Friday, December 14, 2007

Happiness Is a New Saw

The best case scenario one can hope for when buying a new tool is that it does what its manufacturers claim it does. So often, sadly, this isn't the case. What woodworker hasn't been frustrated by a tool purchase when the tool doesn't perform as advertised?

The flip side of this equation is the feeling of satisfaction and possibility that arises in response to a new tool that does exactly what it's supposed to do without any tweaking or fuss. Happily, this was my experience today as I set up my new Laguna bandsaw, pictured below.

The first thing I noticed about the saw was how small it is. Despite its petite profile, it has a full 12" below the guide for resawing wide stock. That's one of the reasons I chose it. In the picture above you can see how the saw's mobility kit works. Wheels are affixed to an axle on the saw's left-hand side, and a removable wheeled lever fits into a tab on the opposite side. You can see the lever leaning against the wall. This is such smart design.

Everything inside the saw is so tidy and well-machined. This particular model is manufactured in Bulgaria. It comes with a signed certification from the head of the factory, which seems kind of touching and old-world to me. Let's just say it's something I've never encountered when un-crating a machine made in Taiwan. In the upper left-hand corner you can see the tension guide; Laguna doesn't even bother with the standard markings for this-or-that blade width. Everyone knows that as a spring wears, those markings become meaningless, and I like it that the folks who designed this machine responded to that fact by ditching the convention.

The photo above depicts the heart-and-soul of what separates a Laguna from the rest of the pack. Instead of using ball-bearing guides, they've gone with small pieces of ceramic--those would be the white parts next to (and behind) the blade. The rear guide actually touches the back of the blade when not under tension, and the side guides are set but a hair's breadth apart from the blade. This results in amazing control when pushing a workpiece through the blade.

Here's another smart feature of the saw. It's a plywood baffle into which one cuts a kerf during initial setup. It directs almost all of the sawdust down the dust chute on the right. Laguna went so far as to attach a bushing strip to the outside of the baffle so that it would connect with the lower door. The net effect is a relatively dust-free wheel housing. Anyone who has recently purchased a Powermatic bandsaw would likely give their eyeteeth for this.

This last shot is of two pieces of bookmatched oak veneer I sawed before leaving the shop this afternoon. You're actually looking at the sawn surfaces! They're about 3" wide by 7" long. Without even trying too hard, I sawed them to 1/32" in thickness. That was using a 1/4" 6 tpi blade! I can't wait to get my specialty resaw blade ("The Wood Slicer") on the machine tomorrow and have a go at resawing my last big hunk of wenge into veneers.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Brobdingnagian Brackets Complete

I finished the massive fir brackets this morning. See the photos below for the play-by-play.

Once I had my 6" x 15 1/2" x 70" slab glued together, I needed to cut out more manageable blanks. I used one of our big 36" Powermatic bandsaws to cut the slab into three pieces.

Here are the three blanks. The next step was to trace the pattern I'd made (see previous posts) onto the blanks and saw out the shapes. As you can imagine, it took some time to shape the profile with the saw, a block plane, and a couple of different sanders.

This photo shows the three almost-complete brackets after sawing and sanding.

Below you see a finished bracket, complete with its backing board. Each bracket must have weighed 20 pounds or so. I can't imagine how huge the house they're for must be.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


So, your good friend The Wood Mechanic has been nominated for some awards by the good people at RVAnews. The nominations are in the categories "Best Topical Blog" and "Best Kept Secret." Since you and I are such good friends, I know I can count on you to cast a vote for The Wood Mechanic by clicking HERE!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Mother of all Magazine Racks?!

Here are some shots of a magazine rack I recently completed for an addition to a beautiful Craftsman bungalow in Westover Hills. A special thanks to Clay for getting me this very enjoyable piece of work!

The rack is made from quarter-sawn white oak. The finish is antique oil (which goes on easily and is hard as nails) and wax. The lower two rails are slightly bevelled top-and-bottom to form a sliding dovetail where they meet the stiles.

