Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Slab "waste"

I have always admired the native american practice of using every part of an animal they killed.  We americans generate entirely too much waste.  So when it comes to woodworking, I try hard to avoid any waste at all, which is actually quite easy.

The slab I purchased was 11' long and I used 8' of it for the table, so that left a piece 40" wide and about 36" long.  That piece didn't look right for anything as it was and it had two big knots in the flat sawn center, so I decided to rip it into two pieces, cutting out a small center section.

The near piece is clear vertical grain and I haven't decided what to do with it yet.  The rear piece has a knot and a limb coming off the side of it, which makes is quite interesting.  It is also angled, reflecting the way the tree was cut.  It had one large crack running all the way through it which needed to be repaired with epoxy.  I taped the bottom of it and then filled it from the top.

I learned the hard way that you have to overfill cracks by quite a bit.  Even then, I ended up having to fill the crack a second time about an hour after the first time.  T-88 epoxy takes a long time to set up so it was uncured.

Smoothing the epoxy isn't as bad as you might think.  I've found that a plane works just fine:

Because this fir tears out so easily, I did the last bit with sandpaper.  A problem that I encountered is that air bubbles get trapped in the epoxy, so when you smooth it small holes appear.  I think that I should have thinned the epoxy the second time I filled the crack.

I wanted rustic legs from small logs that would be attached with loose round tenons so I used a technique that I have used successfully with three-legged stools but never with four legs.  I created a 45 degree sight line and used a bevel gauge to guide a brace and bit.

This doesn't seem like it could possibly work, but it does.  The four legs were all within 1/4" first try.

Here is the final result:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Dumb but now better than OK

Recently, I knocked a quarter-inch chunk off the tip of the top horn on the handle of my Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw.  I have no excuse whatsoever.  When I do something like this, I just shake my head and wonder how I could be such an idiot.

I certainly wasn't going to leave the handle that way but I wasn't looking forward to making or buying a new handle.  Holding the handle, I noticed for the first time that it was kind of tight for my very large paw and it looked like it might be more comfortable if the horn were shorter.  With nothing to lose, I used a quarter to draw a new shape and had at it with my TFWW saw handle maker's rasp.  I originally purchased this when I was shaping a saw handle, but now I use it regularly for all sorts of things.  It's the only hand cut rasp I have and the shape and random fine teeth are perfect for shaping of compound curves.  It's a must have.

Reshaping took only a few minutes and, to my great surprise, I ended up with a handle that I like better than the way it came from the maker.

  Really.  It fits my hand better and I can't see how it detracts from the saw's handling.  I don't think it looks bad either, although maybe that's a rationalization.

I read that Lie-Nielsen finishes its handles with a wiping varnish, so I applied two coats of satin Arm-R-Seal to the repair.  As expected, the tip of the horn is somewhat lighter but I think it will age and doesn't look bad anyway.

This was one of those lucky occasions where a dumb move had a happy result.  It got me thinking.  What other tools that I have would I like to personalize?  I might even try it without damaging the tool first.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Krenov sawhorses

Recently I decided to make a new pair of sawhorses to replace the traditional ones I made years ago.  I wanted them to be suitable for use with handsaws as I don't find sawbenches to be satisfactory.

As I often do, I started by searching for online images and was immediately attracted to a design by James Krenov.  They are functional and handsome in my opinion.  I really appreciate great design like this and knew I would enjoy seeing them in my shop as well as using them.

Of course, I had to put my own spin on them.  Since it is a felony in Oregon to build sawhorses out of anything other than douglas-fir, I used kiln dried 2x6s for my version.  I experimented with the height and decided that 29" was about right.  Here is what I came up with:

The sides are mortised into the bases and the stretcher is connected with wedged through tenons.

They nest together nicely so they don't take up much floor space when they are not in use.

 A nice feature of these sawhorses is that the stretcher can be used for a shelf, which I think will be very handy when I am assembling and finishing smaller projects.

To me, they are strong and look great.  I've tried sawing on them and am very pleased.  They were fun to build in about a day.

As I was building these sawhorses, it occurred to me that they would make a great project for an entry level course in hand tool woodworking.  Douglas-fir is inexpensive and easy to work.  The joinery is varied and moderately challenging.  They would serve as a good introduction to tablemaking.  I wonder if that is part of the reason Krenov designed them the way he did.  I've seen pictures of his school and notice that each of the students seem to have a pair at the end of their bench.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Stanley 200 honing guide

We were passing by an estate sale the other day and stopped to take a look.  The guy was a hoarder and there were boxes of junk scattered around the yard.  Something caught my eye and, when I picked it up, it appeared to be a vintage Stanley honing guide, though I had never heard of it.  I took it to the seller, offered him $5 for it and he asked me what it was.  I told him what I thought and he immediately went on Ebay and found one for $110.   I am sure I could have bought the entire box for $5 and, of course, I didn't have to tell him what it was, but that's me.  Obviously irritated, I put it back and he promptly told me he would take $5 for it.

