Jim Tolpin and I are in high cotton. Even before By Hand & Eye was finished we sensed there was still a critical missing piece. That missing piece was a bridge that linked the head knowledge of design with the everyday practical problems in the woodshop. Our thoughts kept turning to a down and dirty shop guide meant to hang on a nail over your bench. I’m happy to report we are at it hammer and tongs writing a design workbook slated for release next year through Lost Art Press . It’s a self study guide peppered with drawing exercises to hone your inner eye as well as a boatload of practical layout strategies like a quick and elegant way to space narrow slats on a chair back, or how to draw a sweet curve that bristles with just the right amount of energy.
“With the most primitive means the artist creates something which the most ingenious and efficient technology will never be able to make.”
Kasimir Malevich (Early 20th century Russian artist and theoretician)
This workbook is a natural outgrowth of our own journey as woodworkers but also a product of the many workshops we’ve held over the last few years. Essentially it’s a guided tour back to first principles. We start from a single point .↶ literally, and progress through lines, planes, solids, and curves. Along the way we explore proportions and patterns found throughout nature and the entire built world with plenty of exercises so you become familiar with the concepts. Armed with just a pair of dividers, a straightedge, and a ball of string, you’ll be able build your own version of the Parthenon, a pie cabinet, or some really snazzy patio furniture.
George R. Walker
A pair of child’s writing arm chairs in the white
The workshop sits down a tree lined gravel drive, barely visible from the road. Since 1973, thousands upon thousands of Windsors went from freshly harvested logs to exquisitely crafted chairs by one man in a modest workshop. You’ve never seen Richard Grell’s name in a woodworking magazine, but his chairs are found around the globe, sought after by serious collectors. The big auction houses know to call Richard when a buyer scores that final chair on their bucket list, often commissioning a sister chair or a set based on the prized original. He’s known for museum quality reproductions, as well as his own graceful adaptations of this iconic chair form.
A small sample of one of his painted finishes.
Today when we think about design, it’s often in the context of exploring new ground and novel forms. Yet, our tradition also has a long history of extending and perfecting the past work of artisans. This comes with it’s own challenges. Building on a tradition as rich as Windsor chair making; respecting that tradition while adding to it, requires attention to detail and a practiced eye. It’s rare as gold to find someone so deeply immersed in a craft. Rarer still is Richard’s open and sharing attitude. With nothing to prove and a true love of the craft, he’s a treasure trove of knowledge. As we talked chairs in his shop, I noted how he still gets excited about a new detail, using his hands to explain how the lines of a chair converge to make music with wood. Although he’s noted for stunning reproductions, his own Grell chair designs add depth to our American Windsor chair legacy.
Richard in his shop, an artisan you need to know.
One big change is on the horizon, and we all stand to benefit by it. Richard reached the point in his craft where he feels compelled to pass on the knowledge. Starting in 2013 he’ll be offering a variety of workshops on chair making, chair design, and finishing (his painted finishes are second to none). Whether you are a novice or experienced maker, Richard has much to share from a lifetime making his living with his hands and wits. Details are forthcoming, but for now here’s a link to his commercial site to wet your appetite. Check out the section on finishes.
George R. Walker
Admit it. We all have those tools that we don’t use as much as we’d like because they’re a pain to sharpen. Mostly they fall in the category of what I call off road tools. They tend to have curved or odd shaped cutters that require a combination of voodoo, marvel mystery oil, and luck to achieve good cutting geometry. Off road, because they open up possibilities beyond the standard straight and square joinery. I can usually fumble through a sharpening routine on just about any cutting tool but not with the ease of a straight plane iron. So the downward cycle goes something like this. The tools I don’t use often, I sharpen on an “as needed” basis. Because they’re not sharp and ready for use, I tend to not reach for them.
Thankfully, my son Josh gave me a DVD for Christmas by Larry Williams from Old Street Tools, Sharpening Profiled Hand Tools.
Larry shares some practical and simple methods to sharpen a variety of edge tools: hollows and rounds, carving gouges, cambering a jack plane iron, complex moulding planes, snipes bill planes, beading planes, V carving tool, and a moving fillister. For each tool he shows the method for completely re-profiling the blade and bringing it to a finished honed edge. He even shows how to normalize (soften) a blade, reshape it with a file, and re-harden it. Granted, I don’t expect to have to perform surgery on every tool, but it’s great to get some sound information in the event it’s needed. Larry also does several things I really appreciate. For each tool he points out the critical details inherent to that type of blade, like the side clearance angles on the filister. Often when I’m fumbling with a tool tune up, it’s one of those small details at the source of it. He also gives a short demo of how the sharpened tool should cut, not on mild pine but on what looks to be tough cherry. No excuses now, get Larry’s DVD, sharpen up all those ornery devils and turn off the paved highway.
I don’t often read a woodworking book cover to cover. Usually it’s just one or two sections that interest me enough to add to my library. Tolpin’s new book “The New Traditional Woodworker” is an exception. Reading it felt like I was sitting down to a marvelous feast and I didn’t want to miss a bite. Half way through I had the realized Jim accomplished something very difficult to capture in print. This book is essentially an apprenticeship in hand tool woodworking. I know a bit about apprenticeships having served in an old school machinist apprenticeship 35 years ago. Like the journeymen that taught me (minus the practical jokes and abuse) Jim takes you under his wing and helps you build a succession of fundamental skills while simultaneously outfitting your workshop with a nice collection of essential workbench accessories. I still have my machinist chest packed with tools I made as an apprentice, it’s a great way to build basic skills. Each successive tool and skill raises the confidence and competence to take on richer and more challenging projects. Jim approaches skill building from three angles. The right tool set with an overview of essential hand tools and their proper use. The right mindset with solid instruction about how to make those tools work to their potential. Finally, the skill set to bring it all together at the workbench.
