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The Woodworker Sessions #5  -  10 Questions with Duncan Nel of Cape Town

The Woodworker Sessions #5 - 10 Questions with Duncan Nel of Cape Town

This week in The Woodworker Sessions , I chat to seasoned furniture maker Duncan Nel of Cape Town about his passion for woodworking. 

Duncan in his Workshop

Question #1

Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodworking?

Duncan:  I started woodworking along with other trades like plumbing and electrical work at my father's knee, literally. My childhood toys were tools and legend has it that my comforter as a baby was a carpenter’s brace and I still have it, rather than a teddy bear.

My dad worked for a company that imported goods from Germany and he had access to the packing cases after unboxing. Rough sawn, but great quality timber of all descriptions that he used for everything from furniture to built-in cupboards.

We did not have a single power tool,  so everything was done by hand. Rip sawing, crosscutting, planing, smoothing, sanding & jointing of every description. We even drilled holes in concrete and brick with a star drill and hammer. I still have a Yankee screwdriver and I will take on most cordless screwdrivers any day!


Question #2

Tobias:    What aspects of your craft do you find the most and the least enjoyable?

Duncan:  Over the years, I developed a love of creating useful “things” from scratch and a passion for perfection. I was taught that when you used traditional wood screws, the slots had to line up. I have a huge respect for the tools that made it all possible and I have a “can do" attitude. 

I also learned very early on that there is limited opportunity, within the boundaries of one’s own existence, to practice a craft which is essentially a hobby. There are only so many pieces of furniture that can fit into one small house.

If you don’t embrace the chance to share your talent and skill with other people, there are just not enough projects to allow you to develop and learn new techniques or perfect old ones. 

A word on the "why": Creating beautiful and functional things is good for the soul.

Spending time in the workshop pottering with loved tools is great for stress, but in reality, I am so disillusioned with the quality of work produced by the very average tradesmen who are such an essential part of modern life, that I would rather do it myself!

For me, the most exciting part of a project is working out how…
Once I have settled on a concept, I can spend hours planning the process.
What type of wood, what joints, what will make for the strongest result, measurements, processes and of course, tools. I often end up making the tools and jigs before I start the project.
A simple request for an oval cutting board for a friend, ends up with a brand new shop-made elliptical router jig before the timber is even selected. I dislike screws, hate nails, use glue sparingly, do not have wood-filler in my shop, so this part of the project is really important.
Dislikes, I abhor painting!
One of Duncan's many projects

Question #3

Tobias:   Which are your favourite hand tools?

Duncan:  Favourite hand tools, now that’s a hard one. The truth is that almost everything I do now is courtesy of Eskom. Do lathe chisels count? In reality, the only hand tools still in regular use in my  workshop are my chisels. I do still cut joints, particularly bigger mortice and tenons by hand, and setting hinges and hardware is always best done with patience, and of course a good sharp chisel.

Question #4

Tobias:   What are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?
Duncan:  Favourite power tools… Has to be my table saw. It's a very old Martlet contractor’s saw which has been pimped to perfection. I can run a 300mm blade and cross cut 30 mm oak without spilling my coffee which is perched on the end of the extension table!
A good table saw, perfectly setup and maintained with:
  • A perfect Fence.
  • A perfect Miter Gauge
  • The best Blade money can buy
This setup should be at the heart of any shop.
It allows you to produce perfect components. There is very little point in cutting great dovetails for a display box or drawers, if the sides don’t start square and true and aren’t all the same size!
If I can have a second favourite, then it would be my wood lathe. I have a solid old Rockwell Delta which allows me to create beautiful things. They usually have absolutely no purpose. Like a new chisel handle for a chisel that already had a perfectly good handle, but so beautiful…

Question #5

Tobias:   What machines, power tools or hand tools could you not do without?
Duncan:    A good workbench. Lots and lots of clamps of all descriptions and anything that can be used to hold a piece of wood that requires work. I can carve a dovetail with a kitchen knife, but not if I can’t hold the work securely.
I am passionate about safety and many accidents occur as a result of poorly secured workpieces that result in tools slipping or binding. When I teach new woodworkers, not necessarily the most vulnerable, (that category belongs to the experienced who have become familiar and are no longer afraid of their tools) I always stress that if they can’t use both hands to operate the machine, they probable need to rethink. Why, for example do you need fixed dust extraction on a drill press? If the work is properly secured, you use your right hand to operate the drill and you left to hold the nozzle of the shop vac.
If you are inclined to use a chisel in your right hand and use your left to hold the workpiece because “ I will just quickly do...” then invest in Elastoplast!

