Friday, August 26, 2011

First Student

I'm happy to report that I've had two sessions with my first private instruction student, Larry Ciccolo. Larry, I'd like to thank you for putting your trust in me, and for letting me write about it!

He didn't realize he was my first victim, er, student, when he contacted me, but I told him when we were unloading my toolbox at his house. It's another milestone for me, and I appreciate the opportunity.

I recognized Larry's name from the Sawmill Creek Neanderthal Haven forum, and he tells me he's a frequent visitor to CloseGrain. He's been a power tool user for many years, but recently has developed an interest in hand tools. He works in the high-tech industry, and told me one of the reasons he was interested in my instruction is that he saw I'm a software engineer. He says he knows software engineers are always interested in doing a good job (despite the, ahem, occasional bug!).

His basement shop is well-equipped, divided into power- and hand-tool workspaces. He's clearly been paying close attention to online tool discussions. Like all of us, he loves accumulating tools. He has an excellent selection of Lie-Nielsen planes, chisels, and saws, as well as Bad Axe saws, several restored Stanley planes from Bill Rittner ( and Tablesaw Tom, and some wooden moulding planes from Matt Bickford. Most were bought new, but several items were good scores on eBay and Craigslist.

He has a beautiful cabinetmaker's workbench that he built in a class at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking ("7 days of 12 hours!"). The vises are Lie-Nielsen hardware. The face vise is an LN chain-drive vise, and it's a joy to use. He's also a member of Shannon Rogers' online Hand Tool School, where the second project is building a split-top sawbench. This is a nice style, because it fully supports the workpiece when ripping, and deals with the problem of how to finish off the rip without cutting into the bench.

I was unfamiliar with Bill Rittner and Tablesaw Tom, but a little searching online turned up several references. Chris Schwarz did a nice blog post about Bill's replacement knobs and totes. The totes are subtly different from the originals, but some quick handling shows that they would definitely be more comfortable over long planing sessions. A number of people on different forums recommended Tablesaw Tom's plane restorations. Bill also does full restorations. The planes Larry had them both restore were beautiful, rivaling the machining, fit, and finish of the Lie-Nielsens. Nothing has left the Stanley factory that nice since World War II.

Now that Larry has amassed the tools, he's amassing the skills to use them. During our first session, we discussed options for organizing his workspace. He's working on a plane till that he wants to hang, and I went over my current method of storing everything on a tool wall next to the bench. For the second session, he had moved the bench out to the center, similar to my layout.

Larry's workbench and sawbench.

The future tool wall to the right of the bench. This is plywood screwed to 2x4's, which have been tap-conned to the poured concrete wall. The plane till will hang from this.

View of the power tool area from the workbench. This is all subject to fine tuning as he gets some experience with the workflow and shuffles things around.

Laying out the plane till.

One of the benefits of private instruction is that the student decides what to cover, and how long to spend on it. Larry's primary interests were basic sawing, getting full and proper use of his planes, and dovetailing.

I like to teach by demonstrating a skill, then have the student try it, and together work out any issues that arise. Often, an operation needs to be broken down into constituent steps that we examine individually.

Two of the things that came up are common themes with woodworkers new to hand tools. First is the appropriate degree of precision for an operation. I always like to have people rip down a long board, because no one ever thinks they can keep to the line. I get them started, showing them how to steer the saw, then have them deliberately go off course so they can correct it. Naturally, this leaves a wavy cut.

Most people tend to want laser precision in this operation. I always point out that this is a rough operation, to be cleaned up in seconds with handplanes, no matter how bad off it is. Decide what tolerance you can reach at your present skill level, and leave that amount of margin. That's the appropriate degree of precision. Anything finer is wasted time. As long as you don't cross your finished dimension, any cut is acceptable here.

The next steps produce an almost magical dawning. Starting with a heavily cambered jack or scrub plane, we quickly chew the edge down to near the line, then shift to a jointer. A few quick passes with the iron set rank to get really close, then set fine for the final passes. Suddenly you realize it doesn't matter how well the rip cut went, that first meat-eater of a plane tames the ugliest edge in no time.

After doing his 4' rip cut, Larry pulled out a #6 that he said had a slightly cambered iron. I said, that's nothing, and pulled out the old wooden razee jack I had brought, since he had told me he wanted to see some wooden planes. I've ground that iron to an 8" radius. I also pulled out an ECE wooden scrub plane. I showed him how to use those to take big fat chips, taking down the high spots, or bringing the edge down to the low spots. He really liked the razee jack.

