Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mud and Sticks

As a counterpoint to yesterday's post about the importance of precision, I thought I should bring in something in rather stark contrast to that. You see, while I strongly believe in precision as a requirement for making strong joinery, I also believe that if the only governing factor in one's work - in my work - was precision, then the work would most likely also be imbued with a hefty dollop of sterility as well. For, if the hand of man (or woman!) is absent, then the 'perfect' surfaces and perfect connections leave little space for the human, and the possibilities that imperfection suggests - and thus is engendered, it seems to me, a certain coldness. I think many today who inhabit urban locales often find that too much of their environment has been taken over by the glass, chrome, stainless steel, and other perfect surfaces - all products of the mechanistic culture - and thus many crave some hint or touch of the natural or hand-hewn in their environments, as an antidote for the sterility.

Some may wonder too how I can advocate for precision in woodwork on the one hand, and yet be against automated timber cutting machine like a Hundegger. Aren't they one and the same? No. They are on a continuum it seems to me, and I choose not to slide along it to the end involving full automation. While on the one hand I recognize that tests on joinery cut by machine have demonstrated the superior strength of certain machine-cut joints - due to the surface profiles having a reduction of stress risers (a topic for another day), I also recognize that the timber cutting machine not only destroys the thinking, creative carpenter, but it really has a much narrower range of expression than what the human hand can bring to the work. It can also be said that certain machines, like 5-axis CNC routers, can do certain kinds of work with high precision that are extremely difficult to accomplish by hand.

So many contrary perspectives. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American novelist, wrote, "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I take that to heart. I think that, reflecting back on my posts about phi, I think there is some golden mean balance between technical precision and perfect surfaces, and the irregularity and charm of the touch of the human hand expressed in the work. I strive to attain that balance, a point of tension between opposing modes, in the things I build. While I cannot always claim to be successful in that regard, such is the underlying impetus to the creative process for me.

I reflect as well, in relation to the tension between what David Pye called the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty when I think of some comments that a great Japanese temple carpenter Nishioka has made. In Azby-Brown's book, "Japanese Carpentry: The Secrets of a Craft" (linked at the right of this page), he notes the exchange between Nishioka and four senior carpenters, all of whom stood stiffly at attention while Nishioka rebuked them:

"Their crime: someone had miscalculated a few millimeters on a hip rafter. The difference was hardly noticeable, even close up, but since the beam was designed to achieve its perfect form only after several years of sagging and shrinking, this small error would be magnified and possibly distort the whole. Fumed Nishioka, 'They'll laugh at me. They'll say, "That's not the way a hip rafter should look!' And I won't be around to defend myself."

Clearly, Nishioka cared greatly about executing the work to a high point of precision and fitment, and, definitely, with an eye to the future - way into the future. In fact, at the Yakushi Temple, Nishioka undertook the rebuilding of the West Pagoda. There are two pagodas in the building compound, placed in axial symmetry to one another, a clue as to the Chinese design for the site design.

The old pagoda, the East one, was originally built in about 2 years. The reconstruction of the West pagoda took 7 years. An interesting point is that Nishioka made the new pagoda slightly taller than the old east one. Why? Well, thinking ahead hundreds of years, he realized that given time, gravity, and wood shrinkage, the new pagoda would end up at the same height as the old one ultimately. Now that's foresight and a deep understanding of structure, and speaks of a great dignity of thought and respect for future generations! If we had even 10% of that sentiment here in the West I can only imagine how much more satisfying our built environment might be.

After the West pagoda was complete, it must be said that it was perfect in every way. Nishioka made an interesting comment about that. He said that if he stood in center of the first floor of the new tower he could look out through the grilled window openings, and through the perfectly planed and shaped bars and observe the scene in the distance. It was a fine view, yet he noted that when he stood in the old pagoda, same spot, and looked out through the grill-bar divided opening, this time the bars were irregular (the koshi were riven pieces that had been hewn with an axe originally), and he found the view so much more enjoyable. The feeling of the space was much more satisfying for Nishioka in the old place, despite its imperfections. So despite the precision in reconstruction that Nishioka was able to masterfully oversee in the new pagoda, he recognized the beauty of the imperfect and felt that something is lost with the drive to make everything perfect. I think that's an interesting lesson.

I have worked at extreme ends of the construction world. Today I want to share with you a building that I constructed which would be at the most humble end. This building is constructed of peeled fir poles, wire-tied together, and with cob walls. Cob is a mix of straw, clay, and sand, and is usually mixed with the feet on a tarp. Materials do not get much more humble than sticks and mud. This project occupied my previous girlfriend and I for 6 months of daily labour. We had no money to speak of - this entire project was realized for $4000. It is very much in the spirit of 'craftsmanship of necessity'. We had no electricity or running water, and I did all my work with hand tools, of the most primitive sort.

I bought a 1-ac. lot on Gabriola when land was a bit cheaper than today. I erected a Japanese timber frame shed at the top of the property, and down at the bottom of the property, wedged in the cedars and next to the fen, I started to put up a wired-pole building, intending to use it for wood storage:


Here's how the building was initially shaping up, most of the poles having been culled from my property:


Then I got together with a woman (not my current wife), and she convinced me to turn the pole building I had started into a cob house. I resisted for a while, this not being in line with my dreams for the place, but, being in a relationship of course engenders compromise, so I acquiesced. We started in on the project in March, and the first order of business was to create a foundation. Having neither rocks on hand or the time to do a dry laid stone foundation, which would have been my preferred option, we ordered a bunch of concrete cinder blocks from Home Depot, which we dry laid on a bed of drain rock:


I had to scrounge far and wide for materials, which I dragged out of the bush and accumulated piece by piece:


The poles were peeled by drawknife, then wired together using a Japanese wire knot technique, and in the odd spot I also added galvanized lag bolts, for which I pre-drilled with a brace and bit:


Once the pole structure was up, though incomplete, the cob work could be started. this proceeds very slowly, about 4" added per day, as that is as high as it could be piled before it would begin to slough from its own weight. The dryer the mix the better, though it was far more exhausting to mix a stiff load of cob by foot:


Little by little, as the summer wore on, the walls went up:


While my girlfriend concentrated her efforts primarily on the cobbing work, I spent most of my time on the roof, trying to cobble together the poles into a sound structure. She cobbed, I cobbled:


On the inside of the wall pictured above, I laid up a Rumsford style fireplace directly in the cob, and lined the floor and back with firebrick:


As you can see, I chose an ellipse for the form of the top of the fireplace opening.

Despite the crude pole work, I couldn't help but do a small amount of timber frame work on the small extension we added so as to have a space for bathing;


Another view, here you may notice some unusual slots in the beams - these are for a special kind of Japanese corner brace, yet to be fitted:


In the above picture you can also see the use of horizontal nuki in the frame, wedges yet to be installed.

