Bannister back chair – Progress – When is it enough?

Posted September 27, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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A question that craftsmen have asked themselves, for time eternal, is when have I done enough.   Obviously, when you’re working for a client the answer is, simple, when he or she is satisfied.  But when you’re doing something for yourself, not being driven by a profit motive, but guided by your passion for the craft, the question can be much more difficult to answer.  However, I concluded long ago that I will never reach perfection.  I try to hold myself to a fairly demanding standard.  But, I’m comfortable having that little talk with myself in which I say, “good enough.”  I’ve also learned another important lesson.  I simply mention to folks that everything looks better if you step back about ten feet.  I have no doubt that I’ll do a little more cleanup, but I’m calling the crest rail carving “good enough.”  I’ll be finishing the chair with five or six coats of “watery (1/2# cut)” shellac.  It will make the carving “pop”, really POP!


Right now, there’s nothing but a wash of turpentine on the carving, just to bring out the color.  It also makes those little areas that need touching up very apparent.  Umhhh…maybe I’m not quite done with it.


Bannister back chair – roughing the crest rail

Posted September 23, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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I love to carve.  But, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a carver.  Most of my carving has been limited to architectural details and small work on furniture.  At first look, the baroque acanthus crest rail on this project was more than a little daunting.  But the more I studied the photos, I became aware that it was actually pretty straightforward.  The are three (maybe four) basic elevations, each designed to “pull details forward”.

The first task was to cut out the “piercings”.  I was going to do this with a coping saw, but Les offered his scroll saw.  Not too reluctantly, I accepted his offer.

Then the actual “roughing in” began.  This process allows me to come to an understanding of where the elevations are, where I need to make transitions, etc.  The good news is, that if I make a little mistake, I can always go a bit deeper when doing the finish work (thank goodness).


I didn’t have a photo of the back of the crest rail.  Fortunately, the construction details are to be found in the excellent tome offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

BTW, This book is available for viewing, in its entirety, on the Metropolitan Museum of Art Website.  It’s an incredible resource.  It ain’t cheap, but it’s an excellent reference book for anyone building (or simply interested in) period furniture.

The top “bell flower” will be mirrored on the back side.  As in the original, the piercings will be given a broad bevel, just to give the back a little interest.  After all, not everyone can set next to the wall.

The project is going reasonably well.  For once, I might actually complete something on time.  But, you never know what might come up.


Bannister back chair project

Posted September 18, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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I’m happy to say that the Bannister Back chair project has made its way into the work schedule, finally!   It will involve a lot of turning and carving.  So it should be fun, as well as challenging.  The first step is to build the back assembly, which will become the datum for all other measurement.

The “balusters” are split turnings.  I elected to simply screw the stock together as opposed to gluing and splitting.  Using a cup live center and a multi-tooth spur allows centering right on the joint line.



Next, I prepped the rear legs for turning.  I created a roller path for the steady rest just above the point at which the leg angles.  It’s important to find the true center at the roller path.  The counter weight was attached.  These were attached with screws into the waste section of the stile.  The duct tape was an extra safety precaution.  It proved to be unnecessary, but it made me feel a little more secure.  Safe turning speed is determined by the maximum diameter.  However, minimizing vibration created by the counterweight may require a further reduction in rpm.  As I have a step pulley lathe, I was forced to turn at about 680 rpm.  This is very slow.  Patience is the order of the day.



When I want to minimize undercut at the pommel, I’ll run a line of chalk down the center of all four surfaces.   This helps me gauge when I’ve reached the maximum true round dimension.




After completing the balusters and posts, I turned the finials and rear stretcher.  Stock for the crest and lower rail was planed.  The bead/ogee detail on the lower rail was created using moulding planes.


Tasks for the upcoming week will include mortising the rails, tenoning the balusters and… carving the crest rail.  Should be an interesting few days.


A long summer

Posted September 17, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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This summer has been full of visitors.  Children, grandchildren, cousins and friends.  It’s been wonderful just spending time with the people who are most important to us.  Of course, visitors means very little work gets done in the shop.

That said, Les and I have been able to get a few small projects done.  We’ve just about completed two contemporary tables, one for each household.  Les’ is constructed completely of Blood Wood.  Mine has a Blood Wood top and a Walnut base, which will be ebonized and finished in oil.  Les’ table and both tops will be finished with lacquer.



We’re working from a plan on this project, which is very unusual for both of us.  We’ve made very few modifications.  One notable exception was the use of a sliding dovetail to join the cross members to the aprons, rather than a through mortise, as drawn.  The dovetail is pinned from the face, both a structural and decorative consideration.


My next step was the ebonizing process.  As usual, I painted the base with a coat of tannic acid.  When there was no free moisture on the surface, I applied iron acetate (vinegar and iron), creating an almost instantaneous blackening.  After the iron acetate coat was dry to the touch, I applied another wash of tannic acid.  This insures complete reaction with any remaining iron.  A precipitate (iron oxide) raises and this must be removed when the surface is dry.  A buffing pad or steel wool and a little elbow grease gets the job done in fairly short order.  The following images show before and after buffing, prior to oiling.



It’s good to be back to work!

What is “craft”?

Posted August 8, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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If you need a lot of pictures, read no further.  If vulgarity offends you, read no further.

