The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lispWalt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass
When working in wood the professional aiming for efficiency must continue the work of accurately cutting or shaving wood just as long as possible without stopping to sharpen his blades too frequently because time spent sharpening is time the primary job isn’t getting done. The wise professional therefore needs chisels, planes and knives with cutting edges that not only become very sharp and cut exceptionally well, but stay sharp a long time. C&S Tools are handmade one at a time by master blacksmiths to meet the expectations of Japanese professional woodworkers for sharpness and edge retention.
Alas, even our tools do not have eternally-sharp cutting edges, and at some point must be resharpened to maintain work efficiency and product quality. The experienced professional craftsman will develop unconscious habits to help him constantly monitor the condition of his blades and the quality of the work being performed. In this post we will examine a few ancient techniques for doing so.
The Four Habits
As the saying goes, “timing is everything.”
If Beloved Customer pays attention, you will discover there is a point where a woodworking tool’s blade still cuts, but its cutting performance begins to drop off. Sensing this point in time is critical because if you continue cutting wood much past this point, not only will the energy needed to motivate the blade increase dramatically, but the quality of the cutting done will quickly deteriorate while the time and stone expenditure necessary to resharpen the blade will increase. That’s three variables in the blade, the work and the craftsman that could be expressed in a pretty graph if one was so inclined, a graph that would have at least one inflection point. Which variable is most important to you?
In most cases, when considered from the viewpoint of a craftsman that uses and sharpens his tools daily, and needs them to be quite sharp, minimizing wasted of time and stones over the years tends to be the governing variable because it costs the most money.
Most woodworkers fail to consider these efficiency variables; They simply keep cutting away until the tool either becomes too difficult to motivate, or it stops doing an acceptable job, then stop work and sharpen the blade. This is normal, but the wise woodworker will focus on minimizing the total time and total cost required to maintain his tools even if it means he must pause work to resharpen his blade well before its performance deteriorates badly.
This sharpening inflection point will vary from blade to blade and job to job because every blade, every piece of wood and and every user are unique. Simply counting strokes is not enough. It takes attention and practice to sense when a blade has reached this point.
The following are some things you should pay attention to, and habits you should develop, to help you identify the sharpening inflection point.
Habit No. 1: Sense Resistance Forces: As you use a tool, a plane, chisel, or saw for instance, tune your senses to detect the point at which the blade becomes more difficult to motivate. As the blade dulls, the force that you must apply to the tool to keep it cutting will gradually increase. This is especially noticeable when planing and sawing. Develop the habit of paying attention to this force so you can determine when it is time to resharpen. Your humble servant recommends you regularly use an oilpot to ensure any increased resistance is due to a dulled blade and not increased friction between the tool and the wood;
Habit No.2: Listen to the Music: Pay attention to the tool’s song. That’s right, turn off the radio and CD player and listen to the music your blades make instead. If you do, you will notice that each tool sings its own song, one that varies with the wood, the cut, and the condition of the blade. Is the blade singing, lisping, or croaking as it chews wood? Is it a saw with a basso profundo voice, or a mortise chisel with vibrant tenor tones, or perhaps a soprano finishing plane singing a woody aria? A sharp blade makes a clearer, happier sound when cutting or shaving wood than a dull one does. Learn the happy song it sings when it’s sharp and the sad noise it makes when it’s dull, and all the changing tones in between. If you have ears to hear, it will tell you what kind of job it is doing and when the time has come to resharpen it;
Habit No.3: Eyeball Cuts: Watch the tool and the wood it has cut. Is your chisel cutting cleanly, or is it crushing the wood cells? A sharp chisel blade cuts cleaner than a dull one. You can feel and hear the difference. And you can see the difference in both the shavings or chips and the surfaces the tool leaves behind. Don’t be a wood butcher: develop the habit of frequently checking the quality of your cuts. It doesn’t take extra time, and your tools will wiggle with happiness;
Habit No. 4: Feel Surface of the Wood: Is your plane shaving the wood cleanly, or are the surfaces it leaves behind rough with tearout? Develop the habit of running your fingers along the path your plane just cut to sense surface quality. If you detect roughness or tearout, the plane may be out of adjustment, or more likely, the blade is becoming dull. Or maybe you need to skew the blade, change the direction of the cut, or moisten the wood’s surface with a rag dampened with planing fluid (I use water, industrial-grade busthead whiskey, or unicorn wee wee when I can get it). Next, run your hand across the cut your plane just made to detect ridges that may have been created by irregularities or chips in your blade’s cutting edge. Every one of those ridges indicates a small waste of your time and energy and a flaw in the wood. Don’t forget that the top of those ridges contain compressed cells (kigoroshi) that may swell and become even more pronounced with time. This is accomplished with a few swipes of the fingertips along and across the wood between cuts without spending any time.
