The wiser a man is, the more he stands ready to be educated.”Joe Abercrombie, A Little Hatred
In this post your humble servant will offer some advice that, if followed, will save Gentle Readers time, money, and wear and tear on their valuable woodworking tools. These are not original techniques; I stole them long ago from professional woodworkers in Japan. Wise Gentle Readers will be as bold.
But first we must solve another mystery, so prepare to enlist the help of your inner Agatha Christy.
As with the other mysteries we have examined, this one involves no dark and foreboding alleys shrouded by ominous mist and concealing footpads with rubber knives, or bottles of vintage Tabasco Sauce spiked with arsenic. Indeed, nothing so mundane.
Investigating the Scene of the Crime
Last December your humble servant received an ordinary Christmas Card from an old friend, probably a “re-gift.” It was unusual in that it contained brick dust. The sender of the card was my old friend Woody, a charming fellow, diligent woodworker, amateur thespian, and possible alcoholic. Gentle Reader may recall this gentleman from a previous adventure I wrote about called The Mystery of the Brittle Blade. Wait a minute! Now that I think about it, you went with me to visit Woody at that time and actually helped solve his little mystery. Thanks for your help!
BTW, the screenplay for that story is currently being reviewed by top producers and directors in Hollywood, at least that’s what the movie promoter I met at Krispy Creme Donuts here in Tokyo promised (ツ). He seemed like a reliable guy so I paid for his donuts and coffee.
Obviously, Woody’s dusty Christmas Card was a subtle cry for help so I went to visit him in his rickety, leaning workshop during my international travels last January. When I got onto the airplane I was shocked to find myself only one of approximately sixty travelers on a commercial flight that normally carries 350+ passengers, so I reclined across the center aisle of seats in cattle-class and slept like Nero after a night on the town.
Gentle Reader may recall Woody’s shop from the visit we made there together. Still cold and drafty and filled with the pungent funk of his faithful mutt Stinky.
I found Woody collapsed on the floor, an empty tequila bottle in one hand and a shiny bronze No.4 smoothing plane by Lie-Nielson in the other blubbering like a fool and muttering something like “Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” Woody ain’t much of a scholar but he still tends to see every difficulty in life as Shakespearean in nature.
Seeing that my friend would be of no help in solving this mystery, I left him on the floor to practice his lines while I began my investigation of what, judging from the source material he was reciting, could only have been caused by a deep betrayal by a Brutus of sorts.
I pried from his paw the pretty little plane and observed a series of deep, uneven scratches on its sole, more or less in line with the long direction of the sole. Whereupon, I twirled my white mustaches like an older, more dignified Hercule Poroit, and asked myself the following questions:
Question 1: What could have possibly created these scratches? Had iron pixies been using Woody’s beautiful plane to shave bricks?
A quick investigation of the workshop revealed several bricks, but no signs of iron pixies at play. I remembered seeing Woody use these bricks to shim the legs of his combination router table and barbecue betimes (he makes wonderful barbecued pork ribs, marinated in a whiskey sauce, BTW). I concluded it unlikely that either Woody or pesky pixies would have used this valuable plane to shave bricks at the unthinkable risk of disturbing a delicate combination tool (router table/barbecue) of such importance.
As I considered the wood Woody had been willingly working, another question popped out of my brain like an egg from a hen:
Question 2: Is there anything that grows naturally inside a tree that is harder than a plane sole and large enough to have caused such deep scratches? And if they do exist, could these particles have been maliciously concealed inside the growing tree by compadres of the shambling horde of 6-armed, green-skinned, Fanta-guzzling aliens that follow me everywhere? BTW, If you have seen these aliens, please send photos!
I next removed the plane’s blade, which was made of a tough and difficult to sharpen metal called A2, developed for making dies and other industrial components, and checked its condition. As suspected, the edge was not just deadly dull, but exhibited dents perfectly in-line with the deepest scratches in the plane’s sole. Egads! The thlot pickens!
Of course, Gentle Reader is aware that many varieties of wood contain hard silica particles that can wear out tools and quickly dull cutters, but they are seldom large enough to create deep scratches of the kind I saw on Woody’s plane’s sole. Hmmm.
Question 3: If these hideously-hard particles did not grow inside the tree, and were not concealed inside the tree by aliens, exactly how did the infernal particles that made these scratches come into contact with Woody’s pretty plane?
To make a closer visual inspection possible, I recovered my magnifying glass and deerstalker hat from my truck parked in Woody’s beer can-cluttered driveway.
Could the damage have been caused by nails, screws or staples left in the wood? Perhaps, but the appearance of the damage to the blade would have been different.
Pixie toenail clippings? Happens more often than we realize.
A tiny fragment from a divorce lawyer’s heart? Certainly any piece of such an organ would be harder than stellite, but being a fragment of a microscopic organ, such particles are harder to find than an honest politician in a California drug cartel’s cafeteria.
“No,” I confidently declared; The culprit was harder than all these substances, more insidious than even Murphy’s pointy purple pecker, a substance all around us, one we often ignore. Rejoice Woody, for the mystery is solved!
