What is My Style

I was talking with someone recently about what I do and mentioned furniture making. This other chap, who was getting into woodworking himself, asked what style of furniture I make and then went into what he knew and the different styles. In the world of furniture making you have a variety to choose from: Craftsman, Victorian, Queen Anne, Shaker, etc.

It even still has the pencil lines from the additional work I mean to do, someday.

Furniture should have a useful purpose. It should invite the user to use it and it should be tough enough to handle that use. It shouldn’t be ugly but if it has to be, the; it should have tight joints and show care/craftsmanship in construction. Ornamentation should be meaningful and tell a story. The piece above might be ugly but it’s a simple phone stand I made out of a block of wood that sees daily use with zero fear of breaking.

Recently I made a bed for my youngest and carved a flower, butterfly, and hearts into the headboard. They were things she liked, described who the bed was for (a 4-year-old princess) and were simple. The rest of the bed carried on the simple theme but was also built to withstand WW3.

I told my friend I wasn’t sure how to label it. What does it mean to have a particular style? Usually it’s as simple as just having plans to follow or a simplification of the design process. Sometimes it’s about skill level (a beginner isn’t going to start with Queen Anne style ), or just what matches the furniture in your home.

So my style would ideally be simple, durable and meaningful. That sounds canned, like language you’d expect in marketing materials for a piece of crap from Wal-Mart. Maybe the simple portion of it, there’s just not the right weight behind the word. I’ll keep noodling it.


Locking Joints

Whenever I read a how-to article, the common refrain is “can’t ever have too many clamps”.
This, again, is where we can look to the past for a solution.

A little thought into joinery would eliminate most of these clamps

For 95% of woodworking history, metal was ridiculously expensive and clamps were wooden wedges or even specifically shaped branches used to hold work while you worked. Craftsmen had to think of other ways to lock joints together. During much of this period, glue was either non-existent or not relied on for much more than a temp solution.

With many modern techniques, the idea is to use modern glue to hold the two pieces of wood together. The woodworker of today soothes themselves on the knowledge that the glue line is stronger than the wood around it. Clearly, nothing will happen that could cause that glue line to fail.

So then they are encouraged to continually hoard clamps of ever increasing complexity and cost as if they are canteens of water in the Sahara.

In this example, I am joining the wood using mortise and tenon joints. Basically, think “Tab A into Slot B”. This is a great joint in that there are a whole lot of directions that the joint will never move in. For modern woodworkers they will use glue alone to ensure the joint doesn’t move in the one direction it can move in.

The problem is that you can’t guarantee that the joint won’t move in that direction, even just a little. With glue only, once that joint moves a little, you might as well not even have anything holding those joints together. This is where a simple pin of wood can save the day.

In order to move, this joint has to break several pieces of wood.

On these joints, the glue can fail all it wants, but the boards will stay fastened together until the wood itself rots apart. In today’s throwaway society, being able to use something for generations, just because the builder thought like an old-timer, has tremendous value.

Sometimes, you can even use these dowels to make an artistic statement. Note: this isn’t my image, I grabbed it off a Google Image Search so I can’t attest that they are functional dowels. Some folks use trickery to hide screws, but this proves the point well enough.


Shoe Bench Build

This was a tricky one for me.


It seemed that every board I used was from the weakest

Shoe bench made for a friend to replace flat pack failure.

part of the tree and split.  Or the cuts I made didn’t make sense even if I was using the wrong measurement systems or any other myriad of things that could go wrong.

But I finished it.

And it looks good.

And it’s solid.

My #1 rule of woodworking is to build something that will outlast me.  The #2 rule is that is has to look good.  This piece nails both of those rules.

A few months ago (far too many) a friend of mine asked me to take a look at a piece of flat pack furniture they bought that didn’t go together right and promptly broke.  They lived with a shoddy piece of furniture for 3 years at that point and finally called for help.

The flat pack was beyond help.  Everywhere the screws were supposed to pull joints together were broken, the laminate sheets were already failing and the drawers were a rough-housing away from disintegrating.  I had to be the doctor and declare the piece DOD…Dead on Design.

Flat pack either goes right or it doesn’t.  When it goes right, it’ll last maybe 5 years before it needs to be replaced, which is just perfect for our trendy culture.  When it goes wrong, it falls apart as you assemble it and you have to spend hours boxing it back up, returning it and re-assembling the new one and that is the biggest travesty.  The time wasted.

Instead, I spent a few hours and made Janie a replica of what she bought that will last beyond her lifetime…something that is lost on our current society.  Lifetime furniture.  I didn’t invent a new gadget, I didn’t find some killer app that will let Janie waste away her days mindlessly tapping at a screen but I hope I gave her something her kids and grand-kids will fight over.


Deep Thoughts

Why Hand Tools?

This is a question I get asked on a fairly regular basis.  When I told my Dad I had sold off my power tools (extensive collection of a radial arm saw and a table saw), he asked how’d I’d ever get any work done and how I’d make anything square or decent.

Yet for a vast majority of recorded and all of unrecorded history, woodworking was done with hand tools.  First stones then varying metals throughout the ages.  Many tools were made of wood themselves (wedges, planes, mallets) and all of them were powered using muscle and expertise.

That connection to the past, when furniture was utilitarian and often served more than one purpose.  A dining table might have had storage underneath for cutlery and plates.  A chair would have had slots on the back to hold candles.  Barring furniture meant for the upper classes, it was simple and to the point.

And each maker had their own style that came through.  Now, you go to furniture stores and the only difference you see between brands is the name on the price tag.  There is no difference between those items and the ones you find in Target or Wal-Mart.  Many are even made in the same factory by underpaid workers in China and with modern plastics, it is offen impossible to tell the difference between wood and plastic at first glance.

With every cut I make, I reach back hundreds of years and pull knowledge back into the present.  I don’t try to replicate woodworking from then, modern lumber, tools and customers are different, but I do learn from them.

Ultimately, working with hand tools gives me an incredible satisfaction.  Using my muscles to push steel through wood allows me to learn about each board, where it was in the tree, how wet it still in, how fast it grew.  With hand tools you have to closely work with the wood; with machines you force the wood into shapes.