Friday, December 11, 2015

Heirloom Quality

I'm in Florida this week, working through the lab component of a course in orthotics. (Long story.)

We wrapped up this afternoon, I went back to the hotel, and wandered out to grab some food. Along the way, I stopped to browse at an antique/collectible consignment place. In short, it's a basically a big space, subdivided into areas and cabinets, that they lease out to people who want to sell their vintage things. I went through a variety of emotions, walking through the place.

The place had just about everything. Vintage middle class furniture, in fair shape, considering what it was. A lot of tchotchkes. A lot of colored glassware that was etched or cast. Wooden models of jet airplanes. Matchbox cars, switchblade knives, broken woodworking tools, old books, (but not old good books... mostly dime store novels, cookbooks, and other miscellaneous drek) and so on. Notable stand-outs included:

-A complete set of commemorative Pepsi cans, each with a portrait of some character from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; in a protective metal box, yet.

-An entire cabinet of Nazi memorabilia. (?!?) 

-A cabinet of colored glass skulls, plastic neon skeletons, and other high-school-goth accessories.

...And so much more. It was like they had taken the contents of so many old homes, and dumped them here in the hopes of getting pennies on the dollar.

And I walked around, and walked around, and went from curiosity, to horror (Ew! Nazi shit! WTF?!?) to frustration that people have such a tendency to collect garbage... and then to sadness, when something finally hit me.

I've been to open-coffin funerals before. And it's hard, seeing a body lying there, without a soul. And what was so hard about this collection of oddities was that it was basically the reverse: This store was filled with people's souls, left behind after the body had gone. Some of the collections were so clearly treasured items: Original boxes had wear and tear from passing through the years, but were in good enough condition that someone had obviously cared. Some were of sub-genres that clearly represented genuine interests for people. Even the Nazi shit.

I read somewhere that the point of having a religious altar isn't to offer worship to a divine being, it's to honor the things that you value in yourself. Because the things we think about become such an integral part of our reality, it's critical to have a special place to set aside, to hold and honor what you think is important. For some folks that can be a curio cabinet, or a shelf, or a room, or an entire house.

I remember when my mother was packing up her house, years ago, she was clearly struggling with the value she saw in everything. Almost everything had a story, a place in her life, or a special significance that nobody else would perceive, because they don't know the stories. Nobody else would remember that great-grandma thought this plastic pineapple was a big deal, because brass pineapples used to be a sign of good taste... and nobody had had the heart to tell great-grandma at the time, that the thing was plastic. Little stories like that, that add to the perceived value of the things that get left behind, that are part and parcel of the nature of our souls. Proof of life, that someone had once lived, and thought that this... thing... whatever it was, had value, of some kind, even if it was only to you.

It made me take a long look at what I think is important about woodwork, and building furniture: The hook that gets put in the water for so many people is, "This is heirloom quality. We're making it well, and making it right, so that future generations will..."

Future generations will... what? What will they do with it?

That was the question I was forced to ask myself, walking around in this anti-museum, made up of other people's lives, now on sale. Comic books and matchbox cars, and things that someone thought, for whatever misguided reason, would retain their value, or even appreciate. Things like Jar-Jar on a Pepsi can.

When I make things, I try to do the best I can to make things that will stand the test of time... if that's what is asked of them, anyway. It's cool to think that maybe, something I make would merit a place of honor in someone's collection, or even in a museum. (That's the North Bennet in me, I guess...) But the other side of working with wood then becomes an issue of "What are we leaving behind?" 

I think that for a lot of people who make things for family, they get to leave a part of their own soul behind for the ones they love. And that's really important. I very much want to leave things behind for my family, to show them that I love them, and to show them what human hands are capable of,  even in an automated, Minimum-Viable-Product world. I very much want to leave objects behind that tell anyone who will listen, to aspire.

