A blog post is definitely in order, after what was a really successful day of workshops at the Messums’ tithe barn (http://messumswiltshire.com) in Tisbury during the bank holiday weekend last month. Planning for the workshop began back in mid-July, soon after the Rycotewood summer and graduate shows. Burnt out and desperate for a holiday, I managed to use my powers of persuasion to rope Avian Evans-White into helping me. Not only was the event going to be an opportunity to educate youngsters about the possibilities and wonders of furniture design and making, but also a learning curb for myself, and I’m sure for Av too. Having only previously done one workshop-based event, I did have a few moments of doubt, as to whether I was in over my head. However with support from the staff at Rycotewood, Av and Poppy Booth, I found myself on the morning of the event feeling confident and quite excited.
The first lesson learnt was always make a written plan- lists are your best friend! Another thing to note is always have extra material because things will always go wrong! Over three days, Av and I sweated it out in a hot and dusty machine shop creating the components for 40 small stools. The college had generously supplied us with some old science bench tops made from an unknown hardwood, which was most likely Teak, which we reclaimed for the stool tops. Av and I spent three whole days flattening bench tops with the speed sander; gluing up extra boards to ensure we met our quota of 40 stool tops; and cutting the bench tops into rectangles (“because”, Joe Bray (Rycotewood tutor) told me, “to create a regular hexagon, you start with a rectangle, not a square.”*) using the dimension saw.
This was also the first time I had worked on a project collaboratively, which was a really beneficial experience. At college we are taught all the skills and stages of designing and making a bespoke piece of furniture, however as soon as you throw another head (with their own ideas and opinions) into the mix, then a project can sometimes prove more or less challenging. Fortunately, Av and I have what I would call a ‘complimenting set of skills’. I am an ideas person, where as he is very pragmatic. The design of the stools was definitely a joint effort, and I found working through the design development process with Av really insightful. Quite often I restrict myself because of my lack of experience and current level of machine competence.
Warning: lots of techy furniture making information is about to come at you! You have been warned.
Av created a Plywood template, which he used to set up the stops for the dimension saw. However, after realising the saw was not a fan of the close grained Teak, he switched to marking out the hexagons with the template he had made, and bandsawing them out, before sanding to his pencil line using the disk sander. 3 hours later, and we had a toppling pile of stool tops in an assortment of rich colours.
Meanwhile, I was busy getting friendly with the overhead router; a pretty meaty bit of kit, but without it our stools would have been very legless. For efficiency we had ordered 40 lengths of Beech dowel, which we cut into smaller lengths ready for routing. We were lucky to have use of a very cleverly designed jig, which fixes to the bed of the overhead router and holds a turned component securely in a cradle so that it can be pushed into the cutter and turned against the direction of its rotation. This allowed me to take a total of 3mm off the dowel’s thickness, so that this small step created a shoulder line and tenon very effectively. 40 dowels later, and I moved onto creating the roundover on the ends of the legs, which used the same process but with a different cutter- all very clever!
Av was busy creating an angled jig, which ensured the holes in the tops could be drilled so that the legs would be at the correct splay. He also designed the jig, so that the process would be as automated as possible to speed up the drilling of 120 holes, and to ensure it was easy enough for an idiot (an me) to drill the holes in the right position. Two pieces of MDF ensured that a corner of each hexagon could locate the top ready to drill out the mortise; and a toggle clamp meant the work piece could be held securely, whilst allowing for the piece to be easily rotated before drilling each mortise.
The spindle moulder was used to create a small chamfer on all the edges of both the top and undersides of each stool top. It also allowed a regular amount of material in each of the tenons to be removed to accommodate a wedge that would be big enough to create a strong joint; Av designed another nifty jig for this process. He also created a ‘lotta lot’ of wedges using another jig, a specifically machined up piece of timber and the bandsaw.
So, the components were ready, and we had stocked up on the relevant tools, such as small hammers and flush saws. A lovely little story is how we found ourselves some second hand hammers that were light enough for kids to use. Whilst at the New Forest Show in July, we found the blacksmithing tent where there was a charity that was selling reclaimed tools. Tools For Self Reliance (http://www.tfsr.org) is a UK based charity working to help relieve poverty in Africa. “We work with local African organisations to deliver a programme of tools and training to bring about effective and sustainable change to trades people and their communities. The primary countries we work in are: Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.”
So the morning of the workshops came, and we had sunshine, and it would have been extremely difficult to find a more beautiful workspace to be creative in. We had three sessions throughout the day, each an hour and an half long, which we found was the perfect amount of time. The kids’ ages ranged from 5 to 13 and there was a mixture of abilities, which made the whole process even more rewarding, as every single participant was able to create a stool of which they were proud.
The assembly of the stool seems a straightforward task when explained out loud, but the class demonstrated how much attention and application of skill is required to create even a simple design. Fellow LINLEY Summer School alumnus (http://www.davidlinley.com/blog/linley-summer-school-meet-students/) Poppy Booth, was also at hand to help the participants with their projects; she was an absolute life saver, and I owe her my full gratitude. She even taught me how to use a cabinet scraper!
The satisfaction of the whole project surpassed my expectations in many ways. No one needed to use any of the brightly coloured plasters that I had packed as a precaution, no spare components needed to be used, there was a pretty much equal split of male and female participants, and my vision of the kids’ hexagonal stools arranged into a formation successfully became a reality. I was also really pleased that we managed to fill glue drying time with beneficial exercises, like learning to use a block plane, how a marking gauge is used and how to cut straight with a dovetail saw. It was so wonderful to see how much satisfaction the simple act of creating a full shaving with a block plane could bring to the kids. Some of them even gave their shavings to their parents, wanting to take them home with them.
Moving forward, I think smaller groups might be more beneficial, as I found my time taken up helping the younger members of the groups, when it would have been a good opportunity to chat to all the participants, particularly the girls, about what their interests and hobbies are; and perhaps if any of them had ever thought of becoming a furniture maker. The end of the day saw lots of people with smiles on their faces and loads of positive feedback; I don’t think I have ever felt more deserving of a bottle of cider!
Just to add: a huge thank you to Carmel Allen, Johnny Messum and Joe Bray for providing this amazing opportunity and for supporting the THIS GIRL MAKES project, which only continues to grow in motivation thanks to encouragement and enthusiasm from such people.
* The learning never stops!