Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Contemporary Jewelry Making Cabinet

If this year's batch of holiday gifts has a theme, I guess it would be "wooden things that help express your creativity."  Let's face it, our schools are so overwhelmed with their quest for arbitrary test-taking prowess and over-the-top athletic myopia that little time or energy remains to foster a sense of personal expression in students.  The workplace, no matter how enlightened, rewards individuals for doing one task well, doing it consistently, and doing it in a context of institutional consensus.  In either case, the way you spend your time is measured, judged, and recorded by outsiders.

But creative pursuits offer a tonic.  No one sits in judgement over the "effective use of your time", and if you give yourself permission, you can surprise yourself with the sincerity of what you have to say.

One of my daughters plays guitar, and I really enjoyed making items to make her practice more meaningful.  My other daughter writes, and I think she is looking forward to using this year's gift of bookbinding supplies.  My wife is interested in making jewelry, and so my final holiday project is a workstation to hold supplies and serve as a creative benchtop.

Tom Fidgen's book, Made By Hand, arrived at just the right time as I started thinking about design.  His contemporary pieces reflect his own process and remind me a bit of the designs of Krenov and John Reed Fox -- good company indeed.  I decided that my cabinet would take a similar shape to the drawer section of his "Picture Perfect" project.  Cherry and birdseye maple would be the materials and I would, wherever possible, use hand tool techniques.

I started with a 10' by 6" length of 8/4 cherry and a couple of odd shaped boards from the common rack (hey, $2.50 bd. ft., how can you go wrong!).  The legs came first as I marked out the dovetail for the top rail.

I wanted plenty of support, so I decided to have rails around the top and bottom of the four legs.  I started by marking out the length of each mortice and marking a center line.  I then drilled along this line with a 3/8" bit and cleaned the mortice with a chisel.

The next step was to mark the mortices/slots for the six drawer frames.  These would be mitered and haunched to give visual effect and support.  Again, I marked, drilled, and in this case, sawed across to create the mortice.

In answer to the "I now have a mortice with round ends and tenons with square ends" question I generally use a mortice chisel to square the hole.  I think it is easier and feels more professional.  Once these are complete I was ready to shape the legs.

I wanted the legs to flare at both the top and bottom.  I also wanted the joinery to fit, so any shaping would take place on the two exterior faces of the legs.  I started with only a spokeshave to work myself down to the shape by degrees.  I dedicated the better part of a morning to this and arrived at a shape I liked.

Once this was done, I did transfer the shapes onto the other legs and bandsaw the profiles.  Using the spokeshave I compared the legs and adjusted them to match.

With the legs complete, the next step was to make the drawer frames.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Axe Hangar -- A Laminated Guitar Stand

I like to believe that the provenance and craftsmanship of the items you use most often have a real bearing on your relationship with the task that you perform with them.  I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that the things you use the most should be the ones that are most meaningful.

So when I made the guitar stool for my daughter I realized how shabby the aluminum and rubber guitar stand looked in comparison.  A nice little walnut stand, made with a light touch, would be just the ticket.  I wanted curves, a bit of stability, and a decent strength-to-weight ratio.  That meant either steam-bending or laminations -- I chose laminations.

I started this without a plan but with an objective -- to have several curves, very few pieces (not because I'm lazy but as a design element), and to possess a bit of grace.  Oh, I also needed for it to remain upright while holding a guitar.  I have no experience with bent laminations and charged forward with the enthusiasm of the naive.

I started by ripping 48" strips from some leftover 5/4 walnut.  With some tutoring from Thos. Moser's book, I ripped them about 1/8" thick.  I chose to have the laminations come off the non-fence side of the blade.  For example, if my stock was 5" wide I would set the fence to 4 3/4" and rip (1/8" for the lamination falling off the left side of the blade, 1/8" for the kerf, then the 4 3/4" between the blade and the fence.) There are instructions for fiddling with and moving a featherboard and planing after each pass, but I found this all to be unnecessary if you used push sticks, a bit of common sense, and kept the stock moving.  You get into a rhythm, subtracting 1/4" as you go until you get the number of laminations. 

