The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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On Woodworking Books.

I made a rare visit  to the doctor’s office this past week. It was nothing serious, yet at the same time it was enough to get me to go to a doctor’s office. Either way, while in the midst of the prerequisite second waiting period, I relieved the boredom by looking at some of the posters hanging on the walls in the examination room and I noticed that all of them contained many photos. Considering that most posters are just large photos this was hardly mind blowing, but the content of the photos is the compelling factor.

While in that waiting room it occurred to me that medicine is very much a visual art. Of course you can call a medical doctor with a description of symptoms and they can probably come close or even very close to the mark in regards to a diagnosis, but a visual examination is generally far more precise. And this little revelation led me to write this post.

Not 20 minutes ago I was going through a few woodworking books doing some research for what I hope is an upcoming project. To be forthright, I have a love/hate relationship with woodworking books. Currently, I count 37 books dedicated to woodworking on my bookshelves (I had more at one point but donated quite a few to the local library) and I have an issue with most. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, it just means that just as we are all imperfect, so too are all of those books. And their biggest source of imperfection is the lack of photos.

Woodworking is a visual art, and woodworking books have too many words, and that is the problem with nearly every woodworking book ever written. A photograph in a woodworking book is worth a chapter of written description. In fact, I believe the ratio of photos to pages should be a minimum of 1 to 1. It’s simple really; trying to describe the process of building furniture using words borders on stupidity. It doesn’t work.  I read the instructions for attaching a lid to a chest and I honestly wanted to burn the book…yeah, I am not kidding. And this is not made up, I picked up my cell phone and watched Paul Sellers attach a lid to a chest and any confusion was instantly gone. Have I attached lids to chests before? Sure. That isn’t the point. The point is I paid money for an “instructional” book that somehow complicated the extremely simple act of attaching a lid to a chest.

Maybe you can blame it on bad writing, or maybe attaching a lid to a chest is something that really cannot be described in words; I don’t know, but I do know that there was not one freaking photo of the process on those 2 pages; not one….And a photo would have been a hell of a lot more clear than 4 paragraphs of nonsense.

And perhaps the worst part is that it gets worse. Read a description of sawing dovetails, or creating complex angles, or maybe worst of all: sharpening…I can almost guarantee that if  you were not confused it will make you so. And now I know why I haven’t purchased a woodworking book in years.

For the record, I am hardly an anti-intellectual. I love reading, and I am at this very moment surrounded by many hundreds of books, all of which I’ve read, some of which I’ve read multiple times, and most of which I’ve loved to the point that they have become part of my lexicon. But of the 30+ woodworking books currently sitting on the shelves of my little library, I can count on one hand the number of them which consider “keepers”.

Why the vitriol? After all, they’re just books. Well, for the first time in more than 6 months I have considered making full-sized furniture again. And when I went to those books to find inspiration I found myself not energized but frustrated; I found myself remembering why I stopped blogging about woodworking. And it made me realize that it’s about time to take all but a handful of those books and throw them in the donation bin at our library. Then again, in doing that I may be doing nothing more than contributing to the frustration of other woodworkers in the area, and that is the last thing I want to do.

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No Sargent!

I haven’t written about woodworking for some time for reasons that I have tried to explain in prior posts. I would also add that I have been woodworking less, but I have hardly stopped. Considering that I have no real need for any new furniture, and there are only so many small boxes a person can make before they become a burden, much of my woodworking has revolved around home maintenance.

 In the meanwhile, I have restored, or have attempted to restore, a large number of old tools, most of which I have given away, a select few which I’ve kept for myself to use, and some others which were beyond the normal range of repair that still have a nice appearance I’ve used as decorations on bookshelves. And it is these repairs that I want to write about briefly if for no other reason than to help out people who may be attempting a tool restoration. And it doesn’t hurt that these sporadic posts may add a Bobby Fischer-esque mystique to my once too great and now too diminished popularity (with apologies to John Dickinson).

