Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Visit to Covenant House's Artisan Woodshop, Washington DC.

It was a pleasure to visit the Artisan Woodshop program, run by Covenant House, while I was in Washington DC recently. This program is a job training initiative focusing on teaching woodworking skills to youth at risk including homeless young people.

Over a 4 month period, they learn not only a range of woodworking skills, but they also develop many of those employability skills employers require.
Learning just to be reliable and turn up for work is such a basic and critical attitudinal skill which the young participants acquire during their training.

Up to 8 young people participate in the program at any one time, and are currently making table and chair sets which are then given to needy families in their communities. The trainees are paid the minimum wage while they are engaged in the program.

In this picture Greg is chatting with Kevin, a program participant. It was a delight to hear Kevin speaking about how his view of furniture and timber has changed now that he understands how furniture is made and the effort which goes into making it. Like most woodworkers, he now finds himself picking up furniture to see how it is put together. That is a good sign! Thanks to Kevin - keep up the great work, mate, and I hope you find some work as a result of your enthusiasm and the training you've received!

Special thanks to Training Instructor Justin Couch, for generously giving his time to spend with Rosemary and myself.
It was great to hear from Justin about the background toe the program and the way the program has modified along the way. His manner with the young participants is clearly one of those ingredients which helps make the program work well. Justin and I are pictured here together.

The US economy has been hit hard by the repercussions of the global financial crisis, so finding employment for the trainees is a very tough challenge at the moment. I wish the staff at Covenant House and the Artisan Program and the young participants the best of luck as they respond to this challenge. Check out their blog at for more info.

As a woodworking youthworker myself, it was inspiring and encouraging to learn about this fantasic program.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Visit to Washington DC Guild of Woodworkers

While in Washington DC recently, I was privileged to be able to visit the November meeting of the Washington Woodworkers Guild. Like the Fine Woodworking Association of Western Australia, where I am a member, the Washington group at the meeting was made up primarily of older blokes and just a few women. There were about 35 people present, and it was an honour to also be offered a 15 minute slot to speak about Woodworking in Western Australia.
I gave the Guild a few samples of WA native timbers I had brought with me especially for the occasion. The meeting also included some business, the sharing of tips and ideas for jigs, some input by a member with suggestions about safety in the home workshop, and the primary speaker - a sales representative from Felder who was speaking about the European style combination machines they have brought into the US market. This session generated some very interesting discussion amongst the meeting about riving knives, safety guards, the pros and cons of combination machines, and sliding tables on table saws. The Australian OH&S standards are very close to the European standards, whereas the USA does a bunch of stuff very differently, so it was fascinating to be there for the discussion. I have been reading a number of US woodworking magazines since the 1980s, so it was a delight to be there and to start to understand woodworking in this country.
Special thanks to President Stu & to John Machey and the members for welcoming me to the meeting. I am particularly thankful to Bill Walmsley for kindly giving a ride all the way home across the city!

Monday, November 2, 2009

In Celebration of My Wood Working Heritage

I am fortunate to have benefited from a significant woodworking heritage. Here is a brief look at it.

My great-grandfather, William Miller was a coachbuilder and wheelwright, and partner in the coachbuilding business Miller and Cleary in Wellington Street, Perth. The picture above shows the Miller and Cleary display in the 1910 Labour Day Parade. He is the one with his hands on his hips.

William's son, Frederick, was to become an engineer with the Post Master General's Office. Fred married Lucy Hall and they had 5 children over 22 years: Ray, Doug, Kit, Ken and Lyn.

The 3 boys, Ray, Doug and Ken all became Carpenter/Joiners, with Ray also becoming highly skilled in Boatbuilding. Douglas Graham Miller is my wonderful father.

Doug started his apprenticeship in 1945 at Povey's on Stirling Highway, Nedlands.

Doug around the time that he finished his apprenticeship. Probably around 1949-1950.
Doug and his mate Dennis Greeve started their cabinetmaking & joinery business in Claremont (later known as Swanbourne) in 1950. They and their wives Gwen and Tress, all partners in the business, would operate for 36 years before closing the partnership in 1986.

