Neville Comins in his Favourite Place!
A lifelong woodworker and extremely active member of the Woodworkers Association of Pretoria since 1992, Neville recently retired from the position of Director of Material Sciences at the CSIR & founding CEO of The Innovation Hub
Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodwork?
Neville: As a young boy, I was aware of certain pieces of furniture, including two Morris chairs, made by my great-grandfather. The tradition had not been carried on, but still it created a fascination for me. My real interest was triggered when a neighbour started to build a home-made lathe and I volunteered to be his assistant. With remarkable tolerance for a 6-year old, I was encouraged throughout.
Later in Primary School, the joy of making a toy car was memorable and the enthusiasm to build things moved first to model aircraft and later to furniture.
High School presented a challenge, as woodwork was reserved for boarding pupils, but when two day-scholars persuaded the powers-that-be to allow us after school access to the workshop, the opportunity was created under the tutelage of a real craftsman stimulated by our enthusiasm. We were introduced to many techniques of good joinery, including making concealed dovetails and Ball & Claw and even wood turning.
Imbuia Cabinet made at High School
African Mahogany Side Table
The bug had bitten and the items that I made are still in use today. Through my later university days in the UK, I had no facilities for woodwork, but started marquetry as a new challenge.
Also, being in Cambridge I was fortunate to see many wonderful period furniture pieces with their elegant design and proportions and a desire grew to one day emulate such styles.
Custom Display Cabinet from Sapele
On my return to South Africa, the years that followed saw the building of a significant amount of household furniture. I joined the Woodwork Association of Pretoria in 1992, and over time benefited extensively from the experience of others and have grown my skills through more challenging projects.
Tobias: What aspects of your craft do you find most enjoyable and least enjoyable?
Neville: In developing my projects, most of them have not relied on published designs, but rather the challenge of designing for both functionality and appearance, but also including new techniques to broaden my skills. When existing designs were used, the features of some new complexity were important, e.g. serpentine mouldings and coves on a Grandfather Clock or the detail in the reproduction Queen Anne Lowboy.
Grandfather Clock in progress for the family - One in Imbuia and one in Walnut
Reproduction Queen Anne Lowboy in American Walnut
Perhaps due to the way I started out, I enjoy the use of hand tools and the satisfaction of completing a task using my own skill. This is particularly true of hand-cut marquetry. Probably the finishing stages are likely the least enjoyable as one is at that stage so keen to complete the project. Also, much is written about the subject internationally, but the information about using the locally available finishing products is more limited. Over the years, however, and learning from others, the quality of my finishing has improved and has become much more satisfying. My absolute worst aspect is making unnecessary mistakes that could easily be avoided. This, as always, is often related to haste or diversion.
Tobias: Which are your favourite hand tools?
Neville: Most probably due to my early exposure only to hand-tools, I have steadily built up my selection of quality tools. However, before listing my favourites, I realised that an essential ‘tool’ for handwork (and of course for many other techniques) is a well-constructed workbench.
New Workbench under Construction in the Workshop
I made my first workbench 45 years ago based on a Readers Digest DIY book, and for years understood its limitations, but suffered along. Eventually (something that should be most serious woodworker’s early project) I was to build “The Essential Workbench’ published in Fine Woodworking magazine (2004) and I fitted it with a Veritas quick-release Front Vice and a Veritas Twin–Screw Vice, as well as a copious quantity of well-positioned ‘dog-holes’. A further step was to fit under-bench storage for convenient access to the key hand-tools. These steps allowed me to radically up my game.
My new European Beech "Essential Workbench" with Veritas Vices
Despite obvious temptation every time one opens the latest news on new products, I have been conservative in expanding my range of hand tools, as most good tools, if well maintained and kept sharp, have a good and long work life.
The Tool Storage Unit fitted into the Workbench
Nevertheless, additions have been made to fill important gaps and I always go for excellent quality where possible.
