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Dovetail Saw Workshop – Day 3

We hit the ground running on Day 3, hammering closed the slot cut for the saw plate.

Once that was checked the stroll through sharpening-land got underway.  When we cut the teeth on the first saw at 16 t.p,i, I promised the students that they would get immeasurably better on the second one, and I was right.  Though the teeth on the first saw worked just fine, the teeth on the second were really, really good.  It is not just because of the wider spacing at 12 t.p.i., but more it was the confidence and muscle memory/rhythm from making some teeth from scratch that worked well.

The facets from hammering the backs were more aesthetically displeasing for this crisp rectilinear back as opposed to the more rounded backs earlier so some time was spent cleaning these up.  A sharp file, especially a float configuration, actually yields shavings and a nearly polished surface.  Finished off with some sandpaper and pumice the appearance was quite nice.  (This was a saw I was making when not coaching and encouraging the students; you can see the effect of thinning the bade at the top of the blued plate.  I call this “the Blue Tooth look.”)


Absolutely everything went 2x faster on the second saw.  If you will recall this saw had a saw plate that was 12″ x 2″ x .015″, while the first one was 8″ x 1-1/2″ x .020″.

By lunchtime the saws were going together.  And they were cutting suweeeet.

Just before the company of sawyeristas disbanded I took portraits of the weekend’s productivity (somehow one saw got left out).  The finishing work on the handles was something they preferred to accomplish at home so they could build the second saw, and I admired them for making that choice to stick with and move forward on the more difficult work while we were together.

This weekend workshop was a whole lotta fun, and I look forward to replicating it sometime.

Note:  The darker D-handled saw in the middle of the chorus line was a vintage Disston that I was completely re-working in lieu of building another one.  I’ll blog about that project soon.

Japanese Knives

I have long incorporated Japanese knives into my work routine, beginning with my first one, a Christmas gift from my older daughter.  When it comes to shaving and marking, cutting a line for precise sawing, nothing else comes close to them.  I’ve purchased a few of these tools over the years, in various sizes and configurations.

One thing about them that I do not like is the feel of a new one with no handle.  I am not sure these are even supposed to have handle cheeks, but I like them anyway.    I generally wrap the handles with a double layer of leather boot strings, gluing them at the end with hide glue.

And, these critters are so sharp and pointy the need a sheath.  I made three-layer sheaths for all of mine from a large scrap of heavyweight sharkskin.  Starting with the first layer large enough to serve the function, I follow that with a second layer that is cut out to fit the knife tip perfectly.  A third layer mimicking the first is the final part of the assembly, all of it glued up.  The sheaths are snug so they stay put while the knife is awaiting use.

With my leather sewing kit I stitched a perimeter line around the edge of the sheath and it is finished.

Here is a captivating series of videos on using a Japanese knife to prepare a new lacquer brush for duty.


One of the tool groups whose importance has grown on me immensely over the years js that of the file family.  Like most discriminating pursuits (addiction is way too strong of a word) it begins with the first strong hit of the good stuff, and before you know it there is an entire tool rack dedicated to them.  A vintage mill file leads to a nice machine made rasp, and then a hand knitted rasp.  Or six.  And once you get your hands on a Vixen curved tooth the path to a selection of floats is pretty much inevitable.  Then comes diemaker’s rifflers and sinkers, sculpting rasps, Swiss needle files, and barrettes.  And eventually you seek out pushers like Slav in Chicago,, whose trench coat pockets are always full of files I suddenly discover a consuming need for.  Every tool scrounging tailgating session becomes a new chase.

Which is where I got this new-old-stock premium Vixen file last year (a tool flea market, not Slav).  I love the finish left by a perfect curved tooth file.  I was using it recently and for the thousandth time I tapped it on the bench to knock out the shavings.  Much to my literal astonishment this low mileage tool snapped!  For many seconds my frame of mind was some combination of shock, anger, and dismay.  Seriously, this was a premium tool that broke under very gentle stress within a very few hours of service.  Exasperated I set it aside to compose myself in order to conduct the memorial service.  Or not.  In the meantime it would sit on the shelf of my file rack.