 But it is Sargent transitional planes that I would like to speak of…

 To date I have restored five Sargent transitional planes to various states of workability, one jointer and four jacks. Do they all work? Yes. Would any of them be a “go-to” tool? Not even close. All of these planes were in some level of disrepair when I received them, some bad, some worse, but all  needing a decent amount of work. While I cannot claim to be an expert or even accomplished tool restorer, I do know enough to repair an old tool into working condition in most cases. I’ve found Sargent transitional planes to be by far the most difficult hand planes to restore that I’ve come across. Initially I’ve chalked this up to both the nature and age of these planes, but after a few years I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe Sargent transitional planes just aren’t very good. So when a friend had me look at a Sargent transitional smoother that appeared to me to be barely used, I went against my better judgment and decided to give it a try.

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The plane finished, or at least finished as far as I am willing to take it…You can see some walnut shavings behind the plane.

 

Initially the plane was very dirty and had a dull coating of rust over the entire metal portion of the tool. Like every other Sargent I’ve come across, the wood body portion of the plane was unrefined but serviceable. But I was very pleasantly surprised to see the mouth of the plane pretty tight, and the iron I could see had never been ground or sharpened. I took apart the plane, which was a little difficult considering all of the threads were rusted, but I was careful to be very gentle. As the metal parts were soaking I got to working on the iron. The initial grinding was done on a powered grinder. I flattened the back using 220g sandpaper, 1000g diasharp plate, and an 8000g Waterstone. The bevel was worked on with the same sequence minus the sandpaper. I finished it all off with a charged leather strop. Happily, the iron sharpened up beautifully, and it only took around 30 minutes to go from rust to razor. With this early victory my hopes were up. So after cleaning up the other plane parts and reassembling the tool I clamped it in the vice and flattened the sole, which didn’t take much work because it was actually in pretty good shape to begin with. Once again I disassembled the plane and gave the threads another gentle cleaning and applied some 3-in-1 oil on all of the moving parts, and this is where the plane reverted to the Sargent planes I’ve come to know and dislike.

 Every Sargent transitional plane I’ve come across adjusted roughly and this one was no exception despite being the cleanest one I’ve ever dealt with. I always blamed the adjustment screws, which I’ve found to be a bit rough, but, I believe I’ve finally discovered the real issue with Sargent transitional planes: the lever cap. The lever caps on these planes are quite frankly junk. Before, I blamed the poor lever cap performance on beat up frogs and chewed up bevels, but with this plane both the metal and wood portion of the frog were in pretty good shape. As with other Sargent transitional planes I’ve used, the lever cap would not properly clamp even though I had the cap screw perfectly clean and threading smoothly. This has been the same problem I’ve had with all of my Sargent restorations: the cap is too loose, turn the cap screw a hair, the cap is too tight for a smooth adjustment of the iron. In fairness, I was able to get the Sargent adjusted to the point where it took transparent and even shavings, but it took an unacceptable amount of time and effort, and each time I readjusted the plane it took several minutes of fussing with the tool to get it to work properly again. In comparison, I retrieved both my coffin smoother and plain Jane Stanley #4, both of which needed extensive restoration work when I received them, and in a matter of seconds both were adjusted and taking beautiful shavings.

 So in short my advice is to stay away from Sargent transitional planes if you are looking for a tool to restore to top working order. A basic Stanley #4 is a far better option, and if you are looking for “wood on wood” planing stick with a traditional wedge based plane such as a coffin smoother. While the idea behind transitional planes may be sound: wood on wood planing with the adjustment ease of a metal bodied plane-I have found these planes lacking in several areas, the lever cap being the most obvious defect. I finished up the restoration yesterday, at least as far as I am planning on restoring it. The plane does work decently, but I can say with utter certainty that Sargent transitional planes are not worth the effort to restore.

