Saturday, February 14, 2015

Alex's Austrian Projects for Kids: The Knife Block

The knife-block was invented for children in the age of 12. And it would be no problem, if they are not precise - the function is always the same, even if the joint is loose.
So here some thoughts about inventing this knife-block:
First: I wanted to make something handy for the time, when the project is done! Everybody has a knife in the kitchen to store and so the thought of a knife-block was born. 
Second: The project should be easily prepared - organization of materials should be no big deal, therefore it should be handy in preparation-time.
Third: It should be handy for the time during the education in woodworking classes. Therefore you need in this project the basic tools and the basic techniques for this tools: sawing, chiselling, drilling, filing, nailing and a little planing and sanding - beside of measuring and marking out and using a square. 
These woodworking abilities are mentioned in the curriculum for children age 12 here in Austria.
Here is my plan of attack for this project: First you cut the five long rails to size, make a package and drill in a hole for the dowel you instantly put in (this is nice for working all rails together at the same time by planing the edges on the shooting board or sawing the top joint with the two crossing rails - first you set the depth of the crossing rails with a marking gauge and sketch the position with a square; cut in several times that you can easily chisel out; round the edges of the block with a rasp and a file). 
Afterwards you cut the 7 short rails (use a miter box for sawing-beginners). Now you put out the dowel and chamfer all the long rails everywhere - a perfect exercise for chamfering: long side with the plane, short side with a chisel. Put between the long rails distance-plywood-strips and clamp the block together and nail down the bottom-rails with a triangle-sketch that you don´t nail parallel to the grain because of the danger of splitting - afterwards sink all 25 nails a little bit. 
Glue in the top-rails and sand the sides on level. Break all sharp edges with sandpaper.

Fourth: You should have a choice to make special features in your individual knife-block, that you can put in some ideas of design of your own. You can take different kinds of wood for design and for teaching different qualities and types of wood. You can change the shape of the knife-block - just some ideas: make out of the rectangular edges round edges or take a 45 degree angle on one side or both sides, file in a curve in the middle.... you can change the level of difficulty of the joints for individualisation (some kids are fast, some are slow) - downgrade: instead of chiselling in the two top-crossing wooden rails just nail them down or glue them (think about making the top-rails not flush, it´s easier); upgrade: chisel in the 5 bottom-crossing wooden rails. And I am sure that there are many more possibilities for own ideas!
Click to enlarge.
I hope my thoughts are helpful for school or blogs
and I am curious which project you will make.
-Alex Karu

Alex is Austria's most famous woodworking guru.  At least he's the one I know best!  If you like projects to do with children like this, leave a comment and I'm sure we'll be able to talk Alex into sharing more.  -Brian

Friday, February 13, 2015

Planning For Epoxy

The stick chair has been patiently waiting for a couple of weeks for the last bit of work before finish.  What has it been waiting for?  A German shipping company to get it's act together to deliver some epoxy I ordered.

A shipping company took more than two weeks to deliver this epoxy.  Note one of the containers is damaged, but luckily no leaks (yet).

I took some advice from The Collective, and decided the way I wanted to fix the bits of my chair that weren't quite right, is with filling the holes with epoxy.
An example of what I want to fix.
Most of the advice was to bore the end of the stick out, and insert a plug.  I decided against this, as the arm itself is not real thick, and the sticks are drilled at angles, complicating the whole thing a little.  A couple of folks suggested (like Dyami) to fill with epoxy, and Aymeric suggested the brand West Systems.

Having looked up West Systems products, I chose one that I could get here in Germany and one that was labelled as being especially clear in color.  This stuff is favored by boat builders as a finish.  If it is good enough for wooden boats, it is good enough for me.

Besides, I probably have enough now to fix about a thousand chairs!

Before I wreck my chair, though, I thought I would do a bit of practice.  We have a bamboo cutting board with a hole in it because someone in the house (I won't say who) decided to use it as a backing board when drilling a hole rather than going to the shop to get a piece of scrap.
The test piece.
The product I chose from West Systems had a recipe of 2/3 resin to 1/3 hardener.  I precisely measured this ratio out by eye-balling it.  With a small stick I dropped some into the hole and wiped the extra off with a paper towel.
Action shot.

Here is what it looked like when I left it to dry.
After an hour or so, it became clear that some of the epoxy was being 'sucked' into the wood.
After an hour of drying.
This morning, the epoxy had drawn in noticeably.
Wood suckage over night.
I think that I would rather this not happened when I try this out on my chair for real.

