Sunday, April 29, 2012

WoodNet Roubo Try Square Get-Together

Yesterday I taught a private class on building a Roubo try square with hand tools to a group in Connecticut at the home of Rick Roberts. Rick, who goes by the handle RoundToit on WoodNet, works entirely with hand tools at home. He's a frequent student at Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, where he's done some magnificent projects.

He and some of his WoodNet buddies had been wanting to get together for some time on hand tool topics. The general idea was to make it like an informal club meeting, where they could meet each other in person, see some demos, try some things out. Rick asked me to teach building the square as a starter project. (See Hand Tool Instruction if you're interested in scheduling some classes of your own, at your location or at the Close Grain School of Woodworking.)

Getting a group together is always a challenge, but after a couple postponements seven of us joined Rick in his basement shop. He's collected several used workbenches over the years, and has a remarkably clean basement, so there was plenty of room for everybody.

Among the group was Jim, MSRiverDog on WoodNet, recently moved to New England from Minnesota; for you fisherman, he sells the MSRD Fish Measuring Board. Later on, Bill Rittner stopped by. Bill makes very nice replacement totes for hand planes at Hardware City Tools. I had first heard of him from Larry Ciccolo, my first private student.

Rick was also hoping Walt Quadrato might visit. Walt owns Brass City Records and Old Tools in Waterbury; I've bought several things from him at the Live Free or Die Auction in Nashua. He had put a nice notice on his website about the class. However, last week he was attacked at knifepoint in his store. Fortunately, other than getting banged up a bit, he wasn't injured, and the police apprehended his attacker a couple blocks away. Best wishes for a quiet weekend and quick recovery, Walt, and thanks for your support.

We purchased copies of the Popular Woodworking Magazine Roubo Try Square PDF package for our reference. The square was the topic of the Arts and Mysteries column by Chris Schwarz in the February, 2010 issue. The downloadable instructions and plan show how to build it with power tools, then tune it up by hand.

In the interest of time, I had people prepare their stock to rough dimensions at home with hand or power tools. The plan was to finish the stock to final dimensions with hand tools, cut the joinery and decorative curves, and assemble the square.

The main challenge of a hand-tool build is cutting a snug bridle joint for joining the blade to the stock (the handle). For that reason, I had people bring a piece long enough for several attempts; if at first you don't succeed, cut it off and try again. The rest of the operations are pretty basic, good practice for someone new to hand tools.

For glue-up and pinning the parts together, Chris recommends clamping the pieces to a known-square form. I used the method from Steve Olesin's book Tool-Making Projects for Joinery and Woodworking: A Yankee Craftsman's Practical Methods: a CD jewel-case.

After some meet-and-greet time, I kicked off the class with what I call my 2-minute sharpening demo. Once you have a tool in working condition, you shouldn't ever need to spend longer than that to keep it sharp. I drew a simple diagram of convex bevel and double-bevel profiles, then demonstrated on my portable sharpening station.

Following that I went through various operations to make the square. Since one person had to leave early, I started with how to cut the bridle joint and chisel out the waste.

The bridle joint is essentially a form of mortise and tenon, a through mortise that's open on the side. Another way to think of the socket is like the inverse of a tenon. That means you saw out the cheek cuts exactly like a tenon, angling in from the corners. The difference is that the waste is the center portion, and the cheeks stay attached. Then you chisel away the waste and pare it down to the baseline. A little cleanup with floats or a metal file fine tunes the fit.

Using a square I had already built, I demonstrated how to test for square and tune up any error. Then I demonstrated cutting the decorative curves and cleaning them up with a rasp. I finished up with clamping to the CD case and driving in pegs that had been riven out and formed with a dowel plate.

Then the group split up to workbenches to work on their own pieces.

Rick working on his bridle joint as his son-in-law Ryan, right, and Eric, left, watch.

Kevin taking his stock piece down to final dimensions with a Brese plane.

