Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sometimes it's the little things...

Last week, my son's partner asked me to make her a stand for her tablet computer.  Because we were visiting them at the end of the week, I had less than a day to make it.

I had a scrap piece of walnut 8" wide so I cut off a piece 10" long, ripped a 2" piece off the edge and found a walnut dowel.  22.5 degrees seemed like the right viewing angle, so I cut the 2" piece in two at that angle and made shallow stopped dados in the back to receive them.  I glued the legs in place to hold them while I drilled through the face into the legs and then I inserted the dowels so they would serve as both loose tenons for the legs and a holder for the tablet.  I use dowels to hold up the electronic device so as to minimize interference with the speakers and connections along the bottom.  It worked out well to clamp the leg in a vise and drill through the face into the base:

In no time it was done:

A couple coats of oil and it was ready to go:

Here it is in use:

I am happy with this for several reasons.  I think this design works well and looks nice.  The design is very simple, takes little time to make and has only five pieces making it up.  There is elegance in simplicity.

Enough patting myself on the back.  As the saying goes, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My latest approach to sharpening

I am apparently like many woodworkers in wasting time and money pursuing various sharpening approaches, being dissatisfied and starting over.  There are others who pursue sharpening as an end in itself, but, personally, I'd rather drink craft beer.  I do seem to be circling in on what works best for me though.  I think that the right sharpening approach for a particular woodworker depends on a lot of things, personal preference among them.  This is what I have settled on for me:
  1. I am interested in getting a workably sharp edge quickly and easily and am willing to forgo ultimate sharpness if it takes time or requires fussy equipment.  Actual sharpness experienced in use is more of a function of regular honing. 
  2. I wish all of my tools were O1 steel, but they aren't, so my method has to be able to handle the harder steels.
  3. I don't mind taking time to sharpen my tools between projects but I resist stopping in the middle of a project to hone a tool, yet regular honing is crucial, so my honing method has to be right at the bench and very very quick.
  4. Spending time flattening my sharpening and honing media is intolerable.
  5. I'm done buying machines and gizmos.  If I've got it and it works ok, I'll use it, but I'm not buying any new ones.   
Adapting the Paul Sellers method by using coarse, medium, fine and extra fine diamond stones followed by a strop was a definite step forward for me, but I found I didn't want to go through all the steps every time my tool got dull.  Part of the problem is that I bought two-sided stones, which are very inconvenient, but I also don't see the need for sharpening from scratch every time and I like secondary bevels.  I want to be like a barber who hones his straight razor between each haircut at the chair, maybe even with the same drama that the old timers used to achieve.  (By the way, they now use disposable ones in my area).

These considerations led me to a two-stage regimen.  I start a project with all of my tools sharp.  During projects, I hone regularly at the bench.  The fastest, easiest, most reliable method I have found is to use these steel honing plates and diamond paste followed by a strop.  I use the 6 and 3 micron paste but I don't use the 1 micron paste because I strop.  The plates are cheap but the paste is expensive.  However, you use much less paste than you would think.  You just put on a very small amount and it lasts a long time.  There's no water and all you have to do is wipe the edge between grits.  It works well on all steels.  Someday I might get rid of every non-O1 tool I own and use oil stones.  Until then, I expect to stay with this honing method.  I do not use any kind of jig or guide when honing.  It takes too long and I don't have the patience.

Between projects or if honing isn't enough, I sharpen.  Depending on how much I need to do, I either use my Worksharp or I use my diamond plates.  For narrower edges like chisels I sharpen with a guide but for wider blades like plane blades I sharpen free hand.  I have owned a number of guides but I have gone back to the first one I bought years ago, this one.   It is quick and easy to use, works well with skewed blades, clamps solidly to every tool shape I have and is durable.  I've had a number of other guides that were fancier and more expensive but I just didn't like them.

I think that if I were teaching an introductory woodworking course, I would urge the students to only buy O1 steel tools and use oilstones and a strop for sharpening and honing.  Alternatively, I would suggest that they get the basic guide I use, three honing plates and the three grits of diamond paste generally available.  For sharpening, I think sandpaper on a piece of glass would be fine.  For aggressive material removal, as when restoring a tool, sandpaper is the way to go in my opinion.

None of this is to challenge in any way the wisdom that waterstones are the way to get an ultimate edge, just to say that they are too much trouble for recalcitrants like me.  Maybe if I had a heated shop with a stone pond and running water, but that is what it would take to get me to consider using them.  None of this is to challenge sharpening systems like the Tormek, but to me the cost and complexity are just over the top.  None of this is to challenge hollow grinding, which has a lot of appeal for sharpening.  I avoided it originally because I feared ruining my tools but hollow grinding has a lot of appeal.  I don't have a grinder and I am not going to buy one.  The Worksharp is good enough.

As I said at the outset, I am after a workably sharp edge as quickly and easily as possible.    

Friday, December 30, 2016

Kitchen stool hits and misses

After I have finished a project, especially if it's one I designed myself, I try as best I can to step back and ask myself what I did well and what I didn't do well.  This is my evaluation of the kitchen stools (I ended up making two).  As a reminder, here are pictures of the finished stools:

 From a design perspective, I am quite pleased with the stool overall.  I think my version of a saddle seat is different and quite nice.  I think the thin legs, viewed from the front, look nice and don't draw attention away from the seat.  The dovetail on the lower stretcher looks good and adds a lot of strength.  The stretcher's location is just right for putting your feet on.  The side stretchers are very inconspicuous, as I hoped they would be, and don't draw attention away from the line of the leg.  The big design negative is that the attachment of the legs to the seat is too close to the edge of the seat.  I thought doing this would give the stool an open look and ensure stability, but I don't like it and I'll move the legs in at least an inch next time.  There is no problem with stability because of the seat shape.

