Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book review 1: "The Seven Essentials of Woodworking"

I got a handful of woodworking books for Christmas, from my family.  I guess this is an easy hobby to buy for, at least when you're as much of a beginner as I am.  Anyway, all of them were interesting, and I decided I'd write reviews of at least a few.

First, the disclaimer:  I am, if no longer a beginner, then nowhere near a master.  Not even a journeyman.  I have a little experience, a lot of theoretical knowledge, and loads of opinions.  So take these reviews with a grain of salt.

The first book is The Seven Essentials of Woodworking, by Anthony Guidice.

First Thoughts:

I'm going to get this out of the way, right up front:  I didn't like the book.  I can't honestly recommend it to a raw beginner, and it's arguably too basic for a non-beginner.  However, that isn't due to factual content, or technique.  Within my experience, most of what he wrote is true, or at least not untrue.  The techniques he discusses are good ones, the tools he recommends are, to my knowledge, excellent, and he makes some good points about some of the common beliefs in woodworking.  And yet...

What I can't get past is Mr. Guidice's attitude.  Look, I'm an IT guy in my daily life.  I've told people, fairly seriously, that every IT person knows there's only one appropriate response to a problem.  Now, if only we could get any two IT people to agree on a response...  Much the same is true of woodworkers, or at least woodworking books.  Crafters in general tend to separate into camps more than IT people do, but there's still a sense of "Other ways work, but mine is best."  I'm used to that.  It amuses me more than anything.

What bothers me here is that it's taken to an extreme in this book.  Mr. Guidice appears to take the attitude that no one who disagrees with him can be considered an expert.  Really.  A quote from the book:  'I am very much aware that some of the precepts in this book are contrary to what is often written in woodworking books and magazines, and may be challenged by "experts."'  (p 12)

Right there, in the introduction, he's set up the claim that no one who challenges him can be an expert.  That bothers me, because it denies any chance for discussion.  Someone who says "Other people may disagree with me.  That's fine, but this is my way, and here's why I like it." opens the door for discussion or debate.  This closes that door, and sets up the author as the ultimate authority.  This isn't an isolated example, by the way, it's just the one that I happened on first when I went looking for a quote.

So if you're a beginner and you're reading this, remember:  his techniques are good, and his information is good.  But other people also have good techniques and information, and it's not always the same as what you'll see in this book.


The book covers, as you might guess, seven general topics.  In order, they are:

  1. Wood, gluing, and joint strength.
  2. Measuring and marking.
  3. Sawing.
  4. Sharpening
  5. Hand planes.
  6. Mortise and tenon joints
  7. Finishing.
While people might argue about order, and whether there should be other things on the list, I think most woodworkers would agree these are all pretty important.  I'm not going to try to talk about every section here, but I'll touch on a few things.

I've got no argument with anything (except the aforementioned attitude) in the first two sections.  What he says about how to handle things makes as much sense as anything else I've read, and more than some of it.  (The internet is a truly vast repository of badly written garbage.  My hope with this blog is to increase the average quality of the garbage.)

In the third section, though, I have some questions.  Mr. Guidice is very firmly opposed to what I think of as traditional saws;  he makes no bones about the fact that he hates backsaws ("Backsaws are heavy, difficult to balance, and unwieldy... And it doesn't cut well, either." p 26) and carpenter's saws ("The backsaw does not have the worst design I've ever seen; the standard carpenter's handsaw... has a thicker blade and bigger teeth, whips and kinks in the cut, and cuts even more slowly." p 26).  What does he like?  Bow saws.  I've never used a bow saw for woodworking;  I have one I love for cutting up downed trees, but not for anything finer than that.  He may well be right, but I find it interesting that he so despises tools that so many woodworkers love.  My handsaws don't seem inclined to "whip and kink in the cut" unless I do something wrong, and they cut quite quickly.  I can't help wondering, in fact, whether his hatred of the form has more to do with early bad experiences than the form itself.

Once that's done, I really run out of problems with Mr. Guidice's ideas.  Again, he frequently includes short complaints about people who disagree with him, but his facts and techniques seem to be fairly standard.

My one other note comes mainly from the section on planes.  One argument he makes, which I have trouble arguing with, is that beginners who want to do serious woodwork should just buy good quality brand new planes, and not mess around with trying to restore vintage ones.  Just about the only specific tool he recommends in the book is the Lie-Nielson low angle jack plane.  It gets fantastic reviews from everyone I've seen review it, so I can't really fault him.  But... well, not everyone can afford to spend $200+ on a hand plane.  That's more than I've spent on all my planes put together, and possibly more than I've spent on all my hand tools put together (though I was helped out there by some nice tools being passed down to me).

And really, that's my problem with the whole book.  I've read other authors who say things like "The best choice is to go get a new plane from a good manufacturer.  You'll find out what a really good tool feels like, and you won't have to mess around with it.  It'll just work.  But if you can't afford that, here are some resources for helping you tune up an old plane into something quite good."  That, to me, is reasonable.  Mr. Guidice says, in essence, "Go buy a new plane.  If you're not going to do that, stop wasting my time and go find a different hobby."  Again, shutting down discussion rather than encouraging it.

Finally, one positive note:  His section on finishes is the clearest I've read.  Seriously.  Low on attitude, high on information.  It all backs up other things I've read, with a good organizational structure.  It worked for me.

Final Thoughts:

As I said initially, I can't recommend this book, really to anyone.  The author is just too opinionated, and that colors the whole book for me.  I've found most of the information (though he talked more about bow saws than anyone else I've read) other places, with less "I'm right and everyone else is dumb" attitude.

Is it, though, actually a bad book?  I'd have to say no.  The information is clearly presented, and the author appears to know his subject.  He's opinionated, not wrong.  The fact that I don't like it doesn't change the fact that, for many things, his methods will work, and work well.  If you're willing to overlook the slanted opinions, or if you don't have easy access to another book, give it a read.  If you want something balanced, go read something else.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

An inexpensive bench

I know, there's a ton of these posts.  Every woodworker out there has written about their bench.  I'm going to write one anyway.  Here's a pretty picture to get you through the mounds of text you're about to see:

1) Design Criteria.

   I wanted a bench I could use indoors, since my usual shop is an unheated garage.  I knew I'd only be using hand tools (nothing powered), so I focused on that.  It was going in a small room that also had a few craft tables in it, so I needed to be able to pack everything up on it, and I wasn't going to be able to hang pegboard or cabinets, so tool storage was important.  So the final list ran:

   - Heavy!  I don't want it moving while I'm planing.
   - Not too big.  I originally wanted 2'x5', but wound up settling for about 2'x4'.
   - Good vise.  I wanted a heavy duty vise on the left end.
   - Decent storage space, with the option to use holdfasts once I get around to buying some.  (Meaning it needed to have 7" of space between the surface of the bench and the top shelf for the holdfasts I was looking at).
   - Cheap.  I don't have a lot of money to spend on this hobby, so price mattered.
   - Finally, it couldn't be ugly.  It was going in a living space, and guests and my girlfriend would see it on a regular basis.

   I finally settled on a modified version of a bench I saw in either Shopnotes or Woodsmith magazine;  the article was titled something like "Heirloom Workbench", and I could find it again if anyone wants to know where it came from.

2) Materials and cost.

  As best I can figure, the wood I used would have cost me about $110-120 if I'd bought it all specifically for the project.  However, I didn't;  quite a lot of it was scrap or leftovers from other projects.  I think I spent around $85 on new wood for this.  The fasteners were all things I had already;  mainly drywall screws and four "TimberLok" 6" fasteners.

  The legs are 4x4 Douglas Fir.  Two eight foot pieces covered it nicely, with some left over.  A twelve footer would have been more efficient (less waste), but there weren't any good ones and they're hard to transport anyway.  The shelves, sides, back (missing in the above photo), and top are all 3/4" cabinet grade plywood from a big box store.  I pretty much used up two full sheets, one for the top and one for the rest of the "box".  Trim and the tool rack are 1x pine, and the leg vise is 2x6 pine, as I recall... it might have started out 2x8, but I'm not sure.

