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The Putney General Store Fires – A death in the family

Yesterday morning I got the news that the Putney General Store had burned down – again.

The Putney General Store (PGS) is literally in the center of Putney at the intersections of the two main roads: Route 5/Main St and Kimball Hill.  It has been a general store since 1796 and was the longest continually operating general store in the state of Vermont until May 3, 2008 when a fire destroyed the roof and attic of the building and left the two main floors extensively damaged.  The first fire was a huge shock to everyone in town and when the owners of the PGS said they could not afford to rebuild it the Putney Historical Society decided to buy the property and rebuild it, raising the funds through donations and grants. The response to this from the townspeople of Putney and various State agencies was very enthusiastic and as of November 1, 2009 a new roof slate roof had been built and the interior had been gutted and restored to the point where the reopening of the PGS was slated for May of 2010.  I know everyone in my family was really looking forward to the PGS reopening and I’m sure just about everyone else in Putney was too.

And then my son called from Burlington, VT yesterday morning to tell me he’d just heard from a friend that the PGS had burned to the ground. “What?!”  I was in shock.  I couldn’t believe it.  While on the phone with my son, my wife called from work saying she had just heard the news.  I was heading out to buy lumber yesterday and drove by the PGS which is now just a pile of charred timbers in a cellar hole.  It is hard to look at and I haven’t been able to bring myself to take a picture of it.  It really feels like a death in the family.

I can’t imagine what all the people who have worked so hard on rebuilding it are going through.  All that hard work destroyed in minutes.  The initial indications are that the second fire was intentional set which I find unfathomable.  Who would do such a thing and why?  And what happens now?

Tractor seat stools

Today’s photos show part of the process of making my tractor seat stool seats. These stools have deeply carved seats that are inspired by the old cast iron tractor seats that, despite being made from a very hard material, were comfortable enough to sit in all day long.

This photo shows a stool seat blank with the holes for the legs drilled in it. On top of the seat is a board with a crescent shape traced on it. This crescent shaped piece will be glued to the back of the seat blank to add thickness. The wood for the seat blank and the crescent were all cut from the same board so that grain and color match perfectly.

This photo show the crescent being glued to the seat blank.

After the glue is dry the outside shape of the seat is cut.

Next the contours of the seat are carved out with a custom made machine that duplicates the contours of a pattern onto the seat blank. There is a tremendous amount of sanding necessary with a variety of sanders starting with very course sandpaper (36 grit) and working up to very fine sandpaper (220 grit) to get this seat ready for assembling into a stool but the basic shape is there.

I make my tractor seat stools in a wide variety of woods and several heights. It is most often used at kitchen counters or breakfast bars but I do make an 18″ high stool which can be used wherever a standard height chair is needed.

Richard Bissell
Putney, Vermont

See all of my handmade furniture at

Designing furniture with 3D CAD

I have been drawing furniture with 2 dimensional CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs for many years and have always found 3D programs (where you draw the piece and rotate it to view it from any angle) intriguing. However, only in the last few years have I found any of the 3D programs affordable, easy to use and powerful enough to accomplish what I think they should be able to do.

I now use two 3D CAD programs. The easiest to use is Sketchup which was bought by Google a couple of years ago. Sketchup has a free version available (Google Sketchup) which is really quite amazing and easy to use. They is also a Pro version which currently costs about $500 and has some added features. One feature of Sketchup I found lacking was the ability to “stretch” things easily. For example, if you draw a raised panel door and then want to make it larger or smaller. With Sketchup I could scale it to make it larger or smaller but that would also make the door frame members larger or smaller in both dimensions. There was no way of making the panel larger or smaller and the frame members longer or shorter without also making them wider. I found this disappointing and started looking around for other 3D programs that could do this properly. (I should note that I believe Sketchup Pro now has the ability to do this.)

