College Practical techniques

College course: Day 4

Interesting day. If you are the one person that reads this blog, you’ll remember last week I was feeling a bit tense about my first ever mortise and tenon joints, and whether they would fit together. By all means scroll to the end of the post, but here’s how it went.

This is a cross piece from a side panel. It needs ‘tenons’ on the end, to fit into the ‘mortices’ (the holes), in the other pieces, which I made last week. When they’re fitted together, they will make really good, strong joints.

Taking the waste off the top side. Note the saw marks actually go back further to the ‘shoulder’, but when the side bits, the ‘cheeks’ are taken off, the reason why will be explained.

The side ‘cheeks’ of the tenon now need to come off to expose the central part, which will become the tenon. To make the cut very clean, and so that the joint closes up very tightly, I’m paring an angled cut across, leaving a ridge for my saw to run alongside.

Cheeky! Or not so, any more. Both sides come off, and you can now see the tenon, which will fit into the mortise. The top part, reduced in length, will also go into the joint, but that is a smaller part of the tenon called the ‘haunch’. This will be recessed into a shallower mortice, and will add stability and strength to the joint.

A quick test-fit, and joint is way too tight. My sawing seems pretty straight, but the tenon is about a millimeter too thick for the mortice. I take the opportunity to use a nice paring chisel I just snagged on eBay, to take some thickness off. I could also use a shoulder plane of course, but hey, it’s nice to try and hone your hand skills.

This short bit eventually needs to slot into the holes in the outside bits. (Technical terminology).

Ok, this is too exciting. The joints slide smoothly into the mortices, which is a success in my book. At the moment, you can see the joints stop at the haunches, and next week I’ll just need to continue a shallower mortice along this part, so the joint closes. I’ll probably do that by hand, taking out the extra with a mortice chisel the same width as the existing mortice. All four joints should then close up nicely.

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.
College Practical techniques

Back to school

This week, I’ll be going back to school, well, university to be exact. I’ve decided to finally get back to doing something I enjoy, rather than devote 100% of my time to designing for publishing.

And so life is dividing itself a little. My Fridays will now be spent at London Metropolitan University, with a small group, devoted to learning the craft of furniture and cabinet making, something I’ve become fascinated with in the last couple of years.

It’s ridiculous of course! People are living in smaller houses. They don’t have big money to spend on handcrafted furniture. They have faster-changing tastes, brought on by the rise of advertising and consumer culture. The ‘need’ has been surpassed by the ‘want’.

And you know what? I don’t care. It’s not about making things to sell. I’ve been heartened by folks around me who have re-discovered the value of learning a craft and enjoying the process, rather than racing to the end product.

And so, as the one reader of this blog will already be aware, I’ve been amassing old tools, quality tools from British manufacturers, some of whom sadly don’t even exist anymore. I’ve been introduced by friends to people who produce the most amazing work, old fellows who have so much knowledge, hands that have been making things all their lives.

It’s also been enlightening, when I mention building a tool collection and starting my learning process, the amount of people who talk so openly about relations or friends who were in the business. ‘I think I still have some of his tools in the loft!’.

So Friday I start learning all over. Somehow scraping a living from this may, or may not come later. It might become a part of my life, it may not. For the time being, I’m just enjoying having a new challenge beyond life in front of a computer.