Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shoot the Moon

I've been working on a small display cabinet (a sort of shadow box almost) for my mother-in-law, Penny, for much too long. Unlike the conventional wisdom about mother's-in-law, Penny is a wonderful person, and she has demonstrated it yet again by her patience and good nature. Not once did she ask about progress on her cabinet in the too many months it has taken me to build it. I could bore you with an explanation of the many events going on in my family's life that have contributed to my slowness. And I could whine about how my inexperience at matching finishes cost me several weeks of trial and error in matching the stain on my cabinet to the other cabinetwork it will be installed amongst. But I won't.

So this last weekend (Labor Day weekend here in the States), I was faced with the final task. I had made custom moldings to go on the front of cabinet, much like a picture frame. But I needed to miter the corners and install the moldings. I've cut miters before, always with my power miter saw. And in all honesty it's an exercise in fear and frustration. With a miter saw blade spinning at something like 3,600 RPMs, there is a serious element of fear, even with proper wedging and clamping. And frustration is on the high side as well. I'm sure if I cut as many miters as professionals do, I would soon find it much more natural. But it's always a challenge to get that miter just the way it needs to be, especially if you are matching one you cut that is not quite 45 degrees.

So, I took the plunge and made a shooting board. I've read many articles about shooting boards, and they appeal greatly to my continued foray into hand woodworking. I was encouraged by the description of the precision you can achieve with them. I wanted to reward all of Penny's help and patience (over the last year especially) with the very best I could build. So, after one more look over the articles, I settled on a design for a shooting board that would work for both right angles and miters.

Rather than write up a long description of shooting board design, I'll refer you to several resources I found very helpful:

  • - if you have a subscription, there quite a few articles and 'tips' regarding shooting boards. If you instead have a old issues of Fine Woodworking, the May/June 1994 magazine has a short article that inspired my removable 45 degree stop.
  • There is a really good article on the Popular Woodworking website. 
  • "The Handplane Book" - by Garrett Hack, a wonderful text on all things hand plane
  • "Shooting Boards @ Cornish Workshop" - this is perhaps the most important link. Not only is it informative and filled with links to other online references, but Alf's no-nonsense write-up convinced me that "It's Not Rocket Science" and it was worth a brief 'diversion' to achieve better results for Penny's cabinet.
So I settled on a design, a blending of several different ones I've seen over the last few years. I chose to make a single board that has a shelf on both sides. While this means aligning the stop block at exactly 90 degrees is particularly important, it means only one shooting board in my shop for mitering on either the left or the right. And with a removable 45 degree block, I can orient for 45 degree miters on either side in less than a minute.

One of the surprising things I learned from Alf's shooting board pages was that most of the dimensions of a shooting board aren't all that important. The only key dimension is the size of the shelf on which your hand plane rests. It needs to be wide enough that you can apply good, firm pressure down and toward the cut without having your hand plane tip over.

I decided to go with the removable 45 miter block in order to build only one shooting board (at least until I want to do "dog-ear" miters). That proved to be tremendously helpful when it came time to fit my trim on Penny's cabinet. My angles weren't quite 45 degrees and I simply added a piece of paper or card stock to one end or the other of my angle block to finesse the angle into what I needed. Because I have a threaded insert and a knob with threaded rod to lock the miter block in place, I can adjust the wedge to where I need it and to as many cuts and test fittings as needed to get a good fit without worrying that my shooting board setup will change.

Since I was going to use a shooting board, I decided it was time to try out the hand miter saw I got several months ago. It's not in perfect shape. It has some rust that needs removing on the box and saw guide, and the paint is flaking and needs to be scraped and repainted. Plus the saw itself (a nice large example with a 26" length) was rusty enough that I left rust marks on the scraps I used for test cuts. So I took some time to clean the blade, clean the gunk from the corners where the bed and fence meet, and experimented until I was comfortable that my cuts were close enough to 45 degrees for good results.

I still need to finish cleaning up the miter box but now that I've used it with success, that time will be much more pleasurable to spend.

Once I had completed the shooting board, it was time to actually cut the last two pieces of molding and make them fit the two I had already glued to the cabinet carcass. I will admit I "took a break" and went upstairs for a bit. After a suitable length of "rest" (also known as gathering my nerve), I went back down and set to work. 