This advertisement was shown at the Windsor Theatre in Nedlands, around 1952. It shows the latest in modern kitchens at that time!

Over the years, Doug built a number of pipe organ consoles, wind chests, wooden pipes, fascias and other components for several Australian Organ Builders. This picture from 1980 shows Doug building the jarrah facade for the Perth Concert Hall Organ.

Dennis's brother Peter worked for the business for most of those 34 years, and over the time they trained around 11 apprentices. An incredible array and variety of high quality joinery, furniture, and cabinetwork was produced by Greeve & Miller over the years.

In 1988, Mum and Dad retired to Augusta WA, where my wife Rosemary and I and our family were living. We were running our business, Marginata Fine Furniture, in Augusta at that time. Doug was not really ready to retire, so he came and worked with me most days.

This picture shows me in 1988 making a reproduction jarrah lounge chair for a customer. This was when I started my "apprenticeship", as Dad worked with me most days over the next 4 years. I was so privileged to be working with him and learning from him over this period.

While a teenager, I was not that interested in being like my father - not an unusual thing during adolescence - however I did learn a lot as a child. I grew up surrounded by the sights, smells, sounds and talk of woodworking. Amazing what we learn by osmosis as children. I was always swinging a hammer and a saw, building tree cubbies and making things in Dad's workshop. I still have and use some of the tools I was given by him from age 9 onwards. While I went and did other things as a teenager, I soon found those acquired woodworking skills helpful for income generation in the years after I had left school.

Although we live 200 miles apart, Dad continues to be an incredible source of information for me, a great mentor and living treasure trove of skills, tips, experience, and traditional woodworking knowledge.

Congratulations to Doug, who turned 80 on 14 July 2009.
He continues to make mostly small things, like boxes and small tables.
This picture shows Mum & Dad, Doug and Gwen, at Dad's 80th birthday celebration.
In September 2009 they celebrated 55 years of marriage. I am fortunate to have such wonderful parents, and I owe my Mum and Dad so much for who I am...

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Wonders of Recycling.

Over the last few days I had the pleasure of running a program held at the Earthwise Community Association in Subiaco, focussing on the use of basic woodworking hand skills to create wooden products from timber which has been discarded on roadside cleanups.

Diverting discarded timber and wooden furniture from landfill.
Much of the timber resources I gathered up for the program by doing a kerbside crawl in a neighbouring suburb on the morning before. What a treasure trove! This included an old jarrah desk, made of nice wide boards. The current cost of the timber in this desk would be over $250. There it was waiting to go off into landfill. Crazy. We put much of it to good use. This picture shows some of the wonderful resource obtained from a quick drive around a local cleanup area in progress.

The program was sponsored by the Mindarie Regional Council, Western Australia's largest Waste Management Authority. The MRC manages the disposal of about 350,000 tonnes of waste generated each year by people living in its seven member Local Government Councils. These are the Cities of Joondalup, Perth, Stirling, Wanneroo, and the Towns of Cambridge, Victoria Park and Vincent.
The series of workshops run over 3 days were intended to help the participants understand how so much of this roadside discarded timber and furniture can be diverted from landfill and given new life as new pieces of furniture or as functional wooden items. This also involved the participants learning basic woodworking skills in order to know how to utilise some of this huge resource.
Utilising timber and wooden furniture from the kerbside cleanups will often involve the demolition and cleaning up of the timber first. So we started out with people learning how to use pincers, claw hammers and pinch bars to separate components and remove the nails.

Session 1 - Making a kitchen chopping board

The project for the first session was to make a kitchen chopping board. Some great wide pine boards were obtained from a large packing crate. More were obtained from some old bookshelves. There were some jarrah boards, ex 8"x1", which had previously been ridge pieces from a house. A discarded imported kichen benchtop provided a solid laminated timber from something like plantation oak. The 12 participants learned how to use panel saws on sawstools to cut their pieces to length first. Then it was on to how to use a hand plane to plane the faces, shoot the edges and then shoot the ends square. The arises were chamfered with block planes, a small amount of hand sanding followed, and then olive oil was applied to the finished chopping boards.

