Ambry on Stand Part Deux

The holidays are over and the new year has begun.  Very little progress over the holidays, much to my dismay, but things have picked back up again.  My self-imposed deadline of Easter looks near impossible, so I think May will be the best I can do.  What can I say?

This is mostly a catch up post.  I’m further along than this, into the marquetry portion of the project, but I’ll write about that in a few days.  Some of that hasn’t gone so well but I think we are now on track finally. Let’s just say we are on Plan B for marquetry.

When last we left the project, the carcass was fit out with sides and a top.  Next was to build the back and innards.  The back is a simple frame and panel with a bird’s eye veneer panel. Some time was spent aligning the center stile with the center divider that is not actually on center (on purpose!)


Once the back was in place, I could move on to fitting the interior panels.


This will eventually just glue into place.  The center panel is veneered on both sides with nice clear maple, then the interior sides and bottom/top lock it into place.  The center panel is let into a dado in the back panel and a dado added to the center front divider.


Here the front boards are all fit in.  Not shown is that the top and bottom of this are all mortise and tenoned into the sides.  It would have been simple(r) to just plan to nail and glue but I really want this whole thing to be well joined up and durable.  When I got to this point I felt pretty good.


Also not shown is the panel hiding the lighting kit transformer.  In the middle of the narrow section is a false back panel held on with rare earth magnets; push in the bottom and it pops out to access the electronics once the back is glued in place.  Not exactly hidden but we’ll call it concealed.  The LED down light is mounted in the top of the narrow section and I placed an inlaid circle of walnut stringing to mark where the bottom oil vessel will sit.  The two shelves will be thick glass which I need to have made.  I think the lighting effect should look nice; the LED looks pretty nice down on dimmer and pick up the color of the maple (even raw).

Finally I built the door.  Again, mortise and tenon construction with a bird’s eye maple show panel.  Glass will be in the other side, set into a rabbet.  I inlaid some heavy stringing of XP (Chi Rho) which is similar to the symbol on the existing ambry.  With some finish the stringing should pop nicely


That was as far as I could take the cabinet, as the next step is to do the marquetry on the side panels.  That’s where I’ll pick this up in the next days.  This will be where the fun really begins….

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Ambry on Stand Part 1

I had the last two weekends to get started on this project.  It will be unlike anything else I’ve ever done, so some new skills to learn and use.  I’ll be making my first attempts at using a vacuum bag, I’ll be building torsion boxes to provide a lightweight but stiff, substantial structure, and I’ll be using bent laminations more than usual.  It should be fun.

Usually I build from solid woods and use traditional techniques.  I’ll use some of that but there will be a lot of plywood too.  I first thought about how to build this using solid wood and quickly realized the number of challenges and sheer weight I would be dealing with.  Plywood torsion boxes are the way to go.  And since I’ve got some curves, I decided using a vacuum bag would help.  It is sort of contemporary after all.

I did my drawings by hand at 3” = 1’-0” scale.  For figuring out the joinery I simply took a piece of MDF and sketched and worked out the sections through the joinery.  I felt well prepared and like I had solved all of the problems before I cut any wood.

So the first step ended up being building a vacuum bag setup.  I spent some time researching this, but in the end I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a setup I may not use frequently.  I could see the usefulness though.  I ended up with a homebrew setup from using a Venturi Pump.

IMG_1433It’s a clever system that uses a compressor (I have a small Porter Cable pancake compressor) to create the vacuum.  I built it over two evenings and it worked the very first time, without any messing around.  I’ve already veneered several panels and the system works well.  I don’t do endorsements but this thing works and seems well thought out.



I started by building the side ribs and frame around which the side panels will wrap.  I built the top and bottom frames and worked out the joinery.  I’m probably the only person that uses dovetail joinery for this sort of design but it’s a pretty strong joint and I like it better than just nailing or screwing.  The joints between the top/bottom and sides will be an over-sized splined joint.  In testing I’m confident this will be a very strong joint and will be completely hidden.


Next I laid up the curved outer panels on the sides.  I used ¼” cabinet grade plywood and urea formaldehyde glue.  I wanted the rigid glue line and no creep.  I debated using the vacuum bag but decided it would be simpler to just use clamps and cauls.  Here you can see my assistant (My dad works for Turkey on the day after Thanksgiving) helping with the clamping.  Easy Peasy.


So here’s where I am after about 9 days of occasional work.  Next up the back panel and interior panels.

