The #700 Bookshelf

I’ve been fortunate to have some spare time in the past year to be able to raise my rudimentary carpentry skills to a level where I can make some rudimentary furniture. And, as you might have guessed, I have an obsession with unfashionable Arts and Crafts furniture and art.

The #700 bookcase as seen in the 1909 catalog.

My latest project was making a copy of Gustav Stickley’s #700 bookshelf, originally manufactured in 1904. The $30 price in the 1909 catalog would be around $900 today, not cheap considering that a good salary at that time was between $2,000 and $5,000 a year.

In my cranky opinion the pre-WWI Arts and Crafts era marks the pinnacle of American design. It’s all downhill from this point. The #700 bookcase may have been designed by the architect Harvey Ellis, though there is some controversy about this. Having spent so many hours building it, there are some details that make me think an architect had something to do with the design, particularly the odd little pilasters that hide the face frame seam on the front of the bookcase.

Stickley’s furniture can, occasionally, be a bit crude and boxy. The details of this bookcase set it apart. The arches at the bottom, reminiscent of a bridge, give the design a lightness and grace. The overall proportions are like a turn of the century Chicago skyscraper. The door is, pleasingly, divided into three glassed sections. The glass door also keeps the dust out. And the original had a lock to, I think, keep the kids from climbing the shelves. The beauty of quartersawn white oak, with its striking medullary ray pattern, speaks for itself. I opted for a dark stain to hide some less than optimal wood.

As usual, mistakes were made. But I did pick up a few new skills. While my solder joints are a bit messy, I got to learn how to make a leaded glass window thanks to some great advice from Stained Glass Supplies in Pasadena (they have classes if you’re interested).

Making the bookshelf was easier than paring down our book collection to fit in it. I made sure to leave enough room to display the plaster neanderthal skull which every aging 1990s hipster in Silver Lake owns. Next up is a settle and desk.

Let’s Bring Back Picture Rail

Why the hell did The Man take away our picture rail?

Picture rail is a small piece of molding placed either at the top of a wall or a few feet shy of the top, that holds hooks on which you can hang pictures using a chain, cord or ribbon. Picture rail allows you to hang pictures without putting a damn hole in the wall. This is especially important if you have wallpaper. It’s also great if your walls are made of lath and plaster rather than drywall, since tapping on an old lath and plaster wall can easily cause half the plaster to cleave off. But even if you have drywall, picture rail allows you to easily reposition pictures in seconds and not have to worry about filling holes.

So why did they take it away from us? Picture rail disappeared in the mid-twentieth century when wallpaper and lath and plaster went out of fashion.  It also may have had something to do with the mid-century disdain for molding in general.

My DIY picture rail.

Thankfully we can bring back picture rail. You can buy it online but I figured out a way to make it myself on a table saw equipped with a dado set (you could also do it with a router). I picked up some door and window casing at the Big Orange Store and used the dado set to cut a groove in the back of the molding. Put it up and pick up some picture rail hooks and you’re ready to hang art. Picture rail hooks come in a variety of sizes and we had to test a few to find the right fit. The picture rail hooks fit standard, rounded picture rail better than my DIY effort, but my improvised picture rail works okay.

New picture rail and crown molding in our bedroom.

The living room of our house already had picture rail so I just had to add it to the other rooms of the house when I redid the molding this summer. Hopefully you’re lucky enough to already have picture rail. If not you can even get it in a contemporary style to easily add to any room.

To use picture rail you need to attach either chain, cord or wire to the back of your frame. We went with brass chain since we can pick it up at our local hardware store and we’ve got some heavy pictures to hang. You can either hang from one point on the frame or two. If you’ve got tall ceilings you can attach the chain or cord lower on the frame so that the picture tilts downward to make it easier to view. You can stack pictures on the wall by attaching them to each other or by hanging them from individual hooks.

Say goodbye to holes in the wall!

The print at top is “California 2 Mt. Shasta” by Frank Morley Fletcher that we got though the Legion of Honor online gift store. I made the frame on my table saw and router table.

Measuring With a Shaft Key

Need to make a precise measurement or adjust a tool? Get yourself a set of square shaft keys.

Shaft keys are used in the world of machinery to connect a shaft to something that rotates but we won’t be using them for their intended purpose. Rather, we’ll make use of the fact that they are made in precise metric and imperial sizes to use them as a measurement aid.

Shaft keys come in different flavors and shapes including curved, square and tapered. We’re looking for the square ones. Every hardware store has a set of shaft keys in a dusty, seldom opened drawer. My local store carried shaft keys between 1/8″ and 1/2″. You can buy a whole set for mere dollars. I used a sharpie to mark the dimensions of my set of shaft keys.

