Archive for the Woodworking Category

We’re now on Instagram

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Interior Design, Studio Furniture, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , on March 19, 2014 by johnwiggers

We’re now on Instagram!

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Please click on the link below to check out some of our work.

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It’s Interesting How Memory Works

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Interior Design, Studio Furniture, Vintage, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , on February 27, 2014 by johnwiggers

Earlier today I dug up some vintage furniture handles that have been stored away for almost 20 years.

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I knew exactly what box to find them in, and also where in the hardware room to look.

What surprised me, though, is that I also remembered that 8-32 x 1-3/4″ machine screws would be needed to mount these handles onto a 3/4″ thick drawer front.

It’s strange how I can remember that, but not what I had for supper 3 nights ago.

Whale Tail Desk – for Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Posted in Artisanal, FSC, Furniture Making, Interior Design, Studio Furniture, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2014 by johnwiggers

The story behind the creation of my Whale Tail Desk was published in issue #79 of Canadian Woodworking Magazine, in August/September 2012.

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What follows is the content that was submitted for publication.

In the Autumn of 2001 my daughter was working on a school project that had to do with whales. Her writings contained all the standard textbook information available on these creatures, i.e. “whales are the world’s largest mammals; they live in the sea; they eat fish or plankton, and they are endangered.”

After reading her project to me, she asked what I knew about whales. I told her that when a whale turns up dead in the St. Lawrence River it’s carcass is so contaminated with pollutants that it has to be handled and disposed of as toxic waste. Needless to say, her eyes went wide as saucers and her whale project evolved along a whole new tangent.

That conversation made me wonder about what it is that our schools are teaching our children. Or, rather, what it is that our schools are not teaching.

My daughter and I ended up talking a great deal about whales, and out of those discussions came a promise that the following summer we would take a trip out east to see some real whales, up close and in the wild.

Not long after this discussion I received an invitation from World Wildlife Fund to build a showcase exhibit for the inaugural “Forest Leadership Forum” to be held in Atlanta, Georgia in April, 2002. Given that the show was focussed on protecting the world’s forests, I was challenged to come up with a cool idea for a piece of furniture made of FSC certified wood.

For several months I wavered on the idea of whether or not to even participate in the show, because after 9/11 the thought of flying anywhere wasn’t holding much appeal for me.

By early 2002 I was still undecided about whether to participate, but now faced a deadline. I was stuck with the furniture designer’s equivalent to writer’s block. Nothing clever was manifesting in the way of ideas, although I had concluded that my furniture piece should be a desk of some kind.

Then one night I’m watching television and there’s a program on about saving whales, and I see the actor Pierce Brosnan speaking on behalf of the whales.

I was already familiar with Brosnan because at that time he was also a spokesperson for FSC.

The connection of Brosnan to both whales and FSC suddenly melded with my idea for a desk, and everything came together in a flash: FSC + Whale + Desk.

Grabbing a pencil and a thin piece of cardboard I scribbled out a quick rendering of a desk based on what a whale’s tail would look as it breeched in preparation for a deep dive. Cutting this out with scissors I then Scotch taped the pieces together into a crude scale model. The result was an actual miniature prototype, and the whole process probably took no more 15 minutes to do.

This model was then scaled into working drawings, and the woodworking process began. The main face of the torso and tail started as an oversized T-shape slab of 1-1/4″ veneer core ply that was cross laminated with Macassar Ebony veneer. Relief kerfs were cut into the underside for bending the curve. Plywood offcuts were used to make elongated L-shaped vertical gables, with the 1″ ply floor set into dadoes.

An anthracite grommet was inset into the top, to allow wiring to pass through to the vertebrae wire management column running vertically inside the torso of the desk. For stability the desk was engineered to be secured to the floor with lag bolts.

After a thorough sanding the exposed surfaces were finished in a high gloss low-VOC polyester finish to enhance the grain and give a glossy “wet look” to emulate a whale rising from the water.

The finished Whale Tail Desk was displayed at the “Forest Leadership Forum” in late April, 2002 along with a custom made Andiroba Credenza crafted from the same wood and finish. These pieces are both now part of a private collection in Moscow.