We measured a chip with a dial caliper: 55 thousandths! That's the flip side of this lesson in appropriate precision. Save those 3-thousandths shavings for later, right now we need SPEED! This thing was reducing the wood nearly twenty times as fast.

I told him what he needed was a cheap beater of a jack plane, iron cambered to 8". No point in spending the big bucks, it could be the ugliest dinged-up out-of-flat plane he could find, as long as it could hold an iron.

He thought for a moment, then pulled a dusty old wooden plane out from a shelf. He said his son had found it inside a wall in an old house. The tote was an ugly user-replacement, there were end-checks in the body, and the bed was dished and cracked. Perfect! It was even a razee. I knocked the iron loose to check it. It was a nice laid-steel iron and chip breaker, but not much length left. Just enough for one good shaping and a few sharpenings. But it's easily replaceable with a flea market iron.

So with all his fine planes, he can enjoy the irony of knowing this refugee from some distant past workshop will be his primary power tool for fast stock removal.

With a new tote and a cambered iron, this will become Larry's meat-eater.

After this we went through the FEWTEL sequence to four-square a board, then used several moulding planes on it.

The second thing that came up is learning to relax, especially when sawing. You're body is really part of the tool. You want to move in smooth, fluid strokes, extracting as much power as possible without wearing yourself out. Under the pressure of doing a good job, it's easy to tense up, get a death-grip on the tool. For precision operations like sawing dovetails, this ruins your control. For rough operations like heavy ripping, this wastes energy.

Correspondingly, heavy sawing and planing are the most laborious operations. They make you sweat, putting a lot of stress on the body, especially if you're not used to that level of activity. Again, relax, chill out and pace yourself. The tendency here is to try to become a human power tool, able to zip right through a board. That'll wear you out fast.

Find the steady level you're able to maintain, allowing you to work for extended periods while keeping it enjoyable. Take a break and catch your breath. In the long run it's far more efficient than trying to race through a board and exhausting yourself, or worse, hurting yourself.

Those were the broader lessons. When we got to the nitty gritty details of dovetailing, my main point was that I'm just showing one possible way; treat that as a baseline. There are many variations, everybody from the micrometer folks to the shoot-from-the-hip folks. From the fundamentals, you can branch out to all the other methods and decide which ones you like best.

Once again, Larry, thanks for the opportunity!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why Use Power Tools?

As much as I go on about using hand tools, there are excellent reasons to use power tools. I like to use hand tools for the sheer fun of it, because I'm fascinated by how they got work done 200 or 300 years ago and I want to preserve the skills. But that doesn't mean I think power tools are evil. Hand and power tools work very well together.

People jokingly refer to power tools as "tailed apprentices", but that's actually an excellent analogy. The most rational argument I've heard for mixing hand and power tools is that those master craftsmen 200 or 300 years ago had apprentices to do the bulk labor such as roughing out boards and thicknessing stock. The master would concentrate on the finer, highly skilled work.

Today, lacking human apprentices, we have the power tools to do those tasks. Given limited shop time, why spend it on the grunt work when you can spend it on the skilled work? This maximizes productivity, meaning hobbyists are able to do more projects, and professionals are able to improve their effective hourly rate.

You can see multiple examples of this. Chris Schwarz talks about coarse, medium, and fine operations, where he uses power tools such as a bandsaw for the coarse work, doing the bulk stock removal, then shifts over to hand tools for the medium and fine work.

Phil Lowe, in his excellent videos Measuring Furniture for Reproduction: with Phil Lowe and Carve a Ball and Claw Foot [VHS] (both of which are actually more like complete mini-courses in building period pieces), shows how his shop is divided into machine room and bench room. He roughs out the work in the machine room, then takes it to the bench room where he uses hand tools for final shaping and joinery. So for cabriole legs, he cuts them on the bandsaw, then refines them with spokeshave and rasp. For chair frames, he cuts them to rough dimension on the tablesaw, then planes them down with handplanes and cuts the joinery with fine handsaws, fitting them with chisels and fine joinery planes.

Likewise, on hand tool woodworking forums, you'll see people say they would never give up their tablesaw or bandsaw.

The key is to use the appropriate tools at the appropriate steps. Of course, that's a judgement call. Everyone will have their own opinion of what's appropriate, colored by the tools they have available and their skill levels.

