What is “craft”?

Posted August 8, 2016 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

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
Categories: Uncategorized


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
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

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.


Walnut COD – In time for Christmas?

Posted June 19, 2016 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,

This whole project started as an experiment in cutting ogee bracket feet on the band saw using a support block (2013) as opposed to the usual method of stock removal done by means of “kerfing” and planing.


I assembled a base then proceeded to trip over it every time I turned around for the next year.  My wife suggested that we needed another book case (the result of our mutual bibliophilia).  I decided to build something with existing stock and to do the work using only hand tools.  It quickly became obvious that the case was much too deep for use as book case.


After some pondering, I realized that the carcase could be modified to fit the dimensional envelope commonly associated with a small chest of drawers.  (Bear in mind there are no plans being used here, just what’s going on in my head.)


The case was cut down to an appropriate height.  Top rails were dovetailed in place.  Sliding dovetails were “let in” to carry the drawer rails.


Mortise and tenon joints are used for the drawer bearers.  These are left “loose” to accommodate movement.


Drawer fronts were rabbeted to accept both cross banding (quarter sawn white oak) and cock beading. Then half blind dovetails were let in.  Through dovetails are used on the rear of the drawer assembly.



Drawer bottoms were planed to thickness.  Only the “show side” is planed smooth.  The bottom surface was left with the telltale marks created by a highly crowned fore plane.  Rebates were cut to fit the slots and the bottom was beveled.  This is “good practice” as it reduces the “plane of weakness” at the edges.


The next step was to fit the brasses.


The cherry cock beading was treated with an iron acetate solution made with 15% vinegar (available at traditional butcher shops where it used for marinating; the label very clearly states that this product is not to be consumed undiluted).  Normally, if I was attempting to ebonize cherry I would pre-treat the wood with a tannic acid solution.  This method turns cherry “dead” black.  But this time I was looking for a very dark brown so I used only the iron acetate solution.  After the precipitate was buffed away, the surface was a mottled, deep brown that allowed the “flecking” common to cherry to show through. When oiled, the beading has an almost “leather like” look.  A happy accident.


The drawer fronts were “washed” with shellac to prevent any “bleeding”.  The cock beading was then fitted and glued in place using liquid hide glue (modern version).  Painters masking tape provides sufficient clamping pressure.  The tape was removed after forty-five minutes to prevent residue that would hinder final finish application


Back boards (ceilings) were planed, fitted, painted with a wash of barn red milk paint (real lime and casein version) then attached with cut nails.  (As the ceilings are not “show wood” the fore planed surface was sufficient.)


The base and case had previously been dyed with a mixture of household ammonia and walnut husks. This covered a small amount of sapwood that was present and “evened” out the color differential between the base and case.  (The variety of color in walnut, even in boards cut from the same tree, can be startling.)


The entire unit was then given three coats of Minwax Antique Oil (in reality a synthetic wiping varnish), as it dries more quickly than boiled linseed oil, especially as seasonal humidity increases.  Now, all I’ve got to do is nail up the base molding, make and attach the top.  I might actually get it done by Christmas!

I’m hoping my friend, Mr. Plane, will weigh in on where the project might fall on the “period style” scale. I’m guessing “sorta-kinda” Georgian.


It’s how well you work fast!

Posted May 8, 2016 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

A friend is working on his 1894 Sears Kit Home.  (Absolutely beautiful home, by the way.)  He asked if I might be able to make a couple of replacement sills for him.  “Of course” says I, “I can whip up a sill in my sleep, with one hand tied behind my back.”  Now that statement may smack of hyperbole, but old sill profiles are fairly easy to duplicate on a table saw.  “Easy”, if you have a right/left tilt saw or know what “datum A” is (the base surface for measurement; “register”, si vous préfères.)  Unfortunately, I have an old left tilt saw and these particular sills had not only the common angles that you’d associate with this component, rebates and ploughs were also required.  I almost immediately concluded that it would be far quicker to make them by hand, especially since there were only two required.

Basically, it was a matter of sketching the profile onto the blank then running guidelines.  Major stock removal was done with a carpenters axe.




After the axe work was complete, the details were incorporated and some additional planing was required.  This was a clear case of “appropriate” technology being the very best choice.  It would have taken twice the time to do the job with power tools. And, it smells like Christmas in the shop.

If you want to see what craftsmen can do with axes you should visit Roald Renmaelmo’s blog.  The Northern and Central European traditional carpenters are absolute masters with an axe.  If you have a little extra time, explore some of the links from Roalds site, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff going on.

So long Buddy

Posted May 6, 2016 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Yesterday wasn’t a good day.  Our old Golden Retriever, Wu Ming had to be put down.  He, like many Goldens, succumbed to hemangio sarcoma.  He answered to many names.  But usually it was simply “Boy.”

Wu Ming was born in Beijing China and emigrated to the US when he was about a year and a half old. For a long time he understood his commands in Chinese only, but ultimately he became bilingual.  It would be hard to imagine a more gentle being.  He was an extraordinarily good listener and never criticized.  He will be sorely missed by all those who knew him.





What, exactly, is a register chisel?

Posted April 19, 2016 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Ask ten woodworkers to explain what they mean when they use the term register chisel and you’re apt to get ten different answers.  Some people will refer to them as “registered” chisels, indicating that the tools have been placed on a list hosted by some higher authority.  Others might tell you that the tool was manufactured under the terms of a Royal Patent.  As Churchill said, it’s rather “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Among the many meanings of the word register, Webster gives these for our consideration:

  • to make or adjust so as to correspond exactly,
  • to be in correct alignment, or register 

Many craftsmen of the bygone era (including carpenters, millwrights and machinists) would use the word register to indicate a surface that must mate exactly with another or one to be used as a reference datum for measurement.

Register chisels have these characteristics;  square sided, thickly made and only slightly tapered (is at all) in section, hooped, ferruled (typically with a shock washer),


the handle is parallel to the back and the back is flat.


The flat back is very specific to a register chisel.  It allows for heavy (minimal clearance angle) cutting on a “register” i.e. cleaning up mortise cheeks after boring or a gain.  Large surfaces which require flattening, i.e. bridles and laps can be accomplished with socket firmers or slicks.  These tools do not (typically) have flat backs and handles are set above the tool’s center axis.  Socket firmers are either “lightly” driven with a mallet or pushed for paring.  Slicks are only pushed.



While a flat back would seem to be the norm, most tools warp during the hardening and tempering process.  For most chisels, a slight warp (in the right direction) isn’t a problem.  However, grinding or some other method of straightening is required to insure a perfectly flat back, as on a register chisel.

So this is the explanation that was given to me nearly sixty years ago.  I’m going to stick with it unless or until someone gives me a better one.






Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 343 other followers

%d bloggers like this: