Monday, August 27, 2012

CGSW Class: Dovetails

This past Wednesday I taught the sixth class at the Close Grain School of Woodworking, dovetails, with Reeve Goodenough.

Reeve chisels the waste out of the tail board.

I demonstrated a single-tail joint, tail-first, using a chisel to remove the waste. Single tails are a nice quick practice to test your ability to match one set of cuts to another. Then I made a two-tail joint, pins first, using a coping saw to remove the bulk of the waste, followed by a chisel to pare out the remainder; using hand pressure on the chisel, this is the quiet option for people who don't want to disturb the neighbors. Last, I made a two-tail half-blind joint, using just a chisel to remove the waste; this has to be done tails first.

Then I had Reeve do a few practice saw cuts to get the feel for it. The secret to clean, efficient dovetails is precise sawing. It's possible to repair a large gap by filling it with a wedge or shaving, and you can pare down if something is too tight, but those are both time-consuming and risk making things even uglier. Careful sawing makes it fit right off. This is a matter of control that only comes with practice.

Every saw cut has a square axis and an angled axis. It's critical to get all the square directions perfectly square. The angled directions on the first piece are less critical, because they form the pattern to which the other piece will be fit. The final matching angled directions on the second piece are then as critical as the square directions.

For his joint, Reeve made a two-tail full dovetail, tails first, using the chisel to remove all the waste. Once you have this process down, you can extend it to as many tails as you like. The difficulty increases with the number of surfaces that have to match up, but again good sawing is the key. Trying to pare and fit 4 or more poorly-sawn dovetails will drive you batty.

Levering out a bit of waste.

Sawing off the end waste.

Transferring the tails onto the pin board.

Sawing just to the waste side of the lines.

As Reeve test-fit his joint, I could just hear it slip snugly into place. That's a very satisfying sound. Nice job, Reeve!

Now that's one fine dovetail joint! Ignore the groove, this was a piece I had demonstrated something else on.

This completes the current summer series of classes, but you can still schedule a private class before it gets too cold to work in the barn.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Double-Bevel Paring Chisel Sharpening, part 2

From top left: Eclipse sharpening guide, 25 and 20 degree sight blocks, and Marples and Stormont paring chisels.

(Go back to part 1)

I got some useful feedback on part 1 that made me go back and do some further re-evaluation. In failing to get an edge sharp enough to slice paper, the problem was with me, not with the stones, as you'll see.

Some of the feedback on this and other sharpening posts was along the lines of why be so obsessed with sharpening and perfectly flat bevels? I would counter that I'm not obsessed, I can stop thinking about this any time I want simply by knocking myself on the head hard enough with a mallet.

Seriously though, it's a learning process, and these are learning goals. Let me be clear here, I'm not an expert. I'm still just a student learning the skill, working things out, and sharing what I find. Think of these as student lab reports as much as how-to guides.

As I mentioned, Kingshott wrote that it took him a year as an apprentice before he felt he could get a sharp edge approaching that of his master, starting at age 14. So he was 15 by the time he felt he was reaching his goal. At 51, I'm somewhere along that path, not yet equal to that teenaged kid. That has a nice palindromic symmetry.

The other feedback was why not just go ahead and use a sharpening guide? Clearly, a guide will maintain a more consistent angle while sharpening, defining the two surfaces that must meet to form an edge as perfectly flat planes. Again, it's my desire to reach a goal, in this case to be able to achieve the same level of sharpness unaided.

Finally, Deneb Puchalski of Lie-Nielsen said he thought my problem was that I wasn't quite reaching the edge as I did final polishing on the 10,000 waterstone, because of the slightly convex face on the chisel. Leave it to a guy who helps people with their tools for a living to nail it.

Deneb suggested I try a sweeping motion on the stone as I pulled the chisel toward me. A strop is more forgiving due its slight flexibility; it will conform to the surface as it polishes. A stone won't do that, so you have to be dead on or make sure you cross the edge.

So I decided to give both a sharpening guide and Deneb's suggestion a try. First I used an Eclipse guide while repeating the sharpening process on another paring chisel. Once again, the 10,000 stone left a polished surface that looked as good I get from the strop. The difference was that now it was dead flat.

This edge did indeed slice paper right off the stones, no stropping needed. In fact, I was able to slice paper both lengthwise and across it. Copier paper has a slight grain to it, cutting more easily down its length. Being able to cut across it is another threshold test, for the next increment in sharpness.

So the sharpening guide does give an excellent, even superior edge. This sets the bar for me to reach when sharpening by hand. Or I could just use a guide...naaah.