I have only two issues with this book. Why wasn’t it around twenty years ago when I was bushwhacking through largely uncharted hand tool territory? One other issue I had at first, but realize there may be a purpose behind it. There is no index. In this case I think Tolpin is saying, even an experienced woodworker like myself should eat the whole meal, not just hop around cherry picking a section here and there. Over the coming months I plan on building his apprentice projects. I’m sure revisiting some of the skills will benefit, not to mention finally assembling a tool set that will stay with me. Sure, a couple of sections of half inch extruded aluminum angle will get by as winding sticks. But why not treat myself to a nice hand crafted mahogany set?
If you are new to hand tool woodworking this is an excellent roadmap. Even accomplished hand tool users will find useful guidance and perhaps the inspiration to finally trick out your workshop with a set of tools any journeyman would be proud to own.
George R. Walker
Filed under Resources, tools
I hear this question a lot. “What book could I recommend to dive deeper into design? “ My brain freezes at that point. Reason is, the path I’ve taken is filled with blind rabbit holes, quick sand, and endlessly verbose historical design books. 18th century design guides with titles two paragraphs long and contain words like parsimoniousness.Confession time here, much of what I continue to read is in that vein. I’m always searching for nuggets that a woodworker can use and apply. That said, I know there are those who want to pull back the curtain and understand the theory. If that’s you, I’d recommend you pick up a copy of “The Architecture of the Classical Interior” by Steven W. Semes.
Don’t be put off by a title that doesn’t include the words furniture or woodworker. This is one of those rare books to read again and again and each time gain insight into our rich design heritage. Semes lays down a foundation of traditional design in bite sized chunks. Even though its perspective is architecture, the principles have universal appeal. If you enjoy period work it will deepen your understanding. If you lean towards the contemporary, you may be surprised how much overlap there is between good traditional and good contemporary work. Styles change, fundamentals don’t.
Plenty of practical information about proportions
Divided into three parts – Principles, Elements, and Planning. By far I find the chapters on principles most valuable. Semes covers the following principles as they apply to designing an interior (and by extension designing furniture). 1. Classical Architecture 2. Space 3. Structure 4. The Orders 5. Elements 6. Composition 7. Proportion 8. Ornament 9. Decoration 10. Light and Color 11. Character 12. Taste and Style 13. The Classical Tradition
Here’s the fun part. It may open your eyes even further to the rich architectural models all around you. Even that boarded up old hulk of a building swathed in ill conceived fire escapes may just yield some gems hidden in plain sight.
George R. Walker
Bracket foot detail, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks
Jeanette cuts my hair. She also passes out sage advice free of charge. One day I posed a question to her while she snipped away. “Does anyone actually come up with anything totally new with hair, since we have been experimenting with fashion for thousands of years?” Without missing a clip she said, “Sure, it’s just that the really new stuff is on the runways in Paris and is way, way, out there.”
I’m a traditionalist, that doesn’t mean I am against creativity or change. It just means that I veiw design as a chain that has strong links to great work in the past. To quote Steven W. Semes writing about classical architecture “ Throughout the classical tradition, the highest esteem has been given to new works that articulate new expressive possibilities or contribute new compositional variables to the older models without violating or diminishing them.” At the heart of this approach is becoming familiar with good models. Taking the time to study good work and build up a library in my own mind. Here’s the best part. This was once a very difficult proposition reserved for the rich and privileged. There was a time when learning to design meant taking the grand tour of Europe to view first hand the art and architecture. Today, a woodworker of modest means has unprecedented access great work via printed material and the many resources on the web. Two of my favorite resources are the Chipstone digital collection of American Decorative Art and the HABS (Historic American Building Survey). The Chipstone collection provides some wonderful images and many detail shots of American period furniture. The HABS material is a collection in the library of Congress which includes photos and blueprints of significant buildings throughout the United States. Both are worth a look.
Newport Tea Table by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks
John Sexton a nationally renowned photographer commenting on the need to master the basics said the following –
“I am unaware of an educational institution with a good music program that does not offer instruction in the piano, even though a student may be more interested in performing on the synthesizer.”
I’ve done a fair bit of reproduction work and my view towards that type of work has evolved. First, I’ll say it is a time honored way to learn not only basic joinery skills but also a tried and true method for learning design. For centuries aspiring artists, sculptors, and architects studied and sometimes copied masterful works as a necessary part of their creative studies. This still holds true today and in my own case has been invaluable. Another thing that I might add is that someone who attempts and succeeds in reproducing a great masterwork is on par with a musician performing a perfect rendition of a great piece of music or a violin maker creating a great instrument. Yes it is a copy, but like music a lot has to happen to make a great reproduction really sing and I have nothing but respect for those able to achieve it.
But I said my view has evolved. There are some who do reproduction work that attempt to get it as exactly as close possible down to duplicating the tool marks, glues, and finishes. I’ve done some of that myself. It’s full of pitfalls. Any close examination of a period piece is often filled with the fingerprints tough to copy. I was duplicating a small dowry chest with turned feet. Every foot was different. I’m not that great of a turner to begin with and the thought of trying to make regularity out of something built irregular seemed wrong. I ended up choosing one foot as a pattern, and they all ended up a little different anyway.
I still look to pre-industrial furniture for inspiration but I’m now more interested in understanding the proportions and design secrets hidden within. I may make a piece that looks like a reproduction but it will be in spirit only. If you have some interest in pre-industrial furniture a great resource is SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers). Not everyone is a lover of classical music and period furniture but I’m glad we still have great builders who keep this flame alive.