I had read about another CAD program Alibre Design at some point (perhaps even before finding Sketchup) and had download a free version of it but had found it too difficult to learn. Alibre design is quite different from any other CAD program I’ve used. It seems that most CAD programs I’ve seen are primarily intended for architects and builders. Alibre is designed more for engineers designing products. Parts of a product are built individually and then are assembled which is the same way furniture is built. Subassemblies (such as a frame and panel door) can have dimensions assigned base on the overall width and height of the door. For example:

Door width = 12″
Door height= 22″
stile width = 2″
top rail width = 2″
bottom rail width = 2.5″
panel width = door width – 2 x stile width + 1″
Panel height = door height – bottom rail width – top rail width + 1″

Once these dimension are defined all you have to do is change the door width and height and the assembled door size changes. This is the same math you do in your head when working from a simple drawing in the shop. For something like a bed design all dimensions can be defined as a function of the matress width and length. When you want to change the bed from queen size to king size just change the mattress width dimension from 60″ to 75″ and all appropriate dimensions change in the entire drawing. The number and spacing of spindles can be defined as a function of the width and more spindles added as needed. This type of dimensioning is referred to as parametric. Alibre can also generate cut lists for all the parts of an assembly.

Of course learning a program like this takes time but the results are worth it. Basically you can build the entire piece on the computer, figuring out all the joinery issues before you go into the shop and cut a single board. From a customers perspective they can view the finished piece from all angles in the wood of their choice and know exactly what they will be getting. For complicated pieces this is a very valuable tool.

Here’s a rendering (done with Alibre Render) of a sleigh bed design I have been working on:

Here is an exploded view rendering of the same bed:

Walking to Work

I am fortunate enough to be able to walk to work everyday. My house is about a quarter of a mile from my shop and I have the choice of walking on the road or through the woods and fields. I generally only take the road if I have to go to the mail box (rural delivery route) or if there’s to much snow on the ground. I really enjoy the walk through the fields and woods. Below are a few photos I’ve taken recently along the way.

Mushrooms in the hollow of a tree. This large old maple tree in the court yard just outside my shop.

These next photos are of a tree that is about 50 yards to one side of the path I take through the woods. I noticed the fresh white broken off tree truck from the path and went to investigate. I assumed that this pine tree had been weakened by woodpeckers going after insects in the secction of the trunk that broke off.

What I found was something I’d never seen before and didn’t realy know what to make of it. There was no evidence of any rot or weakness in the trunk and the standing portion of the trunk looked like it had been twisted. Even more odd was the fact that a sction fo the trunk about 11-15 feet long looked like it had been literally blown apart. The were 6 or 7 long pieces of this section laying on the ground radially around the standing truck. One of these sections was jambed into the ground. You can see it in the photo below angling out of the ground.
What I eventually concluded was that this tree had been struck by lightening. We had a powerful thunderstorm a few days ago which included a ligtening strike that sounded like it was very close by. This photo is powerful evidence for the rule: Never stand under a tree during an electrical storm!

Harvest Table continued

Today’s photos show the assembled harvest table rule joint in 3 different positions – leaf down, leaf half way up and leaf up. Proper routing of the joint and positioning of the hinges is necessary so that the finished joint is perfectly tight when the leaf is up but does not bind as the leaf is raised and lowered. Notice that as the leaf is lowered the leaf begins to move away from the edge of the table and when it is down there is good clearance between the leaf and the table edge.

Table leaf down. Good clearance between leaf and table edge:

Table leaf half way up. Clearance between leaf and table edge is decreasing:

Table leaf up. The closed joint is tight:

Mission bookcase

Today’s photo is of a custom sized mission bookcase we are making. This bookcase is 72″h x 52″w x 12″d. Because the bookcase is so wide the shelves are a full 1″ thick rather than the usual 3/4″ so that they don’t sag. The top and bottom shelves are fixed. There will be 5 adjustable shelves. There is a cutout in the back of the bottom shelf to allow for a heating vent on the wall that the bookcase will be placed against.

