The Old Way of Seeing

ImagePerfection in joinery is relatively easy to achieve. In the final analysis it requires learning (through instruction and practice) just two things:  First, how to mark a line precisely (or perhaps transfer a mark from another line), and second, how to cut to that line precisely.

Do these two things well, and your furniture will (at least from a technical viewpoint) be excellent.

Perfection (or even coming close) in design is, however, quite another matter.  We all have the ability to know good design when we see it. Good design has certain qualities whether or not we can identify those qualities clearly or describe them with words.  But knowing good design, and being able to create a good design seem worlds apart for most craftsman today.

ImageIn my last post I compared the shape of two pre-industrial pottery jugs with the shape of a post-industrial jug.  The shapes of the jugs created by the pre-industrial potters were both pleasing and useful (good design), while the shape of the jug created by the post-industrial potter was mostly just useful (not bad, but not particularly good design either). I noted that the pre-industrial jugs tended to conform to some “rules” (the first one, shown to the left, being proportioned as a golden rectangle, the second by squares in simple proportion to each other.)

But where did the “rules” come from, and why were they helpful?  How did the pre-industrial potter (or furniture maker) create his or her pleasing design?

In his book “The Old Way of Seeing” architect Jonathan Hale explores these questions in the discipline of architecture. (A relevant discipline because most furniture is architecture – just expressed at a smaller scale.)  Hale notes that architecture “lost its magic” somewhere between the middle and end of the Industrial Revolution (~1750-1850).  A lot of furniture (and pottery!) “lost its magic” during the same time period. Many, though certainly not all, of the “heirloom” pieces of furniture that we value (or copy) today were created before the “magic” was lost.

Hale concludes that the “magic” was lost when we lost our ability to see and pay close attention to the shapes, symmetries, proportions, contrasts, gradients, textures and other qualities of the natural world that surround us. These are the very qualities that we naturally relate to, the qualities that feel “right” to us, the qualities that make us comfortable and feel at home because our “home” is the world around us.

When we lost the ability to see and pay attention to these qualities in the world around us, we  simultaneously lost the ability to incorporate them into our own work. If we do not incorporate these qualities into our designs, then our designs will never feel quite right.  They may “get the job done”, but they will never satisfy at a deeper level.  They will not become heirlooms that are valued by subsequent generations.

If you want to incorporate these qualities into your own work (as I increasingly do), the best place to start is by paying close attention to the world around you. Look at the overall shapes of nature (large and small, in outline and in detail); note how they relate to each other; photograph them, or better yet, sketch them.  As you do this, the qualities that are present will slowly begin to work their way into your mind, and from there, into your work.  Also, if you have the opportunity, watch George Walkers DVD “Unlocking The Secrets of Traditional Design” (Lie-Nielsen) or check out his website “Design Matters” or read his column in “Popular Woodworking” magazine.  He has much to offer along these lines.

In a later post I would like to bring some further focus to these important qualities found in nature and how they relate to good furniture design.  For now, I leave you to ponder two classical finials and how intimately they are related to plants shapes I found in our backyard. My photoshop skills are not adequate for the task but I think you will be able to see the finial shape and the top flower and bottom leaf (upside down) that make up the first finial.  The finial in the second is remarkably close to the overall or outline shape of the leaf. More often than not, it is the overall or outline shape that is important rather than precisely what is done within that shape.

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The “Shape of Things To Come” or the “Shape of Things Past?”

In 1977 Triumph introduced their wedge-shaped TR7 car.  It was advertised as “The Shape of Things to Come.” The shape was considered very futuristic – though few cars on the road today have actually taken this shape.  At about the same time Eero Saarinen introduced his “Tulip” chair which was popularized by the TV show “StarTrek.”  Like the TR7, the Tulip chair was considered to be futuristic – though once again, few chairs in use today actually have this shape.  (TR7 photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Tulip Chair courtesy of Knoll on Wikipedia.)

The car and the chairs are interesting in their own right, but more often than not it seems that “the shape of things to come” doesn’t satisfy us nearly as much as “the shape of things past.”  It seems that craftsman of the past had an almost innate ability to create items with shapes that have endured for hundreds if not thousands of years.

