Sunday, December 28, 2008

Half Blind Dovetails

I believe the two most important skills in handcutting dovetails are careful layout and the ability to saw a straight line.

Regarding the feather-ruffling question: Pins or Tails?

My answer is: Yes.

For a box or drawer that will have fat pins, I cut tails first. Cutting the tails first allows you to saw the two tail boards at one time. Plus, transferring layout lines from tails to pins is easier than vice versa.

For a delicate project with skinny, English-style dovetails, I cut pins first. With thin pins, it's very difficult (and in some cases, impossible) to transfer layout lines from tails to pins, so cutting pins first makes sense.

That being said, I'm cutting tails first for the drawer on the sawbuck table, with through dovetails at the back and half blind at the front.

The drawer will have angled sides, so the width at the top is 15" and the width at the bottom is 13". I believe I've mentioned my geometry-challenged brain before.*

My tool arsenal includes: dovetail saw, jeweler's saw, various chisels, guide block, plane blade, pencil, ruler, dovetail marker, clamps, marking gauge, mallet, and tiny square.

I call the technique: Dovetails with Training Wheels.

The training wheels are in the form of a guide block that's used to keep the chisel perpendicular to the workpiece. This ensures that the area that's removed between tails & pins will be flat. Some people like to undercut this area so pins and tails seat exactly to the guide lines, but a guide block removes this potential problem.

Once I've cut the tails, I use a bevel-edged pencil to transfer the outlines to the adjoining board, but you can also use a marking knife. Take care to make precise marks when you transfer these lines. When you saw the waste, cut right to the line (the line will just barely be sawn away when you've finished cutting). The more accurate the layout and cut, the less paring (if any) you'll have to do to fit the boards together.

*A friend accused me of never posting anything that I've screwed up. So here it is. Because I'm missing a math gene, my boards are not aligned along the top and bottom edges.

To transfer the tails' outlines to the front board, I aligned the top and bottom edges as I would with a square project. But bevelled sides require that the boards be offset when you transfer your marks.

I still don't know the equation to figure out the measurement for the offset, but fortunately the depth doesn't matter in this project, so I can plane the top and bottom edges to match.

There's also a gap in the top pin. But it's nothing that a little well-crammed wax can't fix once the project is finished.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Small Wood Mallet

I plead ignorance.

When a friend watched me set both the iron and the wedge on one of my handmade planes with a metal mallet, he said "You're supposed to use a wood mallet to tap the wedge and plane body."

"Yeah. Well, I sort of like the tool marks on the backs of my planes," I insisted.

He gave me a look that said he knew I was bluffing; that I really had no idea you should switch mallets mid-adjustment.

I've been abusing my planes this way for years and they have the half moon marks to prove it. I've even all but obliterated my name on one of them.

Little wood mallets come in handy for more than just plane adjustments. They're also helpful with driving in & removing the wedges from tusk tenons, and joining dovetails & finger joints. And it was high time I made one.

The element that's lost in small wood mallets, though, is weight on the hammer end. So I chose to make the handle from cherry and the hammer head from rosewood. Rosewood is heavy and dense, which can damage a project in use, so I decided to buffer the blow with cherry pads glued to each end.

I referred to a tack hammer's handle as a template, rough cut the blank on the bandsaw, and finalized the shape with a sanding drum chucked into my drill press.

A wedged through-tenon is an effective way to secure the hammer head to the handle. First, drill a hole at the lower end of the tenon so it won't split when you drive the wedge in. Then saw a kerf down the middle of the tenon.

The 6th photo shows the [slightly] loose-fit tenon that provides wiggle room for the wedge. Cut the wedge with your tool of choice; I used a Japanese dozuki. Add glue to the tenon, mortise, and wedge, and then hammer the wedge home.

Two cherry pads and three coats of Watco Wipe On Poly later, and my wood mallet and handplanes are playing nicely together.

And I can finally remit my H.A.A. (Handplane Abusers Anonymous) member card.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Canine Christmas Carol

Bark! The herald angels sing.
Mommies put us in these things.
Christmas comes and Christmas goes,
and still we’re tortured with these clothes.

Woe to us, we feel so blue.
Hats like this, they stick like glue.
We can’t wait for it to end.
Our misery we do portend.

Bark! The herald angels sing.
Our nerves are hanging by a string.

