Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Staircase Saga (Part 8) - the Balustrade.

It's been a while since I posted about this staircase. The last post was in August 2013, when I wrote about making the handrail. For well over a year I have had the privilege of working on the renovation project of a lovely 1930's Art Deco House in Wembley, Western Australia.

While I had finished much of the staircase months ago, the balustrading upstairs could not to be made and installed until we had laid the jarrah floor, installed the lining board ceiling, the walls had been clad, the floor had been polished, etc.  There has been lots to do in the rest of the house too.

Downstairs, there is an original decorative panel above the hallway, which originally would have had a heavy curtain hanging below it, as was fashionable in that Era.
Tulip panels clearly visible in the original overhead woodwork in the hallway.
 The tulip panel would be utilised and reproduced in the balustrading upstairs.It had previously been copied for the short piece of balustrading downstairs.
Up the ladder, capturing the tulip panel design from the original decorative woodwork.  
The reproduced Tulip panel can be seen in the short piece of downstairs balustrading.
Having kept my cardboard template of the tulip design, it would be easy to create more of these panels for the balustrade upstairs. I made up a short section of the upstairs balustrading, to make sure that my customer would be happy with the idea.

One short test section of the upstairs balustrading, ready to be fitted. 
The balustrade's handrail profile would match the staircase handrail, which I had previously developed and run when I'd made that handrail.

Pairing the sections of handrail and the bottom plate, to lay out the baluster mortices.
Marking out the baluster mortice positions.

I had 4 more Tulip panels to make. Cut out with a scroll saw, cleaned up by hand.

All the bits coming together, glued up in their sections.

Delivery time!
Chopping a mortise in a top newel post to take the balustrade tenon. 
Looking down the top flight...
 Hmmmm...We are getting closer to completing the staircase!
However, there are still several unfinished tasks:
  1. The newel posts at the top of the stairs are to be shortened to match the rest of the posts.
  2. The caps (which are made) are to be fitted on top of every post.
  3. The balustrading and staircase are still to be polished.
  4. The cover trim is to be fitted below the bottom plate of the balustrade, which covers the ends of the flooring and the top of the gyprok.
  5. The door to the hidie-hole under the bottom section needs to be made and fitted. 
  6. The very bottom part of the handrail needs to be made... a downward spiral terminating in the wall. It'll be a challenge to carve.
Sections all cramped up while the glue dries in all the mortice and tenon joints. Nice.
  It's great that so much timber from the old part of the house has been recycled into making the stairs which lead to the new space up top.

Once it is polished and completed, this staircase will be absolutely fantastic!

Friday, February 28, 2014

The first "Introduction to Green Woodworking" Workshop!

What a delight! On Sunday Feb 9th I ran the first "Intro to Green Woodworking" Workshop at Earthwise in Subiaco. Fantastic. My trip to the USA last year was all about this - to increase my skills and experience in this exciting area so that I could then better share the joys of green woodworking with others here in Western Australia. This workshop, the first of many I hope, was the result of 3 years of dreaming, reading, learning, upskilling and preparation. A truly joyous day!
Carving spoons from green wood is a wonderfully relaxing activity.
We spent the day under the big mulberry tree at Earthwise. A very nice and appropriate location.

