Well it was a wild ride on the commodities market this past week as corn hit $7.40 and soybeans hit $15.71. We haven’t seen prices like this in something like ten years or more, and a lot of people are puzzled by why the commodities prices have spiked up this high, this fast. There are no natural disasters or reports of extreme shortages that would cause this, so what’s going on?
It’s a combination of things that have made the markets a wee bit nervous. China is trying to rebuild its pig herds after they were decimated because of culling from African Swine Fever, so there is increased demand there. There are weather problems in parts of South America that are interfering with some corn production down there. USDA announced that US farmers are going to plant less corn this growing season. The reduction isn’t much, but enough to make people think it might make supplies tight. They think people are going to be driving a lot more this summer which is going to mean increased demand for gasoline which, in turn, means more demand for ethanol to meet the blending requirements.
So here we are with corn at 7.49 at the moment. Extended out into the future commodities prices get more reasonable, but not by much. July corn is sitting at 6.73 which is still high but not utterly horrible, and September corn is at 5.92
So, why should you be interested in corn prices? Because volatility in corn prices ripples through the whole economy. High corn prices mean it costs a lot more for the dairy, beef, chicken and pork producers to feed their cattle. That’s going to put pressure on consumer food prices across the board, not just dairy products and meat. High corn prices can force producers to look at other grains like wheat to substitute. That can push wheat prices up, increasing costs for flour, which increases the cost of baked goods. Well, you get the idea.
It also puts pressure on fuel prices. The government mandates that refiners blend a certain amount of ethanol into their fuels, and in the US the majority of that ethanol is made from corn.
Now the markets can absorb some of these increased costs, but not a lot and not for long, and sooner rather than later it’s going to result in increased prices on consumer products. So if corn prices stay this high for much longer, you’re going to see that rippling out into increased prices on food, fuel and other products that you buy yourself. Some companies like General Mills and a few others have already already announced that they’re going to have no choice but to start raising consumer prices. Wholesale beef prices have gone up about 33% already this past month.
And it isn’t just food. Just look at the craziness going on with lumber. And speaking of lumber…
What The Hell Is Going On With Lumber?
That’s a question a lot of people are asking because lumber prices have gone nuts. Prices on lumber have spiked up around 360% in just the past year. That is not a typo. 360% in one year. I was paying under $2 for 2×4 studs last year, now that’s up to around $7 each. MrsGF and I have pushed back plans to do a few remodeling projects here at the house because not only have prices skyrocketed, it’s hard to get materials even at those prices. I talked to one contractor who builds houses. he bid on building one house late last year at $350K and now the same house would be closer to $450K.
Why this abrupt spike in prices? It isn’t because there’s a shortage of trees or something like that. Nor are the people growing trees getting the money. They’ve seen only a 2% increase in the price they’re getting for the logs. It’s all the haulers, sawmills and processors in between that are the cause.
The claim is that it’s being caused by a labor shortage. They can’t find truck drivers, workers at sawmills, tree cutters, etc.
Herbicide and Plastic Shortages
As if corn and lumber prices weren’t enough to worry about, we’re also seeing shortages of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and, believe it or not, plastics. Farmers are having trouble finding things like field drainage tile and the plastic wrap used to protect bales. There are reported shortages of glyphosate and some other herbicides, some fungicides and insecticides that are used to prevent weeds and protect crops.
What this all adds up to is considerable pressure to increase prices. Someone has to pay for all of these increased costs and in the long run that’s going to be us, the consumers. How bad those increases will be, well, I have no idea. It is going to depend on how long commodities prices remain high and how much of the cost increases the industry is willing to absorb before they have to raise prices. As I said earlier in this, a lot of companies have already announced price increases.
Dairy Pride Act
So, let’s talk about plant based “milk”. I didn’t really want to talk about things like almond milk and all that, but it’s in the news again thanks to the Dairy Pride Act being pushed by Sen. Baldwin from Wisconsin and a few other politicians.
The whole problem revolves around that one word, milk, and how it is defined. There are two real definitions of the word, one biological, and one legal. Biologically speaking milk is the scrections of the mammary glands from mammalian animals and which are used to feed their young. The legal definition is, well, here’s a direct quote from federal government regulations:
“Milk means the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows, which may be clarified and may be adjusted by separating part of the fat therefrom; concentrated milk, reconstituted milk, and dry whole milk. Water, in a sufficient quantity to reconstitute concentrated and dry forms, may be added.”
You will undoubtedly note a lot of problems with the above. The most glaring problem is that it claims milk only comes from cows, ignoring the fact that goats, sheep, horses, oxen, even beavers, give milk. (Mmmm, beaver milk. Yum. Wasn’t there an old Monty Python joke about Peruvian beaver cheese?) (Sorry, my mind just flashed up an image of a farmer trying to milk a beaver. That’s just the way my brain works. It scares me sometimes. My brain, not beavers.)
So, here’s the problem. For years now certain companies have been selling nut, grain or bean based liquids as substitutes for dairy milk and calling the stuff milk. This is, technically, illegal. The US has very strict labeling requirements when it comes to food, and the government has gleefully gone after a host of companies and individuals who mislabel their products. But not when it comes to this stuff. For whatever reason the agencies responsible for food labeling accuracy have blithely ignored the mislabeling of these products, despite a considerable amount of pressure from the dairy industry to do something about it.
Now you might think this whole thing is silly, and you do have a point. But on the other hand the anger of the dairy industry is understandable as well. The dairy industry has spent many, many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, propaganda, health claims, puffed up PR campaigns and other efforts to try to make its products appear to be healthy, good for you, pure and wholesome, and even essential. And then along come these upstarts trying to cash in on all of the work the dairy industry put into making milk look good, and claiming that their products are “milk” as well, and, well, they’re pissed.
Legally speaking, the dairy industry has a valid point. This stuff does not meet the legal definition of “milk”. US food labeling laws, if strictly interpreted, should make the labeling of this stuff as “milk” to be illegal. But the court system doesn’t seem to see it that way and has let this continue, so, well, here we are then.
Politicians from large dairy states like Wisconsin are upset about this as well because, well, let’s be blunt here. The only reason they’re upset is because the dairy industry is paying them to be upset. The dairy industry pumps huge amounts of money into the coffers of these politicians and their PACs. The result is this Dairy Pride thingie which basically says that you can only label actual milk as milk.
Will this actually go anywhere? I have no idea. If it passes, will it help the dairy industry? No. Won’t do a thing to help the dairy industry. Will it hurt the fake milk industry? Probably not. They’ll just come up with something else to call their stuff, pump a few more bucks into their advertising budgets, and that will be it.
Now, let’s see, what else did I want to babble about? There was some more stuff… Oh, amateur radio! Gads, almost forgot about that.
My OCFD (that’s an “off center fed dipole” for you non-radio people out there, a kind of antenna) came down again. That is a long wire antenna, about 130 feet long in total. It had snapped before and I’d repaired it and put it back up, but it snapped again now, so I figure that years of hanging in the air and flapping about in the wind has caused metal fatigue or something in the wires, so I didn’t bother fixing it again. It’s going to come down and I already have another one on order. Why not build my own? I could, but I did mention about the lazy thing, right? Why build one when I can buy one that’s probably going to be better than I could make myself.
Meanwhile I’m using a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has turned out to be way, way better than I’d hoped. I’ve had that one up for some time now and it works amazingly well. I had contacts with 3 Japanese stations in the space of about 10 minutes yesterday afternoon using less than 100 watts output, plus one or two in Europe and in other exotic places like Texas, New York, etc.
My woodworking and wood turning has come to a screeching halt recently because I’ve been spending a lot of time out in the gardens hauling compost, tilling up stuff, etc. We got the onions and garlic in but it’s still too early to put anything else out. The weather hasn’t exactly been warm here except for two days when it was in the mid 80s. Generally it hasn’t gotten much above 50 here, with night time temps pushing down into the mid 30s or even a bit lower. That hasn’t kept the tulips from blooming though as you can see from that photo up there.
But back to wood working to wrap this up. I really enjoyed making decorative lamps with resin and wood and want to do some more of those, so I’ve got more resin on order and that should be coming this week yet. The few “jumble” pieces I did as experiments with odd bits of wood cast into resin, well much to my surprise people really seem to like those for some reason so I’ll probably do a few more of those. But what I really want to make are more decorative lamps. Anyway, more about that when I get into that.
(Someone told me I should mention the email address here for people who have questions or comments and don’t want to leave them in the public comment section. It is old.grouchyfarmer.@gmail.com, or, of course you can use the comments section. I only check that account once a week or two so it may be a while before you get a response that way.)
I’ve been getting some questions about wood and woodturning, specifically about what types or species of wood work best, give the best results, what different species are like to work with, how to get wood, how to deal with wet or green wood and other things, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about wood itself. I’m going to write a couple of pieces about wood, starting with what it’s like to work with different species of wood. I’m going to stick with commercially available wood bowl blanks for this bit because if you’re new to this, that is probably what you’ll be working with, bowl blanks you pick up off Amazon or directly from a wood vendor.
Now I come from a furniture making background. When making a piece of furniture I am making an object that not only needs to look good, it needs to have considerable structural integrity. The wood needs to be strong enough to be able to deal with the stresses of being a functional chair or table or bookcase or whatever item I’m making. This limits the kind of woods I am able to use in a project.
But structural integrity isn’t an issue with wood turning. I’m concerned almost entirely with appearance on that situation. The projects I crank out don’t require structural strength. Even a plain, utilitarian bowl doesn’t need a lot of strength, it just needs to hold together and look good. So when selecting wood for a bowl, especially one that is intended to be primarily decorative, the things I’d worry about when selecting wood for furniture don’t really matter to me. All I really care about is appearance. And with turned objects, things that would be considered defects in furniture grade wood can actually make interesting decorative features in a turned object. A lot of woods that would be horrible for furniture work very well for wood turning and can result in some beautiful artistic pieces.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work with a wide variety of different woods ranging from the common to the exotic, so here, in no particular order here are the woods I typically work with and why I like or dislike them, along with some samples of a finished projects with that wood to show you what it looks like. If you’re new to this you’re probably going to be buying pre-made bowl blanks online from Amazon or some other retailer, so I’ll include info on what this stuff can cost if you buy it commercially. Some of these photos have appeared before, some are new.
Black Walnut – I’m going to start with my absolute favorite wood to work with, walnut. I love working with walnut. Generally it cuts easily on the lathe with either traditional steel or carbide tools. It is easy to shape, easy to sand. I think the color and grain is beautiful. It can range from a deep, rich chocolate brown to a beautiful, almost iridescent brownish gold depending on how it is cut and finished. It will handle just about any kind of finish you want to use on it, from a low gloss satin to an ultra high polish. Either will work well with this wood. I’ve used waxes, spray lacquers, OB shine juice, bees wax and even just plain shellac and have had good results with all of them. If it gets dull looking all it takes is a quick buffing or polish to bring back the luster.