So, here is what it looks like after I cleaned it up:

It's got some light pitting on the roller that doesn't affect use.  You can alter the angle of the blade either by varying how far it protrudes from the guide or turning the acme-threaded rod on the roller.  One of the things that intrigued me about it is that it is long enough to let you have the roller off the sharpening medium.  I like this idea because I use diamond paste and it keeps the roller from being contaminated:

I sort of assumed it wouldn't work very well because you don't read about them and, so far as I was aware, there is only a cheap modern version that is anything like it.  However, I tried it out on this plane blade and it worked really well.  I've got the roller a little low in the picture, but there is a lot of flexibility in how you adjust it.  I wasn't sure how well the thumbscrews would work, but they held the blade securely.

Now I'm wondering why a guide like this seems to have fallen out of use.  I did some research and it appears that it wasn't popular because the sharpening medium has to be a uniform thickness or the angle will change.  That isn't a problem with diamond stones, plates and paste or sandpaper but it was a problem with oilstones.  Some woodworkers seem to really like them.  I think it is a keeper.

Here is an interesting video by a luthier who has developed a similar guide that he uses with waterstones.  One of the advantages he claims is that it keeps him from gouging a very soft 8000 grit waterstone he uses.  The way he uses it to polish the back is interesting too.  

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Oregon is on fire

As I write this, hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon are on fire and some of them are minimally contained after months of effort.  The one that saddens me beyond words is the fire at Eagle Creek in the Columbia Gorge.  This fire is near Multinomah Falls and many other falls along the beautiful Columbia River Historic Highway. Two teenage boys were tossing fireworks over a cliff along a trail.  Nearly 5,000 acres have been consumed so far, a number of communities have been evacuated and Oregon's only east/west interstate has been closed.  The fire is within a few feet of the historic Multinomah Falls Lodge and right next to the falls.  I go there to hike often.  It is a very special place to me, a place that calls me back again and again.  These were huge old trees, trees like the one that gave me my slab table and it will take a century for the forest to come back fully.  I will never see it as it was again.  Our house is about fifty miles away and we woke up to ash everywhere, the remnants of what used to be.

What can be done?  Here, nothing other than replanting.  There will always be a few teenage boys who do things like this.  I think the Forest Service can be faulted for not closing the area but this would have been hugely controversial.  It's hindsight.  Many of the other fires were caused by lightning strikes.

There is a bigger and more fundamental issue and the solution is beyond dispute.  Forest fire is a healthy and natural part of forest life here.  Experts study old growth forests and they see that there were several natural, low intensity forest fires every decade.  It can literally be seen in the trees and we can see the positive impact thereafter.  These fires remove brush and the "ladder fuels" that allow the fire to climb to the tops of the biggest trees and they thin the forest.  A century of putting out forest fires and not removing the overstocked trees and brush mechanically has created a situation in which the fires are so hot and intense that everything is destroyed.  You go to ponderosa pine forests in eastern Oregon where the brush has been removed and then "controlled burns" have been conducted at optimum times in late spring and just marvel at the health of the forest.  Contrary to what many environmentalists believe, this is what a natural forest looks like, not the overgrown tangle you see in many pictures.  I have seen old pictures of untouched forests in Oregon and they don't look anything like the ones we admire today.

I owned 40 acres of second-growth douglas-fir in southern Oregon that was tangled and choked.  The trees were way overstocked so they couldn't grow well and were susceptible to disease.  A forest fire would have moved through at unbelievable speed.  I did a lot myself and hired fire crews on standby to do the rest.  You just wouldn't believe what happened.  The remaining trees were "released" and they starting growing vigorously.  Forest health improved dramatically.

The people at the Forest Service understand this and they do as much of it as their budget allows, but it is a pittance compared to what is necessary.  We are willing to pay thousands of workers to fight forest fires but not to clear brush and remove ladder fuels in our national forests so fires can be beneficial.  This is what our Congress has done.  Tragic.  I so wish we would take care of our national forests.

Update:  Read this to be utterly disgusted.  Two fires have merged and the total is now 31,000 acres.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The slab is done

Having used the bottom as a learning experience, I enlisted some neighbors to help me turn the slab over and repeated the process on the top.  It was extremely time consuming and challenging.  There is a reason that people who do this commercially use a router sled.  I ended up removing 3/4" of material on a slab that is 40" wide and 8' long.  In the end, a power hand plane and a belt sander saw a lot of use.  I regret this but, by coincidence, learned that Chris Schwarz does the same thing for his Roubo benchtops.  His stock is half the width of mine.

Why do you have to remove so much material?  A slab like this will almost inevitably twist and cup.  Across its width you have vertical grain changing to flat sawn and back to vertical grain.  It basically has to cup.  The wild grain pattern associated with the huge knots almost guarantees that the slab will be "wonky."  That is its beauty.  During the course of this project I came to understand that there is an entirely different aesthetic at work here.  The cracks and knots are part of the tree's story.

I elected to use Arm-R-Seal to finish the slab, brushing it on the bark and using a cloth on the top.  I didn't want the "plasticky" look that you often see, the result of a thick hard finish.  Here is the result:

I am very pleased with the result.  It is unique and has character.  This is about as rustic as you can get short of just using the rough sawn slab as is.  It's certainly not for everyone.  Welcoming cracks, pitch pockets and knots is kinda weird I admit.