The first piece I cut was definitely too long by more than an 1/8th of an inch. But that turned out to be a good thing. While I had experimented with some scrap pieces, that's just not the same as taking custom made molding to a shooting board you've never used before. That extra length gave me time to learn the feel of my shooting board, and I learned a lot about reading the angles and the fit. I also realized immediately how much more I was enjoying the process with hand miter box and shooting board versus power miter saw. The finesse the shooting board gave me, the soft "shhnick" from taking a truly fine shaving by hand, the quiet of the workshop, and not having to pay huge attention to a saw blade spinning at 3,600 rpm made the process a joy instead of a test of will with a dash of fear.

So now Penny's display cabinet is finished, and I have a shooting board I will use to improve my results for years to come.

Once I get Penny's case installed, of course...

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Shorts, Scrubs, and blisters

I'm not sure what came over me the other night night. It was time to wind things down and head for bed. I went downstairs just to apply a coat of stain on some scraps of cherry. My staining efforts are part of an (apparently) never-ending quest to match the stain on some existing cabinets for a display case I'm making for my mother-in-law. That was all I was going to do, just a bit of staining.

Well, that's not entirely true. I've been thinking about making some boxes lately. I have some people I need to thank, and I've decided to get off my keister and make some boxes as gifts to thank them. So I admit I was thinking of finding a few pieces of lumber that might be suitable for making a couple of boxes.

That brings me to one of the things weighing on my conscience. I have a pile of 'shorts' I've accumulated over the last five or so years. Some came from a local cabinet shop when they offered me the chance to buy as many 'shorts' as would fit in the back of my Subaru station wagon for $25 (a wonderful bargain, but a story for a different post). Others came from a friend who was cleaning out his mother's basement. A few others came from pieces I've picked up here and there along the way. I thought this might be a chance to use a few of these shorts. That would be a good thing, as I've been intending to use them for a long time and am feeling increasing guilty for not taking otherwise wasted material and turning it into something.

It started out innocently enough. I pulled out two pieces of wood which had been glued together with dowels. It was a failed attempt. I'm not sure what went wrong since the glue-up took place sometime in the (possibly distant past), though by the looks of it the dowel pegs were too long. The two boards had a gap between them that varied from about 1/8th of an inch to about 1/4 of an inch. So, I took out my cheap backsaw and sawed the dowels in half. That left me with two pieces of wood with the nubs of dowels sticking out of them (some more, some less). I suspected the two boards were walnut but figured I'd make sure. I'm not very good at identifying wood species, but thanks to a lucky find of some wonderful walnut boards (another story for another post), I have a pretty good idea of what walnut looks like. Still, the boards could have been old cherry, or even something else.

The obvious solution was to plane the edges where the dowels were inserted. The dowels themselves were some kind of white wood, so those edges of the boards are waste for as deep as the dowels go. I got out a 'beater' chisel and knocked off the nubs of the dowels. Then I got out my 'scrub' plane. It's not really a scrub plane. It's a cheap #4 'frankenplane'.

I'm pretty sure the only two pieces of my frankenplane that came from the same original plane are the blade and the chip breaker. Everything else (except the knob and tote perhaps) appears to be from a different source. The frog is clearly from a different plane than the body, and will never mate to the body very well. The blade and chip breaker (and the nut joining them) appear to be matched, but they don't fit quite right to the frog and are probably not matched to it. The depth adjustment knob is clearly not right, as it has way too much play inside the "Y" adjusting lever. In other words, an abomination of a 'frankenplane'.

I tried tuning up this thing about a year ago and found that it's hopeless for any kind of real smoothing work. So, until I can afford to buy a scrub plane I've repurposed it for scrub planing. It's not a very good scrub plane, since the adjustment knob is mismatched with the "Y" adjusting lever, resulting in several rotations of play when backing off or tightening the knob. And because of that (and other inequities in the mating of various parts), it has a tendency to 'jump' it's adjustment by as much as a 32nd of an inch. For anyone who has used hand planes, you know how much havoc that can produce. I haven't (yet) injured myself when it decides to jump, but I hope I get the funds to buy a scrub plane before it happens, or I may suffer permanent disfigurement.

So, with my frankenplane in hand, I planed the ends of the now separated boards. Sure enough, they are walnut, as I'd suspected by looking at their dirty surfaces. The boards themselves aren't that large, and I will lose some material when I go to cut off the portions with dowels embedded in them. But still, I could make small boxes from them or combine them to make a somewhat larger box. They are highly figured pieces of wood, but I'm a glutton for, that is, I've been meaning to learn how to plane and scrape highly figured wood anyway.