Unfortunately the light was poor here, but this is Jim sawing down the cheek lines of his bridle joint. I loved this little joiner's bench that Rick had. In the background you can see my diagrams of bevel angles.

John chiseling out the waste, using a Moxon vise.

We ran out of time to complete the squares, but everybody had made enough progress that they should be able to finish them easily at home.

Thanks, Rick, for having me over!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Close Grain School Of Woodworking

I'm pleased to announce the Close Grain School Of Woodworking, opening May 1 in Pepperell, MA for group and private classes evenings and weekends, covering the basics of hand tool woodworking.

This is something I've thought about for a couple of years, since I started offering classes through a local parks and recreation department. Scheduling was always the challenge there. I needed to have at least 3 people sign up in order to make them go, and I would get emails from people saying they'd like to do it, but couldn't make this or that night.

I thought, wouldn't it be nice to have a simple space with room for a few workbenches, where hand tool classes could be scheduled on-demand?

Mark, a friend of mine, recently bought a large 1895 farmhouse in Pepperell to renovate. It includes a barn that at some point was finished inside for use as an antiques shop. When I saw the photos I said that barn sure would make a nice place to teach woodworking classes.

Mark liked the idea, so after some discussion, he put me in contact with his insurance agent and the town building inspector for all the proper paperwork.

1895 newspaper photo of the farmhouse in Pepperell, MA when it was new. You can just make out the horse and buggy in front. The barn is at the left end.

The article accompanying the photo above describes a reception where 200 guests toured the 23 rooms of the newly built house. It's largely unchanged from the photo, except for 117 winters of weathering. Until recently, the house had been divided into apartments.

For details, see the school's section on the Hand Tool Instruction page.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

GNHW Sharpening Demo

For the April meeting of the Guild Of New Hampshire Woodworkers Hand Tool Group, held at the Homestead Woodworking School in Newmarket, NH, Roger Myers, Dave Anderson, and I gave a demonstration of different sharpening methods. The goal was to demystify the process while showing some of the choices available.

This was the number one item when members were polled on meeting topics last year. You can read Roger's take on the day here.

Sharpening is one of those subjects that tends to get people worked up. One of the attendees compared it to the Lilliputian factions in Gulliver's Travels, the Big-Endians who break their hard-boiled eggs from the big end, and the Little-Endians who break theirs from the little end. They fight repeated wars over the difference.

Roger showed hollow grinding with a Tormek wet grinder and waterstones, I showed double- and convex-bevel sharpening with oilstones (I also demonstrated sharpening a card scraper), and Dave finished the day by showing micro-bevel sharpening with a Veritas Mk II power sharpening system.

As different as these methods are, it's more important to focus on the similarities:
  1. Foremost, they all achieve a sharp edge that allows you to do your work. 
  2. They all involve working front and back sides to form two planes that meet at the sharp edge.
  3. They all involve working through progressively finer abrasives.
  4. They all involve controlling the blade being sharpened to get a desired bevel angle of 30 degrees at the edge.
  5. They all finished up with a stropping method.
  6. They all took only a few minutes. We spent far more time talking about them than actually sharpening.
One other point on which we all agreed: you should do it frequently. Frequent quick sharpenings keep your tools tuned. A couple of minutes is all it takes to maintain an edge once you've achieved the initial shape.

My attitude is that any method someone has been using successfully for years to get their work done is a valid one, regardless of what others might think of it. Beyond that it's just a matter of personal preference. You can spend all your time arguing over cost, speed, efficiency, ease of use, accuracy of angles, etc. or you can get back to woodworking.

Roger started out demonstrating hollow grinding. He used a Tormek wet-grinder to establish an initial hollow in a chisel bevel, then used waterstones of 1000, 4000, and 8000 grit. He finished the edge by stropping on a leather strop charged with green chromium oxide compound.

