Handmade chest in the Coolgardie Museum as an example of “Pioneer homelife”. Date unknown but probably around 1920/30’s. The variable widths of the boards used for the case sides and drawers indicate they may have come from a packing case. It’s hard to tell if the carcase is joined with mortise and tenons, the heavy layer of paint obscures the shoulder, and I couldn’t inspect the construction inside because the museum people get a bit antzy about people touching the exhibits. The curved details on the legs are nailed on
“There!” said John, surveying his work with great apparent satisfaction — “finished.”
“What is finished?” asked Benny, “your nail- box?”
“No,” said John; “only the two parallelopipedons for the two sides. See!”
So saying, he handed the two pieces of wood which he had shaped to Benny to examine. They were indeed nothing but two plain pieces of wood, but they were so smooth and square and true, and they were so exactly alike when placed together either way, that it was quite a pleasure to look at them.
“And now,” said John, “we are going to put our work away.”
Benny was at first unwilling to do this, being still interested in his boring, and he asked John why he did not go on and finish his nail-box. But John had been recommended by Ebenezer not to work too long at a time.
“As a general rule” said Ebenezer “you had better only undertake and finish one operation on your work at one time. Don’t think at all, while you are making a thing, of the time when you will get it done, for that will only make you impatient to see it finished; then you will hurry your work and make mistakes and do it badly; and so you will get vexed and worried, and all the pleasure will be spoiled. The best way is, when you begin to work at any time, to undertake for that day only one single operation, and take time to do that well; and when you have done it, lay by your work for that day, and go and amuse yourself with something else. Then you will not get tired and worried, and your work in the end will be much better done.”
The boys own workshop – Jacob Abbot (1866)
One weekend I took a handsaw and length of timber and cut it until it was too short to make any more cuts. At the end I had two things – a pile of firewood and the ability to saw square and plumb. I had one saw. It was as blunter an old man’s opinion on pop music, so I learned to sharpen it. It worked a lot better. I started to scour second hand stores and flea markets and acquired a few more old saws that might not have been used for 30 years. The were rusted and dull and broken.
I bought this 5 ppi Diston rip saw from a junk store for $3. “Many people buy those to put up on the wall of their bar” the owner said as I handed him the coins. I told him I wasn’t interested in decoration and intended to use it to saw wood. And so I did and it does. I shaped a new Jarrah handle since the old one had cracked in the rain. Perhaps not the most elegant looking saw but it is comfortable in the hand and entirely functional.
Box. Jarrah, 6×3.5×4 inches.
Sometime last year my wife decided she wanted a box to hold her earrings in that was a bit nicer than the plastic container she’d been using. She was looking at some mass produced jewellery boxes at the store trying to convince herself that one of them would be suitable. We both knew that these over decorated, plasticy junk were nothing like the simple, well made things she likes. I tried to dissuade her but she nevertheless chose one that, she conceded, was merely good enough though not near enough to hide her disappointment.
In the previous few months I’d taken an interest in woodworking, so I told her I would make her one better than any of these pieces of crap and it would well built and look exactly as she wanted it. This was utter lie. I had neither the skills nor tools to make a bird house let alone the finely made box she has in mind. Nonetheless, my good intentions and wanton confidence must have suspended her doubt just long enough that the good enough junk went back on the shelf. With the expectation that I would make good on my boast, I set out to gain the necessary skills to make her the box she deserved.
After a few months we developed a running joke. “Where’s my box?” she would ask, to which I would reply with a variation of “I just have to learn how to; cut dovetails/dimension boards/sharpen chisels/cut in a straight line”, and the like. I only had a few hours each weekend with the tools but I was making progress and managed to make a few small test boxes that, while not perfect, were certainly better than good enough. A month ago I felt confident enough to have a go at the real thing. The box above is what came out.
Everything was done with hand tools. The wood for the bottom was resawn from a roof beam I grabbed from the rubble of a 100 year old house being demolished in our neighbourhood. The lid was hand milled from a billet of Jarrah I found on a wood pile near the mill where my father grew up in the 50s. The mill is long gone and the site is now a camping ground where I spent many family holidays as a child and where my wife had her first camping experience when we moved to Australia.
I gave the finished box to my her this past weekend and our long standing joke met its an end. She is very happy with it. I obsess over the shortcomings, yet I feel I did the best work I could. She recognises it’s not perfect but she knows it was made with love, which is never perfect either.
