Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Movers and Shakers

On our journey to Pete Galbert's to make a chair, we took a trip further West to the Hancock Shaker Village in West Massachusetts. I had been there a few years prior, but the visit had been fleeting and I had not had the chance to look around as much as I would have liked. Lisa had never been, so it was great for her to see a place that had inspired my furniture making direction.

I won't go into great detail about the Shakers, as there are enough books and information about them to fill a library, but again I was taken aback at just how advanced, ingenious and inspiring this community of people were. It all seemed to be a great system with the exception of that one small detail..... those who know of the Shakers, know what I mean.

But although it appeared they didn't think that one through quite enough, it certainly did not mean that they were backward in any way, shape or means. In fact they embraced innovation and technology and were usually the first to incorporate new machinery into their lifestyles, like the motor vehicle. They also created their fair share of inventions to, like the circular saw blade and the flat broom. It's claimed they even came up with the first modern washing machine of sorts!

Just like the inventions that would go on to be everyday modern fixtures in our lives today, Shaker furniture was also advanced for it's age. A lack of unnecessary adornment, clean fine lines and precision workmanship have seen it labeled as the precursor to modern furniture. The beautiful furniture and built-ins above are in one of the many rooms in the meeting house on the second floor.

The Shaker credo of 'Hands to work and hearts to God,' which inspired them to do the very best in all aspects of their lives didn't end with their furniture either. It was carried through into everything they did, the tools they made and buildings that housed them. This workbench in the woodworking shop for example.

I left that day feeling as enthusiastic as I had 3 years ago. Now all I need to do is get home and start transferring that energy into all of the products we are intending on stocking in our shop. That's also why I'm excited to see the plans for the shop in just two days.

Monday, 24 October 2011

More than the sum of it's parts...

I'm typing this from 'across the pond,' as New Yorkers affectionately refer to England and the Crested Rocker class is finished, but the processes and experience are still very much foremost in my mind. I've made Continuous Arm Windsor chairs and helped dozens of others to make theirs, but this chair is definitely on another level. I had read the Fine Woodworking articles that Pete had written ( despite being heavily edited.. ) but being with the man who created the chair and who is aware of all of it's subtle nuances was worth every minute and dollar expended to get there. Two fold.

One look at the chair and you are drawn to it's beautiful lines, complimentary curves and harmonious shapes. But the detail is as apparent in the negative spaces created by these parts and when focusing on these, even more detail comes to light. The circular lines of the spindles and the complex undercut curves of the seat to name a few. In fact there was so much inspiration in the process, Pete's new workshop in New England in Autumn, the ruins of the original Rocky Brook Chair Shop of Newton Burpee across the road, the white oak and butternut in the chair and so on and so on, that I'm struggling to know where to start, photo wise, to give you a sense of it all. 

So here is the chair, simple as that. Next to the chair that Pete made for the Fine Woodworking article. It's dry assembled, ready for breaking down and packing, but like all windsor chairs is relatively stable with not even the slightest smell of glue. I have a small video of it rocking too, but that will have to wait until I get home to retrieve it from my camera. It rocks like a perfect bearing spins. In fact the slightest push on the chair will set it in motion and it will rock away happily for over a minute. Great stuff.

With New England and the U.S. behind us we now have a few days to unwind in London before heading North to Scotland, where we will spend a few days with my Uncle and see the completed design for our new shop, workshop and home in Kyneton. We are dying to see what will be the next phase of our lives, on paper and drawn by family from the other side of the globe. 

During the week with Pete, we had the fortune to spend a couple of hours with antique tool king, Patrick Leach. You may have heard of his website, supertool.com 
We had a ball and saw some of the most amazing tools I've ever layed my eyes upon. Of course a couple of those just had to come home with me! I'll expand on that soon.......but here's a clue

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Cant talk.....making chairs...

