Sunday, July 31, 2011

Habitat For Humanity: Nashua Children's Home, part 2

(Go back to part 1)

Another hot humid day, but at least it was 10 degrees cooler than last week. Returning this week were Eric Moore, Tom LaRochelle, Roger Hall, Renee Reder, and Andy Moskal. New people were Colin Walters from Dell, Judy Giroux, David McNamara, and Rob Gustafson from Amphenol TCS, Rob's son Jim, and Julia Croteau, a local high school student.

David and Colin securing the landing section to the J-bolts in the concrete footings.

Detail of the anchor system.

Judy and I cut up about 40 boards on the chop saw for the decking. Here she's using my 100-or-so-year-old crosscut saw to complete a cut in a board that was bowed, binding the chop saw blade.

Rob and Jim securing the joists in the landing with hangers. Renee and Roger are setting posts in the background, while Eric clears the ground for another.

Colin and Andy cutting a post.

Tom and Julia nailing up a crossbeam hanger in the lower ramp.

Andy and Rob bolting posts in.

Rob and Jim start nailing down the decking.

The posts in place on the lower ramp, along with the sleepers for the lower landing.

David, Rob, and Jim finishing the landing decking.

View down the ramp, with some of the railing in place. I got to do a little hand tool work among all the power tools, using my #5, #6, and NX-60 planes to flush the transition from the 1" decking to the 3/4" porch flooring and fair it out. Hence the shavings. Jim was fascinating by the planing process and results.

The day's progress. Looks good and solid!

This will continue next Saturday, but I expect to be out of town, so I won't be able to work on it. They'll add the remaining railings and balusters, add the final section after the lower landing, and complete the decking.

I did get in a little trouble with my daughter when I got home. She asked why I was so tired. When I told her what I'd been doing, she said, "I would have gone with you!" Oops, it never occurred to me to ask her! Well, they have more projects.

(Continue to part 3)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Night Of 100 Cuts

Dovetail sawing practice production line: crosscut station, shooting station, and dovetail sawing station.

No, this isn't some Roger Corman horror flick. It's a sawing exercise for developing precise control. Nor is it anything new. Many instructors recommend some form of it.

In this exercise, you make a number of repeated rip cuts to marked lines in the end of a practice board. Then you cut them all off and do a new set. This repetition will improve your dovetail sawing. The goal is to hit the lines perfectly on a consistent basis. Precise sawing is the secret to dovetails that fit well.

With the board held upright in a vise or clamped to your bench, you'll make sets of 3/4" cuts in 5 different orientations:
  • Square across and square down.
  • Angled across to the left and square down.
  • Angled across to the right and square down.
  • Square across and angled down to the left.
  • Square across and angled down to the right.
The first one is a simple starter, what you would use when cutting tenons to width. The remainder are the four cuts that form dovetail pins and tails. Every dovetail cut is square in one axis and angled in another. Because you stand and sight along one side of the saw or the other, it's a bit different cutting to the right vs. cutting to the left.

If you make 10 cuts in each orientation, then repeat the whole set, that's 100 cuts total. It'll take about 2 hours to mark and cut these, but you should find your sawing accuracy improving rapidly. Don't have 2 hours? Just do 50 cuts.

If you repeat this every month or so, that'll be a year of 1000 cuts! Think your skill will improve if you do something 1000 times? I do. It's just like a guitarist or pianist or violinist who develops the dexterity to hit the right notes all the time through repeated practice.

It's worth varying the species of wood you practice with each time. The cutting characteristics of each will be a bit different, affecting your control. You'll want to use your best dovetail saw for this, and it should be sharp.

Saw's not sharp? Take the time now to sharpen it.

If you don't have a saw vise, you can read about making one in this post, which also includes links to Tom Lie-Nielsen's videos on sharpening joinery saws.

It's also worth using a dovetail marker. For a while I resisted using one. "Dovetail marker? I don't need no stinking dovetail marker!" Until I decided to make dozens of cuts. A marker speeds up the layout significantly.

Here's my slight variation of Christian Becksvoort's marker. It's a 1:6 pitch, which is 10 degrees. Feel free to vary that or make multiple markers. I used poplar.

