Kelly’s New Desk

Kelly wanted something to look forward to after her surgery. Specifically, she requested a desk for her shed office from a design in Christopher Schwartz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book. I’ve linked to Schwartz’s blog in the past and can’t say enough good things about his books. In addition to being well written they are just plain beautiful books and the projects strike a perfect balance of good design and ease of construction.

Schwartz specializes in reviving what might be thought of as the furniture of common people, not the fancy and fussy stuff usually associated with middle aged woodworking hobbyists. He draws a lot of inspiration from simple and elegant 18th century and older designs that, paradoxically, seem clean and modern.

This desk uses a common staked leg design that you’ll see on a lot of tables and chairs in the past and to this day in many places in the world. As this was the first time I’ve ever built this type of table, mistakes were made but I’m pleased with the end result.

Schwartz emphasizes hand tools which means that this desk could be made with just a few tools in a small workshop (though it does kinda call for a drill press to cut the circular holes for the legs). In my tiny garage workshop I use a mix of power and hand tools: power tools for the rough milling and hand tools to shape, finish and finesse the joinery. In the stressful weeks leading up to Kelly’s surgery it was therapeutic to spend time in the workshop shaping the four legs of this table with an inexpensive, 100 year old Stanley plane that works as well as the day it was made.

I used readily available hard maple for this project. One of my house rules is that I only use domestic hardwood because I’m worried about forestry practices in foreign countries. It’s also cheaper to get the domestic stuff.

I finished the table with a product I’ve really come to like, General Finish Arm-R-Seal, a urethane resin that has proven durable on past projects around the house and is easy to apply with a rag. The satin finish doesn’t look plasticy like so many other finishes I’ve tried on earlier projects.

Up next in the workshop is this nightstand.

Sheltered

A page from Shelter.

Maker, builder, publisher and author Lloyd Kahn left a great comment on my rambling review of the documentary Spaceship Earth. Lloyd said (in reference to the title of Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth), “In 1973, in our book Shelter, I wrote “Calling Earth a spaceship is like stepping out into a clear night in New Mexico and saying, “Wow, it looks just like the planetarium.”

If you aren’t familiar with Lloyd’s work you should check out his blog and buy his books! I have a vintage copy of Shelter on my workshop bookshelf.

Kelly’s Office Furniture in Progress

I had a request for some work-in-progress photos of Kelly’s office furniture and, instead of feeding the Instagram beast I thought I’d put them on the blog.

Kelly requested a bookshelf, three cabinets and a desk for her shed office (we are lucky to have a 100 year old shed in the backyard that I have restored over the years we’ve lived here).

Lately, I’ve taken to hand drawing designs more than using Sketchup. I’m not against 3D modeling but I like the speed of pencil and paper.

I’m in that Venn diagram somewhere that combines a leftist outlook with extremely conservative design tastes. I find there’s a hard to express and paradoxical freedom that comes from working within historic design limitations. It certainly makes staring at the blank sheet of paper easier when you have some rules about proportions and standard practices to fall back on.

I’ve also been practicing my hand tool methods. I took a class last year on how to hand cut dovetails and have spent some of my quarantine time practicing this skill, which gets down to learning how to cut an angled line with a saw. It’s actually not that hard once you spend some hours practicing on scrap wood.

Kelly did not like how long it took for me to make the bookshelf (made out of inexpensive beech wood, by the way) and requested that I put the cabinets together faster. I used birch plywood which was more fun to work with than I expected and certainly saved a lot of time. Hardwood has to be milled, the edges jointed and small pieces glued together to make wider boards. It takes days of work. Plywood cabinets come together in hours not days.

The plywood cabinets for Kelly’s office ended up being a kind of ironic, post-modern commentary on the fuddy-duddy bookshelf. Rather than hide the edges of the plywood I decided to bring attention to them. I like the look of the edge of a decent birch plywood. Speaking of plywood, if you work with it you should get it from a local lumberyard not the big box stores. The plywood I got was a big step up in quality–fewer voids and a better surface and well worth the extra price.

I called a friend who restores vintage trailers for some advice on how to finish plywood (thank you Phil!). He suggested a light sanding with 220 grit sandpaper followed by either spray varnish or a poly finish. I went with a poly finish since it’s what I had on hand it ended up looking great. Wish I had the space to build a teardrop trailer out of ply.

The last project for the office will be a desk from a plan in Christopher Schwartz’s The Anarchist Design Book.

Two Views

Window Swap is a poetic quarantine art project. Click a button and you get a ten minute prerecorded video of someone else’s window view complete with sound. I took a window tour of the Bavarian countryside, a street in India and a cat watching birds in Qatar. You can also record your own view and submit it. Thanks to the Recomendo newsletter for the tip.

If you’re looking for a movie to watch tonight check out The Story of G.I. Joe, a 1945 movie centering on the war correspondent Ernie Pyle. It was directed by William Wellman and stars Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum. This movie has a big heart. You’ll leave it with a greater empathy for what war veterans go through and it’s free in the YouTubes. Thanks to the Jacobin for the tip.

There she goes, my beautiful world

Root Simple reader Mary H left a nice comment on my Monday post about the muses,

A long time ago I heard “When times are good, make art. When times are bad, make more art.” Also, Neil Gaiman said, ” When things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art… Make it on the good days, too.”

In that spirit, in the midst of the quarantine/curfew I spent some time organizing my garage workshop so that I can continue to make furniture for the house. I took on the much delayed and deadly dull tasks of organizing the disorganized hardware storage bins and improving dust collection. Life is easier when the workshop is clean and the tools are sharp and in their place. Speaking of sharp, I also spent time setting up a dedicated sharpening station so that I won’t be tempted to put off this essential task when in the midst of working.

It’s important to have a pleasant space to work in. So amidst the tools are a few tchotchkes, images of cats and Bernie Sanders signs to remind me of happy before-times. Spending time in this space does not completely allay a foreboding sense of anxiety about the world but it’s certainly better than sitting in the house doom scrolling Twitter.

One of those Sanders signs says, “Fight the Power” a kind of pun in that I’ve, unintentionally, managed to assemble a work practice that blends power tools and hand tools. While I enjoy the convenience of a table saw and band saw I much prefer “fighting the power” with an over 100 year old hand plane that works as well as the day it was made. I’ve slowly begun to shift to using hand tools more often. They are safer, produce less dust and, while taking some practice to get used to, are just as precise if not more so and lead to fewer catastrophic mistakes. Lastly, I can’t minimize how important it is to have a proper workbench. Other crafts such as sewing, metal work, electronics etc. are greatly facilitated by a proper and dedicated work surface as well.

While expensive to set up, the workshop has paid for itself many times over. I’ve used it to make reproductions of furniture that would cost tens of thousand of dollars as well as make molding for the house and install wood floors.

I often think of the Nick Cave anthem “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” when I find myself slipping into a pity party. The song reminds us that creative types of the past managed to work under much more horrible conditions.

John Willmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox
Nabakov wrote on index cards,
at a lectern, in his socks
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box
And Johnny Thunders was half alive
when he wrote Chinese Rocks . . .

So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet,
brother, and blow it
If you’ve got a field, that don’t yield,
well get up and hoe it