Saturday, October 23, 2010

Intro Hand Tools: Practice Materials

Go: Intro Hand Tools Main Page | Table Of Contents

In order to practice techniques, you'll need some materials. These are going to be turned into scrap. Rather than considering that a waste, consider it an investment. Better to make mistakes on materials you intend to throw away than those you're using for a project, where you may have already invested considerable time and energy working on them. The mistakes you make during practice will be highly educational.

That should also give you the freedom to be fearless about trying things. By definition, a piece that's destined for the trash or the fireplace can't be ruined! The time you spend turning these into shavings, chips, and dust will give you the confidence to work on real projects, and you'll know what mistakes to avoid.

Practice Blades
Practice Lumber

Practice Blades

Learning to sharpen well by hand takes practice. You need to grind and hone some blades to learn the angles and build the muscle memory. However, if the only plane blades you have are the ones that cames with your expensive Lie-Nielsen planes or your treasured antiques, you're probably going to be nervous about ruining them. Likewise with expensive chisels and hand saws.

So instead, get some really cheap ones for practice. You can grind these down to nothing while learning and not be upset. There are two sources for cheap blades. First is flea markets. There are always vendors with collections of old, rusty, beat up, used up, bent up, cracked, damaged, and abused plane irons, chisels, and saws. They're usually just a dollar or two, because they're too far gone to be put back to use and too ugly to be collectible, or they may have been cheap junk to begin with.

The second source is the cheap hand tools available at home centers and hardware stores. While they may not be high-enough quality for serious woodworking, they're just fine for sharpening practice. You only need to spend $20 or $30.

Cheap home center blades for sharpening practice: saw, $10; replacement plane iron, $3; set of chisels, $10. None of these have any maker's marks on them.

The one thing to avoid is saws that have visibly hardened teeth (they may say "impulse hardened" or something similar). These teeth are very brittle, so attempting to file them will likely just snap them off. On the other hand, you could snap them all off deliberately to remove the hardened edge and then practice filing teeth into the remaining sawplate.

Practice Lumber

For practice lumber, get one board each of four or five locally-available woods that you expect to be using, approximately 1"x8"x8'. You want a range of woods of different hardness, density, and grain characteristics, because each one will work a little differently as you practice the various techniques. You may master a technique with one wood, only to find you need to relearn it when working with a different wood.

Get the wood rough if you can for maximum learning opportunity, dimensioned otherwise; most home center lumber is dimensioned. You may also want to try both flatsawn and quartersawn wood, as well as thicker 6/4 and 8/4 stock if it's available.

Expect to spend between $80 and $150 total. Remember, that money is an investment in your skills, not a waste. A waste is when you ruin the cherry cabriole leg you just spent the past two days making, because you haven't done enough mortising practice. That's a waste!

For me in the northeastern US, some common woods are pine, poplar, cherry, oak, and maple. If you're in another part of the world, say Australia, you may have completely different woods with much different characteristics (for instance, tropical woods tend to be very hard and dense, wearing down tool edges quickly).

As a beginner, do yourself a favor and start out with softer woods before moving on to the harder ones. This is both because they're physically easier to work, and because you're sharpening skills may not be developed enough yet to tackle the harder stuff. A plane iron that's not well sharpened will just skate across a dense tropical wood like it was glass, without cutting anything. That's not a learning experience, it's just frustrating. On the other hand, harder woods will take more precise shapes, so they may be more rewarding when you're practicing fine joinery. That's why you want a range of woods to try.

Start out with the straightest grained pieces you can find, and save the gnarly-grained stuff for when you've developed some experience controlling the tools. You don't need problem grain getting in the way of learning the fundamentals.

My selection of practice lumber: 4/4 cherry, maple, poplar and oak, and 6/4 pine, all rough. The pine and poplar are softer, the cherry, oak, and maple are harder. The poplar, cherry, and maple have very close grain, the oak has very open grain. Cherry tends to be my favorite due to workability, fine shaping, and appearance.

We'll follow the precision cutting plan below for our practice cuts. The dimensions given are for an 8' length of 8" stock, but you can adapt them proportionally to whatever actual size lumber you have available. The exact dimensions aren't important because you're not trying to build a specific project, but once you pick some dimensions, we'll focus on finishing the pieces to size with precision. And if you ruin a dimension, you can just pick a new one and try again.

Practice cutting plan (click on it for a larger image). Scale on bottom and right show approximate dimensions. Adapt it to the actual board you have. Hopefully your lumber is straighter than this drawing!

The cuts are numbered to show order of operations. This gives a range of large and small crosscuts, long and short rips, working on large and small pieces. The goal is to use different sizes and types of saws, managing different size workpieces, while creating finished-size pieces to be used for practicing subsequent techniques. Some of these pieces will also be resawn to thinner stock and cut on curves.

