Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On Quality

I know:  this is a journal about woodworking on the cheap.  And since I'm still kind of a cheapskate, I'll keep with that theme, for the most part.  But here's the thing:  in woodworking, up to a point, you get what you pay for.  At the lowest end, even a few dollars makes a difference:  The difference between a $15 saw and a $20 saw can be pretty significant.  At the top end, it kind of ceases to matter:  sure, that $2000 plane may be better than $500 one, but is it really four times as good?  Or is it maybe $20 better?


For the last year or so, my primary smoothing plane has been a Ward's Master No. 4.  It's essentially a Stanley #4, except not as good.  I've always had some trouble with it:  the cutter regularly slips side to side, and adjusting the depth of cut can be frustrating.  But once it's set, it can take some beautiful thin shavings, thin to the point of translucence.  And the improvement in my sharpening skills has been helping, too... sharp can compensate somewhat for slightly out of adjustment.

Today, I finally pulled out my Stanley #3.  It's an old plane -- the date on the cutter is in the 1890s, and the latest patent date listed is 1910 -- and it's in beautiful shape.  I inherited it:  when my uncle went to clean out my grandfather's basement, quite a few years after my grandfather passed away, it was there with some other tools.  Since I'm the only woodworker in the family, they mostly came to me.  That was last summer, and I'm just now managing to do the necessary cleanup, which tells you something about my life for the past year.

It's amazing.  It didn't need much:  it'd been stored in something like cosmoline, so it wasn't especially rusty, despite having been in an unheated basement for years.  I cleaned the grease off with WD-40 (aerosolized kerosene is a wonderful thing...), and did a little light tuneup.  The sole had a touch of rust, so I sanded that lightly with sandpaper on a piece of plate-glass, and the iron was badly in need of sharpening.  But once that was done... it just worked.  Drop the iron in and line up the lateral adjustment, and it's straight.  The mouth was pretty far closed already, so a spin of the depth adjuster brought the cutter down below the sole, ready to take a fine cut.  With the first cut, I knew I was replacing the No. 4.  Depth adjustment is quick and precise, with very little backlash (the main problem with the Ward's plane).  The lateral adjustment works quickly and cleanly.  The tote feels more like wood, and less like Bakelite.  And, while the iron still needs a little work, I could go from custruction-paper-thickness shavings right down to those "read large print through them" shavings, with no problem.

So what's the big difference here?  Quality.  The channel on the depth adjusting wheel on the No. 4 is far larger than it should be, which means depth adjustment is hard.  The frog doesn't sit quite straight (it's only a degree or two off, but that's enough), which means lateral adjustment is a little strange.  The lever cap is always too tight or too loose, no matter how you adjust the screw.

The Stanley probably cost twice as much new, despite being a smaller tool.  But it will be a better quality tool for as long as it's cared for.

I'll hang onto that Ward's Master plane:  it was the first I ever bought, and I have some ideas for fixing some of the more egregious problems.  But in the end, it's a lower quality tool, and it will probably never be as good.  So when you can, buy quality.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I never thought I'd do this...

But this post is purely to point to someone else's post:

"The acquisitive spirit is the enemy of craft. Nobody has ever made anything out of wood by wishing he had a bigger shop in which to work. The best way to work in a small space is to go work in it."

The Literary Workshop Blog

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thoughts on chisels

I have two sets of chisels, purchased at very different times in my woodworking hobby.

The second set is a no-longer-available set of eight Wood River bench chisels from WoodCraft.  This set is pretty much the six smallest chisels, although the handles look a little different.  I bought them not long after I started trying to actually learn woodworking, when I decided it would be nice to have some tools actually designed to do what I wanted. 

They're decent.  Not super high quality, and they've got some odd quirks (every single one of them has a handle that's about one degree out of parallel with the blade, tipped up away from the flat back of the chisel -- I have no idea why, but they all do it), but they're serving me well.  I like them, but they're not much good for chopping mortises.  They're not exactly paring chisels, but they're also really not designed as mortise chisels, and whaling away at them makes me nervous.