Draftsman's Flat Files In Progress

During the recent slow period at work I've been working on a set of flat file drawers for our drafting department. We have old drawings going back 40 or 50 years that need a home. It's surprisingly tough to find drawer slides that extend a full 36". We finally did locate some (Knape Vogt makes them), but they cost an astounding $85 per pair and weigh a solid 10 pounds apiece. I'm glad I didn't have to pay for six pairs of them! I used mahogany leftover from some long-ago job for the drawer faces and face frame. The drawer components are of white pine with birch ply bottoms.

The sides of the piece get painted to match the room they're going in. I think I'll finish the mahogany parts with shellac and wax.

If my boss goes for it, I'm going to use the insert knobs pictured below for the pulls. These brass knobs are recessed to accept a wooden plug which can then be shaped into a slight dome. The amazing Lee Valley sells these things--see the link to their site in the list to the right.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Enormous Fir Brackets

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'm working on a set of three enormous fir brackets.  These will fit under the soffit of some huge home.  They will be 20" tall and 6" thick, projecting off the exterior wall about 21" total.  The pattern I'm using is shown below.  I took the full size drawing from our drafting department and glued it to a piece of 1/4" ply to make my pattern. 

After I'd used the fantastic Fay & Eagan 429 (see previous post), I glued-up five 1 13/64" x 15 1/2" x 70" slabs.  Below, you can see one of the slabs in clamps.  I frequently use the printmaking brayer you see on top of the slab to spread large amounts of glue quickly. Stacking all five slabs yields the required 6".

Once all five slabs were glued together, I stacked them one on top of the other and used a caret to mark one edge.  Harrison taught me to use carets in markups because they convey a great deal of information.  In the photo below, the caret indicates 1) the placement of each slab relative to every other; 2) which surfaces receive glue and which do not; and 3) which side I'm working from on each slab.  Someday I'll do a whole post about carets and their multiple uses.

At this point I was almost ready to start gluing, but I knew I needed a way to register the slabs since I'd soon have roughly 30 square feet of wet glue causing them to slip and slide every which way while under pressure.    My solution was to drill two 9/16" holes in opposite corners of the slabs in the waste material.  I could then drop 1/2" dowels into the holes to keep the glued slabs from going cattywompas. In this photo you can also see the considerations I thought about with regard to grain orientation at the ends of the boards.

A coworker helped me spread the glue across the slabs' interior surfaces, I dropped the dowels into their registration holes, and then the whole assembly went into this massive press.  I'm not sure what it was originally designed for or why we have it, but it's handy for face gluing large, heavy pieces like this one.  The red gun at the top is a pneumatic driver that screws the clamps down.  There are four or five clamps per beam, all of which can be located side-to-side.

This last picture shows the assembly under pressure in the press.  The 4-by material is simply blocking we use to keep from having to drive the clamps all the way down.  The air driver makes a hellish racket.  When I go in on Monday, I'll take my huge timber out of clamps and start bandsawing the brackets.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Elegy to an Old Machine

I started a set of three massive exterior fir brackets this past week. They are 20" tall, 20" long, and 6" wide. Because fir timbers of that size aren't available to me, I assembled a bunch of dressed fir 2-by material and glued it together to make my stock. More about that process in a later post. For now, here's the basic shape of the brackets:

To create perfect glue joints, I used one of my absolute favorite old machines, a Fay and Eagan No. 429 Automatic Glue Jointer and Edge Molder, which we all just call "the tongue and groove machine." Check out the video below to see it in action.

Lastly, here are a couple of old pictures of this amazing machine. You know, this one is so ancient that it doesn't even have ball bearings--just very, very old (but still entirely functional) Babbit bearings.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

She Finally Came!