In his book “The Power of Limits” author Gyorgy Doczi explores the concepts of shapes that are found in nature.  Many of these same shapes appear in man-made items that have endured the test of time.

My wife and I have collected numerous antique jugs, crocks, and bean pots over many years although we are hardly serious collectors.  For the most part, it is the shape and color that merit the purchase of one of these items.  Doczi’s book recently prompted me to spend some time with a few antique jugs as a means of sharpening my ability to visualize good shapes (and to create pieces of furniture that have good shape.)

One of my favorite jugs has a salt-glazed base and slip-glazed top which (as a best guess) probably dates from the early 19th century.  Careful measurements indicate that the overall shape fits inside a nearly perfect Golden Rectangle (which has sides with a 1:1.618 ratio.)  The top portion of the jug is also a nearly perfect Golden Rectangle.  In fact, both of these rectangles are within 0.02 units of being perfect Golden Rectangles.  This is amazing because I think  that the potter arrived at this shape using just his hands and eyes to guide him.  I think it is highly unlikely that he used a ruler.  He certainly did not use a calculator to arrive at these very precise ratios!

Another slightly larger jug is (I think) somewhat later, perhaps late 19th century in origin.  It, too, has a pleasing shape.  But this jug, unlike the jug above,  appears to have no Golden Rectangles at all.  (Alas, the secret of good shape isn’t to be found only in Golden Rectangles!)

The base of this jug is a nearly perfect square, and furthermore, if the top of the jug is bisected by a vertical line, the shape on either side of this line is also a nearly perfect square. And the area of each of these squares is almost exactly 1/4 of the area of the square that creates the base.)  Pleasing proportions based on a different approach.

In sharp contrast to these two jugs is jug number three.  This jug is later in origin and can be dated to between 1900 and 1940 based on the markings on the base.  Unlike the first two jugs (which I’m certain were entirely hand-made) it was manufactured by the R.C.P. Company of Akron, Ohio for the storage of whiskey.

The overall shape is not a Golden Rectangle nor is it even a 1:2 rectangle. The lighter colored base is only very roughly a square.  The same observation applies to the darker colored top.  In addition,  these two roughly square shapes appear to have no relationship to each other.

While this jug is not without some merit, it does not have an interesting and pleasing shape like the other two jugs.  (This jug was inherited and has some value for that reason, but it is not a jug that I would normally purchase.)  I have asked several people to “rate” these three jugs based on their “gut feelings” about only the shapes.  This jug always finishes last.

Like a good antique jug, a good piece of furniture (whether antique or new) has to have the right overall shape if it is to be pleasing and satisfying.  In the past few months I have tried to sharpen my own abilities to discern and create items with good shape.  I think it is critically important to get the overall shape right because I think it is highly unlikely that the later details of the design will be able to compensate for a poor overall shape.

An important resource in getting the overall shape of furniture right can be found in a 1993 book titled “The New Fine Points of Furniture – Early American” by Albert Sack.  This book (a followup to his earlier 1950 book on antique furniture) is a treasure trove of photographs of early American furniture.  Sack (himself an antiques dealer) uses his decades of experience in rating each piece as “Good”, “Better”, “Best”, “Superior” or “Masterpiece.”  Because of potential copyright issues, I’m reluctant to include any of his photos here, but if you have the opportunity, spend some time looking at the overall shapes of the masterpieces.  They overall shapes are well worth studying (as are the finer details.)

Like the better jugs, I think that many of these masterpieces were created not with rulers or by precise calculations of ratios, but rather they were created from the craftsman’s knowledge of good basic shapes and how to combine them in meaningful ways.

Good design seems to be both difficult and easy at the same time.  Difficult because there are few masterpieces (which suggests that they come only from the few and through much  experience and hard work), but perhaps – just perhaps –  good design is easier than we think because the actual principles behind the masterpieces are relatively few and relatively accessible if only we can come to understand them and actually use them.