  That brings me to the most expensive piece:  the vise screw.  Look, I could have gone cheap.  ShopFox and Jorgensen both have screws on Amazon for about $20-30.  But I wanted bulk.  I wanted a seriously heavy screw.  So I spent close to $80, and bought a screw from woodcraft.  It's an inch and a quarter across, and weighs a ton.  It's got something like three threads per inch, and you can crank it down hard enough to damage the wood of the vise.  That said, I probably would have been just fine with the $30 one from ShopFox... and I wouldn't have doubled the price of the bench to do it.  Oh well... lessons learned, I suppose, and I really don't regret it.

3)  Features and construction.

  As best I can figure, the bench weighs in at somewhere between 200 and 250 pounds.  3/4" ply weighs around 72 pounds per sheet, as best as I can find.  (If it were actually 3/4", it would probably weigh 75.  But it's not... it's just under.)  Douglas Fir is heavier than pine, which is one reason I chose it.  I also like the way it looks.  A foot of Douglas Fir 4x4 should weigh around 5-6 pounds, and I used something like twelve feet, and another four feet or so of DF 2x4.  Figure a total equivalent of fourteen feet at 5. pounds each (it's quite dry), and you get 77 pounds.  Another few pounds for the pine trim, and you get about 80 pounds of solid wood.  I'm guessing around 135 pounds for the plywood -- I didn't use all of it -- and the tool rack probably weighs in around 8-10 pounds.  So... without tools, about 225 pounds.  Not bad for a bench with two feet by four feet of workspace!  Placed on a rubber mat as it is, it's just not going to go anywhere.  It vibrates, certainly, and things in the tool rack tend to swing around, but it feels solid.

  Let's start with the easy part.  Each of the four legs has, essentially, a stopped rabbet in it on the inside corner.  The sides of the "box," the open area below the top shelf, fit into the rabbets and are fastened with drywall screws.  There's a gap above those 3/4", then another small piece to fill in above the top shelf.  The front and back rails, which form the edge of the bottom shelf, are made of Douglas Fir 2x4, and fitted to the legs with BIG mortises.  The mortises were started with a drill press, and finished, as I recall, with a 1" chisel.  The rails are glued and pegged, so they're not coming apart any time soon.  The back just kind of slots in between the top and bottom shelf... which is why it's missing from the picture.  The space is slightly larger than the panel, and it fell out while I was moving the bench.  Oops.  The rails are also rabbeted, end to end, to take the bottom shelf.  That shelf is basically a pressure fit -- it's constrained by the rabbets front and back, and the plywood sides on each end.

  Further holes in the legs:  I punched three through-holes in the right front leg.  Why?  Well, because then I can put pegs in to support longer pieces that I'm holding in the vise.  I've only wanted that once, but it worked well.  The holes are 3/4", so the holdfasts I'm planning on should also work with those holes.  On the left front leg, there's one big hole -- about 1 3/8" -- for the vise screw to pass through.  The nut for the screw is fastened to the back of the leg.  This is the one piece I'd change if I had the option.  It works, but it's clunky.  I'd be happier if I had bored a larger hole and mortised in the nut; it would look better and be easier to manage.  I may, eventually, jam a dowel or something in and redrill, but that's a project for another month.

  The top is four layers of 3/4" plywood, with two layers of pine banding around the edges.  The bottom three layers of ply are glued and screwed together, and the top fits in inside the banding, being held in place by that and the tool rack on the back.  In retrospect, I overcomplicated the whole process.  There are two sizes of plywood sheet (the bottom piece is 3/4" deeper and 1 1/2" wider), and the banding has two heights (the inside piece sits on top of the step created by the bottom sheet of ply, and the outer piece is just glued to the inner piece.  It works great -- it's unbelievable solid, even with the top piece not fastened on in any way -- but it was harder than it needed to be.  If I were doing it again, I'd cut all four pieces identically, and glue and  peg the banding onto the bottom three layers.

  So how did I attach the top, I hear you cry?  Well, that's where the TimberLok fasteners came in.  I drilled and countersunk pilot holes through the bottom three layers of ply, and drove the fasteners straight through into the legs.  Not, perhaps, quite as elegant as cutting mortises for the legs to fit into, but it was cheap, easy, quick, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.  There's nearly an inch of wood between the bench top and the fasteners, so cutting into them and damaging a tool is unlikely, and they can be taken out and reused if I ever want to re-build the bench.

  Really, that's it.  The most complicated joinery is some stopped rabbets for the plywood.  Some pilot holes were drilled with a drill press, some were done with an eggbeater drill.  Almost all the screws were driven with a brace or a screwdriver, since my power driver died just before I started this project.

The Planing Stop:

   You might see an odd piece of wood hanging off the left end in the photo above.  Here's a better shot:

That's a very simple planing stop.  It offers support from the front of the bench to the back, and can be adjusted to be as high or as low as I've ever wanted.  It's not perfect, but it was quick and easy.

The Vise:

  The vise is ridiculously simple.  It's just a slightly shaped chunk of 2x pine, with a vise screw through it a couple feet up.  That odd little bracket at the bottom deserves a closer look, though.  The problem with a leg vise is that it tends to tilt if the bottom isn't kept steady.  The traditional solution seems to be a straight piece, mortised into the bottom, that runs through a mortise in the leg.  That then has a bunch of holes drilled in it, and a pin is used to restrict how far it can move.  I went simpler.  I screwed a short piece of aluminum bar stock to the back of the front leg, and two pieces of 1x2 to the sides of the chop.  The 1x2 pieces have notches cut every 3/4", more or less, which act to prevent the bottom of the vise from moving when the screw is turned.  I've used it to hold stock less than 1/2" thick, and more than 8" thick.  Neither had problems, and I see no reason to believe that will change.  I did notice recently that it tends to bow a bit if I really crank down, but it still seems to hold perfectly well, so I'm not going to stress about it.

The Ends:

  Seeing as there was all this unused space at each end, I put a couple of racks on the bench.  At the right end it's just some 1x scrap, rabbeted and glued together into an L shape.  That was then screwed to the bench to hold clamps.  It works pretty well.

  At the other end, I screwed a single piece across, leg to leg, and put some nails in to hang two of my cheap saws from.  I'm also planning to add shaped hangers for a couple of nicer saws, but haven't yet, so those sit next to the bench instead.

Final Notes:

  Scroll way back to the beginning, to that first picture, then come back.  Done?  Good.  What you see in that shot is essentially my most-used tool set.  I have a toolbox that can hold everything that's sitting on the bench except the jointing plane (bottom shelf, on the right), and if I'm going somewhere where I know there'll be a bench and I may have time, I bring them.  The things that also travel with that aren't in that shot are:  
  - A two sided sharpening stone and a leather strop
  - A pile of auger bits for the brace, along with a hex adapter for it.
  - A cheapo (Ryobi) roll of drill bits and driver bits.
  - I generally replace the black-bladed Stanley FatMax saw with a nice old Diston, but sometimes both go with.
  - You can't see it, but there's a saw-sharpening file on the back of the worksurface.  That goes with too, although I don't really expect to use it.

  If I was doing this again, I'd pretty much make the same choices.  In the long run, I hope to add storage under the top shelf;  three drawers on one side, and a cabinet on the other, though I may go with just six drawers.  I might also go a bit cheaper on the screw.  In the end, that screw can put enough force on the chop that I fully expect it to break someday.  A cheaper one would likely have been entirely adequate, and brought the total cost under $150.  That said, I'll probably never be happy with a standard face vise again.  There's just too much benefit to the way the leg vise works for me.

  In any case, there you have it.  A nice bench for under $200, that could be brought under $150 by compromising on the screw.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cast Iron

Ok, so this one's not about woodworking tools, though some may have a cameo later on.

