It’s about Time

The part of my life that pays the bills puts me in an interesting position. I work for a large, US based multinational, but spend most of my working time in Africa. What I find very interesting is the juxtaposition of Western Time and African Time. Time as we use it in our daily lives is an artificial construct. We have taken the movement of the Earth around the Sun and divided it into Days, Hours, Minutes and Seconds, and then enslaved ourselves to that construct.

The standardization of time started with the development and expansion of the railroads system. Back in the days of yore, almost every town took its local time from the position of the Sun. The local church tower kept time and chimed the hours of the day so workers, mostly those in the fields, would know when to start work, when to eat lunch, when to pray and when to head home. But with the railroads, a standard measure of time became necessary. If your train was arriving at 11h50, it had to be the same 11h50 everywhere, or the system simply never worked. 

The first piece of wearable technology was the pocket watch. Much like the technology we wear today, it was a status symbol. And much like the users of technology today, people have been faking it since the start. Those that owned elaborate and ornate pocket watches advertised the fact  with a beautiful fob chain linking their watch to a button on their vest. Those that didn’t own a watch, simply wore a fob chain. The natural extension of that was to be punctual, because that meant you  not only had the chain, but there was watch was attached to the end of it. And so the West became obsessed with time and punctuality. 

Africa never developed extensive railroad networks so we Africans tend to have a fairly loose association with time. I have often found myself spending hours sitting outside an office of a high ranking official in a government official waiting to see them for a scheduled appointment only to be told that they are not available. Or arranging a training session set to start at 8h30 am  only for the last person to arrive at around 10am. My American and  European colleagues find this very frustrating. I spend a lot of time trying to explain to them that running a project in Africa according to a strict timeline is like trying to slice hot custard with a bread knife. All you end up with is frustration, a very sticky knife and no custard in your bowl. Its much better to be flexible and gently coax these things along and let them unfold in their own time. 

We own a chiming wall clock. I have been listening to it chime away the hours most of my life. I am not sure when it first arrived in my parent’s house. I have a vague recollection of my father hanging it in the entrance hall of the house. That was somewhere around 40 years ago. It has a huge sentimental value for me. The position where it hung was  above my head; my bedroom was on the other side of the hall, and my bed directly beneath it. I never owned an alarm clock, but knew to wake up when the clock chimed 6. As I write this I can hear the steady soothing tick-tock of the pendulum and it has just chimed nine o’clock.  My mother gave me the clock shortly after my wife and I moved into our first home.  I was chatting to my mother on the phone one day and heard the clock chime in the background. I suddenly felt very homesick and told her. That weekend she arrived at our new house with the clock as a house warming gift. It’s hung in every house I have ever lived in and makes it feel like home.  

My wife recently had a major back operation.  We have both been patients of the surgeon who looked after her. He repaired my mangled finger after I ran it through a table saw, saving the tip and nail and leaving me with a fully functional finger.  He also performed carpal tunnel surgery on my wife’s hands. He is an excellent surgeon and a fine doctor. These are  all skills that come with time, but being such a great human being is innate. My wife has made excellent progress after her surgery, and we wanted to give him a thank you gift for the care he had given both of us. After spending some time thinking about it, I decided to make him a wall clock. His consulting room is decorated with oak furniture, mostly from wine barrels. I assembled and cleaned a couple of staves from my special batch of aged oak barrels and fitted a clock mechanism. I found some laser cut numbers and added them to create the face. We handed it over to him at my wife’s last appointment.  A couple of months later he bumped into my wife at the hospital and after asking after her health told her once again how happy he was with his gift, and how pleased he was that I had taken the time to make something unique for him. 

