Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Prelude to the Auto-Regulator write-ups

The Auto-Regulator project was one of my last big commissions. We (the movement maker, and I) had intended to put the clock into limited production. I invested heavily in the project, because the clock movement itself was truly remarkable: SBE-HA (the movement maker) has basically designed the first atomic clock for home or office. So it made sense to me to pull out all the stops. There was a lot of head-scratching involved, and I gave free reign to some of my more unfortunate perfectionist tendencies. The end result was something that I can say was truly remarkable. I learned a remarkable amount from this project. And it's about time I started sharing some of what I learned. 

It's not worth putting too much time into dedicated jigs if you're only making one of whatever it is. A single piece will allow for a limited amount of process fudging. But once you're making more than one of something, the time involved to fuss each assembly together starts to multiply. Final fit and finish of any completed piece is painstaking enough, without having to fine tune every piece, or sub-assembly, by hand. So I spent an inordinate amount of time designing jigs and fixtures, to make ultimate production easier, smoother, and to help me cut down on the amount of waste involved in each clock. My shop-mates gave me quite a few side-long glances, and I was accused at one point of doing everything in 'long-hand.'

My approach on this clock is NOT the way I'd have done it if I was building only one.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Scrap Roundup

I once knew a guy who ran a shop making cabinets... He was very fanatical about getting rid of scraps. He wouldn't keep anything smaller than half a sheet of plywood. As far as he was concerned, anything he threw out had been paid for by the client, so he wasn't throwing away any of his own money. It was someone else's trash, and it was taking up valuable space in his (admittedly, small) shop. He encouraged people to take what they wanted from his dumpster. It meant less waste that he'd only have to pay to dispose of anyway, so it worked out for everyone. I got some good hunks of bamboo plywood that way.

I'm not that vigilant yet, but I do at least try to keep the amount of scrap to a reasonable level. I have a designated scrap bin, and anything that doesn't fit in there, goes out. That said, I do find myself looking for productive uses for scrap that is otherwise dumpster-bound, as do other folks that I know, so here's a rundown of some of the good uses that I've found, to date.

---- Push Sticks ----

Anything slightly larger than a full sheet of paper is push stick material, and it gets stored in a milk crate for that purpose. I laid out the design for my push sticks on a full size sheet, and so the blanks I use for making new push sticks are that size. I get two push sticks out of each blank. The design I came up with hooks onto the side of the fence, so it's always at hand when I need it. The top edge is parallel to the bottom edge. That means that when the bottom has gotten chewed up beyond safe use, I can reference the top edge against the fence, rip the chewed up section away, and cut a new notch. This way I get a few uses out of each push stick. The way the back is angled, pushing forward will lever the front end down, to help keep the board from popping up if it hangs on the back edge of the blade.   Once in a while I'll make a batch that fills up about 2/3 of a milk crate. Last time I did that, it lasted me roughly 5 years.

Looking down into the milk crate above, the push stick on the right is 1/2" ply, faced with quartersawn oak veneer. Some folks might think that's pretty fancy for a push stick. I think it keeps me from hanging on to a scrap that I would very likely never actually use, but that I'd save, simply because it was 'fancy.'

---- Thin/ Narrow Push sticks ----

When you get down to stock that's less than 1/4" thick, a regular push stick just feels unsafe. Especially when you're working with 1/8" or thinner... it gets tickled upwards by the back edge of the blade, and... things happen. Usually, not good things, either. So, I'll use a length of scrap like this, to hold the material firmly down against a zero clearance insert. It keeps the full length of a thin, and narrow (in this case, 1/4" wide) strip under control, while it's being firmly escorted past the blade.

Basic criteria here, the scrap should protrude above the fence by 1/2"-1". Run the blade at least an inch or two higher than the material... The higher up the blade is, the more the leading edge exerts a down-force, instead of pushing back, and is less likely to splinter thin stock.

I've also used a similar tactic to rip really thin strips from thicker stock, in this case 1/16". Having a riving knife really helps, but having direct pressure on top of the strip to keep it pressed against a good zero clearance insert is also a good way to keep things stable. The fact that it's a fresh push stick with clean, square edges helps. And the fact that it's just a hunk of scrap means that pretty much every time I do this, I'll be using a fresh, clean push stick.


---- Short Cross-cut setup blocks ----

I have a scrap of mahogany that's cut to 6" long, and a hunk of ash that's 12" long. I use them for a lot of things. In this case, they're great for helping with short cross-cuts of narrow material. Anything less than 2-3" is probably too short to controllably cross-cut with the fence on a miter gauge. So, I'll set the rip fence to 6" over the length that I need, place the 6" block against the fence, and bump the material up against the block.