If you’re not familiar with this Christmas Carol, you can listen to the melody here.
(They have the lyrics all wrong, though. *wink*)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Home for my Gnomon

There's no such thing as making a simple box if you're a woodworker.

I wanted to build a container for my reference ruler, or gnomon according to Stephen Shepherd, and had every intention of making a utilitarian one.

But while making the grooves to hold the lid and bottom, the scratch stock tore out some of the curly cherry (something I swore that scratch stock would never do!)

No problem. I'll fix it with my Lie-Nielsen side rabbet planes. This is a gravy tool—unnecessary, but really nice when you need it.

Smoothing the tearout of course made the top edge too narrow, which would leave a gap when the lid was glued in place.

No problem. I'll just add some string inlay to fill the gap. While I'm at it, might as well add string inlay to the bottom of the box.

Mitered corners was the joinery of choice for the box, but how do you cut miters on such tiny pieces? It's not very safe with power tools, in my opinion.

No problem. I'll just build a miter box and handsaw them.

Cutting a perfect guide line for a miter box proved to be more difficult than I thought. Even a slight miscut results in poorly fitting miters.

No problem. I'll build a simple miter block (also called miter jack) to trim the miters square.

Miter blocks are cool jigs that go for hefty prices at antique auctions and I had planned to build a beefy one with threaded rod someday, not really knowing if they worked well or not.

I was shocked at how perfectly this simple jig squared up the miters...and a beefy, threaded rod miter block just moved up the ranks on my to-build list.

To plane the inlay strips to thickness, I used an invention by Steve Latta that we students made in one of his classes. (Lie-Nielsen now carries this tool.) Basically, it's a piece of steel with a bevel and a burr (like the blade on a scraper plane), that's attached to a block of wood. By dragging the inlay through the gap between the burr and the "wall" of wood, the inlay piece is made thinner.

After the box was glued up, I cut the lid off at the bandsaw, which resulted in rough surfaces along the cut. Flattening these rough edges is easily achieved by laying a sheet of sandpaper on a flat surface, like your table saw, and "scrubbing" the workpiece until it's dead flat.

In order to keep the lid secured, I had to add some insert pieces. But rather than leave the top edges flat, I decided to embellish them with a bead. For this, I used a bead profile in my scratch stock.

The miters were cut with the box and block as before. Using a miter block enables you to take very thin shavings so you can sneak up on the final fit.

I prefinished the inside with shellac before glue up and had planned to shellac the outside, but the contrast between the unfinished and finished cherry is attractive, so I might just put a couple coats of wax on it instead.

What started out as a utiliatrian box project turned into something a little more complicated.

But why settle for a shed when you can build a little cottage for your gnomon?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lee's Medicine Cabinet

I am absolutely inundated/swamped/buried/up to my eyeballs with tight-deadlined projects at work...and what better time to take a day off to visit Gettysburg?

The Museum Specialist at the Gettysburg National Military Park granted me hours of time to photograph and measure the General Robert E. Lee Medicine Cabinet.

He explained that the cabinet is thought to have belonged to one of Lee's personal physicians, possibly Lafayette Guild, but that a letter which supports this claim and perhaps more details about the cabinet, was lost with the most recent owner, a physician who specialized in tropical deseases, whose widow donated the cabinet to the museum upon his death.

Close inspection of the cabinet revealed not just its stunning good looks, but (what I consider to be) its complex and unusual construction. The cubbies in the top section (under the lid) are of two depths— 2 1/8" & 6 5/16"—including a skinny, secret compartment within the shallow front well which drops down an additional 4 3/16", thereby matching the depth of the 6 5/16" compartments.

What I find most interesting is the fact that, if the two doors on the front & back and the side panels are removed, the box is seemingly held together with 4 stiles and only one rail across the back (where the lid hinges are installed).

This isn't like any box construction I've ever seen. Little pins along the bottom edge of the 4 stiles indicate that they are dovetailed into the base. This holds the box together at the bottom, but what's keeping the top together? I believe that the long, lidded compartments in the top section are somehow attached (maybe just glued) to the stiles and effectively act as rails.

The back walls of the vertical cubbies (on the sides of the cabinet) are probably dadoed into the stiles. This would help keep the cabinet rigid and provide another glue opportunity.

Other details include v-grooves between the dividers in the upper compartments (beneath the lid), 5 dovetailed drawers (the largest one is removable from both sides of the cabinet), and two splined side panels that slide into grooves along the edge of the stiles. The wood is mahogany, the finish is unkown, and the pulls for three compartment lids look like pieces of shoe lace.