In terms of execution, I had a screw-up related to drilling pins through the top of the seat into the legs.  I broke out a sizeable chunk on the inside top of one of the holes.

This picture is partway through the repair.  I carefully chiseled out a clean rectangle, found a scrap with similar grain and then sawed and planed a piece to glue into it.  After it dried, I chiseled it flush.  Amazingly, you can't see it, so this had a happy ending.

Attaching the legs to the seat this way was a mistake that I won't be repeating.  Next time, I will do one of two things:
  1. Attach the leg to the seat with a tapered tenon and hole.   I would have to buy this reamer and this tenon cutter.  The seat base would have to be thicker;
  2. Keep the legs rectangular but move them inboard to the flat portion of the seat and drill the holes with the seat clamped to the completed leg assembly.  I've already decided to move the legs inboard anyway for appearance reasons. 
I had the usual finishing challenges.  I don't like finishing and it shows; I always end with a bad spot or two for no good reason.  If I were to do one thing to improve my results the most, it would be to shut off my overhead lights and use good raking light to go over the piece in detail before, during and after I apply each coat of finish.  It definitely wasn't the products I used:  General Finishes Salem oil stain and three coats of Arm-R-Seal, all wiped on.  Pilot error.

Bottom line, though, is that I am happy.  I started out thinking of this as an experiment, used scraps to make it and ended up being happy enough with it to make a pair, apply finish and bring them into the kitchen.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Didn't weigh down Santa's sleigh much this year

After a number of years, I have finally given in, thrown in the towel, surrendered, capitulated.  It's not that I ever doubted the consensus view that a high quality, small combination square is an essential tool for woodworkers, it was that I wasn't willing to pay the price of a really good one.

Two years ago, I thought I had outsmarted the marketplace.  I took my machinist's square to Sears and methodically went through their 6" combination squares until I found one that was exactly square.  I paid my $9 and went home, chortling to myself about what I clever fellow I am.  My smugness was crushed by experience for two reasons.  The blade was hard to read and it had a tendency to slip.  You had to be very careful or the measurement you thought you had set would become a different one.  This problem became more and more severe until this fall I couldn't secure the blade at all, both problems leading to highly irritating measurement errors.  Exasperated, I threw it away.

I decided to ask for a Starrett, choking as I did so.  They're $95.  For a 6" combination square!  Don't tell me to find a used one.  Tried that, couldn't.  I have no knowledge of what it takes to make a tool like this, but I really can't understand why they cost this much.  I think it may be not only that they are made in the US of very high quality materials but that there is a lot of hand work in the final machining of each square to achieve the level of accuracy they guarantee.  I definitely don't think this one will slip.  Starrett isn't the only manufacturer of high quality combination squares, but it is the one I am familiar with.

As bad as my Sears square was, it definitely taught me that a small combination square is an essential tool, one that would certainly make my short, short list. It's strength is its versatility.  It's the kind of tool that you almost want to carry around in your shop apron.

I have several other small squares.  I have the Veritas sliding square and it is better for some applications, particularly when you are making an "x" and "y" measurement at once.  I also have this Incra T-rule, very accurate but I almost never use it.  In the end, nothing beats a small combination square for all-around utility and accuracy.  I could easily live without the others.

I have one more small square that I couldn't live without, a 3" Starrett stainless steel machinist's square that I inherited from my father-in-law.  This little thing is so darn handy for doing things like checking an edge when I am jointing, checking my dovetails, etc.  I just looked and they cost $70 new.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Kitchen stool II

With my seat blank cut out and shaped, I turned to the legs.  I'm using 5/4 scraps, so the legs have to be rectangular in cross section and I decided I liked them positioned with the narrow side facing forward for appearance and utility.  I don't like the look of two sets of stretchers, so I decided that I would fasten the legs to the seat with half-inch through pins and that is where I started:

I can't tell you what the angles are because I chose them by eye.  As I went along, I made a series of story sticks for the dimensions and angles rather than measuring anything.

You may be wondering how I drilled the holes for the pins.  I drilled vertical holes through the seat and sawed the tops of the legs at the compound angle I chose for the leg using two bevel squares for reference.  Then I put the seat in my vise and positioned the leg at the proper orientation for drilling.  This was the wrong way to do it.  As you will see, I could have completed the base then set the seat on top of it to drill the holes.  Much easier and more accurate.

This spare, long-legged look appeals to me, and I didn't want to add anything more to it than I absolutely had to.  You want at least one stretcher because most people need something to put their feet on when sitting on a 26" high stool.  So, I decided I would have lower stretchers on the fronts.  I chose to have them 19" below the seat for a comfortable position to rest your feet.  The pins joining the seat to the legs are close to the edge of the seat, so I am concerned about breaking out the round mortise as a result of racking sideways.  This stretcher will share the load and I wanted to make it as strong as possible, so I oriented it vertically and attached it with a rabbeted dovetail.  Here's what they look like:

A wedged through-tenon would have been another good choice, but I thought having the stretcher on the front of the legs would be most comfortable because it would minimize the angle of your legs when resting your feet on it.

I wanted the absolute minimum I could get away with for a stretcher between the legs in the other direction, so I settled on a small one rabbeted just 1/4" into the insides of the legs up high in an effort to preserve the long line of the legs.

So, this is my experimental prototype and I am pleased with it, enough that I decided to put some finish on it.  Next time, I'll show you my prototype and critique it.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Kitchen stools

The recently completed kitchen work table is a success, so we now need a pair of stools to go with it.  I looked at a lot of pictures online and the style that caught my eye is called a saddle seat stool.  They have a rectangular seat, usually around 9"x18" that is contoured somewhat like the side view of a saddle, so I suppose that is how it got its name.  These stools usually have four legs.  Think of a short stepladder.  Generally there are two sets of stretchers on each side, but sometimes the legs are mortised into the seat and there is only one stretcher on each side.  There are all kinds of variants, including rustic ones that look really nice.