Once I had these I waggled them around for a bit and thought about the mechanics -- how far can it curve, which way should it curve, etc.  I finally got an image in my mind of a sort of upside down version of the Southern Cross, and set about bending.

My bending form was nothing fancy, just a piece of OSB some screws and a few wood blocks.  I slathered on the glue on one side of each lamination and bent it free-form on the board.  It is pretty intuitive and very satisfying.  After a bit of noodling I bent a second piece for the base and set it to drying as well.  I determined the joinery of these two curves by eyeballing the angle, marking the intersection, and cutting a half-lap joint.  At this point I will just dry-fit and clamp since I will need to do more work on the base and I'm less likely to break it if it is not as cumbersome.

The places where the three legs met the floor were marked flush with the floor and cut . . .

And the main portion of the stand was complete.

The next step was to create a curved piece to hold the neck at the top, and a curved piece to hold the body of the guitar at the bottom.  These were bent in a similar fashion (except that I decreased the thickness of the laminations for the top piece to 3/32" to accomodate a tighter bend) and glued.

Once these were complete I cut them to length and determined where they should go on the body of the stand.  I created angled blocks from maple to have each support project at the proper angle from the stand, and affixed these block and support pieces to the body via maple dowels.  With these elements in place, I can line up the two main components, and secure them with dowels.

The final element was a shaped rod that held the guitar body on the stand.  I found a tasty bit of figured walnut, turned this and attached it to the bottom support with dowels -- using the guitar in question to determine the distance from the back.

All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the project -- and it was fun to build and required no special tools.  Since it is made from leftovers, you can custom build one for each of your guitars, varying the wood and finish to match. 

Come to think of it, as I look at the snow coming down out of the back window of the shop, it might be time to put down the tools and pick up the axe.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Place to Sit and Jam

My first holiday project out of the shop is a stool for guitar playing.  The design is based on the Milking Stool from the excellent book Thomas Moser's Windsor Chairmaking.  This book explains in great detail Moser's use of laminations to create the bent parts of windsor chairs, including his signature continuous arm chair.  Laminating, as opposed to steam bending, allows you to expand the types of wood you can use for certain elements of the chair.  He also gives dimensions and angles for many of his popular pieces.  The book was printed in 1982, and the designs do seem a bit dated, but I've found it to be a good reference.

I started by glueing up the seat from some figured walnut I had left over from the desk project.  A quick pass with scrapers and handplanes and I was ready to drill the leg holes.  A year or so ago I made a live-edged cherry bench, and I had built a little jig to allow me to use a router with a 1" straight cutting bit to start the holes.  By creating x and y axis on the seat and aligning the jig accordingly I made (what I thought to be) perfect 10 degree splay in each direction.

I decided to eyeball the seat carving using an inshave, travisher, curved scrapers, and sanding.  The walnut proved to be much tougher to work than the white pine I was accustomed to (duh) and the figure made it even trickier.  This was clearly a case of abondoning any pretensions I had about purity of method and concentrating on getting the puck in the back of the net.  All things considered, I'm pleased with the look.

I turned the legs into a simple taper from hard maple, taking care to be fairly accurate with the tenons.  I do think one of my next shop projects/purchases will be a little tenon rounder to speed up this part of the process.

Now it would be easy to gloss over the next step with some cleverly edited photos that made the leg angles look perfectly square and true.  They are not.  I had hoped that my little router jig was accurate (it had proved perfect in the bench project) but with the legs closer together I realized that at least one of the angles was not true and it introduced a kind of funny cant to each leg.  I knew that I could correct for the height and level in the final leg trimming step, but it was going to look a bit askew.  Well, I guess I will need to build that drill press jig after all.

Once assembled I set the chair on my level floor and placed wedges under the legs to make the seat level from side-to-side and tilted back a few degrees from front-to-back.  I then taped a pencil to a block of wood so that it drew a line, level with the floor, just above the bottom of the shortest leg and drew the lines for the final leg length.  With the legs glued and wedged into place all that was left was to finish the piece.

