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The Indian DIY & Woodworker

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The Story of my Journey as a Hobbyist Woodworker in IndiaIndranil Banerjienoreply@blogger.comBlogger186125TheIndianDiyWoodworkerhttps://feedburner.google.com
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The Excellence of Desi Timbers

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 5:43am

Chhattisgarh Teak Forest

The average Indian's ignorance of timbers, their type, variety and characteristics, is odd given that this country has a long tradition of using wood products. The Subcontinent's forests at one time were vast and contained innumerable species of excellent furniture grade tree species.

Writing in 1929, Hugh Trotter, forest economist at the Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun, observed: "For high class furniture, cabinet-making and decorative panel work, there are several very ornamental and excellent woods in India. The chief characteristics required for these uses are nonliability to crack and split, retention of shape, ease of working, and good colour, figure and grain."

So important was timber and its uses in India that a forest products laboratory was set up in Dehra Dun in 1906. In the pre-WW II era it was "the largest, and probably the best equipped of any Forest Research Institute in the world, and the advice and experience of the many specialists employed there are always at the disposal of timber users and others, whether large or small, without any charge." [Trotter 1940]

The institute at Dehra Dun still exists and the use of wood is continuously rising in this country. Yet, general awareness about woods remains low. Poor quality factory made furniture, mostly of plywood disguised with layers of wood veneers, are hoisted as objects of desire. Few customers care to look beneath the superficial shine of chemical finishes or care about matters such as wood grain, figure or durability.

In the past, customers of fine furniture and cabinetry appear to have been far more discerning. This was particularly true of the country's European population They favoured a variety of local woods and much of the excellent furniture crafted here was also exported to Europe, chiefly Britain.

While some of the woods once so popular are well-known names even today, many others are long forgotten.

Of the 15 top cabinet grade woods of yesteryears listed in Trotter's invaluable handbook on common Indian timbers, only a handful continue to be well known to the public. These include Teak, Sheesham, Walnut and Mahogany. These woods continue to be commonly used for fine furniture and cabinetry.

Three of the woods in Trotter's list are now so scarce that they are either in the endangered list or are regarded as under severe threat. Chloroxylon swietenia (satin wood), for instance, a highly attractive and durable wood has virtually disappeared from world markets and is on the IUCN Red List. This unmatched wood is found in small quantities in south India and Sri Lanka.

The famous Andaman Padauk (Pterocarpus dalbergioides) too has largely disappeared although it is not officially protected.  Similarly, East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) is on the CITES list and can only be found in the black market in small quantities.

Of the eight remaining woods, a few continue to be used and cherished by Indian cabinet makers. These include Toon (Cedrela toona) as well as the Sirish and Kokko family (Albizzia species).

The rest, including Betula alnoides (Indian birch), Chukrasia tabularis (chikrassy), Phoebe species (bonsum), Pteroearpus marsupium, Terminalia bialata (silver grey) and Terminalia tomentosa (Indian Laurel), seem to have gone off the radar, at least as far as cabinet making is concerned.

It's a pity that a number of excellent cabinet grade woods native to this country are no longer available or used. Some discerning woodworkers are, however, making a special effort to pick up and use local woods when possible.

Indranil Banerjie
16 February 2018

Some local woods used by woodworkers

Abid Ali

Abid Ali (North India)
Indian red cedar or toon. This is wonderful wood to work with, very easy to plane takes finish well. Love the colour.
Walnut. The Kashmiri walnut when you can get some is pleasure to work on, I like this wood when the project demands a bit of carving.
Teak. Yes I know you will say who doesn't like teak. Simple fact that it's a very easy to work teak and you get excellent finishing results puts it in the top 5. The put off is price.
Indian rain tree/Sirish/ monkey pod. This is a wood I came across in guitar workshop amazing grain pattern, tough to work but it's worth the effort once you see the finished product.
Deodar. This is a amazing softwood. Excellent to work with, this wood is quite resistant to decay, insect attacks can be used for outdoor projects too. Only problem is availability outside of Kashmir and Himachal.

