Archive for the Category ◊ Techniques ◊

Author:
• Tuesday, March 31st, 2020
dovetail transfer tools

A critical step in hand-cut dovetailing is accurately marking out the second piece – usually the pin board – from the completed first piece – usually the tailboard. 

Sure, to make a good dovetail joint, you have to be able to reliably saw to a line and chisel to a line. You also have to understand the mechanics of the joint to appreciate how to tweak the contact surfaces and where you have a bit of tolerance and where you don’t. But if the transfer step is inaccurate, it’s all a losing battle.

So, let’s look at several options

Keep in mind that all of this depends on several variables including pin width, the texture of the wood, and your personal eyesight, lighting, type of saw, and technique. An effective marking out in cherry using a ripcut dozuki may be difficult in red oak using a Western backsaw. 

chisel point drafting pencil

A plain old pencil seems too crude for the precision required in dovetailing and yet it can work well for some. All of the pencil mark is in the keeper wood, so you have to saw to one side of it without touching it at all. A very clean, consistent line gives the best chance for success. A 2mm drafting lead sharpened on 320-grit sandpaper to a chisel point (above) can produce an almost knife-quality line, especially with 2H lead on a diffuse-porous wood like cherry. That said, a pencil is not my preference. 

Starrett scriber

I’ve used a scriber more than anything else for this job, perhaps because that is what I used long ago while learning (first learning, that is). I prefer the type of point on the Starrett scriber (above), which ends in a small, straight conical taper. Unlike a gradual curved taper, I can clearly tell when the scriber is or is not up against the wall of the tail wood. 

Used properly, the scriber point hugs the wall of the tail wood as it bites into the endgrain of the pin board, without any chance of it cutting into the side grain of the tail as a knife might. Thus, the bottom of the tiny V groove created by the scribe point is exactly under the tail wood wall. 

This works best if the sawn (and possibly pared) surface of the tail is straight and clean. Otherwise, the scribed line will be not straight and therefore probably confusing to follow with the saw.  

I have found the scriber effective in ring porous woods like red oak as well as fine, diffuse-porous woods like pear. The downside is the scribed line is not quite as clean and fine as a knife line. 

Next: a look at different marking knives and more.

By the way, go here for my free 42-page Dovetail Instruction Guide that I wrote several years ago for Craftsy. It really gets down to the sawdust and shavings to lead you to success. 

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Author:
• Sunday, February 23rd, 2020
levelling table legs

In theory, the bottom tips of all four legs of a table should be in the same plane so it can sit on a flat floor without wobbling. Remember, however, the words of Yogi Berra, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

Now, if you made uniform leg lengths and mortise-and-tenon positions, you should have a flat base after assembly that requires no adjustment but stealth gremlins almost always prevent such perfection. 

On the other hand, consider that rarely is a floor flat over the area on which the table stands, so making the four legs true is really just playing the odds. Furthermore, a table, especially a large one, may flex when you place it on the floor to produce an automatic correction. The same goes for chairs. Therefore, all of this is often of no concern at all – in practice. 

For a small table though, this issue may be a significant concern. The small area of floor on which it stands may indeed be flat, the table may not flex much, and it feels creepy when it wobbles a lot. So, let’s look at how to assess this. 

It is best to do this with the top attached in its final configuration, which contains any flex in the frame induced by the top piece.

The simplest method is to put the small table on a true flat surface such as the table saw. If such as surface is not available, you can turn the table upside down and use winding sticks on the tips of the legs. Note that this may introduce error if the frame of a larger table flexes a bit differently than when it is right side up. In any case, for a larger table, I do not go hunting for a very flat floor, which probably does not exist; I just do not worry about the whole matter.

For small tables, I do like to get it pretty close. You can take off the error from the one long leg, as determined by how the table pivots on the flat reference surface, but I prefer to take off half that amount from each of the two long legs.

OK, if you have done everything just right in the shop and now place the table on the floor where it will live, which is not likely to be flat, and it wobbles enough to be annoying, what do you do? Shim it. A layer or two or more of tape such as duct tape is just fine – in theory and in practice.

