This strange looking thing is a functional copy of an antique device for tracing a person’s profile for a shadow portrait. When I say functional copy, obviously the original was done entirely with hand tools and this one wasn’t; there were also some modifications to the design. I made a plywood mockup first, to test the concept and make all my mistakes before setting the blades to a nice piece of sapele I’d had lying around in the garage for some years.

I had to work from photographs of the original device, which resides in a museum in the US.

This one appears in Silhouette Secrets, a film about the silhouette maker’s art by Charles Burns and Andi Reiss, which should appear on our TV screens sometime later this year. Charles and his wife, Kazumi, have made the ironwork for it. It has a pivot at one end and a white card on the opposite door; the idea is that a long pole with a pencil at one end is attached to the pivot and the pencil traces on the white card at a scale determined by the length of the pole. The other end of the pole is traced round a person’s profile. The idea, near as we can figure it, is that in the nineteenth century machines were the latest thing and machines obviously do any job better than people. Not. We had a go with the mockup, and it was first of all almost impossible to keep still, and secondly very difficult to trace the pole steadily round the profile. The original used a wooden pole, which must have been even more unwieldy. Charles does perfect, intricate, recognisable silhouettes by eye.

physiognotrace in use500

The door with the card has to be very loose and floppy; it’s held against the pencil point by a spring. This was a challenge, to say the least. I had to lube the hinges before fitting them, but even then they had to line up exactly to make the door loose enough.

The physiognotrace is finished with oil.

The Mah Jong box is finished!

Well, the sawcut veneering didn’t work very well, but I’ll try again on another project now I’ve found out what was really messing things up. It turned out that my planer-thicknesser table wasn’t perfectly in line with the blades, and I think it probably came like that from the factory because this Mah Jong project was the first job to show up the problem so markedly. Didn’t think to check, an ass was made out of me. A call to the technical department of my favourite shop gave me some pointers and I turned the thing upside down and figured out the rest, so it’s now giving me nice flat boards.

Meanwhile, here’s the finished box, finally!

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA I should point out right away that the most impressive thing about this box, the inlays of the West and East Wind characters, was done by master luthier and all-round good guy Cabell Fearn on his roborouter in sunny Stuttgart. We took the characters from photos of the eponymous tiles, and Cab vectorised them for the CNC machine. The main body of the box is sapele, which I had to edge-glue in sections because it insisted on moving out of straight when I cut it thin enough to use. The pale wood is from a friend’s walnut tree which she very kindly donated in exchange for helping to pay for felling it. I was wondering what to do about fastening the doors. Any decent brass fittings were ridiculously expensive and mostly made in the US or Australia, but the client came up with the wooden peg idea which sets it off beautifully and also provides a good doorknob on each door.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe left hand door is held in place with magnets, the right hand door by the peg. Inside is a top section for the six trays, holding the tiles, instructions and other paraphernalia. The racks go underneath.The hinge rebates I did with my Leigh dovetail jig – maybe not an original idea, but original for me and I was very proud of having thought of it. The plinth was shaped on the router table, and mitred with the table saw. I made the racks from iroko and oak, with a plywood core because, again, the solid iroko didn’t stay straight.  You can just see the East and West wind tiles in the foreground.


Sawcut veneers

I’ve been asked to make a box to hold a venerable Mah Jong set. Thankfully the client isn’t in a hurry, because I’ve been struggling with the perennial problem of a nice piece of timber, bought from a reputable yard, measuring eight per flipping cent moisture content for heaven’s sake, twisting and writhing like a hungry python when I cut it into boards of the required width.

So I thought, well, plywood doesn’t do that (unless I leave it in a damp shed and then who can blame it?) but I don’t want to encase this ancient Mah Jong set in a plywood box. I could maybe make my own plywood so the whole thing looks more craftsmanlike. Then I remembered an article in a (luckily British) woodworking magazine by a real craftsman called David Oldfield. about sawcut veneering, and revisited the article. It turns out that it’s perfectly respectable to use good quality plywood as your substrate, and put your thick (3-4mm) bandsaw-cut veneers either side of it (which you can bookmatch and all sorts).

My planer/thicknesser only goes down to 5mm, but that’s OK because if I cut a piece thinner than that it can always go through the thicknesser after it’s been stuck to a piece of 6mm Baltic birch plywood. And I’m starting to get the hang of resawing on the bandsaw, thanks largely to a wonderful resaw guide by Magswitch – spensive but what a difference!

Anyway, so the aforementioned twisted boards aren’t so bad when a) sawn in half lengthwise and b) sawn in half widthwise with a view to bookmatching and c) glued to a nice piece of 6mm birch plywood. That’s the plan anyway, watch this space.


nested triangles200 Making a second set of these plywood penholders. For the first set I made the pattern in SketchUp, printed it out several times and glued it on to each piece of plywood with 3M Spray Mount repositionable adhesive. Repositionable, it turns out, only in the short term. After a couple of days, getting the pattern off the wood is a case of laborious scraping with a fingernail. So I’m still using the paper pattern but only on one piece of 6mm ply, to make a template. The template can be kept for any number of future similar pieces. Now all you do is draw round the template with a pencil and you’re ready for the fretsaw.

triangle boxes4