Sunday, February 27, 2011

Making a Level: Part II

I spent some time this weekend working on the level that I started a couple weeks ago.

This is not a difficult project, but it can take longer than expected if the only shop time you've been getting is somewhere between "none" and "if you blink, you'll miss it."

(I know that all my brothers and sisters in wood can relate.)

I squared up one edge of the wood blank with a handplane.  Referencing off this edge, I marked the layout lines for the mortise that would house the vial. The antique levels I bought came in handy for determining the proper depth and length of the mortise.

I used a drill press to remove the bulk of the waste and squared it up with chisels. Then I used a gouge to round the ends so the mortise matched the shape of the antiques. You can also use a drill bit if you have the appropriate diameter.

The brass top plate became the template for the wood blank which I rough-shaped at the bandsaw.  You can also use a fret, coping, or scroll saw to make the same cuts.

The fastest way I found to remove the majority of the excess wood was with chisels and gouges.  Then, I used sandpaper-wrapped dowels to finalize the shape of the curves. Files worked well on fine-tuning the flat facets.

If you haven't tried shaping wood before, this project is a nice introduction to what many of us find to be a meditative experience.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SAPFM: New Regional Chapter

The Society of American Period Furniture Makers is opening a new chapter which includes Maryland, southern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington D.C., northern Virginia, and West Virginia.

The first meeting is scheduled for Saturday, April 9, from 10:00-4:00 in Rockville, Maryland and features a demonstration called "Carving the Cabriole Leg for a Low Bedstead by Kaare Loftheim." Kaare Loftheim is the Journeyman Cabinetmaker in the Hays Cabinetmaking Shop at Colonial Williamsburg.

The price is only $20 and includes lunch. Membership to SAPFM is not required, but is encouraged.

Reservations are needed by March 1.  If you would like to attend, email Bert Bleckwenn at as soon as possible.

Bert can give you directions to the meeting along with more information about the organizaton or you can shoot me an email and I'll forward the pdf files about the event to you:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why, I oughta...

Frugal and Old School.

I've been called both by a certain partner who mocks me for wearing socks with holes and sneakers with soles worn paper-thin.

Ah, but I sure have some nice tools.  We all have our priorities.

Which is why, when my 15-year-old plastic desk calendar met with an abrupt demise last week due to the uncharacteristic actions of a mild mannered graphic designer who momentarily lost her cool at work, I was reluctant to replace it with a newfangled, electronic gadget with which to record my daily activities.

My partner incorrectly surmised that this event was "the universe beckoning me to join the 21st-century."

What a bunch of hooey.

So, I made tracks to the nearby office supply store to buy a plastic base replacement for the loose calendar pages.

Two cardboard boxes of replacements were on the shelf. To my dismay, I discovered that one had been torn open and was completely empty. The other box was mangled and contained only the plastic base—the U-shaped metal tangs that are used to lock the calendar pages in place were missing.

Not a problem.  I had frugally, nay, wisely saved the metal tangs from my broken calendar base.

I considered purchasing the incomplete product, when I suddenly remembered, "Hey...I'm a woodworker, by gum!"

Back on the shelf went the battered box. And I went home. To my shop. Where I made my own darn calendar base from a piece of cherry.

I saved $10 and I have a much prettier desk calendar to greet me at work each day. It will look spiffy next to my rolodex holder.

The universe was imploring me to get with the times? Horsefeathers!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Adjustable Levels: What's Under The Hood?

I had hopes of making an adjustable, rather than fixed level, but after taking apart one of the antiques I bought, I see that I lack the necessary skills to do so.

This E. Preston and Sons level (foreground in the first image) includes plumb and level vials, each of which are housed in a "vial casket" (which sounds more like a shoddily constructed sarcophagus than it does an encasement for a spirit level).

The adjustment for both vials relies on a pinned hinge, spring, and machine screw.

The screw slides through the spring and threads into a tapped metal cup that supports the spring. By tightening or loosening the screw, the casket is pulled closer to or pushed further away from the brass top plate. 

It's a clever way to maintain the accuracy of the level. But how do you determine level in the first place?

Several commenters in the last post offered good suggestions. I had planned to find the most level surface in my shop by using manufactured levels and then shimming accordingly. Of course, who's to say that they're accurate?

Instead, I've decided to do as the Romans did by using a trough (in this case, a long glass baking pan), marking a line on each end at the same height from the bottom of the pan, filling it with water, and sitting it on a flat surface in my shop. Then, I'll shim as needed.

After that, I'll lay a large sheet of brass on top of the pan on which to place my shop-made level.  (A sheet of metal rather than wood because it's more likely to be perfectly flat.)