Start with a block squared up 1 3/4" on each side, at least 3" long. And I mean sides squared to each other as perfectly as your skills will allow. This is where you can loosen the leash on your perfectionist side, because a poor marker will result in poor dovetails. Square a line around 3/4" from the end; this will be the top. The blade of the marker is basically a thin tenon.

Using a cutting gauge set at 3/4" to mark down the sides of the blade from each side, front and back. That leaves a 1/4"-thick blade.

Sawing down the shoulders to the blade after trimming to 3" length. You might find it easier to hold by sawing the shoulders before cutting to length.

Sawing down the cheeks of the blade.

Fine paring of the shoulder, using just one corner of the chisel and proceeding across the width.

Using a large slick to pare the cheek.

Marking the slope with a cardboard template. To make the template, draw a right triangle 6" tall and 1" wide. Cut the base and slope of the triangle on the line, but cut the template wide so it will span the width of the marker. This makes it easier to hold in place. Mark both sides of both edges of the blade.

Rough paring of the waste, down to within about 1/16" of the line. Use the waste blocks as spacers to help clamp it in the vise.

Fine paring using a small shoulder plane. At this point, you want the finest possible shavings, because you're getting close to the line, and you need to establish the cut of the plane along it. Ease on up to it slowly, rushing will only end in tears.

The end result. The slope of the blade terminates exactly at the shoulder line. You can see the kind of tiny parings I'm talking about. Repeat for the other side, then check the marker the way you check a square: mark one line on a scrap, then flip the marker and mark a second line next to the first. They should be dead-on parallel.

Fine tuning. One side didn't quite match the other by a hair. Ever so slightly, pull the marker down the plane to take a ghost of a shaving, and check it.

After tuning, the line on the right from one side of the marker, the line on the left from the other. Now you can trust this marker to mark consistently from either side.

Lightly chamfering the top edges and corners to be easy in the hand. Leave all the marking edges sharp and crisp.

Time to start sawing. Prepare a piece of 3/4" stock about 3" wide and 12-18" long. Square it all up with good edges. Set up your bench roughly as shown in the first photo above, with a bench hook for crosscutting the end and a shooting board for squaring it precisely. You might want to use a bench-on-bench or Moxon double-screw vise to elevate the work and save your back.

Using a marking gauge set to the thickness of the stock, scribe a baseline across the end on the front and back. Mount the board end-up for cutting.

Scribing the end with a cutting gauge.

The first set of cuts are marked out with a square. With the square on the end, mark about 10 lines from the end to the baseline, at roughly 1/4" intervals. None of these measurements needs to be precise. What needs to be precise is your square markings.

Using the square, carry the lines straight across the end grain, then carry them straight down the other side. You're ready to cut.

The square cuts marked out.

Make the first cut. You decide how you want to start it and keep it oriented to the lines. Sorting that all out is part of this exercise. How your start the saw, whether you tip it up or not, whether you watch from one side of the saw or the other, how often you check the back, these are all up to you, and you may find it changing as you progress.

When the cut is complete, check it front and back. Was it dead on the line both sides? Was it at least parallel to the lines? Or did it skew off at an angle on the front or the back? Did you overcut past the baseline, or stop short of it?

Go down the row and do the remainder of the cuts, each time checking front and back. You should see improvement as your brain works out the details of hand-eye coordination.

Front view of the cuts.

How did the backs turn out?

If you're not seeing improvement by the last cut, here are some things to pay attention to:
  • Are you overgripping the saw? Hold it in a relaxed, almost loose grip, with you index finger extended along the saw.
  • Are you trying to force the cut? Let the weight of the saw provide downward force, and let the teeth do their work.
  • Are you jerking the saw in short strokes? Use steady, smooth strokes for the length of the saw.
  • Are you standing at an awkard angle? Stand so that your arm has clear back and forth motion from you shoulder.
It's easy to get all tensed up because you're so focused on doing a good job. You end up with a death grip on the saw and you're trying to jam the teeth all the way through the cut in one stroke. Relax. Smooth, fluid control is what you want. Take a little break every few cuts to loosen up. You'll feel this in your hand before you're done.

Just because you saw some guy who's made a thousand dovetails slice through in a second, you're not there yet. But this is working on your thousand.

Now that you've done your simple cuts, time to start working on your angled cuts. Each one is a slightly different learning experience. Use your dovetail marker, or set a bevel gauge to a reasonable dovetail angle. Cut off all those last set of cuts and re-square up the end of the board on your shooting board.

