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This is where I write about the projects I have worked on or issues of more general interest to me as a joiner and carpenter. Please feel free to add your comments below any of the posts.

By dbcjoinery, Jun 3 2015 01:33PM

While I never stopped woodworking completely, I had a spell where I could only work part-time after a shoulder injury and during which I wrote a PhD on Michel Foucault, the French philosopher. Foucault is often called a post-structuralist thinker, and post-structuralism arose, among other reasons, to displace a dominant paradigm in continental philosophy known as phenomenology, particularly existential phenomenology ... stick with me I will get to woodworking. In my academic days I was dismissive and a bit sniffy towards phenomenology and existentialism because I inherited Foucault's prejudice towards them, but every now and then something comes up in my workshop that leads me to believe the phenomenologists had a few worthy points.

Most good philosophical systems have an identifiable starting point; a sort of ground zero from which they build an understanding, or at least a description, of human thought, the nature of truth, the meaning of objects and so on. For rationalists like Descartes or Spinoza this ground zero is human reasoning, for empiricists like Hume and Locke it is experience of the world, for post-structuralists like Foucault and Derrida it is the hidden prejudices in our historical community or language.

For the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre this ground zero was existence. He famously said in the 1940s that "existence precedes essence". He argued that previous philosophers had mistakenly seen things the other way around. They had believed that the essence of something, that is, what it essentially, and finally, 'is' comes first and its existence comes later. One of his examples of this misguided way of thinking was the common perception of a paper knife. "We wouldn’t produce a paper knife without knowing what it’s for,” he said. Anyone who has been a woodworker can see the problem with this way of thinking. The handle of my tool box started off as a broomstick and the oak raised panels in my cupboard door samples started off as tongue and groove boards from Spitalfields market. This timber was not essentially a broom handle or floorboards first, no, it existed as a workable form that carpenters could shape into an object. And an object that furthermore was never essentially and finally settled into a given form as, with the intervention of skilled hands, it could always be reformed into something else. Anyone who has ever learned to use a lathe with a piece of scrap timber - hey this is fun, maybe this could be a table leg prototype; now its more of a chair leg; now a candlestick; oh no, not another chisel handle - knows that when it comes to existence preceding essence woodworkers were way ahead of Sartre.

However, the phenomenologist who stalks my joinery is really the German thinker Martin Heidegger. While it is difficult to pin down exactly what the ground zero for this confusing thinker was, one candidate is the 'there-ness' of the objects that surround us. This sounds a bit difficult but luckily for us Heidegger actually uses the example of a carpenter in his only long book Being and Time. He states that an experienced carpenter hammering nails doesn't even necessarily concentrate on hammer or nails. In this woodworker's mind, hammer and nails are not fully 'there' and have become what Heidegger calls 'ready to hand'. Now I've been practising my trade long enough that I can quite easily nail in a whole row of noggings while being completely preoccupied by how long it is to the next smoko break or why the plumber hasn't shown up yet. If you've ever arrived at your destination without really remembering the details of changing gears, indicating, putting on the hand brake and locking the car door you can probably relate to this.

For Heidegger, and here comes his impact for me, the there-ness of things often doesn't show up until you go wrong. Hit your thumb with the hammer and that thumb and hammer are suddenly very there. This was brought home to me early last year while I was making a stable door for a customer in Colchester. I dry fitted all the pieces together without the glue and was satisfied with the fit. I took it all apart, got the glue and clamps out and locked the workshop door so nobody could come in and distract me lest the glue set before the door had been set square. One of the door stiles, which I always leave a bit long until after my doors are assembled, had a splinter at the end which had kept catching on my shirt. Before I started the gluing I drew a neat pencil line close to end of the stile and cut it on the drop saw. Disaster. I cut the wrong pencil line. It was now too short. Nothing that I could remember had ever been more 'there' than that piece of hardwood. I had spent hours on it: milling it from rough sawn, cutting mortices and making grooves. I marvelled at its 'there-ness'. How could I have been such an idiot? How could that stile be too short? How could that too-short stile be so startlingly 'there'?

I was regarding the truncated piece of timber 'there' on the saw bench with German laughter mocking me from inside my head when a quiet French voice consoled me that at least it was now good for three or four chisel handles.


Heidegger (right) cuts timber to exactly the right length
Heidegger (right) cuts timber to exactly the right length

By dbcjoinery, May 4 2015 09:21PM

I was asked recently to build a small piece of built-in kitchen furniture for a customer in a neighbouring village at the same time as altering some 1930s doors and fitting some benchtops. They have an existing kitchen made up from free-standing Ikea units, some new and some from eBay. This kitchen, as I understand it, was installed by the customers themselves and looks fabulous.

