Saturday, August 31, 2013

How Do You Go About Your Sharpening Now It's A Year On?

This is the question posed by Mark Rhodes last week in the comments section of my post Hollow-Ground DuoSharp Sharpening. That post was motivated by what I had read on his website and his postings to the UKWorkshop Hand Tools forum, where I wanted to try out his method. Wow, it's been a year already?!?

The quick answer is that perhaps 90% of the time now I do my sharpening freehand on Norton oilstones, either forward-and-back forming a slightly convex bevel, or side-to-side forming a double bevel. For most of the remaining 10% of the time, I use Ohishi or Norton waterstones or DMT Duo-Sharp diamond plates. I do the last little bit very rarely on my hand-cranked grinder or sandpaper on glass or polished stone tile.

In all cases I finish up with a leather strop dressed with green or yellow compound. I've been doing most of my back preparation using the sandpaper on tile method.

So while the bulk of it is with the oilstones, I'm actually using a whole bunch of different methods. This is for several reasons.

First, I'm sharpening for 3 situations: doing my own woodworking, doing woodworking demonstrations, and teaching classes.

Second, I'm dealing with a range of tool shapes, from long narrow chisels through wide plane irons to stubby wide spokeshave irons, plus a variety of specialty plane irons.

Third, I prize versatility for its own sake. I want to be able to sharpen no matter the tool or the sharpening setup.

Those are the rational forces that come into play, that also get mixed in with a few irrational considerations.

Each of these methods is effective, producing a sharp tool. While each has its quirks, I don't find that any of them stands out appreciably in terms of results, time-efficiency, or cost, particularly given the range of situations I'm trying to cover. The time overall for any of them is only a few minutes.

For my own work, my interest is in learning traditional methods, which in this part of New England is based primarily on traditional English methods. For me oilstones represent that tradition. Sure that's a bit of foolish romanticism, but if they could do it this way 200 years ago, I'd like to as well. The historical connection is probably murky, given that I don't have a traditional large grindstone and modern manmade oilstones are probably more advanced abrasives than the old ones.

When I do demonstrations, people are invariably drawn to the oilstone method. They recognize it as old-school, remembering a grandfather doing that. It's that same nostalgic and romantic connection to the past and to the craft. They're also fascinated that even in the modern high tech era with all the latest space age materials and gadgets available, the old method still holds its own. That's what makes demonstrations fun and engaging, bringing people back to the satisfaction of working with their hands.

Teaching is a much different situation. Students have a variety of motivations. They often come to class with a particular sharpening setup they want to learn to use. Some have no set idea and want to try different ones. So I adapt my lesson to their needs. For that I need to be proficient in all of them. I try to digest down the common principles, then apply them to each one.

As a practical matter, I find the oilstone setup well-suited for portability, especially once I built my portable sharpening station. I find the waterstones least portable, particularly the type that require pre-soaking; waterstones seem to be messiest. Diamond plates are also quite portable, but are furthest removed from that traditional connection, one of those irrational considerations.

Tool shape doesn't really dictate which sharpening setup I use, but it does drive the decision to sharpen freehand, and which sharpening motion to use. Freehand sharpening allows me the most adaptability to the situation, as opposed to jigs and guides, which are optimized for specific ranges of shapes. Some tools and specialty irons get quite awkward to hold, so using a different motion works better.

For most tools, I use a forward-and-back motion with a slight convex motion. I originally wrote about that in The Grimsdale Method, and continued to work that way based on Paul Sellers' book. Usually I go for just a subtle convexity. All I need to do is extend and retract my arm while holding the tool consistently throughout the motion; that mechanical extension is just enough to vary the angle, leaving a slight rounding in the overall bevel profile.

I usually demonstrate it with a more exaggerated convexity, pointing out that trying to keep it flat will still usually end up slightly convex. Rather than fighting that tendency, the convex bevel method embraces it. The key is to cross the edge at the desired sharpening angle. I use a visual sight block to align the tool to the angle.

