The Blog’s Namesake’s Little Brother

One of the first (and still best) hand tools I made was my bowsaw… courtesy of the excellent class at the Dallas Woodcraft store. Howard Hale’s bowsaw class was great, but it’s sadly been discontinued due to unavailability of the blades. But the design was great, and has some distinct advantages over some traditional designs. The blade is fairly big – about 1 1/4″ wide – and works for everything from breaking down stock to cutting dovetails.

But sometimes, I’ve longed for something a little finer – more like a coping saw. Let’s face it; commercial coping saws either A) suck or B) are waaaay too expensive titanium-framed creatures. Gramercy Tools makes an excellent small bowsaw ($150), and sells the hardware separately… just handle pins and blades. The blades are a little unusual; they’re 12″ coping saw blades.

But the construction plans are kind of a pain. It calls for a loose-tenon mount of the stretcher to the frame, and it’s fiddly and often unstable. There’s a tradeoff between stability and flexibility. I found the mount used in my larger bowsaw both easier and more stable, and still allows the right amount of tension. This is the original, and was the namesake of this blog:

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Its little brother is for tight curves, but is essentially the same design: U-shaped joints for the stretcher, but with the narrow blade and excellent mounting hardware from Gramercy tools.

wood-11-of-17This is a five-piece project: two side frames (walnut), the stretcher and handles (walnut and ash), and the tensioning pin (laminated ash and padauk). I traced the original frames and printed an 80% size copy to build from. It was a couple of hours work making the parts on a bandsaw and spindle sander.

wood-10-of-17The handles are octagonal, and the pins from Gramercy are set in with epoxy. I don’t really care for the traditional round handles. These just fit my hand better. (And I steadfastly refuse to own a lathe; all I’d do is make toothpicks all day.) One octagon cut on the table saw, cut into long and short handles, then evened up with a plane on the joinery bench I described in the last post.

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The pins turn freely in the frame. The stretcher took a slight adjustment in the depth of the joint to allow the right amount of tension to be applied.

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The tensioner is wound with some nylon cord. This design will take a lot of tension – you’ll have no problem at all keeping the blade at whatever tension you’d like, and don’t have to worry about stressing the frame. As usual, the parts were finished in a few minutes on the Beall Wood Buff. I should point out that every hand tool I’ve made has been finished the same way, and I’ve never had to retouch one of them – planes, handles, saws, anything.

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The result… smaller, lighter – weighs almost nothing – and turns on a dime.

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And it works as advertised: the 16 tpi blade turns a 1/4″ circle easily, and will likely go much smaller without complaining.

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This is a real keeper. Six hours to make, $25.95 for the pins and three blades, and a trip to the scrap bin for the wood. This one goes front and center in the tool cabinet. And I think my other coping saws go in the next garage sale. There is absolutely no comparison.

Today’s project was brought to you by The Paul Tillotson Trio, Erik Satie, and Bob Culbertson on Chapman Stick.

More to come. Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

September 2016

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When Humidity is Good

I may catch hell from some people about this post. It’s predictable.

Hum

After the jewelry cabinet, I really wanted to do a couple of smaller projects. I’ve had some lumber I picked up at an estate sale that I’ve hung onto for special occasions – one piece was the figured maple for the jewelry cabinet. Another piece was dark… I though maybe it was Texas Ebony, but I was way off (as you’ll see).  I decided to build a humidor.

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Yes, I smoke the occasional good cigar. (NOT cheezmo cheap stinkers.) Yes, I know I probably shouldn’t, but something else is far more likely to kill me before that does (like inhaling wood dust… more on that to follow).

The wood was very dark, dense, and close-grained. It had a slight lateral twist that had to be removed, but was too big for my little jointer by about two inches. So I set up a sled for the planer, shimmed under the warp, and ran it through several times until the first side was flat. Then flipped the board, and planed the other side to parallel.

