Thursday, December 29, 2011

Another Attempt

Today's joint came out better, but had a tragic flaw: one of the half-tails broke off during assembly.  A good lesson.

I used a coping saw to remove most of the socket waste this time.  Much faster, as expected.  I also carefully sharpened all of the bench chisels, which didn't seem to need it, but of course worked much better after this process.

I'll do at least one more using this same alder board (still getting a feel for its chippy nature) but then probably switch to some other types of wood.  This joint took less than half the time of the first one, and has a much tighter, though still flawed, fit.  Learning lots and having fun!

Sockets after clearing waste with the coping saw

The curved hump on the top is where the half-tail popped off.  In a real piece, it could be glued.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Slow n Dirty

One of the skill-builders I've been planning to do is based on a suggestion in the Anarchist's Tool Chest.  Its mentioned that making a joint a day for a month will provide much improvement.  Its one of those things that sounds simple, but after day one, I am definitely hoping it gets faster, if not easier.

I used a relatively thick piece of alder (3/4") because I thought that larger joint components would be easier to manage.  The "modern complication" of using a coping saw to remove the bulk of the socket waste was also forgone for the sake of simplicity.  This might have been a mistake, as the chiseling seemed to take a very long time.  I did not time this, but I believe this test joint took over 2 hours.

The end results are not great, but the joint did go together and is very, very strong without any glue.  I am confident I will improve and will do as many of these test joints as I can in coming weeks, if not actually 30 of them.

I've learned enough just today to have my head swimming with geometry, chisel methodology, and the kind of tired muscles (and eyes) that only come from a long day.  My shop lighting is turning out woefully inadequate for after-dark work.  Viewing the baseline was very difficult, and the harsh shadows which develop once the ambient sun goes away will not be tolerable in the long term.  Luckily we have very long days here in the spring and summer, and I have not been doing much at night this winter.  In the future, though, this will need to be addressed.

Here's a couple images from the sample joint:

This shows the tails cut but not yet chopped.

Now the tails are chopped out, so that the pins could be marked for cutting.

I chopped half of the sockets and then flipped the board to do the other side from the other direction, in order to avoid tearout.  This chisel work took much longer than the sawing, and possibly longer than the layout (which took a long time to wrap my head around).

And a completed joint.  The gaps are cringeworthy and yet the thing is very solid.  I did not glue it but it seems that it doesn't need it!  I will probably work with thinner hemlock stock now that I have a handle on the process and don't want to burn up too much of my alder to practice.

Learning the layout techniques took much longer than I had thought.  I am familiar with 4 or 5 methods, so had to choose one and roll with it.  I ended up using the system that Rob Cosman suggests.  I chose the width of the half pins, and then used dividers to space the tails (plus tail padding) between them.  Straightforward enough for me and I will stick with it until I have a better command of the sawing and chopping skills needed to make tight joints.

Much respect to those who already have dovetails mastered and make it look so trivial!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Night of 100 Cuts

Robert Wearing, Chris Schwarz, and, I believe, every other hand-tool woodworking author states simply and clearly that practice is essential, no matter how much one has observed, read, and studied.  While I have been pleased to see my handsaw skills generally up to my tasks so far, I take the above seriously and am willing to work for my self-improvement.  I like homework when I like the class.

I've read that 50 or 100 saw cuts will dramatically improve abilities, and 1000 should approach mastery.  It really wouldn't take long to get to these counts just by making things... but I want to jumpstart the process to make up for a few decades of not knowing how to use fine hand tools properly.

The Close Grain blog (one of my favorites for nicely detailed tutorials, by the way) has a great entry about this practice.  I did not make a dovetail marker as shown there, but otherwise modeled my assignment on the Night of 100 Cuts.

I am not doing a full write-up since its rather mundane and Steve eplains the whats and how-tos very well in the above link.  Instead, I just took a few photos and then stopped since I was busy with the sawing.  I also took a couple videos to see my own form but they are not nearly well-shot enough to share.

