Wendell Castle rocker

We all stand on someone’s shoulders don’t we? We like to say we are creative but I suspect that in the strict sense of the word we merely re-create; we work with latent images and impressions from other times and places and from the psyche. My own woodworking life were mostly influenced by two men whose names hardly ever appear in woodworking magazines any more namely Wendell Castle (USA) and John Makepeace (GB). Baby Boomers (yours truly included) were in constant revolt against any straight lines in design and the two above mentioned gentlemen provided a constant stream of organic shapes in furniture design.

James Krenov

Then came along Jim. In the woodworking world of today, few if any, have not yet felt the influence of James (Jim) Krenov. Even here in a workshop in South Africa his name comes up ever so often. His books were enormously influential and although many of his designs have gentle curves it more or less represents the very thing we as young furniture makers rebelled against. The wheels turn slowly but man, they turn.

Author's own Krenov inspired music stand

Paulo setting out - pure Krenov








Jim caught many of us by surprise when he carved out door pulls with a pocket knife type of tool-thing. It was so rudimentary, so basic, earthy, and when you rolled around the idea for long enough you eventually capitulated and agreed that this was exactly those elements that modern man missed. Contrast this with a CNC machine!  

Here is the beginnings of a Krenov cabinet and as I said in the beginning we don’t create so much as we re-create or create-after.

We’ll keep an eye on this one.

Touch the past

A friend of ours, from German-Polish descent, invited me over to photograph a beautiful piece of antique furniture. She and her late husband brought it with them when they immigrated to South Africa many years ago. This was a typical present given to a bride on her wedding day and the custom probably dates back to who knows when… BC ?

This is something you ought to treat with respect, or at least that’s how it seemed as I ran my fingers across the chip carved surface. I tried to imagine the craftsman as he worked on this bridal-gift chest. Was he the bride’s father or brother or was this the local furniture maker? He might well have been a journeyman, a carpenter/cabinet maker who had finished his apprenticeship and was required to do a three-year stint travelling from village to village and often cross border making furniture as he went. He would have been wearing a typical corduroy suit and would have carried all his belongings (woodworking tools included) on his back.

Whatever his tools they were certainly not today’s precision-cast close-grained cast iron bodies with A-2 steel blades and other sophistications we buy off the rack.

A long time ago

A good many of his tools would have been self-made and yet, when you look at a some of the surviving furniture that built was centuries ago you become more modest in your pronouncements of skill. Add to this that some of the most valuable antiques today were produced when the only electricity around were those in storm clouds.

Forgive me if I risk abusing this blog for unrelated issues but I need to get it off my chest.

We live in a presumptuous age. The only thing you have to do to be the best is to say so. And if that doesn’t work you change your marketing agency. And I have a lot more to say but not now.

Everyone (including the bride) must have loved it


So in 1739 some cabinet maker was bending over his workbench somewhere in Europe and carved out those repetitive motifs on this beautiful chest for a bride-to-be. This piece of furniture then travelled around and was handed down until it landed up in South Africa for you and me to behold. Behold what, timelessness? Not quite but it is lasting well isn’t it?

Future talk

This will be a three-part blog post based on a talk given to the Woodworkers Association of Pretoria in September 2011.

What shall we tell them, go for it or not ?

Part 1     Picture if you will a small workshop the size of a double garage with two or three cabinet makers in there producing furniture that you cannot buy at the mall or order from Ikea.  It becomes increasingly difficult to motivate that there is a future in that setting. I mean “future” as in whether or not a youngster should pursue woodworking heart and soul as a career choice. The main reason for the scepticism is because at this particular point in time we have moved so decisively into the technological age that furniture making has become synonymous with cave dwelling.

Well at least that frothy forefront of technology (iPad, iPod, iPhone, i-whatever) which seems to be moving at the speed of light. (Has anyone in Silicone Valley ever heard of wood?)


Ah, but reality, that moderator of euphoria, will have you know that sooner or later you are going to need furniture and more specifically wooden furniture. Why wood? Because it is the most abundant, most replenishable, most versatile, most formable, most widely used, most eco-friendly (and given all the former qualities) the most beautiful natural material on this blue planet. And as Marc Adams points out on his website; this stuff  was created.

