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The Indian DIY & Woodworker
|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
|Grace Tools Screwdrivers|
There are moments when I a feel truly overwhelmed. One of them was today when I returned home to find a package waiting for me. It was from John Canby, an American I had once gone hunting with for local species of timber near where I live. Inside the box were a set of fabulous wooden handle screwdrivers and a few rolls of blue tape.
I was overwhelmed; I hardly know John; we first met because he was kind enough to carry a few hand tools for me from the US. John works for an oil company that takes him all over the world and is married to an Indian academic.
He and his wife have moved to Mumbai and I will possibly never see John again in my life. Yet, his thoughtfulness about my woodworking needs.
Old style wooden handle screwdrivers have long been on my wish list; I have missed the wooden handle ones of my youth which used to grip so well. And now I have them and that too from one of the finest screwdriver makers in the world, Grace Tools, USA, who are renowned for their gunsmith tools.
Oddly enough, Blue tape too has been high on my wish list ever since I read a blog recommending the use of blue tape in marking dovetails.
In dark tropical woods like Teak a fine knife line or a pencil mark is very difficult to see. Fixing blue tape over the areas that have to be marked such as the end of the pin board makes the cut line clearly visible and therefore easy to cut accurately.
I have tried this method and it works brilliantly. Blue tape, for some strange reason, is not available in India. I had ordered some from China. Now I have lots and lots more.
But more than the blue tape and the screwdrivers, it was John's thoughtfulness that filled me with felicity.
I cannot but add that I have often been amazed by the generosity of the average American, of whom I have encountered several.
Despite the terrible events in America we have been reading about in our newspapers, I am confident that ultimately the large-heartedness and the spirit of fellowship of the average American will prevail. Thank you, John.
26 February 2017
They make great gift items too and I have never failed to get a pleased smile in return. That makes it all worthwhile.
My favourite boxes are made of dovetails; gives me good practice and makes for a strong box that will hopefully endure for decades.
Last week I finished putting together a small video I have been painstakingly making over winter. I've put it up on Youtube and can also be viewed below.
Hope you like it.
24 February 2017
|A cabinet for my hand planes|
Tools that are not close at hand tend not to be used. I have had to stow away most of my hand planes because of lack of storage space in the area where I do my woodworking.
This became a problem because I found Jack Planes were the most useful whereas the ones I had space for in my work area were all number fours. Thus sprang the need for a cabinet for hand planes particularly my Jack Planes.
|A STACK OF PLYWOOD FOR THE PROJECT|
The aim was to quickly put together a plywood cabinet with pocket hole joinery, white glue and a few housings.
The basic carcase came together quickly as it does when using pocket hole joinery but then things slowed down a bit.
|HOUSING ROUTED FOR THE SHELVES MAKE FOR ACCURACY|
|BASIC CARCASE CLAMPED|
|6MM PLYWOOD BACK IN PLACE|
I needed to glue on wooden strips on the exposed plywood edges for which I had to painstakingly edge clamp each piece and wait for it to dry.
|GLUING AND CLAMPING WOODEN EDGES|
I also decided to use real veneer ply for the sides to cover the plain plywood. Real veneer is available laminated on 2mm plywood sheets. Prices range from Rs. 40 to Rs 200 per square feet depending on the kind of wood used; great looking burls can cost upwards of Rs 400 per square feet.
|PLYWOOD VENEER STAINED AND POLISHED|
I usually go for the cheaper varieties as it serves my purpose, which is to cover raw plywood with a material that can be stained and polished. I prefer stain and polish exteriors to painted ones, though there are times when paint is preferable.
One lesson I learnt while painting the interior of the cabinet, which is difficult if the gap between shelves is narrow, is that it is better to paint the shelves before assembling the cabinet. I'll keep that in mind for any similar projects in the future.
|FETTLING THE DOORS|
Making the doors took longer even though they were made with mortise and tenon joints and were of a plain Shaker style. For the panels, I laminated oak veneer on plywood and nailed it into rebates routed in the insides of the frames.