The box I’ve been working on for, what seems like, the last several decades is almost complete. The carcase and its matching lid are done, so the task of attaching the hinges that join the lid to the box sets me considering how best ensure both line up. I wanted to cut a shallow rebate to seat the hinge so the flanges would sit flush with the edge and to also inset them the same distance from each side. Marking that out will take two measurements, and for me having to make two marks means twice the chance of making a mistake. Being able to cut both marks at the same time would be better. But how?
One of the illustrations in my current bedtime favourite, John A. Walton’s Woodwork in Theory and Practice, shows a method of marking the depth of the rebate with a marking gauge set directly from the hinge itself. This got me thinking how to use a marking gauge to mark out my problematic rebate. I came up with an idea that seemed like it might work, so I took a few photos while I tried it out just in case it did.
Set the jaws of a mortise gauge to the width of the hinge, then set the head of the gauge to distance the hinges will be inset from the edge. Excuse my grubby fingers.
With the head of he gauge on the side of the box, make the mark with mortise pins. Flip the gauge and repeat on the other side. Do the same for the lid.
Marks for the rebate on both the lid and carcase line up perfectly.
All the necessary marking for the width and position of the rebate have been made so now the depth of the rebate could be marked as Walton describes. I did it by eye because the rebates were barely 1/32″ deep and easy to pare out with a chisel. The hinged lid went on with only the slightest gap at the back and it makes a very satisfying woody clunk when the box is closed. A couple coats of varnish and it will be done.
The Coolgardie museum has a pair of saws that probably intend to illustrate the make do spirit of the pioneers.The improvised metal handles, one simply a bolted on horseshoe, might have been a very practical answer to the original wood handles not being durable enough to survive the harsh conditions or maybe it was just the quickest way to get the saw workable again.
I imagine they would be very uncomfortable to hold, specially the ragged horseshoe, and no concern as been given to style, only function. Though, I wonder if the owner of the horseshoe saw kept the warranted superior medallion purely for bragging rights.
Surcease — to cease from some action; desist. To come to an end.
Munificent — very generous with money.
Quotidian — daily; usual or customary.
Alacrity — cheerful readiness, promptness, or willingness; liveliness; briskness.
Lachrymose — sad or tending to cry often.
Box. Pine, 3×3.5×3 inches.
I made this box as a woodworking version of writing the ‘hello world’ program when first learning a programming language — a simple, but complete thing, done to grasp some basic concepts. Using hand tools requires an understanding of not only how to use the tool but equally, how the tool wants to be used. A saw bucks in the cut if drawn outside of a preferred pitch, planes become as obstinate as a perfectionist compelled to accept the merely adequate if the blade is extended the smidgen too far, and an unsharpened chisel will tear out end grain like a landslide through mountainside forest. Tools are upfront about saying what is not to their liking. When their voice changes from a grumble and growl to a crisp, eager, confiding is when the pleasure in work prevails
“The price we have paid for expecting to be so much more than our ancestors is a perpetual anxiety that we are far from being all we might be.”
“Because of the nature of this economy, the most evident feature of the struggle to achieve status is uncertainty. We contemplate the future in the knowledge that we may be thwarted by colleagues or competitors, we may find we lack the talents to fulfil our chosen goals or we may steer into an inauspicious current in the swells of the market place”
From Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton.
The first Jiaozi I ate tried to kill me. It happened in China as I’d sought refuge from the stiffening effect of winter, in a restaurant warmed by the steam used as their sole cooking method. The menu was equally limited; Baozi or Jiaozi. I generally defaulted to baozi, but the elegant shape of the Jiaozi, like an gentlemans shirt collar, were intriguing enough to earn a try. The school-age kitchen hand, probably one of the proprietors children, deftly folded a thin yellow skin around the thumb tip sized ball of minced meat and vegetable and laid each in rows on a tray like cars in a parking lot. I ordered and she gathered a dozen from the previously made and tossed them under the lid of a immense boiling pot.
After they had been pulled from the water their former distinction had become wrinkled and muculent the way the bottom of a snail looks under magnification, and similarly unappetising. I should have taken that as a warning but hunger and a reluctance to move out of the almost tropical micro-climate of the restaurant compelled me to stay and eat. The experience left no great impression but the adamant bacteria that persuaded my body to unravel every component of my digestive system from the inside out over the following two days did.
That incident was several years ago. It seems those Jiaozi inflict enough damage to induce a grudge as these days I make them occasionally, still charmed by their graceful shape and assured that my ones wont try to finish me off.