Sunday, 13 March 2011

Trees, planes and good friends

Recently, friends of mine purchased an unused plot of land adjoining their house and being keen gardeners they naturally wished to fully exploit the opportunities the new addition had to offer. While they were setting-out for a more ordered plantation, it became apparent that some unfortunate and ill placed false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia, also known as Black locust)) trees would have to go. It was now that I received a phone call asking if these trees would be of any interest to me. Naturally, I was quick to reply; yes they would, but only if the trunks had enough girth. A preliminary trip was organised to select those trees which would yield workable timber and these were then marked with a B, so they could be identified and left by the woodman. Now it has to be said, Robinia in truth is not the best loved local tree, principally because it is not native to these parts and since being introduced has been over eager to colonise hedgerows and any vacant piece of land. Hence my opportunity, that’s not to say that the tree doesn't have qualities, it does have a number and these make it's timber prized in certain quarters. For example, it provides the fence post of choice, due to its high resistance to rot and this is probably now the premier commercial value derived from the tree. Personally, I have pulled a hundred or more year old post from the ground that was as sound as the day it was struck. It also makes a superb turnery wood, which when worked makes a dramatic display of colour and figure from its pronounced growth rings. Choice pieces can also be used in cabinet making, although it will rarely be found in a wood yard and usually falls into the furniture makers hands, like now, by accident.

The story doesn’t quite finish there, because while picking-up the Robinia trunks, my friends asked if I would be interested in some old planes they had discovered in an outhouse, they having no use for them. Well it would be a funny type of furniture maker that wasn’t interested in old planes so I went to have a look. Although on first appearances they appeared to be in poor condition, they were a bit more interesting than the usual smoother and jack plane that I was expecting, although these were also in evidence. Among the haul there was a very fine double iron tongue and grove plane made from Cormier and a rather nice small toothing plane also in Cormier. In addition there were some round soled planes and a few moulding planes, plus a metal jack plane that had been broken and re-welded, this has made the sole so out of truth that it is probably beyond help. Being made from Cormier, these planes would have been among the best and most expensive available in their day.
Cormier is the French name given to the Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis/domestica) this name was once thought to have derived from cervisia the Roman name for beer, of which they made a type from its berries. However, it’s now thought that the name originates from the old English syfre, a drink which was more of a liqueur, although the British did also make beer from the berries. Evelyn said that “ale and beer brewed from the berries when ripe, of the true Service Tree is an incomparable drink” The berries were also used effectively against all kinds of stomach problems including diarrhoea, dysentery and infections of the digestive tract.

My friends were taking down their unwanted Robinia trees that they may plant amongst others, some Service Trees. There is I feel something poetic about this coincidence, especially as there is a chance I may one day work the Robinia with those same planes that they gave me made from Cormier.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A Peg Is Born

For the many people who have bought my peg rails over the years and those who may be thinking about buying one or more, I made this video to show exactly how they are made. Like any subject, there is more to a Shaker peg than one would imagine

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Scraper plane?

If you work in hardwoods, some time or other you are going to wish you had a scraper plane to work that difficult grain structure right in the middle of your masterpiece. Unfortunately, they are horribly expensive for a plane you may only use once in a while and you perhaps can’t justify the cost. Especially, if like me you would prefer to use a hand scraper for the added control they give. Never the less, faced with a large area, scraper planes do have their place. Fortunately, there is a crafty way around the cost, by making your own scraper plane from a block plane, or from any low angle plane, the principle is the same. All you need to do is buy an extra blade for your existing low angle plane and regrind to a negative angle. If you don’t have a low angle plane of your own, you can pick-up a Stanley 220 block plane, for a few pounds on ebay; these make great scrapers.

Lay the plane on its side, take a rule and felt tip pen, now mark an angle on the plane side, in line with the leading edge of the blade. The angle should be about 97° leaning towards the front knob of the plane. Draw another line parallel with the plan iron as shown in the photo, set a sliding bevel to this angle and use as a guide for re-grinding. (if you don’t have a sliding bevel, you can simply glue or staple two pieces of card together at the correct angle) Now remove the blade and regrind to angle indicated by your sliding bevel; this will give a negative cutting angle to the blade. Take your time grinding the blade making sure to cool it, by dipping it in water every few seconds of grinding, you don’t want to loose the temper of the steel; this would make it useless. Hone in the usual way, if you really want to be accurate you can cut a block of wood at the same angle and use this to steady the blade while honing. Just lay the wood block on the stone and run the blade along it while honing. You don’t need to form a hook on the blade like a hand scraper; it will work fine as it is. I use a 220 just as described; I have a few block planes, so keep this one just for scraping. If you only have the one plane it’s a simple job just to change blades as needed. I’ll tell you one thing, a scraper plane like this is much easier to adjust than the real thing. Although you will need a little practice to get it just right, this will be time really well spent and you will be producing gossamer shavings from that impossible grain.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The biannual artisanal exhibition in Saint Amand-Montrond really proved to be a pleasant surprise. We were at first a little disappointed that the venue had been moved from the old Cistercian abbey, d’noirlac, because it has such a wonderful ambiance and practically unlimited space to display. However, the light and airy atmosphere of the custom built salle aurore at the cite de l’or complex proved a pleasant alternative and of course the facilities are so much more up to date. Besides this the organisation, accessibility was far better than at some of the much larger events, we have exhibited at and in addition it is virtually on our doorstep. So there was no long journey with a vanload of furniture, with the accompanying, often uncomfortable, hotel stay and meals out.

The real benefit of a local show like this is that many of the visitors are old clients and or friends and we get to meet many more prospective clients who live locally. Except for a very light shower just as we were packing-up to leave, the whole three days had perfect weather with not a cloud in the sky.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Louis XV Commodes

It’s always a pleasure to restore fine pieces of quality antique furniture, so it was a special treat to receive two almost identical commodes attributed to Louis N Malle. Cabinet maker, or the correct French term, ébéniste to Louis XVth. Both commodes were in the classic bombé shape that you can see from the photos and each heavily decorated with gilt ormolu. Both featured panels of lighter rosewood against a darker surround. However, the timber species of surround veneer differed, Kingwood was used for the larger commode, while a species of Ebony, ébéne verte, was used on the smaller more delicate commode. Both commodes had marble tops, one of these was clearly the original, while the other, I suspect was a 19th century replacement. Moving these marble tops aside one could clearly see the maker’s stamp and seal, leaving no doubt to the provenance.

While the main structures were relatively sound, damage to the veneer from shrinkage of the supporting timber was pronounced as was substantial wear to the drawer runners and drawer bottoms. Apart from these two major items conservation consisted of careful cleaning and finish repair, the results I hope speak for themselves.