I chose two coats of Danish oil, and it really brought out the figure in the walnut and highlighted the contrast with the maple.  I guess some projects reaffirm your ability and some point out your weaknesses.  This did the latter, but for whatever reason I'm not too worked up about it.  Maybe someday it will show up on the Antiques Roadshow and they'll say "You can tell this is actually from the Combray Furniture Studio because none of the legs are actually square and true -- pure design genius." 

Then again, maybe not

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Please Don't Disturb The Elves While They Are Working

These weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are always the most satisfying part of the woodworking year for me.  It is the time that I put everything else aside and work exclusively on gifts for the members of my family (like the little batch of picture frames above.)  For most of us, I'm sure, it recalls the reason why we became involved in woodworking in the first place -- the magic of creating something from nothing.

Hidden away in our basements and spare rooms are those first attempts, each displaying one or all of the things we now despise -- torn grain, bad design, machine marks, horrible finishes, mid project re-engineering nightmares -- but we hold on to them because they say something about where we, and those close to us, were at that time.

Handmade gifts have so many things going for them.  If we are thrifty and smart we can erase the modern connection between dollar signs and the value of a gift by making something beautiful from nearly nothing.  We can rationalize using up those scraps of hoarded wood with the nice figure because this truly is the important project for which we've been waiting.

It also gives us the opportunity to try out new techniques in a real world setting.  You've never done inlay, give it a whirl; bent laminations, why not.  It is truly the thought that counts, and as most of us have the ability to do at least a "very good" job on most projects, the recipient will never feel that they're getting second best.  If you are building a commission you strive for perfection; a gift needs to have heart.  Invariably these new projects require new tools, and with mock sadness you explain to your partner that you must purchase these new tools in order to keep with the spirit of the season.

More than anything else, the creation of handmade gifts allows you to spend more time with your family.  I don't mean in person, but in your own mind.  Because while you are building you can't help but think of how the recipient will use the gift.  You think about last year's gift and how much they've grown.  You think about their strong points, the personality traits you don't possess but are so glad that someone does.  You hope this gift will open the door to some new thought or idea for them.

I'm building a guitar stool and guitar stand for one of my daughters.  We both play and I'm amazed how her mind, free from the trappings and constraints of Mel Bay books, has created a singular playing style that I hope she keeps forever.  Thinking about her playing guitar is a gift to me that I'm enjoying today.  (An added gift is that thinking about her playing the guitar reminded me that I wanted to teach her how to play Proud Mary, that will be fun.  Which made me think of Tina Turner singing that song, which I've watched on YouTube with my other daughter, which was also fun.)  

The other members of my family are also in line for gifts, some large and some small, some more inspired than others, but each project brings me that same feeling of connection to that person.  The beauty for me is that on December 26th I'll be thinking about what they might enjoy next, and that keeps them in my thoughts throughout the year.  And they're a pretty nice crew to spend time with.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Prairie Chair -- Finished and Almost Done

We're on the homestretch now, and on familiar territory, as the Prairie Chair has been constructed and begins the multi-step finish program.  The traditional finish for this chair would include some industrial chemicals (ammonia) and a rig worthy of Mythbusters.  While I am interested in fooling around with this stuff, it is hard to make the switch from a technique that has brought me very good results.

Jeff Jewitt's site Homestead Finishing Products explains in step-by-step fashion the way to acheive a factory-like finish for your mission oak pieces -- he also sells all the kit that you will need to make it happen.  In short this technique has you:

                 1.  Stain the piece to a desired base color
                 2.  Seal the color with sanding sealer (1 lb cut shellac)
                 3.  Smear on and wipe off a darker glaze
                 4.  Finish with the topcoat of your choice (shellac, poly)

I like it because it works, involves run-of-the-mill toxic solvents (mineral spirits, alcohol), and allows you to make adjustments on the fly.  I started with Transtint dark maple diluted to the "Fayetteville" formula and wiped it on with a rag.  Just use common sense on this part, keep a wet edge if you can and don't let it pool.  My objective is to get it to dry evenly.  At this stage, as you can see, the results between bare wood and the stained wood are not that dramatic.  Once dry, I give it a gentle rub with a grey scotchbrite pad to even the dried finish and take care of any raised grain.