The actual hollow-grinding is an infrequent operation, and the most time-consuming step, taking 5 or 10 minutes. The Tormek uses a jig to hold the blade at a specific angle to the slowly-rotating abrasive wheel. The wheel turns in a bath of water which clears the swarf and keeps it cool, to avoid overheating the metal. Overheating ruins the temper, a common mistake people make when using a dry power grinder.

Roger sets the angle on the holding jig using a guide.

With the wheel turning away from him, he applies thumb pressure to the chisel end as he moves it side to side on the guide. That motion ensures even wear on the wheel.

On the waterstones, Roger established the bevel angle by resting the end of the chisel on the stone, so that the front and back points of the hollow contacted it. He freehand sharpened by drawing the chisel down the length of the stone, then flipped the chisel to run the back up and down the edge of the stone. It only took a few passes on each stone. Then he finished by drawing it down the strop.

Roger said he repeats the stropping frequently to refresh the edge as he works. Eventually, he has to go back to the stones. After several resharpenings on the stones, he's worn the hollow almost flat, and goes back to the Tormek.

Roger pulls the end of the chisel down the waterstone, maintaining its angle by keeping the ends of the hollow-ground arc in contact with the stone.

Next I showed sharpening on oilstones, Norton India and Arkansas stones, using my portable sharpening station and drugstore mineral oil. I use oilstones for a combination of practical and frivolous reasons:
  1. They're reasonably cheap and fast.
  2. They're portable.
  3. They last a long time.
  4. They're the more traditional method, and I like keeping the tradition alive.
I prefer not to use a jig, because I want to develop the hand control, and I find jigs too fidgety, too time-consuming setting an angle consistently from one time to the next. They are useful in training your body to the angle of the blade.

The advantage of the portable sharpening station is that it's fast to setup and use. Secure it to the work surface with clamps at the beginning of the day, no matter where I am, then when I need to sharpen, lift the lid and go right to work. No fussing around pulling out stones, setting them up, putting them away.

Illustrating single-bevel, double-bevel, triple-bevel (behind my hand), hollow-ground, and convex-bevel. Photo by Roger Myers.

I showed both double-bevel and convex-bevel methods. Historically, the double-bevel resulted from doing rough shaping on a large hand- or foot-powered grindstone to remove the bulk of the metal, followed by careful honing at a higher angle on bench stones to form the cutting edge.

Whether with modern powered grinders or by hand on stones, the primary bevel does not require any real precision. It's the secondary bevel that requires care. The heavy metal removal on the primary bevel reduces the amount of work required on the secondary bevel.

As with Roger's method, the secondary bevel can be resharpened multiple times until it's time to re-establish the primary bevel. Even then, you only need to regrind the primary bevel back enough to leave a starting secondary bevel. Thus over many repeated sharpenings, the two bevels chase each other down the length of the tool.

A triple-bevel puts a third shallow bevel behind the primary bevel. The purpose of this is to reduce the amount of metal you have to grind to re-establish the primary bevel. That means three small flats, none of which ever requires a lot of work. However, not many people use it.

The convex bevel combines the two angles of the double-bevel (or the three angles of a triple-bevel) into a single continuous curve. People object that this is rounding over the edge, but it's not. The edge itself is still at the same cutting angle as any other method. The rounded part is behind the edge.

What I like about the convex bevel method is that it's easier for a beginner to learn. The most difficult part of freehand sharpening is maintaining a constant angle. The convex bevel turns that difficulty into an advantage. Then as you develop control, you can decide if you want to keep doing it that way, or change to one of the flat-bevel methods.

One thing I always recommend is to buy some really cheap chisels and replacement plane blades at the home center and use them for sharpening practice. It doesn't matter how well they hold an edge, just use them to develop the hand skill on the stones. Spend a few hours repeatedly sharpening them and dragging the edges on sandpaper to dull them. Just like sawing dovetails, with a little practice you can get it down. Then you won't be so nervous about sharpening your finer tools.

Honing a secondary bevel on my chisel.

