Refining Our Skills
As with most crafts, Eldred Wheeler’s woodworking techniques and methods evolved over time. Take the planing of soft wood, for example. We initially did this planing in the traditional 18th century fashion, using a large jackplane with a slightly curved blade. This worked fairly well, but the large plane was awkward when working on small pieces of wood, and the craftsmen became tired if they had to use these heavy planes for any length of time. This became a real problem when our volume increased and we began to segment tasks. New employees typically started their careers at Eldred Wheeler by learning how to hand-plane secondary wood, the vast majority of it pine. They would first be assigned less finicky components, like backboards and case bottoms. As their proficiency grew, they would move on to drawer parts. As our orders increased, the stacks became larger, and occasionally a new craftsman might be pushing a plane for six to eight hours at a stretch.
I’m not sure who suggested we experiment with a spoke shave, but shortly after moving into Pembroke we gave it a try. We discovered that by gently curving the blade it could be used in place of the jackplane, over which it had several advantages. The spoke shave was lightweight, and the two handles afforded more control when working around knots or irregular grain patterns. It was also much more maneuverable when working on small or thin pieces of wood. The spoke shave soon became the tool of choice for planing all softwood, and for cross-planing the interior, or underside, of hardwood surfaces.
Another evolutionary process was the use of cabinet scrapers for finishing exterior hardwood surfaces. In our early days in Hanson, all exterior hardwood surfaces were first hand-planed and then hand-sanded prior to final finishing. This process produced unpredictable variations in the quality of the surface after finishing. During hand-planing, the grain had a tendency to tear, even with a very shallow cut. This was especially true for tiger maple, where the undulating grain led to numerous pockmarks as the plane removed small “divots” of figured wood. Also, if the plane developed a nick in the blade, it would leave a series of raised channels of wood. Hand-sanding these surfaces appeared to remove problem areas, but they reappeared during the final finishing process. The piece then had to be stripped, sanded again, and refinished. Countless numbers of early Eldred Wheeler pieces had to be refinished two or even three times before they left the shop.
We first discovered finish scrapers while we were in Pembroke. These flat metal blades enabled the craftsmen to better control tear-out on figured wood. They were also very useful in feathering-out imperfections in the wood surface. Because the scraper blade had a cutting action, removing fine ribbons of wood, it was more effective than sanding in removing raised imperfections, such as raised channels from nicks in hand-plane blades or compression marks caused by wood chips not being removed as the wood passed through the thickness planer. The wood surface typically only required a light sanding after being prepped with a finish cabinet scraper. The only problem with this tool was its impracticality for preparing large surfaces. In order to optimize the cutting action of the scraper, the blade has to be flexed using the cabinetmaker’s two thumbs; the greater the flex, the greater the cutting action. Finish scraping became very tiring after a relatively short period of time, and was really only suited for spot touchups. Also, the scraper blades dulled quickly and needed frequent sharpening, sometimes several times to complete a single broad surface, such as the side of a chest of drawers. We struggled for over a year to find an efficient way to prepare hardwood surfaces so they would have a hand-worked feel.
The bull-nosed scraper turned out to be the tool that enabled the scale-up of surface preparation. The tool looks similar to a spoke shave, but instead of having a low-angle cutting blade, it holds a vertically mounted scraper blade. A thumbscrew controls the blade’s flex. With its two handles, the bull-nose provided the cabinetmakers with the ability to prep large surfaces rather easily, and the end result was a surface with just enough character. The only real problem was the time required to sharpen the scraper blades. Cabinet scraper blades consist of thin pieces of tempered steel. Sharpening consists of first filing the edge so it is square and devoid of any nicks. The edge is then rolled over using a burnishing tool, which is a very hard round steel rod. The result is a fine cutting burr along the entire length of the scraper blade. It is this burr that cuts a very thin ribbon of wood to produce the final surface. In sharpening the blades, it is important that the edges be perfect, with no nicks. Otherwise, raised ridges, much like those left by nicked hand-plane blades, will show up on the prepped surface after the piece has received its final finish. Initially it took 20–30 minutes to sharpen each blade. For a considerable period, the time it took to sharpen scraper blades was the limiting factor in Eldred Wheeler’s rate of production. Over time we experimented with different techniques, until we reached the point where blade sharpening was much faster and no longer a constraint.
The Pembroke years were a time of rapid growth for Eldred Wheeler. We expanded our product line to include just about every form produced by 18th century country cabinetmakers. We secured reliable sources of wide boards of cherry, maple, tiger maple, and pine; contracted-out the production of our own custom brass hardware; and refined our construction and finish capabilities. On the marketing side, we produced a new catalog in partial color, featuring our expanded product offerings. We also forged a relationship with the Nantucket Historical Society, and several national magazines featured articles about Eldred Wheeler. On the retail front, we expanded our dealer network to include stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, New York, Virginia, Ohio, and Texas.