• Tuesday, February 28th, 2023
Ruler Trick bevel-up blade

The late David Charlesworth’s “Ruler Trick” is a wonderfully efficient addition to your sharpening methodology. For those unfamiliar with it, please see his short video – it is easier to appreciate than a verbal description. It basically is a simple way to hone the steel only just behind the cutting edge on the flat side of a plane blade without having to work the entire flat side. The resultant tiny bevel is only about 1/2°. (See the thin bright line in the photo above.) Thus, you create two meeting surfaces of finely honed steel to make a sharp edge. 

It is often promoted primarily as way of efficiently commissioning a new blade. The “trick” is that you do not have to flatten the entire back or any sizable area of it, just that thin strip near the edge. For that alone, it is invaluable but it is even more useful in subsequent sharpenings to remove the wear bevel.

Here I must credit Brent Beach and his incredibly extensive and informative website. The “wear bevel,” simply put, is the rounded wearing of the top and bottom of the blade just behind the apex of the cutting edge. For both bevel-up and bevel-down planes, as the lower wear bevel develops, it requires you to push down harder on the plane to get it to cut. As the wear progresses, you sense the plane blade getting more dull. Notably, the lower wear bevel is greater for higher bevel-side honing angles in bevel-up planes, which are often used to reduce tear out. 

When we sharpen the bevel side of the blade in bevel-down planes, we are rectifying that lower wear bevel. We remake two clean surfaces meet and reestablish the clearance angle just behind the edge apex. 

Ruler Trick

A particular problem comes in bevel-up planes. That lower wear bevel is only addressed inasmuch as you effectively work on the flat side steel just behind the edge apex. If you do not fix the flat side, you have not effectively prepared the blade for work.

The practical reality is that it takes too much work to remove a layer of metal, albeit quite thin, over the whole back of the blade to remove the wear bevel on that side. Enter the Ruler Trick. It does it quick and easy. Brent Beach describes a steeper, more complicated “back bevel” but I think the Ruler Trick is a good compromise in practice, though I cannot quantify this. 

So, here is my point: while the Ruler Trick is very helpful for sharpening bevel-down plane blades, it is, as a practical matter, essential for sharpening bevel-up plane blades. Note too, that many specialty planes are also bevel-up, such as shoulder planes and router planes. They need the Ruler Trick too.

Next: What about chisels?

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• Monday, January 23rd, 2023
Renaissance wax

Adding paste wax over a shellac finish as described in Part 1 of this series makes for my favorite finish of all – when used in the right circumstances, of course. Wax also is a nice addition after satin wipe-on poly or satin water based finishes. 

Wax produces a beautiful luster and smooth feel. It does not, however, add significant protection for the wood. I would not use it on a tabletop. I actually wonder why I do not use it more often just on the outside of pieces such as a gently used cabinet or box. I guess I’m about satisfied with the appearance after, say, a gel varnish, and at that point in building maybe I’m getting lazy. 

I have always used Renaissance microcrystalline wax based on Krenov’s recommendation in The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking and I was reassured to read that it was Mark Schofield’s favorite of the 21 brands he reviewed in Fine Woodworking magazine #255 (July/August 2016, pp. 54-57). He found it easiest to apply, buffing was no problem, and it gave a medium sheen.

I apply it sparingly with a soft cloth and spread it in any convenient motion. Renaissance dries quickly so there is very little waiting to then buff off all the excess with a clean cotton cloth and produce that nice luster. Just like using Turtle Wax on dad’s car long ago, it is easy to apply too much wax or let it dry too long and thus create unnecessary work for yourself. 

Here I will mention a few other products that have worked well for me though I cannot offer comparative assessments. For mildly exposed outdoor work where UV protection is needed, I have had good luck so far with Epifanes Rapidclear varnish. It applies and flows out well.   


Once in a long while, I want black wood, just plain black, as a contrast trim element. General Finishes oil-based black Gel Stain works and beats dealing with an expensive exotic like Gaboon ebony. As a pigment stain, it is more reliable in the long run than a dye stain. 

black gel stain

For a low-key finish on food utensils, Howard’s Butcher Block Conditioner has done the job quick and easy. 

This is the last installment of this seven part series. By the way, now you can surmise which finishes I do not like for my work, including almost all stains and thick film finishes including French polish. 

The other aspect of finishing I do not like is the deliberate confusion and hype put forth by manufacturers, even some of those that make excellent products. Woodworking is rife with misleading nonsense from too many manufacturers of finishes and tools, which really exploits the long history and rich traditions of the craft. 

