Monday, June 27, 2011

Pre-schoolers enjoy a woodworking experience.

Last week I had the pleasure of conducting a woodworking activity at All Saints College, at Bull Creek here in suburban Perth, Western Australia. I had two groups of 24 pre-school children, each for an hour. For this activity, it was an opportunity for free creative play. I supplied a great heap of low kid-sized benches (enough for 24 children), two dozen hammers, a range of nails on each bench, and a huge pile of timber pieces for the kids to use. It helps to have the right kind and size of hammers. I have a post about hammers for kids on my other blog, which may be helpful to some readers wanting to encourage kids to get woodworking.

The timber pieces I supply for these activities I bring pre-cut into smaller pieces of a wide range of sizes and shapes, made up mostly of pieces of pine, plywood, thin MDF and some dowelling. This is the resource the kids use to create their amazing objects. I also have a separate "sawing station" set up, where kids can use saws to cut pieces to their required length. I keep the sawing station separate from the benches with kids this age, as it is easier to supervise. Some kids just love using the saws, and will happily spend their time sawing up pieces of timber! Again, my other blog has a post offering info about kids using saws. The hand drill also came out. Drilling is also done under supervision, and some kids just love it. If you need more info about kids drilling, you may like to check my post on the matter.

One of the classes of pre-schoolers, with their wonderful creations.
 Pre-schoolers are the perfect age to commence learning basic woodworking skills. Great for building confidence, hand-to-eye co-ordination, problem solving skills, spacial relations, and so much more.
Free creative play with pieces of wood and appropriate tools offers an opportunity for kids to start to learn some basic tool use while letting their imagination free to make their own toys and mementos.

Special thanks to the great staff and parent helpers who assisted me on the day, and thereby increased the value of the activity for the children participating.  The kids sure had a great time.

...This stuff is really all about developing life skills, isn't it? Now there's an investment in the future!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Getting started on a break-fronted Art Deco style bookcase.

A customer has being doing a big renovation to her house, which dates from the end of the Art-Deco era. Tragically, too often these days the timbers removed from these older houses are disposed of, going into landfill - a terrible waste. This is Western Australia, so the timber in these older houses is almost all jarrah (Eucalytpus marginata). Fortunately, my customer Norelle had the sense and foresight to tell the builder she wanted to keep the timbers, in order to use them for other projects around the home. I count it a privilege to have been entrusted with the job of using these timbers to create a big break-fronted Art-Deco style book case for the new living room in the old house.  Nice.

Planning the job.
Having met with Norelle, and checked out the huge pile of timber under plastic in her front yard, we discussed ideas for the design and other important matters, like the dimensions and how to make the piece of furniture fit in with the rest of the house. I went home, did some research and drawing work, and a few days later presented the drawing to Norelle. She was pleased with the drawings, and gave me the go-ahead to proceed when ready. A couple of months later, I was ready to get started.

The concept plan with suggested measurements.
 Getting started.
I began by doing the sorting, docking, and de-nailing of the timbers in the front yard of Norelle's house, as I ratted through the timber pile.
The larger of the two piles of timber. My resource to work from...
The timbers are predominantly a mixture of: floor joists (4"x2"s), rafters (4"x2"s), heavier floor joists and verandah top plates (mostly 8"x2"s), and hanger beams (9"x1 1/2"). Working off a few sets of saw stools (have I ever mentioned how valuable these are?!), I did all the docking of the sticks just oversize, using a trusty panel saw. This would make the handling and machining of the timbers easier once I got the material back to my workshop.

Some of the nails and other metalwork removed from the timbers.
There was a lot of de-nailing of the docked timbers to do also. A wide variety of nails, mostly - plus some screws, bolts and coach-screws. Once back at my workshop, the sticks would be scrubbed down with a wire brush and checked for any further nails with my trusty metal detector - before being machined. This was not the straightest bunch of sticks I have encountered, telling me the timber had come from trees which where not the straightest trees in the forest. The bends and turns in the trunks of the trees, as reflected in the grain, is apparent in the timber which has seasoned over many years after construction, and dried with corresponding echos of those original twists and turns. Machining these was not going to be much fun.

