Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Workbench Modifications

I haven't been writing much, because I've been occupied on other things, like a piece of furniture I'm making for a friend.  Unfortunately, I screwed that up completely, and can't work on it again until I get more lumber.

On the plus side, that means I can spend some time working in the shop on my projects again!

The first change I needed to make was to my tool rack.

As you can see if you look closely, the original tool rack is great for some things, but leaves chisels free to fall over any time I bump the bench, or hit something on it with a mallet.  I haven't actually nicked an edge yet, but it's only a matter of time.  Since I've wanted to try out a standard chisel rack for a while, this seemed like a good opportunity.

I started by gluing a new piece in to close the gap.  As I was doing it, I realized that the whole process was going to end up leaving it really fragile, but it should last long enough to let me decide whether I like it or not.

I wanted to use my bench for something else while the glue dried, so I left it pegged to the back of the bench, wrapped twine around it tightly, and held the end of the string with a spring clamp.  It worked quite well, and was tight enough that I had some squeeze-out, despite the filler piece not being a particularly tight fit.

While that was drying I sharpened one of the chisels that had been on the rack, cleaned, sharpened and reassembled a low angle block plane I'd been putting off working on, and started working on a saw rack for behind the back panel.

Once the glue was dry, I removed the whole rack from the back panel, then drilled 3/4" counterbores about a quarter of an inch deep, then smaller holes all the way through.  Cutting notches for the chisels to slide in was tricky, because the second cut on each slot was cutting through an unsupported and fairly narrow pillar with two questionable glue joints.  A great deal of care and a very light hand with the saw got me through it, though, and I was able to put the rack back on.

As you can see, it worked fairly well.  Those five chisels don't actually fit in my tool chest (I didn't leave much space for extra chisels when I built it), so I'm pleased that they've finally got a storage rack that will keep them reasonably safe.  At some point I'll need to remove that end of the rack entirely and redo it correctly (that is, using a solid block of wood instead of gluing up layers.

The saw rack behind is even simpler:  I cut a piece of 1/2" poplar to length, and glued some spacers to it before screwing the assembly to the back of the panel.  I'll try to get some pictures of the whole setup in use tonight.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What have I been up to?

I obviously haven't been writing much here, but I have still been getting in some workshop time.  Here are a few of the things I've been occupied with.

1) Combination plane storage!  I bought a new combination plane; I found a deal I couldn't turn down, and it turns out I like it a lot more than the other one I had.  My one complaint is that the cutters came stored in a canvas roll, which is great, but not actually big enough.  I may end up buying some canvas and making a larger roll, but for the moment I'm building some storage boxes in the style of the old Stanley combination plane storage.  Here's the first one done:

After making it, I realized that Stanley didn't actually put dividers in.  I think probably I'm going to go that route as well, since the dividers vastly increased the amount of time this took.  Also, I really should be putting the cutters in with their edge up.  Just at the moment, they're not actually sharper at the other end, so it's a minimal concern.

2) Experimenting with splines.  I'd never actually made a box with splined corners before, and I wanted to try it.  I don't actually have a "finished" photo, but here's one from along the way.

The splines are cheap veneer of some sort, the sides are poplar, and the top and bottom were pine, all chosen because they were what I had.  Fortunately, it turns out that my dovetail saw leaves a kerf only slightly wider than the veneer is thick, so I can cut a slot and then glue in the veneer.

I screwed up the hinges, so I'll need to go back and try that again, but I'm pretty pleased.

3) Buying and playing with moulding planes!  While I was out of the shop injured this summer, I wound up finding a bunch of inexpensive moulding planes on Etsy, and a few more at antique stores.  I also went out this weekend and bought four more from Craigslist.  At the moment, I'm averaging about $20 each for the moulding planes, and they've been in fantastic condition.  A couple of them could use some wedge tweaking, but aside from that all of them are entirely useable.

Looking a little more closely, we have:

 The first four are the ones I bought a few days ago.  Left to right, there is a matched tongue and groove set, a beading plane, and a #2 hollow, which is remarkably straight.  The grooving plane needs some work on the wedge... it was clearly added by someone who was using the plane for decoration, and doesn't fit very well.  On a side note, I could with that everyone who bought these things for decoration took care of them this well!  The guy I bought them from said he'd "refinished them", which seems to mean he sanded lightly and then put on a couple coats of BLO.  They look a lot newer than the rest, but are probably of similar vintage:  the match planes were made by the Ohio Tool Company, the beading plane is by Sandusky, and the hollow has no legible maker's mark.

The next two I picked up at an antique store.  The hollow is in good shape, and cuts fairly well, although the back of the cutter could use some polishing, and the grooving plane has lost its mate.  Sadly, it doesn't match the other set, so I suppose I'll have to build it a match.

The two on the far left here both came from other antique stores.  One is another bead, which I believe started its life as a reeding plane.  At some point one of the boxwood inserts was broken, and someone planed what was left flat and nailed a fence to the body.  Now that I have a couple of beading planes, I may try to restore that.  The other is a dado plane in terrible shape.  It's missing the front wedge, the depth stop isn't straight, and there's something weird about the way the (skewed) cutter was ground.  I mostly bought it because I'd never seen a dado plane in person, and figured it would make a reasonable pattern even if I didn't ever get around to fixing it up.

The next four all came from Etsy.  There are two profile moulding planes, another beading plane, and a very neat moving fillister plane.  The nicker needs some work, but everything else works perfectly.  I may actually do a short post about that one sometime... it's got some features that seem to be a little unusual.

You can see the depth stop on the moving fillister a little bit, here: it's a rounded, moderately decorative piece that's held in place by screws at the front and back.  Getting it even is a little fiddly, but once you lock it down it's fantastic.

After that are three new planes.  Two of them are a Mujingfang hollow and round, which are neat, but don't fit my hands as well as I'd like.  They were a gift, and they are occasionally useful, so they get to stay on the shelf.  After that is a no-name plane that's basically a 7/8" straight rabbet.  It needed some tuning, and shavings tend to get jammed in it as you work, but with a little practice it has turned out to be quite useful.  I love it for making things like pencil boxes:  it's a lot lighter than a Stanley 78, and doesn't require any setup.

The last one on the shelf is a 2" wide skewed rabbet that I inherited from my father's father.  It's dented, heavily checked, and the sole was beaten up and about 3 degrees off square when I got it.  The iron could use a little more work, but I flattened and squared the sole, removed the worst of the rust from the iron, and it now works quite well, at least for rough work.  The mouth is pretty wide, and I haven't had the motivation to make an insert for it yet, so it's not great for fine work.  For a wide rebate, though, it'll remove a vast amount of waste very quickly.  I think I had it removing about 1/16" on a stroke when I was testing it, which is pretty absurd.

So that's what I've been up to.  How about you?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A few of my favorite (wood working) books and videos

There are a lot of woodworking books out there:  some are good, some are bad, and some are just weird.  Last week, someone asked me what books I'd recommend, and I had to stop to think about it.

After consideration, here are some of my favorites.  This list isn't anything near exhaustive, nor am I making any claim that everyone who wants to be a woodworker should read them.  They're just what comes to mind when I think about what books have been valuable to me, in no particular order.

1) The New Traditional Woodworker, by Jim Tolpin.  For my full review, click here.  Jim Tolpin looks a lot at how to set up a functional workflow, and what tools are necessary if you're going to use all (or mostly) hand tools, and includes directions on how to make some basic jigs and tools you'll want.  This one is fairly easy to find, and an excellent starting point.

2) The Anarchist's Toolchest, by Christopher Schwarz.  For my full review, click here.  I'm always a little leery of recommending this one, despite how much I like it.  Chris has a weird sense of humor, and a philosophy that's a little unusual.  That said, I really like his theories on tools and tool use, and I think there's quite a lot of value in the book overall.  His tool list gives not only what he recommends, but why, which I found very helpful.  Overall, I think he gives a pretty good basis for hand tool work.