My plan is to use a chisel to pare a small amount of wood off of the end grain of the stick to clean it up, and drip some epoxy in the hole.

Has anyone else had this happen using epoxy?  I am wondering if the hole I am trying to fill needs pre-treating or multiple coats?  Is there a way to get this to work with just one application?  Am I doing something wrong?  Could I be misinterpreting my results?

Any feed back would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Fingers In the Till - Lie Nielsen Dowel Plate

A friend was reading my last post in this series, and when he came to the part about why I call  it "Fingers In the Till," he noted that my point was to stick my hand in my tool chest, and discuss whatever tool I pulled out.  He suggested when I stick my hand in my tool chest that I be careful not to cut myself.

Not to worry, as so far I haven't actually stuck my hand in my tool chest as much as pull up some photos that I have already published on my blog.  However, the idea is the same.  That is, to randomly pick a tool in my posession and do a review.  My last post in this series was about my favorite tool.  This post is about a little-used tool in my shop, but a very handy one.  It is the Lie-Nielsen Dowel Plate
Lie-Nielsen Dowel Plate.  Photo courtesy Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Inc.
A dowel plate is supposed to allow you to make your own dowels out of whatever stock you have on hand.  In theory, you could have a limitless supply of dowels that you make yourself.

Does it live up to this promise?  Well, yes and no.  If you have never used a dowel plate before, you may be disappointed with the results.  This tool does indeed make precise dowels, but there will be tear out along the grain.  Most likely it will not be usable as a show surface. 

If you want a good example, there is an episode of the Woodwright's Shop where Roy Underhill builds a hay rake.  He rives his rake tine blanks and uses a home made dowel plate to make them round.

If you have used a dowel plate, you might be impressed with the little details that Lie-Nielsen is famous for.  Being such a simple thing, what details could be included in a dowel plate?  Well, this tool has the hole sizes etched deeply in the plate, for one.  This negates the need to guess.  There is also a slight taper in the holes, which makes it easier for the pegs to come out of the plate.
Here is my own.  I think the discoloration comes from the heat generated.
What I have found the dowel plate works well for is making dowels for pegged tenons.  The long grain of the peg is buried in the wood, with only end grain showing.  I do find it takes a bit of a knack to get good results.

The way I use this tool is to start with a piece of scrap wood of the proper species you need, preferably with some straight grain.  I try to saw my dowel blanks out with as little run-out as possible for maximum strength.  If there is run out the blanks will likely break during this process.  I try to saw my blanks out about the same size as my finished dowels, ensuring to avoid an undersized thickness.

I like the dowel blank to be a good bit longer than I need.  Once I drive them home, I like to have some sticking out on both sides.

I try to saw out about twice as many of these as I need.  Better to have one too many than just enough and one break.  With a lot of extras (which take no longer to make), I can sort through them and pick out the very best for my project.  Not all of these dowels will turn out suitably.

Once I have my blanks sawn out, I put a blunt point on the end either with a pencil sharpener, a chisel, or my favorite, a floor standing belt sander.  This point does not have to be sharp, just pointed enough for the end to pass through one of the holes on the dowel plate.

I clamp the dowel plate over a dog hole, and put a bucket under the bench to collect the dowels as they come through.
Dowel plate in action.
I should have made a video, this is way harder to describe than to see.

If I am making 1/2" dowels, I put the blank on the hole one size bigger.  I try to center it as best as I can, then bash it with the biggest hammer I have handy.  I prefer a metal sledge for this, as they are oversize and the end will be sawn flush eventually anyway.

On a side note, this makes an unholy racket, so keep that in mind if your shop is within hearing of civilization.  This is probably the single loudest thing I do.

Once I get close to the surface of the dowel plate, I don't have to do anything to get the dowel out.  I just start a new one on top of the old.  After a bash or two, it will drop out into the bucket while a new one is being formed.

After running all the blanks through the oversized hole, I run them through the smaller hole.  This usually takes a little bit more force.  Here is where I'm glad I have a big hammer.

Voilà!  There now is a bucket full of dowels.  I inspect them carefully, because some of them likely  have a big flat on one side, as it didn't go into the plate quite straight.

I have made a couple of dining tables using pegged tenons, and this worked perfectly for them both.  I just bash them in (after applying a little paste wax to make it a bit easier), then trim them flush on the show surface.
My walnut dining table with 1/2" pegs having been freshly driven home.
I suppose this post has been about the use of any dowel plate.  It is a simple thing to make one if you have the materials and means to drill different sized holes in a thick piece of scrap steel.
An oak dining table with the pegs clearly visible.
If you are like me, you will appreciate that this tool can be purchased.  Lie-Nielsen's is nice because all the holes are labelled with the size of the hole, and the holes are tapered a bit to make it easier for the pegs to fall out.  Lastly, there are countersunk screw holes on either side of it to facilitate screwing it down to something.

