Thursday, August 15, 2013

Casework for Miniature Slant Front Desk

As mentioned in the earlier post, some walnut and ash logs were collected from the neighborhood golf course. The huge "divot" to the left of the stone wall was the home of a large ash tree, while the walnut came from a felled tree on the grass mound next to the white post. These were milled down and dried in the attic for a few months.

I decided to make the miniature apprentice slant front desk from the walnut and ash because it would help me improve my amateur hand tool skills using a variety of joinery techniques: dovetails, cockbeading of drawers, sliding dovetails, mortising and string inlay.

Plans were based on Glen Huey's Illustrated Guide to Building Period Furniture. The scale was reduced by 2.54x using centimeters instead of inches.This would allow some functionality of the piece as a jewelry chest and allow me to use the wood that I milled. Thickness of the pieces on the original plans called for 3/4", so the thickness for many of the boards for this small desk was just over 1/4".

The case for the miniature slant front desk is made with three types of dovetails: half-blind for the top, through dovetails at the base and sliding dovetails for the dividers. Diet Coke provided fuel for the handsaw.

The case was created with through dovetails at the base and half-blind dovetails for the top. Sliding dovetails hold the drawer dividers to the case. These were cut with a hand saw and a guide block for the socket pin and a hand saw and scratch stock for the tails.When cutting the stopped sockets, it is OK to cut beyond the width needed since these marks will be covered eventually by the side dividers (plus the marks give the piece some authenticity for the period).

One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that precision is crucial when working in a smaller scale since errors tend to be more pronounced. A 1/32" gap is much more apparent at this scale than with a standard sized desk.
Guide block (Ash) for socket/"pin" for sliding dovetail

After cutting the angled grooves with a hand saw, the waste will be removed with a chisel and a router plane. The ideal saw for this work would be a stair saw, but I managed with a dovetail saw.
A stair saw.
The depth of the blade can be adjusted. The handle in front helps apply pressure more readily for an even cut.

For the tails of the sliding dovetail, the shoulder was marked with a knife, then cut with a dovetail saw and finally the dovetail was shaped with a simple angled scratch stock fashioned from an old saw blade. The angle of the cutter is the same as the guide block. Alternatively, one could use a dedicated dovetail plane, but these are hard to come by.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Miniature Furniture

You are in an antique store and you run across a lovely chest of drawers, beautifully proportioned, but only 15" x 16". Why did somebody go through the effort to create a miniature replica?

Miniature furniture was fabricated for a variety of reasons:
  • Doll or toy furniture: Typically hastily constructed, often with glue and nails. Scale 1:12 to 1:18.
  • Apprentice pieces of furniture were created, often using scraps, by cabinet makers in training to improve and display their skill and keep them out of trouble without much cost to the shop owner.  All of the joinery details that would eventually be seen in a standard sized piece, with proper proportions to the full scale, were often included on these Lilliputian creations. The quality of these pieces varied depending on the skill of the apprentice and the materials used.  These pieces are quite rare to find and some believe that many, if not all, of these were created as elaborate childrens furniture.
  • Master craftsmen made miniature furniture pieces as a way to demonstrate their capabilities while away from the shop or to be displayed in shop windows. Traveling salesman could show off the creator's skill, giving the buyer more confidence in the cabinetmaker's skills than by showing a drawing.
  • Initial small scale model for a larger production piece.
  • Amateur woodworkers lacking time, space, financial commitment and larger tools for the standard size. 
  • Miniature furniture pieces were occasionally commissioned for jewelry or valuables.Scale 1:3 to 1:8.
Apprentice, salesman samples and scale models typically were constructed with dovetails, decorative inlay, mortise and tenon joints, etc., while toy furniture often was constructed with glue and nails for joinery.  The highly crafted apprentice piece was usually a true replica in miniature (i.e. a slant front desk would contain the standard four drawers in proper proportion instead of three as seen in children's furniture or a valuables case).   In the common vernacular, all miniature furniture with quality craftsmanship is often lumped together and called apprentice furniture, since some of the higher end apprentice made furniture could be as well made as that of a master craftsman and would be difficult to differentiate the two in a photograph without a juxtaposed object to give it a sense of scale. Almost any type of furniture has been created as an apprentice or salesman piece: chest of drawers, bureau, sideboard, chair, desk. The peak production years of these pieces was during the 18th and 19th centuries. Because of the unusual size, the hardware was custom made. A perfectly proportioned antique "apprentice piece" is a rare find and often fetches more than it's more common standard-sized counterpart.