3) Working Wood 1 & 2: the Artisan Course with Paul Sellers, by Paul Sellers.  Paul Sellers was the first person I got to watch doing hand work in person, which left me with a soft spot for his teaching style.  The book walks through basic tools, and then starts working on projects (a spoon, a stool, a dovetailed box, and a few other things), covering the three basic joints, what tools to use, and so on.  He definitely has an anti-machine bent that comes through in the book, but there's more than enough good information in the book to be worth reading past that.  I also strongly recommend watching his videos, which are mostly available on YouTube.  He mostly does a very good job of explaining what he's doing, and they're fairly short.

4) The Joiner & Cabinetmaker, By Anonymous, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz.  This is a good look at what woodworking was like before the era of common powertools.  There were mills to produce boards, powered by water or steam, but an individual shop wasn't likely to have anything powered on hand.  The book walks you through the work of an apprentice in a good joiner's shop, and talks about tools, their use, and habits that a good woodworker should get into if they want to be successful.  Later in the book, Schwarz goes through each of the projects presented in the original text, which is also quite useful.

5) Anything by Roy Underhill.  I love his writing style, and while he's frequently short on details, there's enough information to figure out what he's doing.  I think his videos are stronger, and some of the more recent seasons are available through the PBS website (http://pbs.org/woodwrightsshop).  He also teaches classes, if you're lucky enough to live near him.  The Woodwright's Apprentice is probably the book of his I appreciate the most, but everything I've read has been worth the time.

6) Woodworking Forums.  There are a lot of good forums out there, and even if you never log in to ask a question, you'll learn a lot from reading them.  At the moment I mostly visit WoodworkingTalk.com, LumberJocks.com, and SawmillCreek.org.  And if you have specific questions, there are always people with answers on those forums.

As I said, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list.  It's really just my first reactions when someone asks me what to read.  They've been helpful to me, though, so they may also be of use to you.

There's one key thing to remember, though:  Nobody has all the answers.  Woodworking is, in many ways, an idiosyncratic hobby, and different people will find that different techniques work for them.  If you don't like the way one author has you cutting dovetails, find another author.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

How you work determines how you think.

We've all heard it:  "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  It's sort of true, though.  One thing I've realized as I worked more with hand tools, and which I've mentioned before, is that a lot of things are simpler.  Not necessarily easier, but simpler.

I was just reading someone's blog posts about making a "Milkman's Bench", and they were talking about needing to be sure the grooves they milled for the tail vise were exactly 1/2".  "Why?", I thought.  "Just cut the tenons on the moving part once you've done the grooves, and the exact size won't matter at all!"  Except that's harder with power tools.  If you're cutting your tenon with a dado stack, you need to know exactly how high to set the blade, or you'll run into trouble.

In a different post, they were thickness planing to make sure that the pieces were exactly 1 5/8" thick.  "Why?", I asked myself again.  Well, because the parts are being made from a cut list.  If you're cutting everything from a list, then doing assembly, it's a lot easier to make sure everything is identical before you start doing assembly.  In non-machine work, it's kind of irrelevant what the actual size of any of the parts is, because it's trivial to just size each piece to fit the one before.  Maybe you end up at 1 11/16", or 1 7/8", but it doesn't really matter.

For me, it's now easier to treat dimensions as a guideline, an ideal that I don't really need to achieve unless I'm building a piece of furniture to fit a specific space.  Other than that... So what if I'm a few sixteenths off? I'm going to plane everything flush when I'm done anyway.

Now, please don't get me wrong.  This isn't a condemnation of power tools, or a statement that people are in some way "wrong" for building to exact dimensions.  If you're using power tools, it really is a better/easier way to work.  I think a lot of hand tool workers would be baffled by the idea of cutting everything to exact tolerances, and the power tools folks would be baffled by our failure to measure anything precisely.  Neither way is better.

The point is that the tools we use determines how we think about things, and how we approach problems.

I'm not dead yet!

The splint is off, the occupation therapist tells me I'm so close to 100% that there's nothing more she can do to help, and my back is recovered enough that I can consider time at the workbench without cringing.  All that means that it's time to get back to work, and to writing!

I have a few projects in mind for the next couple of months, and two of them tie neatly into the "Woodworking on $1.50 a day" series.  Those two are a Japanese-style toolbox and a small, portable workbench (the "Milkman's Bench", from Popular Woodworking).  I'll definitely be doing writeups of those.

The third is, potentially, an enormous nightmare.  I'm looking at replacing some of my old particle-board shelf units with Jefferson book-boxes, which is a LOT of dovetailing.  I'm initially looking at two stacks, probably around 12 boxes or so.  If they go well, though, I may be trying to make enough for all of the books in our house... I've got no idea how many books that actually is, but I'm pretty sure we broke 3000 paperbacks quite a while ago. So I'll have to consider carefully before actually starting this project.

In any case, I hope to be writing something meaningful again soon!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A break in posting...

.. and in my finger.

Sadly, all of my projects have been put on hold, because I've got a splint on my left hand for the next few weeks.  So I haven't forgotten this blog, it's just painful to update it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 a day -- Part 4.5: Hand Planes, Part 2

In Part 4 of the "Woodworking on $1.50 a day" series, I wrote about an inexpensive "Hong Kong" style wooden plane.  I did so largely because it's really nice, as a beginner, to buy a tool and start working, especially when you don't exactly know what "well set up" feels like.

If you're not into the "tap it with a mallet" school of plane adjustment, you do have one other option that can (if you're lucky) be even less expensive, which is to buy used.  If you luck out you may find a nice old plane for $10-25 at a yard sale or flea market.  The problem is that it's not going to look very nice at that price.  It's going to be rusty, the handle or tote may be broken, and the cutting edge may be more of a mashing edge, with big nicks in it.  This may be something you can fix.

If you're going to buy an old plane -- and I certainly have, and will again! -- here's what you should look for.

1) Size.  The common sizes are usually referred to by the numbers Stanley gave them.  Here they are:

  • #4.  The most common, used primarily for smoothing.  9" long, 2" wide.
  • #3.  A smaller smoother.  8" long, 1 3/4" wide.
  • #5.  A jack plane:  you'll mostly use it for removing a lot of material quickly.  14" long, 2" wide.
  • #7 or #8.  A jointer, 22" or 24" long.  Use it to make the edge of a board straight.

2) Brand.  There are hidden gems in every brand, but there are also brands where you can pretty much rely on the tool having once been excellent.  I'd trust anything made by Stanley before the second world war, and anything made at any time by Millers Falls.  How do you tell if it was made before World War 2?  Good question!  Sadly, there's no easy answer.  There's a flowchart here that may help, but may not.  Record also made some good planes, as did Sargent.  Just to add to the confusion, all of those companies made planes for Craftsman at various points.

2) Condition.  This is more likely to matter.  Here's what you want to see on a smoothing plane.

  • A smooth sole.  Rust is fine, pitting is not.
  • Mostly smooth sides.  A little pitting won't hurt anything, but make sure it's not too extensive.
  • A smooth cutting iron.  Say it with me:  Rust is fine, pitting is not.  (At least within a half inch of the cutting edge.)
  • A long cutting iron.  Some of the older planes had a short piece of hard steel welded to a long piece of either softer steel or iron.  If the iron is too short, there may not be any hard steel left, which means it won't cut.  EDIT:  As TaDaMan points out in the comments, overall length is fairly irrelevant.  What really matters is the distance between the cutting edge and the slot for the cap iron screw.  
  • A cap iron that fits closely.  Again, some rust is OK, but the end closest to the cutting edge should fit tightly against the blade.  You can fix it if it's a little off, but it should be pretty close.
  • No missing parts.  A tote (handle) or knob (front handle) that's cracked can be glued together.  One that's missing entirely will have to be replaced somehow.  On most of these planes there's a lever that lets you move the blade a little bit side to side.  If it's missing, you're likely to have trouble.
What planes would I recommend?  I most commonly use a #3, #5, and a transitional (wood body, metal adjustment knob) 24" jointer.  Most people prefer a #4 to a #3, but I'm weird.