Since the kitchen work table is white oak, the stools are going to be white oak, Carving out the seat shape in dry white oak would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, with hand tools.  These days, this sort of thing is often done by power carving.  It involves a nasty looking cutter on an angle grinder with chips and dust (hopefully not flesh) flying everywhere.  It's not for me, so I have to do something else.

I still have a lot of the pickup load of scrap 5/4 white oak that I bought last year, so I decided to experiment with it.  After gluing up a piece 9" wide,  I used a french curve to sketch out the profile I wanted and cut it out on the bandsaw.  Then I used a round spokeshave, a rasp and a file to refine it:

I then glued these to a 9"x18" base.  Finally I used the bandsaw to angle the edges slightly inward as a start for using hand tools for shaping.  The resulting seat blank looked better to my eye than I expected:

The main thing I wanted to do with shaping, besides softening the edges, was to open up the seat with a large roundover along the front edge and the adjoining edges of the sides.  This was easy enough to do with a rasp, file, flat spokeshave and round spokeshave.  The round shave in particular worked really well on the edges.  I really enjoy shaping by eye with spokeshaves and am continually surprised by how well they work.  I only had the general thoughts above and just kept shaving, looking, sitting on it and shaving some more.  Both of mine are from Veritas and work great.

This started out as an experiment and is obviously not ideal.  You'd want to use a solid piece 9"x24" so you could saw off three inches on each end to have a nice match for the small pieces and the base.  I didn't have scraps that long, so the grain doesn't match.  It's an experiment but I think it looks pretty good.  It's really nice to sit on.

The shape I chose is different than most you see, with a much more pronounced "pommel" and "cantle," more like the profile of a real saddle.  These stools commonly have a much more gradual contour, which could be done this way or by starting with a solid 8/4 blank.  I prefer the contour on mine, but that is strictly a matter of taste.

This is yet another example of how a good bandsaw is a nice complement to hand tool woodworking or, in Jim Tolpin's phrase, a new traditional woodworker.  Good ones are expensive but are extremely versatile.  Cheap ones are unusable.  Maybe you could saw something like this out with a bowsaw, I don't know.  In my case, if I kept one power tool it would be my bandsaw.

Now it's on to figuring out what I want to do for legs.

Monday, December 12, 2016

How about a 3/4" stool leg?

I ran across this thought-provoking post by Chris Wong last week, which was about understanding material and joint strength.  It pointed out the downside of overbuilding things in the way of lost design opportunities and less than ideal appearance.  As it happens, I had just done that very thing.

I am designing and building saddle seat stools for our kitchen from white oak.  Making sure every component was more than strong enough was dominating my thinking.  Motivated by the post, I looked up the properties of white oak.  This is a very technical subject, and the reported values for various aspects of the strength of a wood species are nearly impossible for most of us to interpret.  A more pragmatic approach is required.  I went out into the shop, cut up some 24" pieces, propped up the ends on 2x4s and stood on them.  I'm a big guy and I can stand on the middle of a straight-grained 1x1 without breaking it.  It bent but it didn't break.  My sense of how thick my stool legs needed to be was way way off.

 Think about a four-legged stool with riven legs 3/4" square and 1/2" tenons.  Suppose they are mortised into the seat at an angle and that there are no stretchers at all.  What would fail and how much force would it take to make it fail?  If the mortises were too close to the edge of the seat, they would probably break out due to the side loading from the angled leg, but let's say that's not the case.  Then, I'd say that the tenon would rupture at the mortise, but I think it might take a whole lot of force to make that happen.  My sense is that, for straight grained wood, it's the joint and not the member that will fail.  The broken furniture I can remember seeing tends to bear this out.  When I have seen a broken member, it's because it wasn't straight-grained, so it split along the grain.

What does a stretcher really do?  It protects other joints on the legs by sharing their load, often with mechanical advantage or in a way that takes advantage of the properties of wood.  Maybe not always, but generally.  I guess this is obvious, but I hadn't thought about it in those terms.

Do an image search for shaker stools.  The legs on some of them are so darn thin and have only one stretcher per side; they seem like they would never hold up, but we know that they do.  Those thin stretchers are enough to keep the joint at the seat from failing.  I'll bet those pieces are riven.  Looking at these pictures and thinking about the physics tells me that one set of stretchers adds a lot to the strength of a piece, more than one not so much.

Look at this old, mass-produced chair I bought at a garage sale:

Most of the pieces of this chair are very thin and you'd think it would be rickety by now, but it isn't.  The ankles of the legs are 3/4".  Yet the chair is solid.  It's strong where it needs to be, at the joints.  This is just a mass-produced knock off of a cabriole leg.  Real cabriole legs are very strong though extremely delicate because they are so beefy at the joint.  Look at this cabriole leg joint I made:

Another thing I realized during these ruminations is that a stool with no back doesn't experience the same kinds of stresses as a chair.  Just think about what happens when someone rocks back in a chair, their weight on the seat and the front legs off the ground.

There is nothing here that you didn't already know, but, in my case at least,  I don't really think about any of this explicitly.  I should.   

I think that a major reason we don't test the limits of our material and joints is that it takes a lot of work to build something, so building test prototypes isn't very appealing.  Since we don't want the finished piece to fail, our solution is to overbuild.  Of course, you can always use a proven design, but what's the fun in that?