Sure, in those glitzy boardrooms they like to recline in stainless steel constructions covered with some exotic hi-tech fabric but somewhere wood will show, if for nothing else than to remind us that we are mortal earthlings bound to this soil. Oh yes, and for the beauty of it.

I have been teaching woodworking to young and old for the past five years and I have heard the question from parents often: Do you think there is a future for a youngster in woodworking ? The answer is an unequivocal yes but some aspects have to be clear and I will discuss them in the upcomming posts. Stay tuned.

Grandson Jean Philippe

Minimalist Scandinavian and Shaker furniture have had a strong influence on present-day designs. Chippendale/ Federal/Sheraton are still choices for formal settings. Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Arts & Crafts are still being reproduced today. Western/Oriental blend styles are popular. And then of course contemporary design. Point is, the furniture in demand today is a mix of old and new, all sharing four criteria: utility, comfort, permanence and beauty.

Suffice it to say then that furniture will be made. Question is, who will make it and how ?  Stay tuned

Part 3 Who will make the furniture of the future and how. Mass production will always be with us and not all mass produced things are bad. But here is the right place to point out out that in the past several movements in furniture design have started as a reaction against mass produced things. From the mid 1800’s the English designers like Charles Eastlake,  William Morris and John Ruskin started  reacting against mass production. The  Arts & crafts movement was a direct result with emphasis on hand craftsmanship and limited ornamentation.

No you don’t have to start a similar movement (would be nice if you did!) but the sentiment that drove those movements are still with us and this keeps the door open for small-shop furniture makers. However, some provisos apply.

Bear in mind that my perspective will differ somewhat  from that of someone giving advice to young people in America or Europe. This is Africa and although we have a furniture making tradition which came with the European settlers in the mid 1600’s the current woodworking culture is small. With the advance of the technological age we suffered the same fate as the western world: we stopped teaching woodworking in our schools and we somehow expect  technology to produce the furniture. And it does, and in some cases it does so admirably. CNC machines turn out complex components in very short time cycles.

But we are arguing the case for hand-made furniture. These are distinct one-off pieces or or a limited production run. There have always been a market for hand made furniture and there always will be. In the case of artist/craftsmen you can only broadly specify your needs but thereafter it is up to him or her to render their version of your request.

So, lets say a particular individual shows some aptitude towards woodworking and expresses the desire to make furniture for a living what are the minimum requirements? Let me just be clear that I am not referring to someone working in a furniture factory. That is a machine operator or an assembly line person but not a furniture maker.

1. Learn the skills. There are many skills to learn and it is going to take time. Start by fitting out a small workshop with a workbench and a basic set of hand tools. Then buy some books or attend a woodworking school.

2. Gain experience. Make furniture. Make lots of furniture. Measure yourself and improve on the quality as you progress.

3. Study design. The successful one-man furniture makers are the ones who can come up with their own design. Before you can become a known entity you will have to do a lot of work for individuals and related industries and you have to have the ability to conceptualise and design. Years ago I worked closely with architects and interior designers and it was often the case of being shown a rough pencil sketch from which you were expected to come up with a concept. You have to have this ability in your armoury.

Eliel Saarinen chair (an interpretation by Vejdi Avsar)

4. Learn business skills. You are in business and you have to keep a set of books, have the ability to estimate a job, be able to put together a detailed quotation, maintain machinery, budget, pay your taxes (yea I know how you feel), pay the rent etc. etc.

And who knows, if you are successful you too will one day immortalise your name in some piece of furniture like Mies van der Rohe, Marianne Brandt, Gerrit Rietveld or Hans Wegner.

Something different

A few of my students have (how shall I put it without risking misinterpretation?) an exploratory nature. How’s that. You can safely predict that whatever project they tackle will be ‘interesting’. My job in all of this is to point out that wood has certain limitations which has a direct bearing on some of the more euphoric designs. An unsupported 2m span of 25 x 50 spruce may be pushing it a little and why can’t we mortise and tenon the four sides of a blanket chest and so on.

And so when Carolus pointed at Jeff Miller’s chair with close on a thousand screws in it (Popular Woodworking Feb 2010) I just smiled feebly and said ‘Of course’.

