“Hand Hewn” vs. Machine Made – Part 2

In the first part of this article I mentioned that traditional hand tools could create a finish superior to their modern day counterparts. Rather than just expect you to take my word for it, I’ll show you the proof.

Traditionally the way to surface wood once it was cut to approximate size with a saw is by using various types of  hand planes.

modern woodworking hand planes

modern woodworking hand planes by Lie-Nielsen

Used for thousands of years the plane is believed to have been designed by the Romans. Basically it was a base of wood or metal which used a wedge to hold a piece of steel with a single-bevel cutting edge at a set angle to the cutting surface. Modern planes have a more refined system for controlling the cut but the basic layout of the tool is still the same.

For bulk planing it’s hard to beat a modern powered thickness planer but for some operations like fitting doors, which requires very careful trimming, the traditional hand plane excels in a number of ways. I thought I’d do a little test and compare the quality of the surface of some wood run through a power planer as compared to a hand plane.

Lie-Neilsen block plane

Lie-Neilsen block plane

the block plane in action

the block plane in action

Here’s a block plane, which is great for quick jobs like fitting doors. This particular plane is an exceptionally good one made by Lie-Neilsen in Maine. The wheel on the rear allows you to adjust the depth of the cut even while planing by as little as a thousandth of an inch.

When the blade is set properly and the plane is held parallel to the wood, you get a beautiful, continuous strip of wood that comes off the work piece. Instead of sawdust from a modern power tool you get this lovely pile of curly shavings. The bottom photo is of the final plane shaving. It’s a few thou of an inch thick or about the thickness of a piece of 1000H vellum. It’s impossible to do that with a power tool.

 

hand plane shaving about the thickness of drafting vellum

hand plane shaving about the thickness of drafting vellum

 

Look closely and you can see the individual wood cells. Great, you say, but who needs wood ribbon? Stay with me, I’m getting to my point.

 

 

 

 

 

below is a piece of wood run through a power thickness planer with a new head.

Surface of wood after being run through a planer

Surface of wood after being run through a planer

 

 

 

 

 

 

It looks pretty smooth, until you do a side-by-side comparison with the hand plane shaving. You can see below that the hand plane shaving is much smoother than the “fuzzy” appearance of the power planer sample. But why?

comparison of power planer cut (left) with a hand plane shaving (right)

comparison of power planer cut (left) with a hand plane shaving (right)

The cutting head on the thickness planer looks like this:

spiral cutter head for a thickness planer

spiral cutter head for a thickness planer

Instead of a single blade that stays in continuous contact like the hand plane, the power plane’s cutter is made up of dozens of small knives that cut at thousands of revolutions a minute, which instead of one continuous cut creates a lot of this:

power planer shavings

power planer shavings

Smoothing planes and card scrapers were used to create a finish as smooth as that created by modern tools using sandpaper. Sandpaper wouldn’t become used universally until the second half of the 19th century. Abrasive material, mainly fish skin, existed during that earlier period but was used mainly for the final polishing of a finish rather than as a way to surface wood like we do today as a replacement for planes.

One national woodworking magazine recently conducted a test, pitting a man with hand planes against another with a power sander to see which could finish a set of doors faster.The hand planes won, smoothing the pieces in less time than the sandpaper process which required sanding the pieces multiple times with different grits of sandpaper.

So why were planes replaced by sandpaper? Because you can hand a power sander to a complete novice and they will be able to get an acceptable finish with very little help. The use of hand planes requires the person to know how to use the tools as well as knowing how to sharpen and adjust them. Power tools have great advantages over hand powered tools when it comes to general output speed and during the industrial revolution they had another advantage; they allowed for the use of a fairly unskilled labor force. With power tools the real control is in the hands of the tool, not the operator. That’s why with power tools there is usually a lot of work involved in setting up or creating jigs  to gain more control over the cutting process.

