In five, four, three….

146So we’re in the home stretch. Review is in two and a half weeks and everything is coming together. This past week I worked on the backrest, which I neglected until the very end mostly because I wasn’t sure how to do it. The beginning of the process was easy enough–mark on the frame pieces and then also on the backrest itself where to cut the mortises and go ahead and cut them.
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I did this while the backrest was still oversized and had two flat ends so I wouldn’t have to worry about shimming up a curved piece on the moritser. I just cut the mortises deeper than I would have otherwise, knowing I would be cutting off some length afterwards. 

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Once this was done, I had to figure out how to actually cut the backrest down to size. This was complicated by the fact that when the frame was clamped up with the seat, the space for the backrest wasn’t exactly square and the fact that the frames are at an angle to one another, making it also not square in the other dimension. One dimension not being square is much easier to deal with than two. I planned to make a mock up and then just trace its size on to the actual backrest, but I cut the angle wrong and cut the whole thing too small almost immediately. Then, I made another one and made the same mistakes again. At this point I was out of mock-up material so I just bit the bullet and started on the real thing, thinking, “fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on me.”

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I measured the width between the two top back corners and transferred that measurement to the backrest, then did the same for the bottom back corners, then the two distances in the front. I cut the backrest down to size on the front end (also the widest end) and set to taking off little by little by little on the back end where it tapers by setting the belt sander at an angle and touching the wood to it ever so slightly over and over.155
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This involved a lot of walking back and forth between the sander and the clamped-up chair, taking a little off, checking, taking a little more off, checking, etc. until it finally fit. Also, my efforts to document this process were photo-bombed by Andrew and Morgan, two of my shop-mates and students in Mark’s wood design class. Morgan is making a credenza and Andrew is making a cradle, like for a baby. They are both talented and lovely people. It occurred to me as they jumped into the photos that it probably seems like I’m alone in the shop most of the time and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Not only are Mark’s students down there working on their own furniture projects, but the rest of the school uses the shop for site model building and numerous other projects related to their studio designs. It is usually loud and bustling. If you look at the “people engaged/conversations had” page on this blog, it should be clear how much interaction and network building it actually takes to make something.157156
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Next I did a ton of sanding. Once the chair is glued up, many places will be more difficult to reach and sand properly, so I used the orbital sander and passed over everything with 80 and 120 grits. I will go back after the glue up and sand everything by hand, probably doing 120 again, then 150 and 180. These would have been boring photos–just me standing with a sander, so I skipped them, but I had a lot of good dance time while I sanded. Then came the moment of truth: THE GLUE UP. I cannot possibly explain the amount of psyching myself up I did or how panicked I felt throughout the whole thing. I thought about having someone take pictures of me while I did it, but then saw myself yelling at a nice young architecture student to stop taking fucking pictures of me so I decided against it. It went pretty well, though I still feel kind of panicked about it even now hours later. So here it is–waiting for the glue to dry and to add all the finishing touches. Yikes!161

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p.s. I thought you might be interested to see what everyone else is working on so here are a few other projects currently in process: Katharina is making a credenza out of spalted, local Texas pecan; the circle is one end of the cradle Andrew is making out of mahogany (outrageous skills on this guy), and Tristan is making a bed out of Ash.164 165

 

 

 

 

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Rockin’…and the Bright Side of Failure

93 94 95 96 9799 98 100102103In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been taking this whole process very personally. To say that it has its triumphs and defeats is to describe my experience mildly. Here’s what’s been happening…

You’ll recall I had a joint alignment problem I was waiting to consult with Mark about. Well, I did, and as usual, he put things in perspective and helped me figure out a solution. To the left is an image of the joint after I cut it on the router and before I chiseled it past its point of fitting properly. Currently, one side fits well and the other…doesn’t. The side that fits well is shown below. While I waited to talk with Mark I forged ahead with other things. I added extra laminations to the rockers in the approximate spots where the legs will meet them. I will sculpt them down once the leg is attached so the joint is faired and smooth, as opposed to the leg and rocker meeting at a blunt, perpendicular connection. This went fairly smoothly (no pun intended). While the glue was drying I started sanding my frame pieces. I now know each side of the frame will need to be glued up for me to know exactly where the seat meets them, and once they are glued up, sanding will be slightly more awkward, so I did a first pass with eighty-grit before moving forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I used the random-orbital sander as well as sanding by hand with a flat block with sandpaper glued to it.

