The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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The volunteer woodworker

It is said that during the early days of the American Revolutionary War, the British had little trouble tracking the movements of the American Continental Army, they needed only to follow the bloody footprints left in the snow by the underequipped soldiers, many of whom didn’t even have shoes to wear. When the Continental Army marched into Valley Forge in the winter of 1777, they were naked, starving, and dying. Before the end of the winter, more than 2500 had died from disease and malnourishment. Yet, through determination, hard-toil, and sacrifice, and through the sheer force-of-will of their Commanders, the Continentals emerged in the spring of 1778 as a well-equipped, highly trained and disciplined fighting force able to stand toe-to-toe with the most powerful military on the planet. Their steadfast perseverance during the brutal winter forever bonded them as an army which created a nation, and all Americans are forever in their debt.

To me, and others, Valley Forge is a holy place, and someone more poetic than I will have pointed out that it is fitting that the encampment in which the Army spent the winter was named after a nearby forge, because the army, and perhaps the nation itself, was forged there as well. Though it was once a place of hardship and sacrifice, it is now a beautiful, serene park. But the spirit of sacrifice, and volunteerism, and the United States of America itself is still there, in the paths, and fields, monuments, and log huts that dot the landscape.

On Saturday morning it was once again my honor and privilege to spend the morning at Valley Forge Park doing my part to help keep the park beautiful. Though I cannot claim that my own minor contributions were anything worthy of remembrance, I am nonetheless overwhelmingly proud to offer my services, however inconsequential they may be. The sacrifices made by the Continental Army are beyond the comprehension of most people, including myself. I am only trying to keep in my heart the spirit of the volunteer, the person who gives up a bit of his or her free time in an attempt to make the Country, or the world, a little better place.

Yesterday morning much was accomplished in a brief amount of time. We had a nice sized group of volunteers, all ready and willing to put in a morning of hard work. The weather once again cooperated, allowing us to accomplish several different tasks simultaneously. First thing to do was dig out and level the ground both inside and outside the back entrance of the Blacksmith Hut in order to set stones as an entryway. When that was finished and the stones were set we filled the gaps tightly with the first layer of black sand. Later, the park service will level the interior of the hut and lay down a thick layer of new gravel. Once that was finished, we split into two groups, one group to continue the daubing and chinking of the gaps between the logs both inside and outside the hut, and one group to start making the shutters. I was with the shutter group.

Yet another beautiful autumn morning at Valley Forge

Yet another beautiful autumn morning at Valley Forge

Positioning the stones for a good fit

Positioning the stones for a good fit

Stone entryway pattern is set

Stone entryway pattern is set

Stones leveled, with first layer of sand added.

Stones leveled, with first layer of sand added.

Making a shutter to precisely fit in a 75 year old cabin window can be tricky. We took some rough measurements, but I knew that it was going to be a lot of trial and error. Though the park service provides all the tools we need, I decided to bring my home made jointer plane, a block plane, a few hand saws, and a marking gauge. The wood we used was rough hewn white oak. Though the park service has a woodshop equipped with a planer, the rough hewn look was chosen to be more authentic. After cutting the boards to equal, but oversize length, we did a test fit and marked the cuts. I ripped each size to rough width with a skilsaw, then used the plane to achieve a final fit. I’m very happy to say that my home made plane performed beautifully, and ribbons of white oak were thrown all over the job site, and it seemed appropriate to be using the tool considering the circumstances. We were able to get a very respectable fit in a window opening that was hardly square. The boards were sawn to final length with a hand saw, and temporarily set in place.

Some of the tools used to make a shutter

Some of the tools used to make a shutter

Crosscutting the shutters

Crosscutting the shutters

Ripping the shutters to rough width

Ripping the shutters to rough width

Hand planing to fit.

Hand planing to fit.

Shutter nearly fit and temporarily in place.

Shutter nearly fit and temporarily in place.

We then started on the cross battens, but at that point the job was winding down and the morning over. The park ranger supplied us with a jug full of blacksmith made cut nails which would be used to clinch fit the battens to the shutters by nailing them through with a steel plate on the other side, same as would have been done 200 years ago. Unfortunately that will have to wait until next session. More good news came after I had a brief talk with the ranger. The blacksmith hut contains an old work bench which unfortunately had its base damaged in a flood. However, the top, which is nearly 4 inch thick oak, is still in good shape. The ranger said that if I would like to rebuild the bench it shouldn’t be a problem, and I’m sure that I would have lots of help from the group. I was thinking of a traditional English joiners bench, though that may not be appropriate for a blacksmith shop, it would probably be appropriate for the colonial era.

All in all, we accomplished a great deal, worked hard, had fun, and hopefully did some good. I couldn’t be more proud of the efforts of all involved.

