Thursday, December 31, 2015

Le poids de l'hêtre 2

I bought my beech from a local wood supplier. They have stacks of off-cuts and I chose some pieces. They measured the volume, and multiplied that by the price per cm3. I can understand why the substance itself, 'untransformed', has value. Beech is a hardwood; it grows slower. The pieces I bought have a close grain and almost no knots. The tree from which they came must have been many decades, if not centuries, old. And, someone had to do the preliminary work of finding that tree, cutting it down, stripping the bark and squaring it off into blocks.

In respect for the raw material, I try to minimize waste. Even when I make mistakes and wish I could start over. This has resulted in some ad hoc design choices for the chair. One of the back legs split while being planed, so I decided to replace it with a dowel. 

Sometimes I have to remind myself why I'm doing this, why I don't just go to Ikea. There is the design freedom and customization; there is the tactile knowledge and satisfaction acquired through the work itself. There is also the luxury of having and working with solid wood. No thin veneer on particleboard, no assembly of layers, this chair is just beech. Even the dowels I'm using to reinforce the mortise and tenon joints are made of beech. 

My criteria for the design were the following: simple to execute, no metal fasteners, able to be disassembled and packed flat for transport. I chose to make two 'h' frames, assembled with mortise and tenon joints. The 'h' frames interlock at a right angle and will be braced by the backrest and seat. I've been having trouble with the backrest- I keep cutting the wrong angle. So I've had to use a bit of glue, even though my initial idea was to make do without.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


A while ago, during my Master's degree, I saw a fellow student using a drawknife to shape the legs of chairs. I admired her competence and the elegance of the tool. (See some of her pieces here.) 

A friend of mine has inherited many tools from his grandfather. When I saw the drawknife, I asked if I could borrow it. I soon realised that it is a tricky tool to master. Even a very slight change in angle can change drastically the way the blade bites into the wood. I tried to make the same stroke multiple times, and each time had a different result. Partly because of my human error, partly because the action of the blade on the wood also depends on the direction of the grain within the piece. 

It worked fairly well to taper a dowel; there were only a few times when it grabbed more than I would have liked. When I started using it to soften out the edges of my rectangular pieces, there was more trouble. I found it worked well in a certain direction, but as soon as I turned the piece around to do the other side, it would grab and splinter the edge. 
I think it depends on the way the piece was cut. In the picture above, you can see that the fibres are angling outward against the direction that I was pulling the drawknife, so it's obvious that splinters would happen much easier.

To finish rounding the corners, I ended up using a rasp, which is much easier to control.

Le poids de l'hêtre

The title of this post is a play on words. In French, Milan Kundera's book 'The Incredible Lightness of Being' translates to 'L'incroyable légèreté de l'être', and the word for beech wood is 'hêtre' which of course sounds exactly the same.

So, I guess I don't really need to explain- beech wood is not at all light. It is hard and heavy, but very nice to work with. It planes beautifully, responds predictably to filing and sawing, doesn't warp, and holds an edge well. I can see why it is a favourite for furniture making. Now I just need to improve my sawing skills!

I have a new toy (well, a new tool...): a Japanese saw. I like it because the blade is tall but thin, so it acts as a guide for itself. It makes straight cuts easier. I'm trying to make a chair out of beech wood so it has been very useful for cutting tenons.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Spoons 2 and 3

Although walnut is beautiful when polished, I am questioning whether it was the best choice of wood for spoons. I find that as soon as I get the spoon wet (i.e. eat something with it) there are tiny fibres that come out from the surface, making it less smooth. I have put many coats of oil and rubbed a mixture of oil and beeswax onto the surface, but it still doesn't seem to be completely waterproof. I think I'll test out beech for my next spoons.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Spoon 1

I've been carving some walnut again, trying to make spoons. It's my first time using a hook knife:

Since the blade is on one side of the hook only, there are different knives for right-handed and left-handed people. I find the hardest part is starting the scoop. Once I have a bit of a hollow, it's easy to catch the edges and make it bigger. 