But the more I turned all of this around in my head, the more I really saw with open eyes how much utter drek gets left behind. And I really, really, began to embrace my desire for minimalism. Maybe the finest objects aren't always called for, and we just need things that work well, and function as reliably as a hammer. They don't need to be fancy, they just need to work for as long as they can, and be put to a more dignified death than some of the pieces I saw today, even if it's just to burn them for warmth. Kind of like shop jigs, for the home... 

I'm still wrestling with this, and doing so on minimal sleep. But I'd love to hear what people think about this in the comments. 



I continued on my way to go and get food. But, cursed by geography, the nearest place to get groceries was a Wal-Mart. And they were doing their under-paid best, to get people to buy more worthless crap for the holidays. 

It really made me want to hate everything, for as long as I was stuck in that Wal-Mart. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Circular logic, part 3

At this point in the series around radius cutting, we have a very reliable way to cut a convex or concave part. But making an accurate cut in woodworking is usually dependent on accurate layout. And so this entry will cover some of the results of my head-scratching on the topic. Coming from a straight and square world, some things transfer, and some don't.

As with part 2, it bears mentioning up front that this is NOT the way I'd do things in a one-off environment, or in a typical production environment. I went off the reservation a little bit, away from the job at hand, and into the realm of obsessive curiosity and experiment, in the hopes that it would make this particular project roll more smoothly into limited production.


The photo above is a simple beam compass made with some T-track and scraps, a screw, and a modified X-Acto knife: I ground the knife to something close to a 90 degree point, for durability.  This is the curved version of a marking gauge, for my purposes: Among other things, I wanted a mark that would positively engage with the brad point of my drill bits when I went to drill the holes for the locating pins.

Note that I set the beam compass up with the blade at the end, and the pivot point in the interior of the beam. I learned to do that years ago. It allows me to rest the weight of the assembly on the point, and I can teeter the thing as needed to put only the desired pressure on the marking end. This is something I learned with pencil beam compasses, to keep from breaking leads or digging into the paper. It helps a lot here, too, for controlling the cut.  (A look at vintage compasses will reveal a shoulder on the pivot point, to keep it from digging too far into the paper. This supports the weight while the compass pivots, so the point doesn't just gouge in.)

When I set the radius, I do so with a good Starrett machinist's scale, as the graduations are etched, and the points (point of the knife, pivot point) will both register.

"Why?" Is an obvious question. Why make such a fuss over precision? The arch on the clock is free-floating, as it were, and doesn't connect to or reference against anything. There are no reference edges. The answer, in part, is that the locating pins for the radius jig needed to be precisely placed, and I used the scribed arc to register my brad point bits when I set up to drill the holes. Another answer is that when it comes time to connect to the three-way miters, every advantage helps.

Back to work...


At this point in the project, with the concave part of a bending form in hand, I needed a mating convex part to use in the laminating proces. (I'm not using a vacuum press here.) And, to make matters more complicated than they needed to be, I wanted to make that part using the scraps that I had from cutting the concave part.

It occurred to me that for a bending form, I just wanted to take a certain amount off of the edge of the scraps, to account for the thickness of the part being laminated. If I had access to the geometric center, I'd use a compass to find the radius of the blank, subtract the amount I wanted to cut off, and lay out that way. But I didn't have access to the center. On a straight and square board, you can measure from a straight edge, at any point along the edge, to make a parallel cut. But in this case, there's no straight edge to reference against. But eventually it occurred to me that a center finding head will allow you to measure in from the edge pretty reliably, to lay out a concentric curve without knowing what the radius is. The blade will point towards the geometric center of the arch, and allow you to measure from the outside in, perpendicularly to the tangent line... which isn't the way I was taught to work with circles, so it bent my head for a minute. That's just a way to measure, it's not the same thing as laying out with a real marking gauge. But I found I could use it to guide a marking knife concentrically around the curve, and lay out that way. This really only works accurately for circular curves, but it turned out to be a pretty neat trick.

In the picture, you'll also see an arch with a labeled radius. That's one of my radius gauges.

