On tool marks

May 26, 2008

Above: A drawer pull, carved by hand, with the knife marks left behind.

The beauty of a crafted thing is largely in seeing the hand of the maker in the object — for instance, in tool marks left behind.

Now, there is a big difference between tool marks that are the result of sloppiness, carelessness and corner-cutting, and tool marks that are the result of patience and care and skill. The first results in something completely ordinary. The other is what may push a crafted thing toward the realm of art. Say if you took away the brush marks in a Van Gogh — there would be little left that makes the painting so wonderful, nothing that gives it its soul.

The imperfection of those brushmarks take on a perfection of their own. It’s the same with tool marks. What it boils down to, in a word, is skill. It is one of those things (like playing the blues) that is very simple, but not at all easy.

And nowadays I think it is easy to get sidetracked and direct your practice and your work toward achieving a machine kind of perfection — a glass-smooth table top, say.

But I’m of the opinion that a wooden table top ought not to feel like glass. It ought to feel like wood — or even better, like hand-crafted wood. Can you feel the mild undulations left by a hand plane on the surface? Again, this easy to do in a sloppy way, but hard to do in a way that seems both hand-made and, at the same time, elegant.

Tools: Marking knives

May 20, 2008

Before I knew better, I bought a nice Japanese marking knife (bottom, in the photo) for something like $13. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice piece of steel.

But I later made one that was functionally equivalent out of an old Dewalt reciprocating saw blade that was otherwise ready to be thrown out. I filed the teeth down a bit, which were pretty dull by then anyway, and they made a nice no-slip sort of grip (top in the photo). Both of these served as well as I could ask, except in the case of very narrow dovetail sockets, which require a very thin-bladed knife.

Marking out pins from dovetail sockets also works best with a knife that has a single angle and is beveled on just one side, as opposed to one ground to a point or beveled on both sides. You stand the knife against one side of the socket, the point of the blade reaching all the way back to the inside edge of the pin stock, and scribe across the endgrain of the pin stock, carefully keeping the knife steady against one side of the socket. The knife has to pass all the way across the pin stock. With narrow dovetail sockets, sometimes the narrower ends of the sockets are barely wider than the kerf of my dozuki saw. But the knife has to slide through that opening so you can scribe all the way across the thickness of the pin stock. That’s the first thing I wanted: very thin metal for the blade.

But to mark both sides of the socket you need two knives, really, mirror opposites. That’s the second thing I wanted: mirror opposite blades attached to the same tool, so I wouldn’t have to change tools. So that’s why I made another marking knife, two pieces of very thin steel, cut from an old card scraper, and a little piece of boxwood as a handle (middle in photo above; and by itself below). Works great. I mark all the sockets on one side, then flip the knife over and mark the other sides.

Display shelf.

A client wanted a way to display a few teapots and things, and I got a little carried away.

I’d say the influence on this design is a mix of the Arts & Crafts era and the woodworker James Krenov (read a little more about Krenov here).

The front of these shelves curve, which means the front of the drawers curve. That means the sides of the drawers are different lengths, and the sides and front don’t meet at a 90-degree angle. It all got a bit complicated, and this turned out to be a more challenging piece than I expected. But it turned out to have a quiet sort of grace that I really like.

It is made of cherry wood with ebony pulls and other accents. The drawer pulls are carved by hand, and I let the faceting from the knife remain rather than sand and polish them smooth.

26 inches long x 20 high x 7 deep. A piece like this would start around $400, without the curved front, and depending on the species of wood chosen.

(Photos by George Filgate)

Update: Display shelf

May 5, 2008

Last update on this project. It’s finished. I’ll post better photos and a portfolio entry soon.