While some found muscles they hadn't used before, all were delighted to take their piece of grotty looking timber on a journey to new life as a functional kitchen implement which will last for generations. Along the way some basic woodworking skills and understandings of timber were gained. For many this was a new experience, and opened up new possibilities for the diverting of material which would have previously been heading for landfill.

Session 2: Making a book shelf/DVD rack.

Based on a plan from a 1946 woodworking text book, the project for the second session was the making of a small bookshelf, modified to also be a good size for use as a DVD rack. Wider boards were used to make the ends, and several people used jarrah obtained from that desk. The timber used for the horizontals I had previously machined from old 4"x2" jarrah and blackbutt rafters and flooring. Nice timber. The 10 participants learned how to the use a tenon saw, marking knife, marking gauge, sliding bevel and chisels to mark out and cut the tenons and mortises. While none of the bookshelves were actually completed by the end of the session, they were just about there. A couple of people borrowed some chisels just to finish off their mortises at home. It had involved the learning of many new skills, and some nice bookshelves will yet be completed.

Session 3: Making a wooden Spoon.

This session is always fun. The 6 participants used an array of timber to make their spoons. We recycled bits of a barbeque trolley, flooring offcuts, and a piece of 3"x2" wall stud for this project. The participants learned how to use gouges, scrapers, spokeshaves, coping saws and rasps to make their spoons. A bit of sanding and the application of olive oil completed the project. Each spoon was an individual expression of its maker, and were a fantastic collection of beautiful designs and functional pieces which will last for many many years - again from timber diverted from landfill!

At the start of Day 2, I had 28 planes to sharpen! I was very pleased it only took me 80 minutes!

The message behind the activities.

This program was a heap of fun, but had a serious message behind it. One of the key educational messages for the participants is this: It is time we were a lot less wasteful and more conscious of where all that kerbside cleanup material ends up.
Landfill is a growing problem for us all, and there is no need for us to throw out so much wonderful timber which can be utilised - and diverted from landfill - once we appreciate it's potential and have the basic skills to use it.
Session Four: Making New from Old.

The last session was a full day, a Saturday, and an opportunity for the participants to make whatever they wanted to. I arrived early to get organised, before the group arrived. While preparing for the day, I was knocking apart some discarded drawers to get the timber from the drawer sides and faces. I was thinking how good it was that the material (pine) was all dressed to a nice consistent size. So I knocked up an egg rack in half an hour. When the mob arrived, the egg rack provided some inspiration, and sure enough another egg rack was made from some drawer sides before the day was out. Some participants made jarrah spoons and kitchen spatulas from bits of barbeque trolley, or continued on working on their bookshelves. There was also a fantastic combination bench hook and shooting board made from an old aloes drawer front, and a jarrah photo frame made from timber I had previously machined from an old rafter. A small old ledged jarrah door was made into a table top with legs for the table made from a discarded pine Ikea bed frame. A wonderful piece of which the creators were very pleased!
All in all a very successful program, and a heap of fun! The smiles say it all. Peg's yummy soup kept us smiling too.
The message also came through clearly about some simple ways to utilise timber which was discarded and destined for land fill until it put to a range of other uses by the workshop participants.
Special thanks to Peg, George and the Earthwise mob for their friendly hospitality, and demonstrated committment to community and responsible living on this Planet.
Let's hope we get to offer more of these workshops...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Saw Stool on Steriods!

Those who have worked with me know how much I value traditional Saw Stools. I use them in the workshop and out on the job all the time. In fact I am lost without them! I usually have several sets, some low ones at around 21” high and some taller ones at 30” high.

