The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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A Few Woodworking Questions….


Though I write a woodworking blog on the occasion, I don’t consider myself an expert, or even advanced. I consider myself a pretty good woodworker commensurate with the length of time I’ve actually been woodworking and the amount of time I get to actually practice my skills during any given week. So I still have hundreds of questions about woodworking that I would like to ask the woodworking community at large who may or may not be able to answer them. So, without further adieu…

If I use plywood on my next project, will the woodworking equivalent of Jacob Marley’s ghost appear to me and tell me that if I don’t change my ways my woodworking will be eternally damned?

I’m a fan of traditional woodworking, where you would probably not find plywood being used. I love the interesting grain patterns that you can find on wide boards. I also know that if I make the case of my next project out of plywood I will have no issues with warp, I will save some money, and it should, in theory, still look fine. And from what I understand plywood is considered ecologically sound. Something, somewhere is steering me away from using plywood and I don’t know what. I’ve used plywood in the past for drawer bottoms and case backs, professional woodworkers use it all the time, I’ve never had an issue with using plywood structurally. So what is stopping me? Is it my love of a completely natural board? Do I feel like I’m somehow cheating? I just don’t know.

Just exactly how sharp are my chisels supposed to be?

I am well aware of the importance of a sharp tool: they work better, they make you work better, and they are much safer than using a dull one. I am still baffled about how sharp is sharp. I generally hone my chisels and plane irons before each project, and then as needed during. It usually takes me a few minutes on each tool where I can get them to the point that they shave off hair quite easily. But every book and article I read seems to suggest that they should be “scary sharp.” I’m not sure what scary sharp is supposed to look like. Should my chisels be so sharp that I receive spontaneous cuts just by looking at them the wrong way, sort of like somebody who is possessed by a demon? Should the point where the bevel meets the flat be so acute that it defies the laws of physics and creates a hole in the space-time continuum? Should I be able to use my chisels for an emergency appendectomy? I just don’t know.

Why is Walnut so expensive?

Before starting a project I create a rough drawing with a close but approximate list of the amount of wood needed. For the most part I can come in pretty near the mark when it comes time to do the purchasing of the material. I do this because it saves time, money, and waste. Believe me it’s not all about money, money, money. I do not like to waste wood, it bothers me much the same way that wasting water by leaving the faucets open does.Because I don’t have an over abundance of spare cash, I make most of my projects out of basic select Pine, Poplar, Fir, and every now and again, Oak. However, my wood of choice is Walnut. I’ve made two projects out of Walnut: a Shaker table and a coat rack(and a small saw rack with the leftover pieces) Walnut is strong, easy to work with, and beautiful when finished. So when I drew up the plans for my latest project(an Arts and Crafts bookcase) I decided to price it up using Walnut because I really think that the bookcase I’m going to build will turn out great, and because it’s nice to treat yourself sometimes. So after getting a few price quotes from the internet and a local mill I was a little surprised. After my wife applied the smelling salts, and I took some Advil and drank a cup of coffee, I decided that my 5-year-old daughter may want to go to college one day so I had better not purchase Walnut and stick with clear Pine.
I just can’t figure out why it costs so much. I’m pretty sure it is really abundant in this area. Is there something about the milling process that makes it costly? Do the trees yield little usable wood? I’m all for lumber mills making a profit and paying their workers a good wage, but at this price women should be wearing Walnut jewelry. Is Walnut a lot more rare than I think it is? I just don’t know.

These are just a few of my questions. If somebody knows the answers and would like to set me straight feel free to leave me a comment. Because I’m at a loss…



  1. Jay C. White Cloud says:


    Don’t worry about it too much. If it fills your need use it. Just note that in many cases it is not as good as it may seem, for many reasons. Some are sustainable most actually aren’t, because they are grown in unnatural monoculture forests that cause more harm than good.

    However, check out some of the newer bamboo plywood. These are becoming cheaper to purchase here in the states, are coming from naturally occurring monoculture environments that sustain bamboo, as they have for millennia. Do a little googling I think you would be interested. Great stuff to work with and tough as nails.

    Sharp enough

    I’ll tell you want I tell my students and other woodworkers that think they know best. If you find the tool is working for your needs and the work produced is pleasant, then your tool is sharp enough.

    I agree with you that there are way too many, “this is the best way of sharpening,” advisories out there. Everyone has a method and many will tell you, theirs is the best. “Poppycock,” some may be more efficient than others, but few are better, one from another.

