Willingness to Try

Unlike some, I don’t shy away from trying techniques and processes that are new to me.

If you rely on somebody to show you how to do something, you may learn how to perform that task proficiently but you may not ever know how to do it another way, or develop your own methods of work. More significantly, you will never make a breakthrough and develop a new technique never before used.

Crossing Joint

Now, if your goal is to be able to make high-quality woodwork, simply mastering the well established techniques that we all read about should be enough. I do believe that having a solid understanding of the basics is essential, and knowing advanced techniques is useful as well.

It’s the willingness to look beyond what you know, and experiment, that will really help you develop on your own. This is the path to innovation.

To see if a process can be improved upon, focus on the desired outcome and identify which processes you know can be used to complete the task. Don’t stop there. Continue to examine the product and try to figure out how else it can be achieved. Chances are, you will figure out some ways of achieving the result that you hadnt realised previously. Many will likely be techniques already discovered and employed by others, but one or two may be viable options that are new.

There are always new woodworking tools and technologies coming out and it’s good to be aware of them, but don’t forget to look outside of the woodworking box. What tools are used in metalworking, upholstery, or ceramics that might be suitable or adaptable in whole or in concept to your application?

You may find something new that works well, or you may not find anything useful other than the new-found knowledge that you didn’t find anything worthwhile there. I believe that knowing even that is useful. But you can’t make new discoveries if you only follow.

Understanding Material and Joint Strength

Guaranteed Success Can Be Bad

Being scared of failing can steer us towards taking extra precautions to better the odds of success. It makes perfect sense, but it’s a shame because when things are over-designed and over-built, we often do not have the opportunity to observe the actual strengths of the components involved.

Ash Chair Prototype

Understand the Materials, Techniques, and Tools You Use

Forget cosmetic appearance – the real beauty comes from the strength within. The true beauty of ash, despite its strong grain lines, is its strength and flexibility. These physical properties allow components made from it to be shaped more aggressively. Likewise, fine-grained hardwoods allow us to cut finer details, including joinery and carvings. For these reasons, it is important that the maker have a good understanding of materials when matching them to the design.

Cribbage Table 1

I made a series of stopped cuts in the stretcher of “Beware of Step 27”, then wedged the sections apart and drove them into mortises in the legs.

Learn By Doing

As with most things, you can learn about things including the physical properties of materials, and strengths of different joints from books. It’s an excellent place to start, but a terrible place to finish. Books and pictures do not adequately convey the strength of a certain material or joint. Descriptions such as “good load strength and medium hardness”, or “an excellent joint for a drawer” do not actually tell you how it will fare in the real world. Videos are slightly better, but are still a poor replacement for hand-on experience.

Seek Failure and Learn

The best way to learn is to experiment yourself. Seek failure. Here’s a simple exercise I use to learn the strength of the materials I use. A project always yields some offcuts. Instead of cutting over-length offcuts to fit in the firewood box, I first try to break them.

Small pieces, I may try to fold with just my upper body strength, larger ones I may try to break over my knee. But for most offcuts, I set one end on the ground and the other on a block of wood, then stomp on it. It is impressive how strong wood is. Quite often, the wood will kink or bend before it fails.

Apply Your Knowledge to Your Designs

We can apply our knowledge of the materials and joints we use to the things we build. Remember that in most projects, the piece of wood taking load, whether it be a table top, chair stretcher, or drawer bottom is wider if not thicker too, and is hopefully not the subject of somebody stomping on it, trying to break it.

I think that this exercise will build your confidence in material strength, and possibly get you thinking about using materials in more daring ways.

What is there to be Afraid of About Failure?

Well, for starters, I’m not sure what failure really is. I’m always experimenting and learning and, to me, what others may perceive as failure is really just an indication that something can be improved. I am always looking for ways to improve things, and constantly analyzing things for weaknesses.

Developing a solid design on paper (or in CAD) is exceedingly difficult, and perhaps impossible. For that reason, many designers, after they have put together a workable idea, create a 3D prototype that they can interact with, test it, and understand ways to make it better.

In almost all cases, there will be a desire to change something. Maybe it doesn’t look or feel right, or maybe it doesn’t operate as it should. These are not failures, but merely a part of the process.