For some tools, I use a side to side motion with a double bevel. I find this motion makes holding a particular bevel angle a little easier. With narrow blades it can be hard to prevent sideways rolling, but for stubby spokeshave irons, wider than they are long, it's ideal. When I'm working the primary bevel, I'm not too concerned about what actual angle I end up with. When I'm working the secondary bevel, honing the actual cutting edge, I take more care.

So using multiple methods allows me to cover a wide variety of situations. If one's not working out for me, I can switch to another.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Varnum Pond Vacation

Heeling to a moderate breeze on the Sunfish.

I'm on a Sunfish in the middle of Varnum Pond. There's just the slightest pressure on sheet and tiller in my hands in the light air. As the breeze builds on my cheek, the slap-slap-slap of wavelets on the hull changes to the sound of water flowing.

I haul the sheet in. The daggerboard begins a deep thrumming that resonates though the entire hull.

I pull the tiller in to get dead across the wind and sheet in hard. This is my favorite point of sail for a Sunfish in a good breeze, close-hauled on a beam reach. As the gust builds, the boat heels and buries the coaming. I set my feet against the far wall of the cockpit.

The mast heels past 45 degrees and I arch back to counterbalance it, the mast and my body forming a giant V. I work the tiller and sheet continuously to pump it up to the fastest point. It's a live thing, like riding a wild horse.

Five, ten, twelve, fifteen seconds, then the gust passes. The boat drops back to a light heel and I let the sheet out to a normal beam reach. Fifty yards from the boat a loon calls. The response comes back from the far end of the pond, a mile away.

I wait for the next gust. This is the best vacation ever.

This past week my wife, Cat, and I stayed at a cabin on the gorgeous Harmony Farm on Varnum Pond, in Temple, ME. The main house and original outbuildings were built by Boston restaurateur Jacob Wirth. The property was originally known as Camp Wirth (in Maine, all vacation homes are "camp", whether they're simple shacks in the woods or mini-mansions with 3-car garages and manicured lawns).

It's now owned by Catherine and John Erdman. If you'd like to rent the cabin for a few nights, contact Catherine at Their rates are very reasonable.

It's a very peaceful, picturesque spot. An artist could fill an entire portfolio vacationing here. The pond is J-shaped, about three quarters of a mile by one mile, and a quarter across. There are a few power boats, but all we ever saw out was kayaks, canoes, and a Hobie cat.

It's been an odd summer. I haven't gotten a lot of woodworking done. But there's a woodworking connection here. John is a Windsor chairmaker, a graduate of several of Mike Dunbar's classes at the The Windsor Institute in Hampton, NH. He knows Fred Chellis of Little River Windsors, a fellow member of the Guild of NH Woodworkers.

John and I spent several hours over the week rocking on the porch talking tools and projects. It just can't get any better!

Teeka, our cabin.

The main house.

As soon we had unloaded the car on arrival, I asked about the Sunfish. The afternoon breeze had really picked up, continuously rustling all the trees. John and I took the mast and sail down to the pond; a longtime sailor, he was happy to have someone take the boat out.

Catherine and Cat arrived as we were ready to turn the hull over and put it in the water. I told John it would be criminal to waste this breeze, and he smiled and said, "Now I'm really happy!"

I got the boat rigged and paddled it out from the dock like a surfboard to raise the sail. Everyone settled into chairs to watch. As I said, my favorite point of sail with these is close-hauled beam reach. That makes them the jet-skis of the sailing world. I hauled in tight and came up on a high heel. Yeah baby! Then I capsized.

Well, it's been four years since I was on one of these. I tried to catch the daggerboard before it completely turned turtle, but the wind blew it over hull up. I scrambled up and caught the daggerboard in my hands, my feet on the hull, and leaned back. The boat came up sideways, then the mast came out of the water.

The sheet caught on the tiller and the wind caught in the sail and the boat went completely over the other way. I got around the other side, climbed up on the daggerboard and righted it again, and this time it stayed upright. I lunged up on deck and scrambled aboard.

After a little practice, I got back into the handling. I find a Sunfish benefits from an active tiller, constantly questing, seeking back and forth for the best point.

I had also forgotten how fluky pond winds can be. The surrounding hills and trees, the sun heating the land and water, all result in constantly shifting strength and direction. The interesting thing was that I could hear the breeze coming at it rustled the trees.