Now I wipe on a coat of Bullseye Sanding Sealer (open a window) and let it dry (which takes about 10 minutes.)  This starts to add a little depth.  This is a good time to take a break and shake the fumes out of your head.

Now comes the fun part -- the glaze.  Jeff Jewitt recommends that you use a stiff brush: I usually use a rag and my fingers to really rub it into the pores.  No matter how much you put on, you will be taking 90% back off.  This is where the real look of the finish comes alive.  I usually wipe on a small amount of the gel stain with a cotton rag and immediately wipe it off with another cotton rag that is damp with mineral spirits.  The key word is damp.  I work on one part of the piece at a time as I don't want the gel to dry completely.   My interpretation is that you want to remove almost all of the gel stain on the surface but leave the stain that sits in the cracks.  I sometimes then go back over the damp area I just finished with a dry paper towel.

Some gel finish will remain on the surface and make the finish darker -- another wipe with mineral spirits and a paper towel will make it lighter.  Adjust accordingly.  If you are doing it right you will be a mess but the piece will look quite nice.

I would normally add several coats of shellac at this point (after it sits overnight) but in this case I think I will use poly.  It will get a lot of use add I think it will need the protection.  Now all that's left to do is the internal frame and the make-or-buy decision on the upholstery.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Craft In America

If you haven't had a chance to see the recent PBS series Craft In America, it is well worth your time to check out the full episodes that are available online and the snippets that give some insight into the artists' point of view.  Without pushing the metaphor too far, the production values and the thoughtful approach make the program itself a work of art.

Throughout this past week my wife and I have been out and about trying to avoid the depressing scenario that is the holiday shopping season.  With no real agenda we seemed to find ourselves in a number of artisan studios -- not really shopping, just taking in the vibe. During a trip to Lititz, PA we visited Morton Fine Furniture where in a storefront setting a craftsman did his thing.  The shop reflected the tastes of a craftsman and the savvy of someone who knew what would sell.  On the way home we stopped at the quiet and comfortable studio shop of Eldreth Pottery, where Santas from a number of years lined up like American Santons looking across the Atlantic.

In our little corner of Southern Chester County, PA there is an artisan community struggling to break out.  The recent creation of the Oxford Arts Alliance has brought a breath of fresh air to this area.  And by surprise we stumbled across an open studio day sponsored by a different group that featured a fantastic glass artist, Nine Iron Studios and a truly unique clay monoprint artist, Mitch Lyons.

Each artist had connections outside our little community (New York, Murano) and each had a slightly bittersweet view of their work, "I love what I do, but it's hard selling art to farmers."  But like those featured in Craft in America, each cared deeply about every piece he or she created and the process by which a work of art emerged.

I have to say that I felt much less cynical about the whole gift-giving thing after meeting these artisans and I know we'll be spending some time making a couple of thoughtful purchases from their studios.  Which doesn't feel at all like a favor to them, but like an indulgent gift to ourselves and friends.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Prairie Chair -- The Plan Comes Together

After messing about with the leg joinery, It was time to bring Woody in to help with the glue up. ( I find it particularly helpful to have a rambunctious Labrador underfoot as you start the most stressful part of a project!)  Once the leg assemblies were dry it was time to put the grooves in place to hold the panels and the corbels.  In this case, the corbels are more than decorative items as they provide a significant amount of support for the large arms that give this piece its prairie look.

I glued up two sides, let it dry overnight, double-checking that they were the same length and that there was a 90 degree angle between the panels and the legs.  The front and back followed, with the corbels coming last.  It is important to make sure that the corbels are dead flush with the top of the legs to provide maximum support for the arms.

I decided to affix the arms to the top with a series of dowels.  The width of each arm is just enough to cause concern about wood movement, so the dowels run on one line down the middle -- the sides of each arm are free to move side to side.  After dry-fitting several times, I drilled holes down the back panel first and placed dowel centers in the holes.  Once I was sure that the back arm was in the correct place, I pushed it down and made the marks on the bottom of the back arm.  I then drilled these holes inserted the dowels and put it together -- DRY.   This allows you to drill the holes on the side panels, insert the dowel centers, and position the arm precisely against the back arm before you push it together to make your marks.