These techniques are not rocket surgery. They don’t take extra time. They can be applied to any tool all the time. The key is to pay attention. To listen to one’s tools. To watch their work.
Let’s next shift our attention to three of the Mysteries of Woodworking, their potential impacts on mental health, and how to avoid unfashionable wardrobe decisions.
The Mystery of the Tilting Board
To discuss this Mystery, we will call on the services of my old buddy Richard W. (Woody) Woodward. You may remember him from a mystery story in previous article. Yes, it was a near thing, but he has fully recovered from the effects of chugging a 5th of tequila in an emotionally-charged bout of drama over a brittle blade.
Anyway, this mystery goes something like this. Woody is planing a board about the same width as his plane’s blade down to a specific thickness, but for some unfathomable reason, the board ends up thinner on one side of its width than the other. He checks the blade’s projection from the plane’s mouth, but it is absolutely uniform. In fact to make the board the correct thickness he ends up having to tilt the blade to take less of a cut on one side of the board than the other.
Most everyone has experienced this curious and wasteful phenomenon, but because it is not consistent, many never solve the mystery of the tilting board, but blame it on Murphy’s antics or Pixie play. But never fear, because the solution is elementary, Dear Watson.
In Habit No. Four listed above, your humble servant mentioned residual “ridges.” Please be aware that these ridges are not only unsightly and may damage applied finishes later, but they can actually keep your plane from cutting shavings of uniform thickness. Think about it.
Let’s assume you are planing a board the same width as your plane blade, but the blade has a tiny chip near the right end of the blade that leaves behind a .0005″ high ridge on the board’s surface. With each subsequent cut using this same blade with the same defect the right side of the plane’s body and likewise its blade will be elevated above the board’s surface by .0005″, while the left hand side, which doesn’t have any ridges for the plane’s sole to ride on, is shaved the normal amount.
Assuming you checked that the blade is projecting from the plane’s mouth the same distance across its entire width, with each pass the surface of the wood becomes tilted, a little high on the right side and a little low on the left, so that instead of a flat surface square to the board’s sides, you have produced a flat surface that is thinner on the left side and thicker on the right. This is no bueno, amigo.
If you detect ridges on a freshly-planed surface, immediately check the blade’s cutting edge by running a fingernail along it’s width. Don’t worry, it won’t dull the blade unless you are also a bricklayer. Your nail will feel the catch and grab of defects too small for your eye to see. A few small ones may make no difference, but on the other hand, they might make a big difference.
With this the Mystery of the Tilting Board, one that has driven many a woodworker to distraction, sometimes even leading to fashion decisions involving stiff, canvas jackets with long sleeves connected to straps and buckles that fasten behind the barking woodworker’s back and even pass under the crotch (decidedly uncomfortable, I assure you), has been solved. Only the Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers of the C&S Tools’s Blog can be assured of avoiding this undignified state. Sadly, all others must be responsible for their own mental health.
The Mystery of the Missing Plan
Here is another mystery of woodworking, one that especially vexes those tender souls new to the calorie-burning fun of dimensioning wood by hand.
Let’s say Woody needs to turn a bunch of twisty, banana-shaped boards into flat, square, precisely dimensioned and cleanly-surfaced drawer fronts, for example. All the adjectives after “banana” in the previous sentence are critical to his project’s success because Woody’s ambitious objective is to make 24 piston-fit drawers. Let’s also assume the wood he uses for each drawer-front is unique in both appearance and warpage. It’s a heck of a lot of wood to cut and with no time to waste, so our erstwhile wood butcher gets out his trusty handplane, sharpens it up, adjusts the blade and chipbreaker, gives it a kiss for luck, and without further delay makes the shavings fly through the air in glorious fashion!
