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.

The Boys of Summer Have Gone

I spent the summer not woodworking. In fact, I spent the summer doing as little as possible outside of my day job. The Kansas City metropolitan area has been punished by record-setting heat and drought this summer, and my garage workshop was an oppressive place to enter long enough to grab a screwdriver, much less to joint a board.

A few weeks ago, on one of those 100 degree days, a neighbor’s house caught fire, and we volunteered our garage to store some of our neighbors’ few remaining possessions while they sorted things out.

That sudden constraint, plus a break in the heat, has me thinking again about woodworking. The oak that I harvested in 2008 is ready to use. I have a coffee table to build, and my son is eager to complete the tool tote project we were working on in the spring. Truth be told, I’m eager for his tool tote to be done too, so his tools won’t be scattered and under foot.

Speaking of tools under foot, I’m beginning to realize that I probably don’t need three Yankee screwdrivers or four bit braces. There are a few essential tools I have yet to find in the wild, and I’d love to do some trading. Hopefully I end up with a half set of hollows and rounds. I own a No. 3 hollow and a No. 8 hollow so far, so I have a long way to go.

Saturday I got to spend a little time in the workshop, maybe a few hours total. Nothing profound–more staring-at-tools than woodworking. Instead of walnut and white oak, the shop smells like a mix of smoke and perfume (the burned house was home to a single mom and two teenage girls), and there’s barely enough room to walk around, so no project work.

I did, however, spend some time analyzing a piece of casing from my brother-in-law’s house. I agreed to reproduce some of the moulding from his Victorian. The casing is a cove in the center, flanked by square ovolos, with flat ovolos on the outer edges.

Reproducing it would give me a great reason to buy a few hollow and round pairs, plus the new book, Mouldings in Practice from Lost Art Press. The free download chapter offered a great teaser. It’s one of those books that reminds me what’s exciting about woodworking. Matt Bickford’s premise echoes Schwarz’s: Get a few essential tools and practice the craft.

You can’t buy your way in. I tried.

In fact, I’d resisted heading down this path precisely because it involved purchasing tools I don’t already own. But then, looking at that casing Saturday, I thought about what a simple setup it is, really. Just a few tools open up a whole design vocabulary.

No wonder hollows and rounds have become so hard to find this summer.

Crosscutting Checkpoint

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It’s been nearly five months since I committed to become a better crosscut sawyer, and it’s past time for me to post some details on my progress. The photo above shows the results of those months of practice: I’ve improved in my ability to saw squarely in the vertical. It also shows off the surface left behind by the 12pt crosscut saw I purchased last fall. I’ve been working mostly in hard maple the past several months, and I find this saw to be a pleasing compromise between a faster cut and a cleaner cut.

One technique that’s helped quite a bit overall is the “reflection” trick. Several people have discussed it, but the gist of the idea is that with a sufficiently reflective saw plate, the reflection of the board should extend a straight line from the reflected arris. It’s easier to see than to describe.

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The photo above demonstrates the reflection.

I haven’t built a saw bench yet, but I still plan to. I’ve been using whatever low surface is available, and there are pros and cons to that approach. Using a full-length hand saw at a low height, you run the risk of stabbing the tip of the saw directly into the floor. This might explain Chris Schwarz’s advocacy of the 20″ panel saw. I happened to have a user-grade 26″ Disston that was clean along the first 20″, but severely pitted beyond that mark. I cut it down to 20″ and sharpened it. I’ll share my results in a future post.

Even before all of this practice, I was pleased with the results I was getting. No, my crosscuts weren’t as clean and precise as the radial arm saw produced, but that’s okay. I knew I would improve, and until I did, I knew I could clean up with a block plane. I took the leap a few months ago by getting rid of the radial arm saw and the platform it sat on. The 15 square feet of shop space I got back was well worth the change in my methods of work.

The practice of gathering, Part II

In Part I, I broached the topic of collecting mental images as part of the creative process.

This practice has been well documented by Julia Cameron.  In The Artist’s Way, the two primary tools she discusses, “Morning Pages” and “Artist’s Dates”, are essentially techiniques for the practice of gathering.

Cameron’s Morning Pages, three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing performed first thing every morning, is meant to get thoughts and ideas (plus the inhibitions, self-criticism, and other negative forces) down on paper.  It’s a form of self-discovery that she recommends whether you’re at the crest of creative output or the trough of creative stagnation.  They are intended to help you circumvent your inner “censor”, to allow thoughts to flow freely.