I should leave well enough alone. But no, I'm suddenly all fired up and wondering if there are any other pieces of walnut amongst my 'shorts'. So, I pull out another piece.

After cinching it in the leg vise, I use my frankenplane to plane the edge. That one is also walnut. I'm really into it now and images of several walnut boxes are dancing in my head.I start pulling out piece after piece and plane the edge to identify it. Some are so light in weight and color they have to be something else. I identify what I'm pretty sure is a piece of Douglas Fur. Then another piece of walnut. I don't recall the exact order, but I'm finding walnut, fur, cherry, even a few pieces of what I suspect are mahogany.

An hour and a half later, I've pulled out every short from under the old workbench I use as a sharpening/fettling station and rough planed one edge trying to identify each species. For my effort I'm rewarded with ideas for a bunch of boxes and an interesting array of shavings on the floor.

But (there's always a 'but' it seems), I'm also 'rewarded' with a blister on each hand. I rubbed a blister on the outside edge of my left pinky while planing left-handed and on my right index finger while planing right-handed. So now I know that my 'scrub' plane's tote is too small for me to grip it with my full hand. I have to ride my pinky on the side of the plane to avoid wearing a blister. And now I know better than to brace the edge of my index finger against the casting where it rises up to hold the frog. But blisters heal quickly enough, and I learned a few things about planing technique.

Now to finish the display case for my mother-in-law and build the wardrobe in our laundry room. Then I can build some boxes.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Matching Stain, what a pain

I hate matching an existing finish that is stained. I'm not very experienced with it, and don't have tons of money to spend on fancy dyes. So I end up spending a lot of (elapsed) time trying different variations, using the few different kinds of finishes I own. I'll occasionally buy a small can of stain to add to my collection, but I do so little staining it's not uncommon for it to get too old before I use it up.

I've been reading Bob Flexnor's "Understanding Wood Finishing" and Jeff Jewitt's "Complete Illustrated Guide to Finishing". Both are excellent books, but I'm such a newbie that it's just barely better than trial and error. I think part of the issue is that my eye isn't very well trained. As a result, I don't see the subtle shades of red or orange or whatever until I hold my sample next to the piece I'm matching.

I need to match a finish because I'm making a small display cabinet (a sort of shadow box) for my mother-in-law, and she wants me to match the stain on the cabinets that are near where the display case will be installed. Unfortunately, the existing stain has some subtle shades of red and orange to it that are proving hard to reproduce. I think I may be narrowing in on an answer, but I won't know for another few days, as it will require a few more experiments with stain and shellac to hopefully achieve a look that is close enough to mesh with the existing cabinets.

I can't decide if I want to get enough staining experience to make it easier, or if I want to just forget about staining and pick my wood species to be the color I want.

Of course, neither option matters right now. What matters right now is finding a color match so I can get this long-overdue piece finished and installed.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I need a proper workbench

As I've increased my hand tool work, I've felt increased pain not having a real workbench with proper work holding. Here is a picture of what passes for a workbench in my shop:

I also use a piece of plywood over some sawhorses as a work surface, though I have to be careful with it because it's destined to be some drawers for the workshop storage I recently built:

I also have an old broom maker's workbench that I use as a sharpening and fettling area. I have a grinder,  waterstones, plate glass, and other related things. The workbench has a leg vise on it that I use when I can:

I recently put suede leather on the inside of the jaws of the leg vise, which makes it safe to use for final smooth planing and other detail operations on pieces. But there are no dog holes, no other workholding, and worst of all the bench is prone to wracking and wobbling.

Obviously, none of these work surfaces is close to a real workbench. I was reminded of this yet again about a week ago. I was trying to use my #4 smoothing plane to clean up some molding I'm making. The molding is for a display cabinet and has a couple of beveled edges. Those edges are coplaner, so I ripped one wide bevel on the table saw (yes, I do still use power tools, especially when I fall behind on a project). Before creating the rest of the profile, I decided to use my smoother to plane the somewhat rough edge.

Since I don't have a proper workbench, I had to use an improvised planing stop made with a thin piece of wood fixed to the end of the plywood by two C-clamps. You can see it to the left on the first picture above.