This morning, I had a brainstorm:  I remembered my first set of chisels.  I bought them at Sears years ago, when I needed to reshape a 2x8 to fit around a pipe that stuck out of the ceiling.  Long story, don't ask.  These things (though I got a 4-piece set, which appears to no longer exist) are ugly.  Short blades.  Big lands on the sides.  Oddly tapered.  Black plastic handles, with steel butt caps.  But... they're thick, solid blades.  There's no way the handle is going to split:  that steel end cap should make sure of that.  So I dug one out.  It turned out to be a half-inch, which was fine.  This was just a test.  Time to find the rest later.  I flattened the back (which took surprisingly little work -- it actually was essentially flat to begin with), and put a new edge on it.  Then I grabbed a scrap of pine, and started bashing away.

And you know what?  I don't need to buy those Narex mortise chisels right now.  These aren't fantastic -- they won't hold an edge all that long, for one thing -- but they work a LOT better than the Wood River ones ever did for mortises.

And all this for something like $20.  I now have, if I can find them all, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 1" mortise chisels.  I'd be happier with just a 1/4 and a 5/8, but hey... these'll do.  And they don't require me to spend more money right now, which is worth quite a lot.  Who knew?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

CTR 6: Deer brand Gent's Saw

Let's get it out of the way right now:  This is a $16 saw.  It's not going to be the best tool you'll ever use.  Woodworking is one of those weird places where, up to a point, you really do get what you pay for, and $16 is CHEAP for a back saw.

This is the saw that WoodCraft sells as the "4140/250 Straight Back Saw".  My first impression was pretty poor, but I've figured some things out since then.

What do you get, and what's the construction like?

It's a back saw;  wood handle, steel saw plate, steel back.  The handle is a touch small for me, but I find that the grip is reasonably comfortable.  It's around 15TPI, filed rip.  Remember here that with teeth that size, it really doesn't matter whether teeth are filed rip or crosscut:  it does both equally well.  Mine has held up pretty well:  the printed logo is worn off to just about exactly half the depth, showing that it's really deeper than it needs to be for most things I use it for.  I think that, in large part, that's because I like the Shark ryoba better for longer cuts. 

 How does it work?

Initially, it was terrible.  Slow cutting, hard to start, hard to keep on a straight line, and with a miserable finish left behind.  If it wasn't for the fact that it's the perfect size to use with a bench hook, and the ryoba isn't, I probably never would have used it.

However:  last week I went out to the shop to putter.  I've promised myself I'll spend some time, no matter how little, doing SOMETHING in the shop every day.  I picked up the saw, and thought about trying to hand cut some dovetails, but I just couldn't bring myself to deal with the hassle of using it.  So instead, I started trying to figure out why it didn't work well.

A saw is a simple tool.  It needs:

1) A straight, flat sawplate.  This one had that, so that wasn't the problem.

2) A handle you can grip reasonably comfortable for as long as you're going to use it.  This saw also had that, so that wasn't the problem either.

3) Sharp teeth.  OK, the thing could use some sharpening, but it's not THAT dull.

4) Proper set to the teeth.  Huh.  To quote, "Well, there's your problem!"  The set on the teeth made the kerf nearly three times the thickness of the saw plate.  That's ridiculous.  How many of the problems could fixing that address?  Let's see... Slow cutting?  Check.  Hard to start?  Check.  Hard to keep on a line?  Check.  Lousy surface after cutting?  Maybe. 

Once I'd figured out the problem, I decided on the easiest solution.  The back of my machinist's vise has a small anvil on it, and I have a small hammer.  I went up the blade, tapping each bunch of teeth with the hammer.  This is a lightweight hammer, and I basically dropped it on the teeth from about five inches up.  The teeth had visibly less set when I finished one pass, so I took the saw back to the bench.... and it's like it's a completely different tool.  Starting is a lot easier, it cuts straighter, it cuts far, far, faster, and the surface left behind is a little bit cleaner.  Not much, but a little.

At this point, the saw could really use sharpening, but it's no longer a matter of cursing when I realize I need to use it.  Now it's just another saw in my toolbox, and worth grabbing if I have a job of the proper scale for it.

Final Thoughts?

I'm normally opposed to tools that need work before you can use them.  If it's used, fine... all tools need tuning once in a while, and who knows what the previous owner did.  But, out of the box, a saw should be sharp, set, and ready to cut.  This one isn't.  But... it's $16.  A good dovetail saw will cost four or five times that:  that's why I don't have one.  So this is a reasonable compromise, in my opinion.  If this is what you can afford, it's possible to turn it into a pretty decent tool with very little work.

