Wednesday, September 21, 2011
The Deal with Deal
In "The Joiner and Cabinetmaker", the projects are built using a woody substance referred to as "deal". There is not much agreement on the exact definition, but it is more or less "pine boards". In the book, Thomas is able to find half-inch deal which is sawn so nicely that it is essentially ready to use as-is. This might come as a surprise to modern folks who envision such archaic woodworkers going out to select a tree to chop down as the first step in a project. However, pre-milled wood has long been common. To saw and mill a log into furniture-grade lumber would take a monumental expenditure of both time and labor. Specialization is nothing new, so even in Colonial America the sawyers ("saw-ers") and cabinetmakers were not the same people. While certainly some rustic furnituremakers were growing and cutting their own lumber, in general professional tradespeople were getting their wood from the Home Depot of the day. Therefore, Thomas had a stash of "nicely sawn" pine boards available to him, already cut to one half-inch thick, and crudely surfaced.
The modern version of obtaining "deal" is to simply go to a lumberyard and buy lumber already milled on 2, if not 4, of its sides. This is not exactly ready to use as-is, but it is mighty close. One can save a little bit of money by finding lumber in the rough, which needs to be jointed and planed before use, but Thomas was able to skip this step for the most part.
This gives the modern woodworker aiming to follow in Thomas's footsteps a bit of leeway. While it would be fun to take rough lumber and completely surface it by hand (and future projects will involve this), the Packing Boxes started with "half inch deal" and so that is what I have been seeking.
The problem, however, is that very few furniture makers are doing this type of thing nowadays. This is in fact the type of wood using for drawer bottoms, but thin boards have a terrible tendency to cup or warp, and so in general, plywood is the chosen lumber for this application. The alternating grain directions of the sandwich-like layers (plys) keep the warping at bay. Indeed, I was at a lumberyard just this week which specializes in cabinetry wood, and the proprietor was utterly amazed that I wanted to buy such thin wood, even after I explained my project.
The end result is that, at least in Coastal Oregon, 9" wide boards of deal at such a small thickness are unavailable. I've called shops from Washington to California, willing to drive a day to get them. No luck. Unless I want to special order wood from New England, or pay to have nice, thick boards wastefully resawn to my narrow requirement (at great expense - and believe me, lumber is already very expensive), I am out of luck. However, I was able to secure a quantity of 3.5" wide boards at 1/2" thick. These, I will edge-glue together into larger planks, emulating the wood which Thomas would have found. This involves a bit of extra work for me, but that is ok. If I wanted to avoid work, I wouldn't do this project (or I would limply complete it using plywood).
Gluing boards together to make wider ones is nothing new, in fact its very common. Thomas does it himself, for the schoolbox and chest of drawers. However, one of the aspects of the packing box which is so interesting is that the top and bottom boards are not glued, they are nailed together using "cross-strengtheners" or battens. They could easily be glued, but according to the storyline, Thomas has no time to do this. I take this limitation-- no glue --as one of the main lessons of the project, and so I will still aim to abide by it. This is where it gets convoluted.
I will be edge-gluing boards to get wider ones, but I will not glue them wide enough to be complete. I will glue them just shy of where they need to be, so that an extra strip must still be nailed on. Yes, this is ridiculous by any measure other than that of accuracy by the storyline and harvesting of potential experience, which is what this project is all about.
The gluing operation is not as simple as it sounds. The boards are machine-milled and, in theory, pretty flat. However, a quick check with a straightedge shows a fair bit of tell-tale light peeking through. They are not straight. So every single adjoining edge is going to have to be checked, planed, and rechecked by hand before gluing. This is just to get to square zero of the project.
Silver lining: I should be pretty good at truing boards and gluing up small panels by the end of this exercise. This is a bonus experience not built into the project as designed. Its like free homework! There are some 30 boards (thats 60 edges) involved, which is a lot of planing. I have my planes sharpened and honed, oiled and waiting. There will probably be caffeine involved.
Yes, this is absurd. Yes, it will be fun. Yes, I will do it.