The first row cut off. Anyone need blank Scrabble tiles?

Scribe your baselines again and mount the board end-up. Mark cut lines at an angle to the left across the endgrain and carry them straight down to the baseline on both sides. The dovetail marker makes it easy to mark both an angled line and a straight line in one position.

Marking out the left-angling cuts, viewed from the rear.

This is the next-easiest set of cuts, because you're still holding the saw plumb. Make and check these cuts as before. Again, you should expect to see improvement as you go along.

Using my thumb to guide the saw as I get it started. Once it gets this far, the cut is committed, and you can't change the angle.

Cut these off, square up the end, and mark it up again the same way, except angling to the right across the endgrain. Cut and check, monitoring your progress.

Viewed from the front again, marking out the right-angling cuts.

Now we get to the most difficult cuts, where you're holding the saw leaning at an angle. Here gravity starts to fight you as you try to hold the angle throughout the cut. Cut off the last set and square up. Mark angled lines from the end, angling to the left. Carry them straight across the endgrain, then down the back at the matching angle.

Marking out the left-leaning cuts.

By now you have the benefit of the control you've gained over the last 30 cuts, but these are still a new thing to learn. Cut and check. You may need to hold the saw a bit more firmly to keep it from falling off the proper angle, and starting and sighting along the line will be a bit different.

When you've done these, cut them off, prepare the board, and mark them the same way, but angled to the right. When you finish these cuts, you'll have done a total of 50.

Marking out the right-leaning cuts.

Forty pieces on the bench, cutting off the last 10.

Ready for more? Do it all over again! That's 100 cuts. By the end of this, your back and shoulders may be complaining, and your eyes may be crossing. If you haven't stopped before this, stop now. At some point fatigue outweighs the benefits of practice.

Repeat this a few times over the next several months. Once you're satisfied with the results and don't need to do any more, it's still worth taking a few practice cuts like this every so often to maintain the skill. Many people recommend it as a quick warmup before cutting into a real workpiece.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Habitat For Humanity: Nashua Children's Home

This is a little different from my usual woodworking. It's more general construction and carpentry work than fine joinery. But it's still building stuff and learning.

Our admin assistant at work had forwarded an email requesting volunteers from companies in the area to assist with a Habitat For Humanity project replacing the handicap ramp at Nashua Children's Home. I've always admired Habitat for their pragmatic combination of self-sufficiency, compassion, and a sense of community.

The morning started out comfortably as I left home, 66 degrees after a thunderstorm, but due to the heat wave currently gripping the Northeast (and most of the rest of the country), once the sky cleared the temperature rose rapidly, hot and humid. By the time we packed up and left at 3, it was 96 degrees.

Fortunately, there were a good number of volunteers for this relatively simple project. People were able to double up and tag-team on the most physically laborious jobs, like digging holes for sonotubes.

The project was run by Habitat leader Eric Moore, who works at BAE Systems. With him were Habitat regulars Tom LaRochelle, Roger Hall, and Renee Reder, who is working on her masters degree in architecture. Andy Moskal and I were there from Dell. There was a group from Amphenol TCS: Al Astbury, Clay Sammis, Brian Wozniak, and Kelly Gentry; they share the same campus as Dell, the old Digital Equipment Corporation ZKO site. Additional volunteers were Elliot Doughty and Susan Li.

Interestingly, in addition to her Habitat work, Renee had been a First Lego League competitor before going off to MIT for her architectural undergrad work. There are a couple of FLL coaches in my group at work. Inspired by FLL, I had run the robotics club at my kids' middle school for four years, though we didn't participate in the competition. Like Jameel Abraham at Benchcrafted, I was a Lego-crazed builder from the age of 5.

Al had run a remodeling business for a few years, so he had experience building decks and was familiar with the construction codes. He worked closely with Eric and Roger directing the site preparation and footing construction, while Tom, Renee, and Elliot constructed the basic ramp sections. The rest of us, while capable with contractor's tools and familiar with small-scale home construction projects, served largely as the unskilled labor.

The stack of pressure-treated lumber for the new ramp.

Al uses a breaker bar to start through the asphalt as Andy watches and Brian grabs a post-hole digger. There were enough diggers to have two people at a time on each hole.