Once both arms are ready you take the arms apart, insert dowels with glue in all the panels, and beginning with the arm on the left, assemble each arm in succession.  I added a #20 biscuit on the mitered edge with a drop of glue to help ensure that the edges stayed aligned.

The Lee Valley 1/4" dowels are designed to start to swell almost immediately after the glue is applied, so it glued up nice and tight.  I decided not to clamp; it didn't really need it and I didn't want to introduce any unnecessary stress.

So far, so good.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Prairie Chair -- Quadralinear Quandries

Tom Watson, the great golfer, once said that the difference between a professional and an amateur was that an amateur attempted a shot that he could pull off three out of ten times, while a pro only tried one he could make nine out of ten times.  I think some of this logic applies to furniture making as well.

The quadralinear leg -- one that displays four sides of quartersawn figure, is a hallmark of refined arts and crafts furniture.  A quick browse through the Stickley catalog will not only show you many examples, but even feature a blurb about their pride in this technique.  In order to create this effect you must work through some complicated joinery -- joinery that has the potential to cost you a two-stroke penalty (forcing the golf metaphor) in the blink of an eye.

Sure, you could mill a big chunk of 12/4 oak for your legs, but you would have quartersawn figure on only two legs.  You could also add quartersawn veneer to the plain figure sides, (a technique in a recent Fine Woodworking video) but history and Robert Lang says that it will split, and your furniture will be flawed.  The answer seems to lie in mitering four long pieces of quartersawn oak to create a quadralinear leg.

I decided to test three methods, all of which can be found on various sites, to see which one results in the highest percentage of success without making you lose your sanity.  Just to lay the groundwork, all pieces are 2 1/2" wide and 13/16" thick. 

The Drawer Lock Miter Bit Method

This has been my method in the past.  If you are willing to pony up 75 bucks for a bit and you have a fairly robust router, a router table with infinite adjustment capabilities, and the patience of a saint, this might be your first choice.  By running one edge of your leg piece on its side, and then the other side flat on the table, you will have a joint that has a 45 degree miter on the outside and some internals that lock it together with its mating piece.

All this works in theory, but in practice I've found it to be highly unsatisfactory.  There are just too many variables -- the height of the bit, the distance of the fence, the speed of the router (I've tried everything from 13,000 to 18,000 rpm), and grain direction.  I've used featherboards, I've trimmed of edges on the tablesaw, I've handplaned the flats, and everytime I do it I feel that the results are in the laps of the woodworking gods and require some large amount of jiggery-pokery to get a result. Sometimes it is dead perfect; sometimes it is not.  Also, no matter how you try to collect the dust, your shop looks like the Sahara Desert in a heartbeat.

If you approach your furniture building like an accountant, this might be for you, but I doubt it.  There must be a better way.

The Tablesaw Miter Joint

Robert Lang does an excellent job of explaining this method in his second collection of More Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture.  This joint looks most like what I believe the early factory furniture makers used and it has a lot going for it.  It feels authentic and once you work out your chosen dimensions, you can put together a detailed plan that allows you to cut from start to finish with no guesswork.

But . . . quartersawn white oak is by nature fairly reactive wood, and as you cut it, it will bend and twist a bit rendering the internal joint faces inaccurate.  You then must add a little play in order to make the money faces (the miters themselves) fit without gaps.  Also, the required cuts force me into positions I try to avoid when using a table saw.  There are times when you are referencing knife edge cuts awkwardly and even though I use push sticks and featherboards, I started to get the heebie-jeebies.

The results are better than with the router table, but it wasn't a silver bullet.  I got to thinking, the only thing that really matters are the miters themselves -- the internal joint stuff is only there to hold it in place while you clamp it up.  If you can find a way to clamp it accurately, then all you need are four mitered pieces, right?