At some point, it became clear that gauging a perfectly concentric arch off of a radius of unknown dimension wouldn't give me the precise results I was after. I needed an arch with a known radius, (radius gauge) to at least make sure the line I'd drawn was at the desired radius. This was when I made the beam compass. With a gauged line, you can see when you've accurately hit your mark. With the jig on the router table, I could fine tune the adjustments well enough to split the mark. (You can see when the knife mark remains in the edge you've just cut.) It's probably not precise enough for a machinist, but it was good enough for me.

Another interesting bit: Without knowing the radius of the edge of this blank up front, using the radius gauge and a center finding head allows me to get a reasonable measurement of the radius anyway. Using the center finding head, I can check to make sure the radius gauge is positioned concentrically. From there, I can measure from the outer edge of the radius gauge, to the outer edge of the curved blank to find out the difference in radii, and go from there.
The outer radius on the arch above (R= 10 1/4") corresponds to a pair of holes on the scissor jig, where the mounting pins drop through. The inner curve corresponds to the next set of holes, (9 9/32" *)  which are the holes I used on the jig for this operation. (You can see this in the pictures.) Those holes are centered at a 9 9/32" radius from the center of the pivot pin on the jig. So this was a necessary dimension to gauge where to drill the new holes, for the convex part of the bending form. The arch was an aide to help me make sure that my layout was accurate.

From there, I could set up the drill press to drill symmetrically placed holes...

The holes let me make a concentric cut on the band saw...

...and make the finish pass on the router table. 

As Mark had observed, I'd wandered pretty far away from paying work while I was tinkering with this. But as I was tinkering, a lot of things jumped out at me, all at once, about navigating curves, and I dove head-first into the rabbit hole. It's one thing to understand the geometry of a circle on paper; radii, diameter, calculating chord lengths, etc.. It's something else entirely to be able to create those things in a physical object. It's not a matter of being able to calculate what the measurements should be, it's a matter of being able to cut to those dimensions, and be able to refine the cut to course-correct as needed. This all began to feel like I was learning to lay things out and plan the process in a whole new way, so I steamed straight on ahead.

There's gold in those hills, if you look for it. But one of the things I've learned recently from Mark Twain, is that getting the ore out is one thing, but nobody tells you that refining and smelting the ore is a wholly separate process, and the finished product can sometimes be smaller than what you think you dug up. Between the beam compass, radius gauges, etc, I burned up a solid day or so in tinkering. The nuggets were pretty shiny, but the final take-away was maybe not as big as I'd hoped. I'm still digesting what it all means, but I have no doubt that it will turn up in future work, when I get there. 

Considering that the point of departure for all of this was my frustration with more primitive methods of cutting curves, I can say that I went a LONG way towards easing those frustrations, and cutting curves is a lot simpler and more precise for me now than it used to be.

You can see by the shadows above that the sun was getting low on the horizon by the time I had this worked out. 

But the bending form came out cleanly...

And the finished part did, too.

Again, a lot of this is tantamount to driving From Boston to Connecticut, by way of Tokyo. (Which is clearly accomplished by driving a very over-thought car, with re-invented wheels.) Making a bending form is NOT a complicated task, and certainly doesn't call for this degree of caffeine-fueled head scratching. But then again, there are jigs that will come up later on that wouldn't have worked without some of the groundwork laid here.


Side note, I wanted to add in here that the MFT was a really remarkable layout aide. Using dogs in the hole grid gave me a way to register parts against each other, or to hold and clamp them at a reliable 90 degrees to each other. I don't think that's enough of a reason to buy an MFT, but if you have one, it's reason enough to invest in some qwas dogs.

