Tuesday, August 26, 2014

All Shoes Cause Blisters

I find the definition of "inspiration" interesting. Wiktionary offers six definitions: the first is the simple act of drawing air into the lungs. The fourth is what I think of when I hear the word:
The act of an elevating or stimulating influence upon the intellect, emotions or creativity.
I am inspired by many things: a beautiful piece of music; a fine wine; a gloriously prepared meal; a breathtaking vista; the way my wife looks at me; a wondrous example of fine woodworking. Inspiration is what stimulates my mind--forcing me to think about other vocational pursuits, other possibilities. For me, inspiration always precedes aspiration.

I've aspired to be many things: a chef, a mathematician, a college professor, a musician, a software engineer (I succeeded at that), a violin maker, and a fine woodworker. Most of these aspirations have come and gone and the hole in my soul they've left behind is but a glimpse into that of which I'm most ashamed.

Lately, my mind has been consumed with finding a way to earn a living that is not at all like what I'm doing now. I'm bored and I've lost the desire to try to climb any higher in a career that has left me utterly bereft of the ability to care about anything. This must be the mid-life crisis that I've read about; I guess it's right on time, as I turn fifty in just a few more days.

I've considered changing jobs. But if there's one thing I've learned in life, it's this: the grass is the same dull color on both sides of the fence. So changing jobs, but essentially winding up doing the very same, dull thing I do every day is a non-starter. A very good friend of mine uses a different analogy: All shoes cause blisters. Different shoes cause different blisters. Sometimes you want different blisters for a while. I want different blisters.

But the question is: How do I want to spend the rest of my life? Well, I love woodworking, but it's getting harder and harder to earn a living wage when consumers are satisfied with buying crap, disposable furniture from the likes of Ikea (no offense). But I have been really intrigued with one aspect of woodworking that I could probably make a living at: tool making and plane making in particular.

There's been a bit of a renaissance in tool making in this country, thanks in part to folks like Christopher Schwarz and Paul Sellers, who have dedicated their lives to reviving and teaching skills our ancestors took for granted. Fine hand tool woodworking requires fine tools. Makers and purveyors of fine hand tools are few and far between, so there's market share up for the grabs. I can count the number of wooden hand plane makers in the world on the fingers of one hand. Time to grab my share. Do I expect to get rich? No; hardly. But do I think I can make a living at it? We'll see. I'm going to dip a timid toe into the waters and see how it goes. Wish me luck.

This weekend, after studying a bunch of reference material, I set out to build my first wooden hand plane.

The style of plane I'm building is called a "James Krenov style" plane; that is, a plane that is constructed using the lamination method. James Krenov, for those not in the know, is a famous, yet humble, fine furniture maker who was one of the founders of the California College of the Redwoods. His writings and teachings have influenced many people over the years and I'm no exception. I've known about Krenov style planes for a long time, but I've never tried to make one until now. The rest of this post will chronicle my first build. 

Because this is my first build, I'm starting with very humble material: some quarter-sawn poplar I had laying around my shop. I'm starting with 3/4" thick material that I will laminate to create a thicker block measuring 12" x 3" x 3" (L x W x H).

What's in the clamps, gramps?
Congratulations. You made a block of wood.

Shown above is the block, planed flat across both width and length, and free of wind on three sides: the sole (bottom) and two adjacent sides. The sides are square to the sole. Next, I'll re-saw the block into three pieces lengthwise and then saw the ramp and front parts from the middle part, ending up with what you see below.

After a bunch of planing and truing, I'm ready for the next steps.

Next up: locate and drill the holes for the cross pin, glue the assembly and then cut and fit the wedge. Then I can try it out; it will then be ready to do its job.

To be continued.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Danger, Will Robinson!

I spent a few hours on Saturday morning cleaning up my shop and putting stuff away after having swapped out benches. We've had some very hot days here lately and it was just too hot to do anything more. So I spent some time planning out my next small project.

Sunday morning, we got up, had some breakfast, and then drove to the local lumber purveyor to purchase wood. I found some lovely, straight, 7" wide oak boards. When we got home, I headed out to the shop to begin a new project; an 18th century style school box based on one of the three projects in "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker".

I'd cut the first board to rough size and was just beginning to mark out the lines for the second cut. My attention drifted for just a second, but it was long enough to drag my marking knife through the tip of my index finger, severing the tip. I was lucky and it could have been a lot worse. If I was making the cut on a table saw, I could have lost the whole finger.

It's smiling at me. Or laughing.
Definitely laughing. :(

Woodworking tools are dangerous. I recall what I wrote on my first posting, that I wanted to get away from the danger, dust and noise of power tool woodworking. But I've always known that hand tools are equally dangerous. Your typical cabinet maker's chisel, for example, is just about the most dangerous tool in any shop. Yet somehow, I was lulled into a false sense of security and let my mind wander. Tools, whether tailed or not, demand respect and constant attention. I always say that there's no lesson like an object lesson, and it's true. My finger, the one with it's own heartbeat, is a constant reminder of a new lesson learned.