By the time you've turned this stack of lumber into waste, you'll have done each operation 10 to 20 times. That may not be enough to achieve mastery, but it should be enough to sort through the various problems and mistakes you might encounter on a real project.

But don't start cutting yet! There are a few more things to go over and then we'll start to break the lumber down in Chapter 8, Saw Skills.

For another approach to practice, Robert Lang of Popular Woodworking Magazine did an excellent series of blog posts on the Gottshall Block, an exercise created by Franklin Gottshall for cabinetmaking practice. The full series is listed below. You might want to save some of your practice pieces for doing this. You'll see some similar activities in the following chapters.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Taking Al Breed's Ball And Claw Carving Class

A gorgeous fall weekend in South Berwick, ME, and Rollinsford, NH.

This weekend I got to take Al Breed's Ball and Claw Carving class at The Breed School in Rollinsford, NH, just across the Salmon Falls River from South Berwick, Me. The class was fantastic. Al has spent over 30 years doing high end furniture reproduction. If you ever get a chance to spend some time with a museum-quality woodworker like Al, take it!

I found out about the class on the SAPFM forum. I hadn't been planning on doing anything like it, but the opportunity was there, and I've always had an interest in trying carving. After a brief e-mail exchange during which Al assured me that it was suitable for a complete novice, I signed up. This was actually my first woodworking class, and my first attempt at carving; I couldn't have asked for a better start.

He turned out to be an excellent teacher, patient, full of experience, and generous with his knowledge. His school is located in an old mill. It's jammed full of hand tools, patterns, and examples. There are 5 student workbenches and a sharpening area. Portable point-source lighting is available at each bench. Students can bring their own tools or use his. He graciously gave me permission to photograph anything I wanted to.

The mill in Rollinsford.

The falls above the mill.

My workstation. Note the stackable risers under the legs. These can be added or subtracted to adjust bench height for each student.

My workpiece and carving vise. The practice blanks are pine.

Remember I said Al is generous with his knowledge? He also gave me permission to do a blog post on building his carving vise, so I took plenty of detailed pictures. It's a simple, practical design that can be clamped or screwed to the bench. He said he designed it based on an old iron carving vise someone showed him.

Four of the student benches.

Opposite view.

Another view showing some of the many carving examples.

The sharpening station. Al does most of his sharpening on waterstones and leather-covered strop paddle.

Patterns for various legs.

A selection of planes and gauges, including a number of planes Al has made for reproducing period moldings.

Time to get to work. Al took us step-by-step through the operations. Throughout the two days, he constantly moved from bench to bench, checking on progress, helping us work through problems, and demonstrating cuts.

We each had a casting of the ball and claw version we were making. When I had first seen these castings online, I didn't appreciate them. However, I quickly learned to! Having a three dimensional object to turn and hold up to the work was much better than photos. Plus, you can hold carving chisels up to the casting to pick the right size for a particular cut.

Initial V-tool work.

Making good progress.

What happens when you take a class at a museum-quality studio? Your lunch table is insanely gorgeous!

For lunch, Al pulled out this magnificent reproduction of a Newport tea table he keeps at home. The original sold for eight million dollars; Sotheby's commissioned him to build copies for the family. However, he said the leg carving detail on this one wasn't good enough, though it's still worth ten thousand dollars. No one wanted to put their food down on it! After lunch we flipped it over on a blanket for closer examination.

Al compared learning to carve to an artist's gesture drawings, in which the artist tries to capture a subject with a quick 30-second sketch. Bold shapes define it, the details can come later. Repeated practice is what builds improvement. So once I had the first carving done, rather than spend time cleaning up tool marks, I started another on the other end of the blank.

Roughing in initial reference cuts with a saw. I was just able to finish this one yesterday.

I managed to complete two more carvings today. They're full of little gouges and tool marks, but I got the general process down. The rest is just refining.

I bought three castings from Al, one foot and two sequential fan carvings. That means they show the order of operations in sequence.

One of the other students, Rob Champagne, brought some cherry legs to carve. They're for a highboy he's building from one of Al's plans. He's already built a beautiful lowboy. Photos are here on The Breed School website.

Al, left, with Rob Champagne.

Remember I said Al was generous with his knowledge? Here's a final bonus. During lunch, he had mentioned that the new PBS show Rough Cut had filmed a segment with him, where he demonstrated cutting dovetails. So just before I left, I asked him about how he cuts them for fit. He said, "Here, I'll show you!"

No layout, just gauge the ends, mark indentations with chisel sides for width, and go, pins first. A unique way of holding the saw like a plumb bob that guarantees the tails will be cut square to the edge. Fast, and a nice snug fit that he called too loose!

During the hour-and-a-half drive home, I kept looking at the sweep of the roadway and visualizing cutting it with a carving gouge. I'll probably dream about it.

Al teaches several other carving and furniture-building classes. Some of the them are quite intensive, lasting a week or more. He said he plans to do more weekend classes. I hope to be able to take them!