But with a proper beam reach, not over-hauled, a Sunfish can ghost along in the gentlest breeze. It will even come up on plane as the wind builds when beam reaching or running.

After a while I came back to the dock and picked up Cat. We complement each other so well. After about 15 minutes, she asked, "So you find this fun?" Her thing is fishing. After about 15 minutes of watching her fish, I'll ask, "So you find this fun?"

We each have our way of enjoying the water. She can fish from the dock for hours; I can sail around in circles for hours.

Cat's first really big one.

The large, comfortable covered main porch.

View from the porch.

Down by the pond.

Boats, boats, boats!

Here I'll offer a mini-review of the Pelican Pursuit 80 kayak, the one there in the foreground. I had previously taken out their Perception Acadia 12.5 sea kayak (not shown), paddling out to the blueberry bushes lining the far side of the pond. It's similar to my Perception Eclipse Sea Lion 18, just a bit beamier. The rudder is nice in the wind, keeping the boat tracking in the desired direction when the wind tries to push the long bow around.

I hadn't tried the smaller kayaks in the photo because I was being a kayak snob. Only the long graceful sea kayaks for me! But I hoisted the Pursuite up to take a look and was amazed. It hardly weighed anything! At 26 lbs. I could lift it off the rack and into the water with one arm.

I got in and paddled around and was surprised at its excellent handling. We have a pair of Perception Keowees that feel similar, stable and easy-to-handle flat-water boats. But the longer Keowees have the windage problem; the short Pursuit didn't have any problem in the wind.

I was very impressed with the Pursuit, a light, agile boat easy for beginners. It's short enough to fit in the back of our van, and light enough to load on top easily.

View from the dock.

View back up to the house, left, and cabin, right.

The big tree with swing.

Some of the many beautiful flowers in front of the shed.

This is truly the way to go on vacation. The biggest decision of the day is what kind of boat to take out. Wind's up, take the sailboat. Wind's down, take the kayak. Between morning, afternoon, and evening, I  got 4 or 5 hours of boating in each day while Cat fished or sat enjoying the view.

We had spectacular weather. Not only good breeze, but comfortable temperatures and bright sun with fluffy clouds. The stars at night were equally spectacular. There was not the slightest hint of moon. The stars were so numerous and bright you could see by them, with the trees silhouetted black against the sky.

We saw several shooting stars and satellites. We saw one particularly bright one that we first thought must be a plane. But there was no strobe, and it moved with that arrow-straight smoothness of a satellite. I noted Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper and picked out north, and saw that it went over the treetops in the northeast.

I figured it must be the International Space Station. We checked the sighting website later, and sure enough, it had passed almost directly overhead Lewiston, ME, at the time we were watching, disappearing to the northeast. We couldn't have been luckier.

How about waking up to this view out over the foot of the bed?

Ahhh, breakfast on the deck.

One of our little Maine treats is the jar you see there on the table, Tropical Maine syrup and marinade. We found this at a craft fair in Boothbay several years ago, where the fellow was offering tastes. We bought a half-dozen jars it was so good. It's like a syrupy jelly for toast or pancakes.

Goldfinches at the feeder.

This elusive fellow was right at my feet off the edge of the porch. I finally figured out how to override the autofocus on the camera, but he didn't come back.

The shed and flower garden.

The cabin is well-equipped for up to four people. The front room has two beds and a sitting area. The main room has the main bed and kitchen area, with bathroom in the corner. It's strictly seasonal, with simple electric heaters. The pond is the main water supply, but drinking water is carried in from a local spring.

The beds in the front room of the cabin.

The front room sitting area.

The main sleeping area.

The kitchen area.

We had cool nights in the 50's. The weather continued beautiful through Wednesday. The breeze continued surprisingly steady throughout. I spent 3 hours sailing Wednesday morning, the best yet. As thanks for all the fun I'd had, I picked up some fenders and line and rigged a slip between their dock and a fallen tree so they could keep the boat in for other guests.

Cat fishing at sunset.

Another big one!

Sunset on the pond.

