Limbert Bookcase

Limbert Bookcase

I backdated this entry because I actually finished this bookcase before we left for RSA in Philadelphia and before I had to go in for jury duty and. . . At any rate, it took a long time. The doors took longer than the carcass, and it really made me question the drive to be faithful to original pieces.

It’s a copy of a Limbert bookcase from the same old Popular Woodworking Arts and Crafts project book. The joinery is weak, in my estimation. Stickley’s through tenons instead of the dadoes used by Limbert would have been better. I won’t just follow the plan if I build this one again. I love the beaded shiplap back, and I did add a second knob even though it isn’t original.


Pizza Peel

While working on the doors to finish a Limbert bookcase and dimensioning some maple for record cabinets, I discovered that the digital gauge on my planer had gone out of wack and was making everything too small. Thankfully, I had only started machining one piece of curly maple before discovering the miscalibration. Coincidentally, Krista has started messing around with baking bread and wanted a peel. We went to the local restaurant supply and they were out of them. Hmm. I started to think that I could use my excessively “peeled” piece of maple and a cherry scrap to make one. Perfect timing!

Pretty: An Unknown Quantity

In designing furniture — and I daresay anything else — one must first have some acquaintance with mechanical work. Without this it is Impossible to decide how the material — in this case principally wood— can be used to the best advantage, without cumbersomeness on the one hand or fragility on the other. After this, convenience must be studied. Is the design suitable for its intended purpose? To take an extreme case for the sake of illustration, in designing a chair for ordinary use would anyone raise the seat three or four feet from the ground? To do so, of course, would be absurd, for such a height would, except for special purposes, not be pleasant. One could not sit at an ordinary table in such a chair nor put it to the intended use of a chair. Fashion, further, has much to do with design, for it
must not be forgotten that those who cater for the public must do so according to popular demand. If one asks who creates fashion, what can the answer be? It is a species of evolution, but in its origin is so intangible that it cannot be grasped. It is like the fog — very undefined, but with a very unmistakable reality. Is, then, the fashion in furniture not influenced by the designer or the manufacturer? To a great extent it is, but he does little more than apply his skill in such a direction as may, in his opinion, best supply the demand. For the rest the designer must rely on his own resources and his general ideas of what constitutes a beautiful object. At the present time fashion seems to require that everything must be cheap as well as pretty, the latter being an unknown quantity.

D. Adamson, A Chat About Furniture, Work: The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Mechanics Voi. 1 No. 1. March 23, 1889

Stickley #72 Magazine Stand

Stickley 72 Magazine Stand

I finally made it through this one. It’s a copy of a Stickley #72 magazine stand, and it only took me 7 weeks and much fussing and cussing. I learned a lot though, including the lesson that I prefer hand tools for most precision work. I screwed up the legs on this piece twice and had to make them over due to router mishaps. I bought a plow plane, and things finally made more sense. The primary problem with power tools is that you can’t really see what you are doing most of the time and when things go wrong, it’s almost always fatal. There are some botched spots on this, but they didn’t mean starting over— they just meant accepting that I’m human.

I like the way the top finished up:

Stickley 72 Magazine Stand

I pretty much followed the plan from Popular Woodworking’s Arts and Crafts Furniture Projects except I did curve the sides to match an actual Stickley piece from an auction site. I thought it looked a bit better that way. Next up, I think I’m going to build a Limbert bookcase with glass doors. I have most of the panels glued up and the pieces rough cut already. I’ve been sticking to cherry wood for this crop of projects. I actually worried that it was longer than seven weeks since the last finished project, a faux Arts and Crafts bookcase from the same book:

Latest project

I didn’t write anything about that one, because it was pretty basic. Nonetheless, it did involve 24 mortise and tenon joints and was a good thing to practice on. This magazine stand, however, marks my first attempts to use the router plane, the plow plane, and the spokeshave. Of course it’s got its rough areas, but eventually I think I might actually become passable at this furniture building stuff.

Wooden Boys

I used to think that the running thread in your work was your interest in objects—the tools, for example—whereas now it seems that the real running thread is your interest in translating those objects into pictures.

