Rediscovering the Joy of Woodworking

 I love woodworking and I actually make my living by working professionally from the shop. I had to give up remodeling due to health issues specifically connected to remodel activity and the things it exposes me to. So now, all of my projects are shop based.

Fortunately, I have years of connections and reputation behind me now, and that has led to continued work, strictly from the shop. I get all manner of projects, there are so many things that need to be built for companies and clients, way more than just cabinets. 

Even though I love the woodworking and the challenges I face as a professional, I lose some of the excitement for it because I do it everyday. I realized this as a recent project came through my shop for the local Audubon Society. They are building an interactive playground, and they needed a turtle for the kids to drum on. So I built a "drum turtle."

I take pride in my ability to design and build under pressure (that comes along with being a business) and to execute very technical projects to a high degree of professional quality. The drum turtle was clearly not a technical project nor anything that could be considered fine woodworking, and when I accepted it, I had the passing thought, "this could be kinda fun." In all honesty - I had a blast!

I was given a screenshot that the director found online, I have no idea from where, but I did not care for the design. Even though it is a simple concept and an outdoor project, the drum turtle in the image was just not a very good design so I came up with my own.

Most projects are very technical and I have to get very specific with the design and details. But for the drum turtle, I did not spend a lot of time on it.

I had a rough idea of size and that gave me all I needed to buy the materials. But I did not head into the project with any design details on paper at all. I simply started by building the basic body first, then I designed everything else on the fly just to fit the body. 

It was really liberating to just make it all up as I went along. After making the body, I knew that I had to glue up material to get it thick enough for the legs, the neck/head, and the tail. 

At the time I was gluing up the stock for the legs & neck, I did not have any idea of the details or shape that I would make them. But the designs started to flow as I started working on the pieces. I realized the goal was to just keep it general and as a graphic, to represent a turtle, rather than being caught up in creating a life-like sculpture. 

After gluing up the stock, I squared it up and attached it to the underside of the turtle. It was at that point I determined what the finished width and length should be without even knowing the detailed shape of the feet. 

As the legs were mounted on the body, it hit me just what the shape should be. So I created a template with some 1/4" hardboard and that way I could transfer it to each foot so they all would be the same. 

As the feet took shape, it really confirmed that it all should be kept very as a very general representation and stay away from being detailed.

 

I actually had to deliberately force this thought since I most often deal with lots of details. Once I began to loosen up from my normal thought process, I really started having fun! 

While I was working on the legs and feet, the tail naturally came to me. I didn't measure anything out, I just stuck the tail board on the turtle and made a mark to cut it at a length that just felt right then I cut out the form at the bandsaw and then sanded it out and routed over the edges. 

What I found interesting, was the way that my mind would naturally start working out the details of next piece while I was still finishing out the one I was one.

For instance, at the point that I was sanding and detailing out the tail, my mind was not needed for that task, so it had moved on to the next task. My physical actions were always just a step behind since it takes longer to perform the task than to think it out. 

By the time I got to the neck & head, I pretty well had it figured out. Once again, I did not really measure anything, I placed the stock on the turtle body and marked where I thought it should be cut. Actual numbers were meaningless, I just went by how it felt. 

I roughed out the head at the bandsaw and sanded it out into a smooth shape with my little Porter Cable "armadillo" sander. That has become one of my favorite sander. I used to handle the big sanders the same way, but PC really nailed it when they designed this little gem to be held in one hand. 

I finished the parts on all sides as I assembled it, this will provide for maximum protection. I found a certain relief to not worry about a flawless finish as I do with all of my higher-end projects. 

I have already been getting questions about the finish, so I will share for those that are wondering: I used Messmer's deck finish that is formulated for mahogany, ipe', and tropical hardwoods because the back of the turtle's shell is mahogany. It will work fine on the redwood as well. I put 2 coats on everything. 

Normally I push for Sikkens. With all the years of remodeling and decks I have done, it has been my observation that nothing holds up like Sikkens. But it is a hard sell at $80 per gallon, so I used Messmer's. On average, it is just OK as all the other products that major companies sell are, which are all still second to Sikkens from my experience. 

Here is the drum turtle front and rear views all finished. 

I have no doubt that you are wondering how it sounds so you can check out this clip. 

The director of the local Audubon Society was really excited and pleased with the results of the drum turtle when I delivered it.

 

The interactive playground is not ready to receive the drum turtle so it will stay on the patio of the Audubon center until it can be put in it's permanent location. Here the visiting school kids can start using it. 

In the end, I was happy with the results, I had a great time building it, and I learned something too: keep the fun in woodworking. 