What unites this Scandinavian-inspired kitchen, which is made up of pieces from different ranges, is that every piece is made from solid birch with an oiled finish. As these customers had an extra piece of countertop I was asked to make a small built-in half table/bench to create another work surface for them in an awkward space in the room.

Birch is a lovely straight-grained hardwood that, if properly prepared, is great for wet areas. As birch-veneered plywood is commonly available in the UK I didn't imagine that getting solid birch would be a problem. I was wrong about that.

I started by calling my regular suppliers, who just gave me a flat-out no. "No birch. We don't sell it. You can't get it." Now I know these guys, they know what they're talking about and they will bend over backwards to help you out if they can. They've never said no like that to me before, but I just couldn't believe them. I reasoned that birch is plentiful, beautiful and grown not too far away in Scandinavia; a part of the world which harvests a lot of birch sustainably and from which several other species are shipped to the UK in bulk with only a minimal carbon footprint.

Furthermore, I thought, I can't be the only joiner in Britain that has been asked to match Ikea furniture. So I hit the woodworkers' forums and heard from a few other tradesmen who had also failed to find solid birch. Refusing to give up, I spent a whole morning searching online and by phone, calling nearly two dozen UK suppliers and importers. I eventually found someone who'd sell me some birch, but I would have to pay for a whole container-load and as I only needed two or three cubic feet this wasn't going to happen.

By chance I was at the Southeast England Woodworker's show the following weekend and spent 10 minutes bending the ear of a guy who sells scores of timber species for woodturning, telling him about my dilemma. While he couldn't get me any birch, he did suggest limewood was similar enough in grain and colour to pass as birch. I had never worked with limewood and I associated this species with carving, not furniture-making.

Luckily a local supplier of exotic species had just received a pallet of limewood and I drove up to have a look. I took a sample around to the customers' house with various oiled finishes on it and we agreed on one that was a close match, so the furniture was made from this. While I was disappointed that the dust from cutting and milling was rather odourless and didn't make the workshop smell as nice and fruity as its name suggests, what a fantastic hardwood lime is to work with. If I could afford it, I'd go back to buy the rest.

Anyway, there are a couple of pictures below. Unfortunately in these images the legs and skirts are not yet oiled, so are still looking too pale. If you want to get in touch to tell me you have some solid birch for sale, please don't for a few weeks lest you break my heart.


By dbcjoinery, Apr 22 2015 07:21PM

Recently I had to source some uncommon timber and, via Ebay, stumbled upon a fantastic local supplier I'd never heard of before. Feuillus Fencing operate out of some converted agricultural buildings in Manningtree on the north-east Essex border. What a place. Honestly, they could open up their storerooms as a timber species museum and charge admission.

Being hopeless with names I've already forgotten that of the nice bloke who runs the place, but he took 15 minutes out of his day to show me around when I called in to pick up my stock. Feuillus is far from your average pine and oak timber yard.

As I understand it, they started off making fences and gates from hardy species such as cedar and mahogany but, finding them difficult to source, started buying in bulk themselves. While they still do the fencing, over time they have gained a reputation in the trade as buyers of hard-to-get species who are happy to buy smaller quantities and shorter lengths.

They have a thriving eBay business where they sell smaller quantities to musical instrument makers, boat builders, furniture makers, turners and hobbyists; 5,000 eBay transactions without negative feedback is an impressive record.

While I was there I saw, amongst other popular species, Mahogany, Iroko, Maple, Teak, Sapele, Walnut, Ash, Tulip wood and Lime wood. However, most of their stock I couldn't even identify: hardwoods with tiger stripes, burls and unusual figuring literally clog up one of their storerooms. I was like a kid in a candy store.

I was introduced to Red Grandis (Eucalyptus Grandis) which is currently being touted as the hardwood of the future. This is a plantation-grown species that looks great and has just been given Forest Stewardship Council certification due to its plentiful supply and in the hope that it will curtail the importing of non-sustainable species.

If you've ever been on holiday somewhere relatively unusual and unknown and had an amazing time you're faced with a dilemma: you know you're going back again but if you tell too many people how great the place is it might get spoilt. That's how I feel about Feuillus. This post may be taken down tomorrow.


Dragon wood from Feuillus
Dragon wood from Feuillus
Walnut from Feuillus
Walnut from Feuillus
Wenge from Feuillus
Wenge from Feuillus
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