Is is possible that by combining Golden Rectangles (1:1.618 ratios), squares (1:1) and other rectangles with small whole number ratios (1:2, 2:3, 3:4, 3:5, 4:5) or Pythagorean rectangles (created with two 3:4:5 triangles) one can arrive at the kinds of overall shapes that characterize the masterpieces, and at the same time avoid the intermediate shapes (like that of the whiskey jug) that don’t quite make it? Remember that these shapes can be combined horizontally and vertically, side-to-side, end-to-end, etc.  The possibilities seem endless, but in the end I think just a few rules might apply (though I’m not yet ready to venture exactly what they are!)  I show just one possibility below: a simple square flanked by two Golden Rectangles.

This shape could easily be that of a desk (kneehole in the center), or perhaps a sideboard, or perhaps even a dining table with four legs (or maybe just a single pedestal contained within the inner square?)  I think that this shape, rather than the many possible intermediate shapes, is mostly likely to be the correct overall shape for these items. (But not to the exclusion of many other possibilities like one long Golden Rectangle, or perhaps a 1:2 rectangle.  The overall setting, or some required dimension like standard table height might be the determining factor in choosing between the shapes.)

One final thought on design –  I frequently visit a local folk art store (think “Country” or “Primitive” decorations here), usually to purchase Olde Century Paints which I like.  But whenever I’m in this store I often take the time to look at some of the items of  “furniture.”  I put furniture in quotes because many of these decorative pieces don’t deserve the label of furniture (being made of particleboard, or having cheap plywood drawers, etc.)  However, one thing about them consistently impresses me:  the designers of these traditional items almost always get the overall shape right.  There is something in the “folk” tradition (like with the earlier antique jugs?) that guides the designers.  I think these pieces are popular not because of the quality of the work, but because people recognize that the shapes, at least, are right.  These items bring a certain desirable look and feel to many rooms.

In sharp contrast to these pieces of “furniture” are the offerings found in larger national brand furniture stores.  My observation is that while these pieces certainly have higher quality workmanship, they rarely get the overall shape right.  (A little too tall, or a little too squat, or a little top heavy,  or a little awkward here or there…)  All too often I suspect that the designers have opted for some “average” shape intended to satisfy all, but that in reality satisfies almost no one in the long run.

The challenge in making really good furniture is to first get the overall shape right.  Once that is done, the path toward getting the details right is sure to follow.  I think the basics of good shape are within the reach of most craftsman with just a little work.  Get the overall shape right; follow through with some equally well-shaped details; then put it all together using some time-proven joinery and construction techniques.  Could it become a masterpiece?  I think it just might!

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Will the workshop please come to order!

Workshops have strong tendency toward chaos:  The collection of tools (and the cabinets required to store them) seems to grow year by year along with various jigs, templates, and scraps of leftover lumber that are for the most part “too short to be saved” (but still get saved anyway!)

Last Spring when I decided to put my woodworking business into hibernation for awhile,  my workshop was about as functional as ever, but none-the-less “out of order.” There were simply too many unused tools, too many storage cabinets and shelves intruding on the space; too many unused jigs and older templates, and way too many scraps of wood that I just couldn’t part with.  I simply had to invest some serious time in bringing some order and simplicity to my shop during this time of hibernation.

While I was in the process of rethinking the workshop, I came across Christopher Schwarz’s book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest In this book I found someone of like mind who was actually doing something about chaos in his workshop in a coherent step-by-step manner.  Front and center in this process was a traditional tool chest which clearly brought focus and order to the shop, and provided some means of limiting future acquisitions. (If it doesn’t fit in the chest then it is part of a tool collection, not a tool that is necessary for woodworking!  –  and while there is nothing wrong with collecting tools, it is good to have a reminder that that is what one is actually doing!)

