Thursday, February 16, 2017

Workshop Maintenance

I've spent some evenings and weekends working on a toddler bed frame for some friends recently (post to follow, sooner or later), and reached a point where I need to wait for someone else to finish their part.  This past weekend I built an English layout square, mostly for practice:  it's got legs somewhere around 22" long, which is bigger than is really useful in my tiny shop.  I hope to post an article about that either tomorrow or Monday.

But once that was done, I looked around and realized I'd been neglecting my tools recently.  Oh, I do a quick touchup with a strop while I'm working, but a few of my planes weren't cutting well anymore.  Last night I started working on getting everything back into top shape.  A lot of people seem to dislike sharpening, which I can understand:  it's a lot of time and effort that could otherwise be spent working on wood.  I still enjoy it, though, because every time I sharpen my tools, I get a better edge than I did the time before.

Last night I went over the cutters for my #3, #4, #5, and one of my block planes.  The block plane is low angle, and was a particular triumph, since it never cut right to begin with.  I finally got out some coarse sandpaper and and a honing jig, and re-ground the bevel.  Finally, it works well enough to get a good cut across end grain.

Next up are chisels:   none of them are as sharp as they could be, and a few of them I've never actually sharpened, since I haven't needed something that width.  Once those are done, I may tackle my dovetail saw:  it's gotten dull enough that I don't really use it, which means it's time to fix it up.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Workbench Modifications

I haven't been writing much, because I've been occupied on other things, like a piece of furniture I'm making for a friend.  Unfortunately, I screwed that up completely, and can't work on it again until I get more lumber.

On the plus side, that means I can spend some time working in the shop on my projects again!

The first change I needed to make was to my tool rack.

As you can see if you look closely, the original tool rack is great for some things, but leaves chisels free to fall over any time I bump the bench, or hit something on it with a mallet.  I haven't actually nicked an edge yet, but it's only a matter of time.  Since I've wanted to try out a standard chisel rack for a while, this seemed like a good opportunity.

I started by gluing a new piece in to close the gap.  As I was doing it, I realized that the whole process was going to end up leaving it really fragile, but it should last long enough to let me decide whether I like it or not.

I wanted to use my bench for something else while the glue dried, so I left it pegged to the back of the bench, wrapped twine around it tightly, and held the end of the string with a spring clamp.  It worked quite well, and was tight enough that I had some squeeze-out, despite the filler piece not being a particularly tight fit.

While that was drying I sharpened one of the chisels that had been on the rack, cleaned, sharpened and reassembled a low angle block plane I'd been putting off working on, and started working on a saw rack for behind the back panel.

Once the glue was dry, I removed the whole rack from the back panel, then drilled 3/4" counterbores about a quarter of an inch deep, then smaller holes all the way through.  Cutting notches for the chisels to slide in was tricky, because the second cut on each slot was cutting through an unsupported and fairly narrow pillar with two questionable glue joints.  A great deal of care and a very light hand with the saw got me through it, though, and I was able to put the rack back on.

As you can see, it worked fairly well.  Those five chisels don't actually fit in my tool chest (I didn't leave much space for extra chisels when I built it), so I'm pleased that they've finally got a storage rack that will keep them reasonably safe.  At some point I'll need to remove that end of the rack entirely and redo it correctly (that is, using a solid block of wood instead of gluing up layers.

The saw rack behind is even simpler:  I cut a piece of 1/2" poplar to length, and glued some spacers to it before screwing the assembly to the back of the panel.  I'll try to get some pictures of the whole setup in use tonight.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What have I been up to?

I obviously haven't been writing much here, but I have still been getting in some workshop time.  Here are a few of the things I've been occupied with.

1) Combination plane storage!  I bought a new combination plane; I found a deal I couldn't turn down, and it turns out I like it a lot more than the other one I had.  My one complaint is that the cutters came stored in a canvas roll, which is great, but not actually big enough.  I may end up buying some canvas and making a larger roll, but for the moment I'm building some storage boxes in the style of the old Stanley combination plane storage.  Here's the first one done:

After making it, I realized that Stanley didn't actually put dividers in.  I think probably I'm going to go that route as well, since the dividers vastly increased the amount of time this took.  Also, I really should be putting the cutters in with their edge up.  Just at the moment, they're not actually sharper at the other end, so it's a minimal concern.

2) Experimenting with splines.  I'd never actually made a box with splined corners before, and I wanted to try it.  I don't actually have a "finished" photo, but here's one from along the way.

The splines are cheap veneer of some sort, the sides are poplar, and the top and bottom were pine, all chosen because they were what I had.  Fortunately, it turns out that my dovetail saw leaves a kerf only slightly wider than the veneer is thick, so I can cut a slot and then glue in the veneer.

I screwed up the hinges, so I'll need to go back and try that again, but I'm pretty pleased.

