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Do clothes make the man?

If you’ve ever played team sports, or have been in the armed forces, you may remember the brief but strange period when you first begin when nobody has gotten a uniform yet. For those first few days, especially in the military, you don’t really feel like a soldier, but a group of guys in sweat pants, sort of pretending… Then comes that magical day when you get issued your uniforms and suddenly it’s no longer a mob, but an army working in unison, or at least that’s the theory.

When it comes to woodworking, there is no official uniform, but there does seem to be a transition from “pretend to serious” and for me that transition started when I obtained my first high-quality woodworking tools. For whatever reason, when I got my first good table saw, my first hand plane, and my first set of woodworking chisels, and I began to use them, there was a shift in the way I approached the hobby of woodworking. I’m not saying that you cannot woodwork without “real tools”, my first few projects were done at first without a table saw, and then with a portable tabletop version, and a set of three Craftsman butt chisels. As my desire to woodwork grew, so too did my desire to work with higher quality tools. And when I got those tools and began to use them they made me want to improve. In short, they inspired me.

In a (very friendly) exchange I had with a commenter, I made the assertion that high quality tools make me a better woodworker. As I said in other posts, there may be many woodworkers who can go to your typical home center (of course there is a group of woodworkers out there that advocate only high end tools, and I’ve had my run-ins with them several times) and purchase a set of jobsite butt chisels, a basic handsaw, and a circular saw and make some very nice furniture, but I’m not one of those guys. How do I know? Because when I walk into a Lowes, I don’t get inspired to create, but when I attend a tool show like I did last weekend, seeing all of those world class tools made me want to make world class furniture. And that desire didn’t stem from wanting to own all of those tools, not in the least. It came from seeing high level craftsmanship.

As a former musician, I can remember like it was yesterday purchasing my first good quality guitar. Anybody who has ever played music whether as a hobby or a profession will tell you that there is a world of difference between playing a good instrument and a cheap instrument. A cheap instrument can easily hold you back, when a good instrument can easily propel you forward and make your playing improve dramatically. Why then should it be any different with woodworking tools? As I’ve mentioned many times before, when it comes to woodworking tools, there is a group of woodworkers (growing larger every day it seems) which feels that buying a high quality plane, or chisel, or what have you, is somehow cheating, or doing some sort of disservice to woodworking as an entity. Why? If making furniture with the most inexpensive tools you can find is your thing then so be it. There’s nothing wrong with that in the least. But if you are like me, and when you see a well-crafted, well-tuned, and beautifully designed tool, and that tool inspires you to improve, and create, and enjoy the hobby, what in the world can be wrong with that scenario?

It was bloody torture.

Many woodworkers at some point find themselves enamored by the siren song of old tools. Old tools can be great. They have a history, they were often well made, they are often less costly than a new tool, and many of them simply look cool. Old tools can be an appealing choice to a woodworker looking to build up his/her tool set. In fact, quite a few woodworkers swear by old tools, and will not even bother going the new tool route; their logic being: they were well made, there’s still a lot of them to be found, and with some work they can be turned into a high quality tool that will last a life time. If you happen to be a woodworker who subscribes to the “old tool only” philosophy, and you’ve never attended a woodworking tool show, I would suggest that you stop reading right here.

Last Saturday, my wife, daughter, and father-in-law accompanied me to the Hearne Hardwoods open house in Oxford PA. There, you could not only browse through a world-class selection of hardwood lumber of every species imaginable, you could also get your hands on tools from Lie Nielsen, Matt Bickford, Daniel Schwank of Redrose Productions, and Blackburn tools among others. And after 30 minutes or so of using these tools, you will find yourself never wanting to purchase an old tool again.

I spoke to Matt Bickford briefly, and he mentioned something that I have also written about before: If you’ve never used a high quality and well tuned new tool, how in the world can you know how to restore an old tool? In my experience, the answer is: You Can’t.

Some of Matt Bickford's planes.

Some of Matt Bickford’s planes.

I enjoy old tools as much as anybody; I own several, and I even detailed my own restoration processes of some of those tools right here on this blog. And while I can’t say that I will never purchase an old tool again, last weekend may have just pushed me back to the dark side of new tools. And one more thing, the argument can no longer be made that new tools are not as aesthetically pleasing as the antiques, because they look as good, or in many cases better, than most old tools I’ve come across. I was particularly impressed with both Bickford’s and Dan Schwank’s planes. In fact, after a half dozen shavings with Dan Schwank;s panel raiser, I nearly plunked down the money right there to put one on order. (My daughter was much more impressed with his spill plane).