Category: Techniques  | 4 Comments
Author:
• Tuesday, December 17th, 2019
cross-rail joint

For rails that cross over their widths, this joint is very doable, strong, and neat. It has several advantages over other options for this situation. (Note this is distinct from rails crossing over their thicknesses, face to face, where the familiar half-lap is a good choice.)

Let’s take a look.

Each crossing member has strength distributed over nearly its full width, and there is no unsupported portion of the width. Furthermore, there is mechanical resistance to twisting in all directions. This is superior to a cross-halving (or “cross-lap”) joint, which is just a vertically oriented half-lap.

This is a strong joint with substantial long grain-to-long grain glue surface – more than 8 square inches. Note that the five dowels are long and continuous from one side to the other side of the joint. Cross-halving joints yield minimal long grain apposition.

It is much easier to conceptualize and execute this joint the than refined but elaborate cross-halving designs that involve stepped notches, sliding double-dovetails, or tapered notches. They make my head hurt. 

For an enduring neat appearance as well as strength, the pieces entering the dado have outside shoulders. This differs from some versions of the cross-halving joint that are designed to correct the problem of unsupported width, and involve a dado that houses the full width of the entering piece, which can leave gaps when the housed member shrinks in thickness.

cross-rail joint finished

Woodworkers of all stripes will be pleased to know that this joint can be executed by hand, by machine, or a combination of both. In fact, you will see that a single shop-made jig can be easily adapted for use with various workpiece thicknesses and even various widths. 

Full disclosure: a disadvantage is that it must be clamped from the ends. This could be awkward for very long pieces, though that is not a likely application. 

Next: How to make it. As with all woodworking, it’s a matter of being accurate when it counts.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 4 Comments
Author:
• Sunday, December 15th, 2019
dovetail markers

Here are the dovetail angles that I use. There is more than one good way to do almost everything in woodworking, and there are many situational exceptions, so these are not absolute. I do, however, know that they work. For the most part, they conform to what is usually written and taught, but here I also offer explanations for the various options.

My go-to angle for through dovetails in most hardwoods is 7:1 (8.1°), such as for a carcase or box in cherry, maple, or walnut with stock thickness of 9/16″-13/16″. It has enough angle to form a strong mechanical lock but not too much to produce fragile tail corners or overly fussy fitting. Vulnerable tail corners can be annoying in the making stage even though they are shielded after assembly. 

carcase dovetails

For more brittle, harder woods such as the curly oak shown below, I prefer 8:1 (7.1°). This helps to prevent chipping at the corners of the tails but still provides enough mechanical lock because the wood is less compressible. For the ovangkol small chest shown in the second photo below, I used 7:1 but the wood proved to be harder and more brittle than I first thought, so maybe I should have used 8:1.

red oak dovetails
ovangkol dovetails

For softer, more compressible woods such as pine or aspen, 6:1 (9.5°) works well. The steeper angle produces more mechanical lock, and chipping is not a concern.

Half-blind dovetails are a different matter. The shorter length of the tails usually requires a little more slope to create a good mechanical lock. 5:1 (11.3°) works well in most cases. It also just looks right to my eye. This study drawer with poplar sides and pear front that I keep in my shop is a good example. Using a harder wood for the sides and/or a thicker front (longer tails), I would consider 6:1, ultimately going with what looks right.

half-blind dovetails

Through dovetails in thin stock deserve similar consideration. Very generally, for thin pin stock (shorter tails) consider using a bit more slope than for similar circumstances in thick stock.

Interestingly, in all of this, the mechanics and the aesthetics seem to dictate the same answer, and not, I think, by coincidence. 

I have been using the shop-made bubinga markers shown in the photo at the top for many years. Unlike most commercially produced markers, they allow you to mark the entire length of the line on the face grain and end grain with one positioning. I detailed their construction in an article in Popular Woodworking, November 2009, issue #179.