This works pretty well when smoothing the top of a flat piece of stock. And I used it to smooth and scrape the carcass and shelf pieces for the display cabinet. But this setup is prone to problems when planing at an angle. The smoothing plane has a tendency to slid up against the lip on the molding. Once that happens, too much horizontal pressure slides the piece back, rotates it away from the planing stop, or worst of all flips the piece up (sometimes resulting in it flopping onto the floor). In attempting to compensate for this, I found myself holding the knob on my smoother in an uncomfortable and odd grip in order to exert just the right amount of vertical and horizontal pressure. The good news is that I was able to smooth the beveled edges. The bad news is I ended up with two penny-sized blisters on my left hand.

So, I've found new motivation to make the workbench I've been planning for about two years now. I have hardware for a leg vise and a wagon vise (from Benchcrafted). I've built storage elsewhere in my shop so I can get rid of the old kitchen cabinets. I just need to get one other project done (after the display cabinet) and I'll be able to build a workbench.

At my current pace, that means I'll get to the workbench sometime after Christmas, which is ridiculous. Time to get into gear and get some things done.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Learning to use Shellac - Making shellac

I recently decided to take the plunge and learn how to work with shellac. Shortly before the Frank Klausz workshop, I received information about a man who sells dry shellac flakes, and the description of Frank's class said that he recommends sealing the jewelry box project with shellac.

So I ordered the sampler set, which included four ounces each of blond, beige, orange, and garnet shellac flakes. A also picked up some mason jars and denatured alcohol from the local hardware store, and I was all set. I procrastinated somewhat after receiving the flakes, but then decided to mix up some. Our kitchen scale proved handy, as I was able to put a jar full of eight ounces of denatured alcohol onto the scale and zero it out. I was then able to add shellac flakes until I had added two ounces (resulting in what they call a 2# cut).

It took a couple of days of stirring and shaking to get the flakes completely dissolved in the denatured alcohol. Once it had completely dissolved, I strained it through a paint strainer to get rid of the dregs (I'm not sure what the dregs were, but the filter did a good job of filtering them out).

My first applications were on a piece of scrape wood similar to the red oak of the warping mill I was building and planned to finish with shellac. All the books and articles on shellac I've read say you should use a good quality brush or a pad to apply it. And I now understand why. Curious (and a bit impatient) to try out my shellac, I used an acid brush to apply it. What a mess. Drags and runs were the rule and not the exception. But the shellac itself appears to work quite well, as long as I apply it thin enough.

So when it came time to actually finishing the warping mill, I used a pad (as described by Bob Flexner in "Understanding Wood Finishing" - a great book by the way). I started out with scrap pieces to learn a bit more, but it turned out quite well overall. I'm sure there are many skills yet to learn when it comes to using shellac, but my first experience went well.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blame it on The Schwarz

It all started innocently enough. Years ago, back when my "shop" was still the utility part of the basement filled with as much lawn care equipment (including the mower) as it had woodworking equipment, I bought a couple of Stanley chisels. You know the kind, clear yellow plastic handles with black ends; dull as a post when I got them.

I thought sharpening them meant grinding an edge on them at some (mostly) arbitrary angle and using a coarse oil stone like the one I'd seen my dad use on his lawn mower blade when sharpening it. In the dim recesses of my brain, there were memories of shop class in high school where there had been hand tools, including chisels. And if I'd bothered to think back I'd have remembered those chisels were much sharper than the ones I had. In fact, they were so sharp the shop teacher was careful about letting a bunch of half-wild teenage boys use them for fear we'd chop off a digit or two (for good reason).

Fast forward a few years and I finally managed to evict the mower and all the other lawn and garden tools to the newly built garage. My interest in woodworking was growing and I was funding my tool purchases by tackling home improvement projects that paid for the tools we bought. Drywall on the ceilings meant new trim and that led to a compound miter saw. Building a play set led to some power hand tools. A cedar privacy fence funded the six inch jointer and thickness planer. Rebuilding some of the breakfast room netted a biscuit jointer (my least used power tool) and a more powerful hand drill.

At this point, I was thoroughly reconnected with my junior high and high school woodworking, and was starting to build a shop of tools. I was a dedicated Normite and set out to collect as many power tools as I could, lusting after the twenty or so routers Norm would reveal when pulling open a drawer to pick up the one already set up for his next task. But by this time in the arc of "The New Yankee Workshop", Norm had begun showing bits and pieces of hand tool work in his shows. So I dutifully went and bought a set of paring chisels, some marking tools, and even made a jig or two.

