Blunt Instruments: Get Woodworking Week

Tom Iovino, author of the excellent blog Tom’s Workbench, pronounced this “Get Woodworking Week”. Bloggers taking part in it are writing posts intended to inspire potential beginning woodworkers to get started, and to answer basic foundational questions about the craft.  It’s been a great idea, and the posts have covered an amazing breadth of knowledge and experience.

If you look around the internet, you’ll see an enormous amount written about the craft of woodworking, and the one topic discussed more than any other seems to be the Arts and Mysteries of sharpening.  Oilstones, waterstones, strops, grinders, sandpaper, bevel angles, back bevels, no back bevels, square edges, cambered edges, rounded backs… the sheer number of options is overwhelming.  I’m going to stay off that particular subject (too late, I know). I’m going to talk about tools to beat on other tools.

So let’s talk about the lowly hammer. Not always something you think of as a primary woodworking tool, but they’ve come a ways since a piece of rock tied to a stick. But that’s where they started:

hammer (n.): O.E. hamor “hammer,” from P.Gmc. *hamaraz (cf. O.S. hamur, M.Du., Du. hamer, O.H.G. hamar, Ger. Hammer. The O.N. cognate hamarr meant “stone, crag” (common in English place names), and suggests an original sense of “tool with a stone head,” from PIE *akmen “stone, sharp stone used as a tool”.

It occurred to me recently that I actually have a lot of different hammers and mallets involved in my woodworking. I’m not going to discuss framing hammers, masonry hammers, sledges, or other carpentry- and construction-related tools.  But I have several smaller tools I’ve picked up over the years that have become important to the process.

Plane Setting Hammer: This little guy is a bubinga-handled hammer with a brass head. Very simple, really… a piece of brass rod drilled out for the handle, which is held in place by a wedge. The handle was cut on on a band saw, and shaped on a belt sander. It has only one function: setting the blades on my Krenov-style planes.  Brass hammers are far less likely to mar other surfaces that they accidentally come in contact with than steel hammers, and the weight is right for the purpose.

Dead-Blow Mallet: This lovely, delicate tool is generally a two- or three-pound hammer, filled with shifting weights (usually birdshot or other small lead balls).  The weights move with the blow, and put all the impact into the stroke instead of losing half of it into rebound.  I’ve seen them made of wood with leather pads, but the cheap plastic and rubberized ones work fine, and won’t deform work if they slip. They’re used for assembling joinery and other fairly heavy tasks.  Great for seating large tenons into joints (like workbench construction).

Brass Bridge City JH-1 Hammer: Another small brass hammer, useful for a dozen things like setting planes and small joint work.  This is my token Bridge City tool, and about the only one I can justify buying.  Beautiful engraved head, handle is hickory. eBay is a wonderful thing sometimes.

Small claw hammer: Made by Craftsman. Honestly, I don’t use it very often – I don’t do much nailed work, but occasionally I do need to remove small brads or something. A Warrington hammer would be a better choice, but this one belonged to my grandfather, so I keep it around.  If you’ve ever dropped a large claw hammer on something made of wood, you’ll understand why I don’t keep one in the tool cabinet.

Veritas Cabinetmaker’s Mallet: I love this one.  Brass head with replaceable hardwood inserts, so if they deform over time, you can drill the old ones out and insert new ones. The faces are angles so they stay flat to the surface on impact, avoiding any half-moon shaped marks from striking at the wrong angle.  I glued a thick leather pad to one face specifically to use it for setting holdfasts on my bench. The mallet is the perfect weight and size for that. It hangs from a loop on one leg of my bench, and is never far away from my work.

Veritas Journeyman’s Brass Mallet: Designed for carving work and detail work with chisels and gouges. Gripping it just below the heavy brass head lends a lot of control to its use, and makes you very aware of the amount of force you’re using.  The round head actually helps avoid off-center blows on the tool.  For delicate work, this is my choice for butt chisels and details.

The Big Daddy: I can’t say too much about this one. It was the first hand tool I ever made, and has been completely rebuilt after an unfortunate explosion.  This is really my go-to mallet for about everything – assembly, joinery, chisels, everything. It’s made of rock maple with mesquite inserts (originally walnut, but nothing lasts quite forever).  It was made for my hand, my angle of work, and I wouldn’t part with it.  If I had time to rescue one thing from my tool cabinet in a fire, this would be it.

