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.