But when you get right down to it, I'm mostly writing about getting results with tools that are inexpensive (and sometimes cheap, too!).  Have you looked at the price on high-end cast iron cookware recently?  All that fancy enameled stuff?  Yikes!  And most of it's still made in China, as far as I can tell.  That doesn't bother me for tools -- I'm not planning to chew on those -- but I'm not a fan of it for cookware.  China doesn't have the best track record for keeping things like lead out of products that really shouldn't have it.

So what does that leave?

Well, you can always buy old Griswold or Wagner stuff on eBay or a flea market.  Sometimes you'll even get a good price.  I picked up a stack of cast iron muffin pans for a few dollars each a couple years ago.  But it's kind of like buying tools;  you may get a great deal, or it may turn that everyone you meet thinks their 8" skillet is worth fifty bucks.

Two, maybe three years ago I wanted a deep cast iron pan.  Not quite a dutch oven, but something deep.  Well, I happened to be in the mall around then, and ran across this.

It's a Lodge Combo Cooker -- frying pan, dutch oven, and skillet, in one box.  And it was on clearance, for about $25.  Not bad.  (As of this writing, the link points to a $40 sale price, and they can be had cheaper on Amazon.)

I brought it home, washed and re-seasoned it, and happily started cooking, only to discover that Lodge has gone WAY downhill, and now leaves everything with a rough, pebbly sort of texture that will let a fried egg stick to it, even when it's floating in butter.  But hey, I'd spent $25 on this thing.  I'm not going to just let it go to waste, am I?

So here's how you make it work.

First, take the whole thing out to your shop.  If you've only got one workbench, cover it with newspaper or something;  you do NOT want to get the gunk you're about to generate on your nice clean woodworking bench.  I used a secondary bench that I use for all sorts of dirty work, so I didn't care how filthy I got it.

Next, find a random orbit sander.  I had one, but if you're a hard-core hand-tool only sort of person, you may need to borrow one.  Or just use this as an opportunity for a Zen contemplation of the futility of life, and the meditation oportunities inherent in hand-sanding cast iron.  Put some 80 grit paper on the sander, or on your sanding block.  In my case, the inside of the deep fry pan felt just about exactly like the sandpaper, so it seemed like a good choice.  If you got a smoother pan than I did, consider yourself lucky.  (I told you the woodworking tools would make an appearance!)

Now, start sanding.  You don't need to make it perfectly smooth:  once you get the pan seasoned, it'll be a lot less likely to stick, and it'll start smoothing itself out.  But for now, it needs some help.  I spent about 15 minutes, mostly on the bottom, and then a run around the sides of each piece.  Around half an hour, total.  I did have to do some hand sanding of the rounded join where the bottom and sides meet, but not much... for some reason, that was already a lot smoother.

Did I wind up with a perfectly smooth pan?  No, of course not.  Those really old pans were mostly machined  with a cutting tool that left those nice smooth surfaces you've seen.  This was pretty much cast, then tossed in a box.  I don't have a machining shop, so I can't match those old pans.  But when I stopped, the bottom and sides were a speckled grey, rather than a matte black.  The inside of the pan felt pretty smooth to the touch... maybe more like 400 grit wet/dry paper than the 80 I'd started with.

At that point, wipe it out as best you can with a rag or a paper towel, because you're back to the kitchen.  Clean it out well, with soap and water.  We may all need more iron in our diets, but not as grit sanded off a pan.  (Trust me, it tasted vile.  This might also be a good moment to point out that a dust mask would be a really good idea while you're sanding.)

Next up, the pan needs to be seasoned.  There are about ten thousand methods, and as far as I can tell, they all work.  Here's my recipe:

1) Coat the pan in whatever oil you have, but NOT corn oil.  No sunflower oil either... they get sticky.  If the bottle says "vegetable oil", keep looking.  I like olive oil, butter, things like that.  Some people swear by grape seed oil.  I'm told lard is fantastic.  In general, a higher smoke point is better, since it reduces the amount by which you fill your house with smoke.  Keep the coating THIN.  If it's dripping, you used too much.  Wipe it on, then wipe it off again.  You want a faint sheen, not a glossy coat.

2) Put the pan in the oven, and set it to 500.  Let the oven heat up all the way, then wait about 20 minutes.

3) Pull the pan out with the thickest pot-holders you have, and let it cool ten minutes or so. 

4) Rub more oil on, and put it back in the oven.

5) Wait 20 minutes, then repeat steps 3 and 4 a half dozen times or so.

Basically, every time you cook it you're adding a layer to the pre-seasoning.  That makes it less likely that things will stick.

6) Cook some eggs.  Seriously.  Fried eggs are the best thing I've ever found for seasoning a pan.  Bacon mostly has sugar in it these days, which means it sticks like crazy and you wind up scraping caramel off your new frying pan if you try to season with it.  But put a little butter or oil in the pan, then fry an egg, and you're well on your way -- a couple dozen eggs and you'll start seeing that shine you want when the pan is empty.

Finally, caring for your pan.  If you've read this far, I hope you already know that washing your pan with soap is a Bad Idea.  Just don't do it, unless you have to.  (More on that in a minute.)  Assuming you're going to use the pan regularly, you don't really need to do much at all.  Wipe it out with a paper towel or something and you're done.  If there are BCBs (Burnt Crunchy Bits) at the bottom, scrape 'em off with a metal spatula.  If they're REALLY bad, pour in some kosher salt and use that to scrub with.  Other than that, don't worry about it.  Every time you use it you're going to heat it up enough to kill any bacteria that try to colonize it, and you're not going to leave any grease in it long enough to go rancid.  If you do wind up leaving it for a long time, wash it a little more carefully before, then put in a very light coat of oil.  Then, when you take it out again, wash it thoroughly to get rid of the oil, and start cooking.  I've left pans a couple of years that way with no problem.

But what if it's really nasty? What if, say, your kitchen ceiling collapses, and fills your nice pan up with a sludge of mixed drywall dust, bathroom sink gunk, and mouse droppings?  (Don't laugh -- it happened to me.  That was a lousy day.)  All is not lost.  Wash your pan out with soap and hot water, then tuck it in the oven for a few minutes to dry.  Take it out, rub it with oil, and you're good to go.  My most-used pans at this point laugh at soap.  Water just beads on them, which makes washing them kind of odd... you really have to scrub to get the water to do anything but roll off.

So there it is.  My overly long commentary on cast iron.  If you've never cooked with cast iron, try it.  Your food will taste better, at least once you get the hang of it, and you'll be saving a lot of money over fancy teflon pans.  (Which may or may not cause cancer, depending on who you trust.  They'll definitely kill your pet bird, though.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Moral superiority in the wood shop

I've gone back and forth on writing this for months, now.  Maybe I'll delete it later.

This is long and ranty.  You've been warned.

My shop has been mostly packed up for over a month so I can move, so I've been thinking and reading more about woodworking than I have been doing it.  Maybe that's not really much of a difference from how things usually are... I'm not sure.

Anyway, I keep reading about how working with hand tools is "more pure" or better, and people who use machines -- like tablesaws, or routers -- aren't woodworkers, they're "machinists."  That last is usually said with a sneer, as if they're saying "Well, he calls himself a woodworker, but really he's cheating."  I've heard at least one say that those who use power tools aren't woodworkers, they're machinists, as if that's a biting criticism.  One author in particular actually states (I don't have the book with me while writing this, so I can't give you the exact quote, but it was what got me going on this rant) that working with hand tools is morally superior, and that you can't have good craftsmanship if you use powered tools.  Really.  I'm not naming names:  I thought the rest of his book was fantastic intro to unpowered woodworking tools, and I learned a lot from it.  It was that one paragraph that bothered me.

A disclaimer here:  I use whatever's easiest.  I frequently find it faster to grab a hand saw if I just need to make one cut, and for small jobs I'd far rather use my Yankee screwdriver or eggbeater drill than my impact driver or electric drill.  But two nights ago I needed to make a bunch of cuts in larger lumber, so I used the chop saw, because it was faster and, for me, more repeatable.