A few months later our family travelled east to New Brunswick and took a long ferry ride to a remote island called Grand Manan, which lies just off the coast of Maine. We arrived on the island on August 6th and had advance reservations to go on a whale watching tour the following morning.

As we travelled around the island I soon learned from the locals that whale watching was not an exact science. Even in optimal summertime conditions such tours are highly dependent on the weather, the seas and the fog. I was told that in the previous 2 weeks hardly any tours had managed to make it out to sea because of heavy fog. And even when boats did make it out, there was no certainty of even seeing a whale – let alone seeing one up close.

I now felt concern that expectations for the trip might not unfold as planned. We had a wedding to attend in a couple of days, and our only opportunity to see whales would be the following morning. My daughter in particular was excited at the prospect of seeing a whale, and I did not wish to see her disappointed.

That night I took a walk to a small rise of land overlooking the sea. I prayed for good weather and silently called out into the darkness – asking for a whale to make an appearance the following day.

We arose before dawn and made our way to the harbour where a small converted lobster boat took us into the Bay of Fundy, to an area where whales traditionally feed. Luckily for us, the weather, the fog and the seas were all working in our favour, and conditions were nearly perfect.

After a bitterly cold 2 hour ride, the boat’s captain spotted a pod of 6 or 8 whales on the horizon. He slowly eased to within about 1/2 mile of where these whales were, and shut off his engine. Now we had to wait, with cameras ready, scanning the horizon in anticipation of the whales coming to the surface. We didn’t know when, or where, these creatures might appear.

For the next 20 minutes we enjoyed sporadic sightings of whales in the distance. These massive creatures would suddenly and unexpectedly emerge from the depths, then crash back into the sea with huge plumes of water and spray. Everyone was crowded to the starboard side of the boat, methodically snapping off frame after frame of film.

Given the unpredictability of the whales appearing on the horizon, I was snapping through an incredible amount of film in the vain hope that one of these shots might yield an incredible photo. At one point I stepped back from the group to change film when the most amazing and magical thing happened. Unbeknownst to any of us a huge Humpback Whale had quietly surfaced behind the boat. This whale didn’t make a noise, and not one of us even noticed he was there.

As I busied myself with changing my film an odd feeling suddenly came over me. Casting a slow sidelong glance over the stern I found myself looking – no more than 10 feet away – right into one of eyes of this massive creature. In one brief moment I felt the whale say to me, as if telepathically, “you asked for me to appear. Here I am.” Needless to say, as soon as I announced the whale’s presence behind our boat everyone stampeded to the back for a better look.

The feeling of being small and powerless was overwhelming. Humpbacks can grow to a size of 40 tons, and if he wanted to this whale could easily have flipped our boat like a cork in the water. But this was not how things unfolded.

It was as if this whale had been waiting for us to show up, and he was floating patiently in the water until he was sure he had our undivided attention.

He slowly raised the top of his bumpy head out of the water, as if to confirm with his own ancient eyes that we were all watching. He then exhaled a huge, bushy spout of misty air with a sound not unlike that of an elephant’s trumpet. And let me tell you, after a lifetime of eating seafood that fellow could definitely have used a breath mint. Children were giggling at how bad his breath smelled.

But the best was yet to come, and the only way to describe it would be to say that this whale grabbed this moment to, literally, seize the proverbial stage and ham it up for our cameras.

It was a most amazing few minutes of time, during which this wild mammal – of its own accord – decided to approach our boat in a manner that gave us both the time and the angles necessary to take some absolutely phenomenal photographs. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this whale was probably posing for some of the shots.

On our long ride back to the harbour I considered what might have motivated such an untamed creature to behave in this manner. I know that whales are highly intelligent, so on some instinctual level this individual would probably know that the greatest threats to its survival (i.e. pollution, collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing nets, and slaughter by commercial industry) all come from humans.

In spite of this, this whale took incredible risk to reach out and connect with us.

Perhaps, deep down, it was because this whale also realises that as much power as Man has to destroy, Man also has the power to change – and to protect. And maybe through connecting with us, this whale is also trying to secure his own future survival by sharing with us that feeling of oneness with him.

It would be easy to dismiss this magical moment was an isolated incident, a coincidence, or a figment of my imagination. But I do not believe this to be the case.