In this case, I'm cutting 1" pieces. Trying to reliably hold something that small against a miter gauge fence is hazardous, period. So, I set the fence to a 7" cut, and use this setup block to position the stock on the miter gauge fence. After that, I'll hold the material against the miter gauge fence by hand, and make the cut while leaving the positioning block behind. End result is a 1" piece.

---- Router table setup blocks ----

This is a by-product of the fact that my router table is hooked directly onto my table saw, but either way, if you're running grooves that need to be a specific dimension from an edge, it's ridiculously easy to cut short chunks of whatever to use to help set your fence: Insert block between bit and fence, check to make sure that the bit just barely grazes the end of the block, adjust fence accordingly. I'll label them if they're a reasonably common size, but because scraps are everywhere, and the short cross-cut setup block makes it so easy to cut accurate short lengths, it's almost easier sometimes to just cut a new one than it is to find one that's pre-cut.

I've tried to think up faster ways to set up the fence... For instance, I could add a L-R adhesive scale to the fence rail, to show distance from the fence to the center of the router collet, but then I remember that I use plywood bits a lot, so the math gets hazy. ("Okay, center of the bit is here, diameter is 31/64, half of that for the radius is 31/128", that's the location of the edge of the bit... wait, I can't even see that small... Who thought this was a good idea?")

There is a scale for setting up the fence to the left of the blade, and it's good enough to help me move the fence in predictable increments, relative to the bit, which you can't do with most router table fences. So... the setup block routine is pretty quick.

I love my router table.

---- Drill Press fast blocks ----

I mentioned these recently, but they do get a lot of use. It's just so much faster to drop in a couple of chunks of plywood to elevate the material when it doesn't need to be a super- accurate hole, or when there's a lot of bit-changing going on. It's also proven to be very useful as a secondary surface when I'm drilling aluminum or steel, so the oil and swarf doesn't ruin the surface of my drill press table... or anything else that will someday get put on that surface.

Friday, June 5, 2015

News from Scotland

I got an email this morning from Karl Holtey.

 It started this way: "Hi James The time has come for me to retire, after 26 years..."

 (To be clear, I'm not buddies with Karl. I ordered a few plane irons from him way back when, so I was clearly on a mailing list )

He goes on to describe what will be his last plane model, the 984, which will be a 13.5" panel plane to complement the 983.

I clicked over to his website, and found a few new things... He'd wrapped up the run of transitional planes that he'd started earlier. There's a third and final version of the 11-S. His bullnose planes are up... To be fair, I hadn't visited the site in a while, so this may all be old news, but it does look like he's tying up loose ends.

It's weird, hearing about Karl Holtey retiring. It's like seeing (or reading about) a star go out. A well deserved retirement, no doubt, but still.

Monday, March 23, 2015

In the hand of the beholder

This post hit me while I was filing and sanding the handles on a pair of kettlebells today. That's good news for me, because it means the urge to write is coming back.

For the unaware, kettlebells are basically cannonballs with handles on them, used for weight lifting exercises. Some of the core exercises in kettlebell work involve grabbing the handle, and swinging the weights in a specific way, in some cases for up to 10 minutes or longer. (I'll get there someday.) It is thus of paramount importance that the handles are in good condition, lest you get blisters, or tear up your calluses. Rough spots in the castings are the primary culprits, as is the seam in the handle where the halves are joined on some of the cast iron models... like these ones. So, those rough or high spots need to be filed away, and sanded down. And as I was filing and sanding my merry way along this morning, it hit me, that it reminded me very much of some of my favorite tools... almost all of which are older.

I have an old, round-side Bedrock plane that has a hang hole drilled in it, the japanning is a mess, it doesn't have the original lever cap, and there's a broken spot on the back of the sidewall on one side. I tuned it up and tweaked it, and in general, it's one of the smoothest operating planes I own. And the broken spot is actually a plus: On most of my other planes, that's the part that digs into the side of my hand while I'm working, inevitably resulting in a blister if I have a lot of planing to do that day.

That's why this plane gets plenty of attention, and my customized Lie-Nielsen (Blade alignment screws machined into the sidewalls down by the sole, a Holtey S53 iron, as well as other more minor tweaks) sat on the shelf. The L-N is a very sexy tool, and I love the way it handles. But because it doesn't handle quite as well as that beaten up old Bedrock, it's now up on eBay.

