• 14 Jul

    Hand Cut v. Machine Cut Dovetails

    Let’s go at this in a slightly circuitous route, shall we?  Perfection is not necessarily what might, at first glance, be perfection.

    As I tell our design students here at the Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking in Seattle, there is a level beyond just the aesthetics of a piece of furniture. It is not necessarily what a person sees when they look at a piece, but, for me, what they feel. Their visceral response.

    Machine cut dovetails, say, done by the popular router jigs, when carried out to order, should provide the accuracy to strengthen the joint. The original ones, where the tails and pins are of equal size are, frankly, monotonous to look at. I believe there are newer versions of the templates where the woodworker has the ability to space them differently. But, they still don’t look right. They achieve sort of an uber-accuracy which makes even the casual observer shake their head. They are too stiff, too….well…..machine-like. It is much like walking down the street and seeing houses sided in vinyl or even the currently popular Hardiplank, which you will see papered all over nearly every new house these days. It has been embossed to (supposedly) look just real wood. 

    But there’s the rub. It’s a simile, not reality. It is like when my teenage daughter says, “Papi, I am like really hungry”. To me, that would indicate that she actually ISN’T hungry. I am hungry indicates a need for food. I am LIKE hungry is a comparison to hungry, but you’re not actually hungry. It is the same for me and many fine craftsmen with machine cut dovetails. They are supposed to look like hand cut, but they are not. So, why is it so important to me that they be hand cut? Because by doing so, you are leaving the very subtle signature of the craftsman. In much the same way I cannot stand leaving machine marks. You know, those tiny little ripples that belie that the last thing to pass over your work was a whirring machine. That really is standing up and pointing a bony finger at you and screaming, “You did not care enough to silently pass a sharp plane over me and leave a bit of glassy elegance for your client”.

    If you are working in a factory, you are by definition producing “factory made” quality. Factory made means fast and for profit. Where all their ranting and raving about quality is just that: ranting and raving. She doth protesteth too much.  If you do your work in a nice workshop, and you do it in your own way, consider leaving a subtle trace for future observers that lets them know (strike that), FEEL, that someone gave it their all.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts Tools
  • 07 Jul

    What My Students Are Teaching Me

    Teachers teach. It is not a new concept. That information passes down from a learned person to a learning person has always been the premise. But some may not know just how much the students can teach their teacher. I am discovering that daily.

    The Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking is just completing its first year of welcoming students to the school/shop at the east side of Green Lake in Seattle, Wa. They remind me how ceaselessly invigorating it has been for me to be a furniture maker these more than 40 years. Many of the students have day jobs, and although most come in a little tired from work, they seem to leave class each time buzzing with new energy. Imagine that!  Work that leaves you more juiced than when you started. (And yes I am VERY proud of this, three have already told me that they are going to or have already quit their jobs to do “this” full time)

    I have learned that although some come to Ebanista with the idea that they are “not that good with their hands”, together we have put that misgiving to rest. There are some people who haven’t taught their hands to feel and touch thus far in their lives, but none that cannot learn.

    I am learning after a lifetime of willfully pushing myself forward to constantly be growing and creating, it is more than okay to slow down and listen to my students as I have learned to listen to my wood. 

    In the Design Studio, we are learning together that really good ideas can and often do arise from what seems like a harmless doodle, but is really rooted in deeper creative ideas that are seemingly less understood, but are instinctively gold. 

    And although I have never tired of hearing the sweet “shhiiikkkk” of a sharp plane slicing a gossamer shaving of wood, every single one of our students has felt that same satisfaction the very first time they try that at Ebanista. 

    And lastly, and I take great delight in this, so many processes I have done hundreds or even thousands of times have become so woven into my muscles and become so “natural”, when students ask me to explain them, it is like pulling the curtain from in front of the Wizard of Oz, and I am exposed (hopefully, not for a charlatan), and I have to rediscover why I do things the way I do. 

    I expect to continue learning with each and every student the way I have with each and every project I have completed, and this too is proving immensely satisfying.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts
  • 23 Jun

    A Rose is a Rose by Any Other Name

    It was true for William Shakespeare, and it is true today. Changing the nomenclature does not alter the essence. I speak here of the idea of apprenticeship.

    I have known a couple of woodworkers over the years who gleefully refer to people helping out in their shops as “apprentices”.  But, just as the vast majority of woodworkers these days who slam out slab tables with live or wane edges do not even know who George Nakashima was, I do not believe that some of these “masters” necessarily understand the concept of apprenticeship. Or worse, maybe they did and they chose to take advantage of it.

    What I have been seeing is a guy who is making a living at woodworking, accepting novices into his shop to do grunt work for no pay. That does not even resemble what an apprenticeship has traditionally meant. For one thing, in an apprenticeship arrangement, if one party is the apprentice, the other is necessarily a master. I believe that is a term that is too easily bantered about. Years ago, when I had been working for more than 20 years, I fell in love with a set of Japanese sharkskin handled chisels. They were very expensive, but that was not my problem. I felt that if I were to purchase them, I was believing myself a master craftsman. But, even after having received several awards, appearing in a number of magazines and having commissions set years in advance, I cringed at the idea of being thought of as a master. Now, after more than forty years building furniture, I still do. So, I would be similarly leery of having an “apprentice” in my shop.

