The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Monthly Archives: December 2015

No hobby for middle-aged men.

I can honestly (and happily) say that nearly every one of my attempts at tool making has been relatively successful. In fact, a few of those tools work quite well. None of them are works of art, or worthy of sale, but they basically get the job done. And maybe that is all we as woodworkers should ask of our tools.

Just this past weekend I completed my first ever bow saw. It is a bit rough around the edges, but so far it seems to work just fine. Five years ago or so I would likely have never even considered making my own tools. Back then, I would have said that we are all better off getting our woodworking implements from those who have dedicated their lives to making them, both past and present makers included. Today, I still agree with that statement, but I also believe that a woodworker who is serious about woodworking should attempt to make a few tools, if for no other reason than gaining a better understanding of how a tool functions.

But before I would recommend that every hobbyist woodworker go out and start making tools, I will start off with a warning. Tool making can be frustrating, in particular for a hobbyist. Because tool making takes time, and dedication, and money, and patience. To use my bow saw as an example, it works fine, and it looks like the traditional bow saws we all see in photos. It also is unrefined.

Now, had I the will, and the time, and the money to a lesser extent, I could dedicate myself to making more of these bow saws. After the tenth I might even be pretty good at it; at twenty I might even be able to sell them; at fifty I might even be called a “bow saw maker”. But fifty is a big number for a married, middle-aged guy with a family. “Fifty” is fifty days, fifty weekends, fifty times I put woodworking ahead of those I love. Fifty sounds like an impossible number to me at this point in my life. And there lies the frustration.

I would never call myself a perfectionist, because I’m not, and in my world “perfectionist” is the code word for “***hole”. But in order to make good tools, or furniture, or just about anything, you may not need to be a perfectionist, but you need to be single-minded. And if you aren’t doing it for a living, and you are a married man or woman with a family, being single-minded is very likely a luxury that you do not possess.

I’ll never be twenty years old again with all of the free time in the world, and unless by some miracle I become rich, I still have twenty years before I can retire and my time becomes my own. So for now I have to live with bow saws that are a bit rough around the edges, and dovetails that have a gap or two. And while woodworking is supposed to be fun and relaxing, and while I may not consider myself a perfectionist, I still don’t care for rough around the edges all that much.

 

It’s a bow saw.

Just around six weeks ago I watched a video on the Paul Sellers Woodworking Masterclasses web page detailing the construction of a traditional bow saw (frame saw). I’ve always been somewhat fascinated with bow saws, though I can’t say I know much about them in the historical sense. I know they’ve been around for a long, long time, but just how long I cannot say. They are a deceptively simple tool: three sticks, some tensioning string, and a blade, but they are surprisingly effective and versatile. A bow saw frame can accommodate scrolling blades, rip blades, cross cut blades, etc. And apparently they work well. So just after watching the videos I ordered a saw from ebay just to get the feel of it. I then decided to make my own.

I hadn’t initially planned on attempting this project so soon. In fact, just a few weeks ago I sharpened, oiled, and placed most of my chisels in their storage rolls. Then my area was gifted with the warmest December weather we’ve ever had. While I don’t care for hot days in December all that much to be honest, it was excuse enough to order in the parts and get some of the chisels back on the rack. Like a Christmas miracle, my order arrived on Christmas eve, and while my wife and daughter were out and about the day after Christmas, I started the project.

Before I continue, I feel the need to mention that I ordered the kit and downloaded the plans from Tools for Working Wood. And to jump ahead, if I were building another one of these saws, the only portion of the kit I would order again is the pins and saw blades, but I digress.

I started off by milling the wood and cutting it to length. TFWW recommends hickory, but I used some walnut I had laying around. I planed the wood according to the dimensions in the plans, and then sawed the tenons on the cross stretcher. On another note, if you don’t enjoy using a hand plane this is not the project for you, and while I supposed you could use power tools to do some of the milling, the parts are too small (IMO) for anything but hand tools.

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I used a marking knife to lay out all of the critical junctures to make measuring easier. Chopping out the shallow mortise was easy enough, and once that was finished I had a fit that was a hair looser than I would have liked, but I also had, for all intents and purposes, a working saw, which took just over an hour to finish.

