Note: The content of this post has been moved to my new blog. You can find the new post here:
Recently, my friend Mike Siemsen and the folks over at Lost Art Press put out a DVD called “The Naked Woodworker“. The DVD is aimed at the new woodworker who has no tools and no idea where to start. I picked up a copy to watch and then donate to my woodworking club’s library. After watching it, let me just say, that if you are the new woodworker I just described, you need this DVD. It will be the best $20 and the most valuable 4½ hours you can spend before you start woodworking.
The first disc of the 2-DVD sets starts with Mike at the MWTCA meet, buying tools. He tells you what to look for and what to avoid when shopping for tools. But most importantly, he focuses only on what tools you will need to complete your first two projects, a sawbench and a workbench.
This section alone is the kick in the pants that so many new woodworkers need to stay focused. I’ve long suggested that when you’re new to the craft you should focus on a project and let your project dictate the tools you start with, not the other way around. But far too often, the focus of new woodworkers is to try and buy every tool they think they might someday need before they ever cut a single piece of wood. Mike’s no nonsense approach to tool shopping shows you how to focus only on the good user grade tools that you will need to get the two projects done, without spending a fortune in the process.
In the second half of the first disc, Mike talks about how to get your new tools ready to go to work. Regardless of whether you go the new tool or old tool route, you need to know how the tools function, and more importantly, how to maintain them and keep them working like they should. All tools get dull in time, so knowing how to keep them sharp is the most important skill any new woodworker can learn.
The primary focus on this part of the disc is on sharpening plane irons and saws, but Mike does briefly discuss the setup of the rest of the tools he bought as well. Then, using a simple and inexpensive sandpaper setup, Mike sharpens the blades for all of the planes he bought in the first part of the disc, and shows you how to adjust the tools and get them working properly with minimal fussing. There’s no uber tuning and shaving measuring going on here. These tools are set up to build stuff, not show off on internet forums.
After the planes are set up, Mike moves on to the saws. The difficulty of sharpening ones own saws is so over exaggerated it can be sickening. The fact of the matter is that it’s really not that hard. It’s no harder than learning to sharpen a chisel or plane iron. It takes some practice, and while your first sharpening is not likely to result in perfection, it will still result in a saw that cuts better than a dull one. Mike shows you how simple it is and discusses both rip and crosscut saws, again, focusing on getting the saws to an acceptable working level, not striving for perfection.
Disc 2 is all about getting to work with your new tools. Mike builds a sawbench and Nicholson inspired workbench in this disc. The saw bench is straight forward, simple and inexpensive. The design gives you plenty of sawing practice, requires no complex joinery, and results in a rock solid, sturdy sawbench. Oh, and he builds it using only a pair of 5 gallon buckets to work on, because that’s probably all you will have to work with.
Then Mike goes on to build a full sized workbench, again, only using the sawbenches to build it, because that’s all you will have. Mike’s modified Nicholson bench design is really simple to build and incorporates a bunch of really great, inexpensive workholding options. Maybe I like the design because the way he built it is so similar to how I built mine, but it’s simplicity is only outdone by its functionality. Mike has made this bench so easy to build, using no complex joinery, that I’m betting my 9 year old daughter could almost build it with very little help from me. This is the first workbench every new woodworker should build.
So to repeat what I wrote above, if you are a new woodworker, just getting started, buy this DVD before you do anything else. If you follow along with Mike’s teachings in this video, you could have a basic tool kit, a sturdy place to work, and be on your way to building furniture in no more than a week or two.
Last night I finished up my 18th century style jack plane. This plane actually got its start almost two years ago when a friend offered up some quarter sawn beech planks to those of us volunteering at the museum that particular Sunday. The planks were nice. Not perfect, but I thought they’d possibly make some nice planes. They were almost 20/4 square and about 5′ or so long. So I cut the plank into a few shorter sections that would be a good size for plane blanks and set them aside to dry for awhile. They warped and checked quite badly as they dried (as beech is notorious for doing), but since they were cut significantly over sized and about 5″ square, there was enough extra material to saw away to get a good plane blank.