I'd recommend starting with a #5 or a #7, and I'm well aware that that's an unusual recommendation.  Here's why:

Smoothing with a plane takes a lot of skill and a well set up tool, and sanding is easy.  There's no way around it.  A really good tool will compensate for only a little bit of skill, but first you have to get it really well set up.  That's hard to do if you only have a little bit of skill.  For me, at least, my first year or so working with a #4 was infuriating.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get it to work.  I eventually went to a class and found out that part of the problem was the tool, and part was technique.  It drove me nuts until then, and still does, occasionally.  So I don't think you should start with a smoothing plane.

A jointer, on the other hand, is relatively easy to use.  You put a board on edge (I'll talk about workholding in my next $1.50 a day entry, I think), and you run the plane from one end to the other.  You'l need a little practice in keeping it square and not creating a bow instead of a straight line, and a lot of people find that a fence helps a lot, but that's pretty much all it does.  It's easy to learn to use, and the initial setup isn't as fiddly.  Conveniently, it also solves the problem that ripping a board (cutting it to be narrower) with a handsaw leaves a rough edge that isn't always straight.  I realize it's counter to what just about everyone else says, but I think you should start with a jointer.

A #5 can do a lot of things.  On boards shorter than about two feet, it can make a pretty good jointer.  On large boards, it can make an OK smoother.  If you curve the cutting edge, it can take out big chunks of wood if you go cross-grain, which is nice if you have a thick board and want a thinner one.


Once you've bought a plane, it's probably going to need some work to make it usable.  There are a LOT of sources on how to do the repair work.  Almost all of the ones I've seen are good.  I'm going to include a pointer here to one video, by Paul Sellers.  Why this one?  A few reasons.

First, it's long.  He covers pretty much the whole process over the course of the video, including a lot of conversation about how much perfection is necessary.  At the end of the video, you'll know a lot about how a metal hand plane functions and how to clean and assemble one.  Still not much about how to use one, but at least you should have a decent picture of how to get started.

Second, I enjoy his no-frills approach.  He's spent something like 50 years as a professional woodworker, and has stripped a lot of the craft down to bare essentials.  I like that in a teacher:  give me the critical, no add-on skills first, and THEN I can learn the more complicated ways to do things.

Third, I like his accent.  He's British, and I like listening to him.  It's a minor thing, but it doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thinking about my leg vise

When I built my bench in 2012, I decided to go with a leg vise for a couple of reasons.  First, it was something I could do with parts I could go buy that day.  Second, it looked simple to assemble.  And finally, I'd learned to hate standard metal face vises while dealing with an old one I'd been using.  (That turned out to be more an issue with how I was using it than with the vise, by the way.)

I didn't like the idea of having to bend over to move a pin around as is standard, and I also didn't want to cut a mortise through three and a half inches of very dry Douglas fir.  So I came up with a mechanism that would let me adjust it by lifting a piece of wood with my foot while I tightened or loosened the chop.  It worked quite well up until a few months ago, when the wooden bar started wearing away from the constant pressure.  Looking at it, I think I have two decent options.

1) Upgrade what I have.  The aluminum bar (See the last photo in this post for some information about it) is fine, and the only real problem is the pine 1x2 that's wearing away.  I could replace it with something harder, and it would be fine.  Maple, maybe, or more aluminum bar.  It's an easy option, and I know it would work.  But the system has some shortcomings, and I've started thinking about alternatives.

2) Move to a cross-based mechanism.  For some unknown reason it's usually called a St. Peter's cross, despite actually looking like a St. Andrew's cross.  I like the way they work, when they do, and I appreciate the design involved.  The problem is the mortises I'd need to cut.  The chop on my bench is made of pine, and is pretty weak as it is:  I routinely bend it trying to get a good grip on something.  So routing out a big strip along the vertical center will leave it pretty weakened.  I can replace the chop, of course, but it's an annoyance.  It occurred to me, though, that it may not actually need that big a slot.  A narrow (1/4" or so) slot a half inch deep would do to allow a piece of steel bar to slide without slipping sideways, and a piece of 1/4" steel rod through it would spread the load out significantly.  So I might need to give this a try, as soon as I can figure out how to cut a stopped groove that long in the bench leg and chop.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day -- Part 4: Hand planes #1

So here we get to the first of the really iconic tools.  Almost everyone involved in woodworking, even if they're mostly a power tool woodworker, seems to see the hand plane (specifically, a Stanley-style metal plane) as one of the major symbol of fine woodworking.  I'm not really convinced of that for a power tool shop, but whatever.

This is not the post I intended to write.

The post I intended to write talked a lot about how you just can't get decent hand planes for a low price, and how you were going to have to either accept a dramatically sub-standard tool or resign yourself to lots of saving and lots of watching flea markets.  And if you were going to stick purely with European ("Western") style planes, that would still be true.  However.  I wrote a review last week of the Mujingfang 11" Jack Plane, and I've been forced to change my mind.

So what do I think now?

In the Stanley numbering system, there are are lot of oddities.  However, from #1 to #8, the planes get progressively longer, wider, and heavier, starting from the cute little #1 smoother to the #8 jointer.

The most common planes in the middle of the range are probably numbers 3, 4, and 5.  Three is a small smoother:  I happen to prefer it for most things, but that's personal preference.  It runs about 8" long and 1 3/4" wide.  The number four is also a smoother, running 9" long and 2" wide.  The number five is the first one that's usually called a "jack" plane, and is 14" long by 2" wide.

The Mujingfang Jack is sort of an odd size by that standard, since it's called a Jack but is 11" long with a 1 3/4" wide blade.  So the blade is the width of a #4, with a length halfway between a #4 and a #5. The mouth is relatively small, and it's never going to be a fantastic plane for removing a ton of waste.  So why do I like it?  It's sharp out of the box - sharp enough to take the hair off my arm --, and adjusts more easily than any other wooden plane I've used.  I finally (FINALLY!) get why people say adjusting wooden planes isn't as hard as it looks.  Now I know what I'm shooting for with my older tools.  It's very light weight, and it leaves a good surface behind.  Honing it a bit will probably make that even better.


So for month four, I suggest one of two options:

1) Buy the Mujingfang 11" jack.  It runs a little bit over the budget, but I'll try to come in under for month 5 to balance that out.  It can be pushed to remove a significant amount of stock, or you can take off very fine smoothing shavings.  And it's long enough to act as a jointer for short boards, which is nice.  I've read that a plane should be able to straighten a board twice as long as its sole, which means about 22" for this plane.  With practice, you can extend that significantly.  If you really can't swing $51, you could try their shorter 7" smoothing plane.  It's $44, but my guess is that it will be significantly harder to use to get a straight edge on a board.  I also haven't tested it, so I can't make an informed recommendation.  Or you could wait one more week.

2) Head to flea markets, yard sales, antique stores, and the like, and find a Stanley #4 or #5, or equivalent from some other brand.  Buying used is always tricky, and it may take some work, but you may find a gem of a plane for a lot less than $45.  I would suggest avoiding eBay, at least in the beginning:  it's hard to judge whether things are really in as good condition as the ad copy says.  Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.  I've had some good luck, and some really bad luck.

What can I do now?

This is where things get really neat.  Now you can smooth and straighten boards that you've ripped.  You can resaw small boards and wind up with half- or quarter-inch stock, which you can smooth with the plane.  So all of a sudden small boxes are possible, and you can build things that aren't limited to the dimensions of commercially available lumber.