I lightly stained and polished the oak fame and panel. The doors are stopped by two magnetic catches on the top. It is a simple but functional home for my three Jack Planes (which I find myself using all the time), one old but great Ambika jointer plane, a couple of block planes, a small shoulder plane and an assortment of scrapers.
The other lesson I learnt was that its far from easy to get things done as quickly as one would like to.
|THE COMPLETED CABINET|
17 February 2017
|Shobha Low Angle Jack Plane|
Most Indian woodworkers would not be familiar with a low angle hand plane since no one made these planes in India - till now.
Shobha Industries, our favourite hand tools maker, has recently come up with a low angle plane that should interest hand plane aficionados in this country.
The Shobha plane is basically a modern copy of the famous Stanley #62 low angle plane. Like its illustrious predecessor, this plane is 14 inches long and about 2 inches wide.
It comes with a short stout blade which is much thicker than normal plane blades and an adjustable mouth which can be opened or closed by loosening the front knob and rotating a ring.
This plane was originally designed as a Jack plane for heavy work but somehow seems to have found favour as a smoother as well.
Several top notch Western tool makers like Veritas and Lie-Nielsen make similar copies of the #62, which according to some woodworkers work like magic.
|Vintage Stanley #62|
It comes with the standard Indian Rosewood (Sheesham) knobs and powder coated interior.
Apart from its adjustable mouth, it is a rather simple plane that does away with a traditional frog and cap iron.
The blade sits on an angled block which is part of the overall casting and is held in place with a lever cap that is tightened by a knurled screw.
|Parts of Shobha #62|
There is no lateral adjustment lever as in the regular bevel down planes as the blade fits quite accurately on the bed. The blade can be moved forward and back by a regular brass adjustor.
My only grouse with the plane was the way its blade had been ground; it came with a concave bevel and a coarse secondary or micro bevel. This made blade preparation extremely troublesome.
Many woodworkers do not care to put a secondary or micro bevel on their blades for whatever reason and for them grinding away the one made in the factory would be extremely tiresome and time consuming.
Moreover, a secondary or micro bevel actually needs to be very fine. It requires a very light touch on a high grit honing stone to produce a micro bevel.
David Charlesworth, an authority on the use and tuning of hand planes, recommends just four or so strokes on a 16,000 grit stone for a micro bevel. This apparently is more than enough.
On the other hand, a micro bevel that has been ground isn't a micro bevel at all.
I had quite a time fixing the blade - though once honed the plane behaved admirably.
I don't know how Shobha are going to price this plane but clearly it won't be cheap.
At the same time, is a low angle plane a necessity for the average woodworker? I don't think so. The regular bevel down planes work well especially with difficult tropical woods such as Teak and Sheesham so popular in our country.
I suppose a hand plane is a personal choice; some people seem to think that low angle planes are the best, others differ.
I find working with the Shobha #62 very pleasant indeed but I am certainly not going to pack up any of my regular bench planes I have tweaked and tuned over the years.
29 January 2017
I have made a brief two-and-a-half minute video on using the Shobha #62, which might give you an idea of what the plane is capable of.
Raj Moudgil from Assam sent me photographs of the bed he has recently made. It is way better than his previous projects which shows that his woodworking has improved dramatically in recent times.
This bed is a fine example of professional quality work.
He also built a bench-type sofa-cum-bed.
|Moudgil's wooden sofa|
Sunil Chetiwal in Delhi was busy building a cupboard for his wife. This was a plywood project that was meant to be put together quickly.
Ashok George in Bangalore too has been busy getting his workbench together and making various tools.
|George's Cambered Iron|
|Mteric Dowel Plate|
He made a couple of dowel plates (metric) one of which he sent me and ground a lovely camber on a hand plane blade for me. I intend to use this blade for hogging lot of wood, in effect turning one of my planes into a scrubbing plane.