My new (but also very old) jointer arrived today. It's an American Woodworking Machinery 12" from somewhere between 1904 and 1910. It was meticulously maintained by an old frenchman who ran the woodworking shop at a large textile mill in New Hampshire. I bought it from Jeff Behan, wood carver extraordinaire and savior of too many tons of cast iron to count. I got an amazing deal on this machine and expect I'll get many decades of use from it. Watch the video below to see how we moved this 1,200 pound monster into the shop.

Now all I need is a free machinist or a rotary phase converter! By the way, yes, the title of this post was a tawdry attempt at boosting traffic to my blog! (Did it work?)

Friday, November 30, 2007

More Shop Photos

Thanks to Clay for the great shop photos. You should visit his Worm Drive blog.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cherry Tea Caddy

Here's a cherry tea caddy I made for my sister-in-law. I'm increasingly convinced that sanding is a horribly crude thing to do to a beautiful piece of wood, so wherever possible I'm trying to let my scraper be the last thing to hit a workpiece before the finish. In the case of this tea caddy's curved sides, I'm afraid, I resorted to sanding nonetheless. The top, though, was only scraped before being finished with boiled linseed oil and wax, and the difference was fairly stark to my eye.

More shop photos coming soon!

New Shop Part Two

Aren't you glad I didn't call this post "New Shop 2.0" or something along those lines?  I'm glad, too.  I thought about it.  Then I thought better.

Here are three photos of the new, new shop on Hull St.  It's 4000 square feet of near heaven, and that's just the ground floor.  I have somewhere just under half of the first floor, which is not only bigger than my deck (see previous post) but also INSIDE!

Anyway, I'm totally for hire now, so if you've been sitting back thinking to yourself, "I sure would like to get that Wood Mechanic guy to build me some furniture, but until he has a bona fide shop, I'm not going to bother," your time has come.

Friday, November 02, 2007

My New Shop Space

Why wait? I'd love to have a few thousand square feet, three-phase power, and a host of machines from 1950 or so, but that's not happening anytime soon, so I'm going to have to make do with this:

I've got a Festool TS 75 and a Kreg Jig, and I'm ready to go.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Curly Maple Bass Back

The most unusual task I do at work is preparing stock for an acoustic bass maker. He brings in amazing pieces of old lumber which I resaw, joint, glue, and sand. Most shops don't have a band saw as large as ours to accommodate such wide boards for resawing. Likewise, there aren't many places in town with digitally calibrated belt sanders. When this bass maker says he wants his lumber to be 2.5 mm thick, he really means it. So he brings his lumber to us, and I get to enjoy working with it. Here are some photos detailing the procedure I recently used for gluing up a beautiful curly maple bass back.

I began by attaching straight boards to my work table spaced apart one inch wider than the two pieces to be glued. The pieces were irregularly shaped at the top which accounts for the blocks at the far side of the table. I place pairs of wedges along the perimeter of the blocking. The combined thickness of the wedges is greater than the gap between the blocking and the workpiece.

Next I place a piece of Tyvek tape down the center line of the board. This will prevent the glue from adhering the bass back to my work table. Packing tape would work equally well.

After the two boards to be joined have been jointed, the first piece is laid into the clamping form. The two boards were resawn from one piece, resulting in a bookmatched set.

Glue is applied to the second piece, and it goes into the clamping form. I put a weight in the center to prevent the blank from buckling when I drive the wedges home around the perimeter.

Here you see the wedges holding the two sides together. Once I'm satisfied that no buckling is occurring, I remove the weight from the center.

This photo shows a detail of the bass back. This was some of the most beautiful curly maple I'd ever seen.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Hooker Furniture

I drove to Martinsville, VA yesterday to pick up the odds and ends I'd won at an auction of the old Hooker Furniture factory's equipment. Folks have been picking up their goodies for about a month now, so the place was mostly empty. 760,000 square feet of indoor space is a lot of emptiness. I saw many marvels of 20th century manufacturing there including wooden carts with four swiveling feet and a post in the center that ran in a track in the floor like a streetcar. Although I was excited about my loot, it was sobering to think of all the long careers that ended there last March.

