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Cutting mortises with a relatively sharp chisel was something I had picked up a while ago. Hand cut mortises are quick, easy and accurate. I found I had more control cutting them by hand than with a router that could deviate ever so slightly and ruin the mortise.
The secret of cutting mortises by hand is accurate marking. If the mortise is marked clearly and matches the width of the chisel that is going to be used to cut it then the mortise will be accurate ninety-nine times out of hundred. The knife marks needless to add should be reasonably deep and straight. The chisel does the rest of the work.
|Chopping a mortise by hand is quick but needs careful markling|
Tenons are another matter altogether. They need to be fettled so that they go in straight, align properly and are flush when you want them to be.
For years I thought the answer to cutting the perfect tenon lay in getting the right saw. I tried a couple Western saws, including a fine brass backed English saw and a number of Japanese saws.
I watched innumerable videos on sawing tenons and how you had to start sawing on one edge, then drop the saw and so on. It worked, sort of but most times I wasn't getting the best fit straight off the saw.
Then, watched a Paul Seller's woodworking video and realized that one wasn't supposed to cut on the line and get a perfectly fitting tenon just by sawing. Damn! I had been doing it wrong all along.
|First test Tenon|
Mr Sellers shows that one is supposed to cut slightly away from the line - perhaps a millimetre or so away. This results in a slightly fatter tenon that will not readily fit the mortise.
The next task is to pare down the cheeks evenly with a chisel or preferably a router plane till it fits. This worked the first time I tried it. Perfectly. And what a great feeling.
The problem with theoretical learning is that you often don't get the small details that matter. I have never worked with a professional cabinet maker; far less learnt from one. What I have picked is from books and Youtube videos.
Mr Sellers in my view is the only online teacher who provides every little detail of various processes and methods of work. Hobbyist woodworkers would benefit enormously by watching his videos closely.
7 August 2017
|My Tools Cabinets: One for hand planes and the other for chisels|
The title of this blog post is taken from an observation made by my friend Mike Zeller, who lives in Colorado, United States. Mike is helping me locate a few used hand tools, which I might someday manage to ship to India.
I have been telling him about how I don't have too much money these days to throw around at expensive tools and how great it would be if he could find me something cheap and in decent working condition.
Many Indians would be surprised to know that there are more excellent old tools in use in Western countries than here. Out here we don't have a tradition of collecting tools at home and even if we do, we dispose them off to the Kabariwalla once they are old and rusted.
In the West, on the other hand, old tools, especially hand tools, are often handed down over the years or sold to another generation. There are literally thousands of old woodworking tools, including thousands of excellent Stanley Bailey style planes, still circulating there. Some of these tools command high prices because of their vintage value; sometimes you can get them for a song.
Every now and then someone there stumbles upon a cache of rusted old tools left behind by a long-departed soul, and passes them on. People get lucky and can chance upon a fine tool that hasn't been touched by a working hand for decades.
It is very satisfying to know that many old but superbly crafted hand tools can and have lasted for a century and more; they have a life beyond ours!
Mike and I have been discussing various woodworking issues over email in recent weeks and he once remarked: "I think we are both on a budget of a certain amount, which for me is good because it forces me to be extremely creative about solving problems and doing much work myself."
His comment made me reflect on how my views on tools have changed over the years. Several years ago, when I closed down my consultancy, I got a lumpsum payment, a lot of which I spent on woodworking tools, mainly power tools because at that time I thought power tools were the way to go. Many of those tools today are lying unused.
These days I look at online stores selling power tools of all kinds and feel amused; if this was a few years ago I would be thinking how to get hold of some of them. Today, it seems such a waste to buy tools worth thousands of rupees that will become obsolete in a few years and newer better models will be out to entice buyers.
It is an endless process that consumes consumers. So much better to buy hand tools preferably old ones that will last a lifetime and do the job often better than all those shiny, expensive power tools.
I feel it is better to have fewer tools, only the ones really needed for the job and most of all to take good care of what one has. Tuning, oiling and sharpening included. A few really sharp well-tuned hand saws, planes and chisels can get almost everything done.
A tight budget also serves to accentuate the worth of what one has, instead of the perpetual round of wondering if one has missed out on the latest tool, the latest deal and so on.
Nowadays, I mostly concentrate on building things rather than on tools themselves. The process is getting more and more interesting as I find myself gradually but steadily getting sucked into it. This week, I spent most of an entire day cutting hinge mortises and adjusting the fit of the doors for my plywood tools cabinet.
|The one on the right was completed today and my chisels are in place|
It took time but was good time spent listening to some old '30s and '40s Jazz and chiselling away. The hinges took time to fix and required adjustments to get the doors to hang right with about the right amount of reveal and so on.
The cabinet is finally ready and mounted on the wall. The door knobs have been attached and a chisel racks added. I have applied a couple of coats of Shellac but need to sand it down, apply another 3/4 coats and then rub it down to knock off the shiny parts to get a nice even tone.
This cabinet is bound to make a difference to my working, since till now my chisels were in boxes and a hassle to get out every time when I want to do something. I have a similar cabinet for my most used hand planes and having them at arm's reach speeds up things a lot.
Ninety per cent of my hand tools now fit into two wall cabinets, one small cabinet with drawers and a sideboard while the saws hang on the door. Everything is at hand, ready to go. But hey, there's always room for a few more tools!
16 July 2017
|Most of my saws hang on a door, ready when I need them!|
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