Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gathering up a feast of Cape Lilac wood.

During my Green Woodworking adventures, I have been exploring woods suitable for use which are readily available here in Perth, Western Australia. While there is a long tradition of green wood crafts in Europe and North America going back over centuries, this is not the case here in Australia.

Consequently there are very little green wood crafts being done here - except for a few crazies like me. I am eager to share the wonders of green woodworking with other West Australians, but we need some friendly timbers to work with. That knocks out most of the gnarly eucalypts which predominate our forests and bushlands! However, parks, gardens and back yards offer a whole world of exotic tree species to chose from, so I am on the hunt for timber which is readily available, which splits easily, and is not too hard and unfriendly.

A prolific backyard exotic tree in the older parts of Perth is the Cape Lilac. This tree is also known in other parts of the world variously as White Cedar, Chinaberry, Persian Lilac, and more.   Known in the botanical world as Melia azedarach, the Cape Lilac happens to be a member of the Mahogany family. Mmmm... there might be some potential here...
One of the two piles of Cape Lilac trunk sections to choose from.
Looking in Gum Tree one day recently, (Gum Tree is an on-line equivalent to Craig's List in North America), I noticed someone offering the wood from some Cape Lilacs which were to be removed from their back yard in suburban Perth. These very kind people allowed me to take whatever I wanted from the pile left after the tree loppers had dropped the tree and cut it up into chunks.

Sadly, I would only be able to take one ute load of wood (only due to a lack of storage space!) so there was plenty to chose from. Some pieces I was able to lift (with difficulty) into the back of the vehicle. Others I would have to break down to make them smaller and more manageable. Time to get out the wedges!
I marked the line I had chosen to split the log, right through the pith.

Too big for the froe, a cluster of wedges driven along the line would get the split started.
More wedges to extend the split down the trunk.
Half a log = half the weight. Nice timber, two halves here of different logs.

Breaking down one half of the log again. Quarters, 5' 6" long.
There were a couple of other log sections which I also broke down into smaller pieces. Each of the log sections chosen and the way they were broken down were based on a list in my head. The planning for what I would be making starts with the log and how it is to be split down.
Breaking down a shorter section to create a couple of bowl blanks.

A couple more bits, and that'll be a load. That's a lot of weight too!
The next step was to take the load of logs home, where I would break them down further, to reduce the degrade. From the moment the tree was cut down, water has been leaving the saturated wood fibres. Breaking the log down into smaller sections would help to reduce the forces which cause splitting due to the cells shrinking as they dry.
Thanks to the tree for the gift of this wonderful wood.
I then took the load home for part 2 of the process...
Start a split and follow it along, one wedge after another.
Working on a pair of wide topped low saw horses, I pulled the logs and log sections off the back of the ute one by one and proceeded to break them down further. I had a "cutting list" in mind, based around a number of projects I am working towards.

Split completed - but some run-out on the bottom end.
Such an interesting wood, the Cape Lilac (referred to as White Cedar on Australia's Eastern Seaboard) also occurs naturally in some rainforest areas of New South Wales and Queensland. In Western Australia it has been grown for many decades as a garden tree.

The Bible of technical info about trees for Australian woodworkers is "Wood in Australia", by Keith Bootle. Originally published in 1983, it has been reprinted numerous times since. A book worth having on your book shelf. According to Bootle, the texture of the timber from this "medium sized deciduous hardwood" has a "course and uneven texture due to the ring porous nature of the wood. Grain straight". Certainly my previous experience and experience with this latest pile of logs confirm the straight grain suggestion! He goes on to describe it as: "Easy to dry. Collapse slight. Shrinkage about 2.5% radial and 4.5% tangential. Easy to work." In other words, pretty stable. He gives the Green Density as 640kg/m3 and Air Dry Density as 450kg/m3.  So it's dry density is similar to many of the Firs, Pines and Spruces found in the Northern Hemisphere.  It's pretty light and soft - in contrast to the many Australian hardwoods I am so used to working with! Bootle states that "the heartwood is probably not sufficiently durable for external use" and gives it's use as being for "internal joinery". He gives it's availability is recorded as "rarely cut".

Of course, Bootle is writing essentially for the Australian commercial timber trades - so there is nothing recorded specifically for crazy green woodworkers! However his info is always very interesting...

Cleaving off billets. I love the way this stuff splits so nicely!

Oooh, yum!