You now have a set of tools that can realistically build a nice workbench, a long-lasting toolchest, or quite a lot of furniture.  You'll still have some trouble with housing dados and grooves, but they're doable.  Mortise and tenon joints should be possible, at least in sizes matching your chisels.  With the addition of a plane, you can now chamfer edges, reduce the thickness of table tops, or a lot of other things.

I'm going to try to make a few quick projects over the next few weeks to demonstrate what can be done, but for now, just start practicing.  Rip a 1" wide strip off a board (along the grain), then use the plane to smooth and straighten it.  Once you're done, do the edge of the original board, and strip another piece off.

Keep practicing, make some boxes, and enjoy!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

CTR 12: Mujingfang Rosewood Plough Plane

This is a review of Mujingfang's plough plane.  I'm going to start off by saying that if you can afford a more expensive option, something like the Veritas Small Plow, you should go with that instead.  But since that sells for $275 with 5 blades, and the Mujingfang sells for $66, they're not really competing in the same market.

If you're reading this and don't know what a plow plane is, it's a tool used to cut grooves in a piece of wood.  Think of the grooves in a frame and panel door, or the ones that hold the bottom of a drawer in place.  Normally they're used with the grain, although if you cut the edges of the groove with a knife or saw they can go across the grain.  Some (although not this one) have cutters ahead of the main iron to make them work better across the grain.

Where, and How Much?

I bought mine from Woodcraft, at this link here.  Full retail is $66 no matter where you buy it:  Amazon, Newegg, Woodcraft, wherever... it's always $66.  It's also always sold by Woodcraft, so there might be a connection there.

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

You get the body, fence, arms, and five blades, sized 1/8", 3/16", 1/4", 3/8" and 1/2". The sizes are actually Imperial sizes, not metric, so they should match your chisels if you're buying in the US.

Construction is decent, but not fantastic. It's a fairly simple tool: the body has a metal (presumably steel) skate set into it, and the wedge matches the throat quite well. Adjustment is simple, and the fence is reasonably stable.

There are, however, a few minor issues. The first is with the fence: The fence is held in place by what seems to be a serrated piece of metal, with a bolt through it. By tightening the wingnut, you pull that serrated piece of metal up, and it grips the arm. However, loosening the wing nut doesn't actually push it down... it just loosens the nut. A light tap with a mallet (or on the top of your workbench) loosens it fully, though, so it's a nuisance that you'll probably stop noticing fairly quickly.

The other issue, which is a bit more substantial, is with the skate. On the copy I bought, the front skate was ever so slightly too far back, and the back of the iron just barely touched it. Obviously that meant shavings couldn't escape, and so the plane didn't work at all. As soon as it started cutting it would jam. I fixed it with about two minutes of work with a file, rounding off the back corner of the front skate. That resolved the problem entirely. It's possible I just got a bad one, but it certainly indicates their quality control isn't perfect. You should be able to see the issue here. As I said, a little bit of careful work with a file cleared up the issue entirely. If you're planning to take very heavy cuts, you'll want to take off more of the skate, but I took off maybe 1/32" or a touch more, and that was plenty.

Other than that, it's pretty nice.  The irons fit well and mate with the rear skate quite well, the wedge fits, and the fence (once you've correctly loosened the screw) slides easily.  One thing I did notice is that the arms aren't quite parallel, so if you pull the fence all the way off you'll need to squeeze them together just a touch to get it back on.  Not a big deal, and it means the fence doesn't slide around when the nuts are loose.

 How does it work?

Overall, I'm reasonably pleased.  It's fairly easy to adjust, the fence appears to stay where it's put, and the irons seem to cut well.  One thing to be aware of is that the fence has no inclination to stay parallel on its own.  I recommend using a chisel or setup blocks to make sure you've got it set up correctly.

I would say that, overall, it's not quite as nice as the Sargent-made combination plane I have.  It does a better job of dealing with shavings (it spits them out the top, rather than forcing them out the side towards your hand), but it has no depth stop at all, adjustment is more difficult, and I suspect that the fence will eventually stop holding.

But it does do the job, and if you can't afford a modern combination or plow plane, and you don't have the time or ability to restore an old one, it's a pretty good choice.

Final Thoughts?

As I said, a modern or restored plow plane will do the job more easily and reliably.  But the Veritas Small Plow with five irons costs $275, while the Mujingfang version costs $66.  At a price difference of over $200, I'd go with the Mujingfang until I could find a decent used combination plane.  It does the job, looks like it will remain reliable, and is definitely cost efficient.

Would I buy another?

That's hard to answer.  If I had no plow plane at all, and needed one at a low price, then yes, I would.  Or if I needed one to use in conditions where it might be lost or damaged, then sure:  I'd rather lose this than an expensive one, and as I said, it does the job.

Friday, May 6, 2016

CTR 11: Mujingfang Rosewood 11" Jack Plane

This review is of a tool I really didn't expect to like, the Mujingfang 11" Jack Plane.  Based on their marketing information, Mujingfang basically went out and found people who were making decent tools locally, and brought them together in Hong Kong to make planes for the international market.  Is that true?  Who knows!  All I can do is review the tools.

Straight out of the box, no handlebars.

Where, and How Much?

I bought mine at WoodCraft, catching it on a 15% off sale.  The 11" Jack is usually priced at $51.00 everywhere I've seen it.

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

What you get is:
1) A plane body
2) A double iron (meaning an iron with a chipbreaker)
3) A wedge
4) A rod that's supposed to go through the body side to side.  It's not in the photo above, because I forgot about it when I was taking pictures.

Construction is remarkably good, given the cost.  The sole is flat to within the limits of my measurement, and the wedge is a pretty decent fit.  It could be better, but it's good enough.  The rod tapers slightly, so it only fits through one way, and sticks about halfway through.  I'll be honest... I'm not really sure what the value of the rod is.  It seems to make it slightly easier to grip when pulling, but that's about it, and I mostly don't pull a plane.  There is one oddity, which is in the iron.

You may be able to see, down near the sharp end, a line of bronze-colored metal.  The blade was made by welding a piece of A2 high speed steel (according to the advertisement) to a piece of softer metal.  It's not terribly unusual, and it's not bad, but it does look kind of strange.  The weld also wasn't cleaned up very well, and there are some "splatters" of something on the front of the blade.  They don't affect the function, so I'm not going to worry about them.

Fit is excellent, but finish is mixed.  The iron is well sharpened (shaving sharp, right out of the box in my case!) but shows marks from the grinder.  The surfaces where you'll handle the plane are smooth and cleanly finished, but the throat and wedge are fairly rough.  Again, none of it compromises the function of the plane, but it shows where corners were cut to save some money.  Since they clearly pass some of that savings on, I can't really complain.

 How does it work?

Very well.  To be honest, I'm quite surprised at how well it performed.  While I wasn't able to take a terribly thick shaving, which I'd like to be able to do with a jack, it's perfectly adequate for taking an edge from rough-cut to ready to finish.  I probably managed to get up around a 32nd in thickness before it clogged, so it's fine unless you're trying to reduce the width or thickness of a board substantially.  It's enough different from my metal planes that I'm going to assign most of my problems to inexperience:  I wasn't able to cut a perfectly square edge without a lot of care, and I also pretty thoroughly failed to make the edge straight.  Again, though, both of those are issues with the user, not the plane.

Here are the critical things:  The iron was sharp, adjusting it was relatively simple, and the wedge can be tapped in tight enough to keep the iron from shifting in a heavy cut while still backing out easily with some hammer taps at the heel.  Incidentally, don't use a metal hammer for that:  I use a cheap soft-face mallet I bought at Harbor Freight for hitting the heel or wedge, and a very light steel hammer to advance the iron.  Brass would probably better.

I tested it  in pine and red oak.  In both cases it left a smooth, clean surface.  I imagine it would work as well in just about any furniture wood.
Rough cut edge.
Finished edge.  (Ignore the face... I didn't touch that.)

Final Thoughts?

