The Woodworker Sessions #20 - Ten Questions with David Duncan of Johannesburg

Posted by Tobias Lochner on

The Woodworker Sessions is about sharing and learning from each other. Our techniques, shortcuts, mistakes and triumphs all combine to grow our common passion - working with wood.

In The Woodworker Sessions #20, we have the privilege to find out a little more about David Duncan and his wonderful approach to his woodcraft.

Outside my “workshop” is my Moravian Workbench 
Useful for sanding or simply being creative in a pleasant breeze.

Question #1

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

David: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t surrounded by tools. My father was a qualified shop-fitter and a person who did most things himself. As the only boy in a family of four children, I was the “clamp and screw passer.” One of my favourite things to do was to tidy my dad’s tool shelves, cleaning and sorting the tools.

A great step came the day that my grandmother took me to the toy shop on my birthday to pick out a tool set. Toy tool sets in those days weren’t plastic noise-makers, but real tools scaled down. I loved my egg-beater drill from the set I chose. My first plane was a Stanley block plane, which I never got to make a shaving, I had no idea how to get it right and never used it again. Although I yearned to make things, all too often my efforts ended in frustration.

For many years I was your average DIY person. I slapped things together with nails, screws and glue. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my interest in wood craft peaked. I feel privileged to be part of the internet age, because it was on the web that I stumbled across Paul Sellers’ teaching.

His philosophy intrigued me: with ten hand-tools and three joints you can make just about anything. I watched and read and learned and practised – my life was changed. I learned to sharpen, cut and chisel. Screws and nails were replaced by tenons, bridle joins and dovetails. From there, my love for the craft grew exponentially and with every small step of proficiency came more enjoyment.

Once I learned how to sharpen a chisel, the enjoyment of working wood grew exponentially. I can’t begin to describe how incredibly enjoyable simple tasks like chamfering an edge can be.

Some basic knowledge and skill make these bread-board ends so rewarding to make with a few simple hand tools.

Question #2

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

David: I love the planning process that usually includes sketching and 3D modelling. As an open-source software freak, I enjoy a computer, but interestingly, my planning is done with paper and pencil nowadays.

Woodworking is a multi-sensory experience and I love how the textures, sounds, smells and bouncing light come together as one interacts with the wood. I love hand-planing, never getting enough of wisp-like ribbons floating from the plane throat.

Sometimes I will take my plane to some pine, simply for the mere pleasure of it. I smile every time wispy shavings float to the ground.

I am a compulsive problem solver. I love finding simple solutions to everyday workshop problems. Long before hand-tool woodworking came into fashion, my dad gave me a Stanley router plane. This intrigued and frustrated me no end. It was missing the blade clamp and height adjuster – useless, so I thought.

I remember visiting Hardware Centre as a young man to find out if they could get me the parts. My enquiry was met with some disdain from the well-known shopkeeper. “Just buy an electric router,” he said. He just didn’t understand my passion for hand-tool woodworking. Many years later, watching Paul Sellers frequently use his router plane got me all fired up again. I found a strong old hose clamp and voilà, my router plane was put to use. That hose clamp is still doing service almost on a daily basis.

Going strong after many years use, the hose clamp on my router plane has done great service at a great price.

I am consistently amazed at how wonderfully sensitive human fingers are, able to pinch-adjust to incredibly tiny amounts (probably microns) . This method helps me to be completely in tune with what's going on on the wood surface being planed.

I have had a bit of a mental block when it comes to stock preparation... For many years, until very recently, I prepared all my stock by hand – from rough boards to four-squared stock. I enjoy planing by hand, but that kind of stock preparation loses it's romantic edge very quickly. It was made somewhat easier by an article by Christopher Schwarz entitled, “Coarse, medium and fine,” but was still a bit of an exhausting business. I’m glad to say that I was blessed recently to be able to purchase a bench-top planer/thicknesser.

A planer/thicknesser removes much of the chore of my stock preparation. This workhorse is attached to my dust collector by means of a series of pool hoses.

