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Ant Smith
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Wonders and Blunders: The Joy of Wood

This project creates an intimate garden bench and explored

  • Designing for re-use not new wood

  • The transferability of skills

  • The narrative of design

  • Using a cutting jig

I've been making things out of wood these past 6 months mostly to learn something of the craft of it. We've thought of something we need (where, need means like) and I've started by knocking up a design in Autocad's 123D and then bought the timber to suit. It has been quite successful. Pretty much everything went according to plan. But wood is expensive and we just can't afford to do a lot more in this way.

Plus, the only kind of wood you can readily and in any way affordably buy is pine. Don't get me wrong, pine is a lovely wood and quite easy to work. But it is just one material, with a common set of characteristics regards how it cuts and handles. One can't really gain a full experience of using a tool if it is always used under the same conditions. Certainly the confidence I've developed in my ability to wield a saw is somewhat capped by the knowledge that I've never actually tried to cut an African Sapele or a Cuban Mahogany. I had a pressing need to find cheaper (or ideally free) woods and to diversify my experience.

One of the classic undercurrents of western societies is the frisson between book smarts and street smarts; the ivory tower versus the school of life; universities versus polytechnics (for those who remember such) - pure versus practical reason. But I am no Kant. Although I believe passionately that one advantage of age is the ability to exercise skills transference and so by learn new skills quickly, precisely through the application of 'pure reason' - I am not so arrogant as to believe that specific experience has no place.

Every human endeavour requires materials, tools and process in order to be realised. The nature of each has to be learned in order to master the endeavour. A degree of this learning is transferable between endeavours, so that an a priori deduction can certainly guide us in fathoming an approach (process). Previous experience can also bring great (although perhaps lesser) rewards when it comes to the handling of tools, since the mechanics of all tools are fairly common (they twist, they turn, they strike, they chop, they cut; they have leverage and they have torque). But it is in the matter of materials that only new experience can really teach. Some great experience of age and some fine library of reference works can springboard our attempts to learn a new skill. But only experience in the skill will bring the understanding of the nature of the materials. IMHOTEP.

image showing a Venn diagram of the advantage of age

Then something wonderful happened. A very good friend said "you know I have a pile of cherry in the shed?". Yes, actually, I did know that. I had (perhaps a little enviously) espied the very same on a prior visit. You should know, that if I ever visit you, I shall be espying any and all wood you have lying around hoping almost beyond hope, that you will spontaneously offer it to me. Which is exactly what happened!

And so I found myself driving home with the following in the boot of Eartha (Eartha Kitt, our lovely car):

  • Six 1m lengths of dark cherry wood, 8cm wide with a 1cm rebate on 3 edges

  • A similar quantity in a hard white wood (I'm not sure what it is, although looking on The Wood Database I suspect it's a Yellow Birch)

  • Six 15cm shelving boards

  • Two 2m lengths of highly decorative dark wood mouldings - the kind you might find fixed atop of a wardrobe. In fact the whole collection was the remnants of an unfitted fitted wardrobe supplied by Harrods to my friend's brother - so I was certain this was going to be some good wood.

Whereas in previous projects I had bought the wood to match my design, now for the first time I would need to create a design to match the wood that I had. I decided to make the garden bench Chris had asked for last year, and I think (I hope) it was worth waiting for:

image showing two aspects of the finished bench

I wanted, as far as possible, to maintain the essence of the wood's previous incarnation - i.e. I wanted the finished piece to shout out "I was a wardrobe once". In a practical sense this meant that I didn't want to over-condition the wood.

The rebates were an obvious nuisance as they could complicate the cut-outs I'd need to make when lapping the pieces together - but I didn't want to cut them off, I wanted to work with them. So I decided that the rebates would face forward at the front of the bench, and backwards at the rear of the bench. This of course meant that the orientation of all of the pieces was quite critical.

Furthermore, by looking at regular bench designs I noted that the uprights were classically 3x2"; whereas I was working with 3x1" (more or less). So each upright would be made from two abutted pieces, with the rebates on the outsides. Which meant that each piece of an upright would have opposite orientations. The back pieces were to be oriented oppositely to the front pieces, and the outer pieces of each upright would be oriented oppositely to the inner pieces. Which of course means that the rear inner piece was to be oriented in like manner to the front outer piece... is your head aching yet?

Working with found pieces of a certain shape was unexpectedly much more complex than buying planned-all-round regular lengths of timber. Which led to the first blunder of the project!

From again looking at standard park bench designs, I knew I wanted the bench back to have a seven degree reclining angle for comfort. I spent a lot of time wondering how best to fix the back at such an angle in a way that would stand the test of time. You'll see that usually traditional benches have a bend in a continuous 3x2" length of timber. I don't know if traditionally such bench uprights are steam bent or else cut from much more substantial pieces - either way I couldn't do that with this wood. But then it occurred to me that a 7 degree incline over the height of the back (46cm) gives rise to a horizontal displacement of only 5.65cm, which if cut away from an 8cm board would leave the upright over 3cm thick at its thinnest point.

This is pretty simple Pythagoras, or if you rather you can (like I did) use an online right-angle triangle calculator

So I didn't need to bend the wood, or affix the back awkwardly at a seven degree incline - I could just cut a wedge out of the uprights. I cut the front uprights in like manner to maintain some balance in the aesthetic. Of course they're not as long so the front posts remain unquestionably sturdy.

I was glad to solve that problem, but it threw up a different issue that seemed quite subtle; until I miss-cut one of the pieces...

