Thursday, 29 December 2011

A Bird in the hand with a Perch.

Well it's been a few days since Xmas now and the dust has finally settled after a very busy past few months. Lisa and I have finally had a few days to get into the cottage and do some work and it's tracking along nicely, the bad 80's carport came off yesterday and more of the heavy, wavy fibrous plaster found it's way into a skip.
Today though is a day of rest, phew. Time to mow some lawns, get some things done around the rental house and organise myself.  And also go over a few things that I picked up from making the Bird Cage Arm Chair with Peter Galbert just before Christmas.

We started with some fine one piece slabs of Elm from a large log that we milled a couple of years ago now and have been air drying ever since. Slabs of Elm of this quality and size are getting to be a real rarity now, with Dutch Elm Disease and Elm beetles wiping out Elm trees all over the world. Victoria would have to be one of the last strongholds of large old growth Elm trees around now and I certainly prize any logs that come my way for milling. Anyway enough about milling, ( save for another post ) getting back to that chair....

Here is the chair with the stiles/back posts drilled, reamed and seated in the carved seat. The arm posts have also been reamed and seated and those big lumps of oak hanging off them are the blanks for the carved arm holds. When you look at the chair like this it's easy to gloss over just what is involved in getting the chair to this stage. The stile holes for instance are drilled at a particular angle and sight line
( see some of them marked on the seat blank in the first photo ) but are reamed at a different angle. This gives the bent stiles some life and accentuates their fluid lines. No walk in the park there I can tell you!

Then the arm holds have to be drilled and carefully reamed with a cello reamer at exactly the right angle to seat firmly on to the arm post but also end up in perfect alignment with where they will be mortised into the stiles. Those big lumps then have to be turned on the lathe to create the tenon end. A little unnerving when you first see those things 'wurrring' around on the lathe in front of you!

The stiles then have to be drilled to create the stepped mortise hole, which protrudes through the rear of the stile at 3/8" but is a little over an inch at the front. Sorry, Imperial measurement is still like Cantonese arithmetic to me! Of course this mortise hole is also offset one inch to the outside of the arm post, again to accentuate the flowing lines of the chair parts and not make the arm holds look rigid and stiff. Here's another view from the top to get an idea of what I mean...

Here is another perspective of the stile and mortised arm hold, as you can see there are no straight lines here to reference from. In fact it's all done with smoke and mirrors! Ok there's no smoke, but you do use mirrors to drill the mortise hole.

From here the undercarriage is assembled in the usual fashion and glued and wedged into the seat. The steam bent spindles are then roughed into shape and the lower, turned and steam bent crest rail is then mortise and tenoned into the stiles.

After this comes the upper or top crest rail. The set up for drilling the 3/8" mortise into this part is quite complex with wooden clamps, bevel gauges and two sets of mirrors all into the mix. Suffice to say, it's a handful, but executed well the results are terrific with a perfectly mated joint which will later be carved from the big bulbous turning into a false birds mouth mitre joint.

Here you can see the rough turning of the top crest rail on right and on the left the rough shape of what will be carved has been shaped on the bandsaw. The spindles are roughed in here too.

And here is where I got to at the end of five days. All assembled and fitted, spindles mortised through the crest rails and just the false mitres left to carve and some more shaping of the spindle blades. I'm very happy with how it came up. Here's the side view where you can appreciate the steam bending a little more.

Oh and in the moments of down time and just to add a little pressure to the whole situation I made one of Peter's 'Perch' type 3 legged stools at the same time.

 These little fellas are great fun and made to be used in places where you literally just want to 'prop' yourself, like a workshop setting or behind a counter in a shop. I've had a piece of Huon Pine sitting around for years waiting for the right job. So into the perch it went. American Black Walnut for the legs, as a nice chocolate coloured contrast to the golden yellow of the Huon.

It's not oiled yet, there's a little more carving of the seat needed and the legs need to be trimmed to length,  but you get the picture. I tossed a piece of the same Huon to Pete and some New Guinea Rosewood too for legs.

And here's what he whipped up! Finished with Danish Oil it really shines. The contrast of the Huon and the NG Rosewood is magic too. Pete made this one for Lisa as a thank you for all her hard work in marketing his trip, writing press releases to magazines and newspapers and organising the Seminar night on the 12th of Jan. Thanks Pete. It's a work of art from a master chair maker.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Out with the old and in with the....... older.