About 15 years ago I had built a traditional tool chest based largely on Tony Konovaolff’s chest published in the October 1990 issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine. Konovaloff’s chest was a work of art and a showcase for his woodworking skills (not necessarily a bad thing), but my desires (and budget!) ran more in the direction of utility and efficient access, which meant “pine and paint” rather than expensive hardwoods.  My workshop at that time was upstairs in a barn-like structure with fairly low knee-walls which meant that wall cabinets were really not an option, so this floor chest made a lot of sense.  An older notebook page shown below still has the drawings that I used to create this chest.

Tool chest sketch from March 1998

Like Knonvaloff’s chest, I placed my chisels where they could always be reached (a feature I have always liked), with hand planes on the bottom, and the rest of the chest filled with a single sliding till open like a tray on the top and completed with four drawers below.  A separate saw till “box” sat in front of the sliding till, but had to be removed each day for access to the planes.  (And – no surprise here – after awhile, the saw till simply sat on the floor and was almost never returned to the chest.)

I liked this chest and used it for several years; but it had some real limitations:  it was too low to the ground for good access (about 17″ high x 20″ deep x 36″ long – interior measurements), and the drawers in the till were at best hard to access and not very flexible as needs changed.  I dealt with the height issue by eventually placing the chest on a 8” high base.  I dealt with the lack of internal space by building a second tool chest to hold my small collection of molding planes and other antique woodworking tools.  Even though I liked both of these chests, I eventually set them aside in favor of wall cabinets when I moved to a shop with less floor space and better wall space.  (I must also confess that in the intervening years I had also “collected” many, many more power tools  – tools that really, really didn’t fit in a traditional tool chest.)

Over the next several years, I built a series of wall cabinets, none of which were particularly outstanding either visually or functionally.  At times I wanted to return to the older tool chests, but by that time the shop had accumulated enough stuff that there really wasn’t enough floor space for any traditional tool chests.  I sort of dismissed the idea of bringing out the traditional tool chests again – that is, until I finished reading The Anarchists Tool Chest  and came to appreciate the overall “Rules” that most traditional chests had followed (for good reasons!)  The “rules” seemed to fall into three general categories: First that the chest had to be sufficiently full-sized to fit the required tools and to allow good access without having to kneel on the floor ( i.e. just high enough to be able to lean over it with support from one hand).  Second, that it had to be well-built including a good frame and panel lid, and third, that it needed sliding trays (not tills with drawers) for quick, flexible access.

As I was rethinking the workshop, the desire to build a chest like this was as strong, if not stronger, than my desire to return to the older Shaker style bench that I had previously used.

In the end, the workbench took priority, partly because I needed additional time to think about the details of a traditional tool chest that would work best for me.  I didn’t want to just reproduce the chest in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.  Not all traditional tool chests were identical (for good reasons) and although I knew my chest would need to follow the “rules” if it was to be truly successful,  I also wanted my chest to reflect my needs and ways of working.

While rebuilding the Shaker bench, I brought out the old tool chest (long since stripped of its internal parts) and quickly filled it with some roughly built sliding trays and a chisel rack.  (I knew there was a reason for saving all those scraps of lumber!)

Old Chest Fitted with "Test" Interior

Although I had to limit the actual tools to a sub-set of those I wanted to eventually include, this rough re-working (with some further refinements) proved that the “rules” for a good chest really did result in an amazingly functional and flexible means of storing and accessing tools.

Test Layout for New Chest

After finishing the Shaker bench last Fall, I turned my attention to finalizing plans for a full-sized traditional tool chest.  After some test layouts on the workbench (using real tools), I drafted a rough set of plans showing both the “floor plan” and front and side elevations. I kept these plans nearby for a couple weeks, making some minor changes until I was satisfied that I had a good working plan.  I think this “gestation” time (however long it needs to be) is time well spent for any woodworking project.  Some of my best pieces of furniture have required several months of on-and-off thinking before arriving at a place where everything really seemed to come together. (And more often than not, input from the client or another woodworker was just as important in shaping the final piece as was my own thinking.)

I”ll include a few photos of the construction process, but more than anything I want to note the things that I did differently since they might be of benefit to anyone who is considering building a traditional tool chest customized to meet their needs.