Remember how tricksy the orientation of each of the uprights was going to be? Well, I put one of them into my cutting jig upside down, or was it the wrong way round? Anyway, I ended up with an incline in quite the wrong direction. BLUNDER.

I think this was down to over confidence, or perhaps impatience which is more 'me' to be honest. I didn't mark each piece up in pencil as I wasn't hand cutting these. I was placing them into a jig I'd made and approached the task as you would with any power tool thinking 'all I'm doing is repeating the same cut on each of 8 pieces'. Mechanically it was the same cut, but because the pieces don't have the symmetry I'm used to I got it horribly, horribly wrong.

At least we learn more from failure than success. And I did have one spare piece of each type of the wood so I could recover the trouble.

Let's take a little interlude, because this project is all about blunders AND wonders...

Each of the uprights are made from two pieces of wood, one in a lovely deep cherry brown and the other in a (maybe birch) blonde. It's a lovely contrast. I had lots of options about how to mix the pieces. I could have used cherry at the back, blonde at the front. Or cherry back-left and front-right, with blondes opposing that. Or cherry for the inner pieces and blondes for the outer pieces. Or vice-versa. My 3D modelling software was a real help in looking at the impact of the different options, especially with it's orbital fly-around ability and light modelling techniques. It's worth getting into. Here's what some of those options looked like:

image showing three alternative arrangements for the uprights

The latter choice (cherry inners and blonde outers) seemed the most 'normal', but I wasn't keen on just being normal for normal's sake. To be honest, I rarely am. I wanted an arrangement that made some, albeit non-immediate, sense. Something that had some story about it. So I started playing with stories in my mind, imagining the finished bench seat in use. It's aesthetic similarity to the table I had made put me in mind of dinners we had eaten in the garden with good friends. So I replayed those scenes as if the bench had already been completed.

It's a short bench, really, due to the wood being a tad shorter than a classic two seater. I think that's ideal because it is actually going to become an intimate bench, sat in our memory garden once that's ready. But thinking of it as a slightly smaller than usual bench, around our grand garden table, I imagined the twins sharing it - and that gave me the inspiration for how I would construct it.

Each end would be made as identical as possible, with the cherry wood to the left and the blonde wood to the right. Before the bench was completed the two ends stood side-by-side as though they were twins of The Ents. But once completed this has the effect of giving the bench an entirely different character depending on from which end one looks at it. A reminder, perhaps, that for all of their striking similarity, twins remain wholly individual people with entirely distinct characters.

Once I had finished the bench and I walked around it, this shifting character caused by the observer's shifting perspective made me also realise that here is a physical demonstration that the only important perspective within any narrative is that of the observer, of the audience. The perspective we hold from inside a project, be that woodworker or author, is wholly alien to that which the observer, or audience will bring to the work. All of a sudden, woodworking was teaching me something quite startling about the nature of narrative, of writing. Despite the blunders that brought me here, that was really quite a wonder. Well it was for me...

image showing final arrangement of the uprights

But woodworking's a very practical concern so here's the details of the jig I made for making those eight 7-degree incline cuts (well okay, 9 cuts, don't remind me).

I carefully marked up one of the pieces (yes NOW I know, I shoulda marked them all up. Stop it now, we all know I made a blunder) and laid it along a straight-edged (bed) plank carefully aligning the inclined cut-line to the edge of the plank. This allowed me to position a back-stop and an end-stop at the right angles, which I screwed to the bed plank. The work piece will be abutted to the end-stop and clamped against the back stop. Obviously the work piece has two ends, the end stop is furthest from where the cut starts so that the saw is pushing the work piece against it as it makes the cut.

The work piece is butted against these stops and a straight-edge top guide rested upon it, laid carefully parallel to the bed plank but recessed in order to provide the 'fence' along which the saw's base-plate will follow. Then (outside of the cutting zone) the work piece is clamped to the back-stop. The top guide, work piece, and bed plank are all clamped down.

In order to keep the obstruction of the clamps outside of the cutting zone sometimes I found that the work piece was too short to facilitate the clamping of the top guide. In this case I used off-cut spacer pieces of the same material as the work piece to clamp the top guide. These spacer pieces need to be the same thickness as the work piece for effective clamping.

It maybe sounds complex, so here's some pictures of the set-up:

image showing the cutting jig assembly

You can see a length of orange electrical flex running along the floor beneath the jig arrangement in this photo. I ran this flex up my back and over my shoulder so I was sure it could not fall into the way of the cutting blade. I always dry-run the cut path to be sure that the flex has sufficient freedom without snagging or possibly ending up near (or in) the saw teeth. You may also notice a slight nick in the bed from the cuts that have been made. This is almost inevitable with any jig-bed, but take note how shallow that nick is - I set the cut depth as shallow as possible so that the smallest part of the blade is exposed when cutting. This jig arrangement allows me to make the cuts standing side-ways on to the saw. Circular saws are unruly beasts and have a habit of kicking back - so I try not to stand behind them, even though they have those spring-loaded guards.

You might think I don't trust my circular saw. You're damned right. They are bloody dangerous things. But I use lots of my advantage-of-age experiential-transfer magic to properly workout what might go wrong so that I can tame it. Honestly, I think if I can live with the razor sharp teeth of two young ferrets (which I can and do) I can handle a circular saw. But it needs as much respect as the ferrets do, that's for sure.

image showing the danger of sharp teeth

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