Four Habits and Three Mysteries

The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

The efficient woodworker must continue 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. He will develop unconscious habits to help him constantly monitor the condition of his blades and the quality of the work being performed.

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, three things are likely to result.

  1. The energy needed to motivate the blade will increase dramatically;
  2. The quality of the cut will quickly deteriorate;
  3. The time and stone expenditure necessary to resharpen the blade will increase.

That’s three variables 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?

Most woodworkers fail to consider these efficiency variables; They simply keep cutting away until the tool either becomes too difficult to motivate, or the results resemble canine cuisine, then stop work and resharpen the blade. 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 such as a plane, chisel, or saw, 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 bright 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 at the attention.

Habit No. 4: Feel the 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 either 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 tops 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 unfortunate 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 a 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 plane the board to 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, blaming it on Murphy’s ministrations or pixie perfidiousness. But never fear, because the solution is elementary, Dear Watson.

In Habit No.4 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. The difference in the amount of wood shaved from the right and left sides with each individual cut is minute, of course, but it accumulates with each pass sure as eggses is eggses

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. 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.

Often these ridges will show up as lines in your plane shavings. You do occasionally examine your shavings, right?

With this, the Mystery of the Tilting Board, one that has driven many a woodworker to distraction, sadly 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 Blog can be assured of avoiding this undignified state of dress.

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 boards 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 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 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 send wood shavings fly through the air with gleeful abandon!

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 board’s 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 the resident benchdog perks up his ears, tucks in his tail and beetles away in fear of the smoke and humming sound emanating from BC’s ears; Master Benchcat arches his backs, hisses like a goose, and flees the workshop as if his tail is on fire; And the resident pixies frantically hide in the lumberpile to avoid being disrupted by the power they sense radiating from BC’s mighty brain!

Of course, the culprit is operator error.

Don’t forget to clean up the cat urine because it’s toxic to tools.

Too few people really pay attention when using their tools, focusing too much on 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 should have been cut first. And all for lack of a plan measured with a straightedge or dryline and marked 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 by men since before Pharaoh wore papyrus nappies, namely 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 planing is stable simply because it doesn’t walk away. Perhaps it is the malevolent influence of pernicious pixies that causes him to ignore the downward deflection the pressure of the 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.

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 piece of wood he is shaping 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.

Here is wisdom: 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 paintbrush-wielding modern monkey artiste, he will make each cut intentionally, purposefully, in accordance with his plan to make the work go as efficiently 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 sharpen your instincts, tune your senses, and help you develop good habits that accelerate your work while improving the quality of the end product.

It will guide you along the path to becoming a master craftsman.

May the gods of handsaws smile upon you always.

YMHOS

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Clean Wood

Redwoods

Infringe upon the rights of no one. Borrow no tool but what you will return according to promise. Take no wood, nor anything else but what belongs to you – and if you find anything that is not your own, do not hide it away, but report it, that the owner may be found.

Brigham Young

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.

Inspection & Questions

Before we go any further, Gentle Reader, do me a favor. Check the soles of your steel planes. Unless they haven’t been used much, you will probably discover scratches, some of them may even be quite deep. Do you think whatever made these scratches might also have dulled the cutting edges of your planes at the same time?

What could have possibly created these scratches? Have iron pixies been using your planes to shave bricks?

Unless you have a serious pixie infestation, it probably wasn’t anything as large as a brick, but rather tiny particles in or on the wood you have been cutting. Could these vicious, hard particles have grown naturally inside the tree the wood you are using came from? Is there anything that grows naturally inside a tree that is harder than a plane blade’s cutting edge and big enough to cause such deep scratches? Perhaps these abrasive particles were maliciously concealed inside the growing tree by compadres of the shambling horde of 6-armed, green-skinned, Fanta-guzzling aliens that follow me everywhere?

Or could the damage have been caused by nails, screws or staples left in the wood? Perhaps. Pixie toenail clippings? Happens more often than we realize. Tiny fragments of a divorce lawyer’s heart? Maybe, but they are rare and tougher than stellite. No, it’s more likely the culprit is something harder and more insidious than even Murphy’s pointy purple pecker, a substance all around us, one we often ignore.

Nitty Gritty

Logging Redwoods in Humbolt County California, 1905

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 wasted, 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 grinding legal beagle body parts 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? 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 the cleaning the bathtub: Simply wash it with soap, water and a scrub brush, followed by a rinse.

Bet you never thought of washing wood before have you?

The idea is to wet, scrub 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 hose. A bit of dishwashing soap or borax 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, stand it on stickers on-end, or rest it on-edge, and allow time and circulating air to dry it out of the sun.

Remember to wet both sides of each board to minimize warping. And don’t soak a lot of water into the ends.

Disclaimer: It 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

First, 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.

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, your tools will thank you over many years with abundant chips, shiny shavings and cheerful little songs. Promise.

Yosemite Valley California, 1865

YMHOS

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