Monday, April 30, 2018

Stickley Sideboard, Part 4

With spring weather finally having arrived, work on the sideboard has slowed to a snail's pace.  There are just too many things to do outside.  I have however made some progress.

The drawer's are supported by what Chris Schwarz calls a "web frame:"

It's made of a secondary wood, poplar in my case, pine in his.  It is glued to the front stretcher and rests on cleats along the sides.  There is a gap along the back to allow for seasonal wood movement (recall that the grain on the sides is vertical).  An unusual drawer divider is fastened to the front of the frame and the bottom of the top front stretcher (removed in this picture).  It is also fastened to the rear stretcher.

The grain is vertical so it will move with the sides.  This is new to me and I will be interested to see how it turns out but, in principle, it seems like a good idea.

The carcase is just about done.  All I have to do is put in the bottom shelf and attach the top.  While I was working on this, the offcut from the curved front stretcher caught my eye:

The original has a rectangular backsplash but this just looks so good to me I am seriously considering it.  The rectangle is just boring:

I'm torn because I really want to stick close to the original Stickley design.  I wonder what Harvey Ellis would say.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Stickley sideboard, carcase glued-up.

The carcase is glued-up so you can now see some of the construction details that are interesting:

The only major hiccup was that I cut the curve in the front stretcher upside down.  The reason is quite complex:  when a board has an arrow on it pointing up and you turn it over, it points down.  :-(   In this case I got lucky and it still fit.

I deviated from the plans in a major respect.  They call for the legs to be 2 1/4" by 1 3/4", the wider dimension to the sides.  This is because the outside of the legs are supposed to taper to 2" at the top and to 1 5/8" at the bottom.  I don't like the idea of a 1/4" taper on the top at all and I decided not to do it.  I also don't see why the bottom has to be that wide.  Therefore, I decided to make my legs 2" square and taper the bottom to 1 1/4", a slightly more pronounced taper on the bottom.  This is a matter of taste and I like my choice.
As I mentioned previously, the sides are somewhat unusual in that the grain is vertical, therefore parallel to the legs and flush to their insides.  Simply glued in place, they are flush to the inside so the drawers can slide against them.  This has a lot of advantages as the top and sides will move together.  As I wrote before, I am not that concerned that the stretcher is perpendicular because, as you can see, there is plenty of room between the sides and stretcher for the legs to flex.

Before the top can be put in place, the support structure for the drawers has to be put in place.  The plans call for a "web frame," something new to me.  Basically a rectangular figure eight attached to the carcase, the drawers run on it and it supports a center divider.  The center divider is screwed to the top stretcher as well.  To make things easier, the top, dovetailed stretcher isn't installed until the web frame and the divider are in place.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Stickley sideboard, part 2: carcase joinery

There are 12 mortises in the carcase of this sideboard (the rear stretcher has twin mortises and the top front stretcher is dovetailed):


The sides are missing for a reason.  The Stickley design was to glue the sides onto the legs with the grain parallel to the legs and top.  This means the grain on the sides is perpendicular to the lower stretcher but Schwarz observes in his article that he has never seen an original where this is a problem.  I think this is because there is enough distance between the sides and the stretcher that the leg can flex enough to absorb the seasonal movement.  Good enough for Stickley, good enough for me.

As is my custom, I drilled out the waste and then used a wide chisel to pare them smooth.  Since these mortises are narrow (1/4") and deep (1 1/4") they were a little more difficult than usual but things still moved along nicely.  In this case, I opened up the hole with a 1/8" chisel and then pared the sides with my thin, wide Wm. Butcher chisel, which was ideal for this purpose.  The holes provide precise guidance and it goes quickly.

Some frown on this method and I did make an attempt to move away from it at Christmas time but, alas, both the Lee Valley PM-V11 mortise chisel and the Ray Iles chisel were out of stock.  Fate I guess.  I experimented with the Paul Sellers method of mortising with a bench chisel and it went fairly well but I found that I was invariably a degree or two off.  That's too much so I would have had to pare the mortises anyway and Sellers' recommended method of using a guide doesn't appeal to me.  I'm not sure but I doubt my method is much slower than using a mortise chisel unless you can reliably get them dead on with no adjustment.  In any case it is extremely accurate.  The dovetailed mortises in the top of the front leg were made by hand in the usual way.

The tenons were all made with hand tools, sawing the shoulders, chiseling off the waste and refining them with a shoulder plane and a router plane.  Because the mortises are so accurate and uniform, it goes quickly.

I think a lot about what I view as a minimum set of power tools that I could be happy with.  I'm down to three:  a drill press, a bandsaw and a lunchbox planer.  One of the nice aspects of my choices is that they can all be on mobile bases and require very little space--maybe 6 sq ft. when not in use.