About this time, a friend of mine who is a professional cabinet maker and designer began mentoring me. He had old hand tools on display at his house, and while he was busy showing me the amazing Lionel train layout he was building in his basement, I was learning more about old tools. I thought a hand plane might be useful to do some final fitting of joints and was fascinated by a Yankee screwdriver he had. Almost without knowing what I was doing, I acquired some starter planes and a few other odds and ends (including that Yankee screwdriver).

I'm sure that would have been the end of it. I'd have continued trying to use my dull chisels now and then, wondered how Norm got such good results, and gone back to my power tools and sandpaper in puzzlement. I doubt I would have ever played with those clunker planes I'd bought from my friend as 'starters' for a tool collection (he still insists I'll become an old tool collector).

If only I hadn't taken out a subscription to Popular Woodworking magazine. That's when it really started.

At first, those Schwarz articles on hand tools and hand tool techniques were an odd curiosity thrown in with the articles and ads with power tools of every shape, size, and description. Hand skills didn't hold a candle to a 36" power sander, or a 20" bandsaw. So I continued to acquire shop tools that would fit into my small basement shop. The first (and biggest) purchase was a Unisaw, followed by a band saw and eventually a drill press.

But along the way those hand tool articles were creeping in. I found myself reading "The Workshop Book" and told myself I was just figuring out how to make the most of my small shop space. I subscribed to the Popular Woodworking blog and The Schwarz whispered into my ear more frequently. Then I found myself reading "The Workbench Book". But I didn't have any work holding to speak of and told myself it was for all those hand power tools.

I kept telling myself I could stop any time, even as I acquired water stones and learned how to properly sharpen my chisels and plane blades. All the while The Schwarz was telling me about hand saws, and chisels, and marking knives in words that whispered to me in my dreams. When I found myself slaving over sandpaper on plate glass fettling the bottoms of block planes, I reasoned they were small and I'd already bought them so I'd better not waste the money. Surely it wasn't because of that Schwarz article about fettling (or was it a blog post?). I should have known when I began buying card scrapers and marking gauges that something was up.

Somewhere along the line, the subscriptions to my power tool oriented woodworking magazines lapsed. Popular Woodworking and Woodworking Magazine and Fine Woodworking were all that was left. I knew something fundamental had changed when I realized I was skipping over the power tool articles and ads to read about fleam and rake angles on saws, or oogle a Brese hand plane or a Benchcrafted bench vise. I found myself buying hand tools that cost as much or more than power tools I used to long for. I bought a dictionary of woodworking so I could figure out what Schwarz was talking about when he wrote about "fleam" and "rake" and "winding sticks".

I denied the truth even as I bought Schwarz's workbench book, and "The Handplane Book", and five or ten other hand tool books. I spent hours reading and daydreaming about a Roubo-style workbench, even though I knew it was overkill unless I planned to regularly use hand tools. I pointedly ignored the implications of my copies of "The Art of Joinery" and "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker".

Finally, I couldn't pretend any more. I realized it the day I went up to rave to my wife about how I'd finally gotten a truly good edge on my Stanley #9 1/4 block plane and showed her the see-through shavings it was producing. She humored me and smiled at me in the same way she does when I talk to her about some obscure technical aspect of my day job (computer software). That's when it hit me. I'd become a hand tool woodworker. I struggled with it for a while, then finally admitted it to my woodworking friends and even to my family. They looked at me kind of strange, and my woodworking friends teased me a bit, but that was about it.

Only, it hasn't stopped there.  I knew something fundamental had changed the evening I was driving back to St. Louis from Cincinnati. I'd driven five hours each way and spent money for a hotel just to attend the Lie-Nielson hand tool event held at the offices of F+W Publishing (the publishers of Popular Woodworking Magazine). Then in March I took a weekend workshop from Frank Klausz and was inordinately pleased with the box I built with hand cut dovetails. I was even more pleased with how much I learned from Frank (a truly amazing talent in woodworking). I regularly haunt eBay hand tool auctions. I even squeeze out time for the occasional estate sale, hoping against hope to find a #602 bedrock in a box of "stuff" marked "$30". I recently acquired a Stanely #78 rabbeting plane and just used it to cut rabbets in the sides of a shadow box I'm building for my mother-in-law. I've drug my feet for weeks, not cutting the grooves for the back of the shadow box. I was hoping to snag a Stanley #50 or similar plow plane on eBay at a price I can afford (no luck). I'm signed up for Woodworking in America in October and have mapped out how I can take every single class on hand tools and hand tool techniques being offered.

