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Since writing about Bang, Ai Weiwei’s enormous installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale constructed entirely out of traditional three-legged stools, I discovered that he had produced several smaller sculptures using the same piece of furniture as the basic repeating unit.

 

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I’m not sure why Ai Weiwei is so fascinated by these stools but one can’t help admiring the skill of the designers and woodworkers who brought these sculptures into existence.

 

I’ve no ambition to make these stools into sculpture, but after completing a single scaled down stool (see earlier post)I thought I’d make a larger version to use in the workshop. Here it is. The seat height is 22 inches and the legs are splayed at 8º from the vertical, which makes the proportions taller and narrower than the original. The legs and stretchers are Douglas fir and the top is English Cherry. It’s finished with a couple of coats of Danish oil.

 

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Among the treasure trove of information and tips and tricks at Frank Ford’s website Frets.com there’s a description of how to turn a single-edge razor blade into a miniature cabinet scraper for repairs of guitar finishes. Click here to read it.
 

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I thought that this was a really clever idea and immediately ordered a box of blades to try it out. Ford says that he draws the edge of the blade across a round piece of hard steel such as a screwdriver shank to create a fine hook just as one might finish a full size cabinet scraper.

I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t make it work. Maybe it was my technique or perhaps the steel of the blade had hardened during the sharpening process but despite repeated trials all I could produce was a ragged edge that scraped less well than a blade straight from the box.

 

The solution was first to grind off the bevelled edge of the blade;

 

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then to make the blade edge straight and square on a diamond stone;

 

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and finally to turn a hook with a burnisher in the usual way.

 

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These little scrapers work extremely well if you need to remove polish or varnish and they’re easy to re-sharpen.

 

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I hadn’t realised, when I wrote about Ai Weiwei’s Bang in my last post, that traditional three-legged Chinese stools had featured in Popular Woodworking a few years ago. Thanks to Mike for commenting and alerting me to the articles.

At the end of the piece on Ai Weiwei, I’d said how much I liked the design of three-way stretcher and added that I might make such a stool for the workshop. So it was extremely useful to have a warning that these stools aren’t as easy as they look.

I started by making a full size drawing for a stool with a final height of around 10 inches (top of seat above floor) and a 10º splay to the legs. This is around half the height of those in Ai Weiwei’s installation but I reckoned it would be big enough for any constructional difficulties to become apparent.

First I made the three way stretcher, leaving each of the pieces over length. This is straightforward mortise and tenon joinery, complicated only by the fact that angle at which the stretchers meet is 60º.

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Then I marked out and cut the tenons at the peripheral ends of the stretchers. The popular woodworking articles say that these tenons need to be angled so that they point at the imaginary centre of the equilateral triangle that the stretchers make. I have to say that, although I followed this suggestion, I’m not completely convinced that it’s necessary. Would a Chinese carpenter making a utilitarian bit of furniture have gone to the trouble to do that?

Obviouusly, the marking out also needs to allow for the fact that the legs are splayed and don’t meet the stretchers at right angles.

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Next I marked and chopped out the mortises in the legs, and fitted legs and stretchers together. It was only at this point that I noticed that each of the three legs and each of the three stretchers were identical to one another. Had I tumbled to this fact earlier, marking out would have been easier.

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I’ve only got a baby-sized lathe, so I couldn’t make a round seat. Foolishly, I made it octagonal instead. It’s not a disaster but hexagonal would surely have been a better shape for something with 3 legs.

Here’s the stool assembled dry.

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And here, after gluing and cleaning up.

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I painted it with a warm grey undercoat, top coated with a flat white eggshell and finally cut it back with fine wet and dry paper to give it a slightly distressed look.

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The stool is strong, stable and light but, at this size, not much use for anyone but a young child. However, I’ve learnt how to build one and I shall make the next twice the height.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger versions of the photographs.

A couple of years ago I saw Ai Weiwei’s installation “Bang” at the Venice biennale and I’ve been meaning to post some photographs of it ever since. It was shown in the French pavillion at the Giardini della Biennale.

 
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Nearly 900 traditional Chinese three-legged wooden stools had been ingeniously joined together to make a huge three dimensional lattice work of wood.
 

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A closer look to give a sense of how it was put together.
 

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And here’s a more detailed view of the joinery of these stools.
 

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What is it about and what does it mean? Well, the most compelling interpretation I’ve heard came from a friend who said that it looked as if these traditional domestic objects had been picked up by a great wind. She saw the installation as a visual parallel of the way economic development in rural China was sweeping aside old ways of life.

If you think that’s too straightforward, here are some comments from the art critics:

‘The single stool as part of an encompassing sculptural structure may be read as a metaphor for the individual and its relation to an overarching and excessive system in a postmodern world developing at lightning speed’.

‘Weiwei’s “Bang” criticizes modern throw-away culture, which has replaced artisans and craftsman with industry and factories. Hand carved wood has been replaced by disposable plastic and aluminum. Weiwei arranged the handmade stools in chaotic bursts and arcs as a metaphor for the industrial world that has spiraled out of control as industry and technology develop at incredible rates.’

