Inside the anarchist cabinet

Craft_04One thing you may have noticed about the saws I bring to market is I don’t discriminate.

I regularly do handle repairs of all types and as time goes on I’m finding I enjoy the process more and more. I’ve always had an interest in restoration and the experimentation to get it “just right” and just plain messing about to get the needed finish or treatment.  It’s a lot of experimentation and research plus a healthy understanding of color and light. Those last two things transfer well from many years approving color at magazines and now at catalogs.

But enough about me and on with the blog.

In the fall of 2012 I attended the fall MJD auction in NH (see link for post). It was a fun show and although it didn’t make the highlights I had the pleasure of meeting John Porritt. Like many others, John started building furniture then gravitated to other specialties including: Windsor chairs and repair/restoration of furniture and tools.

We struck up a conversation while looking over some saws, made introductions, and as often is the case, John was a lover of all handsaws as well. John as it turns out is a fan of Atkins saws, something you don’t expect from a native of England. I explained I tended to lean more towards Disston for resale but I’m an equal opportunity collector and rather like Peace and Richardson.

Later that day after things slowed down we talked with more detail about restoration and dealing with broken horns on handles. John explained a process he favors, curving, and he found a way to trick the eye and blend the seam naturally. I hadn’t really formulated the idea at that time, but now as I look back I see it more clearly.

The ideal repair is hidden in plain sight, not under 6 coats of paint. Something easier said than done. The idea of matching wood is a multi-step process of backwards engineering and not about brushing stain on to cover the joint.

He was kind enough to extend an invitation to visit; we exchanged cards and before weekend’s end we had traded saws. Sadly it was already fall and within weeks the colder weather had set in and I figured I’d try again in the spring.

Fast forward, and as I was looking over the February meeting of CRAFTS of New Jersey, I saw that John was on the docket to speak in Highbridge, NJ and the Sunday looked free so I made plans to attend.

I’ve been a member of CRAFT for a while now but due to schedules and life I have only made the spring tool auction held at a different location but still in Hunterdon County, a very nice section of the garden state. It would be a little troublesome to travel to but I’m willing to bet that’s part of the reason.

The February meet was in the midst of a cold snap that threatened a little snow but as luck would have it the rich blue winter sky was clean for the pre-meet tailgate. The colder temps reduced my eagerness for pictures but not the car boot sales. I counted about 12 or more sellers with a good selection of tools ranging from top shelf to long-term projects. Everyone was happily milling about unaffected by the cold. These boot sales are as much about connecting and making new friends as buying and selling. You find over time it’s often one in the same. It’s a similar experience I have at my local green market and outdoor markets that are popping up all over the country and are in stark contrast to sales on eBay.  If this were the SAT’s it would read.

Ebay is to Boot sales as Walmart is to:

  1. McDonalds
  2. Main street America
  3. G.M
  4. Farm markets
  5. Both B and D

Ok enough eBay bashing . . . It’s like the roads in Pennsylvania, low hanging fruit.


Back to the CRAFT meeting. I walked the lot, found John, and he keyed me into some interesting saw manufacturer catalog reprints. I thoroughly enjoy the old illustrations and find them a great resource. I’d love to reproduce some on t-shirts in the future. I also picked up a few good saws, a nice early Disston No. 8 with a beautiful handle and an American Boy that needed a top horn repair.

Craft_01By noon people started moving indoors and John was in the midst of unloading two dozen or more cans and jars filled with all types of liquids, powders, and waxes. In short I thought “the anarchist cabinet.” Some were simple things like a piece of rust from a leaf spring found in the Hudson, crushed into a powder.  Others were dyes, stains, and pigments mixed with waxes and soap. Lastly there were the more caustic things used for bleaching color out.  Things like nitric and boric acid and hydrogen peroxide are used for pulling color out of woods.

John started off with a little background and history. He was an orphan, who endured a miserable existence in an English workhouse. He escaped and traveled to London where he met the Artful Dodger, leader of a gang of juvenile pickpockets. Oh wait! That’s Oliver Twist.  John did however move here from England (I think he said 5 years ago) and now lives with his wife on the tail end of the Taconic Parkway, which I think would be considered part of the Berkshires but don’t quote me on that; I can’t do all the research.

Craft_02Once done with the introduction he jumped right into things. He brought some really nice completed examples of work as well as a portfolio of furniture and chairs.  He was here to talk about restoration and brought a few recently made replacement wedges for wood molding planes.

Having limited time everything was done high level but at the same time he offered lots of useful tips, tricks, and resources including an out of print book by Michael Bennett, “Discovering and Restoring Antique Furniture: A Practical Illustrated Guide for the Buyer and Restorer of Antique Furniture.” Note that the hardcover seems to sell for less than the paperback and contains the same copy. I’ve since read through about ½ and am really enjoying it.  It’s cut down that feeling of reinventing the wheel.

John went over some thoughts on wood selection and how he starts the process depending on whether the wood needs to be darkened or lightened to match back to the piece. In most cases it’s darkening and the example he worked was such. Unlike what you might think it doesn’t start with stain.  Think reverse engineering like I talked about earlier.  The process starts with aging and stressing the wood. John used a number of shop-made and found tools including a (1970’s Black and Decker drill) outfitted with a crazy looking paint stripper that looked like a softer nylon wheel. For sure, not OSHA approved! Other tools of interest were a vintage ivory burnisher, leather tools, and a WWI era chainmail pot scraper. His were the real deal but I did find they are still made today. In short the goal here is to add texture and also smooth out the wood. John worked in stages getting the wood texture correct before adding color. In fact color seemed to be the last thing he added. After tapping, burnishing with the BACK of sand paper, and other black magic, he got into the color. Bleaches and acids are used; author’s note: look alive and follow labels. I’ve worked with nitric acid and it’s nasty stuff.

John applies dyes and stains of all types. Like anyone he’s found colors and brands that work well and he applies them in small amounts along with organic material like rust and natural pigments. One tip I picked up was the use of a heat gun. I’ve used them in the past for all types of things but never thought about it when working with multiple finishes. As he worked through the process he passed examples around and held things up to see.  I did my best to take a few pictures.

By the end John had covered a multitude of things and given out some really great tips. He doesn’t currently have a website; he’s more of a phone person but does have email and you can contact me for his number.  I don’t want to post it but I’m happy to pass it out. He’s done work for some of the big guys like Jim Bode, Patrick Leach, and Leon Kashishian, whom I’ve recently come to know. He hails from the fine borough of Hatfield, PA and is a fellow collector of the fine early makers of Philadelphia saws.

next blog we head BACK to Lancaster in search of Fasnachts! and saws

Joe Federici
Saw Monger and anarchist at heart

3 thoughts on “Inside the anarchist cabinet

  1. Enjoyed the article very much, Joe, especially hearing about your meeting with John Porritt. I studied furniture making with John in Shrewsbury, U.K. in 1979/80 but we lost contact sometime in the late 80’s. Would you please either forward my E-mail address to him or send his to me ? It would be much appreciated.
    Keep up the good work, Ben N ( Seattle )

    • Hey Ben.
      Not sure about email John’s living off the grid in that way. I’ll email you phone number. I should see him next weekend as well in at the Donnelly auctions.


  2. Pingback: John Porritt, a collection of details — Windsor & Stick chairs | Positive Rake

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