Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Winchester Secretary -- And So It Begins

I reported last year that I would be building a Winchester secretary in the Chippendale style, taking a class with Jeff Headley and Steve Hamilton.  Jeff and Steve are renowned furnituremakers.  They produced the two matching chairs with carved handles that the President and foreign heads of state occupy during one-on-one discussions, as well as reproduction pieces for Colonial Williamsburg and others.  It's a seven-day class in two segments.  In the first segment, which began yesterday, we will be building the outer, dovetailed case.  In July, we'll conclude with two days when we will start work on the interior.  In between times and afterward, we'll work on the desk in our own shops.

In reality, I began working on the secretary late last year.  I first created parts and cut lists using Cut List Plus.  Then I located sources for the cherry and poplar I'm using and began accumulating the lumber.  The hardest part was finding a good supply of curly cherry and getting it in the 5/4 size (1-1/4") needed to assure it would be 7/8" thick after planing.  In the end, I settled for 4/4 (1") stock in many instances and hoped for the best.  Then came weeks of cutting the wood to rough dimensions and gluing up the many panels.  With all that behind me, I am now starting the actual construction of the desk.

The design for the secretary is based on a Winchester area desk that is held in the Williamsburg collection.  It is described and illustrated in an article by Anne S. McPherson, "Adaptation and Reinterpretation: The Transfer of Furniture Styles from Philadelphia to Winchester to Tennessee," pp. 299-334 in Luke Beckerdite, ed., American Furniture 1997 (Hanover and London: Chipstone Foundation, 1997).  The original included a case on top that might have held books or china.  I will be building my desk without that top.

We spent most of the first morning running our panels through a 36" belt sander to get them even and to the correct thickness, then cutting them to size.  The machine work was done by our instructors, who cut all the panels using a crosscut sled and jigs so they would all be equal in size.  This was much faster and saved our time for the real work, cutting the dovetails that will hold the case together.

The afternoon was spent cutting half-blind dovetails in the case bottom and sides.  This was my first time to cut dovetails and my first time for half-blind dovetails, even in practice.  It went well.  Fortunately, the dovetails will all be hidden inside the case so any mistakes will not be visible from the outside.  So it provided me a good opportunity for practice.

Of course, with all my careful preparations to process and load the lumber and tools in my car, I walked off without my chisels and dovetail saw.  I had visited my friend Jeff Fleisher to get some dovetailing advice and took them with me, then left them in my wife Betsy's car. Fortunately, I was able to borrow tools from the instructors and all went well.  Still, I wanted to give my Blue Spruce chisels a good workout and was disappointed not to have them.  They are already loaded in the car so I'll have them today.

When we resume this morning, I'll mark and cut the remaining set of dovetails on the bottom of the case and then we'll turn our attention to the top of the case.  I find I'm enjoying chopping dovetails and, under the watchful eye of the instructors, I'm learning a lot.  It'll be fun seeing how far we get today.

Oh, and I've concluded that my plywood-topped workbench is not going to cut it for dovetailing so a new bench is in order for later this summer.  One thing I know for sure--it'll have a hard maple top.  Other than that, I've ordered Christopher Schwarz's book Workbenches, said to be the best source on designing and building one.  In addition, I've found an on-line source at Fine Woodworking for a good looking bench that uses the same vise I have sitting on my workshop floor.

More later.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Learning to Plane - Part VI

There was so much information from this course on hand planing that it's been difficult for me to present it all here in a timely manner.  That's been complicated by the fact that I've been hustling to get my wood processed for the Winchester Chippendale Secretary class I'm taking next week.  That's done now and I have a short time to breathe so I can get back to the subject of hand planing.

Planing Rough Lumber

Continuing the discussion of reading boards and processing raw lumber, Chris Schwarz said that you want a flat benchtop so your boards won't flex downward in the middle while you're planing.  When the heart side of the wood is down toward the bench, plane the bark side by traversing first with a jack plane until the wind is out of the board.  Use a marking gauge to mark the finished thickness around the circumference of the board.  Then use the jointer plane, starting on the diagonal with the mouth of the plane fairly tight.  At first you will get inconsistent shavings because you are getting the tracks from the jack plane.  Eventually, as the boards is flattened, you will get full shavings.  Then you can either plane with the grain or switch to the smoothing plane.  With the jointer plane, start and finish with the strong part of the curved blade off the edge, rather than on the edge, so you don't create a bow.  For interior parts of your piece of furniture, you can often stop after the jointer plane has flattened them; there's no need for the smoothing plane.

Smoothing Plane

Chris smooth planes his furniture after it is glued up when possible.  His advice is to not smooth plane until you have to do so.  As with the other planes, he sets the blade depth by viewing down the sole of the plane and extends the blade until he sees a black line, then adjusts the blade so the curved part is in the center before retracting the blade to the correct depth. 

When planing, he starts partly off the end of the board.  He puts his entire upper body over the plane and uses his legs.  Smoothing plane shavings should be light and fluffy.  It may take several passes to clean up prior marks, though.


Aniline dyes don't go well with planed surfaces and will blotch badly.  Pigments lay on top of the surface and work well.  For dyes, briefly rough the surface with 220 grit sandpaper.


Mark the true face and point to the edge to be trued.  A curved blade lets you cut down the high points.  Use your left hand as a fence.  Drag your fingertips and nails to avoid splinters.

Shooting Board

A shooting board is used to square the ends of boards.  Chris uses a straight edged blade for shooting.  Use a very sharp blade and set it up for a fine cut like a smoothing plane.  He miters the back corner with a chisel to avoid spelching (i.e., blowout).  He draws a line on the end of the board and then shoots until he hits the line, which is behind the miter.


At this point in the course, having learned about all we could and having set up our planes, we were challenged to square up a poplar board using only our planes.  The prize was a set of books and other items.  I didn't win, but I did learn a lot about using my planes.  I had the books already anyway. 


We had time to get in a little extra information and demos on scraping.  We began with sharpening the card scraper.  Chris' method is, he says, the culmination of tests of numerous methods designed for not having much equipment.

You need to flatten both faces and remove the burr that is there.  File the edge at 90 degrees with a file; he mounts the card in the saw kerf in a block of wood.  Only file on the push stroke.  Then he sharpens the edge on stones, holding it at 90 degrees by pressing it against a block of wood.  He starts at 1000 grit, then goes to 4000 and sometimes 8000 grit for edge retention.  He then uses the ruler trick to sharpen the four faces.  Following this, he rubs the edges with a burnisher to push the metal upward and make it easier to turn.  Then he burnishes the end of each edge to turn a hook on each side.  The angle doesn't matter that much.  Use fairly firm downward pressure.  Use as many strokes as you need.  Use a good burnisher.  He does not like the one made by Crown.  The Veritas burnisher works well. 

When using the card scraper, you can either push or pull.  You should get small shavings when you do so, not dust.

Scraper Plane

You use a scraper plane to get a flat surface with any direction of the wood.  Flatten the back of the plane with 1000 grit.  Primary bevel is 45 degrees; secondary bevel is 50 degrees.  A hook on the blade is optional but easy to do.  Use a burnisher at the bevel, then raise it 5 degrees, then do it again.  Put the hook on the back side of the blade.  The Veritas burnisher put a quick hook on the Stanley no. 80 Chris was using for the demonstration.  He used the ruler trick on the back of the blade before putting on the hook.

Wrap Up

And that was the class--two days full of valuable information and hands on practice.  I learned more than I could absorb at the time, which is why I took such detailed notes.  If you get the chance to do this class, take it.  But if you can't get there, then these notes should help you get much of its value.

Happy woodworking!