‘Ai Weiwei’s work ‘bang’ employs 886-three legged wooden stools made by traditional craftsmen whose expertise is now something that is rare to find, and has installed an expansive rhizomatic structure which speaks of the increasing volumes of organisms in our world’s megacities. The single stool can be interpreted as a metaphor for the individual, and its relation to an overarching and excessive system in a postmodern world which is developing faster than it can keep up with.’

 

Still, whatever you think of the installation as art, the stools themselves are rather attractive. I especially like the three way stretcher, which can’t be that easy to construct. Perhaps I’ll try making one for the workshop.

Most woodworking vices are designed to hold pieces of wood with sides that are parallel. This is a problem for instrument makers because much of the wood they work with is curved or tapered.

So guitar makers frequently use a carvers’ vice, which has adjustable jaws, to get around the difficulty.  Dan Erlewine uses one in his excellent series of videos, Trade Secrets.  And here’s one in my own workshop.
 

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But they’re big, heavy, ugly things (mine is a particularly repellent shade of green) and whenever possible I prefer the simpler solution of a moving accessory vice jaw. This is no more than a block of wood with one gently curved side that allows it to rotate to accommodate the work piece. The flat side is lined with cork and there’s a thin sheet of plywood is glued to the top to maintain it in position while the vice is tightened.

 

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I’ve written about these before (see here) so I’ll only say that they’re easy to make and that they’re very effective in gripping gently tapering (10° or less) objects.

 

The device below  is a little more complicated in having 2 jaws connected at the bottom with a flexible hinge made of leather. It was originally intended to hold the head of a violin or cello  bow while the mortise for the hair was being cut – an invention of Andrew Bellis, who is a bow-maker in Bournemouth.

The 2 jaws are slightly thicker at one end (hence the arrow on the top) which gives it a head start when it comes to accommodating a tapered shape. The flexibility of the hinge allows it to adapt to objects with complex curves. It’s easy to make, too.

 

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Here’s a similar idea but in a more elaborate form. I took the jaws off a small Record vice and substituted cork-lined wood. On one side there’s a permanent version of the moving jaw described earlier. A thin metal bar located by a 3mm rod keeps it in position. I’m hoping the photographs will make things clear.

 

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A couple of photographs of it in action. In the first it’s holding the neck of the soprano ukulele that I mentioned in a previous post. The second shows it gripping the head of a violin bow while it is being re-haired.

 

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I’m pleased with how these vice jaws turned out. And it’s certainly convenient having them immediately available to hold an awkwardly shaped work piece. However, I have to say that they’re significantly more effort to make than the simple devices described earlier. Unless you’re dealing with tapers and curves a lot, it may not be worth the time and trouble.

There’s an apocryphal story about someone sorting through the possessions of an elderly relative who had died. Among a houseful of stuff, he comes across a shoe-box labelled ‘Bits of string too short to keep’.

I sympathise with the elderly relative – at least as far as bits of wood are concerned. It’s hard to throw away even small scraps of timber, especially when they contain an attractive figure. One solution is to heat the workshop with a wood burning stove. Then the problem goes away each winter. Another possibility is to use them up making something tiny. A few years ago I wrote about making musical boxes. This week, wondering what to do with the walnut left over from the 5-string guitar that I wrote about in a previous post, I thought I’d make a soprano ukulele.

Apart from the walnut, I was able to use up other off-cuts that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to throw away: spruce for the soundboard, laburnum for the headstock veneer and the fingerboard, and a piece of plum for the bridge.

The plans for the ukulele came from Christophe Grellier, a French luthier, who generously makes them freely available on his website.

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It was said, by none other than Keith Richards himself, that his discovery of open G guitar tuning was a revelation. (See here for more.) He certainly had a lot of successes with it including Honky Tonk Woman, Brown Sugar, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, to name but a few.

Richards usually took the bottom E string off a six string guitar and then tuned the remaining strings to GDGBD. But a guitar player from New Zealand, Tim Cundy, who also plays with open G tuning, thought that he’d like to have an instrument especially designed for this tuning and asked me to make him one.

Here it is: about the size of a Martin OO, with a cutaway and 12 frets to the body. It’s made in English walnut with a Sitka spruce soundboard. The rosette is spalted beech and the headstock veneer is spalted applewood. It’s bound with pearwood and the purflings are ebony.

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Stanley made two side rebate planes, numbered 98 and 99, which were mirror images of each other, designed to cut either the left or right vertical sides of a channel or dado. I found one in a secondhand tool a long time ago, and then spent years looking for its opposite number.

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While searching, I came across other designs of side rebate planes some of which ingeniously incorporated the ability to cut on left and right sides in a single tool. They’re attractive little devices and I struggled to resist buying them.

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However, side rebate planes have two defects. The first is that the blades are hard to sharpen. It’s crucially important to maintain the exact angle of the cutting edge relative to the long axis of the blade because there’s no capacity for adjustment in the plane itself. Get it wrong and the blade cuts only the top or bottom.

The second defect is rather more serious: even sharpened and set up properly, they’re useless. I mean that literally: it’s not that these planes don’t work but that problems they could solve or jobs they could make easier never seem to crop up.