* 10 1/4", 9 9/32"... the radii on the jig seem bizarre, I know. I drilled the holes at 1" intervals along the beam, but the geometry of the dog-leg feature meant that the angles to the mounting holes were constantly changing, and the radii didn't end up working out to be 'regular' intervals. I'm sure it's possible to design and build a jig to have more 'even' sounding numbers, but at some point, it really becomes academic... or, more academic than this already is. Laying out a part to be cut with this system, means laying out the final radius with a compass, and laying out the concentric radius along which the locating pins would be placed, to make the jig work the way it's designed to. So, I had to measure the actual radii, from the center to the holes on the beams, to be able to lay them out... and the actual numbers ended up being weird ones. 

Auto-Regulator: Circular Logic, Part 2

So, this is where we were last time:

In the photo, we have sliding center point jigs for the band saw, and for the router table: A dog-leg scissors jig (foreground, on the right) mounts to a blank, using non-threaded pins, to guide the blank while cutting inside or outside radii. There's a center pin that forms the pivot for the scissor jig, that protrudes from the bottom of the jig, and drops into a hole in the mating part of the radius jig, of which there are two: one that mounts to the jigsaw, one to the router table.

The first test for the jig was to make a pile of MDF layers that would stack up into a bending form. And this is as good a place as any to point out that this particular jig isn't the standard, or smart way to accomplish the task. So I'll also confess here to being a little too cerebral. Mark wandered over, asked what I was up to, and pointedly remarked that I was doing things in 'long-hand.' And he was right. There are many ways to skin this particular cat, and almost all of them are much more efficient. His suggestion (based on much more experience than I have) was to cut one master curve, and pattern-rout the rest from that. But I wanted to see this experiment through, and see if the long-hand proof would result in something that would save me time down the road. I also figured that this particular exercise would test the system, to see how robust it was.

Center hole and center pin are at the bottom right.

Using the jig for cutting radii in either direction (inside or outside) is pretty simple.  Because the base jig slides, and the scissor jig has so many holes, it's easy to find a setting that will work for any radius. But for the purposes of identical parts, mounting pin placement in the blank was an X-factor. The holes for the pins are drilled at identical distances from the center, but the distance between pins is also relevant. Once the arc is laid out to locate the mounting pins, you can drill anywhere along that arc to locate the pins. But two identically shaped blanks with holes drilled at two different chord lengths will result in two differently shaped parts: The cuts made will have identical radii, but the cut will be placed differently in each blank. It was one of those details that's obvious in hindsight, but still made me scratch my head for a minute. Since the object is to create a bending form, all of the layers must be identical, so pin placement needs to be the same on all of them.

I laid out the first blank, and set up the pin holes to be exactly the same distance from each side, and from the front edge, and drilled them using a fence and a stop block. Drill, flip, drill, and the result is two holes with identical spacing from each end, and the edge.

To the band saw, and then to the router table...

Initially, I'd used a smooth pin, loosely installed in a hole to hold the center. I switched to a threaded bolt that ended in a smooth pin, because there was too much slop in the radius with just the loose pin. It made for a difference of maybe 1/64"- 1/32" from one radius to the next. But for a bending form, everything has to be exactly the same.

For the record, this was just about when Mark made the comment about doing things longhand, and flush trimming being faster for a bending form. Obviously, he was right. But I was being stubborn, and wanted to see just how accurate the jig was. Basically, I was reinventing the wheel, for the fun of it.

With the slop issue ironed out, the final stack was just about perfect. There were inconsistencies that I could feel, but they were small enough to fix with a plane. It felt a little bit like cheating, since I was trying so hard to make the the jig accurate enough to not need to smooth anything out.

All things considered, it's a very accurate system. The fact that I can re-adjust the center point and take a second pass on a radius cut sets this jig apart from other jigs that I've seen. And for production purposes, it means I can creep up on a very accurate radius for a master pattern, or on a wooden part. And with the incorporation of the router table in the process,  I can use this jig to make a finished curved surface that's ready for sanding, without any further work. 


