The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Monthly Archives: January 2016


To touch the face of God

Thirty years ago, seven astronauts, seven heroes, seven Americans, lost their lives in service to their country when the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed shortly after take-off. Like many shuttle launches, this one was broadcast on live television. Millions of Americans, many of them school students, witnessed the destruction of the shuttle as it unfolded, and millions of Americans witnessed first-hand the inherent dangers of space exploration.

Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe were all volunteers, men and women who gave their full measure of devotion to the endeavors of knowledge and discovery. It was once said that “Nothing is stronger than the heart of a volunteer.” And never were those words truer when it came to describing the men and women of the Astronaut Corps. It is tough for many people to imagine the courage and devotion and strength of character needed to be an astronaut. These brave men and women exemplified those virtues to the utmost degree.

Though the loss of the Challenger was indeed a disaster, and though in the weeks and months that followed many difficult decisions were made, America still committed to exploring the heavens and discovering the unknown. Through those dark times, when things were at their worst, America, as is often the case, was at its very best. The sense of wonder and pride in our space program did not diminish; it only grew in strength. Rather than shrink from the challenges that lay ahead, our best and bravest met them head on without fear or hesitation.

We all cannot be astronauts, but we can still honor the legacy of Dick, Mike, Ron, Elly, Judy, Greg, and Christa. It is rather for us to live our lives undaunted, to meet every challenge great or small head-on, to continue forward with that very same spirit of wonder and discovery in all of our endeavors. By living our lives to the fullest, by embracing the spirit of the volunteer, by striving to reach the unattainable, by remembering that “the future does not belong to the faint of heart, it belongs to the bold”, we can ensure that the sacrifice of these courageous explorers was not in vain.

Though the time for mourning may be past, it is nonetheless fitting to look back upon that day with sadness, as for many of us it will forever be in our memories as a reminder that sometimes we lose the best of us too soon; that sometimes, the intrepid spirit of our bravest cannot be restrained.

We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, that morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of Earth, to touch the face of God.



Old and busted vs new hotness

One of the more hotly debated topics among woodworkers is the choice between purchasing a tool new or vintage. To me the debate is mainly pointless because in the end most woodworkers end up with a mix of the two. The real question is which tools should be purchased new, and which should be purchased pre-owned, and that is where I come in.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave off items such as screw drivers and hammers, and stick with only the big guns: Hand planes, table saw, hand saws, chisels, and a handful of others. I understand that this topic has been covered ad hominem and in depth, and I likely have touched on it myself. This list, however, will be my definitive entry based on all of the experience I have acquired. What makes my list different? I have absolutely nothing to gain; I am not trying to make a sale or push a specific tool. I am only trying to help.

I’ll start off with the big three bench planes: smoother, jack, jointer. I own all three, with the smoother and jack being purchased new and the jointer being vintage. All three are excellent tools and I have no complaints with any of them. But if I could start over, I would do the exact opposite and purchase vintage jack and smoother planes, and a new jointer. Why? The jack and smoother planes are by far the most common hand planes on the vintage market. Often, high quality versions of each tool can be found easily for less than a hundred dollars. In fact, I’ve seen many nice examples in the $65 dollar range, which is less than a quarter of the cost of a new tool. Of course you will likely need to do some restoration on these tools, but these tools are the easiest of the bench planes to restore. A vintage jointer, on the other hand, can cost close to $200 for a decent tool, and that tool will likely still need some work. Good jointers are not as easy to find on the vintage market. And if one has twist in it’s sole it is near impossible to fix by hand. A high quality new jointer can be purchased for around $100 more than the cost of a vintage model, and it will come with a guarantee.

As far as panel saws, a rip filed panel saw is probably the best tool to purchase the vintage route. Rip saws are the easiest to re-sharpen for beginners (in fact, I would recommend practicing saw sharpening on a rip filed saw). And there are still a decent number of rip saws on the vintage market. As far as a cross-cut saw is concerned, I would purchase a good quality new saw before going the vintage route. Cross-cut saws are not nearly as easy to restore as a rip saw. It’s best to have a new saw that was professionally filed and set.

When it comes to back saws, I would stick with all new saws. There are still good back saws on the vintage market, but the problem is that they are often the same cost as a new model. In my experience, most decent backsaws on the vintage market are more “collector” tools than “user” tools. There are many high quality new back saw makers, and the price for them is generally reasonable enough to not even consider a vintage tool.

