Friday, December 29, 2006

James Krenov's Legacy

Photo of Krenov's unfinished cabinet by Dave Mathews

James Krenov is a legend in some circles of woodworking. His ideas and work inspire me to believe that wood can speak to us if only we will listen, and that some of the efficiency brought by power tools threatens our ability to condsider the wood we use in our construction. When I think of him and his work, I'm reminded to look before imposing my will on a piece of wood—even if the act of looking takes only a second.

So it is with sadness I discover that James Krenov can no longer see well enough to create the work that so defines his life and influences woodworking culture. I find this final unfinished cabinet a symbol both of what I want—a life that has positively influenced the world around me (both physical and ephemeral)—and what I fear—a gradual end to my creative ability. Since in many ways my life as a woodworker has barely begun, this cabinet is a reminder that the gift of creation should be used now because one day it will expire.

(Photo by Dave Mathews, courtesy of


Monday, December 25, 2006

Wood Properties Resource on the Web

Merry Christmas everyone. Here's a little gift given by a friend of mine and passed on to you: the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory maintains a Web site filled with data about wood properties. Want to know about Summac or some other wood? You can find information about it fairly quickly, including its mechanical properties, Drying and Shrinkage, and Toxicity. Since part of the purpose of the site (and the Forest Products Laboratory) is to promote the use of American woods in industry, this resource focuses on North American Hardwoods and Softwoods.

Fun. Informative. Possibly indispensible if you are a wood scrounge (or an aspiring wood scrounge like me). Happy Holidays!

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Gift Ideas for a Woodworker (Part 2)

My last list of gift ideas included mostly power tools, but I'm really a hand tool kind of guy. If you're looking to please me or any other hand tool lover, there are plenty of good options out there. Here are just a few:

Adria Tennon Saws
For tenon saws, you can hardly go wrong with one of Adria's hand made tools. I'm using a Stanley gents saw, but I sure would like one of these.

Yeung Chan Detail Chisels
When working fine joints, its a plus to have fine chisels. These are all fine tools, but the ones labelled C, D, and E are the ones for which you will have a hard time finding good substitutes.

Medium Shoulder Plane
Outside of the standard smoothing plane, this is one that will pull its share of duty. It allows the creation of a nicely consistant relieve in panel work, and fine tuning of rabbet and tennon joints.

Hitachi Drill and Drive
Not totally a hand tool, but super neat and useful. I first saw this in November, helping set up the 15th annual Medicine Wheel in Boston. The tool allows you to have countersink and screw driver on your drill at the same time and switch between them in about 1 second. At a Big Box store you can get just the insert and the holder for about $10. Online, it seems you can only get it in larger sets.

Scrub Plane
If your woodworker ever deals in rough cut timber, this can be a real blessing. It allows quick levelling of the stock, and if you have a 12" planer it can eliminate the need for large capacity (expensive) jointers: just flatten one side and start running the stock through the planer with the flat side down. With this method, a 4" jointer may be all you need.

Paring Chisels
Chisels are an all around "must have" for fine hand work. This is the set I have at home. It does the job, though there can be significant set up time involved in flattening the backs and getting them good and sharp...

Bow Saw Kit (or Bow Saw)
An all around tool that I look forward to having in my shop. Many people think of them as band saw replacements, but you can do so much more with them. I prefer the idea of a kit, because I want to make my bow saw, but I doubt your woodworker will complain if you get the completed saw. This one was rated as one of the best new tools, 2006, by Popular Woodworking.

That's it for now. Until next time, keep your tools sharp, and your fingers out of the way.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

New Handplane from Knight Toolworks

I received a really nice gift this year: a fine new coffin smoothing plane from Knight Toolworks. Unlike many planes, this one comes fully tuned and ready to use without any adjustment. It even ships with the shavings inside to prove it. When I took it out of the box, I stopped long enough to read about its care and feeding (this is my first "woodie") and to take a picture.

