Thursday, February 7, 2013

Physical Therapy: Dovetails & Practice

I have been getting a wee bit antsy about getting back to the bench.  So yesterday I thought I would do a little physical therapy to take off the edge.  This came in the form of dovetails and practice.  I surmised what better therapy for a recovering shoulder than a little light sawing.  It has been close to nine months since I last cut dovetails and I figured I needed to knock the rust off of that skill.

In keeping with my goal for this blog, I thought I would share some of my thoughts, no matter how psycho-pathetic they may be, on practicing woodworking skills.  Sounds odd I know but stick with me for a moment!  Think about this; a guitarist doesn’t learn to play a song like Hotel California without first practicing and learning some basic skills.  First they must learn and practice chords and chord changes while keeping time.  It is only after the basic skills are learned that the musician can move forward with learning songs.  So why do we as woodworkers attempt to build things without first practicing and learning the basics?

Quality shop time is hard to come by for many of us, so why not make the most of the little time you have.  Practicing basic skills can help greatly in this area.  It has been my experience that a little time spent practicing a basic skill prior to building a project pays off in many ways.  I rarely ruin material anymore and the time it takes to complete a project is dramatically decreased.  By taking time to correctly practice these basic skills they have become second nature allowing me to concentrate solely on the project at hand.

Sawing is a critical and basic skill required to properly cut dovetails.  When I first started cutting dovetails by hand I took 10 – 15 minutes a day for a week and practiced rip sawing to a line perpendicular to the board and angled while stopping on a scribed line.  In the same practice session I practiced rip sawing perpendicular and a vertically while stopping on a scribed line.  These are the basic sawing skills needed to accurately saw pins and tails.

If it has been awhile since you last performed a specific skill, like it was for me in cutting dovetails, do some warm-up practice before jumping straight into your project and risking ruining your material.  I took my own advice and practiced the two exercises as pictured above.  As a result the dovetails I cut were pretty good.  It wasn’t great because I need to sharpen my chisels, but that is another post.

So if you only have 15 – 20 minutes don’t blow off going into the shop.  Grab some cutoffs, your saw and marking implements and practice these sawing skills or whatever basic skills are required for the project currently on your bench.  I guarantee it is worth the effort and you will be amazed at the results.  I know I was!

~ Ray Schwanenberger

Monday, February 4, 2013

What The Heck Are They Thinking?

Over the last few weeks I have discovered that many of the people purchasing the tools I have been selling are new to woodworking or just entering the arena of hand tool woodworking.  I have also read many posts of late asking what tools are needed, both hand and power, to get started into woodworking.  Many of the responses were from very talented amateur woodworkers and some were from well publicized professional woodworkers.  I was amazed that nary a one of the respondents asked what type of woodworking the person did or wanted to do.  Every one of these well intentioned respondents started spewing out a list of tools they thought the person needed.
This got the ole glue pot of gray matter warmed up and I wondered how I would answer the question.  Then, while preparing the shop for my return, it hit me; what the heck are these people thinking?  I could not believe that not one individual mentioned what I now consider to be the foundation, the rock on which all good furniture is built; The Venerable Bench!
Yes the much overlooked and taken for granted bench.  A proper bench made for the type of work you do!  In my humble opinion, this is the foundation for success as a woodworker.  One must have a way to secure their work so the tools, paid for with hard earned cash, may be used to their fullest capabilities.  I have worked on a torsion box precariously perched on saw horses and I have worked on a solid core door attached to a chest of drawers, my Hillbilly Shaker period.  Now I work on the proper type benches for the work I do. 
Yes I said benches; I build chairs and furniture so I prefer two different methods of holding my work. Before I built my bench I did some research, to see what best suited my needs.  I read “The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis, and “Workbenches from Design & Theory to Construction & Use” by Christopher Schwarz.

This is the bench I decided upon and use the majority of the time.  It is my version of the French Bench or Roubo Bench as it is also called.  Unless one is a full grown male silver-back attempting to push a dull scrub plane through 100 year old Tamboti, this behemoth will not easily skate across the floor.  This bench weighs in at an estimated 350 pounds and is rock solid under the heaviest of hand plane use.  The work is securely clamped to the top or the face of the bench using the vises or holdfasts or a combination of the two.  With this bench I have experienced projects being completed quicker and to a higher degree of quality.

This is my other work holding tool, a shave horse.  It is a very specialized bench that the majority of woodworkers will never use.  This is a tool used mostly by greenwood workers and chair makers.  I build Windsor chairs and this is the ideal tool for shaping the various parts for my chairs due to the ease with which I am able to clamp and release the work.

Well the ole glue pot is cooling down, so I will finish by asking this of you; the next time someone new to the craft, or anyone for that matter, asks for your opinion on what tools they should start with, do them a favor and save them the misery of working on some contrived contraption of a bench.  Ask them what type of woodworking they are going to do, then advise them to start by building a proper bench best suited to the work they want to do.

-         Ray Schwanenberger