Thursday, November 28, 2013

When in doubt, use a bigger hammer.

I love watching the videos from Richard Maguire. And I like reading his blog, too. He knows his business, and gets down to it, and there are no unnecessary frills or showmanship involved. Which is very cool, and feels a little novel, coming from the North American blogosphere sometimes. A while back, Richard wrote that he'd taken to using a lump hammer instead of a wooden mallet.

I've been paring a lot of angled mortises this week. I gave in to temptation the other day and grabbed the 3 pounder that I usually use for hitting a center punch, or other appropriate tasks, and started putting it to the back end of one of my wooden handled mortise chisels. I felt bad about it for a minute, and worried that I'd do some real damage, but then I thought about the math involved. When you hit the chisel, the energy that drives the chisel forward comes directly from the inertia of the whatever you're hitting it with. And the two factors that go into inertia are mass, and velocity. More mass equals more inertia... or, the same amount of inertia, but with less velocity.

You tap slowly and lightly with a much heavier hammer, and apply the same amount of force behind the chisel as you would by whaling away with a joiner's mallet. But the handle isn't going to receive the kind of shock load that you'd get from something that you have to swing much faster. It's a little counter-intuitive to me that a 3 pound sledge would be actually be gentler to my tools than a wooden mallet, but the more I think about it, it's probably true. And that's been Richard's experience, too: "I’ve broken several chisel handles with a wooden mallet and yet to break one with Lumpy." (Lumpy is his trusty lump hammer, that he's been using for years.) And while I can't really prove it one way or the other, I'm starting to feel like it's showing in the work, too... The chisel is being shoved rather than being blasted through the material, and it feels like a cleaner cut.

I will say to take your time and listen to the hammer if and when you use it... After the first day it felt like I had strained my bicep, because I was throwing the 3 pounder around like it was a lighter tool, jerking it around and shock loading my arm in the process. Using a hammer like that is not about power... It's about finesse, and letting the hammer move as it will. Once I got used to slower moves, it was a much more enjoyable experience. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Intro to the Festool MFT

At the heart of how they work, power tools are all more or less the same thing: A motor, a rotary shaft, and something that cuts in a rotary motion. The band saw and jig saw are notable exceptions, and the lathe is basically the same process, but backwards, spinning the work instead of the cutter. But regardless of whether it's a router, shaper, circ saw, table saw, chop saw, drill press, milling machine, bench grinder, horizontal slot mortiser, Festool domino, or surface grinder... it's all rotary motion. The primary difference is in how the work is held, and how the work and cutter are presented to each other. It's all about the shape of the cutter, and how you to present the material to the cutter. And presenting the material is what jigs are for.

There are three primary components in any jig that I can think of: The first is a way to position the material in the jig, the second is a way to secure the material in that position, and the third is a way to accurately guide the material and the cutter past each other. A failure in any of these three things results in bad work. If the material isn't properly aligned, the cut won't be either. If the material has room to move around, the cut will move around, too. And if the motion isn't rigidly directed, the cut won't necessarily travel along the intended path. Which brings me to the Festool MFT, a work table that's been really making me re-think a few things.

The surface is an MDF top that's been perforated with a grid of CNC-drilled, 20 mm holes. There are three main components: The table itself, which is covered in mounting points, the fence, which aligns the material, and the track, which guides a tool. (circ saw, router, jigsaw) The fence can be mounted vertically, or flat to the table. The track is held in position at both ends, by mounting points that are height adjustable, to accommodate a variety of stock. Basically, the MFT is a big, modular jig. The main difference between this, and other stationary tools, is that the material is fixed in place, and the tool is moving, instead of the other way around.

For those unfamiliar with the Festool track saw, the edge of the track is a strip of rubbery plastic that gets cut by the saw on the first pass. Because of this, the user can simply cut to a line by laying the rail down on that line, and using the saw. Using the fence, or some dogs, the user can accurately cut a quick 90 degree angle on the table without needing to lay out anything more than a quick pencil tick on the edge of the board, to indicate where the cut needs to be. If you need to make repeated cuts, the stop on the fence will serve.

In hand-tool terms, this set-up is not too far removed from a bench hook, or a shooting board.

That's the beginning. Enter the after-market parts.