Absolutely worth it.  Learning to adjust a wooden plane can be an adventure, but this actually adjusts more easily than any other I've tried.  I'm actually considering buying the smoother, and putting these in a light-weight travelling tool kit.  It weighs dramatically less than the Stanley #5, although the blade is a bit narrower and the sole is a bit longer.

Would I buy another?

Absolutely.  I can recommend this one with a clear conscience.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


I had planned to publish the next month of "Woodworking on $1.50 per day" last week, but time got away from me.  The good news is, one of the things that happened over the weekend was a sale at Woodcraft, which may have changed dramatically what I was going to write.

I've just ordered two tools I've been wondering about for a couple years.  Both are planes by Mujingfang, who have a reputation for building decent, reliable tools.  One is their plough plane, which is cheaper than the next best option by... maybe a couple hundred dollars, new?  It normally runs about $65, and was 15% off.  The other, which is much more relevant, is their 11" jack plane.  Since I was planning to write about how it's impossible to find a new plane at a good price, and it runs about $50, now I'll have a chance to test whether I can still say that.

I expect them to arrive sometime next week, or over the weekend if I'm extremely lucky.  So you can expect the next post in the series then.  In the meantime, I hope to find time (and scrap) to build a toolbox like the one I suggested building.  If so, I'll post some photos and a build log.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day - Part 3

Here we are, entering month three.  You've spent the past month or so learning to cut dovetails, trying to figure out how to cut a housing dado with your ryoba saw, and hopefully making some shop furniture.  This month, we're going to make life easier by getting some marking tools.

A lot of people will tell you that you should spend a fortune buying marking and measuring tools, and that you need accuracy of .001" over a foot, and you need to buy a super expensive square to be that accurate.  In my view, that's nonsense.  You'll get that much movement in your board over the course of an hour, just from changing temperatures.  Yes, accuracy is important.  Yes, reliability is important.  But it doesn't have to be THAT good.  Here are some suggestions:


Assuming you live in the US, buy an Empire True Blue 16" Combination Square.  They're inexpensive ($14 at Home Depot, and only a little more on Amazon), easy to get, and mine has remained accurate for something like 6 years now.  This gets you a good square, a good 45 degree marker, and a 16" steel rule.  It'll be a little awkward for small parts, so consider supplementing it with their 6" version at some point later.  For right now, it will do.

Marking Gauge

I'll be honest:  I'm torn here.  The next tool you need is a marking gauge of some sort, and I'm unsure what to recommend.  So instead of a single recommendation, I'll give you a few choices, cheap to expensive.
  • Harbor Freight Mortise Gauge:  At $10 it's the least expensive of the lot.  It's also the cheapest.  If you go this route, open the package at the store.  Check to make sure the sliding arm is actually perpendicular to the fence when it's locked down, that it actually locks down, and that all three pins are there.  I have one, and I use it regularly, but it's sometimes frustrating because it's not really a precision tool.  Also, you'll want to file the pins down to a football cross-section, and use very little pressure when making the first mark.  It works, but it's not great.
  • Rockler or Wood River Wheel Marking Gauge:  If you have a Rockler or Woodcraft nearby, you can pick up one of their house branded gauges for about $17.  A wheel marking gauge is usually easier to set and use, and they'll almost certainly hold their setting better.
  • The Veritas Wheel Marking Gauge:  This is the best of the lot.  It's my most used gauge, and it's fantastic.  It's also over $30.
As I said, I'm not really sure how to go.  I think, in the end, I'd recommend buying one of the cheaper options, which will leave you enough money for item 3.  Probably go with the Rockler or Woodcraft gauge:  they seem to get good reviews, and are certainly higher quality and easier to use than the Harbor Freight version.

Marking Knife

A marking (or striking) knife.  Something like the one by iGaging will make your life a lot easier:  the spear point means you can get the blade flat against your rule or whatever you're using to mark, and they're pretty inexpensive.  Another option is a folding knife:  I went this route, with the Stanley 10-049 Pocket Knife, which is recommended by Paul Sellers.  It's easy to store in a shop apron pocket, and being able to close it means it'll stay sharp longer.  On the downside, I wasn't able to find any source for them except Amazon, which means you'll have to order it.

What can I do now?

To be honest, that hasn't changed much.  When I started this series, I wanted to prioritize tools that would get you working as quickly as possible, since most people aren't thrilled about spending three or four months buying tools they can't actually use.  The difference this month is accuracy.

A good square will enable you to do layout much more accurately:  if you can lay the line more precisely, you'll wind up with straighter cuts and parts that fit together better.  A marking gauge will make cutting rabbets or dovetails simpler, because it will be easier to mark the width of the rabbet or depth of the tails.  A marking knife makes a more precise line than a pencil or pen, and opens the option of using a knifewall to guide your saw, which is more accurate than just trying to cut on a line.

Basically, this doesn't let you do anything new, but it helps you get better at what you were already doing.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day - Projects!

I said this was the month where you could realistically start making furniture, and I wanted to back that up and make some suggestions for projects.

1) A tool box.  If you didn't already make a tool box in month 1, start now!  I recommend a Japanese style toolbox.  There's a good video showing how they work here:

Why?  Because they're relatively simple, they can be made out of commonly available materials (1x10 and 1x2, for instance), and they don't have many difficult cuts.  If you're careful making your cuts, you shouldn't need anything but wood, nails, a saw, and a hammer to put one together.

You could also build a Dutch-style chest, which is my personal preference, but that involves some angled cuts, dealing with hinges, and things like that.  It's still doable with these tools, but it's not easy.

2) A bookshelf.  If you follow this link, you'll find some photos of a book case from the book "The Anarchist's Design Book".  While it would be a lot easier with a couple of extra tools, you could build something quite like it with the tools you have now.  Cutting dados with a ryoba is a pain (I've done it), and you won't be able to do tongue-and-groove joints for the back, but you can make something quite similar with a saw, a chisel, and a hammer.

3) You can actually make some pretty cool things.  I'm not recommending it as an early project, but here's someone making mitered full blind dovetail joints with a ryoba, a quarter inch chisel, and a half-inch chisel.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day - Part 2

It's been a month since you last went out to buy tools, and you're getting tired of nailing joints together.  You really want to cut some better joints, but you're not sure how to get started.  Well, that's what this month's purchasing is, so let's get going!

Month 2

This month we're going to find some chisels and sharpening tools.  This is where you get to make some choices.


For chisels, you want bevel-edge chisels in at least 1/4" and 1/2" sizes.  Adding a 1" chisel will make your life easier, but isn't necessary for a lot of things.  If you look at Amazon, you can get Irwin Marple chisels for $8-$9 each.  That's about $18.  I'd recommend buying a 1/4" and a 1/2", and spending the rest of this month's budget on sharpening stones.  If you don't want to order from Amazon, Sears and Home Depot have similar chisels at similar prices.  You can also keep an eye on thrift stores, flea markets, and yard sales:  those are a bit risky, because you're not really going to have the tools to restore a badly damaged chisel, but you might find a fantastic deal.

Keep in mind these are not high-quality tools.  They're not going to be very sharp out of the box, and they probably won't hold an edge all that long.  That said, I worked with a set of Craftsman chisels for a few years, and while they sucked, they still worked.


Talking about sharpening is like tap-dancing through a minefield.  Given a budget of about $25, though, you're pretty limited.  Given that, I'm going to go with the two cheapest initial cost options.  There are a lot of excellent videos on how to sharpen, so I'm not going to cover it here.


First things first, you need a flat surface.  There are two cheap ways to get one, although neither will be perfect.  First, go to a home store and buy a granite floor tile.  They should run around $5-8, and will be flat enough.  The second option is to talk to a granite supplier.  See if they've got an off-cut too small to sell as a countertop, but big enough for your use.  You probably want something around 8"x2" at a minimum, and ground smooth on at least one side.  Larger is better.

