Enter the octagon
Old-world exercise hones hand-tool skills
Synopsis: This hand-tool exercise harkens back to the Edward Barnsley workshop in England and was also fundamental to Michael Cullen’s education when he trained at Leeds Design Workshops in Massachusetts. Now he uses it to teach his own students. Making the octagon tests everything from material selection and careful layout to tool preparation, blade sharpening, and sawing and hand-planing skills.
Making the octagon was the final exercise of the first segment of the year at Leeds Design Workshops in Massachusetts, where I trained to be a furniture maker. Up to that point, the class had focused solely on tool preparation, sharpening, and hand-tool skills through a series of core exercises. It was the culmination of everything we had learned to that point: a test to see if one could cut straight and plane true without hesitation or flaw.
We had all seen the octagon in the Barnsley book—that black-and-white photo of Edward Barnsley and several students standing by the bench as lead craftsman George Taylor deftly defined the facets of the octagon. Our teacher, David Powell, had worked in Edward Barnsley’s workshop in England in the early 1950s, and we were at Leeds to learn the same set of skills. The successful execution of that simple-looking octagon provided the confidence to begin making entire pieces of furniture by hand.
I use the same octagon exercise as the culmination of hand-tool training for my apprentices and students. Making the octagon tests everything from material selection and careful layout to tool preparation, blade sharpening, and sawing and planing skills.
Start with a square The first step toward the octagon is to make a perfect square. Begin by choosing a rough-sawn blank of 4/4 lumber big enough to yield a 121⁄4-in. square. Select a flat board without a lot of…