A woodworking journey

A hydrid approach to woorkworking – Part 4

The addition of Japanese style saws to my tool collection marked a turning point in my approach to woodworking.  After I became comfortable with the dovetail saw, I added a ryoba saw (double sided saw) and then a cut off saw (kugihiki) and finally a kataba saw for hardwoods.   It was  like eating a potato chips, you can never have just one. Each saw was designed for a specific type of cut and each one did it quite well.   I found myself reaching for those saws more and more frequently.  If I failed to mention it earlier, these Japanese saws are sharp.  They hold an edge beautifully.  I think it is due to the way the teeth are shaped and sharpened.   I have had the original dovetail saw for over 25 years and it is as good today as when it first came home from the store.

Now, as I mentioned during one of the early parts, I never saw my father sharpen his tools. So that was one one critical skill that I lacked.  I had chisels and some hand planes, but they were barely usable.  After a bit of research, I purchased a three stone system.  It had three stones mounted to a wooden block.  It was awful.  It wobbled, the stones were narrow and the oil made a mess everywhere.  Needless to say,  it soon was gathering dust in a dark corner of the shop.  I was no further along in learning how to sharpen.

oil stone

When inexpensive waterstones appeared on the market, I gave them a try.   I purchased a pair of Norton combination stones and set about learning how to sharpen my chisels.   The results were amazing.  The learning curve was relatively short, and soon, I had the mirror finish on the edges that I had read about.  Like so many other woodworkers, I proudly wore the shaved patch on my arm from testing the chisel sharpness.  Oh yes, I had arrived in the sharp chisel club. I was so encouraged by the results, that I added a really nice set of Robert Sorby chisels to my collection.  Other specialty chisels would follow over the years: butt chisels, skew chisels, crank neck chisels, mortising chisels….you get the picture.

Sharpening plane irons soon followed.  I was able to put a respectable edge on the plane iron.  I soon came to realize that the planes I had were, for the most part, barely adequate. My collection consisted of a modern Stanly #4, a Buck Brother #5 and a standard angle Stanley block plane.  I still heavily relied on my jointer and thickness planer for preparing stock for glue up and joinery.  With time, I began to add other planes: shoulder planes, low angle block planes, rabbet planes, chisel planes, edge forming planes.  The collection grew and grew.  I could keep that sharp and ready for use.

Over the years,  I have tried other sharpening methods.  Scary Sharp utilized various grits of sandpaper on a flat piece of plate glass.  The results were ok, but I found myself going back to the waterstones.  A few years ago, I purchased a Worksharp 3000.  It did a very nice job keeping my chisels and plane irons sharp.  Today, it is my go to method for day to day sharpening.  A few seconds at each grit and the blade is ready to go.  For severely damaged edges, I find that the waterstones are the best method for re-establishing a good edge.  Sharpening is a critical skill for any woodworker.  It took time, but today, I think I have got a reasonable skill level at sharpening and maintaining my edged tools..

One day, a chance find in a thrift store set my tool collecting in an entirely new direction.  While looking through the dusty shelves, I found an odd looking plane.  It had a wooden body and a metal top frame.  The lever cap had the impression of the Liberty Bell.  It turned out to be a Stanley 122 Liberty Bell transitional plane.  At $5, how could I pass this oddity by?


to be continued…..






Live Edge Spalted Sycamore Coffee Table

I was recently asked to build a live edge coffee table for a special client.  So, it was off to the sawmill to see what the slab inventory looked like.  The customer was very fond of a specific piece of spalted sycamore.  The slab had a large through and through crack as well as knot splits and surface checking.  All of those “defects” would be dealt with during the preparation of the slab.  Maple was chosen for the base.  Initially, Norway maple was selected, however,  it proved to be unsuitable during the subsequent milling.


The raw slab was slightly thicker than 1 3/4″ with a bit of twist.  I used my router sled to remove the twist and bring the slab to a final thickness of 1.5″.  The through and through crack would need to be filled.  I chose black tinted epoxy for the job.  It took four pours to completely fill the crack consuming almost 6 ounces of five minute epoxy.  The knot cracks and surface checks were also epoxy filled.  There were some sedge splits that were also filled.  Overall, I was happy with the outcome.  The black epoxy complimented the spalted surface and blended in quite well.

With the voids filled, it was now time to start the structural repairs for the top.  I made a batch of butterfly splines from spalted sycamore in a variety of sizes.  For the large central crack, I used a total of eight splines (four on each side).  The knot cracks received an additional four splines.  The sequence of work for the repair was layout the location for the butterfly, route out the rough opening, pare the opening to the final size, glue in the butterfly and trim flush.

With all of the repair work complete, the top was shaped and sanded to 800 grit.