Here's a look at the opposite side of the building, where the main entrance was to be located (right where you see the sawhorse):


A close up of the pole work and use of bowed logs:


I made the window frames out of red cedar, assembled them on a pair of sawhorses, and then they were keyed into the wall structure:


Once the windows go in, the cob addition rate accelerated, partly because the windows occupy a lot of space, and partly because the cob walls taper from thick at the bottom (about 18") to thin (about 8") at the top:


A view of the same location from inside the building:


Gradually the cob wall climbs to the plate and the roof structure fleshes out:


Above the main window, I put in a couple of vents, done -crudely - in the style of the Japanese shitaji-mado, which is a wall opening showing the internal rustic composition of the wall, namely sticks:


Since cob building is monolithic, it is not 'wattle and daub' (though the word 'daub' and 'cob' have the same meaning and, probably, common etymology), the sticks in our vent opening were simply applied on and cobbed over, and were not actually representative of the wall internals. Still, they looked nice when all was said and done.

So as not to bog this post down with too many photos, I'll save the conclusion of this for next time. Hope you enjoyed!  --> on to part II

Friday, February 27, 2009

Wood Moves II


In a previous post, I drew an analogy to practicing basketball; today I want to focus in on accuracy, and I choose to draw a parallel with the game of darts. While in the US and Canada, darts is largely a rec. room activity, in England it is a professional sport. Now, I'm not sure I would want to describe the dart throwers as 'athletes', but some have attained very high levels of skill indeed.

Darts is a repetitive activity done from a set distance, where the object is to throw the dart into particular scoring sections on the dart board. The highest scoring section is the triple-20 bar, which in the picture to the left is the lower red bar within the 20 wedge on the board. To get a maximum score of 180, one has to place all three darts (which comprises one player turn) within the triple 20 bar. Thus the accuracy required is to put the dart into a space approximately 0.25" in diameter at maximum.

To throw the dart with that kind of accuracy, one doesn't simply throw the dart randomly at the board. While random throws at the board may well give the bulls-eye occasionally, just like theorem of an infinite number of monkeys typing in a room will eventually produce a work of Shakespeare, it cannot be said that random throwing, hoping for the best, will produce success in terms of hitting the numbers you want. Similarly, one could be content with managing to hit a sector of the board, or a given number wedge, but really, if you want to get to the level where you can reliably hit the number you want you must strive in practice to hit the numbers you want exactly.

It's the same in joinery work, and what that boils down to is: what level of accuracy do you aim for and how well are you able to achieve it? This relates to the subject of metrology as well, the development of which was a precursor to the industrial revolution. If you doubt whether metrology is of any importance to you, ask yourself if you would care if the local gas station pump was calibrated accurately when you put gas in your rig. Obviously, with fuel comparatively cheap in the US at the moment, the average person may feel he could afford to spill a few drops - when gas returns to the prices it reached last summer, I suspect this attitude would be different.

Of course, in carpentry and furniture-making, measuring to the sub-atomic level is clearly ludicrous, given the inability to machine wood to that degree of refinement, but the question is, to what degree of refinement do we take measurement? If your work is rough and ready, rustic, etc, or involves the construction of, say, a dirt mound covering many acres, then an accuracy of +/- the thickness of your thumb may well be adequate. Some timber framer's work to the nearest 0.125", or nearest 0.0625", etc, - again, where do you stop? Do you stop where you can't visually distinguish between one measurement and another?

Here's my take on it: I strive to work to the highest level of refinement my cutting tools can produce. If my tool of choice, for example, is an axe, I am unlikely to produce a surface, reliably, with an accuracy of greater than +/- 0.125". And that's with a sharp tool - with a dull axe, I suspect the accuracy would plunge to +/- 0.25". With a paring chisel, sharp, I could probably achieve a reliable accuracy of 0.01" on a surface. With a well-tuned handplane, the accuracy can get down to the micron level, as is often seen at Japanese planing meets.

The router can be a most accurate cutting tool. When I first got into woodworking I looked a bit askance at routers, associating them to the ''California Roundover" phenomenon of the 1970's (on-going perhaps) and as a piece of equipment that people without any hand tool skills would choose to use. I have, fortunately, completely reversed my thinking on this and dropped those prejudices.

It remains true however that one can use a router in a completely inappropriate way, even a dangerous way, and indeed, my experience working in lots of different shops is that most people do not know how to use a router properly. The most egregious examples of poor router use I have seen in timber framing shops, even very high end ones. Now, this might seem a little harsh on my part, after all, the router looks simple enough, how could anyone use it wrongly?

The main mistake: using the router to hog material out. The router excels as a fine trimming tool. When used to take heavy passes of material, the cutter rapidly heats and dulls, the motor strains, the work quality suffers as does the increase in likelihood of a mishap that will spoil the work or cause an injury. One has only to look at the cutter on the router- if it is burnt, that is a sign of using the router the wrong way. Router cutters are disposable tooling, though not exactly dirt cheap. To prolong the life of the tooling, it needs to operate at the right rpm and feed rate so as not to overheat the cutter. Other tools should be used to remove the bulk of the material, and leave the router for the light trimming to final depth or shape. With this approach, the cutters do not overheat, thus they last a long time which saves money, they leave clean surfaces behind, and can do highly accurate work

I didn't come to these conclusions independently. I also mis-used the router for a good while. But then I found enlightenment when I discovered the router 'guru', a man named Pat Warner. This guy is an industry expert, the person that Dewalt and other companies call upon to test their tools and offer technical advice. He's uses the router to produce accurate aluminum try squares for instance. His books are available readily - one's listed in the sidebar - however despite title phrases like "Fast and Easy" I would suggest his books are not for beginners.

When you realize how accurate the router can be, a curious thing happens as you plunge down that rabbit hole: the router reveals where the inaccuracies are in other aspects of your work. If your straightedge is not straight, or your square not square, or your router base not flat, or if your router does not plunge exactly 90˚ in relation to its base, the surface left behind will be showing you that. This is similar it would seem to the handplane, where shortfalls in sharpening, fit of blade to block, tuning of the sole of the plane, and so forth, will be revealed by the thinness and quality of shaving pulled from the mouth. The shaving tells the story - which doesn't mean it is necessarily an easy read however!

At first, all the variables to consider in the pursuit of accuracy can seem overwhelmingly diverse and might cause some to simply give up, assuming that such accuracy simply isn't possible. However, like a flock of sheep that have escaped from the pen, in time, patience will win out, you will corral those sheep, and you can thus narrow down the variables so as to produce very accurate work. As a result, one's approach to work will change. I find it a real pleasure to be able to predictably achieve accurate results, like a tenon that is +/- 0.005" of target dimension, and sometimes I get even more accurate than that. It's possible to work to 0.001" with the router, and I haven't got there yet. Aluminum jigs are the way forward in that regard.

Another area where errors crop up in is simply in measuring. One thing I got rid of long ago in terms of measurement practice is the use of fractions, like 1/8", 3/32", 1'-2-3/4", and so forth. I have found the likelihood of transposing numbers in one's mind in moving from a place where the measurement is noted to the place where it is applied is too high. 5/16" is noted, then 5/32" might be applied, for instance. Fractions confuse -I prefer to use whole numbers and decimals. instead of 10'-6", I use 126", instead of 3-5/8" I use 3.625". It takes a little while to become familiar with the decimal values, but the trouble is worth it in my view. Also, I use a calculator a great deal, a $12 jobbie picked up at the local pharmacy, and it gives numbers in decimals, so to use 16ths or 32nds I must always convert. It's easier and one less source of potential error if one can reduce such conversion operations.