I have to say I haven't experience with any dowel plate besides this one, but it does the job.  I love being able to make dowels rather than have to buy expensive mail-ordered ones or use whatever species the Borg happens to have in stock.  I feel that as long as I plan for a few failures the dowel plate works like crazy.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

When a Craft Dies - Music Engraving

If you think hand tool woodworking is on it's last leg, take a look at the profession of hand engraving sheet music.  Our craft is vibrant and alive in comparison.  Sadly, I think music engraving by hand is essentially dead.  While there are undoubtedly a handful of small companies who may do it this way, they are far out of the mainstream, and surely re-evaluating their current business model.  This craft is extinct enough that I found a photograph on the internet showing someone doing it only with the greatest of difficulty.

For centuries, music was printed from a metal sheet that was carved in reverse (mirror image).  The process of constructing this negative was known as music engraving, and it was done by hand.  This takes an unimaginable amount of skill, as the layout is of utmost importance.  Here is a video that shows the process.  If you are an old-tool geek like me, you'll love this one.
What I like best about this video is the part where he is laying out the different staves on a page using dividers.

Up until the 1990s, there were still some big music publishers still producing sheet music this way.  It just looks better than anything that can be done on a computer.

What happened?

I think it just became too expensive to do it the old-fashioned way.  If music composer Joe Schmoe could print out his composition from his computer instead of paying a skilled craftsman who-knows-what the going rate is for hand engraving some parts for an orchestra to play, he can get his music out there and played.

But that's not really it, is it.  Joe Schmoe always would have written out his parts with pen and ink to save money this way.

I think the publishing companies could save a buttload of money with a few technicians doing this digitally, as opposed to paying an army of highly skilled craftsmen to do it the old fashioned way.
A music engraver at work.  Photo courtesy
What did we gain with the inexpensive digitalization of music engraving?  Plenty:
  • Professional-ish looking parts could be printed at home by any amateur.
  • Editing a piece of music and getting it back to the performers quickly as opposed to leaving the typos in the printed music for decades, printing after printing.
  • Giving composers another tool to use to listen, compose, and print their music.  This is way, WAY easier to do now than ever it was by hand.
What did we lose?
  • Proper looking sheet music.
  • Essentially, the final proofing of a piece of sheet music is left to the performer. (Imagine if a novel was published this way!)

Don't get me wrong, I am an expert with a couple of these music programs such as Finale, but most musicians are not that interested in getting good at music engraving.  Usually people just want to get good enough at it that they can print something out, no matter what it looks like.

Growing up in the '80s, I could expect to look at a sheet of music and only have to figure out how to get what I saw on the page to sound like what it was supposed to.  Today, my community orchestra can not expect anything like the quality of music engraving of a decade or two ago.  Even professionally published music has gone down incredibly in quality.

As a performer, I should be able to expect to put a piece of music on the stand, and be able to play it without making photocopies, drawing lines, or interpreting what the composer "really wants."  I should be able to expect the printed page to not get in the way of what I am trying to play.

What does all of this mean to hand tool woodworking? 

I think this is an example of how fast technology can change an industry, for better or for worse.  Not all progress is positive.  Larry Williams says he thinks the art of making moulding planes was at its highest quality in the late 18th century, and every design tweak after that point was intended to make it easier to manufacture moulding planes.

I think that music engraving was practiced enough by hand that there still are plenty of experts such as the man in the video still around, but once they are gone, this craft will be lost.  If we as woodworkers do not want to teach our children to think IKEA furniture is the only furniture that technology can create, we need to keep making furniture the way we do.  Our alternative is superior, and it still makes sense to craft one at a time the way we do.

I do not think hand-tool woodworking is in immediate danger as music engraving is.  But what will it be like in a generation or two?  It could very easily disappear. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fingers In the Till - Lee Valley Low Angle Jack

Things have been a bit quiet in my shop lately.  I have a couple projects down there that are itching to get finished, but for one reason or another, time in the shop just seems to come up less frequently than I would like.

As a way to continue to record my thoughts for posterity, I thought I might take some time occasionally to dip my hand into my tool chest and share with you whatever comes out.

I think I'll dub this series:  Fingers In the Till.