I went back to rethink my design, keeping these thoughts in mind.  It changed a lot, like it went on a diet.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Herb racks

Ralph is the undisputed king of holiday gift-making with his cell phone holders.  I don't come close, but we did do something a little different this year so the gifts would be from both my wife and me.  My wife grew herbs, I made small racks, we bought some bottles and she filled them with dried basil, chives, oregano, mint, sage, thyme and rosemary.  Everything was designed to fit in a USPS medium flat rate box.

The racks are nothing special, just made from half-inch white oak put together with rabbets and dadoes.  The joints are pegged with those Lee Valley 1/8" dowels I use often.  They are designed so that they can sit on the counter or hang on the wall.

I think handmade gifts are very special.  The person who gave it to you spent time making something for you, so there a real personal connection.

It's not too late.  You've still got two weeks.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Log sofa reprised

More than two decades ago, I made two log sofas for our rustic cedar home.  We had hundreds of poles that resulted from thinning our douglas-fir forest.  I later developed a fairly unique style of building with logs, but this was my first attempt.  I didn't have a tenon cutter, so the joinery I settled on was to use a hole saw to define a circle on the side of a log and then chisel it out so that the joining log would fit into the hole.  If necessary, I trimmed the joining log to fit.  I used a 1" dowel as a floating tenon.  The resulting joints looked pretty good and were extremely strong.

That part I think I got right, but another part I got wrong.  At the time, I thought the logs needed to be very smooth, and this was before I got into hand tool woodworking, so I used an angle grinder with abrasive disks to smooth the logs.  Later on, I achieved much nicer results with a drawknife, deliberately leaving on wide flats and sections of the tree's outer layers beneath the bark.  This is rustic furniture and it looks best with a very natural appearance.

We used the sofas for years and then gave them to some friends.  They offered them back to us recently and my wife is very nostalgic about anything associated with our kids growing up, so I reluctantly agreed to try to refurbish and improve them for our family room.  Here is the stripped down skeleton:

The joinery is still solid and, with some accumulated scratches and dents, the sofas are in good condition.  The upper pole is across the back of the posts so the back will be angled to produce a reclined seating position.  I wanted to add a nice back to the sofa that would be more reclined, so I used a drawknife and a spokeshave to create a flat on the inside of the top pole.  I had some old poles to make the back, most about 4 inches in diameter.  To do this, I sliced the poles in half on the bandsaw.  It's pretty easy to do this by attaching a 2x4 to the pole with screws that rides along the fence.  By slicing all the poles exactly in half you get a nice, quarter-sawn face.  Then I just ripped out one inch thick boards.  Here's what they look like:

and here's the refinished sofa:

The templates are to to give to the upholsterer.  We are going to upholster the seat in a solid color and leave the back exposed.  There will be colorful, Pendleton wool pillows placed along it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Are jigs fixtures?

I previously mentioned that Michael Pekovich wrote an article about what he sees as six essential bench jigs.  As should be expected, my essential "jigs" are somewhat different, so I thought I'd post about them.  I'm interested in yours too.

Before I do, however, I want to amuse myself, and hopefully you, with a semantic issue that I recall someone making a big deal about, though I can't remember where or when.  There is a difference, apparently, between jigs and fixtures.  According to Wikipedia:
Fixtures are used to securely locate (position in a specific location or orientation) and support the work... A fixture differs from a jig in that when a fixture is used, the tool must move relative to the workpiece; a jig moves the piece while the tool remains stationary.
This does actually make sense to me because the word fixture comes from a Latin word meaning "to fix," which is what these devices do. Strictly speaking, therefore, I want to share my essential hand tool woodworking bench fixtures. How about that for arcane?

Getting back to the topic at hand, there are a couple of fixtures on his list and mine that don't require elaboration:

1.  Shooting board

2.  Saw hook
Now for the ones on my list that are at least somewhat different.

3.  Split top stop

One of the advantages of having a split top is that you can have a board that you put in it as needed that protrudes 1/2" or so above the bench surface.  This makes an ideal side stop for planing wide and long boards, but I find myself using it for any number of other purposes as well, including during assembly.  Here's mine:

4.  Moxon vise

For a variety of reasons that I have written about previously, I think this wonderful fixture is essential for hand tool woodworking.  For the first year after I built my bench, my Moxon vise was the only one I had.  I learned a great deal about workholding as a result.  I now have the Veritas twin screw vise on the end of the bench, but it plays a limited role.  I would give it up before I gave up my Moxon vise.

Sometimes the most difficult parts to work on are the little ones.  The last two fixtures on my list address this issue:

5.  Edge Planing stop  

This handy and very simple fixture, sometimes called a side planing stop, works very well for planing the edges of narrow boards (for wider boards I use the skirts on my bench):

The green star on the triangle is because I keep losing the triangles, probably because they look like scraps.

6.  Stop for holding narrow parts flush with the edge of the bench

This one is important to me for use with my Veritas plow and skew rabbet planes.  If you attach a deeper secondary fence, you really need to make use of the edge of your bench, but, even if you don't, it is very convenient to use these planes right on the edge of the bench.  I find it very helpful as an aid in keeping the plane vertical.

I had tried a variety of approaches but, in thinking about this post, I decided to build a new one today.  It is made from two layers of baltic birch plywood and two short pieces of T track, which are installed just shy of the edge:

It's all half-inch plywood except for the piece across the right end, which is three-quarter inch so that it will serve as a stop, and a piece beneath it to clamp the fixture in the vise.  Of course, the plywood is not quite a half-inch, so I had to deepen the slots with a shoulder plane:

The final piece is a quarter-inch high fence that moves along the T tracks.  Here's what the fixture looks like in action:

We'll see how it works.  I think it will be useful in plowing grooves, planing rabbets and planing thin workpieces.  What about cross-grain rabbets?  Well, maybe I'll come up with something better, but right now:

One more illustration of the Moxon vise's versatility.