Just a smattering of the many Lie Nielsen tools on display

Just a smattering of the many Lie Nielsen tools on display

As far as the Lie Nielsen tools are concerned, most woodworkers are aware of how good they really are. For my part, I had my sights set on either a tenon saw or a low angle block plane, because those are both tools that I could use. I messed with the tenon saw for a while and it worked great, and even my unskilled ass was able to saw a pretty respectable tenon without a marking gauge or even a pencil. The tenon saw was absolutely beautiful, and obviously well made, but it was also larger than I am used to working with. I have a Spear and Jackson (old tool) small tenon saw that I’ve used for quite some time, and though it probably needs another sharpening (it was also the first saw I’ve ever sharpened) it does a nice job. So instead I went with the block plane, the main reason being the only working block plane I have is one I made from a kit from Hock Tools. The kit block is actually a great little tool, with it’s Hock iron (easy to get razor sharp), it serves as a handy trimming tool and well as a nice option for cleaning up localized rough spots, but it can’t trim end grain, and the iron isn’t wide enough for working on edges (for the most part). I’ve used the LN 60 1/2 before, so I already knew just how good it is, but I did give it a test run at the show, and even my daughter was able to make some “curlies” with it. So I placed the order for the plane as well as a cap nut screw driver. The screw driver came home with me, the plane arrived at my house 4 days later.

Sure is pretty

Sure is pretty

cap nut driver

cap nut driver

Last night I gave the block plane and some other tools a honing/polishing. The iron was very sharp out of the box, so it really only needed to be polished. There was a very slight hollow dead center of the bevel that I left as it was. I polished the back, which took around five minutes solid, so that it was “shiny” across the whole front. I gave the plane a test run and it worked brilliantly. I have a new theory on sharpening and honing which is to spend a minute or less on each honing of the bevel, but that will be for another post.

My daughter posing with some of the incredible millwork at Hearne Hardwoods.

My daughter posing with some of the incredible millwork at Hearne Hardwoods.

So my trip to the tool show was a success. I got out of there without dropping a fortune, got to meet some top notch tool makers, and got to play with some of the best woodworking tools in the world for a little while. It was fun, the brick oven pizza was awesome, and I know what I want to ask Santa for this coming Christmas. I just wish I had a little more time and a lot more money, because if I did you all would be looking many more new tool photos right around now.

The bravery test.

I can say without shame that I am not a furniture designer. I know that I’ve written before about how I rarely follow woodworking plans, and that is true. But while most of the furniture I make I do technically design myself, I usually base it off of previous design elements. My current project is no exception.

For this project, I wanted to make a narrow, somewhat unobtrusive cabinet that would sit nicely in a corner, hold some framed pictures, possibly a few little odds and ends, maybe a trophy  or medal (ahem). So I measured a few possible locations in my house, narrowed it down to two, and came up with the dimensions accordingly. And while I can’t claim to be overly concerned with proportion, I did make an attempt to make this cabinet proportional, as in the shelves are twice the case width, and the height is three times the shelf width. I’ve found that those proportions are usually pleasing. So with all of my careful planning it was only natural that something went horribly wrong.

Sunday morning I burst into my garage all ready to go. My stock was already initially prepared, my tools were sharp, and my work space clear. The first step was to make the dados to hold the shelves. I normally like adjustable shelving, but in this case (both literally and figuratively) I want all of the shelves static because it will allow me to incorporate decorative hardware into the design. I have a dado plane that I’ve restored, and that was the tool I had hoped to use, but I’ve been having trouble with the wedge, and the practice dados didn’t turn out as nicely as I would have liked, so I used a saw and chisel.

Because there are ten dados in this case, and because some family was stopping by for a visit, I knew I wouldn’t have time to do all ten, so I concentrated on the top and bottom set. To make the dados, I used a knife to define the cut, used a chisel to make a knife wall, used a carcase saw to get the depth, chopped out the waste with a chisel, and cleaned it all up with a router plane. It wasn’t fast work, but it didn’t go too slowly either, and I had the four dados finished in about an hour. To my credit, the dados turned out nicely. The fit was good, and the one real mistake I made was going to disappear when I rabbeted the case side for the back panels. But when I did the test fit something didn’t seem right.