The second push to make this plane came a couple of months ago. I had mentioned to a friend at a CJWA meeting that I was thinking about making a new single iron smooth plane and trying to find a laminated 1-3/4″ single iron to make it with. As we were talking he told me not to go buying anything just yet because he just happened to have a few extra irons that he’d be willing to give me the pick of at our next meeting. As promised, he brought in about 4 orphaned laminated single irons for me to look through at the next meeting, and in addition to the one single iron that I chose, he also graciously gave me the Sandusky Tool Co. plane pictured above.
The plane has two main issues rendering it unusable. It has a pretty significant crack in the right cheek & abutment (hidden by the wedge above), and the bottom of the wedge is broken off. He wasn’t overly concerned about the plane and told me to do whatever I wanted with it (I think his words were “…burn it if you want, I don’t really care about it”). When I took the plane home, I looked it over and determined that it could be repaired and made into a decent user with a bit of work. However, when I looked at the iron, I decided otherwise.
The 1-3/4″ double iron that came with the plane was in need of a light cleaning, grinding and sharpening. But after cleaning it up a bit, it was in practically new condition. The iron showed very little sign of use and was more or less full length. The chipbreaker was pristine, as was the chipbreaker screw, having narry a scratch and a perfectly unmangled slot. But most importantly, the iron was laminated clear up to the chipbreaker slot. This iron was just too perfect to be put back into a mediocre plane. So instead, I decided to make a new one.
Made of the quarter sawn beech noted above, the plane is 15″ long, about 2-5/16″ wide and about 2-5/8″ tall. The grain is oriented so the bark side is on the sole and the heart side is on the top. The blank is so perfectly quartered it almost appears riven except for the radial grain on the sides that slopes down from the toe to the heel. The double iron is 1-3/4″ wide, ground with about an 8″ radius on its edge, and as noted above, it is of laminated construction.
As described in my previous post, the grain of the handle is aligned vertically in the typical 18th century style. It is tenoned about 1-1/2″ into the body and drawbored with two oak pegs. Also, typical of 18th century planes, the handle is offset to the right side of the body rather than centered. This configuration provides for better balance in use but also favors right handed use (it can be used by southpaws, just not as ergonomically).
The corner chamfers are big and wide. This is one of the features that was minimized or eliminated in 19th century planes to reduce the cost of manufacture. However, the wide chamfers with their small carved termination really give the plane the “right” look, in my opinion. They also make the plane much more comfortable to use than later planes lacking this detail.
The strike button is ebony, because I had it. It’s oriented so that it’s end grain is on top to give it the most strength. It is set into the body about 3/4″ to 1″ (I don’t really remember to be honest). The chamfered corners on the strike button just prevent the corners from splitting off. The final detail is a small carved ornamental detail on the front of the throat. I’ve seen this referred to as a “bowtie” somewhere before, but I can’t remember where. It’s a nice little detail that is on the jack plane that I’ve been using for years, and I really like the look it gives the plane, so I added it here. It’s not a typical feature of English planes, but I think it’s a nice touch, so I will make it a feature of my planes.
Overall, I’m quite happy with how the plane turned out. It’s not perfect, and I will tweak some of the features on planes that I make in the future. But for now, it’s a vast improvement over what I have been using, and it’s another tool in my arsenal that I can say I made myself.
When the name Andre Roubo is mentioned, most people’s first thoughts are of a massive workbench. However, when you delve into the myriad of plates that were published as part of Roubo’s series of volumes on the many different facets of woodcraft, you will immediately realize that these books are about so much more than a workbench.
My first introduction to Roubo came a little over a decade or so ago, just a few years after I sold most of my power tools and machines. At the time I was engrossed in Moxon and Nicholson, but I was looking for more than what those two books were providing. Somehow, during an internet search of old books on woodworking, I came across a bunch of PDFs of plates from an old French woodworking book. I couldn’t read French, so I couldn’t understand any of the text, but the engravings were so well done that I was able to infer a lot of information just from looking at the various plates. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I found out that I had been studying plates from Roubo’s various volumes.