This same mentality can be applied to the work that we woodworkers do. If I make a three legged stool, I might realize, when I test it, that the legs are too close together so it is easier to tip over than I might like. This isn’t a failure – it’s just a step in the design process. Next time I make something similar, whether it be the next day or next decade, I will take into consideration what I learned from the previous versions of the design and make adjustments.

I guess what I am saying is that creating good products requires patience. Developing a good design requires caring and often requires numerous versions, each a little more refined than the last. Quality workmanship takes an investment in time. And it takes time to fully understand a design – the best way I know is to use it in everyday life just as you normally would.

The Relentless Push to Fail

One thing that really helped me learn and develop my woodworking skills was having an abundance of materials. Having an adequate supply on hand meant that it wasn’t so valuable that I felt the need to be especially careful using it. This allowed me to experiment and take chances with less to lose.

Failure, or more precisely, his relentless push to fail, is the single most defining thing about Chris’ work.

Working with live edge slabs further improved my abilities. This material presented unique design opportunities and challenged my mind, as often there were no straight edges or reference surfaces on which to rely. The knowledge and experience gained here helped me conquer my future designs with complex curves, twists and angles (although a few designs still elude successful completion). I came up with many of these designs as a challenge to see if I could really make them a reality (many I did, some I did not).

A fine woodworker makes what he believes in. He makes what he sees in his mind's eye. Jonathan L. Fairbanks

I recall that at one point, I actually believed that everything had already been done. Now I know that is not true. Never one to simply follow what’s already been done, I am always looking for ways to do things differently.

A lot of my work is inspired by the thought: “I wonder if it would be possible to…” or “I wonder what would happen if…”

Venturing down paths unknown can be difficult, both technically and mentally. You don’t have the reassuring thought that “it’s already been done before, so I can do this too”. To realize new ideas takes a great deal of belief in yourself. It is definitely helpful to have time and materials to invest in the process. Having a good assortment of tools, visualization skills, and a healthy imagination is helpful too.

Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway. Frederich BuechnerAlthough I feel that being able to do something well is important, knowing that you can carry on after something has gone sideways is even more valuable. This confidence, this faith that you can succeed is key in being comfortable taking chances.

Techniques are a starting place, and I do believe that in a sense, technique sets you free. Tom Loeser

The slides in this post were used in my PechaKucha presentation.

You Don’t Need to Know What You Are Doing

The New Furniture

Knowledge is good, but sometimes it can be blinding.  It can lead to incorrect assumptions and closed minds. Currently, I’m reading The New Furniture which addresses how technology is changing the woodworking industry.  In the book, Ken Susnjara made this comment on how his company, Thermwood, came to invent the first CNC control.

In truth, this was not part of any grand scheme.  Much of it occurred just because we didn’t know what we were doing.

– Ken Susnjara

When I haven’t been told that something can’t be done, I am more likely to try it for myself.  Even if I hear that it can’t be done, I may still test it.  I think that this attitude is exceedingly important in the world we live in today – the age of misinformation.  Learning the basics is important, but experimentation and figuring out things for yourself is the best way to learn what works and doesn’t work, as well as why.

Links:

Three-Week Chair, Prototype #4

On June 30th, with other projects in the shop wrapping up, I realized that I had three weeks until Port Moody Celebration of Wood Woodfair.  I knew that I wanted to have some new work for the show and got the idea to design a chair. That night I started prototyping.  Previously, I posted a review of prototype #1#2 and #3.

During the build, I referred to the chair as version 4, not prototype 4 because I hoped that I would be satisfied with the end result.  As it neared completion, I realized that although it was clearly my favourite of the four designs, it still needed refining.

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This design benefited greatly from the previous three prototypes on which I worked out the critical dimension and angle of the back rest.  Here is what this design taught me:

  • I got the dimensions and angle right so the chair was comfortable;
  • the aesthetic of the design was okay, but I wasn’t quite happy with the overall form; and
  • the whole chair tended to sway side-to-side.  The sway seemed to come from the frame itself and not from the joint at the bottom stabilizing cross member.  This may have been a problem with the design itself or with the fact that ash was one of the more flexible woods.

