A New Project

Some times you can motivate yourself, and sometimes you need a big push. Today, I decided to push myself. So, I’m planning  a new project. Specifically, the Shaker side table that was published in the September 2004 issue of Woodworking Magazine. It’s exciting and scary because I’ve never really built a piece of furniture before. A few silverware trays, a Shaker oval box, and a couple of outdoor Morris chairs but nothing that you could really keep in the house.

This project will also fulfill a need. When we purchased our bedroom furniture a few years ago, we could only afford one night stand. My wife needed it more than I did, so the floor and my dresser have been filling in over on my side of the bed. Time to get the woodworking books off the floor and my clock where I can see it without raising my head in the middle of the night.

The original table was made of cherry with poplar for most of the drawer parts. This one will use white oak for the legs and front rails and either walnut or cherry for the top and aprons. Cherry preferably, but I might not have enough of that on hand. Either should give a nice contrast to the white oak. This project will take a while, so don’t expect daily posts on its progress. It will be pretty busy on the home front between now and then so it may be a while before anything else gets put up here. Hopefully, I can push myself into action soon.


The Bumbling Apprentice

Posted in Projects | Leave a comment

Woodworking vs. Farming

My father has been a farmer all of his life. Woodworking, metalworking, electricity, diesel mechanics, there isn’t much he can’t turn his hand to if the circumstances require it. So when he said he could use some help fixing some barn doors I promptly volunteered. He doesn’t ask for help often, and when he does it’s usually a good opportunity to learn something.

So, barn doors. Woodworking! Yaaay! I’ve helped Dad with barn doors before and  my thoughts turned to the tools I should bring. I figured a framework tied together with half lap joints with either boards or tin nailed over the face was the likely scenario. I grabbed a 1 inch framing chisel, my router plane, a speed square, and my homemade dogwood mallet.

When I arrived at what we have always called The Big Barn, it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t prepared for what Dad had in mind. It wasn’t the doors that were the problem, it was the doorways. Termites and the increasing size of farm equipment called for some upgrades and some adjustments.

Right away, Dad sends me up into the loft next to the first doorway. He climbs up a ladder on the outside and tells me we are going to remove a board. Ok, I’m thinking take a hammer and remove some nails; a pry bar at the most. I hadn’t counted on ninety year old seasoned white oak. My Dad had. He brought a reciprocating saw up the ladder and cut the nails away from between the board and the post.  Obviously, I’m not thinking big enough at this point. A similar treatment at the other end of this board and the top of our doorway is wide open.

Next, was a job I thought I could handle. We had taken a door off it’s hinges so as to put in new screw hooks. Once they were installed and the door mounted, we discovered that the door wouldn’t close fully because it was binding against a board. So I take my one inch framing chisel and and start pecking away at it. It was 3/4″ thick and we needed to take off about an inch and a half of material over a distance of around a foot and a half. My progress wasn’t fast enough for my Dad. The next thing I know, he comes up beside me and says, “Here. Try this,” and hands me a 9lb sledge hammer while he holds a boys axe against the wood. So I hit the axe, and about six or seven blows has most of the material trimmed down. It’s pretty ugly, but the door is now just shy of closing. A little “fine” work with my framing chisel and the door was completely functional; not pretty, but it opened and closed properly.

Afterwards, as I was driving home, it crossed my mind that there is a big difference between the craftsman’s aesthetic and functionality. My Dad didn’t need anything fancy. It had to protect the machinery from the weather and contain the cattle when needed. It didn’t need to look Baroque, Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts, or Shaker. The results had to be ready in the brief window of time between finishing a new fence  and tagging cattle. My approach to repairing the barn was the wrong one. It needed to be fixed, not fancy.

But I figure that I probably need to mix a little farming into my woodworking. A 9lb sledge hammer and an axe might be a little extreme for my needs, but a couple of large chisels and a hefty mallet in the shop might speed things along a bit for certain procedures. Also, I have an increased respect for white oak. Driving a nail into seasoned white oak is work. I expect it will be in one of my projects before too long.

It was a good day.


The Bumbling Apprentice

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Six of One, Half a Dozen of a Dead Horse

Christopher Schwarz, the editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, has again posted another intriguing blog post. This one is about the best wood for chisel handles. I posted a response, and I’m content with what I said, but the more I think about the question he posed an answer to it doesn’t really seem helpful.