Thursday was another glorious day of sailing. You should always be cautious when a sailor says the weather is glorious, because all he really means is the wind is good and nothing will interfere with sailing. The temperature, sun and clouds, precipitation are irrelevant. Now it might also be a pretty day, sunny and warm, which of course makes it truly glorious.

This was glorious but not pretty, heavily overcast, with cloud just above the tree tops hiding the surrounding hills. I finished up the day with an hour-long paddle in the Pursuit in a light rain.

The hills buried in cloud.

As I mentioned, the drinking water came from a public tap in the ground. This is what the seasonal houses without a well use.

Turn on Orchard Hill Rd., stop at the first faucet coming out of the woods on the left. If you come to the maple syrup farm, you've gone too far.

Maine lawn care equipment.

Finally, I'm very happy to report that Wannawaf has opened a new location in Portland. This is another of our favorite Maine treats. We always go to the original location in Boothbay Harbor when we're in the area.

We had read a couple years ago that the owner, Anya Arsenault, was interested in expanding, so we were thrilled to find out it's now open on Monument Square in Portland.

What is Wannawaf? They make Belgian waffles, then serve them as sundaes with scoops of ice cream and various toppings. They have a number of combinations on the menu, or you can build your own with 3 toppings. Delicious! There are also savory waffles to have before dessert (and hot dogs at the Boothbay location). Don't miss it!

Cat enjoys her Wannawaf in the front window seating.

Bevin with good ol' Smeg.

Our favorite, the Must Bee Nuts, wasn't on the menu, but Bevin, a printmaking graduate from MECA, was happy to make them up for us, with peanut butter, honey, and granola, all topped with whipped cream. A great way to top off a great vacation!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

CGSW Private Class

Charles Collins testing out his newly sharpened chisel on a scrap of pine. It left a beautiful glassy surface.

Today I had a private class at the Close Grain School Of Woodworking with Charles Collins, who moved from Texas to New Hampshire a couple years ago. After seeing the League Of New Hampshire Craftsmen's Annual Craftsmen's Fair at Mount Sunapee Resort, he decided he wanted to learn woodworking (this year's fair runs this week, where you can also see the Guild Of New Hampshire Woodworkers tent).

Like most beginners, he's been learning by reading books and watching videos, and was interested in some hands-on instruction.

We went over sharpening and details of sawing and stock preparation. He has a number of new tools and some inherited from family members. One is a 1920's-era Stanley #4 that he got from his great-uncle, that he believes belonged to his great-grandfather. As always, the family connection to past generations makes the tools sweeter.

I had him bring a cheap home center chisel set and plane iron for practice. I had a variety of sharpening media setup, Norton oilstones, Norton and Ohishi water stones, and DMT Duo-Sharp diamond plates. He's been using sandpaper on glass.

We went over the pros and cons of the various setups, and he decided to focus on the oilstones. I demonstrated how to sharpen chisels and plane irons, then had him do it with his practice blades, starting with flattening and polishing the backs on sandpaper adhered to a polished marble tile. This back preparation really helps produce an edge that leaves a silky smooth surface.

Then he was ready to tackle his great-grandfather's plane. He got the iron tuned to a fine edge that was able to shave pine end grain easily.

Preparing the back of his great-grandfather's plane iron.

Sharpening the iron on the oilstones.

Next we went over saw sharpening and sawing techniques. I had him do several crosscuts, then rip a 1"-wide strip off the edge of a 4' board, practicing steering the saw off track and then back on.

Then I showed him how to resaw a small piece, and he tried it on a larger piece. He was very happy about this, because he wants to make up some thin panels for a project he's working on.

Resawing a board into two thinner pieces.

Once he had two thin pieces, he used his great-grandfather's plane to flatten the resawn faces. A #4 is a bit short for flattening, but he wanted to see what this plane could do. With the iron set a bit rank and a scribble of wax from a candle on its sole, it took the surfaces down quickly.

Flattening a resawn face.

He finished up by matching the planed faces and jointing the edge as he would for gluing-up a wider panel. Again, this is a short plane for jointing, but it did fine.

If you're interested in private or group hands-on instruction, see the Close Grain School Of Woodworking page.