Next I tried Deneb's suggestion on my first chisel. I experimented with it a bit and eventually had good success. I used the coarse DiaSharp and the 1,000 waterstone exactly as before, trying to maintain a flat 25-degree bevel but still ending up with the slight convexity.

Where I changed it up was on the 10,000 stone. Here I started the stroke at the far end of the stone a couple degrees under 25, then pulled back with a sweeping motion to come up just over 25. This ensured that I was conforming to the actual convex surface and crossing the edge. As before, I lifted the chisel off the stone at the near end for the return.

The result: this edge would also slice paper right off the stones. Trying a little more care with it, I was even able to get it to cut across the paper. As we say here in New England, "Wicked shahp!"

I did this several times, so the distance of the secondary bevel up the face in these photos is further than what you get from initial honing.

The resultant edges, both paper-slicing sharp right off the stones. Left, with sharpening guide, right freehand. It's very hard to capture a shiny surface in photos; the left one especially looks rougher here than it is, with those very fine lines in the secondary bevel.

To really get an idea of what these look like, look at how they reflect details. The guide-sharpened bevel is perfectly flat, but the distortion of the moon in the freehand-sharpened bevel shows the slight convexity.

In repeating the test, I found something else. Close inspection of the edge turning it in the light showed that when I failed to slice paper, I could see just the tiniest bit of cruft still clinging to it. This is the stuff that the strop removes. A single stroke each side on the strop took care of it.

I also found that when I had an edge at this point, instead of using a regular strop, I could strop the front and back on my palm to dress it up that last little bit needed to slice paper. Now, I'm not one of those crusty old-timers with palms like leather. As a software engineer, I don't get calluses on my hands from typing on a keyboard. But dragging it across a flexible surface is enough to clean off the edge.

There are some who think it's insane to rub a sharp edge on your hand like that, and some who think it's perfectly natural. I did find it genuinely useful.

The conclusion from all this is that these Ohishi waterstones really are capable of putting a super-fine edge on your tools, you just have to use them properly. Like I said, the problem before was me, not the stones. The strop offers some forgiveness if you're having difficulty reaching that last step.

As usual, the larger lesson here is to persevere, whatever method you choose. The results don't come immediately. Spend a few hours of quality time with a couple of your chisels over the course of a few days. You have to work out the fine details for yourself to get the skill down.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Double-Bevel Paring Chisel Sharpening

My sharpening setup: DMT extra-extra-coarse DiaSharp plate in separate holder, then DMT Dia-Flat lapping plate, coarse DiaSharp, Ohishi 1,000 and 10,000 grit waterstones, and leather strop. In back are water spray bottle, 25 and 20 degree sight blocks, and Flexcut Gold strop compound.

When I took a class with Roy Underhill at Lie-Nielsen a few weeks ago, one of the things we did was pare the corners off a maple bench hook. I was having trouble getting my paring chisel to work well, so I asked Roy's advice. He looked at it and suggested I resharpen it closer to 20 or 25 degrees, a more appropriate range for the very fine work of a paring chisel; it was at 30.

So I used the sharpening setup in the classroom, which consisted of Ohishi 1,000 and 10,000 grit waterstones, along with a extra-coarse DMT DiaSharp plate, and an extra-extra-coarse Dia-Flat lapping plate for flattening the waterstones. The Ohishi's are a new line that LN has just started to carry; they're not yet listed on the LN website, but you can order them by phone.

I did a rough reshaping of the primary bevel to about 20 degrees on the DiaSharp, then added the secondary bevel at about 22 degrees and honed it on the Ohishi's. I was amazed at the polish left by the 10,000 stone, similar to what I get off a strop. I also liked the fact that they didn't need presoaking, just spray the surface with water.

The chisel performed beautifully at this new angle. I realized that I was going to have to resharpen all my paring chisels. This seemed like a good opportunity to revisit waterstones. I bought a pair of the Ohishi's and a Dia-Flat from the Lie-Nielsen showroom downstairs.

Previously I've shown somewhat unconventional methods for sharpening: convex bevel and a convex double-bevel hybrid, both on oilstones, and a single-bevel on DMT DuoSharp plates. Here I used a more conventional double-bevel on the Ohishi waterstones. Since I'm reshaping a paring chisel to a lower bevel angle, I also show re-grinding it on a DMT extra-extra coarse Dia-Sharp plate.

In his book Sharpening, The Complete Guide, the late Jim Kingshott explained that the reason for using a double bevel is that removing a large amount of metal by hand on a single bevel is time-consuming. Grinding a primary bevel on a grindstone reduces the amount of metal to be worked, leaving only a small strip to be honed for the secondary bevel, forming the actual cutting edge.