Why no green wood tradition here in Australia?
In North America and Europe, there is a long tradition in green woodworking going back many centuries. However here in Australia there appears to be very little tradition in green woodwork in our European history. Here in the early days of the Western Australian colony, roofing shingles were hewn from sheoak and jarrah trees, and railway sleepers were hewn from jarrah trees... Was it the hardness of the native timbers? Was it the fact that the first European colonists arrived as the industrial revolution was in full swing in Britain? Was it the lack of a peasantry on the land? Was it the lack of long cold winters? I'd like to understand the dynamic behind the apparent lack of green woodworking tradition and history here in Western Australia. Maybe some readers out there may be able to shed some light on this matter for me...
Damon uses a hewing hatchet to clean up his gnarly piece of timber.
Shaving horses.
In the preparation for this workshop, I had made 6 shaving horses. Three of these were in the English Bodger style, and three in the traditional "Dumbhead" style. These were all fabricated from dry wood, not green wood, as I was using up timber I had in my stocks and with limited time for the task. It was predominantly recycled packing crate pine from the Northern Hemisphere which was used, plus a few sticks pulled from my timber racks. For example, the legs were taken from a pile of Campaign Chair rail blanks that I have had set aside for about 20 years! Mostly Sheoak but some WA Peppermint as well.
The English Bodger model shavehorse. 
The legs on all the shavehorses have tapered tenons on the end which go into tapered holes. A tap with the mallet locks them in, and a tap with the mallet the other way knocks the legs out to aid storage when not in use. Six shave horses can take up a lot of space!
The Fabricated Dumb-Head model shavehorse.
Parked under the big mulberry tree, using a shavehorse was very relaxing...
Surena carefully shapes her Macadamia spoon handle with a drawknife.

The shave horse has great holding power. Sam shapes his spoon handle.
Obtaining the timber for the workshop.
In preparation for the workshop, I had been collecting an array of timber pieces for a couple of months. Lots of this would be experimental, as I am keen to find which are the best timbers to use which are freely available from parks and gardens here in Perth - especially from residential gardens. I had gathered up spoon sized pieces of wood including: Macadamia, Japanese Pepper, WA Peppermint, Cotoneaster, and Eucalyptus Caesia.
Trees and houses are removed from blocks in house demolitions for "urban infill".
Jacaranda tree being pulled down. Huge Lillypillys behind are next... 
Then I found there was a house around the corner from me being demolished by an excavator. (Such a waste of all that dry jarrah in the building's structure, but that's another story...)  
I spoke to the excavator driver and asked if the trees on the block were to be removed as well. He responded by saying that the whole block was to be cleared. I expressed interest in wood from the trunks of the trees on the block: Jacaranda, Cape Lilac, Bauhenia, and a type of Lillypilly. The result of my request? Two ute loads of log sections from these trees - a small proportion of the timber in the huge trees. Nice that the driver was pleased that the wood was to be used! Otherwise all of the trees including the stumps end up carted away in trucks along with the demolished house and outbuildings. A couple of cartons had sealed the deal.
The first of the two ute loads of timber from the demolished trees. 
The second ute load of log sections from the demolition.
Part of the smorgasbord of timber for the workshop.
In addition , some months ago I had obtained a large section of Sheoak log from a saw mill. I had commenced breaking it down long ago, but had left the timber under a tarp on the front lawn at home all this time. It was destined to go to the workshop long before the ute loads of timber from the demolition site!
Breaking down one of the two Sheoak log sections... many months ago.
I certainly had more wood now than I needed for the workshop!

Getting started - the workshop begins!
With all the participants assembled under the big Mulberry Tree at Earthwise, I began by welcoming the bods to this first of many green woodworking workshops. A personally very exciting occasion for me, as this was the culmination of 3 years of dreaming and preparation. I showed a bunch of green wood spoons that I had made, contrasting this with seasoned wood spoons, which I had learned to make 20 years previously. Next it was a quick explanation about basic tree anatomy. Outer Bark, Inner Bark, Cambium Layer, Sapwood, Heartwood, Pith, Medullary Rays, how trees grow, how we utilise the properties of timber, etc. 
After I had demonstrated the use of a froe and beetle to split open a section of timber ready to make a spoon, I went through some basic stuff around the use of a drawer knife on a shave horse, and then we looked at safe knife use. 

Time then for the gang to choose a piece of wood and start to have a play!    

There was plenty of wood to choose from!
Jacksie hews out a spoon blank beside part of the pile.
While the wood available had potential to do so much more than spoon making, everyone worked on spoons on the day. This would partly be due to the fact that I only had spoons as demo pieces. Next workshop we will make stools or something with legs I reckon.
I look forward to offering a future workshop down the track where we will make Joynt Stools. Thanks for the inspiration Peter Follansbee! Meanwhile, we will work up to that by playing around making a growing range of other things with green wood first...

