College Practical techniques

Three weeks into my college course

My inbox has been flooded with two requests for an update on my college course, ‘Intermediate Furniture Making’. It’s a CASS course, run at the London Metropolitan Uni in east London. This course is possibly the best thing I’ve ever done, in a work sense. I’d recommend going back to college to everyone who has ever thought about it. Here’s a synopsis of my project so far.

My home for the next fifteen weeks, well, on Fridays anyway. I’m pretty blown away by the range of machines here. Whilst I consider myself an advocate of hand tools, learning to use these machines is going to be really useful for batch production and repetitive tasks.
This being my first project, (a small bedside cabinet), I found it hard to work on a scale drawing and to estimate the thicknesses for the various elements. I ended up doing a full-scale drawing on the living room floor. This really helped me to visualize the project and I made some fairly crucial changes I might not have noticed otherwise. I also realised I really need to learn Google Sketchup quite soon, to visualize more complex joints in 3D. I’ll save that learning process for winter. Please also note pink umbrella top right, which was waved around by youngest daughter, as she walked over my drawings as I worked. I bet Joseph Moxon never had this trouble.
Right, I’ve skipped forward a bit here. Having chosen walnut for the cabinet, I’ve dimensioned the elements for the two side panels, using a planer and a thicknesser. You could do this by hand, but as I say, this was a chance to understand how the machines worked. The thicknesser leaves a decent finish, although if you were doing this by hand, you’d start with ripping to size, flattening with a scrub plane, then gradual planing with jointer planes, fore/jack planes. Then eventually finishing with smoothing planes and scrapers.
Cor, look at the grain on that! This was an excitingly saucy ‘reveal’. As I split one piece of wood on a bandsaw, a really interesting area of burred grain was exposed. I need to make sure I show this area on a part of the cabinet that’s in full view. Pretty quickly I’m understanding about choosing wood for it’s best grain, and how to work the wood in different grain directions, rather than, well, going against the grain.
Ok, so my stock is dimensioned, and I’m starting to figure out my mortise and tenon joints. The parts with chalk on, are the tenons, they will slot into holes, the ‘mortices’, in the legs underneath. So I need to cut the holes, then makes sure the tenons fit nice and tight. Once again, I made use of another machine, a morticer, to cut square-edged slots, and moved onto the tenons, which I intend to mainly do by hand. An interesting tip here, when drawing your cut lines, if your marking knife lines don’t show up, (as here on dark-ish walnut), rub chalk into the line. All these old-school tricks, this is what it’s all about for me, we must not lose this knowledge!
Ok, time to start cutting. The faces you see here could be cut on a bandsaw, but I’ll probably do the whole thing by hand. Learning to cut straight is a skill I really want to get down. You can see that the depth on the right is shallower than on the left, to the ‘shoulder’ of the tenons, that’s because I want to leave a ‘haunch’ for extra stability. More on that later, let’s get cutting.
The ‘cheeks’ of the tenon have been cut. Lots of concentration, as I need to make sure I stay just outside my chalk line. If I don’t, the fit inside the (already cut) mortice will be sloppy and inaccurate. I’m learning it’s surprisingly easy to mess up your work at various stages. Never has the adage ‘measure twice, cut once’ been ringing so often in my ears. So this is where I am, back next week to slice the remaining cuts, and see if my tenons fit my mortices. Expect tears of joy or woe, depending on how it turns out. Either way, it will be emotional.

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