Claremont Designs


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What Does Handmade Mean? Please Ask…

So I’m a little late in writing this post… I guess that “late” is a relative term. In one sense I meant to write this 2+ weeks ago when I took the photo below. At the same time, I think that the topic is more timely than ever. And timely in the sense that it won’t be answered here, tomorrow, or frankly anytime soon.

If it’s not clear to people that occasionally read my blog posts, I sell things on Etsy. I don’t sell everything on Etsy, but I do sell some items. And I definitely consider them “handmade.” Etsy marginally mentions the term handmade on their site, but I would guess that in the consumers’ mind, the term “handmade” is much more prevalent. That’s okay; I’m not trying to say it is bad…

But it is a different context than I think some people consider… For me “handmade” has meant many things. In some case it might mean literally that it was built by hand. Or should it mean that it was created with tools that require no power? Or maybe somewhere in between as long as there was a human touch at some point? For some people, handmade means that there are flaws that should be excused… This is where I’m most conflicted… When you are dealing with real world supplies, there are defects. You may want it to be 100% perfect, and that is possible…

But frankly if you are building to enough scale that you can’t reach out to customers to ask if you like a certain look to a piece of wood or not, that means you are not handmade…

I don’t mean this in a negative way. I mean this in a descriptive way. Many of the designers that I admire don’t adhere to this mindset, and I don’t ascribe any lesser value to their designs. But I do assume that there wasn’t a human helping to guide every crucial design decision…

So there is my long convoluted description of what handmade means to me… it only took 4 “paragraphs” and I don’t pretend that it is crystal clear as a result… My only request is that if it means something to you as a buyer, please ask the people you are buying from what “handmade” means to them… In some cases you will be more than willing to do business with them. In other cases, the exact opposite holds true…

Anyway back to me (because everything must eventually come back to me)… The photo below is for an end table that I’m building. It is essentially, 3 through dovetail boxes with a floating top. The photo shows one of the last steps in the process… before this step I cut and joined the 3 through dovetail boxes shown in the picture. Although, the boxes were made with same jigs and lumber of the same dimension, they were not identical within 1/16 of an inch…

What’s happening in the photo, is that I’m clamping the three boxes together so that I can ease the transition from one piece to the other… It was definitely a handmade piece (in my terminology). Each piece wouldn’t be perfectly identical… In fact I would eventually round over the corners of each piece, so they couldn’t match perfectly. For me exact duplication, would mean that it was machine made. But if near duplication might mean that it was made by hand and matched to the clients’ needs… That’s what I was doing here… Ultimately, I sanded all of the joints of the boxes flush in the photos. That doesn’t mean that I did everything by hand, but it does mean that I was there with tools controlled by hand that did not depend on mechanical accuracy to get the final look.

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Finishing the Ambrosia Maple Box

In a recent post, I was showing how to flatten an ambrosia maple board with a strategic cut before employing the jointer and planer.  Since then I have finished assembling the box.  As with the Edison Lamps that I make, the box features through dovetails.  The ambrosia maple has such dramatic coloring that it is crucial that the box is cut all from the same continuous piece of lumber.  I made passing reference to wrapping the grain around the corner in that previous post.  The photos below show why that is so important.

From a woodworking perspective this box is nearly identical to the Edison Lamps that I’ve been making, but there are a few differences.  The minor differences are the lack of holes for a lamp cord or a dimmer switch (this piece will be illuminated from the inside by a string of battery powered LED lights).  The major difference is the top of the piece.  On an Edison Lamp, I take a 1/4″ thick piece of lumber for the top of the piece.  In this case, I replaced the wood top with a sheet of rice paper (same concept that is used in shoji lamps).  Because I could anticipate this being used as a modern table centerpiece, I didn’t want the rice paper exposed.  I wanted to be able to clean this piece without worrying about ruining the paper.  As a result, I sandwiched the paper through two pieces of glass that I had cut at the local hardware store.

I still really like the concept, but I’m not positive I like my approach to the rice paper.  As of right now, everything looks like it will work just fine, but I’m not sure I love the quality or coloring of the rice paper I used.  And by sandwiching it between sheets of glass, it can’t ever be replaced.  This one will be permanent as-is.  For future versions, I think I’ll keep the glass on the top to protect it / keep it easy to clean, but I’ll find a new way to install the paper.

The photos below were taken in my shop before a first coat of finish was applied.  Usually, I do WIP photos at lower resolution, but I do like the ambrosia maple, so I kept this full resolution.

