28 December 2017

Christmas gifts misgiven

Seasonal wood movement and season's greetings

I regularly make Christmas gifts. Some years the items come from the kitchen, but this year I again had access to a woodshop. I distributed some of the stools from the milkpaint openhouse to parents with young children. These were begrudgingly accepted in the spirit of the season. I must have been falsely expecting more enthusiasm for handmade furniture.
It must be the thought that counts this year
I made a set of candleboxes and included the hotpad from the most recent class. These pieces along with a few other Chinese themed gifts were picked up by an employee of a parcel delivery company. A few hours later, my wife then received a call from the head office explaining that wooden items could not be sent to the USA because they might contain a virus or caterpillars. It's good to know that China is vigilant when it comes to proper phytosanitary procedures. I feel safer already! Merry Christmas, Dad.
pegged battens

Meretricious inkwell drawer

Lastly I got around to making a lapdesk, following a pdf file, which I once came across online, from Christian Becksvoort, found so long ago.  This project seems to have become a fairly common build. The main challenge of this piece is getting thin stock to stay flat. The battens on the lid are a definite necessity. I had the small inkpot drawer sliding smoothly in the woodshop, but having been brought into a heated apartment, it now sticks.
Somebody has found a use for this one
It's mainly a decorative feature, truth be told. I think that I was subconsciously motivated, in part, to construct this casework because it presented so many opportunities to use up little scraps of various tropical hardwoods that I cannot stand to see wasted. The goddess, Moulariprionia, shares her blessings of creativity with those who do more with less. It was a fun challenge and I have already dimensioned stock for a second build. Shengdanjie kuaile!

Zambian highlights

   Shengdanjie kuaile!
Hongmu edge banding


21 December 2017

A bookcase of necessities

In the raw
Frequently it behooves a woodworker to build something that will stand as convincing evidence to settle impromptu disputes with regards to the amount of money spent on tools, books, and other necessities of life. It followed, therefore, that I needed to build a bookcase to house my ever growing book collection, which can stand in the livingroom to create a more peaceful home environment. I bought Schwarz's The Anarchist Design Book primarily for his information on seating furniture, but as it happens, I followed and completed the plans for the boarded bookshelf first.
I don't know whether I reached the conclusion from experience or from one of Schwarz weblog postings that he wrote during the writing and research on the book, but I knew that I preferred fixed shelving. I won't bother with my own reasoning since the Kentuckian lays out his case fairly well. I'll go through some of what I have learned in making this piece of basic carcase construction and point out my own variations and the one place where I think Schwarz's design can be significantly improved.

The first point that requires attention is that this is a large piece, larger than most projects for those who primarily use handltools. It requires a correspondingly large assembly area and adequate tools to the task, which I learned conclusively that I didn't have. Because of the nature of globalism, I was only able to buy a single 48" parallel clamp and 3 at 36" from a Taiwanese distributor. At least, I thought I bought the 36" clamps, but the maximum capacity as I learned from making this piece is 31", which is what I had to cut my final width down to, removing 5" from the 3 shelves.
15" of excess beech banded shelving
But it's easier than trying to cut boards longer after discovering a snag in the middle of construction. Only because there was somebody else in the woodshop making tabletops from imported beech, did I have a handful of strips which I then glued to the edges of the shelves with the expectation that this will reduce problems with abrasion and denting. This detail is not intended to be equated with the dropped edge that Schwarz mentions. That construction method limits the height capacity of the shelves with little structural benefit in my opinion. I chose nominal dimension pine lumber for this piece because that is what I readily can obtain. This required glueup to make the 13" sides that Schwarz recommends. After resawing to approximate thickness, adding the beech strips was just another part of the process of sizing the major stock pieces.

Clamping up the three shelves into their corresponding dadoes is an acrobatic challenge even if all the pieces are uncupped and perfectly fitted. Trying to apply warm hide glue beforehand only adds to the complexity. I found that I could partially assemble the shelves and then allow some hide glue to trickle into the joints before tightening the clamps. Because I was working in an unheated workspace, I squirted some hot water into the joints to help the glue flow down the full length. The main function of the glue at this stage is to hold together the assembly until the nails are driven in.