Thanks, chaps. Keep sending in your projects so that others might be inspired and motivated to keep at it.
24 January 2017
|Frame and Shelves of a Teak side table|
There was a time when I would photograph each stage of a project and use them in my blog. Of late, in the rush to complete projects, I find myself neglecting to document each of them properly, which is bad because I often forget what I had learnt or made a mental note of. Maintaining a blog is one way of keeping a record.
My only excuse is the myriad home improvement tasks I have had to tackle this winter. Some of them were pretty major and required working with professional welders, fitters, masons and so on.
I am also at an uncomfortable stage of my woodworking where I think have learnt a lot and yet my work always seems to be so full of imperfections.
I strive to get better but accuracy always seems to elude me and I seem to blunder so often.
I have been working on a side table made entirely of Teak - Burma for the frames and African for the shelves and top. This piece has taken me much longer than anticipated because of a series of mistakes.
My first problem was with the frame; I struggled to get my tenons right. Even a slight twist in them would skew the frame. I had to scrap two stretchers and re-make them.
The bottom shelf was not a problem as I had cut a rebate all around the inside of the stretchers. This allowed the shelf to sit on the rebates without glue or screws. It floats with a small gap of about a sixteenth of an inch all around. Although even here the reveal could have been more consistent than it actually is.
A major blunder was the middle shelf. The shelf was designed to sit inside two housings cut in the insides of the legs. I had intended to glue the front part and leave the back free to expand and contract inside the housing.
|Top slab - French Polished|
During the glue-up however, I clean forgot and glued the back as well as the front. That unfortunately is something I cannot fix and can only hope the frame will be strong enough to restrain the movement of the shelf.
What I did do is separate the tops and bottoms of the shelf where it sits inside the legs with a flush cut saw. The hope is that if the pressure is too much it would have much less of a glue surface to break free from. Does that make any sense? Perhaps not but it made me feel a little better.
Then, there was the matter of the top. I had laminated four lengths of one and a half inch thick Teak boards to made a slab. It had turned out fine after a lot of hand planing, sanding and French polishing.
|Screwing on the top|
But when I went to fit it, I found the slab had very little overhang along the sides of the frame. I had goofed up on the measurements. It covered everything but looked bad.
So, it was back to laminating, sanding and polishing. Finished all of that this morning and had the pleasure of finally screwing on the new top to the frame.
For this I had attached three quarter inch pieces to the insides of the top and made elongated holes for the screws.
The Shellac polish looks good though I think it would do better with a wipe of poly for the long term because I am going to use the top for coffee and drinks.
|The side table in my study|
6 January 2017
|My old corded drill|
For years, I had been telling myself that I don't need a cordless drill, that the two corded ones I have are more than enough. What's the big deal about a cordless drill anyway, I reckoned, it's drill and nothing more, right?
Well, that said, for the past few months I could not shake off the thought that a cordless drill-driver could actually be a somewhat different beast. I had been watching those Youtube videos where woodworkers nonchalantly reach for their cordless tool and unthinkingly go about their job. Even the great hand tools guru, Paul Sellers, had one at close reach.
I, on the other hand, would have to plug in my electric drill, key in the appropriate bit and then make sure the job was within cord range. The other thing was I couldn't keep my corded drill upright on the bench and had to stow it away somewhere every time.
It dawned on me eventually that my intellectual struggle against cordless drills was over, I had lost. It was time to save up and read up on the specs for a cordless drill-driver.
I eventually settled for one by Bosch named the GSR 18 V-EC. The nomenclature is maddening but eventually begins to make sense: GSR stands for drill-driver, 18 for the battery voltage and EC, for some reason, stands for "Brushless Motor".
This was a new one for India and it made sense to buy a newer model, especially since brushless motors are supposed to be more efficient and don't have carbon brushes that eventually wear out and have to be replaced.
