Monday, December 26, 2011

Confessions of a woodworker...

As I visited several countries in Europe recently, this included a fair bit of wandering through historical sights and tourist places. A first time for us, my wife and I were taking it all in and observing such a deep level of history, with all its complexities. You have to remember that for someone from Australia, there is a fascination about walking into a building which is a more than two hundred years old! Other than caves and natural features which give evidence of human occupation going back 60,000 years, there are no buildings in Australia which are over 220 years old. So these huge old structures across Europe so many centuries old hold a particular fascination for us.

Due to the religio/political shaping of European history, there are a great many very old cathedrals and churches remaining, many of which are key features on the tourist trails throughout much of Europe. Hence we visited many of these huge old buildings. As so many of these are made from carved marble and stone, the visible woodwork mostly consists of doors, sometimes panelling and furnishings.Don't get me wrong... I am very impressed at the extraordinary level of craftsmanship which has been applied to amazing marble creations and embellishments in these buildings. However, |I confess that my heart particularly responds to the warm glow of ancient beautifully crafted timber furnishings in these cathedrals and churches. So with this confession in mind, it is appropriate that at this point we look at a common wooden furniture item found in these places of worship - the Confessional.
Beautiful woodwork in this confessional. Zagreb Cathedral.
Nice carved detail in the face frames around the doors.
Confessionals were commonly made as booths, offering privacy in an enclosed space where a person makes their confessions in the presence of a priest,  who sits on the other side of a divider which provides a degree of anonymity for both parties.  These very old pieces of furniture in the cathedrals and churches were made by skilled people in the days when quality and attention to detail where normal expectations, and remain as inspiring examples of craftsmanship. A feast for a woodworker's eyes, it's a shame these confessionals are mostly housed in very dark or poorly lit places!

A little more rudimentary in style. Notre Dame, Paris.
 The variations in the styles of the confessionals is fascinating. The contexts in which these big pieces of furniture sit is often amazing. The grand buildings around them tend to dwarf them as they often sit in dark corners surrounded around and above by incredible carved marble and painted frescoes.

It's dark, and no flash allowed. A different style of confessional, Chiesa del Gesu, Rome.

Amazing marble context:  Confessional dwarfed in bottom right of picture. Chiesa del Gesu, Rome.
Some confessionals have amazing carved pediments and panels. Others have complex joinery with layers of mitred mouldings and detail. Others are more plain, but have the most wonderful veneered panels instead. This one in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is just one of those. It lets the wood do the talking.

Confessional set into an alcove. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

Something which struck me about the confessionals in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican was the way in which the back of these substantial pieces of furniture were shaped to follow the complex marble wall details behind them. They also had amazing carved pediments and layering of mouldings creating grand columns on bases. Very nice veneered panels, too!

Wonderful detail in this confessional. Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.

A closer look at the external square columns.

A closer look at the centre round columns on square bases.

Side view. I love the way the backs are scribed to fit the complex wall profile!
Spectacular pieces of furniture in the old cathedrals and churches are not limited to the confessionals. There are often amazing carved choir stalls, seating, other sanctuary furniture and pine organ facades.  The level of workmanship is sublime, the timber used is often so very beautiful, and the tell-tale signs of so many decades or even centuries of use are fascinating in themselves. Confessionals hold their own secrets. Ah, if these furniture walls could speak...

Yes, I confess I am a lover of fine furniture, rough furniture, practical furniture - wooden furniture. It is the stuff which has been made by the skilled hands of craftsmen long departed which particularly casts its spell on me, as with these old confessionals. A close look at the detail usually reveals to me the tell-tale marks of hand made furniture - the small mistakes, the over-cut, the scribe line, the planing tear-out, etc. Rather than detract from the piece, these marks are both reassuring and exciting. They bring me closer to the person who toiled over these creations to earn their daily bread, and a recognition of the methodology and tool use which both he and I would often share.

The process of making things with our hands is so satisfying. Woodworkers throughout the ages have found deep joy and meaning in the creative process and the application of their skills. 
Yes, I confess I am smitten.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A few Joinery Doors in Croatia.

A recent visit to Croatia was fascinating. Amongst the wonderful sights and smells of this ancient and very much alive land with its layers of history, my eye was of course often drawn to joinery and furniture. Not the modern stuff, but the older stuff which oozes history and story.

Zagreb. So many amazing doors. Never mind the wheelie bin...
The thing about these fantastic wooden doors is that they do not exist on their own. The context is important, and that context is usually the doorway, which is almost always made of carved stone, which was the building material of choice for centuries before concrete took over in the modern era. With so much marbleine limestone around the place throughout the country, it makes sense that so much of this stone was used. Being so hard, it also has weathered really well. Hence you find buildings that are well over a thousand years old and still standing. This, for an Australian, is a certain fascination and cause of much wonder!

This door pictured in Zagreb isn't really that stunning, but it was the first one that I saw. I included it here as it marks the start of my journey of fascination with the joinery doors...

