At the end of June/beginning of July I had the pleasure to take a course with Roy Underhill and Bill Anderson at the Woodwright’s School. This my fourth course at the school and every last one of them has been worth more than I paid. The instruction received is second to none.
Over the five day course you build a toolbox which is about 16″ long x 14″ tall and 12″ wide and it’s held together with dovetails, mortise & tenons, tongue & grooves, cut nails, and hide glue. When the class is complete you will have to do some finishing at home namely outfit the box with hardware (hinges, straps, locks) and apply a finish (paint, oil, etc).
On the first day we made a practice joint. Each person was provided some scrap wood and told to make whatever type of joint we wanted. I opted for a half lap as I have not cut many (any?) half laps by hand. We reviewed what we did and why and how we could it better. Next we learned how to layout and cut dovetails and then did so in the carcass of our box.
On the second day we cut our pins to match the tails and glued up the carcass at the end of the day using hide glue. I stood my carcass boards up so I could see the layout in 3-D. In the course of sawing, my bench wiggled, shimmied, and vibrated until the back panel fell off the bench. It split in half as a result of the sudden stop at the end of the fall. Thankfully it could be epoxied together, but the whole thing could have been avoided if I left the boards flat, in a stable state.
The malodorous rendered smell of hide glue made me think of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Moreover it has a short work time and must be kept warm lest it set up like Jell-O. The beauty of hide glue is that it can be heated and a joint separated. Of course if you do it right the first time, then you don’t have to do it a second time and you can use PVA glue.
My dovetails were too proud so I found myself spending the third morning slicing them away with a chisel. A block plane would have taken too long and a jack plane would have left them ragged. Slice. Slice. Slice. We then used molding planes to make a skirt for the box.
The fourth day had us mitering and gluing our modeling in place. While no one cut dovetail pins facing opposite directions, someone did cut their miters backwards (the decorative molding would have to be against the box for the mitered edges to fit). It’s a common and easy mistake to make. We began cutting our tenons and chopping our mortises during the afternoon. My first tenon was perfect and then I went steadily downhill. It can always be worse. My last tenon was . . . well ugly is such an ugly word. My last tenon was not being asked to prom. Therefore I had to cut two new tenons because the last one was attached to the penultimate one.
The fifth and final day had a lot of little things for us to complete. I had to recut a tenon. We all had to finish our mortises. On the plus side, we were allowed to use a Barnes mortising machine for our last tenon. This thing is a joy to use and I am honestly surprised that it is not still in production. It is faster and quieter than chiseling out a mortise and incredibly accurate. I would put a nickel down that it would cut a mortise as fast as an electric hollow chisel mortiser.
With stiles and rails mortised and tenoned we could cut a groove into the panel so we wouldn’t be topless. The panels were razed to make them raised panels. We did not use a panel raising plane, but rather placed bevels on it with a smoothing plane or block plane.
I used cut nails for the first time as well. They were used to attach our tongue and grooved bottoms to the carcass of the box. I have no intention of using temperamental hide glue again, but cut nails may come up in my future. The wedging action joins wood securely and I have no fear they will be come loose like modern day cylindrical nails.
The final day also included us attaching the mitered drip molding to the lid of the tool box. Should I ever leave it outside, I need not fear the rain.
In between lessons we were able to go up to Ed’s shop above the school. It is like a museum with price tags. Want a Stanley number 48 tongue and groove match plane? There’s two on the shelf. Want a full set of hollows and rounds? There’s a few of ’em. Want a mattock? Take your pick. The prices are fair and the tools are in excellent condition to be used on your next project.
I’m straining to think of anything I disliked or would improve aside from my own skill set. We ate at some restaurants more than once, but that’s no fault of the school. You can only work with what you have. There was not a single lesson I would want to move or change around. There are times we could have accomplished more in the day, but we (students and instructors) would have certainly felt rushed.
My main takeaways from the week
- I need to make five more boxes. My first one is fine to use; however, the lessons learned are perishable skills.
- I need to be less proud in my dovetails
- Bill taught me to saw the air first and let the saw slowly descend to touch the wood. That made a world of difference in my saw doing the work and not me.
- I remained organized and clean through the work. This insure that I never confused a board for another, mixed up orientation, or made other simple mistakes.
- Roy also taught us all how to twang a saw. That was worth the price of admission