A Tacky Solution

One thing that I’m absolutely guaranteed that I will not have when I really need one is a tack cloth.
I needed one today for the Mystery Project (more about that saga later). What I found was a dried-out tack cloth about the consistency of a chunk of cardboard, and about as useful. It wouldn’t even bend, much less collect dust.
But, fortunately, it’s salvageable. A half-teaspoon or so of water and turpentine each, knead it through, and let it sit in a container for a few minutes. Viola. good as new.

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This should not be misconstrued as an endorsement for Talenti Sicilian Pistachio Gelato. But, lord, it could be.

Ross Henton
January 2014

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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

Woodworking and Travel, Part 2

It’s broken my heart the past few months to have so little shop time.  Work-related travel has kept me away from shavings and sawdust – honestly, I recently bought a new set of chisels (Stanley Sweetheart 750s, more about those later), and I really enjoyed the hour I spent sharpening and flattening them. When I really enjoy sharpening, I’ve been out of the shop too long.

But being away has also amazed me sometimes, as I’ve seen (and learned things) from past craftsmen.  For example:

This amazing carved bench – inscription courtesy of Otis Redding – was on display at the Chelsea Flower Show, in London. The work was outstanding; I loved the subtle curves carved into the seat. The closer I looked, the more impressed I was – it was flawless work.

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If you’ve ever wondered whether or not it’s worth that little extra time to put into your joinery, consider this little chaise – it’s Egyptian. 18th dynasty, somewhere between 1550-1186 BC. It’s survived over three thousand years. Honestly, that makes me want to spend a little more practice time with my joinery, and stop patting myself on the back because my mesquite table has survived three whole years so far.

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One of my favorite pastimes is making my own hand tools.  They’re fun, accurate, made for my hand, and I get far more joy out of using them on other projects than anything I’m likely to ever buy at Woodcraft.  I hope they hold up this well – this ruler (an “angulated rule”) belonged to Tutankhamen’s Minister of Finance.Stop to consider sometime that the work of your hands may outlast a few years in the corner of your house, or a generation in your tool chest. Maybe it’ll face a longer test of time.

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And Now, a Shameless Plug:

I have one other great passion besides woodworking – I’ve been a photographer as long as I could hold a camera. Recently, I’ve gotten more serious about it, and started to make prints available for sale. My work is mostly travel, architectural, and garden photography – the photos on my blog are mostly just iPhone snaps (because it’s handy).

If you’re interested to see some of my other work, it’s viewable at my other website, Art in Transit: http://ross-henton.artistwebsites.com/

Also, on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ArtInTransit

Please stop by if you have a minute! I’d love to see you there.

Next time: Hopefully, back to the Mystery Project.

Ross Henton

May 2013
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Sometimes, It’s a Mystery

Yes, I’m late. Real Life Stuff has intruded on my shop work, and when it suffers my blog lags further behind with it. But I’m back – at least until next month (shoulder surgery again – which is going to mean more time NOT making stuff).

But this project may hold me for a little while. For once, I’m not going to talk about what it is first; I’m just going to dive in. I’m also going to try to talk about the design more than the technique. Think of it as the Mystery project, and just bear with me.

So, the story goes: I found a piece of maple. Not your ordinary stuff – waterfalls, birdseyes, beautiful figure – and two big comma-shaped holes in it. I put it in the stack, and used to pull it out and stare at it. There was something that was itching to be built, but I couldn’t figure out what. Perhaps I Was Not Worthy of such a piece of wood.

Three years passed. Four. Finally, it hit me. It needed to be two bookmatched panels. This was a wee tiny bit of a problem, because it had some twist – enough that I couldn’t get a clean enough resaw to get full thickness out of it. So I did what I could, and went to see my buddy Mike Fannin. Mike’s an amazing woodworker, and he has (lucky for me) infinite patience AND a thickness sander. There was no way this piece was going through the planer – it would shatter like glass. The grain and figure of the wood was far too wild. Mike helped me get it sanded down to 1/4″ panels – thick enough for what I had in mind.

Next: off to Wood World, who was amazingly enough having a sale on walnut. I bought enough for what I had in mind, and a piece of 1/4″ walnut plywood for the back. That was enough for the casework (or so I thought; silly me). I let it stabilize a couple of weeks, and decided that 48″ x 32″ x 6″ was a good size. (What was I thinking? It’s enormous. The wife-unit looked at it and said “Well, it’s bigger than I imagined. We’ll see.” No kidding. The Grand Canyon was bigger than I imagined, too.)