Next, you should be looking for sandpaper.  You want wet/dry paper, and for routine sharpening you can probably start with 400 grit.  I'd go 400, 800, and 1000 grit.  If you want to, you can go up to 2000, but I mostly didn't bother when I was using sandpaper.  When you go to sharpen, drip some water or windex on the paper, set it on the granite plate, and sharpen.  

So what's the catch?  The catch is that while the initial investment is low, the long-term cost is high.  Yes, sandpaper is cheap, but the cost adds up.  You can't use the same sheet for very long, or you'll run into issues where half of the cutting edge is sharp and the other half isn't.


Oilstones are a slightly larger initial investment, but not horrible.  You can get a three-grit set on Amazon for around $25, which is just within our budget.  Similar options may be available at local stores, or they may not:  it's hard to guess in any given area.  You're mostly going to want fine and extra-fine grits, not the coarse one.  That's really for working on a damaged blade, which hopefully you won't have.

Is there a catch?  I've never used that particular set, so I don't really know.  In all honestly, I greatly prefer a diamond plate, and so I've switched to that exclusively.  But they're not cheap:  the combined price for the set I have is something like $150, which is absurd for a $45/month budget.  If you have a windfall, sharpening tools would be a great way to spend it, but for now just put it on your "someday when I'm rich" list.

What can I do now?

The addition of chisels makes a big change.  You can now cut dovetails, for instance.  For practice, I recommend buying a piece of 1x4 or 1x5, and cutting a set of dovetails every day for at least two weeks.  Try to get a little better every day, and fix something that didn't quite work right the day before.  At the end of two weeks or a month, you're likely to be cutting them fairly quickly and quite accurately.

So that means you can make dovetailed boxes, or drawers for a case that's nailed together.  You can make housing dados and rabbets if you're careful, which means you can make a pretty solid book case.  You can now make mortise and tenon joints in softwood, and in hardwood if you're cautious.

This is, honestly, the point where you can start making furniture.  You don't have a smoothing plane or a big range of sandpaper grits, so making fine furniture is a challenge, but you can make things.  For that matter, you now have the critical tools for making a workbench:  I didn't have much more than this when I built my small bench.

So spend the next month practicing sharpening and making joints, and I'll figure out what you should buy next.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day - Part 1

I recently saw another "I want to start wood working, but I really can't afford to spend much money" post, and it got me thinking.  There used to be good options for buying things gradually, but at this point it's pretty much high-interest credit cards or nothing.  There used to be books titled things like "Europe on $5 a day!", so I thought I'd do something similar.

Even as a college student, I probably could have put away a dollar or two a day, so I'm going to think of the available money as $45/month.  It's a nice round number to work with.  Before I go any further, though, I'm going to try to address the cost vs. quality problem.  With woodworking tools, you generally get what you pay for.  On $45 per month, you're not going to be buying heirloom tools.  You're going to be buying tools that you'll probably start wanting to replace after a couple of years.

So what's the value here?  Aren't you just throwing money away?  Well, yes.  You are.  But not everyone can afford to buy top line tools from the beginning, and if you're going to insist on Lie-Nielson tools on even $5 per day, it's going to be years before you can get much work done.  This is a "Get in the shop as fast as possible" list.  You can keep the tools in a cardboard box until you build yourself a better tool box.  And now I'll get back on track.

What do we need to do?

To start with, what are the critical tools or operations?  In no particular order, here's my list.
  • A saw that can make rip cuts.
  • A saw that can make cross cuts. 
  • A saw that can make fine joinery cuts.
  • Chisels for shaping, cutting joints, etc.
  • Some sort of smoothing tool.  Card scrapers, hand plane, sandpaper, or whatever.
  • Marking tools... the usual choices being a marking gauge, marking knife, and so on.
  • Ways to drill large and small holes.
  • A hammer (for driving nails and just generally smacking things) and screwdrivers.
  • A way to make long board edges straight after being rip-cut.
  • A way to cut rabbets

The actual tools.

OK.  So that's a rough tool set.  Let's talk about actual tools, then.  As a guideline here, I'm going to go as cheap as I think is practical:  this is not a kit of heirloom tools.  This is a set that will let you get going as cheaply as possible, and which you'll replace over time as you come up with more cash.  I'm also going to try to think about order of operations here, so I'll split things up by month.  

Note 1:  I get nothing if you follow these links.  I get nothing if you don't follow these links.  I'm pretty much writing this for fun, and the only profit I get is the excitement of checking to see whether anyone has read this.
Note 2:  Prices are as of the day I wrote this.  I'm not going to keep updating, but the basics should stay pretty similar.

What am I including?

Before I start the actual list, a quick note.  I'm only including durable tools here;  no wood, even though it's a major cost.  Why not?  Because you can do quite a lot with cheap or free lumber.  Dimensional lumber from the home store, scavenged pallet wood, and things like that.  

Month 1:

This month, you're going to Sears.  No matter what you do, you're eventually going to need to drive nails and screws, so we'll deal with that and see what we have left.  First, pick up a 16oz Curved Claw Hammer.  The curved claws are good for removing nails, and I happen to like wood handles.  Also, it's about $5, which seems right for this project.  Next up, pick up a cheap 6-in-1 screwdriver.  I have this one, and it works fine.  It's about $9 right now:  if you see one that's cheaper, grab that instead.  You'll want #1 and #2 Phillips head, and 3/16" and 1/4" slotted heads, which most of that style have.  We're up to $14 here, so let's add a saw and call it a day.  I have a Shark brand Ryoba (there's a review back near the beginning of the blog), which I quite like.  At the moment Sears is listing them at about $29, so it will bring us up to $43 before tax.  I'll call that good!  If you're willing to splurge a little on month one, I'd add a few sheets of 180 grit sandpaper and a variety pack of nails.  That will bring you up to around $50-55, but allow you to start woodworking immediately.  You could also put off the screwdriver until next month... it's not really critical if you only have nails.

What can you do with this set?  A surprising amount, actually.

I'd start with a Japanese-style toolbox such as this:

Build it to the length of your saw, and ideally out of something like 1x10.  It will hold and protect your tools, but it doesn't need to be perfect.  All the joints are butt joints held together with nails, so there's no complex joinery.  It also doesn't have to be perfectly smooth, so sanding the ends of the boards with 180 grit sandpaper will be fine.  Just wrap it around a piece of scrap and get going.

This toolset will also allow you build a standard five-board bench, like this:

And that should be enough to keep you busy until it's time to think about your second month's purchasing...

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cutting Mitered Corners, Part 2

At my last post, I was waiting for the glue to dry so I could put a top rail on the jig.  Once it had, I planed a 45 degree angle into the rail, and screwed it in place.

While I did do my best to make sure the rail was actually 45 degrees, I realized it didn't entirely matter.  The top rail is there for one reason:  to support the edge of the plane as it slides across the jig.  As long as the sole of the plane is 45 degrees to the bed of the jig, nothing else really matters about the rail.  It could be square, as long as it holds the plane at the correct angle.  Once I had the angle planed in, I used my #5 plane to figure out where it should be attached, and screwed it down.  I may take it up and glue it, but it seems to be fine the way it is.

And that's it... the only thing left is to try it out.

The holdfast on the left doesn't add much, but it does at a little bit of downward pressure, which is a plus.

Yep, my bench is a mess.  Here's how the jig looks with a plane sitting on it, though.

Shaving from 1/4" poplar.  It works, and I'd say the plane is probably sharp enough.

Now that I know the thing works, I'll add a rail to the bottom that I can clamp in my leg vise.  That should simplify work holding quite a lot, and make it a lot quicker to set up.


Overall, a successful project!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cutting Mitered Corners, Part 1

I have a few small boxes to make, and I wanted to do mitered corners with splines across them.  Unfortunately, miters are really hard to cut accurately in wide stock, and my Langdon miter box can only hold small stock vertically if it's pretty long and not too wide.  So what am I to do?

