Monday, December 22, 2008

Learning to Cut to a Line

My friend Brian says that great woodworking requires cutting to a line accurately. I don't think it matters whether the accuracy is by hand or by machine, but I know that he was talking about hand work.

He suggested an exercise for learning accuracy with a handsaw, one I found similar to playing scales and arpeggios on the piano: deceptively simple, repetitive, but challenging to perfect. I've started doing this exercise whenever I have a few spare moments in the shop:
  1. Mark a shoulder line 1" from one end of a wood scrap
    This length amplifies error enough that you can see even a small divergence from the line).
  2. Using a square, mark lines from the shoulder line to the end of the board
    Make as many as you can fit across the scrap—Brian suggests putting them 1/8" apart, but I've been marking them further apart than that).
  3. Wrap the lines onto the end
    This exercise leaves me wishing for a saddle square: I've found that error creeps into the intersection with almost every set of lines—it isn't obvious until I cut to the line, but then I can see that the two lines tend to be as much as 1/32" off.
  4. Cut to the shoulder following the lines
    Check the resulting kerfs for square both across the top of the board and running down to the shoulder line. Initially I was cutting on the line and realized that this prevented me from judging how accurately I was cutting to the line. Then I tried cutting next to the line, which gave me enough visual feedback, but would require chisel work to complete a joint. So finally I conclude that I should strive to cut the line in half. This leaves enough pencil to judge accuracy, and when I'm accurate removes all of the waste.
  5. Cut off the kerfed part of your and start again with #1
    Rinse and repeat. Brian's teacher was required to do this 200 times before being allowed to cut dovetails. I've only done it twice, and it seems like it might just take 200 times before I am accurate with this.
This exercise develops at least three skills required for cutting good dovetails:
  1. Cutting square to the board end
    Tails need square cuts. And if you cut tails first, this allows you to cut matching tails at once.
  2. Cutting to the shoulder line on both sides
    Cuts past the shoulder will show.
  3. Following a line
    By following the layout lines exactly, you end up with tight joints that didn't require a lot of adjustment with a chisel.
I hope to find that this exercise has improved my dovetails next time I use them. First I'm learning the hard way how to flatten a board with a hand plane: lesson 764 in woodworking - S4S does not mean flat.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Why Blog About Woodworking?

This post departs from woodworking and considers the act of blogging. I originally started posting about woodworking using HTML, creating static Web pages without the benefit of an editor. I wrote the pages in the Notepad text editor and used a Web browser to view the result. It took a lot of time and effort to create a page, and my posts were mostly about learning to write HTML and post it on the Web. The woodworking was just an excuse. You can find those early posts at

When I started the blog, I had some hope of being widely read, but I've since learned that for all but a select few bloggers, readership amounts to family and friends. The process has to contain value outside fame or fortune to justify the time and effort spent on it.

So why do I post about woodworking if I'm not an expert and I'm not widely read? I'm obviously getting something from the activity, and today I read a blog entry about Blogging as Reflective Practice (well outside the Woodworking blogosphere) that clarified what that is.

It turns out I'm not really looking for fame and fortune. In fact, as stated in my profile, "A Woodworking Odyssey is my way of thinking about and sharing the experience I gain." I think my real intent as it has developed is to use blogging as a regular reflection that also propels me to greater knowledge and productivity. It works to develop me as a woodworker.

Three years after starting regular posts, my writing experience informs every aspect of my woodworking experience and helps me learn more quickly about new techniques and deepen my knowledge of familiar ones. It makes me more considered and systematic in approaching a project:
  • If I'm having difficulty, I write and think about it (and sometimes receive a comment from much more experienced woodworkers, like Chuck Bender and Tim McReady).
  • When I work on a project I stop to take pictures of each stage—a habit that prevents me from making as many mistakes. That short photo break makes me look at what I'm doing, identify what steps are distinct and important, and try to find the best angle and focus for capturing the action. In the process, my thoughts shift from doing the work to observing it and I often learn about something before regretting it.
  • Afterwards, when I write about a process, I'm engaged in the reflective activity that Gina Minks wrote about in Blogging as Reflective Practice. I process the actions and thoughts I've had, refine them, and become expert in the process itself and in my approach to a project.
Awareness of this process may move my focus toward the learning process on each project. I think that will be a good thing for you and me—the only two people reading this blog ;)

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wooden Blocks

I wish woodworking was as easy as playing with blocks. My children spend hours building with these, and I love seeing what they come up with. Below are pictures of one that spent several days in our living room during September.