Thus, my list is:
- Stanley #3, #4, and #5 planes
- Record #6 plane
- Stanley #78 plane
- Veritas Medium Shoulder Plane
- Veritas Bevel-up low angle block plane
- Veritas 164- ½ H Bevel-up smoothing plane
- Veritas dovetail saw (Fine tooth 20tpi)
- Stanley #151 spokeshave
- A trusty set of Marples chisels
- A set of Pfell chisels
- Set of Narex fine cut rasps
- Starrett Combination square
- Incra Precision T-square
- Incra Precision Marking Protractor
- Veritas Micro-adjust wheel marking gauge
One item, not so regularly used since the advent of routers, is my 53 year old Record #050 Combination Plane with its 17 cutter configuration, bought at the time for R14, 00!
Tobias: What are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?
Neville: My choice of stationary machines has been limited by the size of my workshop (20 square metres). The primary machine is my well-used Kity Bestcombi 2000 combination machine, which I dominantly use as a table saw (200mm blade) and a 200mm jointer, plus occasional use of the mortising attachment. For thicknessing, I have a De Walt 733 machine mounted on a mobile platform, which can be moved outside to allow for processing long planks. My Kity 613 band saw has an adequate capacity for most work, with some limits for re-sawing.
New Workbench (left), Kity Combination machine (centre),
Record Coronet 3 Lathe & Tormek Sharpening Station (right)
Fortunately, our Association (Pretoria Woodworkers Association) members are happy to share their bigger machines when required. I also have a Record (Coronet) No.3 lathe with a 48” bed used mostly for spindle turning.
Folding Router Table
To maximise space, I have a folding Router Table with a home-built precision fence which has all the required flexibility, and a Delta drill press. Important is dust collection and I use a Jet DC 1100A collector, piped to the various machines with blast gates, and a ceiling mounted Jet AFS1000 Air filter unit.
My favourite power tools are my two vintage Elu routers, with a small and very useful Accessory Table, my set of Festool tools, viz. a TS55 FEQ plunge saw and tracks, a Rotex RX150 FEQ orbital sander, a PS300 EQ jigsaw and in conjunction with the Festool units, I use a CT22E SG portable vacuum.
As a strong protagonist of dovetail joinery in cabinetry and drawer construction, I have a Leigh D4R jig when repetitious work is required.
The Oak Workshop Cabinet has 52 Drawers, providing custom storage for a wide array of items
Tobias: What machines, power tools or hand tools could you not do without?
Neville: Some thoughts:
- My workbench and bench dogs
- Tenon, dovetail and coping saws
- Sets of bevel edge chisels
- All of my hand planes
- Tormek Whetstone Machine, Diamond Plates and Whetstones for sharpening , with a Veritas Mk2 Honing Guide
- Clamps (many types) but never enough
- Starrett combination square and other measuring and marking tools
- My small Combination machine and thicknesser
- Band saw
- Drill press
- All of my Festool units
- Last and certainly not least, my two ELU routers, attachments, router table, fence and cutters
Kiaat Sideboard with Top Panels that slide open to access the Hot Trays beneath
Tobias: Do you have a dedicated space for your craft, what floor area do you have and how much time do you manage to spend on woodwork per week?
Neville: The dedicated space for my complete workshop is a very snug 20 square metres. While I can have a ‘wishlist’ for tools and machines, expansion is not possible, so I must adapt and use what I have. A serious challenge is always storage for timber and off-cuts, so other spaces need to be found to alleviate this, particularly for larger projects.
Depending on the project, my time in the workshop ranges form 1-2 days per week to almost full time when required.
Never forget to make toys for your grand children!
Over time, careful attention has been paid to the storage of tools, with the most used hand tools under the bench, small power tools in a wall cabinet and others on wall racks for convenient access, e.g. clamps, screwdrivers, files and some power tool accessories.. There is a small sharpening station for the Tormek and whetstones.
Lighting is always important and the shop has 4 double LED strip lights for general lighting, as well as two 30W LED floodlights over the bench and lathe area.