For the double-bevel method, I showed how to hone the secondary bevel at approximately 30 degrees freehand. Plus or minus a degree or two doesn't make a whole lot of difference. Since this was just a demonstration using a tool that was already shaped, the primary bevel was already established at 25 degrees. That can be very time-consuming. I use a DMT extra-extra coarse diamond bench stone for that; it's faster, and I avoid wearing the India stone.

I started out on the coarse stone for about 30 seconds, moving up and down its length, until I could just feel a tiny burr on the back of the edge. Then I advanced through the medium, fine, and hard Arkansas stones about 30 seconds each. I flipped the chisel over and honed just the end of the back, sideways up and down the length of the Arkansas stone. Sometimes this is enough to see the wire edge come off in the oil.

Then I finished up on the strop, pulling the bevel toward me about 10 times, then flipping it over and pulling the back the same number. This should remove the last bit of wire edge. If not, flip it back over and repeat. This edge can be maintained by repeated stropping, but when I eventually have to go back to the stones, I only go back as far as the medium or fine, depending on how long I waited to resharpen. Regardless, restoring the edge never takes more than a minute or two. Lately, I've been using Flexcut Gold compound instead of green compound. It seems to leave a better edge, but it's hard to tell.

One of the problems learning to sharpen is finding a reasonable way to measure sharpness. There's no gauge or measuring device that will tell you objectively. Taking end grain shavings on pine is a useful subjective measure. Because it's soft, pine end grain will crumble and catch if the tool isn't sharp. But when the tool is sharp, you get clean shavings like a pencil sharpener.

I demonstrated the sharpness of the edge on the end of a piece of pine. Time to put my money where my mouth is: I stood the edge on a sanding block and pulled it along to dull it, accompanied by groans from the audience. I tried it on the pine, and it barely cut, digging in.

To restore the edge, I repeated the entire sharpening process, but using the convex bevel method. The only real difference is the motion. Starting at the near end of the stone at my desired angle of 30 degrees, I push forward, dipping the chisel down as I go. Pulling back, I raise it back up, being careful not to raise it any higher than 30 degrees. About 30 seconds of work to raise a burr, then on to the other stones, finishing with the back on the Arkansas.

Stropping goes the same way: starting at the far end of the strop, draw the bevel back as I raise the end of the chisel. Then strop the back.

The moment of truth: I was able to take clean end grain shavings again. The edge was just as sharp as with the double-bevel method.

For the card scraper, I used the method I learned in this video by Scottish furnituremaker Dougal Charteris. Most of it is pretty standard: put the scraper edge up in a vise, file the edge flat and square to the faces, then polish the edge on sharpening stones, and polish the two faces along the edge. This process forms two sharp arrises in a couple minutes of work.

The next part is where people tend to have problems, using a burnisher to turn the "hook", the cutting edge. Dougal angles the burnisher (he calls it a strop) down a bit and takes one swipe. That's it. Most people do what I used to do: run the burnisher down the edge a couple times to slightly mushroom the metal on both sides, then take multiple passes angled down on each side to turn the edge. It's all those multiple passes that are the problem, plus its easy to use too much downward force. You end up rolling the edge past it useful point.

By limiting it to one swipe, or maybe two if the scraper doesn't seem to be getting a bite on the wood, you turn a tiny but sharp edge. This will take very fine shavings, not dust, once you bow the scraper with your thumbs and angle it on the wood just right. This all takes a bit of practice and finesse, but once you get it, you realize what an amazing tool the scraper is, especially considering it's nothing but a rectangle of sheet steel. I use a Hock burnisher, which is a good hard tool steel.

I also showed how to take the edge off the scraper by laying it flat and running the burnisher up and down flat on the face. Then I put the edge back on. This is another thing to practice, putting the edge on and taking it off, learning to control it. Just like the chisel edge, eventually you need to stone it again, then go all the way back to the file.

Another view of the sharpening setup as I file the edge of a card scraper in the vise behind it.