Ok it's late, I'm tired....but wired and I promised some photo's so here we go. No long winded ramblings tonight, just some pic's of my chair in progress and the spectacular one piece Butternut seat that Pete put aside for it. It's been an inspirational four days with another 3 to go..... more pics later this week.

So this is what I'm aiming for....

This is what I started with... a single piece of American Butternut, flattened with a trusty No.8...

And this is where we are, give or take a few spindles, posts and a crest rail...

One more thing, if 'bucket lists' are your thing, and woodworking is your passion- you've got to add making a windsor chair with Pete Galbert to your list. It's inspiring stuff. 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Inspiration on the road.

Sitting in a New York Hotel in Midtown Manhattan is probably an odd place to feel inspired about traditional woodworking techniques, but not for me. I see it everywhere, whether its in the coopered and banded old wooden water tanks that perch on the roof tops of most buildings or the fine details in their period buildings, it cant be denied that the Americans are certainly up there in the fine building stakes
( or were ). They had a sense of scale, proportion and detail in their buildings that I've seen rarely in late 19th and early 20th century buildings anywhere else.

I'm here on my way across the U.S. with my family to take a chair class with a great windsor chair maker, Peter Galbert. On the way we stopped at Disneyland for Tom ( 4 ) so that he could get his fill of highly processed sugar and strange individuals in furry suits. Having said that, the place still amazes me and not for the spinning tea cups... it's the detail and what detail it is!

Case in point is this old railway station house. Sorry, new-ish station house. This one is at the rear of the platform where visitors don't even get to tread, on the ye-olde Disney train but the attention to detail is still there. It's visible in the verandah posts, fret work and corbals. The shingles on the roof, the detail in the ridge line, the pickets that line the end of the gable under the eaves, the double hung windows etc etc etc.

 So while everyone else was madly snapping photos of largish individuals eating their own body weight in 'cotton candy' and Coke with silly black ears, I was zooming in on pretty much every old replica building in Main St, Disneyland. I think of it as a scrap book of pic's to draw inspiration from for our up and coming renovation of our little cottage and the new build of our shop in Piper Street, Kyneton. No, the shop is not going to be a fairy tale pastiche building, ( watch this space soon for a sneak preview of the plans ) in fact just the opposite, but I do think that appropriate application of traditional design can add just what's needed to some buildings and renovations.

Similarly Peter Galbert's new windsor chair designs do just that. Take the best of traditional techniques and design and flow into contemporary chairs that are the finest of their type. So next week the camera will be blowing a fuse and glowing red with all the photos I'm planning on taking of the Crested Rocker I'll be making. But I have my new 16GB memory card which allows me to snap about 3700 photos before I run out of steam...so I should be OK. I'll whack some up on here as I go. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

A fine gaggle of chairs.

I don't know what you call a group of chairs, but a gaggle sounds good to me. I said I would take a snap of the little measuring gauge I make and use for measuring stretchers in our chairs in use.....but of course I forgot.  But here's a photo of the Continuous Arm Windsor Chair Class that we just finished teaching at the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking, in Box Hill. Six happy customers with six great chairs, just before being glued up and spindles trimmed to length. As you can see all stretchers where they should be and again, no stretcher 'losses.'

If you were not aware, Peter Galbert, one of the finest Windsor Chair makers in the U.S. is coming out here to teach two exclusive chair classes in December and January. The first class, a Continuous Arm Rocking Chair, is sold out. Four spots left on the Fan Back Side Chair Class in January.  Go to mfgw.com.au and follow the links to classes for more info. This is a first for Australia and not to be missed.

The George Thwaites Tool Chest

In 1842 a respected London cabinet maker arrived with his family on the ship 'Himalaya' in the then small settlement of Port Phillip, later to be the City of Melbourne. George Thwaites, his wife and three sons, George Junior, Thomas and John had packed up their entire belongings and life and made the long and dangerous journey to Australia, like other free settlers, to find new opportunities and a better life than what they could manage in the mother country.

