Friday, February 29, 2008

Nature vs. Nurture

There have never been woodworkers in my family. My hobby as a kid was drawing, and as a teenager, I built an easel so I could start painting. I remember getting enormous satisfaction in figuring out how to build that easel and, simple as it was, it worked well (and it was adjustable!). In college (school of the arts) I remember having more fun building and stretching canvasses than applying paint to them. (Should have been a clue, maybe?)

At 28, I moved into my current home which had, and still has, a chunky, heavily-used workbench, with machinist vise, in the basement. My desire to accessorize my home exceeded my budget, so it occurred to me that I might be able to use that bench to build some of the simpler things. So, with hammer, jigsaw, and drill in hand, I started building.

Wanting to build more complex things, but having no idea how, I bought this book....and that's when I had a watershed moment. This book changed my life. I pored over every page, studied every tool, every cut, every detail. And in it, my passion for woodworking was uncovered.

I saved for an entire year to buy my first major tool: a contractor-style table saw. During that year, I carried in my purse a folded-up article and picture of that saw, studying it frequently and thinking about all of the things I wanted to build.

That was over 15 years ago.

I wonder if I would have discovered my passion if there hadn't been a workbench in my basement or if there had been other turns of events that prevented me from having the time and space to learn. Are we born with a passion that waits for an event that triggers it or is it molded through experiences, events, and interactions with others? Is a passion simply "there" or is it created?

I can still recall how it felt to first learn about woodworking. It's the same feeling, when as a six year old, I first started to learn to read. It went beyond excitement.

That last photo is one of the first things I built. I no longer decorate in the "9 year old boy, c. 1962, with fixation on the Lone Ranger" style.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's a Small [Blogging] World

A friend we met through blogging while he was stationed in Iraq recently came home. On his way from North Carolina to Wisconsin, he made a zigzag to meet us for dinner in Pennsylvania last night. Welcome home, Wyldth1ng! Pictured are Presbyfruit, me, Wyld, and Ladyburg : 4 blogging addicts....and here's a cute picture of my dog.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ultra-Secret Drawer

If you want to add the ultimate secret drawer to a piece of furniture, construct it so that even YOU can't reveal its contents!

While working on the PA German Hanging Cupboard, whose photo is shown in the sidebar, I decided to add a hidden drawer above one of the top two drawers, since both had so much empty space above them inside the cupboard. Carefully measuring for size from the back of the cupboard (since I hadn't yet added the boards for the back) I painstakingly handcut the dovetailed secret drawer, handcut dadoes for drawer runners, installed the runners so the hidden drawer would hang suspended above the top drawer, and inserted the drawer (still working from the back of the cupboard).

Walking around front to admire my handiwork, I reached in to remove the drawer. Uh oh. Forgot all about the faceframe that makes the drawer opening smaller in the front than in the back of the cupboard. That drawer will never come out once the back is installed. (Insert expletive here.)

Question is, should I fix it or leave it as is? If I leave it, perhaps some 22nd century person will come across the cupboard at a flea market, take it home, discover the secret drawer, and become mightily irritated in trying to remove it....(Insert bad inner child giggle here.)

Photos top to bottom:
1) View from the back of the cupboard. The secret drawer rests on drawer runners above the top drawer.
2) The secret drawer.
3) View from the front of the cupboard with secret drawer in place and top drawer removed.
4) ¡@?!!X#!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Plug Cutter

Steve Latta taught me how to make a plug cutter from a piece of brass tubing in a class he taught on line & berry string inlay. Use a triangular file and file rip cut teeth on the end of the brass tube. I did a quick and crummy job on mine and it still cuts like a champ. One thing to remember is the tube will burn easily so wipe it down with a damp paper towel frequently.

Don't cut all the way through your wood because the plug might get stuck in the tube. Instead, cut part way through, put a piece of tape on top of the plugs and saw them off at the bandsaw. The tape keeps the plugs from falling out onto the floor and into the black hole that exists underneath all of our shop storage units.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Spill Plane Progress

I noticed that the face of the spill plane was way out of square to the sides. Here is one way to remedy the problem. Use your marking gauge to set the width of the shallow side, then referencing the fence off the same flat surface, run the gauge along the thicker side and both ends. This shows you how much to remove with a handplane. Check your progress until it's square.

To make the wedge, lay a scrap piece, along with the plane iron, in the bed of the plane blank and mark it with a pencil. Leave extra length on the wedge until you're ready for final fitting. I roughed the shape out on a band saw and then planed it smooth.