Kingshuk Chakraborty
Kingshuk Chakraborty (Eastern India)
Toona Ciliata:, Common name Toon Indian Mahogany etc
Pros: Takes a very good polish, very easy to work, readily available, very good texture; Costs 1200-1400 per cft. Cons: Very susceptible to borer especially sapwood. This wood cannot be stocked for long time as sapwood will attract borer inevitably; This is not a very stable wood and bows significantly during seasonal changes. Contains some characteristics of mahogany family and interlocking grains sometimes pose challenge with hand planing (tear out).
Baadam (Terminalia cantappa). Indian almond is found primarily in the north eastern forests. Heartwood is golden brown and sapwood is white to yellow. Grain and texture are very similar to teak. Pros: Takes polish very well and after polish resembles teak; price tag is relatively low around 1400 per cft; termite resistant; relatively stable wood; machining and chiselling is easy. Cons: Heavy interlocked grain; heavy contrast between sapwood and heartwood poses challenge to staining; primary source is Assam and due to transport restriction, availability is restricted.
Bhola (Merbau): This is a wonderful wood respected by local carpenters who rank this wood after teak. Bhola is a very stable wood, used for window, cot preparation. Assam Bhola is best one, although it is also imported from Indonesia and Malaysia. Heartwood is dark brown and sapwood yellowish orange in colour. Doesn't have very distinctive figure as texture is usually dark. In my house, Bhola is used in windows and doors and has survived the humid weather for more than 30 years. Pros: A very stable wood, robust and heavy; very easy to chisel and plane; gives a good lustre after finish; termite resistant. Cons: Not a heavily figured wood and price tag is on higher side 2600-2900 per cft.  
Champ (Michelia Champaca): A highly figured wood gives a fairly good competition to other figured species like teak and Sheesham. Available in north eastern provinces specially from Assam. Texture is greenish brown to yellowish brown. Used for window and doors frames and panels. Pros: Easy to work; finishes well, termite resistant and reasonably priced, Rs. 1400-1700 per cft. Cons: This wood takes a long time to season. Air drying should be carefully done to avoid twist and cups.
Black Sirish (Albizia odoratissima). This wood belongs to the Fabaceae family and should not be confused with Monkey Pod (Albizia saman). Also known as Kakur Sirish or Kakur locally. Heartwood is yellowish brown to dark brown in colour with black patterns of annual rings looks wonderful after polish. Pros: Relatively cheaper rate Rs 1000 per cft; pungent smell repels termites and other insects; Gives a very good surface; Very sturdy, durable wood used for tables, stools and benches. Cons: A very hard wood to work. Need to cover mouth, face and eye while sawing and machining, as smell is very pungent and some people may have allergic reaction to it.
Two more woods need worth mentioning, Neem and Acacia. Both are very hard to work but produces very durable furniture. People here make cots with Acacia wood, which gives decent surface polish and are economical substitutes for more expensive woods.

Vinay Oommen

Vinay Oommen (South India)
The following are the woods that I use often though I am not sure if they are local. They are available in Vellore locally, but may be sourced from central India or Abroad.
Karuvelam: (Babool wood). This is a very hard wood, with beautiful grain. So hard that it is difficult to work with. But this is used in door posts etc. It is cheap in Vellore (about Rs 1250 per cubic foot). The problem with this wood is that it sometimes has fibres that are at right angles to the main grain (I am not sure of the technical term for this) but this this makes it difficult to get a good smooth finish and uniform stain.
Neem: This is again a hard, cheap wood (Rs 1200 or so per cubic foot). Very difficult to work with, but can be used for structural work. The tree is abundant in south India.
Mango. Not so commonly available, as I think people prefer the mangoes rather than the wood. But when it is available it is a light coloured, wood, and cheap (Rs 1250). This is also very fibrous with fibres running all over the place. I think it is used in Pepperfry.com type of furniture a lot to make shelves etc. I would use it if I get my hands on it, but the trees are not so common especially I think with people now going for hybrid mango trees.
Naatu Teak (native teak). This is cheaper than the Burmese teak or Nigerian teak. I think the native teak refers to the fact that it is Indian teak. The trees are usually thinner and so one only gets thinner reapers, sometimes with the soft wood also included. It is used to make teak wood beading. But this is far cheaper than the other teak varieties, so that if a project is planned with small thin strips, this is the wood I would go for.
Country wood: This is a loose term I think that is given to other trees that have little commercial value. This is usually handled by the smaller lumber mills. One of my students got a whole small tree trunk for about 1000 rupees or so, that he used to make a martial arts dummy.
The other wood that I use a lot but is not local is Vengai. This is more expensive (about 2500-3000) per cubic foot. At this range we also get Irulai, and some imported teak varieties. Padauk is also got at this range, but I hear it is imported now.
Categories: Hand Tools

The Big Deal about Chopping Boards

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 8:44pm
Chopping boards for healthy living

In meat shops all over India, butchers still use a tree stump, usually from the Neem (Azadirachta indica) tree as a butcher's block. There is a reason for this: end grain wood self-heals and lasts a long time. Moreover, the natural oils in the wood of trees such as Neem are anti-bacterial.