Purchasing a table saw either used or new is a tough call. You can get a good quality, woodworking table saw for between $600 and $1000. You can also go much higher, in particular if you go the Sawstop route (which I would never discourage). I’ve seen used, good quality cabinet saws cost between $300 and $500. The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, it is not easy to just eye up a table saw and know if it was abused. Electric motor problems are not simple to diagnose, and could crop up at anytime. Secondly, for the most part if you are purchasing a pre-owned table saw you will likely have to find one in your region, because the chances of finding a seller who is willing to take the saw apart and crate it up for shipping are slim to none.

Chisels I can go either route. I’ve seen some good quality vintage tools for a decent price, and I’ve seen some real junk. Luckily, it is not difficult to find good chisels both new and used, and it is easy to put together a mixed set.

Block planes are another example of newer is better. Almost every vintage block plane I’ve come across looks like it was used as a framing hammer. The good quality vintage tools are disproportionately expensive for what they are. I’ve heard some say that the vintage blocks are better, but I can’t imagine any being as good as my LN, and that tool was no more than many high quality vintage tools I’ve seen.

If you use a brace and bits, you want to go vintage. Vintage braces are a dime a dozen, inexpensive, and easy to restore. The same goes for vintage bits. Good quality new bits are expensive, and I’ve never come across a new brace that is as good as a vintage one.

Spoke shaves, on the other hand, I would only purchase new (or if you’re as stupid as me you can try to make a few). Every vintage spoke shave I’ve ever seen has been beat to hell. A new, high quality spoke shave is not overly expensive, and it comes with no worries. Are there good, vintage versions out there? Probably, but I’ve never seen one.

Joinery planes such as a router plane and a plow plane I would only purchase new. Here, I will name a specific brand and say that Veritas offers great tools, fully guaranteed, and very high quality. Vintage joinery planes that are in decent shape usually are the same price as a new tool. And trust me, when it comes to these tools, the newer versions are better than the vintage versions in every way.

The last tool I’ll mention is a high quality square. Once again, there are some good quality versions on the vintage market, and once again they are pricey. Good quality new squares aren’t cheap either. In this case I am on the fence, but if I had to choose one over the other I would probably stick to the new tool route. To name another brand, Starrett still makes great squares, and they are not much more in cost than their vintage cousins. As I’ve said with other tools, in this case you are getting a new tool that comes with a guarantee from the maker. You’re not getting that with a vintage tool.

I could mention tools such as a coping saw, marking gauges/knives, and so on, but I’ll stop here. My list covers most of the major woodworking tools, so I’ll leave it at that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not an expert. But you can trust me that this list and the logic behind it is sound. Whether or not you choose to heed this advice is completely up to you.


Winter has come

Talk to an old-timer, and he or she will likely tell you about the great snowfall of nineteen-thirtysomething. That storm will often be “the biggest we ever got!” Well, I can say without an ounce of exaggeration that this past weekend we had the biggest snowfall I have ever seen. It was technically our second largest on record, the largest being January of 1996. While that 96’ storm was supposedly larger in a regional sense, this one was definitely worse. Officially we had just over 30 inches, but in actuality it was far deeper. There was no point that the snow was shallower than waist deep, and often it was nearly at my chest. After the plows came by, my driveway was blocked by a wall of snow six feet high and fifteen feet wide. Luckily I had Briggs and Stratton to help me out (Briggs is my right arm, Stratton is my left) and after three hours or so my driveway was dug out, and in another hour the majority of my sidewalks were clear.

So you would think that being snowed-in, literally, I would have had plenty of time to putz around and woodwork to my heart’s content. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I spent much of Saturday keeping up with housework and minor home repairs (hanging pictures, fixing shelves, unclogging that pesky stoppage in the utility sink, etc.) Sunday was broken up into two shoveling sessions, the first being my driveway, and the second being my sidewalk along with my neighbors car. I may be Captain America in training, but I ain’t Captain America yet, and after hours of shoveling the largest snowfall we’ve ever had, I didn’t feel like doing much of anything but watch the AFC Championship game. Still, my love of woodworking eventually kicked in, and I wandered into my garage on Sunday night to do some sharpening and prep the material for my dovetailed box project.

Like I thought, I had just enough material on hand to make two boxes, but only enough to make one lid. That isn’t a problem though, because I can easily stop at Lowe’s on my way home from work one night this week to pick up what I need. And I can construct the second box and just add the lid later. But to bore you with stock preparation isn’t why I am writing this post.