Some of my other old tools are treasures, because of the patterns in the patination. I have an old, borderline usable wooden jack plane, that has light spots in the patina from where the plane had clearly been gripped and worked with, for many, many board feet. And it shows me where the pressure was landing, and just how the grip was aligning on the plane. That tells me how the previous owner... whose long experience was documented on this tool... had been holding the thing, and whether or not I'm doing it like he did. That's a lot of information.

Proprioception is defined as the sense of relative position of neighboring parts of the body, and strength of effort being employed in movement. In sports, and in some other skilled endeavors, learning the 'right' motions is facilitated by having your coach stand behind you, grab your elbows, or arms, or whatever, and then guide you through the motions. Proprioception cuts through the chatter, and you learn how the motion is supposed to feel, without being distracted by the horribly botched attempt to explain it in words.

This old plane is basically the next best thing. Lining my hands up with the markings in the patina, I can feel how the plane is 'supposed' to be used.

And that circles around to the issue of what something looks like, how valuable it is, and how valuable it's perceived to be. Having worked for chain retailers for 3 years, I saw a lot of tools in our catalogs, and in our stores. In the catalog, many of them looked very sexy. In person, in the store, when I compared them mentally to my own favorite tools, it was different. Lacking studio lighting and makeup, they looked slightly less sexy than they did in the catalog. And in the hand, not all of them felt the way that they should. They still looked pretty good on the shelf. But they didn't feel right. By comparison, some of my older tools... like that old Jack plane... look ugly in a way that my Army Drill Sergeant would probably have described as "Uglier than a bag full of smashed A-holes."

(Apologies to my more delicate readers. Basic training is a rarified experience.)

But all of that ugly aside, the tools in question just feel  right. And they work well. They'd never sell in a catalog, and they'll fetch a fraction of a pittance on eBay... But the real value of a tool for the end user doesn't derive from how good it looks. The tool's value is in how well it works.

(That said, the tool's value for the online or catalog retailer does derive from how good it looks, because that correlates directly with sales. Lacking any other input than a picture, a pretty tool will sell better than an ugly tool.)

And this extends to the furniture I love to make. (I'm down these days, but not out.) I love big, heavy stuff, made of solid wood, that feels SOLID. Furniture that doesn't have the vibration and wobble that brand new Ikea products exhibit. Furniture that's heavy when it should be heavy, like a hayrake table, or light when it should be light... like a ladderback chair. I LOVE the feel of a finish that's topped with a film of (properly applied) paste wax. French polish is sexy and all, but when my fingers glide on the surface, and it just feels right... That's not something that can be faked. Properly broken edges aren't as crisp looking as a lot of the edges on the tables that I've used before, but they feel right.

I suppose from here I could devolve the conversation into a talk on the problems inherent in an internet catalog economy, the lack of personal, or at least personalized treatment, 'real' craftsmanship, or any of the other mantras that come up in woodworking circles.

Instead I'm going to close up, grab those 'bag of ugly' kettlebells (that feel much better, now) and get back to work.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


I mentioned in the first entry on the Auto-Regulator that I would talk about how it brought me to where I am now. The short version is that the clock put me out of business. I'm still a woodworker in heart and mind. But I won't be on my 1040 at the end of the year.

I had this grand plan to do the full write up on the clock, and then use this news as the punchline. But the truth of the matter is that I've been very much aware of all of the writing and woodworking that I haven't been doing for the past few months, and I felt the need to say something. At the end of the day, the clock wasn't the greatest business decision. It was a lot of work. It was both challenging, and rewarding. And I'm proud of the end product. But it won't be going into production. That's as much of the story as I'm going to publish. Shutting down was heart-breaking, and a relief.

Since mid-September, I've been at home, taking care of my son. He's almost 2. He's awesome. I've sold most of the big tools. A few will be in storage for a while. I have my small bench in the basement right now, with my North Bennet Street tool chest underneath it. And I have my Festool stuff down there, taunting me. I still love wood-work with a passion. My perfectionist streak dictates that I will still reserve my love for only the very best. But I'll have to find smaller-scale projects to build and blog about, that still stimulate me, and still satisfy my perfectionist urges. I'm excited to see how tht unfolds.

In the mean-time, the toddler does his work well, and I'm pretty wiped out when he finally goes down. So the write-ups on the clock remain slow in coming. I have a couple of other projects that got done in the waning days of my business, so there's plenty to write about while I marshal my energy to be creative again, and while I get my available space organized.

