Friday, July 21, 2017

I'm back from the Woodwright's School

I just had a nice visit to The Woodwright's School in Pittsboro, NC, and I wanted to share a little bit about my experience.
Roy Underhill discusses trade-offs in sharpening with the class 

The class I took was "Introduction to Hand Tool Woodworking" taught by Roy Underhill, which might seems strange for a person who has been working with hand tools and writing about for years. I had my reasons though, and I did learn a few things. Mostly, though, it was a fun and motivating way to spend a couple of days, knocking the rust of my skills, spending some time with like-minded folk, and having to keep up with the pace of a class. I chose this class in particular because of the teacher, and because it was a relatively small time/money commitment compared to other classes. It was the first time I've taken a woodworking class, and I'm really glad I did it.

Now that the conclusion is out of the way, here's a list of some highlights:

* Roy was his goofy and magnanimous self, like on TV but without rushing to get it all into one take. To hear him tell it, he wasted class time with self-serving anecdotes, but listening to his banter is in my humble opinion, a major benefit of this particular school.

* Hanging out with 10 other woodworkers was fun. Don't get me wrong, it was a pretty introverted crowd (as I have come to expect in this hobby) so I'm not talking about wild rollicking craziness, but it was nice to have some camaraderie, and to share information and stories. Hello Jean-Paul, Tiffani, Joel, and the rest of the class (should you happen to read this)!

* The wood we got to work with was choice. We built bench hooks starting from a green walnut log-which was a bit of a revelation. It split easily, but only when I wanted it to, and planing it felt amazingly smooth. The purple and yellow undertones were cool too. We made dovetailed boxes from [dried] poplar on day 2. Both were especially smooth and easy to work with, and beautiful. 
The bench I was using

* Ed and his shop full of nicely tuned old tools upstairs. They were available to try out during class, which was a really nice bonus. Just having access to a store like that is a good opportunity considering the tools are cheaper than new, but sharp and ready to there is a lot of variety. I didn't take massive advantage of this because I'm pretty well equipped at this point, but I did pick up a saw set.

* Did I mention I learned some stuff? Even though I've split logs, milled stock, and cut dovetails before, by giving myself over to someone else's methods, I learned a few things. I had never used hot hide glue before, and trying it out removed the intimidation factor. I also learned some subtle things about dovetailing that I think will make it go a lot faster in the future.

* Getting to use a real workbench! Mine is still in progress because I've had limited time for woodworking since mid 2015, and this felt like a luxury.

* Pittsboro was a charming little town with some great stuff to offer. The City Tap and Small St. B & B stand out in particular. The City Tap had a great selection of microbrews that weren't dominated by IPAs as is so often the case in my neck of the woods. And the Small St. B & B was just phenomenal. The room I slept in was a piece of art, the food was divine, and the couple that ran it made me feel completely at home. If you find yourself in Pittsboro, go try their hotcakes when they are serving breakfast, whether you are staying there or not! (because they're also a breakfast/brunch restaurant)

* The driving was an experience. It was 11+ hours each way for me. I'm not sure it was a highlight in every sense, but it was a very memorable part of the trip, and I would do it again.

* I brought home useful stuff that I made:
Useful stuff, safely home.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Which hand plane should I get first?

I have fielded this question more than any other from new woodworkers that I know personally: "What hand plane should I get first?" It seems that every blog and magazine has a different answer, always couched in a familiar disclaimer that more or less says "this is what works for me, [other people have other opinions, etc. etc.]". I think an honest talk about the trade-offs is long overdue.

I will try to lay out the options to answer every question about which plane to buy, including size, cost, age, material, and primary purpose. I will not go into detail about how to find, evaluate, restore, or use a plane, as I think those are best left separate (feel free to email me questions to prompt an article from me on this topic, although many good answers are already available).

Let's quickly get some terminology and basic facts out of the way first, though.

Planes can flatten, smooth, and level wood, which are three different things.