 

Bueller, Bueller…

Once upon a time I received quite a few comments on my blog posts. Some of those comments were actually posted on the blog, and quite a few were sent to my personal email (just to set the record straight, the hate mail to “fan” mail ratio was about 50/50). In fact, I received enough of those emails to warrant creating an email (gmail) address specifically for the blog posts. Strangely enough, once I did that, I received far fewer blog related emails..go figure.

Anyway, I received my first blog related email in quite a while, more than a year, asking the same questions I’ve been asked many times before: “Where are my fun posts?” “Where are my rants?” “Where have my fringe, op-ed pieces gone?”

I haven’t answered this persons email directly as of yet, but the answer I give him (or her) will be the same I’ve given before: It’s not worth it.

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the world of woodworking is simply not worthy of my time and my opinions. I could go on a long diatribe explaining my reasons, but instead I’m going to break it down to this most simple phrase; Woodworking is dull.

Let’s face it; woodworking magazines, videos, books, and blogs (sorry) are or have become really boring, very bland, and more often than not, they suck. (Once again, sorry). At one time I liked to think of myself as a counter point to the boredom, but now I just don’t care enough anymore to bother.

So the last two paragraphs are going to be copied and pasted and given as my response to the email. I will continue to post on the occasional project or tool restoration, but my days of ranting are over. I don’t want to be lumped in with a group of boorish, pseudo-intellectual geeks anyhow (referring to trees by their Latin genus? C’mon)

Washington Campaign Desk completed.

On Saturday afternoon the Washington Campaign Desk project officially became a completed piece of furniture when I moved it from our downstairs family room into our “office”.  In actuality, the construction of the project was completed two weeks ago and the finish applied over the course of a week. While I’m very much an amateur when it comes to finishing, and I may have already mentioned it in another post, I will briefly touch on the topic again.

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The finished desk.

 

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Candle and lantern lit..

In most cases I would have finished walnut with BLO and some wax. I wanted to go with something more refined, and after some online research I wound up with a product from Rockler called ‘Sam Maloof poly oil/poly wax’. The instructions were similar to other finishes: sand to 400g, burnish with 0000 steel wool and a soft cotton cloth, apply liberally, and immediately wipe off the excess with a soft cloth. (I’m glad they added the immediately, because letting the finish sit is a recipe for disaster no matter what anybody, anywhere will tell you). Anyway, the recommended sequence was 3 to 4 coats of the poly/oil blend, and 1-2 coats of the wax blend, with a 24 hour drying time in between coats. I went with 3 coats of the poly/oil, and 2 coats of the poly/wax, and I can say without any reservation that it was the easiest and nicest finish I’ve ever applied. Even better, it is dead simple to apply further coats in the future for renewal purposes. At $20 per pint it was not inexpensive, but in my opinion it was well worth the cost.

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Detail of the leg assembly.

desk drawer

Desk drawers opened.

 

I have two regrets with this project: One, I wish that I had documented the little details a bit more. Two, I would have done a better job on the through dovetails at the back of the drawers. Don’t get me wrong, the drawers are square and tight, but compared to the rest of the desk, I think the through dovetails are a bit sloppy. Speaking of the drawers, I did not fully assemble (meaning glue them together) and finish them until after the final coat of finish was applied to the desk itself, just in case some final resizing needed to be done. And the last task, adding felt bottoms to the drawers, was completed yesterday.

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Detail of the drawer interior. The nail next to the ink (which you can barely see) is from the blacksmith shop at Mt Vernon.

I felt a great sense of accomplishment when we moved the desk into our office. I added some of my memorabilia to it and it really brought the desk to life. Everything looked like it belonged, and when I replace the oil lamp with a real candle lantern I believe it will look even better.