Then there's the other camp, who don't understand why anyone would want to make rip cuts by hand, or cut a mortise with a chisel instead of a mortiser, or really do ANYTHING without a powered machine.  "It's faster!" they say.  "It's more consistent!" they say.  "It's faster and more consistent, and therefore better!" some of them say.

So I find myself thinking about it.  Is one way really "better" than the other?  Is it POSSIBLE for one way to be morally superior to the other?  What would that even mean?

Well, let's start with the OED.  It has lots of definitions for moral... surely we can make one fit.  Here are the three I thought were most likely.  (Italicized text taken from the OED)

a. Of or relating to human character or behaviour considered as good or bad; of or relating to the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, in relation to the actions, desires, or character of responsible human beings; ethical.

b. Of an action: having the property of being right or wrong, or good or evil; voluntary or deliberate and therefore open to ethical appraisal. Of a person, etc.: capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.

Really?  Good/Bad, Good/Evil... I don't really see those having much to do with woodworking.  I suppose some of the stricter environmentalists might say that anything that uses electricity unnecessarily was evil, but I don't think you'll find that in any philosophical or religious text.

That first definition points to "ethical"... what's the definition there?

a. Of or pertaining to morality or the science of ethics.

Right.  Well, without an ethics textbook I can't give you quotes, but I'm betting none of them mention the use of power-tools versus unpowered tools.  What else do we have?

d. Designating the incidental effect of an action or event (e.g. a victory or defeat) in producing confidence or discouragement, sympathy or hostility, etc. Cf. sense 8.

This one is interesting.  Do people have more confidence in things made by hand?  Does furniture made with power tools evoke hostility, or something similar.  Certainly I find being in a room full of shrieking power tools (even when they're mine!) isn't very restful, while the sounds associated with hand tool use are.  I think my neighbors appreciate not hearing power saws as often.

So maybe there's a little bit of grounds there for claiming hand tools are "morally superior."  But it's pretty shaky.  So what's going on here?  Why is one side trying to claim moral superiority?  I think part of it is the tendency most people have to want to be Right.  I see it a lot in my field (IT), but it's everywhere;  My way is Right.  Therefore, anyone who does things differently is Wrong.  And when you're one of the only few people doing things your way, it's even easier to fall into that trap.

I think there's also some ancestor worship in there.  People worked wood with hand tools for thousands of years.  We've only been using powered tools since the industrial revolution, so, what... 200 years?  (Wikipedia confirms my shaky "about 1800" guess by saying 1750-1850.  I'll call it 200 years.)  And home users have really only had mass produced electric power tools for under a hundred.  That's a lot of tradition to throw away there.  And while it's not going to show up in the OED, a lot of people use "Morally right" to mean "The way it's always been."  So maybe that's where the argument comes from.

But I think it's a bad road to steer down, especially if you want to convince people to try your way.  Telling people they're wrong, morally inferior, and unable to make good products isn't going to convince them you're right.  Point out they can build things without waking up the baby, or drowning out the sound of the phone.  Have them hand-cut some rough dovetailsIf you want to convince people to try hand tools, demonstrate that it's not much slower, and that it's more fun.  The first time they see those wispy shavings coming off a hand plane they'll be hooked.  And maybe they'll go all the way through the change, or maybe they'll wind up somewhere in the middle.

Either way, they'll still be woodworkers, as far as I'm concerned.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What do you want to see reviewed?

There's been a gap in my posting, because I haven't had anything to post about.  No new tools, not even any new used tools.

While I'm cheap, I do like new toys.  If there's something cheap you want to see reviewed, leave a comment:  if I have a use for the tool, maybe I'll buy one and report back!

(Actually, it's not quite true that I don't have anything to review:  I've got another pull saw I was given that I've been meaning to write a review for.  That will probably come early next week.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

CTR 5: Shelter Institute Wood Shoulder(?) Plane

Where did i get it, and how much did it cost?

I bought this because I liked the look and feel of it, and it was cheap.  It cost me around $27, after tax, and since I bought it at a woodworking show I didn't have to pay shipping.  Hey, why not... at the worst, I've got some nice rosewood to use for something, right?

What is it?

First things first:  What IS this thing?  Is it a shoulder plane?  A rabbet plane?  Something else entirely?  I'll be honest, I don't really know.  I tend to think of it as a shoulder plane, but my understanding is that shoulder planes are supposed to be low angle to improve their ability to cut cross-grain.  This is NOT a low angle plane, and while it's not completely terrible cross-grain, it's not very good either.  But I'll get to that.  Since the Shelter Institute doesn't actually show this on their site, here's what it looks like.  Maybe some kind reader can tell me what this is...

rebate plane 01

Sorry about the glare.

What's the construction like?

I'll point out one thing right away:  this is a wooden plane.  There's no adjusting screws.  There's no fence, or depth gauge, or anything like that.  It's a block of wood with a hole in it, and a wedge to hold the blade in place.

The person at the booth claimed the cutter was of Japanese manufacture, and was one of their laminated blades (hard steel and soft welded together, and set up so the hard steel provides the cutting edge.  It may well be, but I can't prove it is or isn't.  For the sake of argument, I'll assume it is.  It kind of looks like it, anyway.  It didn't come out of the package razor sharp, but it did have a reasonable edge.  A few minutes with an oilstone and a strop and it took some hair off my arm just fine.

The body is rosewood, or something remarkably like it, and feels pretty nice.  The sole is smooth and flat, which is a bonus.  Here's where I mention probably the only real problem I found:  the sole isn't square to the sides.  It's off just about exactly one degree, according to my angle gauge, which translates to something like 2 thousandths of an inch height difference across the width of the plane.  I'm going to say that's good enough for me, but it may not be good enough for you.  You'll have to decide.  And, since these are wood, the next one may be perfect, or may be off by two or three degrees.  You pays your money, you takes your chances.

The cutter fits cleanly in the body, and the wedge fits well.  Not much more to say, here...   some indents to make it easier to grip would have been nice, but it's not bad to hold as is.

How does it work?

Quite well, once I got the hang of adjusting it!  Setting a wooden plane is a skill in and of itself, and one I didn't have before this.  But, since pictures speak louder than words, here are some pictures of experiments with pine.

1) A nice curl, with a heavy cut.  I didn't bother to measure it, but it's about as heavy as I've done with my Stanley #5, so I'm satisfied.

heavy cut shavings

2) Heavy to fine cuts.

four shavings

3) The two finest, closer up.  I didn't quite get down to see-through, but it was close.

wafer thin

4) Cross gain shavings:  not as fine as the ones with the grain!

cross grain shavings

5) The wood -- with the grain and across it, after planing.  Cutting cross-grain, I cut a guide with a hand-saw first, then followed that with the plane.  The edge it left was terrible when I let it work on its own.

long-grain cut

cross-grain cut

There was one design issue that showed up while I was testing.  If you're not careful, the opening around the blade tends to fill up with shavings.  If it gets packed enough, it can actually loosen the wedge, which is a problem!

UPDATE:  I've been able to alleviate this somewhat by shaving the wedge down until it's angled to one side.  It's still not perfect, but it takes longer to clog now.

design flaw

Final Thoughts

Overall, it works well.  It leaves a clean surface when cutting with the grain, and it's light and easy enough to set up that I can see it having value for cleaning up a rabbet, say.  I'll probably stick with my Miller's Falls 85 for most rabbet work, and almost all cross-grain (the nicker makes that a lot easier).  In the end, it's light, cheap, attractive, and reasonably effective.  Setting the depth is getting easier, so I can see a time when I don't have to think about that, I can just do it.

Would I do it again?

That's a hard question with this.  For me, it's a tool in search of a job.  It doesn't do the job I was hoping for, that of an actual shoulder plane, and I don't really need another rabbet plane.  If I didn't have the MF 85, yes.  It's absolutely a reasonable choice for cutting rabbets with the grain, and it can be made to work, more or less, for cutting across the grain.  But since I DO have the 85....  I'm not sure.  The thing cost $27, which isn't much, and it gives me one more option if I have a job to do.  That might be worth it.  It might not.