A rather fetching photo of my LV LA Jack in action.
First up is my beloved Lee Valley Low Angle Jack plane.

I've written about jack planes before, and I think now that I have been using this plane differently since then, I can say a bit more about it.
Used to bevel this large panel.
In my original treatise on my take of what a Beginner's Tool Kit should look like,  I stated that one can do woodworking with just a few tools.  One of them should be a jack plane.  To put my money where my mouth is, I built a few projects using only those tools.

Something unexpected happened when I moved to exclusively using this plane:  I really got to like it.
Rough work across the grain.  In this case, flattening my workbench.
I think that using one plane, to the point where you know every single little quirk about it and can use that knowledge to the tool's best advantage is far more useful than having a choice between 50 specialty planes to do specific tasks.  Up until the time I wrote that beggining tool kit post, I would typically use a scrub, a jointer and a smoother for those respective jobs, and 99% of my work with this plane was relegated to use on a shooting board.
This plane excels on a shooting board, but that's not all it can do.
Intelectually, I knew this plane could do all this other stuff, but figured that if I had a dedicated smoothing plane and a dedicated jointer plane, those should work better for those tasks.  Right?

Thickness planing with the jack.
Well, the truth of the matter is for most furniture sized work, the jack plane works just fine for those tasks.  In fact, it can be easier.  Not only do I only have one plane to maintain and sharpen vs. three, this one plane can stay on my benchtop within easy reach to do whatever task is next. 
Dimensioning a piece of cherry.
I feel like this plane is now an extension of my arm.  I know how this plane will work and what to do to it for any particular job.  I have never experienced that before.  Continually switching between different planes prevented me from really getting the most from those planes.  Using this one exclusively (mostly) not only helped me get the most out of this plane, but made me a better planer in general. 

In short, I thought using only one plane would be do-able, but instead I found out using only one plane increased my skill exponentially. This was a far bigger gift than only having to buy one plane.
It only took minutes to get this nasty piece of pear looking silky smooth using only one plane.
If it sounds like I am going crazy over the experience of getting good with one plane rather than specifically this Lee Valley plane, well, that's true.  I know that Jonas thinks the same about a wooden smoother he has.  He switches out his smoothing blade to a radiused blade when he needs to take thick shavings.  Paul Sellers recommends a vintage Stanley smoother is really the only bench plane one needs.  Christopher Schwarz has only a jack plane on his list of essential tools in the Anarchist's Tool Chest (incidentally, this book is what set me on the path to what I currently keep in my tool chest).

So, enough about all that philosophy.  Let's get to this plane specifically:
Sometimes I clamp it upside down in the vice when working small parts.
This plane is of the bevel up variety, similar to a standard block plane.  This means there is no chipbreaker, and the cutting angle includes whatever angle the blade happens to be sharpened at.  This can be a powerful feature to use to your advantage!

What I really like about this plane is it's versatility.  I find myself twisting the front knob to adjust the mouth all the time.  I always set up the plane by adjusting it for a fine shaving, ensuring the shaving is the same thickness all the way across.  Then, I will turn the adjuster knob to make a more agressive cut, depending on the task at hand.  I like to take the most agressive cut appropriate for the task.
Smoothing a cribbage board.  I love this shaving!
Generally, the deeper the cut, the more I open the mouth.  I think the mechanism to adjust the mouth on this Lee Valley plane is better than anything else out there.  Even better than the Lee Valley jointer!
Chamfering with the aid of my Moxon vice.
I like the fact that you can change blades out for what you are doing.  I have the standard 25 degree blade, a 38 degree blade, a 50 degree blade, and the toothing blade.  I bought them all before I really started using this plane.  In my experience 99% of usage with this plane works with the standard blade.  If it doesn't, try sharpening it before you go crazy with other blades.  But, when you need it, those steeper angles really do the trick.  I've only "needed" to use the 50 degree blade once.
I think in the old days I would have bevelled this board with a block plane.
This plane is also built like a tank.  I am embarassed to say that it has fallen from my bench twice (that I can remember, anyway), no worse for wear.  However, I wouldn't recommend trying that out just to see if it works.
Here's a photo of my friend John playing trombone.  He sometimes reads this blog, and I'm sure he'll be amused to see his picture completely out of context here.
A famous woodworker said in a class I attended that this is the finest plane Lee Valley makes.  I don't know about that, but it's the finest one I have.
More little parts.  If you try this, watch your fingers!  I have clamped the handle in the bench vise.
When I first bought this plane, I wanted it for use with a shooting board.  I also didn't know if I wanted this one, or the one made by Lie Nielsen.  I chose this one based solely on that it was cheaper in price.