The centuries-old traditional grinding tool was the hand or pedal-powered grindstone, followed later by the powered grinder. Modern abrasives such as coarse diamond plates, while not as fast as grindstones, offer a reasonable alternative, although opinions vary on whether they are durable enough for extended use this way.

Because I want to develop the hand skill to do this entirely hand, I'm not using a sharpening guide. I still haven't gotten the control down for a perfectly flat face, but I expect that to come with practice. I've also worked with deliberately convex bevels enough to know that I can do my woodworking with them, though again opinions vary on that topic. Wildly.

If you feel the need to have flatter bevels than I get here, you can do this with a sharpening guide. Just realize that you may never develop the skill to do it unaided if you rely on a jig. Kingshott said that when he was an apprentice, it took a year before he was able to achieve nearly the same edge as his master. He eventually did switch to using guides, especially when training new apprentices, but said that if you wish to learn to sharpen without them, it is a mistake to ever use one.

I ground the primary bevel on the extra-extra-coarse plate, using a 20 degree sight block to show me the angle. This took less than 10 minutes for a 3/4" paring chisel. This is an extremely aggressive plate, similar to coarse sandpaper. I keep it in a separate holder because I use it as my main shaping tool with a variety of sharpening methods.

It's important to check the bevel being formed for square. It's easy to get off track, then you have to spend time correcting it. Since the primary bevel is not a functional part of the cutting edge, I'm less concerned about its flatness.

Grinding the 20 degree primary bevel on the extra-extra-coarse DiaSharp.

The resultant bevel.

The extra-extra-coarse DiaSharp produces heavy swarf. The metal particles on the wooden holder are like glitter. It's worth wearing gloves when handling this, otherwise you can end up with tiny, very fine metal splinters in your fingers.

With the main shape established, I cleaned it up on a coarse DiaSharp. This is what I keep with the waterstones for maintaining shape. Then I switched to the 25 degree sight block and ground the secondary bevel. With the bulk of the metal removed previously, this goes very quickly. Now I'm putting more care into the flatness.

I flattened the waterstones on the Dia-Flat plate. This is the same extra-extra-coarse grit as my heavy DiaSharp, but manufactured to a finer flatness tolerance. NASA could bounce laser beams off Mars with one. It also uses a new bonding process that DMT says is more durable. You can read Chris Schwarz' review of the Dia-Flat here.

Deneb Puchalski at LN told me to flatten the 1,000 grit first, then use that slurry to flatten the 10,000. Don't do it the opposite order, because the 10,000 slurry will clog the pores of the 1,000 stone.

Flattening the 1,000 grit waterstone on the Dia-Flat.

I refined the edge on the waterstones. I slowed down the motion, both to maintain better angle control, and to avoid gouging the stones. Especially on the 10,000 stone, the surface tension holds the blade so tight to the stone that the slightest little twitch while moving forward will gouge it. So there I switched to just drawing the chisel back down the stone.

Over several sharpening cycles, I experimented with several honing patterns and grips on the chisel, including holding it right near the edge and using a circular motion, and side to side up and down the stone. I didn't notice a significant difference between any of them, but it's worth trying different ones to see which works best for you. It's also worth revisiting them as your skill improves.

The near-mirror bevel off the 10,000 waterstone.

This resulted in a near-mirror polish on the secondary bevel. I tried the paper-cut test. FAIL! In repeated tests, I was not able to get to paper-slicing sharp. A quick stropping always rectified that, but you'll see in part 2 how to correct this initial failure. The problem is me, not the stones.

For the pine end-grain test, I realized that previously I had been using spruce, a tenon cheek scrap from a 2x4. While soft, this is still a little harder than white pine. So I show both in the video. The theory here is that white pine is so soft that the fibers will crush and tear rather than slice cleanly if the edge isn't sharp enough. The chisel took thin, clean shavings from both, leaving a smooth surface.

Fine shavings on white pine end grain.

The Ohishi waterstones did a very nice job, and while just as messy as other waterstones, are more convenient since you don't have to pre-soak them.

A note on bevel maintenance: this primary grinding will last for a number of secondary honings. Eventually the secondary bevel will grow to be a significant portion of the face, so I'll regrind the primary bevel. However, I won't take it all the way to the edge. Why spend the time and metal to ruin a perfectly good secondary bevel edge?

I'll take it down near the edge so that further honings will start to work their way back up. In this way the two bevels chase each other up and down the end of the chisel over its lifetime, never going all the way, always preserving some of the other. In addition to time efficiency, that maximizes the life of the chisel.