Enter the miter shooting board.  My first attempt was for a jig that would sit on my regular shooting board, with the miter at the bottom, so I could just treat it like any other board.  Unfortunately, that turns out not to have worked, for several reasons.  So after some tweaking (and muttered curses), I decided to go with a more standard design.  Something more like this, from the Unplugged Workshop:

I happened to have a fairly large piece of pine (around 10" by 14") that's been in my shop for over a year without cupping or twisting, so I decided that was probably stable enough to use for a base.  The first step was cutting the groove for the plane to ride in.  I have a scratch stock I keep meaning to use, so I started by making a 90 degree cutter for it, so the sides of the groove would be at 45 degrees to the surface of the wood.  Cutting cross-grain in pine is hard, so I started out with a knife line, and cleaned it out to a little less than 45 degrees by eye with a chisel.  Once it looked about right, I used the scratch stock to make sure the sides were actually at the right angles.

Next up were the sides.  Those are simple pieces of 2x2 pine, and the angles were cut on the Langdon miter box.  I don't use it a lot, but when I do it reminds me why I bought it:  the cuts wound up essentially perfect straight off the saw, with a fairly clean surface.

It's a little bit of a challenge to use in the space I have available, since my bench isn't actually deep enough to accommodate it, but clamping it to a sawbench works fine.  For scale, that's a 30" backsaw blade (I think... maybe 36"?), so it's quite a bit bigger than it looks in the photo.

Once those were cut, I glued them to the base, making sure they were square to the groove and met it at the same place on both sides.  Right now the glue is curing (I was impatient, so I used Titebond instead of hide glue), and hopefully I'll be able to get the final piece installed tonight.  Then, finally, I'll be able to start working on those boxes!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Design Notebook: A New Bench

Another "thought exercise" sort of post.

Background & Purpose

One of the projects I've been (slowly) working on is clearing my garage to a point where I can use it as a shop.  It's going to take some time, since I'll also have to insulate it, but I've made a start.  One thing I've recently started giving serious consideration to is the bench.  What I'm using right now is roughly two feet deep by four feet long.  It's great for the space I have, but if I'm going to have more space, I want a larger bench.

I've been going back and forth on this internally for quite a while, and it may happen again, but I think I've figured out roughly what I want.  My two initial impulses were an English-style bench, with a wide apron and nothing underneath, or a Shaker style bench, with lots of built-in storage.  I think I've settled on the Shaker type, largely because I like the way they look.  The other advantage is that I know from experience that I'll keep piling things under my bench until any open space is full, and a Shaker bench will at least force me to get things somewhat organized.


What I've thought about so far:

1) Weight.  It needs to be heavy to stay still, and shouldn't need to be moved within the shop very often.  A Shaker bench is good for weight, given the drawers.  However, I'm sure I'll move house again, so it should be possible to either break it down or somehow make it, if not portable, then at least moveable.

2) Tail Vise.  I'd like a tail vise of some sort... I'm leaning towards something like this, which seems to be the new standard.  It should be both more solid and easier to build than a traditional vise, and more useful than a wagon vise.

3) Front vise.  I'm torn on this one.  I love my leg vise:  If I were doing it again, I'd build it out of something harder and stiffer than pine, but using it is great.  On the other hand, it does have some shortcomings.  I'd really like to try a shoulder vise, which is something that would fit a lot better on a large bench than my little one.  What I'll likely do is build up a shoulder vise and attach it with Timber Lok screws, which would certainly provide enough strength to keep it stable.  If I end up not liking it, I'll either install a metal quick-release vise or another leg vise.

4) Holdfasts.  I'm not willing to give up my holdfasts, so I'll need to leave a gap under the benchtop.  The top plus the gap needs to total about 7", which is quite doable.  I'd like to shoot for a 3" top with 4" underneath.  I'll probably leave that space open, since it's not ideal for storage, and hang a shelf over the bench for the things I store there now.

5) Board jack/sliding deadman.  One of the things I dislike on my current bench is trying to support long pieces of wood.  I'd originally planned to replace it with an English-style bench with an apron, but I think I like the idea of the board jack better.  It will also leave some space for...

6) Storage.  I'm torn on this.  On the one hand, I can always use more storage.  On the other hand, I like working out of my toolchest, and I'm not sure I love the idea of having access potentially blocked by whatever I'm working on.  I think the drawers will likely end up filled with things like hinges, fasteners, and the like, with maybe a few rarely-used tools to fill out the set.  I can't know what I'm going to wind up putting in them until I've got it built, though, so I'm not going to worry about it.  One thing I do know is that I want the drawers to be transportable:  What I'm thinking at the moment is that for each drawer I'll cut a piece of wood (possibly 1/4" ply) for a top, and store it under the drawer.  When the time comes to move, I'll be able to pull out the drawer, tack the top in place with nails, and stack it in the moving van.  That way I can move the bench without all the drawers, and the drawers can stay packed while I move everything.

7) Top.  My current bench is just about 24" deep and 50" long.  I don't love either dimension.  The back 6-10" of the top really only get used for tool storage, which shouldn't be happening.  50" isn't really long enough to work on large assemblies, though I've been making it work.  The traditional Shaker bench is significantly deeper than I want, and I'd like to try out a tool well.  So my current thinking is to make a solid top about 18" deep, with a tool well behind that. I can always put spacers in the well if I need the extra space, and in the meantime it should stay useable.

Design Considerations

I built my current bench out of Douglas Fir and 3/4" plywood.  I like the Douglas Fir:  it's hard, it's stable, and it looks good.  The plywood I'm not such a fan of... it's stable and reliable, but I don't much like the look.  I'll probably stick to a frame of DF, probably in the form of 4x4.  I might just use 4x4 for the legs, and use either 2x stock for the rails:  that will depend on how much overkill I want to go with and what lumber I can find.

For the top, I'd like to go solid wood.  My current bench has a plywood top, and while it's OK, drilling dog holes really isn't practical with hand tools.  Since I'm planning on a tail vise, what I may do is make the front 3" or so out of some hardwood, maple or oak for preference.  I can cut square mortises in that before gluing it in place, and have a good way to deal with surface planing long boards.  Behind that, I'll almost certainly go with laminated softwood;  pine, more DF, or whatever's cheap and straight at the lumber yard.  Either way I'll want the top at least 3" thick, to provide a good grip for my holdfasts.  Alternatively, I may buy a prefab laminated top, if I can find one thick enough (or two at a good enough price).

I do intend to paint everything but the top and the leg that will likely be used as a vise:  the more photos I see, the more I realize I want some color in my shop.  I'm planning for white walls and ceiling to add light, so any color is going to have to come from the furniture.


None of this is settled, but at least the rough outlines should work well.  With luck, I'll be able to start on this project this summer.  Without... well, design work is good mental exercise, and maybe it'll help someone else who's trying to figure out what to do for a bench.

Plane repairs

About six months ago, I bought a wooden moving fillister plane on ebay.  It's a design I hadn't seen before, but looked like it was in pretty good shape, and the seller was able to confirm that all the parts moved the way they should.

Also something I hadn't seen... those lines on the side of the body are depth markings.  They're perfectly parallel to the sole, and are mostly in 1/8" increments.  It's not perfectly accurate, but it's close enough for a rough setting.

Once I got it, I touched up the iron (it still needs a more thorough sharpening, but it's workable), and gave it a try.  On long-grain cuts, it worked quite well.  It showed a little bit of tendency to jam, but was otherwise fine.  On cross-grain cuts, it was pretty bad.  It worked, but the edges were ragged.  After a little poking, I realized there was no problem at all with the nicker: the slot is worn enough that it needs a shaving for padding behind it, but other than that it's fine.

The problem was that the iron wasn't original, and was too wide.  On a moving fillister plane, the iron needs to line up pretty exactly with the nicker.  On this plane, the iron extended almost a full 1/16" beyond the nicker, which mean the nicker couldn't do its job.