If I were to do it over again, I might choose the Lie Nielsen plane because the fit and finish on the Lie Nielsen is a bit finer, and it might be a bit easier to push since the blade is somewhat narrower.  I think that the two plane manufacturers both came out with an excellent tool, and it is not worth it for me to make that small of an upgrade (and learn another tool).
Here I am smoothing the grooves made with the toothed iron in the same plane.
I suppose the moral of this extremely long blog post is that if you are an experienced hand tool woodworker, and don't yet have an LA jack, you probably don't need to go out and buy one.  Instead, try narrowing your working arsenal of planes down to just the minimal amount.  If you are new to woodworking and looking to buy a plane to fill a hole in your tool chest, this is a fine choice that comes with my highest recommendation.

Do you have experience with this plane?  Do you have a favorite plane?  I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Almost Done, but Need a Little Help

Joy of joy, I got some real time in the shop yesterday and today.  With the holidays, work, and the general lack of motion in my shop, it has been a real challenge getting to a couple of old projects.

Most importantly was the Welsh stick chair that I started in Denmark at Jonas'.  Here is where I am at now:
Finally - Almost done!
 Basically the chair is done except for finish.
Here is a view from above that shows what I was trying to do with the arms.
So far, the chair has exceeded all of my expectations.  I think it is really cool, and was a good first Windsor style chair.

My main problems with this build (really, I wouldn't bring it up but this bit is important to explain why I need a bit of advice) started when I tried to fit the arm rail on the sticks that I had attached to the seat.  That particular part of the glue up was very stressful.
This was what happened when I first glued the arm rail on.
I wound up getting it to look decent enough by squirting some hide glue in there and clamping it up overnight.  However, at this point I was just glad to have the arm rail on, and didn't stress too much that it didn't go all the way down to where it was originally supposed to go.  It now is an inch or two higher than my original intent.

I think this really doesn't make any difference, as it is relatively straight and looks good where it is.  I did have to get creative planing the lamination flat after this glue up so I could glue the crest on, but it worked out.

The problem is that since it is higher than I wanted, there are two sticks that don't quite stick out high enough that I could cut them off flush with the arm rail. 
Part of this stick isn't out far enough. 
Indeed, there are parts of them that sit below the level of the arm and look unsightly.
#2.  Yeah, it looks like #2.
There are a couple different ways I could deal with this.  However, I am not sure I like any of my ideas yet.  I have a couple days before I can work on this chair again, so I would love to year what you would do to fix this if it was your build.  Please leave a comment, I'd love to hear from you.
The chair is amazingly comfortable.
BTW, I am a bit slow on reading up on some of the blogs.  I just read this one today, and was pleased to see my chair mentioned in this contest!  Thanks to MWA for putting on this contest.

Monday, January 12, 2015


I've mentioned it before; sometimes one just needs to finish something quick and easy to get some momentum going in the shop.  This project hardly is fine furniture building, but it does yield an opportunity to practice some basic skills.

My wife has always had these clunky coat hangers that were probably in fashion 20 years ago.  They are made from scots pine (Pinus sylvestrus), and every once in a while the screw-in hook on this style comes out and needs to be glued back in.

I had one in my shop, thinking that it might be a nice exercise to do some kind of double sliding dovetail patch.

Needless to say, this hasn't ever gotten done because there always is something more important than that to spend a few hours fiddling with this patch.

Today I decided just to make a new one.  I am not talented with a bowsaw, so even with all the clean up involved there, this took about 30 minutes from marking out to applying finish.

The top one is the original, the bottom is my copy.
This is the perfect piece to do with a scrap piece of paulownia (Paulownia tomentosa).  It is so easy to saw this stuff.

I just traced the pattern from the original onto my roughstock, sawed it out with my bowsaw, and cleaned it up with some spokeshaves, rasps, and a little bit of 180 grit sandpaper.

I finished it with some leftover tung oil I had mixed up with turpentine on a previous project.

I know that you can buy these screw-in hangers from some woodworking supply places, and can recommend them for a quick and dirty project.

Time will tell if this wood holds up any better than the pine did.

I think my next hangers will be copies of these hangers I found in a Bavarian open air museum.  I think these would be a fantastic short exercise, too!

Bavarian farm hangers
I really like the bottom two.  Those are next.

Meanwhile, after I got this hanger made, I got to work on my proper project:

Getting back to work on an old project.
 More about this one next time!