Now it's on to fitting the sides, putting the curve in the front stretcher and tapering the legs.    

Monday, April 2, 2018

Stickley sideboard

I have always been an admirer of Stickley furniture, in part because of the style and in part because it was made near Syracuse, NY, close to where I grew up and went to college.  In case you are not familiar with him, he was a leading proponent of American craftsman furniture, an offshoot of the British arts and crafts movement.  Inspired by Harvey Ellis, his later efforts evolved into very graceful, lighter designs incorporating curves and tapers.  There is a copy of the Stickley 1909 catalog online that contains hundreds of his pieces.  They are timeless classics of American design.

I have wanted to make one of his pieces for some time and, although I like many of them, have been particularly attracted to his sideboards.  I especially admire the #802, which you can see on page 67 of the 1909 catalog.  Arts and crafts furniture can be somewhat severe but the graceful curve on the lower stretcher and the taper in the legs makes it much more attractive in my opinion.  This style is what I like.  Nothing is extraneous, it is free of embellishment, it celebrates functionality.

Chris Schwarz made one for a Popular Woodworking article some years ago and the magazine has made free plans available.  Although he made his in cherry, I decided to make mine from white oak, which is traditional.

I don't often work closely to plans but this will be an exception and I am going about it differently than I usually do.  The first thing I did was glue up and cut all the pieces in the cutlist to near final dimensions and do all but final smoothing.  Cutting every component to near final dimensions upfront goes against the idea of measuring as little as possible and getting dimensions wherever possible from the workpiece itself, although not entirely.  I tried to make up for it by ensuring that all of the pieces that need to be the same length or width are.  If this works, it will definitely be a lot more efficient.

This is all rift-sawn white oak, which results in a particularly nice appearance for the legs.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nightstands done

I finished the pair of sapele nightstands and gave them to my son for his birthday.  They came out better than I had reason to expect since they were learning exercises built with no plan at all.  Basically I built the stands around the drawers I made, the dimensions of which were based on scrap pieces on hand.

There are a couple of things worth noting about them.  First, I created a uniform shadow line around the drawers with a chamfer and I really like the way it looks.  The chamfer is slightly larger on the bottom to produce the uniform look.

Second, this sapele looks really nice to my eye.  I like the wavy grain and the color is distinctive.

With no plan there was bound to be a surprise along the way.  There wasn't room to attach the top in the usual way as there was only 1/2" between the drawer and the side.  I handled this by attaching the back with a cleat and epoxying a series of 1" long pieces to the sides and top.  This can be done because the grain on the sides and top run in the same direction.  I am nervous about this but I did test them and they appear to be very secure.  Time will tell I guess.  I'm not sure how to avoid this with this design except to use thicker legs, which I don't like.

You either like simple, clean designs like this or you don't.  They are my favorite.  They let the wood do the talking and celebrate function.  To my eye, any embellishment would take away from their appearance.  I am even somewhat ambivalent about the brass knobs.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Nightstands, part 2

With the the sliding dovetails connecting the front stretchers to the legs made, I turned my attention to the sides.  One thing that concerned me was how well Titebond III would work on sapele.  Because it is oily, I wiped it down with alcohol (I don't use mineral spirits in my shop) and glued it immediately.  I banged on it fairly hard and the joints seem sound.

I really wanted the sides to be precisely square so I shot all four sides.  The never-ending debate about bevel-up vs. bevel-down planes will never end but I do think that a low angle bevel-up plane has a distinctive advantage for use on a shooting board when planing end grain on a wood like sapele.  I was concerned that the low angle would lift the grain on the other sides, but it didn't.

To my hand, this plane is much more comfortable to use on its side than a bevel-down plane because the frog and blade assembly gets in my way.

The glue-up was uneventful:

Here's what the two cabinets look like, ready for runners and drawer fitting:

Sapele is really starting to grow on me.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


The four practice drawers that I made in an effort to improve my half-blind dovetails turned out well enough that I decided to make something they would go in.  The fronts were sapele because the last time I went to my hardwood supplier they had a few boards at clearance prices and I bought one out of curiosity.  I returned to buy some more for this project and was surprised to see very high quality boards available at an attractive price.

I knew little about sapele other than that it supposedly tears out due to interlocked grain, so I was expecting the worst.  So far, the opposite is true.  I don't know if I got lucky or if this issue is overstated.  There is some tearout but it is very shallow and easily removed.  Since it is as hard as white oak, I was expecting it to be as difficult to plane, but it isn't.  If you look in the comments on my last post you will learn why; it is hard but only about as dense as walnut.  The wood has a pleasant hue and a wavy ribbon grain pattern.  It's in the same family as mahogany and is from tropical Africa.