The idea of a keyless chuck too is very appealing for a person who has always used chucks that have to be tightened with a key. Bit change is fast and effortless in the keyless variety.
More important I found that the drill had a maximum torque of 60 Nm which is pretty good for most jobs and the machine can be used on wood, metal as well as masonry.
This meant the drill would be good for my outdoor projects as well and I would not have to draw a long extension all over the place.
With all this in mind, a month or so ago, I went across to a big Bosch dealer in New Delhi's Chawri Bazar. Their office was at the end of a narrow alley through which a motor cycle could barely fit. No sunlight reached its interiors and the office itself was housed in an ancient gloomy building, full of ill lit rooms, dark nooks and crannies.
The two proprietors sat like grumpy goblins in a neon lit room as shabby as the rest of the place, amidst piles of files, stacks of cardboards cartons and old greasy tools strewn in a corner.
I later found that the office actually comprised three floors stuffed with tools, accessories and packing stuff. The place was worth a fortune but its owners seemed to have no problem in operating out of a hideous airless place.
The only bright fellow in the place was the salesman I had been introduced earlier by a Bosch marketing executive. He was talkative, helpful but not terribly informed as I later learnt.
I bought a few accessories and paid for the drill driver which they were selling for Rs 10,500 which seemed a bargain. After collecting my receipt, I was told to go to the ground floor to collect the tool.
I went downstairs and waited, and waited and waited. Half an hour passed and I was getting frantic. Went back upstairs and did some shouting; the salesman scurried down and joined the hunt for the drill amidst cartons of tools piled to the ceilings. At the end of much searching, they declared that the particular tool could not be found.
It there somewhere, the salesman claimed but it couldn't be found. He promised to courier it to me the next day at no extra cost and I, like an idiot, agreed.
The drill never arrived the next day, nor the next. It went on for more than a week with me calling up the salesman every day and yelling, entreating, and finally even appealing to his better sense. Each day I was given a different excuse, mostly about the blasted courier service.
And then finally one day the machine arrived. Thank God! I thought and opened the package only to find it was not the machine I had ordered. They had sent an older 18 Volts model marked "CV" and not "V-EC". And that started another harrowing round of shouting and screaming over the phone. This went on for weeks.
The salesman turned out to be the only honest man left standing in the dealership. He repeatedly apologised and promised that he would get me the machine I wanted. The proprietors did not even bother to take my calls.
After three harrowing weeks, the salesman informed me that he had got hold of the model I wanted but it would cost me another Rs 3,500.
I agreed in relief; but there was another problem: the proprietors refused to courier it and I would have to travel 70 kilometres to get it.
Then one night, the salesman called to say he would personally deliver the machine to me somewhere convenient but only on a Sunday as he worked late and his bosses would not let him off early to deliver the machine.
|Bosch GSR 18 V-EC|
On a grey Sunday morning I drove down to the nearest Metro station which was about 25 km from my house to meet the salesman who was waiting with the cordless drill.
It was rather decent of him to travel all the way to the suburbs on a Sunday morning, at his own cost, to deliver the tool. I stood him a coffee at Barrista and I told him I appreciated his gesture.
He grinned happily: "I had promised I would get you the machine, hadn't I?"
That he had and much against the wishes of his grumpy proprietors. I was touched at the end of it, despite the weeks of uncertainty and indignation. As I drove away, it struck me that this was Christmas morning and I had finally got my cordless drill-driver. What a lovely coincidence!
29 December 2016
|Agnay Chuttani, plane maker|
On a foggy December morning I drove across New Delhi to a small town in neighbouring Haryana called Sonepat. There, at a little distance off the national highway, amidst wheat fields, stood a cluster of buildings which housed the makers of India's premium hand planes and other hand tools, Shobha Industries.
I had come a long way looking for woodworking goodies, particularly hand planes, and I was not disappointed. This was my equivalent of a toy factory, stuffed as it was with hundreds of planes of every description and workers patiently churning out even more of them.
