Aug 072014

The Scale Cabinetmaker 14:3Perhaps it would come as no surprise to the folks who knew Jim and Helen Dorsett that their daughter would be able to tell the difference between Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Haywood-Wakefield, and that “gawdawful veneered stuff from the 1950s” (Helen’s assessment of the stuff that started pealing veneer not long after original acquisition) by age four. Helen was an ardent fan of Arts and Crafts, of Shaker, of Cushman, and of Cottage Victorian. She liked the simple, clean lines and the lack of adornment. She also liked furniture made of solid wood.


The Scale Cabinetmaker, 13:3

On vacations, Helen could spot an antique store five miles before we arrived and Jim would acknowledge the shop five miles past its spot on the side of the road. It was a standing joke. By agreement, she was limited to one antique store per day on a vacation (otherwise, as Jim was wont to note, they would never get farther than 100 miles from home). The one shop a day rule (broken if they were staying someplace with multiple shops) meant that for an hour every day, we wandered around often dusty shops and watched while she pulled out drawers to check to see if a piece was factory made or craftsmen made, turn over chairs to check the joinery, and scrambled under tables to see how they made their dropleaves.

The Scale Cabinetmaker 12:1While others find their inspiration in the pages of Antiques Magazine or Wallace Nutting, Helen found her future models in the antique stores of small town Kansas and other the midwestern states that fell along their route to her hometown of Peabody, Kansas and his hometown of Red Lodge, Montana (actually Colstrip, but his family relocated after he graduated from high school).

Much of the materials in the Cabinetmaker’s Guides (especially the first two) came from vacation forays and her mother’s house. I don’t remember that she spent a lot of time antique shop hopping in south-central Montana; but in Kansas, it was a different story. Helen and her sister, Cora, knew every antique shop in a hundred mile radius of Peabody; and every time they left on one of their forays, Helen took a sketchbook, a box of pencils, and a tape measure. Her interest wasn’t in museum rooms, but the parlors and kitchens and diningrooms she remembered from her childhood, and those memories informed her furniture models, her roomboxes, and her buildings.


The Scale Cabinetmaker, 5:4

For most of her roomboxes and houses, Helen had a story. The story informed the details. Her roombox of a miner’s boardinghouse room was based on a young man in Leadville, Colorado (where I was living at the time). At her request, I sent a book on miners in Leadville, so she could understand their lives. She wanted to know how they might use space, what they might own, and why they would be living in a boarding house with a murphy bed rather than in a shotgun house. The approach was typical of many of her TSC roomboxes and was central to her art of place.

Look carefully at her roomboxes on the front of the Scale Cabinetmaker, and you will find the mundane details: the coffee cup left in the sink, the flour on the floor in a kitchen, a sack of groceries on a table, toys scattered across the floor in a 1940s livingroom, a towel hanging over a shower rod, dirty fingerprints on the wall surrounding the light switches, a candy wrapper in the grass next to a fence. She believed that a great model suggested that the occupant had left the room and would be back at any moment.

She believed that great room boxes should reflect real life rather than a museum room with everything in pristine condition. Her chairs often had scuff marks on the front rungs and wear on the arms; her tables had watermarks where the resident left a sweating glass too long on the varnish. She relished the details of place and of how people lived in a place. And that sense of place was her art.

Aug 072014

The Scale Cabinetmaker, Volume 13:1 (1989)

Jim Dorsett loved tinkering and Heathkits, which most folks have probably never heard of unless they had inveterate tinkerers in their homes between 1946 and 1980. For nearly the entire length of the electronics revolution between the end of “the war” and the beginning of the digital age, Heathkit taught a wide swath of American tinkerers how to tinker with circuit boards. While Jim would have probably cited the color television as his crowning accomplishment (at least in the world of electronics), the rest of us often pointed to something far less high tech.

Christmas trees always presented a challenge. While Jim wanted a full and perfectly balanced tree (he loved Frasier firs), we rarely had a tree that rated more than a step above Charlie Brown’s choice for the Christmas play. At least to begin with. We walked down the slope from the house, found a small (under 10 feet), generally scruffy,white pine, and hauled it back up the slope to the road and then the length of the driveway, leaving a trail of needles and small branches. Jim would wander off and come back with an armful of extra branches, not always from the same type of tree. He called it “filling in.” Once the tree was on the porch, he pulled out his power drill and set of drill bits and start adding branches. By the end of the process, the tree looked less like a Charlie Brown special and more like a well-shaped silvaculture experiment.

The Scale Cabinetmaker provided Jim with the perfect opportunity to tinker. Along with Jim Jedlicka (the other inveterate tinkerer and a retired NASA engineer), he spent hours testing and tinkering with tools and jigs and fixtures. The Product Review column and the wide variety of tool and technique articles that appeared in TSC over the course of twenty years were a result of his (and Helen’s and Jim J’s) cconstant curiosity. He always started a product review with three questions: 1) how does it work; 2) what are the shortcomings and the benefits; and 3) how can we make it work better?” Not surprising, he loved Consumer Reports, and based the Product Review column on the CR methodology. Every product covered in The Scale Cabinetmaker was tested on the workbench: not as a one afternoon test or a quick drive-by, but a test that often lasted from two to three months (the period between issues) up to a year and involved putting the products through their paces. This was especially true for tools and potential safety issues.

