Friday, March 28, 2008

Useless Mallet

A few years ago, one of the guys in my woodworking club suggested that each of us build something using only $5 worth of wood to use in a gift exchange at our annual Christmas party. I thought about making a cutting board in the shape of a handplane but decided to make a mallet instead.

I wanted to be sure the mallet's head wouldn't come flying off someday in use and injure the gift recipient, so I worked out a design where the portion of the handle that fits inside the head has scalloped sides, and fits into a matching dado carved into the head. Since the head was to be laminated, it was easy to cut the channel, fit the handle, and glue it up.

Mallets take a lot of abuse, so to ensure that the laminated parts would stay glued together, I ran square pegs all the way through from one side to the other and glued them in place.

Since this was to be a gift, I chose some nicer woods: apple and walnut for the mallet; and purpleheart and yellowheart for the pegs. And, because I was going to give the mallet away, I went ahead and made two, so I could keep one to use in my shop.

That was four years ago. Notice anything odd about my four year old mallet? There are no dings or dents. Lesson learned: if you're going to make a mallet, don't use pretty wood, or you won't want to use it.

Fortunately, at the Christmas party, I was the happy recipient of a mallet that one of the other guys made. Even more fortuitous, his mallet was built to be used.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tom Law: HandSaw Sharpening Guru

Last night's woodworking club meeting featured Tom Law, an expert in sharpening handsaws. Tom is well known in the handtool world, and I was excited to meet him in person. He brought with him a bevy of saws and talked about the specific differences in each. He made the cherry handle on the saw, shown below. When you grip the handle in one hand, you rest your other hand on top of the handle and hook your thumb inside the smaller of the two holes in the handle. So, it's a two-handed operation.

I like unusual tools, so my eye was immediately drawn to the saw in the last photo. According to Tom, it was used to make access holes in flooring, by making a drop cut. I thought it looked like something from a Civil War doctor's tool kit.

Tom talked about the "hang" of a saw when you pick it up and grip it to see if it feels right. He said a saw will talk to you when it's the right one for you. So weird...I was just having a conversation the other day with my block plane, Jack, about that very subject.

Prior to the Depression, a variety of handsaws could be found with different teeth configurations, and saws were custom made according to specifications. He swears by the old handsaws for their superior craftsmanship, saying that a saw must be hand sharpened to achieve the best results—that subtleties can be made by eye that can't be made with a machine.

Knowing virtually nothing about handsaws, I was interested to learn that the line of teeth are either in a straight line or have a crown in the middle. The crown adds some oomph when the saw cuts through the wood at the point at which you are applying the most force.

He showed one saw (the one he brings to show how not to sharpen) where the fellow who sharpened it must have been a hair stylist. Because the line of teeth, instead of being straight or with a crown, had a permanent wave.

Tom produced a video on saw sharpening and travels around to various clubs, freely sharing his knowledge with woodworkers. He also teaches classes on sharpening all kinds of tools and on tricks of the trade. I bought a copy of his video. Now I just need to hit some antique stores to find some old saws. I'm not willing to cut my teeth on my Lie-Nielsens.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Lettercarving, Part II

Lettercarving is a great way to enhance your work. To carve a letter "O", or any curve, you must know in which direction to slice the wood in order to avoid tearout. The diagram shows you the direction of the cut on both the outside and inside curves. The horizontal lines represent wood grain, the dotted line is the stop cut, and the arrows show the direction in which to slide the chisel or gouge. When you slice in the correct direction, the wood fibers are continually supported ahead of the cut. If you were to cut in the opposite direction, the wood fibers ahead of the cut are too short to support the fibers you are slicing, resulting in tearout.

In the diagram, the points at which two arrows meet are at the top, bottom, and sides and show where you need to switch the direction of your cut. You can start cutting at any of these junctures and stop when you get to the next one. You will need to feather the junctures with very thin slices in order to obtain a smooth transition.

When cutting a curve, the outside wall is concave, and is therefore carved with a gouge, while the inside wall is convex and is carved with a straight chisel (which is always bevel up).

A gouge requires that you hold the handle at a steeper angle in relation to your work surface. A straight chisel is held at 20 degrees, while a gouge is held at 40 degrees. A gouge held at a lower angle will result in a wider side wall that will reach beyond the middle of the letter. As with carving a straight letter in part I, keep the cutting edge of both the gouge and chisel at 45 degrees to your pencil line.

