Old School Pumice “Sanding” Block

A few days ago blog reader (and the Lou Gehrig of the woodworking blogosphere) RalphB asked about my use of the pumice block to smooth the surface of my parquetry Kindle case.  The use of pumice blocks is well documented in historical accounts, although explicit or specific details are often missing.

I use a pumice block from the plumbing section of the hardware store (I order them by the case).  Normally they are used for deep cleaning of porcelain and enameled fixtures to remove mineral deposits and stains.  They work equally well for evening out irregular wood surfaces such as those found when assembling parquetry or marquetry from sawn veneers, where regardless of the care in the initial veneer sawing a fair bit of irregularity is manifest.

I generally use a pumice block as the step following the toothing plane/Shinto rasp, moving the block in a circular fashion on the substrate, yielding a fairly smooth and even surface about what you might expect with 60 or 80 grit sandpaper.  Following the pumice block with a card scraper and polissoir, the result is quite pleasing.

51 Years…

…a/k/a When Sears Tools Were a Real Thing

Like almost all Testosterone-Americans of my vintage I began my journey into the inexorable gravitational universe of Toolism at the local Sears store, buying Craftsman tools when they were the standard of excellence,

My very first purchase at Sears was my black Cub Scout folding knife (I did not last even a year in Cub Scouts due probably to my antipathy towards organizational authoritarian constructs, but I’ve still got the knife) when I was 11 years old.  It was $2.95 if I remember correctly.

My first power tool, purchased with yard work/handyman money was this hand drill when I was 14, for$19.95 (I got the “Best” from the Good/Better/Best delineations you may remember) , a princely sum to a kid from a poor family making fifty cents or a buck for mowing the neighbors’ yards or helping to clean out a garage.

In the intervening years the only service/improvement the drill ever received was replacing the original keyed chuck with a keyless chuck about 30 years ago.

While working on some new decking at our daughter’s house we needed two drills so that we could both be productive, so I pulled this old beauty out of semi-retirement.  Still works like a charm, but I probably need to replace the brushes and lubricate everything inside.

51 years, people, for an ordinary off-the-shelf hand drill.  51 years.  Are you listening, Makita/DeWalt,/Craftsman/Bosch/Ryobi?

51 years.

A Disappointing Tool

A year ago I purchased a pair of brand new Nicholson patternmaker’s rasps to add to my inventory — I do not  have a “file” problem, it’s just that I do not think having hundreds of files and rasps on hand is excessive — and have used the finer one a good bit in working on the Gragg Chairs up in the fourth floor video studio.  The coarser one remained in my second floor workshop getting very little work until I was doing some rough shaping on green wood burl last week.  Given the wet nature of the burl, the rasp clogged pretty rapidly.  As I smacked the tool against the side of my workbench to knock out the offending material, the rasp, with only an hour or two of bench time (none of it abusive), shattered into four pieces.  Obviously in hindsight I should have used a wire brush or file card to clean the rasp, but I was pretty disappointed at how fragile the tool was.

Free Smelting Furnaces

Somewhere in the distant mists of time I obtained two propane-type smelting furnaces, thinking I was going to get into metal casting in a bigger way than I have.  I now have no expectation of this, instead focusing on smaller castings using my electric smelting furnace.  These two have simply become space eaters and I just want them gone from taking up space that is more valuable for storing yard equipment and firewood.  If you want them or know anyone who does, just let me know.
These do not have burner nozzles nor the requisite plumbing but that is pretty straightforward AFAIK.

Negoru Boxes

Today I wrapped up (mostly) three of the “rubbed through” boxes and have put two to work to hold some of my smaller Gragg sculpting tools.

This one is black-over-red.

This one is red-over-black.

I did both of these with pigmented shellac with lemon shellac as the film forming component.  I added Bone Black and Vermillion Red powders to taste, then three or four clear coats over the top after composing the pattern with wet sanding.  Since these will get jostled at least if not outright “beat up” I have no plans to bring them to a mirror surface.  I might rub them out with some Liberon steel wool and Mel’s Wax once the surfaces get really hard in a few weeks.

It is nice to have most of my smallest brass spokeshaves in the same box.  I bought four sets of the ones offered by many tool merchants 35(?) years ago and am delighted to have them on hand.  With duplicate sets I have total freedom to modify them as needed.  These tiny tools are amazingly productive but it takes strong finger tips and a good “feel” for using them.  Fortunately Mrs. Barn lets me massage her feet for a couple hours most evenings so my hands are up to the challenge.

From Disposable To Indispensable

I’m in the midst of a spate of Gragg postings, mostly because that’s what I’m doing a lot of and I don’t think posting a steady diet about working my way through a book manuscript is all that interesting.