This helps flatten out any uneven edges left over from the belt sander or band saw and makes sure I don’t just continue t104o sand down any lower grooves. The block rides along the high parts and smooths everything down to one level.

Then I glued up the armrest/front frame connection (above). This was a flush fit with a lot of glue surface-area that won’t ever be in tension, so I didn’t need to use all that much pressure to clamp it together.

With the extra rocker laminations now dry, I was able to cut the rockers down to width. I did this by running them over the jointer until I had one flat side, and then running the other side through the table saw…carefully. That weird, brush-looking thing on the table saw is a featherboard. I pushed my hip into it as I ran the rocker through the saw and it, in turn, kept the rocker pushed against the fence tighter than I might be able to do by hand. I had to run the rocker through the saw slowly to make sure I was keeping the curved pieces as flat as possible on the table, and as a result, they came through with some burn marks (kind of like my soul in the upcoming paragraphs…stay tuned!), but I sanded these out by hand afterwards.106107

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I finally met with Mark about my seat joint. I explained that I felt like my options were to either cut a quarter inch off on either side, effectively removing my mistake and starting over with a slightly narrower seat, or to repair the joint with an extra wedge of wood. Mark agreed these were two viable options but proposed a third option that is so crazy it just might work.

Rather than shrink my seat down a little–which I widened after the mock-ups felt a little narrow–and risk losing some comfort, I am going to cut the one side off that I screwed up, and actually glue a new strip back on!

109110Honestly, I am OK with repairs being apparent (which you’ll see very shortly is lucky for me!) as long as they are done well. If a piece of furniture lives its life with its user, gradually accumulating associations with experiences and memories over time, then why shouldn’t it also do this during its life with its maker?

All was plotting along swimmingly…and then the tornado hit…I unclamped the armrest/front frame glue up–now dry–and ran off back to work an event for my job for the next day and a half. When I came back yesterday to get back to work in the shop, I realized that one of the leg-frame tenon joints had opened slightly!

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This makes no sense. It has been glued up for weeks now. There was only a little tension on this joint while this piece was being glued to the armrest, and you would think if it was able to open like this with a little pressure, it would also be able to close back up with a little pressure, and yet it doesn’t. It took John Vehko and I both putting clamping pressure on it at the same time to get the joint to close back up a little bit. Since it seems to have opened slowly overnight, I left it clamped together last night to see if it will also close slowly overnight. Even if it does, I will have to put a dowel pin through it to secure the joint, which will be visible, as there’s no way I’m getting it open again to add glue, and then closed again. Good thing I’m OK with repairs showing, eh? This will be an obvious one!

Failure never feels good. I don’t think anyone actually likes failure, and I will go back in to the shop today and feel angry at this whole situation. Of this I am one hundred percent certain. However, this failure also helps to reveal one of my greatest triumphs. When I saw the failed joint and showed John and he actually didn’t know how to fix it (he knows how to fix everything!) I was horrified. I called Mark in a panic, in the middle of his work day. He not only answered, but also took a few minutes from the install he was working on for his own business to talk to me about my problem and help me come up with a plan to solve it. It is in moments like that one, when I was on the phone with Mark, that I am overwhelmed with the incredible support I have around me and the way that life seems to be working out. I moved to Austin “for fun for the summer” eleven years ago. I screwed around working at a coffee shop for a few years and I have often felt that if I had just gotten serious a little sooner, that maybe I would have life figured out by now, or maybe I’d be a huge success already, or know exactly what I want. But after talking with Mark on the phone, I was overcome with happiness as I realized that I have somehow managed to put myself in the position of having a role model and mentor whom I admire so much and who cares about what I’m doing enough to interrupt his own work to talk to me and help me see that everything is OK and that this process is good and every part of it matters. I am realizing that I am working on something right now that I care about enough that it keeps me awake at night and brings me to tears of both joy and sadness. I have this kind of amazing support in other areas of my life that move me this much too, but since this is a blog about my chair, and since I’m already probably grossing you out, I’ll keep it about the chair. This realization wouldn’t happen without failure and the people who step up for me in the face of it. I know for certain, right now, that I am doing something very right as my life is exactly as it should be.