I decided to make two bedside stands to hold the drawers, relying on sliding dovetails on the fronts.  I hadn't made these before and didn't know what to expect but it isn't real difficult.  Part of the reason is that I cheated.  I took a wide board and created tails on my router table.  Then I ripped out the individual pieces.  Lazy, shame on me.  :(   Next time I will saw the shoulders and create them with a chisel, a technique I saw in an online video.  If the joint is not wider than your wide chisel it seems very straightforward to me.

I made the sockets [?] on the legs by hand with saw and chisel.  The problem I have with seeing marking knife lines didn't happen because if you mark over the lines with chalk and rub it off you are left with a very distinct mark that is easy to follow.  It worked so well that I am going to look for a color that will show up on lighter wood.

I judge the results to be very good but not excellent.  Some prominent woodworkers wax ecstatic over their results, using words like "pristine" and "perfect."  Mine aren't and I wouldn't say that anyway even if they were but I am pleased with how they look.  I think a sliding dovetail on the front of a piece looks really nice.

The cross pieces have yet to be planed, the reason for their rough appearance.  Sliding dovetails make a structure that is extremely strong and rigid.  The drawer depths were determined by the scraps I had for sides but I think the proportions look quite nice.

By the way, the best video on making sliding dovetails I found online is this one.  His have a really exaggerated taper.  I didn't see a need to taper mine as they are only 1 3/8" deep but they are very tight going together and a slight taper would have been nice.  Any deeper and a taper would be mandatory.  This is a real advantage of using hand tools instead of cutting the tails on the router table like I did.

I design and build projects like this in my head with no plan on paper at all because I think it's fun, weird as that may seem.  I have no explanation for this depravity and, of course, I know it makes no sense.  There is a sort of thrill in taking the risk that I can figure my way out of seeming dead ends.  Oh well.

Now I have to make another one.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

More on working white oak

Bob Rozaieski has now followed up on his podcast response to my question with a detailed written post on techniques for working white oak with hand tools that I find very informative and useful.  Highly recommended.

I don't have a lot to add to his suggestions.  In addition to keeping your planes very sharp, I have found a cabinet scraper to be particularly useful on white oak as a way of avoiding tearout.  I find that even a sharp plane will tear white oak out sometimes.

One of the points he makes is absolutely true.  Quartersawn white oak is much much easier to work than flatsawn white oak, to the point that I consider the latter unworkable with hand tools.

Another reaction I had to his post is if I ever run across one of those machines he pictures I am going to buy it.  Not sure what I will do with them, but I would definitely like to have one of each.  I think I recall Roy Underhill using something like this on one of his shows and it looked fun.

Given all of the challenges in working with white oak, why bother?  It really is a very nice species with many desirable qualities.  It's strong and durable, finishes well and looks really nice.

As I'll describe later, I am currently working with sapele for the first time.  It has approximately the same hardness as white oak and yet it is much easier to work.  I don't understand this so, if you do, please explain in the comments.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A small tweak to my Moxon vise

I've written why I regard having a Moxon vise as indispensable even though I view a bench vise as optional.  Mine lives on the end of my 8' bench.  It stays there most of the time but I do sometimes need to take it off and want to be able to do so quickly.

Traditionally, Moxons were held in place with holdfasts and that is what I have been doing, though that hasn't been entirely satisfactory to me.  Besides tying up two holdfasts, the vise does rock slightly and the less steel I have around my saw teeth the better I like it.  It suddenly struck me that I have a split top on my bench that I could take advantage of.  I found a large carriage bolt, drilled a hole in my vise and, voila:

I have two bench dogs in place that keep the vise from twisting.  Those and the bolt keep the vise rock solid.  To remove it, you loosen the bolt and slide the vise off.  Although I need a wrench to remove it, that doesn't bother me and I could buy a large wing nut if I wanted to.  A wooden screw would be nice.

I am still bothered by the fact that I am using the version I made with bar clamps as opposed to my "nice one" with acme screws that sits on the shelf.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Bob is right

On a recent podcast, Bob Rozaieski talked about efficiency with hand tools and one of the subjects he covered was choice of wood species.  He advises staying away from white oak and hard maple.  I know he's right.  It was brought home to me recently as I was doing some learning exercises so I could cut better half-blind dovetails.  I used scraps, sapele for the fronts and douglas-fir for the sides and back.  I have been working with white oak a lot recently and this was so much easier and more pleasurable I could hardly believe it.  The fact is that woods like mahogany, cherry, walnut, pine, poplar and even soft maple are much easier to work with hand tools.

The problem is that there are sometimes good reasons to work with white oak.  I really like arts and crafts furniture, much of which is best in white oak.  In addition, white oak has properties that make it very desirable, like for the outside table I made recently.  It rains a great deal here in the northwest and white oak's rot resistance is important.  I like the way white oak looks too; it seemed just right for the kitchen work table I made recently.

