The Thing-ness of Psycho

About 25 minutes into Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho (1960), Janet Leigh - in an effort to escape her fate which we know will ultimately be fruitless - stops at a used car dealership. She has the idea of replacing her car to help cover her tracks.

A laid-back salesman emerges and they have a chat in front of his office, a building which appears to be made from painted brick. He shows her a car, one of those heavy 50's models we know so well from the boom years of American consumerism, all steel and chrome, leather seats and perhaps a wooden dashboard. In her anxiety she instantly agrees to buy it at the opening price he proposes, a response he's not used to and which immediately makes him suspicious. She goes into the small toilet and gets $700 from her handbag to pay for the car.

She drives away, her mind feverish with a combination of memories from the last 24 hours and scenes she is creating in her rising panic. In the background, strings repeat a simple, chilling refrain as day slips into evening and finally into a filthy black night. The poorly lit road becomes almost invisible beneath exaggerated washes of heavy rain. With relief she sees a neon sign advertising a motel, and she pulls off the road.

We don't see much of this motel until later in the film, when the now-deceased woman's sister has come with her boyfriend to try and discover what has happened to her. In daylight we can see the motel for what it is: a handmade building, perhaps made from white or yellow pine, with a shingle roof.

Watching this extraordinary film for the first time in 30 years, what struck me as much as the wonderful imagery and dark, brooding menace which pervades every frame is the know-ability of the surfaces and materials we encounter in every scene. Janet Leigh's woollen dress and heavy leather suitcase, the steel and brick, stone and concrete and wood from which the buildings and cars are made. Despite this era seeing the emergence of plastics and the modern chemistry that will inevitably lead, like Norman Bates to the shower curtain, to the proliferation of modern materials, I imagine that an educated person of the time would have a pretty good idea of the nature of almost everything that he or she would encounter in an average day. It is the last time that this will be the case.

I can't even name the stuff from which so much is made today. The stuff that touchscreens and electronics are made from. Whatever that stuff is that clads modern commercial buildings. That smooth shiny brightly coloured laminate that petrol stations and coffee chains use to create a brand identity. The grey stuff from which my van's dashboard is made. What's that? Exactly what is making the light when I turn on my new bike light? When I bought the light, I put a debit card into a slot in a grey box and entered four numbers. Although I could have done, I didn't take cloth banknotes from a leather wallet to make the transaction. Instead I accessed a bank's servers via a wireless modem. Or something. Don't press me on it. Modern materials are amazing, but part of that amazement is a product of their inscrutability. 

One of the last common materials we still encounter in the modern world which we can truly know is wood. We may not know its species or even the continent from which it emerged, but we can, with little effort, imagine the environment from which the wood came. Until it became your chopping board or your chair (or your motel), the entire lifetime of the tree it was made from was spent in a large, quiet forest, surrounded by other trees and besieged on all sides by birds, insects, mammals and other vegetation. We know this, even if we don't consider it very often. I think this knowledge makes the presence of that wooden object in our lives calming and comforting, and I think it makes its presence more important than ever.

Have you ever walked into a house with more than the usual amount of solid timber in its fixtures and fittings - perhaps solid wooden floors, the furniture all made from solid wood, pictures in wooden frames on the walls - and felt something like an immediate inner sigh of pleasure and peace? I have, and I look for that feeling more and more as I move through the modern world. As we are besieged on all sides by the unknowable stuff of modern life, we must work harder to find the truly knowable, and to bring it into our lives. 

Extending table

Our one commission that had to be done before Christmas this year has been a slightly unusual oak table which extends to create two more place settings.

Typically, the extending section fits into a space created by pulling two halves of the tabletop apart. However these customers wanted the extension to attach to one end. This would mean that when the table is not extended, which is 99% of the time, the tabletop is one harmonious surface with no seam across the middle. 

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The way a standard extending table is made means that the small extension piece is supported by the structure of the table's frame when it's in use. It also means the extension can be located with little dowels or something similar, and the table's surfaces are always on an even plane. We didn't have either of these luxuries (and they started to feel like luxuries as we tackled the design challenges), so we had to create a shallow drawer into which the extending part fitted, and which supports it when it is in use.