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In three weeks I designed and built four prototype chairs and learned a lot along the way.  However, I wasn’t able to finish the design process but I discovered what worked and what didn’t work, what I liked and what I didn’t like.  It was a good challenge and I enjoyed the journey.

In a way, it was my own version of the Telephone Game Design Experiment (why not sign up to play?).

This slideshow includes all the pictures I took during the build.  I welcome any feedback you may have.  You can follow my live updates via Twitterfacebook, or Tumblr.

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Three-Week Chair, Prototype #3

On June 30th, with other projects in the shop wrapping up, I realized that I had three weeks until Port Moody Celebration of Wood Woodfair.  I knew that I wanted to have some new work for the show and got the idea to design a chair. That night I started prototyping.  Previously, I posted a review of prototype #1 and #2.

While the first two prototypes each required less than a day to build, the third needed part of a second day to get to the stage where I finally understood it.  This was where I left it.

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For the sake of time, I did not fully sculpt the chair, but I shaped it enough to understand how it would look completed.  Had I continued, you would have seen the following changes in this prototype:

  • all the seat slats sculpted like the front one;
  • all the backrest slats sculpted like the top one;
  • the ends of the seat slats cut so that the seat narrowed towards the back;
  • the seat stretcher trimmed where it protrudes through the spine;
  • the base and frame components rounded more at the edges and carved to flow into the ribs; and
  • the spine tapered in thickness towards the top.

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This design had a lot going for it and it was a huge step in what I felt was the right direction.  This is what I learned from prototype #3:

  • I was able to successfully construct a seat using cross lap joints that was strong enough and didn’t sway side to side – even in a softwood like Douglas fir;
  • the straight backrest with ribs was comfortable;
  • the variation of bridle joint that I used allowed me to easily adjust the shape of the chair spine and also provided ample glue surface when I wanted to make its position permanent; and
  • this four-legged base was stable and more elegant than the previous version.

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These are some of the changes I’m considering for the next version, which will probably be the last one I make before the show:

  • quality hardwood (likely ash), instead of Douglas fir;
  • a different base design, possibly connected to the underside of the seat which means a smooth L-shape for the seat and backrest;
  • more ribs for the backrest;
  • a slight curve in the backrest – possibly a mild S curve;
  • more curvature and taper for the ribs; and
  • completely sculpt and finish the chair.

This slideshow includes all the pictures I took during the build.  I welcome any feedback you may have.  You can follow my live updates via Twitterfacebook, or Tumblr.

Three-Week Chair, Prototype #2

On June 30th, with other projects in the shop wrapping up, I realized that I had three weeks until Port Moody Celebration of Wood Woodfair.  I knew that I wanted to have some new work for the show and got the idea to design a chair. That night I started prototyping.  I posted a review of prototype #1 HERE.

This was what prototype #2 looked like when I left the shop Thursday night.  (It was sitting on a scrap of plywood just so that it would sit flat.)

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I had a lot of mixed feelings about this prototype – some things that showed potential and other things I did not care for at all.  This is what I learned from prototype #2:

  • I was able to “curve” the spine of the chair with a series of mitre cuts to provide a more upright sitting position.  The resulting faced spine could have been shaped into a flowing curve;
  • a 1-3/4″-wide spine was too narrow to lean against comfortably;
  • the “ribs” that cross the spine made the back rest comfortable, but the highest of the three was positioned just above my shoulders so it didn’t serve any practical purpose;
  • my head rested against the spine only, above the top “rib” which was comfortable;
  • 17″ was a good width for the seat and 19″ was a good height for the seat;
  • at 16-1/2″, the seat was a good depth and I would not have wanted it to be any deeper; and
  • the stability of this base was also decent and it took effort to tip the chair sideways.  However, because of the large amount of contact area between the chair and the ground, it tended to rock.

Studying the design of the chair, I realized some things:

  • the seat definitely needed to be shaped to remove the rectangular shape and bulkiness;
  • I liked the idea of a curved spine and ribs and it would lend itself well to sculpting;
  • the lower half of the chair has a lot of visual mass, but the top half has very little so the chair looks imbalanced; and
  • I’m not sure whether I liked or disliked more things about this chair, but either way, it helped me begin to figure out where prototype #3 will be going (and where it won’t be going).