Gluing the kickplate to the main ssembly
Schwarz made his bookcase in a minimalist, modernist style, eschewing ornamentation, except beaded backboards, and moldings. This makes construction fast and easy, yet it also allows for individualist flourishes to express themselves. I decided that the bottom kickplate merited some attention. It helps to provide rigidity to the bottom shelf and squareness to the carcase. If I make this piece again, I will trim it just above the floor level. As it is. I assembled the kickplate proud, gluing it in the dadoes and to the lowest shelf, planing it flush afterwards.
Playing card shims
the historically accurate back

Rabbeted top rail back discreetly receiving the backboards
There is one element of the boarded bookshelf design that I suggest be altered to improve the function and simplify the construction. I think that this detail also follows more closely to the handicraft tradition. After resawing construction lumber to dimension the 3/4" stock, I was left with stock that I used for the shiplapped, beaded backboards. There was severe cupping in this waste stock, which I split before surface jointing. The backboards are effectively random widths, ripped to create stock without voids nor problem knots. The thinner stock was rabbeted with a tablesaw on the backsides and the thicker stock was rabbeted and beaded  on both edges with an upgraded Veritas plowplane and beading blade to the frontside. These pieces also received dadoes to receive the shelves, lending support and stiffness to the frame. I chose to make a top rail with a rabbet along the back for two reasons. It hides the back completely from view. More importantly, it saves effort and material when attaching the backboards, allowing the use of odd lengths that don't require a flush edge along the top since it is tucked underneath the top rail. I also made the top rail cap the ends, covering any potential gap in a clear line of sight. This type of top rail also gets inserted into a rabbet in the sides rather than a dado, which immensely simplifies the joinery. Even in perfectly clear stock, cutting out a rabbet is easier than chopping out a groove.
The knot around which the bookcase was constructed
A dimension of the top rail is specified as 4" wide. This also happens to be the same width of the kickplate so the number was likely chosen to keep the parts list easy to remember. While the kickplate's is determined by the height of the lowest shelf, the top rail's width isn't so constrained. The wider the top rail can allow for using shorter length of backboards; if the top rail is too wide, however, the beaded back details will appear out of place. I chose to allow a defect of the stock to determine the width. I chose to stop the rabbet on the sides that receive the top rail just above a knot to avoid the difficulty of paring close. I let the tree determine the final appearance.
a painterly effect
I always intended to paint this piece. Pine and other softwoods lend themselves to painting despite recent trends and modern aesthetics. The idea to paint the stripes on the highlight the dado joints came to me as a means for obscuring the nail heads. Milkpaint doesn't adhere to metal surfaces reliably well. I use Tremont nails, which are effective fasteners but not decorative. And with the paint in hand, the muse, Moulariprionia, casually whispered to me: "it will be ever so lovely to paint a false leg detail along the side bottoms." And she's correct with her guidance as usual. I chose iron oxide black to hide the nails because I had the pigment in stock, but in retrospect, I think the Umber/Sienna pigment would be more appropriate. The trompe l'oeil lightens the mass of the piece.   

Completed and awaiting a librarian's touch as soon as the BLO has dried

27 November 2017

Last class of 2017 in this cold, dark world

Instructor and students

This past weekend, November 25-26th, I guided a couple who teach English courses at Hohai University through the A1 class, which covers marking a lapjoint, sharpening, and a strong grounding in handsawing. They live a subway stop away from my apartment and I have come to know them through playing ultimate frisbee. Both budding woodworkers made comments as to how much they appreciated my teaching style. This touched me since pedagogical skills, especially to foreign teachers, are seldom positively acknowledged in China.

Proper use of paring chisel

Bench sawing

They shared with me some of their frustrations as teachers and working within the mainland Chinese education system. They wanted to know how long I had been doing woodworking, I explained that I had started at 13 in a middle school class. Their only equivalent example was learning about welding in a high school physics class.
Table mat

demonstrating a combination square to verify a sawcut

These two happily concluded the class and posted these images on their own WeChat photostreams. During the ride back home, they mentioned plans for wanting to convert their garage into a functional workshop. I'm looking forward to collaborating with these two.
Christine's husband's posting

Kevin's wife's posting
If you're not on WeChat, then where are you?