Be safe.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Workshop Down-Upgrade

Hi folks. It's been quite a while since I've blogged and there are a few good reasons why not. First, my elbows have been acting up again (bi-lateral epicondylitis). I'd had surgery on both elbows about twenty years ago, but they're grumpy again. This has a huge impact on my ability to use my hand tools. So I've been taking it easy to let them heal up a bit.

Second, it's summer. My small shop has no air conditioning, nor does it have adequate ventilation, so it's just been too stinking hot to work except for early mornings or late evenings.

Third, I've been holding off on starting any new projects until I've had a chance to change out a critical piece of equipment--my new, smaller, but more robust workbench. A smaller bench? Are you mad? Maybe. Keep reading.

More than a decade ago, I bought a European style workbench for my workshop. It was made by a very nice man in Sweden who took over his family's woodworking business: M?lilla Hyvelb?nkar. At the time, my requirements were based solely on the needs of a luthier (violin maker) and this bench was perfect for that application. I still love it and I'm never getting rid of it. That said, I've found it inadequate for the kind of hand tool only woodworking I'm now doing.

A hand tool woodworker needs a workbench that can hold boards firmly so they can be worked equally well on edge, face, and end. The shoulder vice on my Swedish bench has a very short vise surface and I found that it was difficult to grip longer boards. Also, because the bench top is not in the same plane as the legs, I couldn't clamp the board on the far end (opposite the vise) to the leg, forcing me to clamp to the top, which was a pain in the neck for edge jointing. For face work, the end vise was okay, but because it's made of wood, it has sagged a bit over time and just doesn't grip like it used to. No problems with end work though.

Fast forward a decade or so, and my needs have changed: I'm no longer building violins (well not for now anyway) and I needed a much more flexible bench with work holding appropriate for more mainstream hand tool woodworking. So I went looking for a new bench that would satisfy my new requirements and without breaking the bank or requiring hundreds of hours of build time. I also wanted to downsize. I have a small shop and I've wanted a bench that I could easily work from the front and both ends easily and without contorting myself to do so.

Enter Maguire Workbenches, a small, two-person company located in the United Kingdom. Maguire is run by Richard Maguire and Helen Fisher. They've been attracting lots of attention lately and deservedly so--they make very fine goods.

The bench I chose is a small, but sturdy beyond reason, French style bench Maguire calls the "Little John Workbench" (LJW herein). It's wonderful; it's awesome; it's perfect; but hold that thought...

I took delivery of my LJW on Monday, July 28. It was beautifully packed in a  solid wooden case and arrived (luckily) completely unscathed. It had just one small scratch on the bench top, but that's the first of many that it will suffer as I take wood and tool to it. It was a snap to assemble, a process which took about a half hour all told.

My new Little John. Isn't is just the cutest
thing you've ever laid eyes on?

You can read the description of the bench on Maguire's web site, but to summarize: it's made of Ash and it's only 5 feet long. The height was customized to 36", perfect for my height. The work surface is just shy of 12 inches from the front to the beginning of the tool tray, but the tray itself features removable bottoms that can also be placed even with the top to provide a deeper, continuous work surface. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in sturdiness. I've already done some rough planing and the bench just does not move. It doesn't move either front-to-back or side-to-side, regardless of what I'm doing on it. It's brilliant.

A shot with the tool well boards elevated
to bench height.

Work holding is pretty typical of French style benches: it has a pinless leg vise that features a custom St. Peter's Cross device in place of the typical pinned attachment. This gives the vise a ton of flexibility. It's rock solid and holds like it means business. The tail vise is a Veritas Inset Vise made by Lee Valley. I was pretty skeptical of this vise, but having tested it out in my shop, it's a winner. It holds like no tomorrow, which is amazing for such a simply-looking design. It's also really easy to use and doesn't require much pressure to keep boards in place.

Veritas Inset Vise. Huzzah!

The bench didn't ship with shelf on the bottom (which, I believe, is an option that can be ordered), so that's was my first project. Until I get my toolbox built, I need a place to store my planes and shooting equipment. I had a really nice piece of 5/4 Eastern White Pine that is the perfect length, so I planed it flat on one face and jointed the long edges. It was about an inch shy of being deep enough, so I glued on a couple pieces of 3/4" white pine that I had laying around the shop. Next I planed it to width, beveled the back edge to fit nicely between the back legs and side rails. I cut notches to fit around the front legs, and, hey presto, Bob's your uncle.