This desk was the first full-sized piece of furniture I built this year, and more significantly, it could be the last full-sized piece I make in a long time. Not that I’m planning on giving up woodworking, but the real truth is I have very little room in my house for more furniture. Currently, the living areas of my house contain 14 pieces of furniture I built. That is a respectable number. So from now into the foreseeable future, I will likely be making small boxes and such, which I am fine with, because whatever else happens, I built something that I am extremely proud of, and I set the bar higher. Now, I just need to find a suitable chair…

 

Washington Desk Thoughts

‘But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.’

One of the things that has always bothered me concerning woodworking forums, magazines, etc. has been an overemphasis on the spiritual/metaphysical aspects of making furniture. If there is one quality that I despise in anybody, it is an overabundance of self-importance. A lot of people, too many people, tend to over-value themselves, and the things they make, in relation to how they think others should perceive it. I had mentioned in an earlier post a trip to Mount Vernon and how that trip was in many ways a spiritual experience for me. Others may visit Mount Vernon just because they enjoy the grounds, and others still may visit and feel nothing at all. So when it comes to the Washington Campaign Desk I recently completed, I am very much in the mindset that it is without a doubt my favorite project, yet I would not doubt that some may look at it and think to themselves: ‘big deal!’

Firstly, as far as woodworking projects go, this desk, for someone at my skill level, would probably be considered an intermediate level project. For a professional woodworker it would likely be considered a relatively simple build. It was not the most technically difficult project I’ve made. In fact, I can say in all honesty that I spent as much time milling the wood and cleaning up the resulting mess as I did on the actual woodworking involved in constructing the desk. One of the most time consuming individual aspects of the project was making and fitting the breadboard ends, and when I carelessly removed a chunk of the desktop with a shoulder plane I wound up removing the ends completely rather than attempt a shoddy repair. If the two plus hours I spent on the breadboard ends are removed from the equation, I probably have more time spent milling than woodworking.

As in all of my projects, I like to think that I become a little better woodworker and learn a little bit more every time I complete one. But I cannot assign any one particular “Eureka” moment when it came to the physical act of working the wood used in making this desk. Probably the most challenging aspect of the construction was sawing and shaping the ogee ends. At that, the job I did was just okay. I certainly learned something, and I certainly gained some experience, but I don’t feel any closer to the woodworking gods in doing so.

After re-reading these few paragraphs you might thing that I sound bitter, or even ungrateful. Rest assured, I am neither. As I said, this project is hands down my favorite, and it is possible that I may never build anything again that I like quite as much. Why? It is simple, really. I went to a museum and caught a brief glimpse of a piece of furniture that was likely used by a person who has very much guided me throughout my life, and I knew enough about woodworking to be able to construct a near-enough reproduction of that piece of furniture using only a memory and a photo. If there is any “spirituality” to be found, this is it. When I saw the desk I knew immediately that I had to make it. I experienced a unique moment of true inspiration. I wasn’t looking for it; it wasn’t forced; it just happened. And in my estimation, that is the essence of spirituality.

There is more of me in that desk than in any other piece of furniture I’ve made. It isn’t in the joinery, which is dadoes, bolts, and a few screws. It isn’t in the desktop, which quite frankly has a bit more “character” than I had hoped, or the drawers, which are made of basic home center poplar held together with some basic half-blind dovetails. It is something that can’t be seen by others, and I’m glad of that fact.

I could write ten more pages trying to explain my reasonings, but I’m not going to do that. Just know that when I look at that desk, I feel connected to something larger than myself. And I believe that when I finally use it, I will be inspired to be my best.

I don’t know if there is a “woodworking god” or not. But if there is, just for a brief moment as this desk was nearing completion, I believe that I saw His face

Washington Desk Day 6

For all intents and purposes I completed the construction phase of the Washington Campaign Desk over the weekend. On paper there wasn’t much left to do. Basically I had to assemble the drawer compartment parts and attach it to the desk top. But we all know that “on paper” doesn’t mean much.