Either way, it's a decent tool, and some more practice and sharpening will probably leave me a lot happier with it.

UPDATE:  For whatever reason, I've been using this more recently.  I still quite like it, and if you need a straight rabbet plane, this is a good choice.  I've now used it in pine, poplar, and red oak, and it works well in all three.  In fact, I cut all the rabbets on a small oak box (around 3x3x10) with just this, and it worked beautifully.  For parts that small, this is much easier than trying to use a metal rabbet plane with a fence.  If I had no rabbet plane, and one of these came along for a price like I paid, I'd snap it up.  It's a good choice, and has held up well.

Monday, January 23, 2012

When hand-tools work better.

I like my power tools.  Making lots of repeat cuts with a hand-saw isn't my idea of fun, especially when a chop-saw and a stop-block will get me done with all of those in a couple of minutes.  But there are times when hand tools just seem faster.

Last night I found myself needing to cut a rabbet around a quarter of an inch deep in a piece of 3/4" ply.  Two of them actually, one in each of two boards.  I'm having some problems with my router (the cold temperatures seem to have frozen up the plunge base, and also shrunk it enough that I can't get the motor OUT of it to put in the other base...), and the table saw is a pain to set up when it's snowing, since I need to move things out of the garage to use it.

That's OK... I have a circular saw with a guide, and some sharp chisels.  I made my first cut 3/4" in from the edge of the board, made a few more cuts to clean out some of the waste, then started cleaning up with a chisel.  After about five minutes, I got sick of it, and realized I had a better tool for the job:  an actual rabbet plane.  It's an old Miller's Falls No. 85 that I picked up cheap on eBay, and it hasn't seen much use.  This seemed like a good opportunity.

I pulled it out, set the iron to take a relatively thin shaving, set the fence to keep it from running too far in, and started cutting.  About 30 seconds later, I was done.  For the second board, I didn't bother with the chisels.  I cut a line with the circular saw as a depth gauge (the depth stop for my rabbet plane is missing), and started cutting with the rabbet plane.  About two minutes later I was done, with a perfectly smooth bottom and a clean edge.

I'm not saying it couldn't have been done with a router or table saw, but I think it would have taken me longer to set up my saw than it took me to actually cut the rabbets with the plane.

Friday, January 20, 2012

CTR 4: Shark 10-2440 Fine Cut pull-saw

My last entry was about table saws, and the fact that they are not, in fact, essential to being a woodworker.  This is the tool that convinced me that was true.  OK, that's hyperbole.  I was already convinced, but this was a nice supporting argument.

Where, and how much?

   I got mine at Sears, and I paid around $20.  I've seen them at Amazon for the same, so I'd say that's the going price.

What is it?

   This is a Japanese-style saw, which means it cuts on a pull-stroke, rather than the push.  You can find all sorts of arguments for and against this both on- and off-line, so I'll limit my commentary to this:  Some people love it, some people hate it, and you should try for yourself before you make a decision one way or the other.  What that means in terms of use is that the blade is both thinner and floppier than you'd expect in a saw.  That's not the problem it would be in a European saw because it doesn't rely on blade stiffness to cut:  the force of pulling it through the wood keeps it straight.  That means it can cut a much thinner kerf, and, if sharp, can cut much more easily, because it's not trying to remove as much material.

   The other difference between Japanese-style and European-style saws is how sharp the teeth are.  On a well-sharpened European saw, you can hurt yourself.  Get your finger in the way of the stroke, and you're going to know it.  But it's pretty hard to cut yourself with it other than that.  This saw is razor sharp.  Each tooth is like a tiny little knife blade, and it WILL cut you if you grab it wrong.  Get used to that.

   Some more details:  The cutting edge is around 9 1/2" long.  One edge has about 9 teeth per inch, and is intended for ripping, while the other is around 17 TPI, and is intended for cross-cutting.  The blade widens towards the tip, and is narrower near the handle.  It looks odd, but is standard for a Ryoba.

What's the construction like?

   It's not bad.  There were some corners cut, no doubt about it, but they were in the handle, not the blade.  The handle is plastic, and the knob to fasten the blade in place is also plastic, and starting to wear.  I figure I have, at most, another year before the knob gives up and I have to find a way to replace it.  I'm willing to take that sacrifice for the price.

   The blade is an interesting question.  The teeth are cut, not stamped, which is a plus.  It feels (and cuts) like it's fairly high quality, but it has impulse hardened teeth.  That means that the teeth will hold their edge for a long time, but can't be sharpened when they dull.

   For all that I like it, this is essentially a disposable tool, and I'm not a huge fan of that.

How does it work?

   You might have guessed from the beginning that I like this saw.  You'd have guessed right.  I bought it on the grounds that, first, I wanted to see what cutting with a pull-saw felt like, and second, it was cheap.  It cuts extremely well.  Not "extremely well for a twenty dollar saw," just "extremely well."  I've crosscut and ripped both pine (ripping 1x6 on this is remarkably simple) and red oak.  Pine it had no trouble with: Chopping up 2x6 is easy, and ripping 1x6 width-wise (I needed a piece 5" wide by 1/4" thick) was no problem at all.  I've also cut plywood from 1/4" to 3/4", PVC pipe, and plastic gutter.  It had no trouble at all with any of those.

   Red oak is, perhaps, the one place this fell down.  Cross-cutting a 3/4" thick piece was fine.  Slower than pine, but it's a much denser wood.  It was still easy.  Ripping across the 3/4" dimension was also fine.  Then I tried ripping on the 5" dimension.  That... wasn't so easy.  I don't have a good European rip saw, so I'm not sure how much easier it would have been, if at all, but I don't recommend it with this saw.  Now... this is a fine cut saw.  I'll talk more about final surface in a minute, but the point of this saw is to allow precise, smooth cuts, and it delivers.  Ripping hardwoods is hard.  This saw was able to do it:  If I was willing to devote the time, I would have made it the full length of the board.  That wasn't the problem.  The problem was the amount of time.  I figure I spent about 20 minutes, and ripped about four inches.  I needed a two foot long board cut, and I just didn't have that kind of time.  Shark does make what they refer to as a "carpentry saw", which they claim is set up for more aggressive cutting.  It's likely that that would have worked a lot better, but I haven't tried one yet, so I don't know.

   For detail work (it is called a "finecut" saw, after all), it's superb.  I used it for my first hand-cut dovetail, and it was quick and easy to control.  I've done the same with an inexpensive (I'm tempted to say "cheap") backsaw from Woodcraft, and it sucked.  That one may just need sharpening, and I'll review it once I've given that a try.

   The final surface left behind by this saw is superb.  The cuts are, in general, smooth enough that they don't need much further treatment.  I can get a cleaner finish with a chisel, but not with any saw I've ever used.  I don't think I've seen any finish from a saw smoother than this, either.  Yes, it will still need a little sanding, planing, or scraping, but not much.  I decided to smooth a cut from this, and started at 220-grit paper.  It didn't take much work to completely erase the saw marks.

Final Thoughts

   For $20, I got a decent dual-purpose saw, without having to compromise on a single edge that tries to both rip and crosscut.  It cuts smoothly, cleanly, and, when I'm not trying to rip oak, quickly.  It leaves a nice surface behind, and is comfortable to use.

   My only real reservations about this saw are the quality of the grip and the impulse hardened teeth.  If you need a saw and you don't mind that it's disposable, you could do a lot worse than this for the money.  If you want a tool you can re-sharpen... you're going to need to spend some more money.  It depends on how you look at things whether this is worth the tradeoff.

Would I do it again?

   Probably, with reservations.  I'm currently looking for a good-quality used European saw.  I've never used one that was in good repair, so I don't have a lot of comparison.  I'm really not excited about buying more disposable tools, so I'd really prefer to spend extra money to get something sustainable.  In a pinch, I'd buy one of these in a heartbeat, over any big-box offering at a similar price.  There's no question in my mind that this is a good tool.  It's just not a long-term purchase.

