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Acanthus Workshop: Fundamentals 3

It has been a busy couple of months in my shop. I had several commissions to complete as well as a few exciting trips out of the shop to museums and classes. In other words I have a backlog of stuff to talk about with you all.

If you saw my mouth watering video tour of Hearne Hardwoods that I put up a few weeks back you will know that I took a trip up to central PA to visit The Acanthus Workshop again. This school, run by Chuck Bender, is so much more than just a series of classes about building furniture. It is a peek inside the shop and mind of a successful professional cabinetmaker with 30+ years of experience.

I was there to complete my “apprentice” program with Chuck with his Fundamentals 3 class. This series of 3 classes is the prerequisite to more complex projects offered throughout the year. You can of course talk to Chuck about taking any of his Journeyman or Masters level classes and essentially “test out” of the prerequisites, but I was interested in learning some of the basics from someone who has spent some time in the saw dusty trenches. Like many self taught woodworkers weaned in the halls of the Internet, I am a fount of information and a desert of experience. Sure I have built my fair share of furniture, but nothing compared to the quantity of pieces Chuck has turned out over the years. It is this experience that has him brimming with tricks and time saving techniques that enticed me to return for this class.

The final apprentice class was a culmination of sorts. In fundamentals 1 we learned all about wood science and hand tools. Fundamentals 2 was plugged in and we threw chips and dust about with electron smashing abandon. Fundamentals 3 was now time to put our skills into action and build an entire piece from concept to finish.

Day One began at the shop. We discussed the project of the hour: a small one drawer Shaker Table. Sound familiar? Yes this is the same table I built on commission last Spring and the same table The Wood Whisperer Guild built in March of this year. So in order to be difficult and challenge myself I decided to build a two drawer hall table of sorts. I planned to embellish it in a few ways to add some classical and Victorian charm to it. The eventual resting place will probably be in the entrance hall of the web marketing agency where I spend my days. Our office is in a beautiful old Victorian house right at the head of the Chesapeake Bay so it seems appropriate.

How do you begin a project? What do you base your design upon? We answered these questions and many more by starting with a photograph and deriving dimensions from it using a perspective driven grid and simple algebra. This was a great exercise considering how many books of furniture I own and it built a set of skills that I will use as I start every project from now on.

The task presented to us now was how to create a design from nothing in such a way as to ensure accuracy throughout the build as well as repeatability for the future. Enter the story stick. Chuck walked us through the process of creating this old school method of capturing every detail and measurement of the piece all on a small 1/2 piece of plywood 3 inches wide and 23 inches long. A quick peek through his shop and you will see scores of these hanging from the walls detailing past projects and ready to be dusted off and used again.

Bender Story Sticks

Now that we have the layout and dimensions of the piece we set to making a tapering jig for our legs. This is a simple affair and meant to be specific to this project. To embrace this method you need to have plenty of storage space in your shop but when it comes time to recreate this table you have a ready made jig and don’t have to remember any settings.

Shaker Table Taper Jig

Now that we knew the basics of our designs we could head off the the lumber yard with story sticks in hand prepared to select everything we needed. (In fact, the lumber for these tables was already in Chuck’s shop and had been acclimating for a few weeks) This trip was more about theory and was a great insight into how Chuck picks his lumber and keeps his design in the forefront of that selection. If you haven’t seen my shaky iPhone video of that trip yet, check it out here.

Day Two rolled around and it was time to get to work. You all know I am a hand tool lover and I often mill my stock by hand. I use my 6″ jointer from time to time, but mostly I’m making shavings and then running through my 13″ planer to true up the other side. Well Chuck’s 16″ battleship of a jointer will make anyone think twice about hand dimensioning their wood again. In my shop I use planes because it is more efficient for the wider stuff. Maybe I just need some bigger tools!

16" Jointer

Once we had our lumber dimensioned and cut to size (using our story sticks) it was time to start on the joinery. I learned a great tip for laying out mortise and tenon joints quickly and accurately that involves no measuring at all. (sorry I can’t give away all of Chuck’s secrets, you will have to take his class) We cut our mortises using a Hollow Chisel machine and then went to the table saw to cut the tenons. Then it was back to the bench room to refine the fit of the tenons using shoulder planes. The final task for the day was milling the lumber for our two piece tops and getting them glued up to cure over night. This was like Christmas time as we each milled our parts to uncover some amazing figure and grain. It was a great exercise to match the parts and layout the best appearance for our tops. I was blessed with an amazing patch of swirling, milky grain that I put right down on the front left corner of the top.

Hepplewhite Table Top

Day Three began with us finishing up any fitting of joints and gluing up our tables. Again just so I could be difficult, I lagged behind because I had to add a center, vertical divider to break up my drawers as well as insert a center runner. Since I had Chuck at my elbow I opted for the tougher method of dovetailing the divider into the case. I learned a few choice tips for that operation as well. Fitting the runner was pretty straight forward until I somehow placed the mortise at the back of the case higher than the front so I ended up with a tapering opening that would make fitting a drawer impossible. Chuck showed me a way to quickly identify the taper, lay it out, and then I planed an opposing taper directly into the runner so that my opening was square. Through this process, I decided again to be difficult and cut the mortise on the back of the case as a through mortise and then wedged the runner tenon in the back. I just love being difficult, but why not when you have the tutelage of a master at your disposal.

From there, it was on to drawers. Back to the machine room to mill up some Poplar stock for sides, bottoms, and backs. Then we turned our attention to the drawer fronts that we had so meticulously cut from the same board as our aprons in order for the grain to match along the front. A short dovetailing review and we were off to the races to cut our joinery and build the drawers. Again, I picked up some great tips here on constructing drawers and way to save time and sanity. (Sorry, not giving up the secrets yet again)

We took a little time to install our drawer guides and then it was time to attach the top. We used the clip and slot method by routing a slot on the inside faces of the aprons and then used a great technique taught to Chuck by Steve Latta on how to cut the clips in one pass. Stay tuned to the tips and tricks portion of an upcoming Popular Woodworking magazine when our lovely editor Kari Hultman will share this secret with us all.

Table Top Clips

At the end of the third day, none of us were done with our tables. We were not the fastest class, and we took a lot of side trips along the way. This is really what taking a woodworking class is about for me. Yes I knew how to build this Shaker table going in, but I chose to add some things and soak up some knowledge every step of the way. I learned from my classmates and the instructor both. My table is still sitting in my shop and I still have to build the second drawer. I plan to push my skills even further with this table as I keep with my already established theme and add some stringing to the legs and top, beading on the apron, as well as cockbead molding on the drawers. By the time I am done, I will have learned several new ways to cut joinery, more efficient milling techniques, better workflow, several new decorative techniques, layout and design tips, story stick creation, lumber mill best practices, and many more things that my brain is too addled to remember here.

Here is a little clip of our tables at the end of the day and you can begin to see some of the embellishments I added.

It was a great class that expanded my skill set and I highly recommend enrolling in one today. If you can, get down to The Acanthus Workshop it is worth every penny.

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