3) Buying and playing with moulding planes!  While I was out of the shop injured this summer, I wound up finding a bunch of inexpensive moulding planes on Etsy, and a few more at antique stores.  I also went out this weekend and bought four more from Craigslist.  At the moment, I'm averaging about $20 each for the moulding planes, and they've been in fantastic condition.  A couple of them could use some wedge tweaking, but aside from that all of them are entirely useable.

Looking a little more closely, we have:

 The first four are the ones I bought a few days ago.  Left to right, there is a matched tongue and groove set, a beading plane, and a #2 hollow, which is remarkably straight.  The grooving plane needs some work on the wedge... it was clearly added by someone who was using the plane for decoration, and doesn't fit very well.  On a side note, I could with that everyone who bought these things for decoration took care of them this well!  The guy I bought them from said he'd "refinished them", which seems to mean he sanded lightly and then put on a couple coats of BLO.  They look a lot newer than the rest, but are probably of similar vintage:  the match planes were made by the Ohio Tool Company, the beading plane is by Sandusky, and the hollow has no legible maker's mark.

The next two I picked up at an antique store.  The hollow is in good shape, and cuts fairly well, although the back of the cutter could use some polishing, and the grooving plane has lost its mate.  Sadly, it doesn't match the other set, so I suppose I'll have to build it a match.

The two on the far left here both came from other antique stores.  One is another bead, which I believe started its life as a reeding plane.  At some point one of the boxwood inserts was broken, and someone planed what was left flat and nailed a fence to the body.  Now that I have a couple of beading planes, I may try to restore that.  The other is a dado plane in terrible shape.  It's missing the front wedge, the depth stop isn't straight, and there's something weird about the way the (skewed) cutter was ground.  I mostly bought it because I'd never seen a dado plane in person, and figured it would make a reasonable pattern even if I didn't ever get around to fixing it up.

The next four all came from Etsy.  There are two profile moulding planes, another beading plane, and a very neat moving fillister plane.  The nicker needs some work, but everything else works perfectly.  I may actually do a short post about that one sometime... it's got some features that seem to be a little unusual.

You can see the depth stop on the moving fillister a little bit, here: it's a rounded, moderately decorative piece that's held in place by screws at the front and back.  Getting it even is a little fiddly, but once you lock it down it's fantastic.

After that are three new planes.  Two of them are a Mujingfang hollow and round, which are neat, but don't fit my hands as well as I'd like.  They were a gift, and they are occasionally useful, so they get to stay on the shelf.  After that is a no-name plane that's basically a 7/8" straight rabbet.  It needed some tuning, and shavings tend to get jammed in it as you work, but with a little practice it has turned out to be quite useful.  I love it for making things like pencil boxes:  it's a lot lighter than a Stanley 78, and doesn't require any setup.

The last one on the shelf is a 2" wide skewed rabbet that I inherited from my father's father.  It's dented, heavily checked, and the sole was beaten up and about 3 degrees off square when I got it.  The iron could use a little more work, but I flattened and squared the sole, removed the worst of the rust from the iron, and it now works quite well, at least for rough work.  The mouth is pretty wide, and I haven't had the motivation to make an insert for it yet, so it's not great for fine work.  For a wide rebate, though, it'll remove a vast amount of waste very quickly.  I think I had it removing about 1/16" on a stroke when I was testing it, which is pretty absurd.

So that's what I've been up to.  How about you?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A few of my favorite (wood working) books and videos

There are a lot of woodworking books out there:  some are good, some are bad, and some are just weird.  Last week, someone asked me what books I'd recommend, and I had to stop to think about it.

After consideration, here are some of my favorites.  This list isn't anything near exhaustive, nor am I making any claim that everyone who wants to be a woodworker should read them.  They're just what comes to mind when I think about what books have been valuable to me, in no particular order.

1) The New Traditional Woodworker, by Jim Tolpin.  For my full review, click here.  Jim Tolpin looks a lot at how to set up a functional workflow, and what tools are necessary if you're going to use all (or mostly) hand tools, and includes directions on how to make some basic jigs and tools you'll want.  This one is fairly easy to find, and an excellent starting point.

2) The Anarchist's Toolchest, by Christopher Schwarz.  For my full review, click here.  I'm always a little leery of recommending this one, despite how much I like it.  Chris has a weird sense of humor, and a philosophy that's a little unusual.  That said, I really like his theories on tools and tool use, and I think there's quite a lot of value in the book overall.  His tool list gives not only what he recommends, but why, which I found very helpful.  Overall, I think he gives a pretty good basis for hand tool work.