Nice split before the froe, even on a tangential line.

A whole bunch of spoon blanks, in small billets. 
There is an art to breaking down or splitting of logs like this. I have noticed that in the USA the term most commonly used is "Riving", whereas in the UK it is most commonly referred to as "Cleaving". Green woodworking has riven / cleft timber at it's heart. This is a fundamental skill.

Historically, logs were initially all broken down in this way, until transport systems were able to cart whole logs to more centralised saw mills. Before that, a log split in half could more easily be cut into boards by pit sawing. Here in Western Australia, billets cleft from jarrah logs were once shaped by broad axe and adze into railway sleepers, on the forest floor where the trees were felled.

There's something wonderful - almost primal - about the process of converting a log into billets of riven/cleft wood. It is also a process which requires a lot of skill. I did have a couple of challenges when cleaving the longer lengths of logs, with some run-out. What can take place is the split can jump across the fibres onto another line. A skilled person can "steer" the split with the froe, but I confess I am still in the process of acquiring that skill!

A bit of run-out on the far end.

Nice billets.

A bunch of cleft sticks which will hopefully end up making Sussex Trugs.
 I am lucky that winter is upon us. The weather is mild, it is raining every couple of days, so the moisture content of the air is high. This is good as it slows down the rate of drying of the timber, for the moisture content of the timber is seeking to come to equilibrium with the moisture content of the air around it. The rate of drying can be further slowed down, and therefore the end checking reduced, by the application of something on the ends of the logs and pieces of timber, to clog up the pores in the ends and seal them. In this case I used the stodgy glue in the bottom of a big pot of my favourite glue, Titebond III. You can also use thick paint or even the commercially available emulsion... but I had this gluggy glue in the pot which was too thick to pour out, and it made sense to use it up. I know from previous experience that Titebond III works really well for this task! 

A few bowl blanks, spoon blanks and some other shorts (leg material) with the ends sealed.
Despite the fact that I can't wait to start using this wonderful pile of  timber, it is just going to have to wait for a while until I have the time and opportunity to go to the next stage  - to start making stuff from it!!

In addition to using it for bowls and spoons, and experimenting with it for stools and Sussex Trugs, I am planning to use some of it to run the next Green Woodworking Course.
Watch this space...

Thanks to the very nice folks who advertised in GumTree and gave me the opportunity to collect this nice feast of Cape Lilac. Hopefully some of you readers in Perth may be able to come have a taste of the joys of Green Woodworking with me sometime soon!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Drawers and Dovetails. It's a natural.

The kitchen I have been making by stages is completed structurally. It's time to make the drawers, before the doors and drawer fronts are made and hung. These doors and drawer fronts will be made with WA Blackbutt (Eucalyptus patens), as per the framing and end panels.
One section of the big kitchen ready for appliances, end panels, drawers and drawer fronts and doors.
My customer has a huge pile of New Zealand grown pine - either Pinus radiate or Pinus pinasta - which she picked up from a local furniture manufacturer who was closing down. Sadly, yet another furniture maker put out of business by the West Australian public choosing to buy cheap Chinese imports rather than supporting their local industry.  But that's another story...

Somehow, the Kiwi's can grow much nicer pine than we can grow in Australia, especially Western Australia where we grow those same two species. I suspect it's a climate thing as well as a plantation management issue. Anyway, this awesomely nice material, in random lengths of material all dressed to 175x19mm (7"x3/4"), was what I would be making the drawers from. No nasty white melamine!

Preparing the material.
As most of the drawer sides would be wider than the 175mm stock, I would need to glue up the material to make the width. The least wasteful way to do this would be to edge glue up the boards.

One of many bunches of boards glued up, in cramps.
 Once glued up, these wide sections would be ripped down to the required widths to make the drawer sides. These would in turn be reduced down in thickness to the required 15mm (almost 5/8").
The strongest and most reliable jointing method for the boards was to glue them up with a "lightning joint". The two parts are done with a carefully set up single router cutter - one side cut from above, the other side cut from below. The two components fit together, a type of tongue and groove joint, which more than doubles the glue surface area. Nice.

A lightning joint, seen here after the material had been reduced down to the 16mm thickness.
With the material ripped slightly oversize, one edge was shot over the buzzer then these were ripped accurately to width over the table saw. These were then docked to the correct lengths required for the drawer box sides, fronts and backs. It was time to cut the dovetails.