Flat means in a geometric plane, regardless of orientation or texture, something large planes are good at achieving. A piece of slate leaning against a wall is flat but not level and probably not smooth.

Smooth refers to the texture, or more precisely to the lack of texture. The walls of a drinking glass are smooth but not flat, and if it's standing upright, they are not level either. Any plane with a sharp polished straight blade can make wood smooth.

Level refers to a horizontal orientation, which isn't really what planes are for. The wooden floor I'm standing on in my house is level but not flat because it has sagged slightly over time (and not totally smooth because I have two energetic dogs). If you wanted to level a flat and smooth tabletop, you would apply a saw or a wedge to one or more legs, not a plane to the top. Technically you can level with a plane by removing material from the high side, but usually you want to flatten material, perhaps make the other side flat and parallel, and then position it level.

Any plane can take any thickness shaving
Well, almost. Although certain sizes of planes have gravitated to the roles that usually suit them best, what they can do also depends on how you set them up. The thickness of shaving is up to the user (as is the level of camber, polish, and sometimes the cutting angle). When you own only one plane, you may need exploit this flexibility, and it's a good learning experience. But bear in mind the traditional progression. A medium length plane (e.g. "fore" or "jack") usually takes thick shavings first to get a board approximately flat, then a longer plane (e.g. "try" or "jointer") to get precise flatness, and then something shorter plays the role of a smoothing plane--for eliminating any lingering tear-out, track marks, or other roughness. This combination matches the best attributes of each plane to an appropriate task. But even in this traditional progression, the exact size of the planes, and thresholds between them will vary depending on the project and user. Remember that there are reasons for tradition, but they are not absolute rules.

(For clear instruction in traditional hand plane roles, seek out what Chris Schwarz has written/filmed about "Coarse, Medium, Fine)

So, which type of handplane should I buy first?
This question is more complex than is initially obvious, because you are really solving 3 different problems. You really want to choose a plane that will do all of these things for you:
* Teach you about planes. How to use and maintain them, and what you like to use them for. Any plane (in good working order) can do this although some make it easier than others.
* Be immediately useful. This will give you experience and will give the tool relevance. Versatile tools have a better chance of doing this.
* Find a long term niche in your shop. To be worth owning it should be the best tool for at least one job (for you)--otherwise you may end up wishing you had spent your hard-earned cash on something else.

The best first plane for you will be one that can do these 3 things well.

A block plane is a safe choice for any woodworker.
Teaching ability: The information contained in a block plane is relatively accessible. There is less metal to sharpen (or flatten, if that is required), and these tend to be more affordable than other planes.
Immediate use: A block plane will find immediate use breaking edges, flattening small parts, shaping convex curves, and can even play the role of a smoother plane. It is not good at making reliably flat surfaces on furniture-sized parts, although you can make surfaces that look more or less flat.
Long term niche: Almost any woodworker will have a niche for a block plane in their shop. It's a full-fledged plane that you can easily pick up and wield with one hand. Even those who have a shop full of power tools already will find a block plane to be an extremely efficient way to remove the sharp corners from project parts, flush protrusions, or flatten small surfaces.
Bottom line: If you have any doubts after reading this article, get a block plane first. It's a safe choice that you are unlikely to regret. If you want to stop reading now, just go get the best block plane that fits your budget.

A smoothing plane (e.g. #4, #3, 4 1/2) can be a revelation for those with a shop full of power tools
Teaching ability: Almost as accessible as a block plane, but more optimized for two hands. A fine teacher that will inspire you to get really good at sharpening.
Immediate use: You can use it to "smooth" or refine the texture of a surface, but it can also be used for flattening small surfaces or anything a block plane can do. Will not likely be good at taking off a lot of material quickly (unless it has an adjustable mouth).
Long term niche: As long as you learn to sharpen, a smoother will enable to to achieve the best surfaces quickly. It is the fastest way remove the marks left by other planes, a jointer or a planer. The surface it leaves can be final, or as a prelude to sandpaper if you prefer.
Bottom line: Get a smoother first if you are already using power tools for milling, because using it immediately afterwords will save you time by allowing you to skip most/all of the sandpaper. Buy the one that feels most natural in your hand, ideally with a higher-than-45-degree cutting angle. Then get good at sharpening. But if you are already planning a long trip down the hand-tool rabbit hole, I would recommend delaying your smoother purchase--instead take a little more time to learn your preferences before deciding which smoother to buy.

A jack/fore plane is a good choice if you love hand tools already or want to keep wide stock intact
Teaching ability: These #5 or similar planes are a nice size to get good at two-hand technique. Useful whether sharpened straight or cambered, coarse or polished.
Immediate use: This is probably the most versatile of all planes. It is large enough to do some serious flattening if you need it to, and is also capable of smoothing. But it's best at removing large amounts of material to get a board approximately flat in a hurry.
Long term niche: Doing what it does best, being a fore plane. It's really doing the same job as a powered jointer and planer for those that have a hand tool preference, but it can also handle material of any width. 
Bottom line: This is probably the best choice if you have a strong interest in using hand planes, because it will let you do a lot right away while you develop sharpening skills. I would also recommend it to someone who wants to avoid the workarounds associated with wide stock and a narrow power-jointer. I would not recommend a jack plane as an introduction to hand planes for most habitual power-tool users.

A jointer such as a #7 is a bold start if you have large plans and want to avoid power
1.) It will teach you the fundamentals just like any bench plane, as long as you have some large surfaces or long edges to work with. But be sure to get one that's already got a flat sole, or getting it working will be a real pain.
2.) A plane this size, used competently, will end up straightening or flattening whatever wood you apply it to, and is especially useful for dealing with dimensions 3' and larger. You do have some flexibility about what kind of shavings you take, however. It is most natural with a medium thickness shaving (maybe as thick as a business card), but you can take thicker shavings if you put your whole body into it. With careful sharpening, you can reduce the shaving thickness to the point where there is no smoothing left to be done in many cases (a back-bevel may help, too). So it is actually quite versatile, as long as you have the energy to push it around. But it will be hard to use on small surfaces (really, impossible for a beginner on anything less than say, 8"), and you won't be able to remove tearout without removing wood from a large area.
3.) I love my jointer plane, and I have a hard time imagining being happy with any alternative. But folks who are accustomed to a powered jointer don't seem to find much use for them. These will find a home in shop of a person who is dead-set against the noise, dust, and space requirements of large power tools, or is in love with the excercise and ceremony that can come with hand tools. Many woodworkers will be happy without ever picking one up.
Bottom line: The only way this should be your first handplane is if you are absolutely sure you want to get deeply involved with handplanes AND your first application for a plane is something big, like a workbench. If that's you, go for it, and consider spending a couple bucks on a card scraper while you're at it. If you are already content with a powered jointer and planer, don't even consider a buying a jointer plane first.

A shoulder plane is the least-ridiculous type of rabbet plane as a first plane, but you still shouldn't do it
1.) With two more references surfaces than bench planes, and a need for precise adjustment in one additional dimension, these are not an ideal introduction to planes.
2.) As the most versatile type of rabbet plane, this can be used for rabbets, grooves, tenon shoulders. If you really need it to, you could even use it for flattening small surfaces.
3.) If you're going to use hand planes for joinery, this will have continued utility. It has a specialized focus, but can do everything a simple rabbet plane can do too, and that is a lot.
Bottom line) I don't recommend any sort of a rabbet plane as a first choice, because the extra complexity distracts from the most important parts--sharpening and planing. But if you're going to do it anyway, get a large shoulder plane. At least if you do come to like rabbeting by hand and figure out which styles of rabbet plane you prefer, your shoulder plane will certainly be among them.