Old vials which did not have adjustment mechanisms relied on plaster to seat the vials.  I'm thinking of using silicone sealer instead because it will remain flexible as the wood expands and contracts with the seasons.

And speaking of vials, you may wonder where I got those two lovely glass ones at the top of the page. Thank you to my friend, Charles Davis, for sending these original, unused Stanleys to me.

They have black lines which help determine when the bubble is centered. Vials that did not have these lines required a center strip of brass on the brass top plate, which can be seen on the Preston level.

The glass vials that Charles sent are curved in a shallow arc to help the bubble find center.

Vials that were not curved made it nearly impossible to center the bubble. The most minute movement in the angle of the level caused the bubble to shoot toward one end of the glass or the other.

That's what I call a vial with a vile temperament.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On The Level

According to Don Rosebrook's excellent resource book American Levels and their Makers, the first levels, which consisted of an A-frame and plumb bob, were developed by the ancient Egyptians. 

Early Romans devised an instrument that's the ancestor to the type of level we're familiar with today.  They used a flat-bottomed trough containing water. When the water reached the same level along the inside walls of the trough, the device would be level.  Simple, but effective.

The use of a tube filled with fluid (wine, in this case) and an air bubble dates back to the 1600s and is credited to Dr. Robert Hooke, an English philosopher.

The levels that are featured in Rosebrook's book are primarily mid to late 19th century.  Woods used during that time include beech, boxwood, cherry, ebony, mahogany, rosewood, and others—heavy, dense, and stable wood.  High-end levels were made of rosewood and often had the most metal trim, some of which was ornate.

This is where my level comes in.  Like many women, I like shiny things.  But not so much on my fingers or ears as on my tools.

I spied what I think is probably a craftsman-made level (because of its shape) in Tony Murland's collection, and decided it was "the one."  A tiny image and one measurement (length) is my reference. Based on this I'm making my level with a .125" strip of brass and a cherry blank. The final dimensions will be 1.5" thick (inlcuding the brass) x 1.75" wide x 10.5" long.

I cut the brass on my new scroll saw (a stress-shopping purchase) with metal-cutting blades, filed it smooth, and screwed it to the cherry blank.

The next steps will be to cut the mortise for the vial, cut the blank to shape, add brass corners to the bottom, and mount the vial.

This is a very fun little project which should get some use in my shop. It would also make a nice gift for someone who likes shiny things.

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, after all.


Thank you to the commenters who found some helpful links:
Machinists' center drill for starting screw holes in brass.
Slotted brass screws.
More slotted brass screws.
Thread about replacing level vials.
Level vials.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

17th Century New England Carving DVD

Many of you are familiar with Peter Follansbee who builds authentic reproduction 17th century New England furniture and writes the blog Joiner's Notes.

Peter works almost exclusively in oak. He splits the logs, planes the boards, carves them, and joins them. From start to finish, he works wood exactly as they did three centuries ago.

Most of his pieces include ornately carved designs which mimic those found in museums and private collections—pieces he has examined first-hand.

Lie-Nielsen produced an 88-minute video in late 2010 featuring Peter and his carving techniques. In the movie, Peter explains the tools and materials, and the postures and grips needed to replicate these patterns.

You only need a few carving tools (he uses four or five gouges and a v-tool, awl, dividers, square, ruler, marking gauge, punches, and mallet) in order to produce this style of carving. This is great news for those who would like to try their hand at it but who don't want to part with a ton of money.

The proper handling of tools, and the procedure for carving decorative motifs and three different patterns are thoroughly covered. Peter starts with some practice cuts, followed by a simple repetitive design and two more layouts which escalate in increasing complexity upon the first.

Peter very clearly and concisely explains and demonstrates his techniques. He removes all the guesswork and leaves you feeling confident about being able to accomplish this style of carving.

The video captures various angles while Peter is working—close up and far away—so you can see his stance, the way he holds the tools, and the cuts he's making.

Included in the DVD are pdfs of some simple layouts, a glossary of terms, a list of selected reference material, and a photo which shows the incisions made by Peter's tools so you can see the sizes and sweeps of the gouges.

If you are interested in learning to carve pieces like this, the video will definitely help you. Combine that with the vast amount of knowledge that Peter generously offers for free on his blog, and you will have a firm grasp on how to do it.

In case you've never seen Peter in action, you can view a video I shot of him at the WIA Conference in 2009 which shows some of his fancy moves.

Here is a link to an article that Peter wrote for Woodwork magazine in 2009 which shows one of the patterns that is featured in his DVD.

Peter was featured on a Woodwright's Shop episode—season 27, number 2701. Here is the link.

The photo of the carved box is from Peter Follansbee's website.
The photo of Peter is one I took at WIA.