Here is the latest with our little house in Kyneton. As you can see from the previous photo in a past post, the bad 50's fibro verandah with steel pipe posts is gone and a new verandah sits neatly in it's place, with some temporary struts in place. The verandah posts are in the process of being made by me, just after Xmas.

Also in the new year the roof will be replaced with some new, very traditional, Aussie galvanised iron and new gutters which will return around the gable ends, where you can see the new fascia boards have been placed.
I'd love to say that all this great work has been mine, but with the past few weeks of assisting Peter Galbert in teaching windsor chair making, I haven't had time to so much as hammer a nail in here. This great job has been done by my Uncle, Alex Hanssen and his off-siders, who have done a fine job of translating my descriptions and scribbled drawings into fine carpentry on the house. But there's much more to come yet.

And just what style is this previously non-descript place being transformed into I hear you say???
A Shaker cottage. Well, as close to one as we can get with the basic shape we have to work with.
When I first saw this little house, with all it's downsides, rusty roof, sagging floor and collapsed stumps my first thoughts were what great potential it had, not how bad it looked.

Lisa and I have always loved Shaker furniture and it forms a strong part of my furniture making influences, so what better style of house to live in than one we enjoy so much?

Here is a photo of The Dwelling House at Canterbury Shaker Village ( thanks Lonely Planet Images! ) my inspiration for the little verandah. But instead of the turned verandah posts I want to pay homage to the iconic tapered Shaker legs found on their side tables and night stands and so our verandah will have Macrocarpa posts, lightly tapered from the top to the bottom, giving a light feel to the structure. Then after the re-roofing and gutters have been installed I will finish trim the whole thing to closer resemble the detail on all the Shaker buildings we studied at Hancock Village, like what you can see below in the returned fascia and gutter on this Hancock building.

So then it will be off with the awful 80's carport and equally bad front fence and gates and a new fence in keeping with a fence detail I have seen in a lot of the period buildings in Kyneton, but also fitting in  with our Shaker aesthetic. So before long this mid 1900's house will closer resemble a crisp and clean version of an 1800's classic.

Oh and have a very Merry Xmas and a safe and happy New Year from my family to yours. Cheers!

Friday, 16 December 2011

These chairs Rock!

So yesterday we came to the end of the first of Peter Galbert's Windsor Chair classes in Australia. In fact I think it would be fair to say that this is the first time any renowned chair maker from the U.S. has come to Australia to teach classes purely in chair making.

This first class was the Continuous Arm Rocking Chair. 12 positions were advertised and booked out very quickly. By the time the class came around there were people pleading to be added to the class, but at 12 the workshop was stretched to it's limit.

As a whole the class was a great success and everyone completed a great example of the chair. This was in no small part due to the Peter's masterful approach to teaching and reading the progress of everyone during the week.

Here's Pete fine tuning the rockers of one of the chairs.

Another factor being an ingenious jig that Pete developed over the course of the week which allowed the bottoms of the legs to be routed in situ, after being glued to the seat and ensured perfect alignment and minimal fine tuning. Having used Pete's original method while making my rocker in Massachusetts, 
( even though that was a great technique in itself ) I can vouch for just how much time and effort this saved. Great work again Mr. Galbert.

Here's the back of one of the 12, dry fitted and being readied for glueing. They really are a beautifully proportioned and compact rocking chair.

The finished product. This one is Daryl's, who came across Bass Straight again for his second class with us. Another fine chair mate, well done........ I think the blue tape is a band aid, the chair might have nicked itself while shaving! We had another interstate addition this class too, in Wayne from N.S.W., who also turned out about as good a rocking chair as I've seen. Nice work Wayne and hopefully we'll see you down South again sometime to make another one.

So today I have one day of rest before embarking on our next class with Pete, his Bird Cage Arm Chair. This is one of Pete's most complex chairs and usually reserved for 7 days of hard work and as Pete would say, time "down the rabbit hole." Oh, and this time I'm not assisting this master chair maker with the class, I'm a student again and we're going to try and squeeze it into 5 days! Better get the coffee on and a fresh supply of Berocca..... wish me luck.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Level playing ground.