Other sizes are available.
I didn't mention #1, #2, #6, and #8, but that doesn't necessarily make them a bad choice. What I've covered for the most common sizes should still serve as the basic guidance, but if you or your work is an unusual size, you can use these other sizes to compensate. A #1 might make sense for a small child that can be trusted with sharp objects, or a #8 for a tall person building a workbench.
Bottom line: There are 3 basic sizes for hand planes, not 8.

Consider a router plane if you want, but look to a different article:
Ok, it's technically a plane because it has a sole and an iron, but it's really a different animal because it does not take a consistent thickness shaving like everything else on the list. It might be a good choice if you have the right project, but then you will be back to this article for the second plane, because it's not the same thing.

Now that you know what type you're going to get, let's figure out exactly which one to look at.

Used or New?
Ideally, you want to be able to focus on learning to use a plane, and not be distracted by wondering if it working properly. If you can afford to buy a plane that comes flat and sharp from the factory, I would recommend that as your first plane. I would not consider a new plane that doesn't meet this low bar, because it will almost certainly have flaws that you cannot correct. If you have the skills to restore an old tool, you might as well save some money and get an old Stanley or similar and restore it (but err on the side of a smaller plane). If you have neither the budget for new or the skills to restore an old tool, it gets more difficult, and you might have to make a hard choice between the two. But you also might find an old tool that has already been restored for a decent price if you look towards the kind of dealers that appear at woodworking trade shows. Or find someone local willing to help you restore a plane for the first time.

Wood or metal?
A metal bodied plane is probably your best option, because of the easy adjustment they offer. If you are determined to avoid complexity, you can go with a wooden plane, but you'll have to learn to adjust it with a small mallet. An infill plane is a waste of money unless you are sure you really like planes. And transitional planes are best left to collectors. Bottom line, you should probably get a metal-bodied plane.

Bevel up or down?
It actually doesn't matter all that much. Bevel down planes are a little simpler, a little more ergonomic, and they work better with heavily-cambered blades. Bevel up planes allow free choice of cutting angles and typically have adjustable mouths for ultimate versatility. But you can do everything you need to with either, so get whichever one makes sense to you, and don't regret it.

Which brand?
I'm going to dodge this question, but not completely. Read reviews, and you will find several types of brands. Boutique makers are an OK first choice as long as you can afford it. Brands of questionable quality will probably cost you the most in the end, and aren't worth your time.. What you probably want is a high quality brand with excellent customer service. There are only a few well known ones.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

simplest 45-degree planing cradle

I have seen a lot of devices for holding boards at a 45-degree angle from laying flat on the bench, but all required a tablesaw to build quickly. Here is what I came up with when I was planing tapered octagons for stool legs recently. It's easy to make with just a handsaw.

Planing cradle shown in lower right hand corner (the thing with the v-notch)
All I did was cut a 90-degree "V" out of a strip of wood, which holds the board at an angle. This took about 2 minutes to lay out and cut. It maintains the angle securely and nothing more. I drilled a hole in it and hung it on a peg near the bench for re-use.

I still needed more conventional workholding to maintain the board's position. This could be dogs, a planing stop, battens, etc, but in this case I used a handscrew clamp and another board to shim it up, because I was working on the bottom face of my bench-in-progress, and I don't have much workholding.

Why do any of this?

To turn these:

Three square-stock leg-blanks. Also shown: the rest of the adjustable stool in the background, and my note reminding myself of what the shoulder lines are so I could resume later. 

...into these:

Three tapered legs, made only by layout and planing. Oh, and a carcass saw if you count the fact that the tenon shoulders have been cut already.
Making tapered legs is the kind of work that a jack plane makes easy. I would not want to try to get this to work on a tablesaw or bandsaw.

That's all for now. If you missed the summary of this stool, check it out here, or see all my completed projects.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A useful mallet-making tangent

I was chopping out a giant sliding dovetail for my workbench endcap, when my chisel mallet broke again. I really didn't feel like trying to get the pieces glued together for the third time, so I started making a couple malletts to replace it. Two is a good number of mallets to have, because if one breaks, you can still bash mortise chisels to make another one. Since I was starting from 1/2 a mallet, one of mine was made with a wedged dowel in an auger hole for a handle.

busted commercially-made mallet, surrounded by 2 new mallets.