Yes, that’s the running thread—the alchemical aspect of it—turning shit into gold, hopefully. That’s always been my intention. I’ve never been a reporter. And if I have a romance with the objects that I’m drawing, it’s more important that I have a romance with the mark that I am making.

. . .

I’m also going to have a show at Pace[Wildenstein] in April 2007 of paintings and sculptures of Pinocchio. I’ve been making the sculptures in wood for two or three years, cutting them in wood with a chainsaw.

I can see that you’re fascinated by the story.

This idea of a talking stick becoming a boy, it’s like a metaphor for art, and it’s the ultimate alchemical transformation.

Robert Ayers Interview with Jim Dine

Discussions about tools are a sore spot for me. Don’t get me wrong, I use tools, research them, and generally have a good working relationship with them— but I do my best to resist fetishizing them. I think it’s just my background as a photographer. One of my favorite sayings (I’m not sure of it’s origin) is that what separates painters from photographers is that painters can have long discussions that don’t involve brushes. The obsession with equipment that drives most “hobbyists” is what separates them from those who I think are serious about the craft. Yes, to make things you need tools— but there is absolutely no reason to discuss them all the time.

I remember listening to a National Gallery podcast discussion with Jim Dine a while ago and the moderator asked him “why tools?” Dine replied that his family owned a hardware store, so they were simply around all the time. Dine is obsessed with drawing, and drawing involves looking very intensely at things. Yes, there are metaphorical connotations to tools, but mostly they were there to look at and explore drawing. Looking at things hard is the cornerstone of interesting photography, in my estimation, as well. It is seldom rewarding to read significance into things instead of looking at them. The attachment of inflated symbolic significance to objects is an accurate definition of fetish. The antidote for that, I think, is simply looking — not glancing or casual looking— but looking hard.

Nonetheless, looking can itself become a fetish because privileging it symbolically gives priority to one sense above all others. I’ve always been attracted to sculpture because in a lot of ways it is a relief from the rigors of concentrated sight. This is not to say that sculpture isn’t a visual medium, but rather that it is so much more than that. To appreciate a sculpture, you’ve got to move around it. Some sculptures also invite touch. Touch, I think, is the most natural way to relieve the stress of looking. If it looks smooth, you can touch it to know its texture in a far more profound way than you can by any amount of concentrated looking. Traditionally, the activity of reading also involved touch because one holds the page and feels the presence the book, even if only liminally. Computers/readers are changing that.

I find it interesting that contemporary books on woodworking deploy cliché photographic techniques (black and white, selective focus, close cropping) to emphasize texture and warm sepia tones evoking nostalgia to promote the fetish nature of hand work. It’s part, I think, of the transposition of reality to screen which has brought these tired techniques to the forefront. You can’t touch the book/screen to feel the finish so this probably seems an improvement to most authors and editors over the traditional glossy-color wet page with illusionistic depth. In the end, this arty photography provides less information. A reader is unable to see the full dimensions of an object. From the perspective of technical communication,  it’s a huge fail: useless “pretty” pictures.

To match these new visual strategies, there are also new/old rhetorical techniques: Good old fashioned purple prose. My most recent encounter with it is a very handsome, lushly illustrated volume from 2009 by Tom Fidgen, Made By Hand. I like the book quite a lot, and the emphasis of the book is less detailed regarding tools themselves while maintaining focus on the new/old perspectives facilitated by classic tools. The projects are a cut above the typical do-it-yourself content, though I was really dissappointed in the level of detail regarding the joinery. An Amazon reviewer summed it up nicely, remarking that the pictures were pretty but the explanation left much to be desired. I hope Fidgen does another book avoiding the Pinocchio affect:

Enter the hand tool woodshop. People can easily spend small fortunes on the newfangled handsaws and reissued hand planes. Imported chisels from foreign shores where they’re still being made to serve a practical purpose and not for the enjoyment or entertainment of the amateur woodworker.

There is a place for these tools, working towards a reachable level of fine workmanship in the home or hobby woodshop. A work space may be only a small room in a condo, rising out of a skyline 50 stories above the street. No trees for miles, an asphalt landscape, where finding anything handcrafted would be next to impossible. Even here, in this cold space of steel and cement, the woodworker hides, dreaming of crafting that perfect piece of furniture. Wishing only to use his hands and his hand tools: quietly shaping and sculpting.