The green things here are Qwas dogs. Steve Adams has been making these things for a couple of years now, after a lot of conversations that took place on the Festool Owner's Group forum. His methods of work evolved around using the holes in the top as a way to accurately align and position the work, as well as the major components of the table. Paul Marcel details some pretty straightforward ways to calibrate, or re-calibrate the table components on his blog, and on YouTube, using the Qwas dogs. There are also rail dogs and mini rail dogs, for positioning the fence, or guide rail, or other things, using nothing more than the holes in the table surface. The dogs themselves can also serve as quick-use guides in lieu of a fence, at 90 degrees to the guide rail, or 45, or a few other angles, as allowed by the hole pattern in the surface.

Because I'm using the MFT as an out-feed table, I don't want to have to set up the protractor head and stock fence every time I want to use it. So, I bought some of Steve's rail dogs to hold an alternate fence in place, made of a piece of 80/20 extrusion. So, rather than taking a lot of time setting everything up and calibrating, I can just drop the fence in place when I need it, and lift it off when I don't. In theory, with the rail dogs, you don't really need much more than a top with holes drilled in it, the saw track, and a fence.

Qwas rail dogs, and a chunk of 80/20 extrusion
The MFT excels at quick, one-shot cross-cutting, and repeatable production work. It's also much easier to calibrate, or re-calibrate, than my table saw sled. It won't handle rip cuts as well as the table saw does, but it may be the beginning of the end for my need to do cross-cuts on the table saw.

I have other ideas in mind besides just using it for cross-cuts. But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mission Statement

I've added a page to the blog: Mission Statement for the shop. For those of you who are only passingly familiar with the term, a mission statement isn't a motto, it's a statement of purpose.

In Lawrence, the purpose of my shop changed a lot over time. Sometimes the shop was a learning space. Sometimes it was a productive space. Sometimes it was just a storage space, while I took side jobs to get through the recession... or while I was figuring out how to actually run a business. Sometimes it was just a place for me to stare out the window, philosophize, and decompress, while the Merrimack river slid slowly by. I never took the time to define the mission of the shop. Honestly, I'm not really sure I knew enough about how I wanted to work to be able to define it. I'd been out of school for a year and a half, it was my third shop, and I was still pretty scattered.

It was a 3500 square foot shop, shared between three people. There was a lot of room to do all of the above, without feeling constrained by square footage. There was a lot of room to collect equipment, materials, and scraps that I didn't, and wouldn't need. And so, I was able to amass so many things that I'd never be able to get to, that would never stop distracting me. It was too much room.

My new shop is smaller. I've had to streamline, and make a lot of decisions about what's important to the space, to me, and to the business. And that has meant some hard looks in the mirror. I started out as a hobbyist. After 10 years, I still want to learn, and to try as many new things as possible. But  I've learned the hard way that I need to keep the business healthy before I can afford to keep learning and doing new things.

Machines will play a bigger role in the new space, simply because they're faster. I can plan and execute complex designs that require a lot of hand work. And I love doing that kind of work. But after 5 years, it's become clear that the way I have to do things differently than I learned in school. I still want to keep my skills sharp, but I'm going to have to pick my battles on that front. Once the structural work on a piece is done, the process of adding the fine details... carving, inlay, hand planed surfaces, and so on... can begin. The more time I save with machines, the more time I have to add the little details that make such a difference. That won't always be a lot of time... but it'll be enjoyable all the same.

One side note... I have a feeling that I'll be consulting the esteemed Mr. Leach when it comes to new tools. I have a feeling that there are some old hand tools that were designed to be more productive and efficient than others. I also have a feeling that he knows which ones are which, and that he probably has things that I'd never even thought about... like the draw knife he sold me recently, with the chamfer guides that can hold a specific spacing. The ability to move the guides along the blade as sections of the blade get dull, without having to go through the process of setting up the spacing again.will be a time saver.

The other reason to focus on the machinery is that I enjoy the process of solving problems... and I'm good at it. I like coming up with jigs and fixtures, and evolving them to set up more easily or quickly, and to work more accurately. The end goal for me is two-fold:  to come up with a better piece of furniture for my client, and to give myself more time with my family. So my focus right now is on reducing lead times without sacrificing quality of construction. That's leading me towards building modular jigs, working with industrial aluminum extrusions, and figuring out what's most relevant in a jig or fixture when I use them.