Some woodworkers may look at this list and think it is a lot of extraneous pieces to perform functions they can do with their bench vise.  All I can say is, I've got a bench vise, but I usually reach for them because I know I can do a better job quicker that way.  They are at hand and don't take up a lot of space.

Every fixture I have, including the Moxon vise and my bench raiser, fits in this space beneath my tool chest.

Getting back to the definition of fixture above, the whole idea is to securely fix the workpiece on the top of your bench in a position that allows you to do your best work.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A skewed perspective

No matter how many times I have relearned this lesson, every time I buy a new hand tool I think I am going to get perfect results out of the box.  That happened again when I bought my Veritas skew rabbet plane.  It is a truly great tool, but my results weren't truly great at first.  The rabbets sloped in and down.

When I had some free time, I set about figuring out what I needed to do to get good rabbets.  I learned from the company's video that you want the blade to be set proud of the side of the plane body about the thickness of a piece of paper.  That helped, but didn't completely solve the problem, and it wasn't hard to figure out why:  I was having trouble keeping the plane consistently vertical.

Try as I might, I just couldn't find a grip that felt right.  I tried every way I could think of to grasp the front knob but couldn't find one that worked.  Frustrated, I went online to look at some videos of the plane in use and found this one by Chris Schwarz.  Watch very closely.  Notice anything?  He took the front knob off!  I immediately went back to the shop, took mine off and the improvement was immediate.  My hand fit comfortably on the plane body and it was much easier for me to keep it vertical.

This is a puzzling thing to me.  I am a big fan of Lee Valley and they obviously know what they are doing.  However, this front knob seems absolutely awful, at least for someone with big hands like me.  If you look at the company's video, Vic doesn't seem to use it either.  I have absolutely no idea what it's for.  Perhaps some of you use it, and, if so, I'd like to hear from you in the comments.

There is one other thing you should notice in Chris Schwarz's video.  It's very beneficial to keep the edge you are creating the rabbet on exactly flush with the side of the bench.  This is one time when it's nice to have an end vise.  If you want to, you can also add an auxiliary fence as an aid in keeping the plane vertical.

There is one thing he does wrong though:  he is using the plane in the wrong direction.  Take it from me, the left hand one works better.  :)

Finally, in the catalog, the company shows the plane being used to raise panels with the help of an angled auxiliary fence and some longer fence rods.  I see how this is done in principle, but I think it would be quite difficult.  I'm off the hook, though, because I like to raise panels with regular rabbets.  You can do this in the arts and crafts style with the rabbet in the back, but it also looks really nice with the rabbet in the front.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

I don't know jack...

I have managed to collect so many planes that I am running out of room in my tool chest.  I am chagrined to say that I have the following:
  • Stanley #s 3, 4, 5, 5 1/2, 6, 7, 9 1/4 (block), 10 1/2 (carriage maker's rabbet), 90 (bullnose)
  • Millers Falls #9 (smoother)
  • Veritas low angle smoother, medium and large shoulder, small and large router, skew rabbet, plow, block
By my count, that's 18 planes, which I regard as too many.  Lest I upset any of you, there is nothing wrong with having this many and more, if that is what you want.  I don't.  In my defense, the average cost of these planes, excluding the Veritas ones, is less than $30 and I enjoyed restoring them.  In fact, my count doesn't include half a dozen more that I have restored and then sold or given away.  Some people bring home stray dogs and I brought home stray planes.  Nevertheless, something has to give and it's time to do without some of these.  I have a rule for my closet and workshop that I try very hard to adhere to:  Absent a compelling rationale, if I haven't worn/used it in the last year, I get rid of it.  So, which of these planes fall into this category?  The Stanley #s 5, 6, and 10 1/2.  You may or may not think this strange, but I understand why that is.  Who needs a jack when you have all these planes?  I like the #5 1/2 better.  Who needs a #6 when you have a #7 and a # 5 1/2?  The #10 1/2 is a specialty plane and I haven't had a need for it. 

I have a compelling rationale for keeping the #10 1/2.  My wife found it for me at a garage sale, I only paid a couple of dollars for it, it is in excellent condition, it's a rare plane and I think I may use it sometime.  I can't part with it.  The #s 5 and 6 I can do without.

The next question is, are there any of the remaining planes that I can do without, even though I use them?  Yes.  I don't need three smoothers, I like having one Millers Falls plane, and the Veritas low angle smoother has unique capabilities with the three blades I have for it, so I can do without the Stanley.  I don't need two block planes either.

Before I go on, there is another reason I can do without the Stanley #4.  That's my #3 in the front and the #4 in the back:

My #3 is virtually the same length as my #4, just narrower.  It is a matter of considerable amusement to me to demonstrate this when woodworkers say it isn't so.

I had decided to get rid of my Stanley #s 4,5,6 and 9 1/2, but then I remembered several things.  I have often wished that I had planes to use when I am doing carpentry, but I haven't been willing to use my "good" planes.  I'm taking the #5 out of the tool chest and putting it with the carpentry tools, just as I am doing with a couple of handsaws.  Same for my Stanley block plane.  Second, I don't have a scrub plane.  I think I will set the Stanley #4 up with a heavily cambered blade to serve as a scrub plane, as Paul Sellers recommends.  I will part with the #6.

You may think I didn't accomplish much, as I am only giving up one plane, but I really did.  Two bench planes and a block plane came out of my tool chest, I gained a jack plane and a block plane for carpentry and I will have a scrub plane.  Sometime this winter, I'm going to make myself a nice little carpenter's hand toolbox for two handsaws, two planes . . .  Wait, I have an extra brace and set of bits, I've got an extra Millers Falls hand drill and I've got other extra tools too.  This is great.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Kitchen work table done

The next step was to install the lower shelf pieces across the bottom stretchers.  This was a good use for some of those scrap white oak pieces I bought during the FDR chair project.