But wait a minute! No matter how much Woody planes, he just can’t seem to make some of the surfaces flat, free of wind and the sides square to the faces. It’s like some kinda frikin moving target! Indeed, eventually he is dismayed to discover some of the edges are getting too thin. What to do, what to do!?
Drama queens typically begin interesting antics at this point, but not so our Beloved Customers who, unlike Woody, are stoic, laconic, intelligent and of course, sharply-dressed, and therefore pause their physical efforts to focus their mental powers on solving this mystery. At this point BC’s benchdog perks up his ears and tucks in his tail in fear of the humming emanating from his master’s ears, his benchcat arches his backs, hisses like a goose, and flees the workshop like his tail is on fire, and the resident pixies frantically hide in the lumberpile to avoid being disrupted by the power they sense radiating outward from BC’s mighty brain.
Of course, the conclusion you eventually arrive at is operator error. After then there is cat urine to deal with…..
Too few people really pay attention when using their tools, focusing too much on the joy of making as many chips or shavings as quickly as possible without a plan. For example, a failure common to many woodworkers is to start planing without first identifying and marking the high spots that must be cut down first, and then areas to be cut down next. In other words, they fail to plan the sequence of the work. The result is that time, steel and sweat is wasted cutting wood that didn’t need to be cut while ignoring wood that did need to be cut. And all for lack of a plan measured with a straightedge or dryline and written on the board with a few strokes or circles of a lumber crayon or carpenter pencil
This mystery too has been known to increase profits of the mental health industry and even (heaven forfend!) fashion decisions involving poorly-tailored canvas jackets with crotch straps. Simply not to be borne!
The Mystery of the Sounding Board
Lastly, we come to perhaps the most frustrating and least-understood of the Mysteries of Woodworking. Not to say there are no other mysteries, because there is always that most ancient of riddles that baffled even the enigmatic Sphinx, one which has been repeated endlessly since before Pharaoh wore papyrus nappies, of why Woody would respond honestly to his wife when she asks him if her new pair of jeans makes her bottom look “simply humongous.” Sadly, this is one mystery upon which your humble servant is unable to shed light because even I do not fully understand the heart of woman.
But I digress. This Mystery is one that torments those badly befuddled souls like friend Woody who, lacking a plan to follow, eyes that see, hands that feel and ears that hear, unwisely assume that the board they are working on is stable simply because it doesn’t walk away from him. Perhaps it is the malevolent influence of pernicious pixies that causes himm to ignore the downward deflection the pressure of their plane unavoidably induces in a warped, unevenly supported board, or in a board being planed on a flimsy or crooked workbench.
This unintentional, indeed unnoticed deflection too often causes the board to escape the cutting blade resulting in hills being raised and valleys remaining low where flat surfaces were required. Of course, this leaves the handplane bitterly dissatisfied because it wanted to do good work too.
But this waste of wood, steel, sweat and goodwill can be avoided because, even if the board isn’t rocking like Zepplin and dear Woody can’t feel the board deflecting away from his plane’s cutting edge, he could detect the change in his plane’s song when it is cutting an unsupported area of a board if he only listened because the board is also a “sounding board.”
Think of all the money saved that Woody would otherwise spend on lithium, Prozac, and small hotel rooms with padded walls to ease his mental anguish if only he had the foresight to make a plan, train his hands and eyes to confirm his tool’s performance, and his ears to listen to what his plane tries to tell him.
The experienced professional will investigate each board, make a plan for his work, mark the plan on the wood, shim the board so it is evenly supported on a flat workbench surface, and sharpen his blade if necessary before making a single cut. Then instead of cutting randomly like a modern artist wielding a paintbrush, he will make each cut intentionally, purposefully, in accordance with his plan to make each cut as efficient as possible.
He will also pay attention to the reaction of the wood and feedback from his tools during each cut. He will use the four habits discussed above, and maybe even a drop or two of unicorn wee wee to limit tearout if his budget allows.
If Beloved Customer doesn’t have a master to give you a dirty look or to box your ears when you impatiently err, you must train yourself. Slow down. Make a plan. Execute the plan. Pay attention, use your senses, and spend the time needed to evaluate progress against the plan. Consider carefully why the work is going well or why it is not. This process will slow the work down at first, but over time it will help you develop good habits and guide you along the path to becoming a master craftsman instead of just the typical woodcutter.
May the gods of handsaws smile upon you always.
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