December 2015 – 2

Fine box making in the Shropshire hills


Main Content Inline

newsletter no. 17, December 2015 – part 2


first, a word about problems reading this newsletter:


Every time a new newsletter goes out there are a very few who can’t read it because the paper background image doesn’t load, which means that it is effectively dark writing on a dark background.


Please note that this is not an artistic choice by me! The problem is that if the background image doesn’t load you can’t see the helpful text across the very top that says: ‘Having trouble reading this email? View it on your browser’! From now on there will be an image link to the same effect at the top of every newsletter – that way, everyone will be able to read it!


smartWare, an update:
   [ – or, “ … all in the original spec, mate!”]


So, the saga continues, giving me an excuse to quote from one of my heroes, the great
J P Donleavy:


  As the circus continues
more crazy than cruel
one of us now
will spin like a top
on the end of his …


 – well, you get the idea …


Those of you not interested in hardware had better skip this bit – there might be a bit more of interest further down …


I’ve had a difficult balancing act to perform – since 2011 I’ve been trying to supply a market I know is out there with products I’ve not been able to get made acceptably, whilst at the same time trying to maintain some sort of momentum/market share and a level of confidence in only sporadically available products. Consequently I could never be too critical of whichever company was manufacturing them at the time. But now the most recent company is toast and I feel I can be a little more … open.


I approached them in August 2014 and all seemed promising: in possession of all the necessary detailed drawings and specs they showed a positively indecent amount of haste and enthusiasm claiming: ” … we manufacture hinges and locks very similar to the ones you list for other clients.” and at our very first meeting agreed to supply me with smartHinges and smartLocks in both polished brass and stainless steel in 4-6 weeks. No ifs. No buts. And this would have been by mid-October, in good time for the busy period leading up to last Christmas, 2014.


But six months later, after they’d only managed to produce a trickle of mediocre polished brass hinges, and no other items beyond a few unsatisfactory samples, I was told: ” … you must understand that what you’re asking us to make is very different to anything we’ve attempted before … ”.


Another unbelievable remark they made, 6 months in, and completely without embarrassment, was: “If we can’t even polish brass hinges properly [“we aren’t polishers!”] how do you expect us to polish stainless steel?” Your problem, all in the original spec, mate!


Ironically they DID eventually start to deliver acceptable hinges earlier this year, albeit 9 months late and at a price 25% greater than we’d agreed, but I had to go with it to keep up some momentum. But having finally arrived at one acceptable item out of the four, they then decided that they wouldn’t continue to make them after all, or to develop any of the other items they’d agreed to produce.


Communication certainly wasn’t their strong suit. In fact, they failed in many areas starting with ‘co-’: communication, cooperation, collaboration, competence … common sense. And courtesy. One ‘co-’ they did have was confidence, and they had that in spades. But it was self-important over-confidence, and completely misplaced as it turned out.


Main Content Inline

Incidentally – the image I’ve chosen to illustrate my awkward balancing is of the matchless Philippe Petit walking between the twin towers in 1974. A travesty, really – I don’t in any way equate my balancing feat with that of Petit’s – it’s just a weak excuse to use a great picture and proclaim my huge respect for what I consider to be a wonderful, breathtaking and life-enhancing feat of daring! Click the image above for more amazing images and the story as related on the Business Insider UK website.


But I’ve clearly succeeded to some extent with my balancing act because I seem to have managed to maintain a healthy interest in smartWare despite my lack of advertising or, mostly, actual products! Ordering has been brisk recently [I’ve had some stock of acceptable brass hinges from the previous company] proving that these are clearly most box makers’ first choice.


And once I get going with the smartLock, and a sliding button catch I’m developing, with everything available in stainless steel and gold plated as well as polished brass, I’ll be able to advertise everything as I’ve never been in a position to do before …

now, at last, the company I’ve been looking for all along …


Main Content Inline


As part of the final ‘agreement’ with the outgoing company [I actually didn’t agree to ANYTHING – they just simply refused to go any further] they did commit to finding a replacement company. Ironically, this was the one thing the MD of that company did right. In the short term yet more time was wasted, of course, but whether by luck of judgment they’ve passed me on to a very promising new company.


But I was warned that they were “much smaller and less prestigious” – well up yours, mate, if they do the job properly, I’m all for ‘less prestigious’!

Main Content Inline


They are indeed a much smaller company, but there’s a quiet common sense and engagement about the way they are approaching this project – something entirely lacking from the last bunch! Having worked with them for just a few weeks they are already producing better quality, more consistent, better finished hinges than I’ve ever received from any previous company. They are proceeding steadily – with great care and attention to detail – and very much one step at a time. This is exactly the sort of co-operative, collaborative partnership I have required all along – and exactly why I have avoided going to the far east.