The 8" x 2"s and 9" x1 1/2"s are far too wide for me to flatten over my beautiful old Woodfast 6 inch buzzer. While I have a 15 inch Thicknesser, the creation of the first flat side on these wider sticks has to be done by hand in the absence of a big buzzer. My trusty Stanley No.5 1/2 jack plane and I were working hard on the long 3.0m sticks, with the aid of a pair of winding sticks - but it worked a treat. Mind you, some of the more badly distorted sticks felt the bite of my old electric plane when I had to remove a serious amount of waste! The 9" x 1 1/2" sticks were so badly distorted, I would be unable to get a flat 3.0m length at 25mm thick, the required thickness pre-glue-up. So I had previously docked these into 1.2m lengths, ready to make into shelving. They were still really wild sticks! So to flatten them I made a cradle to which I attached by screws the ends of the short wild sticks, such that the twists and bows were suspended on the average. Creating a sort of lowest common denominator. The whole cradle was then passed through the thicknesser until a flat face was created. After being unscrewed from the cradle, each stick was then put through the thicknesser to the required 25mm. Most of these sticks made it, too. Their previous wild behaviour revealed the most beautiful figure and grain patterns in these nice boards. The cradle method was good for the wide 1.2m sticks, but would be no good for the 3.0m sticks. These would require lots of grunt with the jack plane and or the electric plane in order to establish that first flat face. Thankyou winding sticks! One thing about old painted timbers - it's hell on the machines' knives. After I had put all the big sticks through the thicknesser, it's knives were pretty shot! Time to sharpen those and the buzzer knives again.

Making the vertical ends panels.
Firstly the timber for each of the four end panels was selected, and the edges prepared ready for jointing. The front edge piece on each panel is a heavier section than the panel behind it, as these front edges are to have a nice art-deco type rounded profile shawed from them. All the edge butt joints were to be strengthened by the use of a 1/4" x 1" plywood tongue, with the grooves cut by a slot cutter bit in the router. They were then glued up using a heap of sash cramps and with the wonderful Titebond 3 glue.

One of the narrower end panels cramped up.
With the panels glued up, the next thing to do would be to create the nice curved front edges. With this done, the next step was to dock the end panels to length. The shaping of the rounded edges, with a 40mm raduis curve, is a story in itself, told previously in this post: Several steps to create nice a nice curved edge.
Some of the end panel off-cuts, showing the curved built-up front edges and the tongues.
The end panels were docked at 2665mm long - just under 9 feet long each.
Making the shelving. 
Meanwhile, the timber for the shelf panels were being made. The timber was selected with the aim being to match the colour, grain and figure as much as possible. Using the same tongue and groove method using those beautiful 1/4" ply tongues, the shelves were glued up.

Selecting the timber for similar colour, grain and figure. 
Three of the glued up shelves. Awesome timber, eh? Such nice wood!
The shelves are now glued up, ready for ripping to final width and docking to length. However, first the end panels would need to have their housings cut ready to take the tops, bottoms, and fixed shelves. That story will be told in a future post.

Keep an eye out for further posts as this project unfolds...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Several steps to create a nice curved edge.

They say variety is the spice of life... so my work load is pretty spicy!
I am currently making a big Break-Fronted Art-Deco Style Bookcase from recycled timber. My customer Norelle has been doing a big renovation on her house, which was built during the Art-Deco era here in Perth, Western Australia. The timbers removed from the house were fortunately saved, as Norelle was keen to have them recycled into furniture rather than going into landfill which is tragically too often what happens around here.

This piece of furniture is going to be a stunning feature in the living room. At 3.3m long (about 11 feet) and 2.8m high (over 9 feet) it will take up a big piece of wall. It will be made up of three sections each 1.1m wide, sitting on a plinth, and topped with a crown mould which echos a detail in the neighbouring architraves' tops. The nice curves on the face edges of the end panels and the break-front panels will help give it that art-deco feel. These will also be reflected in the plinth and the crown mould.

The Challenge.
It's those curves which were the challenge before me. When the 25mm thick end panels were glued up, these included a broad edge strip which beefs up the front edge to 50mm. A butt joint strengthened with a spline of 1/4 inch ply. The splines were also used to joint the middle end panels to bring them to the required 300mm width. Nice. I would normally cut the groove on my table saw, but as the sticks were so heavy I used a 1/2 " x 1 " slot cutter in the router.
It is this broad edge strip which would enable me to create the desired curve. See the plan below:

Having glued up the end panels, the challenge was to create the curve with a 40mm radius. I don't have a spindle moulder (shaper) with a whopping great 40mm radius cutter, and such a cutter would be too big for a router. So it would come down to a combination of hand and power tools to create the curve. There were 4 end panels to shape the curve on, each along more than 9 1/2 feet of hardwood.

Background to the timber I'm using.
The timber is I have to work with is jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata), which was used for almost all domestic housing (and everything else) here for over 150 years. The timber removed from this house which I have to use for the job is mostly made up of hanger beams (9" x 1 1/2"), heavy joists (8" x 2"), and rafters (4"x2").