I got the ultimate compliment from the cable guy as I was applying the finish.  He admired it and said, "It looks like it belongs in a brewpub."  As it happens, I am a big fan of brewpubs and knew exactly what he meant.  Douglas-fir is our state tree, it played a central role in our history, it is fundamental to the beauty of our landscape and we like to keep it close.  Same with draft beer.  You can travel the world but you won't find a beer better than an Oregon IPA made with our own Cascade hops.  This table is going to see a lot of it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse for Woodworkers

Before I share an image, some background is in order.  We are avid fans of the Portland Timbers MLS soccer team.  Our team mascot is a lumberjack named Timber Joey.  After every goal, he uses a chainsaw to cut a slice off a large log and then he holds it aloft.  After the game, the slices are awarded to the players who scored the goals.  The goalie is also given a slice for a "clean sheet," meaning no goals scored.

A fan named Brent Diskin tweeted a graphic image combining this familiar event with the eclipse.  Here it is:

Original tweet

Maybe you have to be a Timbers fan to like this a lot, but I think it's great.  I am sure it is destined to become a t-shirt and I want one.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Slabs part 3

The first issue I faced was how to go about flattening a 37" x 96" slab that had cupped and twisted about 3/8".  This is an awful lot of material to remove and a very large area to get flat obviously.

The technique I settled on worked fairly well.  Using long winding sticks, I got the ends of the slab in the same plane using both hand planes and my Makita power planer.  Then I used a 8' long straightedge and the same tools to connect the ends along the sides.  This left me with a rectangle around the edges of the slab that was in the same plane. Finally I just used a  straightedge side to side along the length.  It worked.

That left me with a slab that was quite flat but with a lot of cracks and knots and substantial tearout.  This is the point at which you want to use epoxy to fill in the cracks and knots.  I chose to use T-88 epoxy, which I had on hand, because it disappears under varnish and dries very slowly.  The problem I encountered is that it dried so slowly that it got absorbed and the level would drop below the surface.  In places it ran completely through the slab onto the floor.  To remedy this, I taped the cracks and knots on the bottom and overfilled the cracks and knots but the epoxy would still soak in so much that I had trouble maintaining with absorption.  Finally I mixed fine sawdust into the epoxy and this solved the problem.  I am not sure how else to do it.  I think a faster setting epoxy might be better.  It was a lot of work taking the overfilled epoxy down to the level of the slab.  The epoxy fill actually turned out much better than I expected.  Especially with the sawdust, it blends in quite well and looks good.

As I wrote earlier, I couldn't figure out a good way to deal with all the tearout.  The hand tool that worked best was a cabinet scraper but it took forever because of the depth of the tearout.  I finally gave up and turned to a belt sander, which I haven't used in years.  I got better at it eventually and, by keeping it moving, I was able to smooth the slab without introducing too must unevenness.  I started with the bottom, so I am hopeful that I can do better on the top.  What I may do is use the belt sander to get as close as possible and then spend a lot of time with the cabinet scraper.  If you know of a better way, I 'd like to hear it.  As I have told you, a plane, no matter how sharp, will simply not work because of the soft douglas-fir and the swirling grain.

The epoxy fill actually turned out much better than I expected.  Especially with the sawdust, it blends in quite well and looks good.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Slabs part 2

As I wrote previously, I had a relatively easy time surfacing the first side of my big slab but anticipated that it might move with 3/8" of thickness removed and continued drying.  Boy was I right.  It cupped and twisted significantly.  It's really not that surprising because the slab probably had a ton of weight on it as it was air drying for over a year but, with that gone, the slab was free to move.  We've had very hot dry weather here so, even with the endgrain covered with paraffin, it's drying fairly fast.

I had turned the heavy slab over to the rough side, so I decided to work on it first and got an unpleasant surprise.  The now much dryer slab was decidedly more prone to tearout.  Cracks had opened up and these tended to widen with anything but straight on planing.  With all of the twists and turns in the grain, especially around the big knots, planing with the grain was impossible.  I sharpened my planes very carefully but nothing I tried could avoid deep tearout.  Finally I just let it tearout and then used a belt sander for final surfacing.  Not very satisfying, but it worked.  I was able to avoid all but one dip with the belt sander.  The slab is currently 2 3/8" thick so I have removed 3/4" of material!

Douglas-fir is obviously not the ideal species to make a table slab from because it is so soft and prone to tearout.  However, this is what we wanted--it is after all the Oregon state tree--so we just have to accept its challenges.  I've come to understand that a 37" wide live edge douglas-fir slab with lots of knots in it isn't going to resemble fine furniture and that this is part of its aesthetic.  Now that I look at these slabs in pubs and restaurants more closely, I see that they are all that way.

I almost went over to the dark side.   Surfacing this slab clearly showed why the standard way is attractive.  If you build rails along the sides of the slab and then make a sled for a powered router to ride in across the slab, you can get a flat slab with little or no tearout and not a whole lot of hard work.  I didn't do this, but it was at the cost of many hours of hard work and a slab that isn't perfectly flat, although it's close.  Once I get this side done, I have to turn the slab over and do the other side again.

This project has turned out to be far more challenging than I thought it would be.  Just about everything I thought would work didn't.  Looking back, I should have done more research.  So, in the interest of saving you from my fate, I am going to go over some things I learned in the next few posts.

Monday, July 3, 2017

This is boring.