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After the extension is removed from it, the drawer is slid back in to a point where the extension can be dropped into locating cutouts in its top edges. Small clips pull the two surfaces together tightly, and finally two wedges are rotated underneath, between the tabletop and the drawer, to stiffen the structure up. The judicious application of a little candle wax and the drawer runs easily, and the solution works.

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A couple of hand-cut dovetails and a pleasing cut out for a handle finish the appearance of the drawer part off nicely. Delivery tomorrow - I hope the customer is pleased.

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Poetry and prose

I originally trained in fine art, and the work we make is still very influenced by concerns which apply equally to the sculptor as the furniture maker. At root both professions are similar, in the sense that they are both dealing with our relationship to three dimensional objects in space, and the fact that one ultimately creates something more practically useful than the other doesn't mean that a lot about the approach to the work isn't very similar. 

For a while I thought I might make sculptures as well as furniture. I was commissioned by a KFC restaurant to make several very large pieces of sculpture, and it allowed me free rein to make real some shapes and ideas that had been appearing in my furniture making work since I had begun.

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Forms crushed, curling, flapping in the wind. I was able to play with the material of laminated birch plywood at scale, reveling in the impracticality and humour implicit in the work, and I was very proud of the pieces when they were finished. I got fantastic photos of them before they were delivered, changed my business's strapline to 'Extraordinary Furniture and Sculpture', and wondered if I would get any more orders. Would I become a part-time sculptor alongside my furniture-making?

In fact, I think the images of these sculptures on the website proved more of an inspiration than a guideline to people browsing the gallery, and much of the work I have made since (they are ten years old now) has had sculptural aspects to it, whilst still being useful and practicable furniture.

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Craft inspired by art

abstract art door

Several years ago a customer commissioned us to make a set of sliding doors inspired by an abstract painting she had seen in The Guardian newspaper one weekend. The painting was a composition of bold fields of colour interrupted by slim horizontal lines cutting through and between them. It brought to mind a kind of abstract landscape. 

We combined native coloured ash and American black walnut to create landscapes of our own. Four doors interact across a space, alternately connected and separate, forming their own images as they slide past each other.

This understair shelving is remarkably bespoke

These pictures show shelves which we installed in the under stair alcove in a house in Stannington, Sheffield. The shape of this space is very irregular, as you can see, and a scale drawing and a full-sized plan on hardboard was required to ensure the final work would fit. 

Not only did all the shelving need to fit this very particular space (see the left hand side as it tracks the stairwell), but there were requirements for a certain amount of shelving at 36cm or more, and a certain amount around 14cm high for CDs. We also created a shelf specifically proportioned for a beautiful pot by Emilie Taylor, who was artist in residence at Manor Oaks Studios some years ago, and created a series of works during this time.

I emailed Emilie to ask her about the pot, and this is what she told me:

"The pot is 'Kyle & Danny I'. The background is the view across Sheffield from Skye Edge, the young lad is stood on what was once a deer park, an area now used by young people in the evening. I worked with young men that use this outdoor space as part of an engagement programme funded by Green Estate and Yorkshire Artspace in 2007, and the young men made their own ceramics about issues of gender and masculinity important to them as teenagers. 'Kyle & Danny' was one of the pots I made after this response to working with the young people.

"I'm pleased it has a permanent home in Sheffield with people who have a connection to the estate through their own work histories".

Carved oak reader's chair

A school a few minutes from us here at Manor Lane has commissioned us to make a chair to live in a green space in their grounds. Pupils will sit in a group around a teacher on the chair as he or she reads to them. The chair also commemorates a much loved teacher from the school, Karen Machin-Cowen, who was an inspiration to many pupils.

We have made the chair from oak, an obvious choice for furniture which will live outdoors as its high tannin content resists insect and fungal attack, the very things that will turn your pine planter to dust in a few years. We spent many hours making two pine mock-ups of the chair, for several reasons: we only have a limited supply of air-dried oak (an excellent limitation on any project really, as it focuses the mind and makes the furniture better in my experience); I wanted the chair to be comfortable, and it's very easy to make an uncomfortable chair; and because the chair is living outdoors I wanted every aspect of its design to aid its longevity, meaning water wouldn't pool anywhere and joints would be projected.

The school showed me a picture they had found on the internet of a design they liked. Needless to say, I thought I could do better.