Because woodworking using had tools was labor intensive, and because prices for items like furniture was usually set by local organizations, only surfaces which were seen were finished to a highly smooth surface. here’s a photo of the underside of a table in the Chicago Art Institute. You can see the plane marks on the underside of the table top:

table top bottom

 

An easy way to tell if a piece of furniture is a period piece or a modern day reproduction is to run your hand along the back of the piece or the underside of a drawer. If it’s an antique it won’t be smooth.

Traditional wood moldings were made much the same way but instead of a flat blade, the blade was cut in a reverse profile to the mould that was to be made. Here are two of the moulding planes from my collection. The oldest of the two, made in London over 250 years ago, still works perfectly once I tuned up the blade. You can see the results, a surface so smooth it doesn’t need to be scraped, much less sanded.

wood moulding planes

wood moulding planes

 

Cyma reversa cut with an 18th century moulding plane

Cyma reversa cut with an 18th century moulding plane

moulding plane1

Moulding plane and the profile it cuts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, if the plane was developed by the Romans that should mean that woodworking before that time must have been pretty bad, right? Nope.

Take the Greeks. The Greek Trireme was as amazing ship for its time for a number of reasons.

Greek_GalleysIn the ancient world ships were built in a completely different way that we think of them. Since around the 1st century ships have been built by making a framework first and then applying boards over the frame. In the ancient world ships were built hull-first., and only after that was a structural frame added for stability. The timber making up the hull was joined edge-to-edge with what is known as loose tenons. These were inserted into slots, or mortises and then pinned with dowels through holes drilled in the sides of the timbers to pull the two pieces together making a glue-less bond that didn’t require any kind of metal fasteners. The average small Greek ship had about 8000 of these tenons.

Greek ship construction - illustration by Eric Gaba

Greek ship construction – illustration by Eric Gaba

 

More modern wood ships had planks nailed to a wooden frame and then tarred rope, or caulking was hammered into the cracks between them to make them watertight. There is no indication the Greeks used any caulking in their ships, which means they were skilled enough with their tools, adzes and chisels, to make the joint between the edges of the planks tight enough that once the wood was exposed to water, the planks would swell together creating a watertight vessel. That’s some pretty amazing woodworking.

Of course this also means that not only was Noah a wiz with a mortise chisel, since a ship the size of the Ark must have contained some 100,000 tenons, but every modern recreation of it I’ve seen is completely wrong.

 

BREAKING NEWS: German Government Offers Huge Tax Incentives To Hollywood Studios

FÜRNHEIM, Germany (ADAC) – On Monday the German government’s federal film commission, the DDFLM, announced that they were now going to offer a 90% tax rebate to American film production companies who shoot 100% of their films within the country. In a packed room at the Forstquell-Brauerei the commission’s president, Max Furzmann, said the move was  to compete for the American studio projects with states such as Louisiana, New York and Georgia, and countries such as Canada who offer large tax rebate incentives to lure film productions there.

This deal has apparently been in the works for some time as a source at Universal Pictures in Los Angeles reported that there are plans to dismantle all of the sound stages at Universal Studios and rebuild them in Europe. Universal representative Michael Dorftrottel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said “What do we need stages for anyway? Everything’s done in a computer now, isn’t it?”

Removing the stages will allow Universal’s new upcoming Harry Potter attraction to encompass the area now taken up by the only part of the studio actually used for making films. It will also allow the studio space to provide much larger climate-controlled covered parking areas for upper-management.

Late Monday, the Louisiana Film Commission held a press conference where they announced that the state, known among industry insiders as ‘Hollywood South’, was considering increasing the current film tax incentive rate to 95% in response to the German rebate program. This suggested rate increase is still apparently being hotly debated among the state’s legislators. Petroleum oil companies, who currently purchase most of the tax credits from the studios to apply to their own tax debt, are encouraging the state to increase the incentive rate to 125% claiming the increase would be very beneficial to the state as well as to the corporation shareholder’s stock portfolios.

Furzmann did not explain the German tax incentive in detail during his remarks but instead presented a short animated video by Jan Vetter, Dirk Felsenheimer and Rodrigo Gonzáles of the FKK group which outlines the various aspects of the program.

