Friday, March 28, 2008

Willow Basics: Hand Tools

The great thing about building willow furniture, is that you need so few tools. Here's a primer on what I like, where to spend the money on craftsmanship, and where you can cheap out.

To complete the most BASIC of projects, you need just a knife. Get one of these or one of these. The Swedish "Mora" style carving knives are the best deal in steel. They are high-quality, simple, and very functional. I use mine for EVERYTHING in the shop.

The fifteen dollar version comes with no sheath (not a problem really, you can make one, or just keep it on the bench). The $30 style is a little nicer, comes pre-sharpened and with a cheesy plastic sheath. Actually, the sheath isn't bad, very functional. Surprisingly, I've found that the cheaper version without the handle-ferrule is actually a little more durable. The handle on my fancy model broke, so I replaced it with a chunk of red-birch for a handle. Looks great, feels good to the hand, and it's outlasted the original. Then again, I haven't beaten on it with a hammer since breaking the original....

Sharpening is a snap, because all Swedish mora-style knives are flat-ground (Like example number 3).

After the knife, you will need some pruners. There are two basic kinds: anvil and bypass. The anvil pruner is great for pruning roses, but for hacking a thumb-sized willow in two with one hand... they leave a LOT to be desired. The bypass pruner is your best friend (next to your knife, of course). I have owned three pair. A $6 set from DomeHepot, which worked OK until the blade chipped, got dull, and the pivot joint loosened. Then I stepped up to a $20 pair of Corona forged steel pruners.

Didn't like two things about them: they are green and get lost easily, and they have never held much of an edge. Corona is still a good brand and I think I just got a bad one.

But if you want the ULTIMATE in hand pruners, go with a Felco pruner Model F2.

You can disassemble them for adjustment and cleaning, sharpen the blade (or replace it) and adjust how tight or loose the pivot. They are forged aluminum (not steel, unfortunately) but they are very strong and have a little "flex" in them when you bear down with both fists on a hard branch. The worst thing about Felco pruners is that they are hard to come by locally. I found some at a landscapers supply store, but you can get them online. They are about twice as expensive as the Corona's but I feel they were worth it. I usually don't spend that much for a hand tool.
Felco tools online.

Saws: I have gone through more saws than knives and pruners combined! It seems they just take a beating. Folding pruning saws, fixed pruning saws, short-toolbox crosscuts, long curved Japanese saws, bow saws, you name it, I've used it. (Actually, I've never used a chain saw for collecting willows. I'll explain more about why in a later post). Currently, I have two philosophies about saws: use a good hand saw in the field, and a good electric circular saw in the shop. Of course, I've built a LOT of furniture without a circ saw, and you can too.

The main qualities to look for in a handsaw are:
  • Cuts on the pull stroke
  • Big teeth for clearing lots of chips fast in green wood
  • Cuts cleanly (as possible)
  • No shorter than 10" and no longer than 18"
  • Comfortable, brightly colored handle (so you can find it in the thicket)
  • Costs less than $20
So you see, I don't recommend the folding saws, toolbox saws, or Japanese woodworking saws. (darn, that was a lot of money wasted!)
Get a good quality fixed-blade, somewhat curved pruning saw from your local hardware store.

This is what I currently use, and those needle teeth have nicked me many-a-time. Make a flat pouch sheath out of cardboard, wood or leather (whatever you know how to work with).

A Hammer rounds out your tools. You don't need anything fancy, just some garage-sale bone. I happened to find a nice Estwing forged hammer many, many years ago at a farm sale. My dad bought it for me, and I've used it ever since.

It looks like this one, but brown with age and use. I love that thing!

The Stanley Surform tool is awfully handy too. A good knife will do anything that the surform will do, but the poor-mans-plane is pretty handy to have around.

Rocky Canyon Rustics is THE Place on the Internet for ordering a rustic sign. Contact me through the blog for a design session.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

the Simple Twig Table

How to make a little willow table. The process can be extended to create all kinds of furniture. I do not make this particular item anymore, so feel free to copy it.

Cutting Willows

Willow is everywhere. It grows anywhere there is water and no one to hack it out. It's like the American Bamboo, I've learned to make all kinds of stuff out of it.