Lakeland Ledger, Aug 1973

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Emerald Ash Borer and the Apprentice's Slant Front Desk

The Emerald Ash Borer has been devastating the ash trees in western Pennsylvania.  The bugs bore through the bark and create tunnels in the layer known as the xylem which transports water. The early signs of a dying tree are patchy areas of bark loss and leafless branches at the top of the tree. The tree is typically doomed in two or three years. Typically, shoots of new growth will form centrally and at the base of the tree. By the way, ash trees are one of a few species that can grow via coppicing, which is the process of allowing shoots to grow from the stump after a tree has been felled. Rapid growth of the new tree occurs because the root system is already in place. The golf course in my neighborhood has lost hundreds of trees to this bug. 

Ash borer tunnels in xylem of ash tree are easily seen after all the bark has fallen off.

On the bright side, this has given the putting greens some "breathing room" and might save me a stroke or two. The maintenance crew on the golf course needed to remove all of these dead trees. One late winter day, while walking the course, I noticed that the crew had taken down not only ash trees, but a fairly large walnut tree as well.

Logs of walnut are stacked adjacent to the cart path with ash next to the crew. I "hauled ash" and walnut (the walnut logs seen on the path were used for the project) on a dolly along the cart path back to my house nearby .
 Photo courtesy of Stefan Gustafson.
The timing couldn't have been better. Having just returned from Roy Underhill's week long Woodcraft week course in March, I decided to use what I learned to work the walnut and ash logs by hand.

Official Knighting Ceremony in becoming an Assistant to the Assistant Green Woodworker's Apprentice

Using wedges and froes, the walnut split nicely into roughly two inch thick pieces.

Walnut split with wedges and a froe
It was then off to the shave horse to further smooth out the pieces with a draw knife followed by the some cross grain passes with a scrub plane and finishing the rough millwork with a No. 6 plane along the grain.

Shaving horse made during Woodcraft Week 
Finally, some of the pieces were cut into various thicknesses for a future project using frame saws and other types of saws. Great workout. The shave horse is quite relaxing.  You can get so carried away in the rhythm and efficiency on this thing that by the time you "come to", you realized you have whittled a log down into a pencil.  All this shaving horse meditation helped me think of my next project...a miniature slant front desk. Having a very small workshop and, now, having the perfect sized wood available, an apprentice sized desk seemed ideal.

While I have proven to myself that the traditional methods of milling can be used, I had to succumb and finish processing these logs with a band saw due to time constraints and general lack of muscle. My plans called for many pieces of walnut and ash in quarter inch thick boards, which are about 2.5 times thinner than a full scale desk. The end grain of the 1/4" boards were painted with some old paint to prevent checking, and the boards were stored in my attic until the summer.

By June, I checked on the boards, and most of them held up pretty well, albeit, some were cupped. The boards felt dry. The moisture of the boards was about 12% using a digital multimeter and nails as shown in the Woodgears website. The drying time seemed much faster than I had anticipated.  The general rule is about 1 year of outdoor drying time for an inch thick board. I would guess that a two inch thick board may take about three years to dry while these 1/4" boards only took 3-4 months.

In the upcoming posts, you will see how the ash and walnut logs from the golf course morphed into the small desk below.

Woodcraft Week at McBane Mill

McBane Mill, initially a grist mill and woodworking mill, later, the home and studio for  Ruffin Hobbs, a creative scupltor , and now the site for Woodcraft Week
Big Cane Creek flows behind the mill house.  The canal in the foreground used to power a horizontally oriented water wheel which in turn powered the machinery inside. This creek flows into the Haw River.  There were over a hundred mills  within the Haw River watershed.

What do you do to a tree after you chop it down?

Chop it up.