There has been a shift towards plastic chopping boards in recent times because they are easier to clean and handle. However, they seem to have a problem: knife cuts scour deep fine lines on the plastic which can get clogged with minute quantities of food matter.

Even a minute quantity of food matter lodged inside the fine cuts in a chopping board will spoil and breed moulds and bacteria, including toxic ones that could cause chronic digestive ailments.

This is one reason many people today are going back to using wooden chopping boards particularly the end-grain ones, which are very durable and inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi.

I have gone back to using wooden chopping boards but never got around to making an end grain board. I used regular Pine for making my kitchen boards which is not such a bad alternative.

Recently, I picked up a thick cross section of Neem which I decided to turn into a chopping board. Some of the cracks required filling with epoxy and the bark had to be taken off. The top and sides were smoothed by several hours of serious sanding.

Filling cracks with epoxy
After a lot of sanding

Adding pads

Paraffin - a food safe oil

Pouring Paraffin

Paraffin soaked

In Use

I attached four rubber pads in the base to and finished it with Paraffin Oil purchased at the local chemist. Paraffin oil has medicinal uses and is food safe. A bottle costs about Rs 150. I allowed the oil to soak in and dry in the sun for a few hours. It was then ready for use.

My wife was somewhat unnerved by the appearance of this rather large chopping board (three inches thick and two feet at its widest). She argued it would be difficult to move around but I assured her she would get used to it.

In retrospect it does seem rather large and takes up quite a bit of counter space. But the good thing is it will probably last us a lifetime!

Indranil Banerjie
12 January 2018
Categories: Hand Tools

Manmeet "Lucky" Singh Guitar maker

Sun, 12/10/2017 - 1:50am
Manmeet "Lucky" Singh, Luthier

Shadipur is a crowded, largely working class, locality in west Delhi adjoining the industrial districts of Naraina and Kirti Nagar. Its narrow streets perpetually crowded with autos, two-wheelers and rickshaws are lined with endless shops, eateries and hawkers. Down its narrow alleys are houses that seem to touch each other and allow nothing wider than a scooter or motorbike to pass through.

Manmeet Singh, better known as "Lucky", leads me down one of these alleys where the noise of the street recedes and sunlight is cut off by the overhang of closely built brick and cement houses. He unlocks a steel door and ushers me into his 10 by 20 feet workshop.

The little windowless workshop is crammed with carefully bundled stacks of wood of various species. He collects different types of wood, and lots of it. For, Lucky is a luthier; at 23, he is perhaps one of the country's youngest and already a pro known for his finishing skills.

Measuring a pattern for a guitar body

He got into guitar making after his mother accidentally broke his guitar. "I repaired the guitar and liked the process", recalls Lucky. "I first began to repair guitars for local music shops and then started making them."

He has been making guitars for just 3 years and already his basic models of acoustic guitars sell for Rs 25,000. He makes one or two guitars a month and supplements his income by taking up spray finishing work and procuring exotic local varieties of wood for guitar makers and wood suppliers.

Ukulele with Cocobolo back

The first part of the process is to acquire great wood, he explains. "You cannot finish something that is not great in the first place", he explains in Hindi.

This is one reason why he spends a lot of his time - an average of three days a week- at the city timber markets. At Kirti Nagar timber market near where he lives, everyone seems to know Lucky. He dives into the shops to quickly inspect what is available. If something catches his eye, he is instantly on to it.

Bookmatched Babool

At one shop, we came across a couple of logs of a local timber called Jungle Jalebi. I later learnt this wood is Pithecellobium dulce also known as Monkeypod. It is dense and difficult to saw. Lucky thought one of the logs would produce some great burl.

He snapped a few photographs of the log and sent it to one his mates in Mumbai who exports exotic Indian woods for guitar makers around the world. The reply came back almost instantly and in the affirmative. The next thing I know Lucky was fishing out money to reserve the log for re-sawing later.

Lucky's little workshop stashed with wood

"Two or three of us share the wood I find", Lucky explained. "That way I can get what I want without having to block a lot of money for an entire log."

This way, he has managed to build up a small but impressive collection of a wide variety of wood, including Purpleheart, Cocobolo, Black Siris, Mango, Indian Mahogany, Sapele, Bubinga, Spanish Cedar and so on.