Cutting the dovetails - first the tails.
Tails first, no argument. With the marking gauge set at 0.5mm wider than the drawer side material, a scribe line was made all the way around the front end of each drawer side. This would be the base line for the joints. The spacing of the dovetails were then planned, making sure that the drawer bottom groove would fit behind the bottom tail. The spacing positions were then marked onto an offcut, to make it easy to transfer the marks onto each of the drawer side outer front edge faces.

Transferring the critical marks onto the end of the drawer fronts. 
 Setting the sliding bevel at an angle of 1:7, a very sharp pencil was used to mark out the tails.

Marking the tails from the critical marks, using the sliding bevel. 
 With the tails marked, the next step was to square off from the lines across the end of the drawer sides. This just helps to ensure the cuts made are nicely at 90 degrees through the material.

Marking the lines across the top of the drawer side front ends.

That's what we're looking for. Nice clean lines on two adjacent faces, the waste marked.
With the tails marked ready for cutting, it was time to produce the tails. The drawing of the pencil lines down well below the base line makes it easier for the eye to align the saw plate - in other words, it's a trick which helps cut nice joints.Surplus pencil lines are cleaned when the completed drawer is cleaned up.

Using a nice little Gents Saw to cut the sides of the tails. Very fine teeth, minimal set, filed for ripping. 
The next stage was to cut out the waste, using a coping saw.  Just down close to the line.

First this way...

Then that way...
 With the bulk of the waste removed with the coping saw, the last of the waste needs to be removed exactly to the scribed base line. With hardwood, this is easily done with a nice sharp chisel. Cheesy pine, on the other hand, even nice NZ grown pine, does not cut well across the end grain, even with a razor sharp chisel.
I did the first few with a chisel, and it was chunking out too much between the scribe lines. This would reduce the strength of the joint, even though it would look like a million dollars on the outside. So another alternative was to set up the bandsaw to cleanly take out the remaining waste exactly down to the scribed base line - without chunking out the end grain. The last little bits remaining at the base of the tails are then taken out with a chisel of a knife.
The stop board fixed at the back ensures the blade stops exactly at the base line.
Using the bandsaw in this way to finish removing the waste after the coping saw is very quick (so long as there is minmal material to remove) and accurate - but in this case it was done to maximise the joint strength in the nice but cheesy pine.
Drawer sides with tails cut. Time to cut the housings for the backs and the drawer bottoms, 
Cutting the housing grooves for the drawer backs and bottoms.
With the tails all cut in the drawer sides, it was time to cut the grooves to house the base and the backs.  The groove would also be cut in the drawer box front, even though the pins for the dovetails have not been cut yet. The cutting of the housing grooves would be a table saw job.

The position of the groove to house the drawer bottom is determined by two important things: the thickness of the material to be used in the bottom (15mm, same as the drawer sides) and the specs required by the drawer runners. My customer wants the Hettich brand modern soft-closing drawer runners. The bigger drawers with 50kg capacity and the smaller ones with 30kg capacity. While most of these drawer runners in modern conventional kitchens are used with the pressed metal sides and melamine bottoms, Hettich does make a version specially made for wooden drawer sides. They had to come from Sydney, but eventually they arrived.
The specs for these runners determine the drawer dimensions to fit within the opening in the frame, and the position of the runners which are fitted below the drawers. The drawer sides are required to hang 12mm (1/2") below the underside of the drawer bottom.  

Saw blade protruding 7mm above the table, 12mm between blade and fence. First cut, base and back.
 The groove position at the base would also be done at the back. Easy on the same saw setting.

Inside and outside cuts made. Now to take out the waste between these.

After the saw removed most of the waste, a No70 router plane quickly cleaned up the groove bottoms.
With the grooves cut in the drawer sides and the drawer box faces, it was time to complete the cutting of the dovetail joints. Now to cut the pins. This could have been done before the grooves were cut, but I chose to do it this way around - only because it suited me with the material preparation sequencing.

Cutting the dovetails - now the pins.
This is an important part of hand cutting dovetails, and accuracy will be important to get good joints. With the drawer box fronts held vertically in a vice at the bench, the corresponding drawer side is placed on top and aligned in exactly the right position. Held here, a marking knife is then used to mark along the sides of the tails. 

Transferring the tail marks onto the end of the adjoining member. 
A straight piece of timber is clamped to the drawer box front, to keep it flat. This helps to create a more accurate joint.