I am not talking about those crappy folding metal and pine things, which wobble around and carry warning stickers saying you should not stand on then. I am referring to properly made traditional saw stools. Traditionally made from jarrah in Western Australia, these are rigid and can carry considerable loads. I have in use some that are well over 50 years old and which have worked hard all their lives. These type of saw stools were standard equipment for carpenters, joiners and cabinet makers for generations.

I had a big job to do recently, which involved working on site in Kalamunda for 3 weeks solid. I took a portable jarrah work bench with me, as there was a fair bit of bench work to do over those 3 weeks. Of course I also needed to use 2 pairs of low saw stools and 2 pairs of taller saw stools on site for that period as well.
While I worked on the job, I got thinking: How can I create a saw stool X workbench hybrid, which would be more portable than my portable work bench?

So I have played with the idea, and the result is a Saw Stool which looks like it has been on steroids:

View of the beast - a hybrid between a saw stool and a bench.

Here are the specifications:

Height: 880mm. The legs have a 10 degree splay to the ends and to the sides.
Length: 980 (plus tail vice outer cheek equals 1030mm overall.
Width: Pine 220mm, including jarrah front edge equals 260mm.
Tail vice: Maximum bite 240mm
· Minumum bite between dog holes: 240mm
· Maximum bite between dog holes: 1040mm.
Front vice: Maximum bite 140mm
· Minimum bite between dog holes: 110mm
· Maximum bite between dog holes: 390mm.

View with the Tail Vice extended.
A 25mm square Tuart guide rod maintains the orientation of the vice cheek with the single vice screw.

Almost whole thing is made from recycled salvage material :
· Pine top – from a 10” x 3” solid pine beam.
· Legs, rails, and other odds and sods – from some 3”x2” jarrah wall studs.
· “Breadboard ends” - from an old jarrah door sill. · Jaw cheeks of the front and tail vices – from a jarrah 8”x2” ceiling joist.
· Vice handles made from Peppermint (Agonis flexuosa) I milled years ago.
· Tail vice guide rod made from a piece of Tuart (Eucalyptus gomphocephala) leftover from the making of the Endeavour Replica.
· The tail vice screw and front vice are those imported ones from China or Taiwan, bought from my local woodworking shop. The front vice is the smaller of the two models available locally, and is pretty disappointing. Its guide rods and screw are not square to the metal vice front and rear, and are barely parallel. However the tail vice screw is a ripper. These metal components cost less than $100 in total. I put the additional bit of jarrah onto the front side of the pine to beef up the work area a bit and provide a more durable front edge to the work area. The only reason I used pine was to help keep down the weight!

Putting the beast to the test.
I had a job to do on a different site straight after I have made the beast, so had a good chance to road test it. I was not disappointed. It worked brilliantly.

This job involved removing a customer's front entry joinery, then installing and modifying a beautiful old piece of art deco joinery obtained from a demolished building and adding two more art deco side light sashes either side. This involved lots of tricky hand work on site, where the beast proved to be invaluable.
The holding capacity of the dogs worked really well, and both vices worked well holding components as I made them.
The only change I will make will be to add a removable shelf underneath, sitting across the spreaders, as there is nowhere to put tools being used.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fireplace Surround for a Heritage Building Restoration.

These kind of gigs don't come around very often...

Earlier this year I had the privilege of making a fireplace surround for "Hill 60", a heritage building being restored in Rivervale. Working from only 6 old photographs, the task was to re-instate the fireplace surround. The original had gone missing some years ago while the building was derelict.

At over 9.5 feet tall and 5.5 feet wide, it was made in 10 components which finally went together beautifully like a jigsaw on site after 3 months of work.
These four photos by NK Photography.

I asked well known Woodcarver Jenny Scrayen to work with me on the more complex carving aspects, like the dragons on the columns, the front panel, and the floral wreath on the pediment. It was a pleasure to work with such a talented person. Thanks Jenny. I did all the planning, joinery, turning, basic carving, and finishing. It is all made from jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) primarily using traditional woodworking techniques.

Making this stuff is so good for the soul...
and what a joy this job was!