    No, an apprentice does not work for free. That is more like indentured servitude. Historically, apprentices were not paid either. They, or usually their families PAID the master to take the youth under his wing and TEACH him. (Back then, virtually every master and apprentice was a him). The master then welcomed the apprentice not only into his shop, but often also into his home, where he was boarded and fed. The daily hosting aspect of the relationship would be easy to set aside in today’s world. But NOT the real obligation of the master: to proactively teach the apprentice all the skills necessary to one day rise to the level of journeyman, and then, ultimately, one day become a master himself.

    Call an unskilled assistant in your shop a helper or an unpaid assistant, or, I suppose a protege, but “they”, (because, thankfully, we are changing the culture rapidly these days, and it is no longer a foregone conclusion that it will be a male on either end of this relationship), is probably not an apprentice.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts
  • 26 May

    And the envelope, please…Some thoughts on my favorite tools

    Chisels – Western chisels can be very good, but only if you are willing to pay top dollar for them. I like the feel of Japanese chisels better and would lean that direction. Plus, they have that beautiful steel.

    Planes – see Chisels above

    Hand saws – okay, this is a plain and simple rout. Western saws: heavy, thick, cumbersome. Japanese “pull saws”: light, effortless, and remarkably accurate.

    Marking gauges – Old/cheap style western marking gauges use a sharpened brad to mark the wood and it just kind of crushes the wood. The Japanese gauges use a sharp knife which is much better but can wander with the grain. The newer, nicer western ones use a rolling wheel cutter and would be my first choice.

    Sharpening stones – Western-style oil stones / hard Arkansas stones: oily, messy, (I do NOT like oil on my tools), and oil is thick and masks the feel of the cutting action. Don’t even want them in the same zip code as my tools. Japanese water stones: clean, easy to true when needed, and you can develop a very nice feel for the polishing through the thin water. Crucial. Wouldn’t trade my water stones for a king’s ransom.

    Hand power tools – Japanese: not so great. American, British, etc: nothing special. Anything else: wonderful as long as they are made in Germany by Festool.

    Measuring tools – Made in the US of A: Starrett!

    Wood – all over the world- It’s a smorgasbord out there.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts Tools
  • 05 May

    Furniture Maker vs. Cabinetmaker

    I would guess that the vast majority of the world would not be able to distinguish between a furniture maker and a cabinetmaker. And I would also wager that almost none of them would care much if they did. Most anyone of either of those kinds of woodworkers could do the work of the other. But for me, although the difference is not great, it is important.

    To me, a cabinetmaker makes, as the name would imply, cabinets. Which are, by and large, boxes. And boxes, by and large, require joining boards at right angles. Right angles, straight edges are the order of the day, because so many cabinets involve doors and drawers, Which, when you think about it are really just boxes inside boxes. And conventional lines make the whole process simpler and easier. I can make cabinets, but unless my client will allow me to bend or curve or arch some of the components, I do not often find myself too tempted to go that route.

    I am much more drawn to tables and desks and beds and chairs. Furniture with aprons and arms and legs.

    Them legs!

    They seem to be the element in all of woodworking that not only allows for but even demands the most creativity. I have filled sketchbooks with just ideas for legs.

    And furniture involves a more intimate relationship with humans. We plunk our bodies down in chairs, stretch them out in beds and press our bellies up to tables and desks. I am not aware of too many people getting cozy with their cabinets.  And after years of building furniture, you come to realize that one joint is employed more than every other joint combined: the mortise-and-tenon. Or the variation I have employed frequently: the double mortise and floating tenon.

    But more on M & T’s later.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts
  • 10 Jul

    Woodworking “Currency”

    A thing of value

    Currency might seem a strange title for a blog about woodworking, as so many of us woodworkers see so little of it. But I am speaking here of a different kind of currency. I am referring to something of very high value to a certain community.

    We could be speaking historically of cattle owned. We could be speaking of hand-woven carpets in Istanbul, or pristine tuna in the Tokyo fish market. Think of these kinds of currency as a sort of benchmark. Something, while not necessarily prized in other circles or societies, is highly valued in a particular one.

    Today, one can scarcely pass a fitness magazine without being inundated with articles on “How to get Six-pack Abs”.  For windsurfers it is “ How to carve the perfect high wind jibe”. For bakers it might be, “How to make the flakiest crust”. For woodworkers it seems there are never quite enough articles on “How to cut dovetails”.

    But I do not agree at all that cutting dovetails is either the most important, nor the most elusive skill germane to fine woodworking. For one, there are whole areas of crafting in wood that have nothing to do with them. They are beautiful, they are strong, and they are not so simple. But they are not a daily necessity, and they do not  always take so long to master.

    The real uber important skill to have in woodworking is sharpening. I cannot think of a single woodworking project that does not require it. And it is NOT easy to master. Probably, that is why a sadly high number of woodworkers never make more than a half-hearted attempt at gaining this skill. I maintain that I have never seen a person superlatively talented at maintaining his/her tools in a expertly honed state who was not also a very talented woodworker.

    Take the time to learn to sharpen. It is quieter, less expensive, and less dangerous. But far more importantly, it is produces much finer work and is light years ahead in terms of a satisfying way to work.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts