Author Archive

• Sunday, April 30th, 2023

Ruler Trick for short blade

Ironically, I do not use a ruler for the Ruler Trick. As I described in a post about five years ago, I like a 0.020″ strip of plastic cut from shim stock and roughened on the bottom for a better grip on the stone. This is about the same thickness as a 1/2mm ruler.

One advantage of using shim stock is for short blades. In the photo above, I am using a 0.015″ shim to raise the spokeshave blade to approximately the same angle as a 0.020″ shim raises a full size blade that fully straddles the stone. Perhaps this adjustment matters little but it helps keep my sharpening technique consistent and it is simple to do.

Many specialty and joinery planes have short blades, and many are bedded bevel up. Some of the bevel-up blades, such as side rabbet planes, have quite a low clearance angle. The Ruler Trick is especially helpful on these.

The blade of the wonderful Veritas router plane is detachable from its vertical stem for convenient sharpening. The clearance angle of the blade as installed in the plane is only about 5°. For this little blade, only about 1 inch long, a 0.005″ shim gives about same 1/2° back bevel as a ruler or 0.020″ shim under a full size blade.

Regarding the direction of Ruler Trick honing as discussed in the previous post, the spokeshave blade above is about the shortest I can practically use the across-the-edge motion. For very short blades like the router and for short skew-edged blades, the along-the-edge motion is more practical.

Woodworkers are indebted to the late David Charlesworth for the Ruler Trick and for the abundance of his other insightful teaching.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | Comments off
• Wednesday, April 05th, 2023

Ruler Trick direction

Should your honing motion for the tiny Ruler Trick bevel on the back of the blade be parallel to the edge of the blade or perpendicular to it? Does it matter?

The late David Charlesworth demonstrates the technique in his You Tube video moving the blade perpendicular to its edge, i.e., across the edge. He starts with the blade edge beyond the long edge of the stone and pulls it back “two or three times.” He states that he does not “like to trap a wire edge underneath the blade.” He then moves the blade back and forth – barely over the edge of the stone and no more than 10mm onto the stone, which is a very short motion.

In the video, he previously honed the microbevel on the front of the blade using a guide, moving the blade perpendicular to its edge. Thus, the final minute scratches on the back of the blade meet up parallel with those created on the microbevel.

Ruler Trick

Others, in fact most, as far as I can tell, execute the Ruler Trick differently by moving the blade edge parallel along the length of the stone. This seems quicker and easier. It does mean that the final scratches on the back of the blade will be perpendicular, or at least at a large angle to, those on the bevel.

Another example of technique is from the outstanding teacher, Rob Cosman, who thinks through woodworking techniques so well. He hones the bevel in a vigorous circular/oval motion with the blade edge angled to the length of the stone. He then executes the Ruler Trick moving the edge parallel to the stone.

I used David’s original method for a long time and then drifted to using the parallel method because it is indeed easier. I began to wonder if the opposite directions of the final scratches on the front and back of the blade might weaken the durability of the edge. I lately have switched back to David’s method.

Does it matter? I cannot scientifically measure it but my shop experience is telling me that, yes, the pristine edge seems more durable using the Ruler Trick in the same direction as David demonstrated.

My only real point here is that you may want to try for yourself the different methods and consider the effects.

Ruler Trick bevel-up blade

Another question: Should you go back and forth from honing the bevel to the back? In his video, David very gently hones the microbevel, and then does the Ruler Trick, and that’s all. He does not return to the bevel.

For me, that works well if I am cleaning up an edge that is not too worn, which requires just gentle brief honing and is easy to get right. More often, especially if I want a really nice edge such as on a smoothing plane, I find myself returning to the bevel and then repeating the RT. This means having to unclamp and reclamp the blade from a honing guide, if that is what I’m using.

Again, my point is to suggest we should be aware of just what we are doing, observe the effects, and decide from there.

Next: suggestions for managing the Ruler Trick with small blades.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | Comments off
• Tuesday, March 28th, 2023
Western chisel back

Can the Ruler Trick be used for chisels? Yes. Should it be used for chisels? Depends. 

Yes, the RT affords an advantage similar as with plane blades in honing the flat side of the blade. The tiny 1/2° bevel created by the lift of the ruler makes it faster and easier for your finest grit stone to contact the metal on the flat side all the way out to the apex of the cutting edge. This makes resharpening easier. It also makes preparing a new chisel easier unless it fortunately has a minute hollow on the back to begin with. For example, I recently bought this DeWalt chisel (below) and set it up as a scraper chisel. Remarkably, it came with a nice slightly dished back.   

DeWalt chisel back

However, that 1/2° bevel on the back of a chisel has consequences in use. For paring, there is a less definite feedback to sense the angle at which the chisel will bite. We want to sense the lowest angle at which the chisel cuts wood. The long handle and a full flat back of the chisel aid that sense. A tiny bevel on the flat side confuses it a bit. 

Now, this is in my hands. You may find you can adjust and recalibrate your feel so you can pare just as effectively. 

For chopping, we often want to sense vertical, such as in dovetail work. The tiny RT bevel makes that sense slightly less definite. Again, you may find you can compensate and it is no problem at all. As with almost everything else in woodworking, there is more than one good way to do things but it is important to be aware of what is really happening at any cutting edge. 

All of this applies to Western style chisels. Japanese chisels do not need the Ruler Trick. The hollow on the back of the blade minimizes the area that contacts the stone and thus the amount of metal you have to remove to hone all the way out to the cutting edge. This is a huge advantage of Japanese chisels, and one of several reasons I use this style of chisel almost exclusively. 

Japanese chisel back

Next: There seems to be different opinions on the direction to apply the Ruler Trick honing – across or along the length of the edge. 

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | Comments off
• 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?

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 7 Comments
• 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.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | Comments off
• 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.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 2 Comments
• 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

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 8 Comments
• 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

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 2 Comments