Sunday, November 20, 2011

Shoot From The Hip

In the past decade I've done a lot of selfish woodworking. When I was in my late 20's I received an oud as a birthday present from my entire family, and when I found out how much they paid (and they overpaid) I set out immediately to do what any woodworker would do: make one myself, sell the gift, and use the money to buy lutherie tools.

And that's exactly what I did. Trouble is, I got bit by the lutherie bug. And it totally consumed every bit of my freelance woodworking. So much so that I even started taking commissions for instruments and working many late nights in the shop trying to get these instruments done, so I could get to bed in order to get enough sleep to do my real job during the day. It finally caught up with me. In 2008 I built my last oud. I also burned out a little bit. Making delicate instruments is demanding work. The same way that building benches is demanding, only at the opposite end of the spectrum.

I did build a few other projects during this time. But on the whole the stuff that should have been built was postponed to satisfy the lutherie urge. So now its payback time. I'm building furniture for my home and my family's homes, and I'm rather enjoying it. When I started building instruments I had never done anything remotely as fine as lutherie. I just build basic furniture. The closest I got was carving, but that's a different skill, and one that's rather forgiving compared to planing a soundboard that can be ruined with one extra pass of the plane. Especially when the soundboard contains lots of sub-1mm thick inlay that has taken days to make. So to move from such work back to rudimentary, workaday stuff like cutting through dovetails carries with it a very unique feeling. Once one has the skills to make things, the mind tends to relax and enjoy the process, focusing more on the anticipation of completion (one of my favorite aspects of making things) rather than on the minutiae of the project itself.

Last week I started one of these long-overdue projects: a large bookcase. My parents have used a bookcase built by my brother (back in our college days) that has long ago grown too small. I had sketched out a set of drawings some months ago, but when Chris Schwarz wrote an article earlier this year about Thomas Jefferson's bookcases, the design caught my eye. So I picked up some beech and started the project last week. Yes, I'm using beech. Chris' cases are pine. And after having cut the first round of dovetails for the base in 1" thick beech, I'm admiring Chris' decision to use pine. But not entirely. I have grown quite fond of beech, and its lack of chatoyance, character and figure. It's a great wood for exhibiting form with a clear finish, as opposed to exhibiting form by means of a painted finish. That's probably why the lines of so many classic beech-made woodworking tools are so appealing. This set of cases is actually for my office, but when I finish them I'll see how the folks like them. I may be building another set of these right away in cherry.

Earlier this evening I was fitting the mitered frame to the inside of the plinth when I discovered a new (to me) technique for shooting. This 1" beech is demanding work for a shooting board and plane (I'm using a Lie-Nielsen #7) Normally I would use my miter jack for this sort of work, since I can clamp the entire piece and use both hands to control the plane, but when you have an extra bench around with a shooting board setup, its hard to get the miter jack out. So moving the plane through 1" of beech takes some effort, even with a sharp iron and light cut. So as I was shooting the miter on the ends of the short pieces I discovered that the heel of the plane landed squarely on my belt, just over my hip bone. So all I had to do was keep the plane in the cut, plant the heel of the #7 on my belt and more or less lean forward. No foot movement required. It felt a lot like planing a long board by simply walking along the bench, arms held rigid. I had complete control of the plane and it allowed me to take a thicker shaving than usual. Another way of using body mass (I have plenty) to your advantage. Below is a short video to illustrate.


  1. Hi Jameel,
    Nice post and I have to say I agree with you on the addictive nature of the Lutherie, and also the demanding aspect. Building an acoustic guitar (or oud) requires a degree of perfection beond anything I have ever done.
    One thing I often tell my woodowrking friends - if you want to take your woodworking craft to another level - build a guitar!


  2. I look forward to the bookcases, Jameel.

    The shooting technique you show is great - so good, in fact, that I will try it, too!

  3. Hi Jameel,
    I find it interesting you are using beech. My first project with beech was making molding planes in a Larry Williams class, and I loved the wood. It was closed grained, it did not have ant tendency to splinter, and I was able to get crisp details on it. I then used QS beech for a craftsman style writing desk. I am still working on it, but hand planing the quartersawn stock is a nightmare with respect to tear-out on the quartersawn faces. Any suggestions? My irons are sharp. I think using low angle works better than high angle. I finally resorted to a random orbital sander. I also found that the plain sawn edges are fine with respect to hand planing. Any suggestions would be appreciated. I still love the look of QS beech.

  4. You're spot on there Richard. Luthiery has got to be the most refined form of woodworking. It changed the way I build everything--for the better.

    Dave, I have not had a problem dealing with the quartered face tearing, although I have noticed a propensity for that to happen. I find that a tight mouth, sharp iron, and a light cut can take care of most any tearout. I also have 50 degree frogs on my #7 and #3, and my Brese planes, so that helps as well.

  5. Jameel,

    Another great and functional technique. Hope all are well.

    Happy Holidays!

    Lee Laird


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.