Tuesday, May 12, 2009

French Polish

Some time ago I made a business decision that I think many more furniture makers should consider; to become friendlier to ourselves and to the environment.

One of the greatest leaps forward in this department is considering what material gets used as a finish on the furniture.

I used to use a pre-catalyzed lacquer that went on smooth and looked reasonably good (about as good as any mass produced furniture with a sprayed finish) however the ease in application was overshadowed by the dangers in using highly explosive, highly toxic material with a huge amount of VOC’s that off gas even months after the furniture is completed and delivered to the client.

I started searching for a finish to replace lacquer in my shop. It had to fill two major rolls;

- It had to be non (or nearly non) toxic

- It had to look great

I decided to adopt shellac as a finish, and not just ordinary shellac, but shellac applied with a technique called ‘French Polishing’.

This is the undisputed king of finishes, and has been for several centuries.

There are countless texts describing the various ways to apply a good French polish finish, but one thing that is true of all of them is the ingredients; Shellac flakes, Alcohol, and Oil

The shellac can be purchased easily at most well equipped finish suppliers, the oil, (olive, or in this case mineral oil) can be purchased at the local pharmacy, but the alcohol is a different story.

Because in Canada alcohol is heavily taxed, manufactures of grain alcohol must add a toxic element to the alcohol to sell it as non-potable alcohol, thus eliminating the need to pay taxes on it, and eliminating the possibility of people consuming it.

The most common form of toxin added in Canada is Methanol, which if ingested causes blindness and potentially death. It also has a nasty habit of migrating through protective gloved and passing through the skin, making it difficult to handle. One other nasty habit of it is that it also passes right through gas masks and gets absorbed by the body through the lungs.

I set out to find a product that was denatured with chemicals other than methanol, and I did find it after some serious searching.

So finally, on with the finish...

The one point that defers between the Italian, English and North American techniques of French polishing, and the TRUE French polish is that only in the true French polish is oil applied to the bare wood before any shellac.

I start by using a cheese cloth and liberally apply mineral oil the surfaces to be finished.


I then wipe the surface immediately with paper towel to remove any oil not absorbed by the wood.


I then take the ‘pad’ and add some 2lb. Cut shellac and some alcohol and begin by rubbing the pad in small circular motions all over the surface. Once the pad begins to dry out I add more shellac and more alcohol (always more alcohol than shellac)

When the rubber begins to drag on the surface I place a drop of mineral oil on the surface and use it to lubricate the pad.


All the while I am adding just a light dusting of pumice (4F grade) to cut the finish and shine the surface.


I keep this technique going for at least two days, and when I think the shellac is built up enough I slowly start to reduce the amount of shellac I use when recharging the rubber.

I also begin to scale back on the pumice and eventually I switch to a new pad with no pumice on it, and begin to use rottenstone.

For the final polish I use the tiniest drop of alcohol and polish the surface to a very high gloss finish using up every last bit of alcohol in the pad while at the same time removing every last trace of mineral oil.


If all goes as planned I'm left with a very high gloss flawless finish.


Now if I don’t want to have a super high-gloss finish on the furniture, I will rub out the gloss with 0000 steel wool impregnated with 4F pumice to leave a pleasing satin finish.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The wonder tool

One of the most used tools in my shop is one that costs only a few dollars, but lasts virtually forever, is easy to sharpen and easy to use. It produces a surface that is flawless, out performs sand paper every time, and requires no electricity.

Yup, it’s a card scraper.

It is sharpened to a square edge, and then rolled over to produce a burr. It takes a few minutes to dress a brand new one, and occasionally needs to be redressed to restore a nice edge, but it takes just seconds to repair an edge that is becoming dull.
One thing to watch for is that a card scraper should never produce dust. The shavings should look like (and feel like) the shavings you’d expect out of the finest smoothing plane.

This little card is used as a final touch on boards that are almost ready for finish.
Its final and most impressive attribute is that no matter what type of figured wood it’s used on, it will not tear out the grain.

All this for just a few dollars.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hand Cut Nails

Occasionally I get the opportunity to use materials that don’t get a whole lot of use in the shop. For instance it's not often I get to use true hand made cut nails!

Cut nails have been around for centuries, and are still very useful for furniture that requires a fastener in a visible area, or just as decoration on an otherwise somewhat plain surface.

In hard maple it's advisable to pre-drill before driving the nail.

These nails have more of a blade shaped tip than a point, and it's important to orient the nail so the blade slices the fibers of the wood rather than forcing them apart (and possibly splitting the wood).

Once I'm happy with the placement of all the nails, I simply hammer them home.

Friday, December 5, 2008

case joinery

When dovetails are mentioned people generally think of a drawers construction - attaching a drawer front to a drawer side etc (like last weeks post).
The same joinery can be employed to attach cabinet pieces together. One example is much like a large drawer and simply involves joining the case sides to the top and bottom

There are of course other ways to use this joint, one being the sliding dovetail joint.