I started by making pine mock ups. The first was just screwed together, and its main purpose was to get the proportions and the ergonomics correct. I made the second, on the right, using the joints I will use for the final chair. 

Once I had the design worked out, I brought my few pieces of air-dried oak into the workshop, and began to convert them. Some of it used to be fingerposts in the Peak District and you can still see the writing on the side.

I made the front and back legs, and the mortises in the arms to receive them. Then I worked out the size of the rails which join them, and made these from the oak:

The chair was starting to take shape. The most complicated joints (between legs and the arms) had been made, and the next step was to fit the seat pieces and begin the process of carving the hands that will decorate the ends of the arms. I began by grinding the ends of the arms with some initial planes and faces, trying to get a good starting point for the more detailed carving:

I added a suggestion of fingers and thumb, and then worked carefully to create hands that were both figurative carvings and at the same time the natural continuation of the chair's arms:

I could now stick the frame together, for which I needed to make a cramping aid from plywood off-cuts. This allowed me to apply pressure to the gluing joints despite there being no parallel faces on which to place sash cramps:

Finally I needed to make the back pieces, which would come from the large board of oak you saw in the picture above. By chance this board turned out to have some brown staining in it, caused by the benign beafsteak fungus which enters the living oak and sets up home within the tree. When felled and dried the fungus is revealed as attractive patches of dark colour, and I could use this when choosing the pieces for the back.

And so the construction was finished. All that remained (apart from finishing with Osmo UV protection oil), was to carve a small dedication to Karen on the central panel of the back.

Performing this last, careful task in this long process of design and making brought me right back to the reason why this chair was being commissioned in the first place, and it was a moving experience to carve this dedication to a much loved teacher.

The pieces were oiled and the chair was finished:

The chair has since been tested by friends and family.

New old sycamore shelves for a cottage kitchen

We've been commissioned to make a pair of L-shaped shelves for a kitchen in a beautiful stone cottage in Grenoside. The interior of this cottage has been very sympathetically decorated, with the walls carefully plastered to create no sharp corners, and the customers want these shelves to fit with this softened, older feel of the space.

This means making new shelves to look like old shelves, which is always a challenge. Aging a piece has to be done in a subtle manner. There's plenty of brand new old-looking furniture out there, and for an obvious reason. If you make work which looks old and a bit battered, you don't need to take much care with the material and the work as it moves around the workshop. In fact, dents and scratches and areas of break-out from the planing process are all to be welcomed. Your final job before finishing the work is going to be to hit it with a hammer a few times, grind the (already bashed) corners off with a belt sander, and scrape it with a sharp point. The very thought goes through me and makes me shudder. We don't take this approach in our work. 

With this commission, the shelves wanted to feel like they were part of the fabric of this old building, and we took snaps of a couple of other items in the kitchen - a chopping board and the leading edge of a butcher's block which has been incorporated into the relatively new kitchen, to guide us as we worked. The work needed to appear softened and worn smooth by time.

We sourced a piece of sycamore from Treestation in Manchester, a project which makes use of Manchester's street trees as they are felled, converting them for biomass, chip, firewood and (thankfully) boarding up the good wide boles for use by woodworkers. This is the board we bought.

After making templates on site we began the process of shaping this new timber to create the feel of being 200 years old...

We fitted the shelves over oak battens, hiding their means of support, and took a couple of snaps straight afterwards.

We just got these photos of the shelves, now loaded with pots and pans, from the happy customers.

Glazed box for Su Blackwell

At the end of last year, Su Blackwell got in touch and ordered a display box for one of her sculptures. This one was to be displayed in a box with glass on three sides.

She recently sent us a picture of the box with its sculpture inside. 

An interesting chamfer

We are coming to the end of a job we've been on for a while. It involves making a new tabletop from cherry to attach to an existing set of legs, and also an extension (and a pair of legs to support it) for the table, to allow a couple of extra place settings at Christmas and other big bashes.

The challenge in this commission has been making the undercut profile that mimics the chamfered edge of the previous top. This was a piece of 18mm birch plywood with an interesting, stripy veneer on its upper face. This top had radiused corners and a 30 degree chamfer around its edge, and we had to find a way to recreate these details on our replacement top. For the chamfer, we had to make a jig to produce that angle consistently and neatly with a router.