It is commonly available either kiln dried or green. Cost isn’t too bad either. Prices on wood vary all the time depending on market conditions, of course. A decent sized bowl blank about 6″ square and 2″ thick is going for about $7 – $12 each right now if you shop around. Thicker pieces… Well, prices go uprather quickly as the wood gets thicker. All things considered walnut a darn nice wood to work with and prices are generally reasonable.
Side note: A lot of places are selling green wood, not dried. I’ll talk about that later in more detail. But here’s a hint – if you’re new at this, avoid green/wet wood. Stick with kiln dried at first. Learn the basic skills first, then worry about how to deal with green wood. Some people like to work with green wood, I don’t. It requires lengthy drying times, is subject to warping and cracking and has other problems. I’ll deal with green/wet wood in a later post.
Padauk – Since that piece up there includes padauk, let’s go with that one next. It’s imported from Africa. It is a very striking wood, especially when freshly cut. Color ranges from red to brilliant orange, with the grain showing up as darker, brownish and in some cases almost black stripes. The first time I saw a piece of this I couldn’t believe it was real. As it ages the brilliant color begins to fade. It will eventually fade into a somewhat duller, reddish brown, even chocolate hue, sometimes even fading into gray. It will still be a beautiful piece of wood, it’s just that the colors change over time. How quickly do they fade? It depends. A good finish seems to help slow down the color changes, but nothing will really stop it.
As for working with it, it’s great stuff to work with. It machines about the same as walnut. It cuts easily, although you may need to sharpen your tools a bit more often than with some woods. It sands easily, but use a dust extraction system. The dust will get everywhere if you don’t, leaving a fine, red film over everything. For finishes, all I’ve used with it so far is a thin seal coat of shellac followed by buffing carnauba wax onto it to get a high gloss. It’s imported from Africa and is available kiln dried only. (Generally speaking wood imported into this country must be kiln dried to prevent pests and diseases from getting into the U.S.)
It isn’t cheap though, typically going for 2 – 3 times the cost of walnut. A 6″ square by 2″ thick piece of padauk is currently going for around $30.
White Oak – You wouldn’t normally think of white oak as being all that suitable for wood turning. But in a lot of cases you use what you got, and I have a lot of white oak cut offs from larger boards that were used in furniture projects. The stuff was too nice to just throw out or burn, but what can you do with 1″ thick boards of random short lengths and widths?
Glue it up into bowl blanks, of course. So I glued a few 1″ thick board scraps together into a 4 inch thick bowl blank and gave it a try and, well, damn… The results weren’t utterly horrible? I stained it to bring out the grain, finished it with a sealer and top coat of wax and it turned out as a decent little bowl. I made an even bigger one, almost 11 inches across and about 4 inches tall which was an absolute beast to work with on my midi sized lathe, but that worked out reasonably well too and I ended up with a pretty nice fruit bowl with rather striking grain patterns brought out by the stain.
It was not easy to work with, though. White oak is very hard, dulls tools quickly, and can be prone to chipping, especially if it is really, really dry, as this stuff is. White oak is one of the few woods where I used carbide tools almost exclusively because my steel gouges were dulled within just a couple of minutes and I was getting tired of running over to the grinder every little while. Once I switched to carbide it went better, but it was still a relatively slow process. Sanding wasn’t a lot of fun either.
(Which is possibly why it seems nearly impossible to find white oak bowl blanks on the commercial market? At least I haven’t seen any. )
Ash – Go read the comments about oak again but replace “oak” with “ash” and that pretty much describes it. Ash seems to be just a wee bit more forgiving than oak. I can generally work it without having to resort to using carbide tools. Certainly it has a nicer color, or at least I think so. But like oak it can be pretty bland looking, so you might want to experiment with stains. And wood suppliers who carry bowl blanks seem to frequently have it in stock at fairly reasonable prices. Mostly I’ve seen blanks offered as green wood, but I do see kiln dried stuff available from time to time. Alas, while I’ve made some projects with ash I don’t have photos of any.
(Sidenote: In some areas there is a glut of ash on the market because of infestations of the emerald ash borer, which is decimating the ash tree population all over the country. In a lot of places it is illegal to transport ash wood into or out of certain areas to try to restrict the spread of the beetle and the disease it carries. These restrictions generally don’t apply to kiln dried ash because the kiln generates enough heat to kill the borers. I’ve seen a few vendors offering “green” ash wood. This is possibly illegal in some jurisdictions.)
Red Cedar – I really, really like working with cedar. It’s a soft wood, cuts beautifully on the lathe, and wow, does it smell amazing! It sands easily to a smooth surface, is easy to finish to a brilliant shine. I used OB shine juice on this one. Personally I think the grain and colors are absolutely beautiful but some people don’t like it for some reason. Colors can vary wildly, even in the same piece of wood, as you can see, ranging from a deep chocolate brown, to rich purplish reds, to golden yellows. It’s widely available, and if you live in the right part of the country you might be able to source it locally and save yourself a considerable amount of money.
Cedar does have some issues. It can often have “defects”, knots, inclusions, wild grain, but personally I think that adds to the beauty, like that unexpected knot I discovered in this piece as I was hollowing it out. To me that knot and the wild grain surrounding it makes the piece far more interesting than if had been just plain wood. But because it’s a soft wood, it’s easy to damage a finished piece.
Prices on cedar are pretty reasonable if you can find it. Not every wood seller seems to carry it. My main source for pre cut cedar bowl blanks is Green Valley Wood Products in Indiana and they’re running 6″ square 3″ thick cedar blanks at about 4 for $39.95, or about $10 each. They are green, not dried, but when it comes to cedar I’ve never really had problems with working with green cedar.
Mahogany – Mahogany is, well, complicated. Some mahogany is mahogany, some mahogany isn’t… Heck, I don’t know. I do like the stuff, though. Maybe. Sort of. Kinda. Certainly it can be a very pretty wood that can take on a brilliant iridescence when the light hits it just right. It can glimmer and shimmer. But in order to get that shimmer and iridescence you have to have exactly the right piece of wood and have to do exactly the right things to it.
I honestly have sort of a love/hate relationship with mahogany. I’ve built furniture out of the stuff and frankly I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t think it looked all that good and it can be surprisingly soft and easy to damage when used in furniture. It isn’t difficult to work with, but it seems to produce a very fine dust that clings to anything and everything. It seems to dull my tools quickly. For whatever reason carbide tools don’t seem to work very well at all with this stuff. When I try using carbide I get lots of catches, gouges and tearout. So I stick with traditional bowl gouges, scrapers and skews when I’m working with it. And I sharpen them a lot. And while they claim it’s a hardwood, it sure doesn’t behave like one. It’s relatively soft, it is easy to get dings and dents in finished pieces. I ended up somehow with a 15″ square, 5″ thick hunk of the stuff that I into a fruit bowl that looked nice for, oh, about 10 minutes. Oh, it’s a perfectly good utility bowl, and that’s what we use it for, but it sure didn’t stay looking good for very long. But every once in a while a piece like this below comes off the lathe, and and I start to want to work with it again.
This is a mahogany and walnut canister or box or jar or whatever you want to call it. About 5″ wide and 10″ or so tall, and it turned out way better than it had any right to. (The crappy camera in my iPhone doesn’t do this justice. I don’t care what the reviewers claim about the iPhone camera, it’s garbage, especially when it comes to rendering color.)
Back to mahogany, though. It’s decent wood, it can be very pretty. It isn’t all that difficult to work with, but it does have some issues. Prices for dried, pre-cut bowl blanks are generally a bit higher than walnut, depending on where it is sourced from. Right now it’s going for about $11 – $13 for a typically sized 6″ square 2″ thick precut bowl blank. It should be provided kiln dried, not green, because all of it is imported.
Hickory/Chestnut – Okay, I’m going to make a confession here. I’m not sure if that bowl over there on the right is hickory, or the one on the bottom is hickory. I’m not even sure if that is what they actually were, to be honest because I’d never worked with either before I got my hands on these two pieces of wood. That’s what they were labeled when I pulled them off the shelf, though, so we’ll go with that. My experience with these two is extremely limited. Still the results for both were good and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again if I could get my hands on the stuff. Both were hard, about the same working characteristics as ash, but with a much more striking grain. And the one above had some beautiful coloring and inclusions. Once I saw how nice the grain was, I kept the shapes simple and tried to cut them to show off the wood.
I wish I could remember where I got these two pieces of wood and what they cost so I could give you more info because the wood was really nice.
Rosewood – Rosewood is amazingly beautiful. It has a rich, lush, chocolate color with a lighter colored, reddish brown streaks, and can include wider bands of lighter reds.
I see the stuff for sale all the time, but only in small pieces suitable for ornaments and pens. I’d never seen the stuff in larger pieces suitable for making bowls or larger decorative objects like I’m interested in making until I ran across these three pieces. One was about 4″ square by 3″ thick and the other two were about 6″ or 7″ square by 3″ thick. I’d never seen it in pieces that large before. The reason why is simple. Holy cow the stuff is expensive! I probably shouldn’t have blown that much money on these three pieces of wood because as it turned out I had serious problems with all three, but I’ll come to that in a minute.
The stuff works pretty nicely. It cuts well, sands well, looks especially good with a high gloss finish. I think the coloration and grain is absolutely beautiful. It doesn’t show up well in the photo but that larger piece has a beautiful band of a lighter, red tint running through it horizontally that really adds interest to the piece. I can see why penmakers like it so much, the stuff is beautiful.
Drawbacks? You bet. Some serious.
First, it stinks. It literally stinks. To me it smells like sewage. Seriously. The aroma isn’t overpowering but it is definitely there and it is unpleasant. Once it has a finish on it it’s barely perceptible. MrsGF can’t smell it at all, thankfully. I’ve worked with three pieces of this stuff and all three smelled really bad. It is also oily. It left an oily, dark brown residue on my tools and lathe while I was working with it. Nothing serious, but I couldn’t just vacuum it up, I had to wipe everything down when I was done.
The real deal killer, though, is that all three of the pieces I made have developed what I call micro-cracks, very thin, hairline cracks that aren’t noticeable at first and may have developed days or even weeks after I’d finished the bowls. If you look closely at the bowl in the top photo you’ll see what look like scratches. They aren’t, they’re micro-cracks that developed after they’d been finished. The wood should have been stable, they were kiln dried and the moisture content was low, the bowls haven’t warped or distorted to indicate there is some issue with stress going on. But it’s obvious that something is going on with that wood.
So, to sum up rosewood: The wood may be absolutely beautiful. It may cut and finish nicely. But based on my experience with these three pieces I can’t recommend it. It’s expensive. Really expensive. Those three little blocks of wood I used were well over $50 each. I’m going to do some experimenting to see if I can make the cracks less visible, but I’m still disappointed. If I were doing this commercially I would consider all three of the rosewood projects to be unsellable because of the cracking.
There are a whole cluster of woods that can be classified as ‘maple’, ranging from very hard versions suitable for flooring, other types suitable for furniture, and even very soft types that aren’t useful for much of anything except maybe firewood. I’m going to stick with the one that most woodturners are probably interested in, so-called ambrosia maple. Ambrosia maple isn’t a separate type of maple, it’s standard maple that has been infected with a fungus carried by the ambrosia beetle. The beetles bore into the wood, carrying the fungus into the wood. The fungus causes spectacular staining and discoloration similar to spalted maple. The discoloration is generally centered around the path the beetle bores through the wood. You’ll almost always find holes in ambrosia maple that were made by the beetles.