In the interest of that full disclosure thingy that everyone seems obligated to say before they give an opinion, I have to say that I have met Christopher Schwarz briefly at a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event a couple of years ago and that we have exchanged a couple emails in the past four or five years in response to his blog postings, but Mr. Schwarz wouldn’t recognize or remember me if he had to pick me out of a lineup. Oh, and I subscribe to his magazine; for now.

Mr. Schwarz’s question is essentially this: What is the best wood or woods for a chisel handle and what is the scientific basis for that designation and what else can you do to keep a handle from splitting? After careful consideration an answer became evident. It depends, none, and not much.

Commonsense dictates that a tougher wood, such as hickory, makes a good chisel handle. It takes a lot of punishment, is readily available, and is fairly easy to work. I don’t have any scientific information to bear this out, but do I need it? Hickory has been a preferred wood for tool handles for hundreds of years, so that’s good enough for me. Will it split while you are using your chisel? Eventually, yes. What can I do to prevent it splitting? Choose clear, straight grained wood and maybe glue some leather on the handle for your mallet to bang against, but otherwise it will split eventually.  Locally, you might have a better alternative to hickory, such as osage orange or persimmon. You might have a worse alternative, such as red oak, but it probably will get the job done. A good piece of red oak will outlast a bad piece of hickory, so we shouldn’t get caught up in which species is supposedly the “best”. The best is really the best available to you at the time, and I can live with that.

On one level, I don’t want to know the answer to Mr. Schwarz’s questions. It will probably lead to a run on whatever wood gets chosen. Everybody will run out and buy wood “x” to make their chisel handles from rather than letting nature take its course and let their old handles wear out. It might even lead to an endangered species. The Schwarz Effect has been documented.

I’m reminded of a line from an old book I once read about woodworking. It might have been Randolph Johnston’s The Book of Country Crafts. In it the author describes making a handle for some tool and says something to the effect that everyone talks about the superiority of hickory, but “we will ‘make do’ with ash”. You can practically here the disdain in the author’s voice that people would turn their noses up at a perfectly serviceable wood like ash just because something else is believed to be superior. Again, the best wood is the best wood you have available. Support your local sawmill.

I hope Mr. Schwarz finds a satisfactory answer to his question. Scientific progress is a good thing. But there are some questions that lead to dead ends, though they seem important at the time. In the movie The Name of the Rose, the reason that the main character, William of Baskerville, is at this monastery in the 13th century was to try to debate the answer to the question did Jesus own His own clothes.  On one level it has a bearing on the vows of poverty the Franciscan monks and others took, but compared to the rest of Jesus’ teaching and influence it seems a pretty minor point. That’s how I see this question.

Posted in Rants | Leave a comment

Saw Sharpening….and Fear.

As promised, the saw vise was completed a few weeks ago. It has made life easier. It works well as is, but a few minor modifications might make it better. A couple of strips of leather glued to the inside of the jaws might give them a little more grip, for example, but it is a vast improvement over the former arrangement, which was nothing. Once I had figured out the error of my ways, (read twice, assemble once, check), it went together painlessly. Quality screws made a difference. For the first time ever I bought and used some square drive screws from McFeely’s. What a revelation that was! They went in effortlessly and not a single cam out! Cheap screws are banished from my garage, er, shop forever.

Now it was time to do some saw sharpening. The old saws were brought down off their hanging hooks, the saw vise was attached to the bench, and the saw files were laid out to hand. The saw that needed sharpening the most was my 14″ Disston backsaw. It gets used as a carcase saw, mostly, for making crosscuts on smaller parts in conjunction with a bench hook. It shows up on the bench quite often during a project, so it needs to be at its best. I put it in the vise, clamped it down, reached for the appropriate file, and… slowly felt my confidence draining away. Filing a saw suddenly seemed like a daunting process. Ruining the saw was not an option. A dull saw is next to useless. This was the horns of a dilemma.

I’ve read several articles and watched a few videos on saw sharpening. It didn’t look too difficult. There is a technical/scientific aspect to sharpening a saw. Fleam, rake, slope, pitch, gullet depth, and set are all things to consider when sharpening.

Fleam is a fancy word for the bevel angle on the teeth of a saw. Rip teeth are filed at 90 degrees and are said to have no fleam.  Crosscut teeth are typically filed with a fleam angle between 15 and 20 degrees.

Rake is essentially how far the teeth angle forward (for Western style saws) into the wood. The more rake a saw has the more aggressive the cut. Too  much rake causes an ugly cut. Not enough and the cut takes a long time to complete.