The columns on top of the structure were exercises during a wood turning class. If I ever have a lathe in the shop, I plan to make some proper Greek and Roman columns for the block set.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Flattening Oilstones

I sharpened plane irons tonight as I cleaned up from the last few projects, and realized that I needed to flatten my Norton oilstone. A little research reveals that many people flatten both oil and water stones on concrete blocks. Others lap the stone flat with silicon carbide powder on plate glass. I have a cinderblock outside, so I'll likely start with that and see how it goes.

While looking for information on flattening oilstones, I also found a great article at Fine Woodworking that covers waterstones, oilstones, and sandpaper as methods for honing.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Sandpaper and Smoothing Planes

Who can love sanding? A painstaking repetitive task that kicks up dust and seems to last forever. Since I began using hand planes, I have cherished the hope that someday, somehow, sanding would be a thing of the past and hand planes or scrapers would provide the finished surface for all or nearly all of my work.

This week, David Charlesworth dashed my hopes. In the book "David Charlesworth's Furniture-makeing Techniques: A Guide to Hand Tools and Methods" he states:
"I think the concept of applying finish to a hand-planed surface is somewhat academic and not particularly useful. All applied films require sanding, and unless you can find a clever way of doing this with flexible abrasives, sanding for flatness is going to be necessary."
I found a shred of hope in the words "all applied films." Did that mean oil (like Boiled Linseed Oil) could be applied without sanding? Very preliminary research suggests that answer is "yes".

Until recently I would have said "Great! I'm already applying an oil finish" because I primarily use a product called "Tung Oil". Unfortunately, I recently learned that what Minwax and Formby's call "Tung Oil" is actually wiping varnish: a form of thinned varnish that can be applied with a rag. That means (you guessed it) I'm using a film finish.

So on my latest project (project name withheld in the name of the gifting season) I started testing whether sanding left a discernibly better surface, and sadly on this first test I think it did.

Will I be giving up my hand planes and scrapers? No. Even if I didn't use them for shaping and sizing wood, they would be safe. In the same article, Charlesworth issued another encouraging statement that suggested that planes and scrapers can at least reduce the amount of sanding required:
"It is fatal to assume that flaws in your surfaces will be disguised by a finish. The reverse is actually true. (...) This partially explains my obsession with getting the best possible surface from our hand planes and scraper planes. Tear out can be surprisingly deep and difficult to remove by hand sanding."
So my dreams are dashed, but I'm still looking to increase the number of planes in the shop and make them work as well as I possibly can.
Photo courtesy of Bob Key and Wikimedia Commons

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Little Planes for Little Hands

Months ago—could it have been a year?—the Little Victor arrived in my shop tucked in an impossibly small box. I pulled her out, looked her over, and put her back in the box. There she stayed, wrapped in a sad little piece of anti-corrosive paper and wishing for better.

Last week during a shop cleaning she was noticed, removed, and tested without any honing. Above you can see what she can do straight from the Lee Valley factory. She was perfect, if small, and I awarded her a spot on the shelf with two miniature planes, the perfect foils for this tiny colossus. That's where she was found, on Saturday, by my oldest girl.

"Oh daddy, you have tiny planes! Can I try one?"

How could I say "no"? I try to inspire the girls to work with tools, and this kind of self-inspired shop time is rare. So Little Victor got to play with the children, and she had a great time of it. My youngest was there too, and I facilitated (to prevent the usual shouting match about who wasn't being fair). This woodworking paradise lasted at least half an hour, and the girls came away beaming from their success at making a tiny pile of tiny shavings.