When we arrived on Grand Manan the day before, there was a story circulating amongst the locals about a Humpback Whale and her calf which had become entangled in fishing nets earlier in the week. Such entanglement is a guarantee of certain death for a whale, especially calves. To the amazement of the locals these two wild mammals instinctively swam right up to a research vessel and waited patiently on the surface of the water while deckhands used knives to cut away the netting. Somehow these whales intuitively knew what they needed to do in order to survive.

Life always finds a way, and we should never underestimate the magic at work in Nature.

Artisanal Furniture Making Has Become Cool

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Interior Design, Studio Furniture, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , on February 15, 2014 by johnwiggers

Although designing and making custom furniture is one of the more challenging ways to earn a living in today’s world, one of the upsides is that artisanal furniture making has now become cool.

On the television series Sex and the City Carrie’s long term boyfriend Aiden Shaw was portrayed as a sweet and good natured furniture designer.

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Channing Tatum, in the movie Magic Mike, plays a male stripper whose biggest dream is to become a custom furniture maker.

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The real life Brad Pitt actually designs and makes his own line of custom furniture out of a studio in New Jersey.

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And finally there is Nick Offerman, who portrays Ron Swanson – the manliest man amongst manly men – in the television series Parks and Recreation. When not on the set the real life Offerman makes custom furniture out of his own woodworking studio, located near Los Angeles.

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A few weeks ago I attended the Interior Design Show (IDS14) in Toronto. For all intents and purposes the IDS has become an upscale version of a home show. Although corporate mega-exhibitors such as Ikea have become behemoths at these events, one has to admit that these brands are doing an effective job of marketing their wares to the mainstream audience that enjoys watching home improvement and DIY interior desecrator shows on television.

But to be fair I have to admit that when comes to design Ikea has come a long way from the days of the Allen key.

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For me, the best part of the IDS is Studio North and Prototype, which is a tiny display of micro booths that is usually tucked away in one corner of the main show.

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Studio North and Prototype is where student work and the wares of emerging makers gets displayed, and in my book this is the coolest and most inspirational part of the show.

At this year’s show, however, I noticed something unusual. There were all kinds of skinny jeans and an abundance of plaid shirts milling about, but the attire looked more American Apparel than proletarian Mark’s Work Wearhouse. It was only when I noticed the odd handlebar moustache and numerous well combed gnarly beards under a sea of carefully coiffed bedheads that I fully understood where I was. Studio North had become Hipster Central, and Hipsters were everywhere checking out the latest artisanal stuff.

Hipsters have become the butt of many jokes and parodies in recent years, but as a small scale furniture maker I actually appreciate the fact that they exist.

What I like most about Hipsters is their intense dislike for commercialization, mass production and mainstream brands. This, I believe, is one of the prime drivers behind the reemergence of craft in America, with the ‘Maker Movement‘ and the embracing of All Things Artisanal making it cool to be making things here again.

Of course, when it comes to making things, embracing the artisan and being the artisan can be two totally different things.

Custom Clock Case for a Charles Frodsham Regulator

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2014 by johnwiggers

We received an inquiry a few months ago from a collector and restorer of antique clocks. This fellow had a rare 19th Century Charles Frodsham timepiece, and he was looking to have a proper cabinet made to showcase the craftsmanship of the mechanism.

It was decided to build the cabinet out of Mahogany, and finish in a traditional French Polish. Some non-traditional details were added, including a removable crown to allow for easier adjustment of the clock mechanism. A portal window was also added on the left side to make it easier to view the inner workings of the clock.

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We completed the woodworkIng portion of the project with relative ease. The bigger challenge came from building the layers of shellac necessary for the French Polish finish. We opted to use a natural amber shellac dissolved in ethanol to a 1-1/2 lb. cut. Multiple layers of this finish were then applied using cheesecloth.

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After allowing for the base coat to thoroughly dry some dark brown powdered stain was then sprinkled onto the surface and rubbed in with additional coats of shellac.

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By the time about 20 layers of shellac had been applied it was apparent that more work would be needed to fill the pores of the wood.

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Fine Rottenstone was then rubbed in with the shellac, and I quickly learned that it is possible to apply too much Rottenstone.

