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

A Simple Test

If you’re filing something (like a piece of hardware, as seen here) and it seems to be taking longer than expected, shift farther down the file.

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Take short strokes as close to the handle as you can work. If it cuts better and faster, the file is worn out and should be replaced.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? So why did I just waste ten minutes, when I should have checked last time I used it? Looks like I’m off to the store.

How (mildly) annoying.

Ross Henton
January 2014

Back to School, Nu Yawk Style

Last year, I was invited to teach a short introductory hand-tool class at the new (not-even-officially-opened) Lawson Boating Center on Lake Chautauqua.  It was successful enough that they’ve asked me to come back this year and present a longer class – two days this time.  This is going to be a fun class, and topics will be all over the map of hand tool types and techniques.  Class will be on Saturday, July 21st, and Sunday, July 22nd. (Yes, it really says 8:00 in the morning. They’ve promised me coffee.)

The poster doesn’t begin to describe the fun we’re going to have (or at least, the fun that I’m going to have).  It can’t capture things like last year’s challenge: “Make this crappy blue Record plane cut something.” Or the fact that we didn’t have a real workbench, but made do with what appeared to be a Roman relic instead.

Seriously, last year was a blast, and I think this one will be as well. I’d love to see any of you there if you’re in the area.

About the Lawson Center:

The Lawson Boating Heritage Center on Chautauqua Lake. If it sounds cool, it’s because it is. Wonderful people, fascinating place, wonderful little town. The members there are all tied to the history of wooden boats on the lake, and you can see some fascinating examples of a type of woodworking most of us never get a good chance to experience – the construction, preservation, and restoration of antique wooden boats.

The Lawson Center: 73 Lakeside Drive (P.O. Box 10), Bemus Point, New York 14712. N 42*9’37” by W 79*23’34”

About Bemus Point:

The Village Casino. I’ll be down there eating wings a lot of the week.

The Italian Fisherman. Or here, eating pasta. Conveniently, next door to the Lawson Center. Maybe it’s fate.

Otherwise, I’ll be out on the lake enjoying the weather. And my friend Bill’s Chris-Craft Riviera. Wahoo. See you on the water.

Next time: Several of you have asked why I haven’t posted recently.  Real Life interfered with my shop schedule, but gave me the chance to do some traveling: Munich, London, Paris, Kalifornia… so next post, it’s Woodworking on Vacation: How To Bore Your Family With Woodworking Stuff While In A Magnificent Medieval Cathedral.

Ross Henton

July 2012

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

Cool Tools, and the Beauty of Being Wrong

I like tools. Big surprise to everybody. It’s a rare day when a new tool gets a permanent place in my shop apron, but my new Gerber 600 does.

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It handles well, feels good to use, and it has a lot of functions that I reach for a lot – particularly when I’m doing adjustments or setup to power tools. It saves me going across the shop to the toolboxes and digging around for the pliers/screwdriver/whatever I need to adjust a fence or a jig or whatever the task at hand might be. Merry Christmas to me (thanks, mom).

On the other end of the scale is something very far removed from the various blades, files, and bits of the Gerber. A few Christmases back, I was given a couple of old drawknives. That’s not exactly a tool I reach for every day. Mostly, I just don’t need one. On the occasions I need to round something, I use a spokeshave… and I seldom have to hog off much stock. But recently, I found myself needing one, and decided to reexamine the ones I have.

One is extremely large, and I’ll address it another day. The other, a Fulton #8, is about the right size for the work I needed to do. But it had some problems. (Actually, it was a mess, and I thought it might not be salvagable.)

First problem: rust. Again, big surprise. I hate dealing with large amounts of rust. Mostly because I hate dealing with rust remover. If you’ve ever used naval jelly, or any other serious rust remover, you’ll know why… phosphoric acid is nastly. Smells bad. Really corrosive.

Recently, I heard about a product called Evapo-Rust. Supposedly non-toxic, non-corrosive, non-smelly. My first thought? “Nonsense. Can’t possibly actually work.” My second thought? “Anything is better than naval jelly.”

Yes, it really works. It works beautifully. The end result is a little different; it removes rust and leaves a light grey patina. It also takes longer – I had to soak it overnight. Fortunately, I’m not in that much of a hurry, and I’m never going back. A little mineral spirits and some 220-grit sandpaper, and it was vastly improved.

Second problem: Way too much rust.

20120129-201553.jpg A couple of sections of the metal holding the handles on had completely corroded away. Replacing them was going to be a real problem. Instead, I decided to fill the missing areas with epoxy. The problem was goign to be keeping it from just dripping out before it set, because it needed to actually build up the missing metal. I grabbed an old tube of caulking, and ran a bead around the area to be filled, and overfilled it with a mix of epoxy and a few drops of dye. When it was set – but not set hard – I scraped off the caulking, and trimmed the epoxy fill to shape.

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After the epoxy had set completely, I sanded out the handles (and the epoxy), ragged on some dark walnut dye, and finished them with oil and the Beall wood buffer. Sharpening it meant reshaping the edge, but I wasn’t comfortable doing it on a grinder. The edge was too thin and fragile to do it without inadvertently changing the curve.