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No, really, I’m back

Yes I’ve been gone for a long time. My day job has kept me busy for quite a while. Since this summer I’ve been working on opening several theatres, every one of them not exactly on schedule (not my fault!). Anyway the “CA” and commissioning portions of most of those projects are complete and new design projects are in progress. So for the foreseeable future I have a reasonable amount of paying work in the pipeline. That’s great news.
So my hobby / avocation / passion has suffered a bit. Throw in the usual work around the yard – there are still a lot of leaves to move yet – and it’s hard to get a lot done. Happily I’ve got three personal woodworking projects on my own personal list, and I think all of them will happen in due course. So I’ll talk about them a little bit.

The first project is a commission I’ve had for a long time but we had to organize a couple of people and come up with a design. Finally it all came together and it’s now a “real” project. I’m designing and building an “Ambry” for a catholic church. The ambry is a cabinet, usually secured, holding three sacred or blessed oils. The current ambry in the church is sort of non-descript, hidden and apparently no one has the key, so it goes unused. Do a Google image search on “Catholic ambry” and the variety is remarkable. My patron, who wants to remain anonymous, wants something better. We debated for a long time and I did some sketching, considering a wall cabinet with glass and more interest or a free-standing piece of furniture. I sketched for a while when I had time, first coming up with ideas that I thought meshed well with the church architecture; things that looked stout and secure. Those were rejected (in the nicest way possible). I heard “lighter” and “more artistic”. I showed my patron some images of James Krenov’s (or at least his disciples) work and that was the right direction. So I took some of those concepts and developed a chest on stand, with glass and a fair amount of marquetry that is up my alley. I’ll write more about the project as I finish the drawings and get started. I’m sort of excited about it even though it’s not a style or construction method I use often. Time to stretch out my imagination.


After that project, in the spring, will be a long-delayed remodel of our family’s family room fireplace and mantle. I’ve always hated what was built by the previous owner. I can only describe it as “fugly”. It’s nothing more than brick and a warped slab of wood as a mantle on built-in brick corbels. Utility at its worst. The fireplace is a wood-burning insert. My plan is to cover nearly all the brick with a frame and panel design, columns and a new mantle, with a large marquetry panel over the fireplace. I’ve done some preliminary design work and now that will be shelved to work on the ambry project.

The last project is perhaps the most exciting, and even though it’s likely a year off, it made a great leap forward in October. I’ve had my eye on a piece of furniture at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem. I don’t want to say too much yet, but when I first saw pictures of the piece I was gob-smacked and knew I had to build it. Last month I spent about 5 hours with it, photographing and measuring it, and that only piqued my interest – no my NEED – to make it. It’s going to be a fun, long and expensive project – I must find some wide cherry planks to do it right – but I can’t wait. I’ll document that piece well.

The two original projects are helped by my efforts at improving my design eye. I’m no George Hepplewhite or Thomas Sheraton, but I feel more confident. Walker & Tolpin’s books “By Hand & Eye” and their workbook “By Hound & Eye” (there’s a pun there and it’s a little silly but there’s great information in those books) from Lost Art Press have been a huge help. Those books have reinforced things I learned long ago and forgot how to use. The information is in a fresh format that’s been great. I’ve been to George Walker’s presentations – he’s frequently at my local SAPFM meetings – and there’s always something old that’s new to learn. Read their stuff and that sentence makes sense.
The last thing I’m doing differently is using pencil and paper for most of the design work. In the past I’ve used AutoCAD because I find it easy and I’ve been fairly successful due to my familiarity. But I was trying to improve my eye and proportions – the key to everything – and it’s true that dividers and some basic geometry are better tools than a computer. I’m on the fence and may do my construction details in CAD, but my original designs will be hand drawn from now on. It was fun to work with vellum and pencils again.

That’s the update. Tune in next time to see how I make the ambry. I’m going outside my experience with traditional techniques because that’s what the piece wants. We’ll see if it works. Torsion boxes anyone?

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I’m back….

I couldn’t keep a diary either.  Life gets in the way.

Since my last post I’ve completed two legitimate projects.  I’ll show finished photos below.  I was working on some self-imposed deadlines, so I tended to work and not document too much.  So if you were looking for step-by-step descriptions of the work or process photos, you will be disappointed.  Sorry.  I hope to have a couple of projects in the fall that might encourage me to write more.  But of course now we are in landscaping and house renovation season.  My tools will be shovels, paint brushes, etc…  Boring but we like the outcome.

