Friday, October 31, 2008

Blackbeard & Vampira

These are our next door neighbors' kids, who stopped by for trick or treat last night.
If I had a kid, I would insist that blackbeard makeup be part of his everyday ensemble.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Spindle Turning

Having turned only pens in the past, I was excited to turn the spindles that will pin the legs to the runners on the sawbuck table.

Owning few lathe tools and possessing a miniscule amount of knowledge about woodturning results in an inevitable learning experience.

I turned two spindles at a time on my mini-lathe. The first spindle took several hours to complete but the second one was turned in about 45 minutes. It did take a while to figure out how to use the tools... and how not to use them. Lesson one: lathe tools will let you know when you've mishandled them.

The first set of spindles were turned facing one another, with the skinny part of the pegs connected in the center. Lesson two: wood becomes springy if the expanse of a thin section is too great; the wood will deflect as you run a lathe tool along its length.

Therefore, the second set was turned with the handles (the fat part) positioned back to back.

The spindles on the orginal table are missing, so I mimicked the shape of the handles on a friend's antique turning saw. I did, however, know the location of the pegs from photos that I had taken at the Landis Valley Museum.

I used inside calipers to measure the size of the hole and outside calipers to check the size of the peg that would fit into the hole. Lesson three: don't regret having purchased an expensive set of calipers years ago, even though this was the first time you ever used them.

5 coats of blonde shellac were applied to the completed spindles while they were still secured, and spinning, on the lathe.

A learning experience it was, but this was perhaps the most important lesson of all: signing up for a woodturning class would probably be a very good idea.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Brown Tool Auction Bonanza

If you've never been to a Brown Tool Auction and Dealer Show, you are missing out on a chance to be in the presence of a boat load of handtools—rare, beautiful, user-friendly, collectible, utilitarian—and scads of other handtool lovers chatting about their favorite subject.

Today, I found what I've been scouting for a few years: user moulding planes with delicate profiles at decent prices. I bought three and they are in near perfect condition.

As I was paying for one, a 70-something year old man walked over and joked that he'd never seen a lady buy a plane before. I told him it was a Christmas present. To which he replied, "Oh, you're buying it for someone else. Well, you had me there for a second."
"It's a Christmas present for me", I grinned.

Later, I saw him again when he was standing with his wife and he pulled me over. "This lady bought a handplane!" To which his wife replied crossly, with hands on hips, "I bought a handplane before! And that's a sexist comment. You could get in trouble for that!"

I thought my day was complete.

Then I ran into Jim Leamy and his lovely wife, Becky, who are always so gracious to talk with me at these shows. Jim told me I could stop by his shop for an interview sometime, so be prepared for some amazing eye candy in a future post.

As I was saying goodbye, Jim reached beneath his display table and removed something that he placed in my hand. It was two of his miniature beech rabbet (rebate) planes. One is 3/8" and the other is 3/16". Both are exquisitely crafted and stamped with Jim's maker's mark and he wanted me to have them.

And that's what made my day complete. I never thought I'd be able to say that I'm a proud owner of a Jim Leamy plane, let alone two. Thanks, Jim!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Back to the Sawbuck

I glued up 5 cherry boards for the table top of the sawbuck table and cut the sliding dovetails beneath the table surface. The dovetail dadoes receive the runners that will be pegged to the legs.

First I squared up the table top and cleaned up the end grain with a Lie-Nielsen skewed angle block plane with nicker. I bought this plane before I knew how to sharpen it and was not very impressed the first time I used it. I hadn't looked at it in years, but took it out, sharpened it on my 8,000 grit waterstone and wow! The shavings in the first photo are from endgrain. Forgive me L-N for ever having doubted you.

I laid out the dovetail dados and defined the shoulders with an exacto knife and chisel, then used a crosscut saw and router plane to remove the waste. The first dovetail dado took 8 hours for a proper fit but the second one took just 4. Still sounds like a lot, but the dovetails are 25" long and 1.5" wide, so I didn't feel so bad.

I followed the same technique as in the past, except I took Stephen Shepherd's advice and flipped the saw guide upside down. This way, you cut on the waste side at all times. It worked very well and it was no more difficult to hold the saw at the inverted angle.

An added benefit to flipping the guide is that the guide itself can be thicker because the lowest part of the saw's handle is opposite the guide (photo #4). A thicker guide provides more support for your saw.

The last photo shows the tell tale marks of gentle persuasion.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Tips on Documenting Antiques

Say you've spotted an antique in a museum that you would dearly love to reproduce. How do you obtain permission and, if approved, how do you go about taking measurements and photographs?

First, you need to contact the museum's curator and ask for permission. In correspondence, be polite, honest, brief, and let the curator know that you will accommodate his/her schedule.

