Thursday, August 27, 2009


Every Once in Awhile

Every once in awhile a new hand tool comes along and changes the way you work. Yes, that's usually due to superior manufacturing and flawless attention to detail but every now and then someone steps things up a notch and not only brings the quality of craftsmanship to a new level but actually inspires the work that you do. This experience has only happened to me a couple of times before and has happened again.
A few weeks ago I got a call from my local post office in Cape Breton that a parcel has arrived for me. This was a little strange because it's our summer home and our mail still comes here to Toronto. I jump in the car and motor down to find a 100% recycled cardboard package sitting there with little Bad Axe Tool Works logos all over it. My saws had arrived.
Back in the wood shop I tear into the package to find two of the nicest back saws I've ever seen. Seriously, not the kind of flash and whistles you sometimes get fooled by in some 'boutique' variety products but a hand saw that gleams of a history somehow brought back to life and is waiting patiently and proudly to work with you.
Here in my wood shop I don't have the luxury of testing countless saws and reviewing endless wood working products like other on-line wood working writers may but what I do have is two hands, a heart and the desire to practice wood working using only hand tools. Mark Harrell has just made my life a hell of a lot easier by fabricating a product that works so well that you wonder why this level hasn't been achieved before.
Since meeting Mark through his work over the past year and a half and discussing his approach to saw making it's no surprise they perform as good as they do. My old nest of antique handsaws he reconditioned last year are still my daily users and have ripped through a pile of hardwood over this past year. Now he has his own platform to stand on with a product that will stand the test of time and take the hand saw market to another level altogether.

Over this past month I've managed to put these two saws through some of the hardest and most challenging wood cuts I would regularly attempt in my work and it always goes a little something like this:
I take most of the weight of the saw in my arm and lightly push the saw forward an inch. Then an equally delicate back stroke is all that's needed to begin the cut. The saw dives (not bites) down into the wood fiber and with the extra length and heft of the plate burns through the wood cutting straight as an arrow. To be completely honest, the larger size did seem a little foreign at first but after 15 minutes of getting used to them I was able to not only cut deep tenons in 2" white Oak but turn around and rip a thin strip off of some hard Eastern Maple 1/8" wide. These are not special purpose hand saws...they're daily users that will make large deep cuts in heavy hardwoods yet still perform well enough to cover smaller scale joinery that needs to be precise and accurate. Think of them as a 'Jack Saw' (as I've nicknamed them)...especially the hybrid cross cut Mark is making available. I'm not going to get into all of the specs and saw terms here because I really don't understand most of them! What I do know is I have two new hand saws that will make my work more enjoyable, easier and get far more accurate that I say Cheers to Mark Harrell and Bad Axe Tool Works.

Please don't take my word on any of this...this is my own opinion- go and find out for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Do some more searching and read what others are saying- you won't be disappointed.
For all of the specs I mentioned go to
One last thing, I mentioned this happened twice before with a hand tool bringing my work to another level...the first was when I tried out a Lie Nielsen hand plane and the second was when I received my smoothing plane in the mail from James Krenov a few years ago. It arrived in a nice little recycled sneaker box all wrapped up in California news paper! Perfect.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Unplugged Summer Part Two

Drilling Holes in a Perfectly Fine Bench Top

Drilling holes in a perfectly fine bench top can be as scary as you make it; I've been using this style bench at my shop in Toronto and have come to find I'm much more comfortable hand planing stock with it sitting freely on the bench top surface butted up against a thin baton of hardwood. No tail vise or hold-fasts just the weight and the balance of my arms and the hand plane working together. (There are of course exceptions with this rule like cross grain work with a scrub plane) This, my summer bench has never been equipped with dog holes so now, before I get any further along with this dovetailed box project I'll need to get out the brace and bit and make some cheese.

In the shot above you can see where I placed my bench dog holes; this is my comfort zone and it's what works for me. I'd suggest clamping a baton across your bench top and see where's right for you. Maybe clamping a baton across the bench will always be enough for you and you'll never have to scar your work my world I don't mind a few holes in the work surface.

So with that I carefully draw a square line and mark with an awl the locations. I also mark off a hole in the block on my front shoulder vise; this is used sometimes to hold small pieces across the bench top. I'll probably add three more holes in line with the left hand side of the vise, but for today these three will suffice. (Make sure before you start boring you're not in line with the vice bolt or screw!!)

I'm using a couple of Bench Pups from Veritas; they're the round brass type 2 3/8" long. I also use a pair of the 4 3/8" ones but they're still sitting all snug in the holes on my bench top back in the city.

With the third hole drilled I'm ready to get back to work and surfacing the four pieces of the project is next on the list. As mentioned I'll lay a thin baton of hardwood across the bench top and work the boards flat, checking as I go.

My shop made winding sticks also made the journey home and they're the perfect tool for the job of checking this Khaya for any humps, valleys or wind.