This slideshow includes all the pictures I took during the build.  You can follow my live updates via Twitterfacebook, or Tumblr.

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I have not started the third prototype, but have some ideas of where I want to take it.  I welcome any feedback you may have.  My next day to work on the Three-Week Chair will likely be Monday.

Three-Week Chair, Prototype #1

On June 30th, with other projects in the shop wrapping up, I realized that I had three weeks until Port Moody Celebration of Wood Woodfair.  I knew that I wanted to have some new work for the show and got the idea to design a chair. That night I started taking some measurements, and the next day in the shop, I built the first prototype.

My goal with the prototype was to prove that the concept of a chair with a single upright had some merit and was worth refining.

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I was pleasantly surprised at the success of this first prototype.  Honestly, I was pretty sceptical at the beginning, but that doubt faded when I was able to sit in it. This is what I learned from prototype #1:

  • the angle of the back rest beam was appropriate for a lounge chair, but not for a dining chair;
  • the width of the back rest beam was comfortable to lean against;
  • the head rest was a nice addition;
  • 11″ was too narrow for a seat (which I knew beforehand but didn’t have anything wider);
  • 21″ was a little too high for a seat (I meant to locate the top of the seat at 19″, but instead set the bottom of the seat there);
  • 13-1/2″ was okay for a seat depth (front to back), but it could have been greater;
  • the flat seat was surprisingly comfortable – not phenomenal, but not bad;
  • the stability was decent and it took effort to tip the chair sideways; and
  • the joinery I used was rock solid, even without glue.

Studying the design of the chair, I realized some things:

  • proportionately, it looked too narrow;
  • the head rest seemed to be too big and blocky;
  • it looked like a Frank Lloyd Wright design;
  • I didn’t have very much more material that is 3-3/4″ thick (used for the beam), so I would need to source some more, laminate material, or modify the design if I intended to make more; and
  • there weren’t many curves, and I was okay with that.  But I wanted to experiment with adding curves too.

This slideshow includes all the pictures I took during the build.  You can follow my live updates via Twitterfacebook, or Tumblr.

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Prototype #2 is already underway, but I welcome any feedback you may have.

An Inspiring Story from David Savage

David Savage is a name that you might know.  He is a UK woodworker with over 30 years of experience and a very distinctive style of furniture.

Love Chairs, version 4 by David Savage

David teaches woodworking and contemporary furniture design at Rowden Farm Atelier and recently released his book, Furniture with Soul, a book which looks at the journeys and work of 20 accomplished, contemporary woodworkers.  There is a lot of very useful information for a woodworker on his website and a great, if sporadic, newsletter where I found this story which I was compelled to share.

When I was a young guy I had a girl friend called Sandra. Her Dad, Ken Bulmer, was a joiner, this was waaaayy back in the Sixties. “I’ve got to find a second hand book cabinet for all my text books” I told Ken one evening after supper. I was the smart kid going off to college, “Don’t go spending your money lad” said Ken, “we will make you one”. (Note the “we”). Well, we went out the back to Ken’s shed, he pulled out bits of plywood and two or three long pieces of reddish wood with a dark shiny veneer on one side that had done a job somewhere else, then Ken had pulled them out of the refit to bring home. “This will do” Without much fussing he took a short stubby pencil from behind his ear marked a few lines with a battered square then began sawing. Hold that end up lad… The saw had a high rasping note that I now always listen for.

Within minutes Ken was sawing mitre ends and truing them with a small hand plane. He then cut housings for the two shelves and quickly fitted them, pinning the joints with small nails that he punched beneath the surface, filling the hole with “Brummer.” [Note: Brummer is a brand name of wood filler.] Now we had a structure and I was sent to get two cups of tea. On the back he cut and fitted a Masonite board to make it rigid. We now had THE BOOKCASE. By the time he had finished it was late, I guess about Ten O’ Clock, and “we” had made a cabinet.

Seeing someone do that up close has gone a long way to inspire me to become the person I am. Ken Bulmer – thank you. The world needs to be engaged in stuff that gives that kind of satisfaction. Just buying and nailing and running away does not do it. We need to feel what Rich feels; satisfaction in doing something as well as we can. Pat on the back, hell, that does not go anywhere near…