The casework is dovetailed, and the top and bottom pieces of the frame overhang the sides by 1″ for the doors. The back is the sheet of plywood, and that’s where the first problem started. Layout hit a minor snag. I’m a pins-first guy (don’t start in on me about it). The problem was in transferring the layout from top to sides because of the sheer length of the boards; I couldn’t just balance one on the other and start marking. I used a couple of metal brackets designed for squaring boxes, and clamped them in place while I transferred the markings. One problem (for me) with marking dovetails in darker wood is that you can’t see pencil lines. You can’t even see knife lines well enough to cut accurately. Chalk pencils don’t work; they aren’t fine enough. I think the solution is going to be to install brighter worklights in my shop. Yes, I’m getting older. ;

The dovetails actually went pretty well – I ain’t an expert, but I’m getting better. Dovetails by hand in walnut aren’t the easiest thing I’ve ever attempted; the wood is hard and a little brittle. I had some minor chips (one fixed with a wedge, as you can see), and one assembly crack. But one thing I’ve learned is that dovetails tend to look like crap sometimes about the midpoint; they’re cut okay, they fit okay, but look a little sloppy. That vanishes with some sandpaper, a block plane, and a few drops of oil. I used to be really, really hard on my dovetails. They were imperfect: no matter how I tried, they just didn’t look quite even, quite perfectly machined. Then a teacher of mine at Woodcraft (Howard Hale, great guy, great woodworker) pointed something out to me. “Of course they’re not perfectly even. You want perfectly even, machined dovetails, go to Haverty’s. This is handwork. It’s slightly uneven. That’s why it costs six times as much.”

Cutting the groove to inset the back left square holes from the notch in the tails, but those are easy to plug. I had a couple of chips and one cutting error (yes, I cut on the wrong side of the line, of course I did) that was easily filled with a piece of veneer dipped in glue.

Once the casework was assembled, I started to look at what’s-good vs. what’s bad: the case was square, everything fit well, the joinery was okay – but the groove for the back panel was just slightly too wide, and the back rattled a little bit. Also, I realized that I had a structural problem: due to the sheer size of the case, it was possible that the sides might warp – and there was nothing to stop that from happening. My solution is something of a Grand Experiment: I cut two slats with dovetailed ends and fitted them sidewise into the back of the case, in hopes of holding it more stable. Since the plywood back won’t expand (in theory), I went ahead and glued them to the back. If I were redoing this project, I’d make the back thicker. The whole piece would be quite a bit heavier with a solid back, but it would also be stronger in the long run. We’ll see.

I added a 45-degree cut french cleat to the top of the back, and stopped the last of the bothersome rattle with a strip of veneer glued into the groove. The case seems solid, tight, and it’s still square. So unless it disintegrates over time, I’m satisfied.

The first panels for the doors are glued together (more on that next time). The Mystery Maple is sitting in the corner waiting. I’m on the clock: surgery is December 17th, and this has to be finished by then, or it sits until spring. Big thing, ain’t it. There’s the chance the wife-unit will look at it, declare “It’s too big for the room”, and it will go up for sale. That’s okay; if it does, I’ll make a smaller one and get past the growing pains of the design.

One other note: It’s been hard being in the shop sometimes this year without my Angus. He was the perfect Bench Dog, and I’ll always miss him. But Monty shows great promise: he’s already been promoted to Bench Dog, Junior Grade. Like the project, he’s shaping up just fine.

Stay tuned. Watch this space.

Ross Henton

November 2012

Woodworking and Travel: Part 1

When you travel, look around you at the legacy of woodworkers from the past. Remember the work that was done with simple tools, and consider the possibility of making things that outlive yourself. Think of it if you decide that hand planing a board is too much work.

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This view is looking up into the spire of Salisbury Cathedral; one of the most amazing feats of engineering I’ve ever seen. Centuries old. No table saw. No thickness planer. Not even a battery-powered drill. Four hundred steps of climbing just to get high enough to take this photograph.

“In France, we dug trenches ten miles long. We took earth from here and made hills there. We moved entire fields. You wouldn’t believe what we did. It’s possible. It’s just hard work.” – Johnny Shellshocked, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain
I’ve seen a lot of amazing, lasting woodwork while traveling this year. More to come.

(Not to say technology ain’t great. This post comes to you from Virgin America flight 720, somewhere over the Southwest. Ain’t it great.)

Ross Henton
July 2012

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

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