Last year not long after Christmas, Lee Valley was running a free-shipping event. I had received a Visa gift card for Christmas that had just enough money left on it to purchase the wooden spoke shave kit that they were offering. I had always enjoyed wooden spoke shaves, and the idea of making one seemed like a fun idea. The kit includes the iron, the brass wear plate, thumbscrews, templates, and a tap to make wooden threads. When the kit arrived I noticed that the instructions were fairly involved (but not what I would call complicated), and the list of recommended tools was a large one in the sense that if they weren’t already owned the cost would easily equal purchasing several made versions of a wooden spoke shave from makers such as Caleb James. Fortunately I had most of the tools at the time, but I was missing several small but important items, namely a 7/64 drill bit, and 82 degree countersink, and a tap wrench for holding the thread maker. I put the kit in a cabinet with the plan of getting back to it when I had the extra money to order the missing parts. One thing led to another and I basically forgot about it until I came across it last night. Ironically, I received an Amazon gift card for Christmas this year, and I had just enough left on it to order the missing parts I needed to make the spoke shave. So last night that is what I did.
Spoke shave parts kit…

A lot of tools for one tool…

This all leads me back to the “make vs buy”, “old vs new” arguments when it comes to woodworking tools. Conventional, old fashioned anarchist wisdom will tell you that making your own spoke shave will teach you invaluable lessons that you will find nowhere else. My own wisdom will tell you that the recommended tool list easily exceeds $250(not including a drill press), and that is if you aren’t purchasing high end tools. And to Lee Valley’s credit, that recommended tool list isn’t frivolous. The argument can be made that you don’t have to use a drill press, but I can tell you that it will be far, far more accurate if you do. And as everybody knows, accuracy is paramount when it comes to making a good woodworking tool. I highly doubt that any of the makers out there are drilling and tapping these holes with an egg-beater drill.

All of that being said, the tools on that list are all good tools to have, and many serious woodworkers will eventually obtain most of them at some point. I’m just trying to point out that making tools, even as a hobby, is serious business.

So in the upcoming weeks I am going to attempt to make a spoke shave. It may even be fun, and hopefully I will produce a nice looking tool that actually works well. But I can almost guarantee that unless you plan on making many spoke shaves, and possibly even selling them, it would be much more prudent to take your money and purchase that spoke shave from one of the fine makers out there who have invested in the proper tools and equipment to do it correctly.

All work and no play

I always like to think there is a method to my madness, and this weekend that method will be revealed.

The ‘arctic blast’ is finally upon us, and now the lovely and oh so intelligent weather people are predicting that we may receive more than two feet of snow this coming weekend. A few weeks back I oiled and wrapped many of the woodworking tools I use most often to store them for the next few months until the cold weather breaks. The winter weather in my region is either cold, damp, or both, and even in my garage the woodworking tools tend to take a beating unless they are stored properly (which holds true no matter what the weather when it comes down to it). I used DampRid in my garage, which helps, but otherwise I need to keep those tools under wraps. But,

A few weeks back I did break out a few chisels to use for practicing dovetails, which I’ve been trying to do at least four nights per week. I’ll say two things about the whole ‘dovetail a day’ practice regimen: it is a good way to keep up your skills, and it is a good way to drive yourself crazy. I’ve said before that the worst things you can ever do as a hobbyist woodworker is build stuff you don’t need and practice stuff you’re never going to use. And for the record, I’m not averse to practice. For years I played music and I played baseball, two activities that require a large amount of practice to be any good.

So to my mind practicing dovetails solely for the sake of practicing them is not necessarily a good idea. So that is why I actually did have something in mind from the get-go, and it comes from the Paul Sellers web page.

Examples of dovetailed boxes…

Last month I watched a series of videos that Sellers presented detailing the construction of several different styles of small dovetailed boxes. The boxes are basically skill building projects, which is a good thing, but I can also use them, which makes them worth building. I have enough scrap laying around to build at least two of the boxes. Once could hold pencils, small fittings etc. And considering that I’m one of the few people (at least that I know) who still shines his shoes, the other box could hold my shoeshine brushes. An added bonus in all of this is that Sellers saws his dovetails ‘tails first’, so it will give me an excuse to work on that aspect as well.

So I’ll get to practice; make a few useful items, use up some scrap wood, and most importantly, have something to do while the temperature is frigid, the wind is howling, and there is two feet of snow on the ground.