I start by cutting a dado in the top and bottom panels the same width as the gables.

Then I follow up with a dovetail bit in the router to cut the slot.

Now it’s time to fit the gables (or in this case the stiles)

I start by roughing out the kerf on the tablesaw, than I make my layout marks for the dovetail with a marking knife.

I finish the shoulder cuts with a handsaw...

And pare away the waist with a sharp chisel.

Now I repeat these steps on the other side.

Once the stile is finished I check it for fit. I want a tight fit that requires very little glue to hold it in place.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

a tiny drawer

Dovetailed drawers have long been a staple of fine cabinetry. In today’s 'super-efficient' society they are often produced by machine (I’m not knocking that, in fact I own a dovetail jig that I use often) however sometimes the joint is used as much for visual appeal as it is for function. In these cases I opt for hand cutting them to get the proportions and subtleties of a fine handmade piece of furniture.

I start by laying out and cutting the tails on the sides of the drawers. I use a saw to cut to my layout lines and a sharp chisel to remove the waste.
It’s important to have crisp layout lines, so I use a knife that I keep honed to a razor sharp edge.
I then use the tail boards to layout the pins on (in this case) the drawer front.

A sharp chisel is used to chop away the bulk of the waste between the pins...

Leaving a clean and accurate surface for the tails.

Life is made much easier in the shop if the tools are kept sharp, so I generally keep an 8000 grit wet stone handy for a quick honing. It only takes about 10 to 15 seconds to restore an edge if it’s done often.

The next tail socket is done the same way.

Now is the time to do any other work on the parts of the drawer that might need work, such as smoothing inside surfaces and adding decorative scroll work.

It's finally time to add some glue and fit the drawer together.

The drawer bottom and back are fitted next, and are fine tuned to fit in their respective slots with a pass or two from a sharp block plane.

Once everything fits snugly it’s time to glue the pieces in place and finish any final scraping, planning or profiling.

Occasionally I find new uses for very old tools. In this case an old Bedrock 605 makes a good weight when gluing a base onto an 18th century pipe box!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Working with planes

There are several reasons in my mind that hand planes are superior to sand paper for flattening a large board and for final finishing. Not the least of which is the reduced noise and dust.
  Recently I have been working on some large cherry panels for a project that will be finished with french polish, and there is no better preparation method for french polish than a glassy hand planed surface.

First the boards are machine jointed (See this post for information on that) and thicknessed to rough dimension and then labeled based on their purpose in the finished piece of furniture.

They are then glued up into panels.

The panels have a fair amount of glue squeeze out that gets removed with a paint scraper.

The surface is almost ready for planing at this point.

I use a pencil to make guide marks all over the board so I can easily tell what areas I've planed and what areas need more work.

Now it's time to choose the right plane, and get to work!

A number 5 is a good choice for the first step.

I set the blade for a fairly aggressive cut and work it diagonally across the gran to remove material quickly and to do a preliminary flattening. The pencil lines remain visible in the low areas.

The result is a board that is fairly flat with all of the highest spots removed. The plane marks are clearly visible diagonally across the board.

I draw on another guide coat of pencil lines...

And switch to a number 8 plane for refining the surface to get it dead flat.

Lots of elbow grease involved here.

Once the surface is dead flat it's ready for the smoothing plane. There are some choices here; I usually go with a number 5 1/2 for the bulk of the work, and turn to a number 4 1/2 for the tough grain. the number 4 or even a number 3 is used only for the most stubborn areas.

Although the work involved in hand planing is fairly time consuming, it is much faster than the time that would be required to get an equal surface quality with sand paper - and far less messy.

The result is a board with exceptional smoothness and a texture that can only be achieved with hand planes. The surface is ready for finish as it is, but I will be giving it one more hit with the smoothing plane once the piece is assembled.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pine storage units

This Pine wall unit is part one of two. The client wanted some much needed storage space with window seats for guests. Earlier I wrote about the process of taking lumber from rough stock to finished dimensions: This piece was used for that post.
Here is the finished project.

Although it is not readily apparent, there are no fillers or spacers used in this piece. Fillers are often used to fill those little spaces between a wall and a cabinet that would otherwise be a gap. instead of using fillers we measure the exact size of the opening and build the furniture to fit perfectly, thereby giving the furniture a perfect built in appearance. Many cabinet makers would rather build to the nearest inch and fill voids during the install, but we feel that having no gaps and no fillers in a mark of real quality and attention to detail.

Drawers are fitted for a perfect 1\16" gap all the way around.

Hand cut dovetails are left with scribe lines intact for that classic look and unmistakable hand cut detail.