A modern day Gepetto, creating thoughtful pieces of woodwork, worthy of true magic.

Tom Fidgen, Made By Hand (11).


Post junior-high woodshop, around 1982, my most memorable project was a set of record crates from oak to hold my record collection. I set about building them in an upstairs apartment with no patio. I nicknamed the place “The Holiday Inn” because the place looked just like one. Using a workmate and hand power tools, I dusted the walls of the apartment with sawdust— this was long before this new “hand tool revolution.” It wouldn’t have been any more romantic with hand tools, I think. It was frustrating and I never could afford to build enough crates. Wood costs money.

I was a stone-broke Geppeto with only a few tools. The few crates I made were smashed to bits when the U-Haul truck rolled during my move to Arkansas in circa 1994. Most of my remaining tools disappeared in Arkansas; I left a lot behind for the move to Minnesota. 

It’s not the tool that screws you, it’s the motor

I haven’t had a lot to show for my labor lately. A great deal that has been going on is adjusting to different tools and the way they work. I was a bit surprised to see this segment on the Cobert Report on the possibility of new table saw legislation a few weeks ago, and then yesterday I discovered Don Bowman’s Power Tool Song. There aren’t any transcriptions of the lyrics about, but one of my favorites is regarding chain saws: “the only tool that comes with a first-aid kit and a ‘Hire the Handicapped’ bumper sticker.” Tools can be dangerous. I have all my fingers and toes after many years of working with them and I aim to keep it that way. The best way, I think, is probably to avoid using table saws at all. I have only recently figured out why: basic physics.

The centrifugal force of a round blade spun by a powerful motor does some tricky things. It is mostly impossible to cut a truly straight line on one because the blade pulls the rear of the workpiece into the blade, creating a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) banana shape to the line. Coupled with a rip fence, this can cause binding and kick-back where the tool throws the board back at you. Wood is not velveeta, and contains internal stresses as well that can pinch the wide round blade aggravating the problem. It’s not just a matter of not putting your fingers into the tool, it’s also a matter of not having the tool suck you into it! I’m on my second or third little contractor saw, and it’s probably going to be my last. I’m tired of fighting with these things.

Hand tools can be a problem as well. Not because they are prone to injure you, but because it’s easy to slip and mess things up. Or, in the case of saws, cut cock-eyed or twisted. It came to me in a flash what the basic problem is: it’s not the tool that screws things up, it’s the motor. In the case of hand tools, the motor is your body. If you stand wrong, you saw wrong. It’s not the quality of the tool that fails, generally, it’s the quality of you and your skill level. That puts a different spin on it entirely.

An aside: I often find myself complaining about Chris Schwartz’s tool fetishism, but I must say that when I wanted to figure out how to use my new plow plane The Anarchist’s Tool Chest had the most succinct and useful description of how to approach it.

Silent Objects

I can’t remember a time that I went this long without writing. I’ve become quite disenchanted with all sorts of symbolic activities, and become pretty much object-oriented. I have no idea what that means philosophically, what I really mean is that I have become far more interested in things instead of words/images/representations of things.

The unnarrated life goes on. I’ve been working with wood, and reading the loose canon of books associated with woodworking. Yesterday, it dawned on me what my problem with most of these works is: the fit between symbolic ideologies and the pragmatic realities of applying tools to objects is rough at best, non-existent at worst. The latest example is the summoning of anarchy to support a skeptical approach to big business (while promoting boutique, petit-bourgeois capitalism) in the name of working wood. Huh?

The Anarchist’s Toolchest contains a lot of interesting information but is ultimately a hypocritical buyer’s guide. If the ideological component (which is pretty much biographical rather than theoretic) were removed, the book would not suffer in the slightest. The cult of personality looms large in woodworking, though, and ideologies as a component of this are always fair game and fodder for the machinery surrounding them. I like Schwarz’s writing style, and will no doubt continue to read most of what he generates although most of what he creates could be classed as heat with little light. It reads like it is written by a tool reviewer, not a woodworker. I suppose, due to the title, I was looking for more philosophy and less consumerism. 

