Archive for ◊ November, 2011 ◊

• Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

I was browsing in a Woodcraft store a while ago and saw some blank knife blades to which only a wooden handle needed to be attached to produce a nice knife. I am not a knife maker but I certainly like tools, including knives, and figured this would be an easy diversion for me, an experienced woodworker, while more profound projects ruminated in my head. Ha! Yeah, right.

I bought two. I was thinking vaguely, without fully admitting to myself, that one was to screw up and learn on, while the second had a shot at turning out OK. Really, it was not a difficult project, but even such a seemingly straightforward job as this harbored glitches that, lacking specific experience, I was unlikely to anticipate.

How was I to know that the quick-set epoxy would make an ugly thick glue line, or that blending the handle near the heel of the blade would be tricky? Even though I’ve handled knives for many years, decisions for the figure, weight, thickness, and contours of the handle were confusing. I also was not accustomed to seeing sparks fly off the drum sander along with the usual wood dust.

In short, after irretrievably messing up my first attempt, the next try resulted in a decent handle. The process still felt awkward, and I know there is plenty of room for improvement.

So, while not wholly unfamiliar, this was new territory for me. The experience reminded me how damn difficult it is to make things, especially to make them come out the way you really want them to come out. It’s not quick, easy, or perfect every time.

To students of woodworking, and that means all of us, I suggest we ignore the popular trend of hawking this or that technique as easy-peasy, quick as a flash, or (ugh) “perfect every time.” Woodworking is none of those. Sure, you and I can and will learn new skills and do excellent work, but it’s really not easy.

So, ignore the hype and keep making sawdust. Happy woodworking!

Category: Ideas  | 4 Comments
• Monday, November 21st, 2011

Here is a practical way to choose the height of the workbench that you are planning to buy or build: First, consider the tasks you will commonly perform at the bench. One height will not be ideal for all of them. So, prioritize them, and then try out heights for the major tasks.

I think this method is better than a formula. The most commonly quoted of these states that the top of the workbench should be at the level of your palm when you stand with your arm straight down with your hand extended forward, or simply at the level of your wrist. That might work for you but it might not. I know it does not work for me.

I dissuade you from using a simple formula because this is a personal matter like many aspects of craft. It is not only your height and arm length, but also your back, neck, eyes, posture, and style of work that come into play. The best way to integrate all these factors is to simply try out different heights. Here’s how.

First consider your tasks. As an example, here is my list.

Very common jobs, at which I often spend a long time: planing, sawing dovetails and tenons (sometimes using an auxiliary vise), chopping joinery (often while seated), shooting, scraping, sanding, and finishing.

Shorter duration or less frequent tasks: marking out, paring, sawing with the bench hook, and assembly.

Machine work at the bench: mortising with the router, Domino and biscuit joinery, and using a benchtop drill press and portable electric drill.

Maybe you do lots of carving or inlay, maybe you do all your joinery with machine jigs and the bench is mostly for fitting and sanding, or maybe you prepare all of your stock by hand, and so forth. Remember too, that workbenches are not saw horses; ripping and crosscutting stock to size with handsaws require much lower support.

The next step is to use a sturdy table, Workmate, or a friend’s workbench along with some clamps, and stack/remove 3/4″ or ½” plywood or MDF on it to create various heights to try out the tasks on your list. Pay attention to:

  • your posture – neck, shoulders, back, core, knees
  • reach
  • range of eyesight
  • how you tire
  • any physical limitations you may have.

Find what feels right for you. Your most common and long duration tasks should govern your final choice of height, along with some accounting for the other tasks.

If you are getting a new bench, you get to choose, of course. However, you can easily raise an existing bench by attaching blocks at the bottom. While lowering a bench is a bigger job, it can be done because you’re a woodworker.

There are other approaches. Adjustable height benches and plans to make your own are available which could be used as a primary or secondary bench. Japanese woodworkers do much of their work on the floor and on an angled heavy beam.

In summary, I suggest forget the formulas and trust yourself. You will, after all, be spending a lot of hopefully happy hours at the bench.

This is what works for me, but who cares, find what works for you!