The plate above, Plate 14 from Roubo on Furniture Making, was one of the first ones I noticed, I think primarily because there were so many things that were familiar on it. From the try square, to the marking gauges, to the winding sticks at the bottom of the page, this plate was really consistent with many of the things I had seen and learned from the historic English texts on the craft. However, the engravings at the very top of the plate were quite interesting to me. It was obvious from the engraving at the top right that he was referring to another type of winding sticks, but these were a bit different than the typical winding sticks I had always seen and used (he appears to picture these at the bottom left of the plate). I tucked the odd winding stick engraving away for awhile and went on doing other things for the next several years.
I came back to this plate recently when I was writing an article for Popular Woodworking Magazine. I was researching the different types of miter squares I had seen for the article, and Roubo’s Plate 14 had one that appeared to have several different angles, so I built a version for the article. I was again reminded of those odd winding sticks, but I hadn’t the time to try them out at the time. So again the image got tucked back into the memory banks to be recalled at a later date.
Recently, Don Williams wrote a short blog about his own version of Roubo’s odd winding sticks. Of course Don is the driving force behind the English translations of several of Roubo’s works, currently available, and soon to be published by the folks over at Lost Art Press. While the volume on marquetry is currently available, the volume on furniture making is still in the works, so don’t go trying to find the above plate in the volume on your book shelf. Don’s recent post reminded me of these unusual winding sticks, so since I had been making a new pair of traditional English style winding sticks anyway, I thought I’d finally make a pair of Roubo’s as well, and try them out for myself.
The first thing you notice about these winding sticks is that they aren’t just a pair of sticks. Instead, each has a pair of “legs” that lift the stick off the surface of the board. At first this seems to not make any sense. How on earth can the sticks be used to assess a board’s flatness if they don’t even touch the board. That’s when I realized that their primary purpose is not to assess flatness at all (though they can be used to do so, as I’ll discuss in a minute). They’re winding sticks, they’re primarily used to assess wind.
Traditional winding sticks, while sometimes ornate like my new pair, can be nothing more than a pair of straight sticks with parallel edges. When placed on the face of a board, they allow one to assess a board’s state of flatness and wind. In the photo above, the gap underneath the bottom of the sticks indicates that there is a slight cup across the face of this board. In addition, there is a very slight twist in the board as well, indicated by the left ebony inlay sitting slightly higher above the top of the front stick than the right ebony inlay.
Traditional winding sticks have a drawback though. They aren’t so reliable when assessing the crowned face of the board. Sure, they’ll tell you if the board is crowned, but they really can’t be reliably used to assess wind on the crowned face because they have to be balanced on the crowned face. This allows the sticks to rock on their centers, which can throw off the reading and make you chase wind that may not even exist. Sure, you could just assess the cupped face, but if the board has enough cup and twist, trying to plane the cupped face can be quite a circus act as the board rocks on its crowned face. Wedges under the high edges can help, but only so much. Sometimes, it’s just easier to flip the board over and work on the crowned face rather than chase the board around the bench.
This is where Roubo’s winding sticks shine. Because these winding sticks have “legs”, they are able to span over the crown in the board, and provide a precise assessment of the state of wind of the board. The legs ensure contact with the board only at the outside edges, where it is most important for assessing wind. But wait, there’s more…..
Closer examination of the engraving in Plate 14 reveals another interesting use of Roubo’s winding sticks on stilts. Because the “legs” span over any irregularities in the face of the board, they make correcting any wind in the board almost as easy as detecting it. Looking closely at the engraving, you can see that the legs of the winding sticks are actually reading off the bottom of a rabbet planed along the edge of the board. This was the light bulb moment for me. Using a simple rabbet plane, the wind in the board can be corrected by planing a rabbet that tapers from shallower at the low corner to deeper at the high corner. When the sticks align, the wind is gone. The resulting tapered rabbets then act as pseudo marking gauge lines. Plane the remainder of the face of the board until the rabbets just disappear, and the face is free of wind. By checking that the floor of the rabbet is flat from one end of the board to the other end, you are also ensured that the face of the board is flat.