To drill the escapement hole, I made a simple jig to hold the plane blank. The angle of the jig needs to match the angle of the cutting edge of the blade as it's resting in the bed*. I clamped the blank to a piece of scrapwood to support the forstner bit as it drills the hole.

Two pieces of walnut, one to sandwich the wedge and iron in the blank and the other for the escapement hole, are attached with screws. Once you attach the first piece, you can final-fit the wedge. Tap the wedge in, along with the plane iron, and wiggle it a bit to see if it is providing even pressure along the blade. If it wiggles, that means the wedge is not properly seated and is rubbing on a high spot. When you pull the wedge out, you will see shiny spots on the wood. That's where it's rubbing. Plane, scrape, sand, or file that off and keep re-checking the fit until the wedge secures the blade in place solidly.

Before final shaping of the plane, I just had to check to see if it does! Now I have to make it look pretty by squaring up the ends, chamfering the edges, shaping the wedge, and giving it a shellac finish.

*This article was used extensively in making this plane. It provides construction details and photos that are a terrific reference.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I handcarved this phrase into the shelf of my tool cabinet in the hopes that one day, some 22nd century woodworker will find my cabinet at a dusty flea market and, thinking that there is some meaningful phrase chiseled into it, will take his new-found treasure home to find out what the puzzling, yet undoubtedly profound message says. After some research, he will discover that it's Latin for: How did you get your hair to do that?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sharpening a Plane Blade

At last count, there were exactly 3, 970, 000 ways to sharpen a plane iron. Well, maybe it just seems like that many. The point is, you have lots of techniques from which to choose, and all produce the same result—a sharp blade.

Here are photos showing how I sharpen a newly-made plane iron using a grinder and 800 and 8,000 grit waterstones. Make sure your stones are flat. I flatten mine sometimes twice during a job like this.

Flatten the back of the blade on an 800 grit stone. By gripping a piece of wood on top of the blade, you can apply greater downward pressure than you can with just your fingers. Keep the blade flat as you move it forward and backward on the stone and just concentrate on the 1/2" or 1" that is closest to the cutting edge. Once you have uniform flatness, do the same thing on an 8,000 grit stone until you achieve a mirror polish.

I hadn't sharpened the bevel on this blade completely before heat treating, so it's back to the grinder to finish sharpening before using the waterstones. Here is where you'll want to be sure to dunk the blade in water as you sharpen at the grinder so that you don't overheat the blade. Keep your fingers close to the cutting edge because if it's too hot for you, it's too hot for the blade, and you'll know to quench it.

For safety precautions, always wear a facemask at the grinder and let it run for a minute to warm up before grinding. You should also check to make sure your grinding wheel is not cracked. Do this by removing the wheel, slide a pencil through the center hole so it's suspended without you touching it, and tap it lightly with a plastic handle. It should ring like china. If you hear "thunk", throw it out.

You are finished with the grinder once you can no longer see light reflecting on the cutting edge. Next, secure the blade in a sharpening jig at the same angle you established at the grinder. In this case, 25 degrees. Start with the 800 grit stone and only sharpen on the pull stroke. When you have two flat surfaces on the bevel, move to the 8,000 grit stone without removing it from the jig. Once polished to a mirror finish, angle the blade up about 3 degrees in the jig (with some jigs, you don't have to reposition the blade; you can just turn a knob and it will steepen the angle for you) and create a micro bevel using the 8,000 grit stone only. A micro bevel is not necessary; it's just my preference.

You will now have a small burr on the back of the blade which can be removed with a few laps on the 8,000 grit stone.

You're done! That blade will now shave endgrain, hairy legs, and your neighbor's cat.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Heat Treating & Tempering a Blade

Before you heat treat and temper your plane iron, cut it to shape, because the untreated steel is much easier to cut and grind beforehand. There are a number of detailed articles online for the heat treating and tempering process, so here is just a brief rundown when working with O-1 tool steel.

I use one propane and one mapp torch (Why? Because that's the way I was taught). Clamp your steel in locking jaw pliers at an angle so that when you dunk it in the oil (I use peanut oil) and the oil flares up, you won't burn yourself. Position the blade in between the two flames, about 1" from both, so the blade is heated from both sides. Keep the blade moving so the heat is distributed equally across its width. Start heating the blade about 2" from the cutting edge. With a blade this thick and wide, it will take a while to get it hot enough (it took maybe 6 or 7 minutes). Once this part of the blade gets orange, start moving the flame toward the cutting edge until the entire 2" end is orange and glowing. Quench it quickly, dropping the blade straight down into the oil so the width of the blade is cooled equally, otherwise it may warp. The oil will flame for a bit. Keep moving the blade back and forth in the oil while it cools. I'd give it several minutes, then take it out, wipe it off, and let it cool enough for you to touch it.

