Brass

Dovetail template This brass template is my favourite tool it is made by Richard Kell (England) a maker of Sundials and other brass instruments of precision and mathematical purity. It never leaves the pocket of my woodworking apron, so that when I reach for a pencil, or my ruler it is there nudging my hand.

The first piece I made using this gauge was a blanket chest in ripple sycamore, trimmed with lace wood and lined with cedar of Lebanon. Here it is:

Maple blanket chest by Henk

The picture is rather grainy and is a scan off a poor print, but you can see the timber fairly writhes with figuring, almost as if the box is sheathed in silk or flame. Normally this sort of timber is reserved for violin backs, but I decided to honour it in this way.

I had taken, once again to furniture making full time, way back in 1989 after a short term research contract I had been working on as a postdoc came to an untimely end and I needed to make a living. As luck would have it a very generous maker lent me a corner in her workshop at the Cluny Warehouse, Newcastle upon Tyne, so I was able to serve the small list of clients I had built up. In fact I had been making an eight foot dining table in my daughter’s bedroom in the first floor flat we lived in at the time. So it was a mercy for all of us that I was able to move my tools and wood shavings out of our small home. It was in the beautiful Grade II listed warehouse, built by John Dobson beside the Ouseburn in Newcastle upon Tyne, that this blanket chest was built.

I like the fact that Kell’s dovetail template is made of brass – a lovely alloy of nickel and copper, warm to the touch and soothing to the eye, because ‘brass’ also means ‘cheek’. It takes cheek to make a through dovetail to joint a wooden box, or drawer sides, as there is no room for the cabinet maker to hide errors with this joint – the end grain of the ‘tail’ must sit tight against the slot cut in the side piece.

The commission came from the wife of my erstwhile boss of the time. In 1988 I had refused to allow her to put her name on a paper I was publishing with her old man – although I was only a lowly postdoctoral research associate. The method was a sweet little technique I had developed with him for marking neurones so that they could be identified under an electron microscope: PM Henk Littlewood and Peter J Simmons – Hexamminecobaltic chloride provides a simple method for marking neurones for electron microscopy: Brain Research 1988; 445(1):165-70. pp.165-70, which led to some very fine studies of insect visual system.

The wife (an Ignobel Award winner – true karma) had not contributed to the method, but wanted extra publication padding for a Royal Society Fellowship application. I refused – hence first stab at furniture making and why this little marking gauge is so meaningful to me.

Never been good at politics, much better at through dovetails – no bluffing, no bullshit, just straight cuts.

Bollocks to ‘et al‘ I say.

We all need a bit of brass to survive don’t you think?

4 Responses to “Brass”

  1. Adam Burgess May 5, 2013 at 8:08 am #

    Alright Henk? Just wanted you to know that I enjoy reading your blog entries as and when they arrive. I am a wood lover too, labouring for some timber framers and gradually acquiring some knowledge and tools as I go. Anyway, it’s 9 0clock, time to get up! Just wanted to send you over a little encouragement is all! Cheers…Adam

    • woodenhenk May 5, 2013 at 8:19 am #

      Hey Adam
      Did not realise you are a maker too. How cool is that? I’m making a cleft oak gate at a heritage show next weekend – should be fun. What are you up, to timber framing? Good skills there. Good news about your new niece/nephew! Should be a looker after her mum x H

  2. richard kell August 5, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

    I am stunned … I know where you work sort of, my microscopy was merely freshwater plankton as hobby for a few years, diatoms etc … an antidote to being in the workshop making dovetail markers !

    Often (well once a year) at the scrap yard two minutes walk from yr place.

    richard kell

    • woodenhenk August 5, 2014 at 10:14 pm #

      Small, finely meshed world we live in! Just love diatoms, you are welcome to have a butcher’s at my studio any time. H

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