Then I took it right down to the shop and put it to use on my current project. I did manage to jar the blade loose, which led to an impromptu session of "how do you adjust this thing?", but after a few rounds of tapping the strike plate, tapping the blade, tapping the frog, testing the cut, I got it right back in working order. And it stays adjusted much better than my Miller's Falls (which I'm still trying to get adjusted so my thumb can't force the blade out of true while I'm using it).

In the picture above, you can seed the box bottom I'm working on in the foreground and the coffin smoothing plane in the background. Those frothy shavings were all made by me after adjusting the plane and putting it back to work. It took me a little while to get used to the lighter body and different shape of the wooden plane, but there can be no doubt: this is now the nicest and most functional hand plane in my shop.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Puzzling Table

I hope one day to build something as beautiful and clever as this puzzle table by Kagen Schaefer. I'm thinking of starting with a puzzle box next year, assuming I get the shop running a little smoother by March, as intended.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dovetail Errors of the Past

In my basement shop I have my first "successful" project in wood. I put that in quotes because the criteria for success were pretty loose: could I make dovetails that actually seemed to stay together by themselves? I did pretty well for such a complex first project, but you can see the single nail in one of the pins that says "not quite"

There were a number of mistakes that preceded the making of the dovetails, (like trying to smooth wood scavenged from a pallet without first checking for nails, not making the boards flat and square, and not actually knowing how to sharpen a plane blade OR a chisel very well, but that's all for another day). But I was making dovetails, and I was not daunted by a lack of knowledge. I had read instructions for making dovetails several times before, so I thought I had the right idea: mark out the pins and cut them, mark the tails from the pins and cut them, put together the box and wonder how you ever became so clever. So I did just that and was very satisfied.

Of course there were a number of execution errors (obvious in these pictures), but there was a major layout error too. One I've seen other woodworkers duplicate (including one whose project was featured in a major woodworking magazine): I'd created half tails instead of half pins. I think anyone layout out dovetails for the first time is likely to do this if they don't have guidance: It just seems logical to put those satisfying visible angles in as many places as possible. But the experts all tell you to use half tails on the ends of a join, and after much puzzling about the joint structure and wood movement, I think I know several reasons why.

  1. If the wood cups,half tails allow it to happen much more easily
  2. There is less distribution of pressure across the grain structure, making it more likely for joint failure at the corners
  3. If you are making a half blind joint to allow a panel bottom, you need to place the panel groove much higher in the frame, losing some of your drawer space to the underside.
There may be other reasons, but these are the three I've encountered so far. Next time you look at a well made dovetail, take a look at those half tails and try to picture the forces on them. You'll begin to see how having these cap the joint makes it much more difficult for cupping to occur in either panel that if it had the straight on angle of a half tail.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Gift Ideas for a Woodworker (Part 1)

So I'm a little bit late to help you with this year's Christmas shopping. Sorry. I'm going to keep this post short and sweet, but trust me: I would be glad to receive anything on this list, even if I already have it ;)

As gift giving occasions prompt me, I expect I'll create new installments. In the interest of full disclosure: if you follow a link to Amazon and purchase something while you are there, a little bit of your purchase helps keep this Web site up and running. All other link destinations are purely informational, so you can see what I'm talking about.

So without further ado: a (very) few gift ideas for you to mull over.

Veritas Ruler Stop
This is a nifty little gadget for under $15. This makes almost any metal ruler more useful, and will be appreciated by hand tool and power tool users alike.

Bosch Colt Router
A nice little palm-sized router that has been well reviewed by both Fine Woodworking and Popular Woodworking magazines. Flexible in ways that a larger router cannot be.

The Toolbox Book
The stuff of dreams for most woodworkers: a book that inspires making something for themselves and gives them a glimpse into the lives and shops of other woodworkers. I've browsed this one for hours.

Incra Miter Gauge
Alright, this is something I can't use right now because I don't have room for the power tools it goes with. But I've used one of these at my brother-in-law's shop. It is a great aid for keeping precise cuts on the table saw. Awesome.

