Sunday, December 15, 2013

Two Events At FIM

This young man intently testing the Lie-Nielsen tools told me he reads the blog, but I neglected to get his name. I gave him a demonstration of fitting a tenon for a cherry frame and panel door, though the results were rather gappy.

I've been busy the last two weekends with events at Phil Lowe's Furniture Institute of Massachusetts. First was the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event on Friday and Saturday the 6th and 7th. Second was Phil's presentation yesterday for the Society of American Period Furniture Makers New England chapter, the third in his series building a Seymour night stand.

Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event

There are two things I love about the events Lie-Nielsen puts on at various places around the country and the world. First, they let people try out every tool they make, providing skilled staff to help out. Second, they open them up to local vendors and demonstrators, giving them a venue to share their love of the craft.

I had a bench setup in the demonstrator area, representing SAPFM. I got to meet several readers and gave a number of impromptu demos. As always, my sharpening station was a favorite item, along with the Al Breed carving vise I used to hold the cabriole leg I was working on.

One theme that came up several times was people interested in learning to work with hand tools because they lived in small spaces. One young lady told me she was a grad student living with her husband in a small apartment, and the landlord let her use some space in the basement.

She spent nearly an hour with me asking questions and trying things out. In addition to limited space, she also had a grad student's limited budget. But the key was she clearly had the interest.

She got me to thinking about how to deal with these limitations, so in a future blog post I'll be presenting what I call the "apartment workbench", a hybrid of the Roy Underhill portable workbench and Paul Sellers workbench I've built previously.

The goal will be to bootstrap the woodworker who has limited space, limited funds, limited tools, and limited skills, using only what's available at the typical home center. While this isn't my favorite source for tools and materials, with some judicious selection it makes a practical starting point.

Roughing out a cabriole leg with a bow saw and turning blade. The carving vise is held canted in the bench vise.

Remember Paul Lelito's West Bridgewater Walnut? He managed to wrestle several slabs of this in for sale. He also had some smaller, highly figured pieces. If you're interested in any of this unique wood for your project, contact him at 508-451-9999 (cell) or 508-563-2000 (home/shop), or via email at

Paul with two large crotch pieces from the upper trunk section.

A section of lower trunk, dead straight grain. Just strap this to the roof of your car to get it home!

Some of the bookmatched sequential boards.

The flitches stacked and stickered at Paul's sawmill at the Magnolia Cranberry Bog in Marion, MA.

There were several other demonstrators I know from previous events. Peter Follansbee was there Friday making his signature 17th-century riven oak carved pieces. Matt Bickford was there with his magnificent moulding planes. Tico Vogt was there with his Super Chute shooting board. John Cameron, one of Phil's instructors, was there with some amazingly complex joinery.

Peter Follansbee working on a carved frame-and-panel door.

Matt Bickford demonstrating his moulding planes.

Tico Vogt demonstrating his shooting board.

John Cameron with some of his beautiful joinery.

Padauk frame-and-panel top showing the puzzle-like interlocking pieces. He said these techniques were invented to hold tropical woods together before the advent of modern glues.

Chairmaker Peter Galbert was there Saturday with his toolmaking assistant Claire Minihan and a new assistant, Tim Manney. Peter is a fantastic chairmaker and teacher, but he's also quite a tool inventor. I've tried out his lathe caliper in the past, as well as the absolutely fantastic travishers that Claire makes. 

He had several new items this time, a couple developed with Tim's help. There was a reamer, an adze, and a drawknife sharpener (now being carried by Benchcrafted).

The fascinating thing about Peter's tools is that he's addressed some very specific problems for chairmakers and created tools, or refinements of old tools, that work amazingly well. Of course, their use isn't just limited to chairmaking.

The adze was fantastic. This is something of a lost tool. I have a commercial one, but it doesn't work very well. Peter's version is easy to use, well-balanced, extremely effective, and easy to sharpen. Tim gave me a brief tutorial, then I worked on the pine slab they had on the bench of a shaving horse.

The Drawsharp drawknife sharpener was equally fantastic. Like Peter's caliper, it's a unique approach to an old problem. He demonstrated its use for me. The edge it produced was breathtaking, with beautiful cutting action. I have several nice old drawknives that would benefit from this (in case anyone's wondering what to get me for Christmas...).

Peter Galbert dishing out a seat slab with his adze.

As always, the main Lie-Nielsen tool display was like a candy store. They always have several benches setup with a variety of fine hardwood practice lumber. You can see more event photos in their Facebook photo album.

Sampling the wares in the candy store.