All the hardware is brass. I checked Londonderry Brass, but did not find an exact match. The pulls on the Londonderry Brass website are all fancier than the hardware on Lee's medicine cabinet.

The contents are as interesting as the cabinet itself with some of the original elements inside the glass bottles and other containers still intact.

My favorite label was "testimonial wine", which must have been a popular remedy as that particular bottle was empty.

*Photos are made possible through the permission of the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ginormous Plane Collection

A friend of mine hosted a holiday party this past weekend for woodworkers and their spouses/partners.

My friend has the largest collection of handplanes, plumb bobs, and gimlets & corkscrews I have ever seen. His shop is a veritable museum.

And of course, that's where we woodworkers congregated for most of the afternoon. An occasional trip to the food table in order to keep our energy up while we flapped our jaws about all things woodworking was the only deviation from the treasure trove of tools that is my friend's shop.

He has been collecting tools since handplanes could be had at yard sales for a pittance and he's a walking encyclopedia of information concerning them.

I snapped a bunch of photos during the party and discovered upon review that the only ones that contained people were of two ladies who were standing in front of the wall o' planes. I think they thought I was taking their picture and I didn't have the heart to ask them to move aside.

I suppose the Christmas spirit must have gotten hold of me. Dang it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

You know you’re a woodworker when...

You cut yourself with a chisel and you’re more concerned about not getting blood on your workpiece than you are about the laceration.

You inexplicably find sawdust in your drawers. And I’m not talking about furniture.

You can say “crotchwood” with a straight face.

It has caused you great pain to pay money for furniture that was poorly made.

You have dropped to your knees and looked beneath a table in a museum, a gallery, an historic home, or a friend’s house.

You know the difference between a tendon and a tenon but you sometimes use the words interchangeably.

You cannot resist the temptation to lift the lid on a wooden box.

You secretly think “measuring tape” suspenders are pretty cool.

You can talk to your partner/spouse/significant other for HOURS about woodworking despite the glazed over look in his/her eyes.

You have wondered what it would be like to own a woodworking business.

You can spend an entire day in your shop, accomplish little if anything, and thoroughly enjoy it.

You know exactly where everything is in your shop....except for a pencil.

You have said these words: “I can build that in two weeks.”

You have built more projects in your head than in actuality.

Your spouse/partner/loved ones/pets know not to bother you, and sometimes choose to run for cover, when you are gluing up a project.

Even if you don’t work with it, you love the smell of fresh cut pine.

You either love or hate the smell of fresh cut walnut. There is no in-between.

You remove more splinters from your hands in a month than most people do in a lifetime.

You can correctly pronounce Padauk and Lignum Vitae.

I'm not making this up.

I'm building a project in my workshop this morning (surrounded by a sea of woodworking tools) when my partner walks in and asks, "Where are your tools?"

And she was serious.


(Translation: when a person who is not a woodworker asks where he/she can find your "tools", he/she means they need a wrench, hammer, pliers, or drill).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mini Groove

Here's one way to make a 3/32" groove for a very tiny box lid and bottom.

I decided to build a box for the reference ruler, but working with 3/16" material can be a challenge, unless you're a miniaturist.

Since I learned to make scratch stock, it's become the solution on a number of occasions.

One benefit to using scratch stock is you can make profiles that do not exist in router bits. Or, if they do exist, they risk tearing out the wood on such a delicate project. With scratch stock, you can work in both directions, so you are always working with the grain; you can work slowly; you won't burn the wood, as is the case sometimes with router bits; and you can cut multiple profiles on the same blank by utilizing each corner.

For blanks, I use old band saw blades I picked up—for free—from a lumber yard that was throwing them out.

With a tiny profile like this, it was easier to use the edge of a file as a saw rather than a hacksaw to create the 3/32" wide tooth needed to rout the groove. You can use layout fluid to mark your shape, but a pen worked fine in this case.

Once the profile was filed, I honed the shape flat on all surfaces with waterstones. You need very sharp edges for scratch stock to work well.

It took about an hour to make the cutter, but routing a groove takes only minutes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Reference Ruler

I've always liked Stephen Shepherd's wooden reference ruler he places in his photographs so that readers have a sense of scale. So I decided to make my own out of cherry and bloodwood.