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The difficult part was in the shaping. Dealing with boards this size is not always easy, in particular when trying to add subtle curves. I did much of that work with a chisel, saw, and spokehave, sawing, chopping, and smoothing as I went. I then tapered both tines, beginning in the middle and working all the way back. As I said, if you do not enjoy hand planes then this project is not for you. However, I won’t bore any of you with all of the minutiae. I see hundreds of woodworking photographs with benchtops and floors littered with shavings, and while they may have been fun to make, describing the whole process of making them does not make for good reading.

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Once the shaping was to my liking, I did another test fit, tweaked it here or there, coated it with linseed oil and gave it a trial run. The saw cut just fine. I then made a decent toggle using a bubinga scrap I had left over from my smooth plane project, added a notch ( or is it nock) to the toggle and tines, and the saw was finished. In just around four hours the entire saw was completed

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Would I attempt another one of these? Absolutely. Would I purchase the kit again? No. The handles, which look pretty and fit nicely in the pins, are useless. They are not snug enough to turn the blade, which to me is their only purpose. I suppose I may be able to fix that with epoxy, but we shall see. Next time I may make my own handles. The string is too thin and tensions a bit too quickly (believe me that is a real thing). Two of the three included blades snapped during use at the pins. Could it be from over tensioning? Possibly and probably, but I believe the tensioning string is the culprit, not my own brutish ways. I plan on replacing that string with some nylon mason’s line as soon as I get to the hardware store to pick it up.

Overall I am happy with this project. This being a prototype, it is a bit rougher than I would like. The marking knife lines are still visible and the shaping is utilitarian, otherwise it works just fine. I believe it will make a nice scroll saw. It tensions much better than any coping saw I’ve ever used, and it has a longer stroke. And, it is surprisingly comfortable.

So I may attempt another one of these saws when I can. Right now I’m not thinking about it, because sure as the sun rises the cold weather returned today, and the arrival of that cold weather meant the departure of any projects I had planned for our fortunate blast of mild weather. Once again I cleaned up my chisels and put them back in their rolls. Maybe they’ll be out again before spring, I hope so, but for now I’m not concerned with furniture, because I have some tools to restore…

Secret Santa

I had a bit of free time yesterday afternoon, so I took the opportunity to rough cut some of my walnut stock for a “secret” project I will hopefully begin, and end,  some time next weekend. Why is this project such a  secret? I’ll try to explain.

I’ve always tried to be honest and forthright on this blog concerning not only my so-called philosophy, but also my woodworking projects. I’ve done my best to detail everything I’ve made during that time, showcasing both the highlights and the mistakes. Mistakes generally don’t bother me, because the old cliché: ‘You learn from your mistakes’ is as true as the day is long as far as woodworking is concerned. But this new project is something I’ve never attempted before, so I have no frame of reference or experience to fall back on (though I have been doing research). I may as well be attempting an emergency appendectomy and trying to explain it to you all as I’m doing it.

To be even more annoyingly vague, this is not truly a woodworking project, it just happens to be partly made of wood.

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For the inquisitive among you, there is a subtle hint in the photo.

In any event, I will do my best to document this little (hopefully not ill-fated) attempt. If it goes well, or even just okay, I will write a post about it. If not, forget what you see here.

Winter is coming.

This past Sunday was the warmest December day we’ve had in my region for quite a long time. I decided that it would be a good day to get in some tool maintenance.

First and foremost was cleaning the workbench. I planed, scraped, and sanded the bench top, then gave the entire frame a light sanding as well, finishing it all off with a coat of linseed oil, which nicely darkened the bench and gave it a freshly-bathed look. Keeping with my theme of turning construction lumber into woodworking stock, I made a new end board from a 2×10 to tie the bench top to the tool tray and attached it with some screws (though I believe dowels would be better). I then turned my attention to some of my tools.

Last week I made a new “strop-block” for use with my chisels. So I decided to hone all of the bench chisels with the 8000 grit water stone and then strop them for good measure. Afterwards I gave them a light coating of tool oil, wrapped most of them in a tool roll, and symbolically put them away for the winter. My metal bench planes I also oiled and wrapped in cloths, with the exception of the #7 jointer. And while many of my edge tools are now “in-storage”, I may just break them out much sooner if this mild weather continues. In the meanwhile, I will continue to experiment with prepping construction lumber as well as sharpening methods.