Would I buy another?

If I needed a really cheap saw of this size, sure.  For what it is, it works fine.  That said, I plan to sharpen it once, then find a higher-quality dovetail saw to use instead.  Sharpening it will give me practice filing teeth that small, and give me some time to find a good dovetail saw I can afford.

UPDATE:  I'm now using a Veritas carcase saw (reviewed later on in this series) for almost everything I used to use this saw for.  It's in my tool chest, and it comes out occasionally for cutting really small pieces, but I barely use it.  Like I said, don't buy this unless you can't afford to buy better.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: Milescraft Turnlock 3-in-1 Router Guide Kit

This is, as you might guess from the title, a review of Milescraft's Router Guide Kit.  I bought mine at WoodCraft, and the current MSRP is $39.99.  Amazon also has them, and I think Home Depot does, too.

OK.  Before I write this, I have a confession to make:

I hate routers.  I can't stand them.  They're loud, they're messy, they're dangerous, and I can't think of a single tool that is more prone to wandering off and doing what it feels like doing while you're trying to accomplish something.  I've yet to use a table-mounted router, and I suspect I'd hate that less, but that's not what this kit is for, anyway.

So there's my confession.  I'll try to stay objective and talk about the kit, rather than how much I'd rather be using another tool -- any other tool -- than a router.

What do you get, and What's the Construction Like?

So what do you get with this thing?  I haven't used all the parts yet, but here's what I've got.

1) A baseplate.  This thing has a ton of holes and slots in it, and should theoretically fit just about any router you can find.  WoodCraft sells this thing, and they claim on their site it will fit most routers up to and including 3HP models.  All I can say for sure is that it fit both my ancient Craftsman and my more modern Rigid, and it fits both the plunge and fixed bases for the Rigid.

2) An edge-guide fence.  The baseplate drops into this, and then twists to lock in place.  It holds solidly, and the fence can be locked down tight enough that I haven't seen it vary at all.  The beam is extruded aluminum, and is straight and solid.  The beam also gets used with the circle cutting guide.

3) An offset base, for edge routing.  I haven't used this for routing, but I did check to make sure the baseplate fits into it, and it feels just as solid as the edge-guide.

4) A circle cutting guide.  This is another one I haven't used, but it looks like it should work just fine.  Basically, it's a piece that the beam slides into after you've put a nail through it to mark the center of the circle.  I don't see any reason it shouldn't work well.

5) Some tools for setting everything up.

 How do they work?

I can only really speak for the edge guide, which works fairly well.  The fence locks in place solidly, the beam locks into the base solidly, and everything goes together fairly easily with only a little persuasion.

However... this is where the cost-saving measures came into effect.  There IS a scale (two, actually, one metric and one imperial) -- essentially a very narrow tape measure -- built into the beam, but I can't for the life of me figure out what it's supposed to measure.  The zero mark falls nowhere near where it would need to be to actually put the fence in line with either the center or the edge of any bit I have.  It's not a crippling problem, but it's weird.  It seems like it wouldn't have been hard to make it work right, and it just doesn't.  It's possible mine is defective, and that most of them line up right;  I'd be surprised, but I haven't looked at any others, so it is possible.

The offset base would certainly make it easier to use an edge-shaping bit;  it's basically a teardrop shape, with the router insert at the big end and a big, handle at the other end.  If you were using a bearing-guided bit, I can see it making a lot easier to keep the router upright.

Final Thoughts?

Not bad.  I think I paid about $25 for mine, but the current MSRP is $39.99.  While you ought to be able to get a decent fence or offset base for that, you might not be able to get all three tools.  And if you have a bunch of routers, you can buy extra baseplates for a fairly reasonable price (it looks like they're about $20 right now) and just put them on all your routers.  The quality is pretty reasonable, and it doesn't seem like they could make it cheaper without making it a lot flimsier.

Would I buy another?

Nope.  But not because the product is bad... I wouldn't buy another because I'm finding I just don't like using the router, and I'll take almost any excuse to use a different tool.  If I used my router more, this might be more valuable to me.