Dave Anderson gave the final demonstration. He makes and sells marking knives, each with two beveled edges, so he does a lot of bulk sharpening. He uses a Veritas Mk II power sharpening system. Where the Tormek is an abrasive wheel turning vertically in a water bath, this is a horizontal spinning platter with dry sandpaper disks adhered to it. Similar to the Tormek, it has a guide rod and jig for holding the tool at the proper angle.

Dave went through 3 grits of paper, applied to 3 platters which he exchanged as he progressed. A platter can have paper on each side, so once one wears down, he can flip it to the other side. Because the backing of the finest grit is thinner than the other grits, it ends up increasing the grinding angle by a hair, resulting in a micro bevel at the edge, a very small double-bevel.

Dave sharpening a chisel on his Veritas Mk II. With the wheel spinning away from him, he applies pressure to the end as he moves the chisel side to side in its holder.

For stropping, Dave used 1 micron diamond paste on hard maple plywood. The diamond particles get embedded in the wood and hold in place as the tool passes over them. He said the wood turns black from the metal swarf almost immediately. A tube of paste lasts a long time.

Stropping on a plywood block with diamond paste.

While they vary in the details, all these methods achieved sharp tools quickly. Any one of them will allow you to get back to work. There are yet other methods that will do the same. Sharpening can be turned into a hobby in its own right, an obsession, but it's really just another practical skill.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Tradition of Craft

The exhibit brochure, with photos of a Seymour chest built by Freddy Roman, a Philadelphia desk and bookcase built by Brooke Smith, and a North Carolina armchair built by Benjamin Hobbs.

Friday I attended the reception for the opening of "A Tradition of Craft" at the Connecticut Historical Society, a juried exhibition of current work by members of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers. CHS Communications Director Ed Main had invited me after seeing my post on the March SAPFM meeting, where I had mentioned the exhibit.

CHS Executive Director Kate Steinway makes opening remarks.

SAPFM co-founder Mickey Callahan introduces the exhibit.

It's always a treat when I meet readers of the blog. I was particularly flattered this time when Don Williams introduced himself and told me he enjoys reading it. Don is Senior Furniture Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute. You can read his bio and CV, and Popular Woodworking Magazine posts about his work and the reproduction Gragg chair featured in his article in the current American Period Furniture, SAPFM's annual journal.

Don Williams of the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute. Yes, he's wearing red suspenders under that jacket.

Don also said he refers people to my videos (part 1 and part 2) when  they have questions about the features of the Roubo workbench. Thanks, Don!

Before we get to the exhibit proper, here's a unique experience. Steven Lash, past SAPFM president, had his glass armonica on display. Vera Meyer, of Malden, MA played it throughout the evening. The armonica was an invention of Benjamin Franklin's, after he heard music played with moistened fingers on wine glasses. The instrument consists of a series of tuned glass bowls mounted on a rotating shaft. Like wine glasses, it's played with wet fingertips.

Lash based his reproduction case on an original instrument at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA. The actual instrument he installed was built by Gerhard Finkenbeiner, the bowls tuned like the keys of a piano. He said most armonicas are played sitting on a tabletop, but the case acts like a guitar or violin body, adding resonance to the sound.

Steven Lash and Vera Meyer. Photo by Steven Lash.

The armonica. The case has a conical, coopered lid. The small drawers on each side hold water for the musician to dip her fingers into. Photo by Steven Lash.

In the short video below, you can hear the instrument's ethereal sound. Vera is available for concerts and performances, one of the few armonica players in the world. With a wide repertoire, she would make a unique musical addition to any event. You can reach her at, or 781-321-0210.

On to the exhibit. As usual, these photos don't begin to capture the beauty of the pieces. You need to see them in person to fully appreciate the depth of the grain and finish, and the fine craftsmanship that went in to them. I apologize if I missed anyone's work.

Remember the Federal-style Seymour chest Freddy Roman was working on when I profiled him?

Freddy Roman and his girlfriend Krista Bromley, next to Freddy's spectacular Seymour chest. While this is the same design as the one on the exhibit brochure, he changed a few details.