(Spalted maple and other spalted woods also exhibit similar colorations which is also caused by a fungus, but in the case of spalted woods the fungus is part of the decaying process and you can also find parts of wood that are literally rotting away inside of a piece of spalted lumber.)
Ambrosia maple is generally very easy to work with. It is usually relatively soft, cuts easily, and the end result can be spectacular. Prices are a bit steep, about the same as padauk. If you shop around you can sometimes find some real deals on the stuff if you’re willing to deal with green wood. A single 6″ square by 3″ thick bowl blank will set you back about $20 – $25, green. Larger size blanks get expensive real fast. If you remember the cake platter I made for MrsGF that top piece which started out at about 13″ square and 2″ thick cost me about $75.
Potential problems? It’s generally soft and easy to damage. You can sometimes find “punky” (i.e. rotting) areas buried in pieces. And you have to remember that the discoloration is caused by a fungus, so chances are good there are fungal spores lurking in that wood. Now I’ve never heard of anyone getting actually ill or getting a fungal infection from working with this stuff, but I would always wear a respirator when cutting or sanding it, along with a dust extraction system and air filtration system.
Sapele – I’ve only worked with this stuff once and it was such a disaster that I gave up and chucked it into the burn pile.
Catches, gouges, tear outs, chipping, kick backs… It was horrible to work with. It didn’t matter what tools I used, what techniques I used, how sharp the tools were, whether I used carbide or steel – nothing worked right with this stuff. I don’t know what the heck was going on with that piece of wood but it became obvious real fast that it wasn’t just bad, it was downright dangerous. It is entirely possible that it was just some quirk with that piece of wood I had. Don’t care. My experience with it was so bad that I’m never going to work with it again. There are more than enough other species of wood that are actually pleasant to work with, so I’m not going to risk it again.
If you want to try it, fine. Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did. The stuff is going for about $15 for a kiln dried 6″ square, 2″ thick blank.
Cotton wood – I’ve only worked with this stuff once, and the piece I had was really large and very, very wet. I mean seriously wet. Since I didn’t want to wait for, oh, three or four years for it to dry out, I went ahead and roughed out a bowl shape and stuck it on the shelf for a few weeks to dry. Frankly I fully expected it to crack and warp horribly, but surprisingly it didn’t and the end result was pretty darn nice. Fairly nice grain and the color isn’t bad either.
But stink? Holy cow this thing smelled bad when I was working with it. It was worse than the rosewood. It had a sort of pungent vinegary, swampy, rotten kind of smell to it that even came through the respirator. Fortunately once it dried the smell went away but wow, it almost made my eyes water while I was working on it.
I rather liked working with it. Surprisingly it didn’t warp or crack while the roughed out bowl dried down, and when I finished it up after it had dried down to a reasonable point I ended up with a fairly nice bowl. It cut well, sanded well. I finished it off with a seal coat of shellac topped off with homemade “ob shine juice” and it turned out a pretty decent looking utility bowl.
Cotton wood is fairly cheap. I see Green Valley is selling it for under $10 for a 6″ square, 3″ thick bowl blank, green. It can often be found at reasonable prices for much larger pieces suitable for larger bowls like salad or fruit bowls. The drawback is that it is almost always sold green, so you’re going to have to deal with trying to dry it down yourself.
Pear – The only pear wood I’ve worked with comes from the wood I saved when we took down the pear tree here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it for sale commercially. But if you know someone who is taking down a pear tree it’s worth looking into getting your hands on some of it.
It cuts well, sands well, and was very easy to work with all the way around. The little bud vase over there on the right was sanded up to about 320 grit, then sealed with shellac, buffed out with OOOO steel wool, then finished with carnauba wax.
Personally I think it’s a bit on the bland side and I’m not sure if I really like the color. MrsGF likes it a lot though. Anyway, if you can get your hands on some, give it a try. It’s worth looking at, especially if you can get it for free from a neighbor taking down a tree.
Cherry – You’ll find a lot of cherry bowl blanks for sale commercially. It seems popular with woodturners and I’m not sure why. I’ve worked with it and I don’t like it all that much. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it. It is easy to work with. It cuts and sands well, easy to shape into just about anything you like, and it isn’t all that expensive, about the same as walnut.
So why don’t I like it? Dear lord, it’s boring! If I’m going to go to the trouble of making something on the lathe I want the end result to be eye catching. I want prominent grain patterns and interesting colors. And cherry is, well, it’s just dull to my eye. The color is blah, the grain is blah. Insipid, that’s the term I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s just the pieces I had. Every piece of wood is different, after all. Maybe I’ll try it again. I have a half dozen blanks sitting on the shelf still, but I’m going to have to be awfully bored before I resort to using it again.
Cost is about the same as walnut, around $10 – $13 for a standard 6″ square 2″ thick blank. It’s not a bad wood. It’s not real expensive. As I said it is very nice to work with. It’s just, well, dull.
Elm – I’m going to be completely honest and admit I have no idea what elm wood looks like so I can’t be sure if this is elm or not. It came with a shipment of “miscellaneous bowl blanks”, a sort of grab bag kind of deal. It was labeled elm so I’m going to go with that. Elm was almost completely wiped out in North America because of dutch elm disease, but there are still some out there and occasionally it shows up.
I worked this blank while it was wet, which is normally something I don’t do, and there was some issues while drying the bowl down but nothing too serious. It was easy to work with. It seemed a bit on the abrasive side and I had to sharpen my gouge more often than normal, but nothing serious. It has a very striking grain, with dark brown and black streaks running along with the normal grain making me think this tree had some kind of fungal infection. Personally I don’t like how it looks, but MrsGF likes it. As for cost, I don’t really know. It was in a grab bag deal with a bunch of other chunks of wood.
Holy cow, this got long, so let’s wrap up this part up. There are more types of wood I could have looked at but I wanted to stick with the types that are generally available commercially.
Eventually I’m going to get around to talking about the difference between kiln dried, air dried and wet/green wood, and how to deal with it, why some woodturners really like wet wood (I suspect they’ve been inhaling lacquer fumes), how to dry wood, including the “great microwave experiment”. Well, if I don’t start something on fire or blow something up. I’m stocking up on fire extinguishers for that one. Also how one man’s defect is another man’s “decorative feature”, working with epoxy as a decorative element, playing with india ink and whatever else I can come up with.
… wait a minute, how did a blog about gardening, farming, photographing flowers, travel and ham radio turn into a tutorial on wood turning?
On the pandemic front, MrsGF got her first vaccination last week and I’m getting my first one this week! Wow, maybe we’ll actually be able to hug our kids by summer?
I forgot one item when I looked at the tools I’d picked up during 2020, and that’s the Oneida “Dust Deputy” in the photo over there on the left. It helps to deal with an ever present problem for anyone who works with wood, the dust and debris generated by woodworking.
In an ideal world we’d all have professional quality dust collection systems. But those things are big, expensive, etc. Not all of us have the space or the money to set one of these up, so a lot of us end up using a good old fashioned shop vac as our primary dust/debris collection system. Modern, good quality shop vacs can be almost as efficient at removing dust and debris as a traditional dust collection system, although they don’t have the capacity to keep up with some tools like planers and jointers. It all depends on the power of the motor, the CFM (cubic feet per minute air movement) and the filtration system the vac uses. The biggest drawbacks are that the vacs are (usually) very loud, have to be moved around the shop to be hooked up to individual pieces of equipment, and have to be emptied very frequently. Lugging my big 16 gallon sized shop vac up and down a flight of stairs to get it in and out of the house in order to empty it is not fun.
This Dirt Deputy gadget and similar devices have been around for a long time, but I’ve never been that interested in them before because A) I wasn’t making that much dust and debris before now, and B) I figured that like a lot of things that sounded too good to be true, it was, well, too good to be true. But wood turning generates massive amounts of dust and wood shavings, far more than making furniture did. So not only was I lugging that big vac up and down the stairs all the time, I was going through filters like crazy. No matter how good of a job you may do blowing out or cleaning that filter, you can’t get it completely clean and eventually it will get plugged up to the point it won’t pass enough air to permit the vac to work. So I decided to try this thing.
The basic idea behind these things has been around for a long time. You hook the shop vac up to the outlet on top, hook your hose to the lower outlet, slap it on top of a standard 5 gallon bucket, and that’s it. As the air (and dirt) whirls around inside of the funnel shaped thing, the dust and shavings and other debris end up falling down into the bucket instead of getting sucked into your vac.
As I said I was skeptical of this thing, but the darned thing actually works, and works pretty well. Even fine dust seems to settle into the bucket instead of ending up in the vacuum. Instead of having to lug the whole vac up the stairs and out to the garage I can just carry the bucket. But the biggest hope I had was that this would save me money. Those big cartridge filters on my shop vac are expensive. About three of those filters would pay for this whole Dust Deputy thing, so it could potentially save me a lot of $$. And it does. This thing has already paid for itself in the two months or so I’ve had it. I’m really quite pleased with it.
Are there drawbacks to it? Sure. There always are with things like this. The biggest drawback in this case is a reduction in suction power, which makes sense. You’re adding several feet of air hose, the Deputy itself, possible air leaks, etc, into the system. So that all restricts air flow and reduces the amount of vacuum power. In my case, my big vac, which could keep up with my thickness planer without the Deputy installed, can no longer handle my DeWalt planer with the Deputy. That’s not a big deal, though. I don’t use the planer all that often these days and when I do need it I simply hook the vac up to it direct and bypass the Deputy.
So, what’s this thing cost? Oneida will gleefully sell you a whole “kit” for about $100+ which includes the Deputy wind tunnel swirly thingie, the bucket lid it attaches to, a short hose to hook to your vac, some hose clamps, a 2nd bucket that the first bucket nests into, and little wheels to bolt to the outer bucket to make it easier to lug around and the instructions tell you to drill holes through the side of your vacuum and bolt the 2nd bucket to your vac for some reason and, well, don’t. You don’t need the 2nd bucket, you don’t need the wheels, you don’t need the hose clamps (if your existing hoses don’t fit perfectly, you can always resort to duct tape, that’s what I did), you don’t need any of that stuff. Basically they’re charging you $50 for a couple of buckets you can probably get free and $10 of hardware. If you want to try one of these, get the “basic” kit.
The basic kit goes for about $50 without the wheels, the buckets and all the other guff, and that’s all you need. It comes with the cyclone thing, some bolts and a gasket. That’s it. You get your own 5 gallon bucket with a lid (probably free). Cut a hole in the lid, screw the cyclone thing to it, and use your own hoses and clamps. If you need more hose or clamps you can get everything you need at the local home improvement store.
The way things look right now, this thing is going to save me easily going to save me money on filters.