Here are a few pictures:

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Christmas 2008: What to Get a Woodworker

Every year I post my thoughts on what a woodworker might like to receive. My previous gift posts have additional ideas and can be found here:
I have not checked this year's list to see whether I've repeated myself, but you can be sure that if I've said it more than once, it will be appreciated. Here is this year's list of gift ideas, divided into rough categories. Some are expensive, some are inexpensive, all are useful.

This year's list doesn't stick with just flashy or unusual objects. Some of the items are mundane but useful. These aren't just filler; they will be much used in the shop and can make great stocking stuffers.

Cutting and Shaping

This flexible tool provides much of the flexibility of both a scroll saw and a band saw. I think of it as the ultimate freehand power tool.

Jointmaker Pro
While I admire Bridge City tools for their beauty and innovation, I usually think they are pricey and optional. With that said, I think the Jointmaker Pro truly delivers the value of its price, and that nothing else on the market can do what it does. It introduces a real innovation that even power tool users can appreciate.

If your woodworker does fine work, especially on a small scale, no other tool can provide the speed and reliability of this tool. It opens up a world of possibilities for speed and flexibility in woodworking.

The name tells only part of the story, because the tool can also be used to make extremely precise sculptural effects and tiny parts.

Router Bits
Another almost limitless source of gift ideas. A router needs bits to function, and the more bits, the more can be done with the router. If you want something that looks like more than a stocking stuffer and your woodworker doesn't have one, consider a good router table.

Router Plane
Yes, it's a hand tool, but even power tool users can appreciate one of these. Often when a dado or rabbet is cut there is clean up to be done on the joint. The Router plane set to the correct depth makes short work of it.


Blue Tape
This valuable addition to any shop makes an inexpensive stocking stuffer that will be used for everything from masking, clamping, to impromptu "ribbon" on brown-paper-wrapped shop-built gifts finished moments before delivery.

Cabinet Maker's Wrecking Bar
Actually not a wrecking bar, since the intent is to remove previously installed moldings without damaging them. If you get one of these, choose a brand with a very thin pry end, which allows the end to fit under the molding. I'm very satisfied with my Sharkgrip from Bakuma, which I bought through Sears. I've recently seen a Stanley version of the tool, but I thought the pry end looked too thick.

Rare Earth Magnets
Having a stock of rare earth magnets is inspirational. I use one to keep the chuck key at hand on my drill press, and others to turn hinges and tool bases into temporary bulletin boards. These also make a good closure option in small boxes and cabinets: they can either be visible, or hidden by a thin veneer.

Sandflex Blocks
Great for rust removal and maintenance. These are sometimes called rust erasers, because they work in the same way a pencil eraser does: by rubbing on the surface of the item to be sanded. They can also be used on wood.

Screw Extractors
For when a screw cams out. Everyone who works with screws eventually finds themselves in trouble with a damaged screw head. I need a set of these myself.

What do you give someone who has everything? Something to put it in. There's almost always a use for more tool storage.


Roman Woodworking by Roger B. Ulrich

This book takes a thorough look at roman woodworking, citing sources and including numerous pictures of primary source material. This will especially please the history buff and hand tool user.


I love hammers, so I might be biased in this, but different sizes and shapes work better for different jobs. Holding a well-made hammer just makes me happy, especially if I know I have nails somewhere nearby.

Kreg Pocket Screw Jig
Good for building jigs, shop stands, yard furniture, prototypes (to avoid doing the real joints), and more. This type of joint is quick and effective.

Layout and Reference

6" Combination Square

Woodworkers need trustworthy layout and referencing tools, and different jobs need different sizes. I prefer the 6" combination square for most small work because there isn't as much of it to get in the way. If you get your woodworker layout and reference tools, don't economize. This is one area where cheap, aluminum, "good enough" knockoffs are definately not good enough. Choose an all steel (preferably hardened steel) from a reputable maker like Starrett or Brown & Sharpe. They are much more expensive than the combo squares sold at Home Depot and Lowes, but they will be acurate and (barring terrible abuse) stay accurate.

