I don’t like your style

This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.

Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack.

As a first-order approximation, it’s true; I don’t like mid-century modern. If you line up a hundred random pieces of furniture built between 1950 and 1970, inherited from your grandparents or purchased at “vintage” or “antique” shops, chances are I’ll dislike ninety-five of them. It’s dull and boxy with occasional forays into weirdness. Much of it looks like it was designed by committee. In particular, I cannot abide unornamented rectangles with upside-down cones for legs. When I see them I think “firewood.”

But.

Just that month, in trying to design a coffee table and an ottoman, I’d looked hard at several examples by pioneering Danish designers working circa 1960. They weren’t exactly what I wanted; I had no interest in copying them—but I appreciated their efforts to make furniture with a spare kind of elegance not out of place in, but also not capitulating to, an industrial age. Not to mention there’s Sam Maloof, whose work I generally like a great deal, and respect even on those occasions when it doesn’t speak to me.

I also had, in a rotating stack of junk mail I keep for irritainment, a catalog of “Shaker” furniture that might have been constructed from 4×4s and planks, slathered in something intended to look like milk paint. It was boxy, boring, and just plain ugly. (Also, a nightstand with a drawer cost a thousand bucks, so it was expensive ugly.) The best actually Shaker-made furniture is a testament to the beauty of minimalism (what I said above about the aspirations of Danish modern could perhaps apply to 19th-century Shakers as well), and Christian Becksvoort has done beautiful work extending that style. But based on most of what’s marketed as “Shaker,” I don’t like Shaker style either.

In fact, based on most of what’s marketed as any style, I don’t like it. Arts and Crafts is boxy, heavy, dark, and depressing. The Jacobean style it half-imitated was all that, partially hidden by as much turning and carving as the buyer could afford. Chippendale makes me think of women with birdcages in their coiffures. Hepplewhite is going to fall over any minute now, I’m sure of it. Empire, bless it’s heart, wants to be everything at once. And so on. The older the style, the more bad examples have long since been turned into firewood. But there are always reproductions.

Do I really mean that? Yes, and no. Within each style—at its root—are examples that are thoughtfully, well, and beautifully made. The idea behind each style, considered in its historical and cultural context, is valid and interesting. It’s the knockoffs and elaborations that suck. The cheap imitations by people who meant well but didn’t grasp that core idea. The versions designed not for personal use but for mass production. The orgies of ornamentation, the bad reproductions, the pieces made for people with more money than taste.

Unornamented does not have to mean uninteresting; interesting does not have to mean off-putting. In any era, in any style, good craftsmen have been at work. Some eras take more digging than others, but they’re there, finding new ways to solve old problems and solving the new ones that every generation invents. At the heart of things there’s always good design, good work, and good furniture.

Once it becomes a style? You can keep it.

Building a splay-legged table with hand tools

This is not a project blog, meaning that I don’t want to write a lot of photo-heavy step-by-step posts about how to build things. There are enough of those out there already. Some of them are very good. It isn’t my thing, and the bases, mostly, are covered.

Occasionally, though, a project requires my working through a process that I have not seen explained elsewhere, and I’d like to write it down for my own understanding and reference… and if I’m going to do that much, I figure someone else may benefit from my experience.

This table is one such project:

coffee table

While there are some good articles available on building a table with splayed legs, they’re written for machine work. Since I work almost entirely with hand tools—I don’t own a drill press or table saw—most of the advice, and indeed even the process, in such articles is useless to me. Here, then, are ten things I learned from designing and building a splay-legged coffee table.

First, I am assuming that you can build a basic four-legged square table with straight aprons. I’m not going to explain mortise and tenon joints. Nor did I photo-document every stage of the process; I was too busy trying to build the thing. If Fine Woodworking wants to pay me to build it again and write it up (ha!) we’ll talk.

Ready? Here we go.

Small arcs of large circles: A calculator for cheaters and engineers

finishing the coffee table

This week I am finishing my splay-legged coffee table… in the dining room, because the humidity is such that I don’t trust oil to dry in the workshop. I will have more to say about (and better photos of) this piece, which posed several, ah, interesting challenges, but for now let’s talk about this one, which I’ve faced before and will face again: constructing small arcs of large circles.

There are three long arcs of circles on this table, at the ends of the top and on the undersides of the aprons. The longest has a lengths of 23 inches and height of 1 inch — a radius of some five feet, so actually constructing the circle was straight out. I could probably have drawn the shortest one freehand to within sawing and shaving tolerances, but the longest moves so slowly that I didn’t trust myself. I’ve been known to use Affinity Designer (Adobe Illustrator for people without corporate budgets) to draw ogees when I couldn’t get what I wanted with French curves, but I can’t print something 23" long. What to do?

What George Walker and Jim Tolpin call artisan geometry has solutions for practically every design problem woodworkers face, including this one. What you do, is draw a half-circle with the height of the arc you want, then proportionally expand that arc using station points, from which you can build a form for bending a batten or simply sketch a template:

constructing an arc from station points

But while this method works well for doubling or tripling the length of the arc, it isn’t really practical for stretching it by a factor of twelve.

