It’s all about the imperfections.

In the cottage we stayed at last week there was a huge antique chest in the living room, the kind with thin, widely spaced dovetails. But the thing that intrigued me the most was the imperfections. The sides were made out of a very wide plank, and there was no attempt made to make it perfect. The photo below shows a number of marks, likely the result of planing the wood flat. Also note how ad-hoc the hole for the chest handle is (there was no hardware on the chest except for the hinges). Using a drill to bore out waste is fine, but look at how close the holes are that were used to attach the handle.


What do these imperfections add? Character.

Now days we would strive to make the chest as perfect as possible, first choosing wood with no knots, and likely machine-planing it until all imperfects are removed. But wood is wood, and is itself not a perfect building material. Here are two more imperfections found in the chests dovetails: the first (left) is a failure along the glue-line, and the second is a gap in the dovetail, likely from too much material being removed from the pin.




Toronto’s semi-detached houses (part 2)

The semi’s may seem small to some, but in 1900, the average home in the US was 1000 square feet, and I can’t imagine it was much different in Canada. Even post-WW2, houses hovered around the same size, only increasing to 1200 square feet in 1960. So at the time these were considered average sized homes. Below is a plan of a general elongated semi-detached house (or at least the right half of one).


These houses are generally well constructed, even though historically they are considered to be “economically” built. Flooring was often 1/4″ strip oak (which after 80+ years of wear does not often refinish well). Trim was a combination of oak, and likely some form of knot-free older-growth pine, or maybe Douglas fir. Doors were oak veneer over a solid Douglas fir/pine core. The fantastic aspects of these homes are the small items, like stained glass windows either side of the fireplace (and across the front living room window, sadly many of these have disappeared over the years). Not every home has these, but it somewhat works against the principle of these homes being built in an inexpensive manner.


Some people prefer detached houses, but the benefit of semi-detached houses is the common wall – especially in winter. Why? Because the common wall is in a climate-controlled environment, so does not leak heat in the winter.  This contributes to lower heating costs.

Mid-century modern furniture (i) : particle-board

Mid-century modern encompassed the period from approximately 1933 to 1965, and influenced everything from furniture and graphic design, to industrial design and architecture. The mid-century furniture style is sometimes also known as Danish modern, and its defining characteristic is minimalist design. The scarcity of wood during WW2 encouraged the use of plywood, which could be easily veneered with teak, providing a cost effective base material for building furniture. By the 1950s, the use of particleboard had begun to make inroads.

Now I have never liked chipboard, or particle board if you like. It is the work of the devil – yet it is hard to escape (I don’t despise it as much as MDF). The carcasses of my kitchen cabinets are particleboard, as are the Ikea closets in the bedrooms. I do understand it, particleboard is cheaper to make, somewhat environmentally friendly (as wood waste can be used), and has dimensional stability – i.e. doesn’t suffer the same wood movement of solid wood (or plywood, unless using something like Baltic ply). Particleboard is the oldest composite panel (not including plywood).  A commercial machine to make the particle board was invented by German inventor Max Himmelheber, (patented in 1932) who went on to mass produce a particleboard called Homogenholz, which means homogenous wood. Part of the rationale for the invention was to increase the amount of material which could be effectively used from trees, which at the time was only about 40%.

The worlds first particleboard factory was Torfit Werke AG in Bremen, Germany, producing 10 tons/day in 1941. This “Pek-Pressholz“, or pressed wood, had a density between 800-1100 kg/m³. About the same time (1942), Swiss inventor Dr. Fred Fahrni invented a product using the commercial name NOVOPAN. Again the impetus was the utilization of waste wood. Novocain was light and compact, and made of three layers – a middle layer of coarse chips and outside layers of thin laminar chip material. Production began in Klingnau, Switzerland in 1946.


“Wood finally tamed!”

We now may consider particleboard to be a low-quality material, but in the 1940s and 1950s, particleboard was considered a designer material. Likely a good proportion of furniture built during this period used particleboard. The dimensional stability has allowed for longer lasting pieces. It is impossible to know what wood the particle-board is actually made of, but likely a good portion of it is pine from Scandinavian forests. Here is a picture of particleboard veneered with teak on a vintage piece of furniture.


Toronto’s semi-detached houses (part 1)

Montreal has it’s three storey triplex row houses. Toronto has an abundance of what we call “semi’s” – two houses that are semi-detached, i.e. share a common central wall. These are iconic to many of the inner neighbourhoods of Toronto, and prior to 1945 may have been the predominant type of house in the city (According to the 2006 census, there are 139,350 semi’s in Toronto).  There are of course many different styles, which can be found in different pockets of the city. In the inner suburbs of the downtown core there are three-storey Victorian era semi’s, as well as Gothic Revival and Queen Anne. Further north in the midtown region, which was likely hailed the “suburbs” in the post-WW1 era, there are “working class” semi’s, and suburbs like Leaside, evolved in the 1930s and included more “modern” semis. Two of the more profuse styles of semi were built as working class semi’s.


From: Report of the Toronto Housing Commission (Toronto, 1920)

Many of these homes were built in the years prior to WW2. In the years after the First World War, many of these houses were built as inexpensive housing. There are also differences in how they were built. There are those that are double brick on both storeys, and others where the ground floor is double brick, and the upper floor is covered with cedar shakes, or siding of some sort. Some of these semi’s have elements of Craftsman-style. The exact configuration sometimes depended on the year they were built in, and by which builder. Kitchens are generally at the back of the house, and some had windows on the side of the house, others had a side door leading into the basement stairs. Here are some of the general characteristics of these house:

  • Porches – all these semi’s traditionally have a full width front porch. Some of the front living rooms have bay windows that project into the porch, others (as in the examples shown) do not.
  • Roof – some form of gable or hip roof in the front, traditionally coupled with a flat roof on the rear half.
  • Bedrooms – most semi’s have three bedrooms, but there are also shorter ones with only two bedrooms.
  • Size – 900-1200 ft², not including basement.
  • Basement – generally 5.5-6.5 feet in height, the basements were not made as living space… they were where furnaces lived… usually  gravity-fed octopus furnaces.
  • Mechanicals: electricity was knob-and-tube, the plumbing stack cast, iron, and the sewer pipes were clay.

From: Report of the Toronto Housing Commission (Toronto, 1920)


A sander from Festool…

So I broke down and bought my 4th Festool product (well 5th if you count the work table). I have been pondering a sander for a while – I know, sanding is not the ideal finish for furniture, but this sander is going to help me finish the 101 renovation projects I have to finish around the house. Finish sanding of the walnut shelving for the bathroom, sanding the coffered ceiling in the library, sanding the pine wall I am going to install behind the bed in the bedroom, and sanding the cedar fence so I can stain it. What sander would do all that?


The Festool Rotex 125 – a sander that does both rough and fine sanding. It is by no means inexpensive, no Festool product is, but they are super well engineered. This unique sander is not like those other low-powered beasts, it is dual-mode, using a gear-driven aggressive mode for removing stock rapidly, and a random orbit mode for fine sanding.


I bought it at my usual power tool hub: Atlas Machinery in downtown Toronto. I could have opted for the 6″ RO150, (Atlas do sell more of those), but it seemed like too much machine for my needs… versus the RO90 which although has a cool interchangeable triangular pad, may be too little machine, especially on large surfaces. I had considered the RTS 400 EQ for some time as a nice little finishing sander, but it just didn’t seem to have the versatility I am looked for. Besides which the RO125 also doubles as a polisher which will come in handy. The ability to use abrasives as high as 4000 for finishing surfaces is also pretty cool.

I’ll review its performance in a future post, once I start sanding things this summer.