(Continue to part 2)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Single-Bevel DuoSharp Sharpening

The setup: DMT DuoSharp Black/Blue (extra-coarse/coarse), leather strop, and DuoSharp Red/Green (fine/extra-fine) in a holder, with 30 degree sight block, Flexcut Gold compound, and a spray bottle. The upper edge of the holder has crescent-shaped finger notches rasped out to make it easy to lift the DuoSharps and flip them over. But here I just used the Blue and Green sides.

After I posted a link to my Convex Double Bevel Sharpening post on the UKWorkshop Hand Tools forum, Mark Rhodes, one of the readers there, said I was spending too long on my sharpening, and his chisels were sharper than what I showed in my video. He said he sharpens with a few swipes on a DMT fine stone.

It's clear from Mark's blog that he's capable and knows what he's talking about. He's a trained and experienced professional, having started with a 4-year apprenticeship with one company, then later a 4-year stint with John Barnard, where he says he relearned all the techniques he had thought were set in stone. He works with a mix of power and hand tools.

There are a number of variables in sharpening, and I'm always curious to know what different people find effective, especially when they have the experience to back it up. So I asked him a few questions about his technique, since I have a pair of DMT DuoSharp stones. Thanks, Mark!

My goal is not so much to find the "best" method as it is to learn proficiency with a variety of methods. As with other skills, I like the versatility of knowing that no matter what setup is available, I can get good results with it reasonably quickly and efficiently.

Am I doing better than the other guy? I don't know. I don't see it as a competition, I see it as developing a range of choices. Then I can pass that information on to others who have similar setups, and we can all learn together.

Mark uses a single flat bevel, or two points of contact if he's just hollow-ground the bevel. He said sometimes he'll follow the DMT fine with a piece of slate, and usually strops. He uses a side-to-side motion up and down the length of the stone, like Mike Dunbar's Sensible Sharpening method.

So I gave it a try, with an emphasis on minimizing the length of time I spent. However, note the update at the end of this post; I didn't get it quite right. Nevertheless, I got some interesting results. You can see the corrected method at Hollow-Ground DuoSharp Sharpening.

First I reshaped the bevel of my chisel on a DMT extra-extra-coarse Dia-Sharp plate to get it to the 30 degree single-bevel. Then I went through a few cycles of sharpening on the DuoSharp coarse (blue) and extra-fine (green), followed by stropping with Flexcut Gold on a homemade leather strop to practice the method.

I may not be doing it exactly the way Mark does, but I'm using the same general parameters. While he doesn't use a coarse stone, I went ahead and used mine since I have it, but if you include his slate, we're both using two grits before stropping. I also found in subsequent practice I could get away with fewer strokes on the strop than I show in the video.

Side-to-side on the DMT coarse, with the sight block on the end to show me the angle to maintain.

I experimented with a couple different grips on the chisel, with my forefinger wrapped around as shown above,  and extended down its length. I got similar results both ways, but different blade shapes would clearly benefit from a variation in grip (think of the differences between a short spokeshave iron, a thick mortising chisel, and a wide plane iron).

Unlike the convex bevel methods, here I'm trying to maintain a very consistent flat bevel, so I want a grip that keeps it steady up and down as well as side to side. I still ended up with a very slight convexity, but should be able to improve that with practice.

I also tried sharpening a little longer, but clearly there's a point of diminishing returns. Stop when it's done, any more is just wasting time and metal for no further benefit. You just end up building up a bigger flap of wire edge that takes longer to remove.

You can tell from the scratch pattern whether you're contacting the full bevel surface and how much progress you're making. While learning, it's best to check it every few strokes to make sure you're not getting off track. Adjust as necessary.

The results were excellent. With just a very quick sharpening, I was able to slice copier paper by resting the chisel on the edge of the paper, and it took clean shavings off a scrap of pine end grain, leaving a glassy smooth surface (incidentally, I learned about this pine end grain test from Garrett Hack in the same article that describes Dunbar's sharpening method).

The paper is a threshold test: either it will or it won't. The pine is a comparative test: it allows me to compare the shavings and surface resulting from multiple blades to see if one is better than the other. These allow me to evaluate the relative effectiveness of various methods as well as tell if I've done a good job from one time to the next.

As with other methods, if I didn't wait too long to resharpen, I was also able to do a very quick maintenance sharpening, just the Green and a few quick strokes on the strop. That got it back to paper-slicing sharp.

The chisel slices smoothly through copier paper.

Taking a pine end grain shaving.

So this is indeed a quick and efficient method, another good one to keep in the toolbox.