I did ask Bob about it and he responded at some length on a subsequent podcast (beginning at about 10:30) with a number of good ideas that are worth your while.  Nevertheless, there is just no getting around the fact that white oak is difficult to work with hand tools.

I have been thinking about how to reconcile the difficulty of working white oak with the fact that it is very desirable for some projects.  For starters, there are projects I have used white oak for that would be as good in a species easier to work.  My days of making small oak boxes are mostly over.

I am going to increase my use hybrid techniques for some operations when I am working white oak.  I will still use hand tools for many operations.  Sawing, making mortise and tenon joints, jointing are examples of things that hand tools work just fine for, though I do drill out the waste in my mortises.  The things that I have found most difficult when working white oak are making grooves, dadoes and rabbets.  It would be one thing if I had pairs of plow and rabbet planes so I could always work with the grain, but that's not going to happen.  Working against the grain in white oak with these planes is sometimes too difficult and/or time consuming and it's not very enjoyable.  It can be done, I've done it, but it's laborious.

This is only speculation, but I wonder if this last issue is one reason arts and crafts furniture is traditionally made with quartersawn white oak.  My experience is that it is a lot easier to work with than flatsawn material.

I like Greene and Greene style box joints a lot and that keeps you from using secondary woods for drawer sides.  Recently, I used vertical grain douglas-fir for half-blind dovetails, which I like a lot, but it splits very easily.  I dislike poplar because of the greenish cast in what I see at my supplier.  Alder is plentiful and inexpensive here and I think that will become my secondary wood.  It's hardness is comparable to poplar.

One of the things that puzzles me is why white oak was preferred in the arts and crafts era.  Was it because power tools were becoming more available?  Was it because it was affordable?  Was it an aesthetic choice?  Bob points out that most of the mortises in arts and crafts furniture were made with machines.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Half-blind dovetails, part 2

My test joints turned out well enough that I decided to go ahead and finish the drawer, which I will find a use for at some point.  I did find that very careful fine-tuning made a difference but some small gaps remained.  I used a filler of glue and sawdust to fill the gaps and this is what I ended up with:

Pretty good, could be better. The best way I have found to fill small gaps in dovetails is sawdust and shellac and that's what I will go back to in the future.

Here's how I think I can improve:
  1. I need to make further progress on precise, crisp marking out of the pin board but in a way that produces a line I can follow;
  2. Although I have made significant strides, there is always room for further improvement in sawing technique.  
I decided that I would try to use a marking knife but then find some way to highlight the knife line so I can see it.  After a number of unsuccessful experiments, I settled on putting a chisel in the knife line and drawing a line with a .5 mm mechanical pencil along the back of it.  Here's what it looks like under magnification:

After all of the fumbling around marking out dovetail pins that I have done, this simple and obvious solution seems like it is going to work. I think it is better than the masking tape trick or any other method I know of. Quicker too.

Here's the result:

This is dry fit off the saw and chisel and is a significant improvement. Further improvement depends on sawing accuracy, so this is what I am focused on.

I ran out of wide scraps, so I had to start making shallower drawers:

If I could make them this well on a consistent basis, I'd be satisfied.

Now I have two wide drawers and two shallow drawers and nothing to put them in.  May have to think of a project.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Half-blind dovetails

I have written about my lack of enthusiasm for through dovetails for many, certainly not all, applications.  I only use through dovetails in applications where maximum strength is the highest priority, like my travelling toolbox,  but I don't think they look that great, especially on the off-side.  My understanding is that this was the consensus historically.

However, my opinion doesn't apply to half-blind dovetails.  They seem to me like an ideal way to get both great appearance and strength in many more applications than just drawer fronts.  Half-blind dovetails block the "box joint" side of through dovetails while preserving their strength.

This appreciation of half-blind dovetails led me to see if I couldn't become more proficient in making them.  I decided to make at least one every day for a week as a start.  I don't presume to offer a guide to making them because there are plenty from experts but will instead describe my experience and offer some supplemental observations.  If you prefer tips from an expert, try this and this.

Before I get into the details, an observation.  I have always thought of half-blind dovetails as more difficult to make than their through cousins, but it doesn't seem to be the case.  They take longer, but that's about it.  Maybe it's me, but slight gaps don't seem to look as bad as they do on through dovetails.  There are probably multiple reasons, but one is that you only see one side of the tails.  It's true that you can only saw out half of the pins but that doesn't seem to be a big deal.  Chiseling out the waste in the pin board isn't much more difficult than it is for through dovetails.

There is nothing different about the tail board except that the tails are shorter, so there's no need to discuss it.  The usual considerations apply.