Category: Techniques  | 5 Comments
Author:
• Sunday, December 08th, 2019
shooting board

Here are the details of the shooting board I use. It is designed for use with the Veritas shooting plane, as well as to fit my workbench, the work I typically do, and my personal physical characteristics (I’m right handed).

It is constructed primarily from 18mm 13-ply birch plywood. The base and thus the overall dimensions are 22 3/4″ x 14 1/2″. The platform upon which the workpiece rests is 11 1/4″ wide, and is glued and screwed to the base.

The right side of the platform was planed accurately straight before installation. The tiny rabbet, which is the basis for how a shooting board works, is created with the first few passes of the plane that “break it in.”

Porcaro shooting board

The cleat at the front, glued and screwed, hooks onto the front of the workbench. The cleat on the right side fits into the tail vise. Together, they give the shooting board rock-solid stability in all directions while in use.

The channel for the plane is about 2 1/8″ wide, and lined on the bottom with 3/64″ PSA UHMW plastic. The 9mm 7-ply birch strip, 1 7/32″ wide, on the right side of the channel is adjusted to create a snug fit for the Veritas shooting plane, and firmly secured with pan-head screws placed at 3″ intervals. It is not glued, so it can be adjusted if needed. The inside wall of the strip is waxed.

Porcaro shooting board

The fence block is 2 1/4″ wide, made from two glued layers of the 18mm plywood. It is glued and screwed square to the sole of the plane nestled in the channel. The 3/4″-thick (or 7/8″) poplar replaceable subfence is attached with two 3″ x 1/4″ lag screws that enter from the back of the fence block, accompanied by heavy washers. The pass-through holes in the fence block for the lag screws are actually small slots that allow for some lateral adjustment of the subfence. You may want to use a third lag screw to ensure the subfence is snug against the fence block. 

shooting board fence

There are three ways to tune the 90° angle of the subfence. You can use whatever suits you; that is a big advantage of this design. Remember, we are using the in-place sole of the plane as a reference, not the channel edge itself. 

First, when you create the subfence itself, you can easily plane it as needed – it’s friendly poplar. Then, when you attach the fence you have the chance to put very thin shim(s) between it and the fence block. Now, if you placed the fence block dead on and use a perfectly thicknessed subfence, you should not need to do this, but it is good to have the option! Finally, when in use, you can put a piece of tape or a shaving between the workpiece and the subfence to fine tune the working angle.

For angles other than 90°, you can make and attach a different subfence.

The front of the subfence is 7 3/8″ from the back edge of the shooting board. This gives more than enough length to fully support the 5 1/2″ toe of the Veritas shooting plane. I prefer the plane to have full registration against the channel edge all the way through the cut. There are many shooting board designs with the fence at the end, which causes the plane to lose full registration before the cut is completed.

Also, the 7 3/8″ works out to make the front of the fence not too far away from me, so I don’t have to lean forward too much, while still allowing the base of the shooting board to reach across the tool trough to get full support from the rear wall of the trough. This also results in enough platform depth to accommodate the vast majority of workpiece widths that I use.

The 11 1/4″ fence is long enough to firmly register almost all the work I do. You may want to make your shooting board wider. For any board longer than 20″ or so, I stack a couple of pieces of plywood under the left side of it to prevent it from tipping up at the working end. 

The screw eye allows you to store the shooting board on the shop wall, away from abuse.

Remember:

  • sharp!
  • dynamic stability in use
  • low-tech micro-adjustment
  • and . . . the grippy glove on the left hand

I put a lot of forethought into this design, gathering ideas from many other designs. It has worked out very well for me. I hope it helps you with your work.

Addendum:

A plane such as the Lie-Nielsen #9 or a bench plane on its side can be gripped directly above and just behind the cutting edge. For these planes, a snug enclosed channel in the shooting board, such as shown here, is still very helpful but not essential. For the Veritas (or Lie-Nielsen) shooting plane where the grip is far behind the cutting edge, a snug channel is, in my opinion, a practical necessity. The grip location in these planes makes it too easy to get off track in the shooting stroke. Both systems work but I have come to prefer what I have detailed here for you. 