Sometimes you just have to admit that there are things best left to the professionals.  I'm not about to argue the point when it comes to re-stumping houses. Especially ours. Don't get me wrong, we certainly paid for the privilege, but I don't regret not doing it myself.

Not when the house was still on the original split redgum posts, some of which were nearly a foot across.
But anyway the guys did a great job and now the old girl is back on solid and level ground.

And here is the little bit of re-modeling that we have done so far. I'd like to take the opportunity to thank the owner some 20 years or so ago who was good enough to glue the carpet straight to the floorboards and the next guy who was too lazy to remove it and put the new underlay and carpet straight over the top! Great work, thanks.

As you can see, not one bit of insulation in the whole place. Amazing when you think about building standards these days and energy ratings. Even more so when you experience a winter in Kyneton. It's cold!

Unfortunately with next few weeks being flat out with Windsor Chair Classes, the place will not be progressing as fast as what I would like. But post Xmas, transformation of the bland little cottage into something more inspiring will begin. I'll keep you all posted down the track with the progress.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Ashes to ashes

Well maybe not to ashes but certainly into the steam box.

Here is the English or Desert Ash that I split in readiness for the upcoming Continuous Arm Rocking Chair Class that we are teaching at the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. What makes this class special apart from being a rocking chair instead of the usual arm chair is that Peter Galbert is coming out from Massachusetts in the U.S. to teach it.

In fact he will be teaching three chair classes in the time he is here, and they are all full.... Stop Press- as I was typing I've been made aware that there is one space that has become available on the Continuous Arm Rocking Chair class. If you are reading this and are interested or know someone that is, get in quick it won't last long. Go to to register your interest.

Anyway, back to the log. Ash has a good reputation as a fine wood for chair making. It turns and steam bends well and is worked easily when green, with edged tools. As you can see by the photo above it also splits very well. This 6 foot log almost popped open on the first split. A good straight log obviously helps, but this is probably the best log I have split to date.

Following the rule of thumb to always split in halves, this Ash again showed itself to be a good choice for the long continuous arm crest rails that we intend to make from it. These need to be a continuous line of grain from one end to the other. Eliminating 'grain run out' by splitting timber, ensures strength after being steamed and bent around the bending form. So here is the raw product, from the tree, in a few weeks I'll post the results of the 12 crest rails that have come from it and will be put into 12 beautiful hand made windsor rocking chairs.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Behind the scenes.

When I started this blog it was at an interesting point in time for us as a family. We had made the decision to sell our family home that we had spent the last 10 years extending and renovating. The same house that I swore I would never leave!

But of course things change and you can either move with those changes or get left behind. In our case we had been looking at country properties for the previous 18 months, with a view to finding a small block where we could 'get away' for weekends. We found one, got swamped in the tidal wave of interest in the property at auction and went home to re-think.

What we decided that night was why were we wanting to 'escape to the country' every weekend and return to town during the week? Surely if the country was where we wanted to enjoy our time, then why don't we move there full stop? So the house went on the market and after a long and drawn out process finally sold.

As I've mentioned previously in older posts, we have bought a bare block in Piper Street, Kyneton and our intention is to build a dedicated shop, workshop and residence there for our future. That's all very well and good but in the mean time we having been renting a friends house and had not had a place of our own. But during one of our trips up here I noticed a small house for sale, not far from our other block in Piper Street.

Now I say 'house' loosely, as it's a bit of a shocker, both inside and out, the roofs had it, the stumps are shot and the interior reflects god knows how many years of rental use. But the price was right and it was exactly what I was looking for in respect of a blank canvas and not paying for other peoples renovations which we probably would have removed anyway.

Here's the back. Beautiful 'aint she! If you look at the ridge line of the roof you can see just how much it has sunk in the middle. Inside, it's so bad it's sunk about 250mm over the width of one room. Great!

Here's a photo in the living room - kitchen. No, I haven't got the camera on an angle. The camera is level!

So in between the two Peter Galbert classes that are rapidly approaching, we will be transforming this little house into something closer to a home. We have chosen a style for this place that I think will be fairly unique for this little part of the world. Our trip to the U.S. helped to cement our ideas for the place. Watch this space for the transformation!