We soon had all the 4'-long sonotubes in their holes, everybody drenched with sweat. Eric and Roger watch as Al and Brian check the tube positioning. Fortunately the soil was mostly sandy with only a small amount of stone.

Kelly cuts the rebar down to size for setting into the sonotubes.

Elliot, Renee, and Tom cutting the joists for the main ramp run. By this time the sun was blazing, so I set up my portable canopy. They considered this luxury working conditions!

Kelly, Brian, Clay, and Andy mixing up the concrete.

After backfilling around the tubes, Clay, Brian, and Al filling them with concrete.

Renee and Elliot nailing up the main ramp box. They left one joist out temporarily to cut down on weight and provide clearance while securing the box. We later nailed it in with hangers.

Clay setting a J-bolt and hardware in one of the topped-off tubes. The main ramp section is in place, along with the box for the landing.

Clay working on the J-bolt while Susan nails in hangers for the joists. The ramp makes a 90-degree turn at the landing, continuing down to ground level at a 5 degree pitch.

Kelly, Elliot, and Brian anchoring the ramp header. We drove large lag bolts into the porch joists and into blocks on the side that Roger had secured to the foundation with masonry bolts. This was the first time I'd used a heavy impact hammer.

Eric using a concrete nail gun to secure anchors to the building foundation. Ka-BLAM!

Nothing more could be done until the concrete had cured. By this time we were all huffing and puffing from the heat, and we had pretty much reached the scheduled end time. Tom said it was great to see how much work had been completed; he hadn't expected to get that far. The nature of volunteer construction is that you never know if two people will show up or 20.

Next Saturday, after the footings have cured, we'll anchor the ramp to them and complete the construction.

(Continue to part 2)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lie-Nielsen 30th Anniversary Open House

A beautiful summer day in Warren, ME.

Saturday, I went to the Lie-Nielsen 30th anniversary open house, in Warren, ME. It was a gorgeous day, barely a wisp of cloud in the sky, though quite warm. I had been to the 25th anniversary open house in 2006, where I bought my first Lie-Nielsen tools, a pair of small joinery saws and a dowel plate.

This was a good buying trip, too, since after 5 years I finally stepped up and bought a #4 and #7, as well as a small shoulder plane and set of saw sharpening files, and the Steve Latta DVD on federal table inlay. Thanks to my dear wife for letting me buy them, I know she loves me! While I've tuned my old Stanley 4, 6, and 7 reasonably well, there's no question that the LN's just work better every time I've tried them.

One of the things I like about the Lie-Nielsen events is that they bring in a number of other small tool vendors and schools, plus well-known guest demonstrators. This is a chance to try out some great tools and watch some highly-skilled woodworkers. I've learned never to pass up a chance to watch someone who's better than me. My apologies to those I've overlooked here.

Ron Brese with his custom infill planes. The mass of these planes imakes them oblivious to the wood, they just float across, producing feathery shavings. Unfortunately, they exceed even my expanded budget. and

Bob Van Dyke of the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking. He gave me some excellent tips on fitting tenons, and told me about an upcoming class Steve Latta will be teaching on federal table building. My neighbor down the street, Freddy Roman, whom I met through SAPFM, is an instructor for CVSW.

Garrett Hack. I had him autograph an article in one of my books, under his autograph from the 25th anniversary open house. I also put in my request for a design book of some sort. I love his work, full of fine, subtle details. Are you listening, Taunton?

Peter Follansbee demonstrating 17th-century carving. I had met him when he did a demonstration for the NE chapter of SAPFM in May. He told me he follows Close Grain on the aggregator. I don't have any books or articles by Peter, so I had him autograph my copy of Drew Langsner's book Green Woodworking under Drew's autograph, since he's taught at Drew's school. and

Christian Becksvoort demonstrating dovetailing. He doesn't saw out the waste, he chisels up the top 1/16th-inch chip or two, similar to making half-blind dovetails, then makes a deep chop with the chisel slightly undercutting. He repeats on the other side, which completes the chop through. A quick cleanout of the corners with a sharp Murphy knife, and it's done. Wait a second, Murphy knives are made 3 blocks from my house!