Imagine my surprise when this was how it came out of the planer.

image (2)After scratching my head a while, I decided it might be cocobolo… also a wrong guess. So I drove a piece over to the Schmott Guys at Woodcraft, and asked. It turned out to be Bocote – something I was completely unfamiliar with. It’s a central/south American hardwood. Very dense and heavy (Janka hardness 2,010 lbf). Its hardness is similar to rock maple, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s very, very dense and heavy. But it was an absolute joy to work with.

I had decided to not make this a strictly-hand-tool project, because I wanted to get it accomplished in the short term, and I was unsure about handling this wood without some machine assistance. This was the most amazing wood I’ve ever worked with – it machined flawlessly, almost like working plastic. Like Bubinga, but smoother. After planing or sawing, it only required a light touchup with 220 grit sandpaper to bring out a flawless surface.

The box is very simple: rabbeted joinery, with an inset plywood bottom. I resawed the top into a pair of bookmatched panels.

Once completed, a pass across the table saw cut the grooves in the edges for the inlay. The inlay strips are Gaboon Ebony (which is outrageously expensive, but I was having fun).

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When the inlays were in place, I hand-planed it all flat, and rounded the edges with a block plane. A pass through the band saw cut the lid free.  Hinge installations were pretty simple – I decided not to use traditional corner hinges, because strength wouldn’t be a major issue. These brass hinges are simple insets, and stop at 110°.

 

image (6)The handle is a small cutoff of ebony, glued in place. The lining of the humidor is Spanish Cedar. This is a critical issue: Spanish Cedar has a cellular structure that retains moisture and helps prevent mold and rot, without being so aromatic as to change the taste of the cigars. The lining should be replace every few years, so the only place where it’s glued in is a couple of tack-spots on the lid and the bottom. The other pieces are just cut tightly to fit, and when the box is seasoned, the cedar swells enough to hold them tightly in place. The upper tray is a simple construction of Spanish Cedar as well.

Today’s Lesson: When you cut or sand Spanish Cedar, wear a damn respirator. Cedar is a tremendous allergen, and I sneezed for three days. Lesson noted.

I decided that this project would be a good time to experiment with something I’ve been wanting to try: I gathered up my courage and attempted French Polish.

Instructions for this are everywhere on the internet. Most of them are very similar, but I had a clear set of instructions from a class at Woodcraft (thanks, Howard) that I followed for this first attempt. Like hand-cut dovetails, I think there’s a lot more made of the process than it really merits. It’s labor-intensive, but not that difficult. Follow the directions for the shellac cut, the fiber content of the pad, and be patient and prepared to do a lot of rubbing. Having said that, I wouldn’t really want to do an irregular surface or inside corners. I can’t even figure out how that would work.image (5)

But this was the perfect project to try it out. It took about three days off and on to finish the polish, but I’m glad I tried it. And now I’m prepared to do it on something more challenging next time.

The humidity for cigar storage should be about 65-70%. I added a small Xikar digital hygrometer and humidifier inside the top lid. To season a humidor, rub down the inside with a pad dampened with distilled water 3-4 times over the first day, then close the box and let the humidity stabilize over the next 48 hours. mine is holding at about 69% at the moment.

My thanks to Scott at Woodcraft for one great piece of advice: Add one seal coat of shellac to the inside of the box before the cedar lining. That keeps the box itself from absorbing the water while it’s stabilizing, and it will go much faster. It also helps keep moisture of the joinery.

This was a great small project, and not at all difficult. I may try another one with more complex inlay and simpler wood grain next time.

More to follow. Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

February 2014

 

 

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

Christmas Doesn’t Mean December

It’s been three months of almost non-stop travel for work. I put on my shop apron, move the Christmas wreath and the ice cream freezer off my bench, and suddenly, all’s right in my world again.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I got a late start on a picture frame for Brian and Tia – but I realized I can’t actually post this until after giving it to them (I doubt either of them read this, but with my luck, they’d see it within ten minutes of posting). Did I actually have it ready before Christmas? Of course not. So between late construction, late delivery, and lots of travel, this post is a little behind schedule.