I use them mostly for setting the depth of my router and table saw. Using your sense of touch, aided by a shaft key, is much more accurate than using your eyeballs and a ruler.

But I also found them handy for assembling a new fence over the weekend. I wanted 1/4 inch gaps between the fence slats and used a shaft key as a spacer when I assembled the fence.

Stuff the stockings of the accuracy challenged housemates on your Christmas shopping list with a set of shaft keys!

Thank you to Bob Van Dyke for initiating me into the mysteries of the shaft key.

The American College of the Building Arts

I have lingering regrets about my choice of college degree. It’s not that I think that studying music wasn’t worthwhile, but rather that I was more invested in the idea of being a musician rather than the act of making music. And let’s not get into the plinky-plunky, modernist musical cat fight that passed for the musical curriculum at UCSD, where I did my graduate work.

If I were to step into a time machine back to high school and ponder my next move I have no doubt that I’d ditch the University of California and head to Charleston, South Carolina to attend the American College of the Building Arts. ACBA was formed in the wake of hurricane Hugo, when local residents found that there were no skilled craftspersons to rebuild the traditional buildings that grace Charleston. Skilled workers had to be imported from Europe. The founders of ACBA set out to fix that problem by offering a four year degree that combines shop classes with the liberal arts. At ACBA you can study traditional building crafts such as masonry, timber framing, ironwork, plasterwork and classical architecture as well as English, Spanish, science and math. Many trade schools will teach you plumbing and stick framing, but few will teach you the things that ACBA offers. Garden & Gun magazine has an article on ACBA if you’d like to know more.

Of course things worked out for me in the end. I met my wife Kelly at UCSD when I discovered that the art department grad students threw much better parties than the dour music department.

I Built a Harvey Ellis Dresser and it Almost Killed Me

Harvey Ellis was a gifted architect who worked for the furniture manufacturing firm owned by Gustav Stickley. His tenure at Stickley’s firm was brief but significant, bringing curves and ornament to Stickley’s sometimes blockly designs. He contributed work for the 1904 catalog and drawings for Stickely’s magazine The Craftsman before his untimely demise.

We needed a dresser for our bedroom and Kelly and I really wanted the Ellis model. Unfortunately, not many were made and when they show up at auction they go for around $8,000 to $10,000. So I decided to build one myself and now I know why they cost so much.

In 1904 the dresser sold for the princely sum of $39, over $1,000 in today’s dollars. Stickley simplified the design in subsequent years since the details in Ellis’ design make the dresser a bit of a pain to manufacture. But those subtleties are, in my opinion, worth the effort.

Building this dresser was like being able to inhabit Ellis’ head temporarily to understand his design vocabulary. Ellis was clearly riffing on Shaker style cabinets. What makes it so special are the details. The legs not only taper towards the bottom but also subtlety taper towards the top. Ellis echoes this up and down tapering by changing the size of the drawers–bigger in the middle than at the top and bottom. Then there’s the graceful arch on the base and the paneled sides. All of these details make for a lot more work.

It’s interesting to compare Ellis’ dresser to its Ikea equivalent. Ikea’s dresser isn’t terrible, design-wise, but you can tell that ease of manufacture is a primary consideration. And while I don’t want to romanticize early 20th century furniture work, I think I’d rather work in Stickley factory than Ikea’s. I made the Ellis dresser in much the same way it would have been built in 1904–mostly with machines (table saw, bandsaw etc.) but with hand planes for the fine work (fitting drawers, finishing surfaces). Late 19th and 20th century furniture making involves not just one task all day but a mix of responsibilities as well as aesthetic decisions such as deciding which way to run the grain. The Ikea dresser is made on a post-Henry Ford assembly line where workers either monitor machines and/or do the same repetitive task all day. This makes for a much cheaper product but an unhappy worker.

I made many mistakes building my Ellis dresser. It was, by far, the most complex object I’ve ever built (including nine dovetailed drawers that had to be precisely fit to within 1/32 of an inch). I won’t bore you with the long list of errors, but the biggest one was not having a precise plan for the details of the inside of the dresser. There are many different ways to handle the inside of cabinets. There’s not one right way but it’s good to commit to a particular plan before you begin construction. I also could have done a better job matching the grain on the drawer fronts. If you’re interested in finish methods for this period of furniture I used these helpful directions and the accompanying video.

Much to Kelly’s chagrin, Ellis mania has broken out in the house and I’m ignoring “important” work in order to build an Ellis bookshelf and china cabinet.