Question #6

Tobias:   Do you use a dedicated space for your craft, what floor area do you have available and how much time do you manage to spend on woodworking per week?

Duncan:   I currently have a dedicated workshop of about 80 sqm and can also work outside if required. That’s mostly for painting, as the stuff seems to go everywhere! I also take some metalwork like grinding outside, as the dust is so abrasive and hard to clean up. 

Question #7

Tobias:   What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is the next piece you wish to build?

Duncan:  The first real piece of furniture I made on my own was a hall table in Yellowwood and Imbuia. I was given a 9" x 9" Yellowwood beam from a demolition project in Long Street. I cut it into eight, 1" thick planks with a hand saw. It took a day per plank. I turned the legs on a home made lathe which vibrated so badly that my wife used to stand at the door while I worked, so that she could be close by if the piece came loose and did me a damage! We still have it 45 years later and my wife now uses it as a dressing table.

My favourite piece is a massive Outeniqua Yellowwood dining room table built in 1985 with the help of a great friend, Chris Thompkins of Craft Equipment Company. It is battered and scarred, but will never be refinished while I own it.

It is my favourite because it epitomises the reason why I build. Strong and practical, designed to be used and enjoyed, it has a patina of years and holds the memories of friends and family, some long departed, of birthday parties, Christmas dinners, debates, discussions over good food and wine, even the odd argument.

At the end of the day it is a reflection of lives well lived. Isn’t that why we all build?

Future project... I hope… Towards the end of the year I am going to build my son a traditional Roll Top Desk in Red Oak. Plans and tools are well advanced and I have been practicing some of the rail and style techniques that will be required. The large panels have to float, otherwise they will crack, etc. It will have to be easy to dismantle to move, otherwise it will have to stay in the workshop…


Question #8

Tobias:   What are your favourite timbers to work with, what timbers do you avoid and why?

Duncan:  I tend to select the right wood for the right product. I don’t have a favourite timber and I try not to be patronising about wood. The stuff is really expensive and I would hate to have a woodworker, young or old feel less than adequate because he can only afford to work with Pine, Plywood or Melamine for that matter.

In fact, it is pretty easy to cut a great mortice and tenon joint in Oak or a great dovetail in Beech or turn an elegant tapered leg in Imbuia. It takes a real craftsman with sharp tools to do the same in Pine. I work with what my clients can afford and give them the best product that I can produce.

That being said, I try to avoid woods like Tambotie and Iroko which are toxic, Pink Ivory because the colour leaches out long after the project is completed and exotic hardwoods that are not commercially grown and contribute to deforestation in third world countries and Pau Marfim which just seems to hate me! 

Question #9

Tobias: What is your standard finishing process for your pieces?

Duncan:   I like wood to remain wood, so I avoid anything that changes the character of the piece or changes the colour. I use Sanding Sealer on Sheet Goods, Plywood and Pine, any Nitro Cellulose Lacquer will do the job and I use Woodoc Oil based products on hardwoods. I generally let the oil cure well and finish with wax. There are some very good waterproof wax products like GWax and Nic Wax that are designed for leather that produce really good water resistant finishes for table tops and other surfaces that will take a beating. They do need to be mixed with a good measure of elbow grease though.


Tobias:   If you could add another discipline to your woodworking arsenal, what would it be?

Duncan: Another discipline. That’s a good thought. Probably patience. Plan it, practice it, take the time to do it right the first time.

Jokes aside, I would like to be a better woodcarver. I have spent my life making things that are straight and square. Three dimensional carving would be a nice change.

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Tobias Lochner - August 19, 2018

Thanks very much for the kind words, Hennie, Johan and Don.
Billy, I agree with you completely. Not only is it much nicer to work in a clean environment, but it is also a lot safer!

Billy - August 18, 2018

Net soos Duncan, staan my besem ook altyd naby; niks erger as ’n vuil werkswinkel nie.

Hennie Goddard - August 17, 2018

Nice read and tips…workshop looks awesome…

Johan Pieterse - August 5, 2018

Hi Duncan , that Yellow wood table looks superb. Thank you for sharing, inspiring work!

Don - August 3, 2018

That looks like a comfortable, well sized and well used workshop full of quality tools. Like you, I hate painting and would rather leave it to someone else. Then I don’t trust someone else not to mess it up so end up messing it up myself!

Tobias Lochner - August 3, 2018

Hi Brandon. Many thanks for your comments. I will pass them on to Duncan, so that he can tell us a bit more about his extension table.

Brandon Winks - August 3, 2018

Thanks for this blog Tobias. Duncan that extension table you built around your table saw looks exquisite. Is that T track strips in it? Very handy for all kinds of operations. Thanks for sharing.

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