Category: Tools and Shop  | 2 Comments
• Friday, November 11th, 2011

Isn’t learning wonderful? You acquire new things that become part of you, you can do it all you want, it’s good for you, and you don’t ever have to stop. It does, however, require humility in that it must start with the admission of the enormity of what you do not know. Thus, I am a permanent student of woodworking. The learning I like best is the kind that I can put into action in the shop.

When asked, I say that I am a self-taught woodworker, true in the usual sense. In reality, I have had countless teachers, almost all from afar. I would like to share with you the woodworking teachers from whom I have learned the most.

James Krenov has to head the list. His writings and work catalyzed my intuition that making high quality things in wood, with a personal touch, is powerfully meaningful. Further, his level of technical refinement continues to set a standard.

Ernest Scott’s Working in Wood, published in 1980 and, as far as I know, long out of print, was an encyclopedic challenge to absorb, especially for learning joinery. I would literally blow the sawdust off the pages as I turned them and practiced making joints. Tage Frid had a legendary breadth of practical woodworking knowledge. His Taunton Press books and articles remain directly usable at the bench. Ian Kirby offers clearly reasoned explanations of techniques that advanced my understanding and helped develop my habit of thinking through woodworking processes instead of accepting them by rote.

There are many more. To learn about wood, I turn to Bruce Hoadley (Understanding Wood), and the wonderful Fine Woodworking articles on different species authored by Jon Arno. Bob Flexner’s lucid demystifying of finishing in his books, and articles in Popular Woodworking, is some of the best explanatory writing I’ve read on any topic. I still refer to Charles Hayward’s Woodwork Joints, copyright 1975, to sort out joinery. David Charlesworth’s incisive understanding of technique is top of the line.

For furniture construction, I often look to the writings of the following woodworkers in numerous sources. Bill Hylton must have taken five lifetimes to learn his range of ability. Chris Becksvoort gives reliable advice borne of long experience. I keep rereading Will Neptune’s articles, there is so much in every paragraph. I’ve always enjoyed Gary Rogowski’s enabling way of teaching several different ways to accomplish a job.

Still, there are so many more. Without a doubt, every devoted woodworker has his favorite teachers and sources. The explosion of woodworking information on the internet adds immeasurably to our learning opportunities. To all of the above and the many more unmentioned, thank you.

Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments
• Thursday, November 03rd, 2011

This is the best shooting board I have ever used. I believe it is probably the best available anywhere. Tico Vogt made it and he can make one for you – the Super Chute 2.0. A shooting board is an extremely useful, almost magical, tool that can greatly elevate your control of woodworking processes. After watching Tico develop and improve his version of this tool, I finally had a chance to use it last week at a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking.

That’s Tico in the photos using his Super Chute 2.0.

It was like slicing baloney with a sled on an ice track. Tico showed me the tool’s incredible quality details and nuances that only could come from a seasoned woodworker who knows from experience what really works in the shop. To elaborate on all of them here would make this post too long, but I will point out a few highlights.

The plane rides on a track of super-slick UHMW plastic. Importantly, the work piece sits on an angled bed which facilitates a strong stroke with the plane and distributes wear and cutting resistance over a greater width of the blade than a flat bed would. The 90̊ and instantly-installed 45̊ fences register in eccentric bushings which make their angles micro adjustable. The fences are also laterally adjustable to completely eliminate end grain spelching. To my mind, these user-controlled features respect the skill and intelligence of the craftsman using the tool. A donkey ear miter attachment that installs easily is also available.

Tico uses CNC technology and sources components manufactured with a high degree of sophistication to a produce a product with quality evident throughout. No, it’s not cheap; excellence never is. This is Lie-Nielsen-type quality in a shooting board.

A plane such as L-N’s sweet #9 makes shooting all the more of a pleasure but don’t feel you must have a dedicated miter plane to start shooting. A well-tuned and well-sharpened jack plane, bevel-up or bevel-down, can shoot very effectively. Shooting is a gateway technique, easily learned, that will allow you to produce precise ends on components of casework. It is a must for making precision high-end drawers with hand tools.

This review is unsolicited and uncompensated. I just think the Super Chute 2.0 is a heckuva tool.