Author Archive

Author:
• Sunday, November 29th, 2020

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

I do not think I am much of a designer. I suppose that I am more of a composer, but certainly a woodworker. Metaphorically, I arrange the flowers but I do not breed and grow the blossoms. I might come up with a truly novel theme but I don’t count on that. I can recognize raw visual talent in others and their work but for as me, as Dirty Harry advised, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

Anyway, looking at the body of work of most outstanding designers, there are typically just a few big ideas, maybe only one. The dedicated designer/artist/designer-craftsperson usually has to ride an idea for a long time through many iterations and refinements to bring it to full fruition. 

If you default to making things only from plans, or making only reproduction work, or everything you make looks “Shaker” because you think you cannot come up with a decent idea of your own, think again and give it a try. Please, this is not in any way to disparage plans, reproductions, or Shaker! They are all wonderful endeavors if you choose them. However, I do think that many woodworkers gravitate to them just because they are intimidated to try their ideas and designs. 

What “they don’t tell you” is that you can credibly venture into your own ideas. 

Your idea does not have to be great, grand, original (are any truly original?), or even fully formed. Maybe you will rework or build upon other ideas. We can call that “borrowing” if you like. For example, in my work, I have repeatedly borrowed (and reworked) elements of the Japanese torii gate motif. 

If you are inclined to take this route, I encourage you to give it a try. In the words of “woodworker” Sam Maloof, “You just have to try; you have to use your imagination.”

Category: Ideas  | Tags:  | Leave a Comment
Author:
• Saturday, October 31st, 2020
PM-V11 plane blade

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

Tools exist for making things. The same goes for your shop.

You need good tools to do good woodworking but there are plenty of forces pushing you, a woodworker, to exert undue attention on tools. First, woodworking tools are fascinating and cool. Then there is the constant pressure of tool marketing, often disguised as just “informational.” You know you are on the wrong track if you find yourself frittering away your valuable woodworking time fussing with tools to avoid the stress and uncertainty of actually making something.

I understand; I’ve been there.

It is fine to be a tool collector/restorer in addition to, or instead of, being a woodworker. But you might as well be clear about it. 

The key to choosing tools is to understand that for each tool, there is a threshold of quality below which it cannot properly do its job. Do not buy below that threshold because you will be burdened with tool-like objects that have no purpose in this world. A chisel with cheesy steel will always be a cheesy chisel begging you to upgrade.

Above that threshold, tool quality fairly reliably improves with increased price. However, the gains in performance soon become smaller and smaller as the price rises. 

So, recognize that threshold and find your comfort point above it. 

One more thing: The best time and place to decide to buy a new tool is usually when you are working in the shop, where things are real. Tool stores and shows can be dangerous. That said, sometimes they do open your eyes to a new type of tool or a greatly improved version. 

Bottom line: Keep your focus on making things and let your tools serve that purpose. 

Author:
• Wednesday, September 30th, 2020
joinery

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

Perfection is not the fundamental quality or even the goal of good joinery. Instructional promises of “perfect” joints, and especially “perfect every time,” are missing the point.

The skillful craftsperson is always is working within a sensitively understood range of tolerance. Understanding that range, and what lies beyond each end of it, are the keys to excellent work. You practice and refine your skills to develop that understanding and feel. You do not practice with an eye on perfection. The pursuit of “perfect every time” is naive and counterproductive because it misses the point. 

This is generally true in any field. The mason knows the idea is to make a good wall despite the imperfections inherent in every brick. The violinist continually makes tiny variances in the intonation of notes depending on the musical circumstances. I think if you ask a pitcher what is the perfect curve ball, he would say the one that ends up in the catcher’s mitt after the batter swings. 

And yet woodworking joinery seems to often be taught, and woodworking machinery promoted, as if the idea is to make, if you could, a 9000-micron tenon to fit into a 9000-micron mortise. And when you inevitably fail, you are supposed to keep practicing with that perfection as your target. 

