Back to School: Issue 12

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This article is from Issue 12 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Building miniature furniture at The Guild School 

By Tom Walden

Small But Mighty

LOOKING FOR A NEW WOODWORKING CHALLENGE? Try “scaling down” — making furniture in 1/12 scale (one inch to a full foot), about the size of most dollhouse furniture. It might not sound like much of a challenge, but trust me, it’s no simple trick to apply your full-sized woodworking skills to the miniature world.

In this world, we use a lot of the same techniques you use on full-scale furniture — except with much tighter tolerances, often down to a thousandth of an inch. We employ most of the same joints: rabbet, dado, mortise-and-tenon, tongue-and-groove, half-blind/through dovetail, finger (at the 1/32" size even). We also turn our own spindles, legs and spreaders, and we make our own cabriole legs.

You might be thinking about some of those miniature furniture pieces you have seen in craft or hobby stores. Well, forget you ever saw them; the craftsmanship of that furniture is well below standard. The wood thickness is often out of scale; for example, if you are using ¾" thick wood full-scale, then you must use 1/16"-thick wood at the standard miniature size.

While there are millions of full-scale woodworkers, there are probably only thousands of miniature woodworkers worldwide. A miniature craftsperson must have precision and patience. Personally, completing a piece of miniature furniture gives me more satisfaction than any full-size piece I ever built.

There’s only one school in the world that teaches students how to build very high-quality miniature furniture: The Guild School, held only once a year (for six very long days) at the Maine Maritime Academy. First held in 1982, The Guild School is sponsored by the nonprofit International Guild of Miniature Artisans (IGMA), whose goal is to promote miniatures as an art form. There are many fine workshops at miniature shows around the country, but The Guild School trumps them all. The instructors are widely respected makers of miniature furniture, and some of them even travel from Europe and other parts of the world to teach. In attendance this year were 193 students from 37 states and 11 countries; some have attended for 20-odd years. 

Classes vary in length: 12, 24, 36 or 48 hours. Divide any class length by six days and that is how many hours each day you attend that class. Since the maximum is 48 hours, I took one 36-hour class, “Queen Anne Welsh Dresser,” and a 12-hour class, “Jigs and Fixtures: Dovetail Joints.” For a minimum of 36 hours of training, the school costs $1,250, and I paid another $250 for an additional 12 hours. (Housing and excellent meals are included.)  

NO SMALL CHALLENGE: building detailed furniture at 1/12 scale. These examples were crafted by instructors at The Guild School, operated by the International Guild of Miniature Artisans (IMGA).

I attended this school for the first time in June. I will share my day-to-day experience so you can get an idea of how challenging and intense this school really is. But before I tell you about the classes, I should mention some common methods we use to build and finish miniature furniture. 

1. We typically prefer the finer-grained quarter-sawn woods such as cherry, walnut, mahogany and maple. Some exotic woods such as holly, ebony and purpleheart are also used for veneering effects. I also utilize very narrow, precut inlay bands.

2. Much sanding is required; surfaces should be smooth as glass, so we might use any combination of grits from 150 up to 400. We also use 600-grit and 0000 steel wool between lacquer layers (a small piece of a brown paper bag works great for this, too).

3. With miniatures, it is almost impossible to sand down an edge and keep it square (don’t forget our .001" tolerances). Thus the general rule is, “Cut, do not sand, edges!”  I prefer to re-cut with a saw, or to literally shave the edges with a Lie-Nielsen low-angle block plane.  

4. Gluing is a very sticky subject, and everyone has his or her favorites. But we all agree that it must dry clear, and that nothing will hold well without the proper joinery — just like in full-size furniture. Application is delicate on 1/64"- to 3/32"-wide pieces; for my Tacky Glue, I use a 3 ml plastic syringe with a .020" metal tip. I stick a .018" stick pin in the end of the syringe to keep the glue from drying out the tip.

EVEN THE TINIEST DOVETAILS can be machined to perfection. This custom jig made by instructor Jack Blackham assists in cutting 1/16" through and half-blinds.

Sunday

On the first day of the Queen Anne Welsh dresser class, I was given a 45-page instruction manual written by Carol Hardy (our exceptional instructor with 20 years of experience). Our first assignment, the one I feared most, was to make a long, skinny cabriole leg out of a solid chunk of cherry. We drew a pattern on two sides of the 5/16"-square, 3"-long piece of wood, and rough cut it with a scroll saw using a very fine blade (full-size builders might use a bandsaw). Since these two cabriole legs were on the front of the base unit, we then squared off the top corner to 1/8" and cut the piece to  25/32" long, using an overhead shaper (router) with a ½"-wide straight veining bit. Next we cut out two 1/32"-wide blind mortises on two sides of the 1/8" square top, at a mere 1/64" from the sides. The front panel and side panels would later have tenons to match. We cut two back legs 1/8" square and 213/32" long, with mortises on two sides at the top.