Where the letter is thinner, in this case the top and bottom, the depth of cut will be more shallow, since you are always maintaining the same compound angle with both chisel and gouge.

Once you understand in which direction to cut, based on the grain, you can apply this technique to any letter or design that has curves.

I used a 12mm straight chisel and a 12mm gouge with a 3 sweep to cut the letter.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Push Stick with Tote

Clearly, I'm a woman with too much time on her hands.

In trying to come up with a safe way to rip thin boards on the table saw, I built this push stick that, with a handle on the front and a handle on the back* (and both mortised into the body), maintains uniform pressure along the length of the stock and keeps my fingers safely away from the blade. The blade guard and splitter have been removed for clarity. (I do NOT condone removing the safety features on a table saw. Removing the blade guard and splitter is dangerous!) The push stick works even better with a feather board putting pressure along the side of the board, which in turn, keeps it tight against the fence.

Last night, at the women's woodworking club meeting, where we were making cutting boards and ripping skinny stock, I used my suped up push stick. One woman suggested that I patent and sell the design to other woodworkers.

Nah...who the heck has time to build one of these?

*Someone way more wise than me pointed out that it's safer to put your hand on top of the tote (the handle in the back), rather than curl your fingers around the handle like you would a handsaw. The reason for this is, in case the spinning blade grabs the push stick for some reason, you can easily pull your hand back and away from the blade.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lettercarving, Part I

There are several techniques used for lettercarving. I have seen people use a chip carving knife; use chisels and gouges to chop down into a letter from its outside edges; and use a router.

Here is another way—a slicing method. The greatest benefit to using this method is you need only one straight chisel and one straight gouge* (with a 3 sweep) to cut virtually any letter, depending on the size of the letter. I have 4 sets of one chisel and one gouge that range in size from 1mm to 20mm. Smaller letters require smaller chisels and gouges; that's why I have 4 sets.

Using a simple sans serif "I" as an example, make stop cuts with a mallet and a vertically-held chisel along the length and in the center of the letter. You do not have to cut very deep and definitely not as deep as the final depth of the letter. Stop cuts do exactly that—they keep your slicing cut from going further across the grain than you intend.

To cut the right side of the letter, the chisel handle is in your right hand while your left hand guides the cut. Switch hands when cutting the left side. If you train yourself to be ambidextrous, you'll save time by not having to continually turn your workpiece around to make a cut.

Bevel up, the cutting edge of the chisel is 45 degrees to your pencil line. Tip the angle of the chisel up, in relation to the flat surface of your workpiece, about 20 degrees. Maintaining this compound angle, push the chisel into the wood, but not so far that you cut into the wall of the other side of the letter, and slide the chisel forward along your pencil line. Ideally, it should take two passes with the chisel on each side of the letter to pop the center piece out. With the second pass, maintain that compound angle, and ride the back, flat surface of the chisel along the bed of the first cut. You can make sheer, slicing cuts with the chisel if the second pass wasn't perfectly aligned with the first.

Cutting the top and bottom of the letter is the same technique—maintain the compound angle and use two passes with the chisel. Clean up the valley created where two walls meet by working in from all sides and into the crevice. Don't be overly picky. One: chances are you'll add stain or paint to your workpiece, which will conceal some errors, and two: it's a good thing for people to know the lettering was carved by hand. Too perfect, and it looks like a machine created it, and it loses its charm (but that's just my opinion).

Use a chisel that is wider than one side of the letter. This way, one corner of the cutting edge is buried in the wood, while the other corner is above the workpiece (and therefore, won't dig into the nice, flat facet you just created). I'll show how to add serifs and cut curves in another post.

*Every once in a while, you may need to buy a gouge with a more pronounced sweep.
The chisel in the photos is a 20mm straight chisel.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Roman Woodworking

My mom surprised me last week with a book I've been wanting to read for a long time (thanks, Mom!), but for which I was reluctant to part with $85. Roman Woodworking, by Roger B. Ulrich, is according to the back cover, "...the standard reference for students and scholars seeking a broad understanding of ancient woodworking." In other words, it's a text book.

As Mom handed the book to my wide-eyed, Oh-my-God-you're-the-best-Mom-ever self, a short verbal exchange ensued.
Mom: Are you actually going to read that book?
Me: Well, of course.
Mom: But it has all those WORDS in it!