There was an enormous warehouse where planes, measuring instruments, vices and all kinds of tools were being tested and packed.
The most fascinating part was the opportunity to closely observe the process of plane making, from casting to polishing and packing.
This was something I had wanted to do for a long time and it was made possible by the factory's young proprietor-manager, Agnay Chuttani, who had finally acceded to my request for a factory visit.
I found him courteous and soft spoken as he showed me around the factory, introducing me to rows upon rows of grinding machines, tapping presses, CNC machines, buffers and all manners of engineering contraptions each running quietly and intently at its prescribed task supervised by a uniformed worker.
The Shobha factory, from what I could make out, comprises three very large two-storied buildings and a smaller shed for castings.
The Sonepat factory was set up twenty years ago by Agnay's father, Rajiv Chuttani, and it just grew bigger and bigger over the years as they found it necessary to create in-house processes for many tasks that were initially out sourced.
|Shobha Planes being processed|
Agnay maintained it was necessary to maintain control over key processes in order to ensure quality and constantly improve their products.
For instance, in the initial years they had approached a well-known planes blade maker in Punjab for their blades but were forced to develop processes for making high quality blades themselves when the Punjab blade maker insisted on retaining his own branding.
This allowed then to experiment with various grades of steel, tempering processes and so on. It also compelled them to set up grinding machines to cut and hone the blade bevels to a fine edge.
Castings too which were initially out-sourced eventually became necessary in-house because they found the quality extremely variable. Today, Agnay said, he could maintain the quality by adding just the right amounts of additives to the steel let the castings sit for a couple of months for natural de-stressing.
Agnay, who has an engineering degree and an eye for detail, seems to enjoy his work. He loves his tools, particularly his hand planes and has a collection of some of the best planes from around the world.
The day I visited, he was admiring an old Clifton plane he had bought from the UK. It was a superb specimen, several years old but maintained in top condition.
"Take a look at this", he said pushing the Clifton towards me. "What first class machining", he remarked admiringly.
He was particularly impressed with its two-part, detachable cap iron. The blade could be sharpened without un-screwing the cap iron. I found the Clifton blade as sharp as the day it was made.
"It is the small details that count", he said, recounting his attempts to make small but continuous improvements to his products. He showed me how he had changed the knurling on the brass adjustor on Shobha planes to make them look better and turn easily.
Other changes to Shobha planes include the precise machining of the frog, introduction of very hard washers for the two screws holding down the frog, changing the shape of the tote, moving to Sheesham as their signature wood, more brass parts for the premium range, a shift to powder coating on all their products and constant attempts to improve the quality of machining.
These small but incremental changes, Agnay believes, is what will ultimately make their hand tools absolute top notch.
As it is they are easily the best regarded hand planes and tool makers in India with the bulk of their clients in Europe and North America.
Another area that seems to require constant attention and innovation is in the manufacturing process, the machines and systems. One innovation Agnay is proud of is a CNC controlled router exclusively designed for shaping the Sheesham totes of their regular bench planes.
I was also surprised to discover the amount of painstaking grinding that goes into the making of a plane. The soles, sides and bedding points have to be milled very precisely, the blades and cap iron ground one piece at a time and so on. All this involves a considerable amount of labour.
|Range of Planes made by Shobha Industries|
As I was packing to leave, Agnay directed me to their packing and testing unit. Here workers were packing tools and stashing the packages on pallets for export.
At one corner of this building was a glass partitioned area with a number of granite and lapped cast iron flat surfaces where workers were testing various vices and other instruments.
In another area, two laser scribing machines were busy etching numbers on precision vices, chucks and rotary tables.
Agnay unveiled a new hand plane, which was a version of the Stanley No. 62 low angle Jack Plane. He said they had just started this line of planes and would be happy to gift one of them to me.
I of course was delighted with the parting gift and more so because he had my name laser etched on it. A great way to end a great tour, I thought, as I drove away.
12 December 2016