In building a Gragg chair there are two steps that are immensely time consuming.  The first is  fitting the rear seat rail into the side units, which serves to unify and distribute all the weight stresses.  This takes about 4-8 hours for me to do this one element, it depends on how much magic is in my hands and how well my good eye is working that day.  The other is cutting 17 open dovetail pocket joints, two on each of the six short splats and the front rail fittings for the five continuous splats.  No way to put lipstick on that pig, they are nothing short of tedious.  It generally takes me up to two days to finish them.

Cutting the insides of a dovetailed open mortise is just a pain, or at least it’s a pain by the eighth or ninth one.  I’ve used a variety of tools and approaches — a saw, bench chisels, a skew chisel, utility knife, and especially a fish-tail flat gouge.  The last was especially helpful but store-bought versions were just not quite right.  The splay of the tool tip was too modest to really get into the sharp inside corners.  I made a custom one for this purpose a couple chairs ago but for the life of me cannot find it now.  Instead I decided to make another.

Looking through my box of derelict or disposable tools I found a 3/4″ Stanley “Handyman” chisel.  It was a cheap almost cheezy tool of unknown provenance that still had the factory bevel and back.  I recall modifying two of its siblings into 1) a dovetail chisel for small corner dovetails and 2) a small, short 3/16″ mortising chisel (this was before I fashioned my set of mini-mortise chisels out of plow plane irons).  The thickness of the 3/4″ chisel steel is laughably thin for typical woodworking, but the thickness was precisely what I was looking for.

With my stationary grinder I created an extreme splay on the fishtail end of the chisel.  Being careful and cutting in from the side I managed to avoid de-tempering the bevel.  After running it through my usual sharpening routine I gave it a try.

Absolutely splendid!

It is now an indispensable part of my Gragg tool kit, executing the task perfectly.  Even better it reduces the time for cutting one of the dovetailed pockets from an hour to 45 minutes or less.  Admittedly, since all of Gragg’s chairs are painted thus obscuring the exact nature of this joint I had to reverse-engineer something that I thought seemed right.

When you have to do 17 of them for each chair, ease and speed count for a lot.

Making this chisel was an extremely well-spent 90 minutes.

Exploiting Kinesiology (a/k/a The Seven Minute Camber)

When it comes to sharpening plane irons I am a sidewinder.  I taught myself how to sharpen and this was the way that made the most sense to me as it exploits the natural kinesiology (the study of human motion) of the hand and arm.  Straight-ahead sharpening fights the natural motions of the body as you have to constantly adjust the angles of the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand.  Sidewinding takes advantage of the swinging motion of the arm.  All you have to do is establish the bevel angle of the iron and everything else takes care of itself with minimal attention.

The pendulum motion of the swinging arm makes it almost effortless to shape a camber on a plane iron.  This one was a new one for a Bailey #5.

My initial shaping of the bevel contour is done with a 60-grit belt on my 50-cent granite backsplash block.  My first step is to gauge the bevel angle, which I determine by setting the iron  bevel-down on the abrasive surface until the tip and the heel of the bevel are both in contact with it.

Then I start to introduce the curve on the bevel tip by rocking my body forward and backward, and swinging my arm in a pendulum fashion, moving the iron back and forth on the abrasive belt while maintaining the bevel angle.  As I am doing this I rotate my hand to push down with my thumb and grind away the trailing corner on the push stroke and press down with my index finger on the opposite corner on the return trip.  It really is almost effortless and idiot-proof.  For this part of the process I usually wear cloth work gloves as the iron gets really hot, really fast.

After I get the curved tip I want I move on to finish the iron on my 220 and 1200 diamond plates, then finish it off with the 8000 ceramic stone.  Sorry for the fuzzy pic, it’s the curse of the “Automatic” setting on the camera.  I use the exact same motion for the sharpening stones as I used for the rough shaping on the granite block.

Originally I titled this post “The 5-Minute Camber” but I timed myself as I created this one.  I was off by 40%.  It took me just over seven minutes to go from start to finish.  Shoot, I took longer to do the photography.  I’m trying to teach myself to make short “shop tip” videos, maybe this process would be a good candidate.

Scrapwood Shaving Horse

When we acquired Shangri-La in 2001 I was especially delighted that there were standing outbuildings suitable for a variety of purposes.  The largest of these was a small-ish chestnut log barn that had previously housed livestock.  For our use as a storage facility the original tiny doorway was a hurdle, it being only about 5-feet high.  In short order I sawed the next higher log section to open the entrance to one that was not an undue burden to use, even though it was still not large enough to pass through without ducking.