I had a short length of 2" x 2" maple available, so that's what I used for the heads. My widest mortise chisel is 1/2", so I made the handle out of 1/2" thick maple. I traced and carved a shape for the handle, and traced the orientation of the wedge-shaped top on the maple block, in the orientation most comfortable. Rounding the handle made it quite comfortable, even as narrow as it is.

Gluing leather onto the slightly domed face. Hide glue seems to fit rhe bill.
I domed the face a little with a block plane, and glued two thicknesses of leather on it. And rounded the back so it won't look like a hitting face.

Completed mallet.

Double thick leather was needed for the right kind of thud.

Here is the other mallet I made. The handle was originally about a 20" length of 3/4" poplar dowel (because that's what I had), but it had an unpleasant vibration until I cut it down quite a lot. It works well as a short mallet.
While I was sidetracked anyway, I made this planing stop. It was useful for making mallet handles.

This weird looking design actually has familiar ergonomics. Instead on cutting the face at an angle, the handle curves down at an angle. Either way knuckles stay just above the bench in use.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

durable plane iron marking method is handy for bevel-up planes

I have a small collection of plane irons that swap between three bevel up planes, as needed. I really like this approach because it makes it easy to get the right cutting angle in any situation. But this also means keeping track of which iron gets sharpened at which angle. I was using a so-called permanent marker in this capacity for a while, but they aren't what I would call permanent on a shiny steel surface that comes in contact with oil and water regularly.

Marked plane blade with wooden stylus. The large number has just been done with bluing fluid. The small, half-faded number is from a "permanent" marker.

So, I landed on the idea of using bluing fluid. The procedure is pretty simple, but there are a couple of easy ways to screw it up that I have learned how to avoid. Here's the procedure:
Marking my box full of blades takes only a few minutes.
  1. Get some liquid bluing fluid.
  2. Clean the plane blade thoroughly in the area you want to mark. You can polish up with an abrasive if you want to be sure it's clean.
  3. Make a stylus by sharpening a stick of wood. Cut off the very tip so it has a little width, matching the line you want to make.
  4. Write with the stylus. You'll need to dip it in the bluing fluid often. Avoid the temptation to soak the whole stick. I understand it's nasty stuff and not something i would choose to get on my skin, plus you don't want o make a puddle where you are trying to write. The fluid goes on clear, and turns the surface nearly black in about 3 seconds. Be patient and careful, because this won't erase without an abrasive.
  5. Clean the fluid by dousing in water. You don't want to wipe off the bluing fluid with a rag, because you'll most likely end up with a smudge instead of numerals. I like to take it over my sink, start the water on high, and then put the blade under the tap in one fluid motion. That way the fluid is long gone before it has a chance to discolor the surrounding area.
  6. Prevent rust by thoroughly drying the blade and applying oil or another rust preventative as you normally would.

My box of blades would be excessive for one plane, but it serves these 3 nicely. I often pop a high-angle blade in the jointer to avoid tearout and save the smoother some work. The jack plane is my primary shooting plane, so it often holds something with a low angle.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Workbench update for January 2017

As I've mentioned before, I spent a lot of 2016 neglecting my workshop. I did the shop stool and the cutting board, along with a few other small things, to get my motivation snowballing again. Now I'm starting to dig in (literally) to the workbench again. The top is still upside-down, generally presenting an inviting surface on which to put clutter, and not being very useful as a worksurface without any workholding.

Here's a look at most of the setup for routing these dead-man grooves. Annoyingly, the aluminum guide was slightly curved until I forced it into alignment with a clamped-on batten (not shown).

