Sunday, January 5, 2014

Great-Grandfather's Carving Tools

Upwards of forty years ago, my mother gave me a bundle of tools, an old roll of moth-eaten green baize, holding a selection of ten woodcarving gouges and chisels, made by Wm. Marples & Sons of Sheffield.  William Marples established his company around about 1830.
It grew steadily and for several generations Wm. Marples & Sons was one of the largest and most highly respected edge-tool manufacturers in the world. These carving tools had belonged to my grandfather, who passed away in 1963 at the age of eighty-six.  I have a vague memory of seeing in his house a plaque which he had made, of polished dark wood, carved in bas-relief with grapes and vine leaves,.  But I always thought this rather an odd hobby for my grandfather, who, though a keen and knowledgeable gardener, was not, as I remember, a man who otherwise worked with his hands. He was more bookish; in old age a quiet, religious and thoughtful person living more a life of the mind. This minor mystery was resolved for me when, more than a decade ago, my daughter and I began to research our family history.  Our efforts revealed that my grandfather’s father and his father before him had been in the coach-building trade. Furthermore, we found from the 1901 Census that my grandfather had chosen a different career for himself. His occupation was then, (at the age of 24) ‘Solicitor’s conveyancing clerk’.
                 My great-great-grandfather, James Clement, born in 1823, was variously described in censuses and directories of the day as a ‘Coachbuilder’ (1860), ‘Coach-maker’s Sumner’ (1871) and ‘Coach Trimmer’ (1881).  At the same time, the occupation of his son, my great-grandfather James Morton Clement is listed on the 1881 Census as ‘Coach Smith’. It could be that, much as in this sort of manufacturing today, those involved learned to handle all the different jobs required, although ‘Coach-maker’s Sumner’ is a bit of a puzzle.
 ‘Sumner’ is still found nowadays as an English surname, but the word itself is archaic; it is not defined in any of the dictionaries that I have.  However, a little research turned up some etymology.  ‘Sumner’ is supposedly a contraction of ‘summoner’, in mediaeval times a minor official who called people to come before the court. A process server, you might say.  Does this mean that my ancestor was trying to collect money owing to his employer?  We may never know, but people do sometimes fall behind in their car payments.
Anyway, this information led me to believe that the tools I had inherited had a longer history than that encompassed by my grandfather’s long life. My belief was confirmed when, a few years ago, I first went to see a long-lost cousin in Yorkshire. During the course of that first of many visits, the conversation naturally turned to what we each knew of the lives of our common ancestors. My cousin already knew a huge amount more than I did, since she had much earlier begun her own research into the family tree.  A great deal of what we have learned comes from her, my now close cousin. Wendy showed me a tool which had come down to her from our grandfather: it was an old style wooden spokeshave and crucially, upon it was stamped ‘J.M.Clement’, the initials and surname of our great-grandfather.  It was usual in those days for carpenters to stamp their name or initials upon their tools.  The initials in this case being ‘J.M’ showed that that particular tool had belonged to my great-grandfather, and not to his father, James. That the tool was a spokeshave clearly shows that he was not always or only a smith, who would have no use for such a tool. He was a carpenter. But as I speculate further, I am thinking that perhaps the gouges had indeed belonged to James Clement in the first place, and had perhaps been passed on to his son, or may very well have been lent to him as their respective occupations altered.
In any event, all evidence points to the certainty that the tools I have enjoyed for four decades and am still using today to make a reproduction Georgian bed were being used in the hands of my direct ancestors perhaps as early as a  hundred and fifty years ago.

To this day these ten gouges and chisels are in perfect condition.  The steel of which they were made is absolutely first class. They hold a keen edge for a long time, and the polished surfaces show very little tendency to rust.  With these I began to learn woodcarving, and they formed the priceless nucleus around which I slowly built the full range of tools that I needed for the type of carving that I chose to do. I am not finished with them yet, but when that day comes, (hopefully still a decent way off), then I hope that I shall be able to find one amongst my own descendants who will want to use and cherish these tools into the future.  They have already spanned four or five generations. Shall we make that seven, perhaps eight
, before I have to depart?

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Georgian Bed, Part Five ~ Carving Bedposts

      Bas-relief carving consists of three processes – chopping in, grounding out and modelling. Firstly, chopping in consists of making vertical cuts to outline the edges of the motif, in this case an acanthus leaf, using carving gouges of appropriate width and curvature (called ‘sweep’) to match the penciled guidelines drawn on the wood. Ideally, this does take a large number of different gouges.  When you’re starting out and haven’t yet built up a collection, you will have to modify the drawn outline to accommodate the tools you have. Grounding out is cutting out the wood outside the chopping-in cuts so that the shape to be modelled stands above a floor, or ground. I have shown this stage in the top photo above.The last stage, modelling, is the detailing by  shaping the petals, leaves, ribbons or whatever to render the work into three dimensions in a lifelike way.  Frequently, that will involve further chopping-in between parts of the design as you go along to separate the various components. When carving, pay close attention to the way the grain of the wood runs, because it is very easy for splitting to occur in all stages of the process.  Some species of wood are more prone to this than others. This brings me to an important point.  When working in any medium, sharpness of tools is key, but when woodcarving it is absolutely paramount; the gouges should be kept razor sharp all the time.

