Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to Make a Spring Pole Lathe for Bowl Turning, Part 1

I like making bowls more than I like making money.

H.V. Morton, In Search of England, 1930

I've been wanting to make a new spring pole lathe for the last 2 years or so and now that I have 5 acres with trees again, I decided that making such a lathe would be a good winter project. If any of you happen to have a copy of the February 2002 issue of Woodwork you'll know that there is a wonderful article in that issue about Robin Wood, a bowl turner in England. (If you don't know about Robin already please visit his website at, he is simply an amazing woodworker and you should see his work.) In the article there is a photo essay of him building a spring pole lathe out of a log using just an small broad axe, centers made from 5/8 inch rod and several different sized augers. That is what I am working on, making a lathe from a tree with just a Jersey pattern axe and a brace with a bit.

There was a Douglas fir near the house with a dead top that had a little bit of lean to it, but it looked like a decent tree. I felled it with my Husky 385 chainsaw and bucked most of it into firewood except for the butt of the tree which I cut to a six foot length. Then I started to split it with wedges.

When I was a teenager back in the mid to late 1970's, I split incense cedar trees for fence posts for our property in northeast California, my parents and brother did too, it was a family affair, each one of us seeing who could split out posts faster and straighter then everyone else. Splitting this log brought back many memories. I knew that the Douglas fir would be tough and stringy, I've split Doug fir before and this one was no exception to the rule.

The tree had more of a twist then I expected, so to shorten the amount of time I needed to swing an axe I scored the log with the chainsaw, okay, so I cheated from my rule of using only an axe, etc. Those little pieces are a lot easier to split off then big chunks.

Here's what it looks like after some hewing, as you can see I have more work to do.

I don't own a broad axe, but I do have a nice Jersey pattern axe that works well and a little double bit cruiser axe that I use for carving. I would like to get another Jersey pattern axe and re-grind the bevels so that it would be better at hewing. Wow, I guess I'm tired after a day of tree falling and hewing, my sentences aren't making much sense. I'll post more tomorrow, there's a snow storm coming in with strong winds and a high of only 17 degrees F.!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Wonders of French Polish

In my former papers I have shown that the nineteenth century was the century of ugliness, and that the labor-saving machinery which gave us in exchange for the beauty of life degraded the workman without really adding materially to the happiness of the consumer. Some of my readers and critics have called this pessimistic, and so it would be, if I had intended to stop there. But pessimism is the root of optimism and you have to be thoroughly persuaded that things are in a bad way before you are willing to set to work to improve them.

Ernest Crosby, 'The Beauty of Ugliness', The Craftsman, c. 1905

This is a guitar with a Sitka spruce top with eastern black walnut back and sides that I made sometime ago on a Robert Bouchet plantilla and is braced with an asymmetrical bracing from Manuel Hernandez and Victoriano Aguado. When I built it all the books I had read on guitar making up to that point, Cumpiano's Guitarmaking, Sloane's Classic Guitar Construction, Overholtzer's Classical Guitar Making, etc., etc., pretty much stated that a student should stay away from french polish because it was too hard to learn and to stick with lacquer or an oil varnish. Even John Bogdanovich in Classical Guitar Making states that shellac is an inferior finish to use on a guitar. The only book that suggests one can french polish a guitar is Roy Courtnell's wonderful Making Master Guitars. With admonishments like that I stayed away from french polish. Since I didn't have the facilities and proper personal protective equipment to spray lacquer, I tried several wipe-on oil varnish recipes that I found in Fine Woodworking with terrible success. Then I came across an article posted on Bill Cumpiano's website that discussed Frank Haselbacher's use of Behlen's Rockhard Table Top varnish "straight from the can". Just Google Frank Haselbacher and the article appears as "Varnish Technique". I figured if Cumpiano says it's a good product, I should use it. What Cumpiano fails to mention in the article is that Behlen reformulated the varnish sometime after Haselbacher's death. That information comes from an interview in American Luthier #98 with the great luthier, Cyndy Burton. I applied the Behlen product, not knowing that it was not the same stuff as what Haselbacher used, with a brush and within six months that varnish started to yellow, this photo shows what it looked like after a year, the varnish continued to yellow.

I finished one other guitar with the varnish and after 2 years started to sound as if it were being choked. A man wanted to buy the guitar, so I stripped it, brushed on some shellac, rubbed it out and he loves it.

With this spruce/walnut guitar I bought some Jasco brand "Green Strip" and slathered it on the guitar. Here is the top after about 20 minutes of soaking. The varnish really was "rockhard", some of it I had to let the remover sit for over an hour and a half and I still had to scrape off the leftover varnish. All nasty stuff.

What a difference! The same guitar after a spit coat of "blond" shellac that I purchased from Luthier's Mercantile. You can see that the top is a nice piece of spruce, it has some bear claw running through out the top and if you can view the photo magnified a little more the wood has nice medullary rays to it. You couldn't see all of that under the Behlen varnish.

