’m sure you’ll agree. But prepare yourself. Once you’ve used a bit of the good stuff, it’s tough to settle for anything less. Don’t say I didn’t warn you :-).

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More in a few days.

Maple + Hand Tools = Hard Work

The December 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine recently came out. In this issue, I wrote a piece for the Arts & Mysteries column in which I talked about choosing woods based not just upon their looks, but for the application and the ease with which they are worked. Well, on the heels of that article, I’ve recently found myself working with a couple of kiln dried species that I specifically suggested be avoided if possible, ash and hard maple. Working with these two kiln dried woods has reminded me once again why I typically try to avoid the dried versions of woods this hard. In my defense, they’re intended for very high stress applications, so I need their rigidity and strength. However, that doesn’t make them any easier to work with.

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Some time back, I timed myself ripping a 40″ length of a 4/4 board of black walnut. It took me about 2:00, give or take. For a similar sized piece of white pine, I’d expect it to take about half that long. For this similar length of 8/4 hard maple, it took just over 13:00. Same saw; same sawyer. But it took almost 7 times as long.

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You may have seen the podcast “Flat & Square” where I timed myself facing a piece of walnut about 10″ wide. It took about 5-1/2 minutes to surface one side of that wide board. The maple, again, took about 13:00, for a face a bit longer than the walnut board, but about 1/3 of its width. Once again, same tools, same craftsman, much more difficult material.

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Finally, there’s the mortises. Two 3/8″ thick through mortises in 3″ hard maple. Let’s just say they took a bit longer than the same sized mortise in pine. The Ray Iles mortise chisel worked like a champ though. It was ready for more after these two maple mortises, no sharpening required.

The mating double tenons took much longer as they had to be much more precisely fit since maple does not compress nearly as much as a softer species. After some paring here and there, they were finally “persuaded” into position.

The final result was certainly worth the extra effort, since, as I mentioned, these are high stress items where rigidity and strength were much more important than workability and appearance. But working these timbers made me ready for a nice piece of Eastern white pine.