Thursday, August 28, 2014

Shine on

Saw this picture on a temple carpenter's blog, showing a stage for what look to be a Nō drama (能楽殿), set up for a town festival to honor a historical event, the departure of an emperor:

Here you see some of the core elements of what makes Japanese traditional architecture beautiful, at least to me: stout pillars, wooden floor, exposed rafters, kaeru mata (frog leg struts seen at the mid-span of the beams), finely finished soffit, the kōran (lit. orchid railing) on two sides - - and look at that paneled wall that is the backdrop. Perfection! Those boards aren't there by accident. Glassily planed, sniffing perfection in form and fit yet they convey rusticity through the swells and bulges of the nodes from where branches originated. The tension, like the point of a balance scale, between what man can achieve and what nature can achieve. The wall tells you all about the tree and at the same instant tells you all about high level carpentry - if you care to notice. A simple thing, yet redolent in deeper meaning.

The panels are uniform in their regular size and planed dead-flatness, and yet each board is clearly unique and gorgeous in its own right. And that interplay, just that, is what makes Japanese wooden architecture so wonderful. That's what carpentry should be about - showing the beauty of nature's gift as wonderfully as possible, and at the same time showing the art of hand/mind/heart in manipulating that material to maximum advantage- that point of balance in between the two worlds is elusive but achievable. I dream of making my own small contribution some day. If I could make one board look truly beautiful, well, then....

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gateway (XVI)

Post 16 in a series describing the design and construction of a kabukimon for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


Back to the place where the wood is getting dried - Lashway USA - located in Williamsburg MA. The Port Orford cedar for this project has been sitting in the dehumidification room for a couple of months since the the last time I accessed material, about 4 months altogether now I guess. It turns out that the previous time I stopped by, where I was led to believe that much of the material was dry was a false alarm caused by a mechanical problem in the pins of the moisture meter. The wood I took away last time had to be returned for more time in the dehumidifier. Good training for my back I guess.

As the weeks click on by I get to thinking about the wood sitting there in 90˚F, day in and day out and start to fear the worst. When I got the call that some of the material was down in the desired 12%M.C. zone I become both excited and apprehensive. What if all the wood has cracked and looks like shit? You can make all the best possible decisions, but in the end there are unknowns with drying wood and sometimes things do go south. Solid wood is not a predictable material and that is, strangely enough, one of the things I love about it.

Shortly after starting this series a reader from California contacted me to say he had been involved with a gate-building project with "a carpenter of note" and that the Port Orford Cedar was so badly cracked from the drying process that they chose to epoxy up the cracks. I guess the wood didn't look to good. He advised me to be careful about drying and would not share who the 'notable' carpenter was.

While I think I am taking every precaution in this process, there always remains a certain apprehension that things could go south at any moment with the wood drying. Lashway dries million dollar loads of ebony of Martin guitars, and I said to Larry Lashway that for me, this pile of Port Orford Cedar is like a million dollar load of wood.

Fingers crossed, I arrived at the site today to check things out and was greatly relieved to find the wood in excellent condition:

Drying by any method is often a bit of an uneven process. Even with wax on the ends, wood tends to dry more quickly at the ends than in the middle, and with larger pieces the degree of dryness is an estimate anyhow as the moisture meter pins can only penetrate 1.25" into the material. I was able to take away a bunch of material that was dry however, as evinced by the above photograph.

The remainder of the material seems to be showing minimal degrade and is getting into the 15% zone, so it won't be long now, at least for most of the material. The larger beams will probably be in the dehumidifier for another couple-to-three months at least. I'm guessing that the 6" ~7" thick stock can come out in another 3 weeks or so. We'll see - they check the M.C. every couple of days and we're on the homeward track here it would appear.

In the picture below, you can see most of the pieces, the 1" thick stuff belonging to someone else:

The stress relief kerfs in the bigger timbers have been doing their job, and that is without the use of additional wedging to forge the cracks wider apart. The large timbers are not completely devoid of checking, but what has arisen is fairly minimal. Certainly the wood in the old gate, brought over from Japan, was worse in this department.

Getting the load strapped down to drag it back to my shop, which is not too far down the road:

Stacked and stickered:

The wide panels seen at the right, pulled from the kiln about 6 weeks ago, have already been jointed and dimensioned. They are to become the door and flanking section panels. The original used 4 panels per section, while I'm going to do each section with just two wide boards. The other stock you see (just stacked and stickered) is for the doors and flanking section components.

Another view:

Whew! That's what I say. And damn! I like it when things are going well! Out of this pile, I have only 2 sticks so far I have had to reject due to excessive movement, so I'm most pleased about that. A pile of butter awaits my handplane down the road a piece.