Update: Before you get too excited, it turns out that that I misinterpreted an important bit of information: Mark always bases this on a hollow-ground bevel. So he's not working a full flat face, he's working the two small flats at the ends of the grinding arc. That avoids the convexity (which he says would have earned him a telling-off from the foreman) and allows him to resharpen with a minimum of effort. I'll be covering this in an upcoming post.

Another thing to note is to avoid confusing this with single-bevel sharpening of Japanese tools, which are composed of a thin layer of hard steel for the cutting edge laminated to a thicker layer of soft steel. Jim Kingshott, in his book Sharpening, The Complete Guide, said that this soft steel abrades more easily, so the whole tool can be sharpened easily with a single bevel. Conversely, he pointed out that the reason for the western double-bevel is that removing metal from thick irons composed entirely of harder steels is time-consuming, so it is initially reduced with the primary grinding, leaving a smaller amount of metal to be honed at the secondary bevel. He also mentioned that he had met one or two craftsmen who sharpen all their western-style tools with a single bevel.

See the corrected Hollow-Ground DuoSharp Sharpening method.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Spots Available Last 2 Lie-Nielsen Summer Classes

A great place for a woodworking class!

Deneb Puchalski of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks asked me to let people know they still have 6-7 spaces available in the last 2 classes of their Weekend Workshops series over the next 2 weekends. I'm happy to help out!

The classes are held at their factory classroom in Warren, ME. The room is fully equipped with workbenches; while you should bring your own tools (listed in the details for each class), a variety of their tools are available to try. You can also make purchases during class. Cost is $250 per class, and lunch is provided.

The 2 classes are:
  • Aug 18-19: Hand Planed Moldings, taught by Matt Bickford. Details here.
  • Aug 25-26: Furniture Details: Decorative Edges and Faces, taught by Garrett Hack. Details here, with photos from last year's class here.
I took a joinery class with Roy Underhill there weekend before last, and it was a blast (see LN's photos here, where they also kindly linked to my post; thanks guys!). It's a great venue, and they bring in the best people. What more fabulous place for a class than at the toy factory?

I've met both Matt and Garrett at various Lie-Nielsen events before. Matt is becoming an expert in the use and making of wooden molding planes, and demonstrates regularly at LN Hand Tool Events. I'm eagerly awaiting my copy of his new book that shipped from Lost Art Press a few days ago; I'll be doing a review of it here in the next few weeks. He has an excellent blog, and makes beautiful planes for sale.

Garrett Hack is another of my true heroes of woodworking, like Roy (as well as Chris Schwarz and Phil Lowe, who coincidentally also taught classes at LN earlier this summer; it's a good thing they weren't all there at once, the building wouldn't have been able to contain so much awesomeness without exploding!). 

Garrett is an absolute master of those fine details. Beautiful faceted chamfers and inlays turn already gorgeous pieces into magnificent ones. I love reading his articles and seeing his work. It's also fascinating to watch him work, using some of the simplest of tools. He just sits there on his stool calmly turning out works of art like a Zen master.

The tool list for Garrett's class lists sharpening stones, since it's vital to have sharp tools for this work. You can read an article on his sharpening method and two others here. And if my recent post on convex double-bevel sharpening using an oilstone setup similar to my portable sharpening station didn't interest you, I have two posts that will be ready in the next few days covering single-bevel sharpening on DMT DuoSharps, and paring chisel sharpening on the Ohishi waterstones I got at LN (with DMT Dia-Sharp for coarse grinding and Dia-Flat for stone flattening). They'll be online in time for his class.

If you sign up for a class, don't wait until the last minute to make hotel reservations. There's a reason Maine is called Vacationland. For my class with Roy, I stayed 30 minutes away in Edgecomb at the Cod Cove Inn, and was very impressed by it. Cleanest room I've ever been in, and great lemon poppyseed muffins.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

CGSW Class: Mortise and Tenon

This morning I taught the fifth class at the Close Grain School of Woodworking, mortise and tenon joinery. My students were Reeve Goodenough and Colin Bourne.

Reeve chopping a mortise with a mortise chisel.

Colin chopping a mortise with a regular bench chisel.

Colin is one of my old Boy Scouts. Sadly, his father passed away in May from cancer, just four years older than me. I wanted to do something nice for him, so I thought he might enjoy joining us for some classes. I always thought he was the greatest kid, so I wasn't surprised when, a couple years after I had stepped down as Scoutmaster, I received an invitation to his Eagle ceremony. He awarded me his Mentor pin. Thank you, Colin!

His father was a US Army tank mechanic. Now Colin is following in his father's footsteps in the Army Reserve, something he's wanted to do as long I've known him since the age of 9. 