My attention now turned to the base of the table.  Initially, I planned to use Norway maple for the base, but it proved to be too brittle and prone to cracking.  I switched over to hard maple instead.    I was lucky because my hardwood supplier had a good inventory of hard maple shorts suitable for building the base.  The base was made from 8/4  maple.  The table base is a scaled down version of George Nakashima’s Frenchman Cove Table dining table.The joinery employed was bridle joints similar to the joinery employed by Nakashima.  The feet and stretchers have a double taper.

The end assemblies were glue and pegged.  The base breaks down into 3 parts for flat shipping.

As previously mentioned, the top was sanded to 800 grit.  That involved machine sanding to 400 grit and then hand sanding to 800.  At 800 grit, the table surface took on a nice shine.  The finish used on the top and base are Odie’s oil and Odie’s wood butter.  If you have not tried these products, I can say that they are becoming my go to finish for this type of work.  Odie’s oil is like a friction finish.  The heat associated with working it into the surface helps penetrate the pores and cure the finish.  Application is simple.  Apply the oil, work it into the surface and then wipe off the excess within 24 hours.  After a three day cure, the wood butter is applied in a similar manner.

The top is joinedto the base using #10 screws in slotted holes.  This allows for seasonal changes due to humidity swings.


Overall, this table is  52” L x 18.5” H x 16-22” W. The top is 1.5” thick.



With the work completed, the table was packed for shipment to the client in California.


Reviving a Sargent 411 Plane

Anybody that has looked at my Instagram page will come to realize that I love old hand planes.  In fact, most of the planes that I use on a daily basis predate me by at least 20 years.  I have a particular fondness for planes that were made by the Sargent Company of New Haven, Connecticut.  Until their untimely demise, they were a fierce competitor of Stanley Tools.

I recently was lucky to obtain a Sargent 411 bench plane.  The 411 plane was manufactured between 1926 through 1947.  The 411 is similar in size to a Stanley 5 1/4.  It measures 11.5″ long with a 1 3/4″ cutter.  This size falls between the traditional smoothing plane (9″ long with a 2″ cutter) and a jack plane (14″ long with a 2″ cutter)  They were meant for use in manual training schools (the precursor of the modern vocational  high school).  Sadly, many of these planes did not survive the ordeal.  When you do find one, it usually shows its battle scars.  My 411 was no different.  It was dirty, worn and probably had not been sharpened in decades..

Now, there are many different approaches to bringing back an old tool to usable condition,  There are some that strip them down to the bare metal and apply a brand new coat of Japanning (finish).  They flatten, sharpen, recoat and lubricate.  By the time they are done, the tool looks as good as the day it left the factory.  Others simply sharpen the iron and put it back to use.  I fall somewhere in between.  I clean and lubricate the moving parts,  flatten the sole if needed, repair the tote  and knob (handle, if damaged) and sharpen the iron.  I try to maintain as much of the original patina and wear as possible since that is part of the tool’s story.

The sole of my 411 was slightly dished and would require flattening.  I mark the bottom of the sole with permanent marker in a zigzag pattern.  Starting with 120 grit sandpaper affixed to my tablesaw wing , I run the plane over the sandpaper until most of the marker pattern is removed.  I then change to 220 grit and repeat the process until the sole is flat and the marker trace is gone.  A few final passes at 320 grit and I consider the sole ready.



The plane is disassembled and gets of thorough brushing, vacuuming and a wipe down with denatured alcohol.  The knob and tote are cleaned to remove grease and grime.  I do not refinish the wooden parts.  The frog is removed, cleaned, lubricated and re-installed.


For this plane, the major challenge was sharpening.  The edge of the iron was not square, being  about 1/16″ off.  The edge treatment defied understanding.  Usually, the edge of the iron will be either hollow ground (concave) or flat ground.  This plane’s iron was not only out of square but it was also concave.   I have never seen, and hope never again to see, an iron “sharpened” in this manner.  I can only assume that whoever sharpened the iron was either untrained, distracted or uninterested in the task at hand.  I imagine him making haphazard swipes on the sharpening stone.  In any event, it took every tool in my arsenal to bring the iron back.  Over the course of several hours, I used a wet wheel grinder, water stones, diamond stones and dry sharpening to put a new, square sharp edge on the blade.  The final sharpening was to 8000 grit.



The plane was finally ready to be put back together.  The sole got a coating of bees wax to help it glide over the surface being planed.


This plane is a “user”.  It will not sit on a shelf as a display piece.  I will use it regularly and continue to maintain it until the time comes for it to move on to its next caretaker.


A hybrid approach to woodworking- Part 3

One afternoon, I was wondering through a woodworking store shopping for nothing in particular.  In a corner of the store was an old combination tv/vcr.  A tape was playing that immediately caught my attention.  The tape was a demonstration of Japanese joinery by Toshio Odate.  He was sitting on a tatami mat in front of a low work platform.  The tools that he was using were very different from the western tools that were familiar to me.  The chisels were beautifully crafted with slender wood handles and short metal blades. The underside of the chisels were hollowed unlike the chisels that I was used to handling.  One thing was immediately evident, they were amazingly sharp.  He was removing papery thin cuts from the joint that he was shaping with a minimum of effort.