You can cut the 1" pieces by hand, but I used a crosscut sled on my table saw* along with some scrap pieces—one used as a stop block and one to protect my fingers.

The jig I had built to make some picture frames worked well at keeping the pieces square during clamping. A sheet of wax paper between the jig and the workpieces kept the two from being glued together.

The ruler is thick enough to stand vertically without toppling over but thin enough to be positioned relatively close to the object I'm shooting.

After glue up, I handplaned the ruler smooth using my favorite jig.

Cherry and bloodwood when first planed are contrasting in color, but over time, if left in sunlight, will both turn a dark reddish brown. That diminishes the effectiveness of the ruler if you can't see the line of demarcation between each inch.

So, I plan to build a special little box for it.

I just hope my metal rulers don't get jealous.

*Be sure to use the blade guards and safety features that come with your power equipment.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wish I Had A Plow Plane

The sawbuck table I'm reproducing has a drawer with runners that slide within dadoes that are cut into the sliding dovetailed stretchers.

I wasn't able to tell from the photo of the original sawbuck how the runners were applied to sides of the drawer and I wanted to try to be as true to the original as possible.

Roy Underhill brought his workbench to the WIA Conference and as luck would have it, a little drawer was to be found beneath the work surface like the one on the sawbuck table (Roy's bench, top photo). I figure that Roy's drawer runners are historically accurate, so I'll make mine the same.

I laid out the dadoes with a marking gauge and had planned to cut them with a router plane as I've done before, but as a seeker of variety, I wanted another option.

"Sure wish I had a plow plane."*

Then I remembered a tool I had bought at a farm auction for $25 about 15 years ago that I had never used. When I bought it I had no idea how to fix it up or sharpen the blades, but it was a cool-looking tool at a cheap price so it followed me home. And lucky for me the guys at the auction were more interested in plows than in plow planes.

I found out later that it's a Sargent Combination Plane—a cheaper version of the Stanley Combination Plane. There are 21 cutters with different profiles, including ones used to cut dadoes. For more information on combination planes, check out the Cornish Workshop, here and here.

The plane and cutters need to be cleaned of dirt and superficial rust, but I took it for a test run nonetheless and it worked very well. Some of the cutters look as though they've never been used.

*I wonder if I wish for a Lie-Nielsen jointer plane I'll suddenly remember that I have one!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Woodturning is Like Softball

I played third base in fastpitch softball for 26 years.

During that time, I snagged line drives that were travelling so fast, bystanders were looking in the outfield to see where the ball had landed, not realizing it had been caught.

I hit pitches that were screaming toward me at 85 mph from only 40 feet away. I dove for grounders, slid headfirst into bases, and was bloody most every game.

People thought I was fearless.

And then came the game when both of our catchers were sick. I was asked to fill in. No prob, right? Wrong. I gained new respect for catchers that day.

When a batter swings a lethal weapon in front of your face as a ball the size of a grapefruit is careening toward your head, you'd better have nerves of steel. Or be wearing adult diapers.

But because there were onlookers and because I would never let my team down, I hung in there and didn't embarrass myself, but I sure was glad when the game was over.

As a newbie turner with very few hours of lathework under my belt, I had never had a mishap.....until a few days ago. The gouge I was using snagged the wood and the workpiece snapped in two and came flying toward my face (I was wearing a mask). It missed, but my nerves were shot.

I'm back at the lathe today but pretty jumpy. What should take a half an hour to turn is taking hours.

The lathe has made a girl out of me.

Maybe if I had onlookers or better yet, catcher's equipment, I'd at least be able to fake fearlessness.

Or maybe I should just buy some Depends.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Fun with Roy

Here are some photos of Roy Underhill (man of a thousand expressions) on set in the Woodwright's Shop and on a roadtrip to Berea, where he visited Don Weber and Warren May.

In the first few images, the men with Roy, Marcus Hansen and Ed Wright, both of whom are finish carpenters at Colonial Williamsburg, are using a fancy ellipse machine. To see one in use, check out Stephen Shepherds's video and read about it here.

In mid-September, Roy visited Don Weber's shop where he got a first hand look at Don's reproduction 12th c. Viking chest (at left). You can read more about it on Mitch Roberson's blog.

Warren's May's shop is the last photo, where Roy is examining Warren's dulcimers.


Photos are presented with kind permission from the Woodwright's Shop's cameraman & photographer, Mike Oniffrey.