At least that’s what I thought until a couple of weeks ago when I found that a truss rod that I was installing into a guitar neck was a whisker too fat to enter the groove that I had routed. I could have got the router out again, but a side rebate plane provided a quicker and easier solution. A few passes and the truss rod was a nice snug fit.

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Of course, I’ve been writing about my own experience. Other woodworkers may find side rebate planes so handy that they like keep a pair on the back of the bench. If so, I hope they’ll comment and describe the tasks they use them for.

Pattern makers often used long gouges and chisels with a crank between the blade and the handle. This allowed them to operate the tool deep into a workpiece without the handle catching on the edge. In his Dictionary of Tools, R. A. Salaman calls them trowel-shanked, but one often hears them referred to as cranked or crank-handled too.

 

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I’ve got a couple of long in-cannel gouges which I suspect were originally straight and later modified to achieve the same end. Perhaps R. Myers (the name stamped on the handle of the gouge) needed a tool with a cranked shank in a hurry, didn’t have time to obtain one, and so decided to make the best of what he had. The steel at the bent part of the shank is dark and discoloured, which supports the idea because it would surely have been necessary to heat the shank to bend it successfully.

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Mr Myer’s talent for improvisation and economy prompted me to try something similar with a small chisel blade. I’d often thought that a small crank-handled chisel would be the perfect tool for cleaning up squeezed out glue when putting braces and harmonic bars on guitar soundboards but the only ones that I had come across were too big for what I had in mind, and too expensive as well.

I removed the handle from the chisel, wrapped the blade in a wet rag to prevent the important part of the tool losing its temper and then, after heating the shank to red heat with a propane torch, bent it up about 15°.

When it had cooled, I put the handle back on and was delighted to find that it worked just about as well as I hoped it would. The flat underside of the blade acts as a jig and prevents it digging in, and the raised handle allows it to be used in places where accessibility is restricted.

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I’ve been a fan of Roland Chadwick’s music since hearing a performance of his trio for classical guitar, Letter from LA, a few years ago. So I was delighted when he contacted me about a guitar that needed some attention.

It was a fine instrument too – a cedar top classical guitar made by an Australian guitar maker, Simon Marty, in 1988. Quite apart from being 25 years old, it had worked hard for its living and the thin cedar top had developed some nasty cracks in the widest part of the lower bout. Some of the internal braces had come unglued too, and the guitar was more or less unplayable. To make matters worse, someone had tried to repair the cracks with superglue.

This is what it looked like after I had scraped away most of the superglue.

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With a hand through the soundhole, I could feel that the cracked part of the soundboard had become detached from a long transverse bar running across the instrument under the bridge. This explained the multiple little dowels, which were a previous attempt to fix the problem. The only thing to do was cut out the damaged wood and replace it.

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I also needed to replace some missing braces and re-glue several that were beginning to come unstuck. The difficulty here was that the braces, constructed out of balsa wood and carbon fibre, were very thin and it was almost impossible to position conventional clamps accurately enough to hold them in place without distortion. In the end, I solved the problem by making a few spring-loaded miniature go-bars. Wedged between the back of the guitar and the top of the brace, they kept everything in place while the glue cured.

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After re-polishing, it was ready to perform again. All well worth the trouble because, despite its age, it’s an excellent guitar which produces a big warm sound.

 

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Here’s photograph of a viola that I’ve recently completed. It’s based on the famous ‘Conte Vitale’ by Andrea Guarneri.

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My friend Andrew Bellis, who is both a bow maker and viola player, tried it out recently.

 

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Here he plays the two bourées from Bach’s third cello suite.

 

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often keep a photographic record of instruments while I’m building them. However, the making of this viola was rather special because it was documented in a series of drawings and paintings by the Winchester artist Gill Robinson. I’ve shown a few of her drawings below. If you’d like to see the whole series, there’s a video here.

 

10 Refining the edges

 

20 Hanging up to dry

 

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A rather good joke by artist Colin Baxter. Made out of an old beech wood block plane, drift wood and some scraps of veneer, it’s in an exhibition at Bell Fine Art, Winchester, who kindly let me take a photograph.

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A few years ago, I wrote about pochettes after learning about them from my friend Michael Lavelle, who had just made one. It was a copy of the famous Clapisson pochette made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717, with an intriguing variant – it had an owl’s face instead of a scroll. That instrument was bought by a musician from Belgium, which encouraged Mike to make another, as shown below.

 

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Mike’s second pochette is now looking for a good home. If you are interested, send me an email (info@finelystrung.com) and I’ll put you in touch with him. The price, which includes a bow and a case, is £850.

Fitting a door into a carcass that isn’t perfectly square is a common task for cabinet makers, but it’s rare that the problem is as severe as this or on such a large scale. So I take my hat off to the Venetian joiners who installed these doors in a palazzo near the Church of Sant’ Alvise in the Cannaregio sestiere of Venice.

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It’s always nice to hear from people for whom you’ve made instruments, and I was delighted when Dave Crispin got in touch recently. I made him a classical guitar five years ago, (see here for photographs) and he sent me a recording in which he uses it to play Paul McCartney’s Blackbird.

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