My goal here is to provide you with directly usable, honest, accurate, and clear information “from the sawdust and shavings of my shop.” I hope my efforts help your efforts in meaningful creativity.

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• Monday, January 23rd, 2023
Port Orford cedar

A finish that gets little attention in books and articles about finishing is no finish. Consider it.

Here are two examples. The panel in the frame-and-panel back of the cabinet shown above is quartersawn Port Orford cedar. The surface is exquisitely smooth direct from the hand plane with barely a touch of superfine sanding. I think it is a terrific look but just as nice is the spicy fragrance that greets you when the cabinet is opened. Any finish would spoil the fine appearance and would block the fragrance. The rest of the piece is finished. 

Two Japanese-style toolboxes that I made about ten years ago primarily from quartersawn Douglas fir are doing just fine without any finish. Of course they get dinged from equipment and tools but I think they wear the wounds better without finish. I do not think any finish would enhance their appearance, which is meant to be tough but peaceful, or their function, which meets the same criteria.

I also have a few items in poplar around the house that are not refined work so I simply did not bother to finish them. Yet they maintain a surprisingly nice appearance as the poplar has turned a soft tan, and they have held up well. 

We finish wood to enhance its appearance and protect it. I certainly would not want to leave curly maple unfinished and miss out on popping the curly figure, nor would I leave a table top vulnerable to taking up spilled drinks or sauces. 

So, for the great majority of woodwork, yes, we want to apply a nice finish. But not always. The point is to consider why you are finishing the object. Are you actually enhancing its appearance? Does it actually need protection? Is there some aspect of the wood from which a finish will detract? How can you best surface the wood if it is to have no finish?

You may decide in a few cases that no finish is the best option for all or part of the piece.

Next and last in this series: a few finishes I use only occasionally and some things I just do not like.

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• Tuesday, December 27th, 2022
GF Water Base satin

When I am considering no finish at all but just want to add some sheen, silkiness, and decent protection, I use a clear water based finish that produces no (or trace) color change and stays that way. The best example is pearwood to preserve its delicate beauty. Oiling pearwood should be considered a felony crime. Port Orford cedar, with its Zen-like beauty, is another example, though I usually use another finish for it, which I will discuss later in this series. 

General Finishes Water Based High Performance – Satin, a water based polyurethane-acrylic blend, is my go-to player for this. It is very transparent with only a trace of yellow color. It flows out and levels exceptionally well.

The method: I sand a tight diffuse porous wood like pear to 400 grit, which, when practical, may be nothing more than a light pass over a finish hand planed surface. I apply the finish with my Gramercy Tools Waterborne Finishes Brush. A Taklon brush is another good option but the GF flows out so well that even a foam brush works well enough. 

I lightly very fine sand when the first coat is dry enough to produce dry powder – about two hours if humidity is medium/low. Two fairly light coats are enough for the look I want. If I lay down the second coat carefully, it will need little rubbing out with a 2500 Mirlon pad and/or brown paper to end up with a silky surface. 

Other brand options that I have tried include: Hydrocote Resisthane Plus Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer, Clear Satin. This is an excellent product, nice and clear. It seems to brush close to as well as the GF, and is less expensive but not available local to me. I can pick up GF at my local Woodcraft but it is rather expensive. Minwax Polycrylic, also available locally, is also very clear but did not brush out as well for me. [Caution: I do not know if manufacturers’ formulations have changed since I last tried them.]

In summary, this is the finish I use when I want hardly any finish.

Next: a finish to consider that is hardly ever discussed in finishing books and articles

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• Monday, December 26th, 2022
Sam Maloof poly-oil

You can go a little crazy trying to sort out “oil” finishes, mostly because there is rampant misleading and uninformative labeling among manufacturers who often try to create a mystique surrounding their products. 

There are a few key points to help keep things straight:

1. Varnish, including wiping varnish such as Waterlox Original, should not be termed an “oil” finish, even though oil (along with a resin) is used in its manufacture. Varnish is a film finish; it cures hard and builds into film thicknesses on the wood.

2. Actual oil finishes, such as linseed oil and tung oil, do not cure hard and do not build appreciably as a film thickness. The exception is polymerized oil.

3. Oil-varnish mixes are just that. The presence of free oil prevents substantial build into a film thickness. These products are notoriously mislabeled as “oil,” such as Watco Danish Oil. 

Again, I refer you to Bob Flexner’s wonderfully clear instructive writings, especially his book Understanding Wood Finishing

Here I am discussing oil-varnish mix. Advantages of this finish include: easy application, nearly mistake-proof, brings out the figure in wood, gives a low key “natural” look, and does not obstruct visual and tactile contact with the wood. One particular place I do not use oil-varnish is inside cabinets or boxes because the smell can accumulate and linger.