Category: Techniques, Tools and Shop  | Tags:  | 10 Comments
Author:
• Sunday, December 01st, 2019
shooting tips

Another question from a reader: “My trouble in shooting is (I guess) in advancing the wood.  I often find myself in a situation where I’m feel like I’m pushing the wood very firmly against the toe of the plane and still not getting any bite from the blade.  This problem seems to come and go and I have yet to diagnose what I’m doing wrong.”

There are at least two possible reasons for this.

1. The blade may not be sharp enough, causing it to skid on the wood rather than cut it. The whole system (workpiece, plane travel, blade edge) may be deflecting, preventing the blade edge from engaging the wood. 

Of course, end grain is harder to cut than long grain. Paring end grain is how many woodworkers test an edge. However, there is another reason why sharpness is so critical that is peculiar to shooting. 

Planing in the usual manner with a bench plane, we intuitively sense that we can extend the working life of a gradually dulling edge by pressing down harder with the plane. Related to this, we find that it is necessary to advance the blade further (depth of cut adjustment) to get it to take the same shavings as when it was sharper, though with more effort. Eventually, we head back to the sharpening bench.  

Brent Beach offers a technical discussion relevant to this. The basic idea is that the extremely narrow lower wear bevel in a sharp blade has less area against the wood, and so is able to generate more pressure (force per unit area) on the wood than does a dull blade with a wider lower wear bevel. The sharp blade compresses the wood and bites into it.       

In shooting, the plane does not ride on the wood, it rides on the edge of the track, and so you cannot regulate the edge pressure against the wood as you can with ordinary planing. The blade has to be sharp enough to cut without your “help,” so to speak. Actually, I have found myself intuitively trying to shove the workpiece toward the plane as the blade dulls, but that is awkward at best, and tends to produce inaccuracies.  

Furthermore, end grain is less compressible than side grain. 

2. Another possibility is that the fence is set slightly greater than 90°. This will cause the workpiece to register against the sole of the plane near the fence but not reach the sole where the cut begins. It only takes, say, a couple thou of error for this to happen. Furthermore, as an insufficiently sharp blade moves along to eventually meet the workpiece, it might push it away rather than cutting into it. (This is another example of the general principle that a tool, hand or power, given the opportunity, will move the workpiece instead of cutting it, and/or move the tool itself.)

The shooting board fence may start out dead-on at 90°, but if it is not very firmly set, it is easy for it to eventually get pushed to greater than 90° because that is the direction of your force on it in use. 

In summary:

1. Sharp – wicked sharp – is a must for shooting!

2. The shooting setup has to be not only statically accurate, but also dynamically stable in use.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 4 Comments
Author:
• Sunday, November 24th, 2019
shooting board

A reader described the following frustration he is experiencing with end grain shooting.

“I have a problem getting perfectly square ends when shooting them on my shooting board.

“I have a homemade plywood shooting board and use a Record 5 1/2 on its side to shoot. I’ve checked everything, and everything is square to each other and the plane is sharp, however when shooting end grain the plane takes more off the near edge (closer to the front) than the back edge. 

“Am I doing something wrong?”

If you are getting this inaccuracy despite having everything set up square and true, the glitch may be in the shooting stroke itself. The blade can grab the workpiece on initial contact and slightly pivot it away from the fence at the opposite end. This can easily happen with wide workpieces. 

But first let’s check a few things with your set up.

The sole of the plane should be flat, at least in the critical areas. Use a very wicked sharp blade with a straight, not cambered, edge, and a fine, even blade projection.

The track edge that the sole of the plane runs against in the shooting board must be straight. Ideally, the shooting board should have a snug channel in which the plane travels to prevent it from deviating during its run. (This will not work with a bench plane with a rounded side hump but not as well as with a dedicated shooter.) Wax the channel and/or use UHMW plastic on the running surface. If your shooting board does not have such a channel, take extra care to hold the plane firmly (without tipping it) against the running edge throughout the shooting stroke. 