I did the series of 100 Steve recommends.  2 rounds each of 10 cuts (actually I was doing 12 or 13 for each style) set up in these 5 styles:
  • all faces square
  • edge skewed right 
  • edge skewed left
  • face skewed right
  • face skewed left
Cuts were all 3/4 deep in a 1/2" piece of hemlock.  This is the dovetail saw used:

It did indeed get easier over the course of the exercise; I started out pretty sketchy, especially regarding the rear baseline (I was not holding the saw level, but apparently sloped downhill away from me a bit).  

I took no more photos but did improve, and look forward to repeating this exercise frequently.  I will soon start to practice on actual dovetail joints (though not as part of a project), but I do want to have a Night of 100 Cuts at least monthly.  In a year that will be 1000 cuts, not counting any of them done in projects!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays

Merry Holidays from my family to yours.

We live in a Douglas Fir forest, and so branches are plentiful.  No trees were permanently harmed in the creation of this display.

As an alternative, a borrowed image from a handy friend:

Whatever your flavor of winter celebration, I wish you the best, and happy 2012!

your apprentice,


Thursday, December 22, 2011

[Basics] Shooting End-grain

More than a couple people have asked me to slow down and explain what I am doing.  Lots of folks with very different backgrounds are reading along here, and its hard to make it readable for all.  To that end, entries detailing operations which might be old hat for seasoned woodworkers will be prefixed with [Basics] from now on.  Unless, of course, I forget.  Pros, feel free to correct/augment in the comments.  Civilians, feel free to ask for more clarification.

So without further ado, this is one way to square a board after cutting it close to length.  Explanations are under each image.  We start with a board that has been cut, but not to our exact length nor cut square enough for ready use.

This is the workbench set up to cut the board to length.  The board, about 3.5" wide, is laying along the length of the bench, resting on two benchhooks.  The benchook to the right, where the sawing actually happens, has a fence rising up on the back edge to hold the board in place while the saw pushes forward.  The benchhook on the left has no obstruction (so that it can hold boards of all sizes) but acts as a platform to hold the board level with the front hook.  You can also see holdfasts, which are candy-cane shaped metal hooks that fit into holes on the benchtop and act as clamps when hit with a mallet.  There are several holes all over the bench for these (and other "workholding" devices) to fit into.  This is a question I get very often: "what are all the holes all over your workbench?".  There is no shame in asking this.  Modern woodworkers often do everything with clamps.  I find workholding one of the most interesting backwaters of woodworking, and I hope to discuss many of the various solutions in the future.

Here you can see the bottom fence on the bench hook.  This is pushed against the bench in use, and since Western saws cut on the push, the harder you work (the harder you push the saw), the more securely the hook is pressed to the bench. Very clever and efficient.  Where it gets weird: since Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke, these hooks will not work.  You would need one which reaches all the way to the back of the bench and hangs on when pulled.

Here I am using a square to find a right-angle to the length of the board, right at the spot we want it trimmed.  While this board was cut before, you can see that its not a very square edge. I use a 6" square for most cuts.  I would love a 12" one, and plan to make a wooden one at some point but for now this must do.  I should note that I have a few squares, and they do not all agree.  This is a relatively new square from Starrett (a premium tool company in Maine), and my grandfather's old machinist's square from his automotive engineering days likes this one, so I do too.

I use a marking knife along the square.  A marking knife is a bit like an X-Acto or hobby knife, but its special in that it is totally flat on one face and beveled on the other.  The flat face is what is drawn against the reference (the blade of a square, the face of a joint socket, or a piece of wood, whatever). This leaves a very straight and accurate knife which has an unexpected advantage - its three dimensional.