After opening the doorway I had a piece of chestnut log about 3-1/2 feet long by a foot wide and perhaps eight inches thick.  It had been notched with edge tools when originally built so that log scrap had a flat side from the git-go.  Some time around then I saw The Woodwright’s Shop with guest chairmaker Don Weber who described what he called “a bodger’s shave horse.”   John Alexander’s 1978 Make A Chair From A Tree, was already a long-time part of my personal library,  and his infectious evangelism for primitive woodworking inspired me even though my own work was not centered in this direction.  Those two paths intersected with the chestnut log chunk and it wasn’t very long before I took that and a bunch of other pieces from the scrap box and made a short length three-legged shaving horse.  I used it for many years as a traveling demonstration tool.

During the ongoing video project to document making a Gragg Chair I was vexed at being unable to locate and use this small shaving horse and instead had to use my gigantic one (6′ long), another almost-castoff I bought cheap at auction since the pivot rod housing was busted.  I fixed it in an hour.  It is a fine tool but not my favorite.

Recently I was rooting around the basement of the barn and came across the remains of the scrap chestnut horse.  I do not have any memory of it making the trip from Maryland eight years ago, so I wonder of someone else tossed it into the big rental truck.  I say “tossed” because all three legs were missing, and two of them had broken off inside the tapered mortises.

I cleaned out the detritus in the mortises then re-reamed the holes with this sweet tapered spiral reamer I got at a tool flea market for $12.  It is beefy, precision-made, and still sharper than all get out.  Two or three complete rotations is all it took to get the mortises perfect for new leg tenons.

Using the reamer as the pattern I shaved three new legs from waste stock up in the Gragg workshop/video studio up in the fourth floor attic.

In about an hour of total time I had the new legs cut, tapered, installed and trimmed to length.  I flipped it over and it was ready to be put to work.

It is good sometimes to have scraps just laying around.

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Well, maybe a concrete block rather than an actual rock.

While recently at our daughter’s house I had a trimwork task that required a nice wide, razor-sharp chisel.  Unfortunately the only  wide chisel I had was this Stanley one I bought from Big Blue for some demo work, and the dentated beveled edge confirms that usage.  (This picture was after a minute of working on it, so it was a lot worse when I started out)  Were I back in the mountains I would have had no trouble rehabilitating the edge but at that house I only had a fairly fine sharpening stone.  So, I remembered a legend from my early days in the trade, when Pop Schindler had to re-cut some joinery while on-site for a project and simply picked a screwdriver from the installation tool kit and sharpened it on the curb to make it into a chisel.

I had the advantage of starting with a chisel, albeit a really beat-up one.  Instead of the curb I  carried a concrete block into the basement workshop and started working on the edge.

This picture was after about three minutes; after another three or four minutes with the concrete block I had re-established the bevel edge.  I did take another few seconds to flatten the back.  Like I said, it was a demolition chisel before this.

Another minute or two on the water stones and I was up the stairs to trim the door.  The chisel notched the vintage cherry trim like it was a hot knife going through butter.  My only hurdle was the contortions required to get the tool in the right place to work.

Ripplemania III

Last month my friend Ripplin’ John and I spent a week in the barn working on and brainstorming about our respective ripple molding machines, trying to get a model ready for the show-n-tell of Handworks 2020 (this is before we knew Handworks 2020 was being postponed by the Wuhan Virus).  I had made a little progress on my machine since Ripplemania II but he had made great strides with his.  During the week his main emphasis was on the lateral “wave” cutting function of his elegant machine while I was simply trying to get my newly designed cutting head to work properly.

Prior to our most recent week together I had also been working on the notion of improving the method and form of the ripple patterns themselves.  I tried a number of different methods and jigs but wound up realizing that precision layout and careful workmanship was the key to producing a crisp, precise concave pattern.  Throughout our week we discussed this issue and I am now thinking that concave is not the way to move forward, convex patterns may be the future.

As John was assembling his machine, a fairly lengthy process since it was totally disassembled to fit into hi vehicle, I was puttering on mine.

My new cutterhead  was now configured with the cutter being positioned at the end of a long weighted swing arm rather than inside a spring-loaded modulating frame structure.

I reasoned that the swing arm was a simpler approach and determined to give it a try.  Unlike John I narrowed the scope of my machine to do only one thing, namely cut ripple moldings of approximate 1-1/2″ stock width and 1/2″ thickness.  No wider, no thicker.  Thus my machine structure was much more restricted than his with approximately zero adaptability.

John had been working on two important evolutionary steps.  First, the machine could cut but ripple moldings and wave moldings within the same overall machine structure.  Second, that the machine could be mechanized and automated thus making it a more practical device for producing large quantities of moldings.  As he recited a truth to me, “Turning the platen drive handle gets old after a surprisingly short time!”

I’ll let you know how we progressed next time.