Sir Redmond Barry's bookcase.

For those of you who read the post about George Thwaite's Tool Chest, you may remember I mentioned that Thwaites made an large amount of furniture for Sir Redmond Barry. I made note of a few positions that Barry held from his time in Melbourne from the 13th November, 1839 until his death on the 23rd of November 1880. ( Only twelve days after he sentenced Ned Kelly to death, stating - "...and may God have mercy on your soul" and after Kelly replied - " I will go a little further than that and say I will see you there when I go." Make your own conclusions about that one! )

Anyway, untimely and cursed death or not, it is hard not to be a little in awe of the man's achievements during his life in Melbourne. I would repeat them here but there's a limit to my patience and typing ability! So better than that please read all about him here -
it really is very interesting. I would hazard a guess that given both men were prominent in their respective fields and early settlers in Melbourne, that Barry met Thwaites at a social gathering at some point or possibly after Barry had exhibited Thwaite's work in England at the Great Exhibition of 1862.

So whilst I was away I received an email from Mike Green to say that he had read a post on Woodwork Forums from the Great Great Great Grandson of George Thwaites, Phil, about one of George's hand planes. I contacted Phil, via email and we agreed to meet when I returned. Not long after I got home I received another email from Mike to say that Phil had contacted him as well and a trip had been planned to visit Melbourne University and view the Huon Pine bookcase George Thwaites had made for Sir Redmond Barry all those years ago.

So the day arrived and after meeting Phil and his wife Rhonda and another of Mike's friends, Relton from the Furniture History Society, we all made our way into the Uni to view the case....well actually we made the trip 3 times- there was a meeting taking place in that room and they just didn't want to leave!

So here it is. In fact it was actually pretty breathtaking when I first saw it. Partly, because it is housed in the most non-descript, dull and lifeless building on the entire campus, down an equally long and boring corridor in a nameless room, round a blind corner. So you are almost asleep when you walk around the corner and then ..... Bang! there it is, larger than life, amazing proportions and the most spectacular Huon veneer you have ever laid eyes upon.

Here is Barry's crest, the centre piece of the book case. The pictures do not do the scroll/ribbbon carving justice.

Here is a corbel on the top of left corner and another glimpse of the outstanding figured veneer used by Thwaites. It really was something to see.

Whilst we were there the head of the faculty, where the bookcase is held, came into the room to see just why we were all standing around looking at a bookcase. I cant remember if it was Mike or someone else, but when he was told that he had possibly one of Australia's most valuable and iconic pieces of furniture sitting in his building, gathering dust and essentially not being cared for he was more than a little surprised. When he was then told that it's estimated value would be in the 7 figure mark.... he looked a little pale!
It was great to meet Phil and his wife Rhonda and catch up with Relton and Mike again and very good of Mike to organise the whole thing. But most of all it was terrific to see and touch such an Australian  treasure and one made by George Thwaite's own hands.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Joseph Goostray's Pattern Makers Chest

A couple of weeks back, as I mentioned previously, I was lucky enough to get to spend a few hours in the company of antique tool guru, Patrick Leach, in Ashby, Massachusetts. While swimming around the ocean of tools in his 3 car garage, ( see Pete Galbert's blog for photos of this - ) I asked Patrick if he ever came across cabinet makers tool chests that were in tact, with tools etc. Wrong question!  Patrick asked me just what sort of chests in particular and then took Pete and I out in his living room and showed us a spectacular chest that serves as a coffee table at the moment! This chest was amazing in it's own right in that 2 or 3 of the lidded compartments closed with such exacting tolerances that when the lid was let go it closed with a soft but defined thud as the air underneath it cushioned the lid as it closed. Sort of like listening to a Mercedes Benz door close!

If that wasn't enough we were then led into the 'Inner Sanctum,' Patrick's home to his spectacular collection of priceless and rare tools. Ah hellooo Tool Chests!! If you have a thing for authentic, quality made chests and believe me I do, then this was like stepping into chest paradise!

This little fella had some of the most elaborate carving on a chest that I have ever seen....

This chest, although very plainly painted on the outside, was as impressive I believe, as the Seaton Tool Chest. It was absolutely full of every cabinet makers tool you could imagine, most of them hardly used, just like Seaton's and more sliding tills than you could poke a stick at. This is just one stack of sliding drill tills, there was another group at the back for larger forstner type bits.