In no time at all I'm back on the shooting board taking incredible shavings in the end grain. The 5 1/2 is a wonderful shooting plane and this minimal shooting board is working out better than I anticipated. (Just to answer the inevitable now instead of won't be getting rid of my fancy shooting board back in Toronto nor will I stop using my dedicated No. 9 Iron Miter plane! This is good and working well but that duo are the cats ass when shooting)

Four pieces, square and smooth I'll sit them on the bench top and take a few steps back. I'm already thinking about adding to the design, perhaps a small frame to hold the carcass? There's still some long skinny strips of Khaya and will think more of the piece while I'm marking out the dovetails.

The Tite-Mark again finds its way into my hand- this time the perfect application. I'm laying out simple through dovetails, nothing too fancy, I am still on vacation over here!

I like to clamp both pieces together when I lay out my tails as seen in the next photo below...This will obviously insure continuity between the top and the bottom and will speed up the process a little as well.

I walk the dividers across the tail board and draw in the lines with a pencil and my dovetail marker. You'll notice that I divide the board into seven even sections and then when I start sawing I'll skip the middle one. This is something I've been doing lately, (perhaps a nod to my Krenov admiration?) I love the look the two trios of tails make. (my tool chest and small wall cabinet I made for my book projects also had this same treatment) With that it's time to cut dovetails and my small rip saw seems to really like this hardwood. Khaya is a great wood for hand tool work except sometimes when hand planing. The ribbons in the wood grain can reverse and bend which in turn can result in tear-out. This is easily remedied by some sanding in the final stages but I'm hoping to avoid it if I can.

The tails are cut first in my world but you can start with the pins if you're so inclined. From dovetail saw to fret saw I wander and in no time at all I'm reaching for some chisels to clean out the waste. My detail chisels which I can't say enough about are always close by.

With the tails cut and clean it's a good time to break for the night; we're having a campfire and I better get some kindling together. The beauty of the wood shop-always lots of waste to get a good campfire going...

...Morning comes fast and first up is to transfer the tails over to my pin board; I use a thin Paul Bebee knife to reach deep into the corners. You may have noticed I didn't use the '140 trick' when beginning these dovetails' I'm not sure why I didn't other than to say I may have been thinking this little project was destined for the wood shop. If this was a drawer for a client then I would have cut the shallow rabbets into the inside end of the tail board to make life easier when transferring the lines over. (if you've never heard of the 140 trick then you have some homework for tonight...look back through my older posts to find the method)

Again from the dovetail saw to fret saw dance I'm back to the chiseling and ready for a dry fit.

At this point the box is ready for glue; I've been thinking about the long strips of Khaya left in the off cut pile. Maybe a frame assembly to cradle the box? A trestle type affair dictated by the stock in question. In my work space I'm able to create and design without any guidelines or rules save the lumber I've chosen (perhaps foolishly) to work with. Sometimes the pencil and paper are better left on the shelf and we can meander through this creative process with only the wood to guide us. It can be quite liberating stumbling through a building process when time is our only real investment. I've been enjoying myself over these past two days and really most of my time was given to setting up the work space. The hardwood owes me nothing but I'm going to do my best to lure it into some form I can call my own. A cantilevered box over a thin double trestle?
This evening I'll do some more measuring and continue a little further on, down the path.
For now though...'there's an old crow waiting hungrily, from his perch in yonder tree...'

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Unplugged Summer

Thanks for waiting.

Back in the city after an incredible summer out on the coast. I'm really quite excited to be getting back to work on the heritage door project but before I do I thought I'd share a little slice of the past seven weeks at home on Cape Breton, in my nice, sunny wood shop. A few quick projects and the hurdles along the way. This blog process reminds me of children starting a new grade in school...remember your teacher asking you to stand up in front of the class room - strange new faces staring, palms sweating grasping empty handfuls of air...
"Tom, why don't you tell the class what you did on your summer vacation this year?"
Let there be light!

6:15 am...Early July My bench room all clean and tidy; almost empty save this early morning sunshine rolling into the work space. Slowly rising, calmly creeping up from behind the hill behind our home. I've been browsing around the woood shop determined to find some forgotten gem in an off cut pile. This is what inspires, no design in mind but a staggered stroll, cutting and shaving through the wood fiber. I found a nice plank of Khaya, (a kind of modern Mahogany substitute) still on the wood rack; must have been an off cut from the boat building days. I think this 4/4 plank, (1") was left behind because it seemed to have a bit of rot and some disturbing checks in the end grain. Definetly unsuitable for anything sea worthy but fine for a relaxed project without any boundaries here in this summer shop atmosphere. This doesn't bother me, the quality of the wood. I have no reservations or expectations...I knew I'd be working with off cuts and reclaimed wood this summer so I decided to move ahead and work with it. At this point in the game I had only a dovetailed box in mind, perhaps something to store my water stones in? Although I'm on vacation, I need to keep up the hand skills and what better project than a simple dovetailed box, made by hand from plank to plane this is as good as it gets. The plank was run through a thickness planer a few years ago and has been sitting ever since. Not the prettiest piece of wood around but the largest off cut I could find for my practice/vacation project. Here goes...