All for now - thanks for dropping by and taking a look. Comments always highly appreciated. Up next, a few months down the line is Post 17

Friday, August 22, 2014


I have always found shapers a little bit breath taking, if not a bit on the scary side. When wind comes off a spinning cutter and hits you in the face, you tend to respect the potential inherent in that, recognizing what 11 horsepower and a mass of knives whirling at 4000 rpm might do to your arm or finger if things went awry. Or, the simple fact that if things did go off track, even if there is no bodily injury it takes but a blink to annihilate your carefully crafted piece of wood.

I've been gradually acquiring over the past several months pieces of equipment which make the shaper safer to operate. The equipment in question is made by the German company Aigner, and thanks to a friend i have in Germany, I've been able to purchase several Aigner pieces without having to suffer the insanely high prices charged in North America for the same items.

I wanted to show some of that today, as I suspect many out there are unfamiliar with Aigner and what they do. Here's my basic set up to template shape some reclaimed Burmese teak:

Mounted to the grey BowMould master is an Aigner spanning bar which allows an Aigner pressure module to be fitted, in this case with a single sprung roller wheel. Everything mounts together seamlessly and is made of quality materials. The bar doesn't flex. When the BowMould Master is fastened down, it isn't going anywhere.

The fence is unbolted from the table and cranked up to clear using a hand wheel, then swung out to the rear - a nice feature on Martin shapers:

From the other side the cranking mechanism is clearer to view:

It's much nicer to do things this way than to try and lift the heavy fence off the machine and put in on the floor.

The cutter head is a Byrd Shelix® with a rub bearing below, and it is enclosed within the Aigner BowMould Master:

The polycarbonate shield and 4" dust port makes the cutting very clean and safe.

Another view:

There are numerous types of wheels which can be fitted, single, double, quadruple, paired, pressure bar ski, etc. The pressure module can also be mounted on the front table edge to push the roller horizontally instead of vertically. It's a very versatile set up.

Working my way through the cut - chip collection is excellent:

On to the other side now:

The finish produced by the cutter is quite good, and will require only minimal clean up afterward:

The shaper runs so smoothly and quietly and with the Aigner stuff in place, the whole operation was so much more comfortable and confidence inspiring than my experiences with previous machines and cobbled together set ups.

If anyone is interested I can do more posts like these as I put other pieces of Aigner gear (i.e.,  not shown above) into use.

All for today -thanks for swinging on by. Hope things shape up well for you too!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Gateway (XV)

A fairly short visit to Boston today to button a few things on the foundation.

The first task was to mask off the joins between the granite with painter's blue tape:

Where the granite meets the existing concrete wall, the gap is about 1/4", so I filled in that space  with some foam backer rod so the compound will seal the last 1/2" or so only:

The tape prevents the elastomeric tuck pointing compound from adhering, and is removed immediately after the compound is smoothed out:

I wonder if that carpenter ant is searching for his lost friends that were in the gate?

Another view, left side wall and wall post plinth:

The other task at hand was the removal of the metal shoes which support the kiosk to the side of the gate. As the kiosk is scheduled to have it's rotted post lowers replaced only, the kiosk must return to position standing upon two legs, so there was no need to cut any concrete in this location. The plan is to cut off the metal upper plates and then I will design and have fabricated a stainless steel plate and plinth assembly, which will be powder coated and bolted to a mild steel sub-plate. For now, the only issue was to cut off the plates with my 4.5" angle grinder:

I thought initially that the plates were 'L'-shaped at the bottom, welded all around, however they were simply tacked together at the bottom out of two pieces each side and I didn't need to do nearly as much cutting as I feared - the job took only about 20 minutes altogether:

The four removed plates:

To make the main gate have some aesthetic commonality with the kiosk, the plan I put forth is to patinate the main gate post copperwork (i.e., the copper flashing at the post feet and beam ends, etc.) black, as was done originally, and the new kiosk metal shoes will also be black so they will look fairly similar at a glance at least.

All for now. I'm done working on the Boston project for a while, and will be looking to get the wood back from dehumidification in the next while. Fabrication of the gate itself will be in the fall and winter, with installation slated for 3rd week of March 2015. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. On now to post 16.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gateway (XIV)

Post 14 in a series describing the design and construction of a kabukimon for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The previous post can be found here.


Yesterday was  one of those longer days, a day featuring warm weather, quick setting mortar, and large chunks of granite. I recover slowly today - nothing seems permanently damaged on my body as far as I can tell. My wife was on hand to lend moral support, wield the camera, and help me out where she was able.