As the tape progressed, Mr. Odate started working on a dovetail joint.  He quickly moved through cutting the pins and tails using a short saw that left a very fine kerf.  Unlike a western saw that cuts on the push stroke, his saw cut on the pull stroke.  He demonstrated rip cuts and crosscuts.  All of his saws cut on the pulI stroke.  The blades were under tension during the cut and did not bind.  He was in control of the saw not the other way around.  He made it look so simple.

That day, I purchased a Japanese dovetail saw (also known as a Dozuki) and never looked back.  I took the saw home and tried it out some oak.  It sliced thought the oak like the proverbial hot knife through butter.  The kerf was super fine and there was no splintering.  It was like the sea had parted.  Here was a handtool that I could use and that I wanted to use.  That day changed how I looked at hand tools. I would master using this saw and the other Japanese style saws that would soon follow.  I came to realize that I had never never worked with a truly sharp tool.  I would learn to properly sharpen my chisels and plane irons.  When I think back to that event, I can’t help but smile.  Something so simple had a profound change on how I approached woodworking.

Post script: A few years after watching Toshio Odate on the demo tape, I met him in person at a woodworking show.  He was sitting on a tatami mat at his floor level work platform.  He was cutting the joints for what was destined to be a dovetailed box.  He worked quickly.  He was the master of his tools.  It was a privilege for me to watch this master woodworker plying his craft.






Making a batch of butterfly splines

I currently have four live edge furniture projects in the shop.  Anybody that works with live edge slabs will often have to deal with cracks and other imperfections.  Typically, a butterfly shaped spline is used to bridge the split in the wood to help stabilize it and prevent further creep.  The splines are both mechanical and a design element.

20151216_150203 (2)

A large project can consume an amazing number of splines, so it makes sense to batch them out.  I generally prefer to have butterflies on both the top and bottom  of the crack.  While some people prefer to use a contrasting wood, I like to use the same species whenever possible.  The butterfly can be almost any size and the proportions are not fixed.  Generally, I use butterflies that range from 2″ to 3.5″ long.  The base is typically twice as wide as the butterfly waist.  There are no hard and fast rules about size, dimensions or even the method of fabrication.  I have seen them cut using a band saw, hand saw, router template table saw and even free formed.  My preferred method is with the table saw as illustrated below.

I generally start by trying to figure out roughly how many splines are needed for a project. Then I prepare the blanks that will be used.


I tilt the table saw blade to the target angle (between 15-25 degrees) and set the rip fence.  Cutting the blank will require four kerfing cuts.  I use a push block, paddle and feather board so that my hands are well clear of the blade.  The blade height is set so that a tiny membrane remains once the kerfing cuts are completed.


The waste is readily popped off with a slight rocking motion.  Alternately, a wedge or screw driver will work.  The blanks need a bit of chisel work to remove the last of the material at the butter waist.

The final step is to cut down the blanks to harvest the butterflies.  The slabs I work with are typically between 1.25 and 2″ thick.  The mortises are generally 1/2″deep.  My butterflies are typically about 5/8″ thick.  This allows the butterfly to be bottomed out in the mortise and leave some material standing proud for final trimming.  So, the rip fence is set to give a 5/8″ thick butterfly and the blank gets cut down.  For this operation, I prefer to use a Grr-Ripper and MJ Splitter (from Mircojig) and a zero clearance insert for the blade.


Before installing the butterfly, I shave a small chamfer on the bottom side to help center it in the mortise before driving it home.

,In Use

Live Edge Walnut Display Shelf/Bookcase – Part 2


Continued from

Winter arrived in SE Pennsylvania this week and it was too cold in the shop to do the epoxy repairs to the slab top.  I opted to work on flattening and thicknessing the sides for the case.


The material was slightly greater than 1 5/8″.  There was a twist of about 1/4″ in the slabs that needed to be removed.  To accomplish this, I used a router sled as shown below.   The piece of wood with the circle cut in it accommodates a 2.5″ dust collector hose.


I use plastic laminate shims to level the pieces on the jig.  By making multiple passes across the grain, the slab is flattened.


The final pass is made with the grain and removes about 1/32″.  At that point the slab is flipped over and the second side is treated in the same manner.  All that is needed is a bit of touch up with a #4 smoother.  20160113_165351

Once the weather  breaks I can get back to the epoxy and butterfly splines.