UPDATE:  June, 2014.  I'm still using this saw, with the original blade.  Yes, it cuts noticeably slower than it used to, but this saw is well over two years old (I think I'd actually had it about a year when I wrote the original review), and the cut is still smooth and straight.  I'm even more inclined to recommend it now than I was then.  The knob I was worried about still holds just fine, though it feels looser every time I use the saw.  Seriously... despite the low price and impulse hardened teeth, it looks like they only cut corners in places it didn't really matter.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

On table saws

I saw it again today on a forum:  "The table saw is the heart of the wood shop."

We've probably all seen it, if we spend any time on woodworking forums.
"Buy the biggest saw you can afford."
"You can't do woodworking without a good table saw."
"You can't do real furniture making without a high end saw."

I have to question that logic.  I suspect every woodworker who lived more than about 75 years ago would question it too.  What did they do before they had table saws?  Did they not make real furniture?

Look:  I'm not going to argue that table saws are useless.  I'm not going to argue that power tools are somehow cheating.  It's not true.  A good, reliable table saw can make your life a lot easier.  I don't think anyone who isn't pushing some agenda is going to argue that.

But what if you can't afford a good, reliable saw?  Or what if you don't have space for one?  Or just don't want one?  What do you do then?  Give up on woodworking?  Accept that you're never going to be able to make fine furniture?  No.  What you do is find a different solution.

I'm not an expert.  I don't really do fine furniture, not yet.  But I have a cheap table saw -- you may have seen the review I wrote here -- and I occasionally need to cut things up that I don't want to use it for.  Here are some solutions I've found.

1) Hand tools.  A good hand saw can solve a lot of problems, and for cross-cutting at any angle it can solve the problem.  It takes a steady hand and some practice, but it can be done.  A good, sharp saw helps too.  This is the direction I'm moving in for most things.  No need for a sled or a fence... a piece of scrap marked at the right length to make sure everything is cut the same works fine.  Learning to cut at the right angle takes some practice, but again... it can work.

2) Use a circular saw.   I've been told it's not possible to cut accurately with a circular saw.  That's not true.  I've done it, both with an old Skil brand saw (around 7 1/4" blade) and my little Ryobi battery powered saw (around a 5" blade).  Make sure the baseplate is square, and that the blade is square to the edge of the plate.  Get a GOOD guide for the saw.  I use an old piece of extruded aluminum -- it's straight, the edge is higher than the base of the saw, and I can easily clamp it to just about anything.  Also, put a good blade on the saw:  I use a Freud general purpose blade.  Then do the following:
  1. Make sure you know the distance from the edge of the baseplate to the OPPOSITE edge of the blade on your saw.  On my saw it's exactly 1" on the close side, which makes life easy.
  2. Measure on your wood, remembering to account for that extra space.
  3. Clamp down your guide.  If things are going to go wrong, this is most likely where it will happen.  Measure.  Measure again.  Clamp down the guide, then measure a third time.  Measure at BOTH ends of the guide, and again in the middle.  Make sure you've got everything lined up correctly.  And it helps if the edge you're measuring from is square and straight, so you might want to check that, as well....
  4. Once you're confident that your guide is accurately placed, make the cut.  Make sure the edge of the saw's baseplate follows the guide the whole distance -- you'll probably have a tendency to veer off a little at the end.  Don't do it.  Also, keep an eye on the cord, if you're not using a battery powered saw.  Cutting through that can really ruin your day.

It sounds hard.  And, if the alternative is running the wood over a table saw, it's a little more complex.  But I can now get the guide set in around a minute for cutting the full length of a sheet of plywood, and the actually cut doesn't take any longer than it would with a table saw.

Oh -- yeah.  And don't forget to support BOTH sides of the cut.  You won't more than once, anyway... having a quarter sheet of plywood fall on your foot kind of teaches you that lesson.

Are there other options?  Yes.  Is a table saw easier?  Usually, yes.  But is that table saw necessary?  No, not really.  The same holds true for just about anything you can do with a table saw:  On a recent project, I cut dadoes by edging them with a circular saw, then cleaning them out with a chisel.  I could have done it with a handsaw and chisel, but the circular saw was faster and I was in a hurry.

My final word on this is:  Don't let people tell you you can't be a woodworker if you don't have a specific tool.  You can almost always find another way.  It may be harder, it may make more time, but you can almost always find another way.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CTR 3: Ryobi BTS21

EDIT:  Pointed out by a reader at Woodworking Talk, this is the BTS 21, not 211.  Not sure how I missed that, originally.  Also, this saw is no longer available new, but may show up in the used market occasionally.

   So here's a big one.  It's a Ryobi table saw, sort of mid-size (by their standards).  It's not a benchtop, it's not a cabinet saw... so what do I think of it?

   First off:  I've had this for over a year.  I've done a lot of cutting on it.  The biggest cuts I've done have been cross-cutting 4x4, rip-cutting 2x10, and cutting plywood every which way.  I've also cut up a fair amount of 1/4" luan.  I've done dados in plywood, and both regular and pressure treated dimensional lumber.  I've gotten good use out of it, and despite the fact that this review isn't exactly positive, I don't think I made a big mistake. I just didn't know what I needed.

UPDATE:  I sold this saw a couple of years ago.  It continued to work reliably, but I was moving, and I met a guy who was starting out as a contractor and wanted a cheap job-site saw.  He got a saw, I got a hundred bucks, and I didn't have to move it.  It was a good deal for all of us.

   It's kind of an odd beast.  Rather than the standard miter slot, it has a sliding miter table.  Some people love these, some people hate them, and I'm in the middle.  It's heavy for a portable saw -- something like 85 pounds -- but light for a full-size saw.  While the wheels make it pretty easy to move around, it's pretty hard for one person to get it into a car or truck.  Ryobi sells (or sold) a dado insert, and it's set up to allow the use of dado stacks, but it can only take one up to 5/8" wide.


   While not fantastic, the saw is reasonably solidly built.  It IS a portable saw.  There's no way to get around that.  That means there are some tradeoffs:  it's not possible to build a collapsible stand that's as solid as a cabinet base and still portable.  You just can't do it.  But the top has stayed flat (see my comments on the sliding miter table for an exception), the base has been easy to work with, and nothing has broken.  Some pieces that would, ideally, have been cast iron are cast aluminum.


   Safety is important, I think we can all agree with that.  So how safe is this thing?

  Issue one:  it lacks a riving knife.  It does have a splitter, guard, and anti-kickback pawls, but a riving knife would have been better.  The splitter occasionally leans a bit one way or the other, which can make things interesting when you've gotten a piece of wood past the blade and into the pawls, and then find you can't advance any.  A tap with a push-stick straightens it out just fine, and it's never been a serious issue, just irritating.

  Issue two:  Getting to the shutoff switch can be interesting.  Say you're cutting a big piece of plywood -- a full sheet, 4x8 -- lengthwise.  Say something goes wrong two feet in, and you need to shut off the saw.  You'd better be able to reach the plug, because you're never going to reach the switch!  This isn't really a surprise -- there's not much space to move things around! -- but it is unfortunate.  I would have preferred to see the switch on the left side, where I could reach it without letting go of anything with my right hand, even if I was cutting something very wide.

  Issue 3:  You can't get a zero clearance insert for love or money.  They don't exist.  This saw uses super-thin metal for the inserts, so to custom make one you'd need to make a panel that was something less than 1/16" thick.  Sure, it could be done, probably, but it wouldn't be easy.  I've considered buying a second dado insert and hot-gluing a sheet of 1/4 plywood onto the bottom, but I haven't done it yet.

   Now, that said:  this is a cheap saw.  The splitter is solid, and the splitter, guard, and pawls are all a single unit.  It's quick and easy to remove and install:  it takes maybe 20 seconds.  So I've never felt like there was any reason to make a cut without those.   The guard is easy to see through, and does a good job of keeping things away from the blade.  The anti-kickback pawls appear to work, although I've never tested them in an emergency -- they do make it impossible to pull wood back, though, so I assume they'd work as advertised if they were really needed.