Assembling the drawer compartment wasn’t overly difficult. I pre-drilled and counter-sunk the screw holes, applied a little glue, and screwed it together. That part was relatively easy. I had one minor issue, and that was the right side drawer divider would, for some reason, not sit perpendicular to the desk top. I double and triple checked the dado fit and no matter what I did I could not get it perfectly straight. Don’t get me wrong, it is not off much, probably 1 mm or so (for all you metric people), so I decided to not let it bother me. To finish it off I used walnut plugs purchased from Rockler; they worked surprisingly well, and I’m very happy with the finished appearance.

In the meanwhile, I also pre-drilled and counter sunk the holes in the desk top to attach it to the leg assemblies (using elongated holes to allow for movement). But before I went any further I disassembled the base and spent a good 90 minutes with a hand plane and sandpaper cleaning the parts up for finish. As far as the sanding was concerned, I used the grit sequence 60/120/220/320. I did not use a random orbit sander, rather, I just used a sanding block because it seemed easier to control, though it was definitely more time consuming. Once the sanding was finished I reassembled the legs, and thankfully I marked all of the parts before I took them apart to assure that I would put them back together correctly. I used a little glue to attach the filler pieces to the leg cleats, but otherwise, the only glue used in the entire project was on the four dadoes on the drawer compartment, and the walnut plugs. (I promise once it is finished, with finish, I will photograph all of the relevant parts). With the leg assemblies ready to go, I attached them to the desktop and reattached the cross cleat, once again plugging the countersunk holes and cleaning them up.

The last part of the assembly for me was the scariest, and that was attaching the drawer unit to the desktop. Before I took everything apart I marked and predrilled holes into the desktop. To attach the drawer unit I decided to use pocket-hole screws. I like using pocket-hole screws in situations like this because of the pan head holds nicely on elongated holes. In any case, I used two combination squares (I highly recommend having two BTW) to align the drawer unit, enlisted my lovely wife to hold the drawer unit in place, and carefully screwed the drawer unit to the desk top. Speaking for myself, it’s always a bit nerve wracking lying on my back and screwing through a tabletop sight unseen. Thankfully, everything went well.

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The desk just before final assembly. Please note that the drawer unit was still temporarily assembled in this photo and it was still not attached to the desk top.

And speaking of pocket screws, I may attach a cleat underneath the desktop to connect the two leg assemblies, just for added strength, because as of right now they are only connected by one cross brace. After doing some research it appears that pocket screws were traditionally used for such a task, believe it or not, but as of right now I still haven’t made up my mind.

The last task of the day was milling up some poplar for making the drawers. The drawer fronts were completed last week, but I didn’t want to plane them to final size until the drawer unit was assembled. I decided to go with half-blind dovetails for the drawers, which is the logical choice. So I gang sawed all four drawer sides at once, tails first obviously. I am holding off on the drawer backs just to make sure there is no settling, or what have you, before I glue the drawers together, but that part should only take a matter of minutes.

As far as the finish is concerned, when I started the project I spent some time searching the forums to find a nice finish for Walnut and kept coming back to a product called Sam Maloof poly/oil. It seemed to get good reviews, so I ordered a can of both the poly/oil and the poly/wax. The instructions call for 3 to 4 coats of the oil and 1 to 2 coats of the wax, with an overnight dry in between each application. I likely won’t start applying the finish until this coming Friday night, when I will have time to take my time.

And on another note, I am not overly concerned with the finish when it comes down to it. I used to worry a great deal about having a perfectly smooth, plastic-like appearance. But considering that the boards used to make this desk likely came from barn walls, I am more than happy with how it looks. I was more concerned with doing the best job I could do, and I believe that I did that. The desk looks like I want it to look, and I believe that it is well constructed and it should last for quite a while. I think that George Washington would have liked it, and more importantly, my daughter loves it, and I have a feeling that she will be the one to use it most, and that is about all I could ask.

 

Rehash.

It’s always reassuring to see my posts from 3 years ago make an appearance in places unlooked-for…I find it flattering.

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