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.