 

 

UPDATE: The Georgia state legislature held an all-night session which resulted in plans to raise that state’s tax rebate incentive to 300% of labor and sales tax. Also, 20th Century Fox Studio announced they would follow a similar course of action as that of Universal Studios and have completed tearing down Stages 14, 15 and 16 with plans of replacing them with much needed office buildings along Pico Blvd.

 

‘Hand-Hewn’ vs. Machine Made: Comparing Historic Tool Finishes To Modern Methods – Part 1

Creating period wood finishes for film and television scenery always involves a certain amount of subjective and creative interpretation. Usually the wood surfaces are finished to a level having more to do with the time period’s distance from modern times more than how old the set would look in relation to the time of the story. So usually anything set in ancient Roman times looks like it’s been through several hundred sandstorms, attacked with a grinder and sand blasted until the early growth rings are worn away from the late growth rings. There were certainly buildings that were very old at that time but there were plenty that looked much newer than the photo below.

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

I was working on a period film several years ago and I noticed that one of the other designers had called out the wood surfaces of their set to be finished as ‘hand-hewn’. I knew the surfaces would have actually been surfaced to a finer finish than a rough hewn beam and I asked why it needed to be so rough. They answered that being pre-machine age, other than furniture which would have required lots of sandpaper, they wouldn’t have had the ability to give the wood a smooth finish. I said that not only was that not true,  in many ways hand tools gave a superior finish to the tools of the machine age, and they had something better than sandpaper.  They laughed until they realized I wasn’t kidding.

Let’s take timber framing. When most people think of a timber frame building they tend to think of the wood looking like this:

fachwerk3

16th century German timber frame or Fachwerk house.

The wood didn’t look anything like this when it was built. The faces of the wood probably looked more like this (minus the checking or cracks):

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600's.

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600′s.

 

Partly because of this trend toward artistic license, and not understanding period construction which leads to misinterpreting the photographic research available (such as the photo below), wood buildings get designed and built with anachronistic finishes.

 

fachwerk2

The timbers of this fachwerk building were originally as smooth as those in the previous example. Many years later the faces were scored to act as a grip for the
plaster stucco-like finish that was applied at one time to ‘modernize’ it, much like some old interior brick walls were scored to accept plaster.

 

Even the building industry can take some of the blame. Here’s a photo of a popular flooring with a simulated jack plane finish. The plane had a curved blade that was used to quickly take a plank down before being planed smooth to its final thickness. A board with tool marks like this would not likely have been used in a decent dwelling.

fake jack plane tool marks

 

 

Today it’s hard to imagine doing all the work involved in processing wood from logs to a finished form without power machinery. How could a hand tool created a finish smoother than a modern tool, much less sandpaper? first of all, the way the tools work today is much different than the way period tools work. And, because it was  a much more labor-intensive process, they didn’t finish surfaces that wouldn’t be seen.

Let’s start with the big stuff. The process of taking logs from a tree to a piece of framing timber in the European tradition in the 16th and 17th centuries involved a number of types of hatchets.

Here’s a video by Christopher Schwarz on the use of hewing axes by Plimoth Plantation’s master joiner, Peter Follansbee:

 

 

By the 18th century the process involved not only the hewing axes and saws but an adze to square the sides followed by a broadax to smooth the sides, and possibly a drawknife to remove the axe and adze marks.

Here is a great little video by Ken Koons explaining the process:

 

 

Once the mortises and tenons were cut they were cleaned up and smoothed using chisels and slicks, which were basically large chisels meant to be pushed by hand rather than hit with a mallet. The photo below is of the largest slick in my collection. Made in the late 1860′s in Ohio, it has a 3 inch wide blade. This big blade is certainly closer to a chisel than an axe as you can see from the closeup of the blade as it shaves off a sliver of my thumbnail. The blade will leave a very smooth surface.

 

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800's

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800′s

framing slick2

 

Here is a short video by John Neeman of a framing slick in use, you can see how quickly and cleanly it cuts a tenon.