For some reason, marking out the pin board has been a real struggle for me and, now that my sawing has improved, this is the major source of inaccuracy in my work.  It's the reason some my first attempts this week were poor.  Perhaps it is declining eyesight, but just using a marking knife hasn't worked for me.  Pencil hasn't worked for me either.  Sawing a bit away from the line and paring to fit is extremely time consuming and tedious.

After my poor first attempts, I used the masking tape trick and it worked better, but it is time consuming.  This was the method used for the test joints you see here and, despite the improvement, I believe it is the primary cause of the remaining inaccuracy.

For some reason, sawing the pin board for a half-blind dovetail seems much more difficult to me than for a through dovetail, but it isn't.  I've puzzled about this.  It may have to do with the fact that it sort of forces you to start at the front, create a kerf across the top and then saw down the line.  The mistake I make the most is sawing a bit beyond the gauge line into the web.

Chopping out the waste isn't all that difficult.  It can be a bit challenging if the grain dives.  One thing I've done in the past if I was making a lot of joints is use a forstner bit in the drill press to remove waste down to depth, which creates a reference, but I am not doing that for this exercise.  I do think that using the drill press the way Rousseau does in the video link above speeds things up a lot if you are making a number of joints.

My first effort:

Notice the gap at the front of the tails.  On my second effort I was careful to make sure the tail board was up tight when marking out the pins and to make sure I didn't move the scribed line when chiseling out the waste:

There is one significant gap and I don't know why it's there.  It could be a sawing error but my guess is that it has to do with marking out and cutting to the blue tape.

More later.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

More on portable woodworking

My trip away from the rain here in the pacific northwest is now over and it's time to assess how my evolving portable woodworking setup worked.

I recently made a base for my portable bench, described here, so it could be freestanding.  When we arrived at a nice campground in the desert, I took it out, put the bench on it and ... took it off five minutes later.  The benchtop was only about four inches lower than it is on a picnic table and wasn't nearly as stable.  I had wrongly gotten away from my original concept, which was a compact bench/toobox that would take up little space and could be used on a picnic table.  A picnic table has mass and stability so you get a rock solid work surface.  If you want more of a true portable workbench than this, you should make a Moravian travel bench like OK Guy did.  As for me, there is always a picnic table available when I want to use my portable bench and I'm tall enough for the height to be fine.  An alternative you might consider is making a somewhat taller portable bench that is designed to sit on the seat of the picnic table rather than the top.  That way, you would have more flexibility to choose the height you want.

I made another mistake too.  Unlike in the past, I went way overboard with the tools I took.  It was ridiculous.  Because I was going to be away for some weeks, I somehow thought I needed to bring every tool I might possibly want.  That was silly.  If I wanted a full complement of tools, I should have stayed home.  All these tools were heavy and cumbersome, a major production each day to get them out and put them away.  I didn't use most of them.  In the future, I will go back to a modest tool set.

Those were the misses, but there were some hits too.  I had taken rough lumber to prepare by hand and I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy I was able to achieve using my picnic table bench.  I normally take a hybrid approach to stock preparation in my shop, using my Millers Falls miter box, ripping on my bandsaw, jointing the edges by hand and roughly flattening one side with handplanes before turning to my lunchbox planer.  It took a lot of work and calories but I achieved equivalent results by hand, a real confidence booster.  Fun too.

The big surprise came when I started to cut dovetails.  I sawed with considerably more accuracy than I ever have before and I am not entirely sure why.  It happened consistently enough that I don't think it was a fluke.  There are several possible explanations.  I had my Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw sharpened by Bob Rozaieski recently and this was the first time I used it.  It starts easily and cuts better than it ever has, including when it was new.  The second thing is that I unloaded the saw absolutely as much as I possibly could, to the point that there was almost no weight on the teeth throughout the cut. The final thing was that the height of the bench on the picnic table meant that I could stand upright while sawing and still keep my arm horizontal.  It is an extremely comfortable sawing position.  I think the answer to why things went so well lies in these three factors, though I don't know how to sort them out.

Portable woodworking may seem like a fringe activity that you wouldn't want to try, but it's a lot of fun.  Being outside in a nice natural setting, fresh air, sunshine ... is very pleasant.  Life sometimes takes you away from your workshop, so the choice is to take a break from woodworking or create a portable option.  There are expedient options that would work just fine.  You could make a "bench raiser," out of construction lumber, get yourself a couple of canvas tool rolls and use any available container to carry your tools.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Shout out to Mike Siemsen

I only know Mike Siemsen from his blog and occasional videos but I am very impressed.  Mike is one of those people who are highly accomplished in some area but are smart enough and unassuming enough and good enough at communicating that they can share their skill very effectively.  I have never seen someone explain how to flatten a board better than this:

My son went to college in Northfield, Minnesota and Mike's style is what I associate with that state (yes I know this is ridiculous).  Maybe it's the extreme cold there that causes people to not expend energy unnecessarily, but they have a way of getting to the point without a lot of excess verbiage or showiness.

