I’m finally breaking radio silence.

It’s been a while since I last posted anything here, but like the duck on the pond, all the action is going on below the surface. So I’ll end my long silence by noting that Bonny and I recently closed on a fantastic 95 year-old house.

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This was not the plan I had for the year, but nothing this year has gone according to plan. In fact, the story seems straight out of a Laura Numeroff children’s book.

Last December, I set out with a plan to get my woodworking house in order. I’d started reading about 5S workplace organization, and aimed to make my workshop more functional. I built a lumber rack that got my sheet goods up off the concrete, but then the sheet goods didn’t clear the western-most rafter tie.

The bowing sheet goods (and January’s Polar Vortex) motivated me to reframe for a vaulted ceiling and insulation, but then a new job opportunity came up in April before I finished the framing, and I haven’t really made it back out to finish up.

With May came my kids’ end of school rituals: concerts, awards ceremonies, and enrollment for fall. Enrollment was a difficult topic this year, as our school district wasn’t making important programming available for David. Bonny and I found ourselves discussing policy and curriculum with the assistant superintendent for middle school and high school, but our best negotiated agreement was that we’d monitor how David’s school year went.

Negotiators will tell you to evaluate your BATNA – your best alternative to a negotiated agreement – to understand your bargaining position. Looking around at other districts, our BATNA was much better than we realized; all we had to do was move. Sure enough, one night in May, Bonny suggested moving to a neighboring school district. Eight days later, we had a contract on a house we loved in a school district we admired, and I was rethinking all of my woodworking plans.

The new house, a foursquare with lap siding and a wrap-around porch, offers some interesting alternatives to my previous woodworking arrangement. The one-car garage is built in to the nearly 1,000 sq. ft. basement. On the plus side, anything I build in this basement can go out the garage door and up the stairs to the front door. I won’t have to worry about extreme heat and cold like I did with the freestanding garage, and I won’t have to deal with my tools being divided between the garage and the basement.

It’s by no means an ideal workspace, though. I’ll need to buy a dehumidifier soon. The ceilings are somewhat low (I can reach up and touch the bottoms of the floor joists in some places), and the central location of the furnace and hot water heater (not to mention the boiler) means I’ll need to be careful with my space, setting up workstations to accommodate all of my tools.

Rather than waiting to sell our old house, we decided to keep it as a rental, so most of my tools and materials are still in the old workshop, waiting for a weekend when my time is my own.

For a wood nerd, the house itself offers much to be excited about, including oak pocket doors to the parlor and the dining room. The floors and trim on the first floor are all oak, the trim stained a rich brown color.

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Most of the trim is in great shape, but as in our last house, the remodeler made no attempt to tie the kitchen trim in with the rest of the house. The kitchen cabinets were installed fairly recently, but they are cheap, home center units that will need to be replaced someday.

Our first official act was to take up the pet-stain-saturated wall-to-wall carpet in the parlor and the dining room. We’ll need to refinish the floors, but once we do, I think they will be beautiful.

My woodworking focus for the rest of 2015 (and maybe 2016 as well) will likely be to restore the original double-hung windows and wooden storm sash. While the house has two high-efficiency furnaces and air conditioners, plus a boiler and (presumably working) radiators, it’s obvious which rooms need storm windows.

I’m already excited by what my initial research has uncovered on window restoration. There is a lot of material on the internet about the restoration process, but I’ll share what I learn along the way.

I’d love to try my hand at making window sash. With all of the storm sash we need, it might be easier to make than to find in architectural salvage.

I sense some tool purchases in my future. After all, if you give a woodworker a project, he’ll want to buy the right tools….

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Bill Rainford on the Craft

Bill Rainford of North Bennet Street School recently filmed a series for Fine Homebuilding on reproducing period molding for a historic home in Boston. These videos complement his article for the August/September 2013 issue of the magazine (subscription required). I had let my Fine Homebuilding membership lapse, but the few videos outside the pay wall convinced me to renew my membership.

Many of the experiences he spoke of hit home for me: learning from his father and grandfather; coming from a machine woodworking bias; realizing that all the personal protective equipment he used to save his lungs, hearing, and eyesight from machines were coming between him and the work; recognizing that as the craftsman’s skill and muscle memory increases, the use of hand tools overcomes the initial efficiency of power tools.

These videos are worth viewing, not just for his thoughts on the craft, but also for the practical insight into the work of sticking architectural moulding by hand. As Rainford demonstrates, it’s a surprisingly practical approach to reproduction work, and an incredibly handy skill for a woodworker to have.

Plinth Block Progress

Halloween seems to have marked the beginning of the social season this year – at least for my family. While I’ve made good progress on the plinth blocks, I realized tonight that I hadn’t shared much in the past month.

David's Jack O'Lantern

October brought some good progress on the plinth blocks I’ve been working on. Following Matt Bickford’s advice in Mouldings in Practice, I began with dados for the cove.

