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.

My Robocop Story – I’m Just the Installer

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2014 by johnwiggers

My Robocop story is a funny one and it goes back to 1992, which was during a time of severe economic recession.

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Business was brutally slow and I was being hard pressed to find work to keep my shop going. Although few projects were happening at that time there was a wealthy real estate magnate building a large custom home in Toronto, and his project required a number of custom cabinets, furniture and built ins. Unfortunately all of this work had already been bid on, and won, by a kitchen cabinet shop that managed to convince the client that they could do high end custom work.

While this kitchen company was able to handle most of the straight forward cabinetry, they quickly found themselves in over their heads on some of the more complex pieces. At this point the interior designer in charge of the project contacted me to find a discrete resolution to the problem.

I was offered the opportunity to make the more complicated furniture pieces  under the condition that it was sold under the kitchen company’s name. The kitchen guys were to get full credit for my work. My name was not to appear on any of the paperwork, and if the client ever saw me and asked who I was my response was to be: “I’m just the installer”.

Although the scenario didn’t thrill me I was also well aware that my ego didn’t pay the bills. Therefore, I agreed to the terms because my shop needed the work.

The pieces were delivered and the client was thrilled, and here is where the story should end. In fact, this is where the story gets interesting.

Shortly after this project was completed I was in Toronto to attend a design show called IIDEX . A client of mine by the name of Monroe Sherman flew up from Miami to attend the show, and one night he and I went out for dinner with a mutual friend by the name of Bill Stolz. Bill was working IIDEX with the Canadian Consulate General out of Atlanta.

After dinner the three of us headed to a nightclub for cocktails, and ended up at what was then the hottest club in town. I cannot remember the name of the place, but it was located in an upscale neighbourhood called Yorkville. Although the place was about 3/4 full by the time we arrived, it was filling fast.

We had just ordered our first round of drinks when Bill recognized a couple of guys standing nearby. He motioned for them to come over, and soon we were standing as a group of 5 talking about whatever it is that guys talk about. About 10 minutes later more people enter the club, and amongst them was the famous actor Peter Weller – of Robocop fame – who showed up with one of his friends.

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It turns out that Weller’s friend knew one of Bill’s friends, so before long there were 7 of us standing in a circle, talking in the middle of the club. I wound up standing beside Weller, even though neither of us actually knew one another despite our four degrees of separation.

By this point the whole club was abuzz with the fact that the famous Peter Weller was in the house. Bear in mind that the movie “RoboCop”, and it’s sequel “RoboCop 2”, had both been huge hits at the box office in recent years. And because Weller was the star of both films, he was a widely recognized personality at the time.

But what happened next was hilarious.

With the club now jammed full of people and our group of seven now the focus of everyone’s attention, who else should walk in but the real estate magnate in whose home I had been installing furniture only the week before.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see his startled expression as he looked over and saw my familiar face. I could tell that he recognized me, but was unable to figure out who I was. It didn’t take long before the bulb of recognition went off over his head. Of course, now he was puzzled as to what the heck his cabinet installer was doing hanging out with the famous Peter Weller.

We finished our drinks and prepared to leave. As we left the club I smiled and nodded to the client as we headed out the door.

There was no need to say anything.

After all, I was just the installer.

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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Growth Redefined

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2013 by johnwiggers

Over the past 46 years our custom furniture making business has typically grown in slow, incremental steps. Today for the first time in almost half a century we have made the conscious decision grow our business smaller, and I can honestly say that I am pleasantly surprised at how good it feels.

In 2001 we moved into a large shop in Port Perry, Ontario that measured almost 13,000 sq. ft. in size.

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The vast open space and high ceilings allowed us to create a magnificent facility that at its peak employed as many as 25 artisans working full time to build exquisitely crafted examples of fine quality wood furniture.
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Times change, however, and in recent years it has become apparent that in order to remain viable in a now globalized world of craft it is imperative to radically lower operating costs and overhead structures. With that in mind we purchased a small studio in a rural location and set about to radically restructure our business model.

Thankfully all of our machines were already fully paid for, so the key decisions to be made revolved around which machines we would keep vs. which ones had to go. Over a dozen machines were either given away or carted off as scrap because, quite frankly, there is such a glut of old, used machinery on the market today that the secondary market for them is all but non existent.

Our Holz-her edgebander and SCM sander were sold, but only because we didn’t have room for them in the new studio. It was sad to see them go, because in many ways they had become like old friends.

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Much of our inventory of vintage woods was crated and packed into containers, and moved to an offsite location for storage.

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The best machines we decided to keep, with the result being that our tool collection has now been pared down to roughly two dozen pieces of equipment, ranging from a vintage 1940s Beaver cast iron bandsaw to an old but still productive Thermwood 5-axis machining centre.

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There is no question that moving the machines into a smaller studio presented more than its share of challenges. But even when we only had inches of room to spare it was gratifying to be able to find a way to thread the proverbial needle with tons of heavy iron.
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As you can see we are now officially moved out of our old facility.
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Please note that our new address is:

Wiggers Custom Furniture Ltd.
P.O. Box 518
Beaverton, Ontario
L0K 1A0

705-426-9141

For the next few months it looks like we’ll be quite busy unpacking and setting up the new studio. Photo updates will follow at a later date.

Interior Woodwork for the Knight XV

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2012 by johnwiggers

In my previous post I described some work we recently completed for the Knight XV – a vehicle considered by many to be the world’s most luxurious armoured SUV.

Because it is difficult to convey a sense of scale about how big the Knight actually is, I thought the following photo of a Knight standing with a Hummer would do the trick.

A current special order for a Knight is being fitted with luxurious interior details, and for this project we were also commissioned to complete a set of custom wood fascias, bezels and trim pieces that are to be inlaid into an all leather interior.

These pieces were crafted from quarter cut Zebrawood and encapsulated in a poured resin finish. After many hours of meticulous hand sanding these pieces were then polished to a mirror-like sheen.

Custom Key Box for the Knight XV

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2012 by johnwiggers

The Knight XV is widely regarded as the world’s most luxurious armoured SUV.

Hand crafted by Conquest Vehicles of Toronto, Ontario these massive machines are exquisitely appointed all the way down to the presentation boxes that are provided for the delivery of vehicle ignition keys.


These boxes are milled out of solid billets of high grade aluminum, with the inlaid rivets on the lid intended to emulate the rugged design of the Knight’s exterior.

We were recently commissioned by Conquest to line the interior of these boxes with custom leather insets.


These insets were vacuum formed out of black Tuscany leather with concave pockets shaped to receive the key.