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With the weather so nice, and an actual warm breeze blowing through the garage, I decided to clean up and organize some of my electrical and carpentry tools as well. Generally, I try to keep my things neat and accessible, so it was more of just a straightening up than anything else.

During this brief clean up I came across a Swanson try square that I don’t  remember purchasing or even using to be honest. It has to be at least a dozen years old and is nothing fancy. Still, I checked it against my little Starrett combination square and it was dead perpendicular. Just for the hell of it, I used the good old Pythagorean theorem (the 3, 4, 5 method for you landscapers and masons) just to double check, and sure enough it was right on the money. So I promptly hung it on my tool rack ready to be called upon. It will be a useful tool, in particular because I have been considering purchasing a “fancy” version for some time.

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So if the weather holds, I the tools will come out of hibernation a lot sooner than normal. In any event, no matter what the winter holds I will be prepping stock as soon as the holiday season ends. When the weather breaks, and it comes time to build furniture again, this time I am going to be prepared for it.

The Expert

I have a little something to get off my chest, and what better place to do that than my very own blog.

On occasion I’ve written about the sale of woodworking tools and what I perceive as a failure of the manufacturers to market and sell those tools on a greater scale. For the most part if you don’t have a dedicated woodworking store in your region you will more than likely have to order the majority of your woodworking tools from the internet, sight unseen in a sense. I firmly believe that if woodworking tools were more readily available in a retail, in stock, off the shelf setting there would be more sales and quite possibly a greater interest in the hobby of woodworking. Now, maybe I’m wrong, and maybe the people who manufacture and distribute woodworking tools have already done the prerequisite marketing studies and have determined that it’s not a feasible scenario. Maybe. I don’t know; I don’t have that inside information. But that’s not really what I want to talk about.

When I wrote those posts there were people who disagreed with what I had to say. I have no issue with that. My opinion is not infallible. But some, in subtle and not so subtle ways, basically implied that I know absolutely nothing about it, and therefore I should keep my mouth shut on the subject.

I don’t often speak about my job on this blog. Most of you think I am an electrician. That is true, in a sense, but I haven’t been a field electrician in some time. I work mainly in the supply side of the industry. Part of that job is the purchasing and sale of tools.

For a time, I ordered the entire line of tools for my company. I ordered from every major manufacturer at least once a week. I’ve sold tools to everybody from electrical contractors, to manufacturing facilities, to tool rental companies, to townships, to ski resorts, to nuclear power plants. I’ve been involved with the marketing of those tools. I’ve helped professionals chose the correct tool for the job. I’ve said before that I hate to call myself an “expert”, but in this case, yeah, I’m an expert.

In ten years of dealing with tools as a professional I’ve learned one, unequivocal fact: an in-stock tool sells far, far better than a tool that needs to be ordered. No, I’ve learned two unequivocal facts: a tool that is on display sells far, far better than a tool that is not. Wait, here is another unequivocal fact: a tool that can be handled by the customer sells far, far better than a tool that cannot be touched.

I’m not going to get into the theories concerning the decline of the hand tool, or the decline of the local hardware store etc. I’ve covered that before. That being said, here is another fact I know: If woodworking hand tool and power tools actually had the small market share that most woodworkers seem to think it commands, most of the three dozen or so dedicated woodworking tool manufacturers would already have gone out of business years ago. On the contrary, it seems that more and more makers are springing up every month.

So in my expert opinion, woodworking tools would sell better, and woodworking as a hobby would benefit greatly, if quality woodworking tools were sold at the retail level. You may wonder if I’m such an expert, why do I not know the reasons behind this seeming lack of retail availability. Maybe I do, or at the least I have a very strong opinion on the how and why, but since it is not my place to question the motives of tool makers, I will keep it to myself. Nevertheless, you can question my opinions all you like, I don’t mind in the least. But in this case, I am an expert on the subject.