Main Content Inline


I’ve learnt a lot about metalwork over the last few years – and something I’ve learnt in the last few weeks is that I’m not at all surprised that the previous company were unable to arrive at the quality, consistency and finish I needed – they were just going about it in entirely the wrong way!


I will have a few polished brass hinges available in a few days and will be posting a schedule of when I expect to have the different finishes and locks available very soon on the smartBoxmaker site.


Anyway, long story short – despite my best efforts I‘ve not been able to offer smartWare for a second Christmas in a row.



death of a tree:

Main Content Inline


This is a black poplar, a bit of a Shropshire speciality although they do occur in other counties. It’s on the Acton Scott Estate about 100 yards from our house, right at the centre of the Farm Museum where the popular ‘Victorian Farm’ series was filmed a few years back. This image was taken about ten years ago soon after we moved up here …

Main Content Inline


… and here it is now, a pic taken a few days ago from roughly the same place … It was clearly not long for this world, and I’m afraid the recent exceptionally strong winds finally did for it.

Main Content Inline


Sad but inevitable – this shows just how hollow and rotten this tree was with very little sound timber left to hold it up. It contains a huge quantity of sticks which can be seen here spewing out of the bottom of the tree. It was basically a huge rook hotel – it’s amazing it lasted for as long as it did!


I’ve had to banish any thoughts of my using any of the copious amount of burry timber that’s clearly here – it has been decided to leave it untouched where it fell as a feature at the centre of the Acton Scott farm museum.


a word or two about disc sanders …

Main Content Inline


Actually, as those of you will know who’ve been on a course with me, I have rather a lot of words to say about disc sanders and how they should be designed! They’ll also know that I have a big one – and where disc sanders are concerned, size does matter. Anyway, I will try to keep this reasonably brief …


I have always been perplexed by the poor design of disc sanders – I have two main issues with almost all commercially available machines:


1 – tilting table:


A tilting table is a bell, it’s a whistle, and as with most bells and whistles it’s not necessary. And yet all manufacturers, seemingly without exception, appear to believe that disc sanders need tilting tables. NO THEY DON’T …


Sorry, bicycles and fish suddenly spring to mind for some reason …


Main Content Inline


Almost every conceivable job can be done by angling/rotating the work laterally, far more secure than having the work tilted down. On the very few occasions when a compound angle really is required, this can be achieved by tilting the work UP from the table – again, much more secure.


2 – height:


What would be FAR more useful is an adjustable height table – but this barely exists except on large, free standing, pedestal-style machines. A disc sander is an important, multi-functional machine, but the best part of the disc is always wasted by what, in my opinion, is the incorrect positioning of the table. To have a table exactly halfway up the disc as most are is absolutely the worst and most inefficient place to have it, effectively reducing a 12” disc to a 4” usable width. And even that involves a large speed differential across that small distance …

Main Content Inline

Frank Zappa:


which is where Frank Zappa, my wonderful 24” twin sander, comes in. Hi Frank!


Made by the German company Friedrich Zimmermann, it’s a sturdy cast 1960’s machine, and the only three-phase machine I possess. Not actually health and safety compliant – no guards [doesn’t everyone remove these useless obstructions as soon as the machine comes out of the box anyway?!] and despite there strictly speaking being a requirement for a brake to ensure that it stops in 12 seconds, when going full tilt it actually takes 50 minutes.


You will no doubt have noticed that the tables on this machine are actually fixed at what I’ve made clear I consider to be the worst possible height. But the bigger the diameter, the less it matters where the table is …

Main Content Inline


Notice that the extra height afforded by the mdf packing pieces placed on the table raises it well above the useless middle of the disc and allows a shallow arc, an excellent, wide, controllable sanding area with very little speed differential.


Simply put, having the table in this raised position does three things:

  •  significantly increases the usable width of any given disc
•  reduces the speed differential across that width
•  reduces the upward grabbing tendency of the rising part of the disc


On my 24” discs this actually gives about a 15-18” usable width depending on the actual height of the table, on an 18” disc around 12-15” – with very little speed differential. Compare this to the 4” available on a conventionally set up 12” machine, and with a very significant speed differential.

so what next?

There’s definitely a need for an intelligently designed 18” disc sander, so I’m intelligently designing one.


Main Content Inline


I’ve made several disc sanders and I’m now pretty clear about what’s necessary and what isn’t. Needless to say, none of them had a tilting table … but all have featured a table considerably LOWER than half way – this allows the table to be effectively raised to any height using scrap.


The largest bench mounted machine available seems to be 12”. What I will be offering will be a high quality 18” cast and machined aluminium faceplate, together with plans for building a robust and simple framework around it for bench mounting, enabling high, middle and low table positions, and efficient dust extraction.