In the introduction to the first Product Review (TSC Volume 2:2), Jim wrote:

Through its product review column, TSC’s aim is to help you evaluate merchandise that is generally available to the miniaturist. The evaluations that appear in this section are based solely on our examination, use, and testing of the materials receiving mention. While it is not the intention of the journal to unfairly criticize or to give unfounded praise, we will give credit where it is due: praising excellence and sounding notes of caution. At every point, we hope to give our readers a realistic
and helpful description of products that are useful to the miniaturist.

Volume 19 Issue 3

The Scale Cabinetmaker, Volume 19 Issue 3

The “TSC Product Review” column, which lasted through the final issue of The Scale Cabinetmaker was first developed during the halcyon days of the miniature craft, the boom of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. New products for the miniaturist were appearing almost daily (or so it seemed at the time.) Because the journal’s long-term health was based on subscriptions and wholesale orders, rather than advertising, Jim worried less about the impact of a less than positive review on the financial health of the journal. Over the years, the reviews did cost TSC some advertisers; however, they also helped to improve product designs and gave readers a trusted voice when buying miniature tools and materials.

Jim’s reviews were even handed, but he didn’t pull punches. If there were problems, he, Helen, and Jim J. identified them and tried to find “work arounds,” solutions that would improve a product. In every case, they identified a product’s strengths and potential limitations. A case in point was Geoffrey Bishop’s Magnetic Holding Jig, the first product review written for The Scale Cabinetmaker (TSC 2:2, pgs 44-45):

Nothing is quite so frustrating to the scale modeler as the attempt to hold a handful of freshly glued miniature parts together while applying some clamps to the assembly and trying to maintain the alignment. It is probably the source of more tooth- grinding and muttering than any other workbench procedure. So anything that offers aid and comfort to the afflicted is worth looking into.

While woodwork’s magnetic holding jig does not provide a universal answer to all clamping problems, we found that it answers enough of them to more than compensate for the cost of the

The jig consists of a 8″ x 12″ steel plate with 1″ grid inscribed on its face. Fences, consisting of lengths of 3/4″ extruded aluminum [at a] 90° angle, are riveted along two sides of the plate, leaving a 7
1/4″ x 11 1/4″ working area. These provide a square corner into which work can be laid and held. Assemblies in the fig are held in place by the setting of four rectangular magnets around the two open faces of the work piece. Each magnet is sandwiched (and riveted) between two steel cover plates, which assure a secure grip with the jig base. In concept, the jig is a very simple and useful idea.

The low height of the fences make the jig most useful in gluing flat assemblies: eg. panel doors, window sashes, the side assemblies of a rail and stile case piece. In such jobs, the parts can be laid out on the base against the two fences, blue applied, and the assembly clamped with little trouble; the jig is best for such work. It makes short work of irregularly shaped flat assemblies, ie., the kind that defy normal clamping tools because of their non-parallel sides. A trapazoidal chair seat frame, for example, can be quickly set with one parallel side against the fence and magnets holding the remaining sides in position.
Even the irregularities of a sofa base have succumbed to the flexibility of the jig (so long as the components being clamped do not extend above the level of the fence and magnets).

The jig is less useful for gluing assemblies that extend much above the height of the low fence, ie., if the higher you go above the plane of the base plate, the less clamping pressure is maintained by the magnets. So a shelf unit that is no more than an inch deep can be clamped with pressure on all joints, but a carcase that is several inches in depth cannot.

We discovered in using the jig that you cannot assume that the 90° fences will maintain the squareness of the clamping assembly. One fence on our unit was slightly flared, providing a 92° vertical angle. This could be compensated for by using a shim between the workpiece and fence top, and by
checking the work with a tri-square (which ought to be done in any case). If you use water-based glues, the base of the jib may eventually develop some rust spots. It is a problem that can be avoided by
overlaying the base with wax paper and by giving the base an occasional scrubbing with steel wool. One feature of the jig was found to be of little use for our purposes, ie., the scored 1″ grid. The size of the increments (1″) provides a pattern that is perhaps decorative but too large to be of much practical use (except as points of reference from which to measure.

Over the past six months, the magnetic jig has become a standard fixture on our work bench, holding down everything from doors to tracings. It hasn’t replaced our assortment of other clamping devices: C-clamps, spring-loaded cross tweezers, clothes pins, violin-maker’s clamps, etc. But for the quick and easy setting of flat assemblies, it has no equal.

Unfortunately, many of the products (including Geoffrey Bishop’s Magnetic Holding Jig) reviewed by the folks at TSC have long since disappeared from the market as a new product, but remain in circulation through ebay and other online sales sources. If you are looking at purchasing an older or used tool or jig, it is worth checking out the Product Reviews before purchasing.


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