Monday, September 26, 2011

Building A Townsend Document Chest, part 2

(Go back to part 1)

A quick but important followup to yesterday's post. In retrospect, I think trying to resaw a full length board was just plain silly. It was unnecessarily laborious, and risked ruining the middle section of the board. It's just not practical. Chalk it up to experience (as in, the acquisition of).

I was partly inspired by Bob Easton's board-length resawing. But Bob is building boats, where keeping a full-length plank is important. There's no reason for me to keep this lumber full length. Different types of projects, different priorities.

I was also concerned about getting the maximum yield out of the board, even if the lengths of the pieces in different thicknesses didn't line up well. By resawing into two full-length boards, I could break them down into individual lengths later with minimum waste.

However, I think a much more sensible approach is to break the board down into rough lengths first, then resaw. The shorter pieces are much more manageable, whether resawing by machine or by hand. This breaks the job down into multiple smaller tasks rather than one large one. So the first step turns into a layout puzzle, adding up the lengths of the pieces in each thickness to come up with a segmenting plan that minimizes the waste. This is three-dimensional layout.

You just need to accept that there will be some waste. Say for instance you need to break a board down into four 24" lengths of 1/2" stock, and four 20" lengths of 1/4" stock. If you cut the board into 24" sections and resaw those, then cut the 20" sections from the thin pieces, you'll have four 4" lengths of thin waste. That adds up to 16" of waste, which might have been a useful length if not cut apart. But that's the compromise to make the resawing job easier.

Take the time to try out a few layouts to get the best yield. This is where cutting out full-size cardboard templates can help. Make one for every single part. Then lay one set on the board, all of the same thickness, allowing space for rough cutting. Lay the next set (of the other resawn thickness) next to the board, and group them to match up with the cut lines of the first set. Rearrange them to get the best match. When working with figured wood, this task is further complicated by trying to select for grain patterns.

There may not be a perfect solution to this puzzle, so don't drive yourself crazy trying to solve it. Eventually you have to make a decision and get on with the project, prioritizing between grain, waste, defects in the lumber, or other considerations.

For this project, the first board would be the top, sides, and vertical dividers, all the longest pieces, so my layout and cutting decisions for it were pretty simple. I marked them out and cut the first piece, which was partially resawn, then finished resawing it.

Some additional foreshadowing: while the piece I show here turned out pretty well, the next two did not. You'll see how I dealt with that in part 3, by first ripping the piece in half, resawing the narrower pieces, then gluing them back together.

Breaking down the first board into shorter lengths.

Completing the resaw of the first short piece. Bob Easton suggested getting up over the work a little more, and this did help. It changes the angle of attack and body mechanics. By rotating the piece to each corner repeatedly, you end up sawing down a diamond pattern in the middle until you get all the way through.

The pieces cut apart. There's a flap in the middle of the thin piece on the right that may be a problem. We'll just have to see how the final thicknesses all work out once I go to work with the handplane.

It's tempting to try to be perfect in every step when working with such fine stock, but this is after all a learning experience. A few mistakes are inevitable. Al said that many surviving period pieces show mistakes. The builders just dealt with them and moved on. Some mistakes are recoverable. And sometimes you have to be willing to set a part aside and make a new one. As you'll see in part 3.

(Continue to part 3)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Building A Townsend Document Chest

Sometimes life gives you lemons. Sometimes it gives you gold bars. This is one of those gold bar moments. It started with an email from reader and fellow SAPFM member Dave Macrae. He's also a member of the Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers, and said their Period Furniture Group had a program I might be interested in.

Al Breed, also a Guild member, has offered to do a special series of presentations demonstrating building a reproduction of a John Townsend document chest. The original chest is in the Chipstone Collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Townsend is renowned as one of the finest of the Newport cabinetmakers in the Federal period. Al is himself renowned as a museum-quality period furniture maker and teacher (he's also a SAPFM member, always active on their online forums). At no cost, he'll be conducting one 3-hour meeting every two months. The whole project is expected to take up to two years. He's also offered his plans to participants at half price.

As an additional bonus, Guild member Roger Myers offered to put together a group buy of mahogany from Irion Lumber, a superb supplier of high quality lumber in Pennsylvania. Their minimum order is 150 board feet, more than most hobbyists can manage on their own. This would allow participants to build along at home, since this program is demonstration only, not a full-blown class.

When I read through this, I replied to Dave that I'd have to be insane not to participate. I had taken a ball-and-claw carving class from Al last year, so I knew what an amazing opportunity this was. Al is incredibly knowledgeable, and amazingly generous with his knowledge. This further confirmed my opinion of him.