For this little table, cut
  • 4 legs, 18" long, thumb thick or larger
  • 4 bottom sides, 14" long, thumb thick or smaller
  • 4 top sides, 12" long, finger-to-thumb thickness
  • a bunch of twigs size: pinky-to-pencil

  • Drill, Preferably cordless, with keyless chuck.
  • Tape measure
  • Hammer
  • Pruners
  • knife (I REALLY like the cheap Swedish carving knives like the one shown here. Get them from Woodcraft Supply for about $15. I have several that are 8 years old, and going strong.)
  • A good pruning saw

  • 3" sheetrock screws
  • 2" sheetrock screws
  • 1 1/2" ring-shank nails (you can use normal nails, but use these if you want your project to last a LONG time)
  • 1 1/2" panel brads (like a little nail, but coated with paint, and it has little rings around the shank)
  • 1" panel brads
you can find all these at any standard hardware store, and they are all inexpensive.

Building the Frames

Assemble the table by making two flat frames from your legs and side pieces.
This brings us to the First Rule of Willow Furniture:
no matter how small. I use an 1/8" bit for the screws, and a 1/16" for the small nails. The reason you have to drill holes for everything is that willow is harvested green, then it dries after you assemble it. We all know that wood shrinks when it dries, so as it shrinks, it squeezes on your screw, and cracks. Engineers call that "Failure". If you pre-drill, the wood squeezes your screw or nail tighter than when it was new. Engineers call that a "Feature".

Start by drilling pilot holes in the ends of all the side pieces.
Drill holes in the legs, 2" from the top and 14" from the top.
The picture shows nails in the screw holes, that's just so you can see them.
Screw through the legs into the sides.
Remember: the top side piece is 12" long, and the bottom is 14", so it's not going to be square when you are done. Don't worry about angles, just flex it and rack the wood until it looks right.

Adding the Sides (Make it 3D)

Once you are finished with the two frames, it's time to add the remaining four side pieces.
Drill holes through the legs at a right angle to the first holes. Locate this set of holes 2.5" from the top, and 13.5" from the top.

Screw through the legs into the side pieces. It should look about like this:

Do the same thing to the second frame, and screw it onto the assembly from step four. By the way, you should use a 3" screw any time you are screwing into the end-grain of a stick. End grain is soft, and it needs all the holding power it can get.

Now you have something that's starting to look like a table! Set it on a flat surface and rack it and twist it until it sits level. You may have to remove some screws, redrill, and reattach pieces to get it right. That's why you use mechanical fasteners.

Strangely, I rarely use a square to get this thing right. If you eyeball it, you will be close enough.
(Dovetail purists beware!)

Adding Diagonal Braces: Firming it up

Cut some pieces of willow about "thumb-to-finger" sized, about 6 to 8 inches long. Trim their ends to 45 deg angles so they become diagonal braces. This brings up the Second Rule of Willow Furniture:
Willow is flexible, and the joints you put in it are flexible too. A strong structure has to have diagonal braces on every side to be stable.

Locate the braces reaching from the bottom side pieces, down into the legs. Predrill and nail with ring-shank nails. These baby's hold TIGHT! If you ever want to remove them, you will have to split the wood out around them, because they will NOT come out without breaking something.

The Twig top and shelf

Take all those twigs that you cut and lay them out on the bench.
Starting in the middle, lay them out on the top to form a table-surface.
YES, you do need to predrill each one, even for those itty-bitty panel nails. The only exception is if you are using an air-brad nailer, then you don't have to predrill.
Nail the twig down, snip it to length, and do the next one. I like to use about 7 twigs across the top and another 7 across the bottom shelf. The bottom shelf should run at 90 deg to the top. It makes the table stronger.

If you want to use the table outside, I suggest a good oil finish like Linseed mixed with paint thinner (50/50). Slop it on good and let it dry for a couple days. Recoat after several years, or whenever the table starts looking worn out. If protected from exposure, willow furniture like this twig table will last for many years.

This little table is great as an end table, a night stand, lamp stand, or plant stand. It is strong enough to support my weight, and you could use it as a stool if you add more diagonal braces.

More projects:

You can use this technique to create all sorts of willow furniture.

Just remember the two rules of willow furniture making:

Predrill Everything
Diagonal Bracing on every surface

The steps are usually the same:
  1. Assemble two surfaces as frames
  2. connect them with sides
  3. Add diagonals
  4. and twig surfaces

Have fun with your first willow project!

(if you are interested in purchasing the project you see here, please send me a personal email to jlfinkbeiner at gee mail dot com to discuss availability and pricing)

Rusti-Rondack chairs

My current top-of-the line group, I call "Rusti-Rondack" because they are made of willow saplings and cedar, and derived from aderondack lawn furniture.