I'm extremely pleased with my LJW. It's wonderful; it's awesome; it's perfect! Maguire is easy to work with and they make a quality product. Expect a long wait--my bench took 5 1/2 months to get to me--but it's worth every minute I waited and every penny I spent. This is the most bench for the buck that you can get anywhere. Yes the exchange rate (US Dollars to British Pounds Sterling) sucks, but I could have spent about the same amount here (or more) for a far inferior product.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Gift for a Friend

One of our friends, I'll call her "Lady Loki," is graduating from law school in a couple of weeks and we decided to gift a fountain pen (a Namiki Falcon) and a bottle of sepia colored ink. This week, I built a gift box to house the pen and ink in Lady Loki's favorite color, purple. The results are below, followed by a few more details on it's construction.

Look closely and you'll see some purple polkadots
on my bench; my brush got away from me. :(
What's in the booooox?!

Oooo… shiny!

The box is made out of 3/4 inch pine. I found some remarkably straight and knot-free boards at our local Bob's (Big Orange Box Store); perfect for this project. 3/4 inch stock is too thick for this kind of project, though, so I had to plane it down to 1/2 inch--the workshop smelled heavenly when I was done. Next, I joined the sides and ends using a single dovetail and then I planed the grooves that will house the lid using my plow plane. The lid has two rebates on the long sides that will slide into the grooves cut into the sides. I cut these using my skew rabbet (rebate) plane and then cleaned up with a shoulder plane. It also has a nice raised panel detail (secret technique) and a carved thumb recess to ease lid removal. The bottom was planed to 1/4 inch and then I  planed a bull-nose (half-round) on all four edges with my no. 4 plane (secret technique). I then planed the box smooth and broke the hard edges to make it lovely to hold. A tiny bit of sanding and the box was ready for finish.

The finish was applied in a few stages. First I applied the purple stain to the carcase. I used Transtint #6206 (purple) alcohol soluble dye, mixed in a ratio of 1 tsp dye to 5 Tbsp denatured alcohol. After that was dry I glued on the bottom and applied three coats of blonde shellac (1.5 pound cut), I leveled the finish with 0000 steel wool and then applied a lovely paste wax I purchased from the UK with the same steel wool. The final step was to brush out the wax briskly with a shoe brush (the same technique as polishing shoes; it's awesome). The result is a lovely satin finish that feels wonderful in the hands.

A final touch was to add a couple of blocks to elevate the pen. Using a bit and brace, I drilled a 1/2 inch hole in a left over piece of 1/2 inch pine, cut it in half through the hole, and then fitted the parts to the inside using my shooting board and plane. Just a couple dots of glue on the bottoms hold the pieces in place, which also makes them easy to remove in case Lady Loki wants to repurpose the box (they'll just pop right out).

This was a fun project. I hope Lady Loki gets many years of use out of both pen and box.


Postscript: My secret techniques are really no secret at all--they've been used for centuries. Unlocking these mysteries,  that is the anachronistic application of a mix of modern and not-so-modern hand tools to wood, is why I'm so in love with this hobby; even if it is at times very hard work. If you're interested then keep reading; I'll be writing more about these techniques in future posts. ~D

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Jig is Up and Other Renegade Matters

Jigs are something with which the power tool woodworker is intimately familiar. If one isn't cutting a straight line, then a jig of some kind is needed to perform the task (oh boy that last sentence is going to get me into a lot of trouble). But there are occasions when the hand tool woodworker needs jigs too and I found myself in need of one for sharpening.

I recently switched from water stones to diamond stones and I needed a jig to hold them. So that was today's work. Earlier in the week, I'd joined a couple of boards together to make a wider board, flattened it, removed wind (twist), and then planed it smooth. Then I employed two of my favorite tools--chisel and router--to create recesses in the board to hold the stones firmly in place.

"Router?!" you ask. "Cheater! He's a cheat! A liar, thief and a Baggins!" Steady... let me explain. The router I'm talking about is a very old tool: a cordless version of today's router. It's function is to remove wood to a set depth and they have nigh uncountably many uses in a hand tool workshop. Today, I used mine to hog out material from the recess, outlined to depth by my chisel.

Action shot courtesy of Emily

The process, soup to nuts, is this: create the outline by knifing around the diamond plates. Deepen the lines further using the same knife and then show a chisel to the lines perpendicularly and tap lightly to deepen the incision just a bit. Then chisel out a bit of the waste along each line. Next, use the router to excise wood to the depth of the incision created by the chisel. Then, repeat the chisel and router sequence until I'm to my final depth. It's pretty simple really and a fun a relaxing process.

Would an electric router have been faster? Yes and no. I would have had to make a jig to keep the router to my lines and I would still have needed to clean up the recesses with a chisel anyway because routers create round corners, not square. And both my workshop and my person would have been completely covered in dust and debris. Plus, if you've ever used an electric router, they're scary as hell and probably one of the more dangerous hand-held tools.