The stuff I bought includes a 20 gallon flammable liquids cabinet, a 5,000 lb pallet jack (for moving machines around), an old factory cart with giant iron wheels, an assortment of levels and framing squares, and this beauty:

It's a 72" stainless steel precision straight edge manufactured by Phillipp Zimlich of Aschaffenburg, Germany.  There's a shipping label on the outside of the box indicating that it was supplied to Hooker by Weinig, the leading manufacturers of moulders and other industrial woodworking equipment.  I called Weinig today to get a sense of the replacement cost for this hunk of metal, and...well...I was shocked.  I had kind of an "Antiques Road Show" moment.

Precision straight edges are useful for machine setup in a woodworking shop.  I've found them especially helpful when adjusting jointer outfeed tables.  They can also be used when making full-size shop drawings, but a relatively straight piece of plywood will suffice for that.  For the most part, my interest in this kind of precision measuring and calibration instrument hovers somewhere between the realms of respect for their usefulness and just plain-old fetishism.

Lastly, if anyone reading this ever worked at the Hooker facility in Martinsville, please drop me a note.  I would love to hear your stories.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stanley #5 Restored!

I recently finished restoring this old Stanley #5 jack plane for my friend Jamie. His parents had bought it for him at a yard sale, and it was in a sorry state. In addition to never having been tuned when new, it had picked up a lot of rust and other crud over the years.

I disassembled the plane, being careful to note where each part went.  Next, I lapped the bottom and sides on an edge sander.  It took a long time since it had never been trued when new.  Planes don't come ready to use from the factory.  The soles have to be flattened (or "lapped"), the chipbreaker requires modification, and the iron needs grinding and honing.  I did all of these things then shined all the loose metal pieces.

I also refinished the knob and handle.  Instead of the thick lacquer that had been on the wooden parts, I used boiled linseed oil and wax.  That finish has a nice feel in the hand.

Incidentally, old Stanley #5's don't hold a lot of monetary value, so there's nothing much to be lost by doing whatever you want to them.  They can often be found on eBay for $30 or so.  After a couple of hours of work they can usually be restored to a better-than-new state.  If you take on a project like this and want to go whole hog, invest in a replacement iron from Lie-Nielsen.  They produce irons of thicker steel which are harder and hold a better edge for a longer time.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tannewitz XJW Table Saw Manual

This morning I created an electronic copy of the manual for the Tannewitz XJW table saw we have at work. Mid-20th century machines like this one were so well made. Their cast iron bodies weighed a ton or more and dampened vibration to an extent rarely seen in contemporary machines. Saws like this one can be had at auction for around $1,200; a comparable new 16" table saw runs in the $6,000 range.

The manual itself is a small work of art. The last ten pages or so are mimeographed copies of hand-drafted schematics. I've included some of my favorites below.

If you would like a full copy of the manual (it's for machines from the mid/late 1960's), send me an email, and I'll happily send you the file. Hopefully it will also soon be available from the Old Woodworking Machines Publication Reprint site.

This is a schematic of the blade raising assembly.  Nowadays it's almost impossible to imagine someone doing drafting of this quality by hand.

Here is my favorite of the schematics in the manual; it details the blade guard. I wonder how long it took to make this drawing!

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Every day, this site welcomes somewhere between 20 and 50 people who have been directed to it by a Google search.  Often, they've entered a search term like "how to fit boxwood stringing" or "Tannewitz  bandsaws" or "cupola roof framing."  If you're one of these people, and you're pondering some kind of woodworking question, it sure would be nice if you sent me an email.  I may not be able to answer your query, but at least we could puzzle over it together.

As for the Dante scholars who end up here...sorry, I can't help you.