I found a vendor on Amazon that was selling large blocks of Indian rosewood. It was actually not all that expensive and I’d never worked with it before so i got a couple of blocks just to see what it was like. I picked up two pieces, about 6 inches square and 3 inches thick. I think I paid about $30 each for the two pieces. That may seem like a lot but that’s actually pretty reasonable for this stuff on the commercial market. If you want good quality imported woods, you’re going to pay for it. Rosewood is really popular with the pen turning people. I see a lot of places selling rosewood blanks sized for pen makers, but almost never see large pieces big enough to make bowls.
As you can (hopefully) see in that photo over there the wood is absolutely beautiful once it’s sanded and finished. And it just feels nice to the touch. Whenever I walk past that bowl I find myself running my fingers over it. I can see why pen turners like this stuff. It is a bit messy, though. I don’t know if it was just the pieces I got or if it is normal, but the stuff seemed really oily, with the dust clinging to my tools (and me). It machined beautifully, though. No problems with catches or snags or weird tear outs or anything like that, and it even sanded down beautifully. And it polishes up to a beautiful luster.
But the smell… Now I’m one of those weird people who are classified as a “super smeller”. I have a ridiculously sensitive sense of smell (and taste, for that matter). To me this stuff has a very distinctive aroma that vaguely resembles, well, poo, to be blunt. MrsGF can’t smell it at all. After putting a finish on the bowl the smell diminished greatly, but I can still smell it when I get within a couple of feet of it. I wondered if maybe it was just that one block of wood, but the second one smelled just like the first.
I like this rosewood stuff, but… There are problems. I’m seeing what I suppose you could call micro-cracks in the wood, very fine, almost invisible cracks that I can’t see unless I get within a foot or two of the bowls. I’m rather concerned about that because I have no idea why they are there. I need to take a closer look at this and figure out what happened. Wood is, well, wood. It moves, absorbs and gives off moisture, swells, contracts. It’s all part of the challenges of working with the stuff. I generally know what happened when a piece of wood cracks or warps, but I’m not sure what’s going on here. MrsGF is encouraging me to start trying to sell some of this stuff, but I don’t want to end up with people complaining about something like this so I want to figure out what went wrong before I turn out more stuff in rosewood.
Let’s see, what else…
Oh, the pear tree – I saved a lot of the wood from the pear tree when we took it down last year after it collapsed with the intention of possibly using it for various projects. I got curious about how it would look and work so I grabbed a bit that seemed reasonably dry and ended up with this small vase.
The stuff machines nicely, sands well and looks fairly good once it’s finished. It seems to be prone to cracking. You can’t see it in this photo but on the backside of that thing there is a vertical crack running almost the entire length of the vase that’s sealed up with epoxy. Still the results are encouraging and I’m going to keep fiddling with this stuff as I get time.
As I said, MrsGF and a few other people are telling me I need to try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out so they’re pushing me to set up a shop on Etsy. Sigh… I don’t really want to get involved in all of that guff, but I do see their point. If I keep this up much longer I’ll have to rent a storage unit somewhere just to store the projects I’ve been cranking out.
A long time ago I said I was going to continue the tool series by talking about thickness planers and jointers. Of course I forgot all about that until just now. But I did remember. Eventually. So here goes.
Both of these tools can be really useful for anyone who fiddles around with wood, but both of these tools are expensive. A decent thickness planer is going to run you about $400 – $700, depending on the brand, features, etc. A decent jointer is going to be even more pricey. Prices on decent jointers (not the bench top models, I wouldn’t recommend those to most woodworkers) are a lot more than that. Jointers with the same features and capacity as mine look like they’re going for well over $1,000. The cheapest Jet brand (which is what I own) with the same features as mine is going for around $1,400.
That’s a heck of a lot of money, so the first question you have to ask is do you really need either of these tools to begin with? There’s no hard answer, really. It’s going to depend on your needs, of course. I know a lot of people who dabble in woodworking who get along quite well with buying the wood they need pre-cut and surfaced off the shelf at the local home improvement store. But if you’re building fine furniture, gluing up boards to make panels or table tops, doing renovations to old houses or need lumber that isn’t standard dimensions, you generally are going to need these tools.
Let’s take a look at the tools themselves.
A jointer and a thickness planer look very different, but when you look at them closely they seem to do pretty much the same kind of thing. They both have wide, rotating cutter heads that are designed to shave very thin amounts of wood off the entire width of a board. But the two machines actually perform different jobs.
The planer is used for two things. First it’s used to put a nice, smooth surface on rough surfaced, unfinished lumber you might buy direct from a sawmill. The second use is to mill lumber down to a specific thickness you need. You may, for example, only have 1/2″ thick boards laying around, but you need a board that is 3/8″ thick for a specific project. They come in really handy if you’re renovating an old house where the existing lumber used in the house doesn’t match current standards.
A jointer also does two jobs. First it’s used to prepare boards to be edge glued together to make panels by putting a smooth, perfectly square surface on the edges of a board. That’s where the name comes from, the fine art of joinery where pieces of wood are prepared to be joined together.
Second it is intended to take a board and make its surface perfectly flat by removing warps, twists and cupping. (I will warn you that I have issues with some of the things people claim about jointers. But I’ll come to that later.)
You can do all of these tasks by hand using hand planes, and for centuries that is exactly what woodworkers did. And it is a royal pain in the neck. I’ve used hand planes and sanders to smooth and flatten large hardwood table tops and panels and I can tell you from personal experience that is it is very tedious, time consuming, annoying, tiring, and requires a considerable amount of practice and skill to do it right.
But let’s get on with this and look at thickness planers first.
As was the case with table saws, I’m not going to cover the big, floor mounted machines that are more suited to a professional manufacturing facility and stick with the smaller ones intended for use by the hobbyist or small furniture maker. These planers usually can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide. How thick of a board they can handle varies widely. Generally you want a planer that can handle at least 4″ thick stock. You may think you’ll never need to run 4 or 5 inch thick slabs of wood through a planer, but you’d be surprised. When building furniture I’ve had to run things like table legs up to almost 4 inches thick through mine.
Planers all work pretty much the same way. Here’s a really bad drawing of the ‘guts’ of a typical planer.
There is an enclosure in which is mounted a set of feed rollers to push/pull the board through the machine. The cutter head itself is a long roller which rotates at high speed in which there are mounted two or three razor sharp steel knives that run the length of the cutter head. As the cutter head rotates, the feed rollers push the board into the machine, and the cutter head spins along at thousands of RPM, slicing off a very thin amount of wood along the entire length of the board. There is some kind of mechanism which allows the height of the cutter and rollers to be raised or lowered as needed.
Sidenote: Helical cutters. For some years now helical cutter heads like the one over there on the right have been all the rage. Instead of straight knives running the width of the cutting head, you have the setup seen in the photo over there, rows of small, individual square carbide knives set into a helical pattern around the cutter head itself. The claim is that they do a better job than traditional straight knives, are quieter, take less power, and when they get dull, you just loosen the screw holding it down and rotate it 90 degrees to get a new edge. If you get one chipped, just rotate it or replace only that one cutter. In theory they look interesting. But my personal experience is that they don’t come anywhere close to living up to the hype. I’ll talk about these later. If I remember. I probably won’t.
When you’re looking at a thickness planer there are a few things you should be looking at.
First, how robust is the mechanism which raises and lowers the cutter the rollers that feed the wood through the machine? A considerable amount of force is needed to hold that wood down, push it through the planer, hold the cutter head absolutely straight and parallel, etc. How good is the drive system that actually moves all of that stuff up and down? On the cheaper planers what holds that cutter in place and moves it up and down are nothing more than a couple of cheap, threaded steel rods driven by plastic gears, with a lot of play in the threads, and rods that flex as soon as you start pushing wood into them.
How sturdy and well built is it in general? Thickness planers have to endure a lot of stress and need to be made well enough to deal with that. They also are subjected to significant pressures and forces that can cause it to flex and bend as wood is fed through it. It has to be sturdy enough so that the cutting head is maintained absolutely parallel to the bed of the planer when a board is being pushed through.
Next thing is those knives. Those knives in there take a real pounding. They’re spinning at thousands of RPM and are being hammered down into wood that can be extremely hard and even abrasive. They get a lot of abuse. Thanks to modern metallurgy most blades are able to handle it, but eventually they’re going to get dull or even chipped. That means they’re going to need to be removed and resharpened or replaced. So take into consideration how hard it is to get at those knives, remove them, get them sharpened (if necessary) and then reinstall them properly into that planer.
The first planer I had was a major pain in the neck. It was the cheapest one I could find at the time. And it was awful in just about every way you can imagine. Just getting at the blades was a horrible job that required dismantling half the machine. And then trying to get them reinstalled after I’d had them sharpened was a nightmare. It was a hair pullingly frustrating and fiddly job to get them aligned that required the use of a couple of special jigs and considerable foul language. And even then I didn’t get them exactly right. Same with my 2nd planer. My third, well, I’d learned my lesson and got one that required no adjustments or alignments.
With mine there are no adjustments. When the blades are put into place and screwed down, they are aligned. The blades are easy to get at, too. Remove 4 screws to take off the top cover of the machine, 3 screws with “T” handles on them to get off the dust shroud, and there they are. 8 screws hold down each blade. There’s even a tool stored in the planer itself that fits all of the bolts I need to remove, and has magnets built in to handle the blades so I don’t have to risk slicing a finger off on the razor sharp blades. (You do not want to handle those blades with your bare hands. Seriously. There are still blood spots inside of my planer because I got a bit careless the last time I replaced the blades.)
There are other brands that have similar systems to make blade changing as easy as possible. I’d highly recommend a planer that has some kind of system to make getting those blades aligned as easy as possible because eventually they are going to need to be replaced or sharpened.
Sidenote: Replacing the blades is more expensive than just getting them resharpened of course, but it isn’t all that much more expensive. A set of 3 for my machine costs about $80, which sounds a bit steep but those are double sided. So you’re essentially getting two sets for that price. And to give you an idea of how long they last, I bought 3 sets of blades for mine in 2012 and I still have one set unused. A set of single sided off-brand blades is going for under $30.
The next thing you need to consider is how you are going to deal with mountains of chips, shavings and dust these things put out. Thickness planers put out huge amounts of the stuff. If you live in a climate that allows you to work outside and just sweep everything up and toss it into the compost pile later, good for you. But I live in Wisconsin and it gets bloody cold up here, and trying to surface a dozen or so boards out in the driveway when it’s -30 and snowing is no fun. So you need to be able to deal with waste material before it gets all over your house and into your HVAC system.
The better ones will have all of the guts of the planer enclosed in shrouds with a blower that will blow everything out of a port that you can connect to a dust collection system. Most of the better ones will have some kind of provision for hooking it up to a dust collector of some sort. But a lot, especially the cheap ones, are completely open and will be spitting shavings and dust everywhere. A real dust collection system is ideal, but you can make due with a high capacity shop vac. But be prepared to empty that thing a lot.