You may think that you already know how to flatten a board, and many of us do, but did you learn nothing at all from this video?  I think of my son, who is interested in woodworking but has no background.  Could I show him this video and then let him try it himself on his own?  Yes I could and, if he asked me how to flatten a board, I'd do exactly that.

Someone commented amusingly that this is the best advertisement for jointers and planers he'd ever seen.  It's true that I don't care to do this on a regular basis, but it's also a basic skill that is very valuable and sometimes you do need to do it.  As he says at the end of the video, most of us don't have a very wide jointer, so being able to flatten one side of a board is an essential skill.  This is where I am.  I have a 6" jointer which I hardly use at all but I do use my lunchbox planer exactly the way he suggests.

Here is another one of his videos on workholding without a vise that I really like:

Again, most of us have vises so this might seem irrelevant, but knowing these methods of workholding without a vise is extremely valuable.  In my opinion, despite Paul Sellers' many outstanding skills, a weakness is his overreliance on a vise.  This video is a useful antidote and it shares techniques I use often.

I frequently read and hear that woodworking as a hobby is declining because younger generations are not picking it up the way mine did.  That's a real shame.  The approach that people like Mike Siemsen take provides a viable entry path that is affordable and achievable.  I wish he would create a subscription video service or offer more videos like the one on building a basic bench.  The expense of travel and lodging is a barrier to the best alternative, which is to take classes in person from people like Mike.  Videos may be second best but they are a great alternative.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Keep your bevel up--or down.

I wrote recently that I decided to take my Veritas low angle smoother as the only bench plane in my travelling tool kit.  The main reason for this was that I have a set of four blades from 25 to 50 degrees and a toothed blade.  I reasoned that I would be able to accomplish a wide variety of tasks with only this plane.

In fact, the plan worked.  I was making drawers and preparing the stock by hand.  I could use a 25 degree blade for the end grain and a 50 degree blade for the face of the douglas-fir I was using for sides to avoid tearout.  Look at the tight shavings that it produced:

I could readily adjust the mouth in only a second.  The major downside was that I had to keep changing blades, which was kind of annoying.  You can in fact do woodworking with this as your only plane.

Based on this, you may expect I will now argue that bevel-up planes are the way to go, but that isn't the case.  Because of all the tearout I experienced with the slabs I was working on recently, I became a lot more sophisticated than I was with adjusting the mouth and chipbreaker on my vintage bevel-down planes and I am reasonably sure I could have accomplished equivalent results with them.  I'm not certain, but I suspect you can get a higher effective angle with a chipbreaker than the 62 degrees you can get with the Veritas plane.  The fact that it takes more time to adjust them isn't really an issue in a shop because you can have several set up differently.  You can have ten for the price of the Veritas plane and extra blades.

The one area where I think the Veritas plane is superior is end grain.  Lee Valley says, "(i)ts low cutting angle of 37° minimizes fiber tearing, making it ideal for end-grain work."  I think that's true.  I was actually getting full width shavings on end grain, something I haven't figured out how to do with a bevel-down plane.  I have also found that it is much more comfortable to use on a shooting board than a bevel-down plane.  This isn't to say that you can't do great endgrain work with a bevel-down plane because obviously you can.

My bottom line is this.  You can get great results with either type of plane if you have the necessary skills.  I think the bevel-up planes may be slightly easier to learn to use.  When I am at home, I keep the Veritas plane set up for end grain work and use my bevel-down planes for most other purposes save for occasionally dealing with tough tearout.

I feel very fortunate to have these vintage planes:  #3,4,5,5 1/2, 6, 7, 10.  The only one I don't often use is the #6.  I wouldn't dream of parting with any of the others.  Same with the Veritas smoother.  I suspect that if I got into wooden planes I would feel the same way about them.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Veritas plow plane

I have owned this Veritas plow plane for some years: 

It's a great tool.  Like all Veritas products, it is beautifully made with precise machining.  There's a skate, a fence on two shafts held in place with collets, a thumbscrew to hold the blade in, another to hold it down and a third to adjust it.  On the other side is a depth stop held in place with a final thumbscrew.