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The coves took a little extra time while I tuned up the No. 12 round. The wedge wasn’t making good contact in the throat mortise, allowing the plane iron to slip in the cut. Without a float in my kit, I used a triangular file to clean up the mortise. The triangular file was a good width, but it cut pretty slowly, so it wasn’t ideal. (I later bought the planemaker’s edge float from Lie-Nielsen with the idea that it would allow me to tune up my wooden planes to a finer degree. I’ll share the results when I’ve had more time to experiment.)

Along with the throat, the iron needed some reshaping. The arc of the iron was a bit too broad, so I needed to regrind slightly. This is not an exact science. All I’m looking for is the iron to emerge uniformly from the mouth. If it looks right and feels right, it’ll do the job.

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The tuned-up round follows the dados and results in a nice cove. Note the open cup of coffee. I couldn’t enjoy that with machines!

Spelching is still an issue when planing across grain. For the cove at the top, I chose to make these a bit wide and plane away the torn fibers.

With the four coves complete, I moved on to the v-groove at the bottom of the ogee. When working through my prototype, I discovered that I need to use my skewed rabbet trailing edge down. This helped quite a bit with the reliability of my cut, allowing the plane to follow the reference edge and not overshoot it.

scribing the reference line

I found, though, that this technique wasn’t quite yielding the crisp surface I wanted to see. The plane iron left a nice, flat surface, but the reference surface was not uniform. I’m not sure whether to attribute this to technique, tool, or unreasonable expectations.

Luckily, a few passes with a heavy shoulder plane cleaned up the reference surface on the first workpiece.

For the remaining grooves, though, I flipped the workpiece around and planed from the opposite approach. Since the upper surface of this v-groove serves as the chamfer for the convex portion of the ogee, it will be worked further with the hollow and doesn’t need to be perfect.

This switch allowed the iron of my rabbet plane to leave the nice crisp surface where I need it.

With the v-grooves complete, it was time to tackle the ogees. A combination of grooves allowed me to waste away the concavities of the ogee. Here, I plowed a groove with my combination plane, and used my rabbet plane for another v-groove to form the transition from concave to convex.

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I’m pleased with the results so far. I’ve completed two of the blocks, am nearly finished with the third, and the fourth is awaiting its ogee.

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Plinth Block Prototype

After spending all of Saturday morning on yard work, I escaped to our local woodworking store, Metro Hardwoods, who were celebrating their fifth anniversary. I’m really pleased to have a them so close, and the irony of a woodworking store located in a building once occupied by Pier 1 Imports just makes this place all the more special.

While I was there, I picked up a fine India gouge slip for sharpening my hollows and rounds, and so far it’s been a great investment. I got back to my workshop and started tuning up my No. 12 hollows and rounds. These are the planes I’ll need to make the plinth blocks for my current project.

Carpenter's Hatchet
As a warm-up project on Sunday, I put a new handle on my carpenter’s hatchet. It’s heavier than I expected.

The plinth blocks I’m reproducing for my current project seem fairly straight-forward: an ogee and a cove. However, the fact that these elements run across the grain makes for a surprisingly tricky situation. Instead of using my plow plane to make the grooves for the round to ride in, I used a backsaw and my router plane.

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The piece I grabbed from the scrap pile was pretty ugly, but it presented some worst-case scenarios to consider. The big risk, I found, is that the grain blows out as you reach the far edge of the workpiece. To protect against blowout as I approach the profile, I’ve inscribed the profile along the far side. Working with very straight-grained wood will help, too.

To begin the convex side of the ogee, I began by striking a knife line at the far edge for a v-groove. My rabbet plane followed the scribed line to start, but I noticed the guide edge of the groove was becoming distorted. It turned out that the leading edge of the skewed iron has a crisp arris, which was scraping the opposite face of the groove. Using the rabbet leading edge up allowed the plane to track straight.

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The concave and v-groove established, I moved on to the convex portion of the ogee. After fine-tuning the plane iron in my hollow, I found the convex a little easier to stick than the concave.

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Starting with a prototype turned out to be a great way to shake out the challenges of this task.

They’re Here…

My half set of hollows and rounds arrived yesterday, and I am super-excited. As it turns out, my nine-year-old son is too. When he saw the tool dealer’s return address on the box, he started tearing into it like it was his birthday. Packing materials flew everywhere. As we were pulling planes out, he said “I can’t wait to take this out to the workshop and see how it works!” He cooled his jets a little when I explained what needed to come next.

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These planes were in “as-found” condition. Most were covered with a dry, gritty sort of grime, as if the planes had been sitting in a box below the previous owner’s bench grinder. I wanted to get rid of that grit before I did anything else.

Luckily, the planes cleaned off pretty easily with paste wax, and the result is a great combination of patina and feel. A discussion thread from the archives of the OldTools mailing list offered great insight into the range of cleaning methods out there. Based on the discussion, I went with paste wax as an easy method that’s also easily reversible.