In the photo above, the rabbets were planed a bit deeper than they needed to be for illustration purposes. This board actually did not have that much wind, but I made the rabbets a bit deeper than they needed to be just to show how I think these winding sticks would be used.
Above you can see how the rabbet is planed along the edge while the center of the board is left untouched. The rabbets then become depth gauges for planing the board flat and free of wind. As an additional benefit, the rabbets allow you to traverse the board (plane across the grain) without fear of blowing out the grain on the far edge. When you get close to being finished, you can also slide the legs out of the way and use the sticks alone as a straight edge. There’s a lot to like about this method, and these winding sticks.
So after building and using these winding sticks, I’m even more anxious to read Don’s detailed essay on them in the upcoming Roubo on Furniture volume that will hopefully be released later this year. My observations are really based only on the engravings and my own experimentation. I have no text to back any of this up. So I’m interested to see how my experimental archaeology compares with what Roubo (and Don) actually wrote about these winding sticks. I’m curious to see if there are any other uses for them that I haven’t yet discovered.
On the down side, the legs do make assessing minor wind a bit more difficult than traditional winding sticks without the legs. The tops of the legs break up the straight line of the sticks, so when there is only a minor bit of wind, I find it easier to see with the traditional sticks. However, I can see the legged versions being more useful for stock that is a little less flat to start out. And using the rabbet as a marking gauge for planing is, in my eyes, just pure genius. It allows you to more or less plane the entire surface of the board flat without constantly stopping to check for wind during the process, because you are simply planing to a line.
Can’t wait to see what other gems Don and crew have uncovered when the new volume comes out!
Note: All of my old podcast videos have been moved to my YouTube channel. You can now watch this video here:
Over my years of acquiring and tuning old molding planes, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re very similar to our children. Sometimes when tuning up an old molding plane, they’re very well behaved, doing exactly what you ask them to without a single struggle. Other times, they’re defiant, ornery, and make you want to pull out what’s left of your hair. So it was with these three. One was the good little child while the other two were the devil twins. Still, when they’re finally all cleaned up and on their best behavior, there’s nothing in life (or in woodworking) that can bring a parent more pleasure than their children (or their molding planes).
The December 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine recently came out. In this issue, I wrote a piece for the Arts & Mysteries column in which I talked about choosing woods based not just upon their looks, but for the application and the ease with which they are worked. Well, on the heels of that article, I’ve recently found myself working with a couple of kiln dried species that I specifically suggested be avoided if possible, ash and hard maple. Working with these two kiln dried woods has reminded me once again why I typically try to avoid the dried versions of woods this hard. In my defense, they’re intended for very high stress applications, so I need their rigidity and strength. However, that doesn’t make them any easier to work with.
Some time back, I timed myself ripping a 40″ length of a 4/4 board of black walnut. It took me about 2:00, give or take. For a similar sized piece of white pine, I’d expect it to take about half that long. For this similar length of 8/4 hard maple, it took just over 13:00. Same saw; same sawyer. But it took almost 7 times as long.
You may have seen the podcast “Flat & Square” where I timed myself facing a piece of walnut about 10″ wide. It took about 5-1/2 minutes to surface one side of that wide board. The maple, again, took about 13:00, for a face a bit longer than the walnut board, but about 1/3 of its width. Once again, same tools, same craftsman, much more difficult material.
Finally, there’s the mortises. Two 3/8″ thick through mortises in 3″ hard maple. Let’s just say they took a bit longer than the same sized mortise in pine. The Ray Iles mortise chisel worked like a champ though. It was ready for more after these two maple mortises, no sharpening required.
The mating double tenons took much longer as they had to be much more precisely fit since maple does not compress nearly as much as a softer species. After some paring here and there, they were finally “persuaded” into position.
The final result was certainly worth the extra effort, since, as I mentioned, these are high stress items where rigidity and strength were much more important than workability and appearance. But working these timbers made me ready for a nice piece of Eastern white pine.