Following on from the success of the wall clock, I decided to try and make a mantle clock. No question about the style of course. It would have to be Art Deco. With the Empire State Building as inspiration, I spent a long time working on the design. I am normally not very good at translating what’s in my head into sketches and I have never been very good with pen and paper; my handwriting is totally illegible, even to me.  Almost all my plans, are scratches on bits of paper or scrawled marks on the chalk board. But for this project I took a lot of time to work on the design. One of the reasons I like Art Deco is that it is well proportioned and timeless. That is what I wanted for this piece. I dug through my pile of wood scraps and found some Beech and beautifully grained Kiaat. I cut and fitted and changed and re-cut and played, and in the end finished with a piece that almost looked like my design on paper and exactly what was in my head. This was just a couple of geometric pieces that I had to cut and assemble, but it me a long time to get it right. Each matching piece had to be identical. I even tried to match the grain to make it symmetrical. I built jigs and and guides to make sure that the pieces were placed perfectly. The end result is a beautifully proportioned clock. But what really made me happy was that I spent a great deal of time quietly working on this. This was truly fine woodwork and a step up in my skills. It didn’t matter how long it took, just so long as the end result was perfect.

I am in two minds as to whether I should sell the clock or hang on to it. Its not that I need a clock to tell me what the time is, I am a proud African and know that the time is always right now. But this clock, represents something special for me. It represents a coming of age for me as a woodworker and as a maker. This is one of the finest pieces I have crafted. Its incredibly simple, but its not something I would have been able to achieve in the past. This is a talent that I have only managed to develop over time. It was inspired by a thank you gift I made for a truly gifted human being, which in turn was inspired by a sentimental gift that reminded me of home.  I am sure that in the future, I will find time to make clocks. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hand Tools

Hand Tools and Toy Chests

I started to take woodworking more seriously as a hobby when we moved into our first house. I bought a collection of cheap power tools at an auction, some of which I still have, and setup a small workshop on our back stoep. This being a townhouse complex, I was limited as to how much noise I could make, and greatly restricted by how often I could get my wife to come and hold a piece of wood while I cut it. Despite the restrictions I made a couple of pieces of furniture including a bed-set complete with bed base and side tables. I also made a cot for my brother’s first born girl. Looking back, I don’t think either were very elegant, but they were fit for purpose and matched my skill level. I also learnt a great deal building those; mostly that if I was going to get anymore serious about this hobby, I was going to have to invest in more tools and gain some serious skills. Over the years I have been fortunate to accumulate a lot more of both.  

Until recently, most of the tools I have acquired have been power tools. Power tools are simple way to get the job done in as short a time as possible. There is a short learning curve to figure out how to use them. With the wide range of tools and prices to suit almost any pocket, anyone can get started as a maker. YouTube and other websites are a great source of learning materials, and other social media sites like Pintrest and Instagram are amazing sources of inspiration. 

However, I have recently started to experiment more and more with hand tools. This has partly been driven because of a desire to make better quality pieces, but also out of necessity.  Two recent factors contributed to me learning how to use a hand plane. The first was  when one of my workhorse tools, my Ryobi planer/thicknesser died.  It had served me well for over ten years and, like all my Ryobi tools had performed above and beyond what it was made for. It would no longer feed wood through the thicknesser and when I stripped it to find out why, I discovered that the shafts on the gears had worn out. I guess I could probably have replaced them, but decided it was time for it to be retired. 

My wife  found a Makita thicknesser online and purchased it for me as a “late Christmas, early birthday, now stop bothering me and go to your workshop”, present. That solved one half of the problem. I still needed to be able to flatten and joint boards. I was about to start working on a project making a toy chest from Kiaat, at the time that my Ryobi planer/thicknesser died.

I own two hand planes: a German made  No. 3 plane I inherited from my wife’s grandfather and a Stanley Bailey No. 4 that belonged to my dad. Besides shaving doors to fit into door jams, I had never had any success with planes in the past, mostly from ignorance and lack of skill. (In fact it was for fitting new doors in our old house that I originally borrowed the No. 4 from my dad, and had failed to return it. I guess after 15 years, he is not going to miss it and I can consider it mine. Sorry Dad.) The second factor was Eskom. No power means no power tools, and load shedding was having a devastating affect on my woodworking efforts.