Even though Guild programs are open to non-members, I promptly joined, because this is clearly an outstanding organization, with outstanding programs and outstanding membership. It's not limited to NH residents;  Garrett Hack of Vermont, one of my favorite woodworking authors, is also a member.

I immediately contacted PFG leader Michael Brown to sign up for the program. It's a good thing I didn't delay. Apparently the response was overwhelming. Because of limited space in Al's shop, it's limited to 30 people, so I was lucky to get in. Then I contacted Roger to participate in the group buy. Thanks for the head's up, Dave!

I also contacted Al and Michael about shooting video of his presentations, with the plan to edit them into a DVD for sale. That would allow others to benefit from the program. Knowledge is like peanut butter, it's best when spread around!

Roger and Michael were worried they might not get enough interest to meet the minimum lumber shipping requirement. Not a problem. He ended up ordering lumber for 22 people. The day before hurricane Irene hit, 3200 lbs. of lumber arrived at his house, which he and several volunteers split up into kits and stored in his garage. He also ordered a little extra in case anyone had any mishaps. I arranged to pick up my kit after the first meeting.

That took place yesterday in Al's shop in Rollinsford, NH, drawing participants from four states. Al's method for the meetings is to use various parts left over from his regular document chest class. He apologized for the fact that these are all rejects with some kind of mistake or defect, but they served quite well. His focus was not on basic skills, but on the specific details of this chest and the special challenges they present, so he skipped right to case assembly. This project is definitely a challenge for most of the participants. That's how we progress.

A huge thank you to Al, Michael, and Roger for this! It is a truly spectacular opportunity, showing why you should join your local (and no-so-local) woodworking organization.

The Guild mailing, showing pictures of the Townsend document chest built by Stephen Fee at the Breed School, along with a cut list.

Al dry-assembling the chest case. Look at the figure in that mahogany! The top features half-blind dovetails, mitered at the front. Townsend didn't skimp on construction quality.

Some case details: half-blind dovetails on the bottom, which is composed of a mahogany facing and pine secondary wood; various full and stopped dadoes inside for horizontal and vertical dividers.

Closeup of one of the fine details: a sample pine divider fits into a stopped dado with a V-notch chiseled into the front. The divider is scribed to the notch and trimmed to fit. Since the profile molded onto the divider front matches the profile molded to the edge of the side, this gives the appearance of mitered corners at all divider joints.

Because most of the stock is 1/2" or 1/4", this project requires a lot of resawing of the rough lumber. I'll be doing it all with hand tools. You might say that's an insane amount of labor, and I wouldn't argue, but this is even a challenge with power tools. Resawing wide lumber like this requires a good size bandsaw, and manhandling it requires an assistant. Al outlined several tips to help do this on a machine:

  • Go easy, don't force the piece through the blade. That will cause the blade to wander on the bottom edge, ruining the thickness. He had several parts exhibiting this defect, though it can be hidden by orienting the part to the inside and rear of the case.
  • Run down each edge on the table saw with the blade at maximum height to do a partial resaw. This leaves a smaller amount of wood to resaw in the middle, and the blade will follow the existing kerfs.
  • Rip the board into two or three narrower pieces, resaw them individually, and reglue the resawn widths back together. The glue line will be virtually invisible. Resawing the narrow pieces is much easier, and allows them to be done on a smaller bandsaw, or possibly entirely on a table saw. 
The last two tips can also be used when resawing with hand tools, either ripsaw or frame saw.

Today, I started the task of resawing the lumber for the main case with a hand ripsaw, which is a lot of work. It's worth mentioning at this point that if you're not used to this kind of heavy physical labor, you might want to do it a different way. I suspect that in the days of old, it was the young bucks in their 20's and 30's who did most of the pit-sawing.

A little foreshadowing: I started out resawing an entire board, but as you'll see in part 2 of this series, I came to my senses and switched to breaking the board down to shorter lengths first, then resawing. Other than the length being resawn, everything that follows still applies.

Back in my shop, my load of mahogany and copy of Al's plan. This is $341 worth of fine lumber. Look at the figure in that ribbon-stripe mahogany, even in the rough state!

Jointing a rough edge so I can mark it for resawing. Notice the headband and water bottle sitting on the bench: this is going to be a lot of work, no question about it. Take lots of breaks, pace yourself, and be ready to sweat. Break it up over several work sessions.

As Roger said, this stock is a generous 4/4. To find my cut line, I measured 1/4" from one side, 1/2" from the other, and split the difference. That should allow some margin for error. Then I scribed that line with my Tite-Mark, went over it with chalk, and re-scribed it. That left a good visible line. I repeated this on the other edge and the end grain.

Starting the corner with a backsaw. Establishing a good starting kerf is critical. Then I went to work on the corner with a full-size ripsaw. Keep the saw waxed to minimize friction. Don't force the cut; let gravity and the teeth do their work.