Slope is the angle of the gullet of the teeth that the file makes when sharpening the saw. More slope can provide a sharper tooth and more room for saw dust, but it can cause tearing in the cut.

Pitch is also known as teeth per inch or points per inch. The more tpi, the finer the cut, but the slower the cut, too. Saws are often categorized based on tpi and whether they are crosscut or rip saws.

Gullet depth is important because deeper gullets reduce jamming by accommodating more sawdust. Gullet depth is relative to tpi, however.

Finally, set is when the teeth are offset alternately on the saw which causes the teeth to cut a kerf wider than the actual sawplate. This provides clearance for the sawplate and reduces the likelihood of the saw jamming in the cut.

Depending on which of these elements you tweak effects your saw’s performance. Some arrangements work better for softer woods, some are best for hardwoods. If you work with both, a compromise is generally the way to go unless you have a bunch of saws stockpiled and you can configure them for specific tasks.

Oh, and you can’t forget about consistency, either. Every source available says how important it is to use the same number of strokes on each tooth when filing the saw. The teeth need to be the same height.

So now all of this stuff is rattling around in my head and I can think of a million ways to screw up my old Disston backsaw. Paralysis by analysis is what it’s called. Over thinking. Fretting over making that first stroke with the file.

The file? It occurred to me, at this point, that I was being an idiot. Grade A prime cut blue ribbon idiot with gold oak leaf clusters surrounded by sparklers and sequins. I know how to use a file. Need to sharpen an axe? Give me a file and look out. Need a sharp machete? I’m your guy.  Looking at the saw in the vise brought back memories of tobacco knives (which look like a hatchet),  that were often made from saw blades; you often found them still with the saw teeth on them. I can have one of those razor sharp in under a minute. So what the heck am I worrying about?

So I picked up the file and I put it to the first tooth. The first stroke was light. Too light. The second stroke was heavier, but needed a bit more. The third stroke was about right. The tooth still looked like it needed work. Three more strokes and it looked….good. So I did the next tooth, alternating, of course, on a crosscut saw, and it looked good, too. Once that side was completed, the saw was turned around and the other teeth were sharpened. Oddly enough, none of those technical considerations like fleam, gullet depth, etc. seemed to matter. Sticking with the original configuration, or as close as possible, was the plan. When the saw first came into my possession it looked like it hadn’t been used much. The last time it was probably sharpened was just before it left the factory, so it didn’t need any set added to it.

Once the second side was done, it was time for the moment of truth; taking a scrap piece of poplar to the bench hook and testing the saw. It cut fast and straight. It did it again on the next cut, and again on the next cut into red oak. Still fast and straight. The only issue seemed to be that the cut wasn’t as clean as expected. For a first time saw sharpening, though, it wasn’t bad at all when compared with my new Lie-Nielsen and Veritas saws. After a couple of hours at the saw vise there wasn’t a dull saw in the shop.

I was  happy and upset at the same time. Happy that this had turned out to be less of a challenge than I thought, upset that I hadn’t tried this sooner. Again, over thinking had kept me from trying to do this for too long, but really the problem was not recognizing a skill I already had: filing. If you can operate a file, you can sharpen a saw. Try it.


The Bumbling Apprentice

Posted in Tools | Leave a comment

The Lemonade Business

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. When I was a boy, my family often spent a few weeks each summer in Rhode Island visiting my mother’s relatives. It is my contention that Rhode Island is one of the best states to eat in. Easily top five. The bakeries alone are worth the visit. Scialo Brothers Bakery on Federal Hill, Zaccagnini’s Pastries in Cranston, La Salle Bakery on Admiral St. I gain ten pounds just thinking about it. But the greatest delight of my boyhood sojourns in Rhode Island was Del’s Frozen Lemonade. An absolutely dreamy concoction of icy deliciousness. Not too sweet, not too tart, and you truly relish nibbling on the tiny pieces of lemon. When life handed Del a lemon, magic happened. Ever since then, I told myself if I had to go into the lemonade business I hoped it would be a Del’s lemonade stand.

The other day, I found myself in the lemonade business, and what a business it is. It all started with a plan; specifically the saw vise plan published in Popular Woodworking Magazine by Bob Lang in their June 2010 edition. I have acquired a few vintage saws over the past few months and really need to learn how to sharpen them. As luck would have it, this article came out at just the right time.  Or so I thought.