For the sake of my saw

Last night I entered my garage not for the sake of dovetails, but for the sake of my saw. As I’ve been striving to become a better woodworker by doing the little things, saw-sharpening has been one area that I’ve neglected over the past few years. For the record, I don’t think you need to be a great saw sharpener to be a great woodworker, but I do think the ability to sharpen your saw from time to time is something that every woodworker should be at least competent at the task. So for the past few months I’ve been attempting to sharpen all of my saws.

Luckily for me, the results so far have been good. I have sharpened two rip saws, a cross-cut panel saw, and an old Craftsman back saw. I can say with complete honesty that every saw I sharpened has improved, in particular my Sandvik rip saw, which now works wonderfully. The only saws I have not sharpened are my Veritas carcass saw and Veritas dovetail saw, that is until a few days ago. Well, I actually didn’t sharpen the carcass saw yet, but I did sharpen the dovetail saw, but it wasn’t until last night that I actually used the saw in a practical application. So keeping in the spirit of experimentation, I sawed one set of dovetails with my Spear and Jackson backsaw, and the other set with the newly sharpened Veritas. Also, my marking knife was recently sharpened as well, for the record. The long story short is that the newly sharpened saw performed beautifully. The dust was fine, and the kerfs were crisp.

I took a photo of each set to compare the two, but both sets look pretty identical. My phone camera is nothing special, and fine detail is not its strong suit. So to really see what I’m talking about you would really need to see the cuts in person. I hope you can just trust me when I say that the second set sawn with the freshly sharpened saw turned out much crisper. The only disappointment was the horrible board I’m using, which is chipped and dented. The poor board notwithstanding, the joint is nice and tight.

This board is beat up and chipped, and the pins have some dings, but you can see how tight and crisp the joint is. I tried to erase the pencil lines but ended up making them worse. The “before” picture looks very similar so just take my word for it that this set is better.

After taking the steps and finally getting up the courage to sharpen my “fine” saws, for the first time in quite a while I feel like I’ve really gotten better. You could say that the maybe I am becoming better at sawing, and the sharpened saw has little to do with it. I don’t think so, though, because two years ago I was sawing some pretty nice dovetails with the very same saw, which at that time had only been sharpened at the factory. It is now sharper than it ever has been, and the first set of dovetails I cut with it turned out pretty nicely, even on a mucked up board. In this case, the saw made all the difference.

Do you hone, or sharpen?

For the past month or so I’ve been experimenting with sharpening, not just chisels and plane irons, but also saws, scrapers, and profiled tools. I’ve been pretty successful thus far, but that is a relative term because I am only comparing the sharpness of my tools against the sharpness of my other tools. Still, it doesn’t take a degree in ancient woodworking to figure out if your tools are sharp or not.

Often, when touching up an edge, a woodworker will describe having “honed” the tool. If you look up the word ‘hone’ in the dictionary it will likely say, ‘to sharpen’. But in the world of woodworking, sharpening and honing are often thought of as two separate entities. ‘Honing’ may be considered maintaining the edge of a tool that is already sharp, and ‘sharpening’ may be considered the transition from a dull edge to one that cuts.  I guess I can live with those descriptions, even if to the rest of the world the words are interchangeable.

Anyway, my little experiment is nothing ground breaking, but here’s how it broke down. I used the six main bench chisels, the iron of my jack plane, and the iron of my smooth plane as the control group. Let’s also consider that these tools were already set-up and have obviously been sharpened in the past. Basically, I “honed” each tool on only an 8000 grit water stone followed by a leather strop charged with honing compound. So? Well, my experiment was basically alternating the number of strokes. I started off taking 10 strokes on the water stone, and 20 on the strop. I would use the tool, and then come back to it the following day. As I said, nothing ground breaking, but I did find out something interesting.

I found that with a tool that was already close to sharp, no more than 15 strokes on the water stone were ever needed, however, I could easily take 30 or more passes on the leather strop, starting off with a heavy hand and taking progressively easier swipes and that would dramatically increase the level of sharpness. In fact, it seemed that when I took too many strokes (‘too many’ being a relative term) on the water stone it actually did more harm than good. Long story short, as soon as I felt even the hint of a burr I went right to the leather.

On a tool that hadn’t been maintained as often, such as my jointer plane iron, I found that starting with the 1000 grit stones, 15-25 passes, followed by 15 (or so) passes on the 8000 grit stone, followed by the leather strop were easily enough to get the iron back to a high level of sharpness. In all instances the leather strop made all the difference. Why?