Once the first corner was well-established, I flipped the board and repeated the process on the second corner. I've marked where I stopped on the first corner so you can see how the operation goes. Because the first corner has been cut, it leaves a relief kerf for the saw to follow, and reduces the amount of wood in contact with the saw teeth. Repeat this down the length of the board, flipping it every few inches. This will maintain control of the cut and produce a consistent thickness. The trailing portion of the sawplate rides in the cut like a rudder to guide the leading edge, though the teeth can still wander.

To extend the cut down the length of the board, drop the angle of the saw for shallow, long sawing. This also allows you to steer it and correct any top-side wander. Once you get to a full-width cut, it's a pretty straightforward operation. You do have to keep a constant eye on the saw exiting the bottom edge; it can still wander despite the relief kerf. The rest is just labor.

After the second flip. I've marked the previous progress on this side with a dotted line, and the progress on the opposite side with a solid line. You can see how this is just a matter of taking down corners, minimizing the solid wood being cut at all times; it's basically like sawing a giant tenon for the entire length of the board. It's also necessary to insert small wedges in the cut as kerf-keepers, otherwise the wood will close up on the saw. These are just visible in the end of the board and the bottom side.

Good progress after a number of flips. I was taking 30-45 minutes per foot, so an 8' board is a 4-6 hour job. Not something I want to do a lot of, but it's definitely possible to do by hand.

Here's what happens when you get cocky and don't pay enough attention to the bottom side of the board. The saw wandered a bit, despite the relief kerf, just like the bandsaw problem Al had warned us about. I tried to correct it from the other side, but then I was getting the same problem on the opposite edge. So I stopped before I completely ruined it, and started fresh from the other end of the board.

This was a good time to sharpen the saw. This job is a lot of wear on the teeth.

The sharpened saw was binding heavily, so I set the teeth lightly, since I hadn't done it for the last several sharpenings. This looks tedious, but it's actually pretty quick, guiding the sawset along the existing set remaining in the teeth. The increased set made the saw clear the dust from the cut much better, eliminating the binding.

A final note: several people at the meeting expressed interests in the holdfasts Al was using. These were the commonly-available cast holdfasts, which I don't like. As far as I'm concerned, unless you have a blacksmith who can make you wrought-iron holdfasts, the only commercially-made ones worth owning are the Gramercy Tools holdfasts from Tools For Working Wood. Buy them by the pair; buy two pairs to spread the shipping cost. The price is reasonable and they're well worth it.

I have 3 pairs of these Gramercy Tools holdfasts; they fit in 3/4" dog holes. They're made of drawn steel "wire" so they have just a touch of spring to them, and you can beat on them like mad without fear of cracking, unlike cast holdfasts. Spin the shafts a bit in sandpaper to roughen them, and they hold great.

So how did the resawn wood turn out? I'll have to get back to you on that. After completing two-thirds the length of the board, I was pretty tired. Better to leave it for another day than wear myself out completely or injure myself.

(Continue to part 2)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Littleton, MA Class Registration Now Open

The fall class series I'll be teaching Monday nights in Littleton, MA, through the Parks, Recreation, and Community Education Department, is now open for registration at their website. Click on the 2011 FALL Brochure on the left side of the page.

This series covers what I like to call the "basic basics", to prepare you for more advanced instruction from the fine professional woodworkers in the area. Because I realize it's hard for people to commit to an entire 9-week series, I've broken it into a set of distinct classes. You can pick among individual classes, or sign up for the whole series at a discount. Thanks to the folks at the department for putting up with the extra bookkeeping and paperwork!

You can read more at Hand Tool Instruction. Here's the description from the brochure:
Introduction to Hand Tool Woodworking
“Ever wonder how our predecessors built homes and furniture 100 or 200 years ago? Learn the basics of hand tool woodworking in the tra- dition of the English joiner and cabinetmaker. Students will be intro- duced to the tools and techniques necessary to turn lumber into finished furniture or cabinetry without power. This includes selection and care of tools (including the critical skill of sharpening), stock preparation, and fine joinery. A range of modern and antique hand tools will be available for use, or students may bring their own. Locally milled soft- wood materials will be available for hands-on practice (sufficient for multiple classes, $15 materials fee payable to instructor). This class will also prepare students for more advanced classes such as chair- making. Instructor: STEVE BRANAM is a local woodworking hobby- ist. Visit Steve’s blog post at 2011-class-intro-hand-tool.html.”.
10/3: Sharpening: Planes, Chisels, & Saws  #405001A 
10/17: Using Hand Saws  #405001B 
10/24: Using Bench Planes  #405001C 
10/31: Stock Preparation with Saws &Planes  #405001D
11/7: Using Chisels  #405001E
11/14: Using Specialty planes  #405001F
11/21: Using Hand Drills  #405001G
11/28: Making Mortise & Tenon Joints  #405001H
12/5: Making Through-Dovetail Joints  #405001I
Register for each class individually @
$20/class/R | $23/class/NR
($15 materials fee payable to instructor sufficient for one or multiple classes)
Save $$$ and register for all 9 classes
$135/R | $138/NR #405001Z Location: Art Room, Littleton High School