I’m enchanted by the internet discussions about “what is craft?”  For me it’s pretty damned simple.  As my Grandfather would say, “We have a job of work to do.  The things that we create have a purpose, a function.  That is our craft.  That is our trade.  That’s how we make our living.”

But phenomena like NAFTA and IKEA have changed the landscape dramatically.   The market for entrepreneurial craftsmen has been decimated across the nation, with the exception of several tiny areas on the right and left coasts.  Doctors and lawyers, social historians, artists and computer designers feel free to provide an explanation as to what the meaning of craft is.   There is no doubt that some of the finest woodworking practitioners today do not make their living “at the craft”.  And that’s fine, because we need people with a sense of stewardship and who are passionate about the knowledge we share.  But, please, let me give you a observation drawn from a somewhat more practical perspective.

The craft is a job, a way of supporting yourself and your loved ones.  But much, much more.  And someone sitting in an air conditioned studio or editing a digitized “re-publication” is, in my estimation, probably not the one who is best prepared to share its true meaning.

To me and “my brothers in chips” the reality of “the craft” means:

Having to beg my lumber supplier to trust me for another five hundred board feet of material;

Asking Sister “Mary Ridiculous” to keep my kids in school for just another month.  “The tuition is coming, I promise”;

Wondering if I’ll ever be paid that final draw, that ten percent that constitutes the profit on any given job;

Filing Mechanics liens;

Trying to agree on a vision with someone who has absolutely no understanding of the task at hand and does not value the investment that I’ve made in study, tools and practice;

Wondering when the next project will come;

Wondering, how in the name of God, I’ll get all this work done;

Loading the truck in the fucking rain;

Loading the truck in the fucking snow;

Loading the truck when it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit  in the shade;

Unloading the fucking truck;

Taking time off the job to meet with the accountant about taxes;

Wondering what will happen if I get sick;

But when all is said and done, I only have to answer to two people, me and my Grandfather.  And, there’s only one question – did I do my best work.  That, to me,  is craft.  Vocation while you’re trying to stay afloat.  Avocation after you retire.  A lover that will never let you go.

Walnut COD – Done well before Christmas

Posted July 30, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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I’m not just engaging in superficial anthropomorphism when I tell you that I’ve named this project “Morphy”.  It’s been floating around here for so long that it’s become like a member of the family.  I chose “Morphy” because during it’s short life it has gone from being one thing to quite another (more than once).  But now Morphy is complete (except for shellacking the drawer interiors).




Morphy literally began as a set of feet.  I had been intrigued by feet I had seen on a Georgian Secretaire.   The sides were somewhat splayed which, I felt, made them look more “stream lined”.   The splay is most evident when sighting across the resultant angle.


(it’s the photo, not the finish – honest)

Morph’s feet are large.  They would be better suited to a wider and deeper case, perhaps 48-54″ wide and 20″ deep (secretaire, chest on chest or a substantial bureau).  Morph is more akin to a Bachelor’s chest, in stature. But remember, Morph started as a set of feet, proved to be far too deep for a bookcase then nearly became a TV stand before becoming a COD.

Morphy is more “period inspired” than period correct.  While I did all of the joinery by hand, mouldings were built up from commercial router profiles.  All of the casework parts were planed by hand as were drawer parts and backboards.  That said, when it came to surfacing the top and drawer fronts, I called on Lester to come to my rescue.  There’s just nothing like a 25″ sander, especially when you’re working up against a Christmas deadline.

I want to thank Jack Plane for his critique and suggestions as to top profiles.  As you can see, I opted for   the traditional “thumbnail and scotia”.  I’d recommend that anyone with an interest in period furniture construction become very familiar with Mr. Plane and his excellent blog.



Housed joints and wood movement

Posted July 27, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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My workmate, Les, and I have been working on a couple of small contemporary tables.  Usually we do our own design work, but this time we opted to use a design for a “floating top” table that has become fairly popular over the last few years.  In this design the center stretcher is, in fact, a narrow shelf.  We were both surprised that the designer/builder elected to join the shelf to the end stretchers using a “housed” mortise and through tenon type joint.  This type of arrangement, with grain direction being perpendicular between the two members, will almost certainly guarantee an “open” joint before too much time has passed.

George Ellis, in his seminal work “Modern Practical Joinery”, defines a housed joint as “Sinking the end of one piece of wood completely into another without reducing it in thickness” (Glossary page 445)   Many classic texts on joinery will also characterize a “housed joint” as requiring preparation of only one member of the pieces being joined.  By this definition, a dado would be considered a “housed joint”, a sliding dovetail would not.  It should also be noted the dadoes were, more often than not, “splay nailed” to prevent them from loosening.

Perhaps the most recognizable “housed” joint is that used in “housed stair stringers”.  Anyone who has ever opened up an old, housed staircase is first struck by the fact that both treads and risers are wedged into place.  The wedging allows both pieces to be tightly seated into their housings.  Housed joints were also commonly used in architectural fitments that were shop built, then assembled on site.  And, they were also widely used in furniture construction.  However, these would have been structural joints and hidden from view by finish surfaces or mouldings.

The point of this post is not to simply engage in “word play”.  It is to caution joinery devotees to make their joint selections based, primarily, on function.  Beauty or the high level of skill required to make the appropriate joint should be an “added benefit.”  Bird’s Beaks and Wedged Scarfs are both beautiful and challenging to manufacture and, in the right application, are superb in function.  Both are generally covered by lead or tile.


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