Following are some of the words. I've only read a few pages and skimmed others, but was very surprised to see the list of tools Romans used, including: chisels with ferrules, hollow sockets, and tangs, paring and mortising chisels, gouges and knives, bow and drill, mallets, bench planes, frame saws, lathes, drawknives, spokeshaves, saws, hammers, iron wedges, calipers, compasses, plumb bobs, rulers, framing squares, axes, adzes, and clamps with threaded handles.

Types of joinery: miter, butt, half-lap, tongue and groove, dovetail, blind dovetail, half dovetail, mortise and tenon, rabbets (rebates), and finger joints.

And glue! They used glue made from fish, bull-hide—the choicest parts being ears and genitals (TMI, Dr. Ulrich)—and boiled cow horns and hooves.

Sounds like a mid-19th c. shop, doesn't it? Surprisingly, an illustration in the book of a sliding lid, dovetailed box, looks identical to one I built. Seems like woodworking didn't change all that much until the Industrial Revolution. In fact, I have many of the same tools in my shop and use most of the same joinery techniques as the Romans. Hmmm...maybe I should check the label on my Titebond III wood glue. If I see any ingredient that resembles "bull", I'm throwing it out.

For a more scholarly write-up on this book, head over to Gary Robert's Toolemera site for his post on Roman Woodworking.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Signs of Spring

I start coughing, our forsythia starts blooming, and the noisy heating system in my shop mercifully shuts off due to the brilliant sunshine heating up the South-facing wall of windows.

I'm sure most woodworkers look forward to Spring as much as I do, when we can open the windows in our shops and breathe fresh air, instead of sawdust and paint thinner, and share the noises emitting from our planers and table saws with our appreciative neighbors.

How do I know my neighbors appreciate the melodious tunes of my power tools? Because whenever they see me, they wave like crazy. The odd thing is, the neighbors on both sides of my house must have experienced a similar unfortunate accident that claimed all but the middle finger on their right hands. Despite this, they wave. God love 'em.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Improved Marking Gauge

Marking & mortising gauges have conical-shaped points where the gauge marks the workpiece. The shape of these points produces some amount of tear out when marking across the grain.
It also creates a wide mark. This can be good if you have trouble seeing up close, but if you need dead-on accuracy and prefer clean marks, file a flat on the side of the point that faces the fence of the gauge. If you are using a mortising gauge, file the two inside faces of the points. The difference in track marks between conical points and knife-edge points is shown in the top photo.

If you have an antique marking gauge, you may need to flatten the fence on a sheet of sandpaper. The fence on my antique gauge has two strips of brass that, when I bought it, stood proud of the wood, each to a different degree. One strip was about 1/32" proud, and the other, a bit more. I resurfaced it on a sheet of sandpaper that I fixed to my jointer bed until the brass strips were flush with the face of the wood fence. A dead-flat face (why does that sound scary?) will improve the performance of the gauge.

It could be that the gauge was made this way intentionally, with the brass not flush with the wood fence. But by relying on two thin pieces of brass to maintain a consistent distance between the fence and the edge of your workpiece, you risk making a wobbly line when you reach the end of your workpiece and one strip of brass is no longer in contact with its edge.

In short: a knife-edge and a flat face will improve your marksmanship.

Note added 3/12: in case you don't read comments, some readers are referring to Tage Frid's book that recommends filing a slight angle on the point so it will pull the gauge against the edge of the board.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Spill Plane: Finished

To finish the Spill Plane (progress posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), I first had to make the wedge pretty. You can shape it any way you like. I cut mine to length, marked off a flat area at the top & back end of the wedge with a combination square, removed the waste with a block plane, and sliced the corners off with a chisel.

For the remaining pieces, I chamfered all the edges with a block plane and file, both to protect the edges from getting damaged and to add another facet to catch the light, applied 4 coats of one of my favorite finishes, Watco Wipe-On Poly, exchanged the steel screws for brass ones, and decided the Spill Plane is sufficiently gussied up and ready for its new home.

You can make a Spill Plane any size you like. I believe many Spill Planes were user-made (someone correct me if I'm wrong) and that's why so many of the antique ones you come across all look so different from one another. Mine was made with just 4 pieces of wood and a blade, but as far as I'm concerned, the side escapement piece isn't necessary for the plane to work. You do, however, have to plow a channel below the cutting edge of the blade so the shaved wood has a place to peel off.