The excess material was carefully washed off and burnished back with ethanol, and the final layers of shellac were then applied.

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After lightly sanding with 2000 grit sandpaper and rubbing with 0000 steel wool the finish was then polished so that the cabinet could be readied for assembly.

Special thanks to Alfred Sharp of Alfred Sharp Museum Quality Furniture for mentoring us through some of the trickier nuances of the French Polish finish, including the ‘Rottenstone Incident’.

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Our client was thrilled to receive the cabinet, and he described the workmanship as “superlative”.

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The butt hinges and the English half mortise locks were crafted from brass.

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The above image shows the half mortise lock detail.

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This is the detail of the portal window on the left side of the cabinet.

It was evident that an exceptional level of craftsmanship went into the making of this mechanical timepiece. This prompted me to learn more about who Charles Frodsham, the maker, actually was.

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What I discovered was that Charles Frodsham is regarded as one of England’s most renowned clock and chronometer makers. This particular clock is one of his better timepieces, and it was made sometime between 1850 and 1870.

This clock is actually known as an astronomical regulator because it is crafted to the most exacting standards of precision. The style of its dial evolved from the earliest days of astronomers wanting to be able to more accurately track seconds and minutes of time. This design would later become a favourite of the wealthy who wanted the very latest/newest/best clock.

Part of Frodsham’s legacy stems from the fact that he published many papers discussing the nuances of how to mechanically keep a precise measurement of time, including the effect that electromagnetic fields of the Earth had on the movement of metal in timepieces. He was also cognizant of the effects of temperature, and how warmer temperatures would expand the metal on pendulums, thereby lowering the position of weights and slowing the clock movement which, in turn, would adversely affect the time measuring accuracy of the timepiece.

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To compensate for this he incorporated mercury into the pendulums of his regulators so that the mercury could expand with the heat and raise the position of the weight in the pendulum in a manner that would offset the simultaneous lowering of the weight due to the expansion of the pendulum rod.

Although Charles Frodsham was not the first to use mercury in pendulums for temperature compensation (George Graham first discovered this in the 1720’s) Frodsham did develop an improved design that ended up under patent.

Charles Frodsham’s preeminence in the world of horology coincided with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. In 1842 boatloads of cheap, mass produced clocks from New England began to flood global markets at the seemingly improbable price of $1.50 each. Over the next 20 years, in part because of this American competition, the British clock industry declined to near extinction.

Because of its distinguished reputation at the upper end of the market Charles Frodsham & Co. did manage to survive this onslaught of cheap product and steadily grow their business until the onset of the First World War. According to this recent article in QP Magazine a group called The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers honoured the legacy of Charles Frodsham & Co. Ltd. by presenting a reworked Frodsham fusee mechanism to Her Majesty the Queen in celebration of Her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Charles Frodsham & Co. Ltd. is currently located at 32 Bury Street in London, UK where they are enjoying more than 180 years of continuous horological trading. They also have workshops and a small manufactory in East Sussex where they undertake conservation and restoration work on stock and clients’ pieces, and make modern technical timepieces.

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Our Brief History of Woodworking Clamps

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2014 by johnwiggers

Moving into our new furniture making studio last year allowed us to gather together all of our woodworking clamps in one place at one time; probably for the first time in decades.

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The process of doing this was eye opening, to say the least. For one thing I was a little taken aback at how many clamps we actually own. We ended up covering one entire wall with a wide assortment of woodworking clamps, and we have unofficially dubbed it ‘The Great Wall of Clampage’.

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Over the years a few different brands of clamps have graced our benches. Amongst my favourites are the Jorgensen handscrews, even though these rarely get used except for a few specialty applications.

On a day to day basis we use mostly F-clamps in our shop, and without question the ones that have endured best over the years have all been made in Germany.

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Our oldest clamps are ones that my father brought over with him from Holland, and they are now over a half century old. Their brand names are Bessey, Diepaca and Richa.

Woodworking clamps get heavily used and abused in our shop, and even though the Diepacas and Richas have each given us many decades of good service each of these of these brands has eventually worn out. In both of the examples shown above the steel eventually bent and the clamps lost their ability to function.