   Let's start with the basics:  does it cut?  Yes.  Does it cut straight?  Well... that depends on the user.  The fence system is pretty poor.  The measuring system is bad enough that I don't bother to use it for anything other than rough measurements:  "OK, I need 23 3/16 inches.  Slide it out to 23 1/2, then grab the framing square."  The fence can be made to be square, but you'll need to check it each time you set it.  Once it's set, it's solid -- I haven't moved it accidentally yet! -- but if you're incautious you can set it a little bit off of square.  Maybe a degree or two.

   What about power?  I've never had a problem.  It slows down cutting PT lumber, but I did cut 5/16" dados in over a hundred feet of the stuff without trouble.  It took a slightly slower feed rate, is all.  Not a big deal.  Cross-cutting 4x4 isn't an issue, except that it's at the very limit of the depth of cut.  Any warp in the wood can mean you don't QUITE get through it.  I did try a rip in 4x4 just to see what would happen, and that was fine too.

   How about that sliding miter table (SMT) I mentioned earlier?  Well, first things first:  I love the concept.  It's a built-in cross-cut sled.  How cool is that?  More than that, it's a built-in cross-cut sled with an adjustable fence!  And angle measurements cast into the tabletop, so no need for a protractor!  For 90 degree cuts, just set it to 90 degrees, and... um.  Wait.  The 90 degree line is almost 1/8" wide.  What do I line up with?

   Right.  So right there is the first big problem with the sled.  The cast in angle measurements are just plain bad.  Again, they're a reasonable approximation, like the measuring tape built in for the rip fence, but they're not exact.  They're within a few degrees, but it's impossible to get them closer.  So you do need that protractor or angle gauge after all.

  Next problem:  the miter fence isn't very stable.  I have had it shift when I didn't want it to, and there's only so much you can tighten down the knob.  If you're careful, it's not a problem.  But if you're not paying attention, you can really mess up a piece.

   Here's the big one:  the miter table isn't perfectly flush with the rest of the table.  Not much -- less than a sixteenth -- but noticeably.  Normally that doesn't matter much:  if you're cutting through a piece of wood, you wind up having to raise the blade another sixteenth of an inch.  You'll probably never notice.  It never bothered me.  BUT.. if you're cutting dadoes using the SMT, they're likely to be the wrong depth.  That can be a big problem if you don't remember to compensate for it.  The main thing is to remember to measure your depth from the SMT, not the regular table top.

   The last issue with the miter table is just that it isn't a miter slot.  Most of the jigs you'll find writeups for assume you have a miter slot.  That's fine, and you can modify most of them, but you'll never be able to just buy a pre-built jig and have it work.

Final thoughts:

   I bought this table saw because I needed a table saw, and it was cheap.  Home Depot accepted a Harbor Freight coupon, and I got the saw for, as I recall, a little under $200.  That's not bad.  I'm not sure my other options in that price range were any better.  As a rough cut tool -- think general construction work -- it's fine.  For finer woodworking.... it can be made to work.

   I don't want to be too negative here:  I knew what I was getting into by buying a cheap saw, and I got it.  For rough work, it's fine, and most of the problems can just be worked around for finer work.  For what I knew at the time, and what I needed at the time, I made a reasonable choice.

Would I do it again?

   No.  Given what I now know, it's not sufficient for what I need.  With what I now know, I would have put that money into either a used cabinet saw or, more likely, a cutting guide for a circular saw and a better router.  Put simply, this is a lousy tool for any kind of fine woodworking.  I do most of my sizing work with a circular saw now (with a good guide, I can get easily within about 1/32 of my intended final size), and only pull this out for rough work and dadoes.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

CTR 1: Harbor Freight 4-speed Woodworking Bandsaw

Note:  Originally posted 11-16-2011 at  This is now considered to be the first of the Cheap Tool Reviews.  I question the decision now, but it's still pretty cheap for a band saw, so I'll live with it.

I just bought one of these after reading a lot of reviews. One problem I had in making a decision was that the reviews I was finding were almost all at least a few years old, and there have been some changes to the design of the saw since then. So, in hopes of helping out people who are looking now, I thought I'd post my thoughts.

To start off, I have almost no experience with bandsaws; I've used one before, but mostly for metal cutting, not wood. Bearing that in mind, here we go..

0) What I didn't use.

I knew from the reviews that a link belt was highly recommended. Since I was at HF anyway, I bought theirs. Other than that, everything is stock, although I'll be replacing the blade as soon as possible.

1) Moving and packing.

It's a heavy box, but not completely unmovable. I got it out of my car on my own by sliding it onto a furniture dolly, then rolled it into the garage. Getting parts out of the box was an interesting experience. The base and table were on top, right up against the cardboard, set into a molded styrofoam tray. Removing the tray revealed the rest of the saw, assembled and with a blade in it, and the motor. No evidence anywhere of fasteners or a manual. Why? Well, because those were UNDER the saw. In a little nook that was completely hidden until you'd lifted the saw. Anyway. On the plus side, everything was in the box (with one odd sort-of-exception, which I'll mention later), which rather surprised me.

2) Assembly.

A) The base. This went really smoothly. Contrary to my expectations, the instructions were quite clear, all the parts were there, and all the necessary screw holes were cleanly cut and lined up where they were supposed to. The base looked like it was going to have a lot of gaps, but tightening down the fasteners with a wrench closed them all up. As a side note: except for the belt guard housing, every nut and bolt used in assembly is 13mm. I recommend making sure you've got a 13mm box wrench AND a 13mm driver on a ratchet before you start working. You'll want them both.

B) The saw. There wasn't much to assemble here. It was all pre-built, with a blade installed, and all the fasteners tightened down. That's a bonus, because this is where the manual was least clear. The table and its mount DID need to be installed, which was quick and easy. It was also where the "sort-of-exception" I mentioned above came in. The instructions claim you're supposed to use two M8x30 bolts to attach the table bracket. By that time in the assembly, I only had one of them left. However, I also had an M8x35 (more or less) bolt that wasn't called for in the instructions anywhere. As it turned out, it was exactly the right length for the right-most of the two holes I was supposed to be bolting the bracket into, so I decided to just use it and not worry.

C) The motor. Installing the motor was a pain, but not terribly difficult. It absolutely required two people; the motor has to be held upside down under an angled bracket, and then bolts have to be run through from underneath and nuts put on them from the top. I can't help feeling like there must have been a better way to design that.

I'm also going to mention the belt-guard box here: that also sucked, and was probably the hardest part of the entire assembly. It requires putting four fairly small pan-head bolts through four similarly small holes, all on the inside of the assembly, and the drive pulleys pretty much meant I couldn't get my hands anywhere within four inches of the rear holes. A long pair of needlenose pliers solved the problem, but it was a nuisance after everything else being so easy. Assembly probably took around an hour and a half, including checking to make sure the wheels and pulleys were lined up and tensioned correctly.

3) Fit, finish, and accessories.

I'm favorably impressed by the saw as a whole. While the sheet metal edges on the base aren't rounded over, they're also not as sharp as some bases I've worked with.

Once all the nuts were tightened, everything seemed quite solid. The blade tension was really low (essentially no tension) out of the box, but the tensioner works well, and the knob on the new version sticks up above the top of the saw, so it's easy to use. While the table bracket looks and feels like plastic, it seems to actually be cast aluminum with a plastic coating -- tap it and it rings like cast aluminum, and it's too heavy to be plastic. One frequent complaint in the old saw was that the side panels that cover the wheels aren't hinged. Well, they are now. That's mentioned in comments on a few older reviews, but I thought I'd make it part of the body of this one. The lower panel on both my saw and the display model has to be really slammed shut to latch; I'll likely replace the catch with a magnet eventually.