I have several excellent braces and a complete set of vintage Irwin pattern bits that a friend gave me, but I rarely use them for woodworking.  I use them regularly for carpentry because the bits work great in douglas-fir but the lead screws won't draw the bits into hard woods like oak.  I had been toying with purchasing some new Jennings pattern bits from Tools for Working Wood, though at $32-43 apiece they aren't cheap.  Then the other day we stopped at a garage sale.  I was walking back to the car when my wife said, "Did you see these?"  I hadn't:

Inside was a neat little three layered box:

and when I opened it, I found a complete set of Russell Jennings auger bits in great condition wrapped in tissue paper:

I paid $30. Online prices are all over, so I don't know whether this is a good deal or not, but I am pleased to have the set.

An interesting and puzzling, to me at least, sidenote is where the 32 1/2 comes from.  The bits are graduated from 1/4" to 1" by sixteenths and, if you add up the thirteen bits, the sum is 130/16.  Dividing the numerator and denominator by 4 yields (32 1/2)/4.  Odd.

I don't know a great deal about auger bits so I have been doing some research.  The bits I have are Model 100 RJ, which means they have a double-threaded lead screw and are meant for woods "not extremely gummy or hard" according to the label. The Russell Jennings company also made a 101 which, according to a label I found online, have a "single thread point for quick boring which is especially adapted for hard or gummy woods, end grain boring, mortising doors, etc."  The label indicates that the 100s are the ones used by cabinet makers and that the lead screw is the only difference between the two versions.  There are conflicting opinions about the relative merits of the two types and I cannot find a head to head test online.

I happen to have one auger bit made by the Russell Jennings Company some time before 1944 when Stanley acquired it and think it is interesting to look at the three varieties of size 15 (15/16") bits side by side:

You can see that the original Russell Jennings bit on the left and the Stanley version in the middle have many more twists on the shank than the Irwin bit on the right.  I have no idea which one will clear chips better but it does seem as if the Russell Jennings bits might be stronger.  Now, take a look at the lead screws close up:

The Irwin bit appears to be much coarser, but this is misleading because the Stanley Jennings pattern bit next to it has double threads.  Imagine two of your fingers tracing a spiral next to each other.  What this means is that the screw actually penetrates the workpiece at twice the rate as appears from looking at the threads.  Doing the best I could with my fingernail, I got 7 revolutions on the Irwin lead screw, 6 on the Russell Jennings bit and 5 1/2 on the Stanley.  I also tested this by boring holes in a piece of alder with similar results.  It took 15 revolutions to get through with the Irwin but only 13 1/2 and 13 with the Russell Jennings and Stanley bits respectively.  These results are consistent with others I have seen online.

The next test I conducted was to see if they would bore a hole in 5/4 dry white oak.  The Irwin and Russell Jennings bits did fine but the Stanley stalled.  Looking at it, it appeared that the threads on the snail clogged up.  I then used a trick that Bob Rozaieski shared.  I bored a hole in the alder just to the depth of the lead screw and covered the threads on the lead screw with green honing compound.  Then I threaded it into the hole and worked it back and forth several dozen times.  I re-attempted to bore a hole with the bit and it worked fine.  Clearly the snail needs to be clean and polished to do its job well.

So what's up?  It's not clear to me whether one design is superior to the other.  I cannot provide a technical explanation of the relative merits of double threaded and single threaded snails on auger bits.  The most important thing seems to be to make sure they are tuned-up very well.  Looking back, I think the problem I had with the Irwin pattern bits in hardwood was a result of maintenance not design.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


For some years, my wife and I have wanted a large slab table.  I made a douglas-fir base a long time ago, but I never could find a slab 36" wide at a price that was remotely reasonable.  That changed a few weeks ago when I saw a Craigslist listing by a guy with a small mill near me.  I drove up and was amazed at what he had.  First of all, he had a great dog:

He cuts the slabs on a chainsaw mill on steroids:  23 hp and a 6' cutting width.
 He has trees slabbed and neatly stacked with stickers everywhere you look.  Some of them were amazing, long wide slabs of maple that were almost completely burl, if you can imagine that.  However, I was after douglas-fir and he had lots of it.  I imposed on the guy to show me lots of them:

Finally, I found the one I wanted, 3" thick, 37" wide and 11' long.

Problem was, my pickup bed is only 6' long, just over 7' with the tailgate down and we had to go home on an interstate, but what the heck.  I hadn't really thought through what we would do when we got home with an approximately 300 lb. slab, so here's what we did.  We backed right up to my workbench:

Then we rolled if off on dowels:

I cut off 3' so the tabletop will be 8' long.  Never having tried to flatten anything anywhere near this big, I started with a scrub plane but it was just way too much for me, so I turned to some power tools:

Yup, that's a belt sander and a power planer.  I used them only for initial flattening.  Then I filled cracks and voids with epoxy and turned to planes and a cabinet scraper.  After quite a while, this is what I ended up with:

This picture doesn't convey how massive the slab is, so remember that you are looking at 24 sq. ft.!  It also doesn't reveal all the swirling grain around the knots, which is really beautiful.  I removed 3/8" of material, partly because it took me a while to figure out what I should be doing, so I am thinking that the final table top will end up around 2 3/8" thick.  It's not perfectly flat, but is within 1/32".  This is what I hope is the bottom of the table, but I don't know for sure because the slab is so heavy I can't turn it over to find out.  For that I am going to have to round up the neighbors.  Barely noticeable in the picture is that I sealed the end grain with paraffin by melting it and painting it on, which seems to be working.