A workshop, however, is always a continuous project, where one makes adjustments to try and improve the efficiency and productivity.
Music Centre & Tv Cabinet
Tobias: What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is the next piece you wish to build?
Neville: I guess the first piece was the ‘pull-car’ at primary school and accessories for model train layouts. When it comes to furniture, I made a mahogany bookcase and an Imbuia cabinet mentioned earlier, a turned lamp stand, and a carved spiral lamp, all at High School.
My favourite pieces have to be my first Grandfather clock in Imbuia and a walnut reproduction Queen Anne lowboy.
My recent projects included a Kiaat sideboard, two further grandfather clocks, , one in Imbuia and the other in walnut, and two display cabinets, for the family.
Recently, I have become interested in box making, and my interest in marquetry has been revived. I recently completed my first jewellery box with a marquetry lid, which was most satisfying. I expect this interest will grow, as I really enjoy the precision that is required.
In terms of future furniture, I want to improve my skills with inlay and banding work, with the potential to build a Federal Style table, which I find most appealing.
Tobias: What are your favourite timbers to work with and what timbers do you avoid?
Neville: My favourite timber, up until availability was stopped , was always Imbuia for the rich colour, stability and workability. In later projects, the use of Kiaat, Sapele Mahogany, African Mahogany, Pink Beech and White Oak as primary woods has dominated, while for authenticity the Queen Anne lowboy was made with American Walnut.
Imbuia Coffee Table
For secondary woods, I mostly use imported Poplar, which is easy to work and stable for drawer sides and bases, etc.
For boxes, I have used Imbuia, Kiaat and for contrast European Beech and Maple. For my workbench, I followed the tradition by using European Beech. In future, I will be looking to source more figured woods for box lids, and woods for making bandings and inlays, but this is still to come.
A wood that I did not enjoy using was Iroko, as it affected my lungs, but otherwise I do not have real dislikes of particular species. My chief dislike is timber that is stressed and develops a life of its own once you start to work.
Tobias: What is your standard finishing process for your pieces?
Neville: My finishing is a subject of continuous improvement to achieve the results I desire. I have never ventured into spraying of lacquers, etc. and focus on hand applied finishes. Dominant has been the use of Woodoc 10, but more recently, I have been using Danish Oli and wax. I am finding my way into using shellac alone, more as a sealer, and it's combination with other finishes, but not yet French Polishing with it.
For my bench, I used Boiled Linseed Oil, and for other workshop cabinets, etc. polyurethane varnish, providing a robust finish. There are still many skills to perfect.
Imbuia Display Cabinet
Tobias: If you were to add another discipline of wood working to your arsenal, what would it be?
Neville: My recently rediscovered enthusiasm for marquetry done using the window method will stimulate me in the selection of veneers, shading and using grain effects. This offers new ways of augmenting both box and cabinet making.
Having done limited woodturning, I am surrounded in our Association by some of the best turners in South Africa, so this is an area where I can learn much, and this must be on the list. In addition, my limited woodcarving on the Lowboy project, also showed the extent to which this can add so much to a furniture piece. I suppose that I would like to aspire to be a ‘complete woodworker’ but life may just be too short, but still worth the challenge!
A non-furniture project in Sapele
- Jet Drum Sander
- Veritas Shooting Board and Shooting Plane
- Veritas Round Bottom Spokeshave
- Starrett 6” Double Square
- A set of Bessey K-body clamps
- More toggle clamps for jigs
- Ceramic sharpening stones
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- Tags: Bessey, Boxes, European Beech, Festool, Grandfather Clock, Imbuia, Incra, Inlay, Jet Tools, Kiaat, Latest, Marples, Marquetry, Narex, Neville Comins, Pfeil, Pretoria Woodworkers' Association, Queen Anne Lowboy, Record, Stanley, Starrett, The Woodworker Session Q & A, The Woodworker Sessions, Tobias Lochner, Toolcraft, Tormek, Veritas Tools