So first things first, you may notice in the shot above that my tool chests chock full of hand tools made the 22 hour drive and my second, slightly damaged work bench never left this place last year when we moved; but an over sight I quickly find is my saw know, the Schwarz special I use day to day...2500 kilometers away in my basement shop in Toronto - damn. I'll make do with what I have; a scrap yard chair as old as Methuselah it's been held together with duct tape and good wishes for as long as I can remember. A saw bench it isn't except when it is...and on this early morning in July it had to be just that. My trusty old Corporate Kangaroo to rip an edge and a few moments later...

The plank is ready for the vise and the plane work begins. In this next shot you can see the small level I use when I place any work piece in my shoulder vise; a quick and easy little trick to insure you're always working level in the vise. I paid pennies for it a while back and it now travels with me, one of my 'hand tool essentials' in the Cabinetmakers Tool chest.

My 5 1/2 Jack will scrape away the scars left behind from the hand saw and soon enough I'm onto the opposite edge. Repeating these steps like a familiar dance, a perfect world would see my toolbox being infinite and I'd be able to travel with my large jointing plane and all of my hand tools...but the reality is we have two young children, a dog and a not so large SUV. My jointing plane stayed behind so the 5 1/2 is the big gun today. I don't mind using this plane for edging boards. Remember, I'm not jointing here but dressing the edges and the Jack plane is ideal for this scale of work.

Now with the two edges dressed I'll move onto an end, to square it up and continue along the process. Again I need to laugh and take two steps back before I can move on because my shooting board is with my saw bench and all of the stink I left behind in Toronto. A quick browse through the off cut isle and I get to work on a simple shooting board.

No side ramps or fancy bells or whistles but a bare minimum bench hook that will do the job well. David Charlesworth uses this simplified jig and who really in their right mind would argue with him? 20 minutes at best and I'm taking practice shavings. The surface is 3/4" walnut plywood; I didn't change the size it's the size it was left at and it'll work out fine. The hook on the front underside is also plywood with an off cut of hardwood for the fence.

Seems to work fine but the bench top needs some fixin'. Again I'm humming the blues trying to walk before I crawl; the bench top is anything but flat so I'll need another hour before I start squaring up the plank. If you're a frequent reader here you may have watched me flatten my bench top this past Spring in Toronto...well here I go again so I'll try not to ramble on too much about it. (not bloody likely) This bench was damaged in delivery when I purchased it and it always served as a sharpening station with extra real estate for furniture components while I worked at my other bench. (the one that's with me in Toronto) No surprise that it needs to be dressed seeing as it's been sitting here in an unheated wood shop for a few years now...

With the new shooting board working and safely tucked away below I begin the process of flattening my bench. Not too much grief over-all but the tail vise is pretty messed up. I use this vise the very least in my shop, instead relying on simple bench stops for hand planning and my front shoulder vise for 90% of the clamping load.

getting there...

Complete and clean with some shavings for the garden... Now then, with a side step or two I can get back to work on the little box design I'm seeing in my mind, a rough sketch on an off cut and we're ready to start dimensioning the components. The bench top is flat and the shooting board is working. I'll lay-out the lengths for the four sides to begin. A marking gauge or panel gauge is the tool for the job and I'll show you why I prefer using the panel gauge over the marking gauge for any measurements over a few inches.

This is the Lie-Nielsen panel gauge and a Tite-Mark by Glen Drake, probably the most used tool in my shop and the nicest marking gauge I've ever used. Perfect for dovetails or any joinery under 3". Once you get past that 3" mark I find the round plate area of the gauge a little small to hold with any accuracy while marking a line like the example given here. Before I had a panel gauge I'd simply measure with a rule and stike the line with a knife but I find I get better results with a gauge referenced off of the freshly squared end off of the shooting board. The panel gauge on the other hand with its large surface to reference is both comfortable and accurate.

With the panel gauge set and the cutting knife adjusted to the proper depth I'll begin the line making sure to keep my hand pressure on the front leading edge. I travel across the board transfering my grip and roll my hand position over to the back side of the gauge as I finish off the line. This movement feels natural and keeps the fence tight to the work edge. The next three shots will show the positions.

First line cut crisp and square I'll get out my cross-cut panel saw and working off of the end of my work bench get the pieces ready for joinery.

A top and a bottom with two sides, a few minutes to complete it's back to the Jack plane to surface and shoot making two pairs as close as I possibly can. A simple box, four sides-only a few minutes right? You can see that in a hand tool shop that sometimes the 'getting started and setting up' stages can take a little longer but we won't need to do this all the time.

So the bench top is flat and I've made a new shooting board (and a bench hook but I didn't take any's pretty much the same as the shooting board with a thinner fence stock) I can move ahead with the project and work comfortably and efficiently. A simple morning set-up and the 'Unplugged Summer Shop' is ready to go...or is it? I'm beginning to plane the surfaces but before I do I'll need to make a bench stop. Another small delay in this mornings routine but the journey is the destination and this is the joy of working wood with hand tools. More to come... Cheers!