Something I haven't seen mentioned anywhere is that the new model has a brush set to sweep off the lower wheel, out of the box. I'd planned to buy and install one, but now I don't have to.

There are two places where there are angle gauges: the table tilt measure, and the miter gauge. Neither is perfect, but both are adjustable. The table's gauge was off by around a degree: once I'd squared the table to the blade, I reset it to zero, then used a Wixey digital angle gauge to check the rest of the readings. They're certainly very close - within two tenths of a degree, as far as I could tell -- and should do for most purposes. For anything really precise, I've got the digital gauge, which is easier to read anyway.

The miter gauge... what can I say about it? It's cheap plastic with numbers molded into it, and it's screwed to a cheap piece of aluminum c-channel that more or less fits the miter slot. The tick marks for the angle indicators are a good eighth of an inch across. We're not talking "high precision" here. If I need to set an accurate angle, I'm going to use a protractor, rather than trusting the miter gauge. It does have an adjustable needle, so I can set it to "90 (or 30, or 45) degrees plus or minus a little", but that's about as good as it gets. It also doesn't really slide through the slot cleanly, because it gets hung up on the mouth for changing the blade. I'm planning to round off the front corners of the gauge, to see if that helps. It does more or less lock in place, but I suspect it will cease to do so pretty quickly. I don't expect to need the gauge all that often, though, so maybe it won't really matter.

A number of people complained about the drive belt being lumpy and uneven. While I didn't use the one I got -- I'd bought a link belt, so why bother with it? -- it seems to be OK. I'd still say go with the link belt: by all accounts they decrease vibration, and the added expense brought the price even with the Ridgid and Porter-Cable 14" saws, rather than above them. (Actually, if your local Lowes/HD won't accept HF coupons, it's still a lot cheaper than either...)

The blade that came with it is, as you'd expect, not very good. I made a couple of test cuts in some scrap 3/4" ply, and it works, but not well. It did cut fairly straight, and with essentially no drift across a six inch cut, though, so it's probably passable as an emergency backup. The manual claims it's 6TPI and 3/8" width. I haven't counted, but I would have guessed 8 or 10 TPI from a quick look. I did notice a couple of damaged teeth before I used it, and I suspect there are more, so it's not going to get used much, if at all.

4) Final thoughts.

I had just about been convinced to buy a Grizzly before I bought this. It occurred to me, though, that I know for a fact I was going to want to cut metal with it, and the Grizzly just doesn't step down to speed that I'm comfortable with for that. Between that and the option to save $200, the HF model seemed like the right choice. If money hadn't been a concern, I probably still would have gone with the Grizzly, and bought a cheap low-speed benchtop or something for cutting metal. As it was, versatility won out over quality.

I do plan to buy the riser kit for the saw: it's currently available from HF parts for $85 + shipping, although it can't be bought in the stores. I'll be building a fence -- there was a fairly nice set of plans in the most recent ShopNotes for a rip and resaw fence that can accommodate for drift -- rather than buying one, and I have pretty much all the parts for that. So with the addition of the riser and a couple of good blades, I'll have a tool that should do everything I need (and most of what I want) for a pretty good price.

Overall, I'm pleased with my decision, and suspect I made a right choice, if not THE right choice.


Would I recommend this saw?  Yes.  But, as with most HF products, be prepared to bring it back if you find out it's a lemon.  They're not likely going to all have all the parts, so assume that yours will have some problems.  If you want a reliable out-of-the-box machine in this price range, I'd recommend the Porter-Cable.  That's the only one I haven't seen reports of people needing to make major modifications to.  It's also one of the least versatile, so you take your chances... for me, the HF was the right choice.

If money isn't much of an issue, I'd probably recommend going higher-scale.  The miter gauge with this one is really junk, and it doesn't have a fence.  Going with, say, the Grizzly I thought about would have resolved both of those problems, out of the box.  It is a lot more expensive though, so again, it's about making tradeoffs.

Monday, January 9, 2012

CTR 2: HF Mortise Gauge

Cheap Tool Review #2.

I picked this up in the fall, and only just used it for the first time, though I'd checked it to make sure it was all there and not broken when I got it home.  Here are my thoughts.

Cost:  How can you beat it?  Full price (as of this writing) is $10.  I got it on sale and with a coupon -- I think I paid under $3.50.  The other marking gauge I have is a Veritas Wheel gauge, and it cost $35.  That's a heck of an increase.

Construction:  While I'm not sure what kind of wood it is, it seems to be reasonably hard.  The finish is thick, and should provide a fair amount of construction.  While the beam isn't perfectly fitted through the fence, it IS reliably consistent, and it doesn't wiggle at all once the thumbscrew is tight.  The brass castings are pretty nice -- if I ever decided to build my own gauge I'd probably salvage them -- and the pins are solidly attached.

Use:  This one's harder to say.  What I've discovered is that I don't LIKE pin-type gauges.  I bought a Veritas Wheel Marking Gauge the same day, and I use it a lot.  The HF mortise gauge... well, if you like pin gauges it seems like it would work well enough.  It's solid, there's no slop, and you can drag it across the piece without worrying about the beam sliding around.  The catch is that the pins aren't sharp, so they don't cut across the grain -- they try to follow it.  I've never used an expensive pin gauge, so I don't know if they have the same tendency, but I can't imagine that they don't.  For my use, I'll stick with wheel or blade type gauges.

As a note, I'm told some people have filed the points to be narrower and more blade-like.  Now that I've learned that I don't like them as they are, I may give it a shot.  And for $3.50, it's not a bad deal for those occasions where I really need to mark two parallel lines.  I just won't use it most of the time.

Final recommendation:  If you're really hard up for cash, or if you already know you like pin gauges, this is a nice deal.  As with everything from HF, make sure all the pieces are there and it's built right, since their machining is variable, but it can work.  If you're not that hard up for cash, or you're not sure how you feel about pin gauges, buy something better.  This is a time when some extra money nets a lot of extra value.  You can probably find the Veritas Wheel gauge for $30 if you wait for a sale, and it's a FAR nicer tool.

UPDATE:  Thanks to a reader at, here's an article about filing the points of a pin-type gauge into knives.  I'm not convinced it will work on this gauge, since the pins are pretty tiny to begin with, but I'll give it a try and post another update.

UPDATE, 6/16/14:  This is now my go-to gauge for most things.  It's quick an easy to adjust, and filing the pins to more of a football shape (instead of a cone) make it work a lot better.  For long marks cross-grain, I frequently use the Veritas wheel gauge, but I've come to a point where I reach for this HF gauge more often.  That said, the Veritas gauge is more accurate and will certainly last longer, so it's not at all a one-sided debate.

Woodworking on the cheap

Up until about a year ago, my woodworking projects could best be described as "bash it together of 2x4 and 16 penny nails, and hope it holds up long enough."  Around a year and a half ago, I started building a deck.  I quickly learned the advantages of, say, measuring first, or buying higher quality tools.

And I started reading woodworking forums.  This was crucial.

But I started noticing something:  whenever someone asked about two tools, the most expensive was invariably recommended.  Here's a personal example.  I asked about three bandsaws.  The Harbor Freight model, a Porter Cable, and a Ridgid.  After the current discounts, they were all going to come to around the same price -- about $220.  The most common vote was for the Grizzly, a $525 saw, and one that wasn't on my original list, because I couldn't afford it.  People asking about inexpensive table saws are told "You need to buy the most expensive saw you can afford."

OK, look.  I understand.  More expensive tools are, almost always, more efficient tools.  Frequently they're also safer tools.  But many of us can't afford to spend a thousand dollars on a table saw, or even five hundred dollars on a band saw.  We need to know where we can economize, and where we're really going to regret it later.

In this website, I hope, among other things, to post some reviews of less expensive tools.  I'm not a master craftsman.  I'm not an expert woodworker.  I'm just a guy who enjoys playing with tools in his shop.  All my reviews will be from that perspective.  If you're a professional woodworker, you'll probably disagree with my reviews a lot of the time.  But if you're someone like me, I might be able to save you some money.