Your friend in the shop,

Todd A. Clippinger

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Craftsmen Who Influenced Me: Gary Keener

One of the common questions I get is about who influenced me as a woodworker? Was it Sam Maloof, Tage Frid, James Krenov? Well sure, they all had an inspirational impact on me as I discovered the world of fine woodworking, their work is legendary.

But that really is sort of the problem for me. Even when they were alive, the stories seemed to be no different to me than the stories I read about Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or the Greene & Greene brothers and the Hall bothers who built their furniture. It all seemed too distant to me. They were all out of reach as legends tend to be. 

The people that had the largest impact on me, were craftsmen that I personally met. I talked with them, they shook my hand, they personally told me stories of their life as a furniture maker. Those are the people that lit the fire in me, and moved me to action, because I knew they were real and they made it seem to be within my reach to be a fine woodworker. 

One of those people was Gary Keener. I had met him at a couple of shows in Columbus, Ohio. He was a super nice guy, and he gave me a little of his time to tell me about his work and life as a craftsman. He really made an impression on me for his generosity, which was on top of his great design and quality of work. 

Later, in January 2006, I was visiting the newly restored Frank Lloyd Wright - Westcott House in Springfield, OH and found out that the furniture had been reproduced by a local craftsman by the name of Gary Keener. Of course, after discovering that he had built the furniture for the Westcott House, I had to call him out on that offer he made in our early conversations to "stop by and visit anytime." 

Frank Lloyd Wright - Westcott House, Springfield, Ohio

Once again, he was very generous with his time by giving me a tour of his shop, sharing his philosophy of the craft, and how he got started. This is what impacts me more than whatever I read about the legendary furniture makers, because Gary was REAL to me. If he was doing it without being a celebrity woodworker, then there was hope for me to do it too.

We had only ever kept light contact over the years, but then he popped up on my Instagram account just a few days ago.

Then, the next day, I found Gary was the cover story on The Woodshop News. So it was neat to all of a sudden run into him again, so to speak. 

Gary is still doing the high-end furniture shows to display his work and make business connections. This weekend, March 13 - 15 he will be in Atlanta at the Cobb Galleria for the American Craft Council show. So if you are in the area, be sure to check it out and say "Hi" to Gary. 

To see Gary's work, you can check out his site: G. Keener & Co. Fine Furniture  You can read his story at The Woodshop News.

If you are in Atlanta this weekend, March 13 - 15 and are interested in fine woodworking, I recommend you check out the show. You can see his show schedule at his site and the next one will be in Philadelphia at the Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show April 10 - 12. 

Woodworking shows are fun to attend, but I would prefer to attend a show like the American Craft Council, the Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show, or the Western Design Conference. The high caliber of work is always stunning. Plus you get to meet the artisans and you will be inspired them just as I was by Gary. 

Your friend in the shop,

Todd A. Clippinger

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By Hand and Eye

One of the things that many woodworkers find very challenging is designing projects. And what is particularly challenging, if not outright mystifying, is understanding how to design a project that feels proportionally balanced.

If developing good proportions and balance is something you have trouble with, I would like to suggest that you check out "By Hand & Eye" authored by Jim Tolpin and George Walker, published by Lost Art Press. 

By Hand & Eye explains how classic proportions and order were developed, and how they were applied historically in architecture. This context helps remove the mystery surrounding what often seems like confusing mathematical formulas. 

By Hand & Eye does well at presenting the information in a logical and comprehensive manner. This is important as it makes the information mentally digestible, which clarifies the subject rather than confounding it.

I really like the chapters "Waking Up Your Eye" and "Proportions Made Simple." They do well at presenting the base information, and demystifying it, which will help you understand the chapter "Classic Orders" later in the book. The information really is dispensed in a logical order of progression which makes it comprehensive. 

Toward the end of the book, there are 10 projects that include explanations of how the classic proportions apply. I recommend that if you are just developing your eye, you really should build the projects. It is only through practical application that you will get a full understanding of how the proportions "feel" when expressed in a tangible item. 

I highly recommend By Hand & Eye. I have other books that share the same technical information, but this has to be the best book that shares the information in a format that is directly related to the woodworking and furniture making community. The fact that it is relatable, helps tremendously in making it understandable. 

For an entertaining and distilled version of understanding proportions, check out this stop-motion video "Design by Hand & Eye" narrated by Jim Tolpin. You will not only be entertained, you will be amazed at how much clarity it brings to understand proportional relationships. 

Disclaimer: I purchased "By Hand & Eye" at full price with my own money. I have not been compensated in any manner for my review or endorsement.  My opinion of the contents are measured against my own experience designing and building as a contractor and professional woodworker since '97. 

Your friend in the shop,

Todd A. Clippinger

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