If you think of creativity as a flow of ideas, Morning Pages are the pump.

And if Morning Pages are the pump, then the Artist’s Date is the gathering process that Cameron prescribes for filling the reservoir of the imagination.  The Artist’s Date is a weekly commitment to spend time by yourself, on whatever activity brings out the child-like artist within you.  If you want to stretch out with a new box of crayons and a fresh coloring book, go for it.

The premise here, that successful creatives control the flow of their ideas, puts these two activities at the root of the creative process.  But the key is that we train ourselves to suspend judgment, to quiet the editor within us so that we are free to imagine–and create–without constraint.

The goal in all of this is to create.  Why bother, otherwise?  But The hard message from Cameron is that there is real work to be done to vanquish the harsh, critical voice inside our heads that gets in the way, tells us that our work is crap, or that we’re headed in the wrong direction.

I’ll say it again:  The goal is to create.  To create, we must take in the world as it is and see it as if for the first time.

A Process for Composition

English woodcarver and educator Chris Pye has written several books and online guides to woodcarving, including his Woodcarving Fundamentals.   (If you’re not interested in woodcarving specifically, stay with me here.) There and elsewhere he describes the woodcarving concept of “bosting in”, the stage in which the carver establishes the relationship among the various elements of the carving, before carving any details. 

To ‘bost’ means to create the main forms, three-dimensional masses, and planes of a carving; and placing them, with their inherent motions and directions, all in correct relationship to each other. 

Chris provides the example of a student attempting to carve a human face.  According to his process:

Before the iris goes in, the bony shape of the skull, the muscles, the egg-like lump of the eyeball and so on, these must be formed, bosted in. The shape, dynamics of the head must ‘read true’ – that is what the bosting is all about.

I like this example.  It’s both familiar and immediately illustrative of the concept.  What he describes here is not working from a blueprint.  It is an approach to creating that engages the senses and skills of the creator throughout the process.

“Bosting in” falls within the larger process he describes in his book, Elements of Woodcarving.  This process begins with roughing out the waste, followed by bosting in, followed by modelling individual elements, and resulting in detailing. 

Chris has stated that he would like to retain the term “bosting” as a specialized term within woodcarving.  I think he’s on to something more broadly applicable in the creative process, so I’ll use the more generic term “sketching”, which he says is the original meaning of the word.

This strategy of “sketching in” – establishing the masses, planes, and movement of a piece – works in many different applications. 

I see it at work in Jim Krenov’s The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, in which he describes composing a cabinet from the starting point of a coopered door.  “Since I have gotten into such work, the prospect of returning to it each time I find a ‘beginning’ in a plank or planks is ever more exciting.”

As a writer I’ve used a similar process, leaving myself sketches of an idea that needs elaboration, while establishing the overall flow and movement from one idea from another.  During later passes through the piece of writing, I’ll come back and elaborate on each of these sketches, gradually giving definition to the whole.

I’ve even used this process as a software engineer, roughing out the various components, sketching the basic movement of the application, and gradually working it down to finer and finer detail. 

Creativity and the practice of gathering, Part I

“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” – Carl Sagan

I first came across this quote in John Daido Loori‘s The Zen of Creativity.  It’s an important statement to understand from the creative’s point of view, because it is rare that we create something completely new. 

Rather, creativity is about seeing the everyday with new eyes.

One of the common threads on the topic of creativity is the practice of collecting or gathering material for later use.  Whether you’re writing fiction or creating fine furniture, there is this same essential process of collecting images and phrases, little bits of this and that, all of which we let steep until some time later, we rearrange and reassemble those bits, or the infusion that results, in a way that gives life and energy to our work.  Writer Anne Lamott shares her take on gathering in Bird by Bird:

[W]hen you’re out in the world–that is, not at your desk–and you hear people talking, you’ll find yourself editing their dialogue, playing with it, seeing in your mind’s eye what it would look like on the page.  You listen to how people really talk, and then learn little by little to take someone’s five-minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything.  If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days–listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. 

Much like Pablo Neruda’s “world of objects at rest,” the material we find to work with is out there in the world.

In this article from Fine Woodworking, Designer Craftsman Michael Fortune suggests that “[i]f you are receptive, ideas can come from almost anywhere.”  He goes on to explain how visiting a museum, or simply noticing lines and patterns in his daily environment – such as tire tracks in the snow or the leaves of day lilies – can provide fodder for the receptive imagination.

If you are receptive, he writes. 

In Part II, I’ll dig deeper into the ways in which we can increase our receptivity to the world around us.