This jig was simple as they go - it had to provide a plane angled consistently and evenly at 30 degrees from flat, needed to have a fence onto which the edge of the router would run, and must be able to be securely fixed down to the tabletop. Here it is:

The jig allowed the chamfer to be created on straight edges. The radiused corner, I realised, needed to be made by hand. This turned out to be a real pleasure. I drew the radii on the top and bottom (16mm different), and then cut off the bulk of the waste with an angled jigsaw. I then worked carefully with a sharp chisel to pare away the waste until i was left with a series of tiny flats, which i removed with a spokeshave. It was delicate work, involving a combination of care and confidence (for it wouldn't be done unless each cut was made, and finishing up a hair from the final line, despite the desire to be tentative).

Finally the last work was done with 120g, then 150g, then 180g sandpaper. To the touch the straight edges transitioned smoothly into the handmade corners and back out again, a perfect marriage of handwork and machine tools.

Next, the challenge was repeated (and increased) when I had to produce a corresponding edge on the extending section. Where the end of this meets the end of the main tabletop, an interesting female part had to be created. The same processes created this edge:

We used a flap wheel to sand the inner radius, and the result was (I'm pleased to say) very neat.

And most importantly, when lined up, the two tabletops fitted together very neatly.

We applied four coats of Finney's hard glaze on to the table, and delivered it to the customers just in time for Christmas.

Drawing on wood

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We delivered these two wardrobes yesterday. Made entirely from birch plywood, they feature very unusual doors. These have been designed by the customers themselves - the images on them have been created by CNC. In other words, a computer guided router cut them out. 

The images were hand drawn, scanned into a computer, converted into a file a CNC machine can understand, and the machine used a 6mm diameter cutter to cut 1.6mm down into the surface of the plywood, to reveal the next ply down. Because the grain runs left to right in this lower ply (rather than up and down like the top layer) the light catches it differently, and the effect is subtle, a slightly shimmering pattern that is sometimes darker than the rest of the surface, sometimes lighter.

The customer summed it up best I think: "I'm blown away."

Our biggest box for Su Blackwell yet

Here is paper artist Su Blackwell's partner moving her latest display box, a behemoth 1.7m high and 1.1m wide, made from solid ash panels joined with dovetails at the corners. The box will house a sculpture Su made for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (that's not a real horse looking on, by the way).

We made the joints for the box using a Leigh dovetail jig. Most jigs that simplify the time-consuming business of making dovetails have restrictions on the width of the work you can insert into them. To use the Leigh jig you first make a wooden frame that the jig sits on, and there is no restriction on the length you can make this frame, so you could theoretically make dovetailed joints of any length at all (a dovetailed shed, anyone?)

However the length of the box parts (the sides being 1.7m long) meant we had to make a way of routing the dovetails at some height above the bench. Cue a lot of messing around with tables and 4-stone weights. This is how we did it:

It does produce an incredibly neat and regular set of dovetails, as you can see. Sticking this immense construction together required rather a lot of our sash cramps.

Some very delicate joints

This is probably the most delicate joinery I've ever done. As I've mentioned in this blog before, we make the display boxes for Su Blackwell, internationally-renowned paper artist.

They are almost always solid ash timber, with a single window at the front and a removable back through which Su inserts the work. However she was recently commissioned to make a sculpture which will be displayed on a boardroom table somewhere in North America, and requires a display box with three sides and the top all made from glass.

The piece being so delicate, and the display box relatively small (35cm wide internally, and 25cm deep), Su asked that the wooden bead which will form the edges of the glazed faces be as slim as possible. I decided that it would be possible for it to be 12mm square. Each section has to include two grooves for glass 4.5mm wide and 3mm deep, leaving very little material at the junctions to form any kind of joint.

The tolerances on this piece were tiny. I had about .25mm to play with left and right on the intersection of the grooves in the base and back into the grooves in the beading. I had to make a joint that would be sound where the beading meets the main pieces, and I used a 10mm beech dowel. Drilling accurately placed holes into end-grain is very difficult, so I drilled four 10mm diameter holes into an ash piece, and then made the beads from this, meaning I could centre these holes in the machining process. I glued the dowels in before the grooves were added on the tablesaw, meaning the grooves carry on into the dowels. Needless to say, it's all very fiddly.