11 October 2017

First Woodshop Openhouse

I managed to organize a free public event at the woodshop during the National Day holiday. I had tried to coordinate this with the woodshop chief but this proved to be fruitless. I simply plunged ahead and let the woodchips fall.  WeChat (weixin) is the default mainland China chat application and it is equally used for both commercial and personal communication. Since I don't have a national ID, I cannot take full advantage of its business options so I must post on my photostream and then some Chinese supporter can manually repost.
The initial inquiry
This was the first posting to mention the event. It didn't generate much response, except for a couple who teach at university. I set a date based on their availability. And they did come and expressed an interest in classes at the end of November so I can claim a modicum of success.
The invitation
When I was ready to advertise the time of the event I posted this, which generated much more eager enthusiasm for reposting. Nobody appreciated my reference to Tom Sawyer with a 'free' painting party and nobody dared to ask about this reference. And even before the event, I heard the apologists perfunctorily suggest excuses for the low turnout. Unprompted they consoled me: "National holiday. Lots of people go out for traveling." and "The timing is not good. All the Chinese travel outside for the festival." Because what I mostly need to know is when I might be doing anything wrong, not a better option. And naturally it is imagined that potential students are freer to visit during their regular workweek. The concept of RSVP, as I have just learned, is not part of Chinese culture. As it happened, most visitors were my wife's colleagues with whom she gained some face as a result of her reposting and the majority of them arrived without announcing their intentions.
A professor picks up a brush

Iron Red, Iron Yellow, Chromium (III) oxide
Students on task
Two Moravian stools (ein Schemel) and a computer desk organizer
The three young men attending with their mother,  a former colleague of my wife, seemed eager to learn about woodcraft, the smallest in particular. They're at an age, however, junior middle school students, when it's unthinkable that they devote any but all their time and mental energies to preparing for the gaokao examination. They were fun to have around and provided a satisfying counterbalance to the younger 'little emperors' who showed up,  and who demanded more attention from the grownups.

explaining how to use a paintbrush

A family who does woodcraft together...

the importance of keeping the paint properly stirred

focused on task

a mother learns a lesson

I did the preparations for the milk paint in the apartment owned by the woodshop chief. It's still mostly unfinished and so I used the sink in the bathroom. I would have taken photos but it seems weird to take photos in such a place, especially since it was so crowded. I carried the prepared curds back to the underground
Obligatory group photo

In the end, stools were painted; word was spread; goodwill was shared; and connections were established.
Inspired by the works of Samuel Clemens
As gratifying as whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence, I reckon

Then for a moment my back was turned

Keeping old bones from becoming brittle Ultimately, Frisbee

Sundays I don't do woodworking; instead, I can be often found on the campus of Nanjing Normal University (Nanshida) taking advantage of infrequently maintained turf, enjoying the outdoors, and playing a sport that truly deserves a more informative name.
Protected from the sunshine
And yes, there are the rare days with blue skies above Nanjing, generally due to holiday reduction of industrial activities. The following videos were taken on October 8th.

This pickup match involved some recent graduates from a Post Office university, some returnees, and a motley band of the usual suspects. Normally we run some basic drills before engaging in some collegial competition.

As one veteran player commented: "good dump swing practice"

Not being able to reliably post video content is just another side effect of working in the Middle Kingdom.

21 August 2017

Refactoring a Chinese table part 2

Despite my worry that I might not be able to reassemble a new table leg with the crossed tenons, I found that if I compressed the ends of the tenons with a channel lock pliers with padded jaws, I gained just enough leeway to be able to drive the tenons in.
First testfit
Testfit revealing uneven gap across the miter

I testfit both sides in turn before attempting to assemble the whole base. My best guess is that the tenons were originally left long and cut flush only prior to finish application. There was what appeared to be interference with the miter joint on the upper register, compelling me to trim it a bit although this seemed to do little with tightening the joint but the gap was consistent. With so many connecting points in this piece and difficult to recover reference points, I resigned myself to accepting that just getting the table back in order was my goal, not creating tightly fitting joints, which might not ever have been consistently tight. A point worth mentioning is that the leg bottoms were not chamfered, exactly where chamfers serve an important function to prevent splitting. I have no explanation for this detail, but I followed its precedent in the new leg.
new leg in veeblocks

I then set up the new leg on the bench in joiner's saddles to chamfer the inner corners that correspond to the chamfers of the skirts. The outside arris received only a slight roundover. The inside arris has the edge minimally softened.
A hipster version of Mr. Clean
The next task was to clean up the surfaces of accumulated crud and schmutz. I don't have any access to conservation grade supplies so I chose to use a cleaning product that I found in a local supermarket. I tested it first on the broken leg. It didn't cause any staining so I attacked the main table with it and some new abrasive sponge pads.
Going over the finished surface made me examine the table as  whole more closely. I started to see just how of poor quality the original stock was for this piece. While it's true that many of the defects were oriented to the inside, that wasn't always the case. Additionally three of the four original legs have boxed heart centers. Resultant checking and holes from the pith were evident.
Knots on broken leg