This slab had been drying for over a year and feels quite dry, but it has a ways to go.  My plan is to flatten both sides and then let it dry in the garage for the summer months before resuming work on it in the fall.  That probably means I will have to do some more flattening but I have plenty of material.  I just felt like doing some work on it now.

The bark is all there and I have decided to keep it, so it's going to be challenging to figure out a way to finish it.  I put spray polyurethane on the bark of the alder coffee table I made and it is holding up, but the bark on this table will have a lot more contact with people and chairs.  The good news is that this bark is a lot stronger and more stable than the alder bark.  Over the summer I am going to try some experiments on scrap pieces of bark.  One thought I had is to thin epoxy and paint it on.  I've read that you can heat it up or dilute it with alcohol to thin it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sharpening and Shaving

I remember one of the first woodworking classes I took years ago, a half-day on sharpening and using card scrapers. It began with a scintillating hour of the instructor, a graduate of a prestigious school, demonstrating his skill, in order to establish his bona fides perhaps.  Then we were told that every surface, the edges and the sides, of our scraper needed to be polished to a mirror finish.  We spent 2 hours on this highly stimulating task then, with an hour to go, we were shown how to burnish, waited our turn at trying and found that our results weren't great for some unknown reason or reasons.  As best as I can remember, none of us received any constructive criticism.  Then we were bid adieu.  Puzzled, I went back to sandpaper and I suspect most of the other students did too.

Polishing the sides of your scrapers to a mirror finish can be very useful, because that way you can use one of your finely honed plane blades to shave right in your workshop without needing a shaving mirror.  Which brings me to another subject.  I am happy if I can get my plane blades and chisels sharp enough that they will shave hair off my arm, which you don't need a mirror for.  I know that some woodworkers think this is not good enough and that the hair should "jump" or "fly" off your arm.  I once accidentally got one of my plane blades this sharp and it scared me.  I was afraid that a blade this sharp would make the shavings jump off the workpiece and hit me in the face or eye, and I don't wear a face shield when planing.  That could cause a lost time injury.

A while after the scraper class I took a class on sharpening plane blades and chisels taught by a foreman at a local high-end woodworking business.  He does all the sharpening for his crew.  One of the things he did was prepare a new chisel.  He flattened the back on a belt sander, went to a grinder to create the bevel he wanted and finished off on a diamond plate, all freehand.  The entire process took less than 5 minutes.  This class was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the scraping class; it emphasized the practical and wasted no time.   I don't recall a single jig. We all left with tools that weren't great but were usably sharp.  I do considerably better than this now, but it was a good starting point.

We all have to decide where we want to be on this spectrum.  Experiences like this turned me into a rather slovenly woodworker.  As a result, I don't flatten the backs of my chisels all the way to the handle, I use the dastardly "ruler trick" on my plane blades, I can't see my reflection in the sides of my scrapers ...  I could go on, but you get the idea.

In case you're wondering, I did eventually learn to sharpen and use scrapers.  When enough time had passed after the class for my inferiority complex to die down, I spent a few minutes watching Youtube videos, gave it a shot, then another and another, each time trying to figure out why things got better, or didn't.  Eventually I got the hang of it.  I really like scrapers now.  They usually make shavings but they aren't usable as shaving mirrors.  That's the way I like it.

There are woodworkers that are really into sharpening.  For some, it seems to be almost a meditative experience.  There is nothing at all wrong with this and I am in awe of them, in fact somewhat envious.  Really.  I wish I could lose myself in sharpening the way they do.  Instead, I ask myself whether the extra sharpness results in better woodworking.  How long do these superior edges stay sharper in practice?  I suspect not very long, but I don't know.

Calculus taught me to see processes in optimization terms.  As your tools get sharper your woodworking gets better, first rapidly, then more slowly.  You reach a point where extra effort isn't worth it.  That's my mental model, which has its own limitations.

As for classes, what you learn in classes is partly a function of the skill of the instructor as a woodworker and partly a function of his or her skill as an instructor.  This will sound arrogant, but I could teach a much much better class on sharpening and using scrapers than the one I took, even though I don't have near the skill with them.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hand tools and wood species

The other day I was listening to Bob Rozaieski talk about the best hardwood species for working with hand tools and he listed off the species favored historically, mahogany, walnut, cherry ...  He also talked about white oak being hard to work with hand tools.  I already knew this, but it resonated with me because I have been working with white oak a lot lately, mostly because I have that pickup load of white oak scraps that I bought a while back.  It's hard.

Here are some Janka hardness numbers to make this point quantitatively:

Mahogany       800
Cherry             950
Walnut           1010
Red Oak        1220
White Oak     1335

I am building a prototype of some tea boxes that I will be making as Christmas gifts and without thinking about it had grabbed some pieces of white oak.  I have gotten used to it so I wasn't really thinking about how difficult it is to work.  For some tools, like chisels, it's no big deal.  You just have to sharpen more frequently.  Some operations are really challenging, plowing grooves being one of them.  I was trying to plow 1/8" grooves 1/8" from the edge of thin boards.  Since I only have one plow plane, sometimes I was plowing with the grain and sometimes against.  The latter wasn't going well at all.  Even if your blade is sharp, the white oak tries very hard to leave a very ragged edge.  A knife line is the only way around it I know of.