SAPFM Seymour Night Stand Presentation

Phil's presentation this time focused on the joinery. The front legs are joined with rails, as are the back legs. The top front rail is dovetailed into the leg ends. The other rails are secured with mortise and tenons; the bottom rail is a double-mortise and tenon.

Phil laying out the dovetail socket in the top of the front leg.

The back panel floats in grooves. The side panels are glued into grooves. Drawer runners go front to back, floating in mortises. The primary wood is mahogany, with poplar secondary wood.

I only have a few photos, because like the last meeting I ran his video camera so people could watch closeups on a projection screen and record for posterity. I setup my tripod with pistol grip head on another workbench and stood on the bench. That gave me a nice high shooting angle down onto Phil's bench.

This time I had the wireless mic set up right. After the meeting I downloaded all the video onto his Mac and put together a quick test movie comparing the camera's built-in mic from last meeting with this meeting. The wireless mic makes a huge difference, eliminating all the background noise, people and chairs moving around, coughing. His voice comes through warm and strong. It makes the whole video seem much more professional.

This meeting was a real lesson in precision layout and fitting. I've read about everything Phil did before in his various magazine articles, but being there really made it sink in. There's just no substitute for watching and hearing him work.

The tools make a distinctive sound as the chisel snaps into a knife line, then slices across the grain. And with over 40 years of experience, he's breathtakingly fast and efficient.

For layout, Phil always takes measurements from his full-size drawings, then takes the measurement from the ruler. That's how he sets his gauges and combination square length.

He marks short widths and lengths with a cutting gauge. To mark longer dimensions, he sets the combination square, then holds the head to the part and makes a small mark at the end. Then he sets the knife point in that mark, slides a square across to it, and knifes all the way across. He marks firmly and deeply, so that a chisel edge will drop positively into the line.

He always chooses a reference surface, then takes every measurement from that same reference. For instance, for the double mortise-and-tenon, he stepped off each line progressively from the front face. That way, even if the piece isn't quite at the right width or thickness, short or fat by a bit, the lines will still be spaced correctly.

And he always marks both parts (mortise and tenon) at the same time, off the same setting. That point dropped magically home when he laid the marked up double tenoned rail end on the marked up double mortise leg face. All the lines matched up exactly.

There are those who argue you should be able to fit a joint straight from the saw, no trimming. But Phil always cuts fat by about a sixteenth, then trims to the line with a chisel. He did that for the dovetail, the tenons, and the notches in the drawer runners.

The only thing he cut to finished size was the mortises, since he was using a hollow chisel mortiser with specific size bit. So all the layout was based on the width of that bit.

Watching him trim to the line was the final point that drove it all home. With the piece upright in the vise, he would slide the chisel along the wood until it dropped into the knife line; you could hear it snap into place. Then he would lean into it, slicing into the grain.

He always worked either directly across end grain, or across side grain, never down the grain. That ensured that the chisel would stay in the knifed position, not get caught and run with the grain.

For end grain, he worked progressively across the full width of the cut. You could hear a distinctive rhythm of slide, snap, and scritch as the chisel moved to the line then cut in.

For side grain, he worked from alternating sides into the middle, to avoid blowing out the far side grain. Again, the sound of the chisel snapping into the gauge line, then scritching flat across the grain.

That rhythm is what I want to work on. With good positive knife and gauge lines, I could see that's what gave him fantastic precision and control. That, and 40 years of experience!

He quickly had each piece fit with a snug joint, tight enough for everything to hold together dry fit, yet pull apart with moderate hand pressure or light mallet taps.

Chopping the dovetail socket in the leg, holding back a sixteenth for later trimming.

Paring tenon shoulders to the knife line. Slide the chisel up along the wood until it snaps into the knife line, then push in to cut to depth. Repeat working sideway across the full width of the shoulder.

The rails and side panel dry fit to the legs.

Mortising a leg.

Notching the end of a drawer runner, sawing fat by a sixteenth.

Paring down to the line, across the end grain. One half of the notch width has been pared, the chisel is moving to the next. You can see the vertical knife line ready to pare across the side grain.

Paring to the line, across the side grain, first from one side...

...then from the other, again sliding the chisel along the face until it snaps into the knife line, then pushing in to cut.

You can bet these faces are trimmed EXACTLY to the desired dimension. Spectacular precision!

The next meetings in this series are 9AM-1:00PM on the following Saturdays:

  • Feburary 22
  • March 15
  • April 19
  • May 17
Meetings are open to SAPFM members and guests, but space is limited. If you'd like to attend, contact Freddy Roman at Not a SAPFM member? You can join here for a modest cost.

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