The fence must be straight, of course. The best way to square the fence is to place the sole of the plane (with the blade retracted) firmly against the track edge, then place a square against the sole of the plane and the fence. This directly assesses the elements that produce the square edge on the workpiece. The fence has to tolerate considerable pressure in use, so make sure it is fastened securely.

The fence also has to be long enough to register an adequate length of the workpiece so the workpiece does not budge during the planing stroke. I sometimes had problems with my old shooting board that had a fence that was too short. My current shooting board’s fence is 11 1/4″ long. Books often show shooting boards with a fence that is too short for furniture work. 

A grippy glove on the hand holding the wood is a huge help in keeping the workpiece steadily registered and in advancing it after each cut. Otherwise, inaccurate registration can creep in, especially with wide workpieces, and especially as you fatigue. As a diagnostic experiment, try positioning a workpiece just right, then clamping it in place, shoot, and see if you get a square edge. 

In summary, your shooting “machine” must be set up accurately, but also must be dynamically stable in use.

Mystery frustrations like this reader is experiencing afflict all of us woodworkers but are rarely addressed in books and other teaching media where the descriptions are often idealized. Rest assured, however, there are solutions. 

I hope this helps, dear reader, but if you are still stymied, let me know. We’ll get it right.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 13 Comments
Author:
• Thursday, November 21st, 2019
Veritas shooting plane

Shooting is a gateway skill to precise hand tool woodworking. So get started by shooting with the planes you have. 

The basic requirements are:

  • Mass. You want substantial momentum to firmly and steadily carry the blade through the cut after you get it started, especially for end grain shooting. 
  • The side of the plane should be square to the sole. If you only have a not-so-great plane, use tape to shim the side. I did this with my old Record jack plane when it was the only one I had. [Please see in the Comments section reader Michael’s germane point and my lengthy reply for more details on the squareness issue.]
  • It helps a lot to have a comfortable, secure grip to consistently apply pressure where it is needed. Dedicated shooting planes have this feature. 
  • The blade must be sharp. Sharp! A dull blade is not only harder to push through the cut, but accuracy will suffer as the plane and the blade itself deviate from a true path. 

For end grain shooting:

Best: a dedicated shooting plane. 

Veritas shooting plane

I use the Veritas shooting plane, and love it. Comfortable and accurate to use, it meets all the requirements above. The adjustable-angle handle properly and comfortably directs pressure, and the 20° skew really eases the blade through the cut. The bevel-up design is easy to set up and adjust, and provides excellent support to the blade close to its edge.

Is it worth spending about $350 dollars on a plane just for shooting? In view of all the other expenses involved in woodworking, yes, it is. (See the first sentence of this post.)

Lie-Nielsen also makes a great shooting plane, which I have had a chance to use briefly. This massive tool uses a bevel-down design and a skewed, Bedrock-style adjustable frog. Personally, I like the Veritas design and features, but both merit consideration. 

I use a straight edge blade for end grain shooting – no camber

Good: a bevel-up bench plane. 

Veritas jack plane

The Veritas BU jack plane is perhaps the most versatile plane of all, and a good shooter. The BU design gives good blade support, and makes it easy to swap dedicated blades for its varied uses. You can get a decent grip on this plane for shooting.

Adequate: a bevel-down bench plane. 

I used a BD jack and jointer for shooting for years. I do not consider these ideal but they can get the job done. Don’t let anyone tell you that you “can’t” cut end grain with a bevel-down plane. Use a sharp blade, and set the chipbreaker close to the edge to reduce deflection.

bevel-down jointer and jack planes

Gripping a bevel-down bench plane for shooting may be a bit awkward for some. With the jack, I squish the base of my thumb behind the side hump and plant four fingers on the lever cap. A grippy glove can help. (So then you’ll have one on both hands.) 

For long grain shooting:

Compared to using a plane with the blade on the bottom (the “regular” way) this is just a matter of different manual mechanics. The plane is not running in a track as in end grain shooting. 

So, a BU or BD bench plane is fine, as long as it has decent mass and stability, the side is square to the sole, and you can get a decent grip. And . . . the blade is sharp.