I think where we tend to get carried away with power tools is trying to make them do every task. That starts to lead to a proliferation of jigs and time-consuming setups. If you're doing a lot of the same operation in production-line fashion, those special jigs and setups can be a worthwhile investment. But if you're only doing a few of them, I think a better balance is to use power tools in a simpler manner requiring minimal setup, then switch over to the hand tools.

Hand tools can provide an incredible degree of precision, giving you a high degree of satisfaction. People focus on power tools because they assume hand tools can't do precise work or are too difficult to use. But with practice to develop the skills, you realize that operations that seem complex aren't all that difficult. Instead of being intimidated by them, you learn to pick up the hand tools and just do them, no fuss.

So if you have the room for them and can afford them, power tools can be great time savers. Then you can switch to the hand tools for the joyful work.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Intro Hand Tools: The Workspace

Go: Intro Hand Tools Main Page | Table Of Contents

A hand tool workspace is very simple to set up, requiring as little as 4'x6'. More room is better of course, but you can setup almost anywhere. The only power requirements are for lighting. You can use a corner of a garage or basement, a porch, a backyard storage shed, even a spare bedroom, since there's less noise and dust than with power tools. You can also use a portable setup and work under a tent or tarp, or completely out in the open.

Workbench and Appliances
Sawbench and Sawhorses
Tool Storage
First Aid Kit

Workbench and Appliances

The characteristics of a bench for hand tool work are driven primarily by the requirements of planing. If you have a bench that allows you to plane comfortably, you can do any other operation on it. It needs to be the right height (most modern benches intended for use with power tools are too high), it has to be stable enough to resist the forces of planing, and it has to be able to hold the workpieces in several orientations. Work-holding features will affect your efficiency. Simple work-holding allows you to work quickly. Complex work-holding takes more time.

Height is personal, sized to you. Different authors vary on the exact relative dimension, but in general if you stand next to the bench with your arm at your side, the bench top should be between your knuckles and your wrist. It also depends on the planes you typically use; metal-bodied planes tend to be an inch or two lower than wooden-bodied planes. When the bench is the right height, you can get over your planes with your upper body as you work, so you can use body mass to move them, not just your arms. Too high a bench means your arms are bent while planing, and they'll tire quickly. Too low means you're working bent over, which will give you a sore back.

Stability comes from good structural design and from mass. Poor structure means the bench will rack and vibrate as you plane. Even with a solid structure, if the bench is too light it will move around. In general, the more massive, the better, unless portability is a requirement. A light bench can be braced up against something or secured to a wall or some kind of anchor to keep it in place.

There are many workbench designs. Realize that each is a compromise in one way or another, due to conflicting requirements. A bench that's perfect for one operation will be less than ideal for others.

Here are examples of large and small workbenches, and a portable work surface. You can read more about building the first two here: My Roubo and Portable Workbench.

Large Roubo-style workbench, with leg vise, crochet, sliding deadman along the front, planing stop, and Veritas Wonder Dog in place of a tail vise. Two Gramercy Tools holdfasts sit in dog holes. The entire front of this bench is coplanar, allowing the legs and stretcher to act as clamping surfaces.

Portable workbench. The legs fold down from the top on hinges, and are secured for use with angled braces. This bench features a frog (similar to the crochet above), planing stop with battens in dog holes, holdfast, and Wonder Dog. The front apron also has dog holes, and can act as a clamping surface.

Portable work surface, built from a quarter sheet of plywood. 2x4's are screwed to the front and left side to form an apron that hooks over the corner of a tabletop, turning any table into a makeshift workbench. Workholding is provided by modern T-track. The rear batten mounts flat in the tracks. This is for left-handed planing; for right-handers, attach the side apron on the right end.

You need to be able to hold your workpieces for face planing both across and with the grain, as well as edge and end planing. Sometimes you'll be planing small pieces, sometimes long boards.

Face planing: You can clamp the piece in place with bench dogs or some type of tail vise, or leave it loose and work it against planing stops. Both methods have their benefits; either way the piece is flat on the bench.

Clamped, the workpiece and bench form a solid mass. You just have to make sure the clamping setup doesn't get in the way of the plane. Using stops, you plane across the workpiece toward the stop, trapping the piece.

Some benches just have small narrow stops, so it takes more practice to learn how to direct the force of the plane always toward the stop. Other benches have wide stops, and may have stops in two directions, so you can plane generally into the corner they form. This is easy and fast, no fiddling with any clamp setup. You just have to get used to the workpiece sliding around a bit as you work it.

When face planing rough wood, you direct the plane at an angle that can be anywhere from straight across the grain to diagonal. For further flattening and smoothing once the rough work is done, you direct the plane at an angle anywhere between diagonal and straight with the grain.