Then came the fun part: sanding the rough cabriole cuts to make them smooth and round where needed. We moved on to cutting the front, back and side panels to size on a Preac table saw using a 2¼" diameter blade only 1/32" thick. Another saw was set up with a 1/16" blade to cut tenons on each end of all four panels, 1/64" from the edge and 1/32" wide. Since the mortises on both the cabriole and back (straight) legs were blind, we carefully trimmed the tenons to match their respective mortises. I had the unfortunate opportunity to make these cuts twice since I ruined my first set of pieces.

Our instructor was experienced enough to bring sufficient wood for the many attempts we made at perfect-fitting joints. A mere .001" gap between pieces is visible. When I took up the unforgiving art of making miniature furniture, I quickly learned to use scrap material and test equipment settings.

CUTTING SMALL MORTISES in small legs requires small tools.

My afternoon class was taught by Jack “Lobster” Blackham, a former president of IGMA and living legend in the miniature world. Miniaturists flock to his classes because, as part of the course materials, he supplies an aluminum and brass jig he designed and built for miniature woodworking. For this particular course, it was a fixture that routs 1/16" dovetail joints, both through and blind. He also gave us a dovetail router bit and a 1/16" graver for squaring dovetails.

I had mastered 1/16" and 1/32" finger joints, but had never attempted dovetails. On our first day we covered through dovetails with Jack’s custom jig.

I must admit I was overwhelmed and exhausted after my first day of class. But I had to take advantage of the optional evening seminar, “Using the Anker Duplicator with the Carbatec Lathe” by Pete “the Toolman” Boorum. Since I own both, I was eager to pick up some tips and tricks — which, of course, I did.

Monday

I could not wait to get back to work on my dresser, as I was determined to finish it by week’s end (I almost did). It was almost time to assemble the base, but first we had to cut out the fancy design for the front apron. Most people used a pin-router jig with an overhead straight vein router bit to cut each apron, but I used a scroll saw for the challenge of it. We smoothed the rough edges with needle files and sandpaper. 

Next, a divider bar to fit between the drawers: Using an X-Acto knife or razor blade on a small ¼" wide board, we each cut a dovetail 1/32" deep and 3/16" long on one end, and cut back the other end by 3/64" in from the edges and 1/32" deep. Then we cut the opposite dovetail onto the top-inside of the front apron, then gouged a little rectangle out of the back panel for the other end of this piece to fit into. Then we assembled and glued the base unit, including inside rails and all four legs, a satisfying way to finish up this class for the day.

MINIATURISTS TURN SMALL SPINDLES for furniture parts such as legs and bedposts.

In my joinery class, we learned how to cut half-blind dovetail joints for drawer fronts, which I had really wanted to do. I think Jack must own stock in Deft, as we sure used (and inhaled) a lot of it this week. Walnut grain is not as smooth as cherry, so we have to apply enough layers of Deft to make sure all the grain holes are flush and do not look like little potholes or feel bumpy. 

The school holds silent auctions for the first four days, and proceeds go to the school. I had donated some new Dremel router bits and a couple pieces of furniture I had made. I had actually never sold a piece, but to my pleasant surprise, my original little pedestal desk sold for an amazing $170, and my smaller Shaker portable writing desk sold for $70.

On the second evening was an open house; then I attended “Some Power Tools and Fixtures Used to Make Miniatures.”

Tuesday

Our first task of the day was to make two knee blocks for each front cabriole leg out of 1/8" square stock only 3/16" long. Before gluing on these blocks, we rounded each top corner on one side. Once glued and set, the knee blocks were sanded to blend in with the legs. 

When the Welsh originally built these dressers, they inserted small pegs into the legs where the mortise-and-tenon joints were hidden. Thus we were instructed to drill 1/64" holes partway into each leg (two on each of two sides). Well, since you can’t buy stock small enough to fit a hole that size, we pulled 1/32" square stock through incrementally smaller holes in a draw plate until they reached 1/64" in diameter. My 12" long stock ended up being only 4" by the time I was done (breaking off ends). We then glued a small pin (to simulate a dowel) from this stock into each of the 1/64" pinholes and sanded them flush. We finished all parts of the base unit and stained it so it could dry overnight.

In our dovetailing class, we assembled a practice drawer with half-blind dovetail, dado and mortise-and-tenon joints. It was a great exercise, using a combination of joints made with various tools and jigs. My dovetail joints even came out nice – of course, having a special fixture to create them helped. We then routed all four top edges of the desk, our project for the class, and applied a finish.