I then had to create a joint where the beads intersect, at the top of the two vertical pieces and where the three horizontal pieces meet at the corners. There really was nothing whatsoever to play with. I started with the mitre joint that joins the horizontal pieces. I butted these mitres together, and then made the smallest part I think I've yet made in my career - two pieces of 4mm birch plywood, 5.5mm square with a 1mm x 1mm square taken out of one corner of each. This was glued into the groove at the meeting point of the mitre, reinforcing it somewhat and creating more of a flat face for the vertical elements to meet. I then made two dowels around 2.5mm in diameter, and fitted these into the ends of the vertical beads. I drilled a corresponding hole into the 4mm plywood section, and this created the joint at the meeting points of the three pieces of beading.

As joints these are obviously not particularly robust, but they have enough strength for the job, which is the main thing. Once the box is assembled and the glass is inserted, the box is very sound. 

Su's main worry, once the work has been installed, is going to be the customs officials at the U.S. border, who have taken her work apart before to check it before allowing it into the country. Here's hoping they don't try and get into this box in a hurry...

Wany-edged oak dining table

In the summer of 2009 I got a call from a young man called Matt Barry. He'd just finished a masters in design at Sheffield Hallam University and he was wondering if I had a job for him, or if he could work as an intern or do design work for me. Anything, basically, to get started making or being involved in designing and making furniture. I get these kinds of calls quite a lot, for obvious reasons (I make contemporary furniture in a city with not very many other people doing it), and as can happen from time to time, Matt was lucky with his timing. I was pretty snowed under with things to make, and on top of everything else I was working on I'd just been commissioned to create some teaching aids for a school as part of the Creative Partnerships programme. 

The stuff we made together called on exactly the kind of unfettered free-thinking approach that Matt turned out to have, as they say, in spades. 

Matt ended up staying with us for a couple of years, creating many very good visualisations for potential jobs and picking up good making skills as he went along. Eventually he got a job at Howden's, the kitchen manufacturing firm, and moved to Beverley with his girlfriend. We have stayed in touch, and last year he commissioned us to make a dining table using wany-edged oak for the top and chunky sections of pine for the base. Being both a designer and a whizz with the right kind of software, he had designed the table in every detail himself, and sent me plans and visualisations.

I got the oak from John Boddy Timber in Boroughbridge, an immense single slab of medium pippy oak 15' long and about 2' wide, broadening to closer to 4' near the tree's base. It was 2 1/4" thick and weighed the proverbial ton.

The job was to cut the slab in half, rip one of the edges off each piece, and join the two together on the long edge. There is an extra level of complication with any job involving pieces of material at the limits of what is physically possible to move around, and a further set of challenges when pieces are wany-edged. The relatively simple act of biscuiting the two pieces together is much more of a challenge because it's so hard to get a good joint when the pieces are massive and weighty, and when sash cramps are struggling to get purchase on an organic edge that needs to be protected from the potential damage that crampheads naturally tend to cause in the sappy bit of oak when you tighten them up .

However we cracked it, and the top was set onto the pine understructure that Mat had designed:

We made a day trip out of delivering it. We set it up in Matt's dining room, and immediately ate lunch from it.

Knife and fork trivets

James Boardwell, founder of Folksy, contacted us to discuss a commission in November 2011.The Folksy website is a marketplace used by hundreds of small makers across the country to sell their own handmade pieces, and Folksy had decided to launch a range of their own. These pieces were to be made by some of the makers on the site itself, which is why they came to us. We came up with the idea of a knife-and-fork trivet, made from small hardwood off-cuts that we keep for jobs just like this. This means they are largely oak, ash and beech, with the occasional one being made from walnut or sycamore.

The trivets have little silicon feet to keep them in place on a smooth surface, and the lap joint in the middle is further reinforced with a small length of pine dowel. The whole piece is sealed with hot linseed oil (in other words, we deep fry it for a few seconds in a fryer we keep for just this purpose).

Folksy got lots of good press for the project, and the trivets received the preponderance of its attention. Channel 4 called them a 'design classic in the making', and they were featured in Homes and Gardens in Scotland, and in the Daily Mail on Saturday. The first batch of 50 sold out within a couple of months, and we made a second batch to keep up with demand. Folksy's own supplies have now been exhausted, but we have quite a few in stock. They are £19 + delivery, or two for £36 + delivery. Contact us for more info, or to order.