Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The falcons are back!

Chris looked up from the bench this afternoon and said "Is that the falcon?"

I looked over to the roof peak where Harvey (or whoever the other one is) would normally perch, and sure enough, there was a peregrine falcon sitting there. And then we noticed that the other one was perched on a ledge on our building. We grabbed binoculars (I've had them in the shop for a while, becuase of the falcons) and went to go look at the birds. We opened a grimy window to get a better look, and these birds are incredible. I'm pretty happy to see that they're either back, or still here, becuase we haven't seen them in a while.

Later on in the afternoon, we got to see one of them fighting with a crow. We have massive numbers of crows in the area. They settle on the rooftop of the adjacent building in the evenings, in numbers that bring terrifying, Stephen-King-esque visions. to mind. So seeing one of them hunted by a peregrine was pretty cool. There were also a couple of close fly-bys, right in front of our window... so I expect there will be more stories of peregrine glee in the future.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Practice what you play, play what you practice.

So, I currently have one active shop project, and a small commission project on deck. (bookcase) But, for whatever reason, I opted to work on the shop project first.

The shop project is a pair of tables for a sliding miter saw. The taller is a general utility table, to hold the other end of a long board as it's being cut to length... regardless of how long it is. This table is also built to be the same height as the table on the Laguna band saw, so it can be used to support the other end of a long piece, say, if I'm cutting something really long, (or really heavy... like a log, or a big 12/4 beam) and I need something to carry the heavy end so I can focus on the cut as it's being made. At just under 2'x'3', this rolling table will be a lot more practical to use in the machine room to carry around piles of parts as they're being made. So far, I've been using the 4'x4' assembly tables we made, and they're really too big to be practical for that sort of thing.

The saw table is sized so that the working surface of the chop saw is on the level with the utility table... which is also the same height as the band saw table. I don't know how this could prove to be useful, having the band saw and chop saw tables at the same height... but weirder things have happened. Either way, it's an integrated system, which makes me happy.

I chose to make the table frames out of ash, because it's strong and cheap, but I took the time to make mortise and tenon joints for the project, and pin them together. It's a pretty good, simple way to join things, but I wanted to see just how strong a joint it would be, so I made a test piece, with a scrap of leg stock, mortised it like I did the legs, and tenoned in two scrap pieces of stretcher stock. I clamped it up, without using glue, drilled it, and pinned the joints together. I took the piece, to see how strong it was, and put it on the floor. I put some weight on it with my foot, and eventually stood on it. (I'm somewhere just south of 300 lbs.) No worries. These joints are much stronger than I realized. No wonder this is how they used to frame large structures.

(Old churches, and large halls were timber framed, which is basically large beams of wood with oversized joinery cut in the ends, and then when assembled, the joints were drilled and pinned with trunnels, or "tree nails." Unlike the stud-framed 'balloon' style of framing, timber framed buildings have stood solidly for centuries.)

Last night I glued everything up and pinned it, and threw on a coat of poly and oil finish, mixed with tung and linseed oil. Tomorrow I'll go in, put the casters and surfaces on the tables, and hopefully have time to figure out how to mount a fence to the chop saw table. I'm expecting that there will be some monkeying around involved, but it will be worth it to have a fence to enable me to make repeatable cuts at a fixed measurement.

I'm pretty glad to finally be able to talk about something other than just setting up the shop, and all the tools. Granted, these tables are for the shop, to hold tools and things, but even still. It's a furniture project of sorts, and it does involve cutting and using joined pieces of wood.

Regarding the title of this particular post, I got a comment from Josh, (Jimmy Callahan's assistant) that "You guys make such nice things... just to hold your stuff." From a carpenter/electrician/contractor standpoint, I think he's right, this is probably a bit much just to hold a chop saw. At the same time, I think it's a worthwhile project to get back into the swing of things, so to speak, and practice my trade. Realistically speaking, it's only taken 2 or 3 days to do, and the wood didn't cost too much, so it was more of a diversion than anything else. But I expect these tables to last for a good long time, be versatile enough to hold a lot of different things, and do a lot of work. Given the demonstrated strength of the joint, I think they'll hold up just fine. But at the end of the day, it was also an excuse to do the very thing I went to school for... build fine furniture, and other quality things.