First, a completely contrived tray.  Not a period piece, but the marquetry is straight out of the recent translation of Roubo’s To Make as Perfectly as Possible.  I made two versions of this tray.  This is the crazier of the two.  The other was our family contribution to the street’s Yankee gift exchange and used only mahogany for the cubes, relying on grain direction, so it’s a bit more subtle.  Tray sides are mahogany.  Substrate under the veneer is 1/4″ MDF since I wanted it to be very stable.  I departed from my normal finishes and used many coats of polyurethane.


Next is something a bit more period-like.  I struggled with what to make but I needed something to do.  I settled on a tea chest as it was a small but focused project.  As usual I did a bit of research and quickly discovered that tea chests are not really an American thing.  Apparently that whole tea party (18th Century, not the more current version) and throwing out the Brits was influential.  Personally I have a cup of Lipton’s finest every morning when I’m home, but coffee has been more popular in the US for centuries.  Tea Chests are a place where you can kind of go crazy with veneer, so I did.  As I was working on it I came to call it the “bling box”.  Could have also been “pimp my tea caddy” but you get the drift.

The design is not based on any one box.  It’s somewhat influenced by Rob Millard’s box at but I didn’t want to copy it exactly.  The basic box came out of Montgomery’s American Furniture: The Federal Period and I came up with my own design after that.


The box itself is sugar pine and mahogany.  The box is a reinforced miter joint.  All the adhesives are hide glue except where I use white glue to make up my paterae and bandings.  There are a lot of wood types: Anigre, East Indian Rosewood, walnut, cherry, holly, mahogany and probably some things I forgot.  I made up all the bandings and paterae in my shop.  Hardware is from Horton Brasses.  The french feet and aprons are applied with hide glue and glue blocks to be sort of traditional.  Inside I added a touch of class with some handmade marble paper (the internet is a wonderful thing).


It’s spring now and there’s been a lot of woodworking meetings and events.  Three weeks ago was the Ohio River Valley Chapter of SAPFM meeting at Rio Grande.  The following week SAPFM had a booth for the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event at Popular Woodworking here in the Cincinnati area where I showed a few pieces and talked to a bunch of folks. Also my local group Cincinnati Woodworking Club had Ron Herman in for a Saturday seminar which was great.

Coming up is the SAPFM mid-year in Knoxville which I’m looking forward to.  And of course before that is the Handworks event in Iowa and related Studley Toolchest exhibition in Cedar Rapids.  An exciting spring.

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No I didn’t fall off the earth

No, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. But I did fall off my roof in June.

It was a week after the SAPFM Mid-Year Conference at Old Sturbridge Village in MASS. I really intended to do a recap of that event and talk about who I saw and what I learned. But it was a nice day and I was being productive. It seemed like a good idea at the time, right up until I realized that the roof was still a little wet and maybe I shouldn’t be…..wham down I went. I tried valiantly to stop myself, doing some damage to the gutter on the way down. Not nearly as bad as the damage to 5 ribs and one kidney though. That laid me up for a while.

Once I started feeling better I decided I should get back to the project I started on the second floor of the house, remodeling the hallway and guest bedroom. The more I uncovered in this nearly 90 year old house revealed more problems. The project is nearly done with the exception of one closet that needs insulation and drywall and paint but that’s stalled waiting for a roof replacement – necessitated by the leak I found in said closet.  And we wait for some carpet.  Then we can call it done.

So, now that I’ve bored you with my medical mishaps and house remodeling woes, I come to the furniture related question.  I need a project.  I don’t know if it’s big or small.  Ihave a few tools that need refurbished but that doesn’t inspire me.  We aren’t hurting for furniture and the one project I really want to do I can’t start until I can measure a piece I want to copy.  So I need something to do or else I’ll go looking for a roof to climb – maybe Christmas lights would look nice along the eaves.  I have a few ideas but none have lit the spark:

1) I could build the Anarchist’s Tool Chest but I’m just not sure I’m going to be a toolchest guy.

2) I’ve long thought a fun project would be a Federal Knife Box – though you really almost need to make two.  Or maybe a tea caddy.  Aside from some hardware either would be almost no cost.  But Maryanne will complain it’s more stuff to dust.  Either would keep me busy for a while.

3) I’m a little interested in making a Chippendale Looking Glass (aka wall mirror).  It might be a bit much though and I’m not sure where we would put it.  But they are pretty classy.