3) Working Wood 1 & 2: the Artisan Course with Paul Sellers, by Paul Sellers.  Paul Sellers was the first person I got to watch doing hand work in person, which left me with a soft spot for his teaching style.  The book walks through basic tools, and then starts working on projects (a spoon, a stool, a dovetailed box, and a few other things), covering the three basic joints, what tools to use, and so on.  He definitely has an anti-machine bent that comes through in the book, but there's more than enough good information in the book to be worth reading past that.  I also strongly recommend watching his videos, which are mostly available on YouTube.  He mostly does a very good job of explaining what he's doing, and they're fairly short.

4) The Joiner & Cabinetmaker, By Anonymous, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz.  This is a good look at what woodworking was like before the era of common powertools.  There were mills to produce boards, powered by water or steam, but an individual shop wasn't likely to have anything powered on hand.  The book walks you through the work of an apprentice in a good joiner's shop, and talks about tools, their use, and habits that a good woodworker should get into if they want to be successful.  Later in the book, Schwarz goes through each of the projects presented in the original text, which is also quite useful.

5) Anything by Roy Underhill.  I love his writing style, and while he's frequently short on details, there's enough information to figure out what he's doing.  I think his videos are stronger, and some of the more recent seasons are available through the PBS website (  He also teaches classes, if you're lucky enough to live near him.  The Woodwright's Apprentice is probably the book of his I appreciate the most, but everything I've read has been worth the time.

6) Woodworking Forums.  There are a lot of good forums out there, and even if you never log in to ask a question, you'll learn a lot from reading them.  At the moment I mostly visit,, and  And if you have specific questions, there are always people with answers on those forums.

As I said, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list.  It's really just my first reactions when someone asks me what to read.  They've been helpful to me, though, so they may also be of use to you.

There's one key thing to remember, though:  Nobody has all the answers.  Woodworking is, in many ways, an idiosyncratic hobby, and different people will find that different techniques work for them.  If you don't like the way one author has you cutting dovetails, find another author.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

How you work determines how you think.

We've all heard it:  "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  It's sort of true, though.  One thing I've realized as I worked more with hand tools, and which I've mentioned before, is that a lot of things are simpler.  Not necessarily easier, but simpler.

I was just reading someone's blog posts about making a "Milkman's Bench", and they were talking about needing to be sure the grooves they milled for the tail vise were exactly 1/2".  "Why?", I thought.  "Just cut the tenons on the moving part once you've done the grooves, and the exact size won't matter at all!"  Except that's harder with power tools.  If you're cutting your tenon with a dado stack, you need to know exactly how high to set the blade, or you'll run into trouble.

In a different post, they were thickness planing to make sure that the pieces were exactly 1 5/8" thick.  "Why?", I asked myself again.  Well, because the parts are being made from a cut list.  If you're cutting everything from a list, then doing assembly, it's a lot easier to make sure everything is identical before you start doing assembly.  In non-machine work, it's kind of irrelevant what the actual size of any of the parts is, because it's trivial to just size each piece to fit the one before.  Maybe you end up at 1 11/16", or 1 7/8", but it doesn't really matter.

For me, it's now easier to treat dimensions as a guideline, an ideal that I don't really need to achieve unless I'm building a piece of furniture to fit a specific space.  Other than that... So what if I'm a few sixteenths off? I'm going to plane everything flush when I'm done anyway.

Now, please don't get me wrong.  This isn't a condemnation of power tools, or a statement that people are in some way "wrong" for building to exact dimensions.  If you're using power tools, it really is a better/easier way to work.  I think a lot of hand tool workers would be baffled by the idea of cutting everything to exact tolerances, and the power tools folks would be baffled by our failure to measure anything precisely.  Neither way is better.

The point is that the tools we use determines how we think about things, and how we approach problems.

I'm not dead yet!

The splint is off, the occupation therapist tells me I'm so close to 100% that there's nothing more she can do to help, and my back is recovered enough that I can consider time at the workbench without cringing.  All that means that it's time to get back to work, and to writing!

I have a few projects in mind for the next couple of months, and two of them tie neatly into the "Woodworking on $1.50 a day" series.  Those two are a Japanese-style toolbox and a small, portable workbench (the "Milkman's Bench", from Popular Woodworking).  I'll definitely be doing writeups of those.

The third is, potentially, an enormous nightmare.  I'm looking at replacing some of my old particle-board shelf units with Jefferson book-boxes, which is a LOT of dovetailing.  I'm initially looking at two stacks, probably around 12 boxes or so.  If they go well, though, I may be trying to make enough for all of the books in our house... I've got no idea how many books that actually is, but I'm pretty sure we broke 3000 paperbacks quite a while ago. So I'll have to consider carefully before actually starting this project.

In any case, I hope to be writing something meaningful again soon!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A break in posting...

.. and in my finger.

Sadly, all of my projects have been put on hold, because I've got a splint on my left hand for the next few weeks.  So I haven't forgotten this blog, it's just painful to update it.