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I found a shop in the market with a stock of really good wood. The owner was a taciturn fellow who would not bargain. He quoted a price for what I wanted and that was it: take it or leave it.
Like most shops in that place he has several floors stacked with different kinds of timber. In the basement hall, there was a wide variety of imported timber including Wenge, Maple, Ash, steamed Beech, Sapele, White Oak, Spruce, Walnut and so on.
I could not make up my mind about what to take - I felt like a little boy in a shop full of the most splendid varieties of sweets.
Finally, settled on two boards: one was a ten-foot long two inches thick by fifteen inches wide piece of Sapele and the other an eight by two by five piece of Soft Maple. I also picked up three 3-foot by two inches by 3 inches pieces of African Padauk. Total cost was about Rs 5,500. The Sapele was 2300 per cubic feet; Maple 1800 and the Padauk 2300.
There are a number of dedicated shops in the area with enormous bandsaws and thicknessers. I have always found it worthwhile to have the timber re-sawn in one of these shops before taking it home where it will dry a little more and often bend and warp.
|Same Padauk after a bit of Hand Planing|
I had the pieces band sawn to a more manageable size to fit my car and the cabinets I plan to make. The two-inch thick slabs were sawn down the middle and then cut to 31 inches lengths.
I have never tried Maple or Sapele and am most curious to find out more about them.
After a couple of days of drying in my workshop, I found the wide Sapele boards had cupped somewhat while the Padauk was completely unchanged. The Maple looked straight but some of the pieces had twisted, whether from drying or from the re-sawing I couldn't tell.
At any rate, I took out one piece from each and hand planed them to see what they really look like - the bandsaw marks usually completely obscure the wood pattern.
I found Maple somewhat harder to plane than Ash or Teak. The wood is very pale, lightly figured and planes to a very smooth, even polished surface.
|Soft Maple: The piece on top has been planed while the bottom one is rough, bandsawn|
Not having any experience with Maple. I wrote to my friend Mike Zeller from Colorado who wrote back: "There are two kinds of Maple, soft and hard - both of which are pretty damn hard if you ask me. I love both Maples, as you see it is a fine textured beautiful hardwood. That being said, sharpen up my friend, it is a real workout by hand. Anything less than sharp will leave you exhausted and angry. Working on some maple recently made me wish I still had a few machines around, but it can be done with sharp tools. The soft is not much softer, just by a bit and depending on where it is purchased can be slightly cheaper. Hard Maple comes from the sugar Maple tree, grows back east and up north where the winters are cold and very long - very slow growing and why it is so hard. Soft Maple grows more on the western and north-western coast here, much milder in climate and somewhat faster growing. The eastern maple has a sap that is boiled down to make maple syrup, good for pancakes, maple flavour candy and maple sugar. As for hardness, Maple is usually used here for bowling pins and gymnasium floors. Where ever a hard surface that wears well is needed, that should be a clue to that tight grain and durability. It will look gorgeous with some nice shellac on it."
An article by Eric Meier in the Wood Database points out that "the term 'Soft Maple' does not refer to any specific species of maple, but rather, it's a broad term which includes several different species of maple. The term "Soft Maple" is merely used to differentiate these species from Hard Maple. Hard Maple, on the other hand, typically refers to one specific type of maple species: Acer saccharum. For many purposes, Soft Maple will be hard enough to be used in place of Hard Maple. Even though it is referred to as Soft Maple, it is only soft in relation to Hard Maple."
I have used Padauk in the past and admire its orange red colour. It is fairly easy to work; strong, pretty dense and extremely stable. It polishes well and looks absolutely smashing after a few coats of Shellac.
|Sapele rough, bandsawn|
|Sapele after hand planing|
I had first seen Sapele, which is considered a substitute for the increasingly rare Mahogany, at my friend Zain's house in Chandigarh. He had made a fabulous table with a Sapele top and even without finish it looked stupendous. I have been on the lookout for some decent Sapele ever since.
|Sapele grain direction|
I hand planed one Sapele board and found it easy to work even though the grain rose and fell. (see photograph of its side). The beauty of the wood popped as soon as I was done. The lustre was incredible. The word for it is "chatoyance", I believe.
There is no doubt that Sapele is a magnificent wood. It may not be very easy to work though as it is dense, heavy and full of contrary grain. Nevertheless, it is an absolute beauty and made me wonder what genuine Honduran Mahogany must look like.
28 May 2017
|Two varieties of Shellac: Dewaxed Platina on left and Natural Golden on right|
India is the world's primary supplier of Shellac. The tropical jungles of eastern India (whatever little is left of them) continue to yield tons of laac smeared twigs that are processed into usable Shellac.
Shellac or laac (as it is known locally) has been around in India for centuries and has been used as an effective wood finish for as long. The use of Shellac in finishing travelled to the West following the arrival of European seafaring traders in the 16th and 17th century.
Today, most wood finishers seem to prefer the de-waxed, bleached variety of Shellac. Natural Shellac is golden, orange or garnet in colour and full of a type of wax.
De-waxed Shellac comes in many varieties differentiated chiefly by the extent of bleaching. Shellac from which wax has been removed is usually of a golden or garnet tint. This Shellac is then bleached to different extents, producing variants such as Platina, Blond and so on.
De-waxed Shellac is virtually colourless, dries very hard and adheres to virtually any surface. This variety is most widely used in the pharmaceutical industry to coat pills and capsules.
Many woodworkers claim this is the best type of Shellac for finishing. In India, however, woodworkers traditionally have always used, and continue to use, natural Shellac for finishing.
There are varieties or grades of natural Shellac as well, starting with seedlac, which is an unfiltered first stage of Shellac production where the bodies of the microscopic insects that produce laac are present. This Shellac is distinctly orange in colour and is the most widely available in Indian hardware shops.
The next type is called button laac; this variety has some of the wax and most impurities (dirt and dead insect bodies) removed and is pressed into large button like shapes.
The third variety is purified Shellac which still retains its natural wax. This comes in the form of fine flakes and in a variety of colours, including Lemon, Garnet and Golden.
I tested some natural Golden Shellac and loved it. The flakes dissolve quickly and easily in spirit (rectified alcohol) to form a dark cloudy finish. (see photograph).
|The two trays have been given a couple of coats of Shellac: the left is one finished with Natural Golden and the right one with Dewaxed Platina. In the foreground are pieces of the original Pine used in makig the trays.|
I tried some of it on a pine tray and was very pleased with the splendid golden colour that it imparted. The Platina de-waxed Shellac, on the other hand, did not tint the wood.
Clearly, the choice of Shellac depends on personal preferences but the notion that Shellac with wax is inappropriate for finishing is not correct. It would of course be a wrong choice if Shellac is being used as a sealer over which some other finish such as polyurethane is to be applied.
Natural Shellac dries as hard as the de-waxed type but is easier to use for French Polishing on account of the wax it contains. The use of de-waxed Shellac in French polishing requires the use of some kind of oil which needs to be removed later on. Natural Shellac does not require the use of any oil and the wax seems to bond well with the Shellac.
Traditional finishers in India, at one time, would add various resins such as rosin (Pine resin) gum Copal and Sandarac to add shine, hardness and so on to the Shellac polish. These techniques are mostly lost. But the use of the much cheaper "natural" Shellac varieties, some of which like Natural Lemon are extremely light, continues and has much to recommend itself.
24 March 2017