Then, suddenly the recipe for lemonade from a broken lemon leaped to the for.  I was working on a saw handle during the Dovetail Saw class, using one of my Iwasaki floats to work the wood,  At one point I needed something a bit larger but still with a fine, crisp cut, and no tang or handle.  I walked over to the file rack and grabbed the broken Vixen to give it a try.  The result was sublime.  It still cut perfectly but without the obstruction of the handle end that had broken off.  The fracture margin was a bit ragged so I touched that up with a coarse diamond sharpening stone.

It was the sweetest glass of lemonade ever.

Now I just have to ask Slav to find me some more handle-less curved teeth files.

Dovetail Saw Making Workshop – Day 2

The saws began to take final shape early on Day 2.  My strategy for toothing the plate long before anything else is fully completed became clear, as that finished toothed edge with no set was used to cut the slot in the handle for the saw plate itself.  It worked perfectly.

Once the saw plate was fitted to the handle it was time to begin the final assembly process.  This meant that the saw plate had to be inserted into the back, and the open mortise for the back had to be laid out and cut into the handle.

Once the pieces were all fitted together temporarily, it was time for pulling it all back apart and undertaking the final finishing of the plate. As I said, I do not set the teeth of these tiny saws.  Instead I taper the plates from the top to within about 1/6″ of the teeth gullets with coarse sandpaper or a pumice block, then increasingly finer abrasives until the “look” was the way they wanted.  Using blued spring steel for the plates is exceedingly helpful for this process.  I’ve measured the effect of abrading the plate such that the bluing is fully removed and the plate polished to a “brushed steel” appearance, and it is something around one-half of a ten-thousandth of an inch.

The final step in the assembly is to drill the holes through the handle and the plate to fasten everything together with brass binding posts.  I must give a shout out to Chris Cianci for his technique of breaking the initial lay-out hole through the spring steel plate by striking with a center punch, then flipping the plate and repeating.  After a couple back-and-forths with this the spring steel shatters in the designated location.  This makes drilling a breeze.  A slight counter-sink at each hole for the screw heads, and assembly was soon finished.

By mid-afternoon completed saws were emerging from the efforts.

Rather than having the participants take the handles to final completion we decided to embark on a second saw with a 10″ x 2″ x .015 plate, employing a sawn slotted brass back, compared to an 8″ x 1-1/2″ x .020 with a bent spine for the first one.  After the first saw, the second went so much faster.  Once again there was fitting and pounding to make sure the back and the plate went together well.

Then on to more teeth cutting, this time 12 t.p.i. rather than the 16 t.p.i. for the first one.  Much to their delight and in keeping with my promises, the leap in skill of the second sharpening versus the first was notable in both quality and speed.

Home-made Froe 2

I shaped the scrap ash handle of the froe with the usual tools (spokeshave and rasp) and mounted the blade with small carriage bolts.  Since the holes in the planer blade were slotted the blade moved around more than I wanted so I drilled a third hole and added another small bolt.   With everything fixed in place I ground a small back bevel on the splitter so that the tool would not “dive” to one side while in combat.

A quickly cobbled together sheath from scrap leather completed the activity, although I just glued the leather together.  I will rivet it together tomorrow so it is a bit more permanent.

Taking the froe for a test drive was a delight as it split perfectly and was easy to both drive and maneuver, yielding very thin and narrow pieces exactly as I had desired.  These two were about 3/8″ x 5/8″ x 30″.

Petite Dovetail Saw Making Workshop – Day 1

This is a summer to try new things for workshops.  Thus far one was less than successful (my annual traditional finishing weekend scheduled for the final weekend in April; the workshop itself was fine but the timing was just too early in the year), and two that were complete successes IMHO — the Traditional Handtool Woodworking confab in Arkansas and the recent Make A Petite Dovetail Saw weekend.  As with the Arkansas shindig, I had taught folks to make a saw one-on-one over a relaxed and fluid timetable but never as a group with tight and fixed time budget.

From my perspective it was a rousing success.