Using a pencil and small square to carry the scribe lines down the outside face beyond the scribed base line.

These pencil lines will help enable accurate saw work. 

It's pretty quick to do the cuts - always on the waste side of the scribe lines.

Dovetail pins and tails all cut for this batch of Drawer sides and fronts.
Putting it all together.
The remaining components were made: the drawer backs and bottoms, The bottoms were made each with three boards, held together with tongue and groove joints were they met. I had cut these T&G joints on the table saw.  These boards in the base, and the backs, were housed in the grooves in the drawer sides. The drawer bottom extends beyond the underside of the drawer back. It's a traditional way of doing it - at least here in Australia. With all the pieces made, the drawers could be assembled.
One bank of three drawers made and ready to be polished before fitting the drawer runners.

Nice completed dovetails! No filler, no jigs, just good accurate marking and cutting. 
 These are all "through" dovetails rather than "half blind dovetails", because the drawer fronts, to be made from WA Blackbutt, will be fitted onto the front of each of these drawers.

These days Dovetails have a particular mystique about them. However this is really a phenomenon of the modern era, a kind of reaction to the diminished standard of craftsmanship which had become apparent in the later end of the 20th century. Thus the dovetail joint has become a kind of hallmark of quality for the discerning consuming public. Though most people couldn't tell the difference between the hand cut dovetail and the machine cut dovetail, a discerning person can pick the difference.
Contrast this with the past, where the dovetail joint was just a practical, reliable, and strong joint  - mechanically ideal for use in the front of drawers. (and many other situations and functions) They were normally cut by hand by the tradespeople who were just doing their jobs constructing the furniture. No fanfare. Just nice durable joints.

So here we are today. A top quality custom kitchen in the modern idiom needs to have good quality hand cut dovetails to reflect something of that inherent quality. On the practical side, the dovetail joint mechanically remains the ideal joint to withstand the stresses imposed on a drawer being pushed and pulled over decades.

Drawers and dovetails. They are a natural fit.
They are also a pleasure to cut by hand - a very satisfying process. Quality to be proud of...  

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Guest Speaking at the North Metropolitan Triton Club.

On Monday night I had the pleasure of being the guest speaker at the North Metropolitan Triton Club, in Perth Western Australia. My third visit there as guest presenter, I always enjoy visiting this mob - my favourite group of routerphiles.

So what's a teacher of traditional hand tool skills and techniques doing speaking to an enthusiastic group of Triton power tool users? ... Well, I am a firm believer that traditional hand skills are the foundational woodworking skills. Learning these skills and techniques can only enhance our woodworking experience - even if we are a committed power tool fanatic! I would suggest there are times when the only way to effectively accomplish a particular task is to do it by hand.

On my first visit speaking, two years ago, my talk was titled: "The Joys of Woodworking, Past and Present".

 I spoke about the history of the electric router and the many tools which have been effectively replaced by the router. I had those hand tools with me and demonstrated their use. These included hollows and rounds, other moulding planes, plough planes, rebate planes, spokeshaves, router planes, scratch stocks, dovetail saw and more.

Last year, on my second visit speaking, my talk was titled: "Five Good Reasons to Chuck Away Your Dovetail Router Jig". I demonstrated how to cut dovetail joints by hand, and then gave them the chance to have a go themselves.

I had brought enough tools for the 22 people present to all be cutting dovetails simultaneously (yes, I have more than 25 dovetail saws!). It was a heap of fun, and for many it was the first time they'd ever cut dovetails by hand. For some it was the first time for decades.

22 people cutting dovetails by hand simultaneously
That's how to do it - straight off the saw.
 On this my third visit, my talk was entitled: "The Joy of Green Woodworking". I described my own journey into the world of green woodworking, and the lure of these ancient skills and knowledge.   I described the basic tools of the green woodworking world, and demonstrated the use of several of them.

 I then gave the 25 people present an opportunity to split/rive/cleave some small log sections down into smaller pieces using froes and beetles, and then to have a go at shaping these on shaving horses with draw knives. It was a lot of fun.

Lining up the froe and beetle ready for a whack! 

Draw knives in action on a pair of English Bodger style shaving horses.
What a great night it was, taking the club members right back to basics, exploring some ancient tools and skills...

I certainly look forward to speaking there again next year. It will be interesting to see what the subject is I speak on next time. Of course, you can guarantee it will have something to do with traditional hand tools...