Before I go, here are pictures of the fir louvers I just finished.  The second picture shows the weird cutout that was in back of the original.  I have no idea if it needed to be reproduced exactly, but I went ahead and did it for fun.  The difficulty was that including the cutout necessitated four different sizes of slat in each louver.  Does anybody know why these louvers had the cutout?  Another good reason to send me an email!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

All in a Week's Work

Last week I worked on four projects.  The first was fine-tuning the calibration of our new moulder, about which I've written in earlier posts and about which I'll surely write more in the future.  The others were actual woodworking projects, which was nice since I feel like tweaking the moulder has been taking me away from actually making stuff.  

This decrepit old column base came in at the tail end of the week before last.  The customer wanted two new ones just like it.  For some mysterious reason, the customer wanted these out of poplar, which will rot very quickly out in the elements.  Maybe they enjoy paying a ton of money to have parts of their house replaced and plan to have more column bases made in 2009.  

Here's one of the reproduction bases I made.  Each one is comprised of two layers, one for the bullnose and a second for the cove.  First I built splined hexagons of the proper thickness. I decided to make complete circles because they'd be stronger (and thus safer) when it came time to cut profiles on the shaper.   I then established the circumference of each circle with a router compass, and sawed off the waste on the band saw.  After flush-trimming to the initial routed circumference, I passed off the blanks to our brilliant shaper man who cut the profiles.    Then all that was left was to glue the bullnose circle to the cove circle and cut the flat across the back which will presumably sit against an exterior wall.

This week I also made the box columns below out of 5/4" fir.  Making box columns is a giant snore, and they usually don't land on my bench, but this order included one that was L-shaped in cross-section, which you can see sitting on top of the pile.

On Thursday and Friday I worked on reproducing this rotten foundation louver.  Usually we make new custom louvers out of PVC, but this particular customer thankfully wanted them out of fir.  I didn't take a picture of the backside, but it's a little odd.  I'll take appropriate photos of the reproductions and explain in a future post.

Before I sign off for the day, I'd like to draw your attention to the new link I've posted on the right-hand side of this page.  It's an incredible resource about Stanley and Bedrock planes.  Check it out if you ever need any info about the hand planes in your collection.  

Monday, October 01, 2007

Woodworking Sites I like

In lieu of anything interesting to photograph at work, I thought I'd post links to some of the woodworking sites I frequent. If you know of cool sites I'm missing in this not-at-all-exhaustive list, please leave a comment.

When I want to drool over amazing mid-20th century machines (like the Tannewitz band saw I very nearly won at auction last week), I head to the Old Woodworking Machines site. There you can find all kinds of useful information, including years of manufacture, parts lists, photographs, and so on. I've found it very helpful recently while restoring the old Craftsman lathe I inherited from my grandfather. By the way, it's a good thing I lost that auction for the Tannewitz--after I'd placed my high bid, further research uncovered the fact that the thing weighs 3000 lbs. I think that's more than my car.

Many people think that Garrett Wade is the best catalog for tools, and while it is very nice, I prefer Lee Valley. They produce three catalogs, one each for woodworking, woodworking hardware, and gardening. Each one is good for many hours of couch-based perusal. I recently bought a set of their hardened steel scrapers and have been wowed by their performance. Ditto for the rare earth magnets they sell.

If you're curious about state-of-the-art "wood technology" equipment, head over to the Stiles Machinery site. If you work in a shop like the ones I've worked in, then the products on offer at Stiles may look like science fiction. But they're real! I swear! I've seen them.

WoodWeb is a useful site for all kinds of things, but I mostly look at it to find old machines for sale and for woodworking jobs. It's not that I'm looking for a job, mind you--I just like to know what's out there. You know how it is. If you go to WoodWeb looking for machines, be sure to try the Woodworking Machinery Finder a ways down the left-most column on the home page; it's different than the online classifieds.