Four Mitered Pieces

To quote Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, "The beauty of this plan is in its simplicity."  If you start with 2 1/2" wide stock, set your fence to 46 mm (if you have a Beisemeyer fence it is the most accurate mark), and adjust the blade to 45 degrees, you can cut miters on both sides of the piece.  You are now done with the machining.

Now, here's the trick.  Set the pieces side-by-side, edges touching and apply long strips of packing tape. 

Now flip the bundle over and apply glue to the faces.

Now roll up and apply a couple of quick clamps where necessary.

There is plenty of glue surface and you are free to insert a square block in the middle if you want to add stability.  I don't think that it is necessary since any stress on the piece would be the tenon pushing on end grain.  The method is quicker, kicks up less dust, and is safer than most others. The tape provides much more pressure than you would expect and the glue line is as small as on a perfectly executed Drawer-Lock Miter.  The difference is that it is perfect nine out of ten times, not three out of ten.  I like it a lot, and I'm going to retire my old technique.  But enough about method.

I've glued up the panels to the chair and placed the grooves in the sides of the completed legs to hold the corbels and the panels.

 The dry fit looks something like this.

Next, assembly and finish.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Woodwork Magazine

Hey, let me say that I'm not a shill for these guys, but I just received the new "annual"  Woodwork Magazine and I really enjoyed it.  I was pretty bummed out when they announced that they were ceasing publication, (and then added insult to injury by trying to fob off the dreary American Woodworker in its place) and I've since been amassing back issues from eBay and the like.

What makes it a great complement to Fine Woodworking and Popular Woodworking are the features on really interesting craftspeople and their push-the-envelope creations.  The woodworkers I most admire are the "Mad Monks" who crawl into their sheds, carve spoons for twenty years, live on a diet of porridge and PBR, and emerge with a totally new paradigm.  When the revolution is over, and I'm declared King, these folks will help me run the world.

This new issue doesn't disappoint and I read the whole mag in one sitting.  There's some promise that if there is enough interest they will move to a more frequent publication schedule.  I'd love it if they considered being a quarterly e-zine, but as said revolution hasn't happened yet, we can only support them and hope they grow.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Prairie Chair By the Numbers

Arts and Crafts furniture, particularly the kind still produced by the Stickley Company, was the first genre that made me take notice and begin to think of furniture as an expression of my own tastes.  College furniture just needed to be strong and not smell (too) awful.  Newly-married furniture needed to fill space.  But as my wife and I began to look past pure function, we found ourselves travelling long distances to actually visit the elite showrooms deemed worthy of carrying the Stickley line.

It was much later that I discovered that they are just the most well-known of the many companies and individuals who keep the craftsman spirit alive by producing pieces that aesthetically and physically stand the test of time.  (Kevin Rodel and Jonathan Binzen's book, Arts & Crafts Furniture is a great history of the movement, and should be part of every furnituremaker's library.)  I've decided to make the Prairie Chair for myself, and I turned to Robert Lang's book, Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture for inspiration.

When this book is mentioned you will, without a doubt, get one or both of these reactions -- "What a great book." and/or "Beware of the errors in the measurements.  I would echo these sentiments.  The description of Stickley techniques, the selection of the projects, and the diagrams are all superb.  I did find a couple of errors in the measurements, but caught them before they cost me any time.  We're all adults here and we should be checking these dimensions anyway, so I'm not too bothered.

This project consists of creating two frame and panel sides, one frame and panel back, four posts, arms and decorative corbels.  The biggest challenges look to be keeping the balky quartersawn white oak square and true, double-checking the dimensions, and tackling the dreaded quadralinear leg details.  I started by milling the necessary stock to 13/16 and creating the mortise and tenons for the sides and back:

I did all of the tenons on the tablesaw with a sled (slightly oversized) and brought them to final size with a rabbet plane.  The mortices are all grooves and I machined these on the table saw as well.  Here's the irony: the arts and crafts movement is often described as a desire to bring humanity back to the trades, yet this entire piece is best suited to industrial production.  So it goes.