So, that's where the shop is headed for now, and it's what you'll be seeing in the blog. I'm still going to wax poetic in here about craftsmanship, inspiration, the learning process, and so on. But I no longer have time in the shop to watch the river slide on by.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Interesting hand tool/ Never would have guessed that one...

These belong to one of my shop-mates. I figured "Oh, yeah, drawknives... look like they're for scooping out chair seats."

Apparently one of his relatives worked in a slaughterhouse. These were actually used for breaking down swine.

Go figure.

(Mmmmmm... Bacon.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Meeting Patrick Leach

The internet is a funny thing... you hear enough about someone, and you start to build a story in your head of what you imagine that person is like. I'd like to spin a tale about how the fireplace in Patrick Leach's smoky, timber framed banquet hall was burning a pile of transitional planes, while he sat in an old chair that topped a dragon's hoard of rare tools. Instead, it was a normal, well lit, tasteful home, and I really wouldn't have guessed anything about the vintage tool thing from looking around. He met me at the door, and had the draw knife I wanted (the reason I went in the first place) sitting on the kitchen counter when we walked in  I talked with him for a bit, he used to be a software engineer, (I think that's what he said... I know he left a tech career behind) and he was, by all indications, just a normal guy. I kept talking tools for a minute, and I'm sure he smelled that I wanted to see the treasure room. So, he invited me in, and I thought to myself "Ah HA! Into the hall of wonders we go!"

 I think I half-expected him to welcome me into a shining museum, and throw his arm out as he welcomed me into the vaults with a grandiose gesture. Instead, he brought me into a normal garage, with several stacks of tool-filled, cardboard banana boxes on one side. Bundles of hand saws were stuffed in between boxes on the storage shelves, a few plough planes were just sitting on top of piles, and an old glass cabinet was up against the wall, filled with molding planes. It was a pile-up, not a dragon's hoard. He was just trying to pack it all in, until he had time to organize or get it all sold, whichever came first.

"Email me if you need something. I probably have it, and probably know where it is. The basement is worse than this, and I still need to unpack the van from last weekend. Half the time I get stuff at auctions, and I buy up a pile to get one or two good things, but... look at it all. So, just ask."

He's a capitalist at heart, so it's all for sale. I asked him where it all came from. There's no secret, he said. It's just a lot of work. He spends a lot of time beating the bushes. That's when my dorky preconceptions finally crumbled. He's a guy with a cool job, but he's just a guy, it's just a job, and it's hard work. We talked for another 20 minutes or so about normal woodworker stuff: The decline of western civilization, entitled kids these days, working a trade versus going to college...

Bottom line, he was a really approachable, likeable guy, and a pleasure to do business with. My hand tool habit still needs to take a back seat pretty soon, so meeting Patrick is going to cause me nothing but trouble. Now I know where I'm going to look for new tools... even when I really don't need them.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

State of the shop

After spending the past two months moving and getting settled in, it feels weird to be productive. I'd gotten used to the ongoing futzing, fine tuning, moving things around, and being 'productive' in a not really productive way.

Clock cases are being built, and I just milled a pile of reclaimed wood for a dining table that's on an accelerated schedule. I'm wrapping up a repair on an antique chest of drawers that had suffered from both insect damage and a really shoddy repair,: The veneer had been pulled back, the rotted leg filled in with plaster, and re-veneered. I'd never heard of such a thing being done, though I'm sure it's more common than I'd like to think about. I have one more coat of varnish to wipe onto a table that's been almost done for way too long. And I have a couple of chairs that need to be re-caned... And none of that involves packing, unpacking, wiring, assembling... Though I do still have to get the table saw and cyclone fully wired up, and ductwork put together.

I haven't yet been ready to tackle the mission statement for the new space. Lawrence was a place of learning in many ways, but it never had a 'governing' anything. My relationship with the space, my business, and myself, shifted and evolved a lot over 5 years. And my commitment to woodworking shifted in a few different directions while I got my bearings. Likewise with regard to running it as a business, and reorganizing shop and mind to work more efficiently. But this new space just feels different. It feels like go-time.