I also love making simple tools that do amazing things.

In chair-making, tapered mortises are often called for. A reamer is essential to taper the holes. My reamer is a home-made version with a removable blade (made from an old saw) and sharpened on both edges as you would a cabinet scraper. It works incredibly well.

 

For beading, you will have to do a lot to beat this simple tool – a scratch stock. Made from a scrap of wood and a piece of bandsaw or other blade, you can file any shape on the blade and transfer it to the wood edge with ease.

What I like least in the woodwork process is my own stupidity. Far too often, I make silly mistakes by becoming engrossed in the immediate task and gluing something upside down or cutting the wrong end of a component. I’m learning to concentrate throughout the process and diligently mark components.

Woodworking has forced me to grow in focus and patience.

Question #3

Tobias: What are your favourite hand tools?

David: I have always loved hand tools and for a time, I was what could be described as a hand-tool purist … somewhat naive and misguided I now admit. But I still love all my hand tools. I also tend to be a minimalist though – I love the challenge of being able to do a lot with a little.

Some time back, a phrase used by a photographer I follow stuck with me: “Embrace the constraints.” Having less gear tends to stretch your thinking and ability. Anything I don’t use, gets given away or sold. So it wouldn’t be untrue to say that all the tools in my possession are my favourites. All of my favourites live in my Dutch tool chest next to my bench and are constantly used.

My assortment of familiar & much loved friends.

 

My Dutch Tool Chest

 

In the lid and down the back: Crosscut and Rip Saws

In the Top Compartment:
Stanley #7 Jointer Plane
Stanley #5 ½ used as a Fore Plane
Stanley #4 Smoothing Plane
Two Stanley Block Planes
Backsaws: Two Tenon Saws and a Dovetail Saw
Coping Saw
In the Tool Rack:
Awl
Luban Marking Gauge
Dividers in three sizes
Small Engineer’s Square
Combination Square
Mechanical Pencil
Vernier Calliper

Dutch Tool Chest Bottom Section

First Shelf:
Measuring Tape
Card Scraper
A second Stanley #4 (set for rough cuts)
Stanley Router Plane
Stanley Rebate Plane
Stanley Cabinet Scraper
Stanley 45 Combination Plane
(Used exclusively as a Plough Plane as I don’t have a complete set of blades)
Two Stanley Spokeshaves (Round and Flat Bottom)
In the Small Shelf:
Marking Knife
Sliding Bevel
Diamond Sharpening Plates
Leather Strop
Small Spiral Ratchet Screwdriver with Bit Adapter
 
Bottom Shelf:
Wooden Scrub Plane
Stanley #3 Smoothing Plane
Record Carriage Maker’s Plane
Stanley Compass Plane
Brace and Bits
Estwing Claw Hammer
Small Cross Pein Hammer
Scratch Stock
Eggbeater Drill
With use, every hand-tool becomes a familiar and dear friend.
One of my most-used tools is one of the simplest and cheapest.
It took about 10 minutes to make.

 

Various home-made jigs and aids, such as my indispensable bench hook and shooting board.

A simple shooting board with a sharp plane makes squaring stock a breeze – with end-grain shavings the joy-provoking result.

  

 I love logical solutions, like this simple planing stop

used for planing slightly wider stock.

Question #4

Tobias: What are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?

David: I dislike dust and noise and despise the thought of woodworking with a mask and muffled ears. Some years back I sold nearly all of my power tools to buy more hand-tools. All that’s left from those days are a small old circular saw, which I use for cutting large sheets to size, and an electric drilling machine.

My regularly used machines are a bench-top drill press, 12” band-saw and bench-top planer/thicknesser (my servants). I also recently acquired a 1m electric lathe after many years of using a foot-powered pole lathe. My bench grinder isn’t used much, but when I do drop a chisel or plane blade, it’s called into action.

