Friday, August 31, 2007

I've Been So, So Dull

I started my woodworking career in 1992, fifteen years ago now, and until the past month I've been working with dull tools.  Of course, I didn't know it or I wouldn't have been doing it, but the fact remains--I've never handled a truly sharp chisel or plane until very recently.  It's often said that a sharp plane iron can shave the hair from your arm or peel a small, continuous thinner-than-paper strip from your thumbnail's surface, but one can force even a slightly-sharp tool meet these criteria.

In the past I've worked my chisels and plane irons on all kinds of stones, always completely freehand.  While some master craftsman can produce a reasonably sharp edge this way, most mortals only end up producing a mildly rounded bevel instead of a true razor's edge.  Don't get me wrong--people will boast that their tools are sharp after honing this way, but they're just not.

I recently decided to work on my sharpening skills, and it's been an incredibly productive month.  The first thing I did was invest in the best honing guide I could find.  It's the Veritas MK-II system pictured below.  If you want sharp tools, buy one HERE.

Without getting into the details of how the guide works (you can find that info at the link above), suffice it to say that the honing guide provides a way to maintain an absolutely consistent angle between the stone and the tool's cutting edge. This eliminates the possibility of a rounded bevel. After honing on successively higher-grit stones, one can easily achieve a mirror-finish on the cutting edge and on the tool's flat back. Many people overlook this last point: Unless the backside of your iron, chisel, or machine knife is dead flat, the sharpness of the cutting bevel is basically irrelevant.

I've also been reading about and experimenting with different stones. I've tried a variety of oilstones (both manmade and natural), waterstones, and the relatively new 15- and 5-micron grit mylar-backed abrasive sheets. People can get very passionate about the benefits of this-or-that stone, but I'm convinced it doesn't matter a whole lot what one chooses as long as one starts with a fairly rough abrasive and ends with an incredibly fine one. Also, there's no reason, despite prevailing norms, not to go ahead and mix up different kinds of stones in the honing sequence. To wit, I'm now beginning with coarse and then fine India (both oilstones), progressing to black Arkansas (also an oilstone) and finishing with an 8000 grit japanese waterstone. This produces a chisel edge that can not only shave the hair from my arm, but even the stubble from my chin. Yes, I tried it!

If I'd been able to sharpen tools this effectively 15 years ago, it's hard to calculate how much fretting and gnashed teeth I might have saved myself.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mother of All Gazebos?

We've been talking about building a gazebo out back.  At first we were thinking of your average deck-quality screened porch, but as we've talked about what we really want from the structure, our plans have changed.  At present we're thinking of a 150 square-foot octagon with a stone fireplace, cedar shingles, and a paneled interior, all of which is a lot more ambitious than the original idea.  In all likelihood, we'll end up somewhere between your average gazebo and some kind of backyard Taj Mahal.  Budget will almost certainly be the deciding factor!

Here's the scale model I started last weekend.  Small model = big fun.

Here's a detail view of the arched rafters, beaded ceiling, pine paneling, and the mantel.

Magical Transformation?

We're turning our laundry room into a textiles and printmaking studio.  During this project I've built my first-ever walls, hung a heavy solid core door (also a first), and used a rented floor scraper to remove hideous vinyl tile.  The floor scraper did in 15 minutes what would have taken me days to complete with hand tools.  I can't recommend it enough--best $40 I've ever spent.

The photo below shows the door that separates the studio from the litter box room.  I thought the cats' arch should be inscribed with Dante's warning at the gates of hell:  Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here, but I was out-voted.  The door is solid-core birch.  I made and installed the 12-light window and the arch.  The window is going to have textured glass in it so we keep the incoming light without having to look at a room full of cat boxes.

Chaweeka Plane

"Chaweeka" is a catch-all noun invented (so far as I know) by my friend Nick's late mother Jane.  It can be used to describe any small item, from say a lamp finial to a tiny plane like the one pictured below.  This plane came with a set of WWII-vintage chisels I recently bought through ebay.  I can think of many times in the past when it would have been very helpful.

I'm Back!

Sorry it's been eight months since my last post!  What can I say?  With the collapse of the mortgage market, work has been incredibly slow, and there just haven't been many projects worth posting.  Just to get back in the habit, though, I'm going to post later today about a couple odds and ends.