My best memory of him in Scouts is a winter backpacking trip two weeks after a huge snow and ice storm that damaged tens of thousands of trees in central Massachusetts. We were on snowshoes with backpacks and sledges, but the trail was so heavily obstructed by downed trees that we set up camp barely a mile in. I had previously shown the boys how to pile up snow, let it set, then tunnel it out for a shelter, slide a sleeping bag and pad in, and spend the night in it. So that's what Colin did. That's what I like about him, he's always willing to try things.

I started the class by going over a variety of tools for making mortises. This includes several styles of chisels for chopping them, and brace and bit for the quieter bore-and-pare method. Then I covered the saws for sawing out tenons, and the various tools for cleaning them up: chisels, shoulder plane, #10 bench rabbet plane, and router plane.

I went over the differences between through and blind mortises and the options for shoulders, pinning, and wedging. Finally, I went over ways it can go wrong, and how to clean it all up.

I demonstrated making a fully-shouldered through-mortise and tenon, showing three different methods for working the chisel while chopping. As usual, cleaning up and fitting the tenon took as much time as all the rest put together. Since they both liked the idea of wedged tenons, I ramped the mortise and sawed two slots down the tenon, then carved two wedges and drove them in. They also got the benefit of the pointers I picked up taking a class from Roy Underhill last week, where we made a mortise-and-tenon-framed door.

Colin sawing out a tenon cheek.

The guys hard at work.

Colin driving a wedge in.

Planing the joint down flush after trimming the slightly proud end of the tenon.

I love the fine shaving with the rectangular mortise hole in it! The shoulders were a bit rough, but considering that's Colin's first ever joint, it came out pretty well.

Reeve paring a cheek for a snug fit.

Testing. It fits!

Ramping the mortise prior to wedging.

Driving in a pair of wedges.

As always, I told them the thing to do is go home and practice this. It's probably better to start with looser tenons and practice making them more and more snug, rather than repeatedly spending lots of time tuning and fitting. That allows for faster repetition to get the skill down. You can also get a sound structural joint pretty quickly, even if it doesn't look the greatest. 

Reeve didn't waste any time. Later in the day he emailed me to tell me how excited he was to get the fit shown below on his third try. He said it was a testament to my class. Thanks, Reeve!

Reeve's third mortise and tenon joint. That looks pretty snug! He said he'll try harder wood for the wedges next time, since these squished down pretty flat. Photo by Reeve Goodenough.

The final class in the series will be dovetails. If you're interested in taking a class, you can sign up for one of the pre-scheduled group classes, or schedule a private class.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Taking Roy Underhill's Joinery Class

Roy Underhill, master woodworker and showman, displays one of the frame-and-panel doors we'll be making at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, ME.

This weekend I got to meet one of my true heroes of woodworking. Thursday evening a tweet showed up in my Twitter feed announcing that Lie-Nielsen still had a couple of spots open in their weekend class with Roy Underhill. Yes, Roy of the long-running PBS show The Woodwright's Shop.

What?!? Roy was going to be within 3 and a half hours driving distance? I had to do that. First thing Friday morning I called and signed up. This was simply not an opportunity to be missed. Roy's show and books have been among my primary resources in learning hand tool techniques. Popular Woodworking Magazine is now in the process of releasing the entire 30 years of The Woodwright's Shop on DVD.

Roy has steadfastly kept hand tool woodworking alive in the public eye for that entire time, playing a major role in its current resurgence. Those few who kept it alive with him, derisively branded Neanderthals and galoots for their throwback methods, now bear those names as badges of honor. They've become symbols of skill and self-reliance. We new converts gleefully join in greasing the slippery slope.

(click on any of the book covers below to purchase)
The Woodwright's Apprentice: Twenty Favorite Projects From The Woodwright's ShopThe Woodwright's Guide: Working Wood with Wedge and Edge 
The Woodwright's Shop: A Practical Guide to Traditional WoodcraftThe Woodwright's Companion: Exploring Traditional Woodcraft
The Woodwright's Workbook: Further Explorations in Traditional WoodcraftThe Woodwright's Eclectic Workshop 

Now, just try and find a place to stay on a Friday before a midsummer weekend in midcoast Maine. I finally got one of the last rooms available at the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, where Rt. 27 heads south from Rt. 1. We've been driving by there for 10 years because we were always either heading down to Boothbay or further up the coast. It turned out to be a real gem. This was possibly the cleanest hotel room I have ever been in, as neat and trim as any sailing ship of the Royal Navy ready to receive the Admiral of the Blue. And their homemade lemon poppy seed muffins were fabulous.