Dancing with Myself

I am realizing I need a day or two between what happens in the shop and posting about it. I need time to digest and figure out what it actually means in the grand scheme of things. If I came right home and wrote about my experiences, I think I might just seem mad all the time, or overly emotional about things. Most days in the shop involve feelings of starting anew, optimism, utter defeat, twinges of hope, resolve, triumph, despair, the list goes on. It’s all too jumbled up right when I leave, a tumbleweed.
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I tried clamping up all the pieces I have, which is great, because I’m able to see that it wilI, in fact, be a chair when all is said and done. However, this turned out not to be the best system for holding everything together. Any time I tried to adjust anything, the whole thing fell apart. In fact, one of the joints completely popped open. Now, this seems really odd since wood glue is really, really strong. Remember that one joint I took apart at the very end of the glue up when I realized it just wasn’t working? Well, it seems that even though I wiped out as much glue as I could, it wasn’t enough, and when I glued up the joint for real, the glue didn’t want to stick to itself. Needless to say, this wasn’t a great day. I walked away from the joint and decided to sharpen my scrapers instead. This is done by rubbing the sides back and forth on a whetstone until they’re really flat, then rubbing the top side on the stone to create a sharp right angle, and then creating a bur by passing a steel dowel over the top at an angle (not pictured). This went well, and I left feeling slightly less defeated.

The next day, after the joint disaster, I sanded and filed out the inside of the mortise and all over the tenon much more thoroughly. I needed to basically recreate the porous surface for the glue to stick to. I re-glued the joint and it hasn’t fallen apart yet, but we’ve still got plenty of time! I told Igor about this episode and my frustration with being able to hold everything together and he suggested just looking at the situation differently, which helped. I need to look at the challenges of working on my own as one of the constraints of the project. It’s a parameter I need to find solutions to just like any other.

In response to this constraint I built kind of an armature that I could clamp the pieces to, and after plugging away at this for a few hours Mark pointed out that I actually didn’t need to be doing this at all. I was building this thing so I could figure out exactly where each piece was going to meet each other piece, and the truth is that I have already done all the planning and mock-ups for this exact reason. I already have all this information. Sooooo, there goes a few hours I can’t get back, but also a lesson learned to trust the work I’ve already done. Another reason I built the armature was to avoid having to wok on the armrest joints. This is one of those critical steps I really don’t want to screw up, so if I don’t do it, I can definitely avoid this problem.

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I always wear ear protection in the shop. The dust collector alone is incredibly loud and it’s much more pleasant with the sound drowned out. When I’m not using a machine I also put music on inside my ear protectors. As a result, I often realize I’ve been dancing by myself to music only I can hear. I talked with my coworker David today about how I’ve been lying awake at night mulling over joinery, my process schedule, and these critical moments like moving ahead with the armrest joints. He made a bed last semester in a short amount of time and I know he’s familiar with the feelings of anxiety I’ve been having, understanding that each new move being made could explode the whole project. He pointed out that when he took Mark’s class he noticed that Mark would say everything he was doing out loud. Obviously he’s doing this because he is teaching people, but perhaps it’s also a system of checks and balances. So, today, in addition to dancing by myself I began talking to myself (more deliberately than usual). I forged ahead and cut the armrest joints, and they work!

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I learned today that if I leave immediately after accomplishing something successfully, my outlook is much better. Success?…I’m out.

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Churning, Crashing, Burning

Jad Abumrad talks about the early days of his now-rockin’ radio show Radiolab, speaking of the life-or-death feeling that comes with the creative process: that feeling that even if no one is paying attention to what you are doing (even if no one is reading your blog, for example), it is making or breaking your entire life in that moment. He describes it as the “radical uncertainty that you feel when you try to work without a template,” and recognizes “how crummy it feels to try to make something that’s new.”* Now, it doesn’t feel terrible all the time, but when it does, it’s important to recognize that it means that you are forging ahead. It feels terrible because you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re figuring it out and continuing despite your setbacks.