It’s also one of the best reasons to get started woodworking that I know. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I made it, and it’s one of my favorite tools.  This simple mallet gave me confidence to do a lot more woodworking in general, and toolmaking in particular. There’s something about making a simple tool that you use every day that will make you reach for it above all others.

Ross Henton

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Wicked Cool… and How Knot to Make Vise Handles

I read several woodworking magazines. Shop Notes gets browsed and filed, Woodsmith gets read in more detail, Popular Woodworking I read almost cover-to-cover, Wood magazine gets read (mostly), Fine Woodworking I pick up off the newsstand occasionally. The late, (and by me) lamented Woodworking – the finest of them all- gets read again and again and again, and resides in its entirety on my iPad. I look at projects that might be interesting, read the technique articles and tool reviews, and usually extract some things worth keeping. The downside of this armchair-woodworking is that I occasionally find something that is way too cool to not build as soon as I have a chance, no matter what other projects I’m behind on.

A good example of this was something I stumbled on in a back issue of Popular Woodworking (October 2005).  An article by Samuel Peterson called Build an Oil Wicke.  Drop-everything-and-go-build.

If you’ve used hand planes for any length of time, you’ve probably discovered that it helps a great deal if you keep the sole of the plane slightly lubricated.  Some people keep an oily rag handy. I’ve seen some woodworkers with a block of paraffin wax that they swipe over the sole of the plane occasionally.  An oil wicke (or plane wicke) is a beautifully archaic tool – a can or box with a rag soaked in oil.  Before planing and every few strokes, you pull the plane backwards across the rag, and it lightly oils the surface.  It helps prevent chatter, lessens the friction in planing, and helps get you through abrupt ‘catching’ in hard woods.

The article recommended using a tin can inset in a block of wood – and the author had a very cool old Kayes oil can he used, with a removable lid.  I couldn’t find anything but a tuna fish can.  That was out.  Then I remembered a post on The Art of Manliness (one of my favorite blogs), called 22 Manly Ways to Reuse an Altoids Tin. I had one handy (Ginger, of course), and decided it would be perfect for #23.

I had a pretty hefty rectangular scrap of mesquite in the bin left over from the Roubo du Garage. That was ideal, because I wanted the wicke to be heavy enough that it wouldn’t try to slide around the bench in use.  I sawed the top third off the block, and routed out the openings to hold the two pieces, leaving the bottom of the tin protruding about 1/8″ above the block.  (No, I didn’t route out the recesses by hand, and if you’ve ever worked in mesquite, you know why.)  I glued the two pieces in with epoxy, and when finished setting, the lid snaps into place pretty tightly.  I cut the beveled sides of the box, and shaped it with a smoothing plane and the belt sander.  The handle is a piece of scrap left over from the recent picture frame (wine stoppers, box handles, and I’ve still got a couple of feet left over. Who knows?). One coat of danish oil, and a pass through the Beall Wood Buffer.

The article recommended using raw linseed oil (not boiled; it’s a combustion risk) or mineral oil. I have a bottle of camellia oil I use to help prevent rust, and decided to try that.  Not only does it work, it works so beautifully that I had to be careful to hang on to the plane.  One swipe backwards, ten strokes, swipe again.  I’m completely converted, and the wicke looks good enough that I can put it in my tool cabinet without wincing whenever I see it.

Since that went so smoothly (sorry), I decided to piddle around on another shop project I’ve been putting off. One of the problems with woodworking is that it’s self-perpetuating – I tend to spend as much time on small projects for the shop as I do actually making other stuff. 

The handle for my Veritas sliding tail vise is either soft maple or poplar or some other innocuous white wood, and I decided that I wanted to replace it with a mesquite handle to match the other mesquite vise hardware on the Roubo.  Mesquite doweling isn’t exactly available at Lowe’s (surprise, surprise).

I grabbed another scrap of mesquite, milled it square, and clamped it in the vise.  A few minutes with a plane (sliding gracefully thanks to the oil wicke) and a spokeshave, and I had a dowel – even round enough to pass the “roll across the workbench” test.  Beautiful grain; it had a large knot in the middle, as mesquite so often does.  I polished it, screwed the ends back on, and the vise handle no longer glared at me in shining white.

I clamped up a scrap of wood, racked the vise shut, tightened it… and BAM.  The handle shattered across the knot.  D’oh.  What was I thinking? Vise handles take a lot of stress.  Stick to straight grain. <sigh> 

From tree to cutoff to vise handle to firewood.  What a journey for that little piece of mesquite. Meanwhile, it was good practice in planing dowels.

Ross Henton