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.

Woodwork and soccer ?

Yes, well with the longest school holiday ever in South Africa (World cup soccer) parents were looking around for things their youngsters could keep themselves busy with.
So we put out an ad in a nearby school (Trinity House) offering woodworking projects for children and we had a good response. From eight years old they came and did a various projects with different degrees of complexity.
I am always delighted to see how quickly a young boy or girl picks up the rules of the game, the ‘codes and conventions’ if you will.
Well done guys and keep up making sawdust!

Doing, is the only way

There is a familiar pattern in the acquiring of a skill. You move from the known to the unknown. The hands repeat the fumbling, again and again. By the tenth time one little akward movement is elliminated (consciously) and your’e one step closer to that distant goal called SKILL. Don’t be too harsh on yourself (and not too forgiving either). Concentrate. Go for detail.

A year from now you will have forgotten what you were struggling with because you would have moved on to more refined levels of the struggle. Keep going , you’ll get there.

Skill = knowledge, dexterity, experience, patience.

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