In light of this fact, when the opportunity presented itself a few years back to design a new inch-scale Japanese framing square (sashigane) for Shinwa of Japan, I set it for base-10 inches, subdivided into 10ths and 20ths. Thus one can go more readily from the calculator, and for Japanese roof carpentry base-10 is used, not base-12 as in the English imperial system. That square is in production and available here.

Tape measures are a source of inaccuracy. The latest fad in tape measures are the ultra-wide tapes, like 'Fat Max' which proudly advertise their 'stand-out length'. It seems to me that this is might well be a clever marketing trick, using a phallic allusion, and thus having a such a 'massive tool' suggests, subliminally perhaps, having a big 'stand-out' of your own(!). Ahem! Perhaps I stretch the truth, maybe Stanley created the name for very different reasons.

While being able to extend a tape 8' or 10' without it folding over from it's own weight is handy sometimes, the blade of this tape is very wide and quite cambered across the width (that's how the stiffness is achieved). Besides making for a heavy tape that, when hooked onto the belt, could pull your pants down, the wide crowned blade must be rotated down to the surface to take or make a measurement, and this is a potential source of error both in the twisting of the tape and in the potential twisting of the tape's hook.

Another source of error with tapes relates to the hook on the tape end, a part easily damaged if the tape takes a tumble to the floor. If the hook is bent, then your measurements will be off if you reference from that hook. As a result, I no longer trust the hook at all and take my measurements, again using whole inches instead of feet and inches, from the 1" or 10" mark on the tape.

Further, if you take several brands of tape measure and play them out side by side, you will find it is often the case they don't agree exactly. Thus, for utmost accuracy, it is smart to always use the same tape on a given project, and if there are other people working on the same project, they should have the same tape too. My favorite tapes are made by Tajima, and Starrett makes some nice ones as well. I like a tape that measures 25' with a 1" wide blade.

Yet another source of mis-measurement can crop up when using thick rulers: parallax error. To avoid this problem, one must be fastidious to view from the ruler to the surface below in an absolutely perpendicular alignment with your eye, OR, (here's what I do), use a thin ruler which will minimize parallax.

As for measuring in general, my tool of choice for joinery is a Mitutoyo Digimatic caliper. I have no interest in squinting at marks on a rule if I can avoid it, or trying to decide what the measurement is when it falls between divisions on my tape. The Digimatic gives me the answer right away, and since I work in decimal inches, I don't worry about making conversions very often. Of all the measurement tools I own, my calipers, and I have sizes from 6" to 18", are my most valued instruments. That said, they are also surprisingly robust, as my 12" unit has taken, unfortunately, more than one trip to the ground. It's still more than accurate enough for measuring wood, though I would leave it out of the machine shop.

And as far as the idea that, "what's the point, wood moves?" is concerned, I say, it sure does, and you know what, I can know exactly how much. I can mill a piece of wood on Tuesday to 1.505" out of the planer and check it the next day and find it is 1.518", and that tells me something useful, especially when looking at the dimensional change in light of the piece's grain orientation, how I might choose to cut joinery on that piece, and so forth. I've taken scraps and cut mortises and tenons in them, at various moisture contents, then dried the pieces in the microwave and measured the changes - this is a great way to learn more about the material and disabuse oneself of various myths concerning wood movement. Wood does move, but it's not some sort of arcane mystery. Wood, I have learned, is not a material to be mastered so much as it is one to be corraled, temporarily, like those sheep in a pen. That's what I like about wood, it lives it moves it breathes - it has a fantastic diversity of qualities, and working such a material is an evolving and deepening path of study.

Finally, one of the best ways of getting in touch with wood movement on a daily basis, requires only one, decidedly primitive tool: the wooden handplane. I'm specifically referring to the Japanese wooden plane, or kanna. The wooden block holding the blade, called the dai, moves all the time, not just day to day, but even during the working day. These changes are apparent when one is trying to get thin shavings, where the slightest differences, just like a musical instrument being in or out of perfect tune, make all the difference. some would say these antiquated tools aren't worth the trouble, but dealing with a wooden plane puts a woodworker right in touch with the daily vicissitudes of wood movement, and as you can see by the video linked above in this post, it seems like it's worth the trouble considering the marvelous results achieved.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wood Moves

Today I want to start on the topic of accuracy in work, a facet of woodworking that is of particular interest to me. Whenever a person undertakes to cut pieces of wood so as to form joints, and then fit them together, the accuracy of the fit is a major concern. It is a critical concern actually, because the closeness of the fit determines in large measure the structural integrity of the joint. Joints that fail in loading are dangerous in buildings for obvious reasons.

Any joint, like a splice or scarf will be weaker than an uninterrupted section of timber, so the joined timber as a whole is only as strong as its weakest point - namely the joint. A fit of a mortise and tenon that has too much internal slop will allow for the pieces to move when loaded and strength will be greatly diminished as a result. If the fit is too tight, then the risk is that the receiving piece will split when the tenon is forced in, rendering the joint greatly weakened. This is less a concern in working with softwoods, as the wood inherently can be compressed more - nevertheless, I would say that a lot of timber frame joinery, as practiced, relies unduly on the power of multi-ton come-alongs and massive sledges to bring the joinery together, which is often a bit too tight to begin with.

In working with hardwoods, there is far less tolerance for error in the fit, and from working hardwoods in the process of furniture-making, I have learned much about achieving good fits, and these lessons have transferred well to timber work I think. In denser hardwoods, the difference between a joint that fits just right, and if glued has just the right amount of space for the glue, is on the order of 0.005". Thus, if you want a perfect fit, you need to be able to cut the joints with something close to that level of accuracy, more times than not.

When I returned from Japan to Canada in the summer of 1999, I managed to gain employment a day or two after touching down with a company on Vancouver Island called Daizen Log Tech. It was run by a Japanese owner and shared lot space with B. Allan Mackie's famous Log Building School. Several employees were Japanese, and the bulk of the production was log home shells made for export to the Japanese market. They also had a 'timber frame' division (I use that term loosely), and that is where I, er, slotted in.

I was told early on by my supervisor that their tolerance of fit for a mortise and tenon was +/- 0.25", which I thought was a lot. Their rationale for such slop in fit was that the parts were easier to trial assemble and take apart in the yard (which was true to an extent), and that after a one-month sea journey in a container, they didn't want their Japanese crew wrestling over joints that had swelled and become too tight to fit. I knew this was plain wrong, but I was the new guy so I said nothing. I was told that under no circumstances did they want me fussing over the inside of joints in places no one would ever see.

I was also told by a veteran worker there, after I asked him why there wasn't a jointer ( a woodworking machine for creating flat surfaces) in the timber shop, that the owner had injured his fingers using it, and that besides, "what did you need a jointer for? The tablesaw cuts a straight line". My eyes widened, and I knew this to be completely fallacious. While the saw can and does cut a straight line, the behavior of wood, its movement, after rip cutting is another matter. If the surface of the piece of wood if twisted or bowed, etc, then the process of cutting 90˚ (or whatever the angle) in relation to that at best will produce an uneven result, and at worst is dangerous to the machine operator. However, he was the veteran and I said nothing. I've since learned that this is a relatively common perception. Most shops do not have jointers.