Your blade will now be black. Before you temper it, you need to remove the black coating so that you can see the color of the blade as it's being tempered. You can remove the coating by rubbing the blade on a sheet of fine drywall screen or sandpaper that is resting on a reliably flat surface, like thick glass or granite.

Now you're ready to temper the blade. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour but keep an eye on it, as ovens temperatures vary. Other sources say 20 minutes at 400 degrees. When the blade becomes a straw color, it's done. Let it cool completely and you're ready for final sharpening.

You can get pretty technical with this whole process, and if you're a stickler for perfection or if you must have consistent and accurate results in making blades, you'll want to do more research than this post. But because I'm just a hobbyist, and chemistry and metallurgy make my brain hurt, this works just fine for my needs.

Here is another article on tempering steel, by Ron Hock, of Hock Tools.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Spill Plane Part II: Shaping the Blade

I purchased a .125" x 2" x 18" piece of O-1 (oil hardening) tool steel from MSC Direct to make the blade for the spill plane. I'm making the plane iron for several reasons: 1) it's less expensive than buying a finished one, 2) it's something to blog about, and 3) I'm trying to overcome my fear of propane torches.

After shaping the blade, I'll temper it with propane & mapp torches. I have done this several times before but every time I do, I'm convinced the tanks will blow up in my face and I'll have to change my blog name to The Village Dark(wo)man.

Dab layout fluid onto the steel and mark your cut. I like a rounded end on an iron, so I used a compass with a pencil. You can also mark it with an awl. Rough cut the shape with a hacksaw and clean it up on a grinder.

Incidentally, if your grinder is not shooting sparks, it has glazed over and you need to redress it.

I ground a 25 degree bevel on the cutting edge, but did not grind it sharp so that the end is not so fragile when I torch it. At this point, you do not have to be careful about overheating the blade since it still needs to be tempered.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Spill Plane, Part I

A friend who works for the York Agricultural & Industrial Museum asked if I would make a spill plane for the museum to be used in an interactive demonstration. Sure, but what does it look like? I had seen one only once before, and briefly, so I checked online and found some great articles here, here, and here.

I used the one posted on the WK Fine Tools site for the layout & construction process. After 3 bungled attempts at not being able to cut the bed so the iron’s cutting edge protrudes from corner to corner at the same height on the wood surface of the plane, I finally decided it was time to ask dad for help. Dad = retired nuclear projects engineer, i.e., dude with some serious brainpower.

Bracing myself for a dissertation on trigonomics, I handed him my mangled pieces of wood and a copy of the article and asked for his advice.

A mere 10 minutes later (thank you, God) he determined that there was an angle missing from the article and that I could actually salvage my last attempt.

Dad felt good about helping me solve the problem, but more importantly, I was able to remain in the dark where trig is concerned... and that's exactly where I want to be!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Landis Valley Museum

Yesterday, we toured the Landis Valley Museum, a living history museum showcasing PA German rural life, which includes historic buildings, demonstrations, workshops, and collections of early farm, craft and household objects.

German-speaking immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the 17th—19th centuries were self-sufficient tradesmen and farmers. We still see their influence today in Pennsylvania bank barns, so called because they were built into a bank or hillside that allowed wagons and large equipment to enter at the second floor. PA Germans designed the Pennsylvania long rifle and the Conestoga wagon, and brought with them craftmaking skills in redware (pottery), fraktur and scherenschnitt, and traditions that have become part of mainstream American culture—the Easter rabbit, decorated Easter egg, and Christmas tree.

Although the museum is very interesting, my main purpose for the tour was to take a few photos of a particular piece of furniture. 130 photos later, I believe I can build a reasonable facsimile of this piece, even though I could only get as close to it as the wall of glass would allow. I hope the curator doesn't mind a few noseprints.

Believed to have been built in 1750, although the date 1805 is carved into the drawer front, this sawbuck table's distinctively German feature is a top that can be lifted off by removing dowels so that it could be used elsewhere as a work surface. What also attracted me to this piece are the tusk tenon joinery and the baroque style of the legs.

In my shop, a huge plank of 12/4 cherry is anxiously waiting to be transformed into a little PA German sawbuck table.

Sawbuck Table photo is from Pennsylvania German Arts, by Irwin Richman.