This highly decorated chest, seen before on Chris Schwarz' Blog was amazing. It was a great example of how a chest in days gone was representative of the makers ability and in this case gave a clear picture of just how skilful this particular maker was at marquetry. The detail of the inlays inside included rules and marking gauges with even the increments marked into the inlay.

The next chest was something though I had not expected to see. A real, fair dinkum, good as you will ever get Pattern makers Chest. I had actually read Patrick's account of how he found this chest, years ago when searching the internet. He found it almost by accident at a yard ( our garage ) sale. It's a great read and can be found on Patricks Supertool website.

This is Patrick levering it open. These chests usually hang from walls on sturdy cleats so it was doing it's best to stay closed. That and the fact that it had a few hundred pounds of tools inside! I wish I could replay the narrative of what Patrick said when doing this, but I don't think it's suitable for this blog! Pete and I had a laugh for a few days afterwards recalling it......

Now this is it open, but what you can see here is not all, there are fold out hanging walls of tools that hinge from inside, each of them just as comprehensive as what you can see here. Patrick described it as the 'working' version of H.O. Studley's pristine chest, made famous from the thousands of posters printed of it by Fine Woodworking magazine. I reckon he's spot on as this is an actual pattern makers chest as opposed to H.O's who was a piano maker.

So after creating a largish pool of drool all over the floor of the Inner Sanctum, I picked my jaw off the floor and we heading back out into reality. One more look into the blood and guts before we left. As we entered the garage again I started to rack my brain for tools that I often think of but never get around to finding. Having just flattened my chair seat by hand at Pete's, I asked if he had a good No.8 jointing plane. Pete turned around and picked one up just beside him. A beautiful 608c Bedrock, in magic condition....

Patrick said the price and I said sold. Simple as that. Then as off the cuff as you like, he said, "oh and there's a little Pattern Makers chest under all that crap, if you that interests you?" A What!? I could get the boxes of tools off it quick enough. Now it was no H.O Studley but when I slid the first little drawer out and sitting in the drawer looking back at me was the pattern makers spectacle like eye goggles, I knew I was onto something. Then we saw his metal stamp for marking his tools and work. Then every drawer in graduating sizes revealed a little more pattern making magic. All the cranked neck gouges, carving chisels and bench chisels, all in their own segmented compartments. Then little wooden boxes containing all his metal scale rules, then drill boxes and on it went.

Here's one of the drawers. The auger bit tray slides out and there's more below....

This drawer has the drill bit box ( large ) fixed to the bottom of the drawer. The long box is for scale rules. The smaller one next to it for specialty adjustable augers. Note the curved wooden form with brass tags on the right side, attached to the drawer bottom..... have a think about it.

As I said, it's no oil painting, but you know that is probably what impressed me a lot about this chest. If you've read my blog you'll know that the frugal habits of old woodworkers really impresses me. In that vein, this guy has converted an old steamer trunk with it's wooden frame inside into a portable chest for his tools. And why not, it's solid, it's a ready made carcass and it's covered in heavy canvas with brass corners! There is a lid to come later.

So Patrick told me what he wanted and I went home that night and gave it a lot of thought, mainly about how I was going to get it home! But, overwhelmingly my decision was based on the likely hood of ever seeing another like it in Australia..... not bloody likely I thought. So I emailed him that night and bought it. Patrick's wife brought it over the next day and I then packed all the tools from it into another box for shipping, taking careful note and photos of how all the tools were arranged for when I re-fitted it. 80 pounds of tools. The chest was then packed in a separate box. Now I just have to get UPS to find the chest which is currently in no mans land when it was shipped from Massachusetts to New Jersey. I think they may have found it in Missouri! It's hard to get good help as they say.

Oh and the strange wooden curved thing on the bottom of the drawer? When Patrick was telling me about the chest he said that it had no planes in it and that the guy must have had a separate chest for them. Ah ha! The curved piece is the relief of a Stanley No. 3 smoother, which it locks in to like a bum in a bucket - so to speak! There is another in a separate drawer for a No. 7 jointer too. Mr. Joseph Goostray thought of everything!

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, 
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 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 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....