And in the end, it was good practice, too. For such a simple project, I still made a couple of small mistakes... stupid mistakes, really. (Aren't they all...) So, it's a good project to keep in practice, and get my head back in the game. For months now, most of the work has been with a framing gun, or an impact driver, or cordless drill... not much joinery involved. It's been a while since I've been able to do what I do, and I clearly needed the practice.

It's like they say in the big leagues... practice what you play, and play what you practice. So they're not just shop tables. They're also an opportunity to keep my skill level up, after months of shooting 2x4s together to set up shop surfaces... and show anyone who happens to be visiting just what kind of work I do.

AND, I get a nice set of useful things in the process.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Shaving horse is finally done!

I finally get to post finished pictures! So, the thing you see in the picture is basically a very large clamp, developed over the years for chair making. Because there's a lot of work with a drawknife and spokeshave, and because there's a need to keep repositioning the work as it gets completed, this particular way of holding a long piece of work is pretty popular. Sit on the seat, use one foot to push on the treadle, which in turn clamps down on whatever is being held in the clamp, and pull back on the draw knife, or spoke shave. Becuase the natural reflex is to push off of hthe treadle when pulling a tool, the harder you work, the more tightly the piece of wood is held in place.

This particular design was developed by a guy named Brian Boggs, down in Kentucky. I took a class with him ayear and a half ago, and I'm still really excited to do the kind of work he taught us about, but this post is about the horse here, and not about building chairs just yet.

One of the nice things about shave horses in general is that they're designed to hold the work at an angle, to make working a stick into a spindle a little easier. The design I learned on was basically a bench with a hinged board attached to it, and it held the work at a much lower height. At the end of the day, my ribs felt a little weird, becuase I was folded in half at about the bottom of the ribcage, to get my shoulders low enough to make efficient work possible. And after a while, my lower back felt the strain, as well. One of the advantages of this particular design, though, is that the jaw is adjustable from below, instead of from above, which means that while you sit, the top of the work will always be at more or less the same height, regardless of how big the piece is. That means I can work while sitting upright, or leaning slightly back while working. AND, the seat actually positions the pelvis in such a way that the natural curvature of hte spine is restored, meaning the lower back isn't quite tso uncomfortable after long stretches in the saddle. In short, it's a much different animal from the one I learned on. That class was the last time I found myself on a shave horse, and I noticed almost right away that I felt a lot more comfortable working on this one. Or, rather, I remembered very clearly how uncomfortable I was, last time I was working wood in this particular way.

Last shot is a picture of my shop mate Don, taking the horse for a ride, so you can see the thing in use.

I have a few more things to build before I can really dig into making chairs. But they'll be coming soon enough...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bitten again

So, I'm getting ready to build some bookshelves, but I wanted to clear the deck of projects first. The shave horse is the primary project right now, of course, and I realized this afternoon that I need one more bolt to hold in the upper jaw. That aside, the thing is just about done. There only three serious moving parts on it, the treadle, which handles the upper jaw, the lower jaw, which slides up and down, and the toggle, which holds the position of the lower jaw. All three are now built and ready to go, so all I need is the actual upper jaw to get bolted in. I'll post pictures when it's actually complete, and explain the virtues. In the meantime, there are also the after hours projects, and I've been bitten again by the planemaking bug. It's a weakness of mine that dates back a while.

For some people, planes do more than just shape the work, they put a finished surface down. These people don't sand anything... they plane or scrape the surface with very sharp tools, and they lay whatever finish they're going to use on top of that. It's an interesting way of doing things, and I have a lot of respect for the people who can do it well. Wood carvers are another breed of artisan who do things this way, because in many cases, their tools leave a nice, shiny, burnished surface behind, and to sand their work would actually dull down the details. So there's no point in sanding for them. And a well-sharpened plane can leave a similar surface. BUT, it has to be really, really sharp... which is one of the reasons planes have captured my attention.

I've had a love affair with sharp tools that dates back more than half my life. I think I bought my first "serious" pocketknife at the age of 18, at the Chesapeake Knife and Tool store in Quincy Market. (I don't know what "serious," means, but at the time, I was really impressed with the knife, and it was clear to me that I'd crossed a quality threshold.) I practiced sharpening on that and other knives... a lot... while I was in the army. In 1999 I bought a really nice knife that was a cut above average for the 'serious' market, and I was hooked. And for the past 10 years, I've always had a knife in my back pocket, wherever I went. (at least, wherever it was allowed.) And I've refined my sharpening skills along the way. In 2003 my first class at North Bennet opened my eyes to what sharp really could be, and it was a kind of eureka moment for me.