This project has been on the agenda for some time, but due to problems with the smartWare has been rather sidelined. Now, as everything in that department seems to be going smoothly at last, I’m hoping that I will get this up and running by spring/early summer – watch these newsletters and the WW press for news. My extensive R&D department is working away feverishly on this as I tap.


Frank Zappa, Tina Turner and me:


Having put a little snippet in newsletter 15 [December 2014] about a box I made for Tina Turner, I find that there is a curious circular connection in all of this, if a bit trivial. And, it has to be admitted, not THAT much to do with box making …


I think this must be the one Tina has:

Main Content Inline


but she bought it from Asprey, not directly from me – so I didn’t get to meet her, sadly.

Main Content Inline

As I’ve already said, I refer to my disc sander as Frank, as in Frank Zappa. It has an ‘FZ’ emblazoned on one side – so what else would I call it?!


As some of you will know I’m a musician as well as a woodworker – Zappa was a big influence on a band I used to play in, 64 Spoons – straight from music college to band in that hot, hot summer of 1976, spending it rehearsing in a sound-proof garage in Edgware.


AIR-proof as I remember it, I’m surprised we didn’t all die in there!! – what a way to spend the most beautiful summer in most peoples’ memory …

I saw Frank Zappa once at Wembley Arena, in 1973/4, I think, and in the queue I met another Zappa fan, Chris Sansom. Chris is a fine musician, composer and web designer – my involvement with him immediately after the FZ queue meeting is touched on on his site here.


Zappa was a famously hard task master with his musicians – a huge number of very distinguished musicians did their ‘apprenticeship’ with the Mothers before going on to other things. On his album ‘Overnite Sensation’, there’s a track called ‘Montana’ – a surreal number about a guy growing dental floss. He uses female backing singers on the album, and on this track they are required to sing some really fiendish lines – almost impossible in fact, something about buying a horse just about this big.


Anyway, Chris knows a thing or two about FZ, and for a time even had a website devoted to him. According to him Tina was one of those singers – I quote from an email from Chris: “Apparently TT was one of those singers doing that singing. But the dreadful Ike, to whom she was still married at the time, wouldn’t ‘allow’ [!] her to be quoted in the credits!”


Actually Chris also did some very good work for me on my fine-boxes website some years back – he actually devised the software/code that allows the random list to load for my original slideshow, the new version of which I launched in part 1 of this newsletter.


Main Content Inline


He’s now involved in an excellent group called Psychoyogi – give it a listen: ‘leftfield punk jazz”, definitely doing something different.

Main Content Inline


The iconic cover to Overnite Sensation – 1973, when albums were albums!


This version of Montana is straight from the album – no video but some great stills of FZ. Go to about 1.50 to hear Tina et al do the fiendish lines. A monumental guitar solo by FZ is actually cut, causing some understandable outrage in the posted comments.


This live version shows Zappa’s need to control things – it’s extraordinary to watch him conducting the group like a classical conductor – especially through the drum break very near the beginning … The fiendish vocal lines are actually played instrumentally in this performance, but during live performances that did feature the singers he was known to hold up score cards after each phrase depending on how in tune/accurate they were … !!


And all because my disc sander was made by a company with the same initials as Frank Zappa …


Laurence Brand

Main Content Inline


I first met Laurence when he was doing work experience with friend and fellow box maker Pete Lloyd up in Cumbria. He’s since done a degree at Hereford [graduated with honours] and has worked for me on and off ever since.

Main Content Inline

He’s done a wide range of jobs for me including making flute cases and much workshop upgrading. He’s also been responsible for the preparation of many of the items that I’ve offered on the website – wide abrasives, lining materials, inlay lines and more.


Most recently he’s helping me get to grips with Facebook!


All round great guy to have around – in fact, as one of my course attendees rightly observed: ‘everyone needs a Laurence’.


He’s a talented designer and maker in his own right, he has his own workshop up near Lancaster [also pretty wet right now] and makes stylish turned vessels, boxes and other small items.


He has a Facebook page here and a website here.




  –  website update and new flute cases newsletter 

Main Content Inline


The obvious route for a woodworking musician is making instruments, of course – but apart from a bit of dabbling many years ago I’ve largely resisted … But I have made many flute cases for amateur and professional players, and collectors.


The website has been there for a couple of years since the original website was split up – but until recently I’ve had little time to add all the necessary material, so it’s been a bit … dormant. I’ve already started working to remedy this and will be doing more early in the new year.


Any of you out there who are musicians and specifically interested in flutes, please sign up to this new newsletter. The first one will be out around the middle of next week – Dec 17th?


subscribe to flute cases newsletter list


finally …


Thank you for reading and I wish everyone a happy and peaceful festive season.


Main Content Inline
Main Content Inline