I had some cherry, so, just for grins, I decided to try it for comparison.  What a difference.  I know this is obvious, but I had forgotten how dramatic it is.  The cherry seemed almost like paper.  It was a lot of fun to work with after the white oak.  Although I like to use up stock I have on hand, I think I am going to keep the white oak in reserve for projects that really need it.  There are a lot of projects where white oak's strengths are very valuable.  Tea boxes aren't one of them.   


Monday, May 29, 2017

My last shop stool post ever--promise!

I continued to struggle with this project because I felt very strongly that I was onto something, but I just couldn't get it right.  I can't design anything without making a prototype or, in the case of this shop stool, multiple prototypes.  It was getting really aggravating.  Then Gerry made a  comment on my last post:
Andy: How about a circle for the base, with the seat pedestal set to one side. If the base was 1 1/2 -2" thick you could ease the bottom front to accommodate rolling forward as well as right and left. A dense hardwood might give the weight needed to keep it upright.   
Even though I didn't want to do exactly what he suggested, Gerry's comment was the insight I needed and I knew immediately what I did want to do.  My prototypes taught me that my ideal stool would have the wooden bicycle seat mounted on a long thin stem and Gerry's idea was that it should be attached to a heavy round object at the base.  I retrieved a 10 lb. weight from my weightlifting machine, drilled four counterbored holes in it, cut off two short pieces of 2x4, grabbed a scrap of closet rod, drilled two 1 1/2" holes and there it was, exactly what I had been groping for all this time:

I know this is arguably ugly, but it works great and does have a certain modernist appeal.  You really have to work at it to knock this stool over and the rounded edge on the weight lets it move easily in all directions.  It's very comfortable and allows a wide range of movement.

This one doesn't incorporate height adjustment because I knew exactly how high I wanted it to be, but it wouldn't be difficult to add.  I am not sure if this is a coincidence, but the height I chose by feel is exactly 1/2" less than my inseam.  The important thing is that your knees be slightly bent.

This sort of active stool, as I have called it, is obviously not for everyone.  The bicycle seat is ideal because you can move around without sliding, but you probably have to be a bicycle rider to appreciate this.  For me, though, it is the ideal shop stool, just what I wanted.

I look at it now and can't understand what took me so long.  Now that I can see it, this design seems so obvious that it is almost embarrassing that I floundered around.

I am done.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bob Rozaieski

Many of you will recall Bob Rozaieski's Logan Cabinet Shoppe website and the excellent videos he produced (they are still available here).  Bob has since moved to a homestead in southwestern Virginia where he teaches classes, builds and restores furniture and maintains a new website with a lot of interesting information.   He also has a radio podcast series which you can subscribe to here.

For those who don't know of Bob, he is very involved with pre-industrial revolution furniture, including the design standards, hand tools and construction processes of the time.  I got involved with hand tool woodworking because of his outstanding video series on building a Porringer tea table with cabriole legs.  He is an excellent instructor and took the time to go step by step so that folks like me with no skills could make a beautiful traditional piece.  Bob is one of the two or three woodworkers that I would really like to take an in-person class from.

In a recent episode of his podcast, Bob talks about power tools in the hand tool shop.  I listened with great interest and it surprised me that my conclusions are generally similar to his.  I won't summarize them here because the podcast is well worth listening to, but I do want to comment about one thing he said which really surprised me:  He is thinking about buying a combination jointer/planer.  I was frankly astounded because Bob is so committed to using vintage hand tools that I cannot imagine him using one.  I was tempted to email him and ask him if he fell off the roof of the cabin he is building and hit his head.  :-)  In his defense, he does say that he would not use it for period pieces he builds, but only to avoid the drudgery of preparing a lot of stock for other projects.

Bob isn't the only prominent hand tool woodworker to reach a conclusion like this.  Shannon at The Renaissance Woodworker bought a large stationary planer, which I think is his only power tool.  I am not sure, but I think someone prepares Paul Sellers' stock with machines off camera.

Bob certainly has the skill to prepare all of his stock with hand tools to high standards, no question about that.  I can do it too, though with less proficiency.  However, it is time-consuming and tedious.  After the early satisfaction that came from learning the techniques, it quickly became drudgery for me. Others may feel differently, but I don't enjoy it.  I think this is the reason many hand tool woodworkers turn to machines for stock preparation even if they don't use them for anything else.

The problem is that these jointer/planer machines are very expensive, really heavy and have large dedicated space requirements.  The changeover is somewhat time consuming, especially if you have to remove then reattach the fence.  Spiral cutterheads are very desirable but they add a lot to the cost.  Taken together, these issues are enough to make me decide I won't buy one.