Part 3 will go into a little more theory on dealing with radii. The bending form is a 2 part form, so it will have a mating piece. But cutting that means taking the convex off-cuts from the concave form, with identical but unknown radii, and finding a way to locate the mounting pins to change the radius.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Auto-Regulator: Circular logic, part 1

The top of the Auto-Regulator is curved, and tapers in thickness. Most of the methods I've seen for cutting a radius involve driving a screw through the center, and using that as a pivot point. And that works well enough for many things. But in this case, I'm working not only with two different radii, but with two different centers. And that starts to get sticky. 

Because of all of the curves I have to cut into the blank, I need to start with 12/4 stock. The end result will be an arch with a 7.5" inner radius, and an outer radius of 11.5". Using the screw through the center technique, I'd want some extra material to contain said center hole. To use the simple, drill a screw into it method of curve cutting, I'd need to drill a center hole through a 12/4 beam that would have to be at least 12-13" wide enough to also contain the center. The finished part would be 15" long, and could be contained within a 7" wide board. There's enough waste involved in cutting an arch, without adding 6" of width to a 15" long blank of 12/4 walnut, just for the sake of locating the center. 13" wide 12/4 walnut isn't exactly rare, but it's not exactly lying around, either. And it's certainly not cheap.

A side note: Not only would the above method be incredibly wasteful, but a 6" x 15" blank would also fit squarely into that sweet spot on the Venn diagram of 'I can't throw this out, it's too big,' and 'I'll probably never actually use this.' And that's a recipe for hoarding scraps.

Added to that, I had this hair-brained idea of making a rough cut on the band saw, and then moving directly to the router table with the same jig, for a finish pass.

And so it was that I set out to untangle radiused cuts (inside and outside radii) on pieces that aren't wide enough to contain the pivot point... and a few other things.


Most of the radius cutting that Ive seen involves driving a screw through the geometrical center, into a precisely placed hole on the jig that's the proper distance from the cutting action. But the screws are usually short, it's almost impossible sometimes to see where you're supposed to be driving it into... and it never really felt like an accurate method. Not only that, it doesn't allow for subsequent fine tuning: I can always take 1/16" off of a straight part on the table saw. But I can't do that with the wood screw technique for curve cutting. Especially not if the relevant dimension is the concave side of the cut, because the process involves cutting away the center of the curve. In that case, you just have to make a new blank, and cut a new piece.

So I simplified things. Or, it could be argued, made them more complicated, to make them more simple.

The base mounts to the band saw table. And on top of that is a sliding dovetailed piece, to adjust for different radii, with two options for pivot centers: a removable pin that sticks up, to be used with a 1/4" hole, and a 1/4" brass shelf pin sleeve that serves as a bushing for a center that will be seen shortly. The pin started out as a 1/4-20 bolt that was only partially threaded. I cut it off, chucked it up in a hand drill, and domed the end with a bench grinder.

Making the cut on the band saw is as simple as I assumed it would be.

As I said, I also wanted to be able to make finishing passes on the router table. The jig below is a sliding mount for two more centers, as on the band saw. The idea is that I should be able to set up whatever jig I'm going to use, and move directly from the band saw to the router table.

Part of the problem I had with cutting an inside radius with the traditional screw-center method is that you only get one shot. After that, if the radius isn't quite big enough, you no longer have a center to work from, because you've just removed the concave part, from the center that was your reference point. I came up with the idea of a scissoring pair of arms to mount to a blank, and the only problem I had then, was that I'd cut right through the arms when I used it. So, I came up with this:

Again, 1/4" bolts cut off into pins. The pins slide through the jig, into 1/4" holes that are laid out and precisely drilled in the blank. The dog-leg shape is there to give clearance for the blade to exit the material without cutting into the arms of the jig. And, the pin being used for the pivot point slides into the brass bushing in the band saw jig, or the router table jig.So the whole pivoting assembly can be simply lifted off of the band saw table, and dropped onto the router table for a finish pass.

Coming up: laying out the mounting holes, using the jig to make a bending form, and a few other things...

To be continued.

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.