I suggest instead that you practice to learn how much deviation to tolerate from flat, straight, square, on the line, etc. Learn how fit can vary and still function and look great. This is not to license sloppy work! Your work can and should be excellent. But learn when and how variance matters. Learn tricks to make small deviations cancel through the building process. Understand the concept of one-sided tolerance. (Please see this post.)

Appreciate too, that wood is compressible and this varies with the species so you must adjust your tolerances. Consider that the ideal (I don’t mean perfect) tenon fit where you gently and evenly swoosh, not force, the tenon into the mortise, and then it stays when you hold the assembly upside down. That involves slight wood compression, and you have to work with that. 

There’s another thing “they don’t tell you.” It is fine to practice making an individual joint such as a mortise and tenon but you have not mastered the joint until you can make it in context such as eight of them working together in a table. The same is true for case joints like dovetails. So, by all means, practice, but practice intelligently, and don’t forget that you have to also practice by making things.

Do not get distracted by perfection. Aim for excellence

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 5 Comments
Author:
• Monday, September 28th, 2020
understanding wood

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

Unless you get really good at understanding wood, you cannot be a really good woodworker.

A chef without a deep appreciation for the ingredients will always be at a loss for making outstanding food. You’re a woodworker. You make useful, beautiful things. Wood is your medium. It offers the infinite variability of the biological world, which gives it profound potential in your hands. 

Read the books. Start with Understanding Wood, by the late Bruce Hoadley, and Wood, by Eric Meier. Use the Wood Handbook produced by the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory for reference. Here are some resources.

Observe wood “in the wild” in furniture everywhere. Develop a discriminating eye and taste. See how wood ages. To develop a healthy obsession would not be overdoing it. 

Most of all, get lots of different wood in your shop and mess around with it. See how different species and different boards react to planing, joinery, being four-squared, finishing, and so forth. Understand grain and figure, and how to make the best structural and aesthetic use of them. Be aware of the options in manufactured boards – that’s wood too. 

But Rob”, you say, “Chill out, I just want to make nice bookcases and house stuff in plain old pine that I pick up at the home center. I don’t need curly maple.” OK, great, good work, but which boards do you select? All flatsawn, or should you search through the stack for some rift or quartered stock? What is the moisture content of the wood in the store, and what will happen later? Why is the pine you bought this time acting differently from the stuff you bought last time at the same store?

Bottom line: you must know wood and know it really well. 

The next time you look at a project article in one of the magazines, the wood will probably get passing mention at most. Most woodworking publications, unless specifically on the topic of wood, discuss little about it. But if you want to build something and make it good, think carefully about the wood. Use your knowledge, search widely if necessary, buy carefully, and think it through

A corollary of this imperative is that what works structurally and aesthetically in one wood may not work in another. The wood selection should be integrated into the design and construction plan. The hands-on techniques employed will differ depending on the wood. Except for the design itself, wood selection is the most important stage of a project. 

One more thing: wood can and will disappoint you – sometimes, but more than you might expect. Maybe it turns out to have weird defects, it dresses too thin, or it just doesn’t look like you thought it would next to that other wood, and on and on. 

Don’t just buy more, learn more.

So, yea, get your tools, your shop, your designs, your joinery skills, and even your super-sharp edges, but it cannot be overemphasized: don’t forget to get really good with the wood, and always continue discovering more about it.

Author:
• Sunday, September 27th, 2020
woodworking insights

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

Learning in any field takes place on at least two levels. First, there are the overt knowledge and skills that necessarily dominate the instructional material and the student’s efforts. Yet, there are always the unwritten, perhaps even unsaid, insights without which we never feel truly in command of the field. This is “Oh, now I get the idea . . .” — on the road to mastery. 

With all due respect for the many wonderful woodworking teachers out there, it is difficult to transmit these key points in the environment of most formal instruction, especially written. In fact, these essentials may more often be “discovered” by the student in the quiet reflections of “putting it all together.”

These are the sorts of things that despite all your training, you realize six months into the job. Or that the instructor casually mentions in conversation after class when he sees what an eager student you are. Or that dawn on you during a long nighttime drive back home. These are synthesis ideas.