Capacity: Most of the planers in this class claim they can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide, but I’ll let you in on a little secret, a lot of them, especially the cheaper ones, can’t. You try to chuck a 12″ wide white oak board through the average $350 thickness planer, the motor is going to bog down almost immediately and possibly even stall out completely. Or blow a circuit breaker. Or overheat the motor and burn it out if you do it too often. Oh, they’ll work fine for an 8 inch wide piece of spruce or softwood. They might be able to handle a 4 – 6 inch wide hardwood board, but that’s going to be about it.
Which one should you buy? How much will it cost? It’s hard for me to make a specific recommendation because a lot is going to depend on what your budget is and what you’re going to be using it for. If you’re just going to be surfacing a few 6 inch wide boards a few times a week one of the cheaper planers will do a decent job for you. Just be aware that it is going to have “issues”, as they say. It might be difficult to get adjusted properly. For example, one side of the board might be 1/32 or more thinner than the other side. You might see a sort of washboard looking effect like in that photo up there. As long as you are aware that the planer isn’t going to be perfect and is going to have some problems that you will have to deal with, you might be able to get away with one of the ‘bargain’ machines.
But if you’re buying wood straight from a lumberyard like I do and everything going through the shop needs to be surfaced and milled to the right thickness, which is the case here, then you need to be looking at the more powerful and capable planers, not the inexpensive hobbyist models.
If you’re a pro or semi-pro woodworker, as I recommended with table saws avoid the ones with prices that seem too good to be true. I did some research before I wrote this and it seems that the “sweet spot” is in the $450 – $650 price range for thickness planers. Planers less expensive than that all seem to have various issues. The really cheap ones aren’t much good at all.
But at the other end of the spectrum I really don’t see any advantage to spending $700+ on a planer when a $600 or even $500 one will do just as good a job.
As I said, research, research, research before you pull out the credit card and buy one of these.
My personal recommendation? That DeWalt 735 up there is mine, and if mine ever blew up, I’d buy another one immediately. It’s selling for around $575 or so. I’ve had it for years, it’s handled white oak and ash boards up to 13 inches wide and everything else I’ve thrown at it. It produces a nice surface, especially at the slower feed rate, the blades are easy to change and it has a decent dust collection system.
Does the DeWalt have drawbacks? You bet. It’s loud for one thing. You’re probably going to want to wear hearing protection when you run it just to be on the safe side. Infeed and outfeed tables are an extra cost option. I don’t have them on mine, and they claim you don’t really need them, but I wish I did and keep telling myself I should get them. They’d come in handy when feeding long boards through it. It will occasionally spit wood chips back into the machine onto the table, and if I don’t clear it out before feeding another board through it can embed the chips into the underside of the board or scratch it. And the dust collection system built into it blows out so much air that it can overwhelm a wimpy, inefficient dust collection system.
Now let’s move on to jointers. A lot of experts will tell you that a jointer is an absolutely essential tool for any wood shop. I don’t agree. I think the average hobbyist woodworker can get along without a jointer just fine. Can they be useful? Yes. But I think their usefulness is overrated. The only thing I use mine for is edging boards before I glue them up into panels. But let’s look at what one of these things actually does.
At first glance a jointer looks like it works like a thickness planer. There is a rotating cutter head on which there are mounted two or more very sharp blades which slice off thin amounts of wood as a board is pushed through it. But that’s where the resemblance ends. A jointer is open topped and has no feed rollers. You push the wood through it yourself. It has separate infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron, each of which can be adjusted independently. And it has a very beefy fence hopefully made of solid cast iron which has a rather elaborate adjustment system which lets you not only adjust the width of the cut, but also the angle of the fence.
I’m not going to waste your time and mine describing how a jointer works. A lot of people who are far better at this than I am have dealt with this. Here’s a link to an article at woodcraft.com that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about jointers. So scoot on over there and read that, then come back. I’ll wait…
Ah, back already? So, now you know everything about jointers. Excellent. And now you probably want one. You might even actually need one. Maybe. But before you max out your credit card on one of these, read on.
They are big, heavy and expensive. Good ones are going to have infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron that is machined to extremely close tolerances, mounted on more carefully machined cast iron that has been milled into very accurate sliding dovetail mounting systems. All that carefully machined cast iron is necessary because those tables and their mounting hardware have to be absolutely accurate, absolutely flat, and cannot flex or bend. Cast iron isn’t that expensive. What you’re paying for is the machining of those parts. That’s where the costs begin to mount.
Jointers are classified according to the maximum width of the board they can accommodate. A 6 inch jointer like mine can handle boards up to 6 inches wide. An 8 inch can handle 8 inch wide boards, and so on. And as the capacity goes up, so does the size and weight of the jointer, and the price. Even a 6 inch jointer is going to be at least 4 feet long and weigh over 200 lbs or more. Mine weighs in at around 250 lbs.
There is a classification of jointers that are much smaller and cheaper, the benchtop jointer. But there are problems with these. Yes, they can handle boards up to 6 or more inches wide, but what about length? How long a board you can shove through one of these is dependant on the length of the infeed and outfeed tables. You aren’t going to push a 6 foot board through a benchtop jointer. Or a 4 foot board. Or even a 3 foot board probably. Unless you’re only going to ever work with lumber that isn’t much more than two feet long, a benchtop jointer just isn’t going to work.
As is generally the case with most of this stuff, all of the name brand models are pretty much equivalent to one another and are generally of good quality and will do a good job for you. They get expensive pretty fast. I did a quick look around and the cheapest 6 inch jointer I saw that had decent reviews and good specifications was around $800, with prices going up from there. Jet doesn’t seem to make an open base model like mine any more, but it does have one that seems to be pretty much a clone of mine but with an enclosed base going for a whopping $1,500.
So the good ones are big and very heavy. That’s something you need to keep in mind if you buy one. How are you going to get it into your shop? Will it even fit into your shop? Do you have someone who can help you put it together? You aren’t going to be able to do it yourself.
Like I said at the start of this, I have some ‘issues’ with some of the things the experts claim about jointers. Oh, they work just fine and dandy and will do the things the experts claim. Sort of. But here is my primary problem with them. Yes they will ‘fix’ problems like cupped boards, but Wood moves. It is made up of fibers that swell, shrink, lengthen, shorten, all depending on ambient temperature, moisture content and other factors. Wood is always under internal stresses and tensions. Always. When those forces are not balanced, wood warps, cups, twists and bends. And that is what a jointer is supposed to cure. But does it really? In my experience what a jointer often does is similar to someone with the flu taking NyQuil. It makes you feel better by alleviating some of the symptoms, but you still have the flu. It doesn’t cure anything.
You can run a cupped board like the one in that drawing over there through a jointer and you’ll end up with a nice, flat surface. But did it actually fix the problem, which was an imbalance of the stresses and other forces in the wood that made it bend like that in the first place? My personal experiences tell me that sometimes it will, but often it doesn’t, and after I’ve flattened that board out and put it on the shelf, I’ll come back a couple of weeks later and find that it will once again be warped, sometimes even worse than it had been before. Not all the time, not even half the time. But often enough that I am not going to risk using a board like that one in that drawing in a piece of furniture. So keep that in mind.
Let’s see, I was going to rant about something else, wasn’t I? Ah, I remember. Helical cutters.
These things are something of a fad in woodworking, and have been for some years now. All kinds of miraculous claims are made for these things. I almost bought into the hype and seriously considered retrofitting both my jointer and planer with these things. I’ve had some experience with equipment equipped with these things since then and I’m glad I didn’t give in to that temptation.
First of all, holy cow are these things expensive! If you opt for a helical cutter in a planer or jointer, expect it to add $250 – $400 or even more to the cost of the machine. There are kits available that will retrofit one of these into the more popular planers and jointers, and even those are enough to make your credit card weep. There are kits to retrofit my DeWalt 735, but I could literally buy a brand new 735 for the cost of a helical cutter head replacement. $500 to replace the cutter head on a planer that sells for $575? Seriously? When the stock cutter head system works just fine and dandy to begin with? No thanks.
I’ve worked with a few planers equipped with these things and they just didn’t live up to the hype. It’s entirely possible that the ones I worked with weren’t set up properly or something, but none of them produced a surface on the wood that was as good as what comes off my stock 735. I tried out a 735 that was equipped with a helical cutter head retrofit kit and the surface of the wood wasn’t any better than that coming out of my stock planer. And it seemed noiser and started bogging down on wide boards. I just don’t think they’re worth the money for the average hobbyist.
So to sum up:
Thickness planers – they’re nice to have, you probably need one, and unless you’re running large amounts of hardwood through it you can probably get along with one of the under $400 models if you can deal with the potential drawbacks. If you need a really good one with better capacity and need to use it a lot, look at the DeWalt 735.
Jointers – I still don’t think the average woodworker needs one. Certainly it isn’t an “absolute must have” as the experts claim it is. The cheap (sometimes not cheap because I’ve seen some of these things going for well over $600) benchtop sized ones are just about worthless if you’re working with lumber more than three feet long. The full sized ones are heavy, large, and massively expensive. They are a ‘must have’ if you are doing a lot of edge gluing to make panels. As for surfacing a warped or cupped board, yes, they will do that but I noted my issues with that earlier.
Well, okay, not according to the calendar. But as far as I’m concerned the seasons change not by the actual date but according to the weather conditions. We got hit with a hard frost the other day and that pretty much brings the growing season to an end for a lot of our plants. So that means it’s autumn no matter what the calendar may say.
And while it may be chilly outside, we’re still getting a new central air system put in tomorrow morning. Our old air conditioning system is probably pushing 25+ years, if not a bit more than that. It’s actually a bit amazing that it lasted this long. But it has a freon leak now, and while they could probably repair it, we’d still have a 25 year old AC system that could fail at any time just when we need it most. This is as good a time as any to get it done. Probably the ideal time, really. The air conditioning season is over, the heating season hasn’t started yet, so the company has the time to do it. So we might as well get it over with now so we’re ready when the heat comes next summer.
Gads, it’s going to be an expensive fall, though. The AC is going to run us $3,200 (this is a big house). The contractor just called and said our new windows and doors are now ordered so he’s going to be rolling in sometime in a couple of weeks to do that, that’s going to be over $7,000. Ouch. Still, it all needs to get done. Especially the windows. One window on the north side of the house is literally rotting away and won’t survive a winter and the exterior door is nearly as bad. So once that’s done we’ll be ready for cold weather. And we got a taste of that already as you can see from the frost covered grass below.
It got cold. The remote sensor for the thermometer is out on the front porch which is pretty sheltered, and that said it got down to 32 F so that means out in the yard and gardens it got well below 30. The grass out in the yard was white with frost before the sun came up and the roof was covered with frost, so it was pretty cold out there for a fairly extended period of time overnight.
This is the time of year when we’d normally have so many pears we didn’t know what to do with them, so it seems odd not having the tree any more. While I do miss having fresh pears, I don’t miss having the tree, to be honest. It collapsing and having to be removed wasn’t really a bad thing. If it were still there the whole area would be covered with a thick carpet of fallen pears, and those would be covered with bees, wasps and, well, it could get nasty out there. MrsGF and I would no sooner pick up 5 gallon buckets full of the things, and the tree would drop a few hundred more.