The timber pile in my customer's front yard. I selected, docked and de-nailed right here.
The selected timber docked and stacked in my front yard ready for cleaning and machining. 

The timber recycler's machine's best friends: a wire brush and a metal detector!
Preparing and machining the timber for this job is a story in itself, which I won't get into here. However, the result was a bunch of boards about 8" wide and 26mm thick, at either 4 feet long or 9 1/2 feet long. The short ones are for shelves, and the long ones for the end panels. There's a number of 4"x2"'s at 9 1/2 feet long, ready to transform into a heap of V-joint lining board (for the backs of the cabinet) and to make the front edges of the end panels. The 4"x2"s also gave me the 40mm x 50mm sticks to be glued to the front edges, in order to create the beautiful Art-Deco rounded edges - the curves I needed to shape.

Jarrah is a beautiful timber. Here in Western Australia, about 80% of the timber I use today is still jarrah. Twenty years ago it made up about 95% of the timber I used. I know the stuff very well. The difference is that twenty years go almost all of that timber was new - whereas now days about 90% of what I use is recycled. The supply is rapidly dwindling, the dimensions available are getting smaller, and the cost of new timber is spiralling upwards. I suppose I am also very committed to good stewardship of the resource which is already out there... but that is another story worth writing about sometime. I digress.

As a comparison, European Oak has an ADD (Air Dried Density, at around 12% moisture content) of about 700kg/m3 - a little less than North American Rock Maple at 730kg.m3. Jarrah has an ADD of around 820kg/m3. (Source: "Wood in Australia", K.R. Bootle, 1983).

Preparing the panel ends ready for shaping.
Doing big glue-ups is always a challenge in my tiny workshop - especially when it is raining and I can't spill outside the workshop door! I have to plan my glue-ups and other processes, but I am helped by the wonderful properties of the Titebond 3 glue which I use for just about everything. The short open time is the price you pay for the short cramping time. If I keep the cramps on for 2 hours, I can do 3 or 4 glue-ups in a day.
One of the narrower end panels being glued up. The left stick is just protection and to spread the cramping pressure.

Cleaning off the surplus glue, topside, with my trusty Record 0110 block plane.
A cabinet scraper cleaned surplus glue from the underside of end panels. Note built up front edge.
With the end panels prepared (and "over-long" - not docked to length yet) now the challenge would begin. How do you create a nice consistent curve with a 40mm radius along the front face edge of these four end panels? It was going to be a multi-stage process...

Tooling up for the job - making the scraper-gauge.
There would be several things I would make in order to create a consistent curve.  The first thing was what I would call a scraper-gauge, a bit like a scratch-stock.
Start with a block of wood. Cut a 40 x40mm rebate out of it on the table saw. Save the offcut.

Use a bit of sawblade or a scraper to mark out a 40mm radius on the corner. Cut and grind to shape.
Drill or punch holes in metal, and fix to block in right pozzie with binding head screws.

Screw the off-cut onto the side, offset about 3 inches. The inner surfaces are flush. Tool ready.
Let the shaping begin!
Three more special gadgets were made to help with the task ahead, and then it was time to commence.

Firstly, my small power saw was set up to cut off some waste at 45 degrees, tangential to the curve.
A wooden guiding jig screwed to the base plate of a power saw, to cut a tangent at 45 degrees. 
Nice little Squirrel Tail Plane with a concaved base helped remove more waste.

A curved cabinet scraper made from a saw blade and the scraper-gauge ensured curve accuracy.

Curved sanding block made from scraps, about 41mm radius to allow for paper thickness. This completed the curve.

The finished article - what a nice curve, along the whole 2.9m length. Delicious!

So there you have it. Not such a challenge after all. It was a multi-stage process, but with a combination of tools both off the shelf and custom-made, the task was completed beautifully. Other than the initial 45 degree cut with the power saw, the shaping was all done by hand. One down... three more to go...

Stay tuned for more stories in the making of this bookcase.

Just a parting thought... about that nice little squirrel tailed plane. A variation on the Stanley No.100. It was made by my late Uncle, Ray Miller, who passed away a few weeks ago. A very clever and talented woodworker and boat builder, he was very skilled at metalworking also, and was renowned for his ability to make specialised tools and jigs. His passing was a loss to the woodworking world, especially the tall ship building fraternity in Fremantle, as well as to his family. He had given a set of three of these small planes to my father some years ago, and now Dad has given them to me.

I am now the next custodian of these beaut little planes, and they continue to be used to make things of great beauty.  

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hats off to a talented Milliner.