    Here is some info that may be of help:

    Find a source, (there are several,) which will break grit matrixes down into microns, (a metric and global measurement.) (P.S. my shop, all my tools, my work, the work of most of my students, blueprints, and most of the world is measured in millimeters. Just food for thought, makes things WAY EASY!!! We work, even on timber frames, down to the half-millimeter. Work anywhere outside the states and “it’s all metric baby.” I get jobs over other American contractors because I work in metric.)

    Now, about microns, they give you a sense of uniformity when you think about the edge you are putting on a tool. Even though you may have an 8000 grit water stone, as an example, it could be 1 to 3 microns in matrix size, depending on manufacturer. If you take your sharpening system, and understand it by it’s micron sizing you begin to get a feel for the edge that is forming on the tool.

    1 micron is a good workhorse edge configuration, (with or without micro bevel application.) You can go finer, but you should know why you need finer, how to achieve it and a specific reason for its application. Most of the time anything past one micron can just be a waste of time and effort.

    A little FYI; if look at most sharpening jobs under an electron microscope they look like a jagged saw, not the keen, polished edge we see with the naked eye. First time I saw an example, it was a little disconcerting just how rough it looked. Now as comparison, if you knap a blade edge out of glass and role a view of that edge into the field of an electron microscope, instead of seeing a jagged saw edge, the edge disappears. Why? Because glass fracture to the molecular level! Glass does not cut you; it separates the molecules of what it is forced into. That is why a glass cut heals so quickly and Neurosurgeons use glass scalpels for certain types of surgery. Just a little fact I thought you might like to know. Glass is the only real scary sharp I know of!!!

    I do a trick with sharpening sometimes when I do a demonstration, or teach a class on sharpening. I’ll take a chisel that is dull, walk over to a power grinder with, lets say 80 grit on it (120 micron) and put a real rough burr on the edge. This usually can be done in under a 60 seconds, without burning the blade or taking it’s temper out. Then I go right over to a medium weight wool felt buffer, charged with 0.5 micron honing compound, and polish that blade till it looks like a mirror, again under 60 seconds. The result is an edge that can cause the hair on your arm to jump off in sheer freight of being exposed to the edge. Moral of the story, sharpening is easy if you start to really think about the physics behind it. What is happening to the edge when I do this is a real keen saw edge. If you looked at it under a powerful microscope; the rough 120 micron grit is cutting saw teeth, the 0.5 micron honing compound is forming a keen edge on each tooth and between them. Fast, durable and scary sharp enough for many jobs. Try it and tell me what you think.


    The price is partly because of demand by the market, but as you know from working with it, it is really a special wood. I’m doing a timber frame bent for a bedroom right now that has two 600 mm wide, 120 mm thick and 2400 mm tall Black Walnut crotches in the end bent, I love that wood!

    Your other question about it, yes it is rare and getting rarer. Very common in isolated patched, but over all, very hard to find nice specimens for the mill. When I milled the crotches for this bent assembly it was a little challenging but overall Walnut mills very easily, so no real difficultly there. So between becoming rarer, our market desire for the wood and it’s general beauty, the price will only go up, unfortunately. I know of a few folks that have planted groves of it just for the grandkids to use as an investment.

  2. billlattpa says:

    I am not sure why but I always shy away from plywood. There are several people in my area that sell cabinet grade plywood that is quite nice, but something always steers me clear of it. Maybe I’m a bit more tradtional than I think I am, in fact I now know that is the case.
    Thanks for the tips on sharpening. One thing I will say is that I’m getting better everytime I sharpen. You obviously know much about sharpening. I have a book by Leonard Lee that has really helped me out. Since I’ve stuck with his method I’ve improved greatly.
    As far as Walnut, it is fairly abundant in my area but I guess it is not a species that grows all over the country like Pine or Oak or even Poplar. Still, I wish I could use it more often. It’s nice species to work with and finish. But if it is as rare as you think then maybe we should use less of it.

  3. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    Hi Bill,

    Try the bamboo, if you get a chance. As plywood goes, I think you will like it. If you’re using Leonard’s guidance for sharpening, you will do grand. As for not using black walnut because of rarity, don’t worry to much it isn’t a threatened species, just not common.

  4. Bill,

    For me, a sharp edge is one that cuts well. My sink or swim test is seeing if the blade can cleanly cut end grain of a softwood. A not-quite-sharp-enough blade will tear the fibres.


    • billlattpa says:

      That is a pretty good test I agree. I’ve been able to get my plane irons sharp enough to shave end grain, but I haven’t had as much luck doing it with my chisels. At the same time, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have a problem with the sharpness of my chisels. Most of the time I am using Pine, Poplar, Fir or Walnut. These woods aren’t really going to give my chisels a workout so maybe they aren’t as sharp as I think. But I guess as long as they are as sharp as I need them to be it won’t be a problem. Thanks.

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October 2012
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