That weekend, I hauled out the No. 4 and after a couple of YouTube tutorials, figured out where I was going wrong. I sharpened the blade, set it, tested it and suddenly, was jointing boards by hand. I also figured out that this was the wrong plane and started hunting for a No. 7.  It took about 2 minutes online to find what I needed. It seems that there are a large number of people selling old tools on online platforms, and high quality and vintage tools are easy to come by. I found a seller, and made a deal. That Monday, after work, I passed by his place and collected my new plane.

My "new"Stanley No. 7 on the way home.
My “new “Stanley No. 7 on the way home.

It was not in working order, and needed a little TLC to bring it back to life. Like my vice, it was rusted and a little rough around the edges but a solid vintage tool. I stripped it back to bare metal and cleaned up the rust. A couple of coats of hammered enamel later and a few hours of work flattening the sole and it looked like new. The only problem was I couldn’t get a decent edge on the blade. The blade was too large to fit into my honing guide and wider than my sharpening stone.

It looks a little rough, but these tools were made to last a lifetime, or two.
It looks a little rough, but these tools were made to last a lifetime, or two.

A trip to the local hardware store turned up a really neat sharpening wheel that attached to the drill. It was water-cooled so did not overheat the metal. I tried it on my chisels first, figuring I could always fix those easily if I messed it up. It gave them a neat, clean edge that I could hone using water-paper and a sheet of glass. My No. 3 and No. 4 blades were next and I soon had a collection of silky smooth wood curls collecting at my feet. But the No. 7 was just too large to fit into the rig. I had to improvise, and built my own sharpening jig using some carefully angled wood. Once I had that sorted was able to bring the plane to full use.

My newly refurbished No. 7 ready too go. This is a beautiful tool.
My newly refurbished No. 7 ready too go. This is a beautiful tool.

And so I learnt how to joint and flatten boards by hand. It is a lot of hard work, and not something I intend doing very often. I have a great deal of respect for craftsman who earned their living this way in the pre-power tool era. Power tools are great at getting a board to 90% ready for a good finish, adding hand tools  gives me that extra 5% for a great finish. Skill will eventually get me that last 5%. 

Jointing boards by hand is not for the feint of heart. it takes some serious effort, but the end result is well worth the effort.
Jointing boards by hand is not for the feint of heart. It takes some serious effort, but the end result is well worth the effort.

I managed to finish my project on time. It was for a couple that were expecting their first baby. They asked for a toy chest. The Kiaat was reasonably flat to start with but not flat enough for the thicknesser. A couple of passes with the No. 7 got it flat enough to go through the thicknesser to get it to size. I jointed the sides using the No. 7 and ran them through the table saw to get them perfectly square. A few passes with the No. 4 and the saw marks were cleared creating a tight fitting joint. These were joined into panels using biscuits and PVA wood glue. More biscuits and some pocket-holes got the chest assembled. A few passes over the joins with the No. 3  to clean the edges and it was perfect. A live edge lip completed the lid and 4 coats of polyurethane for a long lasting satin finish completed the piece. 

The finish on this is beautiful. Several coast of silky polyurethane and a polish with teak oil and it creates a hard wearing surface that is water, stain, and baby resistant.
The finish on this is beautiful. Several coats of silky polyurethane and a polish with teak oil and it creates a hard wearing surface that is water, stain, and baby resistant.

For the long haul, I purchased a second hand industrial quality 8 inch jointer. It has been refurbished and I am still tweaking it, but can flatten and joint relatively quickly now. The No. 7 and No.4 are in regular use to create clean sharp sides and finish joined boards.

Happy to have a new jointer. It still needs some tuning and restoration, but it runs really well.
Happy to have a new jointer. It still needs some tuning and restoration, but it runs really well.

As for my other hand tools: I dug out the Stanley sureform that accompanied the inherited No. 3, and replaced the rasp blade. Its now regularly used to cut and rough shape pieces. I also sourced a Stanley No 80 Scraper for adding a silky smooth finish. I have started using chisels more often. My planes are now in constant use and mounted in easy reach of my vice.  I am still some way away from hand cut dovetail joints, but that is starting to look less and less intimidating.