A little while later, when I was discussing with another worker my aim to get a good fit with joinery, the fellow turned to me, and with a definite tinge of scorn in his voice said, "what are you worrying about that for - are you crazy? Wood moves!" I stared, and gulped.

Daizen was quite a scene. They had a crew of 20-odd people in the yard, along half a dozen in a window and door plant. At any given moment there were typically 3 log shells in production, along with one 'timber frame', and the cacophony of 10 chainsaws was omnipresent throughout the working day. New employees were expected to have their own tools, including chainsaw, and starting pay was a less-than generous $8.00/hour. I lasted 6 months, and moved on to working for a real timber frame company on another part of the island. Eventually Daizen closed down, laid off all its workers, and the owner moved, acquired a Hundegger automated timber cutting machine (thus solving the 'employee problem') and now, last I heard, produces timber components with that set up.

Anyhow, Daizen was an interesting place to start out my woodworking career, as I got to see that 'professionals' are often not all that knowledgeable or professional in their work, regardless of how long they had been doing it. I was surprised to find that people with 20 years experience, though accomplished in their work, often had a narrow grasp of wood and woodwork outside of the specifics of their jobs. I didn't realize then that for most woodworkers, the job ended at 5:00, and they didn't give it further thought until the following morning, thus they didn't learn much beyond the day-to-day concerns of their job-specific tasks.

Since the Daizen days, I have worked in a variety of shops and situations, along with having a long period of self-employment. My thoughts and desires to achieve fine tolerances for the fit of joints has often been greeted, I have found, with either dismissal, disbelief, or scorn by other woodworkers. I find these attitudes curious.

Another aspect of tight-fitting joinery is simply the appearance of tight-fitting joinery. When any joint is drawn up tight, most of the internal mechanism is concealed from view, and thus what is available to the eye are the intersections on the surface. One way to get tighter, gap-free intersections is the process of undercutting, as seen in the picture to the left. This picture I grabbed off a web site page explaining 'how to undercut', as a path to joinery success, however I would say the picture is better described as how NOT to undercut. To my eyes, the undercutting has been taken too far. If the tenoned vertical piece in the assembly were loaded downwards, then instead of having good bearing surface at the shoulder, it instead bears along a narrow edge at each side, and the tenon would probably bottom out to boot. This makes for a weaker joint, and one vulnerable to splitting if loaded. If the tenoned piece were loaded side to side, the knife-edge at the outside of the shoulder would dig into the surface (end grain being much harder then edge or face grain) and crush the fibers down, leaving a gap later and a loose fit. Additionally, if the lower receiving piece shrinks appreciably, the undercut will become quickly apparent, and in the effort to hide a gap by mean of undercutting, the result will be to show an even larger gap. If the receiving piece swelled, the grain on its face gets crushed again, and when it shrinks back, there will be a gap and thus a loose fit.

I'm impressed when I come across crisp-fitting, 'light-tight' joinery, however if I later learn that the joint was heavily undercut to achieve that, my esteem disappears. The mechanical connections achieved by joinery are only as good as the integrity of the fit. Placing too high an emphasis on the external visual aspect at the cost of a quality fit internally is a poor decision in my view. Taken too far, undercutting a joint results in little more than a candy shell of a connection, and this defeats the purpose of the joinery in the first place.

Undercutting in fact, is often a 'blunt instrument approach', a means of quickly resolving issues in a joint fit that is not closing cleanly. While working faster is, economically-speaking, of interest, this shortcut does nothing to improve the craftsman's ability to actually achieve a crisp fit, thus undercutting can become a bit of a crutch. More often than not, it seems to me, undercutting produces inferior joinery.

Undercutting can play a role in circumstances where relieving a surface slightly will help in dealing with seasonal wood movement or shrinkage between pieces in a joint. An example of this is the practice of gluing boards edge-to-edge, where a slight amount of material is planed out of the middle of the contact zone along the edges, thus the boards abut at their ends but have a slight opening between them at the middle. This is termed 'springing the joint' and it allows the construction to suffer moisture loss at the end grain zones of the board (where moisture is most rapidly lost or gained) without the joint splitting open.

I have studied joinery from both Western (English, German, French and Hungarian) and Asian (Japanese and Chinese) perspectives, and in general, the western joinery methods are relatively undeveloped in comparison to the joinery elaboration seen in Japan. Not in every case, but generally speaking. English scarf joints, for example, reached what might be argued as a higher pinnacle of development, obviously due to a chronic lack of long straight timber in that country from the 1400's onward. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.

A really excellent resource for the study of English joinery methods and developments are the works of the deceased Cecil A. Hewett, especially in his works "English Cathedral and Monastic Carpentry" and "English Historic Carpentry", which is linked at the right of this page in the book list.

Hewett undertook the study of old buildings in the Essex region (primarily) of England, and by showing the development patterns of joinery was often able to come to more refined understanding of the historic process of building. The interesting thing he notes, to my view, is that for any given type of joint, the development process is very similar: early crude forms are gradually improved upon, time and consideration, sometimes simple insights of brilliance, proving the superior forms, until after often hundreds of years the zenith in development of the joint form is reached. Often, it is the case that the 'best' joint from a structural perspective is not such a good joint from the economic perspective, as complex joints take more time to cut. Thus, after a zenith of development is reached, there typically follows a drop off where inferior imitations are made, either by subsequent carpenters who did not fully understand the brilliance of the penultimate form, or who were, surprise surprise, trying to cut corners with a quickly-cut imitation. Thus, from perfection follows degrade, technically-speaking.

The point of interest here is that a carpenter of today, ignorant of such matters, may well see an old timber building and seek to emulate the joinery and structural systems, when in fact he is copying something that was poor in the first place. An example of this are pockets for joists cut into the Summerbeam simply by chopping out a series of rectangular pockets along the arris of the summer beam to house the floor joist. The pockets cut into the upper surface of the timber and thus weaken it unduly. The carpenter who studied the mechanical concerns and history of development in forms of joinery for floor joist attachment to carry beam would learn in time that the surfaces to leave alone are the ones loaded in compression or tension (usu. top or bottom surface in a beam), and mortises are best placed in the neutral axis of the receiving timber. Thus, it can be seen that the tusk tenon, illustrated on the left, is the superior form of joint for this application, in most cases.

Another example of poor joinery in timber work are single housed dovetails. While these facilitate easy assembly in that the joists (or other similar part) can be simply dropped down into the receiving pockets on the beams, this joint, especially when cut out of green timber, has really poor performance characteristics. When loaded in tension (which is what the dovetail is supposed to resist), the long grain side of the dovetail is opposed by end grain in the dovetail mortise, and thus when the surfaces meet the side grain of the male dovetail is readily compressed. Thus, the joint can withdraw from its housing quite easily. Factor shrinkage into that when using green material, and what results is a near-useless connection, albeit one that is easy to assemble.