Jameel Abraham with his Benchcrafted products, using his tiny miter box for slicing inlays. He showed me how he works with the geometric inlays featured in his article in the April, 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. These are just beautiful, and once you have a few shapes, you can form them into complex repeating patterns. He looked at my CloseGrain logo T-shirt and said, "Is that your blog? I know you!" Cool! and

Upstairs in the classroom, it's hand tool heaven. Multiple benches set up, with plenty of LN tools and demonstrators answering questions and showing people how to use them.

Kevin Drake, of Glen-Drake Toolworks, whom I had also met at the 25th. I use his Tite-Mark gauge all the time.

Raney Nelson, of Daed Toolworks, and more infill planes that just glide across the work. and

Matt Bickford's molding planes. He showed me a set of ogee bracket feet he had made with the large pair of #13 hollow and round on the left end of the row. and

Pat Megowan, an Oregon furnituremaker working as a demonstrator for LN, left, and Konrad Sauer. Pat is trying out one of Konrad's magnificent Sauer and Steiner infills. I went through his whole set, making pillow-filling shavings.; and

Pat was particularly helpful when I was trying out the LN 4's and 7's. He critiqued several details of my plane handling and gave me some important tips. In particular, I was using too much downward pressure, especially on the toe of the plane, and too much arm motion, not enough lower body. He set the 7 for a heavier cut and had me work on putting more body into it, saying, "Imagine how fast that tires you out if you use too much arm motion." These are the kind of fine details that make it worth paying close attention to others more skilled than I.

I also had a nice conversation with a lovely young lady named Emily who turned out to be a boat-builder. I don't have a picture of her, which is just as well, because everyone would be emailing me asking for her phone number! I told her about my daughter's school project building Harry Bryan's dory skiff, and Harry's email about it. It turned out she knows Harry, and had seen him a couple weeks ago at the Mystic Wooden Boat Show.

And speaking of Harry, there was an organization there featuring boatbuilding, the Compass Project, which bases a youth development program on building and rowing. The wooden kayak they had on display? A Harry Bryan design. Naturally, I found that out as a result of telling them about my daughter's project. Yes, the proud father on the loose!

The day ended with a lobster bake, catered by the Narrows Tavern in Waldoboro, ME. This was the best lobster I've ever had! They also had clams, which were also the best I've ever had, and I'm not normally a clam person.

My wife and I were joined for dinner by Duane, the fellow who had been the first to respond and get me one of my first interviews when I was laid off back in December. He's another hobbyist who works near me in the same industry.

The guys from Narrows Tavern pulling the lobsters out. They baked them in seawood on a steel plate elevated over a small fire. Hot work on a hot day!

Setting out the plates of lobster, clams, and corn. The seaweed was not part of the meal.

Actually, the day hadn't quite ended yet. Timber framer Steve Chappell and his three sons were working on a small replica of the roof and cupola structure on the LN building. They had been at it all day, and worked past dinner to complete it. It was full of intricate, precise joinery, like a giant puzzle hewn from the raw timbers.

I bought a copy of the new 2011 edition of Steve's book, A Timber Framer's Workshop: Joinery, Design & Construction of Traditional Timber Frames, and had him autograph it. This is spectacular in breadth, full of details of design, construction, and engineering. I'll probably never get to build a timber-frame project, but I'll know how!

Steve paring the shoulder of a tenon with a large framing slick.

Closeup of Asher Chappell paring another tenon. The precision fitting was beautiful, because everything had to come together at once.

Tait Chappell paring off the point on the tenon of a rafter. Ok, that's probably not the right term, but I haven't read the book yet!

The base fitted in place.

Rapid progress on assembly once all the trimming and fitting has been done.

A tough crowd: all the LN demonstrators, including the Australian LN distributor (who knows Derek Cohen, whom I follow on several woodworking forums). How's that for a little pressure?

Setting rafters from the four corners. Tom Lie-Nielsen watches in the background at the end of the building.

After some final adjustments, the structure is complete. It should also have a cap, but they didn't have time for that.

A note of travelogue: my wife and I spent the night at the lovely Craignair Inn, at Spruce Head off the main road from Thomaston. Breakfast was an excellent frittata and tomato on English muffin, with blueberry and orange muffins on the side.

How about waking up to this every morning? The view off the porch outside the dining room.

We stayed in the vestry building.

I'm looking forward to the 35th!