We’re already talking about what we’re going to do with that area. Now that it isn’t shaded out by the tree we can grow just about anything out there and we don’t have to worry about finding plants that can handle shade. We’re thinking about putting a raised bed out there or expanding the existing garden that was being shaded out by the tree that we had in flowers.
The frost brought an end to the tomatoes, of course. But that’s not a big loss because they were already well on the way to winding up anyway. The peppers are still doing fine, though. They aren’t as fragile as tomatoes are and are in a sheltered area that didn’t get hit with the frost.
The raised beds did very, very well again this year. Building those was the best thing we’ve done in the garden over the years. We cut back on the number of tomato plants drastically this year and still had more than we really needed. We planted onions around the outside edges of the raised bed and that worked out beautifully as well. The onions did really well. We didn’t have to buy a single onion all season. Just walk out to the garden and grab one. I am really going to miss that. I’m going to miss the flavor even more. Like just about everything else we grow the flavors are much more intense than the produce we get from the store.
We took a break and drove all the way to the lakeshore between Manitowoc and Two Rivers to have a picnic. Cold down there along the lakeshore, but wow, it was a beautiful day. Had a very pleasant afternoon down there. With Wisconsin’s infection rate now totally out of control and the county we live in having one of the highest infection rates in the state, opportunities to do anything are a bit restricted so just getting out and about was nice.
I haven’t talked about the virus and how it is effecting our lives because, well, you get enough of that everywhere else, don’t you? Still it’s very frustrating. This was supposed to be more or less under control by this time. Instead the number of new infections is hitting new records almost every day here in the state. It’s completely out of control here. ICUs around here are at full capacity and they’re trying to find beds in other hospitals in the state and, well, it’s scary. MrsGF and I are both in one or more high risk groups so… Well, you know. To top it off I pretty much have virus like symptoms all the time. I have upper respiratory allergies so I always have congestion, watery eyes, stuffed up sinuses, a slight cough, etc. Basically I have almost all of the early symptoms of the virus all the time except the fever. Sigh…
But enough of that. How about a rose instead?
Yes, we still have flowers despite the frost. Some of the flowers are pretty resistant to cold weather and are still doing fine, and we have a potted rose up on the front deck that’s still in full flower.
Let’s see, what else…
I’m going to take a stab at resin casting, which ought to be interesting. I’ve gotten reasonably good at wood turning and am now looking for a way to expand on that a bit by doing stuff like, well, this-
I doubt I’ll ever get as good as this guy, but what the heck, why not give it a try and see what happens? I’m rather impatient to give this a try. I have just about everything I need except for the resin and that should be here this week. I hope. More about that when it actually happens. A lot of the videos you see make it resin casting look easy. It isn’t. I expect my share of utter disasters as I get started with this.
And once again the importance of proper safety gear was proven to me rather dramatically when this happened:
Ouch, that could have been nasty. I was turning a bit of white oak when the tool got caught, hard, on an imperfection in the wood. Not only did the force snap the tool in half, it hit so hard it actually bent the tool rest on the lathe and I have to get a new tool rest. The metal part of the tool snapped clean out of the handle, splitting the handle in half, and flew up and hit me square in the face. If I hadn’t had the face shield on, well, it would have been nasty as I said.
MrsGF and some family members have once again been suggesting I try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out. And I suppose that some of it is good enough that it might be marketable. But there are so many issues with trying to sell stuff and, well, is it worth the effort? I used to run my own business so I know a bit about all of the permits, red tape and tax issues that go along with operating a business legally. Emphasis on that word, legally. A lot of people try to slip under the radar, thinking that they’re too small and insignificant for the government to bother going after them if they try to ignore all of that. But do you really want to take that risk? Heck, even zoning can be a problem. You may be turning out some really neat stuff down there in your work room in the basement or that spare bedroom, and no one is going to bother you because it’s a hobby. But if you start selling it, well, now you are a business, a manufacturer, and a lot of communities have very strict zoning ordinances concerning manufacturing. Zoning boards are often very unforgiving. They don’t give a fig if all you’re making a few pens and selling ’em on Etsy. You’re making and selling stuff commercially so you are a manufacturer. Period. Things can be even more strict if you’re in a home owners association.
And then there’s pricing your stuff. I did a scrounge around Etsy the other day looking at the various vendors selling bowls and, well, either they’re losing their shirts on every sale or something funny is going on. I found one person selling 6 inch wide, two inch deep “hand crafted solid black walnut” bowls for $20. Seriously? You add up the cost of the wood, sand paper, the finishing materials, add in a bit to cover the cost of the tools, the lathe, etc., and you’re already losing money at that price. And that isn’t even beginning to add in the cost of Etsy’s fees, bookkeeping, filing taxes, or the maker’s time to produce the bowl. So yeah, either the maker is losing his shirt on every sale, or there’s something unethical going on. I did some quick estimates and I’d figure that just to break even I’d have to sell a bowl like that for about $35, and that would be essentially doing all the labor for free. And he’s running them out for $20?
So the thing is, even if I’m only turning out a bowl a week or so, it’s just not worth the hassle to try to go commercial and sell this stuff.
That’s all for now. I’m working on the next part in the tool series. That’s going to be covering the big stuff like table saws, jointers, planers and other big ticket items. I’m having to do some serious research because I’m not really up on what’s going on in the market right now. I’ve owned all of my big power tools for at least 10 – 15 years. One of the good things about big ticket items like this is that while they’re expensive, generally speaking they’ll last you a lifetime, so you only need to buy them once. Hopefully.
Sidenote: I rarely look at the viewer statistics but I did notice an interesting thing the other day. It seems a lot of my readers are from India. On a lot of days the number of visitors from India outnumber even those from the US. India is one of the most amazing places on the planet, so I’m delighted by that. I don’t understand how they found this goofy blog, but I’m thrilled they come and read this.
Making just about anything out of wood means that you are going to need to cut the wood into the correct size and shape for it to be useful. For centuries the only tools carpenters had for cutting and shaping wood were hand saws, wood chisels, and hand planes. And those three hand tools are still essential today. While I use power tools whenever I possibly can (I may be crazy but I’m not stupid) I still use good old fashioned hand versions of those tools all the time.
I’m going to keep this as simple and cheap. You can spend thousands of dollars on hand tools, a lot of them speciality items that you’re probably never going to use or will use only rarely. What you really only need is one saw, three different size chisels, and one or maybe two hand planes. All of the ones I’m going to recommend are reasonably cheap, except for the one hand plane, and you can probably get along nicely without the expensive one. Yes, I have a lot of speciality tools, and I have some tools that are pretty damned pricey, but when it comes down to it the ones I use most often and couldn’t live without are these few.
Saws are a basic tool that have been around since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. They have evolved a lot over the years but it is basically a metal blade with a series of teeth cut into the edge. The teeth are set at a specific angle and ground in a specific way so they not only cut wood, but also drag the cut wood out of the kerf (the slot left by a saw as it cuts through wood). Without the teeth being set and ground properly, the saw would become jammed in the kerf. The set of the teeth (how far out from the blade of the saw they extend) determines how wide the kerf will be. How the teeth are set and ground also determines if the saw is for ripping or cross cutting. A rip saw is designed to cut with the direction of the grain, while a crosscut saw cuts across the grain. Don’t worry about that, though. You don’t need to have two types of hand saws. I certainly don’t. If I have to rip a board lengthwise I’m going to use my table saw or a circular saw with a guide, not a hand saw. Trying to rip a board down the middle with a hand saw is not something most people want to do. But I will grab a hand saw to whack off five inches of a 2X4 that’s too long rather than go trying to find where I left my circular saw.
So you’re ready to get a handsaw, you run down to the local hardware store, and you grab one of these over there in the photo on the right because, well, it’s a saw, right? A good old fashioned more or less generic Stanley saw. And it will work. Not very well, but it will work. But all things considered, a saw like this will probably work reasonably well for you.
But there is a problem with that saw. The same problem shared by all western style saws. As I said, they don’t work very well.
The problem with western style saws is that they cut on the push stroke. Think about that for a minute. You’re wielding a tool made of a thin, floppy piece of metal, and trying to push it through a piece of wood. What happens? If the saw binds in the kerf or if you move the handle of the saw just a tiny bit left or right while pushing, the saw binds up, comes to an abrupt stop, and the metal blade bends. If you’re lucky that’s all that happens and when you pull back the blade will straighten. If you’re not lucky, you now have a permanently bent saw. This is not a good thing.
Then I discovered Japanese style saws a few years ago and the only thing I use my western style saws for these days is hanging on the wall and serving as a home for spiders. The Japanese saws are simple, elegant, razor sharp, cut on the pull stroke, and generally are so much easier and nicer to use that I haven’t touched one of my western style saws since.
My favorite is from a Japanese maker called Suizan. This one is has a blade a bit less than 10 inches long, has coarse teeth on one side and fine on the other, is razor sharp. It is my all around utility saw here in the shop and the one I use almost all the time. It is a joy to use. It’s not that expensive, either, about $39, and the blade alone can be bought for about $20. Can you get them resharpened when they start to dull? You probably could, but at only $20 for a replacement blade I suspect that having one resharpened would cost more than buying a replacement. Just chuck the old one in recycling and bolt on a new one.
I’m going to mention these saws even though you most likely aren’t going to need any of them. At least not unless you’re a really, really high end carpenter turning out very detailed, complex projects. If you’ve done any research at all about woodworking you already know that there are a lot of speciality saws out there like tenon saws, dovetail saws, “gentleman’s” saws, back saws and I don’t know what all else. What about those? Just pretend they don’t exist. Seriously. Oh, they have their place. If, that is, you’re working someplace like Colonial Williamsburg where you have to abandon modern technology and are trying to recreate the past. In the real world, the one you and I live in, no, you don’t need ’em. Do you know when I last cut a dovetail by hand? Maybe twenty years ago just to see if I could do it. If I have to cut dovetails for a joint I use a jig and a router. And as for the other speciality saws? Don’t need ’em. Look, I build full sized wardrobes, cabinets, boxes, chests, make my own hardwood panels for tables, build bookcases, tables, arts and crafts furniture, have made hundreds of mortise and tenon joint and all that fun stuff, and I have neverneeded one of those speciality hand saws.
So, why do you need chisels? See that chair over there on the left? That’s one of mine. There isn’t a single screw or nail in that chair. It’s put together entirely with mortise and tenon joints. A lot of mortise and tenon joints. And while most of them were cut with power tools, the final fitting of the joints was done using wood chisels. Whenever you’re trying to fit bits of wood together you’ll find situations where you need to trim just wee bit off to get something to fit, and often the best tool to use for that is one of these:
Now the set with the wooden handles I have is darn near 20 years old at this point, and back then I paid about $120 or so for those, a pretty hefty chunk of money back then. These are Woodcraft brand and I just looked and they don’t seem to carry these any more. A comparable set I did find over there though was going for… Wait, seriously??? $230??? For a set of six chisels? Well, I suppose with inflation and all that, that’s something I should have expected.