So where does that leave me?  I currently have an older lunchbox planer that I use all the time and I regard this as the bare minimum.  I also have a 6" jointer that I rarely use; it's not worth having in my opinion.  6" is too narrow and it isn't all that hard or time consuming to roughly hand plane one side of a board flat enough to run through a planer, which I am forced to do a lot anyway.  Alternatively, Shopnotes published plans for a sled that allows a planer to be used for jointing which looks good to me.  That is something I might build someday.  So my decision is, get rid of the jointer but keep a planer.  I will probably upgrade to a better one with a spiral cutterhead at some point though.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Dusting a garage workshop

This is my best shot at making you laugh and shake your head.  I do both each time I dust my shop this way.  At a minimum, it is unorthodox, at maximum it is absurd.  How did this start?  I was getting frustrated one day because countless dust nibs were interfering with my feeble attempts at finishing.  In desperation, I opened the garage doors, fired up my blower and blew the whole garage out thoroughly.  Then I let a fan run for a few minutes and, to my surprise, the dust was gone.  I guess you can put this down as one advantage of garage workshops.  In my defense, it does take two minutes.

The best way to deal with dust is to have a separate area for hand tool woodworking that is walled off from machines, sandpaper, and other sources of fine dust.  For a variety of reasons that I won't bore you with, that isn't feasible in my case, so this is what I am left with.  Rescue me from my perversion; tell me a better way.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Garage workshops part 3

With my hand tool area in the right bay done, for the time being anyway, it was time to turn my attention to the remaining two bays.  The first thing I did was put the camping gear and bikes in the back corner where they would be out of the way but accessible.  I have built a shed for my garden tools and equipment, but I keep a few here in the front corner for convenience.

I have an old Craftsman workbench and rollaway that I put near the handtool area.  It contains wrenches and supplies for the most part but I use the tops of both for a sharpening area.

That left the rest of the space for workshop storage and my remaining woodworking equipment.  The familiar generalization that with hand tools you bring the tool to the workpiece while with power tools you bring the workpiece to the tool has big implications for how a shop is arranged.  With hand tools, you want a big workbench in the center and your tools stored around it where you can reach them easily.  With power tools you want the tool in the center with enough space around it to accommodate the largest workpiece you anticipate.  Because I don't have enough space to dedicate an area to each power tool, I have to have them on mobile bases so I can wheel them out into a common work area.  That is what I did with my router table, jointer and chopsaw, the tools that I wouldn't replace and may sell:

This area in front is also a place where I can use my tracksaw, and do assembly and finishing on sawhorses.

I placed my miter box and chopsaw end to end facing rearward so they can share space for long boards.  Commercial shelving works great as bases for both:

I never stop thinking about how I can best arrange my garage for woodworking.  If you spend a lot of time in your workshop, it's an effort that pays a big return.  I hope this series of posts is useful to you and I hope you will consider doing something similar, as I am always looking for good ideas.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Garage workshops part 2

Matt commented on my last post as follows:
I have wall shelves in my garage shop and my tools (and everything else on those shelves) get very dusty. I never thought a tool chest would be a good idea because you have to move so many things to get at the tool you need, which just happens to be at the bottom. Can you comment on your experiences with this?
This is a question many woodworkers considering a tool chest have.  I know I did.  The short answer is that I have not found this to be a problem at all.  A longer answer follows.

My shop is not dusty. I intend to share a video here showing why.  It may make you laugh and perhaps cringe but it works.  Nevertheless, I would not store many of my best tools on shelves.  We have had 54" of rain in the last six months, so rust is a concern.  I think you need a mixture of storage types and there are a lot of items in a garage woodshop that do just fine on shelves, but most tools are not among them.  To store mine, I am an enthusiastic advocate of tool chests.

I originally chose a tool chest over wall cabinets because I knew I was going to be moving and my tools would be in storage.  Another reason was that my garage at the time lacked suitable wall space for cabinets.  I had serious reservations about tool chests, the two most important being about bending over each time I wanted a tool and the same concern about ease of access that Matt has.  Bending over turned out to be a non-issue because the tool chest was approximately six inches off the ground on a dolly I made so I could move the chest around easily.  It's just not a problem, especially because my planes are on the bottom of the chest and they are easy to grasp.  I did eventually make a higher platform to place my chest on, mostly to demonstrate how to overcome that objection.  I keep it because it gives me storage beneath the chest and I don't need mobility, but it is not necessary at all.

Matt's issue concerned me a lot.  I pictured myself constantly sliding tills around to access my tools. I tried to address this by making the tills removable.  I thought I would lift them out and put them on the bench when I was working.  In practice, I never do, because working directly from the chest is so convenient.  I can take just a step or two to access my tools in the chest.  Two tills can be exposed at a time and, in any case they slide easily and quickly on waxed maple rails using three fingers.  It has become second nature and I am no longer even aware that I do it.  I know some woodworkers remove the tools they are going to be using at the beginning of the day and put them on or under their bench on a shelf, but I don't.  It's just as easy to put them away.

Like Matt, I don't want to paw around looking for a tool.  You can minimize this by making shallow tills, making custom holders for your tools that make them easy to access and using the inside of the top.  I made three tills of different depths but, if I had it to do over again, I might make four.  For many of us, tool chests can be quite deep to accommodate them.  My opinion is that you can determine the maximum depth for your tool chest by measuring the distance between your armpit and the second knuckle on your forefinger.  