Here I have used a holdfast to clamp the board in place on the sawhooks.  By hitting the top of the holdfast with a mallet, its pressed into the hole at a very slight angle, compressing the hook onto the work.  The more you hit it, the harder it holds.  I use a scrap pad of wood between the tip of the holdfast and my workpiece.  You can also see here the saw I use for small crosscuts like this.  Its a fairly new saw, about 5 years old, but is based on designs from the 1800s.  Its made of very thin and light steel, so it has a "back" along the top of it to add rigidity and strength.  This saw is very smooth, very pleasant to use, and very accurate.  I am still fairly new to precision handsawing and I am able to cut a pencil line in half most of the time.  I love this setup and feel something almost like resent towards the fact that I was never shown how to saw like this in the several shop classes I took in Jr High and High School.

The saw drops right into the knifeline, taking advantage of the three-dimensional quality noted above, making it very hard to miss the mark.  As it gets going, the saw is slowly lowered backwards, into the groove.

This cut is very close to the line, and very straight.  You can see the very crisp edge the knife left on the bottom half along with the fuzz the saw left.  A pencil wouldn't deliver that crisp edge, and we will deal with the fuzz in just a moment.

When tested, the light under the square reveals all.  This cut is not satisfactory.  A little bit needs to come off the right corner.  As seen above, a little fuzz needs to be shaved along the whole face.

Enter the shooting board.  This is a jig for planing edge-grain.  Like a miter box, it guarantees that the resulting trimming will be square.  The holes in this unit are for changing the angle of the fence, but right now it is set up at exactly 90 degrees (and true according to the square from Gramps).

The workpiece is held up to the fence, with just a wee nip of it sticking out over the edge.

The right face of the jointer plane (#7) is waxed with a plain ol' parrafin block.

The edge of the work is moistened with denatured alcohol.  This makes working on end grain much easier, though it may not be traditional.  Water works too, but it is not wise to let water onto your steel tools.

The plane put into position.  Turned onto its side 90 degrees from normal use.  Perhaps now the parafin makes sense.  The plane is pushed back and forth in the track of the jig, making a telltale sound as it shears the end grain.  Then it makes very little sound as it slides back and forth.  This indicates its work is done.

A check by the square... Much better!  Thanks, shooting board!

With a square board, we can do do all kinds of fun things...

Sunday, December 11, 2011


As mentioned in the previous post, we've been traveling a fair bit lately and otherwise pre-occupied. I want nothing more than to be back in the shop, with a fire raging in the stove and my saws and planes singing as they do their jobs.

In the meantime though... all I can do is think about it, do a bit of reading here and there, and patiently wait.

It reminds me of a period a while back when I was traveling the nation in my VW Vanagon camper. If you've ever seen one, you can imagine how cramped it is inside and how daunting it could be to pack a whole life in there for long-term roaming. In reality, once everything is put away cleverly enough, and all extraneous cargo has been shaken out of the system, its quite elegant and hardly anything is visible while on the road.  Over time, an almost ritualistic schedule for packing up each morning emerges. Items needed late in the day or very rarely get put away first, and usually deepest into the compartments or cases. A really wonderful phenomenon emerges here: the items used more often, say throughout the day, will never settle deeply into storage.  Without any effort, they will float on top of everything else.  This organic progression of self-organisation is deeply satisfying in a way that is hard to explain.  Over the days, it becomes automatic to neatly nest everything in a pattern which will provide the greatest utility over the course of the day.

When I was compelled to visit with friends who insisted I stay inside their homes (often against my weak protests), I would lay in their overly-comfortable beds, usually too warm, while my brain would be desperately trying to "pack up" for the night despite having nothing to actually do.  Something would feel like it was missing.

The only other analogy I can draw for this is that as I played a great deal of chess or Tetris when I was younger, I would see the pieces moving as I tried to sleep.  It feels like the same mechanisms were at work with the camper's chores.

Now I am having this happen with woodworking.

Each night, especially when I have not been in the shop, I visualize boards with humped edges begging to be planed down.  I see knifelines waiting to have a saw dropped into them, and I see perfect workbenches with frictionless vises clamping workpieces tightly.  I watch an autonomous plane sliding across a board, a perfect curled shaving erupting from the top.  I realize this is extreme, but this is true.