So last night I spent close to an hour filing down the outer edge of the iron.  I could have used a grinder, but I hate using them and I didn't want to risk overheating the blade.  Eventually, I got it down to just about the right width, and it works far, far better now.

It can always get better, but right now it's in perfectly useable condition, at least in soft woods.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Toy Chests for my Nephews

This was a fun project in a lot of ways.  It was also the first time I needed stitches for something I did to myself while woodworking.  Oops.

Last year, my sisters suggested -- possibly in jest -- that it would be cool to have a pair of toy chests that would fit under the windows in their sunroom.  I agreed that would be cool, and carefully didn't promise anything.  In the end, though, the temptation was too great, and I got to work over the summer.


What do toy chests need?  A lot of space, a lot of strength, and air holes.  Especially if you've got twin boys, SOMEONE is going to end up trapped inside one of them sooner or later.  Size was more or less a given:  they couldn't be more than about 22" high and still fit under the windows, and they couldn't be more than about 32" long and fit on the oddly shaped wall.  

Everything else was taken directly from the lumber I was using.  I decided to build it frame-and-panel, since I don't much like doing big glue-ups (more commentary on that later), so I sat down and worked out sizing.  I don't have a power tool capable of easily ripping to a given width, so I wanted to have as few rips as possible.  I therefore sat down with a table of common widths of pine to work out sizes.

I knew that I wanted to use 2x2 for the legs.  It was cheap, convenient, and easy to get.  So that's 1.5" on each side, for 3" total.  I wanted to use 1x5 for the stiles, which is about 4 1/2" each, less about 3/8 for each groove.  Assuming two stiles, two legs, and six grooves (two per stile, one per leg), that's (very) roughly 2 x (1") + 2 x (3 3/4") = 8 1/2".  It turns out that two 1x10 panels and one 1x8 panel brought it up to about 32", which was right where I wanted it.  Each panel was rabbeted 1/4" in from the edge to fit in groves in the frame.

The sides I ended up doing as flat panels, which I now sort of regret:  I'm pretty sure the panel to leg joint is going to be the weakest point in the whole chest.

The lids are groove-in-groove.  I would have like to have thicker (or at least stronger) lumber for that, but 1x was what I had easy (and cheap) access to.  Doing it again I might buy more expensive materials, since I'm not thrilled with the final strength.  The lid wound up being (I think) 1x6 frame and 1x12 for the panel. I build the lid, then sized the side panels to that.  That meant two not very visible rip cuts, rather than one very visible rip.


This was the largest "finished furniture" project I've done.  My bench is larger (although not by much!)

In general construction was very simple, since everything except the ends and bottoms were frame in panel, and the bottom was just shiplapped planks.  My combination plane got a good workout on this one, and so did my rabbet plane!  I was quite pleased with how well both worked on endgrain, and in pine.  There was a little bit of spelching (pieces breaking off) at the end of the end grain cuts, but not enough to be a problem.

This photo shows work on end grain:  lots of dust and fine particles, no shavings.  In the bottom left you can just see some of the long curls I got going with the grain.

To be honest, the larger part of the time spent once I finalized the design was just production line work:  Cut all the rails.  Cut all the stiles.  Cut all the panels.  Cut all the legs.  Mark all the legs for mortises.  Mark all the rails for mortises and tenons.  Mark all the stiles for tenons.  Groove everything.  Mortise everything.  Cut all the tenons.

Digression:  On why tools should always be put away

Near the middle of the mortising process, I made my first massive woodworking mistake:  I put a chisel down on the bench, rather than in the rack.  A couple of minutes later, I put a screwdriver down next to it after adjusting the plow plane, and went back to work.  When I saw the screwdriver rolling off the bench, I grabbed for it without looking... and found out it was the chisel.  Four stitches later, I was left contemplating the pile of boards I had yet to mortise, and the fact that I couldn't really use my left hand for any of it.  Finally, I gave in and bought a mortising machine... and the chisel broke partway through the first mortise.  I ended up just waiting for the stitches to come out and doing the rest by hand anyway.

Back to work!

Doing things production line style means a few things.  I was able to gang-cut a lot of the pieces, which made life easier.  It also ensured that, whether or not anything actually matched my planned measurements, everything was the same, which was the most critical part.  I think I ended up cutting the rails too short, which meant a few strokes of the plane to narrow down the outer panels, but it really didn't matter.  Since everything was the same, the chests still came out square.  It also meant that I was able to do things in batches, which worked out well time-wise.

That's the piled up pieces, with all of the frame pieces cut and grooved, waiting for me to cut tenons on the stiles.If you're wondering why there are an odd number of narrow panels over on the left, it's because I wasn't sure how I wanted to shape them other than the rabbet, so I cut a bunch of extras.

Once I finished with the shaping, it was time for the first test fit!

I was pretty pleased at this point.  The frame slipped a little before I took this photo, but I was able to get the top rail almost flush, and plane to fit after it was assembled.  I test fit all four assemblies, and labeled them to be sure I could get them back together:

Then it was matter of break it down, fit it on the dining table (on top of cardboard, to protect the table), and start painting!


That's almost the entire chest (one panel is missing, although I don't recall why, and the end panels were still being glued) laid out and painted.  I chose Old Fashioned Milk Paint for two reasons.  First, it doesn't smell the way latex paint does, and we were running very close to departure time, where we'd need to spend a minimum of two very long days in the car with these chests.  Second, it's pretty much non-toxic, and these chests are intended for small children.  You can bet they're going to lick or eat some of the paint sooner or later, and I figured it would be nice if that didn't poison them or something.

We (that would be me and my wonderful partner, M, who kindly agreed to help with the painting.  She deserves a lot of the credit for this actually being painted before we left!) did three coats, and wound up loving the colors.  The paint was easy to work with, went on smoothly, and looked terrible for the first coat.  After that it got better pretty quickly.  Sanding between coats was with brown paper bags, torn into rough squares.  It worked quickly, and we never sanded through the current coat.

The final assembly

Everything was painted, and the clock was running down on departure time.  We were driving to Indianapolis from Massachusetts, so whatever was done had to have time for the glue to cure before we left.

 Interestingly, the glue up I was most worried about, the side panels, was the easiest.  I decided to use liquid hide glue on this project, largely because it's reversible and I expect these to take a lot of abuse and, potentially, damage.  I decided to try a rub joint:  I knew the two boards matched very closely, and I figured it couldn't do any harm to try.  The big advantage of a rub joint is that it doesn't really need to be clamped:  the hide glue holds it in place.  I knew it was risky trying it with liquid (rather than hot) hide glue, but I tried it anyway, and I'm really glad I did.  It worked beautifully, better than any other long-grain joint I've glued.

I glued up both fronts, both backs, and both lids, along with the side panels, before leaving.  I got one full assembly done (except for hinges, which I picked up along the way) at home, and then was out of time.  I nailed and glued rails all the way around the bottom before gluing up, and was able to fit the bottom as well.  As it turned out, it was just as well I only had one of them fully assembled:  fitting a second into the car would have been something of a challenge!  Finally, in Indianapolis, I was able to glue the second chest together, fit the hinges, and put some toys in them for Christmas morning.

The unpainted strip just below the lid is a spacer:  I mounted the hinges so that the barrel makes a spacer, and fit a wooden strip along the front to match.  That way there's an air gap almost all the way around, and the lid and hinges still feel solid and secure.  When the twins are old enough that they don't need that anymore, I'll likely re-mount the hinges and remove the front spacer.


I'm extremely pleased with how these came out.  There are things I would do differently (hardwood for the lid, frame and panel for the sides, not cutting myself with a chisel...), but in the end the product looks good and feels solid.  Once the bottom planks were in and the end panels nailed in place, they show no tendency to rack, even empty.  Once they're full they should be even more stable.
All in all, a fob fairly well done.