There's a book out there, the '"Craft" of Modular Post and Beam', which shows a housed dovetail proudly on the cover photo, as an example of 'craftsmanship' or something 'cool' I imagine. The joint is 'reinforced' with a pair of dowels driven down from the top, as if the designer of the joint intuited that it wouldn't actually resist withdrawal very well, so he put a couple of dowels in there to 'beef it up'. The dowels render the logic of the dovetail, weak to begin with, largely moot, and in fact under tension I doubt the dowels would add significantly to the load resistance of the joint anyway. Love of form has trumped functionality - sadly this is true in many places. The housed dovetail illustrated on the cover of that book is only a hint of the gems of information you will discover inside, if you know what I mean.

As I mentioned in an earlier thread, I avoid single dovetail construction in timber work, and try to limit them in furniture as well, particularly in places where loading on the joint might be higher - like a table or chair leg for instance. The dovetail performs best when used in multiples, like in carcase construction (see "Steps Along the Way" on this blog), or when used with a long siding abutment surface, illustrated to the left, such as the Chinese use for battens to reinforce the underside of a table top, or the battens medieval English carpenters used to reinforce planked doors (and so forth).

Anyhow, those are just some preliminary considerations about joinery - there's much that can be said on the topic. Let's not forget though that an accurately cut joint, if a poor design, results in poor construction.

In the next post I will look more at the topic of accuracy, and how I strive to achieve that in my joinery work.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Desk Job V

Now to conclude the series on the assembly of the Doctor's office reception desk. When I left off last time, the second full day of assembly had come to an end. I was completely exhausted at that point, as you can perhaps tell in this picture:


One point I omitted to mention in previous posting is that there were not only sliding tracks installed at the desk surface, but upper tracks as well, which are concealed behind the flickering flame board, kato-ita. These were dropped into place, dovetailed at each end, before the upper desk assembly was placed atop the posts.

After a couple of days -mostly sleeping- I returned to my shop to make the sliding windows for the desk. I call them shoji-like, because they have the form of shoji, yet with much thicker grill bars (kumiko) than shoji would have. In other words, the proportions are not traditional. I made the kumiko thick because the windows would be at height where a child could easily get their hands on them, so I wanted them to be tougher than usual. That's another reason I went with Maple for the kumiko, instead of something more typical like Yellow Cedar - in a commercial setting, I wanted the desk to be able to take a bit more abuse than would be typical in a residential setting. I also went with a reinforced paper backing, which is a layer of plastic film sandwiched between two layers of Japanese paper, or washi. This proved to be adequately durable.

I have no pictures of the making of the shoji-like windows, though the process took me another couple of weeks. They are again framed in Mahogany, and the kumiko are Maple.

All told, with initial design time, steps down the Purpleheart path, then the construction of the desk and the windows, and final assembly, I clocked 1050 hours on this project.

Here's a few pictures of the desk complete:


I used an alternating staggered pattern with the horizontal kumiko, trying to keep the overall appearance minimalistic and yet visually interesting. If I had more time, I would have done something a bit more involved with the pattern I think:


I am pleased with the line of sight looking along the front of the posts on the long side of the desk, along with the jogged line of the kato-ita:


And here's what happened with that desk...the clinic was open for a couple of years after these photos were taken, and became fairly busy. I received a lot of positive comments about the piece and it led to other furniture commissions, so it was successful in that regard. It was strange to be pigeon-holed as a furniture maker after completing but one piece, but that's what happened, at that time, and at that place.

Then I made the decision to leave Gabriola Island to move to Massachusetts (that was round one in that episode). The Doctor expressed his worry that nobody else besides me would be able to properly disassemble the desk, so before I left he had me make a 2x and plywood plinth for it, and one weekend I returned to the clinic after hours and disassembled the desk. That was a pivotal moment of sorts, as it proved the concept and execution of the desk, that with all its custom joinery, it was in fact demountable. I reassembled the desk the next day at the doctors place, which went much quicker than the fitting and fiddling of the initial assembly process. Then the Doctor retired, and moved house to the other end of the island and the desk sits now in his new place, down in the basement as far as I know. I have no idea if he is using it for anything. I told him that the desk could be modified and made smaller, and used as a bar, for instance, in his house, but that idea doesn't seem to have gained traction.

I wonder what will become of the desk?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Source Material II

I realized that the initial post was a tad long, so I decided to divide it into two chunks, fleshed out a little bit in this second half, possibly improving digestion...


Giving up on Eugene, I went to another local sawyer, this fellow advertising 'gorgeous boards'. At this point, all I needed were 2x8's for the rafters, as I was short about half of the number needed. Now, as many of you know, '2x8' is the nominal dimension - the actual dimensions are 1.5"x 7.5". These are an entirely standard product that you would think be something that any sawyer would cut on a near-daily basis and be well-practiced at providing. I explained to the 'gorgeous boards' folks that I wanted FOHC material, which clearly was a new and radical request that caused some brow-furrowing, but they said 'no problem'. This wood was coming from standing dead timber, so it was pretty dry. All good.

What showed up a few days later, while I happened to be away for a week, was not exactly what I had ordered. Somehow they managed to cut me some 50-odd rafters at 1.75"x 7.375". The fact they were too thick could be easily dealt with, and in fact the gorgeous boards fellow came by with his planer and spent 2 days re-thicknessing the wood. The fact that the critical dimension, the height, was 1/8" under size was however a big deal. I had already cut the ridgepoles and purlins with housings to seat the 7.5" rafters, and had placed half the rafters (at the correct 7.5" dimension) in the roof already. These under size rafters were a total headache. I couldn't believe frankly that the mill was unable to fulfill such a simple request.

A friend of mine up in Maine has related similar episodes with sourcing timbers up there, where local sawyers seem highly resistant to producing anything other than what they are used to doing. So, in short, I've had my frustrations with the local sawyer scene, and it doesn't appear that I have been subject to special treatment.

Concurrent with the aforementioned events with the drum maker's building project, a neighbor of a friend of mine had suffered some damage as a result of a windstorm, and a 100-year-old Black Locust had keeled over in her yard. She said if I would remove it I could have the trunks, and I jumped at the opportunity, Black Locust being a wood I esteem greatly. I was out there a few days later with my chainsaw, and bucked the tree into several usable lengths. I asked Eugene if he would mill it for me, and he agreed, and came out with a trailer to collect the wood. All very nice, except that over the following years time Eugene never actually got around to milling that wood, regardless of how many times I called him, or what I said, how I cajoled, or even threatened. Eventually I had to leave B.C. and come out here to Massachusetts, and those Black Locust logs still sit in Eugene's yard, buried under a pile of fir logs. Sigh!

So, my point being, that while using local sawyers sounds like a great idea, it doesn't always work out that way in reality. The loss of knowledge since the industrial revolution in the sawyers trade is paralleled by that in the carpentry trade, it seems to me.

One thing about British Columbia that many folks don't realize is that it is a heavily-logged environment, with clear cuts so extensive they can be seen from outer space. I'm not kidding. The northern half of Vancouver Island (this is a huge island folks!) is pretty much a scalped wasteland, and a common experience many hikers suffer is that to get to some patch of unspoilt beauty they must suffer hundreds of km's of driving through moonscape-like clear-cuts. I remember well trying to convey this scene to a friend of mine from Montana (also fairly heavily clear-cut from what I have seen, not to mention the mining issues there), who really thought I was exaggerating and being a little hysterical about the whole matter - until the time he happened to be in a plane with me coming from Japan to Vancouver. We passed over the Northern half of Vancouver Island and he was able to see for himself how bad it is - his eyes opened wide and he realized that I had not been exaggerating the scope of the problem at all.