There is a simple continuing theme of this weblog: I greatly enjoy woodworking and find it meaningful. I want to help you do the same, particularly by discussing matters from a viewpoint that is typically neglected in most woodworking publications. With that in mind, I offer this series of posts to present what I think are pivotal nuggets in the various aspects of woodworking. I hope they help you leap ahead to better woodworking or at least reinforce your woodworking mindset. 

Hey, I’m not so foolish as to think I know it all, so please do comment to share your insights on each of the topics as we go through them. The first topic will be, of course, wood. 

Author:
• Wednesday, September 16th, 2020
1:4 French curves

These useful tools from Veritas are paired sets of French curves. The small and large members of each pair have the same curve pattern in a 1:4 ratio.

This allows you to draft on paper at the commonly used scale of 3 inches = 1 foot using the small curve of the pair and then transfer the drawn curve to the workpiece using the full size curve of the pair. Similarly, you can layout full size mock ups with the large curves, decide which one looks good, then use the corresponding small curve to incorporate the curved element into your design on paper.

Veritas French curves

The curves are made from 3mm-thick 3-ply birch. The largest one is 36″ long. The edges are not as smooth as plastic curves, so you might want to do some light touch up with sandpaper using a block to avoid rounding over. 

There are tiny holes at corresponding locations in each pair of curves that can be used as reference points to transfer a layout from one curve to the other in the pair. Numbering the holes, as shown here, helps keep track of the paired locations. 

1:4 French curves marked up

I often use long, very gradual curves in my designs, so I wish Veritas would also produce paired sets like these with very mild curves. I imagine this could be readily done with a CAD-CNC process. 

The key to using French curves is to mark the end points of a curve, then “fill in” the curve using at least one (usually two or more) additional reference point(s) to guide the placement of the template. Shift the reference points and use various segments of the French curve until the drawn curve looks the way you want. 

Consider using this wonderful rasp for truing curves in templates and workpieces. [If I made a buck from it, I might have called this a shameless plug.] 

By the way, why “French” curves? Beats me, but with a little online research, I learned that French curves are based on segments of the Euler spiral, named for the great eighteenth-century Swiss mathematician. The Veritas curves approximate a common Burmester set, named for German physicist-mathematician Ludwig Bermester (1840–1927). So, why aren’t these types of curves called “German curves?”

Category: Product reviews, Tools and Shop  | Tags:  | 2 Comments
Author:
• Monday, August 31st, 2020
DIY tools

I do not like to use my high-end edge tools for rough and tumble DIY projects where a sharp edge has a good chance of meeting up with a nail. Similarly, precision hand tools such as a Starrett square have no business sliding about in mystery debris.  

So, even though my classy hand tools are fully capable of handling rough jobs, I prefer to use my set of utility tools for most repair work on the Magic House. (“Magic,” you know, because it makes my time and money disappear.)

There are a couple of ways for a serious woodworker to accumulate these DIY tools.

You might buy them specifically for such work. Good examples are above. The little Rali block plane has replaceable blades. It does not seem to be available any more but most any cheap pocket/block plane will do. That cheapo square is actually decently made and pretty accurate. The DeWalt tape is also the one that comes with me on wood buying trips.  

Sometimes, especially early on in learning woodworking, we try to save a few bucks by buying a tool that seems good enough, but later proves to be a poor call for fine work. That is how this old Stanley chisel has survived all these years. It easily sharpens to a decent edge that I don’t mind abusing for DIY work. I replaced the round rasp with a hand-cut version but the cheap one is just fine for enlarging a rough hole in plywood. The screwdriver makes a great paint mixer and general hacking/prying tool. 

more DIY tools

Maybe you did not recognize the value of quality tools, or maybe you just did not know how deeply you were going into woodworking. Either way, an upgrade does not always mean waste. 

The take home point: Do not buy tools for their own sake. A tool has a purpose. Match the tool to the job – the one at hand or even the one to which you aspire.

Category: Tools and Shop  | 4 Comments
Author:
• Friday, July 31st, 2020
case hardened wood test

Other posts here have addressed the issues of case hardening, its effect on resawing, and the problem of excessive case hardening. But here’s a new twist.