****before I go on, I just want to say that if you are cutting your dados with hand tools and you need to mark a knife line, the only tool to use is a 12 inch combination square. I tried a square I have from Woodpeckers, as well as a try square, and both were almost useless. The combination square, with it’s “triangle” shape and thin blade is by far the most steadfast and accurate way to go about it****

Finished dados didn't turn out so bad

Finished dados didn’t turn out so bad

The shelves fit tight with almost no gap

The shelves fit tight with almost no gap

After our company left, I brought my lovely wife into the garage with me and I assembled the case. My wife held it up and I stepped back to get a proper perspective, and right away I knew the case was just too tall. I wanted this case to almost disappear into a room, and instead it was towering over my wife (to be fair she is only 5′ 1″ tall). In any event, it just didn’t look right to my eye. Of course I didn’t yet curve the case sides, or add any of the decorative trim or features which will certainly lighten the look of the case, and my wife suggested that I should possibly do that before I made any rash decisions. But I don’t think it will make much of a difference, and in doing that it may only cause me to do the same work twice. So I’ve decided that I will shorten the case by ten inches. The good news is the bottom dados are salvageable; the bad news is that the top dados are not.

It's just too tall.

It’s just too tall.

Unfortunately this is going to negate most of the work I put in on Sunday, but I feel it has to be done, because I know I’ll regret it completely if I don’t. I’ve never been the person who has taken the easy way out. I’m not saying that taking the easy way out is necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes the easy way is also the best way. But in this case the easy way out is really just the lazy way out. Whatever I may be, and whatever bad qualities I may have, being lazy isn’t one of them.

Why I have a tablesaw.

I haven’t made a piece of furniture in many months.

I’m not too happy about that fact. This has been my longest stretch without making a piece of furniture since I started woodworking. But I found that my hiatus did have one added benefit; it gave me time to think. In actuality my upcoming project has been in the planning stages for several months though I only decided on starting it a few weeks ago. But it has given me more time than ever to plan every joint, the assembly order, and all of the little details that are sometimes missed, not only in my head, but on paper. But the real “rarity” was my laying out every tool that I plan on using for each phase of the construction. I can’t recall ever doing that before. Of course, like most woodworkers there are certain things I do during a project that happen “on the fly”. I’m sure that this project will have some of those moments, but I think they will be few.

When I said

When I said “layout the tools for the project” I meant in my mind’s eye. But all of these planes will see use.

Friday afternoon I got to do something that I don’t often get to do: Go to my local lumberyard. For the record, this lumberyard is not a hard wood dealer. Though they offer some oak, maple, and cherry, most of their business is geared towards construction. What they do offer is very nice, clear pine, and that is what I purchased. The only mistake I made was not purchasing enough, and that only because it wouldn’t fit in my car. But I got enough for the bulk of the construction, which cost me $78.00. While I would have loved to build this project from oak, I chose pine because it was in my budget. $78.00 gave me both case sides, all 5 shelves, and the top and bottom trim pieces. The only thing I am missing is the 3 boards needed for the back.

Stock prepped

Stock prepped

Though I’m happy to have visited the lumberyard this past weekend, the real reason I am writing this post concerns my table saw. Anybody who reads this blog on a somewhat regular basis knows that like nearly every other woodworking blogger on the internet, when concerning woodworking, I often use hand tools. I’m not a zealot; I’ve said many times over that I don’t care who uses what. And I’m happy to say that it’s been a while since I’ve come across the “Hand tool vs Power tool” forums. While I don’t see the spiritual side to using hand tools that some woodworkers claim to find, I do enjoy using them. However, on Saturday morning I prepped all of the stock for this project, first rough cutting it to size and then sawing it to finished length and width. I did nearly all of that prep work using my table saw.

A panel sled and a clamp make repetitive cuts accurate and easy

A panel sled and a clamp make repetitive cuts accurate and easy

In approximately 30 minutes I had the bulk of that work finished. The only hand tool that saw action was the #7 jointer plane which I used to clean up the edges.  Having that table saw saved me a lot of time this past weekend. It allowed me to get a lot of grunt work finished and still take my kid to her soccer game. In short, it allowed me the time to sweat the small stuff when the time comes; it allowed me speed and accuracy; it allowed to me start making furniture again, and it allowed me to once again be a real woodworker

The Tough Get Going

So the woodworking mafia has effectively shut down my vitriol with thinly veiled accusations and threats of blackballing.  My wife, who hates me, couldn’t really care less if I look like Captain America or Captain Crunch. And, I spend more than half of my waking hours at work. Life has not been kind to the SCW lately. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  I can still woodwork, and that is exactly what I am going to do.