A beautiful local species called Siris

He gets the wood cut into quarter inch thick pieces and brings them back to his workshop where he uses a shop made drum sander to bring them down further to a final of 2 to 3 millimetres.

The pieces are cut into various shapes and joined together with thin splines. The sides are moulded in forms of various shapes and sizes made of MDF. The neck is made separately and later attached to the body.

Mango wood guitar finished with lacquer

Where he excels is in the finishing. He has an air compressor spray system at home and does the finishing there in a veranda as his workshop is too tiny and enclosed for spraying. He also has a shop made buffing machine which uses various types of cloth wheels.

"The glow in the finish comes from depth", he says. "The only way you can know it has worked is from seeing the final product. If there isn't enough depth in the finish, then it isn't done."

An accoustic guitar made of Indian Mahogany by Lucky

The best thing I liked about Lucky was his insatiable curiosity about different kinds of wood, finishes and work methods. He keeps visiting the larger paint dealers to know about the latest kinds of finishes, paints, fillers and so on. He seems to be constantly absorbing information.

A self-taught guitar maker, Lucky Singh seems to be vastly enjoying the learning curve he is on. His insatiable curiosity about everything involving his art will ensure that he grows to be a great craftsman someday soon.

Indranil Banerjie
10 December 2017
Categories: Hand Tools

My Best Buys of 2017

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 9:33pm

Looking back on 2017, I realized I haven’t bought a single power tool this year. This is partly because I already have a number of power tools and partly because these days I seem to prefer hand tools.
In general, my tool seeking capacity has greatly diminished. I seem to have most of what I need. Yes, there is always a secret hankering for some special, usually expensive, item but nothing I cannot shrug off.

So, what did I buy during the year? A lot of hardware, little accessories and a handful of very useful tools.

A friend brought a small Stanley pocket knife, the kind Paul Sellers uses, from the States. It cost about $10 and is well worth the price. Have a sharp edge that gets into tight corners and does the job of marking very well.

Stanley 10-049 Locking Blade Pocket Knife

The other nifty tool I bought on amazon.com was a carbide scraper. This tool is perfect for scraping glue from joints, especially a glued-up panel. I have blunted too many chisels and plane blades getting rid of hardened glue and an alternative was urgently required. This one cost me quite a bit after paying shipping and import duty - $45 or so. Seems an enormous amount for a scraper but believe me it has already proved its worth.

Bahco 665 Premium Ergonomic Carbide Scraper

I also ordered three Japanese chisels (3mm, 6mm and 25mm) from toolsfromjapan.com. In all it came to about Rs 4,800 (shipping included). The ones I got were the cheapest, called Maruya oire-nomi or regular chisels. This is an economy brand but the blades are outstanding - made of hard “white steel laminated to a soft steel main body, red oak handle and plain steel hoop.” The tips are sharp as hell and can be re-sharpened very quickly. Absolutely stupendous chisels! I got them for finer work, cleaning dovetails and so on.

Japanese economy grade chisels

I find most Japanese woodworking blades to be of the highest order. The laminated steel blades of Japanese plane irons and chisels are extraordinary: superbly sharp but relatively easy to hone.

Perhaps my best purchase was a Cabinet Scraper made by Veritas (www.leevalley.com). This tool cost me US $69 and was carried to India by a relative.  Veritas is a Canadian company that makes some of the world’s best hand tools. The precision and care that goes into the making of each of their tools is remarkable.

Veritas® Cabinet Scraper

A cabinet scraper is very much like a regular hand-held scraper except its blades are honed at a different angle. It is also much more ergonomic than regular scrapers. I purchased this because I often find complex grain almost impossible to hand plane without tear out. The alternative is sanding but that can be a tedious process. The cabinet scraper is an excellent tool for finishing surfaces.

When I looked back at my tool purchases this year, I realise they are modest. But what pleases me no end is that my needs too have become modest. Caring for a small set of good quality tools is preferable to a heap of mediocre ones most of which will lie unused.

In 2018, I will be looking for ways to procure two tools I have long set my mind on acquiring. One is a long Western style rip saw - the 24 or 26-inch beauties with shaped handles - and the other a pre-WW II Stanley number 4. Both tools are available on Ebay from time to time but shipping to India is very expensive and many sellers just don’t ship to India. 

Until then I have enough tools and a heap of timber to fashion.

Indranil Banerjie
6 December 2017
Categories: Hand Tools