I like my Lie-Nielsen #9 “iron miter plane,” which I’ve dedicated to long grain shooting, because its beefy, boxy design makes it stable through the stroke, and it handles exceptionally well with the “hot dog” grip. This is a bevel-up design with a 20° bed. (Hmm . . . ) Unfortunately, I don’t see it on their website any more. Veritas sells a somewhat similar plane. 

Lie-Nielsen #9

I keep the #9 set up with a straight edge blade, mostly because it is easier to maintain and works well for the thin stock that I’m usually using when long grain shooting. A mild camber, such as for a jointer plane, is also a good option, especially if you will be long grain shooting thicker stock, or if you are also using the same plane and blade for general tasks.

Category: Techniques, Tools and Shop  | Tags:  | 9 Comments
Author:
• Thursday, October 31st, 2019
long grain shooting

Long grain shooting does not get the attention this valuable technique deserves. A cousin to end grain shooting, it is just as simple in principle but more so in practice. 

We are simply planing straight and square along the long grain edge of a board by laying it flat, elevating it, and using the plane on its side, which must be accurately square to the sole.

In general, this is most useful for workpieces about two feet long or less. This stock is often fairly thin, and may also be narrow. A good example is preparing quartersawn pieces to glue up for small to medium drawer bottoms.

It is difficult to balance a plane on the edge of a workpiece thinner than about 1/2″ held in the front vise. Shooting is a much more stable setup, and still allows a good sense of the nuances along the edge – straight or cambered. (An alternative is to plane two or more boards at once in the front vise.)

All you really have to do is lay the board flat on a support board with the long edge of the workpiece slightly overhanging the edge of the support piece. The sole of the plane is therefore riding only on the work piece, unlike with end grain shooting. In fact, a minimalist setup could be to just place a support board underneath the workpiece, and clamp the pair to the workbench, upon which the side of the plane will ride.

I use a dedicated long grain shooting board (below) that accommodates work up to about 24″ long. (Long time readers may recognize that it has been modified from its former role in end grain shooting.)

shooting board for long grain

This arrangement allows me to reach over the workpiece and plane the edge that is facing away from me, which creates similar body mechanics to the usual way of pushing a plane. The PSA-backed UHMW slick plastic installed on the plane track makes the work easier.

long grain shooting

The workpiece (the curly maple in the above photo) must be controlled in all directions. For lateral control along the length, I use an ad hoc arrangement with a scrap board clamped to the near side of the shooting board. Alternatively, you could make a more elaborate jig with a wider, permanent, adjustable, screw-mounted lateral-control board on the side away from you, and plane the edge facing you. This seems awkward to me.

The end of the workpiece meets the front stop. Ideally, this is a square meeting but that is not essential. Mild downward pressure on the workpiece is supplied by you. You may be able to get away without using the clamp and lateral stop board for small pieces. I find the grippy glove (top photo) makes the work easier for all setups, small or large, clamped or not.

There is no reason to over-complicate this technique. Keep it simple and use it often. 

Next: planes for end grain and long grain shooting.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 2 Comments
Author:
• Monday, September 30th, 2019
sharpness tests

Knife Grinders is one very serious bunch of sharpening experts. Located in New South Wales, Down Under, their website is full of interesting information. What particularly caught my interest is their detailed list of sharpening tests that can be done with simple equipment, notably hair. 

I recently posted about the sharpness tests that I use, but these guys have refined things to an ethereal level. Caution here, it bears repeating: the only fully meaningful tests of a sharpened edge are its performance and endurance in its assigned task. We also must consider appropriate edge geometry and endurance.

But check out the Knife Grinder’s list. I like the arm hair shaving gradations on page 1. The hanging hair tests (pages 4-5) are intense. 

Maybe you think this is fetishizing sharpening beyond practical woodworking. OK, maybe it is, but it is nice to know that there are convenient, fairly standardized ways to test how your sharpening procedures are performing. To get scientific, one could get a BESS tester from Edge On Up

You probably have your own sharpness tests but I suggest taking a look at that list. It’s pretty cool. 

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