My second-hand bandsaw didn't come with a fence. I wanted a simple fence that is easy to keep parallel with the blade. I saw something like this concept in a photo of a Shaker table-saw. It works on the parallelogram principle. The back is clamped in place and then the fence will always move parallel thanks to the stabilising bars. The advantage is being able to make small adjustments whilst easily keeping the fence parallel to the blade and table.

 

Dust collection in my shop is a simple affair. My old Electrolux vacuum cleaner sucks amazingly well and coupled to a cyclone, drum and a couple of pool hoses accommodates my few machines with ease.

Question #5

Tobias: What machines, power tools or hand tools could you not do without?

David: To be honest, all the tools I have mentioned in answer #3 and #4 are used regularly and are essential components in my arsenal. I couldn’t see myself doing without any of them, as they each perform a vital function.

Turning is a great joy because when you step away from the lathe, you usually walk away with a completed project.

Question #6

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

David: I currently work in an outside room of approximately 12 square metres. My bandsaw and planer are on small wheeled cabinets, so that I can reconfigure the small space when needed. I have a dedicated work-surface for grinding and drilling.

 

My main workbench is an old factory workbench with two drawers an old quick-release vise is my constant assistant.

My workbench is an ugly, but sturdy old beast, rescued from a dirty factory somewhere.

For dovetailing and such work, I use a poor-man’s Moxon vice, all credit to the late Jennie Alexander for the idea. Mine is made of some pallet wood and whatever clamps come to hand.

Poor Man's Moxon Vise 

I have an additional Moravian workbench outside the “workshop” under a carport. If I do any sanding, it will be outside.

As my wife would tell you, I will steal any amount of time to work wood. Until recently, that was limited to a few hours a week. Very recently though, my life situation changed dramatically and with one thing leading to another, I have had to turn to woodworking in an attempt to feed my family. It’s early days, but I love going into the workshop every day now.

 It is a privilege to begin the day amidst the shavings in the beautiful morning light.

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?

David: I couldn’t really tell you what the first piece I made was. The first proper piece of furniture that I remember making, was a small occasional table as a school woodworking project. That was more like a well supervised production line, but I was proud of the table nonetheless.

My first solo project of decent wood with real joinery was a pulpit for the church where I was the assistant pastor. The pulpit was made of solid white oak with a floating panel front made to resemble the church’s logo. The reason this was one of my favourites is that it brings together the beauty of wood and pure function. I also like the pulpit because I have no idea how I did it with the very limited skills I had at the time. About 10 years later, it’s still in weekly use.

           

As for pieces that I wish to build, the list is long!

I have always been drawn to the simple aesthetics and functionality of Shaker furniture, even before I knew anything about the Shakers. I admire the work of Chris Becksvoort, a renowned maker and restorer of Shaker furniture. A meeting-house bench is high on the to-do list with several of their well-known cupboards and desks following close behind.

I’m still chasing the perfect set of dovetail joints. I’ve come close, but have yet to arrive.

Chairmaking is something that I long to become immersed in. I have Peter Galbert, Bern Chadley and Christopher Schwarz to thank, with their commitment to traditional methods and exciting new forms, they create simple but beautiful chairs.

This child’s pine bench was my entry into the world of chairmaking. Made with wedged & tapered mortise and tenon joints, straight grain throughout for maximum strength and octagonal legs and back posts. Hand-turned spindles were turned on my pole-lathe. It is a prototype of sorts, made of clear pine and finished with solvent-free varnish. Seat: 74cm wide, 36cm deep and 33cm high at front. Back: 42cm high.

But before all that, a less romantic project awaits completion.

A lot of joinery lies ahead. Not pretty at this point, but I’m thankful to be able to pay some bills this month.

Question #8

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

David: It may sound weird, but my favourite wood to work with is good clear pine. Maybe it’s because we’ve become good friends over the years of struggles, but I love the smell and its forgiving way with beginners like me.

               

Not only is pine cheap and versatile, I think it’s beautiful too.

I don’t feel bad at all about grabbing a few pine scraps and making something in a few minutes just for fun.