I'm starting to accept the fact that hand tools are going to take a back seat in some ways, which is pretty normal for most professional shops. But I'm trying to keep them in the mix in an active way. And that's part of why I'm balking at the mission statement: I want to maintain a tactile, physical connection to the tools and the wood. But I also have to run the business in a way that makes sense. Put another way, the hand tools need to justify themselves, and that's a hard thing for me to look at head-on. I think the real issue is that I have a tendency sometimes to use them for the joy of using them, when I know that I should be doing something a different way to save time. I have some solid ideas on how I think I can maintain a balance that keeps me happy, but I need to take a hard look in the mirror first, and lay a few things down.

And that's been the theme lately. I've been unpacking just about every part of my shop, my business, and my relationship to both, and figuring out what I'm going to keep, and how to incorporate what's left. It's been really hard. But it's also something I knew would happen, and it's one of the reasons I ultimately chose to move into such a smaller space: growth only happens against resistance. And I need to continue to grow. That doesn't make it any easier to go through, but I'm grateful for the opportunities I have right now to do just that.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Stupidity? Check! (Or, a conversation with myself.)

I don't know what it is about me. My wife would probably (and accurately) say that I have a serious problem with asking for help. Once in a while, I get in far enough over my head that I don't have much choice... but there are times when that line is hard to find. I chalk some of it up to my army days, when BFFI was the order of the day. (Brute Force, and F*** Ignorance) You just grab, go, and get out of the way if it doesn't work out.

Last night, about 8:30 PM, I had finally assembled the new stand for the dust collector, and gotten the cyclone bolted on, with the 5hp Baldor motor on top, but the whole assembly was on its side. So, all that remained was to tilt the thing up.

It's getting late, there's no one around. Logic should have told me to let it ride, and get back to it on Wednesday. (I'm out today, home with the boy.) But, the whole thing was on its side, in front of someone's table saw, and I didn't want to leave it like that when I wasn't coming in the next day.

Common sense doesn't usually take part in these conversations. Usually, Common Sense sits back, has a drink, and assumes an expression that's equal parts insulted, concerned, amused, and curious about how this one's going to turn out. (My wife has a similar look, so I'm a little too familiar with it by now.)

My arms and aching back both agreed that "Uh, uh. No way, man. This is dumber than that other time, with that thing you did with that stuff. You know... like when you decided to move an entire shop by yourself, stationary equipment and all?"

And my Head and Ego looked at the lot of them, and decided that since I'd gotten the thing down off the wall of the old shop by myself, and had enough control of the situation to stop and take a photo...

...well, surely I could find a way to make it work this time, right?

(Note... anyone paying attention will observe that the heavy motor is NOT part of the assembly in the photo)

Well, the first problem was a lack of mounting points on which to hook the block and tackle. I tried using my Little Giant ladder, setting it up directly over the motor, and hooking the block and tackle up to the top of the ladder. Great plan, but then I realized that as the dust collector would (in theory) be coming up in an arc, pivoting on the two feet that were on the ground, that it might not work. It might actually tip the ladder sideways, and then everything would come crashing down. Then I realized that even if the ladder would get it up most of the way, without tipping, that I'd have to tip the dust collector the rest of the way up... which would tip the ladder over anyway, but at a fairly inopportune time for me.  Even Common Sense decided to take part in that conversation.

Well, not really. Common Sense looked at just how far I'd already Jerry-Rigged everything, and gave me the finger. That was the extent of the exchange.

I found an I-beam that was at enough of an angle that it might work... but it was too far away. So, I hooked a ratchet strap to the I-beam, and hooked the other end to the block and tackle. I took another look in Common Sense's direction, and got pretty much the same response, again. But Logic was on board just enough that I went ahead with it anyway.

I ran out of rope to pull, and the thing wasn't completely vertical. That meant me getting under a heavy thing, that was mostly up, but still a live load as far as Logic, Common Sense, and the block and tackle were concerned. And getting under a live load is one of those things that I've been told is even dumber than doing this kind of thing by yourself at night after everyone else has left.

Logic, Common Sense, my Head, and Ego, all agree on two things: Announcing that one has sounded the depths of one's own stupidity, and possibly found the bottom, is a dumb idea. And, that announcing the recorded depth is even worse. Maybe not as dumb as stepping under a live load at 9:30 when everyone else has left the building, but dumb nonetheless. So I'll simply stop the confessional here, and say that the dust collector is vertical.