It's happened. I've become a "Neanderthal" of woodworking. I prefer to use hand tools and will turn to them for all but the worst drudgery (unless I'm terribly late getting that shadow box done and push comes to shove). And if anyone asks me why, I just tell them to blame it on The Schwarz.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Making a bradawl

Last weekend I took a great workshop with Frank Klausz. One of the fascinating hand tool skills he demonstrated was using a bradawl to start holes for screws prior to drilling the complete hole. I've read about bradawls in a number of woodworking books and it was on my list of tools to acquire. But after seeing how quick and effective it was for accurately locating holes (especially for hinge screws, where exact placement is very important), I was much more interested in trying one out (while Frank demonstrated using one, we students didn't end up with time to try it out).

I was reminded of the bradawl this last week when I was working on the cross braces for a warping mill I'm making for a friend (For those interested, a warping mill or warping reel as it's sometime's called is a device used by hand weavers to create the warp - the yarn fixed onto a loom through which the weft yarn is woven). As I was looking at the mortises I'd chiseled out for some hinges used on the braces, I remembered watching Frank take a cheap, plastic-handled awl and give a mini-lecture on the proper shape of a bradawl. He described how the tip of the awl should be triangular and then described and demonstrated grinding the round point into a triangle using the side of a grinding wheel. As he was working, he said the high-speed grinder was not an ideal way to form the point; using a file would be just as fast and not risk burning the steel.

At that point, I remembered an old awl I'd inherited from my dad, which was originally my grandfather's. I've actually inherited a couple of items which might be awls or might be ice picks. One of them was short and stubby, with a wooden handle of just the right size to fit into your hand, and with a rounded end. Going over to the rack where I keep it, I eyed it and decided maybe it had been a bradawl all along, or maybe it was an ice pick that had been worn down over them. Either way, it looked like it might make a good bradawl. A few minutes with a hand file and I was ready to try it out.

My new bradawl works amazingly well. The tip is very sharp and it's easy to place it in exactly the spot you want. A few twists and you have the start of a hole exactly where you want it. For fun, I then chucked a drill bit into my Millers Falls #2 hand drill and drilled the holes using it. I really enjoyed how quickly I could work and how quietly my work went. As time goes by, I find I'm gravitating more and more to hand tools whenever using them won't dramatically slow me down. I'll never give up power tools, but as one man building single items I'm finding many hand tool techniques to be more than fast enough and much more enjoyable than turning on the big power tools. And now I have a bradawl that is helping me build better and enjoy the process more.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Workshop with Frank Klausz - Day 2

The second day of the workshop with Frank Klausz was, if anything, more amazing than the first. Frank demonstrated such breadth and depth of knowledge my head is still buzzing with thoughts and ideas. And I haven't been this enthused about going into the workshop and learning (also known as making mistakes) in a long time.

I had several revelatory moments on Sunday. One of them was when Frank demonstrated how to use a smoother plane to fair the top of the jewelry box we were all making. The speed at which he created the curve on both end grain and long grain was incredible. Even more amazing was the way he kept talking throughout the process, explaining the "why" of what he was doing as well as the "what". I was literally riveted to the spot as I tried to absorb not only what he said but how he did it. Frank pointed out many times during the weekend how he was positioning his body, and how he was moving his body in order to achieve the results he wanted.

Another amazing moment was when I went to a workbench and started fairing the top of my box. As a recovering perfectionist, it was a truly frightening moment when I first put the WWII era 4 1/2 smoother down and started shaping the lid. I bought the plane about a month ago and have been cleaning it up and tuning it ever since. Would it perform well? Would it gouge the lid and ruin my project? Would it perform well but the user (me) completely screw things up? Happily, all went well, and a while later I put down my the block plan I had used to finalize the curves on the top. After checking with Frank to make sure he felt I was ready to do so, I moved on to scraping out the skips I'd dug into the top with an errant swipe of the smoother and then started sanding.