I make my spoon blanks with a bandsaw, then I shape them with the two different knives, and then sand them with progressively finer grit sandpaper. I spoke to someone who said, 'that's cheating!' when I told him I used a bandsaw. It's an interesting question. What, exactly, counts as 'cheating' when making an object? I use the bandsaw to save my thumbs (walnut is very hard, and causes blisters...), to save time, and to save the blade of my knife. Having a well-made blank makes the carving process much easier, so I consider the work on the bandsaw to be an integral part of the making process.

If I routed out the spoons with a CNC router, would that be cheating? I think not, because in this case using the CNC would require more skill and knowledge than carving by hand. It would be more complicated, too, because it would mean routing out one side, creating a brace to hold the unfinished spoon upside down, and then routing out the second side. So I'm not sure I agree with the implicit idea that using power tools or digital tools is 'cheating'. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015


I've always been a bit disdainful of stucco finishes. It seemed to be the cheap, cop-out facade material for those who can't afford concrete, brick, or wood. But, as with most materials, the quality of the finished product depends much more on the handling of the substance than the substance itself. In many Baroque churches, plaster is tooled with as much care and precision as marble.

The popularity of stucco is not unmerited. It can be applied directly on top of rigid insulation, without the need for a ventilation cavity. It is a paste, so it can follow any form. But most interesting, to me, is its quality as an artisan material. It is meant to be applied by a human with a trowel. The act of trowelling seems simple, but in reality, the labourer is constantly adjusting the angle and pressure to achieve uniform thickness and a smooth finish. This sort of unconscious tactile knowledge would be incredibly difficult to replicate in a machine. 

And this simple combination of plaster and trowel can achieve many nuances. 
By changing the tool- a serrated trowel, for example:

By changing the direction of the stroke:

By changing the grain of the render- coarse or fine.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

No wolf yet

Having built out of bricks, and out of wood, I am now completing my Three Little Pigs story by building out of straw. I was lucky to meet Nicole, who is building her own straw bale house in a small village in Switzerland. See her blog here:

When baled, straw behaves partly like a substance, partly like a module. It is dense enough to require a saw to cut it, and it holds its shape when notched or sliced. (Of course, the bales need a certain thickness and density for this to work.) And yet, bales can be reshaped by shifting the straw around inside the strings. They can be taken apart and reconstituted (although we try to avoid that because they are always less dense than the first time) They can be compressed. 

Bales are directional, with all of the stalks running parallel. At first, Nicole wanted to build her walls with the stalks running parallel to the wall, but she switched to perpendicular. With the stalks running parallel, the bales have a better insulation value because heat is not conducted as easily from inside to outside, but the smooth stalks do not take rendering as easily. With the stalks running perpendicular, bristling out from the wall, she can use a hedge trimmer to even out the sides before rendering, and the render holds well.

We use the bales to infill the space between wooden studs. Nicole purposely asked her carpenters to make the spacing between the studs uneven, sometimes at 90cm, sometimes at 95, sometimes at 100. This means she can accommodate the imprecise bale sizes. Our first stop before the day's work was at a nearby farm to inspect some bales that she might buy. I watched as she went through her criteria. Are they approximately the right size? Are the fibres long and continuous from one side of the bale to the other? Are there only stalks, or are there some residual grains that might attract rodents? Are the strings tight enough? Are they dense enough? She weighed them with a bathroom scale. They need to be at least 15kg for a bale 43x47x95cm.

To insert a bale, we often use pieces of sheet metal on the sides to ease the friction between it and its neighbours, and to ensure that all of the stalks slide past the wooden structure. This is a system that Nicole came up with herself. There is a big wooden mallet called the Persuader that helps a stubborn bale fit into place as well. Once in the wall, we add extra compression by standing on the bale and then screwing a wood slat into place on top of it. 
The mallet has a name. It is called the Persuader. (picture taken by Nicole)

These metal sheets are an ingenious idea of Nicole's- they ease the friction on the bale and make it easier to 'persuade'.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


I thought I would share with you some pictures of a past carving project. I learned from my first set of buttons how to feel for the fibres of the wood under the knife, how they shear much easier than they rip. I also learned that I should use very fine grit sandpaper before oiling for a nicer finish. 

As with most things, I needed multiple tries to find a system of carving that worked- also because I needed to clamp the toggle right up until the very end, to be able to work on it. So I did half at a time with pencil lines to guide me.