Monday, November 16, 2009

A Visit to Fine Woodworking

Last week, Fine Woodworking presented a live stream competition between Asa Christiana (armed with a random orbit sander and sanding block) and Michael Pekovich (equipped with a #4 LN hand plane and block plane) to see which method prepares a finished surface the fastest.

I was invited to twitter and blog about the event, and even though I had to take a day off work (tragic), I decided to go.

I was welcomed with warm greetings, introductions to all the FWW staff, an opportunity to peruse the workshop, and a tour of the cubicle farm. Do most cubicle farms have a nice stash of wood in each person's work space?

Both Asa and Michael were given parts for a small cherry side table that had been milled with a jointer, planer and table saw. Complete with burn marks.

About 24 other woodworkers and I watched and asked questions while the men prepared finished surfaces.

Part of Michael's time included sharpening his plane blades on 1000, 4000, and 8000 grit waterstones. He used two jigs as bench stops (photos 1 and 2)—an offcut from a leg was used to support the angled part of the legs as he planed them—and took time to resharpen his blades before final passes.

Asa started with 100 grit sandpaper and worked his way up to 220 with the orbital sander. He doubled up the legs so he could use the power sander without rounding over the edges, and on small parts, he used a sanding block. A jig with a hacksaw blade (photo 3) handily sliced the sandpaper to the correct width.

Michael chamfered all the edges, even the bottoms of the table legs, with a block plane. Asa knocked off the corners with a sanding block.

One thing seemed obvious: it's easier to plane away burn marks than it is to sand them away, especially on end grain. However, Asa said that if you have difficult grain that doesn't plane well, sandpaper wins. Even Michael uses sandpaper (and scrapers) on areas that tear out no matter how sharp your plane iron.

Both men prefer not to put a final finished surface on the non-show sides of a piece, like underneath the table top; they like to see tool marks.

After the competition, they each put a coat of oil on the table tops and the audience voted on the best looking board. The planed surface (at left) won hands down, although not with a unanimous vote. The sanded surface did not have the same sheen as the planed surface and also appeared darker. However, both men said that if a surface is sanded to 600 grit, you cannot tell the difference between a sanded and handplaned surface.

They also agreed that sanding to 600 grit has a burnishing affect that acts as a blotch inhibitor on woods, like cherry, which can appear patchy when an oil finish is applied.

In this particular case—regarding the type of wood and project—a handplane won in speed and appearance. But the bottom line is that both handplanes and sandpaper serve a purpose in our shops.