As we travelled from Zagreb down through Istria and the Dalmatian Coast and on to Dubrovnik, I found many interesting joinery doors which took my fancy.
Buccari. Not grandiose, needing maintenance, but oozing stories.

Buccari. Nice metalwork to compliment the beautiful wooden doors.
Buccari. Different door style, housed in a once-grand doorway with pediment.
Zadar. Interesting door panels. Fantastic stone surround! 
Oh yeah. Great door panels in the doors pictured above.
A closer view again ... to check out the methodology in the raised panel.
The technique known as "frame and panel construction" has been around for centuries, and continues to this day to be one of the most reliable and durable ways to construct doors, furniture, panelling, and a wide array of other joinery. Panels housed within a fixed frame are able to move independently as they respond to changing moisture content of the air. Very effective and very smart, offering structural stability and durability. In the closeup above, you can see that the whole raised panel is carved from one piece - with the exception of the beads in the small triangles, which are "planted". ie. fixed on. The different grain direction is the giveaway when it comes to investigating the construction methodology. The horizontal pieces of planted bead in the small triangles are not able to shrink in length as the width of the panel decreases in drying out. This has most likely lead to the splitting of the big panel which is visible down the centre right side of the panel. Interesting...
Zadar. Less fussy in design, and obviously being maintained.
Trogir. Beautifully detailed and ornate doors. Delicious. Nice surround, too!
Dubrovnik. Never mind the doors, check out the approach stairs!
Dubrovnik. Four big carved panels. Nice job.
Dubrovnik. The fan-like overhead panel is wonderful.
Dubrovnik. Nicely different decorative door panels.
Dubrovnik. Diminished glory, showing a recent minimal repair job. Please fix me up!
Another pair of doors screaming for maintenance. Bottom rails needing replacement!

While some door scream out for maintenance, others speak of modifications that have taken place to them. These are not always beautiful or good for the doors, but do speak of a need for practical or creative solutions required by the householder.  Looking closely at the door tells us a lot...

Dubrovnik. Mis-modified? Bottom of the doors chopped off to make them fit into the doorway

Dubrovnik. Also modified. Bottom sections have been added on to the  original doors.
Dubrovnik. Another pair of doors modified at top and bottom rails.
Note how the doors have been scribed around the doorway. Unusual modification to make the doors fit doorway.
Dubrovnik. Nice detail, metal grill, and detailed planted stop down the centre.
Detail showing the top of that planted stop. Lovely scroll, eh?
Dubrovnik. This pair more modern and unusual in that the stiles do not go full length.
Yes, I have many more pictures of doors and doorways. Just a few are shown here.

What is it about doors and doorways? Each is an entry statement in itself, and speaks of the many owners and occupants of those buildings over the centuries or decades. As the principle point of entry and exit to a building, they take a lot of wear and tear. This activity produces scars which tell stories. The modifications also speak volumes. Many of the doors around Dubrovnik would have been damaged during the relentless shelling of the city in 1991-95 during the conflict, so it is not surprising that there were so many modified doors, from the rebuilding of the city in the aftermath. 

Ultimately, a good pair of doors will last almost indefinitely, so long as the construction is sound, they are out of the weather, and the maintenance is carried out. |Long live the beautiful doors and doorways in Croatia!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Inspired woodworking.

While travelling, I can't help but notice wonderful woodwork everywhere. Here's some examples of some found in two different locations, inspired by the spiritual and created by talented craftsmen a very long time ago.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul.
This beautiful building was built for the Sultan Ahmed, and was completed in 1616. Inside this very impressive building are 200 stained glass windows the inner surfaces of the domes and walls are covered with over 22,000 ceramic tiles.

In this place of worship the architecture, colours and details are fantastic. Of course, my eye is always drawn to any woodwork around the place. With so much carved stone and tiles, there was not a huge amount of joinery visible in the area that the thousands of tourists like myself can get to. However there were two pairs of beautiful doors at the back of the rear area that I was able to get near. Identical pairs, I managed to capture some pics of them with my trusty iphone4, despite the low light conditions.

Apparently the tiles have faded significantly over the last 400 years. It must have been totally stunning when it was first built.

One of the two identical pairs of doors at the rear of the mosque.
Closer view of the beautiful carved and inlaid panels in the doors.
Construction details : pegged mortice and tenon joints. Note the border stringing in the frame. Nice.
Frame and panel construction has been around for centuries as a very successful way of building joinery that happily accommodates the movement of timber.  I really wanted to open the doors to check out the panels from the rear to see how they were done... but of course that would have been a no-no...
Exit door hardware.
 On my way out the exit door to the mosque, I noticed the hardware on the massive timber doors. I couldn't get a pic of the doors, but I did snap a shot of the hardware. Love these old handles, locks and fittings. They all tell stories of the life of the doors and the millions of people who have passed through them over the centuries.
While I did not find a lot of woodwork that I could get near in the Blue Mosque, those two pairs of doors were very beautiful and oozed of very serious craftsmanship. They were definitely worth a mention.