It's a great tool but, it does have a few issues.  The fence rods fit so tight on mine that it is hard to adjust them accurately, even though they are pristine and lubricated.  I view this is a reasonable price to pay for a fence that stays precisely parallel and deal with it by tapping on the end of the rod or on the fence with a small mallet to adjust the fence.  You have to cinch the thumbscrews down quite tight or they will loosen from vibration during use and this can damage the groove.  Some users complain that the collets don't prevent the fence from slipping but I think this is user error.  Tipping the plane out causes the groove to wander inward, putting a lot of force on the fence and causing it to move.  Finally, there were problems with the depth stop slipping on early models like mine, but Veritas corrected this with a new stop and it doesn't slip.

My initial results with this plane were awful.  The key to using this plane is to keep it precisely vertical all the time and I struggled to do that.  I ran into a great rep from Lee Valley at a show, and he told me to put on a secondary fence.  I did and it really helped.

It turned out that the main advantage of this fence was that it gave me a good hand position.  The key to keeping the plane  vertical is to use your rear hand to push forward ONLY and your side hand to push in ONLY.  For me, the handle is wrong because it is above the fence.  If I just push on it with my palm, I have a tendency to tip the plane over.  Of course, my giant paws don't help.  The auxiliary fence solves this problem for me:

Narrow and/or thin stock presents challenges, so I came up with a jig that I am quite happy with:

By lining the workpiece up precisely with the 1" side of the jig, I am able to keep the plane vertical on thin stock.  For thicker pieces of stock this isn't necessary and standard workholding methods are fine.

I encountered a final issue when working with white oak.  If you are plowing against the grain of the wood, it can tear out along the edge of the groove quite badly.  The best solution, of course, is to buy a left and right hand pair of these planes,  but at $285 apiece that's a little spendy.  Taking very thin shavings at first and using a mortise gauge to sever the fibers on the surface are two ways to address this.

It has always been possible to make narrow rabbets with it but now wider blades are available.  They also now make tongue cutting blades and beading blades in different sizes.  I expect to be trying them in the future.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Packing up

We're about to take a long trip, so I am preparing and packing up the tools I want to take.  One thing I'm doing before we leave is to make sure all the edge tools are very sharp, so it has been a bit of a sharpening marathon around here the last few days.

The last time I traveled with tools, I took two double-sided diamond stones and a strop.  Since then, the stones came loose from the plastic backing plates, probably because I used WD-40 as a honing compound and it penetrated under the plates, but they are still flat.  On a lark, I made this base to make sure they don't flex:

This is the antique Stanley honing guide I used last summer.  Don't know if I will use it on the trip, but it's fun to have.  I glued wet/dry sandpaper to the plywood to keep the plates from slipping and it works.

Since I don't have a lot of space in my travel chest, I thought long and hard about what tools to take.  Of course, it depends on what I intend to work on, but I seem to be settling in on a standard tool set.

I chose to take the LV bevel-up smoother because I have five blades for it, from 25 to 50 degrees plus a toothed blade.  A Stanley #4 would be better in some ways but the Veritas plane is very versatile and being able to change blades and the mouth-opening quickly is an advantage.  The rest of what you see there is a router plane, a plow plane, a shoulder plane, an egg beater, a dovetail saw, a crosscut backsaw and a tool roll with my chisels, a spokeshave and other tools.

I'm still filling the top tray:

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A base for the travel bench

A while ago I made a small travel bench that contains an integrated tool chest.  I designed it to be clamped to a picnic table in order to make it compact for travel and stable in use.  While I have enjoyed using it, the downside is that you don't always have access to a picnic table and it's just too high for some tasks.  After reading about the Moravian travel bench that OK Guy made recently, I decided that I needed to have some sort of base for mine as an option.  With twenty-twenty hindsight, I might have built a Moravian bench too; I just didn't realize how compact they are when knocked down and how quickly they can be set up.  Nevertheless, my travel bench does have some advantages, as I'll describe below.

My criteria were that the base be very compact for travel and sturdy for use with hand tools.  I chose the Krenov sawhorses I made recently as a starting point.  Essentially, I just tried to create a wide, ruggedized version of one of them, not really knowing if it would work or not.  I started by making these side assemblies that transfer force directly from the sides of the bench to the ground.  They are mortised together and have a cleat on the top to attach the benchtop:

Then I added four stretchers held in place with pegs, eight of which do double duty by pinning the mortises:

One of the reasons I designed it this way is that things like suitcases fit easily within it for travel, so it takes up very little extra space.  

Recall that this is what the bench/toolbox looks like standalone:

The base is designed to allow easy access to tools during use:

Even with the vise attached, all of the tools are easily accessible:

How does it compare to a Moravian bench?  I'd say it's different. It can be used without a base, it doubles as a tool chest, it may require somewhat less space for travel and my base design sets up even faster.  I think the Moravian bench may be somewhat superior in use, particularly for larger workpieces.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Workbench personalities

Many of you will have seen this series by Christopher Schwarz.  It is amusing and perhaps of some value as a cautionary tale for those about to build a bench.  I have a different take on this subject though.