But the one other thing I noticed with these adventurous individuals is that they don’t give up once they set out to do this thing (after we have sufficiently toned down the design to what wood can bear).

Carolus constructing the mahogany 'body'

Carolus liked the dark finish in Jeff’s chair so we settled on African mahogany (Khaya spp.) which is freely available here in Johannesburg.
A mix of plascon Mahogany and Ebony spirit stains  followed by three coats of Danish oil brought out a beautiful dark finish. Liberon paste wax gave it a soft sheen.

One chair - 1000 screws!

Stanley review

I am a traditionalist. I believe (as Neil Diamond’s father told him in the Jazz Singer) certain things never change. I also think that hand plane design reached it’s apex during the nineteenth century and what followed were mere refinements of the former.

Then came the low angle, bevel-up hand planes claiming superior performance and woodworkers worldwide started to add them to their collections.

But, my woodworking friends, in the end nothing has really changed, because…

The activity of hand planing depends on a captured steel blade with a honed edge skimming across the surface of a plank slicing away wood in it’s path in the form of shavings (hopefully thin fluffy ones). The quality of this planing activity depends on the sharpness of the blade, angle of the bevel, flatness of the sole, how well the blade beds on the frog and a few less important factors. Ever noticed how unsophisticated James Krenov’s beloved wooden hand planes looked?

Having said all of this, I also aquired a new Stanley Sweetheart block plane and a shoulder plane and tested the Jack plane and the low angle smoother. I also undertook to write a review of these both for the benefit of my students and as a matter of interest to the Stanley people here in Johannesburg.

Stanley SW 9½ block plane

Stanley - 1986 and 2011

Out of the box the block plane did well but honing the 3mm thick A2 blade improved the performance. I immediately found the edges of the sole too sharp. Most cabinet makers plane with the blade skewed but when doing this with the 9½ the edge kept biting into the wood. So I dulled the edges a little on 360 water paper on glass and that was sorted out. The plane has substatial weight compared to it’s size and that made it perform well on end grain. The lateral adjustment of the blade was akward. The blade moves not only from side to side but also shifts around inside the mouth opening.

Small grub screws controll the blade movement

This frustrated me somewhat and I drilled, tapped and srewed in a grub srew on either side to stop this sliding around business. Some of the other plane makers have found this necessary and Stanley should have a look at it. One new feature is the locking screw for lateral movement. Nice touch. The depth adjustment was good and my plane needed a little more than one turn to take up the slack.

Thick blade and lateral lock

Overall I liked the solid feel of the plane in hand and the thick blade (almost twice the thickness of the old Stanley!). It does well (compared to other block planes) on the shooting board.

We had a fairly wet summer here on the South African highveld and as things go planes and chisels tend to rust up but I suspect these new Sweetheart planes are more susceptable to rust than say my twenty five year-old Stanley block plane.

In summary, good buy for the price tag.

Design – sooner or later

 It is, of course, very rewarding to reproduce furniture from a bygone era, especially if you have a set of drawings of the original piece. Here at the Woodwork Academy students have been reproducing the Hepplewhite lamp stand (Fine Woodworking May/June 2000) quite a number of times (I have lost count) and the reasons are fairly obvious.

Andrew with his lamp stand

Firstly, in Western culture we derive substatial satisfaction from reproducing things from previous ages, in particular, music and furniture. Architechture and literature have lost it. Secondly, the piece of furniture being reproduced reflects the design thinking of the period and in the case of Shaker furniture, even the worldview of the designers.

Carolus polishing up his Hepplewhite lamp stand

 But sooner or later the aspiring woodworker will want to (will have to) design his or her own furniture and also for fairly obvious reasons. Firstly, this will be your creation and (without sounding too theatrical) an extention of yourself. Secondly, this is where aesthetics and function meet. Material strength versus ideal. Reality has a nasty way of reducing a gossamer delicate design on paper into a less flattering but functional piece.

Cameron (15) with his own design coat rack

If this is an unexplored area for you then… then… why then sharpen your pencil and start sketching!

Beautiful panels

Carin refining the details

Woodwork Academy student Carin accepted a commission to carve eight panels for a music school. The motifs were all stylised musically related images.