Perhaps my best moment came shortly after Frank used the thin-kerf blade to cut apart my box, freeing the lid. As he looked over the hand-cut dovetails exposed by the separation of the lid, he complimented me on the tightness of the joints. His compliment was completely unexpected and blew me away. Frank is the kind of craftsman I aspire to one day be. He is so highly skilled that even an amateur like myself can recognize his skills. And even more importantly for me, he clearly cares about his craft.

Frank's website has a quote: "If you're going to do it, do it well." Frank clearly lives that quote. He regularly lamented the results he achieved on building his own sample box, despite it's quality and the fact that he was building it in odd spare moments while he wasn't instructing all of us. And he would regularly stop the entire class to instruct us on proper technique after witnessing someone doing something wrong. You might think this would make students resent him, but if our workshop is any indication the opposite is true. His passion for teaching skills was so obvious I don't think anyone took offense. By halfway through the first day, many of us regularly joked with each other about when Frank would use something we were doing as an anti-example. His passion for teaching us good craftsmanship was so infectious that I think it brought out the best in each of us.

If you ever have the chance to take a class from Frank, I think you should jump on it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Learning Dovetails with Frank Klausz

I'm taking a workshop with Frank Klausz on building a hand-dovetailed jewelry box. The first day was today, and what a day it was. I met Frank for the first time last night at a dinner held by the St. Louis Woodworker's Guild for those attending Frank's workshop this weekend. The dinner was thoroughly enjoyable, and Frank proved to be a wonderful storyteller and just as opinionated as some people who had met him had described.

Today was a whirlwind of learning, lecture, skill building, and work, with the not-so occasional mistake mixed in. Frank was knowledgeable, entertaining, helpful, and demanding throughout. I learned so much I fear I'll forget half of it before it sinks in. Most of all, I learned how hard it is to cut good dovetails by hand, and surprised myself with better results than I'd expected (though still less than I wanted). So far, my box is turning out pretty well, though I fear a couple of my dovetails will have unsightly gaps that can't really be fixed. But Frank was helping some folks with their boxes today by cutting small wedges from mahogany and filling gaps with them. So perhaps my gaps can be repaired as well.

When I came home tonight, I spent almost three hours working on my chisels and plane blades. Over an hour of that time was spent on the blade of the 4 1/2 Bailey plane (WWII era) I bought off of eBay a few weeks ago. What an absolute disaster that bottom of that blade is. Even after an hour of hard effort with waterstones (starting with 220 grit), there are two spots of pitting I couldn't get rid of. One is on the left side about three-quarters of an inch from the edge, so I'm not so worried about that one for now. The other one is right behind the edge and concerns me. I suspect that as I re-grind my primary angle and remove material into that area, the result will be automatic 'nicks' in the edge as the blade is ground into the pitting. I'll ask Frank about it tomorrow and may end up ordering a new blade from Hock Tools.

I also discovered today that a 15000 grit stone produces a wonderful mirror shine on metal. After Frank touched up one of my chisels with his 8000 and 15000 grit stones and it was amazing. I mentioned to him I was unaware of the 15000 grit stones, and he said I could get the same results by building a slurry which included swarf from the blade. With that slurry and a light touch to let the swarf polish the blade, he said I'd do just as well. I tried it when I got home this evening and discovered that there's a reason the 'starter' 8000 grit stone I have was so inexpensive. Now that I've worked my way past the surface of the stone (over the last few years), I've hit an area of the stone that contains much larger pieces of grit than 8000. It took me a while to figure out why I could not longer get a mirror-like polish on the backs of chisels or plane blades, and it was a real let-down. So it looks like I'll be buying an 8000 grit waterstone as soon as I can afford to do so. Unfortunately, the 15000 grit stones are about $50 each, so I'll have to live with 8000 grit for a while.

One of my favorite moments was when someone was asking Frank why we needed to make sure the inside of the tree was face-up on the lid for our jewelry box. Frank had stressed this many times during the day ("The inside of the tree is the outside of the box"). He explained how placing the inside of the tree makes for a better joint if we wanted our work to last a hundred years and not just twenty years. I confess that when he asked if anyone in the room cared if their work lasted a hundred years, I was the only one to say "I do". Maybe I just said it so no one else had to.

I am really looking forward to the second day of the workshop tomorrow. I imagine I'll learn just as much as I did today. And hopefully I won't make any huge mistakes.