Everything was going swimmingly. I had some very handy scrap red oak and poplar laying around begging to be made into a saw vise. The parts came quickly to shape and, though I don’t typically worry about appearance for a shop appliance, the saw cuts and planing looked more neat and workman like than usual. Optimism was high, as a result.

Then disaster. Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, at one time or another will tell you to “measure twice, cut once”. Well, nobody ever tells you to “read twice, assemble once”, even though they should. As you’ve guessed, I misread the instructions. When Mr. Lang told me to “start the assembly by attaching one of the upright boards to the base with glue and screws” (I’m paraphrasing), I failed to notice that the upright was attached by placing it in front of the base piece in a long grain to long grain butt joint connection. What I did was place the upright on top of the base piece and put my screws through the bottom into the upright’s end grain. Not an ideal piece of joinery.

I figured out I had goofed when I placed the two brace pieces on the base and they stuck out over the back edge by 3/4″. Well, I tried to fix it, but one of the screw heads torqued out. So in frustration I left it on the bench and sought solace in watching baseball, which was no solace because that night the Cincinnati Reds lost to the Houston Astros.

It wasn’t until the next day when I was trying to figure out a way to disassemble the two pieces while doing the least amount of damage that an idea hit me. If I left the two saw vise pieces attached it looked a lot like the beginnings of a bench hook.  For those of you who don’t know, a bench hook is an appliance that allows you to brace a smaller piece of wood on the bench to make crosscut saw cuts. Often bench hooks have an accompanying piece made the same way, but without a board on top to brace against, so you can lay longer pieces on the bench and still cut one end on a level. I had a bench hook, but no outrigger. When I set the messed up saw vise components on the bench hook, it was a perfect match! A few saw cuts and a couple of passes with a block plane and I had my outrigger. Because all the outrigger has to do is support and not have to resist the strain of sawing, the less than ideal joinery used on this piece won’t matter so much.  Now I have one less appliance to build, (the saw vise will be next, I promise!), nothing went to waste, I learned that my local home center sells crappy screws, and I’ll read twice and assemble once in the future.

So that’s how I got in the lemonade business. Oh, and if you don’t live in a place that has a Del’s Frozen Lemonade store you can order the kits from their website. Just be sure to chop up a lemon, rind and all, and add it to the mix. It makes all the difference in the world.


The Bumbling Apprentice

Posted in Projects | Leave a comment

The Tools You Have

Today, I wanted to address a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I LOVE tools. Especially good ones. If you like working by hand, you probably do, too.  I get as excited as a teenage boy with a new Victoria’s Secret catalog whenever I peruse the Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, Tools For Working Wood, and other websites. Ebay has had me drooling like a teething baby in the past. I firmly believe good tools allow you to do good work.


Sometimes the quest for tools becomes a hindrance.  It’s T.A.F., or Tools As Fetish. People get the idea that they can’t create truly good woodworking without the “right” tools.  Their favorite saying is, “if only I had tool ‘X’ I could make some great furniture.”

I’ve heard people gripe about the former PBS series The New Yankee Workshop; saying “if I had $45,000 worth of power equipment I could make all that furniture, too”. My response usually is, “Ok, what have you made with the tools you’ve got?” Ultimately, Norm Abrams could have made every project during the complete run of the series with five saws, a set of bench chisels, a few hand planes, a hammer, and a few screw drivers. Norm is that good. Admittedly, it would have taken him a very long time, but Norm has the know-how to do it. My point is that tools don’t make furniture, people do. ( I know this line is taken from the gun lobby stylebook, but, hey, it’s a good line.) The finest Karl Holtey infill plane or the latest table saw from Delta are very expensive doorstops and paperweights unless a person uses them.

Would I like a brand new Lie-Nielsen #8 jointer plane with the corrugated base or an Eccentric Toolworks dovetail saw? Yes. Do I have them? No. My jointer is an old Stanley #7 made around World War I and my dovetail saw is a Veritas that cost me $65. They both work fine. They have helped me make some nice projects, and some not so nice and that’s my fault, not my tools’.

Usually the tool you have is good enough. Learn to use it correctly and the quality of the tool matters less. That’s not to say that there is no difference between the typical schlock that floods our hardware stores and home centers and the many fine tool makers at work today. My old ’50s era Disston carcase saw is a good tool. My Lie-Nielsen tenon saw is a better tool but the Disston gets the job done. I can cut to a line equally well with both.