The finished panels

 A little background needs to be added here to put the whole thing into perspective. Carin has only recently taken up woodworking and was by no means an expert when she started these panels. But two things were decidedly in her favour: enthusiasm and determination. Week after week she would tackle the job at hand and I witnessed her growing confidence and dexterity untill after five weeks the panels were completed. The photos tell the story. Bottom line ?  Doing is learning.

Yes !

Luke celebrating

That sense of achievment is something, isn’t it? Not all of us express it as ‘on the high ropes’ as young Luke (9) here. He had just finished his workbench and I asked him to stand for a photo. But… that sense of achievement is evident in all the students whatever age. Some take pictures of their project on a cell phone, week by week, to show the wife or friends how things are going. Some just smile modestly and say something like they didn’t think they would ever be able to make a table or a chair or whatever. Fact is, with a little guidance and a little patience, most of us can do remarkable things.

Design matters

Faulty design

One man brought six dining room chairs to the workshop. He was grumbling about poor workmanship because they were all broken in the same spot, where the side rail meets the back leg. Repeated attempts at repair was in evidence. This, of course, is the one joint in all of woodworking that is subjected to the biggest load bearing stress.

Typical rail-to-leg fracture due to absence of bottom rail

Picture an average adult weighing 80kg after dinner sliding the chair back across the floor to leave the table. The back leg momentarily gets caught at an uneven spot on the floor or a joint between two tiles but the momentum, driven by the 80kg load, attempts to continue on it’s path. There can be only one result. The joint starts flexing and after so many flexings it will fail.

I had a good look at the chairs. They were forty odd years old but well made. The jointing was neat, the components well finished and the upholstery way above average even though it was mass produced. The reason for the broken back legs was another one; Design.
Firstly the wood was kiaat, (Pterocarpus angolensis) a semi hard wood indigenous to Southern Africa. We use substantial volumes of it here at the Woodwork Academy because it is the ideal wood to train aspiring woodworkers with, not too hard, not too soft and it has beautiful grain pattern and colours. However, when building chairs without bottom rails, kiaat will not be a suitable wood. It’s either or. Either you use a stronger wood or the design has to change.

Chairs constructed from softer woods demand stronger design - for example the bottom rail seen here.

Some time ago I built a kiaat dining room set for a client. The design, including the thong-weaved seating (which is still popular in South Africa) was to the client’s order except that I insisted on very low-placed bottom side rails in order to strengthen the construction.
A Danish dining room set was on display at a recent Antiques Fair in Sandton, Johannesburg. Although the design is very light (typical Scandinavian) the chairs have no bottom rails. But note the clever widening of the back rail where it meets the leg. Beautiful and practical design and the set is sixty years old!

The second point of interest was that the kiaat chairs were assembled with hide glue. Hide glue quality can vary widely and it is suitable for many applications but not for chair construction. I have come into the habbit of using slow set epoxy for chairs or at least just this one joint in chairs. It makes me sleep better at night.
Hide glue also has the tendency to cristalise and I have not researched this phenomenan as to whether all types eventually cristalise or only the poorer qualities. Here is a cut-away through a chair joint showing the cristalised hide glue. This, I think, brings into focus the particular qualities of PVA glue which is somewhat flexible in other words it will allow some minute flexing without failing. I haven’t had the courage to try it though.
So then, when building chairs, decide carefully on the design and type of wood and don’t use hide glue.

Cross section through hide glue joint

Clever alternative to bottom rail - widened seat rail



And you thought the Woodwork Academy was only about woodwork. Things tend to cluster together in groups and it is not surprising that a youngster who is being trained in classical music also has an interest in making things with his hands.
We find ourselves in a predominantly technological age. We manipulate two-dimensional images on a flat screen and it seems we cannot do without computers any more. Hmm? Really?
However, during my years of teaching woodwork I have repeatedly heard from adults that they are experiencing a growing need to do something their hands. As one corporate man put it “I stare at a computer screen five days a week and I desperately need to make something!” Some individuals will obviously experience this need more than others but it seems as if the human psyche has to have some practical creativeness in order to maintain equilibrium.
But if this is true of adults it is certainly also the case with children and teens. Studies have conclusively shown that handcrafts encourage intellectual development.
So, I would encourage the young (and the older) to play Max Bruch and to build Chippendales.