I make it a habit at the beginning of each carving session to check each tool for sharpness as its turn comes to be used. In almost all cases I’ll give that gouge a few licks on the whetstone before putting it into use. Getting back to the modelling: after shaping the work as finely as possible with the gouges there is still work to be done, now by rifflers, possibly sandpaper,and finally perhaps by burnishing.I don’t like using sandpaper when carving, it’s just too easy to wear away detail and lose the crispness that marks a good work; but there will usually be a need for it somewhere.
For burnishing I have made a handful of small sticks, about pencil size, out of both hardwood and bone. I like using ash wood for this, and leg bones left over from a roast of lamb.  The business ends of these handy little tools may be shaped to be pointed or rounded, flat or curved, concave or convex. When rubbed over the carving it comes up to a high polish which sets the whole thing off beautifully.Lastly, the matter of tidying up the ground must be considered. By nature of it being recessed, it is sometimes difficult to attain a perfectly flat and smooth surface into every little crevice. For this reason the ground is sometimes treated with punches.  Commonly, these punches have waffle-patterned ends. They are not as easy to find as in the past, but you can make them yourself by filing or grinding a pattern into the end of a short length of tool steel or an old punch.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Georgian Bedstead, Part Four ~ Turning and Carving the Lower Bedpost Sections.

          You can’t afford to take any chances with expensive wood, especially if the supply is limited.  I took a short piece of pine, made it up in the same way as the posts just described and put it on the lathe to turn a trial of the urn that adorns the upper end of the leg section.  This way you see whether the theoretical design does in fact please the eye.  If so, then from it you take exact dimensions in order to copy the form four times.   If you are lucky enough to own a duplicating lathe, then the trial piece may be mounted as template which will give you four exact copies mechanically.

Next job is to make a careful drawing for the carving on the urn and transfer this design to the workpiece. I intended to carve four acanthus leaves around the urn.  The transference can be done with carbon paper, but I prefer to make small cardboard templates and trace around them.  The first templates I made were too skinny – I hadn’t allowed enough for the varying circumference of the urn. Before starting to carve I made a measured drawing of the trial urn, which serve as the standard for four posts. Some carving on the trial piece is a good idea to test the concept, but there’s no need to carve the entire urn.   I went about halfway around. This is helpful too as you learn and note which gouges will do best at the different parts of the carving. After carving the same motif for a while you get in the swing of it and will automatically reach for the right tool, but at first this is difficult to remember, so when chopping in the trial carving I labelled a copy of my acanthus drawing at every different curve with the identity of each tool used.

A final note. I am taking a large number of reference photos during this ongoing project.  I am posting up the most relevant with this blog, and a very few of the most interesting ones on my Flickr site.  For those interested in yet deeper detail I have all my pictures in a folder 'on the cloud' at my "Dropbox" site.  Upon request I will be happy to send you a link to my Dropbox folder, and here below is a link to the 'Georgian Bed' set on Flickr: 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Georgian Bedstead, Part Three ~ Making up the Lower Bedposts.


 A need for large washers was mentioned in the last posting. I wasn’t satisfied with the washers available to me at the hardware store, so chose to make them myself.  I had a pair of ancient gate hinges made of strap mild steel of the right width. I was planning to use 5/16” threaded rod for the connections, and so I drilled  spaced holes 3/8” diameter along the centre of the hinge strap. I countersunk these holes to facilitate easier entry of the connecting rods. I then hacksawed the strap into square washers. I believe the square shape provides better thrust distribution for this application. Furthermore, it was a simple matter with a straight bit to rout out recesses in the post halves to house this shape.


    The only way I know of to make precisely true central cores down long sections is to make the post in two halves, routing or dadoing a channel down the middle of the inside surface of each half.  I did this, making a half inch diameter central channel.  I modified this channel by hand carving to a hexagonal shape at the point where the collar nut would lie, so that it could never turn in the wood. Behind (downstream) of the nut I laid in a short section of dowel to stabilize the collar against longitudinal movement.  The photo shows all this assembled, ready to be glued up. When gluing up I left a piece of threaded rod inserted into the collar nut so as to keep it perfectly aligned during the process. I oiled the rod in case of contact with the glue, and held the other end perfectly centred in the channel with a scrap of vinyl tubing.
 For specialised work of this kind I use a powdered resin glue, which is mixed with cold water into a thin syrup.  This glue is extremely strong and waterproof: ‘marine grade’.  It sands well and cleanly, so the line will be invisible at finish. Far better in my view than the poly-vinyl type of glue.  As you look at the photos, you may be wondering (worrying?) about the pattern match as I lay up these pieces.  It is obvious that there is a poor match in the side visible above.  Wherever possible I ‘book-matched’ two pieces to form one of the legs.  My original stock being 2x6 inches or 2x7, I was able to do this in most cases, which meant that I ended up with three good sides to the leg.  Only two sides of the lower leg section are visible; the poorest side ends up on the inside. After planing, jointing, ripping the plank in two and final dressing, the resulting glued up posts ended up approximately 3¼” square. I took that down afterwards to a smidge over three inches square.