Some of my brainstorms work out and some don't, and this one didn't.  I decided to fasten the shelf pieces with the 1/8" joinery dowels from Lee Valley.  I really like the way they look on boxes but here they look too much like I used nails and wood filler:

Oh well, they aren't very conspicuous and the chef is fine with them.  If I did this again, I think I would use a larger pin in the center of each piece and make them more prominent, in part by not staining them so they would contrast with the stained oak.  This could be done by trimming the pins after staining but before finishing, using a playing card with a hole drilled through it to protect the piece.  The pin would be left very slightly proud, a look I like.

With this done, it was a simple matter of attaching the top and installing the casters.  The casters have a friction ring, so they just slide into a 7/16" hole.  You get what you pay for; they were expensive but worth it.  Here is the finished project:

Although the casters are too large for my taste, they roll very easily and it is turning out that the table gets moved around several times a day.  It is very comfortable to sit at.  In retrospect, it would have been possible to have a drawer as many kitchen work tables do, but I like the clean look of the spare carcase.  The stool is one I made years ago, but I will be making a new pair to go with the table.

Many hand tool woodworkers believe it is about the journey, and it is, but often it's about the destination too.  This table really enhanced our kitchen and the chef is very happy with it.  Now that we have one, I don't know how we did without it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Kitchen work table II

We decided to stain the white oak, which immediately raised a concern.  When I stain a piece after assembly, I invariably miss at least one glue spot, resulting in an ugly splotch, and I find it difficult to apply the stain smoothly at the joints. I knew that some woodworkers apply stain before assembly, something I had never done.  Doing so could potentially solve both problems, but I was concerned about whether I could glue up the base without damaging the stained surfaces.  In the end, I decided to give it a try and it worked great.  It was easier to keep the stain out of the mortises and off the tenons than I thought it would be and I managed to avoid damaging the surfaces during the glue-up.  This is something I will definitely do again.

As for the glue-up, it was surprisingly uneventful.  I am really pleased that the joints all closed tightly:

Here is what the table looks like in clamps.  Notice the cards under the clamp faces to protect the stained surfaces.

I am very pleased with this stain.  It is called Salem by General Finishes.

I am tempted to conclude that my woodworking has gone up to a new level but, in statistics, there is something called regression to the mean.  In this context it means everybody gets lucky once in a while, but they shouldn't count on it to be true in the future.  :)

One issue with staining the frame before assembly is that I have to install the lower shelf pieces later and I don't know how that is going to go.  Worst case, as long as I can touch up the stain, I think I will be fine.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Kitchen work table

With the lumber processed and the leg blanks glued up and dimensioned, it was time to turn to joinery, specifically the sixteen mortises for upper and lower stretchers.

When I first shifted to hand tools, I used a hybrid method for cutting mortises, which is an easy way to keep the mortise walls vertical and it is faster, at least for me.  Variants of it have been around since at least 1945.  The method is to drill out the mortise on the drill press and then use chisels to finish it.  If you trap the leg between two fences, only the top and bottom of the mortises need be marked:

  The overlapped holes drilled to depth with a forstner bit the same width as the mortise provide a precise guide for the chisel work.  I have been reluctant to use my regular bench chisels for this chopping, so I use these Lee Valley chisels with butyrate handles and they hold up fine:

I made the tenons in the usual way, using knife walls, a tenon saw, a router plane and a spokeshave to chamfer the ends of the tenons.  I've learned the hard way to make the tenons very tight the first time they go in the mortise because they tend to loosen up when they have been in and out a few times.  There's little danger of splitting these legs.  I have also found that if you make them "too tight" at first, it gives you the chance to make minute adjustments in the walls of the mortise if necessary for both shoulders to close tightly.  I think this is not the way you are supposed to do it, but it works for me.  The advantage over using a shoulder plane is that it give you a chance to align the stretcher properly.

I would like to get to the point that I can chop out mortises quickly entirely by hand.  My reservation has been not being sure I could keep the walls perfectly vertical.  Paul Sellers has added a simple, shop-made guide to his method for using a bench chisel to chop mortises.  You put the side of the chisel against the guide while chopping and then also use it to pare the wall of the mortise when you are done.  It seems to me that a mortise chisel is inherently more stable than a bench chisel for chopping mortises, so, if you are going to use the latter, a guide seems necessary.  I am going to give it a try.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Some projects design themselves

We need a kitchen work table, like one of these.  In consultation with the chef (aka wife), we came up with the following requirements:
  1. counter height and width, four feet long;
  2. white oak base and maple top;
  3. readily movable;
  4. able to sit on a stool to work or eat at it;
  5. as much storage as possible given other requirements.
The first two determine the dimensions and materials.  The third led me to rule out a drawer that might interfere with my legs when I am sitting at it.  It also meant that there will only be one shelf across lower stretchers.

We spent some time discussing whether to put the table on casters.  Heavy duty, American-made ones that look good are large and expensive, but I wouldn't settle for anything less, though 450 lb. capacity per caster may be a bit over the top.  In the end, we decided that being able to move the table around easily was worth the appearance hit.  I couldn't find ones with stops that I liked, so there is a risk the table will move around too easily in use.  If it does, I am going to make some custom chocks from white oak that will surround the wheels.

I also worried about how big of an overhang the table should have.  Four inches seems quite large but it is within design guidelines I consulted and will make it more comfortable to sit at.  Visually, I think it is pushing it though, because the table is only 25" wide.  I may offset it so there will be a larger overhang on one side that will be comfortable for sitting at the table.  I'll be able to judge stability before deciding. 