Face planing against a narrow planing stop. The stop raises and lowers to accommodate different thicknesses.

Face planing against battens. The planing stop provides one support, while dowels in the battens drop into dog holes to provide the remainder.

Edge planing: You can secure the work across the front face of the bench, or rest it up on edge on the bench, stopped or clamped similar to face planing. Wide boards generally need to be secured to the front. Some benches have front aprons to accommodate this. Others rely on a thick top, and may have legs or other features coplanar with the front edge, so that they form a large flat clamping surface.

The board end may be trapped in a jam stop such as a frog or crochet, its lower edge simply resting on pegs inserted in the front of the bench, or it may be clamped more securely. Smaller, narrower pieces can be worked easily against a planing stop on the top of the bench once the bottom edge is reasonably square. As with surface planing using stops, this is fast and simple.

Edge planing the piece against the planing stop.

Edge planing a large piece with the end wedged into the frog, resting on holdfasts or pegs. If the piece wobbles, flip a holdfast up and knock it in to secure it.

End planing: You can secure the workpiece standing up against the front of the bench, or lay it down on a shooting board.

Many benches have a face vise and an end vise, but other configurations are also practical. A leg vise is a large vise that mounts to one of the front legs; the leg forms a clamping surface. There are various front and end-mounted twin-screw vises, where you place workpieces in between the screws and tighten down on each side. A wagon vise is a type of end vise that moves a bench dog against the work, and also provides an opening where you can clamp pieces.

Benches will usually have dog holes on the surface and along the front. In addition to using bench dogs and pegs in these holes, you can also use holdfasts, a simple and ancient method of holding work. Used on the top, they hold the piece down. Used on the front, they hold it up against the bench. Holdfasts should be of wrought iron or ductile steel, not cast iron, which is too stiff and brittle.

Workpiece secured with a holdfast. Bash it down with a mallet to set in place, bash it behind the crook to loosen it.

Dog holes will be in line with planing stops and vises to form one side of a clamping setup. Simple wooden wedges can be used to secure a piece between two dogs or between a dog and planing stop.

Using opposing wedges to lock a piece in place against a bench dog.

The one real compromise with a good planing bench is that it tends to be uncomfortably low for other operations. There are several appliances for raising your work: risers that slide under the feet of the bench to raise the whole thing; smaller auxilliary benches that sit on top of the bench, held in place with clamps or holdfasts; and removable auxilliary face vises that clamp on top. Most of the work-holding methods used for planing will be useful for other operations.

Bench-on-bench to raise the work to a comfortable height. In addition to clamping pieces for joinery, this provides an elevated work surface.

Moxon double-screw vise is another way to hold and raise the work.

After planing, chopping mortises with a chisel is the next heavy operation. This requires pounding with a mallet. But a bench robust enough for planing should be sturdy enough for mortising. Again, more mass is better.

The two primary appliances for working on a bench are a bench hook and a shooting board.

Bench hook: This allows you to hold a piece in place while crosscut sawing, without requiring clamps. It can be used for both rough and fine sawing. It's very simple and crude, consisting of a bed with a cleat on the front that catches the front edge of the bench, and a cleat at the back that stops the workpiece.

Bench hook.

The bench hook in use. Hand pressure keeps everything in place while sawing.

Shooting board: This is the precision secret weapon of hand tool work. It allows you to fine-tune the end of a board for angle or length with a plane. It can also be used to plane along the edge of a board; luthiers use this method for book-matching the pieces that form the body of a musical instrument. Similar in appearance to a bench hook, with front cleat and rear stop, it must be built carefully. In addition to the basic 90 degree shooting board for square ends, there are various versions or angle blocks for mitering at different angles.

Shooting board. This one allows shims to be placed behind the face of the stop for fine tuning to get the exact 90 degree angle.

The shooting board in use. The work is held the same way as the bench hook, while a plane is run on its side across the end. In this way the end of the board can be trimmed one fine shaving at a time for a perfect fit.

Sawbench and Sawhorses

A sawbench is a low bench that comes up to your knee, used when sawing larger pieces of lumber. You lay your board flat on the sawbench and kneel on it with one knee to hold it in place while sawing. This puts the work at a good height for powering the saw with your arm. It also allows you to work quickly, because most of the time you don't need to clamp the board.

You can use the sawbench for both crosscut and rip sawing, in the space in front of your main workbench. Besides the workbench, this is what defines the minimum workspace you need.