 

 

 

Cut timber surfaces were as smooth as their maker wanted, or needed them to be. Here are two photos of the Daniel Trabue cabin near Lexington, KY. The cabin was restored some years ago and returned to it’s 1797 appearance. The clapboard which had been applied later had protected most of the logs from decay. Notice the tool marks on the exterior logs. Now look at the second picture of an interior wall on the second floor. Here the German maker has signed his name with an 18th century cipher. Notice how clear the signature is. It was made with a traditional crayon made of beeswax and powdered vermillion used for marking out work while building. The crayon was found during the restoration, tucked above the front door lintel. The clarity is only possible because the wood surface is so smooth.

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

18th century cipher of the cabin's builder

18th century cipher of the cabin’s builder

 

Next week, in Part 2 of this post I’ll talk about and show you how traditional hand tools can actually create a finish that’s superior to their modern day counterparts and why our ancestors didn’t use, or need sandpaper to surface wood. Also, you’ll learn why every recreation of Noah’s Ark you’ve ever seen is dead wrong.

Obsessed With Film

Quote

Carpenters building scenery at the UFA Studios in Berlin, 1928. (Photo by E. O. Hoppe

Carpenters building scenery at the UFA Studios in Berlin, 1928. (Photo by E. O. Hoppe

“I have to admit in all modesty that it would never have been possible to make these films if superb set designers, film directors, cameramen, and architects had not been available. I am realizing more than ever that Ufa’s success came about because it was possible to create teams. Film is an art species, or an art-related species that cannot be accomplished by a single man but only by artists in close daily cooperation. It can only be accomplished by people who are obsessed by film.”

Erich Pommer, Producer – Metropolis, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, Die Niebelungen, Tartuffe, Faust, The Blue Angel, Liliom

A New Year’s Resolution – Check Your Insurance Coverage

This is a bit different than the other blog posts on this site, but I thought I’d pass along some information that you might want to consider as you head into the New Year.

Most of us now do quite a bit of traveling on pictures or shows away from where we live and most people spend more and more each year on the personal equipment that makes up the ‘tool kits’ that our jobs depend on. If you’re smart you’ve invested in a business insurance policy to cover that equipment since a normal homeowner or renters’ policy does not normally cover items used for business outside the home. What you may not know is that a typical business policy will not cover your equipment while you are out of town or in transit to a distant location.

Inland Marine Policies

There is a type of policy called an Inland Marine policy which you should look into getting if you do spend a great deal of time working out of town. These policies were originally created during the Industrial Revolution when there was an increase in transport by ship as a type of “all risk” insurance. Most insurance companies describe it as ‘insurance which generally covers property that is movable or transportable in nature’.

Check with your insurance company to see if your current business policy includes a ‘inland marine’ clause, you may have to add this to your policy or purchase this as a new type of insurance. It may save you from getting a very nasty surprise when your equipment is damaged and you find out you’re underinsured.

Have a happy and productive 2014.

Feeding Your Book Addiction – Win A Design Book From Lost Art Press

My Dilemma, Your Gain

Yes, I admit it, I have a book problem. But my wife and I can’t agree on exactly what that problem is. For me it’s the continual challenge of finding places to put more of them, and for her it’s the unending flow of them through the front door.

The only time I ever had all my books where I could easily put my hands on them was when we lived at the beach. The bungalow we rented was just too small for everything so we ended up renting the one across the drive from us. Besides a 6 foot drawing table the only thing in the rooms was books. Every room was floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

My wife said recently, “You have to get rid of some of these books.” I said, ‘O.K., I’ll give some books away.” Notice I didn’t say I’d give any of my books away.

Lost Art Press

Lost Art Press

Lost Art Press was started in 2008 by Lucy May, Christopher Schwarz and John Hoffman to publish books which would help woodworkers rediscover the lost art of traditional hand tools and building techniques. Schwarz was the former editor at Popular Woodworking magazine as well as Woodworking Magazine and has been one of a small group of key individuals who have brought about a hand tool renaissance. Traditional tools and methods  which were thought to be inferior to modern methods are reshaping both the woodworking and the tool making communities.