It's funny to live in a place like B.C. and be a user of wood - guilt and uncertainty surround almost every purchase of material. The forestry industry pretty much owns the province. And those forestry companies are big multinationals, not local players, thus the bulk of the profits from the sale of the forest leaves the province.

Here on the East coast, the massive clear cuts happened a couple of hundred years ago. Where I live now used to be completely cleared for farming, and now the trees have been growing back for at least the past 70 years so it is quite thickly forested. But finding patches of original ecosystem, with big old trees, is pretty tough here in New England - I've come across just a couple of tiny patches so far. It's pretty cool seeing a Black Cherry tree well over 100' tall with a 30" thick trunk at the base. I've seen just one like that here in MA.

Going to the local lumberyard, Cowls, I was astonished to find that the 2x material in the yard all comes from Latvia. Evidently that is to be preferred to anything local, or is simply cheaper, I don't know. Cowls also has their own sawmill. In fact, during the great depression, the owner of Cowls bought up large tracts of land from financially distressed owners, a fact that still has some locals grumbling. Cowls logs locally and has done so for the past 100 years or so. They are currently logging a 50 acre piece just up the street from where I live. It's nice to see they selectively cut instead of clear cut. Perhaps local regulations are the reason, I don't know for certain. A few years back in B.C. they changed the Forest Practices Act to prohibit such large clear cut blocks. Sounds good, but the fine print is everything. The way the new regulation was structured essentially encouraged the logging companies to bulldoze roads up into as many areas as possible, every single untouched valley they could get into, as fast as they could. And now they log in pleasant little patchwork quilts of cut blocks, but the net effect is that more logs are removed from the forest than ever. Landscape architects are employed to shape the cut blocks so that from the road the forest looks the same. Deception plays a big role, as public perceptions need to be carefully 'managed'. What they are managing in fact, is to cut the forest down at an astonishing and unsustainable rate. Short term gain over long term planning prevails once again.

One time I drove a logging road from the East coast of Vancouver Island to the West coast, to visit some relatively unspoiled coastal beaches. The dirt road I took was, as expected, in a moonscape and was an active logging road. In that 2-1/2 hour trek through the belly of the beast, I crossed paths with a 40' long loaded logging truck heading out of the cut every 10 minutes or so. Do the math - this cutting is going on 24/7, 6 trucks per hour say... that's 144 truck loads a day, every day, just from that one cut area. It's sobering and a little horrifying. For some of course, it is their livelihood. The loggers hate environmentalists because they see their jobs as under threat from the 'tree huggers'. In fact, a bigger threat to their livelihood is the industry conversion to mechanized tree harvest with feller-bunchers, but I think it is easier to focus rage on what are widely perceived by some loggers as 'out of touch urban enviro-whackos'. That's another topic. That beach I got to was magical, but I couldn't help notice it was but a 100 meter strip of land, and clear cut right up to the boundary. It muted some of the joy of the place for me.

Hiking up in remote Cape Scott Provincial Park at the northwest tip of Vancouver Island also entails a long drive through the clear cut, and the first hour of the hike into the woods has the sound of chainsaws in the background. One has to learn to filter such things out of the over all experience of course. I guess.

I also have used wood that comes from tropical regions, as many readers might have noticed in my posts about furniture. Anyone who hasn't been under a rock for past years is likely well aware of the devastation of the Amazon, called by some the 'lungs of the earth'. It would seem that buying wood from the tropics is directly in support of such practices, but, again, the picture is more complicated than that. I believe the vast majority of trees cut in the Amazon go for pulp and paper, and many of the tree species are on the CITES list and thus banned for trade.

My local hardwood lumber dealer is Forest Products Associates, up in Greenfield, MA. They are a family run business, in operation since the 1940's - I met the old fella that started it the other day in fact. They deal in both domestic and imported hardwoods. I was chatting with the buyer there, who has lots of experience sourcing wood from Central and South America, including many trips to the region to visit the mills. He pointed out that in many cases the mills buy logs from private individuals who cut them from their own property. He said to me, what could be wrong with a local farmer with 10 acres wanting to cut down 5 mahogany trees and sell them, given that the money earned will keep his family afloat for a year? How can I say it's wrong for such a farmer to cut down the trees on his property, when such practice is commonplace in my own neck of the woods? In fact, a common form of real estate 'development' these days in B.C. is to buy land from a logging company, already thinned of it's first growth trees, then scalp it, netting a tidy profit, and then turn around and sell the lot for suburban development. We all live in clear cuts, after all, here in the forested zones of North America.

Especially when people are poor, cutting trees on their own land, either for wood fuel, or to sell the logs, or to increase arable land, is perfectly understandable, and who would be in favor of laws banning that?. When I buy hardwoods from other countries, I ask a lot of questions about the chain of custody of the logs, whether they are cut sustainably, and so forth. Nowadays, FSA-certification is available, and this does serve to set my mind at ease.

That said, it is well known in the lumber supply business that end runs sometimes can be made around regulations. Burmese Teak for instance is banned in trade, however, some get past this 'problem' by shipping the teak from Burma to Taiwan, then calling it 'Taiwanese teak' and thus importing it into other countries without restriction.

So, I've looked at this issue from a lot of angles, and choose to put my trust in international trade conventions, and ask questions where and when I buy material. I also think, in the 'big picture' view, that all plant life is part of the natural carbon cycle, and thus using trees does not violate any sort of natural process. At any given moment, forest fires are laying waste to thousands of acres around the globe, and in B.C. pine beetle infestation has killed huge swaths of the pine lands in the province's interior. Now, digging stored carbon out of the earth and releasing it into the atmosphere in massive quantities, well, this is not so natural, and the effects of that are becoming well known.

I also realize that my use of wood as a raw material, if I'm building furniture and structures to last for a long time, is a good use of the resource. Wood is a renewable resource, if the forests are managed intelligently and without greed. A counterpoint to the B.C. clear-cutting practices I mentioned earlier would be Merv Wilkinson's 55 ha. woodlot, which he has carefully managed for over half a century: Wildwood. After 65 years of continuous logging, he has the same volume of timber he started with, and no environmental degradation. He's a real inspiration, and his experience and wisdom points the way forward.

I feel that using material in a respectful manner is the key. If a tree grew 100 years, at a minimum I make something from it that should last 100 years. I also realize that the sum of my life's work in wood will likely not equal the output of a 6 hour shift at an Ikea factory, so it seems a bit of a moot point to worry about the environmental effect of using wood in such a small scale.