Fortunately, the WorkSharp is perfect for this kind of work. It took a couple of minutes on each grit, and viola.

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It took a great edge, and I stuck a piece of cherry in the vise and started. It feels good, cuts beautifully, and leaves a great surface for a finer tool like a spokeshave.

This one’s going to get a new place of honor in my tool cabinet (location to be determined). And I thought it was a junker, and that I wouldn’t use it much. Wrong on both points. Excellent. Sometimes being wrong is cool.

It may not be beautiful, but it’s going to be fun to use. For today, it’s 5:00, and time for a beer. And beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.

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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

The Easy Post: Why I Love eBay

Some posts are easier to write than others. This is an easy one.

One of the best things about hand tools is that good ones have been made for a long time. There are beautiful, beautiful new tools available for very high prices – rosewood and brass infill planes, white bronze planes from manufactures like Lie-Nielsen. Most of which are out of reach for a hobbyist like me. But good, workable tools have been around forever, and were often designed to last for a lifetime’s work.

And that’s why I love eBay. I’ve found some remarkable deals, and some great old tools – and the process of restoring some has brought me to know them in wonderful and unexpected ways. Here’s a few – some restored, some still to be done.

One note: I am not an antique tool collector. I onlly pick up tools that I’m actually going to use. They’re beautiful things – but to me, the beauty is in the craft, not on the shelf.

Millers Falls “eggbeater” drill: These aren’t hard to find at all. Often less than $20. Mostly missing the knob on the side, but work fine without it. Cleaning up the layers of old varnish on the handle showed it to be a beautiful grade of rosewood. All the teeth are in perfect shape, and its action is smooth as velvet. Price on eBay: $16.

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Wood River #5 plane: These are made by Woodcraft, and the reviews I’ve read have been mixed. Personally, I think it’s great. It handles well, is balanced well, is solid and accurate construction, and it works great. Yes, the lateral adjustment lever is flimsy. I can live with that… because it works exactly like I want it to. You can Google a couple of really negative reviews of these planes. Don’t believe them. Price on eBay: $35.

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Stanley/Bailey #4 smoothing plane: There are scads of these around. Lots of them still in regular use, and there’s a reason for that. This one had been pretty well tuned, but I don’t like the refinishing on the handles – I’ll probably strip it off and polish them, and replace them if I still don’t like the way they feel. I honed the blade and put it to work immediately. Price on eBay: $50.

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Stanley #40 scrub plane: It’s a rough, simple tool, for doing rough, simple work. It’s for removing large amounts of stock, in preparation for finer smoothing planes. Very few parts, simple mechanism. Still needs some cleaning, and I’ll probably sand and polish the handles. Some of the japanning could be in better shape, but it doesn’t affect the way it works. Price on eBay: $50.

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Stanley #62 ruler: Boxwood, bound in brass. Usually around $20. The brass-bound ones (like this) stay perfectly accurate over time. This one has all its alignment pins intact, which is a little unusual. It cleaned up great, and is easy to read. Every time I use it, I wonder how many woodworkers handled it before me, and what they built. This one just feels good to my hands. Price on eBay: $16.

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Japanese mortising chisels: No maker’s mark, no earthly idea about the quality of the steel. They work well, and were an inexpensive way to try out my first Japanese tools. They work fine, and are smaller and easier to handle for small mortises than my Narex mortising chisels (although for larger mortises, I’ll take the Narex chisels any day and twice on Sunday). Price on eBay: $9 for the pair.

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Veritas Detail Chisels: Some days, the universe smiles on you. I’d been drooling over these at the Lee Valley website for about $200, trying to find a way to justify the expense. Then these turned up on eBay. One chisel had a small ding on one corner of the edge, which sharpened out in about three minutes. I’ve never used chisels for detail work that even come close to these. Price on eBay: $65.

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None of this is to say that all eBay sellers are reputable – but I’ve been buying and selling things on eBay for about 15 years now, and I’ve gotten burned exactly once. Watch the seller’s reputation and return policies. Read the descriptions carefully, know what you’re looking for, and be patient. You can find some amazing tools at wonderful prices if you’re willing to invest a little steel wool, mineral spirits, elbow grease, and sharpening time. And if you’re not, why are you interested in hand tools in the first place?

This fall, my good friend Bill Baldwin is going to bring some old hand planes back to Dallas from the Lawson Boating Heritage Center on Chatauqua Lake. I’m going to clean them up and restore them to workable condition. There’s an old wooden jointer plane, a great #5 Stanley Bedrock, a coffin smoother with a cracked body that I probably can’t do anything about, and two great wood and metal transitional planes. My goal isn’t to make them museum pieces or collector’s items. Just to get them into working condition so they can be used in the shop there if they want to. They may never get used, but I’ll have fun doing it. And I’ll be wondering about the woodworkers who used them to feed their families, to make fine work, and treated them well enough that some have survived more than a century in usable condition.

More to come.

Ross Henton