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Overcoming a Bowed Ambrosia Maple Board

Building unique pieces is fun. The “unique” part of that statement can be defined in many ways. Sometimes it’s the design. Sometimes it’s the raw material. Sometimes it’s the finish. In this case it was definitely the raw material. I’ve always really liked the look of ambrosia maple; actually I’ve always called it spalted maple, but it seems like everyone has been more specific recently with the term ambrosia. Plenty of other places on the internet describe the ambrosia aspect, so I won’t bore you with stories of beetles…

On the last trip to the lumber store there was a really nice looking piece of ambrosia maple that everyone seemed to be ignoring. It wasn’t priced outrageously. It wasn’t abnormally short or narrow. But it was badly bowed. The board was ~40″ long but about 1/3 of the way down the board, it was bowed about 1-2″ (I’m probably exaggerating for purposes of the story). No one wanted it because it would be difficult to use in most applications. The photo below shows how large the bow was.
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I don’t mean to imply that I have some magical fix for the board, but I was able to use the board with a strategic cut around the bowed section. I was building a box and was able to locate the primary cut just to the side of the worst part of the bowed section. After cutting the boards they weren’t instantly flat. They still required more work (couple of passes over the jointer and through the planer), but the waste from this one board was minimized. The photo below shows the 2 boards now “flat”.
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I decided to make a variation on the Edison lamps I’ve been making so many of. Actually, this “lamp” will be the opposite of an “Edison” lamp. Rather than featuring the light bulbs that give those lamps their unique look, this lamp will just have a sheet of rice paper sandwiched between 2 pieces of glass. The interior of the lamp be wired with strings of LED lights powered by a battery – great news for me (no light sockets, wiring, switches, etc.) – all of the time consuming steps of the Edison build are avoided. This will be my modern take on a shoji lamp.

When doing the dovetailed boxes, I insist on getting at least the front and sides of the box out of one continuous piece of lumber. The primary reason I do this is that I want the grain to wrap around the piece. In the case of highly figured lumber (e.g., this piece of maple) it is even more important than ever. You can see in some of the photos below how the grain and coloring will wrap around this piece (side note: I’m not sure why, but I decided to keep my new cherry napkin holder in the photo). If all goes according to plan, I should be getting this piece into the finishing phases next weekend. Hopefully, all of the effort associated with this bowed board will be worth it.
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Another Mother’s Day Weekend In the Shop

I promise that I love my Mom, but I have spent yet another Mother’s Day weekend in my shop.  All of the good sons and daughters spending time with their mothers means that the traffic on 95 is pretty light and the shop is that much easier to get to.  For this weekend, I focused on finishing up my second workbench and finally starting the finishing of a project that isn’t a lamp.

The workbench is a pretty straightforward project.  I already had the base of the bench from a prior piece of furniture.  Building the top takes a few weekends; not super difficult, but time consuming.  It’s not the best piece I’ve ever built, but it has already made my shop much more efficient.  That project was finished on day 1 of the weekend.

Day 2 was spent finally getting a new cabinet ready for finishing.  I’ve had the majority of the cabinet completed for weeks months.  I’ll miss having it as something to rest my sanders on, but it’s time to get this one out of the shop.  In the photo below it is sitting on the new workbench after being sanded to 120.  I eventually sanded it down to 220, but before the final sanding I wanted to fit the door to the cabinet.  The only challenge that I came across was the length of the screws for the hinges.  Ultimately, I had to snip off the tip of each screw, so that it wouldn’t protrude from the side of the cabinet.  The proportions may look a little off to people, but this is a purpose-built piece of furniture.  The cabinet will sit in an opening between a wall and a desk.  The door is design to swing open beneath the apron of the desk.  The large opening above the door is going to be completely concealed by the desk, so it will store items that I don’t need to access.  The top 2 shelves are for computer equipment, and will sit at or above the top of the desk.

Before leaving the shop, I finished the sanding and applied a first coat of boiled linseed oil.  One more weekend and this one should be done…

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Stacks of Edisons

Super quick post tonight. In the photo are the 9 Edison lamps built this weekend. 9 lamps required about 4 total hours of sanding today (combination of random orbital and hand sanding). Thankfully, the next meaningful post should include some photos of finished lamps. Even better, I’ve got enough inventory now that hopefully I don’t have to spend all of next weekend building lamps.

