Sunday, May 6, 2012

SAPFM NE Chapter May 2012 Meeting: N. Bennet St. School

The North Bennet St. School in the cramped streets of Boston's North End.

A sign says, "America's First Trade School, Founded 1881". The North Bennet St. School in Boston runs one of the premier cabinet and furniture making programs in the country, as well as programs in bookbinding, locksmithing, piano technology, restoration carpentry, and jewelry making. Their mission statement refers to traditional trades and craft tradition. Students have to be accepted into the full-time programs, then have an opportunity to learn skills at the highest level. This was the venue for the May meeting of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, New England chapter.

The meeting ran in three parts: a presentation by legendary teacher Lance Patterson on card tables, a tour of the facility by Dan Faia, head of the cabinet and furniture making program, and a presentation by Dan on carving. I had previously toured the school as part of the WoodExpo in February, but this is a place that's worth multiple visits. I'd love to take some of their continuing education classes.

Freddy Roman opens the meeting.

Dan Faia, head of the cabinet and furniture making program.

Lance Patterson started his presentation with a discussion of concertina-action card tables. This was a style of table from the 1700's for playing cards. When not in use, the table top folds over and the sides collapse on hinges, reducing its size by half and forming a lovely side table, typically with turret-topped cabriole legs. The concertina-action refers to the double-jointed collapsible sides. Lance went through a number of slides showing photos and drawings of different styles and discussed different methods of securing the sides when open. He also used a half-scale model to demonstrate.

The tables in these sides had turrets that were made separately from the legs, for instance in the exploded drawing from Jeffrey Greene's American Furniture of the 18th Century: History, Technique, and Structure. Lance wanted to see if he could turn the turrets as an integral part of the legs. He joked that he could never build straight reproductions, he always wanted to improve on things. So he showed us slides and sample parts for making a turret-top tea table.

His slides showed the process of cutting a 16/4 poplar board into two opposed leg blanks each with one quadrant of the turret attached. Then he glued on adjacent blocks to form two more quadrants. He cut two housing grooves into the inside corner of the missing quadrant for later use. Using a plywood spacer board, he secured the other leg and blocks in opposing orientation to balance it out. He added counterweight pieces screwed to plywood backers to temporarily fill out the remaining quadrant of each turret. The resulting compound turning blank was not for the faint of heart, but he said he when he mounted it on the lathe and turned it on, it was quite stable. He was able to turn the turrets easily.

The sample legs, showing a finished leg in the foreground, and the second, unfinished leg still secured to the plywood spacer in the background, with counterweight assembly next to it. Plywood end caps screwed to the ends hold things together and provide solid support for the turning centers. Also on the table are long V-blocks for holding the legs while bandsawing the cabriole shape, though Lance said this didn't work out any better than the typical method of sawing one side, then taping the pieces back on to saw the other side.

This is all rather hard to describe without step-by-step pictures, but it demonstrates the ingenuity that Lance is famous for, figuring out how to get a complex task done. He's also a master with hand tools. For instance, I pulled out my copy of Fine Woodworking #45 from 1984, where he has an article on building a Boston Bombe chest with serpentine front. This is full of compound curves, requiring lots of shaping. He describes processes for shaping the front by temporarily tacking the drawer fronts on a support, then gouging and spokeshaving, and for the sides by making relief saw cuts, chiseling out the waste, planing, and spokeshaving, with final scraping once the case is together.

Lance Patterson with a half-scale model of a concertina-action card table, and the plywood backers for mounting a counterweight piece.

After shaping the leg and removing the temporary filler quadrant, Lance used an interesting method to attach the rails to it. The typical method is to join rails to leg with mortise and tenon. Here, he joined the rails themselves with a dovetailed corner, leaving the pins and tails proud by 1/4". Remember those housings cut into the corner in the turret blank? He slid the pin and tail ends down into them, mechanically locking the whole thing together.

The dovetailed corner keyed into the grooves in the inside corner of the turret.

Lance's handout to the group. Click on the image for a larger view. Used by permission of Lance Patterson.

Rendering of Lance's Rhino3D model. In this and the previous drawing you can see how the grooves form orthogonal keyways for the dovetail ends, providing great mechanical strength and resistance to twist. Used by permission of Lance Patterson.

What do you for lunch in the North End? You eat Italian! This area is renowned for its many Italian bakeries, delis, and restaurants. I joined Freddy, Ken Luker of Lexington Arts and Crafts Society, and another member for fantastic subs from Bova's. I also got a pound of almond biscotti, and proceeded to eat the whole bag over the remainder of the day. Freddy loaded up on pastry delights for the week. It's a good thing we don't live close to this place.

The deli counter at Bova's, from right, Freddy, Ken, and another SAPFM member. Just look at that bakery case! There are two more on the other side, plus calzones and filled rice balls.

After lunch Dan took us around on a tour to see the piano technology, bookbinding, violin making, and cabinet and furniture making programs. Once again I found the violin making particularly fascinating. Similar to boat-building, the work is full of curves and odd angles, but at much finer scale. Plus the instrument has to meet musical tolerances. Students are required to take violin lessons if they don't already know how to play.

Dan demonstrates the mechanism required to strike one string in a piano. Imagine 88 of these!

A full-size bass being built in the violin shop.

A student talks about the purfling around the edge of a violin face.

A violin body being glued up on a form. Thin strips of tiger maple are bent around a heating iron, then glued to glue blocks on the form. This is extremely fine work.

In the first-year cabinet and furniture making room, a student shows the mallet he turned as one of his first projects. He showed how the grain of all the segments for the turning blank is oriented radially out all around for durability. He's currently working on his toolbox, one of the required projects for every student.

In the demo room, instructor Steve Brown points out some items as he works on a restoration piece. Notice the bench-raiser secured to the bench.

In the second-year cabinet and furniture room, Dan shows a compound curved, veneered desk one of the students is working on. He has a small wood and clay model on the bench.

In the machine room, a giant bandsaw that must date from the '40's.

For the final presentation, Dan went over topics in carving. He talked about the differences between furniture decoration and sculptural carving. Then he discussed different end profiles of the same tool types and demonstrated using them. He also went over different carvings and the approach to selecting tools during the process.

Dan shows a selection of tools and carvings.

Thanks to Dan, Lance, and all the people we interrupted. It's a great learning experience spending time there. Thanks also to Lance for letting me include his handouts.

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