Making a dovetail saw involves integrating three major components: the handle, or tote (I never heard the word “tote” until a few years ago, and now it is everywhere although I still prefer to call a handle a handle), a spine or back, and a plate or blade in which teeth are cut with a file.  My technique for small saws is to not set the teeth but rather taper the plate so that the thickest cross-section is at the teeth and tapers off towards the back.  I find this method works best for me for making saws to cut very small joints in thin stock.

The first step in any custom-made saw is to fit the handle to the user’s hand.  I had my own pattern for the students to examine, and each of them modified my template to their own preference.

A couple of students brought prized wood for the handles, and my sash saws came in handy.

They transferred the pattern to their prepared wood for the handle and sawed it out with a coping saw, then trimmed the perimeter with files and rasps.

Next came shearing the saw plate from coil .020 x 1-1/2″ spring steel to an 8-1/4″ length, cleaning up the ends with a diamond stone and a bench hook.  Everything in the fitting and sizing of the saw was determined by this piece from this point on.

I used to bend the brass backs from flat stock but in recent saws I have switched to 90-degree 1-inch angle bar, 1/16″ thick.  It cuts the time down to almost nothing.  The angle bar stock is annealed with a torch, then allowed to air cool.  Once cool the piece is set on the bottom of a large bench vise and the vise is closed, keeping a careful eye on it to make sure it bends evenly and nicely.  After the initial bending it is moved to the top of the vise to crank it down as much as possible.

This is followed by a little hammering to close the fold tight to make sure the saw plate will be held/pinched snugly once everything is assembled.

Then came the most intimidating part, cutting the teeth in the blank spring steel saw plate.  We used 4″ XX slim taper NOS files (I am always looking for more) at a 16 t.p.i. spacing.  I printed out the 16 t.p.i. pattern on my computer so they could tape it directly to the filing vise for easier spacing.  One of the fellows brought his new Gramercy saw vise in his luggage, and we ogled it shamelessly.

I used to alternate filing each tooth from the opposite side, but then learned that Andrew Lunn filed his saws all from the same side.  Given his results that was good enough for me, and I demonstrated and had the students work in this manner.  Since we were not going to set the teeth there was no reason not to try this method.

They all took their time and established a good rhythm, their results were more than satisfactory.

Thus endeth Day 1, ahead of schedule and making me optimistic about a special project for them.

Workbenches Anonymous

My name is Don and I have a lot of workbenches.  It’s neither a confession nor problem, it’s just a recounting of fact.

No sooner had I returned home from Arkansas and delivered Bob’s bench to him (it was the prototype for the bench we built 7x at the workshop) I noted its absence from the barn and immediately set about to fill the void.

The finished unit went into the classroom, where I am trying to replace any sub-standard benches with first-rate ones.  I’ve got one more to go, maybe two especially if you count restoring a vintage one.  I’ve got about another hour of work to install the twin screw face vise on this Nicholson and then I’ll move on to something else.

It occurred to me that it might be amusing to udertake a chronological recitation of my entire extant workbench inventory, so beginning soon I’ll try to present “Workbench Wednesdays” (am I a marketing genius with slogans or what?) giving some history and a review of my benches (including the crapdoodle ones if they have not been “decommissioned” in the wood stove) until I get through the list.  As near as I can tell this will take several months of Wednesdays to complete.

Another New Tool For Making Backsaws

One of the options I wanted to make available in preparation for the “Make a Petite Dovetail Saw” workshop was the ability to use a slotted brass spine for the backsaw.  To make the stock for this I ordered the brass bar stock and a 1/32″ slotting saw blade from McMaster Carr.

The issue I had to resolve was that the only slotting saw big enough to clear the table surface of one of my table saws from inventory had a 1″ arbor hole, while the shaft for the saw blade was only 1/2″ diameter.  I made a fitted spacer from a standard large washer to allow the blade to be used on the shaft, adding a pair of oversized collars on either side to keep everything lined up.