Tail boards for the new chest

As I worked with the tools that I wanted to include in the chest, I found that I needed a chest that was (internally) about 4” longer and 2” deeper, but the same height as the one in the Anarchist’s Tool Chest.  (These dimensions were still within the nominal dimensions for most traditional tool chests.)  Since I had always liked quick access to chisels, I decided to include a chisel “rack” along the front of the chest – one of the reasons the case needed to be 2” deeper.  Behind this rack, almost out of sight, I included two slots for tucking in a full-sized framing square and a smaller one (see photo below.)

Carcase joinery completed

For the most part, I used the same construction techniques as in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but with some minor differences. I used screws (with square drive heads, no less! – what could be less historical) in slightly elongated holes to attach the bottom.  Cut nails are practical and fun to use (and I used some on the lid and bottoms of the trays), but I felt that the screws were the better, though non-traditional, way to go for the bottom boards.  I also used brass screws rather than cut nails to attach the runners for the trays (they almost disappear into the background since I stained the interior with a light oak-colored gel stain followed by a coat of amber shellac.) The stain plus shellac produces a pumpkin pine almost like that described in the Autumn 2007  issue of Woodworking Magazine,  but with fewer steps and therefore a bit less work.  (A word of caution: this tool chest has a lot of internal parts and if I had thought about how many of these parts would need to be stained and finished, I might have opted for the natural look.

Using a Stanley 45 plane to make the bottom of the chest

But on the other hand, I really like the stained interior – it has a sort of aged look and it only had to be done once, after all.)  My older chest had a partly stained and partly painted interior which I had always liked.

I allowed a bit more vertical space for the sliding trays and opted for different tray heights (about 5, 3 1/2, and 2 inches) because these best accommodated my tools in the locations where I most wanted them. The knobs are strictly non-traditional brass, but I had many of them on hand left over from another project.

Completed tongue and groove bottom boards

The most significant departure from the Anarchist’s Tool Chest is in the saw till.  In the original layout I left room for all the saws I wished to include, but couldn’t decide on exactly how to include them until late in the process.  In my older chest the saws sat in simple saw kerfs on the bottom of the removable saw box.  I always had some concerns about leaving the saws sitting in the shallow 3/4″kerfs (were they vulnerable to getting kinked or bending slowly over time?) so I added some additional support pieces which are screwed on from the bottom.

Sawtill "Box"

The saw till is actually a separate shallow box not attached to the chest, and while it could be removed, there is no particular reason to do so on a daily basis.  If it turns out that I don’t like this saw till option, I can always change it.

I had a very hard time finding good quality black hinges for the lid, and eventually opted for some very nice (read: expensive) heavy black iron hinges imported from England (available through White Chapel Ltd.  Catalog Number 238RHD2 ).  I enjoy their quality  and don’t regret the unexpected additional cost.  Good quality hardware is often more expensive than I think it should be, but almost always worth it in the long run.  I did, however, save some expense on the lock by moving it from my older chest to this one.  I had planned for an escutcheon, but found that the key for this lock was just barely long enough to reach through the dust seal.

Chest Lock

I might try to make a longer key some day, but it is unlikely to be used very often. (My two sons are now college age and finally understand that Dad’s good tools – now all in the chest –  are only to be used for cabinet and finish trim work – not for rough carpentry, for which there are always other tools available.)  I also located the chain for the lid on the right hand side since it is opposite the end from which I will normally access the chest.

Completed Tool Chest

I have used milk paint finishes in the past and I think they make an interesting and very traditional finish for a tool chest, but I opted for using “Savannah Red” from Old Century Colors for this tool chest since I have used it on some other items in the shop.  Olde Century paints seem to have very fine high-quality pigments and I like the deep, almost black, but still red color of their “Savannah Red.” (The photos do not really do it justice in spite of much color manipulation. The real color is very deep and rich, almost sensuous.)