So, this will be a fairly simple project: a top, sixteen mortises in the legs for upper and lower stretchers and a shelf across the lower stretchers.  Basically, the requirements determined the design.

Off I went to the lumber yard, where I received sorta good news and bad news.  The bad news is that white oak is in short supply because of all the demand for whiskey and wine barrels, so it cost $7.50 per board foot and there wasn't a lot of selection.  Further, they didn't have any 12/4 stock, so I have to laminate the legs from 6/4.  The sorta good news was regarding the top.  They were having a closeout sale on prefinished laminated maple countertops in these exact dimensions for $120, compared to about $80 for material and supplies to make my own.  As I am in a hurry, I bought one.  It turns out not to have been a great purchase because when I got it home and unboxed it, one edge had been run through a jointer against the grain, resulting in both a washboard and bad tearout, and one end had checking.  They just applied finish over the top of it.  I had to cut off the end and resurface the edge, then refinish both sides.  The top surface was fine though.

The total cost of materials was $120 for the top, $170 for lumber and $80 for the casters.  Sounds expensive until you price commercially available ones of the same quality.

I ripped all the pieces to width on the bandsaw, jointed them and used the lunchbox planer to surface them because I am in a hurry.  With one exception I will describe later, the rest will be all hand tools.  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A more nuanced view of workbench height and workholding.

Workbench height is one of those subjects which is often discussed by not very well explained, in my opinion anyway.  The most common expert advice you see is that your bench should be low, around palm height.  I followed that advice, my bench was too low and I ended up building plinths to raise it up 4".  Even now, it is sometimes too low and I use a "bench raiser" that is 7" high, making the top almost a foot higher than my bench was originally.

The best discussion of workbench height that I have heard is this one by Shannon at The Renaissance Woodworker.  Begin listening at 8:30.  He correctly responds to the question of how high your workbench should be with the answer, "it depends."  He refers to his main workbench as a dedicated planing bench which is at palm height, for him 33".  He has a separate joinery bench at elbow height, 45" for him.  For some joinery, like chopping mortises, he uses his main bench, or even a sawbench.

I think he's right and, while the specifics of my three choices are somewhat different, I have ended up in the same place.  Of course, there are craftsman who do just fine working at one height and that's just fine too.  They have found a workable compromise that suits them.  My experience is that a low bench optimized for planing isn't great for other tasks.

There is a great deal of room for personal variation.  My workbench up on plinths is 38", 4" above my palm height.  I feel very comfortable planing at this height, but I am fairly strong and probably rely on my upper body more than most.  Part of the issue for me is that my arms are very long, making palm height relatively low.  I can readily believe that if I used wooden planes I would want it considerably lower than 38" though.

My bottom line is that workbench height is a matter of your body, your personal preferences, what tasks you are designing it for and probably other factors as well.  In addition, I think that you should make provision for working at a variety of heights if you can.  If you don't have room for a separate joinery bench like Shannon has,  there are still good options like bench raisers.

Shannon's discussion of workholding is good too.  As time has passed, he uses his end vise less and less, to the point that he says he wouldn't even have one if he were building his bench today, and relies on stops more and more.  This was the traditional way and I agree with his reasoning as to why it is better.  I have found the same thing.  When I built my Nicholson bench, I started off without any vise at all, but I did eventually end up putting a Veritas twin screw vise on the end, though I still rely primarily on stops and bench hooks.  I have seriously considered taking the vise off and using it for a Moxon vise on steroids that would live on the end of my eight foot long bench most of the time.

Why are stops preferable to using a vise?  It is a lot more convenient to work on a piece without having to clamp and unclamp it, the piece doesn't slip, it rests solidly on the bench and it's faster, especially if you have multiple pieces to work on.  Here is a nice description by Mike Pekovich of the stops he uses.

There are obviously other good approaches.  Paul Sellers uses his vise for most of his work and gets great results.  I just think the older, more traditional ways of workholding are better.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A rant (sort of)

I want to write about something that keeps coming up.  Periodically, prominent hand tool woodworkers will write about what they see as the utter, soul-destroying depravity of using power tools for woodworking.  I exaggerate only a little.  It is a shame that they can't confine themselves to extolling the virtues of hand tool woodworking and teaching the techniques, but this sort of thing is a sign of the times.  The best option is certainly to ignore this nonsense, but the subject bears discussion.

Only a few of us are going to go out into the woods with a crosscut saw, cut down a tree, skid it out with a team of horses, saw it into planks by hand and stack it up to dry, thereafter to resaw and foursquare it for our projects.  For the rest of us, either we will use machines somewhere along the way or someone else will use them for us before we take over.  You can't convince me that if someone else uses the machine for me, my soul will thereby be preserved.  Moreover, most of us who enjoy hand tool woodworking do use machines, at least on occasion, and that includes most hand tool professionals.  What is the right balance?

I came to hand tool woodworking from power tool woodworking, I still have quite a few power tools and I still use them, both for carpentry and in the workshop.  Nevertheless, I often think about this question and, over time, have been decreasing my use of them.  Like many, I prefer the experience of using hand tools and building my skills.

Some years ago, I sold my tablesaw at a big loss and I haven't regretted it for one single minute.  That was the break from power tool woodworking that I badly needed.  I rewarded myself with a very high quality bandsaw and I haven't regretted doing that either.  I enjoy using the new one very much and I doubt my soul would improve if I got rid of it.  In a way that I can't explain, it just seems to go with hand tool woodworking.