I then had to fabricate a jig to keep the bar stock in the correct relationship to the slotting saw blade in the table saw.  Again some stuff from the scrap shelf came in handy.  A piece of 1/4″ marine plywood served as the panel, with stops glued front and rear and another pair aligned with the miter-crosscut slots to keep the whole unit fixed in one place and one place only.  You can see this panel flipped over here.

With that finished I glued fences on both sides of the slotting saw blade to bisect the bar stock.  It worked like a charm provided I take three light and gentle passes through the saw.

I can now produce as much slotted spine stock as I want.

Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make Do, Or Do Without – Making A Petite Froe From A Planer Knife

The aphorism that begins this post’s title was a familiar saying especially during the series of Great Depressions that lasted from 1929 to about 1950 and remains part of the undercurrent in most of the rural world.  In its most extreme cases it can contribute to a psychopathology of “hoarding.”  For most woodworkers or putterers of almost any kind this tendency becomes manifest in our loathing to throw out anything that might be useful.  Some time.  Some day.  Even if that day is decades away.

But sure enough, with enough time that day will come.

Such a momentous day happened to me this week.  I’m up to my eyeballs in Gragg chairs, and that requires transforming honking big pieces of oak trees into long thin pieces to be worked by edge and steam and bent into chair parts.

My long-time old-as-dirt hand made froe works fine on the honkin’ big pieces of trees, with its trailing edge thickness of almost a half inch.  But for making long, thin pieces of about 5/8″ x 1-1/4″?  Not so much success there.

I did a browse of the interwebz and found several acceptable options for a small froe, generally in the size range of something that would be called a basketmaker’s froe, and I was sorely tempted by this sweet little one from the Gramercy folks who have already parted me from much lucre over the years.  But I pondered the froe iterations possible from my collection of repurposable raw materials in the barn.

Window shopping my way through the “hardware store” portion of the joint I found just the answer I had been searching for; a used planer knife from my 10″ lunch box portable planer.  Darned.  Near.  Perfect.  It was good quality tool steel, hard and very sharpen-able.  Shoot, it already had a bunch of holes in it.

Quick as a bunny I pulled one out of the “metal scrap” drawer(s) and set to work.  With my Dremel-ish Craftsman tool I cut the 10-inch knife in half.  I was making a very petite froe so five inches was plenty.  Grabbing a chunk of white ash from underneath one of the benches where that is stored I was set with all my raw materials.

I put the ash piece in the vise and ripped a kerf with a slotting saw (thanks reader Jack for clarifying the tool as being in the Starrett catalog in ages past) followed by a few seconds with the Iwasaki fine float.

Viola’ at all fit together perfectly!

Hand Tool Woodworking Workshop Days 4&5

At this point the participants were barreling along, full steam ahead.  The project to build a water-tight box for sharpening stones was probably a bit too ambitious on my part, but they were game and worked long and hard.  Resawing and planing the vintage cypress soon filled the space with the pungent and pleasant odor of this magnificent wood, still fill of aromatic extractives even after 180 years.

The pieces of the box began taking shape all over the place.  The pace of work was intense, and even the friendly chatter subsided a bit as the concentration on tasks at the bench increased.

The fragrance of the wood was augmented with the scents of alcohol and beeswax as the finishing exercises were also progressing.

But mostly it was about fashioning wood into an artifact.

The day concluded with a couple of special events, namely “Don’s Greatest Hits,” a Powerpoint presentation of notable projects over the past decade or so, followed immediately by a rib-fest cookout at Jane and Cam’s house.  We ate spectacular ribs until we could not move, and that was followed by gallons of freshly homemade ice cream.  We were barely ambulatory by the end of the evening.

Day 5 commenced in the shop much the way Day 4 had ended — feverish work making as much progress as possible.  You could tell by the growing mounds of detritus that something was happening in a big way.

No one actually finished their boxes but all promised to do so once the got home with their new benches to work on.

We spent some time loading the aforementioned benches and the place cleared out before suppertime.  It was a grand week of fellowship and learning and I departed exhausted and content.  I only had two long days of driving to get back home to Shangri-la.

Heartfelt thanks to the students and  my longest time friend Rick and Jane and Cam for making this event happen and memorable.