Woodworkers have explored the design of workbenches exhaustively over the centuries.  Like the foods of different cultures, they all have something to offer and, based on personal preference, each of us likes some more than others.  Some of this has to do with the tools we use, the projects we build, the space we have ... but personal taste plays a big role.

I chose to build a traditional Nicholson workbench and I couldn't be happier with it.  I like it for its historical significance, its ingenious design and its solid functionality, and I also like the look of it.  Roubo?  No question it's a great bench with a lot of advantages, but I don't like it.  Mostly, I am put off by some of its proponents.  A workbench is not a piece of furniture.  This is not a lot different from the fact that I prefer London to Paris.  Scandinavian benches?  Haven't used them, don't know.  I like the food though.  Moravian?  Ditto, although I haven't had the food (but I'd like to try it).

When I try to look at the subject objectively, I think it comes down to this.  A good hand tool workbench is really really solid, has the right dimensions and is good at workholding.  It's made from readily available materials that are reasonably priced.  Most of the rest is taste.

Not much to say about solid.  My bench goes thump and it does not slide.  So will others of many different designs.  The heavier the better.  Workholding?  Good ones of many different designs are just fine.  I'm an outlier, but I wouldn't have a bench vise again.  I like the Moxon.  I like the Nicholson skirts for vertical workholding but I am sure a sliding deadman works fine.  Dimensions?  It's got to be a good fit for you and some of us are pretty sensitive to them.  For me, 22 inches wide, 8 feet long and palm height is just right.  Materials?  Oregonians should make theirs from douglas-fir.  Buy local if you can.

I think I could be happy with any bench that satisfied these criteria.

I am about to build a basic workbench for my son, who doesn't have time to do a lot of woodworking right now but has an interest.  It will be one of two designs.  My first choice is the basic Nicholson bench designed by Mike Siemsen.  I can't say enough good about this.  It's cheap, easy and highly functional, a really great first bench.  You won't like the other one, which is based on the first bench I ever built.  I would construct a base from douglas-fir 4x4s mortised together (though you can use Simpson brackets like I did years ago) and put a top on it made from three layers of 3/4" baltic birch plywood.  Five feet long is all he has room for.  It would stay dead flat forever.  This is a much better bench than you might think.  You can make either of these benches in a weekend.

So, I guess I have revealed my workbench personality:  unpretentious, plain, functional, solid. dependable.  Whole grain wheat bread, not croissants and not Danish rye.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Now that I have finished making Christmas gifts I have started thinking about new year's resolutions, which I do annually.  Though it's fair to be skeptical about their value, I think making resolutions is a useful exercise which, at the least, can do no harm.

I think there are three criteria for judging your woodworking as an amateur:

  1. enjoyment experienced
  2. projects completed
  3. skills developed or improved
I did well on 1 and 2 last year but 3, not so much.  I enjoyed building a number of projects but I mostly relied on skills I already had.  I can't say that I really developed or improved my skills significantly, even though there is lots and lots of room for me to get better.  Here is what I propose to do about this during 2018.

  1. Stop buying tools and spend more time developing skills with the ones I already have.  I am sometimes like the golfer who thinks he is one club away from being really good.  It would be better for him to work on his swing.  I have more than enough tools and really should go a year without buying any, not even one.  Just like the golfer who should spend less time playing and more time on the practice tee, I need to step away from projects more and just work on skills.
  2. Focus on my weakness.  Here in Portland, we are soccer crazy and we have a superb player whose glaring weakness is his left foot.  It makes him much easier to defend and sometimes keeps him from making the most of opportunities.  Why doesn't he spend the offseason focusing on it?  Because it isn't a lot of fun to work on your weakness and he has learned to compensate with acceptable results.  Same thing in woodworking.  My worst weakness is finishing and it shows.  The fact that I dislike it a lot is both cause and effect.
  3. When something is almost but not quite right, stop and figure out why.  To continue with the soccer analogy, some players make good entry passes that sometimes work out but great passes would unzip the defense and make a huge difference.  Good enough is not good enough.  A clear example from my woodworking is a mortise and tenon joint that almost but doesn't quite fit.  I tell myself I can close it up with a clamp or by drawboring.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it almost works.
I actually think that when you reach what I'll call the journeyman stage, 3 is the most important and more or less incorporates the other two.  If I would do this consistently, I would enjoy woodworking more, build better projects and develop my skills.  This isn't complicated so it's just a matter of forcing myself to do it.  Just like losing those holiday pounds!

There is, of course, no reason that you should care about my resolutions, but maybe they will get you started thinking about yours.  Maybe we should have a contest and give away a nice tool for the best resolutions.