The desire to be working is deep.  The sounds, the smells, and the tactile feedback (especially of planing) all demand to be experienced as frequently as possible.  Every tree I see while traveling now looks like a potential cabinet.  Those with too many branches look like they would make good spoons.  Seeing mediocre furniture in shops and homes has me wondering about busting them up and milling the wood into something pleasing.  Pallets rotting by the back of a building seem to glow with potential.

I suppose I am falling into "the zone", which I take as a good thing, but it brings with it a bit of a nervous or anxious burden when I can't be working!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Consumerist's Tool Chest

AKA Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures...

AKA Winter's Coming...

Without going into too much personal detail, I will still set the stage by saying a cluster of sickness, injury, and deaths in the family has made for a very chaotic early winter.  As I've been away from the house and the shop, I have worried a great deal about my tools during the extreme changes in temperature and the winter rains.  I've kept the tools oiled and usually visit them regularly to make sure they are not rusting even if I do not have time to use them.

Building a traditional tool chest is high on my list of priorities.  Being realistic, though, it is not likely to happen for some time so I was forced to take some drastic action to protect the core tools.

Purchase of this ugly behemoth is not something I feel great about, philosophically:

It wasn't all that expensive, but it is plastic, unhandsome, and counter to all that my woodworking pursuits are based on.

However, it has a decent seal, is large enough for my panel saw, and a half-step up in Intelligent Design than the plastic tote I had in mind while shopping for some emergency tool shelter.

I'm not able to fit everything in it, but I did get the following in there:
  • Panel saw
  • Tenon saw
  • Rip carcase saw
  • Crosscut carcase saw
  • Dovetail saw

Bench plane tote containing:
  • Jointer (#7)
  • Jack (#5)
  • Smoother (#3)
  • Low-angle block
  • Wax
  • Oiled cloth in small jar

Under the saw till lives:
  • Large shoulder plane
  • Large and small router planes
  • Skew rabbet plane
  • Small plow plane

In tool rolls are:
  • Set of 13 auger bits
  • Set of bevel-edge chisels
  • Misc chisels (mortise, corner, etc)

and a small tray of measuring and marking tools:
  • Dividers
  • Marking knife
  • Marking gauge
  • Squares
  • Folding rule
  • Maybe some other bits

I was not able to fit brace, drills, and a host of handled tools like awls, rasps, etc.  These are, however, ensconced in a seperate bin and should remain safe.

I feel slightly better about this, and while I am still eager to construct a real tool chest ASAP, I am glad that the main tools are now out of harm's way for the most part, and they are stored in a way which is somewhat simple to root through.  It's no Anarchist's Tool Chest, but I have seen (and used) worse.

Monday, December 5, 2011

By Hand and By Eye

This February, I am excited to be participating in a design workshop led by Jim Tolpin at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.  Called "By Hand and By Eye", here is the description:

This class is based on the research that Jim Tolpin is doing for his forthcoming book with George Walker on the design and layout techniques used in the 17-18th centuries.

These traditional techniques use basic (and simple) geometric techniques to create designs for well proportioned furniture. The notion of well proportioned is ingrained in the human eye and is rooted in the different elements of the piece of furniture having whole number proportions (like 1:3 or 3:5). 

These proportioned dimensions are easy to create using a sector and dividers. A sector is a simple tool made of two sticks hinged together (you'll make one in class).
You can, in fact, create a whole design with out needing to reduce the dimensions to feet and inches (or millimetres)! This can be liberating for the hand tool woodworker - it can help you escape the tyranny of the machine or getting overwhelmed trying to use a drawing program on your computer.

Sounds pretty great to me.  I was sad to miss George Walker's previous design workshop at the school, and also hope to attend the longer session in October next year.  This stuff is right up my alley: I was always fairly bad at math in school but did very well in geometry.  I love using dividers, compasses, and protractors, and the intuitive methods of design and layout which Jim and George discuss always leave me almost giddy.

I hope some of you readers will join me there in February!