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The Education of a Woodworker - Part 1

Jim Riosa - Monday, June 15, 2015
Since there is a little slack time in my life, I decided to enroll in a course on 18th century furniture construction. I hope this can bring a little more colonial to the shaker and colonial, and give folks an idea of what can be built.

I am currently in Ohio, working with the good folks at The main proprietors, Glen Heuy and Chuck Bender, have both been key contributors to a wide variety of woodworking magazines, as well as editors for Popular Woodworking They created their site through an increasing frustration that thewoodworking community was not being well served through the current offerngs, and are providing both on line and on hand instruction, with a level of detail that has not been seen for decades. So if you are serious about your woodworking, check them out.

So, what am I building ( or learning to build) - well this is it - an 18th century block front dresser -

Why is this important, beyond just learning something? Well the block front is a uniquely american style that was in response to the very flat front Queen
Anne style that predominated early American furniture. So this would have been a very prized piece for any home, and required a high level of craftsmanship. This would traditionally be built from cherry or mahogany from the islands, though any straight grained wood would do (I am doing cherry). It also creates the basis for other curved front cabinetry (serpentine, ox bow etc, so we can riff off of this with other designs).

So not unsurprisingly, the first day was a ton of milling work. Sides and bottom were milled, as well as all the drawer dividers after we created the complex template for the curves of the block front. I have to admit that my father's teaching and tools stood me in good stead today, allowing me to shape a fair curve relatively quickly.

The big take away today for me was twofold. The first would be the lesson in wood selection and particularly grain matching when glueing up a panel from multiple pieces. Initially Glen and I were diamettrically opposed in this view, but eventually I did see the wisdom of his choices. The second was some issues in determining cutting patterns for cherry. For those who are not familiar, cherry is graded as 100/90 or 90/50 etc. The first number tells how how much red is on the face. The second number tells you how thick the red is. 100/90 is wonderful, you basically have solid red wood to work with. I have something like 80/30 on this project, so there is a lot of white wood to work around. I have learned a ton on how to optimize my cutting and thicknessing to get the most of less than optimal wood. It will be a similar case when we get to doing the block front. They could not purloin 3" thick cherry of any quality, so I will be shown older techniques that stitch multiple 2" thick pieces together to acquire the same effect. This is great since qualtiy wood in these thicknesses is becoming increasingly rare.

Beyond that nothing was too unusual today, though I will admit that working in a shop with dedicated equipment was wonderful. Having machines set up for edging, planing, thicknessing, and a variety of cutting (table saw, band saw and router) was wonderful, as opposed to the world of the micro shop where eveything has to be hauled out and set up. Makes for faster and more enjoyable work.

Tomorrow starts dovetailing, which I am sure will have lots of advice and controversy, since everyone has an opinion on how a dovetail should be cut. For me it is a long time since I have hand dovetailed (I mostly use jigs these days) so it will be good to go back to what I learned originally, though I am admittedly nervous given the lack of recent experience. Should be interesting.I would guess we are also doing the rabbets and sliding dovetails for the drawer dividers tommorow, maybe the top with the sliding dovetail ( a unique way of attaching a top), and some more jiggery and fooloery as well go along.

I have three other cohorts in this class, two retired or semi retired gentlemen with significant experience, and one gentleman younger than me with a few years of experience. He is very anally retentive about checking measurements, but that did save my butt today when it turned out that reading a fence postion on a dedicated table saw vs a contractor saw meant I was abouth a 16th proud, and he caught it. There is a great exchange of knowledge amongst my peers.

I hope you can follow along the next few days posts. I will be updating nightly since there isn't much else to do in West Chester Ohio. I doubt we will reach finish stages, but look for this piece to be for sale at a deeply disounted price shortly after the end of this.

Keep wathcing the website! And let me know what you think, or if you have any questions. And apologies for any typos. Tablet typing is not my forte.

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