I decided to do something pretty simple. Originally, I was going to do a 1/4″ string inlay, but I realized it would be even easier to just build the frame with three strips – one 1.5″ strip of padauk, one 1/4″ strip of maple, and another 1/4″ strip of padauk. Scrap wood is a wonderful thing.

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This was simple – just ripping the strips to width, passing them through the planer, and gluing them together. The maple strip was slightly wider than the others, but it didn’t matter. It was two minutes with a jack plane to bring it all down to the same thickness.

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This is the sort of operation where the Roubo really, really shines. One end in the vise, one holdfast holding it against the bench front, and it was perfectly aligned and rigidly held for planing.

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In the past, I’d have set up the router and used it to cut the rabbet for the glass and the matte. That meant putting in the right router bit, setting the fence width, setting the bit depth, and cutting the rabbet in about three or four passes to avoid tearout – changing the bit depth each time.

This time, I cut the rabbet with my new/old Stanley #78 plane. it took less time to cut the rabbets in each frame section than it would have to set up the router in the first place. For this kind of work, I’m never going back.

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Splines for the corners were cut and planed by hand, and the finished frame got two coats of oil, one coat of sanding sealer, and two coats of lacquer. I’ll probably always do some operations by machine, like long rip cuts and stock thicknessing. I say that today, but it keeps changing… and every project, I find myself doing more handwork, not less. It’s amazing how many operations are faster by hand than by machine. Go figure.

Oh, and sometimes redefining “scrap” is worth considering. The cutoff pieces from the miters made an interesting wine stopper.

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Ross Henton

Casualties of Peace

Let hammer on anvil ring,
And the forge fire brightly shine;
Let wars rage still,
While I work with a will
At this peaceful trade of mine.

— Harry Bache Smith

Rule of thumb: If you take a mallet and beat on a heavy object long enough, eventually either the object or the mallet will break.

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The Roubo du Garage had one casualty – my mallet. I’m sentimental about it. It was the first hand tool I ever made. It was a streak of luck for me: I didn’t really know what I wanted when I made it. But it’s the perfect shape, balance, weight, face angle, length, and fit for my hand. It’s my go-to for bench chisels, mortise chisels, light to medium joinery, and every other similar task. It doesn’t drive nails, but it works for anything else that requires beating on something with a hammer-like object. It’s made out of some scrap rock maple, with a couple of small walnut inlays.

When it failed, it really, really failed. I was almost through chopping out the mortises in the Roubo when it practically exploded. I had to hunt for pieces. One of the sides split in two, and the center lamination broke through on both ends. In retrospect, I’m amazed it didn’t happen sooner. It was made from three laminations of maple, with the handle fitted through the center section. I added a couple of thin strips of walnut inlay, just for fun. It took me about an hour to make. And it was only held together with glue. As much as I’ve used it, and as hard as I’ve whacked on stuff with it, that’s a testament to the strength of Titebond.

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But it was fixable, because all the pieces fit together without any gaps or missing chunks. And if it fails again, it’ll be because it completely disintegrated. I set the pieces together and drilled two 11/32″ holes all the way through the handle. Then I glued everything together, drove two 3/8″ rived oak pegs through the holes, and clamped it up for the afternoon.

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When dry, I cleaned out the old laminations with a router plane, slightly deeper than the originals. I cut two blanks of scrap mesquite to fit the inlay slots, glued them in place, and clamped it up again. I trimmed the excess off on the band saw, and planed them flat with a block plane. The two mesquite inlays hide the pegged joinery that hold it all together. Before the handle comes lose, the pegs would have to be broken, and that ain’t gonna happen. The glue joints holding the laminations together at the ends might split, but that’s very unlikely. More likely, the wood itself would fail. And when it came apart this time, the glue joints stayed together. It failed along the wood, not the glue (which is normal). One coat of oil, a pass through the Beall wood buffer, and viola, back in business.
It’s not going to fail easily; I expect to beat on things with it for a lot more years. The end grain of the maple will take a tremendous beating without getting significantly dinged up, but sooner or later it will have to be refaced – or replaced.