I like to think I can make just about anything from wood. As a professional woodworker I am fortunate to get lots of opportunities to test myself against the diverse and interesting range of jobs to do for my customers. One of these customers is a very talented Milliner who creates amazing ladies hats for her international clientele. Julie Anne Lucas Millinery produces around 200 ladies hats each year - and of course no two hats are the same! While Julie lives and practices her art here in Perth, the majority of her hats are made for clients attending the three prime events on the international horse racing calendar: the Melbourne Cup, the Dubai World Cup, and Royal Ascot. I have just made my 5th hat block for Julie, and it was the most challenging yet.

Heart Shaped Block.
The previous time I'd made a hat block, Julie had presented me with a plaster cast of the shape for the wooden block she wanted me to make.

The plaster cast (damaged) and the completed wooden hat block.
From a block of Yellow Pine, I carved the required hat block based on the plaster cast. It worked well, and was a fairly straight forward project. I look forward to seeing the group of hats Julie will craft with this block. 
Recently Julie sent me a couple of pics of one of the hats made from the heart shaped block.

View from the front.
Side view.
I understand there will be a few more hats in the next collection made using the heart-shaped block. I look forward to seeing the range of art work Julie will produce.

"Top Hat" Style Block.
The most recent hat block I've made, the most challenging yet, was a far more complex project. This was going to test my problem solving skills! Julie had presented me with an existing block, with details of how she wanted the new block to be different to that one. My task was to interpret these requests and create the new block. Due to the shape,  it would have to be a "puzzle block" - able to be pulled apart in order to remove it from inside the hat once the hat has been made around it. It was an interesting task, but it worked a treat.

The completed Top Hat style Block.
Making the Block.
OK, so you want to know how I made it? Firstly, I had previously laminated up the top section of the block from several pieces of clear pine. I then screwed the bottom piece onto the block. This just happened to be a nice piece of yellow pine, and was screwed on so that it could be removed later. Measuring the base of the demo block, I calculated the position of the centres I would use to create the oval base. The block's oval shape was then cut oversize on the bandsaw.

Centres? Yes... the block would be turned on the lathe on 3 centres. The first centre position shaped the front and back ends of the block. The second centre position shaped one side, the third centre position shaped the other side, and putting the block back onto the centre position again tidied up the ends further.

View from the bottom, showing how the oval base is shaped by using 3 centres.
This turning on 3 centres is done at a my lathe's slowest speed, to prevent the lathe from dancing around the workshop floor! The final sanding of this balanced elliptical object while it rotates on the lathe is reminiscent of those alleged weight loss machines with the wide vibrating belts from the 1970's - your upper body and jowls bounce around while holding the sandpaper to the spinning block! However it nicely eased the transitions of the curves (on the block) into a nice oval shape. It had me wishing my beautiful Woodfast MC908 lathe could turn at even slower speeds! The lathe and I have done a lot of work together since I bought it in 1988. Top of the line at the time, now good lathes have electronic variable speed controllers. Can I retro-fit one to my old friend? I wondered this as every bit of flesh on my upper body wobbled and shook on the final sanding operation. Not a pretty image, eh? ...but memories of those old machines did amuse my twisted sense of humour.

With the desired hour-glass shape made flowing up from the oval base, the block was removed from the lathe. The base was screwed to a cradle, to enable the top of the block's sweeping curve to be cut on the bandsaw. The top was then sanded to the final sweeping shape. 

The shaped top of the block, which is still here screwed to the cradle.  
 With the block unscrewed from the cradle, the base was then unscrewed from the top section. To create the "puzzle block", the top section would now be cut into 5 sections on the bandsaw. The centre piece of the top block was then glued and re-screwed to the base. The 4 remaining pieces were then held in place while the holes for the joining dowels were drilled down from the underside of the base, using the drill press. The dowels were fitted and glued into place, and the pieces lightly sanded ready for finishing. To seal the pieces, I brushed on a coat of Shellac - hence the yellow appearance of the finished block.

The completed block in its 5 pieces.
The block's pieces fit around the centre quite snugly on their dowels, and it holds its shape really well. Once a hat has been built on the block, the base is removed. This also removes the centre piece, and enables the remaining 4 pieces to be removed from the hat. A nice "puzzle block" hat block, to make some very feminine top hat style hats. 

Another view of the completed hat block.
 While I enjoyed the challenge of creating this hat block, I am particularly looking forward to seeing the magic that Julie will create in her beautiful and elegant hats for women using this interesting piece of woodwork. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, checked out her website for a glimpse of what Julie can do, here it is:
... yep, I take my hat off to her.