After we stuffed ourselves at a Maine lobster dinner, it was time for the live auction. Various Artisan and Fellow members of IGMA donate special items as a fund-raiser for The Guild School, which partially uses the funds for scholarships. On this night, they set a record and topped $25,000 in auction proceeds. Our very own Welsh dresser instructor donated her sample dresser from our class; it sold for a quite respectable $1,400.

Wednesday

Everyone seemed a little worn out. We worked on the drawers for the base unit, including dovetails using the same jig we are learning to use in my other class. (I obviously breezed through this exercise.) Using an overhead router bit, we also rounded all four sides of the drawer fronts. You might think this is a simple thing to do, but remember that the pieces of wood for the drawer fronts were only 11/16" high – thus my fat fingers were very close to that router bit. 

We next worked on the four side panels (two interior and two exterior). These all required blind dadoes with which to hold all of the shelves tightly in place. If they were full dadoes, we could have simply cut them with a table saw, but in this case we had to use a 1/16" overhead router bit. We also had to cut rabbets on the bottom of each panel 3/32" wide by 1/32" deep. Finally, we also had to mortise 1/16" x ¼" x 1/32" spaces for the door hinges. We then dry-fit the upper part of the dresser together and custom cut each shelf unit, including tenons on each end that fit snugly into those blind mortises we cut in the panels.

Back in my dovetail class, we used a pin router and a custom fixture to make our fancy shaped legs for our table. We then used a very small saw blade to cut mortises on the top two sides of each rear leg, and on one side of each front leg. The side panels were cut with matching tenons.   

Wednesday night was our R&R night, and believe me, we needed it. 

FINISHED PIECES ON DISPLAY included secretary desk by Julian Biggers, a Carlton desk by Geoff Wonnacott, and two Japanese tea chests by Mark Murphy.

ALL OF THE PARTS for the author’s Queen Anne Welsh dresser await one last airbrushed coat of Deft before final assembly.

Thursday

We continued working on the upper section of the dresser, cutting and finishing several made-to-fit shelves. We glued as much of the upper section together as we could, which required some “fine tuning” to get things to match up perfectly.

Next, we worked on the top frieze, which was similar to the apron on the bottom section.

Later in the dovetail class, we continued working on our desks, sanding and applying finish. 

Well, this turned out to be a very different evening: “Munchies, Minis, and More.” It was really an opportunity for the instructors to sell their wares and/or tools related to the classes they taught. Traditionally, the most popular table was Jack Blackham’s because he always had some of his custom-made aluminum jigs for sale.

I ate my dinner in five minutes and headed straight to the event. Two and a half hours early, I was second in line to enter; while waiting, I worked on my top frieze with some diamond needles.

Arriving early paid off, as I was able to get one of Jack’s aluminum pin router jigs and an aluminum sliding table for my table saw, among other items. His stuff pretty much sold out in the first 10 minutes. The other super-crowded table was that of Pete and Pam Boorum (of Smaller Than Life), who also sell a lot of jigs, lumber and other supplies.

For the rest of the evening, I studied and reveled in the craftsmanship of all these world-class instructors – and their work was just totally amazing. The talent in this room was overwhelming.

AFTER 36 HOURS OF INTENSIVE WORK, the author’s dresser is mostly finished. All Guild School students display their projects at the end of the week.

Friday

It was our final day of class, and Carol warned us not to rush around in an attempt to finish our dressers. It was better to cut/rout the rest of our pieces and finish at home than to end up with a sloppy project. I was about 95 percent done. I still needed to finish hinging the doors to the dresser and give the whole thing a final airbrush finish. Nevertheless, I was satisfied with the techniques I had acquired and improved in this class.

All of us dovetail students completed our small tables with hidden drawers using a combination of dovetail, dado and mortise-and-tenon joints. Jack gave us each our own dovetail jig, special router bit and special gouge for attending his class.

Finally, it was the night we had all been waiting for: graduation! Each class exhibited projects, and I was totally amazed by the talent of the students. We had some of the best miniature artists in the world teaching here, and they had begun to rub off on us.

Building miniature furniture is very relaxing and satisfying to me. And if I make a mistake, so what? I learn from it. I have only wasted a little time and pennies on lumber. It’s a hobby that keeps me off the computers I work on all day long, yet still provides me with many challenges, such as laying out the specifications for a full-size piece of furniture I want to miniaturize.  

I hope that you will also give it a chance, and maybe even get hooked on it, too. Maybe my table saw only has a 2.25"-diameter blade, but it takes a real craftsperson to work with .001" tolerances in woodworking. I challenge you to go for it.

Please feel free to e-mail me (twalden1@cfl.rr.com) directly with any questions or comments about making miniature furniture.  If I can’t answer them directly, I know quite a number of sources who can. For more information about The Guild School, visit igma.org

Tom Walden is an IGMA member whose work was recently featured in the “Show Off” section of  Woodcraft Magazine.

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