Here are the sizes of the pieces of this plane.
Body (Ambrosia Maple): 3 x 12 x 1.75
Top (Walnut): 1.875 x 12 x .625
Side Escapement (Walnut): 2.3125 x 12 x .75
Wedge (Ambrosia Maple): 2 x 4.9375 x .875
Blade: 2 x 6 x .125

Recently, I attended an antique tool auction where a Spill Plane went for $180! I made this one for about $15. To think that the user-made planes were built with few tools but lots of ingenuity just amazes me. Because they were made by people who didn't have the arsenal of tools many of us hobbyists have today, and because they were probably made in a hurry (to serve a purpose), antique user-made Spill Planes aren't typically as clean cut as the one I built....but they most certainly have more character.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Interview with Bess Naylor

Bess Naylor, owner of Olde Mill Cabinet Shoppe in York, PA, is a woodworker and instructor in period American furniture, particularly in the Queen Anne, Chippendale and Pennsylvania German styles, and constructs her pieces with the same kind of tools used in the 18th century.

Bess is also a master finisher and can make a newly made piece look 300 years old. Some museum curators have suggested that she needs to start signing her furniture because in 50 years it may be difficult to distinguish her pieces from an original antique.

VC: How did you get started in making period furniture?
Bess: Probably the fault of my mother and grandmother, developing in me at an early age, the love of old pieces, particularly family pieces. They taught me a lot about finishes and how to re-finish. As I pursued my professional degrees, I still came back to old furniture or old family pieces that were in need of repair and re-finishing. When my kids were very young, we decided to try a woodworking business so I "retired" from the faculty at the University of Maryland and became a business woman. My love of chemistry and colorants started it all, as well as a love and committment to teaching (and learning) every facet of wood, especially antiques. I always tried to go up the food chain to whomever seemed to know more. They were the people I wanted to hang out with.

VC: You use authentic tools & techniques as well as hardware made specifically for each of the pieces you build. What drives your desire to be so historically accurate?
Bess: I have always been taught that if something is worth doing, then do it right. Right, to me, means being authentic to the period in tools, hardware and finishes. Perhaps I am just bonkers.

VC: Do you have a favorite tool or set of tools?
Bess: Probably my Barr bench chisels and my norris shoulder plane. Some of Tod Herrli's planes are high on that list as well. And my dovetail saw. I might take them with me when I go—you never know what is around the next bend!

VC: Of the pieces you have built, do you have a favorite?
Bess: Right now the Evans Escrutoire (top photo). It does not have any carving on it, but a real challenge in the joinery department (VC adds: the tricky joinery is due at least in part to the 7 secret drawers, one of which is the entire front piece of crown molding!). And to realize the original of this piece was built in a shop with very few tools, at a time when substinence living was all there was—it is really humbling at how creative and hardworking our ancestors were. A close second is a miniature William and Mary high chest/spice chest—a beaut!! (VC concurs...I have seen this piece!)

VC: What do you love most about period furniture?
Bess: A sense of where the originals came from, the time period, the builders. The tools and materials available to them. A true sense of history—and survival!!

VC: What is your advice for someone who would like to start building period furniture?
Bess: Pick up a tool and try! And most of all—do not be intimidated to make a mistake. Make them—make lots of them. Then learn how to correct them all and then train yourself not to repeat them. Move on to new mistakes! And new fix-its! Read, read, read. Study collections in museums and private collections whenever available. And study whenever possible with someone who knows more than you do. Don't be egotistical—you can learn lots from unexpected places and people.

VC: Can you recommend resource material?
Bess: Auction catalogs and good, solid publications from reputable museums. There is lots of information available, but some is more misleading than really helpful, especially regarding true period furniture. Be cautious of your sources.

VC: What is the one question you wished I had asked and how would you answer it?
Bess: Probably why?? Why be driven to reproduce with careful accuracy and authenticity?? Not sure other than it is a lifelong disease. The more I learn and do, the more I want to learn and do. I want to get better, faster, smarter....there are truly too many pieces that I would love to make and finish, like a fabulous japanned high chest. But right now, I am not building for myself, so that will have to wait for another day.

Be sure to check out Bess's website——to see the classes she is offering this year. There are some amazing projects!