The finished product sans finish

The photographs above show the finished product minus the finish and sandpaper backing (to keep it from sliding around on my sharpening bench), which I'll apply tomorrow. Five tools in total were used to create this project: straight edge, knife, chisel, mallet and router plane.

Why are they at an angle like that? That's a topic for a future post.

I have to confess: I also used my table saw. You can see the table in the picture (my workbench) and the saws hung up next to the window. Ha! Almost had you there.

I did make one more project for the workshop this week and you can see it in the last picture: a rack for my chisels; handily hung at the back of my bench. Just some scrap wood and a bunch of housed joints cut with chisel, saw and router. This is so much fun.


Postscript: Apologies to Styx for the title of this post.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fettling… It Sounds Dirty and It Is

Besides wood itself, wood working is really about two things: tools and skill. When one is not up to snuff any amount of the other will not allow wood to be shaped into usefulness. I've heard it said that inferior tools in the hands of a master will not hinder that person's ability to create masterfully; but what it unsaid is that even inferior tools can be made to work correctly and no master would show a tool to wood without it being in what we call fine fettle. In this context, the act of fettling is to bring a tool, new or old, into service.

I've been having a frustrating time getting my set of Lie-Nielsen chisels really sharp. They are made of tough, A2 tool steel, which seems to get the best of me at my sharpening table. I've had this problem for a while and it's getting in my way. So I've been on a mission to acquire a set of chisels that respond well to my evolving sharpening method, that fit my hands, and will work the way I want. So I purchased 1/2" chisels from a bunch of different manufacturers the try them out. I finally found a set of chisels that meet all of my requirements and I spent much of this past weekend fettling them.

Ashley Iles Mk. 2 chisels, made in Lincolnshire UK

Sharpening new tools is hard work that leaves the hands black and the body spent. But it's also a peaceful pursuit that affords one the opportunity to zone out and focus on doing just one thing well: slowly abrading steel from back and bevel to flatten and polish, and to produce an edge that cuts to a high sheen on end grain. It sounds hard, but it's not. Like anything else, it's a skill that, once learned, will stay with you forever.

Fettling new tools takes a long time. The wider the chisel, the more time it takes to get it ready. The 1 1/4" chisel you see in the picture above took almost an hour to get ready--that's a long time, but most of the process is done once and rarely ever again; thank goodness.

I look forward to showing these tools to wood in the coming weeks, months, and years. I feel like we're good friends already and someday, maybe, I'll sing their praises in the isolated quiet of my workspace.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

I needed to take a break from blogging. Social media, while the current, "in" thing, is a bit of an enigma to me. I'm not a social being at all. In fact, I'm the polar opposite of a social being. Any thought of being a friendly and social person was stomped out of me during my formative years. That said, there is value in chronicling my pursuit of hand tools only woodworking, even if it's just for me and my immediate family (although, I did hear from two of my friends who were wondering why I stopped). The Clash lyrics in the title of this post do not really apply, there will be no trouble, single or double, whether I continue writing or not.

My last few weeks in the workshop have been devoted to clean up and organization. I'm also rethinking some of my tool purchases in the spirit of trying to get to as lean a toolkit as possible. I think I'm a bit addicted to buying fine hand tools and I have far more than I need. But some of them just aren't right for the kind of work I'm doing now, so I'm filtering my horde and making a few targeted (but not inexpensive) purchases. Once I complete that effort, I'll be spending a lot of spare time selling what I no longer need on Ebay.

Once of my most dire needs was a spokeshave. It's hard to believe I don't have one--it's kind of a mainstay in hand tool woodworking. So this morning, with Emily in tow, I rectified that and purchased Pinnacle Tools' version of the venerable Stanley no. 151 flat spokeshave. Of all of the Stanley clones available in the marketplace today, this is the one that has had the best reviews by experts I respect and trust. I did spend quite a bit of time on Ebay looking for a real one, but I didn't find one in the condition I needed (I hate spending shop time on restoration; I'd rather make shavings).

Of course I had to try it out right away, so once we got back from errands and a lunch date, I went into my shop and made Emily a spatula. It was a fun little project that required very few tools, and it was a great way to learn the ins and outs of my new spokeshave, which is now one of my favorite tools.

Cute l'il spatula, born from pine using a spokeshave,
chisel, coping saw, a couple of files, a bit and brace
and a bit of sandpaper.

I think I'll try making a spoon tomorrow. I'm a pretty good carver, so it should be fun and a good way to make something useful whilst continuing to practicing the big three joints that's I'll be using in Project #3, my Dutch tool chest: housed dados, dovetails and mortice and tenons.

After my tool chest is complete, I'm planning some fun projects for our home and those of our family: dovetailed boxes, a cute stool for my niece, a toolbox for my nephew, and some new DVD shelves for Emily--she's been very patient!