Finally, like all good craftsmen, I fell back on the training I received as a young apprentice: I used trigonometry. Knowing the length and height of an arc one can, using trigonometry, determine the radius of the parent circle, then plot coordinates of station points in terms of the horizontal distance from the center of the baseline and the height of the arc at that point. Of course, one doesn’t want to have to do those calculations thirty-odd times for a single project, so I wrote a bit of code to do it for me. And since I assume other people have similar challenges, I made the calculator available on my website.

To use the calculator, input the width and height of your arc, the horizontal interval (along the baseline) between the points you want to plot, and the desired precision. The coordinates will be generated in ordinary fractions of an inch, to the desired precision (up to 1/64 inch). If desired, you can also see decimal values.

A calculator for constructing small arcs of large circles

If you want to understand the math, my explanation follows.

The hidden cost of convenience

tool carrier
Reusable grocery bag, nineteenth century version.

Stopping at the grocery store today to pick up something for lunch* I was reminded that whatever our intentions, not to mention our policies and our laws, humanity will continue to screw itself. To wit: When the young man (I am now old enough to use that term) bagging groceries was about to pile everything into one paper bag, the clerk pulled out another bag and started helping him, with polite but pointed verbal correction. Everything would fit, yes, but it would make the bag too heavy, and lifted by its handles it would tear. “I’ll lift it from the bottom,” I said, “don’t waste a bag.”

Of course I got the groceries home just as well as I would have done before someone thought to put handles on paper grocery bags. So I started wondering how much more paper we now use bagging groceries because we thought they needed handles, or, rather, that we needed handles, either by splitting the groceries into smaller parcels or double bagging the larger ones. This is why although I am not opposed, in principle, to banning plastic shopping bags, I’m not enthusiastically for it, either: we’ll just find other ways of wasting resources.

Convenience costs, in other words — if not us then someone else or, more commonly, “the environment.” Of course it isn’t like anybody ever decided, yes, I want handles on my damn bags and I’ll cut down twice as many trees to get them. That we use more bags is the kind of thing that might have been foreseen but wasn’t and seldom is. Cost-benefit analysis might be a cure, but it won’t prevent further stupidity, because we can’t foresee all the consequences of our choices even if we were inclined to. What’s needed is a different ethic: to say, when confronted with a new convenience, I don’t need that. Not that all conveniences are ipso facto bad, but that our default ought to be to reject them; you can always change your mind later. Instead, our default is to accept without question any and all convenience. As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep destroying everything around us.

*It was an unplanned trip, else I might have brought along one of my approximately two dozen reusable grocery bags. Emphasis on might: just as likely I’d have forgotten. I don’t claim not to be part of the problem.

Those old guys really nailed it.

I racked my brain for a week trying to think of something, y’know, important with which to inaugurate this blog, and then I gave up and went with a pun.

Back in the early summer of 2013 I built this box to store my drawing and art supplies:

art box

It’s the 19th-century schoolbox from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, made with circa-1830 methods, resized and with a till for pencils. It’s functional and attractive sitting beside my desk, and the yellow pine has aged nicely, but it’s essentially a student project, without unnecessary adornment. The exposed dovetails aren’t contemporary ornament but evidence that the original wasn’t worth the effort of fancy moulding or veneer. The simple moulding around the top is simply nailed on, with historically accurate cut nails (headless brads, actually). Here’s what the top looked like when it was first built:

art box, view of the top

There’s a dab of glue at the center of the front piece and at the front end of the side pieces, but otherwise it’s just the nails holding that moulding on. To glue the moulding to the sides would invite disaster: wood, of course, expands and contracts across the grain as the ambient humidity changes, and if you force long-grained moulding to stay attached to the end grain of the top, something’s apt to break.

Novices and non-woodworkers may ask: Does wood really move that much? Moderately experienced woodworkers may ask, contrarily: Won’t those nails keep the moulding from moving laterally and invite as much damage as glue? When I first started working wood I was mildly skeptical on the first point; when I built this piece I was mildly skeptical on the second. But the answers are, quite definitively, yes and no respectively. Here’s proof.

The summer of 2013 in North Carolina was ludicrously rainy. Summer here is always humid; that summer was like living in a walk-in shower. While I was building the box I stored the wood in my workshop, which was an un-air-conditioned 12’x16′ shed. When I built the schoolbox, as you can see in the photo above, the moulding on the lid was trimmed flush with the back and the miter was square at the front.

After six years living in a dry, air-conditioned house, here’s what’s happened (click to zoom in):

I don’t have plans or notes from 2013, but to judge from the moulding, the top was originally 10 3/16" wide; now it’s exactly 10", about 2% shrinkage. Two percent does not sound like much, but it’s enough to visibly deform the moulding — but (ah!) not break it. I don’t believe I elongated the nail holes to allow for movement, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have elongated them that much. So, yes: wood moves, and nailing stuff together cross-grain works.

I’ve seen more than enough antiques to believe both points, but it’s fun to see it in my own work. Of course I could trim the moulding (or even replace it, since I used liquid hide glue), and it would, objectively speaking, look better — but I prefer to leave the evidence of this tiny little victory for historical methods. And as a reminder to let wood acclimate to a climate-controlled house for a few weeks before building it into furniture.