So I ask once again, if you would like to make a donation to a very worthy cause, please consider the Friends of Valley Forge, an organization of volunteers that works directly with the park in keeping it a place a history and beauty. Better yet, if you live in the south eastern section of Pennsylvania and you would like to donate your time, please consider Valley Forge Park as a place to volunteer. If not, maybe consider volunteering at a local park in your home town. I write this post not for my own benefit, nor to tell everybody that I am deep down a great guy, but because being a volunteer is one of my proudest accomplishments, and I like to think, I hope to think, that if an admitted cynic like myself can find so much good and happiness in spending a few hours per month offering my miniscule services, then maybe a lot of other people could too.

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A little help from my friends.

As a family, we spend a lot of time at Valley Forge National Park. The park is within driving distance from where I live, and many weekends we spend walking, or bike riding, or taking in the history of the area.

It is a beautiful setting, in particular during this time of year, and you could easily spend many weekends just taking photographs. We use the park to take photos sometime, but mostly it is a just a peaceful place to spend time walking and talking (as well as checking out the remarkable period furniture at George Washington’s Headquarters, among many other buildings). I often preach about civic virtue, though not necessarily on this blog. I firmly believe that civic virtue begins at home in the maintaining of your house, property, and neighborhood. Though it’s easy to talk about civic virtue, it means little if you do nothing but talk. For some time I’ve felt the need to “give back” to the park, so I would usually bring a small garbage bag with me during our walks to pick up any debris or trash I happen to find. Luckily, the vast majority of those who spend time in the park not only respect its natural beauty, they also respect it as a place that is sacred in American History.

Still, while doing my part to keep the park clean is certainly rewarding, I found myself wanting to do more, so we joined The Friends of Valley Forge Park organization, which is dedicated to maintaining, preserving, and promoting the park as a place of beauty, recreation, and historical significance. Through the group I was introduced to the Hut Brigade, a small group of volunteers who work with the park rangers in maintaining and restoring the many cabins throughout the park. That sounded like something I should be a part of, so I made contact with the group and they happily welcomed me as a new volunteer. This past Saturday was my first meeting and I’m happy to report that it was a great success.

Perfect fall day

Perfect fall day

The blacksmith cabin site.

The blacksmith cabin site.

It was a beautiful autumn morning to work, cool with crystal clear and sunny skies. I met with the other volunteers at the site of the Blacksmith Cabin, which has been undergoing intensive restoration since the beginning of the summer. Many rotted logs were replaced, as well as new doorway and window frames cut in and framed out. Under the direction of a Park Ranger, my job was to remove the bracing which was in place to hold the cabin up while rotted logs were in place. Once that was finished I mixed up the mortar and used it to daub the gaps between the logs along with the other volunteers. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I’m a pretty handy guy to have on a job site. My electrical knowledge was next to useless here, but I’m pretty good with a saw, chisel, mallet, drill, and mortar (I am part Italian). The work was not easy, and though I’m not young anymore, I can still work hard, and like the volunteers of the Continental Army I felt that it was my duty to do so. And I think George Washington would be proud of what the Hut Brigade does.

Working on the cabin

Working on the cabin

Yours truly daubing the gaps.

Yours truly daubing the gaps.

More views of the park

More views of the park

The cabin walls

The cabin walls

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When I returned home I felt the need to woodwork a little. When I first decided to build an Enfield Cupboard, I also decided to make a panel raising jig for my table saw as I would like the cupboard to have raised panels if possible, so I picked up a piece of plywood at Woodcraft for that purpose. When my woodworking projects got put on hold over the summer, so too did my jig. That all ended on Saturday, as I quickly had the jig built and ready to go. I will be honest and admit that not a big fan of building woodworking jigs, but they do have their time and place. This jig should do just fine as a panel raiser for small to medium size panels, as well as useful for making tenons (if I choose to use a table saw).

Quick and easy panel raising jig

Quick and easy panel raising jig

The last thing I did on Saturday involved a walnut board I almost tossed in the garbage several times. I measured it and found that there was enough there to build a small rack for my screwdrivers. In the spirit of the day, I prepped the board by hand, sawing it to width, and planing the edge straight with jack and jointer planes. The board needed a lot of work, and it made a mess of shavings. When I finally got the edge straight and square I used the table saw to rip it to final width. At that I called it a day.

Warped Walnut

Warped Walnut

At the next meeting of the Hut Brigade there will be more daubing, as well as building some doors, which should give me the chance to do a little woodworking. Whatever happens, I will be proud to be a part of it. And if you would like to donate to a very worthy cause, please visit the Friends of Valley Forge web page and give the organization consideration for your generosity; it would be most appreciated.

*Sorry for the lack of woodworking photos, my staff photographer was out with her mom.

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