Concerning Measurement.

      You may have noticed that I sometimes give dimensions in the old ‘Imperial’ units of inches, and sometimes in Metric.  In England, my generation grew up with the Imperial system, not only just yards, feet and inches, but also a rich trove of other units passed down from time immemorial: in school we gained familiarity with rods, chains and furlongs, and learned how these related to areas such as the acre, and longer measurements like the mile.
             I was already adult before the Metric System was introduced nationwide. The changeover in the United Kingdom was never entirely achieved.  The same attempt was made with more, but still limited, success, in Canada. This transition was made more difficult  by the presence of our neighbour to the south. The U.S.A. does not yet embrace the metric system, so proximity obliges us to be able to function in both systems.
             Anyway, when forty years ago I began to make furniture for a hobby, I began by using Imperial units.   I quickly found though, that when crafting small items, working in millimeters was far simpler, more precise and less likely to result in error. On the other hand, when measuring large components I found feet and inches easier to visualize.  So I ended up using both systems, often in the same piece of work. So, as an example, I may refer to a floorboard being four feet long, nine inches wide and 22 millimeters thick.  Happily, I am supported in this choice of method by the availability of measuring tapes and rulers which have Metric down one side and Imperial markings on the other. Obviously, other people have arrived at the same solution. I trust the reader can make the jump.

             The reason I mention this now is because you will see in the next part of 'The Georgian Bed' that I habitually use whole millimetres when I am measuring the diameters and spacings of the various parts of a turning.  Easier to read when laying calipers on the rule, and no chance of mistaking 11/16ths of an inch for 13/16s!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Georgian Bedstead ~ Part Two, Drawings and Design Factors

    The bed being fabricated in Canada, but destined for England, I had to plan carefully so that the various components would be small enough to be taken over as checked baggage on the airplane.  This is a tough constraint, but not insurmountable.  The bedposts would end up with a final height of about 86 inches (see drawings).  They would be made in sections which would be screwed together, and could be taken apart in future when required for moving.  In order to get the bed into use as soon as possible, I planned to make the lower post sections first,  take them over and source material for the bed rails and structural head and foot boards in the UK, since they would be too big to take on the flight. 
           Here are the first drawings. At this stage I  planned simple head and footboards, the same width and thickness as the side rails, so as to be able to bring the bed into use quickly. The design for a panelled decorative headboard is presently in early stages. We may leave the footboard as shown, the original having just such a simple arrangement.
The first challenge was to design a very strong, simple, foolproof connection between the bedpost sections.  I have built poster beds in the past, connecting the sections variously with hanger bolts or sections of threaded wood. Neither of these methods proved to be a perfect solution.  From a lifetime of experience Jim gave me his advice, which was to connect them with a long length of threaded steel rod, through a continuous hollow central core running the length of the post.  Right away, I had to modify this plan, because the posts would be connected with the rails and boards of the frame by means of bedbolts passing crosswise through the centre of the lower post sections. A longitudinal rod would block that.  So the rod fastening the lower post section could not be allowed to run down to the floor.  I solved that difficulty with a plan to embed collar nuts in the heart of the legs into which the rods would be screwed. The thrust would be borne by large washers abutting the collar nuts; (see drawing).

The Georgian Bedstead ~ Part One, Finding the Material

The original bed was made from mahogany and we wanted to use the same material, so the next thing I needed to do was find a supply of this. I am most fortunate to have a friend here in Niagara-on-the-Lake who is a cabinetmaker, historian and restoration specialist; a lover of architecture and old buildings. He has a large workshop on the edge of town and a great stock of all the materials relating to these interests. He has old Victorian window glass, antique hardware and fittings, you name it. Most importantly for me, as it turned out, he has a wide range of timber, accumulated over many years; some of it has been reclaimed from old structures and is decades old. When I explained my project he told me that he had some mahogany. I could take a look and see if it would be suitable. I went around and found the wood to be perfect for my purpose, and there was enough of it. Good and generous man that he is, he allowed me to buy it. Mostly, the wood was in planks two inches thick, by six or seven wide and eight or nine feet long. Jim has heavier, more powerful machines than I, so he helped me with the first cutting, in preparation for making the bedposts, which was to be the first task.