Graeme gets into using the drawer knife. Such a wonderful tool!
The Hatchet Work.
Unfortunately I didn't get any pics of the first step - the riving (splitting) the log sections apart with beetle and froe. Once the blanks have been formed in this manner, the next step is to hew the shape and remove the waste using hewing hatchets. I have a variety of hatchets, from the very fancy Gransfors Brux Carving Hatchet to some nice old broad hatchets I brought back from the USA, to garden variety hatchets which have be re-ground to create quite acceptable hewing tools. Whatever type it is, the key to a hatchet's performance is really in the bevel grinding more than the honing of the edge. Being razor sharp of course is pretty important!
The participants were encouraged to try out as many of the hatchets as they liked.

The Catoneaster proved to be the unfriendliest wood on the day - very interlocking grain!
The idea with the hatchet work is to use the tool to efficiently and accurately remove as much of the waste as possible. This applies to spoon making too.

Sue gets in the swing of the hatchet work.
The knife work.
The hatchet work looks dangerous, but it is the knife work which can most easily inflict the damage! There are a number of different knife strokes/techniques used in spoon carving. Each of these are controlled cuts, making them safe. That's the theory. However when starting on the journey, it is easy to nick yourself as you gain experience and develop the techniques! We went through a good few band-aids during the day.
Sue does a straight-armed "power cut" to remove waste with a Sloyd knife. 
Levering actions with the thumbs and fingers are safe, controlled, and effective. 
It's a very relaxing thing, carving spoons with knives!

Spot the bandaids in the dappled light of the mulberry tree. 
A good start to our Green Woodworking journey.
While no spoons were totally completed on the day (a couple were starting to be dried in the microwave ready for their final clean-up), it was a great introduction to the joys of messing about with green wood. Thanks to all the participants who took part in this experiment.

Ian contemplates the spoon he was making... 
Special thanks to Ian for bringing along some additional tools. He had a froe, draw knives, some carving knives, a fantastic Austrian bearded broad axe (very nice!) and more. His previous experience, his gear, and buckets of enthusiasm were an asset on the day! Thanks Ian.
We had a great day together messing about under the mulberry tree.
Keep an eye out for more green woodworking opportunities. This was just the start of a whole new direction for Joy of Wood activities. Wood recycling has always been an important part of the message - packing crates, pallets, other timber rescued from the waste stream. We use recycled wood for all of the other workshops we run. This new territory opens up the potential for the recycling of garden trees which would otherwise be chipped for mulch or would just be discarded into landfill.

It is a sad fact that too many trees are being removed from our city. Better that the timber is utilised, value added, rather than just getting tossed. The challenge now is to try out so many different trees for their properties and use potential!

I invite you to join us on this exciting journey...

Have Green Wood, will have a great time crafting stuff!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Stylish and Functional Kitchen Utensils made at Earthwise.

We had a great time on Saturday 8th February with two public Joy of Wood workshops at Earthwise in Subiaco.

The morning workshop was "Making Kitchen Spatulas and Salad Servers". The 12 participants made a wonderful array of spatulas and salad servers. Most people made at least a spatula plus a pair of salad servers, from a range of nine different hardwoods, using coping saws, small panel saws,  spokeshaves, rasps and block planes. A final bit of sanding before the Orange Oil was applied.

The afternoon workshop was "Making a Kitchen Chopping Board". What a beautiful bunch of boards were crafted by the 8 participants! Starting with a variety of pieces of wood, most of which had had a former life, each person designed and made their boards using hand tools including saws, spokeshaves, planes, rasps and even caving tools.