In 2005, I started school full time, and during that first semester, we had a visit from Larry Williams, of Clark and Williams Planemakers, who taught a group of us in 2 days how to make a molding plane by hand. It's normally a week long class, so it was a pretty abridged version, but the basics came across very clearly, and I talked with him on the side about hand planes in general, and I was really excited about the idea of making my own planes for a variety of uses. Clark and Williams make old-school wooden planes that work very well, and among other places, are used at Colonial Williamsburg to do demonstrations.

That summer, I took a class with John Reed Fox, and learned about japanese tools. There's a long lecture on the topic of japanese planes in general, but there are two basic points that I think are relevant here.

First point... the focus in manufacture is different. In western (english/american) style planes (the kind most people I know are familiar with,) the focus is on the body and mechanics of the plane. The blade is made of very thin stock, and the rest of the plane exists to strangle that blade into being stiff enough to make a reliable cut. The japanese focus on the blade, which is a massive hunk of hand-forged metal, joining wrought iron with very hard tool steel. The blade is then stuck into what is essentially a wooden block.

Second point. Japanese planes work amazingly well. And I was astonished to see just what they could do.

So, when I went back to school, I was really turned on my sharp tools, and planes in particular. I built 2 planes that semester, and a few more in the years after that. But while I really enjoyed making tools, I had limited success on the first few tries. Generally, I had better things to do, as well, so the hobby died off and went by the wayside for a while. Still, I made a point to keep everything as sharp as I possibly could.

A week or two ago, I was working on something, and I was having issues with the lateral adjust on the plane. The lateral adjust handles side to side adjustments to the blade. Problem is, it works better on some planes than others. The idea is to be able to make sure the blade is coming evenly out of the throat of the plane. But depending on where the blade decides to pivot, the end result may not be very desirable... or controllable, which is a problem on bigger planes with wider blades. Back to a couple of weeks ago... one of the things I learned along the way with wooden planes was to use wooden pins near the mouth of the plane to hold the front end of the blade steady, so that when the lateral alignment was adjusted, it would pivot from there, making things more controllable and reliable. Aha! So, I drilled the sides of a cast iron plane, tapped it, and put in small set screws. It worked like a charm. So, I did a few more...

To be fair, this was something that had been sitting in the back of my head for a while, and as it turns out, one plane manufacturer already makes their planes like this, which I had forgotten. So I'm not such a genius, but I was finicky enough to bother retrofitting such an idea onto one of my own planes.

A few months ago, I was supposed to run a plane making class at the Woodcraft store in Woburn. It was a simple class, using a kit that was made by a company that also makes aftermarket blades. And so I've had the kit kicking around for a while now. Last night, I had some extra time, so I cracked open the box, and took a good look at how it goes together to see what I was getting wrong.

Later that night, I'd fabricated a new kit to go with a blade I'd had kicking around for a while. Tonight, I got it finished off. And I brought it home to properly sharpen the blade. I'm mildly concerned... If this one works out, it's entirely possible that I may end up building more of them. And the problem right now is that I have entirely too many things to keep sharp as it is.

Lastly, I have to remark on the irony of having all of these really nicely tuned up hand planes, and yet I'm using them to make more hand planes... which I don't necessarily need.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Shave horse pt II

So, I've gotten more done on this thing. It's turning into an almost respectable piece of work in its own right, and it's actual woodwork, so that's something, at least. Built of Ash, coated in Tung oil.

In the past few days I took rough shaped pieces to their final shape, and this morning, I chamfered a bunch of edges, planes surfaces smooth (faster than sanding on something with this many flat surfaces and no inside corners.) and planed a few places smooth, like the front end where the front leg joins the body... before, it wasn't quite as flush and smooth as I'd have liked.

And I upholstered the seat, which I'd carved out of cherry last week. I was debating the virtues of leaving the solid cherry, but today I said screw it, wrapped it in leather, stuffed it full of shavings, and tacked it all in place. I screwed it to the keel block, which slides up and down the body of the "horse" and tehn got the locking lever put together. I was working on the seat while the body and parts were drying, since I'd oiled them earlier in the day.

Last but not least, I cut the notch for the cross-piece in the lower jaw, which is still in process... but more about all of that when the thing is complete, and then I'll be able to show off what the silly thing is used for.