Now that I have all of the planes cleaned, my next steps are to make sure the soles are straight and the irons are sharp. In the interest of my project, I’ll prioritize the actual planes I’ll need to make plinth blocks and casing first.

It’s also time to build a sticking board to hold my work while planing.

I finally purchased the ePub version of Mouldings in Practice last night, hoping it would offer advice on getting these planes up and running. Bickford sidesteps many of the questions I had, but he offers sound advice on the topic of sharpening plane irons, and enough information on making sure the soles are straight that I can get started.

One noteworthy tip I picked up made the book well worth the price (which it is, many times over). I’d been worried that the casing would require v-grooves due to its alignment to the face, and I don’t have an elusive v-groove plane or a sacrificial rabbet plane to modify. Luckily, Bickford offers a technique for using the rabbet to cut the vee, and shows how a plow plane can assist with my cove.

So it seems for now I’m pretty well set.

The False Economy of the Half Set

One of the things I really liked about Bickford’s premise was that you could start with just a couple of hollow and round pairs in common sizes (say a No. 4 and a No. 8) and cover a lot of ground befor you felt the need to buy more tools. And for most cases, I think he’s right. If I were making up my own profile, I could come up with something attractive with just a No. 8 pair. But because I’m reproducing an existing profile, I’m bound by the choices of the original maker.

The casing requires a No. 8 round and a No. 6 hollow (both of which I needed to purchase). These are two common sizes that will be useful for both the joiner and cabinetmaker.

The plinth block, an ogee topped by a cove, requires just a No. 12 pair. That’s pretty big for furniture work, but looking around, I realized that the original baseboard in my World War I-era foursquare have just a cove at the top. The radius of that cove? 3/4″, perfect for a No. 12 round. It’s been bugging me for years that the baseboard in our remodeled kitchen was not a faithful reproduction.

So maybe my project is really the exception that proves the rule. While I’m constrained by the parameters of the project, it turns out that the makers of these mouldings used just a few sizes.

For the baseboard, which has four 1/4″ reeds, I ordered a 1/4″ center bead, since I don’t have snipes bill planes, and they’ve been going for outrageous prices this summer (maybe longer since I only recently started paying attention).

So why not buy the half set? I’ve come across a few half sets that are certainly worth the investment given the current market. I’m definitely intrigued by their versatility. And as difficult as it’s been to find the few planes I need for this project, I’d love not to have to go through it again.

The truth is, I may never use half of the planes in a half set. My taste in furniture has leaned toward the gothic influences of the arts and crafts rather than the classical motifs where these planes excel.

Who knows? Maybe this project will have me hooked. Let’s find out.

What Keeps Me Up at Night

It’s a common notion that people who have trouble sleeping at night must be harboring a guilty conscience. I often lose sleep, but guilt has never been the problem. What keeps me up at night are projects and other puzzles my brain keeps at, like a dog with a rawhide strip.

The project bouncing around in my head right now? Reproducing the casing, baseboard and plinth blocks from my brother-in-law’s Victorian. He bought this house from his parents, so this is the house he and my wife grew up in.

I decided I really wanted to do this project with hand tools. Anyone wondering why need only read Matt Bickford’s 2010 blog post on hollows and rounds. In fact, it only took the one sample chapter from Bickford’s book to convince me of his methods.

Owning just a few random hollows or rounds, and none of them with the right radius, how would I figure out which planes I would need, without dropping $1000 or more on a half set (or $3750 for a new half set from Bickford)? After a few comparisons based on the planes I had on hand, I had guesses, but not enough confidence to place an order for tools.

I started with what I knew: hollows and rounds are sized in increments of 16ths of an inch radii; typically they cut a 60 degree arc; the width of the iron (the chord) equals the radius. To get a positive ID, I came up with these gauges that I made from index cards.

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Using these gauges, I was able to come up with the profiles I needed, with the confidence to place an order for tools. So why was I not able to sleep that night?

While I understood why my gauges worked, there were a few things that didn’t add up. I couldn’t figure out why my previous guesses (based on the irons from the hollows I had on hand) were so far off. The answer was in the geometry of the plane itself. While the profile of a hollow or round corresponds directly to the arc that it cuts, the same is not true of the plane iron.

Laying there, wide awake, it helped me to imagine a 1″ cylinder laying in my cove, with the No. 8 round forming the bottom of that cylinder. The cutting edge of the iron meets the bottom of the cylinder, bisecting the cylinder at an angle equal to the bed angle. The curve of the round’s plane iron, I finally realized, is an ellipse rather than the 60 degree arc of that 1″ circle. The same holds true for the hollow, except that my imagined cylinder rests within the work, and the hollow rests on top of it.

And now I can rest.

At least until I start to think about sharpening.