This past summer was pretty rough, and I’m not only talking about the weather, and for a while it didn’t seem like woodworking would be in the cards for the foreseeable future. But just as I was lamenting my lack of inspiration concerning possible woodworking projects, several ideas came to me at once. So for my next project I am going to make a narrow bookcase/display cabinet. I’ve always liked the look of Arts and Crafts style bookcases; I like narrow cabinets, and maybe most importantly, I have the perfect place for it. , So I researched a few common designs, combined the features that I liked, and  began making some drawings and laying out basic dimensions of the case. I don’t actually plan on using the cabinet for books. A hobby of mine, which may sound strange to some people (which also drives my wife crazy), is framing and displaying historical letters and documents, such as the Gettysburg Address, the  “Infamy speech”, as well as documents such as Declaration of Independence. Though I’m partial to material pertaining to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I don’t discriminate.

I might not be an artist, but it tells me what I want to know

I might not be an artist, but it tells me what I want to know

I would like the finished cabinet to be somewhere around 66 inches tall, 22 inches wide, and 11 inches deep. That should give me enough room for five shelves, with each shelf holding up to two standard sized documents, and/or a nick-knack or two. As far as material, I will likely use clear pine just for the expense (or lack of expense). However, I am going to Hearne Hardwoods next week for the Lie Nielsen hand-tool event, and if I can somehow afford it, I would love to pick up some quarter-sawn oak or possibly some walnut for this project, but considering that my budget is around $200 I don’t think that is going to happen. Still, I am going to attempt to make an accurate cut list and see what material may fall within my budget.

If I get my drawings finalized, and If everything goes according to plan, I should get this project up and running by the first weekend in October. So even if my wife hates me, and a bunch of woodworking geeks hate me, and I’m working myself to death. I don’t care anymore, because I’m going to be woodworking again, and that’s going to make it all better.

Phase 3

Last night after work I did something I haven’t done after work in some time; I woodworked.

The cooler late-summer evening weather has finally allowed me to actually spend a little time in the garage in relative comfort. When I arrived home last night I hadn’t planned on woodworking in the least. But something told me that I should really get that leg vice re-attached before something bad happened to it. Maybe that something was past history, maybe it was the fact that when I entered my garage I noticed that the leg vice had been moved, and the person who had moved it wasn’t me. Either way, I decided not to delay, as the only thing I had left to do was attach the parallel guide.

Planing it flat and smooth

Planing it flat and smooth

Over the weekend I had finished the bulk of the work. The new chop needed to be planed flat and chamfered, and for that task I used the “big three”: Jack plane, jointer plane, and smooth plane. It took me roughly twenty minutes to get the chop finished, and I was actually sweating a little after the fact. There were shavings everywhere, and for the first time since I installed the tool tray it actually was a mess. Still, it was oddly relaxing and satisfying work, and the chop looked pretty good after all was said and done. I lightly sanded it with some 220 grit paper and then attached leather to the face with wood glue. I let that dry overnight and on Sunday morning added a coat of linseed oil. Once the linseed oil was dry I attached the screw to the new chop and installed it on the bench so I could mark out the mortise for the parallel guide. Once that was done I called it a morning (Sunday was a special day at my house not meant for woodworking)

Leather "gripper" glued on

Leather “gripper” glued on

Chamfers added

Chamfers added

Last night I drilled out the holes for the parallel guide using a drill press, planed it with a smooth plane, added some chamfers, and sanded it down. I then used the finished guide to lay out the mortise on the chop, as after the dimensioning it was a slightly different size than it was when I first laid out the joint. For the guide I used a scrap piece of oak, and because it was slightly thinner than 3/4 , I could not use a ¾ chisel to chop out the mortise. That minor inconvenience notwithstanding, I had it done pretty quickly. I made the tenon 1-inch long for added strength, and I thankfully achieved a near perfect fit. I even impressed myself with the fact that the bottom of the mortise was almost perfectly flat before I stretched the router plane to its limits to finish the job. Clamping a parallel guide to a chop for glue-up is not necessarily easy, and I probably could have inserted the dowel used for the stop and used the leg of the workbench as a clamp, or I could have trusted the “snugness” of the joint to hold. Instead, I pre-drilled for a couple of pocket screws to use as clamps, and I like the idea of having a mechanical fastener at this critical joint. After, I added a coat of wax, buffed it off, added another, and attached the vice to the bench. And I can honestly say that it looks great.

Attached and ready to go.

Attached and ready to go.

I had planned on letting everything dry overnight, by my impatience got the best of me, and somewhere around the witching hour I decided to give the new vice a test run. My first impressions were very favorable. The first and most obvious feature is the much wider face. The new chop is 4 inches wider than the previous one, and that gives far greater clamping power. I clamped a board with very light pressure, barely applying any force to the vice handle, and the board would not budge an iota. In fact, it was so tight I could have used that clamped board to actually lift the bench (that is in theory-I only lifted it a hair as the bench is not light). I planed a few shavings just to give it a try and it worked perfectly. Another obvious feature is the fact that the new chop sits just 1/16th of an inch lower than the top of the bench, rather than nearly an inch and a half like the old vice chop did. This will allow me to clamp narrower and/or thinner boards much more easily.