The company has released 11 books so far and has six more scheduled for release in 2014. Their first effort was an excellent annotated version of the 17th century book The Art Of Joinery by Joseph Moxon, the first English language book on the topic. The book soon sold out and copies fetched over $100 on Ebay. They have recently rereleased a newly edited and updated version.

The Kind Of Books They Don’t Print

What Lost Art Press doesn’t publish are junk books. What’s a junk book? Here’s an example; about ten years ago a builder on the East coast “published” a series of design books which were basically just bad scans out of period design books and pasted them up into thin, jumbled perfect-bound pamphlets which were selling for over $30. Junk. That’s not what Lost Art Press puts out.

Besides the fact that their books are traditionally bound sewn-signature volumes on quality paper, the editions, some reprints of classic books and some original, are written by authors who clearly know what they are talking about. And most of these books, while written with woodworkers in mind are incredibly valuable and informative even if you never plan on picking up a saw.

Selfish Motives

So, to keep my promise I’m giving three digital versions of their books away for purely selfish reasons. I want companies like Lost Art Press to be around a long time and the more people that know about them the more likely they’re going to keep pumping out great books. Chris, John, keep them coming, please.

The Loot

If you’re a winner you get to pick one of the following books:

By Hand & Eye (digital version)

images

I reviewed this book in an earlier post and think it’s an important book for designers. The should be part of your main reference library along with a fifth edition of Architectural Graphic Standards and a copy of McKay’s Building Construction.

With The Grain (pdf version)

images-1

If wood is a complete mystery to you then you should get this book. It simply and clearly explains the basics of wood and its use in furniture making. There are chapters on wood movement and how to calculate it in furniture construction and the characteristics of different species of trees.

To Make As Perfectly As Possible – Roubo On Marquetry (pdf version)

Unknown

This book is the result of over six years of work and is the first english language translation of the classic book by Andre Roubo, originally publish in the 18th century. Lead by Donald Williams, a former head conservator for the Smithsonian Institute, the book is far more than a reprint. Williams spent years recreating the techniques described by Roubo as well as reconstructing most of the tools he describes as typical of the Menusier in France. An absolute must-have if your interests include period furniture. A second volume on furniture construction is due out next year.

Door Making And Window Making (hardcover)

BK-DANDW-2T

Here’s another must have for your reference library. Since most everything we draw is custom, it helps to understand door and window construction when you’re creating those full-size details. This book is a reprint of two English joiners manuals which explain the process.

How To Enter

There will be three winners. Basically all you have to do is take a guess at the number of books in my personal library, kind of like guessing the number of gum balls in the jar. As a hint, it was over fifteen years ago when they could fill a 550 square foot bungalow.

You can either post a reply with your guess (and your book choice if you’re a winner) to this post or send your guess to:

designbookcontest@gmail.com

Deadline is midnight on Friday, December 6. Please, only one entry per person. Ties will be decided by picking a name from a hat by Coco the Psychic Bunny.

coco

Winners will be notified on December 7 and sent a link where they can download their book. If you want the Windows And Doors book, it is only available in hardcover and will ship in late December.

I hope that if you win you’ll buy a hardcopy version as well and a digital copy for a friend. And if you don’t win I hope I’ve enticed you to spend your own cash on what are truly terrific books.

Mozart Wasn’t A Hummer

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Sketch for Rosemary's Baby by Richard Sylbert

Sketch for Rosemary’s Baby by Richard Sylbert

“When I began working in the industry, you made all the illustrations, you drew up the plans, you decorated the sets, you picked all the locations. Today most designers on a big production will have dozens of people working for them. The most I ever had is six. Imagine Mozart saying to somebody, ‘I have a great idea for a piece of music, but I don’t know how to play the piano. Let me hum it for you.’ The fact is Mozart was the finest pianist of his day.  Most production designers today are hummers.  They have ideas but can’t draw a 1/4 inch plan. They have no idea how to commit to details.”

Richard Sylbert, Production Designer – Chinatown, Reds, The Manchurian Candidate, The Graduate, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?