It’s funny how much satisfaction I get out of picking up this simple tool. I smile every time I use it, and probably always will. That’s true of most of the tools I’ve made or restored. They have history and character like no other tools do. Making simple tools isn’t difficult, and the planes, shaves, mallets, and handles I’ve made all contain part of my own history as a woodworker.

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There are a number of excellent resources on the web for toolmaking. My favorites include In the Woodshop, Toolmaking Art, and Hock Tools (where I get my blades). As a woodworker, a lot of your work often goes to other people. Toolmaking is something you do for yourself, and your own pleasure and education. Go ahead. Indulge yourself.

Ross Henton

Got fish?

Time to quit babbling about the bench and actually use it. I needed to make something for a friend’s birthday, and I recently found a wonderful book at my favorite used bookstore.  Now out of print (but sometimes still available), The Art of Elegant Wood Kitchenware by Tony Lydgate has a number of beautiful designs, and looks like many months of small projects. Can’t have too many of those, can we?

The instructions in the book for this sushi tray were a little sketchy – but this isn’t a terribly difficult project, and there’s a lot of wiggle-room for using the techniques you’re comfortable with.

The slats are curly maple, and the chopsticks, feet, and condiment holder are mesquite.  I found it a little easier to do cut the dados in a slightly different order. First, starting with a solid block of maple, cut the dados for the feet, then the chopstick holder.  Then – and only then – switch back to a regular blade and rip the slats to width. Then switch back to the dado stack, and cut the dado for the condiment holder.

Take the block that will become the feet, and trim it to thickness to fit in the angled dados. Rather than make two cuts for the feet, since their finished height isn’t really critical, take the block the feet are made from and rip it down the middle with one cut at the correct angle.  That ensures that the angle will be exactly the same on both feet. Then, clamp them together, and trim them to the correct height with a hand plane – you shouldn’t have to touch the angled edges except to sand slightly.

The edges of the slats are eased with a block plane instead of a router… I think it makes the finished tray look slightly more organic. Once sanded, the tray was glued up with 1/4″ spacers between the slats.  The slots for the chopsticks and the condiment tray were cleaned up with sanding blocks.

The chopsticks were made – no, I’m not kidding – by shanking 5/16″ blanks in a drill, and holding them against a belt sander to turn the tapers. It worked quite well, but I got more even results by marking across them with a pencil at where I wanted the tapers to stop, so I kept them turned evenly.

The hardest part was the condiment tray. Partly, because I insisted on making it in mesquite… again.  (Well, it’s a Texas-made tray, for Texas sushi. Probably catfish).  After cutting the block to length, I hogged out a rough (very rough) version of the cups with a hand-held router, and grabbed a leather glove and a carving gouge.  It was sharp enough that once the cups were cut, I had fairly minimal sanding to do.  Not a difficult process – this was the first hand carving I’ve ever done.  Just labor-intensive. My shoulder was singing pretty hard when I was finished.

The finish needed to be both food-safe and easily renewable.  All finishes are food-safe, once they’re cured.  But I only had three days in which to get this made, so I just wiped it down with six or seven heavy coats of mineral oil.  That way, it will be easy for its owner to renew it after washing.

This was the first real AB (after-bench) project.  There’s no doubt, the Roubo is the perfect planing bench.  I am, however, going to have to build a riser for detail work in the very short future.  At my Advanced Age, I need to bring small parts a little closer.  But the best part was that I never even had to think about workholding. Every clamping operation was easy and instinctive. Gotta love that.

Music was from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Seemed appropriate.

More little stuff ahead. Stay tuned.

Ross Henton