The topic was joinery, primarily mortise-and-tenon frame-and-panel doors, with half-blind dovetails and the famous "impossi-tail" rising dovetail. Virtually all of this information is available in his books (and now DVDs as they come out). I know because I had brought all his books except his very latest (which I forgot) for him to sign, along with the first four DVDs to be released.

It was great to meet him and spend time with him, and there's a real practical benefit to having him help troubleshoot the problems that inevitably crop up. Nothing beats hands-on instruction. It's all about the subtleties that are so easily overlooked in books or on screen.

The experience was just like being there in the workshop during his show. What you see on TV is what you get in person, full of knowledge and enthusiasm and a desire to share it all. He also had a video camera hooked up to a projector so he could show everything in closeup on the wall.

The classroom at LN with 28 students on a hot, humid day.

It's also great to take a class at Lie-Nielsen, because every tool they make is available for use. Plus Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is downstairs in the showroom for any emergency purchases. It's like being in the candy store and the toy store at the same time. They also had two sharpening stations with waterstones set up. Deneb Puchalski, LN show coordinator, and his assistant Jay were busy the entire weekend keeping the tools sharp and helping people out with them.

The first item we worked on Saturday was not an actual joint, but a benchtop appliance used for joinery, a pair of bench hooks. These were the traditional style Roy said you would make as your first project in a Sloyd class. We made ours out of maple, though you could make some more easily out of pine or cherry, they just may not last as long.

A maple block marked up for the hook shape.

Rather than ripping down the waste, Roy had us kerf it out...

...then rough it down with a chisel, bevel down. Boy, you forget how hard maple is to work!

Roy demonstrates paring a rounded end.

Here I'm smoothing the face down with a #4. Photo by Roy Underhill (OK, that's the coolest photo credit ever).

My small shoulder plane was very useful cleaning up the hook end where the bench plane couldn't reach.

Trying out another tool: LN chisel plane. As Deneb said, this is a tool for flushing down to match a flat surface, not for general flattening. Photo by Sean McClory.

Here we come to one of the great lessons of the weekend for me. Those subtleties, remember? I was having trouble getting my paring chisel to work well. I asked Roy for his advice, and he initially suggested a little more flattening of the back before honing. I tried that, but still no luck. He gave it a try, then looked closer at it. It was sharpened at about 30 degrees. He suggested taking it down to near 20 degrees. He said a paring chisel not only needs to be dead sharp, it also needs to be a very fine bevel. This is not a chopping bevel.

That was part one of this little lesson. Part two came when I went up to the sharpening stones to reshape it. I had brought my portable sharpening station with oilstones, but I figured I'd give their setup a try. They also had an extra-extra coarse DMT Dia-Flat lapping plate for flattening the stones, and an extra-coarse DMT Dia-Sharp plate for rough sharpening, so I quickly ground the bevel down about 10 more degrees freehand on the Dia-Sharp. Then I honed the edge on the two waterstones, about 30 seconds each on a 1,000, then a 10,000; it measured out to 22 degrees on the protractor.

When I turned it over to remove the burr on the back, I was amazed. The 10,000 stone had given it the same polish I get with a strop and compound. That was impressive. I asked Deneb, and he said these were new Ohishi waterstones that didn't need to be pre-soaked, just give them a spray of water. That really caught my attention. He said they're like Shaptons, but with more media. I generally prefer oilstones, because while I like the results that waterstones give, I find them rather messy and the pre-soaking inconvenient. But this was enough to convince me to give them a try. The slurry is still messy.

So I paid a visit to Kirsten and bought a pair of stones, along with a DMT Dia-Flat lapping plate (which was half the total purchase). I already have a Dia-Sharp extra-extra coarse, the same grit, but the Dia-Flat has a harder, more durable coating to stand up to lapping. Here's a writeup Chris Schwarz did on them. Note that he says you can also use them for flattening oilstones, which a few people have asked me about.

For the waterstones, Deneb told me to flatten the 1,000 first, then use that slurry to flatten the 10,000. Don't do them in the opposite order, because the finer slurry of the 10,000 can clog the pores of the 1,000. As of this writing, the stones are not yet listed on the LN website, but you can call and order them, with several intermediate grits also available.

The results? The paring chisel was transformed. It took crisp singing curls with hardly any effort. This was in fact a totally new experience for me, so I'll have to work on my paring skills. And I need to regrind all my paring chisels and gouges.

Paring down the corner of the hook with my newly transformed chisel.

Complete and incomplete hooks. The rear one is at least functional for now.