So, don’t let TAF stop you from woodworking. Get the best tools you can. Be open to refurbishing old tools, save money for new tools, and practice with what you have because your experiences with lesser tools will only make you appreciate the good ones that much more.

The Bumbling Apprentice

Posted in Rants | Leave a comment

Project: Toy Bar

My wife asked me a question the other day. Not exactly news, I know. But this one pertained to woodworking. She asked if I could make a bar that would extend across our daughter’s pack and play so we could hang dangly toys for her to play with. I said yes.

Originally, the thinking was to take some 3/4″ flat stock red oak that was laying in the scrap bin and glue and screw some blocks to it to keep it in place on the pack and play. Easy-peasey-lemon-squeezey.

But then I began to think that some of the dangly toys have velcro ends and some have plastic ends that kind of clip onto the carry handle on a baby car seat. The board I had in mind would be hard on that kind of clip. So now I needed a way to put those kind of toys on and take them off.

What I came up with is a length of round stock with two round caps; one fixed, one adjustable but locking. The locking adjustable cap inspiration came from an article by Dean Jansa in the December 2006 edition of Popular Woodworking about making a wedged marking gauge. Having made one based on that article, I knew that the wedge mechanism held very tightly.

Because this project was for my infant daughter, safety was a big issue. No sharp edges or pointy bits allowed. A 1″ diameter, 36″ length of dowel that was in the scrap bin seemed to be the answer. I  just needed my endcaps to be round, too, for safety. A scrap piece of 3/4″ red oak fit the bill.

This is the end result.

First, I laid out the cuts needed for the end caps. I figured 2 and 1/2″ would be plenty, but looking back on it now 3″ might have been better. The piece of red oak was close to the finished size I needed. This is the first cut.

The first cut leaves me enough material to make two end caps. After cutting the pieces to size, time for more layout.

Here, the center has been found by drawing diagonal lines from opposing corners. Using a compass, a 1″ circle was made to show the path of the dowel. Next, the path of the wedge needs to be determined. I didn’t get real scientific with the angle of the wedge path. I eyeballed to the point where it “looked good”. Using the slot in the blade of my bevel gauge, I traced the parallel lines across the face as a guide for my brace and bit, which you can see in the next photo.

A 3/8″ dowel is going to become the wedge, so using a #6 auger bit and my trusty 8″ Yankee brace, it only takes a moment to bore the hole. I managed to do this all by eye, keeping track of my layout lines and make sure my brace is 90 degrees to the direction of my bit. This is easier than it sounds, but it does take a little practice. A sharp auger helps, too.

Here the center has been bored most of the way. The tiny hole in the center is the exit hole of the lead screw of the #16 auger. The piece has been flipped over to finish boring from this side. Doing this leaves a much cleaner hole and eliminates tear out.

Here is the end result. Not bad, for a first attempt. Time to shape the wedge.

Shaping the wedge is fairly straight forward. I used a dovetail saw and a rasp. Saw a kerf somewhere around a quarter to halfway through the 3/8″ dowel about an inch from one end. Use the rasp to form a flat slant from your saw kerf to about a quarter inch from where you estimate the end of the wedge will stick out. The movement on your wedge will be relatively small. You want both ends to keep their full 3/8″ diameter. This makes it easier to register the position of the wedge relative to the dowel. Use extra dowel length to help position your wedge in the vice.

Test fit the wedge and cap on the dowel until you have the desired fit. A firm push of your thumb should lock the cap down tight. The next step is to make your square pieces round.

One viable rounding approach is to use a saw to cut off the sharp corners until you have a rough octagon. Use a rasp to remove those final edges. I used a farriers rasp and brought everything down to the line I had drawn using the compass to establish my circle. A farriers rasp really hogs off wood quickly. To tidy up I used a spokeshave. This is the result.

To finish up, bore the hole for the dowel in the end cap that will be permanent and remove your corners until you have a circle, just like you did with the other one. Position the end cap about an inch or so down from the end of the dowel.  With the end cap held in the vice, bore a 3/8″ hole through the end cap and the dowel. Add glue and pin the end cap in place with a dowel and let dry. Once every thing is dry, take it to your crib, pack and play, etc., and clamp the caps to the outside of the rails, lock your adjustable end cap, and your ready to go.

It seems sturdy enough and my wife has no problem operating the wedge mechanism. We’ll keep an eye on it for a while and post about the results. Who knows. Maybe the baby won’t like it.

Posted in Projects | Leave a comment