So. Now you have permission to document measurements and photos of your beloved artifact. What do you need? How do you prepare? All you need is a ruler, tape measure, notebook, pen, and camera, right?
Yes and no.

That's all that accompanied me on my appointment with the scheitholts, and I was ill prepared....and nervous that I would take up too much of the director's time. So much so in fact, that I forgot to take the measurements of the overall length of both zithers!

This morning I heard back from the curator at the Gettysburg Military Museum, granting me permission to photograph and measure Robert E. Lee's Medicine Box (after December).

I haven't been this excited since the Christmas I unwrapped my "Space 1999" action figure set and model spaceship.

This time, I'll take a worksheet with me that lists all the parts of the cabinet that need to be measured and columns for wood/other material, width, length, height, and thickness. I'll also sketch the cabinet (it helps if you can take a snapshot before your appointment) and label the parts so I remember what each set of measurements refers to.

The other thing I'll do is not get too creative with the photos (like I did with the zithers). I'll be sure to take lateral, top & bottom, and straight on shots of each part of the cabinet. That way, if I forget to take a measurement, I can refer to the photo and use a known measurement to obtain the missing one.

Have I forgotten anything? Probably. But it's an exciting learning experience of galactic proportions.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


When I first visited the Mercer Museum last year, more than just handtools caught my eye. I was intrigued by folksy musical instruments, called Scheitholts (also Zither or Zitter). The Germans who settled in Pennsylvania and other parts of Colonial America in the early to mid-1700s brought the zither, or at least the idea of the instrument, with them.

The ones on display in the museum’s current exhibit "Everyday Rhythms" are 19th c. However, a few 18th c. zithers are know to exist, including a 1781 instrument on loan to the museum and one in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, which is represented in a photo enlargement. Zithers (both those played with a pick or quill and those played with a bow), dulcimers, and other early musical instruments are included in this special exhibit which will run through May of next year. Permission to include the photos I took provided courtesy of the Mercer Museum/Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, PA.

Zithers, although each one slightly different, are basically a tapering, hollow (but for the solid wood head) trapezoidal-shaped stringed instrument.

3 melody strings were accompanied by multiple, perhaps 6, drone strings and were plucked or strummed with a quill. Songs played on zithers tended to be slow and produced a deeper sound than that of a dulcimer. At the “Everyday Rhythms” exhibit, you can hear melodies played on a reproduction zither.

The strings, most likely made from animal gut, were tightened by iron or wood pins and passed over wire staple frets, of which there were normally 14. The instrument typically rested on a table top with the strings nearest the player as he/she strummed.

Although more refined and ornate versions of the scheitholt were made professionally in Europe, the ones discovered in Pennsylvania are much more modest and practical. Nonetheless, craftsmen decorated their product with simple carvings, cutout shapes, and chamfered edges.

I contacted the museum’s Vice President of Collections and Interpretation who granted me some alone time with two zithers and permitted me to take measurements and photographs. He also offered me a stack of information about the instruments from which much of this information was obtained.

One of the zithers I examined is left-handed, has 19 frets, and has cutouts of a circle, a crescent, and an “S” in the soundboard, which may be interpreted as initials: O. D. S. There are remnants of a reddish stain and the strings are secured with carved wood pegs at the tail end of the instrument.

The other zither is a little more elegant, with a shaped tuning head on one end and a round over on the other. The soundhole is made with semi-circle shaped holes and with punched indentations for decoration, presumably. Instead of wood pegs, strings are held in place with brads.

The soundboard on zither #1 is 1/4” thick while zitter #2’s soundboard is 1/16” - 3/32” thick. Both zithers’ sideboards are made from 1/4” thick lumber, and the tuning heads are solid wood.

Zithers were enthusiastically played throughout the 19th century among German speaking communities, and yet original instruments are difficult to find.

I was grateful to get an up close look at these rare scheitholts and look forward to making my own someday. Now, if only I were musically-inclined....

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I'm a Lucky, Lucky Lady

The EAIA meetup last weekend was held at the recently renovated Dills Tavern, originally built in 1794. The weathermen promised a warm, sunny day, but it was cloudy and frigid, which prevented me from staying for all the day's activities. I was sorry to have missed Jim Leamy's afternoon lecture on making plow planes. The ivory plow plane was one of many of his exquisite planes that were on display.

Tailgating with vendors who were selling antique tools started early, and was followed by presentations by the man in charge of restoration —Sam McKinney—and a decendant of the family who purchased the tavern in 1800—Bob Eichelberger.

The three years it's taken to bring the tavern back to its original form included removal of many Victorian elements and additions that were added in the late 19th century. The kitchen needed to be gutted and other rooms needed major work, but as much as possible of the original architecture and flooring was salvaged. That which could not be saved was either replaced with elements that were purchased from other period buildings or were authentically reproduced by the men who conducted the renovations. On display were a plethora of antique moulding planes that they employed during construction.