My favorite oil-varnish for more than 30 years has been has been Sam Maloof Poly-Oil from Rockler. What is in it? The label says linseed oil, tung oil, polyurethane, and solvents. In what proportions? Who knows? 

What I do know is that it has a nice, thick body in application, it brings out wood figure beautifully without overdoing it, and four coats produce a nice satin sheen after buffing out with a rag. If you want a bit more glow, you can finish up with a paste wax or an oil-wax blend.  

The method: For an oil-varnish finish, it pays to sand the wood out to 320 or 400 grit, especially for diffuse porous species like cherry. I slop the stuff on with a rag and wipe off the excess along the grain within a few minutes. Later, I keep checking for “bleed back” of oil from the wood pores of ring-porous species like oak or walnut. I wipe away any little blobs before they start to firm up. This is usually only an issue on the first coat. I keep checking until there are no more blobs because they are a nuisance to sand away if they firm up.

It is difficult to tell by sight or feel when a coat is cured and ready for another coat, so I gauge by smell – once it is nearly gone with a quick sniff test, then it is time for the next coat. 

In my experience of trying several oil-varnish finishes, I am not convinced it necessarily makes much difference which oil-varnish mix you use. Watco, for example, is cheaper and I have gotten good results with it. However, I did not like Tried and True because it cured so slowly, at least in its older renditions. I did not find Bush Oil to be anything special. Just my opinions. Still my favorite is Sam’s stuff – maybe because Sam himself was so awesome.

A couple more points regarding “bringing out the grain.” This can sometimes backfire such as on some cherry boards where an oil-varnish mix can produce an unpleasant blotchy look. On the other hand, a single coat of oil-varnish might pleasingly emphasize figure and then you can follow up with a few coats of wiping varnish. Note that the oil-varnish must be cured (the smell is gone). Of course, the great rule of finishing applies – test first. 

Next: water-based finish

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• Sunday, December 25th, 2022
Minwax Poly satin

For tabletops that are expected to receive more punishment, there are two options that I employ as I briefly mentioned in the previous post. When I want the look of a non-film, “close to the wood” finish, I go with several coats of oil-varnish mix. This strategy sacrifices protection for easy reparability. Sometimes though, I want a more protective film finish, yet I still want to avoid an overbuilt, “plastic” look.

For this latter option I use a strategy that I first learned from an article in Fine Woodworking magazine #81 (March/April 1990), page 75, by Greg Johnson. He used one or two coats of brush-on polyurethane followed by two coats of wipe-on gel varnish. The idea is to get the film volume of brush-on poly with the surface finishing ease of the gel.

Here is my approach, which is essentially the same as that in the article but with slight differences.   

I use two coats of brush-on Miniwax Fast Dry Polyurethane, Clear Satin. I use a decent bristle brush but not my thoroughbred ox-hair brush for this because it is unnecessary, and it is difficult if not impossible to fully purge the varnish from it. (See this excellent discourse on brush selection by Joel Moskowitz.)

The method: After finish planing/sanding, I raise the grain by wetting the wood with a damp cloth, let it dry, and then lightly sand with 320 or 400 grit. I usually apply the first coat of poly without thinning it, knowing full well that there inevitably will be some streaks, bubbles, and dust no matter how careful I am. In fact, I don’t bother trying to be too careful. After it dries, I sand with 220 grit, cutting pretty aggressively to remove the defects. By the way, “dry” means that sanding produces a non-sticky dry powder. Then I apply a second coat of poly, trying to be more careful and nicely tipping off the finish. After the second coat dries, I sand to remove defects, this time less aggressively.

An alternative method is to apply the first coat thinned with mineral spirits in an attempt to minimize defects and thus minimize sanding. I have had less luck with this approach, so I use full-strength coats and concentrate mainly on getting a decent film on the wood. 

Next, I apply two coats of General Finishes Oil Based Gel Topcoat – Satin. Between coats, I lightly sand as needed with 320 grit. After the second coat of gel, the defects have been scaled down enough to make the final surface smooth and with minimal or no defects. I complete the sequence with a rubdown with brown bag paper.

GF Gel Satin

This strategy supplies good protection, a pleasant final film that does not look too thick, and circumvents most of the problems of using only brush-on polyurethane varnish. It will not protect as well as heavy duty two-part catalyzed finishes but is easier to deal with for small-scale woodworkers like me, easier to repair, and I think, looks better.

It is a nifty finishing strategy to have in your repertoire.