The Cathedral, Zagreb.
Like a lot of these ancient European buildings, this huge building has a long history of re-builds and renovations, due to destruction by invading hordes, earthquakes, warfare, and periods of repair. The original cathedral was built in the 11th century. Wrecked by the Tartars in 1242, it was re-built and later had fortified walls built around it to protect it from the Ottoman Empire attacks. In 1880, a huge earthquake significantly damaged sections of it, so it had another major re-build. It is currently undergoing significant repairs on the two spires, as the carved stone is very corroded. The implication of this interesting history is that buildings like these are an interesting mix of styles and artwork. Unless you are an expert in such things, it means that the age of the woodwork inside will vary considerably and that knowledge is sadly not something I possess. However, it sure is fascinating!

A view of the inside of one part of the cathedral
The detail in the carved stonework is fantastic! One part of the entrance way.
Inside the huge pair of outer doors are these four oak inner entry doors.
The carved oak panels in the lower sections of the inner entry doors are wonderful.
These booths were exquisitely made, with linenfold panels, carvings and complex finials. Stunning.
More carved oak panels in furniture with complex inlaid details in both the panels and the frames.
Seriously solid pews throughout, heavily carved - each with the essential huge radiator underneath!
This pic's for my Dad, who has done a lot of organ building. Beautiful woodwork hiding way up there!
One of the things I love about well made functional wooden furniture is the patina and wear from use. The tops of the pew ends had serious wear from countless hands holding them as people went in and out of the pews over so many years. You run your hand on those places and join with those people in a sense of connectedness.  The pew seats are worn from thousands of people sliding their bodies off and on the kneelers in front. I love all that wear and the stories that it tells!

Over the years I have been commissioned to make and repair a range of furniture for places of worship. While I always seek to create the best level of craftsmanship in all that I make, when making these commissions I feel a heightened sense of responsability to do it right.

I am sure that all the craftsmen over the centuries who have participated in the creation of these amazing buildings and their furnishings have also felt the same...
... I reckon there's something in there about giving back to the One who gave us the trees, the beautiful woods that are derrived from them, and the joy of making things of great beauty and function with our hands.   

Monday, September 19, 2011

The mystery No 7 Stanley Plane.

What a beautiful plane!

I had been looking for another No7 Jointing plane for my group participants to use. I came across one at my local markets recently, which I snapped up for AUD $50. A good price for a "user"- but there was something about this plane which seemed odd, and I just couldn't put my finger on it at the time. There were several indicators which told me this was an old plane.

Stanley bought the patents for the adjustable metal plane from Leonard Bailey in the 1860s. The name Bailey was later cast into the plane bases in front of the knob in honour of Mr Bailey. The name Stanley does not appear anywhere on the plane, except for on the plane iron. The iron (blade) lettering says it was made in Australia by Stanley. The Stanley Works in Australia was located in the southern state, Tasmania.

By digging around on the internet across a range of sites, I was able to put together a few clues as to the age of the plane. While I can't claim to be 100% accurate, I reckon the following information is pretty close to the mark.  It may be of interest to you. I am always fascinated with old tools and the stories behind them. Of course, there is no way of knowing that all the parts are the original! Hence it is worth checking out a range of attributes of this mystery plane. Let's have a close look at it...
There are three patent dates on the plane base:
March-25-02; August-18-02; April-19-10.

The frog design and the frog receiver cast and machined on the plane base was Stanleys third design, and was patented in 1902. This type was made between 1902 and the end of WWII. The first two dates relate to this improved design patent.
The third patent date was added to plane bases made between 1910 and 1918.

There is a low profile front knob.

Stanley started making the tall knob we are most familiar with about 1920, so this plane dates sometime before that.

The blade is laminated.
The laminated blades were made for decades right up to WWII. That piece of steel laminated onto the cutting end of the blade is incredibly hard! Re-grinding the bevel on my wet stone grinder took forever. Stanley called these "composite" blades. This one is of the version where the entire end of the blade was of the hard steel, rather than a thin layer bonded to the lower end of the normal steel of the plane iron.

The lever cap has a key-hole shaped hole.
During the 1930s, the lever cap was re-designed and patented, from the key-hole shape to the kidney shape.
That dates this lever cap before then.

So what is the verdict? The plane was made between 1910 and 1918. Is the iron the original one? Not sure - but I reckon everything else is original.

While I knew it was old when I spotted it at the markets, there was something odd about this plane. When I got it home, I worked it out - when I put it next to my No7 (which was given to my Dad by his Father in 1945 when Dad started his Carpentry/Joinery apprenticeship.) Bingo!

The US made Stanley No7 in the background, and the "sawn off" No7 in the foreground.

The mystery No7 was over 3 inches shorter than the other No7! I can only assume the plane was dropped on its tail at some stage, and the cast iron base has snapped across the tail. The owner did a fantastic job of re-shaping the end, just behind the "No 7" cast on the base. Such a good job that I didn't pick it. It's a bit short! That's why there was something odd about it... but it is still an absolute beauty to use!
Henceforth it shall be known as the "Sawn-off Seven".