As with workbenches, there are a few different styles. Some are designed to make ripping a little easier, supporting the board on both sides of the rip cut as you run the saw down the center of the bench.

Sawbenches work well in pairs or with sawhorses to catch the offcut.

Two sligthly different sawbenches right and left, and two styles of sawhorse in the center. Behind them is a shaving horse, a specialized bench for holding pieces while working with drawknife or spokeshave.

Like the workbench, the height of the sawbench is personal. Since it comes to your knee, it also makes a good sitting bench, for sitting at the workbench or  sitting on pieces to hold them while mortising.

Crosscutting on a sawbench, with a trestle-style sawhorse supporting the other end.

Sawhorses are simple work supports. Their narrow top means they must be used in pairs or with other supports. They can be sized to different heights for different needs, or used similarly to a sawbench.

There are two popular designs, trestle style, and the classic four legs splayed from the top piece.

Tool Storage

You need to store your tools in a way that protects them and makes them easily accessible. Disorganization slows you down. Tools also need to be protected from corrosion. This can be a difficult problem in some workspaces that are constantly damp.

During the course of a project, you'll need to use a variety of tools. They need to be easily accessible so you can pick them up quickly without having to dig around or search for them. Just as important, they neeed to be easy to put away. This prevents things from piling up. Piled tools are messy, hard to locate, and an accident waiting to happen when something falls, damaging the tool or its edge, or injuring you.

I've come to prefer open hanging storage next to my workbench, so that I can reach a tool in a step or two, use it, then put it back immediately. I find it annoying and time consuming to have to walk across the shop or around things, reach over things, and open drawers or cabinets. I also tend to be a piler, so I'm better off not having horizontal surfaces to set thing down on.

I prefer to have everything to the side rather than over my workbench, because I have the bench out away from the wall for maximum accessibiliy. Since I have a basement workshop, positioning it near a window for natural light isn't a consideration.

Simple hanging panels to the side of the workbench.

For damp environments where you may prefer to close them up, hanging cabinets that can be opened up while you work are effective. Cabinets can also be locked to keep small children out.

In addition to the wall storage, I use a rolling shop cart with shelves to hold the tools I need for the moment. I model the use of the cart on my wife's job. She's a surgical nurse. In surgery, a patient lying on the operating table is like a workpiece lying on the workbench, and the instruments are the tools. The field of work needs to be kept clear, so all the instruments are laid out on tables and carts; this makes locating them and accounting for them easy. Similarly, this method keeps my workbench clear of loose tools, yet they are right next to me as I work. I just need to clear off the cart as I complete each set of operations so it doesn't pile up.

First Aid Kit

Working with wood and sharp tools, splinters and minor cuts are inevitable. A simple first aid kit consisting of fine tweezers, antiseptic wipes, bandaids, and gauze pads is sufficient for most injuries. Butterfly closures are also useful for larger cuts.

The worst injury you're likely to encounter is a deep cut from a chisel that slips and sinks into your flesh. This can be quite serious. Other than wrapping with gauze to control the bleeding, this kind of injury requires professional care.

You should also be up to date on your tetanus shot, especially if you use old tools that are rusty.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Habitat For Humanity: Nashua Children's Home, part 3

(Go back to part 2)

Well, change in plans, I didn't go out of town for the weekend. So I was able to help finish up this project yesterday. The Habitat crew was back: Eric, Roger, Tom, and Renee. New this week was Rick Reveal. It was only in the low 80's, but hazy and very humid.

Renee, Tom, and Roger measuring for baluster railings.

Rick trimming the pile of balusters to the proper length and angles.

After I completed nailing the decking down on the lower ramp and landing, Renee trimming the ends even.

Using my antique crosscut saw while the two chopsaws were in use for angled cuts. One advantage of hand tools is that I was able to continue when the breaker tripped and we had to wait for someone to reset it!

With the upper balusters in place, Tom and Eric working on one of the railings.

The final portion of the ramp awaiting decking. Eric secured these pieces with heavy duty construction adhesive and concrete nail gun into the asphalt.

Renee and Tom finish up the balusters.

The upper ramp complete, while Rick, Eric, and Roger finish up the last bit of inside railing.

The lower ramp completed.

Rick smoothing off the sharp corners and rough spots at joints with a belt sander.

I'm glad I got to finish this project. It was 18 hours total, a pretty simple one by typical Habitat standards, not a full build or rehab. You can see that a full house can take months of labor from volunteers and sweat equity from the new homeowners.