My use of hardwoods has been limited, basically because I have felt that my skill level is undeserving of such decadence. I would hate to waste a beautiful piece of rare wood through my inability. That said, I have been doing quite a bit in oak of late, a classic timber.

               

This little stool is made of oak that was destined to end up in the landfill. Ghastly thought.

Kiaat is also becoming a firm favourite with its delectable smell and rich patterns and contrasts.

         

This Shaker inspired lap desk I made recently, shows why I have come to like Kiaat so much.

The sight and smell of Kiaat is a joy to experience.

I guess you can take the environmentalist out of the nature reserve, but you can never take the environmental thinking out of the environmentalist. Re-using and recycling are so much part of me that to not use reclaimed timber every now and then would be utterly unthinkable.

Scraps of discarded timber can become useful and even beautiful articles.

Dare I say it? Yes, I will on occasion even use pallets. This is a gate-leg table in the making.

I look forward to developing to the point where I am comfortable in the use of other beautiful and rare woods.

Question #9

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

David: For many years, bad old varnish was the only thing I knew. My environmentalist training called solvent based finishes into question for me and I moved to water-based finishes. As I progressed in my knowledge and appreciation of wood, I began turning to more natural finishes. The end result seems obvious from this vantage point, with shellac, oils and waxes becoming the go-to choices of finish, depending on the article and its application.

 

Question #10

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

David: For me, one of the intriguing things about woodworking is its diversity. At the moment I enjoy chair-making (Traditional chairs such as Irish stick chairs and some green woodworking), spindle turning and all forms of joinery. I would like to get much better at each of these disciplines.

I thought I would practise my chair-making with some miniature versions. It would be easier I thought. What I didn’t know was that this Welsh stick chair for a one-year old poses great challenges, as the angles are more acute and you have less wiggle room. Lesson learned. This little chair was made of clear pine and finished with blonde shellac.

In addition, the bowl and letter carving work of David Fisher leaves me speechless and hungry for that skill.

Classical music is another passion of mine and it is my dream to one day build a violin that my adult daughter would be proud to play on.

My Wishlist:

  • 10mm Beading and Parting Tools
  • A full set of blades for my beloved Stanley 45
  • Airless Spray System
  • Azebiki, Ryoba and Dozuki Japanese Saws
  • Benchcrafted Hi Vise
  • Bullnose Plane
  • Carver’s Adze
  • Clamps, clamps and more clamps!
  • Decent Drawknife
  • DMT Wave Diamond Sharpeners (various grits)
  • Fishtail Chisel
  • Full set of Moulding Planes
  • Largest Jointer Available (Single Phase)
  • Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Boggs Concave Spokeshave
  • Lie-Nielsen Toolworks large and small Router Planes
  • Mortise Twin Stem Marking Gauge
  • New ½ " and ¾ " Spindle Gouges
  • Oval Skew Chisel
  • Planer thicknesser with a helical cutter head
  • Professional Table Saw
  • Set of decent Carving Chisels
  • Set of Hand-Stitched Rasps
  • Set of Veritas Dowel and Tenon Cutters
  • Shooting Board Plane
  • Shoulder Plane
  • Two or more Lie-Nielsen Holdfasts

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8 comments

  • As a retired woodwork teacher, I am glad to see your love of the old hand tools (like me). Keep up the good work !!!!!

    Billy on
  • Thoroughly inspiring and 120% relatable. Thank you David, Barry and BPM Toolcraft for sharing!!

    Duncan Gooch on
  • Great interview.

    You are an inspiration to all of us! Keep up the great work.

    Brian Thomas on
  • Hi
    What a great interview indeed, there were even hand tools I didn’t even know. It shows how much a person needs to learn about woodworking and hand tools. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Thato Rapulane on
  • Hi Barry. Hope you got sorted out with your grain filler potion! I agree completely with your comment. Like most things, we only get good at them if we persevere and practise. Someone said to me today that dovetails are easy when you think of them as finger joints with “slopey” sides!

    Tobias Lochner on

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