I wanted to look closely in this post at the set projects undertaken by students on our long format furniture making courses. Apart from the side table these projects are made almost entirely by hand. They guide our students introduction into the world of high level cabinet making. They introduce and then repeat the core skills of hand plane work, accurate marking out and the controlled use of perfectly prepared chisels. They develop an understanding of working with wood. The varying properties of different timbers the interaction between the grain and the sharp edge. The need for accuracy. The joy of constant improvement. The discovery of a new found skill.
I feel passionately that in order to become a true craftsman you need to dedicate yourself to mastering the core cabinet making hand skills. This wall hanging cabinet represents the culmination and coming together of all the skills our students learn in the early weeks and months of our furniture making courses. These cabinets were made by Chris and Keira after only 9 weeks within the school. Take a close look at the details. The dovetails are beautifully hand cut. The doors are fitted with accuracy and attention to detail. These are cabinet doors hinged and hung better than many professional furniture makers could dream of. The crisp edges. The sharp mitred corners. The beautiful oiled finish. This is seriously good work. But how can it be produced in such a short amount of time?
We build up to the wall hanging project systematically. Starting with tool preparation. We are fussy about everything. We don’t just accept the manufacturers marketing talk about planes and chisels being ready to use straight out of the box. A £2000 hand plane arrived in the workshop last week and without some serious TLC it would have provided it’s owner with a lifetime of frustration. Anyway. Thats another story. We start with preparing tools for use. A cabinet maker has a special relationship with his or her tools. They need to care for them. Learn which tool is right for each job. Share hours, days and years together. Build up a trust and deep knowledge of what is achievable. After the first week in the workshop our students are well on the way to building this relationship. You try and take a hand plane off one of our students after they have flattened the sole, prepared the blade and made their first shavings. No chance!
And it’s shavings that are now important. Learning how to use that plane. To deal with tough grain. To flatten components to within engineering tolerances. It’s hard work but ask any cabinet maker. A plane working well is one of lifes true pleasures.
Having built up confidence with hand planes our students create chopping boards and then start preparing components for the dovetail book ends. Dovetails. Wow. Cutting a perfect dovetail is every cabinet makers dream. In some ways it looks easy. Mark out the lines and cut to them. But if you want perfect dovetails. No gaps. Tight joints and clean lines then it’s a real challenge. A challenge we tackle head on in the furniture school. We spend time practising marking out and hitting lines with the chinese puzzle project first. Try, try and try again. Our students embrace this ethic. They see our past students achievements and aim high. Putting in the deep practise that is needed for this test of cabinet making skill. They mark out hundreds of lines on thin stock then they try and saw to that line. Splitting the line. Keeping the cut true and square.
The ingredients are in place. The skills needed are practised and then off we go. How many sets of practise dovetails our students cut before they make the book ends is up to them. How many dovetail book ends they make before they feel confident to move on is up to them. We often get to 10 but the point is it doesn’t matter how fast you are at this stage. How many attempts it takes. The proof is in the work. Dedicate yourself to deep practise with hand tools at this early stage and it will pay you back forever.
But we are realists. We are real cabinet makers with a thriving commercial workshop. As much as we would all like to create a mountain of hand produced shavings each and every day we understand the real world of designing and making fine furniture. We understand that it’s a blend. A blend of fine hand skills and the mastery of wood work machinery and hand held power tools.
This brings us to the last of the set projects. The side table project was developed to guide our teaching in the machine shop. The components are now prepared within our amazing machine shop. The use of the surface planer, the thicknesser, the wide belt sander the spindle moulder, the table saw, the router, the bandsaw, the bag press. All taught during this project and in the case of Chris and Keira the table was completed in just 2 weeks. Made predominantly with the use of machines but always finessed using hand skills. The perfect combination. The combination that will make our students stand out from the rest. The cabinet makers of the future…
The rest is over to our students new found skills and their imaginations. The journey into designing and making your own pieces. It’s fun. It’s hard work. It takes dedication. Highs and sometimes lows. But this is new. This is a new found skill. A new found passion. For many a passion that will stay with them forever.