What does it take to build furniture entirely by hand? That’s the subject of my 2 “18th c Tools and Techniques” classes in the spring of 2009 and I’m really excited about them. Unlike other popular hand tool classes, I’ll be focusing specifically on 18th c tools and techniques. But like every other teacher, I’ll be focusing on the subject through my unique filter. In my case, I seek to reproduce 18th c case work as I see and understand it, while working fast enough to make money at it.
I realize not everybody shares my dream of working as quickly as a London journeyman cabinetmaker. But I think everyone can see that when one removes time as a constraint, the result can be very different tools, techniques and furniture. I recently had the need for a 12-3/4″ board. The board I had on hand was 13″. Forget about the fact that this was an 8′ rip operation in 4/4 hardwood. 1/4″ is sometimes too much to plane and not enough to saw. I think it’s a truism that hand tools are effected by the waste. This certainly happens with planes and chisels. In fact, that’s the difference between a plane and chisel, right? A plane is a chisel that manages the waste in a controlled fashion. So if time were no issue, I might have planed that 1/4″. In my shop however, time is always an issue. So reasonable alternatives included redesigning the project to allow the 13″ board or hatcheting off the 1/4″. The draw knife is another tool that popped into my head. I think this is fun and there are a ton of interesting and helpful side effects of working this way.
These classes will look at specific 18th c inventories and period tool lists. I think modern woodworkers will benefit from a better understanding and appreciation of the quantity and sorts of hand tools required to work 100% by hand. Other instructors seem to focus on the tools that are available today. That’s fine and even practical and smart. But from my perspective, it’s limiting. We’re woodworkers. We build stuff. Our skill set shouldn’t be limited by what we can buy. And there are tool makers who can build the stuff we need. They don’t because nobody’s asking.
I think folks need to know:
- what tools 18th c cabinetmakers had
- what those tools were for,
- what makes them good or bad for that work,
- what the alternatives to those tools are,
- and basically how they are used.
This is where we are going to spend our time. If the students are good with their planes (as I suspect they will be) we’ll focus on chisels and saws. Students are going to use my tools, but are permitted to bring whatever they’d like. We’re not going to be making anything in particular, but I’d really like to see everyone cut a set of dovetails, make a mortise and tenon joint, a sliding dovetail, T&G, all the basic 18th c joints. Not having a project will allow us to focus on the challenging parts while skipping the drudgery that you’re already pretty good at.
My goal for these classes is to help individuals develop the skills necessary to build furniture 100% by hand, work in Colonial Williamsburg’s Anthony Hay Cabinet shop, or take more ambitious hand tool only projects. Call me selfish, I want to TAKE a class on building a Thomas Affleck Chippendale lowboy by hand and I need some of you to go with me! You get the idea: Day one saw out and carve the 4 legs. Day 2 put the carcass together and make the corner columns (turned on a spring pole lathe of course). And I can’t afford to spend three weeks building this project while the instructor wrestles with somebody’s dull chisels or LN jack that cut like a smoother.
I think these new 18th c Tools and Techniques classes will be fun and helpful. I’m pretty sure this is material that has not been offered before by anyone else. They’ll be like miny apprenticeships. And they’ll be held in two really great schools in locations that will be accessible to many woodworkers. For details see:
Kelly Mehler’s school, Berea Kentucky, March 20-22
Mike Siemsen’s school, Chisago City Minnesota May 13-16