Thursday, December 5, 2013

Taming the savage knife, or, How I learned to stop worrying and love me some Cotswold furniture

The Cotswold school of furniture design, to which hay rake tables belong, was pioneered by Ernest Gimson and Sidney Barnsley. This particular style derives a lot of it's essence from the primitive utility of farm equipment: Wagons, rakes, and other items that are made to be functional, and durable. There's a lot of exposed joinery. Chamfers are used extensively on Cotswold furniture, as they were on farm implements and wagon parts. This was done both to reduce weight, and to keep square edges from getting damaged by the daily indignities of farming life.

William Morris wrote that furniture should be made of timber, not of walking sticks, and this is pretty much the unwritten motto of Sidney Barnsley's work in particular. I wouldn't park my truck on top of one of his tables, but I probably could. One of Barnsley's contemporary critics wrote that his furniture looked like the work of a savage. When you compare it to the work that came before; Queen Anne, Chippendale, Sheraton, etc, it certainly does. And the intellectual side of my brain understands that. But in my eye, whatever this furniture may be lacking in a refined veneer of dignity, it more than makes up for with an enthusiastic display of grounded strength, and competence. It's rustic, not primitive.

The photo up above is the Memorial Library at the Bedales School in Hampshire, England. It was designed by Gimson, built under the supervision of Barnsley, furnished by both men, and is listed as one of the Grade 1 listed buildings in the UK. It's completely unlike anything that was done over here by Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles and Henry Greene, but I think it has the same kind of unity to it that those architect/ designers were known for. And I can't decide, given the choice, if I'd rather visit this building, or one of the Blacker or Gamble houses.

Back to now.


Six years ago I took a class with Brian Boggs. Brian is one of the smartest woodworkers I've ever met, and seeing him go at it with a draw knife was a revelation. At the time, he'd been making chairs for 25 years, and when he worked, it looked like he could shape the wood more easily than some people can tie their shoes.

One of the things he said was that the last stroke of the tool is the most important. A draw knife, spokeshave, or other edge tool, used properly, will leave a burnished surface that you can't get any other way. How you get from raw wood to that last stroke doesn't matter... the surface that remains is what you see. That stuck with me, but it really came to mind when I started working on this table. Machines make neat work of the complicated joinery. But then the real fun begins of making the finished surfaces... including the extensive chamfering on the stretchers.

I went to visit Patrick Leach when the hay rake table was still on the drafting board. A draw knife was on one of his monthly tool lists, with a chamfer guide, and the guide really caught my eye. (I still have to tune up the knife I bought from Patrick. This draw knife was ready to go, so I swapped the chamfer guide over.) The guide has two sides, which is normal, but also has a keeper on top, to hold the setting when it gets moved or removed. I moved it around on the knife a fair amount, so that keeper bar helped a lot.

There was a learning curve. (In part because Patrick had clamped the guide onto the knife upside-down.) A draw knife is a pretty dynamic tool: It gives a lot of feedback, and responds best to adjustments made on the fly. And the guides are designed to function accordingly. They're not designed to turn the knife into a chamfer plane. But they do allow a more controlled introduction of the tool to the material, to make it easier to take thin, chamfer- width shavings with the knife. And they do limit the depth of cut, like a chamfer plane. After a while, I was roughing out with the bare side of the knife, and using the guide to take the last few strokes that would leave a nice, uniformly cut facet.


Once I started to get the hang of how the guide works, I also found that it could steer the knife into and through the stop-chamfers, too. The knife is a visceral tool to begin with, but this particular operation felt more instinctual than I'd've thought. It also made layout a lot easier. Initially, I'd drawn out the edges of each chamfer with pencil lines, and traced the curve of the stop chamfers with a fender washer.  But once I understood that the guide would help to shape the stop chamfers, as well as define the chamfer width, nothing more than a tick mark to indicate each end point was necessary. That was a huge time saver.

The more I read about hand tool methods, the more I'm starting to understand just how efficient they can be... and how much thought and effort had been put into making them more so. North Bennet gave me a solid grounding in the fundamentals of hand tool woodwork. But there's a big difference between cutting fine joinery in school, and doing daily battle with dead trees for a living. This particular setup gave me a good long glimpse into a world where push-button woodworking didn't exist... but neither did the time to reverently commune with the wood, or relish the shavings that spill slowly onto your basement floor. This is not the tool of a hobby woodworker.

I had a fair idea when I started the table that I would want to make more furniture like this. And I was right. I'm very handy when it comes to jiggery and precision machine work, and that's where I'll save a lot of my build time. But the opportunity to spend a few hours working and sweating with a draw knife isn't typical of a lot of the other work that I do, and the hand-hewn, burnished surface left behind by the knife isn't either. It's that last cut with the tool that Brian was talking about.

And, it's enjoyable. If I can build more furniture that's big and visceral, like these tables, I'll be a really happy guy. It's worth two weeks of dust and noise to get to a couple of hours of quiet, sweaty, focused work.


Chris said...

James, what is the assembly order of the hayrake? The photo gives the impression there is no way to fit it together.

Gary Cook said...

I love the look of this table and those sharp chamfers, James. The whole piece feels really 'immediate'? Have you done a post showing the way those joints go together? I would like to get my head round that.


JW said...

Thanks for reading!

I'm ridiculously swamped this week. There are 2 more entries on this project that haven't hit yet, but I haven't had time to adequately write them up.

I'll get to them, and to the assembly issue next week...