There is little question that Bessey has made the best preforming clamps in our shop. As old clamps either broke or wore out we ended up buying Bessey to replace them. The net result has been that the vast majority of woodworking clamps in our shop today are now heavy duty Bessey Tradesmans.

In all the years that I have used these clamps I have never seen them fail. In fact, I cannot recall a wood handle ever breaking on a Bessey either.

There is a saying amongst woodworkers that you can never have enough clamps. That saying is very true because even the simplest of projects will often require more clamps than you think you need, which invariably means that you will need more clamps than you actually have.

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On the console shown above somebody once told me that it would have been quicker to use cauls (and fewer clamps) because the clamping would have gone faster. I have always believed that the fastest (and best) way to do any job is to do it right the first time, and doing it right means having proper pressure along the entire glue joint.

There is no such thing as having too many Besseys.

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Incidentally, while looking for information on the history of Bessey clamps I came across a cool blog post showing excellent examples of vintage clamps. The link is here.

Some colleagues have also told me good things about a brand of American made clamps called Wetzler. I cannot comment on these because I have never used them and, unfortunately, it seems that Wetzler is no longer in business.

The New Studio

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2014 by johnwiggers

It has been almost a year since we moved out of our old facility to set up shop in our new studio. The previous post tells some of this story.

There is no question that a tremendous amount of work goes into moving a woodworking shop such as this, because the effort involves not only the transport of many tons of heavy machinery but also the moving and storage of tens of thousands of square feet of wood.

Some significant preparation had be done, ranging from 3-phase electrical work to pouring reinforced slabs to take the weight of some of the heaviest machines.

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A copper penny from 1967 was embedded into this concrete slab, because that is the year our family business was established. The thirteens in the date are a lucky coincidence, because 13 is a lucky number.

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The process of growing our shop smaller also compelled us to come to terms with almost 50 years worth of paperwork and old records that were stored away in a 40′ container. I personally spent several weeks sorting through box after box of documents to determine what could be shredded and what was worth keeping.

Old job cards, drawings and related project information we decided to keep because, quite frankly, I enjoy having a historical record of all the custom work we have done over the years.

Some long forgotten bits of family history also surfaced in the course of doing this purge, and I was especially surprised to find the original copy of my father’s cabinetmaker’s certificate from when he graduated trade school in Holland.

At one end of the studio we set up our Casati veneer guillotine and Italpresse hot press.

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This SCM sliding table saw has always been a work horse in our shop. The precision of this machine remains phenomenal, even after many decades of use.

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Smaller machines such as this 900 lb. vintage Poitras bandsaw were mounted on heavy duty Shop Fox bases, to make them mobile and, thereby, more versatile.

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Kevin’s bench is set up in a brightly lit corner, and a ‘Great Wall of Clampage’ has been created along one side. Although Bessey clamps have always been used predominantly in our shop, I truly had no idea how many we owned until they were all gathered together in one spot.

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My own bench is surrounded by windows on two sides, with additional light coming from a large skylight located above.

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My built-in desk from the old shop was reconfigured to fit the new space. The desk is made from Narra, and this wood actually comes from some of the very first trees to be sustainably harvested on the Solomon Islands in the 1990s. (The FSC was doing a beta test of its standards there at the time).

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Fitted into the credenza behind my desk is customized storage for my collection of Fine Woodworking magazines.

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The left side of this bookcase is actually a secret door that provides access to the hardware room located beyond. Of course, now that I’ve blogged about it the door isn’t much of a secret any more.

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A narrow annex located on the far side of the building was converted into a dedicated area for wood turning and tool sharpening. Our vintage (pre Delta) Rockwell lathe seems right at home here, and it seems to bask in the glow of the light from the massive window.

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We were recently asked if moving into this smaller studio has meant giving up some of our ability to do complex and finely detailed work. My reply was that the only thing that has changed is the physical size of our shop. During the planning stages of our move we made it our priority to ensure that our reputation for doing fine quality work was not going to be compromised.

To illustrate this point, the photo below is of a custom dining table that was delivered from our studio a few months ago. The top is polished Macassar Ebony, and it was made in one piece to a length of approximately 144″ long. The inlays are a combination of brushed and polished stainless steel.


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