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Study of Moving Fillister Plane, part 2

(Go back to part 1)

Here are more photos requested by a gentleman who is indeed making one of these! I look forward to seeing the completed plane.

I've tried to angle the pieces flat to the camera to eliminate perspective distortion.

Bottom view of the depth stop and fence. Note the raised section of the depth stop that rides in the adjuster mortise in the body.

End cross-section of the fence and side view of the depth stop, angled flat to the camera. The bearing edge of the fence is square to its face, while the back edge is pleasantly rounded. You can see the raised part of the depth stop back clearly, along with the flare of the foot.

Bottom view of the depth stop. The raised back section is visible between the clamp jaws.

The skew angle of the iron. This is just for reference, because the way to grind a skewed iron is to build the plane, then install the unground iron blank and scribe it off the bottom of the plane. Don't measure, use direct marking. That ensures perfect fit to whatever angles the final plane ends up with.

The bed angle.

The skew angle at the top of the iron mortise.

And exiting at the bed of the plane. Yes, they should match; they just happen to be opposite angles here because of the way I photographed them. You can see they are numerically the same (within the accuracy of this protractor). The precise angle you use is not absolutely critical, as long as it's consistent throughout and forms a flat bed to support the iron. Plus or minus a degree from this one is not going to affect it. That's why you save the grinding of the iron for last.

The wedge. This is all but impossible to capture with a photo, because it's all compound angles. Like the iron, shape it last, custom fitted and trimmed to the skew and bed angles with the iron in place.

By the way, you can pick up that nice little Chappell square, along with its big brothers for framing, from Maine timber-framer Steve Chappell at Fox Maple. He also has a great book, A Timber Framer's Workshop: Joinery, Design & Construction of Traditional Timber Frames, newly revised. You can see some of his work at the Lie-Nielsen 30th Anniversary Open House.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Study of Moving Fillister Plane

My antique moving fillister plane, showing a corner I've rabbeted with it, and the shavings it produces. It can be used with the grain like a rabbet plane, or with the nicker down, across the grain.

A reader in the UK saw my moving fillister plane in use while I was building a Portable Toolbox (the post also includes details of preparing the iron and nicker). He was interested in more detailed photos to help him answer some questions he has restoring a sash fillister plane. So here in excruciating detail is a photo study of the plane.

According to John Whelan's The Wooden Plane: Its History, Form and Function, "fillister" is the English term, while "filletster" is the US term. Because "standing fillisters" with a fixed fence were largely unknown in the US, "filletster" alone generally refers to one with a moving fence. This one is marked "G.W. Denison and Co. Winthrop Conn." I don't know the year, but I assume late 1800's. Part of the boxing is loose and needs to be reglued; I've removed it for several of the photos so you can see how it fits.

I've uploaded slightly higher resolution photos than usual. Click on any photo to see that larger image.

Right side view. The wooden folding rule is 12" long, and the metal square is 4".

Left side view.

Bottom view.

Another view of the bottom with the loose boxing removed.

Detail of one of the screws that hold the fence, with square brass washer and wear plate.

The plane disassembled, except for the depth stop adjuster.

Closeup of the depth stop assembly.

With the depth stop adjuster removed. Note the hole in the bottom of the mortise; it accepts the end of the adjustment screw.

The depth stop adjuster assembly. The unthreaded end of the screw fits in the hole noted above. The screw has a garter underneath the plate; a pin secures the garter through the screw.

Right angle view of the adjuster.

Another view.

The adjuster with the depth stop attached. The flat back of the stop rides up and down the adjustment slot as the nut travels along the screw.

Right side of the bare body.

Top view of the body.

Bottom view with the boxing removed.

Detail showing how the boxing fits.

Another view from the top.

Detail view of the body cuts for the iron, nicker, and depth stop.

View of the cuts from the top. Note that the iron is bedded at a skew.

Some of the photo angles can be a little misleading, so if you have questions about specific angles or dimensions, let me know and I'll add them to the post. It would be great to see someone build a reproduction. I know there are people out with the machining skills to make the depth stop assembly. The rest is largely just a typical moulding plane, plus the fence.

(Continue to part 2)