There are lots of historical precedents for this sort of capitalism cloaked in radical ideology. The grandaddy of it all in the U.S.A. is of course Gustav Stickley, who I had never even heard of until I moved into his stomping ground. Following William Morris, Stickley seems to mash-up guilded age capitalism with golden age feudalism. The Arts and Crafts philosophy just doesn’t quite gel with the wonderful objects that it produces, and its socialist/utopian underpinnings come off about as useless as anarchist capitalism (or, perhaps more accurately, libertarianism). Just what has any of this to do with furniture or working wood? While it is true that theory generally informs practice, it does not survive it. Theory pretty much comes up short every time. It is without doubt a trace component rather than the main event of material practices.

David Pye suggested that the failure of the Arts and Crafts Movement ™ was due to the lack of a coherent theory of workmanship. It was based more in connoisseurship rather craft (techné). The modern neotraditionalist woodworkers, as far as I can see, victims of exactly the same “theory” of production. For example, the worst possible move for a new woodworker would be to buy inexpensive planes sourced from India. It would be much better to troll flea markets for pre-WWII tools and nurse them back to health, or by expensive boutique tools. Huh? A quick google search will uncover rant after rant against cheap tools, especially Indian ones. Scratch the surface of any collection of woodworkers and you’ll uncover a lot of eagles, American flags, veterans, and survivalists. Of course you’ll also find a lot of vegan nature hippies, punk-rock DIY enthusiasts, etc.— in short, radical ideologies of every stripe The curious thing is that they all build tables, boxes, bookcases, etc. It would be impossible to recover the trace components of their ideologies from their works. Often, I think they delude themselves into thinking so, but it all seems like so much symbolic masturbation to me.

I think what has obsessed me most these past two months is that there is a truth in materials, particularly wood, and I’m anxious to learn it. There is something about a nicely made useful object that brings joy to people. The truth, I think, isn’t in the tools or “listening” to them as Schwartz argues. In his universe, wood is just “stuff” and the tools bring the glory. Other writers like James Krenov or Nakashima go to the opposite extreme, arguing for example that kiln-dried wood is dead compared to green or air dried wood, creating a connoisseurship of wood. Neither wood nor tools speak to me. Nicely made objects, however, do impart feelings that I would not have without them.

I’m pretty sure that the answers are more closely tied to the work itself rather than the mountains of secondary literature. I keep working, and occasionally reading, but I don’t think I have much to contribute to the pile— at least not any ideologies— I’m rather sick of them.

Joshua Vogel

Stumbled on this video and article. Haven’t been over that way yet, and might just have to. The arc seems familiar. The same thing has happened to me: reevaluating one’s relationship to life with the passing of a parent. When you live facing up to death around you, which I have for the past decade or so, it changes you in drastic ways. Some things just don’t seem quite as important as they used to. Other things, forgotten things, become far more serious.

End table, Mk. 2

Splay Leg Hard Maple End Table Mk. 2
Finished the second one, now what I need to do is order the second couch.

The maple end tables turned out okay, I’m not particularly proud of them though I suspect that most people other than me won’t see the mistakes. Actually, you’d need an x-ray to see the heinous ones. I tuned up a couple of new planes (cheap jointer and jack planes1) and tested them out on a nice piece of butternut. I think I’ll try something out of it next, a bathroom cabinet I think. I’ve never worked with butternut before. In fact, I’d never even heard of it until I moved to this part of the country. I can’t stop thinking about the influence of material (i.e. material cause) and keep feeling the pull of hand tools over screaming machines. It’s just more, well, peaceful. Hand planes don’t upset the cat nearly as much as my planer.

1I really don’t understand why people on the internet love to slam these cheap Groz planes. The nearest alternative is around 4 or 5 times the price. If you sharpen and tune it up (which does take some time) they work fine. I started with a #4 from them, and recently upgraded the iron in it (the stock one really does dull quickly). I figure I’ll do the same with the other new ones. I have some small Veritas planes that are obviously much better, but I really didn’t want to shell out that much on planes simply used to true lumber. Flat is flat; getting there doesn’t have to be elegant.