A less obvious feature is the improved parallel guide. On my original vice, I used a board 20 inches long as the parallel guide, for the new guide I used a board only 14 inches in length. Firstly, I’ve never clamped a board  more than 10 inches wide or 6 inches thick in the vice, and secondly, the shorter guide is lighter and was much easier to keep straight and square when I was attaching it. Part of the issue may have been the fact that when I originally made the vice five years ago, I was still very much a beginner woodworker. The mortise I chopped out for the parallel guide then was not nearly as crisp or perpendicular as the mortise for the new guide. To put it bluntly, I am much better now, and that new guide is much improved in both construction and function, which is easily noticed just by the way it sits and much more so when the vice is in use. There is not a hint of crookedness, drag, or sag. It is much better than the original in every way.

All in all this was a relatively fast and simple project, but those are usually my favorite. To me, there is nothing better than making something useful that also looks pretty good. For some reason or another I put off doing this for more than a year. Now, I’m glad I took the time to do it, because I know it will improve my woodworking as well as improve the functionality of my bench. In any event, Phase 3 is finally complete and I actually have a few furniture projects planned for the upcoming months. The only part of this project that bothered me is the fact that the new vice looks much nicer than the rest of the bench, and it has me considering…..

Coming around again.

This past summer has not been a good one for the Slightly Confused Woodworker. It started off with much promise, and the weeks leading up to Independence Day were great. But, inevitably things began to crumble, at first slowly, and then quickly. Sure enough, circumstances mostly out of my control, including work, health, and weather, started to take their toll and the summer soon slipped into a meaningless void of lost hopes and nostalgic longing. Last summer, maybe the worst of my existence, was lost in much the same way, the only difference being the weather was much nicer. I had the first health scare of my life (I wasn’t actually scared, more like pissed off), and as that summer faded into history I vowed to never lose a another again. Sometime, early in July, that vow was broken. It was not my finest hour.

Though I didn’t plan on doing much woodworking this past summer, I did plan on thinking about it. I actually purchased for myself a nice sketch pad and artists pencils and supplies so I could draw some decent renditions of the furniture I would like to build. Among the things I drew were a wall clock and a bookcase, but that is where it stopped. I had hoped to have at least ten or so sketches of future projects in that pad, what I have is two. Still, there may be a little bit of hope peeking its annoying head over the horizon.

September rolled in with the hottest weather of the season, and on Labor Day I wasn’t going to woodwork, but I woke even earlier than usual and decided to do what I enjoy doing for a change. Back at the beginning of the summer I purchased a 2 x 10 piece of Douglass Fir to use as the new chop for my leg vice. Because it was still wet when I purchased it, I sawed it in half and stickered it in my garage, every few days alternating the two boards. Thankfully, both boards dried nearly flat, so I chose the one which looked best and went from there.

To start, I removed the original leg vice from my bench and used it to mark the hole for the screw as well as the parallel guide. I drilled the hole with a 1 inch forstner bit, and then laid out the cut lines. I then used the table saw to cross cut the board to final length. For the shape of the chop, I’m sticking with the traditional “crutch” shape, with the top being wide, and the portion of the vice under the screw being the same width as the leg of the workbench. I’m not really doing this for any particular aesthetic reason, only to keep the weight of the chop down.  The top of the vice will now be flush with my bench top, which is the whole reason behind this change. So I once again used the table saw to rough out the shape, sawing as far as I could, then finishing the all of the cuts with hand saws and a chisel to clean it all up. I had thought about adding some decorative touches to the chop, but I will likely add just simple chamfers. Leg vices take a beating and there is no need to ornately decorate a piece of soft wood that will get punished every time it is in use.

New leg vice still in rough form.

New leg vice still in rough form.

I only have to plane the chop smooth and make a new parallel guide and the vice will be ready to install (Ironically, I will need to re attach the very leg vice I’m replacing to do this). I will once again glue a piece of leather to the chop face to help with grip (it really does work). To finish the vice, I’m going to use a two coats of linseed oil and a coat of wax. With luck, and a few spare hours, it will be finished and installed this weekend, and while this little project may not mean much in the grander sense, it was pretty nice to go into my garage and woodwork for a few hours unhindered nonetheless.

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