One of the interesting things CHS did here was show original pieces from their wonderful collection alongside current reproductions. When they first announced plans for the exhibition, they offered SAPFM members access to the collection to find pieces they would like to reproduce. This was a fantastic opportunity. The reproductions were faithful in style, with some personalized adaptations.

Left, Chapin side chair by John Rexroad. Right, original Eliphalet Chapin side chair, 1781.

From left, Langley Boardman armchair by Kevin Ainsworth; North Carolina armchair by Benjamin Hobbs (featured on the cover of the current American Period Furniture); and McIntyre Sheraton armchair by Phil Lowe. It's worth noting that a number of the exhibitors here have been students of Phil's at his Furniture Institute of Massachusetts.

From left, Eli Terry pillar and scroll shelf clock, 1818; Eli Terry shelf clock by Glenville Jewell (with construction article in current American Period Furniture); and Willard shelf clock by Don Irving.

From left, New York sack-back Windsor chair by Nickolas Kotula; high-back Windor armchair, ca. 1785; and rod-back Windsor armchair by Terry Kelly. The gentleman standing to the right is SAPFM president Bob Mustain. In the background is a Philadelphia desk and bookcase by Brooke Smith.

Nickolas Kotula with his chair. He spent many hours hand-grinding the pigments to get just the shade of yellow he wanted. He has a wonderful article in the current American Period Furniture about being the last apprentice at the Nathan Margolis cabinet shop.

Federal work table by Bruce Wedlock. I know Bruce through the GNHW project building a Townsend document chest with Al Breed. He's a retired professor of Electrical Engineering and mathematics at MIT, and his friends are always ribbing him about formulas and micrometers while working with wood. As you can see, that precision pays off.

Philadelphia Chippendale high chest by James Hardwick. To its left, not shown is a Chippendale dressing table in Philadelphia style, by Eliphalet Chapin, 1783.

New York Chippendale corner chair by Mickey Callahan.

Newport tea table by Philip A. Houck.

Left, Connecticut "sunflower" chest, ca. 1680. Right, reproduction by Richard Nucci.

Left, McIntyre shield-back chair by Alf Sharp. Right, side chair ca. 1795.

Left, Federal knife-boxes by Richard Crouse. Right, Portsmouth bow-front sideboard by Peter Aleksa.

From left, Baltimore side chair by Peter Van Beckum; Robert Walker Virginia tea table by John Davis; Federal tea box by Aaron Hall (with construction article in current American Period Furniture); and Thomas Elfe side chair by Jim Altemus.

Roxbury style tall case clock by Gerald McAleavy.

Left, Connecticut River Valley tea table by John LaGattuta. Right, New England tea table ca. 1760.

William and Mary Boston chair by J. Wesley Sunderland.

Tilt-top starburst candle stand by Gil Tyler.

Left, Connecticut River Valley dressing table, ca. 1770. Right, Connecticut River Valley dressing table by Robert Surette.

Half-scale Queen Anne side chair by E. Jeff Justis.

Miniature Connecticut River Valley Queen Anne high chest by Larry Mauritz.

Here you can see the two miniatures in scale.

Miniature Dutch kas, 1/12th scale, by Iulia Chin Lee.

Federal game table by Robert Stevenson.

Dunlap highboy by Donald Boule.

Hepplewhite card table by Sharon Mehrman.

Moulding planes by Matt Bickford.

A display of period woodworking tools.

A hands-on display: take-apart side chair by Alf Sharp.

Leg, carving, and foot samples.

The exhibit runs through September 8. It's well worth a visit. Not only is it good to see such beautiful furniture, it's also good to see contemporary artisans keeping the tradition of craft alive.

While you're there, don't miss the other interesting exhibits. I saw an awesome treadle lathe in the "Making Connecticut" exhibit that I'd love to reproduce, looked to be early 1800's. Using that would be a fantastic interactive demo!