A hybrid approach to woodworking – Part 2

If you could time travel back to 1975 and look at my father’s toolbox, what would you see?  It would be an old wooden tool chest with chipped paint and an assortment of dents and dings.  Inside the box, there would be a typical assortment of saws (rip, crosscut, coping, etc.), a set of worn chisels with nicks on the blades, assorted screwdrivers, files and hammers.  Under the top tray, you would see some old hand planes.  A number 4 smoothing plane, a number 5 jack plane and an old block plane.  The thing that all of those tools shared in common was a worn, rusty look of neglect.  When my father stopped using those tools as a way to make a living, they were relegated to the damp, dark basement never to see the light of day.  I cannot recall a single time that my father attempted to sharpen and set the saws.  The chisels and plane irons were dull and nicked.  The plane bodies were covered with a fine layer of rust.  Using those tools was a chore and recipe for frustration.  Anyone that has ever tried to slice a tomato with a dull knife knows what that is like.  A dull knife can’t even cut something as thin as the skin of a tomato. Whenever you cut a piece of wood, especially pine,  it leaves a residue of tar and pitch.  Over time, that residue can build up and make the saw blade drag and bind.  Those were the tools that I used in my youth.

Now, fast forward twenty years and look into my toolbox.  The first thing you notice is that it is made of blue plastic.  Inside, there is an upper tray loaded with a set of Stanley Handyman chisels.  They are not nicked, but they are dull.  You would also see a coping saw for cutting curves, a back saw , a dovetail saw and a single toolbox sized handsaw. They are all western style saws that cut on the push stroke.  You would also find a number 4 smoothing plane and a block plane and a jack plane.  They are not rusted like my father’s, but they are not sharp.  The frustration carried forward to a new generation.  I never learned how to properly care for or tune a hand tool.  In woodworking, a sharp well tuned tool can be a joy to use.

In contrast, my power tools always seemed to be sharp and ready to use.  Carbide tipped saw blades and router bits stayed sharp much longer than regular tool steel. Compared to hand tools,  power tools are fast and easy to use.  Anybody can pick up a power tool and, with a bit of caution and care,  cut or shape a piece of wood.   I was drawn to that ease of use.  I could build furniture, but the pieces had those telltale features that said “built using a machine”.  The rounded edges were too perfect.  There was the uniform ripple from the planer on the edges of boards.  Table tops had the uniform scratch pattern caused by power sanders.  I was building furniture, but the results did not say “hand crafted”.

Live Edge Walnut Display Shelf/Bookcase – Part 1

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Nakashima Reading Room at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA.  Tucked away in the corner was a display shelf with a live edge top.  This is the type of case I need for the corner of my dining room to display art pottery.

With this case as inspiration, I went to the sawmill to find a suitable flitch to use as the top.  The black walnut slab was 8/4 thick with a bit of a twist.20151215_101901
The top was surfaced with a router carriage to  flatten it and bring it to rough thickness.  After that, it was time to change over to hand planes. Starting with a jointer plane, low angle jack plane and eventually a smoothing plane, the top was brought down to  1 3/8″ thick.

The above pictures are the top after surfacing (alcohol wet).  Next up will be some butterfly splines and epoxy to repair some defects in the top.

Nakashima Style Dining Table in Black Walnut

I recently completed a dining table in black walnut.  The table is based on the Frenchman’s Cove I table by George Nakashima.  The top consists of two bookmatched walnut slabs joined with butterfly splines.  Overall dimension of the table is 44.5″ w x 84″ l x 29.5″ h.  The top was flattened primarily using hand planes.

A hydrid approach to woodworking – Part 1

My father and his father before him were both trained as carpenters.  My grandfather made his living with his tools.  He built his own home and it still stands today.  My father was trained as a finish carpenter.  He never enjoyed it and ultimately gave up the profession.  When I was growing up, if anything needed to be built, it was done with hand tools.  The only “power tool” was an old Montgomery Ward drill and that was a rather late addition to my father’s toolbox.  Sadly, none of those old tools made their way into my possession.  When I started building, naturally, it was done with hand tools.  The first piece of “furniture” that I built was a platform bed.  It was crudely done using half lap joints and metal corner brackets.  It served the purpose.

In the mid 80’s, I found myself the owner of a house with the usual assortment of improvement projects.  I needed to add storage to the bathroom and embarked on building a vanity.  Naturally, I started with hand tools making slow progress.  After a particularly unproductive session, I said to myself “…this would be so much easier if I had an electric saber saw.”  Off I went and purchase a Black and Decker saber saw and a table that mounted the saw so you could cut stock on the flat.  Soon, a router (also B&D) was added to my arsenal.  Before I knew it,  I had become a power tool junkie.  My collection of corded tools grew: routers, sanders, table saws, drills, even an electric screwdriver.  My hand tools were pushed to the back of the garage to collect dust and rust.  The gleaming metal machines became my focus and go to method of work.  It stayed that way for the next fifteen years.