The original was developed on the back of a church bulletin one Sunday morning, and built the next day.
Later I added a rocking version... (not pictured)

and a bistro table...

then a plant stand/side table...

eventually a settee as well.

I love to build these chairs and tables! They are straightforward to build, take advantage of the most common shapes of willow that grow around here, and they are great sellers. I've durability-tested one set, and after three years in the direct weather, with no care at all, they still look great. (I recommend some sort of protection, that was just a test)

If you want to order a Rusti-Rondack chair, table, settee, or plant stand, contact me for pricing and delivery schedule. (jlfinkbeiner at gee mail dot com)

Yeoman Furniture and what Self-Sufficiency Means to Me

Herrick Kimball has a great website. The Deliberate Agrarian. In his site he gives a pretty good understanding of what an "Agrarian" is. I'll share my own version later, and it does not involve a cow.

Anyway, like the good agrarian he is, Herrick wrote a piece about his idea of Yeoman Furniture.

Back in the days when agriculture was the predominant culture, when entire families worked together on their land to provide for themselves, when there were no WalMarts or supermarkets or Toys-R-Us to provide our every necessity (and an endless supply of non-necessities), back in those days people simply produced almost everything they needed themselves. And what few things they didn’t produce, they procured by trading with someone in their community.

The people who lived like this were the yeoman farmer, farmsteader, and homesteader families. They cleared and planted their land. They harvested crops for food and trade. They raised animals for food and trade and transportation, and to help them work the land. They put up their own food and cooked their meals from scratch. They heated their homes and cooked with their own firewood. They made their own clothes and quilts, and ox carts and toys and musical instruments. They were craftsmen of necessity. They built their own barns and homes, and furniture too.

(Kimball's blog is a must-read. "This is exactly the sort of thing that people who like this sort of thing, are going to like," said Abe Lincoln.)

My vision is to help create more Yeomen out there... in a small way. Building a willow patio chair won't make you Pa Ingalls, but it will make you a step closer to providing your own needs. And that is a great feeling. Any man who can't provide for ANY of his own needs without a VISA card, is lacking something basic in his soul. God created... and he created us to be like Him. We get a good feeling when we create something, it is just built into us.

How I Became a Willow Furniture Nut

It all started in 2001 with a bare spot in the living room, and a VERY understanding old Italian lady...

... I lived in this little backyard apartment, behind this sweet, little, old Italian lady's house. She charged me about $300 per month (which was actually more than a dollar per square foot, it was tiny), which was a steal. It was a steal because she included the utilities, trash and power for the apartment, and invited me over for Sunday dinner about once a month. In return I'd rake her leaves and mow her grass, and take her to the doctor when she needed it, and so on. It was a perfect arrangement for a poor, broke college student (second time around, if you know what I mean...)

To make a long and boring story short and boring, I needed a couch. I had no couch, and only a plastic lawn chair for furniture. I did have a futon, but it fell apart. I also had no money. BUT I had a library card! And I had a bucket full of tools! And I had a book from the library about willow furniture!

I set off for the river one Sunday morning when NO ONE was at the park because it was January and COLD outside. At six AM I snuck along the greenbelt cutting willow saplings and collecting driftwood for a couch. After several close calls and one much-too-dedicated jogger, I had my wood strapped securely to the roof of my little Subaru, and headed home. I worked all day to make that couch, and my land lady never asked where I did the work (in the living room, of her apartment, of course!). The couch eventually fell apart, like all first projects are won't to do, but I learned a thing or two. As January turned to June, I started to sell my designs locally.

This was the second chair I ever made. I thought it looked snazzy with the old rifle... but now I'm not sure what I was thinking.

That's my dog, Buddy. He has been with RCR since the beginning. Here he is as a puppy showing off one of my very first commercial offerings... an acquaintance of mine bought the chair for $60 on the very day that the bank said I had $1.96 to my name.
God is never late; but He's almost never early!
I caught up with that old acquaintance last summer, and they still have the chair. I must have done ok.

I even tried this rustic bird feeder... I think the little Italian Lady still has it in her backyard, hanging from the peach tree that the squirrels planted.
These mirrors were a good seller on Ebay for a while... except that every one broke in shipping. I learned a valuable lesson in packaging and insurance!

One memory that stands out from that June: I was working at my workbench outside, under the elm tree, near that little apartment. The radio was on, and a lotto commercial said, "What would you do if you had a million dollars?"... I pondered the question for a while... and realized that I would probably work on rustic furniture under an elm tree, if I had a million dollars. I turned off the radio and finished the chair whistling a new tune.