Back to the Daily Grind

Ready for varnishing

In order to produce good quality woodwork, chisels and planes need to be sharpened several times a day, so an oilstone is an essential piece of kit. My mission for last week was to make a safe home for mine. This is a bit of a rite of passage for joinery apprentices. There must be loads of sheds and garages around the country which have an oilstone box made by fathers or grandfathers, stained with oil and years of service (the oilstone box that is, not the fathers and grandfathers).

So, starting with two lumps of sapele, I squared them up, hollowed them out, carved a fancy pyramidal shape on the lid and then applied several coats of varnish. Sounds easy, but it took four days. I’m three coats of varnish in now, so my box is nearly done. My oilstone can hardly wait.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only product of last week’ work. After spending hours on end chiselling out an oilstone shaped hole in a block of wood, I found that it was quite difficult to stand up again. I staggered to afternoon tea-break like Matthias in the Life of Brian. My legs are grey. My ears are gnarled. My eyes are old and bent.

New thing number three last week was a session with the in-house yoga teacher; which couldn’t have been more timely. The exercises were a godsend, and also got me thinking about posture and that sort of thing; after all, swapping the ability to be vertical on demand for the ability to build boats would be a sacrifice too far. A block of wood under each leg of my workbench seemed to do the trick. The bench is now high enough that I don’t need to bend over to work at it, and I can stand up again. Who said workstation assessments were a waste of time.

Time for another coat of varnish.

New tools

A week’s work

I’ve finished my bench hook and mallet at last. I’m not sure how much a mallet would cost down at B&Q, but I’m sure I couldn’t live on it at my current work rate. Although I know all the things that are wrong with it due to my beginner’s errors, it looks great now that it’s finished. It’s made of beech and as it’s a working tool it’s finished in boiled linseed oil, which soaks into the pores in the wood and hardens there rather than laying on the surface as varnish would, so it gives it some protection when it’s being bashed around; which I’m sure it will be.

The first inch

Mallet head and handle

Put these together to make a mallet

In ‘A Walk in the Woods’, Bill Bryson describes his adventures walking the Appalachian Trail. After slogging along the trail for a week or so, he sees a map of the entire route hung on the wall of an outdoors supplier’s shop. The map is several feet long. He looks closer to see how far he has walked and gets a shock when he realises that he has walked about an inch of it. He can see for the first time how far he really has to go.

I haven’t had to wade through waist deep snow or sleep in an open shelter in freezing conditions during my first week at IBTC, but I know how he felt. I now have my first inkling of what it will take to turn me into a boat builder.

Where do I start? My tools need to become like extensions of my body, my use of them confident. I need to understand the construction materials, how the grain lays, how to work with different kinds of wood. Accurate marking up and precise cutting with well honed tools. I need this all to become instinctive so that I can produce high quality work quickly. Then I can start learning to build boats. It’s quite a trek.

I won’t give away how Bill got on with the rest of the Appalachian Trail, but suffice to say that I hope I won’t be drawing on ‘A Walk in the Woods’ for many future posts.

How flat is flat?

Glued and ready for planing

Before …

We’ve started to settle into a routine in the joinery workshop. Our insular quests for perfection at our workbenches are punctuated by a morning break, 30 minutes for lunch and an afternoon break, during which we can relax and talk to each other; eventually. It takes a while to break out of our private worlds and start to engage with the real one. But then we start to talk and realise that we are asking ourselves the same questions. How flat is flat? was the question someone raised in one of the breaks today; and it was a question I’d certainly been asking myself. More flat than we realised, as it turns out.

We’ve started on two of our first real projects, which involve making some of the tools that we will go on to use for future projects. These are a bench hook (remember those from woodwork lessons?) and a beech mallet. The bench hook prompted the question in the title. A bench hook basically consists of 3 bits of wood, a flat piece and two short pieces of square section. To look at it, one would think that it could be knocked together in less than an hour. Not this one. We started with a rough plank of mahogany and have spent the last 2 days cutting it up, gluing it together and finessing it to a state of rectilinearity. We plane and plane until we think it’s as flat as flat can possibly be, then along comes Ian with his try square, holds it up to the light, and points out all the imperfections that we’ve missed. Our flat surface becomes a relief map, a landscape of hills and valleys that must be flattened. Back we go to the vice and plane away, creating even more varied landscapes in the process. In case we are in any doubt about what is required; when we look up, we are reminded by signs which glare down at us with instructive messages such as: ‘Perfection is the only standard worth aiming at’. Why does this remind me of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance?

First pass with the plane

… after?

First day in the new office

My new desk

Well the first day went quickly. No messing around, a quick introduction and we were sharpening our blades, planing a true edge on some pine and mahogany and cutting a recess to join them together. I learned how to plane with the grain (I was never quite sure what I was looking for before), and the essentials of blade sharpening. If we can keep this pace going I’ll be building boats in no time. In fact it will be about 12 weeks time, all being well, that we’ll be able to graduate from the joinery workshop to the boat shed and have our first taste of real boat-building.

Why Scantlings?

I’ve got a new language to learn; it’s the language of boat building. Reading around the subject, I’ve been using the glossary in John Leather’s ‘Clinker Boatbuilding’ as a guide. The first pass through was a little bit confusing, some of the definitions seem to be almost self-referential; take the definition of ‘sheer’ for example: ‘the sweeping curve of a boat’s sheerstrake upper profile.’ I felt that I needed to know what sheer meant before sheerstrake made sense; surely it shouldn’t be part of the definition without itself being defined? Digging deeper into the book, I discovered that the sheerstrake is the uppermost plank of the hull, and the meaning became clear; the sheer is the shape of the top of the hull. I clearly have work to do before I’m fluent in this new language.

I found ‘scantlings’ in the glossary as well; I liked it because it has a satisfying ring of conciseness which is a guiding principle for this blog. John Leather tells me that the definition of scantlings is ‘A ship and boatbuilding term for the dimensions of the members of construction’. So I will know I’m a boatbuilder when I can build a boat from its scantlings.