I also resawed the panels for the sides and back, bookmatching them for effect.  True to form, the resawn QSWO cupped something fierce, so I'll have to rely on the sturdy rails and stiles to hold it in place.  Before glue-up I pre stained the panels.

Next, I'll look into the finish and tackle the quadralinear legs.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Disston and A Dat One

William Morris famously advised that you should "Have nothing in your house that you do not believe to be beautiful or know to be useful."  But a different standard has to apply in the workshop.  Sure, I know that there are those who collect idle Stanley 45's, perched on upper shelves like some industrial gargoyles, but shop space is too precious for mere ornamentation.

And yet . . . once in a while you see a tool that is so visually appealing that you are compelled to make it useful -- function following the love of form.  For me, that tool is the Disston hand saw.

I have an appalling record with large hand saws.  They have all been cheap, mass-produced items that are destined to die a rusty death-by-exposure somewhere in my back yard.  And, like a fire extinguisher, when called upon to work they double-cross and leave me humiliated.  Avoiding hand saws is why we buy table saws, right?  However, when I purchased four circa 1900 Disston's from different people over the course of a week I knew that I had to transform the simply beautiful to the proven useful.

So, in Mythbusters style, I set out to test whether someone with no previous sawsharpening skills could turn two neglected saws (one cross-cut, one rip) into shop workhorses.  The first place to turn was . The site is not only a treasure trove of beautiful saws from the past, an online store for Disstons resurrected and ready for service, but a source for straightforward insructions for setting and sharpening saws.  As these instructions are so well-written, I won't go into detail on how I proceeded, I'll just explain how I fared with the online tutorial.

There are several steps to successful saw sharpening:  jointing, shaping, setting, and filing.  In order to complete these steps you will need a saw vise, a saw set, and a file.  The first two items are readily available on eBay or from a number of online antique tool dealers, the files should be purchased from the site itself (it's the least you can do to say thanks for the good info.)  The tutorial is in the Library section of the site.

My saws were quite dull but they were not "out of joint" so just a few passes with a stinking bastard file put little flat spots on the tops of the teeth. Nor were they in need of re-setting (I determined this by sawing and finding that they did not bind in the cut.)  So the main focus was on shaping and filing.  The site describes the differing geometry of cross-cut and rip teeth, and gives you instructions on how to make alignment jigs to help with accuracy.  The process is fairly intuitive and as long as your eyesight holds out you will begin to get in a groove.  I must say that the sight of gleaming sharp edges emerging from 100 year old steel is pretty encouraging.

From start to finish the process took me about 60 minutes per saw.  This includes lots of stopping and checking directions and peering through my magnifying light

As I don't know what perfection looks like, I aimed for consistency.  The art of filing is the ability to manuever the file -- biasing it in a way that wears away steel to leave a tooth that is symmetrical and sharp.  Maintaining the proper rake angle, and the different fleam angles for the cross-cut and rip saws is easy to understand, slightly more difficult to acheive.  It is a bit like the difference between understanding a new guitar chord and playing it fluidly.  By following the tutorial I finished and inspected the work.  I did suffer a bit from the "Big Tooth, Little Tooth" syndrome, but overall it wasn't too shabby.

The first thing you notice, when you take a newly sharpened saw to 4/4 quartersawn white oak, is the sound -- it positively roared when it started cutting.  Pull it back, let it drop, and listen.  Each pass took whacking big cuts that were straight and effortless.  Here's the best part:  in spite of my errors, lack of experience, and general ham-fistedness, this crosscut saw went like the clappers on my first try.  A twenty dollar saw, a six dollar file and an hour of my time, resulted in a woodworking Pygmalion; the sow's ear transformed.

I had similar results with the rip saw, as I dug into the cut list for an upcoming project.  I did find that the rip saw cut rougher, and was harder to start than its cousin, but that may just be the nature of the beast.

I have two more saws to sharpen and I know that I will get better as I gain more experience.  The bottom line is that you can do this, the margin of error is quite wide, and that the end result is both aesthetically and practically pleasing. 

Next week I leave this toolfoolery behind and begin construction of an iconic piece of American furniture -- the prarie-style side chair.  Be seeing you.