A new batch of 2lb cut shellac. I will say it again, shellac is wonderful because you don't need a hazmat locker in your shop! American Lutherie #96 has a great article on Manuel Velazquez, one of the accompanying photos in the article shows a hazmat locker in the back of their shop, they use Pratt and Lambert's #38 Clear Alkyd Varnish. At Yosemite National Park, due to OSHA regulations, I had to have MSDS sheets on various liquids that I used with me at the job sites, every thing had to be placed in a locker at the end of the day, after that I decided that I didn't want that for my own shop.

This a blond guitar for a client in Arizona, I am doing a bodying session with a large fad that is made up from cotton gauze covered with a piece of old t-shirt. I plan on going back to using wool for the heart of the fad, I have better control in applying the shellac with wool.

So, am I going to catch hell from treading on the writings of maestro Cumpiano and the other writers of build-it-yourself guitar books? I wish that they had stated that french polishing is a viable option and encouraged their readers to attempt it, it would have saved me a lot of grief and heartache. Ron Fernandez has a great DVD on french polishing, Milburn Guitars has a marvelous tutorial on french polishing that I refer to on a regular basis, even Dan Erlewine at Stew-Mac has a Trade Secret article on french polishing that is very "user friendly"! My next question is why did all those great guitar makers, Jose Ramirez, Santos Hernandez, Francisco Simplicio, Hermann Hauser french polish all their guitars? Why does Jeff Elliot continue to use shellac if it is such an interior finish? Maybe because it works.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Restoring a Craftsman Style Rocker, Conclusion

There is but one rule - it must belong, must blend, must fit the setting, whether it be cabin, outdoor kitchen, bench, stool or whatnot in the woods. That which is wholly in order in the city may raise its distressing head with consummate ugliness in the wilds.

Bernard S. Mason, Woodcraft, 1954

Here is the rocker in its restored form.

The seat cushion was made by Georgia at Lyons Upholstery in Lyons, Colorado and she did a wonderful job.

I used a Minwax red oak stain that I left on for quite a while before wiping it off. I applied 3 coats of Minwax Wipe On Poly, which I must say, is very easy to apply and the results are amazing! I was truly impressed with this wipe on polyurethane, I would use it again. No wonder the luthier Paul Jacobson is now using this poly as an option to finish the tops on his guitars.

Our living room, the restored rocker is on the right. The rocker on the left needs to be refinished, but doesn't need any work to keep it from falling apart like the other did.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

One Man Crosscut Saw, Firewood and French Polish

There is a wonderful rhythm in using a crosscut saw, the "shish" of the cutters and rakers clearing out a kerf almost becomes hypnotic, but your arms, shoulders and hips tell you that you are working. To work is to pray.

We don't need to heat with wood, the house has a steam heat furnace that is quite efficient. The fireplace is huge, but more for a romantic show. I cut about a cord and a half of lodge pole pine before these last 2 storms. My Husky 385 chainsaw is overkill on these small trees, cutting the wood to stove length is quick, but after watching "Alone in the Wilderness", a documentary on Dick Proenneke's life in Alaska, I pulled out the one man crosscut saws I own. I figured I need the exercise. This saw belonged to my father-in-law, it's a Monkey Ward saw with perforated lance teeth with a "D" handle, the auxiliary handle came from our place in northeastern California. This set up works though after using it for about a half an hour I put on a regular crosscut saw handle, it is what I am use to.

This saw belong to my maternal grandfather, I have no idea how old it is or what brand it is, I just know that I have cut a lot of firewood with it. The saw started out with perforated lance teeth, like the other saw, through repeated sharpening the teeth lost almost five eighths of an inch of length. I need to file out the gullets to add some more length to the teeth.

The maple guitar that is heading to a client in Sedona, Arizona. I took this photo to show him how a several sessions of french polishing can make the figure in wood really "pop". I wish that when I started making guitars I hadn't paid any attention to Bill Cumpiano, Irving Sloane, Stanley Doubtfire, etc., when they said in their books that french polishing was too hard to do. At least Roy Courtnall says that you can do it.

It is not hard to do, I find it much easier then trying to brush on some highly toxic oil varnish or lacquer. I don't have to apply any wood filler and then sand and sand and sand the filler down to the wood, then once you apply the varnish you have to sand, sand, sand. I don't like sanding and wearing a respirator while I sand. French polish, which is a technique used to apply shellac, is very friendly to you and the environment. Shellac is refined from what is secreted by the "lac" bug and it can be dissolved with 150 proof grain alcohol. You don't need a haz-mat locker for that.

1912 Ex-Segovia Cedar/East Indian Rosewood Classical Guitar

Inspired by AndrĂ©s Segovia’s famous 1912 Manuel Ramirez guitar, I chose Western red cedar top and East Indian rosewood back and sides from m...