Tuesday, April 16, 2013
It’s a good thing I work at a woodworking school, or a phrase like “you’ve got nice legs” could get me slapped (or punched!) awfully fast. Instead, I’m spending the week assisting in “The Hunt Board: a Side Chest With Jeff Headley & Steve Hamilton”, and comments about anyone’s legs are taken as a purely professional statement.
As you might guess, legs were the theme on Monday in the back machine room. All thirteen students needed to mill, taper, and mortise 6 legs for their hunt board chest.
After a quick introduction to the piece (Jeff and Steve always bring the completed piece and a disassembled prototype so you can really see all the details), we all hit the machine room.
One of the things that surprised me when I first started taking period furniture classes, was that most professional furniture makers use plenty of power machinery to make their period furniture. Like many people, I initially assumed that period furniture would be made using period techniques and tools. What I’ve learned over the years (and Jeff and Steve are perfect examples of this), is that what that separates the successful guys from the rest of the pack is their expertise in knowing when to use power machines and when to reach for their trusty handtools. As it turns out, it’s all about efficiency and control (just like they approached it back in the 18th century - only back then, power machines were known as “apprentices”). Power machines get you close (and do so quite a bit faster), and then handtools refine and provide the control necessary for the perfect fit and finish.
So with this philosophy of efficiency firmly in mind, Jeff’s class proved (once again) why it’s a great thing to have multiples of every machine here at MASW. We turned the back machine room into a gigantic beehive of activity. First we took the legs to thickness and square with the jointers and planers, then we utilized every hollow chisel mortiser in the place to cut the mortises for our front rails and side panels, finally we tapered the legs using a jig on the on the tablesaw. What was my role in all this you ask?? I devoted most of the day to grabbing the cutoffs from the the taper operation so they didn’t get thrown back at the operator. It’s so good to feel needed! :-)
Where did handtools come into play?? Well, the one caveat of the tapering jig is that you must cut the correct face of the leg on your first taper so that you can rotate it 90 degrees to cut the second while keeping a flat face on the jig. If you cut the wrong face first (I’m not naming names here), then, all of a sudden, the table saw is of no use to you. Instead, it’s a quick trip to the bandsaw and a few passes with a hand plane and you’re golden.The time it took Jeff to cut and plane that out-of-sequence taper was a fraction of the time it would have taken to cut a wedge to jury rig the tapering jig (and if we’d done that, it still wouldn’t have been perfect). By knowing hand tool skills, we’re able to benefit from the efficiency of machine cuts while maintaining perfect accuracy in any situation that might come up. Knowledge of hand tool skills always pays off.
Now that’s a lesson for any furniture maker - period or otherwise!