Also, I refuse to use veneers. While, on the surface (couldn't resist the pun, sorry!), veneers might seem like a good use of wood, using just a minimum to cover a large area, in fact the reverse hold true in practice: veneers are a wasteful use of wood. This is very much an effect along the lines of Jevon's Paradox: the result of technological progress towards the efficient utilization of a resource often leads to ever greater consumption of that resource. The technology that makes it possible to peel very thin sheets from a log and apply them to particle board panels seems to allow a little to go a long way. In fact, it makes possible such odd things as paneling an entire room in a scarce material. In solid wood, only the ultra rich could afford to panel a room in clear perfect Claro walnut or Bubinga, etc. People like to emulate the rich, of course, and thus the relative cheapness of veneer allows a greater number of people to cover their house interiors, wall to wall with veneered panels. Veneers also find favor in large scale furniture manufacturing, given the stable predictable working qualities of veneered sheet goods. When something becomes cheap and easy to use, and enables the imitation of things only the ultra rich could do previously, then the consumption of that resource climbs dramatically. Then factor in the effects of fashion trends on interior decorating, and wood choice, and the limited lifespan and poor durability of veneered items, and the horror becomes apparent soon enough.

This really hit home to me during the vanity project described in a previous thread: the condominium was wall-to-wall Walnut, along with every piece of furniture, virtually all of which were veneered. I knew that once the current owners died in 20 years, or perhaps decided to move to Portugal (or some other warm clime), the likelihood of the next wealthy tenant of the space wishing to decorate in the same manner is close to nil. Maybe at that time Anigre will be the rage, or Peruvian Cherry, or...), and thus all that veneered walnut will be ripped out, and given that it has next to no recycle-ability, and can't even be used for firewood, so to the land fill it will go.

Veneers are made from the absolutely best logs, and from the best parts of the log - the clear un-tapered lower part of the trunk. I see the veneer industry and its use of precious materials as some giant voracious monster consuming the best wood and churning it up and spitting it out into the landfill just a few short years later. Although this is just another manifestation of the carbon cycle, I find it horrifying and lacking in integrity.

A lesson I take from Chinese classic furniture involves a particular type of table, often composed of a single large plank for the top, and supported by two smaller framed assemblies at each end. In tough economic times, as in the cultural revolution, it was not uncommon for these planks, reservoirs of wealth, to be sold to buy food, or at worst, chopped up for firewood. At least the solid plank has some inherent worth, even in the most desperate of circumstances. The loss of these table top planks was rather common, and thus to find an intact table of this type, a survivor, is rather rare - usually just the small support frames survive, often converted into smaller individual tables.

As a maker one of the unfortunate realities I have to contend with is having no control over the pieces I make after they leave my shop. I can make with the best intentions, but what if the client dies the next year and her son Tommy decides that they prefer some chrome and glass piece, and sticks the piece I made in the basement to collect dust, or in the trash, or keeps it and mistreats it? I once made a little building, a well pump shed in Yellow Cedar with a Japanese hipped roof, and came to see how it was doing a few years afterwards - the new owners had painted it lavender. I don't believe I will be going back!

Maybe the house catches fire the day after I finish building it and it burns to the ground. That happened to a company I used to work for with a building in the San Francisco area.

All I can have left, really, is intention in my work. Intention to make items of quality, usefulness, of as much beauty as I can imbue an already beautiful material with, and of respect to that material. I work wood with a clear conscience, though not without the occasional soul-searching moment.

I've decided that when it comes down to it I simply love wood, in all its diversity. I want to work with all kinds, hard and soft, vivid and quiet, elastic and brittle, light or heavy, etc. Each species has some particularly perfect use or application, and I like to try and design around the qualities inherent in each material I use. I used to live in softwood 'heaven' back in B.C.; here in the Northeast I am in hardwood heaven and very much look forward to getting to know the woody denizens of this corner of the world. Ideally, in time there will be the opportunity to harvest wood from my own land, selectively, or will at least be able to follow the tree to log to board instead of simply buying the boards at the store. That's really the best, when you can have direct connection with the process from tree to finished piece. It's a rarity in today's world, and a loss of wisdom compared to past practice in a lot of cultures and places.

Source Material

A few posts back there was a comment asking about my thoughts on the material that we use as workers of wood, where it comes from and how that fits into the 'bigger picture'. This is a somewhat complex, and for me, vexing question that I have considered from many angles over the years. I imagine that anyone who works with a material in a sensitive or sensible fashion at one point has to ask themselves about where their material comes from, along with how they are using it, in light of current considerations for the environment, worker livelihoods, and so forth. These questions are both practical and ethical in nature. I thought I should try to tackle this issue, though once again I may be plunging in foolishly where others would be more prudent. I regret that brevity does not associate strongly to this topic, and yet what follows is little more than a skim of the issue.

I think all of us who live in modern society have to face the fact that we are enmeshed in a material culture, and the way those materials is obtained, coming as they do from around the globe, is not always in accordance with what we might choose to do in our own back yards, or communities. In fact, we well know that the working conditions in many part of the world do not fall, even remotely, within what many in the west would accept for our own society.

Further, many technological products we use daily are quite complex in nature and source an incredibly diverse array of materials. I speak of items such as computers, cell phones, stereo components, our cars and trucks, and other such products. To use any of these artifacts of modern culture is, lets face it , an acceptance on some level by the consumer of strip mining (or similar degradation) at the production end, or the scenario of incredibly poor people in Bangladesh smashing circuit boards with hammers to recycle valuable metals, and thus exposing themselves to quite toxic materials, at the other end of the cycle of use. Buying clothes and sneakers often means an acceptance of poor people in developing countries working in sweatshop conditions that would make Charles Dickens turn white in the face.

Many of us choose, and I count myself among this group, to endeavor to support Fair Trade products, and to be choosy when shopping, especially in consideration of point of origin. This is getting increasingly difficult in N. America, where it seems like all our material goods come out of China. In many products now, China is the only choice it seems, like phone cords, batteries, and so forth. I've been frustrated a number of times, trying to 'do the right thing' and trying to support local, though I do persevere in that regard.

Supporting 'local' seems like the best choice we can make, though I am perfectly aware that in the sum of inputs to a product, the transportation portion is a relatively minor aspect of the total environmental impact of that product, and thus organic produce from California may well be better than local Massachusetts produce grown with some pesticides. Or is it? It can be a difficult accounting at times, and on occasion I wonder if it's worth all the effort and balancing of one concern off another to determine which is the most ethical/best choice. It can be exhausting and sometimes I am left with a desire not to look at labels anymore and just have 'simple' decisions to make.

On top of this, some products can look very 'green' in comparison to others, but it really depends how you look at it. Take the Toyota Prius and every environmentalist's favorite whipping boy, the Hummer. A report came out a couple of years ago, Dust to Dust, a study which tabulated all data on the energy necessary to plan, build, sell, drive and dispose of a vehicle from drawing board to junkyard, including such items as plant-to-dealer fuel costs, distances driven, electricity usage per pound of material in each vehicle, and hundreds of other variables. The result is a 'dollars per lifetime mile' equation, and the Prius comes in a $3.25, while the Hummer comes in at $1.95. The best performer was the Toyota Scion at $0.48 I might add. Now this study may cause some to chortle, knowing the smugness that many perceive to ooze from some Prius owners, however, once you look into the issue a little further, you find plenty of controversy about who funded the study, what biases the preparers of the report may have had, how sound their information was, etc. Thus, there would appear to be no simple answer even for things as apparently obvious as comparing the environmental impact of the flagship of the Green car movement, the Prius, and its apparent polar opposite the Hummer. Buying a secondhand fuel-efficient car is often the 'greenest' approach, it seems.

