Read my entertaining (and informative) “Woodwright’s Shop Review” blog- the guide to season two, episode two has just been finished. Take a lighthearted look at a very young Roy Underhill as he builds a candle stand from Miss Maggie’s walnut tree, wraps his thong around the lathe, and tells us how to keep splinters out of our crotches!
The following article is a commentary written by Stumpy Nubs which includes his description of the episode, thoughts and additional content. Only the phrases within quotation marks are the exact words of Roy Underhill.
Today Roy is “especially glad” we are joining him in the Woodwright’s Shop because we are going to be working with some “excellent wood”. We’re building a candle stand, which is a perfect project for those who need an entire piece of furniture upon which to set a candle! But this one is special because it comes with a story. You see, a couple of years back Roy heard a “terrible crash” during an ice storm. As it turned out, Miss Maggie’s big walnut tree had come down! What was a strapping young Woodwright to do? He picked up his ax and cleaned up the mess, all in exchange for the supple brown wood, some of which he began turning into a candle stand for Miss Maggie. Alas, Maggie passed before Roy’s wine powered lathe could complete the job. So it is in her honor that we explore this project today.
A candle stand includes “a lot of turnery”. From the top to the post, much of it is made on the lathe. Except for the cabriole legs (cab-re-ol), so called because “they look like a leaping goat”. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we can begin dovetailing the leg sockets we have to find some more of Miss Maggie’s wood. Lucky for us, Roy has half a tree laying on the floor of the shop, bark and all. A couple of years after its demise, the tree appears to be as worse for wear as Miss Maggie. But Roy shows us how to judge the soundness of the heartwood by the sound a hatchet makes when you strike the end. Sure enough, it only takes a little chopping to get to the candle stand grade material within. His point is that you shouldn’t dismiss an old punky log when you come upon one near the site of an old house in the woods, presumable by the light of a full moon as most such discoveries are made. Ask the owner if you can have it and you may be in candle stands for a very long time. Walnut is a unique wood. The pith in walnut is always chambered with little diaphragms running down its length. That’s the best way to identify a walnut tree, assuming you miss the fact that it is a deep brown color.
Off to the shaving horse! If you don’t have a fancy treadle powered lathe you can actually create the entire stand with a drawknife. Roy insists that he’s seen some excellent examples made that way, but I have my doubts. And evidently he has some too, because he’s soon transferring his debarked billet from the horse to the lathe. Before long his leg is pumping and the shavings are flying as Roy notes the importance of studying turnery. You don’t need a book, you only need a few old examples to copy. Roy appears to be copying an example of a candle stand post he made before the show began, which he now pulls out to reveal the completed profile. Tossing the half turned version to the floor, he produces the stand’s upper block. This disc has been shaped with a turning saw, but it is soon fitted upon the end of the post and the whole thing is back in the lathe for more turning. He’s hardly finished before he begins applying bees wax, using his finger tips to spread it onto the spinning post. “Don’t do this unless you’re as crazy as I am!” he warns. “This will burn your hands right up!” I’m not worried. It’s not as if he’s prone to workshop injuries, right?
A second disc is added to the assembly, a larger one that will serve as the top. The entire thing now goes back into the lathe for shaping- or at least nearly so. Because at this point it occurs to Roy that you may not have a two hundred year old treadle lathe upon which to turn your candle stand. You may have to use a tree branch to power your lathe. What would you do then? Not to worry, Roy takes his stand over to his spring pole lathe to demonstrate how quickly he can get his thong wrapped around it. No, he doesn’t get too close and get his underwear sucked off. This “thong” is a leather strap that wraps around the candle stand’s post and attaches to a sapling growing out of the shop’s rafters above. This style of lathe is much more powerful due to its direct drive operation, and as such it may be better suited for turning the large top of the stand. But enough of this hi-tech turnery, it’s time to make the legs.
Roy found a leg pattern in a library book, which he now traces onto a slab of Miss Maggie’s tree. We may not be turning the legs as we did the rest of the candle stand, but we are using a “turning saw”. This ancient bow saw design takes its name from its ability to “turn corners”. The old-timey woodworkers weren’t very creative when it came to naming their tools, were they? Roy starts at the “toe”, saws up the “shins” and exits the wood at the “knee”. Soon he has a roughed out leg, which he smooths and shapes with a spoke shave. Your candle stand will require three of these legs, and Roy happens to have a set already finished, which is fortunate because he’s out of breath. I suppose I would be too is I’d just turned a log into the parts of a candle stand in just shy of sixteen minutes!
But we’re not entirely finished, we still have to cut the dovetails that join the legs to the stand’s post. Roy uses a cutting gauge to lay his joint out on the end of one of the legs. Cutting gauges aren’t just for layout, they are actual woodworking tools. They cut the wood fibers, creating a kerf that may be widened with a sharp chisel or a saw to form the joint’s shoulder. He also uses his chisel to cut the beveled side of the dovetail because he doesn’t have a traditional sliding dovetail plane. Today he could just log onto eBay and pick one up, but this is 1982 Roy, and he has to make do with what he has. Hand beveling the legs of an eighteenth century candle stand is just another day’s work for our young Woodwright. Grain direction is an important consideration, of course: “As you slide down the banister of life, may all the splinters go in your direction!” While we are forced to imagine Roy filling his tenders with splinters as he straddles a stair rail, he finishes shaping his dovetail. Now we have to create the matching slots in the post.
Roy takes his leg in hand and transfers the shape of the dovetail onto the end of the candle stand’s post, carefully tracing around it with an awl. He uses a saw to make a “stopping cut”, so called “because it stops what you are about to do next.” He uses his chisel to create a flat on the side of his post, splitting away the material from the end. Sure enough, the stopping cut prevents the entire side of the post from splitting away. Now he uses an auger to bore a hole just below the location of the stopping cut, judging the depth so that it goes no deeper than the dovetail requires. The hole gives the toe of his saw a place to go as he uses it to cut along the sides of his flat, angling inward to form the proper bevel angle. A chisel is used to chop out the waste and we’ve got the sliding dovetail slot in about seven minutes. I am quite certain that my “seven minute slot” wouldn’t be even close to the right shape for my dovetail, and Roy warns that a fit that is too tight will crack the candle stand. But he uses a chisel to customize the fit and the heel of his hand to persuade the leg into its place. All that is left to do is cut away the little nub that was left on the top at the lathe and you will finally have a place to set your candle, which is the perfect way to end this episode of the Woodwright’s Shop!
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