To review, slight case hardening is to be expected in kiln-dried hardwoods. Here’s a simplified explanation of what happens in the kiln. Think of the board in cross section. The outer shell loses moisture first, making it want to shrink but it is restrained by the still moist and swollen core. The shell is thus in tension and the core in compression. The shell eventually sets in size, so later when the core loses moisture and wants to shrink, it is in tension while the shell is in compression. This is case hardening

The kiln operator modifies the humidity near the end of the process to remove most of the case hardening but is careful not to go too far and create reverse case hardening, which is not practically correctable. Therefore, there is a bit of remaining case hardening in most kiln dried hardwood boards. It is not normally a problem. 

Excessive case hardening, usually from inadequate air drying before going to the kiln or rushing the wood through the kiln, is a problem. This manifests most notably if the board is resawn. Both halves will cup inward toward the sawn surface and may bow inward a bit along the length. We can predict this with a test fork

It is important to appreciate that this is not a matter of a remaining moisture content gradient across the thickness of the board! It is a physical stress caused by the drying process that releases when it can, which is typically right away or very soon after resawing or removing substantial thickness from one side of the board. 

But how long can it take for the release of tension and consequent distortion of the board to fully manifest? From everything I have experienced (and read), it is mostly almost immediate, or in some cases it can trickle on for a day or so.

But this case is different.

I recently resawed some 8/4 quartersawn sapele. The boards were straight and true with nice, even straight grain. There was absolutely no moisture gradient across the thickness of the boards, as proven with pin meter readings at various depths across the end grain of fresh crosscuts well into the length of the board.

Test forks looked great – little or no inward bend of the tines – so I did the resaw. But after a couple of days, I was shocked to see the tines hooked inward. (The photo above is how they ended up.) The boards themselves distorted over several days. They showed both the classic effects of case hardening, and more disturbingly, some twist. I hate twist. 

The wood seemed to settle down after a couple of weeks, so I dressed the resawn boards but then even several weeks later I could still find a small but significant amount of new distortion, primarily twist! Again, the grain of the boards was nice and straight. Furthermore, they contained no evidence of reaction wood, or other aberrations. The resawn wood was stored stickered and at a steady 50-55% relative humidity.

Why did it take so long for the distortion to fully manifest? I don’t know. Some online research and talking with experienced log millers, though hardly exhaustive, yielded no answers. 

Here’s my little theory. For the mechanical release of tension (that creates the distortion) to occur, I assume the wood fibers have to slide against each other. Perhaps that sliding is just “stickier” and slower to occur in sapele than in most woods. Perhaps related, I note that sapele is among the highest measured woods in shear strength (at 12% moisture content) listed by the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory. (Wood technologists and scientists, please comment!)

In any case, it happened. Wood stresses can be stressful. So, there it is, one more caution to take with wood.

Category: Wood  | 6 Comments
Author:
• Wednesday, July 08th, 2020
router table miter slot

Devoted readers (thank you!) know that I like to keep my router table simple but very capable

The router table is truly a key tool in the small shop but there is a wide range of complexity and cost involved. I admit to being intermittently tempted by router lifts, tracks and slots in the table and fence, bit changes and height adjustments from above the table, and micro adjustability of almost everything.

Yet, my simple set up continues to do everything required. It consists of an MDF top and fence on a 2×4 base, dust collection, and the Bosch 1617EVS held in a dedicated base attached underneath the table. Moreover, the flatness accuracy of the top equals the best tables reviewed in Fine Woodworking magazine #237, and it substantially exceeds most of them. Some of those rigs cost more than ten Bens. 

But what about routing a rabbet or profile on the end of a narrow stick, or, more challenging, a dado in the middle of, say, a 4″-wide rail? I again admit to being tempted by an impressive cast iron tabletop with a miter gauge slot. 

router end grain on router table

For routing on the end of the stick, the workpiece alone gives too little registration against the fence. Therefore, I have usually used a squared piece of plywood or MDF, about 10″ x 12″, to register the workpiece against the fence and prevent tearout at the trailing edge. (See photo just above.)

