Monday, May 16, 2011

Which Way Are You Going?

"A properly set hand plane should be able to plane in any direction."

That's how Graham Blackburn started up his discussion on hand planes.

Well, wait a second... that's not right! Doesn't he know you should figure out the grain direction, then plane WITH the grain? You pet a cat one way, and you plane one way. You don't want to raise the hairs on a cat's back just like you don't want to push your plane blade
into the fibers of the wood. He proceeded to talk about the myth of what I was just thinking - that you should always plane with the grain.

Then he paused. And he asked us if we thought, 200 years ago or 400 years ago, woodworkers always planed with the grain.

"What about curly grained wood, like maple or mahogany? What about crotch walnut and birds-eye maple or wood where the grain changes directions? And then changes directions again? Do you think people back then planed a little one way, then a little the other, then a little the fist way again, all the way across the board?"

No, they didn't. They set their planes up properly, they clamped their wood in their bench, and then they started planing!

To further illustrate his point, he pulled out a slab of Indian walnut and clamped it into the bench. It was several inches thick, with one live edge, some curly figure, a few knots, straight grain, ribboned grain - you name it, it was on this board.

And he pulled out a Lie-Nielsen smoothing plane, made sure it was set properly, then went left, right, up, down, and sideways on the board, taking smooth, tear-out free shavings each time.

Then he showed us how he does it.

Rule #1: You need to have a sharp plane blade. Don't bother sharpening above a 12,000 grit waterstone. Your basic set should include the 400 grit, for shaping, the 2000-3,000 grit, for rough polishing, the 8000 grit for getting a really good edge, and then a 12,000 for the final mirror-like polish you need to get on the leading 1/8" of the face of your blade and on the bezel if you're going to be working with exotic woods. Most of the time, however, you will be working with just the first three (400, 2000-3000, and 8000 grit stones).
(Note: The face of the blade is the side without the bezel)

Rule #2: You need to get the cap iron (sometimes erroneously called the "chip breaker", as per Graham) fit tightly to the blade. That is, you should not be able to see even a slight bit of light between the face of the blade and the cap iron edge. So when you're sharpening your blade, you should work the cap iron, as well, to make sure the edge seats properly on the blade.

Rule #3: There were two parts to this rule...
One is that you should set the cap iron as close to the edge of the plane blade as the thickness of the shaving you want. For a smoothing plane, that's really, REALLY close. It isn't as close for a jack plane or a jointer plane.
The other is that you should adjust your plane to have the tightest mouth you can give it.

That is a simplified version, but... honestly, that's about it!

Hey, that doesn't seem too hard. If I could accomplish that, I'd be a pretty happy man!

This evening, I was in the basement with a bit of free time on my hands, and I thought I would give it a try. So I pulled out my #604.5, not without some trepidation, and grabbed a turnscrew. The blade was already sharp, so I just needed to set the cap iron properly and make a minor adjustment to my frog and then I could give it a go!

I choked up on the cap iron, moved my frog forward a millimeter or two, and then dug through some boxes to find something that I might not have attempted before. In this case, it was a chunk of curly mahogany I was saving for a tool handle.

I cleared a spot on my small bench (not an easy task, with the mess my basement is in), pushed the wood up against a stop (without checking for grain direction - not that it mattered much with this wood), and took a couple of swipes with the tuned-up plane.

Hey, that looked pretty nice! So I flipped the wood around to plane it from the other direction and watched as one thou shavings (and anodda thou... and anodda thou) piled up behind the knob of the plane.

Wow! It works! I went back upstairs to grab my camera, grinning from ear to ear.

Thanks, Graham! I'm looking forward to trying out all of the other tricks you showed us in class!

Oh, and now I also need to work on getting some of my other planes set up the same way...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

NOW I know what Chris meant...

In the opening chapter of his new book, The Anarchist's Tool Chest, Chris Schwarz mentions an interview with Graham Blackburn, and refers to him as one of his, "woodworking heroes."

I don't know about you, but from where I sit, that is quite the compliment. It made ME come to attention, anyway.

As it just so happens, today was the first day of a two-day seminar the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild is hosting with Graham Blackburn here in St. Louis. Since tomorrow is my wife's very first Mother's Day, I was only able to attend half of the seminar (today), but I felt it would be worth paying for the whole weekend, even if I could only attend a part of it.

I was right. And now I know why Chris calls Graham one of his woodworking heroes.

The seven hours of the first day that sixteen members of our guild spent in a room in the Creve Coeur Community Center seemed to fly by. I spent a lot of time frantically writing down quips and tidbits of information Graham threw out like he was overseeding a lawn.

He had so many great ideas and concepts that were just one- or two-line comments, like, "Jigs and guides make your work more accurate. The use of hand tools is not synonymous with 'Free Hand'," and "You cannot plane anything flatter than the flatness of your plane."

Which was shortly followed up by...

"You cannot flatten anything flatter than your sharpening stone."

I have a lot more in my notebook, but I'll probably have to read through it a few times to absorb the information before I write on it with any clarity. But I do want to share one part of today's session with you.

One of the first major topics we touched on was hand saws. He started off by asking how many of us had just two or three saws in our shop. It ended up being most of us. Then he spent a few minutes going into just how many different saws there were, from rip to cross-cut, back-saw to coping saw, dovetail to hack saw, and even how there were several different versions of each kind so that you could easily have 12 or 15 or more saws and actually use most of them at some point in the course of a year of making furniture.

Then he said he felt the reason hand saws have fallen into disuse is because nobody knows how to sharpen saws anymore!

(Still partially overwhelmed by the fact that I might need to know when to use 15 different saws, I had another possible reason in mind...)

He then pulled out a Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw to discuss one of the more common saws we might have in our shop. He said the saw in his hand, like many of the dovetail saws on the market today, was a copy of the old Tyzack dovetail saw and that he wished he had one to show us because they were such great things to behold.

I opened up the portable tool chest I'd brought with me, pulled out an old maroon hand towel, unrolled it to produce a very small dovetail saw with great patina and rounded teeth and said, "You mean like this one?"

It was the saw I'd picked up at the Woodworking In America conference last October, the slightly smaller brother to Kari's (link possibly only visible if you're Kari's friend on FB) brass-backed Tyzack dovetail saw. And Graham got to use it as his prop for discussion on saw sharpening and sharpening techniques.

Shortly after that, we broke for lunch. But before we did so, he offered to help me practice sharpening with my little Tyzack dovetail saw if I wanted!

Let's see... personal help from Graham Blackburn on sharpening my dovetail saw? Yeah, I guess I could go for that.

Given several limitations (a saw vise that wouldn't totally clamp my saw blade properly, a triangle file that was a bit too big, and some pretty crap-tastic lighting), I think I did a pretty good job! He tried it out and agreed it was definitely a much more usable saw than when we'd first started out.

So I have a little more work to do on it. Not a big deal. I checked this evening and the saw vise I recently picked up from John Zimmers holds the blade perfectly. So once I get a triangular file that is the proper size, I'll finish taking down a few leveled teeth and be done. But even without the additional work, I'm happy to have a nice little saw that makes fine dust with the absolute lightest touch possible!

We spent the rest of the day talking about hand planes and sharpening techniques. I'll have to save those topics for a different blog post, but I definitely want to talk about it because there is some great information in my little spiral notebook.

I'm a little disappointed I'm going to have to miss tomorrow's session. But I have my priorities straight, and spending time with these two wonderful people is the most important thing I could do on Mother's Day.

I guess I'll just have to catch Graham at Mark Adam's school some time in the future, right? :)