Throughout my career I was fortunate enough to work with some of the brightest and most energetic young engineers. In my retirement that luck has continued with a string of woodworking apprentices: Amber Baker, Melissa Stylos and Jesse Moy. I call them my apprentices, though I am neither qualified in the traditional European apprenticeship sense, nor do I have an official apprenticeship program. “My apprentices” is a label of affection because I have grown to appreciate and respect each of them for their drive, desire to learn a traditional skill and the quality of labor they brought to the task.
Today Jesse came to pick up his completed project and so he graduated in a sense. I introduced you to both Jesse and Melissa in my March 29, 2012 newsletter (Amber in my December 1, 2010 newsletter). See the March issue for Jesse’s background.
Jesse and I met in December of last year when he was introduced to me by Steve Racz of CutList Ruby script fame. Jesse had just finished a timber frame program at The Heartwood School the previous spring and was a co-student with Steve. He told me he wanted to learn fine furniture crafting and could I help him. I said sure, can you spend about two days a week in the shop?
The plan was simple. Jesse was to help me build two cherry chest of drawers to learn fine furniture woodworking. He would be under my guidance each step of the way. We would start with rough lumber selection, then stock preparation, followed by milling, layout & cutting of joinery etc. He would learn both power tool use & safety and hand tool use & sharpening. I am big on hand tool use and told him he would have to master the use of planes, chisels and hand saws during this first phase. Then Jesse would build a project of his own design, working on his own, getting help from me only when he asked for it. That was the deal.
I believe you learn woodworking mostly from doing it – and – having a project of value to work on. Jesse certainly had that motivation. Jesse and his woman friend, Christina, have plans to obtain graduate degrees in architecture. The project Jesse chose is a portable drafting table which he plans to gift to Christina upon her graduation this month from The Conway School’s Sustainable Landscape Design program. Certainly this is a project of value and a labor of love. What better way to learn fine woodworking.
Jesse didn’t just choose a project and design it himself. He had to learn SketchUp too, and then model his design and produce the shop drawings to work from. In the tradition of Swamp Road Wood Work’s SketchUp models, Jesse is making his SketchUp model available to anyone who wishes to build this drafting table, or modify his design for another use. At a later date I will place Jess’s drafting table on my Free Plans page.
As mentioned earlier, drawers and carcasses crafted at SRWW are almost always joined using hand cut dovetails. In the construction of the cherry chests Jesse learned not only through dovetails, but half-blind dovetails too. He started by practicing straight cuts on scrap wood; over and over and over until he could follow a layout line. Soon he was cutting tails and pins and putting together practice joints. As is typical, his first dovetail joint was almost perfect – beginner’s luck; his second and third not so much. But each one got better and better. Jesse built the first drawers of my cherry chest on his own and I was very pleased with the result.
The design Jesse created was full of hand joinery, some quite complex. The carcass employed hand cut through and half-blind dovetails, the drawers through and half-blind dovetails. Several styles of dadoes – traditional and v-grove – were employed. In addition, many of the dadoes were of the stopped variety. While the dadoes and rabbets were cut with the table saw and router, some were formed, or cleaned up, using a shoulder plane & shooting board or chisel. Jesse learned both the value of fine tuning joinery as well as the cost if you skipped this step.
Jesse was taught the tails first method of hand cut dovetails. And he was taught to cut to – but leave – a line when cutting the pins, since pins are laid out by tracing the tails. If done correctly you should still see the pencil lines after tails are cut. The more difficult dovetail joint is the half-blind dovetail because you have to cut to – but leave – the line, and you have to cut a complex angle and keep from unsightly overcutting. The picture below left shows how well Jesse performed this task.
Among the many things about fine furniture design and crafting Jesse learned was the importance of taking seasonal shrinkage/expansion into account. His top is fairly large and hence subject to seasonal changes in width and cupping. To account for this Jesse employed breadboard ends. He learned to use a moisture meter, first calibrating it and setting it for a particular wood species. Then making a moisture reading and using it to calculate dimensional changes taking into account species, board type (quarter sawn verses plain sawn), area of the country and the application (breadboard). Armed with this information he knew how wide to cut the top such that the average width over the full season would be the length of the breadboard ends.
Further, he learned to elongate the pin holes in the tenons in a graduated way, the first hole in the front un-elongated and each subsequent hole elongated in a graduated way to allow for maximum expansion and contraction. If you look closely at the picture below right you can see this graduated elongation.
Planning the inside layout of the drafting table was no small feat. Jesse had to provide storage for the T-Square, allow space and partitioning for the drawers, provide space at the ends for sticks that would hold the top open at the desired angle while drawing, and finally leave space for storage of other drafting tools, pencils, erasers etc.
Hardware choice was a particularly daunting task. Many woodworkers don’t understand the value of selecting and acquiring the hardware before completing the design and beginning crafting. Jesse learned this lesson somewhat the hard way. He also discovered that he couldn’t have chosen a more labor intensive drawer pull than the ones he chose. If you look at the sixth picture from the top you will see what I mean. The drawer pulls needed to be set into the drawer front. Creating the precise opening required the construction of a jig for the router. That was followed by drilling a rather large hole using a Forstner bit and then manually scooping out a ball shaped volume.
Not shown are the 6-lb rare-earth magnets and associated hardware to keep the drawers from falling out when the drafting table is moved. These are mounted into the drawer backs and the partition just behind the drawers. Knowing where to place this partition required detailed knowledge of the rare-earth magnet hardware which Jesses neglected to order until late in the game. To his credit he figured out how to stage the construction and glue-up so he could rescue himself from this situation.
Shown in the picture below right are the spalted maple T-Square and the top with breadboard ends. Both the T-Square and the breadboard ends are attached using pegs. This project for sure employed a wide variety of joinery making it an ideal project for learning fine woodworking. Looking at these pictures, especially the two of the completed piece; I think you will agree with me that Jesse is no longer an apprentice and deserves to be called a fine woodworker. His “graduation” comes with mixed emotion. I am happy to witness his end product turn out so well and I am proud of Jesse and his efforts. But I will miss working with such a talented, dedicated and hardworking individual. A young man who has become a good friend.
During the course of our working together I dropped my #5 Jack plane and broke the handle. As a going away gift Jesse gave me a replacement handle and a gift of a Shaker furniture book. Every time I pick up my Jack or refer to that book I will be reminded of a young man with a bright future who passed through my life and shop and gave me the pleasure of teaching him fine woodworking. Good luck Jesse.