Rule joint

Today’s photo is of the rule joint of the two harvest tables I’m working on. This joint is simple enough when you get it right but the first time I made a harvest table I found I had problems with it binding as it closed. I know rout the joint and place the hinges in such a way that the joint is tight when it is closed but gets more clearance as it opens. This prevents binding but still gives a tight joint.

I’ll post photos of the open and closed joint once I get the leaves attached to the tops.

Too much to do – Photo of the day

Who has time to keep up with all of this web 2.0 social media stuff – facebook, twitter, blogs – not to mention just keeping a website up to date? As you can see from the how infrequently I post to this blog I certainly don’t have much time to spare.
I recently read an article online – can’t remember where – that talked about how businesses haven’t yet really figured out how to take advantage of Facebook and Twitter yet. The article went on to say that the most popular use of Facebook in particular was sharing photos. This got me thinking. If people really just want to look at photos maybe that’s what I should be posting. So I’ve decided to post a “photo of the day” . We’ll see if I can at least keep up with that. I’ll probably post here and on Facebook.
Today’s photo is of a harvest table base being glued together. I’m making two 7′ 10″ long harvest tables. You can just see the end of the second table in the upper left of the photo.

Thoughts on global warming, trees and lumber

Every since I saw Al Gore’s movie The Inconvenient Truth I’ve been reading a lot of books about global warming – both the science that leads to the conclusion that this is really happening and possible solutions to the problem. I find it is a very interesting but also very scary subject. As I’ve been reading these books and articles I have found myself wondering what I should do about the fact that I’m a woodworker who relies on someone cutting down trees so that I have lumber to make into furniture.

Since an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the main cause of global warming and trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, it would seem that cutting down trees is a bad idea. Less trees means less carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere. However, when trees die they decompose and release the carbon back into the environment. When a mature tree is cut down and sawed into lumber the carbon remains stored in the lumber rather than being release through decomposition. Of couse the whole tree is not usable for lumber. The limbs can be cut into firewood or chipped and burned. This releases the carbon but no more than would have been released if it had decomposed and burning it provides heat that can be used for heating or generating electricity or both.

This all makes it sound like cutting trees down is good. The problem is if all the trees are cut down this can change the enviroment of that area. In the rain forests this is particularly true. These forests have developed over thousands of years and are perpetuated by the fact that the forests themselves create a lot of the moisture necessary to sustain them. The Amazon rainforest creates up to 50% of its own rainfall ( This means that cutting portions of the rainforests down threatens the viability of the remaining rainforests. This is why it is important that forest are responsibly managed so that they remain viable as forest while also providing trees that can be harvested for lumber and other uses.

Because I believe it is important to encourage and reward those who are making the effort to ensure that forest are being responsibly managed I now pay very careful attention to what the source is for the lumber I use in my furniture. I currently have 2 main sources. The first is lumber that has been harvest from forests that are enrolled in Vermont’s current use program. Forests enrolled in this program must follow accepted forestry guidlines for sustainable management. The other reason I prefer this lumber is that it has not travel a long distance to get to me. It is grown, sawn, dried and turned into furniture all in Vermont. When Vermont lumber is not available I purchase FSC certified lumber. This is lumber that is certified to have come from forests that are responsibly managed. Only when I can’t find what I need from one of these two sources do I purchase lumber what I refer to as “traditional sourced” lumber. This is lumber that may or may not have come from responsibly managed forests.

When I receive the lumber at my shop each board is marked as to its source. When lumber is picked out for a piece of furniture the quantity and source of all the lumber in that piece is recorded so the customer can know what percentage of lumber in their furniture was harvested from responsibly managed forests. This system takes a little getting used to but I think it is very important to encourage the responsible management of forests and lumber suppliers who sell this lumber as well as customers who care about where the wood for their furniture comes from.

Richard Bissell
Putney, Vermont
To learn more about my furniture visit my website at