My heartfelt thanks go out to all who have been reading, responding, and offering support or feedback of every kind.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Auto-Regulator, Chapter 4: Cutting the arch, part 1

The arch, the upper side horizontals, and the vertical posts come together in a pair of 3-way miter joints at the top of the case. That's the short version. And from an aesthetic point of view, that's really the version that matters. As long as the joint is cleanly made, the eye will freely run along the lines of the case. But from a construction point of view, things are almost never that simple. If there are any gaps, voids, or other breaks in the surface, the eye stops there, and the mind will take note. Much like a shrieking saxophone or clarinet in an orchestra, it won't matter if the melody is miraculous. It's the shriek that you'll notice, and the reverie will be interrupted. So, to make those clean transitions, understanding what's going on is a huge help... and I didn't properly understand what was going on when I got started on this project. So I'm going to break down this deceptively simple looking joint, before we get into how it was done.

On the side of the clock, the vertical post meets the upper horizontal in a 45 degree miter. That's pretty straightforward. I'm going to refer to this as the side miter.

On the front of the clock, the vertical post meets the arch in another miter joint, that's cut at an angle that I've never bothered to measure in terms of degrees. Those miter lines point from the top corners of the case, directly to the center of the clock face. The inner radius of the arch is concentric with the dial, so the miter line runs radially through that edge. I'll refer to this as the front miter.

The curved top surface of the arch meets the upper surface of the upper horizontal members in a 45 degree miter. And I'll refer to this as the top miter. And this is where things start to get funky in the mechanics of the joint.

The plane of the cut for the side miter is at 90 degrees to the plane of the side of the clock. Or, the table saw blade is at 90 degrees to the table, when those miters are cut on those pieces. The cut for the front miter is also cut at 90 degrees to the plane of the surface. That's pretty straightforward. And in my head, that made everything seem very, very simple. That should have been a clue to me that something was awry, I guess. But because the face miter is cut at a different angle as the side miter, the edge where those two cuts intersect gets skewed to one side. So the three-way miter becomes a three way compound miter.

Each cut defines a planar surface. Geometrically speaking, two planes that intersect will define a line along that intersection. Practically speaking, that line defines the edge that's made where the two cuts come together. And for this joint to work, the edge defined by the two cuts made on the vertical post, the edge defined by the two cuts on the horizontal member, and the edge that's defined by the two cuts on each end of the arch... those three edges must come together cleanly along their length, with all of the mating faces coming together fully.

The test joint actually came together cleanly, but if you zoom in on the picture, and see the different surfaces interacting, you'll start to get an idea of just how many things can go wrong in the joint. Oh, and having one of these come together is hard enough. To cut the arch properly, there are two of these joints to consider, one on each end. Which brings us back to the top miter.

To cut that compound miter, the 45 you see on the surface is defined in relation to the top edge of the horizontal, and the back edge of the arch. The angle of the blade during the cut, which is what makes this a compound miter, is defined in reference to the surface of the parts that will lie flat on the saw table.

But the top is curved. There is no reference surface.

Obviously, to be continued...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Auto-regulator, Chapter 3: Making the vertical elements

One of the primary design elements of the case was the use of three way miters. In the pedestal, as I've explained, they're not true three-way miters. The movement case is a different story. But there's more to it than that.

Because the facings of the vertical elements are book-matched pieces of solid stock, there's a miter joint around the outer front edge of the vertical pieces. And, because the inside of the vertical pieces will be visibly sculpted, I needed to have matierial to sculpt away. So, the front vertical pieces are both three part laminations: solid core, with book-matched, mitered solid face pieces.

Mitering an end-grain joint is a fairly straightforward affair. Typically, it's used in case constuction, and the biggest miter joints I've usually seen are on things like blanket chests. That may be up to 18" worth of miter, but it's not too hard. In this case, I had a few more variables to consider. First, the stock was re-sawn out of a larger piece. It was mostly flat, and behaved fairly well. Second, the joint has to come together flatly, and mate with the solid core. So, if there was any concavity, or convexity in the joint, I'm going to have issues, because either the middle or the ends won't mate cleanly with the core. Lastly, these pieces are long. 32" of walnut, plus extra to trim back, and 42" of maple, with extra. So they needed to be long, straight, and perfect.

I trust my table saw to do many things. But a few days after being resawn, the pieces were ever so slightly bowed... and I didn't trust that operation to go smoothly on the saw. So, I rough-sawed the miters on the saw, and built a long-miter shooting board to do the rest.

Lastly, I needed everything to be dead straight. Given the thicknesses of everything involved, I wasn't too worried that things would go awry, but to be sure, I made box beams to provide flat reference surfaces for gluing, and glued everything up.