I don’t read up enough on sharpening to know the scientific answer, but my guess is that polishing your edges with a strop and buffing compound removes the slight imperfections on the bevel of your tools. As these imperfections are removed sharpening becomes progressively easier. This may sound like common sense, because it is, but the strop is key to this. In my experience, sharpening on an oil stone, or a diamond plate will give you a nice edge, but it generally seems to take the same amount of time to re-hone that edge with each sharpening. However, as I’ve continued to sharpen using the strop as the final step, I’ve found that I could raise a burr with as few as 8 strokes.

To sort of confirm this little theory of mine, the one bench chisel I have that has never been stropped, my 3/8 chisel, took between 25 and 35 passes on the 8000 water stone to raise a burr. After several honings and dovetail joints, I used the leather strop, approximately 40 passes, used the tool again, and re-honed, and I had raised a burr with under 15 passes.

So what does my little experiment prove? Maybe nothing. There was nothing really scientific going on here. I’m not Leonard Hoffstadter. But in my garage I’ve found that despite what some people tell you, a highly polished edge seems to sharpen much better than one that is not polished, as well ground as it may seem. I’ve also found that since I began using a leather strop in earnest my tools have been far sharper and are consistently easier to sharpen.

So my conclusion is: if you don’t use a leather strop to sharpen then get off your ass and get one. For less than twenty dollars you can pick up a block of wood, a piece of leather, and some honing compound. Do it and I can pretty much guarantee that your tools will not only be sharper, they will be easier to sharpen.


That’s better.

I went in my garage this afternoon after work to get in a little tool maintenance on a dreary day. Since I’ve been practicing sawing dovetails whenever I get a chance, I decided to sharpen a few saws and hone a few chisels while I was at it.

The other day I posted about the virtues of having a leg vise on your woodworking bench. I like to think I made a pretty strong case, but there is one thing I forgot to add: A leg vise can also be used as a saw vise. The wide face and deep offer both clamping power and room to spare. I simply use two scrap boards on each side of the saw, clamp it into the vise, and go to town. There is a drawback; you either have to stoop or sit down so do the filing, and considering I don’t like to stoop if I can’t help it I use a stool, though I would prefer to stand, unlike Wesley Beal ;).

Let’s see a face vise easily do this…

I sharpened my dovetail saw and my rip saw, as well as honed a few chisels. But I still had the bad taste in my mouth of the hideous tails-first dovetails I cut  the other day, so I  decided to do something about it.

Because I like to think I’m pretty good at sawing through dovetails, I decided on yet another different approach, I decided to saw left handed. I’ll let everybody in on a little secret about Mr. Confused; I am what is known as ‘Cross-Dominant’

Cross-dominance isn’t a preference for certain clothing, it is just means that I favor my left hand for certain tasks, my right for the other. For instance, I throw with my left hand and write with my right hand. I shoot a rifle left-handed, play a guitar right handed, and shoot a basketball left-handed. But when it comes to woodworking I favor my right hand. I saw, plane, and hammer with my right hand. In fact, I can’t think of one woodworking task where I favor my left hand.

This wasn’t always the case. When I was a kid I would likely have sawn or hammered something with my left hand. For whatever reasons as I’ve gotten older I prefer doing things right-handed more and more. Perhaps that is because I no longer play organized sports, and it was only when playing sports that my left-handedness came to the forefront. And for the record, cross-dominance offers no real significant advantage in life that I know of, though it may explain why I’m a decent musician and why I can type like the devil.

In any event, what brought this little experiment on is an odd little quirk I have when sawing dovetails. I’ve always had trouble with sawing the tail on the far left of the board. I can’t really explain why, but it has always been the case. I can saw a board with ten tails on it, and the far left saw cut always gives me grief, whether I saw it last, first, or somewhere in the middle. My idea was to saw just that cut with my left hand to see if it improves. Instead, I decided to try the whole joint left-handed.

Strangely enough, I had almost no problems using my left hand, and it felt fairly natural after a few seconds. The joint turned out pretty nicely as well, only minimal gaps and a nice snug fit. And though I don’t see any real advantage to sawing with my left hand, that far left kerf was a bit easier.

Left-handed dovetails, pencil lines look like gaps, but I assure you they are not…

The next time I get in a little practice I will likely be sawing with my right hand again, but I think I may try to saw just that far left kerf left-handed again. Whether or not it is just a mental thing, or the fact that the angle is physically easier to saw with my left hand, or a little bit of both, it seemed to work, and it seems worth working at.

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