However, sometimes it is handy to use a miter gauge, especially for a short dado. This also allows me to register the left end of the workpiece against the miter gauge stop for a repeatable task.

Well, there just is not enough depth in a 3/4″ MDF top for a metal-lined track for a miter gauge. (Unlike for a T-track, which is more shallow.) Thicker MDF is an another option but that would mean a new table top that would require a recess to mount the router base. A bare slot in the 3/4″ MDF is also problematic in that it would wear quickly. I could line the slot with UHMW tape but it would be hard to get the width just right to avoid having to adjust my miter gauge bar every time I brought it over from the table saw. 

So, as usual, I turn to the late Pat Warner’s writings for a solution. On page 99 of his The Router Book, there is a simple way of making a temporary “slot” in your MDF router table top. My version uses nominal 1/2″ MDF with adhesive UHMW tape on inside edges. (See the photo at the top.) The outer board is screwed down in the near right corner to give more clearance for the miter gauge head, and elsewhere the boards are clamped.

This allows me to use my table saw miter gauge – the wonderful Incra 1000HD and its adjustable end stop. Note that I do not need to adjust the width of the bar. Instead, I retain the setting that works for the table saw, and then for the router table, simply set the two MDF boards snugly against the bar for a wobble-free fit. A backer board prevents tearout at the trailing end of the workpiece. The router table fence is not functional for the cut itself but is close by for dust collection if possible.

It looks like I just saved several hundred dollars yet again. 

Mmmm, that walnut looks nice.

Author:
• Sunday, June 28th, 2020
DeWalt cordless sander

The DeWalt DCW210 is a cordless 5″ random orbit sander that is powered by the company’s 20-volt lithium-ion battery system.

Smitten with DeWalt’s 20V Max series of tools, it is a bit like dealing with Apple stuff. I know I’m being played but the products are just darned good. 

Handling is excellent. Weight, vibration level, and control are comfortable. With a top grip, the only option, the sander tends to meet the work squarely with no tendency to tip or gouge. At least with a smallish 2.0 amp-hour battery, balance is excellent. The rubberized area enhances the feel, and the on-off switch is easily accessible from the grip position. 

This is a finishing sander, not a stock removal hog. In that context, it has plenty of power. It is similar to my Bosch ROS20VS, if not more aggressive. The DCW210 has a standard 8-hole base with hook-and-loop disc attachment, and runs with a 3/32″ diameter orbit. The brushless motor is very efficient, so I read. It has a variable speed dial, also accessible from the grip position, but I rarely use that option on a sander. 

You’re going to love this as I do: the motor brake stops the motion immediately when you hit the power switch. Hallelujah!

Dust collection with the onboard bag is surprisingly good but of course, no match for sanding with a vacuum hose. (I vacuumed up the tool nice for the photo.) The bag’s good-sized plastic collar and locking system makes it easy to use one hand to detach and attach with a nice positive click. A spring that lines the bag can be compressed and popped to “shake out” stubborn dust. I find it is more useful for allowing a vacuum hose to thoroughly clean out the bag without it being sucked into the hose. 

The outlet diameter will not fit standard shop vac hoses but this does not matter to me because using a cordless sander with a hose would pretty much negate the advantages of having no power cord. So I will use this sander without tails of any sort.

I cannot offer data on how long the battery charge will last. After a while of sanding, I check the charge-level indicator on the battery and replace it if it is low. With just two extra lightweight 2.0 Ah batteries on hand and using the DCB113 charger, I could keep working indefinitely. You can also buy higher capacity batteries but I guess at some point the weight would get uncomfortable. Anyway, this is a finish sander suited for relatively light work. Note that DeWalt charger models vary considerably in their charge time.

I will still use my bigger Bosch 3725DVS (3/16″ diameter orbit) with its cord and a vac hose for heavier work but the DeWalt DCW210 is now my go-to tool for finish sanding. 

This review is unsolicited and uncompensated. I just want to help you choose good tools.