I have kept the other power tools I already owned prior to getting into hand tool woodworking, in part because they wouldn't sell for a lot, and I sometimes use them.  Over time, I use them less and less.  They are tucked away in the corner, the large ones on mobile bases, and don't take up much space.  I often ask myself which ones I really want to own.  After considerable thought, my answer is this.  In addition to the bandsaw, I would keep the drill press and the lunchbox planer but get rid of the router/router table and the jointer.  If I wasn't doing carpentry, I would also get rid of the chopsaw and the tracksaw.  Stored, the three remaining large power tools would take up about 6 square feet of floor space.

Why these three?  A bandsaw is the swiss army knife of saws, great for cutting curves, ripping, resawing.  It's quiet, relatively safe and doesn't take up much floor space.  The lunchbox planer saves labor and lets me use roughsawn lumber easily.  It is the power tool that I am least comfortable retaining, but I'm just not prepared to surface large amounts of lumber by hand.  The drill press is harder to explain.  I just find it handy and use it in quirky ways that I will be describing in a number of future posts.  Basically, what is happening is that I sometimes use the power tools first if there is a lot of material to process and then turn to my hand tools.  I rarely use them on small projects.

You do something different and I wouldn't have it any other way.  I do not fear for your soul, whatever you choose.  There is no right and wrong here.  I gain a lot from reading about how others strike the balance, including those that use hand tools almost exclusively.

Several years ago, I bought a very nice little book called The New Traditional Woodworker, by Jim Tolpin, which is about working primarily with hand tools.  Though hand tool centric, his shop contains a bandsaw, a dust collector, a lathe and a drill press.  This is the balance he has struck.  It is somewhat different from mine but reflects the same attitude.  Another example is the Renaissance Woodworker's shop.  Shannon works with hand tools almost exclusively, but in the corner of his workshop is a heavy duty planer and a dust collector.  As an aside, he also has a manual drill press.  I have a great old miter box.  These are machines, but they are hand operated and are a nice middle ground.

The point I am making is this.  Despite what some expert may say, there is no reason any of us should feel defensive about using power tools.  We should do what we enjoy.  To help make this point, I am going to start being more explicit about when and why I use power tools.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


With fall comes rain here in the northwest and we are on our way to an October record.  I really like to be outside on the nice days, so I decided I would have an indoor and an outdoor project going simultaneously.  I'll get to the indoor project in the next post but I wanted to write about the outdoor projects briefly first.  They are mostly carpentry but hand tool woodworking does play a role.

I wanted to have a place to keep all of my gardening tools organized and protected, so I've just finished this little shed, made from cedar fencing to keep the cost down:

It's not particularly remarkable, although it does have a handmade handle from white oak:

I really enjoy adding little hand tool touches to my outdoor projects.

Next, I wanted a grape arbor, both to help the grapes grow and bear well and to create a shady space for lawn chairs.  The big challenge was getting the dripping wet, twelve foot long 4x6s up on top of the posts without injuring myself or my helper (aka wife).  My approach was to build some brackets on top of the posts to hold the beams.  These make the structure more stable and let me lift one end of the beams into place at a time:

There are fourteen half inch bolts in the brackets.  I bored all these holes with my Yankee brace, thinking about the Bell System linemen who used them up on phone poles.  It only took a couple of holes to convince me that I needed to file the bit.  That made a big difference, like shifting into a higher gear and after that it took little more time with the brace than it would have with an electric drill.  I tried to use a handsaw to cut all the angled tails you see.  It was drizzling and the treated lumber was extremely wet, so I didn't want to use my good saws.  Instead, I used an unrestored crosscut handsaw that was passably sharp, but it just wouldn't work.  After a few strokes it would bind up so tight I couldn't move it.  Crosscut saws used for green wood have much more set and I am sure that was the issue.  I fondly recall my grandfather, who was a carpenter, often reaching for his handsaw in preference to his power saw because it was faster and better.  I am sure he winced at the way I used it, but he never said anything.  I'm now thinking I'll take a pair of the many old handsaws I have accumulated and dedicate them for use on green construction lumber.

In case you are wondering, those aren't real grapes, they are lights.  Don't say anything; my helper likes them.

That's it for the outside projects, so next I will tell you what I am up to in the shop.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


I spend little time in the workshop during the summer, so each fall I seem to go through a ritual.  I make a few small projects (this fall it was boxes) as a way of getting "in shape" and then I try to make a few shop improvements.  This fall it was clamp storage.

My clamps have been stuck here and there around the workshop, mostly on shelves.  This was inconvenient and sucked up a lot of shelf space.  I wanted mobile storage so I could bring all my clamps close to the bench for glue-ups.

The logical way to go about something like this is to do an internet search for "images of woodworking clamp racks."  When you do, you see all sorts of creative ideas that you can adapt.  Sometimes, though, I just feel like improvising on my own, sort of like a jazz musician, and am partial to making things like this with scraps on hand.  That's what I did here.

Since I wanted mobile storage, I started with an old mover's dolly I had.  I thought that an A frame would be best, partly because it would take advantage of gravity to keep the clamps in place, partly to make the rack stable and partly to minimize the use of floor space.  I started by attaching two used studs to a scrap plywood base and bracing them.  I intended to make some sort of A frame like the ones you see in the images above, but then I tried something easier and it worked.  I just nailed cleats in various places based on my clamp collection.  Here is the result:

I am amazed at how much space this freed up, the rack is surprisingly stable and it moves easily.  This was a quick project that really paid off.  I think that if you have free wall space close to your bench, a wall rack would be preferable, but if, like me, you don't, a mobile rack is a good choice.  Looking at the images after mine was already built, I see all sorts of more refined ideas if I decide to go to version 2.  Although my pair of uprights seems stable enough, it occurs to me that just making a tall sawhorse mounted on casters would be a good, quick and easy, approach, sort of like this one.

So, now it's time for a project.