"We basically removed anything that used common nails" explained Sam, who in my opinion is part detective—because of his ability to uncover the clues that enabled him to restore the historic building to its original state—and part visionary.

The tavern, outbuildings, and grounds are being fashioned in the same pattern as Eastfield Village, where Sam has taken classes since 1983. His vision is to replicate the original Dills Tavern setting, including distillery (ironic, since Dillsburg is currently a dry town), and to offer workshops that teach 18th c. techniques in stonework, timber framing, basket making, wool dyeing, and open hearth cooking.

But that's not the best part.

They have recently started construction of an 18th c. timber frame woodwright's shop, in which the 3 men who have so diligently reconstructed the tavern will build authentic reproduction furniture, including my favorite, PA German. Their pieces will furnish the tavern and will also be for sale.

With only a 15 minute drive to Dillsburg, I plan to conduct many drive-by droolings as the shop is being constructed, and occasionally stop to talk with the builders. One gave me his card and said to "stop by anytime." (honest!)

I will try my best to practice restraint and not make him regret having told me that....lest I be labeled the Dills Tavern Stalker.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Finished Cross

Finished, but for the finish, which will most likely be boiled linseed oil.

For the inlay, I traced around the pieces with an exacto knife, defined the incisions with a small veiner, hollowed the background with a laminate trimmer, and cleaned up the shapes with chisels and gouges.

The small circles of purpleheart were made with a plug cutter at the drill press.

The other shapes were rough cut at the band saw and cleaned up with files. I filed a slight underbevel on the inlay pieces so they would drop into the recessed areas more easily.

At first I made the center circle, inlaid the small purpleheart cross, and then tried to cut it out at the bandsaw, which caused it to split. Live and learn! The better way was to first inlay the circle in the large cross and then inlay the small cross inside the circle.

The other lesson I learned is to inlay the pieces first and carve the knots second. That way, you can plane the surface smooth before carving. Since I carved first and inlaid second, the only way to flatten the inlaid pieces was with sandpaper and scraper.

There are lots of errors on this cross—you can see gaps in the inlay pieces for one thing. But since this cross will be given to a church, I'm not concerned. They're supposed to forgive imperfection. It's like a rule or something.

The chisels and gouges I used are from left to right:
1. 2a/1 Bent Chisel
2. 1a/6 Bent Chisel
3. Flat Chisel (I think a 1mm or 2mm)
4. Straight Gouge (I think a 1mm or 2mm, 5 sweep)
5. Straight Gouge—3mm, 5 sweep
6. Straight Chisel—6mm
7. Straight Gouge—6mm, 5 sweep
8. Straight Gouge—10mm, 3 sweep
9. Straight Chisel—12mm
10. Straight Gouge—12mm, 3 sweep
11. Straight Gouge—16mm, 7 sweep

The gouges matched the various radii of the curves, but you could get away with using an exacto knife to follow the curves. I freehand cut the center circle in fact. The bent chisels were used to flatten the recessed areas behind the knots while the straight chisels were used to clean up the recessed edges of the inlay and carve the flat surfaces and chamfers on the knots.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mercer Museum

The Mercer Museum, in Doylestown, PA, houses an enormous collection of tools and other artifacts that were used prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Among the exhibits are tools used by physicians, blacksmiths, clock makers, tinsmiths, cooks, cobblers, farmers, and woodworkers, in addition to many others; and collections of pottery, stove plates, painted chests, stagecoaches, boats, and much more.

Henry Mercer, historian, archaeologist, and owner of the Moravian Pottery and Tileworks, recognized the need to preserve the pieces that were being discarded in place of modern, manufactured items following the Industrial Revolution. He amassed nearly 30,000 goods and built a 6-story concrete castle in which to display them.*

The castle itself is remarkable, filled with little alcoves, winding stairs, and a central atrium within which the largest of Mercer's pieces hang suspended in mid-air. The building is literally stuffed full of artifacts. Each floor surrounds the central and open atrium which provides a view to the floors above and below.

Both the inside and outside of the castle are constructed with concrete. Even the muntins and mullions in the windows that afford views of each room's exhibit are made with it. Inside there are few sharp corners, mainly softened edges, even on the stairs; and arched entryways, rather than stiff and rectangular openings, separate spaces. I had never thought that concrete could seem so organic.

Within the Mercer Museum is the Spruance Library, a research library open to the public, which preserves written material focused on Bucks County history, the history of trades and crafts, and the life of Henry Mercer. I have yet to visit the library, which no doubt, is worth a trip back to Doylestown.

*After Mercer's death, the museum continued to collect tools and artifacts. Today, there are over 50,000 pieces in the collection, some of which may be post-Industrial Revolution.