Chest Interior with Chisel "Rack" and Framing Square Behind

Having used the chest now for several weeks, I must say that I am amazed at how nicely it fits in the (now mostly cleaned out) shop, but I am even more amazed at how well it actually works in practice.  For the first time in many years, I have almost immediate access to every tool that really matters, and I like the sense of closure that comes at the end of the day when all the tools are returned to their locations and the lid is closed awaiting the next day.  I’m also reminded as I look at the tool catalogs, or visit some of my favorite antique shops (one of which specializes in tools) that if I can’t readily fit it into this tool chest, perhaps I really don’t really need to buy it.  (But then, there is that collecting side of me…)

The Shaker workbench and traditional tool chest have brought a level of simplicity to my workshop that is satisfying in a very deep way, and will, no doubt, influence my work for many years to come.

Over the past year I have led a small group in our Church through an extended consideration of simplicity and margin in lifestyle.  I’ve led this kind of group several times in the past, but this time my wife and I as well as the other group members have perhaps gone deeper into subject than before.  This time, I’ve seen more clearly how the things we own all too often come to own us (and our time.)  The changes in the workshop (cleaning out unnecessary stuff, re-making the Shaker bench, and bringing more focus to hand tools through a traditional tool chest) have been a good proving ground for greater simplicity.  My shop feels less like something that “owns” me and my time, and more like something that will help me pursue woodworking in the future without getting in the way.

Our family has always tried to live more simply than our culture might move (push?) us toward, but the past months of change in the workshop have in principle provided an excellent “dry run” for changes that may need to be pursued in other areas of our lives.

A few days ago I was perusing the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks web site (always fun to do!), and almost by accident came upon a link to a woodworker (Kenneth Copp) who (unknown to me) lives and works in the town of Thorndike, Maine – the very town I grew up in and still visit from time to time.  Just a few years ago the Amish established a new and growing community in Thorndike and the adjacent town of Unity after purchasing hundreds of acres of unused farmland.  (For more information on their community see an excellent article published in the Bangor Daily News

Kenneth Copp’s workshop (http://locustgrovewoodworks.com/) is a part of that community.  The Amish know far more about simplicity than I know, and I’m looking forward to my next visit to Thorndike where I hope to connect with this woodworker and perhaps learn some more about simplicity in the workshop (and maybe even life.)

On that thought I close this post with a few of my favorite quotes on simplicity:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  – attributed to Albert Einstein, physicist (1879 – 1955)

“The older I grow the more clearly I perceive the dignity and winning beauty of simplicity in thought, conduct, and speech: a desire to simplify all that is complicated and to treat everything with the greatest naturalness and clarity.” – Pope John XXIII

“O God, I beg two favors from you;
let me have them before I die.
First, help me never to tell a lie.
Second, give me neither poverty nor riches!
Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.
For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?”
And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name.” – Agur, son of son of Jakeh from Massa in Proverbs 30:7-9

“May your shop and life be simple enough to be satisfying.”  (My quote for the day!)

Posted in Workshop | 4 Comments

Workbenches and Our Work

The workbenches we use shape and influence the type and quality of work we are able to do more than we may realize.  My first workbench was a light-weight, portable, foldable Black and Decker Workmate.™  With this bench, a few hand tools, and a skill saw I was able to build a much needed bookcase which has survived to this day and and now houses my wife Judy’s collection of sewing books.  The Workmate ™ was a vast improvement over working on the floor but it was very limited when it came to learning how to finer joinery like dovetails.

After working on a couple benches made in the “half sheet of plywood and framing lumber” category, I moved on to my first “real” workbench which was a Scandinavian style bench based on plans in the classic woodworking set “Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking.”

Building this bench was at the time a very challenging, but also very rewarding project.  Although somewhat short and lightweight, this bench (along with Tage Frid’s books) gave me the opportunity to explore better joinery and other techniques associated with fine woodworking.

I must confess to being more or less a book addict, and one book always leads to another.  One of these other books was Scott Landis’ “The Workbench Book.”  I remember clearly the day this book arrived and I sat staring at the Hancock Shaker Village workbench featured on the dust cover.  I remember thinking “This is the workbench I want to work on – no questions about it.”  For days I pondered how I might be able to make a bench as large (meaning expensive!) and complex as this one. I began to ponder that pile of “junk” cherry (leftover from a whole-lot purchase) and whether or not it might be workable for the frame.  I also had a very large old maple counter top that just might work for the top.  After much planning and consideration I concluded that I could sell Scandinavian bench to fund the required vises and purchase any additional lumber needed “as funds permitted” (which, of course, always means, “as soon as possible!”)