What I’m about to tell you would probably give some woodworkers a stroke, but forget about fancy matched sets, things like “Sheffield steel” and “hand forged” and all that guff. You don’t need a fancy boxed set of over priced chisels. You don’t need six, you could probably get away with two, a one inch and a half inch, and maybe a one-quarter inch. For most people those three are all you’ll probably ever need. Of all the chisels I have, the 1 inch and the 1/2 inch are the ones I use about 95% of the time.
And here’s another thing. One of those chisels up there is not like the others. Way off on the left is that nasty looking one with the black handle. Guess what? The reason it looks nasty is because that one lives on the workbench and gets used for everything. It’s a Stanley brand, looks nasty, has a cheap, dented and stained plastic handle, and I paid a whopping $1 for it at a garage sale. Yeah, a buck. And guess what? It works just as good as the high end Sheffield steel ones to its right. Oh, it doesn’t feel quite as good in my hand, it looks awful, but it holds an edge almost as well as the expensive ones. And because it was so cheap I’m not afraid to whack it with hammers, use it to open paint cans, scrape glue or whatever.
So don’t get all goofy about chisels the way some people do. Just go get yourself two or three cheap Stanley’s off the wall at the local hardware store.
The woodworking “elite” will have a fit about this, but when it comes down to it a chisel is, well, a chisel. What matters isn’t the brand, what the handle is made of or any of that. What matters is if it can be sharpened easily and can hold an edge while being used. Period.
But I’ll be honest, I still love those Woodcraft ones and I think they are much, much better. But whether that is because they really are better, or I just think they are, well, I’m not really sure.
Sidenote: I talk about the Stanley brand hand tools quite a bit in this because it is a brand just about anyone who has ever been in a hardware store will recognize, not because I have stock in the company or something like that. I know a lot of people badmouth Stanley hand tools and I’m not sure why. They’re cheap, usually of decent quality, and generally better than the more generic brands that seem to pop up and then vanish almost overnight every few months.
The other cutting hand tool I want to talk about is the handplane.
Planes get complicated real fast because there are dozens of different types of special purpose planes out there. But you really don’t need to worry about any them. While there are some really neat speciality planes, generally when it comes to those speciality needs you’re going to resort to using power tools like a router, shaper, jointer or planer. But the two most basic types of hand planes can be very useful.
A hand plane is, well, basically it’s a wood chisel held in a special frame. The frame holds the plane iron (the cutting bit) it at a specific height and angle so it doesn’t cut too deep and helps to direct shavings up away from the throat of the plane and out of the way of the cut. It lets you smooth off high spots on a piece of wood, trim the edges of a board, trim the edge of a door that doesn’t fit, shave off sharp corners, that kind of thing.
The one on the bottom is my favorite. That is a Stanley block plane (sheesh, there’s Stanley again). Block planes are a bit different from a standard bench plane (that’s the one with the wooden handles in that photo). The blade is set at a lower angle, with the bevel up, and it is designed to cut end grain easily and do light touch up work, take off sharp edges, and work across the grain instead of with the grain. It’s small enough to use with one hand, fairly lightweight and easy to use. This one lives full time on my workbench and it gets used a lot. I use it for cleaning up tenons, knocking off sharp edges and things like that.
They’re handy and reasonably cheap. Dear lord, don’t buy into the hype and pay a hundred bucks or more for one of the fancy ones block planes!. The Stanley works quite nicely, thank you very much, and you can get one for about $30 off Amazon. Yes, you’ll need to do some tinkering with it to get it to work really well, although out of the box is generally isn’t horrible. You’ll definitely need to sharpen the blade and perhaps flatten it. And you may need to flatten the sole of the plane. But that’s easy enough to do with some wet/dry sand paper glued to a sheet of glass. And there’s no need to get obsessive about it and get out your micrometers and all that. Close is good enough for a block plane.
If you do get a plane, I recommend you go out on the internet and look at a short 7 minute video at Fine Woodworking’s website about how to properly “tune up” a plane. (https://www.finewoodworking.com/2013/09/26/handplane-tune-up-tips) Most hand planes will need to be checked over and have some work done to them before they work really well. It isn’t that hard to do, doesn’t take long, and that video goes through the basics pretty well. If you know what you’re doing you can take even take a not very good hand plane and make it work at least reasonably well.
The other plane up there is my Wood River #4 1/2 bench plane.
So, what’s a bench plane do, and do you need one? Basically this is what you’d call a smoothing plane. It’s used to smooth the surface of wood, take down high spots, smooth rough areas and things like that. The #4 is the most common size, usually about 9″ long and with a blade that’s about 2″ wide. I find the #4 a good, all around size. But I prefer the 4 1/2 personally.
So what’s with the 1/2 bit? The 4 1/2 is longer, about 10″, the blade is a bit wider, and it is considerably heavier. I work with mostly hardwoods like white oak and ash, and since I build furniture I work with some lengthy pieces of wood. The 4 1/2 is heavier, meaning it’s easier to keep enough downforce on it to keep a cut going even in hardwood. It’s slightly wider so it covers more territory. And the way I have this one set up and tuned up I have virtually zero tearout. It is smooth and slick and cuts through hardwood like butter, peeling off shavings so thin you can almost read through them. I love this plane. I used this plane to smooth down a white ash table top that was two and a half feet wide and almost four feet long. If it can handle that, it can handle anything.
But do you need one? While they can be nice to have, probably not. Not for a newcomer to woodworking. Nor is something like this an impulse purchase because this is the most expensive hand tool in the whole bunch. The Wood River up there currently is selling for about $200. Granted the Wood River is a high quality hand plane. There are more expensive ones on the market but I did a lot of research before buying this one and the Wood River line of hand planes is just plain good across the board. (oh, wait, that was a pun, wasn’t it – plane, plain. Feel free to wince if you like.)
What about the cheap ones? You can pick up generic bench planes for not much more than that Stanley block plane. But almost all of those aren’t worth the effort it would take to recycle ’em. I have a few of those cheap models, and no matter what I do to them to try to properly tune them up, they’re so badly made with such poor tolerances and poor materials they’re pretty much hopeless.
What about used planes? Well, good luck in finding one at a decent price. Old hand planes have become collectors items, and collectors have driven the price of old planes through the roof. If you do find one chances are good it’s been used hard and will be in bad condition and won’t be good for anything except as a display piece.
In my opinion you probably won’t need a bench plane unless you start to get into building high end stuff. For most of us, all you really need is that $30 block plane.
Sooner rather than later you are going to need to sharpen this stuff. Chisels get dull, plane irons get dull, saws get dull, and when that happens they don’t work well and can even be dangerous. A mentor of mine once said that more people get hurt by dull tools than sharp ones, and he had a very valid point. Unfortunately nothing seems to generate more hot air, bluster and nonsense than the topic of sharpening. Entire books have been written about sharpening, there are hundreds of hours of video floating around out there, and to be frank, a lot of it is pure nonsense. Some people get ridiculously obsessive about sharpening, often to the point where I don’t see how they ever actually get any work done because they’re spending all their time trying to get the perfect edge on their tools rather than actually doing any work.
I don’t recommend sharpening saws yourself. It requires special tools and skills and generally isn’t worth the effort. Use a sharpening service. Or better yet start using the Japanese style saws like the Suizan up there and when it goes dull just recycle the blade and buy a new one. As I said before, $20 for a replacement blade is probably going to be cheaper than trying to get it resharpened. And the blades last a long, long time.
Chisel and Plane Sharpening
This is something you can do for yourself, and you’ll have to do it because chisels and plane irons get dull pretty quickly depending on what you’re doing with them.
There is a lot of silly stuff floating around on the internet about sharpening, and most of it isn’t worth bothering to read or listen to. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a subject where people get more weird and obsessive than sharpening. This is going to irritate a lot of people, I imagine, but when you find these guys talking about getting mirror polish on the bevels, sharp enough to shave with, and all that guff, it’s just that, guff. It doesn’t matter! The goal isn’t producing a chisel or plane iron that you can shave with, it’s creating an edge sharp enough to cut wood and staying sharp during a reasonable amount of use. I’ve seen Youtube videos of guys spending twenty bloody minutes to get the perfect edge on a chisel. But guess what? The very first time they actually use that chisel the edge is already starting to dull and it doesn’t cut wood any better than my chisels do. And it takes me maybe 30 seconds to sharpen mine.
Don’t get me wrong. Sharpening your tools is incredibly important, and it’s something I have to do so often that I have a workbench setup exclusively for that purpose. And you’ll notice that there isn’t a single leather strop, expensive sharpening stone, exotic honing oils or or diamond hones or any of that other stuff sitting around there. Just two power grinders, the Rikon with the white abrasive wheels for my lathe tools, and the Work Sharp sharpening wheel I use for chisels and plane irons.
Let’s look at a really bad drawing of the parts of a chisel.
When sharpening a chisel (or a plane iron) there are three things we’re concerned with; the angel of the bevel, the cutting edge and, believe it or not, the back side of the chisel. You’d think that the only important thing when sharpening a chisel is getting that cutting edge sharp. But that’s only one third of the whole process. All three of those determine how well the chisel will cut wood. Sounds complicated but it takes me a half minute or less to do it.
Here’s a short video of me down below sharpening my $1 garage sale special Stanley chisel, and doing it in less than half a minute. How? I cheat of course. I use a machine. In this case it’s a Work Sharp sharpening system. And yes, it works just as easy and fast as it shows in the video once you get it set up. I admit it isn’t cheap. It goes for about $200 over on Amazon. But the darn thing just works. I don’t know how much time and effort this thing has saved me in the years I’ve owned it. I’ve had this one for, good grief, must be ten years or so now. It is one of the very few sharpening tools I own that actually lives up to its advertising.
Let’s see if this video thingie actually works and take a look at me actually sharpening a chisel, in this case my beat up old $1 garage sale Stanley.
Egads, looks like it did upload the video. Okay, let’s go through this.
I blackened the backside of the chisel and the bevel to make it easier to see what actually happens. First I put the back of the chisel flat down on the sharpening wheel and hold it in place to make sure the back of the chisel is perfectly flat. Once I do that, I put it in the guide underneath and slide it up onto the underside of the wheel, which also has an abrasive on it. The guide holds it at the correct angle for the bevel. Then when it was finished sharpening I got a piece of scrap oak and sliced some end grain to see how sharp it was. Which was pretty darn sharp. It doesn’t slice through end grain like a hot knife through butter, but it’s pretty darned close to that. You couldn’t shave with that chisel, but I don’t want to shave with it, I just want it to cut wood, and it does quite nicely, thank you. And it took – what? Less than 20 seconds to sharpen it?
But, GF, you say, I don’t want to drop $200 just to sharpen a chisel. Good for you. I don’t blame you at all, and you don’t have to. You can do it by hand with a piece of glass, some wet/dry sandpaper and one of these.
As the label says, that’s a honing guide made by Veritas. It, along with the gadget to help you set the correct bevel angle, will set you back about $70, or a bit less if you shop around. When set up properly it will hold your chisel or plane iron at the proper angle. Then you get out a piece of glass, stick some wet/dry sandpaper to it, and use the guide to hold the chisel properly while you move it back and forth across the sandpaper. You start with maybe, oh, 240 grit paper, and work your way up to 1,000 grit. That should give you and edge that’s more than sharp enough for general woodworking.