The next item for the day was making the grooved, mortise-and-tenon frame for the frame-and-panel door. This was the first use of the bench hooks, for cutting the frame stock to length, and as a hold-down in the vise.

Roy mortising a pine stile.

Using a bench hook in the vise as an auxiliary hold-down for mortising (not a hold-fast, mind you).

Grooving the mortised stile with a Stanley 45 (purportedly the only worthwhile function of a 45).

Trimming the shoulder of a tenon, holding the rail in the paired bench hooks.

Plowing a groove with my wooden wedge-arm plow plane. Photo by Sean McClory.

By the end of the day, I had my frame all made up and dry-fitted together. However, it was not very flat. Roy promised to work on tuning the next day.

People bring some gorgeous toolboxes to things like this. This one was made by J. Wesley Sunderland, who was working at the bench behind me. He had the finest collection of Millers Falls planes I've ever seen, as well as a beautiful brass-bodied eggbeater drill.

By the way, if you're in the region of West Baldwin, ME, Wesley makes 18th Century furniture reproductions, and is also available for demonstrations and lessons. As you can see from the photo of his toolbox, he's quite skilled (as was borne out by his projects during the class). You can reach him at

Sunday, Roy started off with tuning of the frames, showing how to clean up the tenon cheeks with a router plane. This goes a long way to taking any twist out the frames, with the panel helping to provide additional flattening. He said do not try to clean up the mortises. Then he went through raising the panel and fitting it to the frame. He completed the project by drawboring the joints and trimming the horns off before planing up all around.

Roy uses a router plane to clean up the tenon cheeks. I don't know where he got that strange shirt.

There were two students in the class who told me they've read the blog here. Chris, the first one, actually lives just two towns away from me. I'd briefly met the other gentleman, JP, at the LN Hand Tool Event at the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, where I had demonstrated making cabriole legs entirely by hand.

Chris trimming his panel to length on his bench hooks. That's Sean behind him, sharing my bench.

JP marking out the field of the panel.

Roy used a very nice wooden panel-raising plane on his panel, as well as an LN 610 which he found to his liking. I used my wooden badger plane, though I'm still not very good with it. The corner tends to tear up the edge of the raised field if I don't pay very close attention. So I also used my small shoulder plane to define the field, and took down the chamfer with a low-angle block plane. I used one of the grooved rails as a mullet to check the fit.

I was able to significantly improve the overall flatness of my frame by cleaning up the tenon cheeks with my router plane, though it resulted in looser joints. With the panel fitted in place, it was even better. The coup de grace that finally tamed it completely was the drawboring with rived and chiseled cherry pins. This pulled everything up tight and solid (I'll just note that you couldn't have a much more humid day than this one). The corner of the door wasn't more than a 32nd out of flat on the benchtop. This door will hold together for two centuries, no glue required.

My glamor shot with Roy and my badger plane. Photo by Sean McClory.

Final cleanup of the door face.

Roy's mark of approval on my completed door. Now I just need to build a cabinet to hang it on!

Next: half-blind dovetails, the dovetails "blind of one eye". Roy makes the tail cuts, but leaves the waste in place. He sets the tail board on the end of the pin board and sets the saw back in the kerfs, drawing it back to mark the pins. Then he removes the tail waste with a couple of quick chisel blows, and saws down at an angle as much as possible in the pin board, without cutting through the front face. To remove the waste from the tail pockets in the pin board, he alternately cuts down across the grain, then flat in with the grain, a bit at a time. He says it's working first with edge, then with wedge.

He also says not to use a dovetail marker. Instead, use a bevel gauge, and space things out according to the chisel you're using. That way, you have consistent dovetails on a single piece, but from one piece to the next, they'll all be slightly different. This distinguishes your body of work from that made with rigidly uniform machine-made dovetails.

Sawing down the tails.

My completed joint. Not the tightest, but certainly functional.

The final project for the weekend was the rising dovetail. While the layout looks a bit wild, it's not all that complicated once he explains it. The real trick in all this is the sawing out. These are odd compound angles that require the utmost care. One person likened it to cutting diamonds. As Roy said, this is forming an oblique section of a prism. You remember conic section from math class, right? What about prismatic sections? Or phantasmagorical tesseractic sections? Just rotate that in three dimensions in your mind's eye! You can read more about this joint at Popular Woodworking Magazine.

Carefully paring out the waste in the ramped socket.

Ripping down the sides of the sliding tail.

Sliding it home.

Again, a little gappy, but functional.

This weekend class was awesome. I'm so glad I was able to make it. If you ever get the chance, take it! I look forward to the next time I get to take a class from him, when I'll have that last book and a new stack of DVDs for him to sign.