26 January 2009

The Fortress of Galootitude

Warning: Galoot stuff.

I almost started a second blog to post this, but then I changed my mind. Too much work.

I frequently speak about my little workshop. At Christmas my daughters both got cameras. I borrowed one and decided to make a few posts about that shop and the things I do inside. I make no claim to be a photographer, quite the opposite, actually. Plus, the camera had Hannah Montana written on the side.

I believe most people need a space to where they can retire from the day and simply relax, or do something that is not related to earning or living, where they can unwind, think, or simply be. My shop is that place for me. Stepping into it is like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes. Here it is, as it appears when I step through the door. It's a mess, but its a familiar mess. I can find everything I need in here, and need no further organization.



For all the mess in there you will notice a lack of power tools. I don't often use them these days. There are a few reasons for this. High on the list is safety- that of my children. Children have an ability to find their ways into places they shouldn't be, and touching things they had best avoid. With power tools, a moment's lapse on my part could lead to disaster for my children- severed limbs or worse. With hand tools, the worst is stitches and scars. I consider that to be a normal part of childhood.

Also high on the list are the nature of the tools themselves. I appreciate the slower pace, although I do not find them slow. The effort involved is excellent exercise, but it also causes me to consider each move carefully. Each step requires effort and sweat, so I must stop and make sure this is the move I really wish to make. I also power tools often carry a dangerous illusion, namely that you can overpower the wood, ignore its natural tendencies, and force it to do whatever it is you want. This is simply not true. Wood's nature will assert itself in time, and the work will fail. hand tools put the worker directly in contact with the wood, and the worker will know his material more intimately, and have a greater sense of what each piece can do, and what it can't.

A large portion of the mess is my wood piles. I have a fair amount of wood in the shop, almost all of which I have accumulated for free. It comes into my shop in various forms, like in the shots below.


Another common way is broken furniture. I am particularly fond of old headboards. The wood here requires more work than if I were to simply buy dressed wood from a lumber yard. But by the same token, it would also be more work to earn the money I need to buy that wood. its a trade off. Besides, I am overweight and really could do with the exercise.

Below is my workbench, My wife bought the kit for me- it contained instructions, the screws for the vices and other bench bolts for holding the piece together- for our first anniversary. The kit sat in a closet until I had the space to put a bench. The wood is entirely from skids I dismantled, cut and planed. As such, the bench was remarkably cheap to make. My only expense was a gallon of glue.


For a hand tool user, the bench is probably the most important tool in the shop. It provides a stable and flat surface upon which you work, and without which you cannot work. For those who build a bench for themself, it is a very personal experience. This is your bench, to be made by you and for you. It should be specific to you and your shop. It should fit you like a glove. The ideal height of a bench is determined by the workers height. Stand up straight, arms loose at your sides. The distance from about halfway between your knuckles and wrist and down to the floor is about the right height.

A bench should be as long as possible, it can never be too long. If it fits into your shop, it's fine. It can also never be too heavy. The work we do is hard and often brutal, the more massive the bench the better its ability to absorb the punishment. At the same time it can be too wide. If you put it against a wall, and cannot reach across it easily, it is too wide. There is a reason for the width of cabinets in a kitchen. That width can easily be adapted as a standard for benches. Again, if you have long arms you may have a wider bench.

I say work when describing what goes on in the shop, but a better word would be "fun", and the tool that is the most fun is this one below: my treadle lathe.



There was a time in Europe when lathes were fashionable, and many noblemen had their own lathes to where they would retire for an evening's entertainment. Of course, they turned ivory more than wood.

Roy Underhill, who wrote the plans for the lathe I built here, once wrote that lathes are like the game of chess: You can learn the basics in an hour, and spend the rest of your life examining the depths and intricacies. Only those who have one or have used one know of what I speak. The others lead blighted lives, and know not the true meaning of joy.

Below are the workhorses of the shop, my planes. The iron ones I got at flea markets or from friends cleaning out their basements/ The wooden ones, save the dark brown one in the back, I made myself.
Planes are the precision tools of my shop. They make wood smooth and flat. Saws, and I love my saws, are mainly demolition tools. They are designed to turn a big piece of wood into a smaller piece of wood in a hurry. Planes are more consistent, more accurate. Built well with a good iron, they will outlast generations. The plow plane on the left was the first plane I built. As is typical with me, I built the most complicated one first. The blade is made from an old file, reground and sharpened. The blades for my other planes I bought separately, and built the planes around them.

In addition I also made a few saws.


The bow saw was quite simple to make. The blade holder is made from a couple of bolts with slots cut into them to allow the blade to slide into. The blade itself is cut from a bandsaw blade. The stair saw was designed from a picture I found on the internet. I blew the picture up until it was a good size, and used that as the pattern. The blade is an old cabinet scraper. I filed two slots in it for the bolts to pass through and filed some rip pattern teeth into the edge. The saw itself has a groove cut into it to allow the blade in, deep enough to allow the blade to move up and down to make a deeper or shallower cut. The two brass bolts can be tightened, holding the blade in place at the desired depth.

A major problem in woodshops is the sawdust. It accumulates and gets everywhere. Many power tool shops now have large and rather expensive dust collection systems and air cleaners to control the dust, especially the "micro dust" generated by high speed tools. I too have a dust collection system, and here it is:




My tools generate less dust, and none of the microdust, so fortunately I don't really need to protect myself from these problems. They also tend to create little in the way of noise, so I don't have to protect myself that way either. I can even listen to music while I work.

Speaking of music, here's the photograph that really started this post off:


This is what a rank of pipes for a homemade organ look like. They are inverted mouth flute pipes, for those who wish to know such things, and will ultimately provide the backbone of the my organ. It took a while to build the full rank, but now they are complete, a major milestone in this long project.

Here are a few other things I have built down through the years, and some more recently. For some of these I bought the wood new, for others I used recycled materials.



I built this sideboard from a photograph in a magazine. It was a gift to my wife, or fiance at the time, and became the gift for whatever occasion came along while I was working on it. It is thus her birthday-Christmas-engagement-birthday-Christmas-wedding present. For all that, she still married me.


Another gift for the wife, a Queen Anne Chair. It is remarkably comfortable. In the background you can see the back of a Chippendale chair. Another one of mine.


Here's another Chippendale style project, a mirror. Very simple to execute, although it looks a little complicated.


Quilt rack


Here is the desk I made Elder for Christmas. It's a davenport, made out of oak, walnut and bird's-eye maple.


The top is french polish, giving it a deep shine. The french polish finish is rather simple to do, but time consuming and requiring a lot of effort. For those who take the time to learn and do it, it is worth the effort.

Another shot.


The ghosts of Christmases and Birthdays past. The desk with an old chair I made and a rocking horse I carved some years back. Puff sewed the saddle for the horse.


Here's a few works in progress. Here's a card table in the style of Hepplewhite I've been making for my mother. The top is tricky to make, so I've been working more slowly than usual. Also, the back legs which swing out on hinges are a little unsteady, and I need to clear that up before I complete the project.


Here is Younger's unfinished Georgian Dollhouse.
I am discovering that dollhouse are among the most time consuming and demanding of projects. By the time I am finished I can only hope some mad scientist will have created an expand-o ray, so I can blow the thing up to full size and we'll have a new home.
That's it for now. I'll do another post some time when I've done a little bit more and taken a few more photos.

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