But while it's in this position, I want to do as much as I can, to save flipping it over multiple times. This means cutting one side of sliding dovetails for the endcaps, without being able to fit the endcaps on. It means cutting sliding deadman slots (plural, because I put one on the back too, in case I want to use the back), but not having anything to slide in them. Soon it will mean partially installing an end vise and partially completing leg joinery. I think the lack of immediate reward is part of the reason I've been procrastinating. But I got going again, and this time I don't plan on slowing down until it's got all the necessary features and finish on it.

This 3/4" spiral upcut bit is just the ticket, as long as you wear a mask and don't leave any containers open.

I think another reason I have been procrastinating a little is that the scale of this project makes certain power tools almost indispensable, but I really don't enjoy all the dust. But the router really did make the sliding dead-man grooves practical (since I forgot to cut them pre-lamination).

I actually convinced my circular saw to do a stopped plunge cut so it wouldn't have the final say on the ends. It was almost accurate, though.

Cutting the ends square was greatly aided by my circular saw, although I did cut the ends (where it will show) with a sash saw for better accuracy. I did manage to get the circ saw reasonably perpendicular, though.
All my workbench reference materials, in one place.

Despite all the procrastination, and delays, I seem to have regained my momentum. There were two things I did that seemed to help a lot. One thing was to get my notes organized. Each task gets a full page containing drawings, and any notes or concerns. This has helped me avoid wondering what I'm missing. A couple of workbench books act as appendices, because my notes contain page numbers.

This 3" thick slab of maple was acting as a dedicated sharpening area, even while I was temporarily without a workbench. How did I not think of drilling dog-holes in it sooner?

Another thing that helped me want to be in the shop was some temporary workholding. I turned my dedicated sharpening station into a temporary bench by clearing it off and drilling a row of dog holes. This plus appliances I already have makes it easy to do whatever work comes up, whether for the workbench, or a small side project to keep me motivated. This is the thing that really made me feel like spending a lot of time in the shop again.

That's what's going on in my shop. I hope something's going on in yours, too.

...and for no reason at all, here is a picture of my dog during the 1.5 seconds in which he tolerated my sunglasses.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Corner cutting board

This is a cutting board I made for a specific corner of my kitchen island. Without it this space was pretty much wasted, but now it is a perfect spot for food prep. As is typical for me, I'm not going to go step by step through the build, but just acquaint you with the design. The wood is some cherry (6/4 I think) offcuts that I had gotten a good deal on.

Even though this is little more than a rectangle of wood, it is a perfect example of why I make stuff. It has several subtle features that are specific to the need. The footprint matches the space, the thickness is chosen to be enough so that a knife is unlikely to contact the stove knobs. There is a small groove to catch debris or liquid and keep it away from the stove.

The real impetus for this was the cleats though. A couple of strips of wood screwed into the bottom hold the cutting board in its spot while in use.

And then there's this odd little tab on the far corner. It's a foot. because of the cleats, this needs it to stay level if it gets set somewhere else. It's a short piece of the cleat material. My first idea was to do a hidden version, but then I imagined a scenario where we're using the cutting board to serve an appetizer. I can just picture someone fishing around for the tab while lowering it onto the coffee table and spilling a pile of cheese into the eagerly waiting canine mouths that tend to anticipate these things at my house. So, I opted for the visible version.

The simplest way I found to get the foot to sit right was to inset the hinge. I did it with a small router plane and my marking knife. It would have been slightly easier with the help of a small curved gouge, but I was finishing up the details in the kitchen, and I didn't feel like walking back downstairs to get it.

 The groove is really meant to keep gunk off the stove. To keep stuff off the floor, I tapered it down to the right. I hand-held a shoulder plane at a little bit of an angle and used it with a 1/2" set up block and my fingers as a fence. The fence wasn't necessary after the first stroke. I started all my strokes at the same spot near the left (far) end to get the taper. After that I finished it off with a few strokes from a small plane I have with a fingernail-like profile.

Well, I hope I inspired you to fill a need somewhere. That's all for now.