Checking and pith loss in boxed heart stock

I know that every workman must balance his inputs (labor and materials) with what he can expect in terms of price for a finished product. This piece, however, seems to have incorporated every marginal stick of lumber on hand. There is not a single piece of lumber in the base that does not display evidence of insect damage, wane, checking, or other defects. While tabletop outer frame is made of by far the best selected pieces (the boards in the center of the tabletop show pith loss), these four boards are also the most crucial of the whole assembly.
Loss in verticals

Pith loss

Powder beetle damage

Rough sawn marks left unplaned on exterior surface

A lesson from this restoration is to understand just how rickety and shaky such a base is without a tabletop to lock it all tight. The strength and mass of the tabletop holds 24 tenons together in its perimeter. I don't think that I've encountered such a complex piece that relies so much on four sticks of wood not failing in function to hold together all the joinery of the whole. It's a mystery why craftsmen of this genre never chose to use pegs to stiffen the joinery. It would certainly be applicable to do so where the upper register intersects the legs. It would also reduce the strain on the leg tenons intersecting and closing the butt miters of the tabletop frame. It's evident from this adhoc repair that the craftsmen were aware of the application of pegs.
Original pegged repair to control split in open mortise
Wedged throughtenon in cross member
 The cleaned table surfaces reminded me that the choice of finish is often more about unifying many different wood species than it is about creating a protective cover. I cannot do any testing, but from experience, I would describe the original finish as a colophony based varnish with added darkening tint.  The dark varnish serves a dual function. Besides unifying the varied wood species used for this low end piece, it fools the eye into thinking that the table is made from a high value tropical hardwood traditionally used in HongMu furniture (ebony, rosewood, etc.). And more cynically, the finish also helped to obscure the many flaws in construction and selected stock.

Pith loss and color contrast once obscured by tinted finish

Cigarette scorches formerly obscured by tinted varnish
It's especially difficult to generalize from this one experience. I have seen other Chinese make efforts to restore and conserve traditional furniture forms, but it's not common. In fact, this is the second simian ping table in the woodshop now. The first one caught my eye until I notice that it had been riddled with finishing nails by a previous conservator. Finding such a piece just a few doors from the woodshop could be attributed to amazing luck or it might be an indication of just how disposable these traditional pieces are thought of by contemporary mainland Chinese. It might be due to a lack of skills generally that can explain why these pieces get tossed to the curb without much fuss. I also accept that these pieces, while amazing examples of workmanship, were, at best, midlevel items for utilitarian purposes. They are not made of the high value tropical hardwoods, which are often the main factor in determining their intrinsic value by Chinese consumers. Lastly, there is a general thought among most mainland Chinese that old things are bad and new things are good.
New wood integrated into old

Refactored table
I've learned now to better understand why so many student projects follow such a narrow range of characteristics. In the mind's eye of mainland Chinese, the simian ping table form is how they think of a high quality table. Here are a few examples of tables made by woodworking students.
Traditional overhanglessness

Qing style coffeetable in black walnut

They employ more simplified joinery, (often biscuit joinery), and modern adhesives but they still carry with them long established features of a simian ping, three way flush surfaces and as little tabletop overhang as possible. And yes, in their focus on this form, their pieces display compromises in joinery and a failure to consider wood movement, pushing similar problems into the future.

Disappearing legacy
A time back, I came across this piece also put to the curb for public removal.  At the moment, I had no place to move it into and no ready means for transporting it. I was able to look it over after taking this single photo as rain was imminent. One of the rear legs was broken, but it was a repair that could have been managed without much difficulty.  More importantly was the function of this piece. I don't know the Chinese name but I call it a foodsafe, an invaluable household item in days before the availability of electric refrigeration.  I could see that it was a handmade item, intended to be a centerpiece of a living space, but I doubt it was as old as the table because it contained low quality particle board. Although one section featured a sliding glass door, the rest of it was enclosed with window screen that had rusted. Despite these parallel compromises in handicraft, I regret not rescuing this piece because I think it represents a more valuable example of material culture and one that will never be preserved in a Chinese museum.
In the USA and doubtless in other countries, the equivalent of this piece, a generic piesafe can be still found in many homes either as family heirlooms or bought from an antique dealer. It's even possible to buy new pieces that evoke this form.Nobody, I doubt, would use them as their intended function, but form and nostalgia keep them from being turned into firewood or landfill.