Once again  I was too busy to take photos - except for just one at the end of the second workshop. The pic below is of 12 year old Seb, proudly showing the chopping board he had made. It was a piece of "Pacific Maple" which had formerly been part of a Dressing Table top from a piece of furniture made in Melbourne in the 1950's or early 1960's. Termites had eaten their way up the back leg of the unit, so it had been thrown out on the roadside verge for free firewood. I had spotted it and recognised it as a treasure trove of materials. That was over a year ago, and Seb was the latest to utilise some of the timber from that piece of furniture. He can be rightfully proud.

Seb designed and made this kitchen chopping board, and did the small relief carving on it. Very nice.
So what are these workshops about? They are about learning and using simple traditional woodworking tools and hand skills to create beautiful and functional items from recycled wood. Hand tool use are foundational woodworking skills. They empower us to make and fix wooden things around us, they enable us to better understand and appreciate timber, they equip us to experience the pleasure and joy of working wood. This is stuff we appreciate doing together, as we can talk and laugh as we work - for there are no screaming power tools.  Life-giving stuff.

Want to be part of the next round of public workshops? Send me an email to to be put on the list to receive notification about future workshops.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Making a spoon from a bent stick. Green woodworking delights.

While spending Christmas/New Year in Albany, Western Australia, I gave a hand to help with some gardening in a friend's garden. (For those of you readers in the northern hemisphere, this time of the year is early summer. While you were hunkered down hiding from the cold singing carols around the fire in your winter woollies, we were having Christmas lunch at the beach under a gazebo to save us from the scorching sun.)

One of the garden plants we were cutting back was a Eucalyptus caesia. This species of eucalypt is grown as a decorative garden plant, with silvery leaves, drooping foliage, and beautiful bright red flowers. In its natural habitat it grows in arid areas as a sparse spindly small tree or mallee. There are two main forms in cultivation: the really weeping version and a more upright version. The one we were cutting back was the more upright. The wood is very dense, even outside of its normal habitat.

An example of the version with with a more weeping habit.
Pic thanks to Wikipedia.
The wood informs the spoon.
While up the ladder with the saw, the bent pieces of wood around about were talking to me. There's a couple of spoons in there, the tree was whispering to me... 

When I made the first spoon from this tree, using a similar bent piece, I did not think would work. So I didn't take any pics along the way. That was a dopey move, as the spoon worked out beautifully!
This was the first spoon... or is it a mini-ladle?
So it was time to have another go, using another one of the crooks.
This time, I was going to take pics throughout the process... well, I mostly remembered.
Two crooks to give up two spoons, hopefully.
Love that right angle bend! The aim was to split it down the guts to get a spoon.
The piece was split down the middle with a froe. Where is the picture?...oops. The split fortunately went around the bend. Then I used a nice little hatchet to remove the waste. So far so good!
Hewing with the hatchet completed. Now for some knife work.
After the preliminary knife work, the next step was to start hollowing the bowl, using a small gouge.

Starting the bowl with a small gouge. This work is all done on the knee.
Enough of the gouge for now... time to change to the hook knife.
The hook knife does a great job of enlarging the bowl. 
With the bowl shaping completed for now, it is back to the Sloyd knife for the shaping of the spoon.
After a bit of knife work, the spoon is shaped ready for drying.
When dry it will then be further shaped using the knives, rasps and then sandpaper. 
When the wood is green, it is softer and easier to work. When the wood has been dried, it is much harder and so not as easy to work. 