Next: oil-varnish mix

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• Wednesday, December 21st, 2022
GF Gel Satin

Wiping varnish, a term coined by the Moses of finishing knowledge, Bob Flexner, is simply varnish thinned with mineral spirits to make it easy to wipe, rather than brush, onto the wood. The coats are therefore necessarily thin compared to brush-on varnish. 

So, the great advantage of easily applying virtually problem-free coats carries the possible disadvantage that the coats are less protective. Most of my work, such as a wall cabinet or the lower part of an occasional table, does not need lots of protection. For those situations where more protection is needed, such as a tabletop, wiping varnish is still wonderfully useful in conjunction with brush-on varnish. I will explain that technique in a future post in this series.   

Here are my three favorite wiping varnishes in order of how often I use them:

1. General Finishes Oil Based Gel Topcoat – Satin. Gel varnish is simply wiping varnish with a chemical thickening agent added. This stuff is about as easy as a film finish application can get. 

I use lint-free rags and nitrile gloves. Wipe it on, spread it around, and very soon wipe off the excess along the grain. That’s really about all there is to it. It imparts only a light amber tone.

Some planning is required to work on fairly small areas at a time because this dries quickly. I use a succession of rags, applying with a loaded rag and finishing off with a relatively clean rag. I do a bit of light fine sanding after the first coat and thereafter little to none. Three coats are usually enough, four at the most. I usually buff the final dried coat with brown bag paper

Waterlox Original

2. Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish – Medium Sheen. This is a high quality and reliable, though rather expensive, product. Depending on the contours of a piece, this liquid product can actually be easier to apply than the gel because its easier to wipe off the excess out of corners. 

Note that this is a dark amber varnish, almost like a light stain, so I use it with that in mind. I do not like the cans that it comes in, with the little opening at the top, so I transfer it to a clean regular finish can and tape on the orginal label.

3. Minwax Wipe-On Poly – Clear Satin or very occasionally, Clear Gloss. This is a quality product, inexpensive and widely available. I use it when I want a liquid but without the dark amber of the Waterlox. It is particularly handy when I do not want to mess with the gel on interior cabinet corners and I do not want the dark amber.

[Why no photo? Because I can find this stuff anywhere, anytime, so I don’t usually stock it in the shop.]

I do not like thick film finishes. I also think that protection is an overrated concern with the possible exception of tabletops. I have built household furniture items finished with only gel varnish that have gracefully withstood 20-30 years of regular use. Even for some table tops such as an occasional table or coffee table, trying to “protect” it with a thick film finish can create more problems as the finish inevitably becomes more and more scratched and the great enemy, water, gets in and it all looks bad. Sometimes, a non-building finish, like oil-varnish ends up looking better and is much easier to repair. 

Next in this (not-necessarily-contiguous) series: Brush-on varnish plus wiping varnish when you feel the need to protect.

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• Sunday, December 18th, 2022
sketch book

You have an idea for a piece – a compelling, strong idea. The more you think it through, the more it grows and the more you think, “I can do this. It’s going to be worth it.”

You research design options, wood, and joinery. Things seem to be coming together. Along the way, however, you find some dangerously impressive work of the general type that you have in mind. This happens to me when I look at woodwork by Tim Coleman, John Cameron, and Craig Vandall Stevens, to name a few. How did they do that?

And you begin to wonder: “OK, it’s not a competition but, good heavens, I love that piece that I’m looking at on the internet and I know, or at least I feel pretty sure, that I will not love mine as much when I finish it – if I make it at all, that is.”

Now what to do? Sometimes it is difficult to avoid outright copying strong ideas – to simply build again what has already been built just fine – but that is not what you set out to do, and not your road to fulfillment. 

Or do you give up part way into the design process and say “Good enough. I know I could do better but why bother?” Will you tank the design, knowing that no one else will know? Or don’t sing at all if you’re not Pavarotti? 

That’s silly. You have a voice. Use it, plain or fancy, innovative or derivative. If you work at it, if you do not lull into laziness, the piece you have in mind is going to be at least good, maybe very good, and who knows, maybe even great. Humility and confidence are willing partners. 

But here is what you do not expect. If you really put mind, hand, and heart into it, I will bet that the piece is going to be better than you think. 

This is perhaps the biggest secret and the magic of creative work. Trust yourself! Yes, it could flop but if you are diligent and you have developed a decent level of skill, the odds are actually in your favor. You are working hard, you are necessarily taking a risk, and you do not, you cannot, know quite what the outcome will be . . . 

Until it is there!

And when it is there, it will be more than the sum of your ideas and your craft. In fact, you likely will look at it sometime hence and think, “How did I do that?”

Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments