Archive for ◊ December, 2008 ◊

• Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Come along with me, if you will, through these thoughts that occurred to me, ironically, while at the computer, mouse in hand.

The senses sometimes form a substrate for our thinking. For example, vision might inform our logic. Drawing a diagram often makes sense of a disorganized idea. It can make relationships clearer. The senses also feed our aesthetic development and enrich our appreciation of good things around us. Listening to music is an obvious example.

What about our hands? Does our uniquely human hand craft work somehow inform certain mental faculties? Is there a “logic of the hands” that is fed by creative work with the hands. Sometimes I’m pondering a project and I’m not sure how I’ll do a particular building process, but then I get into the shop, pick up a paring chisel, a saw, or a rasp, and it becomes apparent, only through my hands, how the process can and should be done.

Further, our hands also are capable of a unique aesthetic appreciation. Most people, having seen a fine craft object in a photograph, then later encountering the actual object are drawn to not only stand back and look at it, but to touch it, to experience it in a way that is unique to the hands. We know it’s not laminate and we want to experience it. We can suppose that studied and appreciative hands are able to do this best.

Fast forward to modern life where so many of us spend much of it with our hands in a state of sensory deprivation. Paws on the mouse, it seems. One wonders if this engenders a dormancy of specific human faculties fed via the hands, a quieting of the logic of the hands and a feebleness of that aesthetic sense. Maybe finely hand crafted work would be held in higher esteem and dollar value in our society if so many hands were not so sleepy. Hand to mind to heart, are some of us losing something?

Craftspeople bring things of value to the world with our hands.

(No disrespect, of course, to the evolutionary wonder pictured above.)

Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments
• Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

It is easy to see how the #1 bench plane might not be taken seriously as a real working tool. With a 5 ½” sole and 1 3/16″ width blade, here sitting beside the 8 pound, 22″ #7 jointer, it may be regarded as merely a nifty miniature suitable for collectors. However, I don’t collect tools, I only want gamers on my tool roster, and the #1 is fit and ready to play.

The blade is bevel down, with a cap iron, on a 45 degree frog which is adjustable to control the mouth width. There is the usual blade depth adjuster nut, while lateral adjustments are easily done by tapping with a small hammer. I use a two-handed grip as with a larger bench plane, but with only the left thumb and first one or two fingers on the front knob and the right thumb and two or three fingers gently holding the tote.

I find the #1 is useful for many tasks. The obvious one is planing small pieces where a full size plane would obscure any view of the work and tend to tip at the start and finish of the cut. It is handy to use on assembled projects where I need a light, maneuverable plane, such as in trimming joinery or truing a table top bearing part.

When I want my hands very close to the cutting edge for a sensitive feel of the blade on the wood, the #1 gives me the control I need. For example, it works well planing around the joint line at the junction of a rail and stile in a small frame. The #1 can also fix small defects in surface finish planing where a larger plane would bridge the area.

It is true that a block plane could do much of this. However, I keep the #1 tuned like a bench plane, with a slight camber in the blade, and the plane lends itself to a two-handed grip, so it feels more natural and controlled to use the #1 for these tasks. Note that because there is not much momentum behind the cutting edge, the blade must be kept very sharp.

This is certainly not among the first few planes to buy and it is a role player, but it’s not a bench warmer and it has definitely earned its place on the team.

I will continue to laud some of my favorite tools on this blog, particularly if I think they are not well known or just really cool.

Category: Product reviews, Tools and Shop  | Comments off
• Thursday, December 18th, 2008

When I first started using dovetail saws there were not many good choices among Western saws. I couldn’t find any high quality, ready to use, new Western back saws so the options reduced to refiling a poorly designed new backsaw, reconditioning an antique saw, using a frame saw, or what I finally chose, using Japanese saws. Over 25 years later, I have to admit that I’m still trying out saws.

And why not? There are great options now available in Western saws, including Lie-Nielsen, Adria, Wenzloff, Lee Valley, and the Gramercy dovetail saw that I now have. My favorite Japanese dovetail saw so far has been the Harima-Daizo rip dozuki, available from Tools for Working Wood. This saw has aggressive rip teeth that can be tricky to coax into a smooth start. A light touch is a must. Once started, the saw tracks extremely well, producing an amazingly clean, thin kerf. There is, however, little room for error. With a saw plate of about .012″ and a total set of about .002″, this thoroughbred does not take kindly to redirection. You’ve got to be on your game from the start.

Japanese dovetail saws in general have some other problems, though all are surmountable. Sighting the line can be difficult in some woods as the saw pulls sawdust toward the marked side of the wood facing you. I do not have the skills to sharpen a Japanese saw. I also can’t fit a fret saw blade in the kerf, so removing waste by sawing involves more steps.

Now to Joel Moskowitz’ masterwork: the Gramercy dovetail saw. It has much of the personality of a good Japanese saw though in the opposite direction with a stiffer blade. It is light weight, appreciates a sensitive touch, and has a tuned, smooth cutting feel. Starting the cut is easy and reliable. The canted blade feels very natural pushing into the cut – notice in the photo that it’s really just the reverse direction cant of a Japanese saw. The kerf is, of course, wider but I contend that thinner is not necessarily better, provided the saw has a proper set. It is the quality of the kerf that matters; it must be have sharp, clean walls for the craftsman to track a line well.

The photos show sharp, clean kerfs from both saws, from the front side (top photo) and from the back side (bottom photo). The Gramercy saw, with a .018 saw plate, 19 ppi hand filed and hammer set about .003 each side, achieves a nice balance between tracking and room for error correction. It cuts about as fast as my Japanese saw – plenty efficient, even in 3/4″ maple or oak.

Excellent Japanese and Western tools are the products of two highly evolved tool systems. They both work, they both have advantages and disadvantages, but most important, a craftsman can adapt to either and do quality work. The choice probably comes down to feel and experience. Birds have feathers, bats have hair; they both fly. I will use both of my saws, I think because I can’t resist either one.

Joel has produced a gem which I highly recommend, especially to devotees of Japanese saws. He even offers a sharpening service. [This review is unsolicited and unpaid. I just like the saw a lot.] 


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• Monday, December 15th, 2008

The late Tage Frid wrote, in his 1979 book Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking, “I don’t care how it is made – he [the craftsman] can make it with his teeth or a machine – it is still the final product that counts.”

Sure, tools and methodology are essentially means to an end. However, the way we accomplish things and the nature of our work life are important too. This is particularly true for the avocational woodworker who is under less production pressure than a full-time professional and thus has the luxury of choice as to how he feels while he is working. In general, I feel better when I’m using my hand tools than when I’m using my power tools, and so there’s one point in favor of hand tools. I also feel good when I see steady progress through the stock preparation phase of a project along with the repeatable precision of machine work, and so score a couple for electricity.

Yet, there’s more to this issue. Hand tool woodworking is a mentality, an approach, almost a philosophy. It does not mean the absence of power machinery. Rather, I believe the hand tool woodworker is one who recognizes that he can impart degrees of quality and personalization to his work with hand tools that are unlikely or impossible with machinery. This applies to two aspects of woodworking.

The first is methodology. The hand tool worker thinks and plans work differently than those ruled by machines. Processes are incremental. For example, relying only on the table saw to crosscut a drawer front is not likely to produce as excellent a fit as shooting with a hand plane, where fitting can be done in increments of just a couple thousandths of an inch. This level of control builds a relaxed confidence.

Hand tools also allow for error compensation and avoid error build up. For example, in making tenons on the table saw, a machine woodworker is likely to measure stock thickness and assume a sort of perfection, even though the slightest inconsistency in stock thickness can create poor fitting tenons. A hand tool woodworker would work from one reference face of the stock, cancelling small imperfections in stock thickness. If he did use the table saw to make the tenons, he would adjust the machine with a one-sided tolerance, mindful that he can later remove a shaving or two with a plane if necessary to produce an ideal fit. Machines, yes, but on your own terms.

The second aspect of hand tool work has to do with the aesthetics it engenders. Interesting joinery, resplendent surfaces, subtly treated edges, and satisfying contours are some of the distinguishing personalized features we are at ease producing with hand tools. One may use a bandsaw to do most of the work of creating a pleasing contour on a table leg, but a spokeshave and rasps will refine it to a quality that a power sander alone is not likely to achieve. Maybe a round-over router bit gets an edge close to what you want, but a plane gradually alters the mathematically produced edge to something that is less readily definable, but is just what you want. The vision, the work, and the product are personal.

It’s nice to drive to the mountains and even drive through the mountains, but it’s not as nice as hiking them. Power tools drive you there, but hand tools walk you through.

Category: Ideas  | 10 Comments
• Tuesday, December 09th, 2008

It was a pleasure meeting the many woodworkers who attended the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event in Massachusetts this past weekend. I hope my demonstrations and advice were useful. It was exciting to be surrounded by the wealth of expertise available from my fellow demonstrators so I was able to pick up some good tips as well. There’s some photos here which capture the flavor of the days.

It was fun to encounter so many friendly woodworkers enjoying what they do and sharing their interest. And not one person asked for a bailout! Simple joys, the best kind.

Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments
• Tuesday, December 09th, 2008

For several months I have been using an Atoma 1200 diamond stone to improve the action of the finest Shapton stones when I want a really excellent edge.

For flattening Shapton stones, the Shapton Diamond Lapping Plate works wonderfully fast and well. The grit size is listed as 54/45 micron, approximately equivalent to P280/320 sandpaper. It is manufactured to a flatness tolerance of +/- 3 microns, which is about one ten-thousandth of an inch!

However, to go beyond the task of flattening the stone, I wanted to improve the cutting qualities of the stone’s surface and the slurry. I turned to the expert advice of So Yamashita who recommended the Atoma 1200. This is used essentially as a nagura substitute. (The particles of a nagura are coarser than those of the finest Shaptons.) The Atoma has an extremely even spread of diamond particles on its surface which, as they rake particles off the Shapton, crush them into smaller pieces creating an ultra fine paste as well as finely conditioning the Shapton’s sharpening surface. It does this specific task better than the coarser Shapton Lapping Plate. This also gives the stone surface a nice feel under the blade which improves my sense of the blade’s contact on the stone.

So further suggests, for the very finest edge, to rinse the slurry and polish the edge with almost no water. A slurry can slightly round the edge which would work better for a tougher edge for coarser planing.

So is outstandingly knowledgeable in the field of Japanese woodworking tools, especially sharpening stones. I do hope I am presenting his explanations accurately; any errors are mine.

I can certainly say that this system is giving me very good results. The Atoma diamond stones are available from Japan-tool and, I believe, from Hida Tool. I have no financial interest in the sale of these; my suggestions are for the benefit of fellow woodworkers. The sharpening station set up that I use, in the photo above, is detailed in the October 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking magazine.

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