A bit of theory about green verses dry wood.
Wood in the living tree is totally saturated with water. It is found in the wall of the cell and it fills the voids in the cells themselves. When the plant is no longer alive, the moisture content of the wood tries to reach an equilibrium with the moisture content of the air around it, so the wood starts to dry out. The "free water" in the cell cavity tends to disappear before the water in the cell walls does. As the cells dry out, they shrink - some woods more than others. This is what causes "checking" or cracks in the wood - when it dries out too quickly, and the resulting stresses tear the cells apart. Various timber species behave differently, but as a general rule of thumb the slower the rate of drying and the smaller the section of timber, the less likely it is to split as it dries and shrinks. This is why Australian hardwood sawmills keep their log stockpiles under sprinklers while waiting to break them down through the saws - keeping them damp helps to reduce the de-grade of the logs caused by heavy checking. 
Checking still visible,though greatly reduced, on the ends of these hardwood logs in a stockpile.
Once milled into smaller dimensions, these sticks are then dried in the air in stacks and/or are dried in kilns (in order to push the moisture content lower than the ambient moisture content of the air.) Whether being air dried or kiln dried, the timber is piled in stacks which allow the even circulation of air around them, to ensure an even rate of moisture loss.
Sawn timber "stripped out" in stacks.The air circulation gaps on each side and face of every stick helps promote even drying.
Working wood while it is still green has been used for millennia by people and communities all around the world. Differing moisture contents in components is used to ensure joints tighten over time, like in Windsor Chairs. This knowledge was accumulated and used for many centuries. 

Most modern furniture and construction timbers are dried before use - often kiln dried. 

In regards to our spoon, working the wood while green makes it easier to carve. Reducing the dimensions of the material almost to the finished article, ready for drying (as in the photo below), will help reduce the chances of checking as it dries. 
Most of the shaping done. Time to dry it.
Drying the green spoon.
Given the importance of drying slowly to help reduce checking, there are several ways to do this. I understand that the Swedes used to rub boiled potato into the spoon and leave it in a warm place by the fire for a night or two to dry the spoon. Burying the spoon in green sawdust/shavings will help it dry slowly over a period of time as the sawdust/shavings dry. Putting the spoon in a plastic bag and removing it for a few hours each day will also help with a slow controlled reduction of moisture content over time. Then there is the microwave... 

The advantage of the microwave is that it can dry the wood in a matter of minutes rather than days - but it can also cook the wood so much that it splits it. So you must be careful. Different wood species will not all behave the same in the microwave. While in the USA, I dried a Black Birch spoon in three bursts of 90 seconds with about 10 minutes between each burst.  The first Euc.Caesia spoon I made took about 10 bursts of 10 seconds. When I did an initial 20 second burst on the second spoon I nearly destroyed it. As a consequence it still bears some small cracking. This very hard wood needs to be dried gently in  the microwave. It was a good lesson for me... no bursts over 10 seconds with this particular wood. It's all part of my continuing experiment with a range of woods.
The slight sideways curve in the handle emerged during the drying process.
It reflects tension in the wood.
How do you know the wood is dry? With these small bits, the general rule of thumb is to place it on your cheek when it has cooled. If it feels cold, it is still green, as moisture is evaporating from it. When it no longer feels cool on the cheek, it is probably dry enough.

The final shaping of the spoon.
With the wood dried, it could now be successfully filed and sanded to the final shape, texture and finish. I started with a half round file or fine rasp, The next stage was to sand the spoon surfaces all over to remove any marks left by the filing, to even out any bumps and unevenness, and to ensure there are nice smooth flowing curves and shapes in the handle, bowl and the transitions.
Sanding and Filing Dust. A sure sign that the wood is dry.
With some woods, the initial knife work before drying will require hardly any additional post-drying work with rasp of abrasive paper. Some tougher woods, like the Eucalyptus Caesia being used to make this spoon, cannot readily be shaped by knife alone to a good enough finish to avoid filing and sanding.
Lookin' good.
Completed spoon, ready for oiling.
Applying a finish to the spoon. 
A food safe oil finish is best. For these spoons I soaked them in a mix of Orange Oil and Pure Gum Turpentine, in a ratio of 3:1. The latter is a solvent which helps the Orange Oil to penetrate more deeply. After the soaking, any residual excess oil was ragged off. The resulting finish protects the wood,, gives it a nice clean matt finish, and makes it look like a million dollars. Nice.  

Two beautiful spoons made from two crooks of Eucalyptus Caesia. 
The spoon on the left in the pic above was the first spoon I made, when I didn't think it would work. The second spoon, on the right, is the one whose making process I have documented in this story. 

Too good to use? Nah...Both of them would be ideal for taking olives from a jar!