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New Approach to Aligning Sockets

I finally changed up my light socket solution to the Edison lamp build. I first started building with the basic black phenolic sockets that you can get at the local hardware store. These were more than adequate, but they had one primary shortcoming. The base of the socket would screw down on a rod (known as a brass or steel nipple). The challenge I was having was that the hole in the base was not centered on the bottom of the socket. I’m sure this must have been for a reason, but I can’t fathom what that reason would be. As a result, regardless of how much effort I put into aligning the nipple with the dead center of the hole for the lightbulb, there was a better than not chance that the socket wouldn’t be aligned. I found all sorts of ways to fix that, but no fix was great.

After the phenolic sockets, I moved up to porcelain sockets. These are slightly nicer sockets but more importantly the hole in the bottom was better centered. Alignment was less of an issue, but it still wasn’t perfect. Actually I could make it perfect, but screwing the nipple into a piece of wood and then screwing the socket down onto it was still more difficult than it should be.

I finally shifted to the trusty internet. Not for advice, but for better product selection. I’ve finally found a socket that I think I like. I don’t mean to write about this like it is a new product innovation, but it is a case where no local store stocks the product that I need; but I can find it on the internet. This one gets rid of the need for the nipple all together. In this case, you use screws to attach the socket directly to the support board. The challenge now is to find out where to locate the socket.

The series of photos bellows shows how I did this. First I went through a lot of effort to identify the center of a scrap piece of wood (that would become my template). From there I drilled a hole (the same size that I use in the final build) directly through that center position. I then cut that template to the same size as the base of the socket. In the second photo, I was double checking that everything was centered on the socket opening. What’s not shown are the boards that I used to ensure that everything was aligned. From there it was on to a live test… In the final photo, I’ve traced the hole openings on to the board that will support the five light sockets. This is done by first placing the support board inside the lamp base and pushing it against the underside of the top of the base. I then take the new wood template and align its hole with the circle traced to the support board. From there you trace the outside of the template. The socket will be located right inside this final traced square.

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The Cost Accounting Approach to Building Edison Boxes

I’ve started to work on yet another batch of Edison lamps… I decided to use the principles of my education a bit this time. I’ve been talking about cost allocation approaches and ways to optimize output over the past couple of weeks in my big boy job. The basic idea is that there are certain factors that drive cost or dictate yield. It actually means much more than that, but as applied to my one man shop, that’s the basic idea. For the lamp builds, the concept is that in addition to raw material costs, I bear a cost (in terms of time) to build each lamp; and there should be some optimal number to build that minimizes my average cost per lamp while producing the most high quality lamps.

The way to optimize my time is to understand what are the drivers of my cost. For example, every lamp build has common steps including the first steps of dimensioning the lumber. In order to do this I must joint a face and edge of each board. I then resaw one board for the top. Finally I plane all boards to final thickness. There isn’t much time to save here though, because the time to setup each piece of equipment is minimal. There is zero effort on the jointer, because there isn’t any “setup” that is required. As a result, the time varies directly with the amount of lumber I’m jointing. This discussion isn’t all that interesting, but the point is that if I’m building 1 or 30 lamps, I can’t save any time by building more than 1 lamp at a time. Once this step is completed, I ended up with the stack of lumber seen in the photo below.

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Once all of the lumber is jointed and planed, the next step is to get the boards to final length and width. In this case, measuring is required. As a result, there is effort to position the table saw fence to get the boards to the right width. Similarly, all lamps are 4 1/2 inches deep. This is another case where I can setup the equipment once and just cut as many side pieces as quickly as possible (while being safe of course). Technically, I could cut the sides for 1000 lamps at once and save significant time. But if I took that approach it might take months before I finished a lamp. That’s both bad for customers waiting on lamps, and I would be carrying far too much inventory cost. A little time is saved here, but it isn’t super significant. Once that step is finished, I ended up with the stack of lumber below.

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Similar to the last step, cutting the dovetails can generate some real cost savings. There are a lot of setup steps (setting the depth of the router bits, changing the router bits, and setting up the jig). Each of these steps takes considerable time. This is one of the major areas where I can save time. Once all of the routing is finished, I ended up with the pieces in the photo below.

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Ultimately, I could treat this as a big equation. I could optimize the build quantity for the time and effort to build, controlling for inventory costs, changing raw material costs, travel time to the shop, etc. But ultimately, I’m building these lamps because I like spending time in the shop working with wood. The reality is that I decided to build a few lamps this time, because I want to have some in inventory to sell (as opposed to building them all to order).