No Mox

Every woodworker, or every person who has ever used a tool for that matter, has a tool that he or she is supposed to love, but secretly hates. As an electrician, for me the tool was lineman’s pliers. I’ve worked with electricians who have used the lineman’s pliers like it was an extension of their hand. For whatever reasons, I never felt completely comfortable with them: I never cared for how they nicked the wire (OCD?), and they always felt a little awkward in my hand. As a woodworker, the tool I “hate” is the Moxon Vise. A few years back those vices were the trend of the month, and just about every other woodworker on the planet either ordered the vise hardware to make the Moxon, or purchased one pre-made from several different manufacturers. When I first built the Moxon vise I praised its virtues just like everybody else: It was relatively easy to build, it held the board nearer to the optimal height for sawing dovetails/joinery, and generally it did not cost much to make. Sounds like a winner, right? Do you know when I used the Moxon vise last? Me neither. The Moxon vise is large and takes up a lot of room. Of course you could make it smaller, but that would basically eliminate its supposed best feature: the ability to clamp wide boards.

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Moxon Style Vice

 Speaking for myself, I don’t often need to clamp wide boards. On the rare occasion that I do find myself clamping a wide board, the leg vise and a holdfast are often more than adequate.

So what is the Moxon style vise good for in my garage? Not much. As I said, it takes up a lot of space under my workbench, and seems to get in the way more than anything else.

On a good note, I got the vise hardware from Tools for Working Wood, and it is of high quality. I was thinking of somehow incorporating it as an end vise for my workbench, though at the moment I have other projects in mind.

Let me stress that I am speaking only for myself. I’m sure that many woodworkers out there love the Moxon style vise and use it on a regular basis. If I didn’t have a decent workbench I may just be one of those woodworkers. In my “professional” opinion this is a great vise for a woodworker who doesn’t already have a traditional workbench (or the space for one). Because a good workbench can do everything the Moxon does, leaving the Moxon vise as a single use tool which is redundant, and which takes up valuable storage space.

Mele Kalikimaka

Sunday morning for no particular reason I woke up far too early. In the cold, pre-dawn air I made several lame attempts at photographing Venus alongside a crescent moon (I’m neither a photographer nor an astronomer) Happy at the least to see nature’s beauty, and considering that it was barely 4:30 am, I decided that it was a good time to catch-up on Game of Thrones.

When the sun finally rose, I entered my garage to prep some construction lumber in my ongoing experiment to see if I can make nice furniture from “two-by” stock. I did manage to make a few nice boards in a short period of time, and considering it was just “left-over” lumber and not stuff I had hand-picked, I was satisfied with the effort and results.

Afterward, I did a little cleaning, some sharpening, and some tool maintenance, including the flattening of my little wooden block plane. While I was at it, I cleaned and sharpened my moulding planes, and then oiled up all of my chisels. If we were experiencing the same December weather we had last year, I very likely would have wrapped up my chisels in their roll and put them away for the winter. But thus far the weather has been pretty nice. To be truthful, it hasn’t been very cold this year. In fact, just a few days ago I paid my utility bill, and on that bill is a comparison of usage from this year to last, and also the average daily temperature. According to those charts, we are averaging just about 10 degrees warmer per day compared to the same time last year.

I do know this, at this point last year we were experiencing record cold temperatures and we had already had several major snow storms. I was in the middle of a project that I nearly shut down for the winter. This year, our afternoons have stayed relatively mild, and that makes me want to consider starting a new project. I’m not one to follow long term weather forecasts (I’ll save that for when I’m old-God willing), but all of the lovely weather people in the region are calling for a much milder winter than what the past three or four years brought us.

Who gives a damn about the weather? Nobody really, until you’re living through it. Last year we had a stretch where the high temperature didn’t rise above freezing for 6 weeks. We also had even worse stretches where the high temperature never made it past 15 degrees below freezing. In fact, if I remember correctly the first day of Spring brought with it almost a foot of snow. Woodworking in an unheated garage in those conditions is absolutely painful both mentally and physically.

For the first time in years, I’m actually looking forward to woodworking during the winter months. Next month things may change and we might just get hit with another infamous “arctic blast” that froze up the rivers and killed a lot of car batteries. I’m not getting my hopes up, but there is a slim possibility that I will actually make a piece of real furniture this coming winter.

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