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.


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