Tool chests have incredible density.  Usually about 3'x2'x2', they store an amazing amount of tools in just 12 cubic feet.  Their mobility makes them ideal for a small shop and being able to close them quickly when not in use protects the tools from dust and moisture.  You could even easily dehumidy your tool chest if you wanted to.

Here are some pictures that illustrate these points.  Mostly planes on the bottom:

The bottom two tills:

The top till:

All three tills and my saws in place (very secure for travel):

Shop made tools on the lid:

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Garage workshops

There isn't much question in my mind that the ideal situation for a workshop is a separate building built to purpose.  Well-insulated, lots of natural light, high-ceilings, wood floors ... the list goes on and on.  If there was a suitable place on my suburban lot, exactly that would happen in short order.

Reality for many of us is different; woodworking happens either in the basement or in the garage.  I am luckier than many in that I have a three-car garage, but it has to accommodate four hobbies-- gardening, tent camping, biking and woodworking--as well as the usual paraphernalia for home maintenance.  (The cars stay in the driveway.)  Woodworking gets the lion's share, but the space is just plain awkward.  It's not big enough, there's not a lot of available wall space, it can be too cold and there is almost no natural light when the garage doors are closed.  These are issues faced by many woodworkers and I hope this discussion will be useful.

Here's the garage from the street:

The two bays on the left are 20' deep and the one on the right is 24' deep.  The overall width is 31'.  The ceilings are 9 1/2' high.

My bench has been on the right side behind the single door since we moved here almost 4 years ago and I  am keeping it there.  One goal I have is to store everything I use regularly at the bench no more than a step or two from it.  I've been short on accessible storage next to my bench, so the first thing I did this spring was build floor to ceiling shelves along the right side of it:

60 lineal feet of shelves was a big improvement, although I do have to use a ladder to reach the top shelf.    An alternative favored by many is to install wall cabinets for tools, which would look nicer but not be more functional.  My personal preference is shelves.  They cost very little, are quick to build and have a lot more capacity.  Extending them to the ceiling allowed me to secure them to the top plate.

  On the left side of the bench, I have my tool chest and an antique butcher block that I will be using as a joinery bench.  I raised it up to be 38" off the ground.

This let me put my main bench back down to palm height, 35" in my case.

The flooring is utility mats made from recycled tires that I got at a ranch store.  As far as I am concerned, they are ideal because they create a vapor barrier, are easy on the feet and protect dropped tools.

Working at the bench in good weather is great because I can put the garage door up and have lots of natural light.  Because the garage doors lack windows, the shop feels like a dungeon when they are closed, even though I have half a dozen LED fixtures.  I had hoped to replace one section of the door with one that has windows, but neither the manufacturer nor the local distributor would consider it.  The best they can offer is a brand new door with the top two of four sections containing windows, at a cost of $1,200.  I am considering it but it aggravates me to replace a perfectly good door.  Right now I am thinking about building my own replacement section using polycarbonate for windows.  It looks like I could just unbolt the existing one and bolt on a replacement, using the existing steel supports around the perimeter and the same hinges.  I think I could keep it light enough to operate properly.

I'd really like to have no power tools in this space, but the deeper bay, electrical connections and other issues don't allow it, so I put the three power tools that I would replace if they failed in the back:  my bandsaw, drill press and power planer:

On the right, I have more shelves that are used primarily for hand power tools, paint and home maintenance supplies.

I am pretty satisfied with this section of the garage.  Once I solve the natural light issue, the remaining challenge will be heat for the winter months.  I'll post about that later.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Portable work bench part five

With the bench and toolbox done, I began thinking about what tools to put in it and how best to store them.  I tried to go about this the "right" way by sitting down and making a list of the tools I want to take camping, but it just didn't work.  The list would just keep growing and I couldn't visualize what would fit.  In the end, I went to the shop, put the tools I thought I would want on the bench and started trying to figure out what would fit.  Little by little, tools got put away until these were left:

I am sure the list will grow and change over time, but these are the ones I settled on:
  • dovetail saw, crosscut backsaw, flush cut saw and fret saw
  • #4 bench plane, router plane and fence, shoulder plane
  • set of chisels
  • spokeshave
  • mallet
  • small combination square
  • hook rule
  • eggbeater drill and bits
  • marking gauge
  • screwdriver
  • measuring tape
  • double-sided diamond stone
  • scrapers and burnisher
  • mechanical pencils
I started by making holders for the saws, planes and eggbeater:

I had a canvas tool roll and this works well for a spokeshave, chisels, a marking knife and gauge, a screwdriver etc.  The mallet can be loose:

I put the smaller tools into the top tray:

A final verdict will have to await field trials but I think this project is a success.  At minimal cost, I have a travel toolbox and bench that seems highly functional and versatile.  The big issue is working height, because 12" on top of a picnic table is on the high end.  If it's too high, I will try it on the seat instead.  Another possibility is to use legs and anchor them to the table so they wouldn't tip and slide.

My hope is that others will come up with their versions of a portable workbench and toolbox too.  The only other one that I am aware of is the Milkman's workbench that Chris Schwarz built.  I don't like it at all, but it does have the advantage of solving the working height problem.  You could make a separate toolbox instead of having a single unit like I made.  If you got rid of the vises and just made a laminated top I think it could be quite nice.