Now, I think that people who buy the Prius may well have good intentions, probably in line with many of my values, and the Hummer for me is a ghastly monstrosity, useless off road or for doing work, and primarily an urban toy for people who derive, it would appear, psychological comfort from being up high in a massive vehicle. I once was a passenger in a Hummer back in B.C., and it was most edifying to note the unpleasant, even hostile looks on many people's faces when we went towards them and they saw the vehicle.

Anyway, this post is not about cars, or other technological artifacts, I simply wanted to show with a seemingly 'obvious' example that the true picture is often a little harder to discern than may be initially apparent. I think the same holds true for wood.

The wood that the carpenter or furniture maker uses may come from a variety of sources - freshly logged, wind-downed, reclaimed/salvaged, re-used, and so forth. It may come from your own woodlot or from the other side of the planet. Wood has been a trade item for thousands of years, and countries have gone to war over it, with Crete a good example of a place that was squeezed by outside powers for its natural bounty of timber, and is now largely denuded - Lebanon would be another example, once famous for it's Cedar trees, it is now a desert.

I have sourced wood for projects all these different ways. I've cut saplings off my own lot and dragged them out of the bush for the use in building a cob (mud and straw) house. I've gone down to the beach with an Alaskan chainsaw mill to salvage old logs - only to find later that such activities are illegal in B.C., since all the wood is owned by established salvage rights. I also found that sometimes you could do backbreaking labor for days out in the bush with the chainsaw mill and produce but $100 of timber, and I was left thinking it might be best to leave that side of the wood equation to the sawyers.

I've often tried sourcing wood 'locally'. It is a curious thing about British Columbia, which supplies the world with softwoods like Douglas Fir Western Red Cedar, Yellow Cedar, Spruce, and so forth: if you go in a typical B.C. lumberyard, often ringed with Doug Fir trees, sometimes you can't actually buy any Douglas Fir in the yard. Or good Western Red Cedar. The reason? B.C. exports most of its raw materials (this is the story of Canada, the supplier of much raw material to other countries actually), and the local B.C. market is left with just a tiny slice of that - the dregs in fact. I've seen some lovely Western Red Cedar from B.C. at the local Cowl's Lumber here in Western Massachusetts, and I've had a similar experience in a Japanese lumber yard. There is no significant use of Yellow Cedar in North America, and most of B.C.'s Yellow Cedar is cut by specialty mills for export to Japan, where it goes into high end homes and temples. The Japanese in fact own a fair proportion of standing big Yellow Cedar in the province.

So, I concluded at one point that it would be better to go to small local sawyers for my material, and indeed sourced a lot of Yellow and Red Cedar from a small outfit that specialized in salvaging timber from old clear cuts. However, their supply was intermittent and seasonal, and often they didn't have the lengths or sizes I needed for certain jobs.

A couple of years back I got involved in a project to build a Mansard-roofed workshop for a local drum maker. He appreciated fine wood and wanted to use quality local material in his building, in preference to the stuff produced by the big mills, the usual 2x stuff. I got a lead to a fellow named Eugene who has a mill in a place on Vancouver Island called Cobble Hill. Eugene had freakish stuff in his yard, like 5' thick Doug fir logs, 40' long, the sort of stuff you don't see many places on the planet. Then I found out that one of those pristine logs was to be sliced and diced entirely into flooring, for a client who wanted 'good color match' in his new residence. That, unfortunately, is not an atypical use for a 1000 year old tree, and it grieves me.

I selected some smaller logs out of his pile and gave Eugene a detailed cut list of what I wanted along with the particular specifications for grain orientation and cut- namely, Free-Of Heart-Center (FOHC), primarily quarter sawn or rift sawn. The plan was that he would cut the timbers 0.5" oversize in height and width, then he would dry the wood in his kiln, and then re-mill the material afterward all sides with a 4-side molder (termed 'S4S' milling) to produce nice straight square material I could readily go to work with. I was to make a timber frame with it -a hybrid frame with both joined timbers and some dimensional 2x material for rafters. Well, that was the plan anyhow, and I gave Eugene a 6-month lead time, which seemed more than adequate.

However, at Halloween some vandals were playing with fireworks and burned his kiln to the ground. Then all kinds of other 'events' intervened in Eugene's personal life, which I'm not going to get into. In the end, he supplied me with a partial shipment, several months late. Some wood was as I had asked for, however a lot of it was under-dimension, or was at dimension but not square, or even over dimension in a few cases. Very inconsistent, in other words. Thus, I re-squared much of the material and as a result had some parts nearly 0.5" under size when that was done, and had to re-draw most of the plans to adjust the dimensions accordingly. Some of the material had rotten punky wood in places, some had the heart center, and so on and so forth. Months of hassling later, I finally had to give up on Eugene. I left it to the G.C. on that job to wrestle with him about the shortfall, a process that went on for many subsequent months and may in fact be still going on for all I know.

Part II to follow...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Desk Job IV

The next step in the process of assembling this, well, what might be called, "Asian Inspired" reception desk, was the trial fitting of the main table top boards.

Here's a view from the inside corner:


Along with the desk top panels, I fitted the floating sliding tracks. This desk, you see, is to have shoji-like sliding screens fitted between the upper and lower table surfaces:


Another view from the inside:


Also, I trial-fitted the cap-rail, which, like the upper table, had to engage with many joints at once:


The long-side cap rail slides into position:


A close up of the connection between the cap rail, table divided rail, and the post sandwiched in the middle:


Once the rail was offered up, some trimming and adjustments were necessary:


The floating tracks for the sliding doors were fitted one by one:


The cap rail and tracks now fitted:


The short side now complete, with table top panels, tracks and cap rail:


In the above photo, you can now see much more clearly the form of the flickering flame board - kato-ita - mentioned earlier.

Some more fiddling was necessary on the long side to seat one of the tracks:


At last, the cap rail and tracks are pulled out, and the long side panels can go in:


The installation of the main table panels are now completed on the short side:


My aim had been to put the lower Maple table tops together in such a way that the mineral streaking present in the panels was arranged in a central band that flowed from one end around to the other:


Close up of the short side of the desk, complete:


And here's how the inside table frame connection worked out at the turn, viewed from below:


The central grill panel can now be installed:


In goes the turning section cap rail, which keeps the grill in place:


Viewed from the front, middle section component install now complete:


And now the cap rail goes in on the long side, along with the tracks:


A little more tweaking:


Now the Wenge splines can be fitted to lock the cap rail sections together at the turns:


And then the splines are trimmed:


Tenons needed a little tiddling up:


This is how the desk looked at the end of the second day of assembly:


At this point, the desk was usable, and I went back to my shop to complete work on the sliding doors. That installation, the fifth and final part of this series, will be posted soon.

When the receptionist came in the next day and saw her new desk, she felt bad that she had been grumpy towards me earlier, and apologized. One thing I have learned is that people don't usually remember a late delivery, only a bad one.

On to post V