Thursday, January 30, 2014

Barbershops and mortises

One of my earliest memories is going to the barbershop with my father on a Saturday morning.  It was a long, narrow storefront with a dozen chairs on one side and a single barber on the other.  Most of the chairs would be filled, though not everyone was there to get a haircut.  A single lively conversation that included everyone would be taking place on a wide range of topics, though usually focused on the weather, crops, politics and the new car models.  Everyone seemed to know whose turn it was to get a haircut next and who wouldn't be getting a haircut that day.  The barber was a showman and the haircut itself was a ritual with elements everyone knew by heart.  My favorite part came at the end.  The barber would dispense aromatic mentholated lather from the machine that kept it warm, apply it to your neck with a practiced gesture of the thumb, select a straight razor from the cabinet and strop it carefully on a big belt hanging from the side of the chair, before deftly shaving your neck.  Lacking hair on their necks, kids didn't usually get this part of the ritual, but one day the barber asked and I quickly said yes.  Winking at my father, he shaved the nonexistent hair off my neck and then slapped it with a towel that had been dusted with talcum powder.  I felt like a man, though I might have been a little embarrassed if I had realized why all the men were laughing as I left the barbershop that day.

I was thinking about this happy memory as I began cutting the fourteen mortises in the legs of the desk I am building for my son and I realized immediately what I had to do.  After every mortise, I stropped my chisels before turning my attention to the next one.  Aside from the nostalgia, I was curious to see if it would make a noticeable difference.  In fact, it did and I could definitely tell the difference.  Stropping two chisels takes less than a minute and in return you get easier chopping and more precise work.  It's become a part of my mortising ritual, a boundary between finishing one and starting another.  I am not sure it is strictly necessary, but then I am not sure it was strictly necessary for the barber to strop the straight razor between each haircut either.  I think the blood adds a nice touch, don't you?

I had decided to use my plow plane to complete the haunch portion of the mortise but when I got to that point I found that the fence rods aren't long enough, so I switched to my router plane with its fence.  A bit time consuming, but it did produce a nice flat bottom.  You may think that I made the haunch too long, but I have blown out the tops of mortises before and I want this one to be very strong.  I also made a very thin haunch for the same reason.  Kind of silly really since I intend to drawbore all of these joints.  I want this thing to be a battleship.

Thirteen tenons to go.  It is taking a long time because I am out of practice and want to make them fit as well as I possibly can.  I am deliberately sawing the tenons too big and custom trimming each one with my router plane.  Fussy.

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