Broken River Joinery

On Time

“Indeed, it occurred to me that Erik had an absolute respect for time, to the point that he was able to exist inside any particular moment with tangible contentment. He understood that the value wasn’t to be extracted by rushing to get to the next project, but rather by truly inhabiting each and every moment he was fortunate enough to experience.”

-Ben Hewitt, from “Saved”

Something I will take with me on the next foray in the woodshop (and hopefully beyond)


Form and Function and Design

A recent article in the New York Times, “Simplifying the Bull…“, discusses a series of 11 lithographs by Picasso, as a tool to model product designs in order to reduce them to their most fundamental and functional aspects. It’s an interesting piece that delves into the design and decision making process at Apple Inc., and that opens up a broader discussion on design itself.


Picasso’s “Bull” Christmas 1945

(The progression moves from top to bottom beginning with the far left-hand column-click on the image for a more detailed view)

Much has been made in the art world and beyond regarding the psychoanalytic vestiges inherent in the particulars of this work, which I’ll gladly leave to the post-modernist critics and anybody else who may be interested in trundling down that path. My intent here is to examine the evolution of the above drawings in relation to the design process as exemplified through the craft of wood furniture production, particularly of the type generated in garages and basement workshops every day, from tinkerers to professionals and beyond.

Let’s dive in.

Initially, through the first two drawings there is a growing complexity to the bull, whereas beginning with Plate 3, a progressive deconstruction ensues, rendering the final plate a seemingly simple line drawing that in fact exhibits the primary elements of the idea, encapsulating both the rudimentary nature of the design and espousing the power that is the essence of the thing itself.


Plates 1, 2, & 11

This brings up a fundamental question in the art/design process; namely, what is the first step? Does the artist/designer imagine the final piece (subject to revision) initially (Plate 1) or do they construe something more basic (also subject to revision) in their mind’s eye (Plate 11)? Take a dining room table for example: is it the finished product that first appears mentally or rather a flat surface with 4 legs to support it? Ultimately, I assume it varies widely from person to person. However, we woodworkers possess what I would consider to be an additional advantage, i.e. function. More specifically, I would guess most woodworkers wouldn’t place themselves in either of the above camps which both subscribe to Form/Idea as the maximal origin and conclusion. Rather a woodworker tends to be cornered by the constraints of their predicament, such as, “I need a place to eat, and this cardboard box just isn’t doing it”,  and voila….a dining room table results. Of interest, once the impetus is established, is what’s the most effective method to arrive at the end result, i.e. a dining room table.?

As a side note, it’s important to add that there are several if not countless additional components that feed into this design recipe. Items like skill set,  awareness of past and current design trends, aesthetic preference, the size of one’s dining room, the size of oneself and one’s family, availability of material, associated cost, time available, each of which merit their own further discussion.

So when we look at Picasso’s Bull, what we are really privy to, are the stages of an accomplished master artist’s thought process from initial spark to final conclusion. It is curious to note that there is a degree of increasing complexity from Plate 1 to Plate 2 at which point the series gradually distills down to its more fundamental elements. This may indicate an intimate look at the initial idea (a bull for whatever reason), an exploration into what that fully represents (Plate 2), and then ultimately a paring down to the basic and final most effective form (Plate 11). Regardless, the end result is the same.

In some ways, the medium of sculpture would seem more closely related to the woodworking idiom instead of a 2D representation of a 3D object (drawing of bull versus actual bull). Like Michelangelo reducing a block of marble to something as incredible as David. But this still leaves out function. At least in the practical sense. Functionally, David, may in fact bring a certain mental satisfaction to the viewer that they then carry with them and that too is grist for another conversation, but functionally speaking methinks trying to balance a dinner plate on David’s kneecap would prove entertaining at best. But I digress.

Where then, does that leave the inspired woodworker? True, the sketch pad, scrap paper, napkin, etc.  seem like an obvious first choice. But to really get to the heart of the matter, one cannot leave it at that. The inspiration, the need is there. The image presents itself in the mental/visual landscape. The 1st drawing materializes. Then what? Some latitude is necessary here; each woodworker processes the making manifest of an idea differently. A cardboard mock-up for some, a scaled down model for others. Even a rough version of the intended piece. While critical, the details of this stage do not matter so long as one takes the step itself. Beyond this there is the actual piece. And pleasant it may be. But finished it is not. For at the end of the day we are a different person than the face that greeted us that same morning in the mirror. And so our work follows. And thus life. That dining room table then, is never quite finished. Especially when we are faced with it each day. We see where it may have been a little lower or a bit wider or the base less heavy. We see where we might have made it better. But we do not lament. We instead make a promise. To build that table again, to change what need be changed as we have changed and the world along with it.