Although I scaled down the original bench to a more manageable 9‘ long x  34” deep bench, it was still rock solid and weighed about 450 lbs.  To my delight it handled items from small to large with great ease and greatly facilitated improving my skills as a woodworker.

First Shaker-style Workbench

This Shaker style workbench and I developed a long-term and very productive relationship until the year when we moved to a different location where my shop space was less than half the space I had become accustomed to having.  After much frustration over working space, I opted to build a smaller bench. The Shaker style bench found a nice home at a nearby woodworking school, but even as it was being disassembled for transport, I knew I would be building another one sometime in the future.

Traditional Workbench

The new bench I built was a very traditional woodworking bench.  Its design and size were derived from numerous sets of published plans and woodworking articles in various magazines, and like the Shaker-style bench, it too proved to be a very functional bench which I used for about 5 years – but the older bench was never far from mind.

After our oldest son Tristan was in college and when our youngest son Brendan reached college age, my wife and I began discussing preliminary plans for a retirement house even though it would be several years away.  Our current Bow-roofed cape has been a great house to live in, but from the beginning we recognized it was designed for raising children, not for retirement.

Given the present costs of construction, utilities, etc. it became clear that we should think along the lines of “small is beautiful” and begin to plan accordingly.  This prompted me to start thinking about a future shop from a much different perspective, and also resulted in my making significant changes in my current shop. (But that is a story that deserves a separate post some day!)

As I thought about a future shop, the longing for another Shaker-style bench became too hard to resist.  Plans began in ernest for re-building the Shaker-style bench and last Spring I began construction of the new bench.  Like the first bench, the completion of this bench was dependent on the sale of the traditional bench (which eventually found a great new home in a Connecticut shop).  The new bench was completed earlier this Fall and has been in constant use since then for some personal work (but not yet for any clients – see Woodworking and Hibernation.)

New Shaker-style Workbench

Working on this bench has been like renewing an old friendship, but with improvements.  The new bench incorporates some features like full extension drawers on heavy-duty slides, a thicker top than the previous bench, and higher quality vise hardware.  I think it must weigh over 500 lbs loaded, and it is ideal for hand-planing and other hand work.  It will probably be the last bench that I will ever build, but I know it will be a joy to work on in my “improved” current shop and in any future shop as well.  Like the other benches, I’m sure this one will facilitate me in growing further as a woodworker.

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Woodworking and Hibernation

The present economy has exacted a heavy toll on many small businesses, and my woodworking business is no exception.  At the present time my business is in what I can only describe as a state of hibernation – very quiet (and currently unable to respond to clients) but still alive and well.  Because my shop (and its contents) are not covered by commercial insurance during this time of hibernation, I unfortunately cannot create any items and offer them for sale, though I continue to offer some “pre-hibernation” items for sale through the League of NH Craftsman’s shop located in Concord, NH.

Although my business is in hibernation, my interest in woodworking is alive and well and I am using this time of hibernation to renew and revitalize my future plans for woodworking. During the next year (hopefully not much longer!) I hope to spend some time focusing on design issues and how craftsmen of the past were able to create designs that continue to be the foundation of good furniture even to this day.  I am also in the process of re-structuring (i.e. cleaning out!) my workshop and re-working how it functions (retaining only the tools I actually use) so as to best serve my clients in the future.

As part of this process, this weblog is becoming a replacement for my former traditional website “scblanchard.com” (online only until December 31, 2011) and I will continue to develop this site in the coming months.  As I become more familiar with the weblog process I hope to add additional posts to this site describing my discoveries about design, progress on changing my workshop, and other items of interest while I look forward to a more active “Spring” following this time of hibernation.  Thanks for visiting my weblog.  I hope to offer much more in the not too distant future!

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