Rikon Mini Lathe
This is a great value in a mini lathe: it has all metal parts (an important feature for the knobs that get torqued every time the machine gets used) and many features usually only available on full-sized lathes. Especially great for folks with a small shop that might not be able to dedicate lathe space.

SawStop Tablesaw
Okay, this is expensive. But can you adequately value the gift of fingers? A friend of mine lost several fingers to his table saw, and this would have saved him the trouble. An awesome safety advance that should be standard on all table saws (but isn't). But remember: most injuries on a table saw are caused by kickback. This saw also has an innovative anti-kickback knife that sits closer to the blade than any other I've seen.

That's it for this installment. Keep safe, and do good work.

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Saturday, December 9, 2006

Used Tools in Worcester

I recently went with a friend to what might be called "a tool lover's safe haven" in Worcester Massachusetts. The Tool Shed is where old tools hope they end up rather than landing in a dumpster somewhere. I got a nice Kennedy machinists chest for $40 and started to build a woodworking tool set for my oldest: A nice 7 pt Diston handsaw, a small hammer, and a nice double-geared eggbeater all for $5. Next time out I'll be looking for a user block plane and some chisels.


Sunday, December 3, 2006

Hand Planing End Grain

I'm building two boxes for Christmas and spent a good part of today preparing the sides for half-blind dovetails. These were all milled, ripped, and chopped at my brother-in-law's shop, where there are plenty of working power tools, but I needed to be sure the surfaces were prepared for accurate markup.

I checked the lengths of all the side pieces and discovered that somehow the ends for both boxes were off by about 1/8". I suppose I could have swapped them to use the longer ones together and the shorter ones together, but I had already matched the pieces for good grain and color so I decided to modify the lengths until they matched.

Initially I clamped the parts for each box together and hand planed until they were
the same length. Then I realized I had managed to plane them out of square (more on how I did that in a minute), and had to go back to correct that. If you've never done this with a hand plane, there are a couple of tricks that help.

First, make sure that the blade is properly set for parallel. Hopefully your plane has an adjustment lever for this, like mine does, but if not you will have to do this some other way. This was the source of my problem: I have been experimenting with a looser lever cap so that adjustment of the blade is easier and more accurate. Well, it turns out I had made the lever cap too loose and my fingers were moving the blade by gripping it while I planed. Tightening the screw that secures the lever cap by about 1/8 of a turn fixed that problem. I had no more unexplained deviation...

Second, when correcting a problem like I had, start on the high side of the surface and plane progressively across it. By placing the plane mostly off the board edge I was able to re-establish a (very small) square surface and work it across the width of the board until the full piece was square. This is much easier than it sounds,
and when I was done the ends were the same length and square to the reference surface.

That experience led me to check the sides, which were thankfully the same length, but when I checked them for square I found evidence of run out from the chop saw... More hand planing of the end grain took care of that fairly quickly. I'm now ready to mark and cut the dovetails next time I'm in the shop. I'll decide when I get here whether to cut pins or tails first. Right now I'm leaning toward the tails.

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Friday, December 1, 2006

Form Follows Function?

I recently wrote about sculptural furniture, which is a fascinating blend of art and furniture. The gallery representation of independant furniture makers is one force that makes such furniture possible and keeps it alive. I've seen many pieces that were both striking works of art and functional furniture (Judith Kensley McKie's work, for example) and this can be among the best modern examples of the woodworking craft.

But what happens when the maker forgets the function of what they're making? We get strange fruit: a cabinet that takes up enough space to be a respectable sideboard, but only has a single 1' x 2' drawer and no surface on which you might set something; a table that looks more like a 1970's stair railing than a table; or a chair with a sinuous shape but no relation to the human form: a cement curbstone would probably be more comfortable. I'll admit that some of these items make me think "wow, how was that done?" but once I'm past the oddity, I realize nothing else recommends the design.