(this essay was revised at least  17 times prior to publication)

778 Sq. Ft. Japanese Small House

778 Sq. Ft. Japanese Family Small House by Alts Design Office

-note the 4-panel sliding shoji divider. Also note, there seems to be a “Put a Bird On It” theme throughout these photos. And lastly, and I could be wrong but I get the distinct impression that someone likes Ash furniture; note the coffee table, dining room table, etc.

alts design office 768 sf japanese family small house 001 600x899   Minimalist 778 Sq. Ft. Japanese Family Small House

Images ©

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On Ash

The simple joy of planing the end grain on an ash board.







On Finding Your Place

“My consciousness comes to inhabit the tip of the knife and the tooth of the saw, so that I am not only in the world, but somehow of the world.”

-Peter Korn

From Why We Make Things and Why It Matters.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 6.27.58 AM

Taughannock II

I was fortunate to locate a set of Ash book matched slabs some time ago and as I’ve been in need of a desk for several years now, the Universe smiled and they magically appeared in my shop. Total length runs to about 8′ with 3′ width. Two years ago I designed and built a coffee table for my sister, naming it the Taughannock. I used Walnut for that project (and White Oak for the leg) and wanted to expand on that design with a bigger piece. I also kept one of the live edges and for this piece, I’ve decided to remove both live edges, which is closer to the original design.

IMG_3554The first step was to joint the edges for glue-up. It took me 2-3 hours for each edge using a 22″ jointer and my low angle block plane in tandem. I ended up sharpening both blades twice for each leaf. Ash is a pretty tough wood and tear out comes easy, especially with a dull blade. It’s difficult to check for a completely flat edge along the length of an 8′ piece. I have a 3′ straightedge that I basically side-stepped all the way down and then used my longest engineer’s square. This was done multiple times throughout the course of the jointing.

IMG_3559Here’s the edge with the sawyer’s marks.

IMG_3561And then after jointing. Ash has a lovely grain that when planed properly results in a unique surface. It has some similarities to Oak in its appearance but I find it to have a finished quality all it’s own, one completely distinct from Oak.

IMG_3560And the glue-up. The Roubo bench came in handy here. It’s weight was more than enough to offset the incredibly heavy Ash and the side panel clamp allowed for me to use gravity to my advantage during the gluing and clamping. I used 3 cauls to help insure everything was lined up properly. (a good tip here is to cover the cauls with duct tape which prevents them from being glued directly to the piece).

IMG_3570And the top after the glue-up. ps its very heavy now…

IMG_3576To take the bark off, I used a draw knife my dad gave me a year ago when I went to visit him. It was my great-grandfather’s tool and is really in good shape-it needs some cosmetic work to look pretty, but for now it just needed to be sharpened. My great-grandfather was born in my hometown in IA in 1871 and so I think this would date the tool to about 115-120 years old. I’m blessed to be able to give this tool new life and to know it was held in the hands of my namesake over 100 years ago. There’s a goodness in that history that I’m too poor with words to describe. If I can do it even the smallest amount of justice with my woodworking now, then I will have taken a small step in honoring my family and my work.

IMG_3567After a bit of work on the Tormek.

IMG_3571Here’s a dry fit to test the 45 degree mitre. It took a few passes and was no easy task given the weight and size of the pieces. I was able to use my table saw to cut the 45 on the leg, but the top of the desk was a different story. This involved using the circular saw and a series of clamps and a straightedge and a soft touch if that’s possible when slicing a 45 degree cut across a 1 3/4″ thick and 30″ wide piece of Ash.

IMG_3592The fit is actually pretty tight-I didn’t draw it too tight with the clamps for fear of damaging the joint prior to glue up but when I held it with just my hands, it came together nicely.

IMG_3593And here are all the pieces. The final design will be slightly different than the coffee table, primarily to account for the extra support needed for a piece as large and heavy as this one. You can see some live edges here that will eventually be incorporated into the base. I wanted to incorporate that aspect of the wood but have it be more subtle on this design.


Next Shoji Project

Working on the tenons and mortises for the 4 joints of the screen. The tenons are haunched and the jaguchi chamfer will be cut just prior to assembly. I’m using Poplar for this project and following the instructions for the 1st of the three screen designs from Des King’s Shoji book.








Paul Discoe On Post Footings

Six+ minute video demonstrating how to fit a post to a stone using traditional Japanese joinery. Check out the hybrid sawhorses at 3:30. A cross between typical Japanese sawhorses with added height to appease Westerners.

Mira & George Nakashima Video from Craft in America

Nice 9 minute video from Craft in America, illustrating some of the overall ideas and inspirations at Nakashima Woodworker.

Don’t Forget!

Tickets to see H.O. Studley’s tool chest as part of Handworks 2015 go on sale today. There are only 1200 available so be sure to pick up yours before they are sold out.

And by the way, how did Iowa get so cool anyways?


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