Marking Knife
Used to layout joints, especially hand cut dovetails. This can be a beautiful gift that will be used for countless marking tasks in the shop

For the marking tasks not done with a knife. Any kind of pencil will do, though carpenter's pencils (the square kind) are too bulky for some applications.

Straight Edge
Fine woodworkers need to know if their prepped wood is flat. Especially if your woodworker uses hand tools, a good straightedge will be appreciated (even if there are several in the workshop already).


"Doors & Drawers" by Andy Rae
A great new book, released just this year. This book looks at both doors and drawers in an extremely broad and practical way. Andy includes construction detail for all styles of drawer, from the high art solid-wood dovetailed construction to the highly practical rabbetted false-front plywood drawer. Whatever you are building, this book will help you select the appropriate drawer and door designs.

Scratch Pads
A gift that will be used for drawing out rough plans, noting measurements, planning the steps of a particularly complex procedure, telephone numbers, hardware shopping lists and more. Lee Valley offers some very nice scratch pads that have a grid, which helps keep drawings to scale.

"Working Alone" by John Carroll
A carpentry reference that is useful for both homeowners and one-man home builders.


"Understanding Wood" by Bruce Hoadley
A full reference for how wood behaves and why. An excellent companion to the U.S. Forest Service guide.

"Understanding Wood Finishing" by Bob Flexner
Everyone has to apply finish, and nothing ruins a well made project as quickly as poorly applied finish.

"Wood as an Engineering Material" by the U.S. Forest Service
The full text is available online at no cost, but it is so valuable as a reference it ought to be part of any serious shop library.


Air Filtration
Like dust masks and respirators: woodworking kicks up a lot of fine particles. They aren't necessarily good for breathing, and they make a terrible mess when they settle.

Dust Masks / Respirators
If your woodworker is a power tool user (and especially if MDF is commonly used in the shop) this is a must. Tell them you love them by keeping them safe and healthy.

Ear Plugs or Muffs
Those who use hand tools exclusively won't need these. For everyone else, give the gift of hearing. Using both forms of protection is most effective. I recommend against muffs that play music. As nice as they seem they will essentially replace the noise of the power tool with the noise of the radio, and because the tool is still loud (even through the muffs) the direct feed radio will be turned up louder than normal and feeding directly into the ears.

A related caution: don't use mp3 players or earplugs on a string in a power tool shop. The wire is a hazard that could get caught and either damage the ears, or pull the head into a machine.

Eyes are good. Keep them intact. I like the kind of safety glasses that look like aviator's goggles for several reasons. First, they don't interfere with the muff style hearing protection. Second, they prevent chips from dropping behind them. It’s a good idea to have several pairs so they can be swapped out when one starts to steam up, and so they can be kept where they are most often used.

Protective Gloves
There's lots of nasty stuff in the shop. Don't let it touch skin.


Moisture Meter
Air dried lumber especially needs to be checked before use. If the wood is too wet, expect splitting, checking, cupping, winding, and shrinking as it dries.

Beautiful wood is always appreciated. You can never have too much of the raw materials, and a beautiful or unusual piece of wood often inspires a beautiful and unusual project.

Work Holding

Norm Abrams famously said, "You can never have too many clamps". Enough said. Look for types or sizes that may not already be in the shop, or add to a type or size that is under represented. In addition to handscrews (which I mentioned separately) consider bar clamps, paralell clamps, c-clamps, pinch dogs, miter clamps, band clamps, etc.

Wow. These are such great and flexible clamps I give them their own topic. If there are no handscrews in the shop, get a pair of 8" or 10" handscrews. These provide flexibility that no other clamp can provide, and using several together can provide quick effective workholding solutions that would otherwise be difficult or time consuming to accomplish. More is better, so get at least two (preferably four or more). I would be happy to receive more handscrews any day, especially in sizes I don't already have.


That's it for this year's Holiday Gift Guide. If you have additional suggestions, please leave a comment.

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