The first task after arriving and getting the truck unpacked was to mark out the positions of the granite pieces on the concrete pads cast last month:

From the outlines for the stones I marked locations inboard for the jacking bolts to be placed. Out comes the hammer drill next for a bit of good vibration:

I had my small compressor on hand to blow the holes clean:

The inserts were dropped in and set with a hammer:

Here's one group:

The jacking bolts get threaded in after that:

The bolts are initially placed so as to be about 1/2" off the surface of the concrete.

The front posts, wall posts and sills were tackled first, after which I could move on to the rear support post, which feature parallelogram-shaped stones:

More drilling and insert fastener installation followed:

It has rained several times in the interim since I did the concrete work, so I gave the site another tamping to make sure everything was nicely compacted down around the concrete:

There are eight granite blocks altogether, and four of them were small and easily carried over to the site. The other four were a different matter, and were at the limit of what I could lift, let alone carefully maneuver as need be. I spent a fair bit of time in advance thinking out how to best move the heavy rocks by myself. In the end I came up with a plan involving a small bit of staging on wheels. The staging has an adjustable plywood deck level, so I set it to be the same height as the back of my truck deck. Then the block could be wiggled over and onto the stage from my truck deck:

I then popped it up onto a couple of battens:

At the top of the stage I had rigged a 6"x6" pine beam with a pair of plywood pieces to give the stage a bit more rigidity. The stone could now be easily rolled onto site:

Once the staging was placed over the location where it needed to be placed, I proceeded to rig it with a pair of 500lb. rated ratchet straps and a metal lifting hook I had fabricated:

A 2 ton come-along was rigged next, anchored to one side of the stage and with a lifting point affixed to the 6"x6" beam above:

With this arrangement, the stone was easy to lift:

Once lifted, the plywood deck could be removed, thus allowing the stone to be lowered down:

I often have that slack-jawed expression when I am concentrating - please pay it no mind.

The stone was lowered until it started to locate on top of the stainless all-thread rod:

A couple more inches lower and the stone was sitting on a pair of sawhorses. This intermediate rest position allowed me to re-rig, swapping out the metal hook for a jatoba lifting spacer/bracket I had fabricated:

This new arrangement allowed the stone to be lowered all the way down while the threaded rod emerged out the top, without interference. The jig also made it relatively easy to determine where the center of mass was so that the stone could be lifted nice and level.

Another 500lb. ratchet strap was fitted as a lifting sling:

A small amount of lift allowed the sawhorses to be scooted to the side:


The stone comes to rest atop 4 jacking bolts:

The stage ensemble was removed, wheeled back over to the truck and the process repeated for the other main post granite support.

Then it was time for the sills, which measure 6"x8"x46". These are the heaviest pieces in this set up. Here's the first one parked onto the stage, moved into position and getting rigged for lifting:

Same process as before brings the stone to the ground, except that there is no need to re-rig halfway as there are no threaded rods involved:

You have to be quite careful with granite where any sharp corners are located as it can chip quite easily. Most of the corners on these pieces are chamfered, but for the areas left without chamfer, the lifting mechanism gave me peace of mind and control over the process to ensure no mistakes were made.

Once all the foundation stones were set in place, the process of rough leveling commenced. A good way to do this is to take some preliminary elevations with a transit and decide which ones have to come up and which ones have to come down:

My wife held the tape measure at each location while I spotted.

The four point jacking allows the stones to be precisely leveled in both axes:

The sills are leveled and also set at a height relative to the post supports to either side:

Once all the stones were leveled and checked several times over for height with the transit, it was time for the mortar. I used 'precision grout' which is used mostly for leveling machinery to be set up on concrete surfaces. It is a type of grout which does not shrink. As with concrete, once the grouting gets mixed, you have to move quickly and without getting sidetracked.

I mixed the grout for the front post stones first. I used a pry bar to lift them up enough to place a blob of grout under the middle, such that when the stone was lowered back down it would squeeze the grout out to the sides. This ensured that the stone was completely bedded on grout and there were no voids. Later, grout is packed in from the sides and dressed flat.

With stone one and two grouted, I quickly clamped an aluminum box section on to the stones to ensure they were in plane with one another:

The central nut was then tightened to fix the stone in place so it wouldn't squirm about any further.

Then the rear post stones were set similarly and clamped up to an aluminum extrusion. Then I could measure the two assemblies to check for parallelism:

The same process for the remaining stones in regards to grouting and aligning. Once done, I felt done, let me tell you.

Here's one side:

The other:

And a view of both, lovely stewartia tree to the left side:

The soon-to-be-relaid granite paving stones will cover the bottom 2" of the granite foundation stones, so their apparent height after the paving is done will be less. I need to return to grout the joints between the sills and flanking stones, and to seal the opening between threaded rods and their corresponding opening in the stones, a minor job I will tackle in about a week's time.

All for today - thanks for your visit to the Carpentry Way. On to post 15.