Industrial Recovery Services seems like kind of a sad business to me, but I'm sure glad they're out there. They liquidate old mills and shops that go under, and there are incredible deals to be had at their auctions. I just got a 72" machinist's straight edge for well-under what a new 36" one would cost. I love precision measuring instruments. A lot. This is where my wife would fake pushing a pair of glasses up the bridge of her nose while cough-speaking: "NERD." Takes one to know one!

Lastly, I mention Fine Woodworking because the online subscription, which is about $5.00 per month is an incredible resource. I use it over and over again and I can't overstate its utility. I wish I could say the good people at Taunton Press were paying me to say this, but they're not. If you want to avoid reinventing the wheel before attempting some new process in the shop, do two quick keyword searches at the Fine Woodworking site--one that searches the magazine's archives and a second in the "Knots" forum, where other subscribers share their techniques and insights.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Portfolio Photos at Flickr

I've been slow to organize photos of my work at Flickr, but I finally have. Click the Flickr badge at the right of this page to look at my portfolio. Be sure to peruse both sets ("Architectural Woodwork" and "Furniture and Decorative Arts"), and leave comments if you're so inclined.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Homemade Knives!

In brief, here's what I learned down in North Carolina:

1) How to make a knife template from a customer's sample moulding. The template is depicted below. This one was made by hand, but where I work, a computer controlled router churns these out. Incidentally, it's signed not because of its incredible beauty, but simply to differentiate it from my classmates' templates.

2) How to use that sample to grind knives to be used in the moulder. The knives are depicted below. These are ground from stock M2 steel, an alloy containing Molybdenum. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the knife grinding machine (which costs more than $30k) is really just a fancy version of a key grinder. A stylus guides the spinning grinding wheel across the template's pattern, and transfers that pattern to the the knive's edges. Grinding the knives takes about 20-30 minutes.

3) How to set up and run the moulder. Below you'll see the moulding that was run from the knives I ground. Once the machine is set up, it can change the dimensions or add profiles to all four faces of a piece of stock, and it can do this very quickly.

As I have mentioned, the company which offered this class, Stiles Machinery, is a leader in "Panel Processing" (working with plywood and MDF) and "Solid Wood Technologies" (working with wood). Having worked primarily in small shops, I've not seen the kinds of machines for sale in Stiles' showroom, and I'd wager that very few of my woodworking brethren have either.

Allow me to offer some examples:

Stiles sells machines which can apply a cured, high-gloss finish to a plywood cabinet component in about four minutes.

I saw people running assembled 5-piece maple doors through a multi-head sander, and when the doors came out of the machine, most recently having been sanded with 400-grit flaps, they were in amazing condition to take a finish. The doors looked like they'd been hand-detailed, not like they'd been sandblasted.

The showroom included gang rip-saws through which rip wide pieces of stock are transformed into multiple moulder blanks in a matter of seconds. Ditto for the incredible cut-off saw and robotic hopper.

You know, I really try to make this blog a technical, informative one, and not one where I wax philosophical about stuff. I try to steer clear of opining and editorializing. BUT, the stuff I saw last week has really got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about craft, and about the future of craft in the face of these kinds of capabilities.

Let's imagine that there's a continuous scale which has on one end a single person producing a piece of furniture entirely by hand, and on the other, several acres of servo-driven, robotically fed, software optimized big-box machines spitting out cabinets. Let's say that the fit and finish produced by these two efforts ultimately reaches the point of total equality. Is that awesome or sad? Is it both?

There have been craft traditions (The Arts and Craft Movement, The Roycrofters) which have rejected the machine in favor of "the best I can do" by hand work alone. Most fine woodworkers these days blanch at the thought of production machinery or factory furniture. But, at the same time, most fine woodworkers daily take advantage of technological advances their predecessors didn't have access to, like electricity, improvements in tool steel, and the like. So where does the continuous scale from all-hand-work to total-machine-work move from useful and cool to simply dehumanized and dreary?

I don't know. If you know, please post a comment.