Dust & Grit
Politics and journalism aside, we live in a dusty, dirty world, and although the steel in your tool blades is very hard, ordinary dust and dirt contain plenty of particles much harder. I guaran-frikin-tee you that collision with even a small particle of mineral grit embedded in the surface of a piece of wood can and will damage a blade’s cutting edge.
You may believe the damage is minimal and of little concern, but every time your blade becomes dull, you must resharpen it. Every sharpening session costs you time pushing the blade around on stones, time not spent cutting wood. And sharpening turns expensive blades and stones into mud. This is time and money lost forever.
And the abrasive action of dirt and grit embedded in wood is not hard on just chisel blades, plane blades and the soles of steel planes, but is even harder on sawteeth and wooden planes.
The damage is not limited to just your handtools either. Take a closer look at the steel tables of your stationary equipment such as your jointer or tablesaw. Unless they are new, you will find scratches. Has that pervert Murphy been smokin dope and humpin sumpin on your jointer’s bed when you weren’t looking?
Nay, Gentle Reader, supernatural causes aside, and unless you have been dismembering the bodies of divorce lawyers in your workshop, these scratches are clear evidence that the wood you’ve been working is neither as clean as it looks, nor as clean as it should be. You’ve gotta do something about that.
Ruba Dub Dub
So what can you do about damaging dust and grit? Strange as it may seem, the simplest and surest way to get rid of dirt and grit is to follow your mother’s instructions about cleaning the bathtub: Simply wash it with soap, water and a wire brush, followed by a rinse.
Bet you never thought of washing wood before have you?
The idea is to wet, scrub with a wire brush, and quickly rinse the dirt and grit off the wood, not to make the wood soaking wet, so none of that “rinse and repeat” nonsense, and don’t get carried away with the water hose. A bit of dishwashing soap or washing soda mixed in the water bucket will help lift out dirt and grit.
Don’t forget to pat each board down immediately afterwards with clean rags to remove surface water. Then separate each board, rest it on stickers on-edge out of direct sunlight, and allow time and circulating air to dry it.
Remember to wet both sides of each board to minimize warping. And don’t soak a lot of water into the ends.
Disclaimer: Rubba-dub-dub is not well suited for thin material or laminated wood products that might easily warp, or if you are in a hurry, or if you lack adequate space to properly air-dry the wood.
Whether you wash the wood with water or not, be sure to do at least the following two steps on every board before you process it with your valuable tools.
Scrub Scrub Scrub
If you can’t wash the boards, use a steel wire brush to dry-scrub all the board’s faces both with and across the grain. Yes, I know it makes the surface rougher. Tough pixie toenails. Scrubbing with a stiff steel brush is extremely effective at removing dust, dirt, embedded particles of grit, and even small stones from long grain. Give it a try and you will both see and smell the dirt and particles expelled. Pretty nasty stuff sometimes.
Saw Saw Saw
Second, and this is supremely important, before planing a board either by hand or using powertools, saw 2~3mm off both ends. This is why you have that circular saw with the carbide-tipped blade. If you can’t do that, at least use a steel block plane, drawknife, or other tool to chamfer all eight corners of the board’s ends to remove both surface dirt and embedded grit thereby saving your planes, planer and/or jointer blades bitter experiences.
This step is critical because grit and even small stones frequently become so deeply embedded in endgrain that even a steel brush can’t dig them out. But sure as God made little green apples, Murphy will place them directly in the path of your plane blade.
If you do these things, I promise your tools will thank you over many years with abundant chips, shiny shavings and cheerful little songs.
Until either Woody sobers up or we meet again, I have the honor to remain,
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7 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Scratched Tools”
Great advice as usual! In France we’re taught to cut off 30mm from the ends, it take off the dirt but also all the small cracks that develop on the ends. We trace it with our “jauge”which is an aluminium ruler 35 cm long and 30mm wide we use to trace all the carpentry joinery. Have an happy new year and all the best.
Thanks for the insight!
This is thought provoking stuff mate. I never thought about washing my wood yet many of times I’ve put a freshly sharpened blade to rough sawn dirty wood and thought to myself there goes my blade in a hurry. Still I’m not game enough to introduce more water than what’s it’s already absorbed itself through the atmosphere. On another note, time is money. Well, I have neither of it.
I understand your concerns well. As I wrote, don’t soak the wood, pat it dry, let it dry well. The water will not penetrate the cells quickly. If you can’t wash it, at least scrub it with a steel brush. And always trim or chamfer the ends. It will make a big difference. Cheers.
Great tips and I shall give it a go. Today I was cutting up Euro beech 1.5″ thick, I should say resawing and lo and behold water sept through the end grain as if I had chopped the tree. This would around 7 years old and been sitting in my shop since I brought it in from the lumber yard.
Eurobeech in Australia? Kiln dried and imported? Why would it be sopping wet after 7 years under a sound roof?
We get all the good stuff. Would you like some lead shot with your White Oak? One of the suppliers here found that their thicknesser/planers handled it very nicely when it popped out the other end with hemispheres embedded in it. Not sure about the moisture content though:)