Perhaps I am deliberately looking for validation that my failures are OK, but I feel like this talk by Abumrad as well as another article on anxiety and creativity found me at just the right time (thanks to Shota Yamaguchi and Dave McClinton). For Kierkegaard, anxiety arises as a product of staring the abyss of possibility in the face. It is an abyss we can fall into and fail to climb out of, or it is an abyss we fall into and swim in. The “dizzying effect of freedom” and “boundlessness of one’s existence”** can be stifling or can be generative. I am reluctant to say that my anxiety is generative, as it feels stifling, but I have completed zero projects without generous doses of it, so it is surely a part of my being able to produce.

I begin with this lesson as I had a good, easy experience followed by a harrowing failure. Here’s what happened:

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With the help of this handy jig, I cut the mortises on the dado pack at 3/8″ thick. I had to turn the jig backwards in order for the boards fit centered over the blades, which required a little tinkering on John Vehko’s (our shop manager) part, and a little extra clamping for safety on my part. Remember when I had the pieces misaligned on my armrest mock-up? It’s OK–I do, and as a result I avoided this mistake this time. The mortise-cutting went smoothly and everything lines up perfectly. Small victory!

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The next step was cutting tenons to the right thickness to hold the joint together and then figuring out how to hold together two pieces meeting end to end at an angle in order to glue them up.

29I planed down the tenons little by little until they squeezed right in to the mortises. Another success. Then I set to making jigs so that clamps would have two parallel planes to register to in order to hold the angled pieces together. I did this by measuring the angles of the pieces I want to join, and then cutting pieces for the jig at the complementary angle to make ninety degrees. The table saw blade tilts, which is very convenient. Once I wrapped my mind around how this needed to work, it went fairly easily.

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Given how logical this whole process is and how according to plan it went, it seems like the glue up should go just as well, right? Wrong. From here on out, things took a dark and twisted turn. Even though I checked and checked and checked again, the mortises weren’t totally square. It truly baffles me as to how this might have happened, but it did.

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They were only a hair off, higher on one side than the other, but this is enough to mean that the joint won’t close up perfectly tightly. I was afraid if I cut them down on the miter saw again, they would still be off, since this is the tool I used to cut them in the first place, and I didn’t want to spend hours upon hours making jigs for the table saw since there are actually four different angles I would have to figure out, and I didn’t trust myself enough with a hand-plane to shave off just the right amount. So, I opted for a sanding block with 150-grit paper and I worked little by little to get the high side down.

36In the end, I somehow only made things worse (the image above with the square is after I put things further out of whack). I eventually had to suck it up and trim the mortises down again on the miter saw. This worked fine–not perfect–but better than it was before, and I just have to live with it. I wish I hadn’t wasted two hours attempting to fix things with a sanding block, but you live and learn, I guess. With everything more-or-less square, I did a test run on gluing the joint up with my new jigs and it went great, so I moved on to the real thing, which went horribly horribly wrong. The tenon was a little tight when it was dry, and once I applied glue inside the mortise, the wood swelled and I could barely get the tenon to go all the way in. I struggled and clamped and unclamped and squeezed and sweat and cursed, and finally, as the glue became less workable, I had to admit defeat and just take it apart. I was able to wipe the glue out. I moved on to a different joint with a looser tenon, which I thought would be better, but this time I wasn’t able to close the joint up all the way and I have no idea why and it was too late before I realized. I now have a small gap in a critical part of the chair that I will have to repair and hope that no one notices (though I suppose the cat is out of the bag!). I don’t have pictures because I was just too mad about it. This is life and death people! The end of the end! OK, so of course it’s not life and death, but it felt like it: the terrible jump into the abyss of possibility and the coming up for air only to find you’re still leagues under water.

I did what any reasonable woodworker would do. I went for some retail therapy and had a margarita.

I’m going back today with a clearer mind and a calmer demeanor, and hopefully this will amount to a full oxygen tank.

*Jad Abumrad, “Why ‘Gut Churn’ is an Essential Part of the Creative Porcess.” 99U. http://99u.com/videos/7278/jad-abumrad-why-gut-churn-is-an-essential-part-of-the-creative-process (accessed March 8, 2014).

**Maria Popova, “Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Creativity.” Brain Pickings. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/06/19/kierkegaard-on-anxiety-and-creativity/ (accessed March 8, 2014).