Among the belongings transported with him on that ship, was an item as essential to any master tradesman of the era, his tool chest. Most carpenters/furniture makers made these invaluable tool chests either during the 'Journeyman' phase of their apprenticeships or around this time. They were important for a number of reasons, not the least to house the hand tools invaluable to these men but also as a reflection of the makers ability as a craftsman. There is probably no greater evidence of this than the hanging tool chest of piano maker H.O Studley.

Thwaites set up his business at first in Port Phillip's Collins Street and lived in the vicinity of the now famous Melbourne landmark, Young and Jacksons Hotel at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Street. He later moved to a purpose built bluestone building at '64 Little Collins Street East.'

Thwaites and his sons produced and supplied furniture to government departments including the Immigration Department and the Supreme Court. In 1855 Thwaites supplied furniture for the new Vice Regal Residence, Toorak - Melbourne's original Government House, and a short time later, furniture and room decor for the new Government House. He later supplied several pieces of fine furniture for the first Judge of Victoria's Supreme Court, founder of Melbourne's Mechanics Institute and a founding father of Melbourne University, Sir Redmond Barry. Barry was later to become more infamous as the Judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to be hung, in Melbourne's Magistrates' Court.

In a recent lecture on hidden furniture treasures in Australia, respected authority on antique furniture, Michael Green, referred to the Huon Pine Bookcase made by Thwaites for Sir Redmond Barry as possibly the most important and valuable piece of Australian furniture in existence.

A few years ago, my good friend Simon, introduced me to a man who was himself an Australian treasure. Greg was a veteran of World War 2 where he served as a armourer in New Guinea fighting the Japanese, he is also a true gentleman. Greg had in his possession an old tool chest and for him the time had come to let it go. He had offered it to others, but most just wanted to 'pick' individual tools from the chest without any concern for preserving the chest and tools as a whole. I'd always wanted an original chest with tools and so we agreed on a price and I bought it. Greg briefly gave me the history of how he had come to aquire it from the Mildura region in far Northern Victoria. Sometime later I returned and Greg gave me a written account of the chests history as passed on to him. I had just purchased George Thwaites' tool chest.

When I bought the chest it was not due to any knowledge of Thwaites. In fact at first, all I new was he was an English cabinet maker and that the chest had come out from England in the 1800's, which was enough for me. It may not be the finest looking chest, but it has been handed down through generations of the Thwaites family then to a few others before Greg and sadly was not treated with much reverence, not unlike so many other antiques and fine furniture that were lost due to not being in vogue during the twentieth century. A few drawers are missing too, replaced with poor substitutes. I intend to re-make more suitable replacements in time, but being careful to ensure that they can be identified as such, retaining the story of the chest.

Anyway I could go on about the chest and there is so much more to the story, but that's for another time. All accounts about Thwaites and his furniture are glowing and when I removed the sliding tool till from the chest I could see why. The bottom of the till reveals the finest of half blind dovetails and stopped mitred corners. The same details are in the fine mahogany drawers. The drawer dividers are through mortice and tenoned so finely and accurately it's hard to fathom how such work was achieved by hand.

The icing on the cake? Searching through the chests numerous sets of moulding planes and finding Georges original 'hollows and rounds', his mark clearly stamped in the end grain. Another series stamped with clear 'JT's', belonging to John Thwaites, confirmed by another odd tool, made of nickel silver.

I haven't been able to confirm it's actual use but it's beautifully engraved with 'J.Thwaites' on one side and the makers name of 'Wimble & Co., Melbourne & Sydney' on the reverse. One thought was that it was a nicely made template for shaping of bracket feet, for the bottoms of chests etc.

I hope one day to be able to see the Thwaites furniture in Government House, Melbourne's National Gallery and Melbourne University and put together a comprehensive story on the chest. Until then It will take pride amongst the few other old chests I have and the one I'm building up for my chair tools. If your interested in creating a chest yourself to hand down as an heirloom, then I'm teaching a Master Class at the MGFW next year in making just that....