Yep, it’s been quiet around here during the past 9 months. Work, travel and winter are my proclaimed excuses… but of course these excuses are like assholes, everyone has them and they all stink. To reinvigorate my motivation for woodworking, I signed up for not one, but two 5-day courses this summer. Even more, I’d like to take advantage of what England has to offer.
Ultimately, a course is a course is a course. They’re a learning experience by day and a social/drinking experience by night. Not only do you bring up your game from a dedicated 5-day woodworking sabbatical, but you make contacts and friends in a field that you’re interested in.
Rather than bore with painstaking details of each hour of each day of the courses, I want to highlight some tips and moments of enlightenment that I experienced as a self-taught, DVD-watching woodworker that’s never taken a course before.
I like woodworking. I hate sharpening. So much so that I probably work my tools a little duller than I should between sharpening sessions. I’m sure everyone’s heard of the David Charlesworth ruler trick to sharpening plane blades. If there’s any remote way I can become friends with Sharpening, it’s gonna be by locking me in a room with nothing but Sharpening for 5 straight days. So I did it, with a master that’s an expert in the field. Perhaps I have been doing it all wrong… after all, I learned it by watching DVDs with no over-the-shoulder correction for bad technique.
Here are my revelations:
- Apparently, watching DVDs and emulating what you see works (at least with sharpening). On day 1 of the course, he examined everyone’s chisels and had complimented me on a good job of sharpening; he couldn’t find anything wrong with them. Trust the DVDs (but that’s not to discourage anyone from taking a course… it’s highly encouraged).
- I was resharpening the same way as the first time ever sharpening to set up a tool. This isn’t needed. I used to go through the whole litany of using coarse, medium, then fine to resharpen and polish. The first time you unpack your chisels or plane blades? Yes. For resharpening after the initial tuning? Overkill. Hit the bevel with medium a few times, follow it with fine for polish, then polish off the ‘burr edge’ on the flat of the chisel (or the mighty ruler trick with a plane iron). It should take no more than a few minutes per blade.
- If you can make it happen, it’s nice to have a sharpening station in your workshop. It certainly speeds up the sharpening-to-woodworking cycle. Unfortunately, until I move again I’m stuck doing it at the kitchen sink back in the house. Suck.
- The chip-breakers on hand planes need work (who knew? I certainly didn’t). Just like sharpening the blades, a lot of chip breakers on your bench planes aren’t optimized. Lie-Nielsens need not as much work, but others need considerate work to mainly ensure there’s a firm, gapless connection to the blade. How does the Master do it?
- Using a fine diamond plate, put a 1.5° bevel into the inside of it using the old 60:1 trick.
- 60:1 – in 60 units (say 60 millimeters), a 1° angle will give you 1mm of vertical at that distance. So if a chipbreaker was 60mm long, then to make a 1.5° bevel you’d need to lower the end of it by 1.5mm (60 to 1, right?). More realistically, a chipbreaker is probably 15cm (or 150mm). 15cm goes into 60 four times; it is ¼ the amount of 60. Therefore, to get 1° at 15cm you need ¼ of 1cm: 2.5mm. But we really want a 1.5° bevel, so take 2.5mm * 1.5 = 3.75mm… call it 4mm for government work. Once you find this, use a surface that is that amount lower than your diamond plate and sharpen. See the image below (taken from David’s 3rd volume of techniques… it covers this and much more, I highly recommend it):
- Once the inside is beveled, flip it over and using your tool sharpening jig on 240 grit sandpaper over flat glass, put a 45° bevel into the outside of the chipbreaker, then polish with the fine diamond plate.
- Lastly, because the chipbreakers are made from different steel than the blades (much softer… again, who’da known?), don’t use waterstones… just 240 grit sandpaper and a fine diamond plate.
- Lastly, we spent a day using hand tools to make the perfect square and flat board. Granted it was interesting, and it’s a good skill to practice, but this just instilled that I don’t enjoy dimensioning wood by hand. As soon as I leave Jolly Ol’ Britain, I’m investing in a good power Planer and Bandsaw. Cheating? Perhaps. But I’d rather spend time doing what I enjoy by hand: joining a puzzle together to build something.
Class #2 in my summer handwork symposium. I’ve already cut and dimensioned Beech and Walnut to build this chest myself, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity when I found that Chris was coming to Ye Olde England (hosted by New English Workshop) to teach it himself. Due to uniformity for class purposes, I was locked into using Southern Yellow Pine (as opposed to the hardwoods I had dimensioned). A very minor speed bump, but a small price to pay to have the tutelage of the Anarchist himself during 5 dedicated days of woodworking meditation.
Aside from a 90% built toolchest and an increasingly high beer tolerance, here’s what I gained out of this one:
- You know the triangle mark (the cabinetmaker’s triangle: ∇) used to keep straight the front, back, sides, top and bottom? I knew of it, but really wasn’t a believer in it. Prior to this, I devised my own way using numbers and letters. During the class, I used Chris’ triangle way (when in Rome, right?). It is far superior and probably saved my ass a few times from dovetailing or beveling the wrong part. I am a believer now.
- I initially was a “pins first” kinda dude when it came to dovetailing. It was easy to cut pins by hand, transfer the line to the tails, and cut the tails by bandsaw to ensure straightness. Chris is a “tails first” kinda dude. We did it tails first in the course. I’m sold. If you’re doing the entire dovetail by hand, I think it is easier to make a tighter joint by fitting the pins to the tails, rather than the other way around. Why? Because I found it much easier to saw straight down, following a vertical line, for cutting the pins (therefore, making a much more accurate cut and fit). When I sawed out the tails, it was harder for me to follow the lines exactly with angles other than vertical. So do the hard, non-vertical cuts first (the tails), and fit the easy vertical cuts (the pins) to it afterwards. Tails first. Period.
- I arrived a chopper. I left a coping sawyer. I used to chop my dovetails out with a chisel. Chris sawed most of the waste out with a coping saw and chopped out the last millimeter for exactness. When I first tried his coping saw method, I was all over the place… my 3 year old kid could have made a straighter line with a crayon than I could have with that coping saw (I even accidentally went under my baseline in a few cases!). But I kept on doing it, and by the end of the week my cuts were looking pretty good (at right: “bang on” as the Brits would say). Plus, being accurate with a coping saw is a good skill to learn and, trust me, it takes practice.
- Relieving the inside of the dovetails for an easier fit (at right). Maybe this is common sense to some of you, but I’ve never heard of this before in my self-taught ways. It makes assembly a whole lot easier and is hidden since it’s on the inside of the joint. And apparently it does not affect the strength of the joint. This is where the ol’ cabinetmaker’s triangle comes into play: make sure it’s on the inside face or you’re in for some nasty surprises. Also, notice I left the tip of the dovetail alone and untouched… that will be seen once it’s assembled.
- The same revelation as in the tool tuning course: as a hobbyist, you’re not as bad as you think you are. I came in a little intimidated of the work that needed to be accomplished. Would I be able to hack it? The answer is yes. It’s easy to put your nose to the grindstone… measure twice and cut (accurately) once, and I was able to keep up with dudes that have been working the wood professionally, or at least longer than I have. Really, I’m not trying to talk myself up, I’m trying to make a point: don’t be intimidated to do courses like this; you’re probably better than you give yourself credit for.
And those, my friends, are my observations and take-aways from a dedicated 2 weeks of solid woodworking with the Masters. Now what I really need to do is continue with the momentum I’ve gained and knock out my now 4 (!!!) unfinished projects. I’ll take 2 prior to the end of summer: a completed toolchest and a table ready for use with the grill. Until then, the kids get use of the chest as a fortress…