It works reasonably well, and I sharpened chisels like this for a long time before I got the Work Sharp rig.
That’s it for this time. In part 3 I’ll look at tools where the prices do get pretty high pretty fast, power tools.
Let’s talk about tools for a while. I had a few questions from people interested in (you can ask questions in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org) about woodworking tools, so I thought this was a good time (OMG I’m sooo bored…) to talk about what you need, what the prices are like, things you should look for, things you should avoid, etc.
(Disclaimer: I should point out that I do not get free stuff from manufacturers or vendors, I don’t accept advertising, I don’t get paid for anything I publish here. Every tool, piece of equipment or other supplies that I mention in these posts was purchased by myself, with my own money. My comments are based totally on my own experiences with any products I mention. I only comment about products I have actually used myself. )
When talking about tools things get complicated because it is such a general category that it can include everything from the tweezers you use to pull slivers out of your hand all the way up to massive power tools. To complicate things even more, there are tools you need just to keep your other tools operating properly. I’m going to try to keep this as simple as I can, though.
And I should point out that tools can get expensive real fast. But generally speaking you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money. Most of those super expensive tools are basically intended for people who have more money than brains. But I’ll get into that as I talk about more specific types of tools.
So, let’s get on with this, then.
First Of All Protect Your Ass Yourself
I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Woodworking is dangerous. But then so is, well, eating breakfast, as far as that goes. Do you have any idea how many people end up in the ER from breakfast related injuries, or even killed? So much for that “most important meal of the day” BS. (That “most important meal” nonsense was started by a cereal company, by the way.)
So the first thing I want to talk about is safety gear to keep you from ending up in the emergency room.
First of all there is eye/face protection. You’re working with sharp tools, power tools that spin at hundreds or even thousands of RPM, wood that shatters and splinters, and while an eye patch may look good on a pirate or Commander Fury, in real life it isn’t much fun.
Those safety glasses you see people wearing on This Old House and home improvement shows are better than nothing, but they’re entirely inadequate for anything except a direct frontal impact. They have minimal side shielding, fit loosely, and generally do little to protect your eyes from stuff coming in from the sides. And stuff will come in from the sides. I guarantee it. What you need is something like this:
They give protection all the way around, seal tight against the skin, are not only impact resistant but dust resistant as well. Uncomfortable to wear? Yep. But would you rather be uncomfortable for a few hours or lose an eye? Yeah, thought so. They’re also cheap. You can usually get decent quality safety goggles for well under $10.
Now I do wear those goggles up there sometimes, but they don’t protect the entire face so what I personally prefer, is this:
This is a full face shield from Honeywell Safety Products. This is generally what I wear. It can be easily worn over prescription glasses, protects the entire face, not just the eyes, and is far more comfortable to wear than the goggles are. And it’s easy to wear it over the top of most respirators, although it’s a tight fit over the top of a cartridge respirator. And it’s not real expensive. You’re going to pay under $40 for one like this. You can get better ones than this, at a higher price, of course. Some even come with air filtration systems, but those are a bit awkward to wear and damn they’re expensive.
And speaking of respirators…
Protect Your Lungs
Working with wood generates dust, a lotof dust. Just about everything you do with wood makes dust. Whether it’s sanding or sawing or wood turning, it is going to make dust. And while a lot of people seem to be under the impression wood dust is generally harmless, it isn’t.
Now I know that “the state of California has determined that (insert product of your choice here) can cause cancer” warnings have turned into pretty much a joke, but in this case they’re right. Long term exposure to wood dust does seem to be linked to an increased risk of cancer. It is also linked to asthma attacks, chronic lung impairment, life threatening allergic reactions and other nasty stuff. To make things even more interesting, some types of wood are literally toxic.
Now you can have the best dust extraction system in the world (and let’s face it, most of us don’t have anykind of dust extraction system except maybe a shop vac) but you’re still going to get ultrafine particles of wood floating in the air and ending up in your lungs unless you wear a respirator of some type.
Just about every hardware store carries (or did carry before the pandemic hit) paper masks laughingly called “respirators” or more generically, “dust masks”. Most of those are, frankly, just about worthless. They do little or nothing to remove the very fine particles of dust floating around in the air. The “gold standard” when it comes to paper type respirators is, of course, one of these:
That’s a N95 respirator, and that’s what I used to wear before they became unavailable because of the pandemic. Yes they were expensive. But no where near as expensive as having your lungs ruined. Now you can’t find them anywhere, and if you can find them for sale chances are good they’re counterfeits and/or insanely expensive. (I would really, really like to know why, some 8 months into this pandemic, protective equipment is still in such short supply that it still needs to be rationed.)
What I wear is this:
That’s a respirator from MSA with replaceable filter cartridges. It provides better protection than even an N95 mask, and, believe it or not, these masks and cartridges are still generally available. And they aren’t that expensive, either. A quick peek at Amazon tells me the masks, without cartridges, are going for about $15. The cartridge filters are not cheap but not as bad as you might think. Depending on the type of cartridge they’re going for under $20 or so for a pair. And the cartridges last for much, much longer than the typical N95 paper mask does.
Is it comfortable to wear? Not really, but at the same time it isn’t horrible to wear, either. And you do get used to it and hardly even know you’re wearing it after a while. I’m used to it and it’s nowhere near as difficult to wear as some of the safety gear I had to wear for enclosed spaces training or even when painting cars. To be honest I hardly know I have the thing on once I have it in place. (Needless to say I have no respect at all for the little cry babies who whine about ‘but it’s so hot and uncomfortable’ when they have to wear a light weight surgical mask in a store. I’d like to see what they’d think of having to wear full air gear including 100+ lb. air tanks, full face mask and a protective suit.)
Whichever respirator you wear, you have to wear it the right way. It isn’t going to do you any good at all if you don’t have a good seal against bare skin. (As one of my instructors once said, if you can smell anything, you’re already dead. He had a rather warped sense of humor.)
Speaking of surgical masks, will one of those protect your lungs? Those might be better than nothing but they aren’t very good for this kind of thing.
Ewwww! It’s Sticky!
Let’s talk about glue. A large part of woodworking is attaching one piece of wood to another. And often the best way of doing it is to glue those suckers together.
Now there are dozens of different brands of wood glue out there, and I’ve tried pretty much all of them over the last twenty or so years. To be honest, there’s really not much difference between the name brands as far as performance goes. But the one I’ve used almost exclusively for years now is Titebond. The company makes different types of glues, but my favorite is Titebond III Ultimate wood glue. The stuff just plain works if you follow the instructions on the bottle. I’ve never had a glue joint fail as long as I used reasonable care and followed the instructions. It’s easy to use, has little or no odor with no toxic fumes (unlike CA adhesives), is reasonably easy to clean up and it just works. Best of all it’s reasonably inexpensive.
The drawback to most wood glues, including Titebond, is that the wood needs to be clamped for an extended period of time. Hours. Generally I’ll leave it in the clamps for at least twelve hours before doing anything that would put strain on the glued joint
That means, of course, that you need clamps. Lots and lots of clamps. Someone once told me you can’t have too many clamps and for me, at least, that seems to be true. Don’t get too obsessive about clamps. Some people get a bit weird when it comes to clamps. Most of us don’t need anything fancy. For most of us a clamp is a clamp is a clamp, and as long as it’s fairly easy to adjust and doesn’t bend when it’s under pressure, it’s going to be good enough. I have everything from cheap hardware store junk all the way up to the pricey Jorgenson brand name clamps, but in the long run they all do the same thing, clamp stuff together. I do prefer the ones that have the squeeze handles for clamping instead of the screw type. Those are much easier to work with. But in the long run, they’re all still clamps.
What About CA (cyanoacrylate) Adhesives?
CA glues, or “super glue” or “instant glue” or whatever you want to call them, are the ones that bond virtually instantly (well, actually they really don’t bond instantly). And it is really tempting to try using them instead of having to clamp up joints for hours using normal wood glue, isn’t it? Just slap on some CA glue, stick the wood together, and bang, it’s done.
But CA glues have some issues as they say.
Now I’ve experimented extensively with CA glues over the last few years, especially after watching Youtube videos of guys slapping together bits and pieces of wood with one type of CA glue or another and then chucking it up on a lathe and whacking away at it with a bloody great roughing gouge while spinning it at about a gazillion RPM. To say that doing something like that would make me a wee bit nervous is an understatement. While I’ve never had a Titebond wood glue joint fail on me, I have had multiple CA glue joints fail. Enough so that I don’t trust the stuff to be able to handle any significant sheer forces. So my experience with CA adhesives in general is that while they have their place, they generally don’t work well with wood.
But that being said, I have had good luck with Starbond CA glues. I use it with wood turning projects for things like stabilizing cracks in bowl blanks, reinforcing weak wood and things like that. It works amazingly well for that. Especially the very thin consistency stuff. Saturate the bad wood or crack with the adhesive, give it a shot of accelerator to cure the glue, and away I go without having to worry about the crack causing a piece to shatter or a bit of punky wood wrecking an otherwise nice bowl blank.
There are three problems, though, that are shared by virtually all CA type adhesives.
First of all the stuff is expensive. That little 2 oz bottle of Starbond black medium up there costs almost as much as a whole quart of Titebond III. A quart of Titebond III is about $19. That 2 oz bottle of Starbond Black in the photo up there sells for $15. And you really need the accelerator as well, which will set you back another $14.50. So while Starbond works really well, it can be prohibitively expensive if you use large quantities of the stuff.
The second problem is it is still a CA based adhesive, so that means it gives off some very nasty fumes, as does the accelerator. If you’re using more than a few drops of the stuff it is recommended you do so only with very good ventilation or wearing a respirator.
The third problem is that it has virtually zero open time. Literally zero open time if used with an accelerator. What’s open time? That’s the amount of time you have before the adhesive begins to cure and you can no longer move the two pieces of wood to position them. With a glue like Titebond, you have many minutes before the glue begins to setup so you can move the pieces around to get them positioned properly before you put on the clamps. But with CA glues like Starbond, there is literally zero open time, especially if you’re using an accelerator. You apply the adhesive to one piece of wood, apply the accelerator to the other, slap them together and they are immediately bonded. You’d better make darn sure that you have those pieces positioned properly the moment you put them together, because that’s it. Once they touch, they’re bonded.
I’ve bored you long enough. Part II (if I ever get around to writing it) will look at hand tools for cutting wood; things like saws, wood chisels and lathe tools, an how to keep them sharp.
Things are pretty slow here at the moment. We’re cleaning up the gardens, the temperatures are plummeting (it’s 42F right now out there), I’m waiting for supplies and equipment so I can start experimenting with resin casting (that could either be a lot of fun or an utter disaster, but I’ll talk about that when the time comes). I’m still trying to learn morse code. I just got a new RaspberryPi 4 computer that will probably become the new computer for a digital QRP amateur radio setup using the FT-818. We’re waiting for the contractor to set up a time to get a bunch of windows and doors replaced.