4) I do sort of need to replace a bookcase.  I was interested in the Jefferson book case that Schwarz did a few years ago in Pop Wood.  Basically a series of dovetailed boxes stacked up on a plinth.  Looks pretty simple and surely practical.  There’s some expense here in wood but not horrendous.  It would be nice to replace the piece of Ikea crap that I have in my office right now.

5) I do need to make some picture frames and those will be the next thing I knock out, but those are hardly fine work unless I decide to do something fancy.  Not really that kind of project though.

6) There are long term projects but I’m not really inspired to do them yet: a chest of drawers or two for my wife and I’ve wanted to do our dining room but that’s a multi-year project that will require a lot of wood that I can’t afford (see roof, above).

So I look for inspiration.  But at least there’s baseball for a little while longer.  I think I’m rooting for the Royals – they look destined to win it all.

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Table for Tammy

With the dust settled from the clock and the shop cleaned up there was one project I needed to do before starting on house and yard work for the spring.  My daughter has long complained about the bedside table arrangements in her room.  OK it wasn’t that long but it was frequent. So because I’m how I am I can’t just knock together something too simple.

I started sketching ideas months ago but simply didn’t have time to do much with it.  Most ideas were a fairly simple table with tapered legs and a single drawer – standard fare.  I planned some sort of inlay.

So I interviewed my client. Well I was surprised to hear that butterflies or little bumblebees were out.  She actually liked some stylized bellflower like objects and stringing.  We talked about what she likes now and what she might like in a few years as she grows up.  She agreed perhaps we should be careful about something that is too kid-like.

I found a picture one night while looking for Pennsylvania Spice Boxes.  It was sold at auction a few years ago.  Here’s a link (I hope it stays working when you click):

It’s a charming little box from Chester Co PA.  I’m not sure what it was but it seemed very authentic.  When I found it I thought it might be a fun little side project.  So I decided to use the inlay as inspiration for the table.

Here’s the table:

TammyTable1 TammyTable2

Pretty standard fare I guess.  I think I invented the inlay in the top (or maybe I just can’t remember where I stole the idea from).  I used an ovolo shape on the top instead of a more common thumbnail or shallow bevel.  I’m not sure it worked but I borrowed it from a shape on the dresser box.  Some little bandings at the cuff left over from the clock too – very subtle.  Cherry and poplar with shellac finish.  I expect that it will darken in time.  It won’t really start looking good for about five years, as the cherry mellows a bit.

So not a period piece but I hope it has that feel.  It was fun to sort of design something from my own head.

The dresser box (below) turned out to be a challenge.  I don’t know how the original was made but I imagined that it might have been full blind mitered dovetails.  A tricky joint but as always I’m up for challenge.  That’s why this the second version of the box – the first one was just a disaster.  The joint turned out pretty well the second time.  Zach Dillinger wrote a useful piece on the Pop Wood website that was a great help.  I only wish I had searched for it BEFORE I tried the first time with less clear directions.  Everything else was pretty straightforward.

DressBoxSo a fun little project.  I don’t think I’m going to let her have the box yet though.  I sort of like it.


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Clock Reveal

140215 Tall Case Clock_1Well, here it is.  I ordered the works more than a year ago and started about three months later.  Slower than I would like but I’m pretty pleased.  Now to move that cold air return…

140215 Tall Case Clock_5A few thanks are in order to people that provided direct assistance or inspiration:

Bob Compton, Dan Reahard, Donna Hill, Don Williams, Don McConnell, Matt Bickford, Mary May, George Walker, Mike Siemsen, Rob Millard, Andrew Rappaport and all the other members of SAPFM that have been helpful as I’ve worked through the details.

Steve Miller; thanks for the tool assist

Scott Johnson for the dial painting.  I think we are even now.

Mom and Dad

Tammy who came down to see what I was up to, and will eventually be saddled with this really tall piece of furniture.  I hope she buys a house with tall ceilings and doesn’t develop a taste for disposable Scandinavian furniture.

Maryanne who puts up with the sawdust and plane shavings that inexplicably are tracked into the house, my frustration when things go poorly and doesn’t complain too much when I disappear into the shop for hours.

And of course Grandpa Leonard, who encouraged me to build this in the first place.  I’ll never match your clock output for sure.  I’ll have to be happy with this one.

Some shop projects and then a simple project I think.

140215 Tall Case Clock_2              140215 Tall Case Clock_4              140215 Tall Case Clock_3

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