T-Minus 2 Coats of Lacquer: The Sassafras Kitchen Table, Cont’d.

If there’s one part of woodworking that I’d just as soon do without, it’s the finishing. Something tells me I’m not alone in this regard. I can easily get into “the zone” when cutting joinery or planing or carving where the time seems to pass without notice, but for some reason that never seems to happen during the finishing process – I very much notice the time, and there’s a part of me that dreads it. It’s not really that I’m worried about messing up the piece. That used to be a concern early on, but I’ve worked out some reliable processes that have been pretty fool-proof.

Well, the time has come to give this table a finish – I can’t put it off any longer. I started a couple of days ago with a good rubbing of tung oil. I use real, 100% tung oil, not the “Tung Oil Finish” that they sell at the hardware store that’s actually a wiping varnish that doesn’t contain any actual tung oil. I bought it from Woodcraft, one bottle goes a long way.

There is nothing magical about tung oil, and you can use most any drying oil to get the same results. I used to used boiled linseed oil, which dries very quickly (for an oil) and looks pretty much the same once it’s on the wood, but I’ve grown wary of the chemicals in it that enhance the drying. It’s probably fine, but it annoys me that manufacturers won’t say what’s actually in it. All I know is that it contains “metallic dryers”. They don’t use lead any more, but what do they use? So anyway, I’ve switched to tung oil for now. Real tung oil is slow to dry, much slower than boiled linseed oil. I left this bottle in the window for probably a year – the sunlight helps catalyze the cross-linking process that results in a hard finish. It’s noticeably thicker now than it was when I bought it.

Wiping with oil is the one part of the finishing process that I don’t mind – actually, it’s one of the best parts of woodworking. There’s nothing like seeing the fine glow first appear when the oil hits the wood.

Tung Oil

After a couple of days of drying, the less-fun parts must commence. I lay out the pieces and start with some aerosol shellac. I used to brush shellac, which can leave a beautiful finish if you’re careful, but it’s a pain in the ass to clean up your brushes. Plus, the solvent is denatured alcohol, which doesn’t come cheap. It’s even more expensive if you want to avoid the denaturing chemicals and use Everclear instead. You can’t use disposable brushes, either. Brushed shellac demands high-quality (read: expensive) brushes, there is no alternative.

Aerosol Shellac

I have to say, the primary benefit of aerosol finishes is the complete elimination of solvents and brushes. They’re half the cost of your finishing materials. I don’t ever consider brushing film finishes any more, and the thought of having to clean and maintain an HVLP system gives me nightmares and cold sweats. So, aerosol it is for me. I really don’t see this as a cop-out, though: I can achieve a finish with aerosol sprays that rivals anything I’ve seen in fancy studio furniture. Most of the effect of a fine finish comes through rubbing it out after it’s applied, not the application process itself.

The top and legs both got two coats of shellac. Shellac is fast-drying – you can re-coat within 10 minutes on a sunny day. You have to be careful not to overdo it, though. Shellac doesn’t have the same surface tension as more modern film finishes, like polyurethane and lacquer. That means that if you over-spray a vertical surface, you’re very likely to get runs in the finish. It’s also susceptible to “orange peel” effect if you over-spray a horizontal surface.


After a day of drying, the shellac is fully-cured, and I’ll rub it out with some 320-grit sandpaper and a cork sanding block. This will leave a wonderfully smooth surface for the final coats. I use aerosol lacquer for the topcoat. I used to use a Deft satin lacquer, which was cheap (around $6/can) and could be purchased at Home Depot. I noticed that Home Depot has done away with the Deft brand and replaced it with some Minwax lacquer. They also upped the price to $9/can, the bastards. The Deft lacquer was an incredible finish, durable, easy to apply, it went on beautifully straight from the can, and it dried so fast that it was almost impossible to over-apply. Once you went ’round your furniture one time, you could start right back again. I have no experience with the Minwax product, but I’m going to be pissed if it’s not a full 50% better, given the price.

After supper, I brought the pieces back into my shop to install the battens on the underside. I know fully well that this tabletop will shrink by a lot when I bring it inside. My shop is humid and wood can scarcely get below 12% moisture content in there. It’s never been a problem, though – just accept that your wood is going to move and makes plans to accommodate it. I drilled elongated holes in my battens and screwed them on with panhead screws and washers.

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I’ll probably not worry with a film finish on the underside of the table. A good coat of oil is all she’ll get.

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I’m so excited to get this table into my kitchen I can hardly stand it. Honestly, I think that’s one of my problems with finishing. The furniture is built, and I’m over-eager to put the thing to use, so I’m prone to rush things. That’s bad news for a good finish – it takes time, and there’s not much you can do to hasten the process. I have learn to take a deep breath and take my time, just like I do with the rest of the furniture-making process.

Lunch Break Woodworking

In my never-ending quest to be the strangest person at my office, I recently decided that it would be a good idea to start woodcarving at work. Not at my desk, mind you. I’m not that weird. But I did quickly rough out a spoon blank in my shop last night and stuck it in my backpack along with a couple of knives to take to work this morning. During my lunch break, I sat by the pond behind the office, pulled out my sandwich and wood and knives, and started whittling away.

I sent these two termites heading for higher ground. I almost felt bad for interrupting their lunch while I was so thoroughly enjoying my own. Something seemed appropriate about carving an eating spoon out of something else’s dinner, though.


I’ve noticed something strange about my attitude towards spoons since I started carving my own. In the break room at my office, there’s usually a whole mug full of metal spoons from who knows where. Most of them are just cheap stamped metal, like what you got in your middle school cafeteria. They’re the same thickness throughout, and none of the edges are sharp, but neither are they rounded over. I hate those spoons. I never used to care. A couple of the spoons look like strays from someone’s fine flatware set. They’re nicely contoured, the necks are delicate, and there are no harsh edges where your mouth goes.These are the spoons I prefer to use, but usually someone else has already snagged them by the time I’m ready for my morning bowl of oatmeal.

Well, no more will I be left with the dregs. I’m keeping my own spoon from now on. Termite holes and all.

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Sow’s Ear, Meet Silk Purse: Sharpening a Very Bad Inshave.

In our last installment of The Very Bad Inshave Saga, I demonstrated a simple way to get a nice, consistent grind on the bevel. It took plenty of time and patience, but the results were satisfying. I’m not out of the woods, yet, though: I still have to hone the bevel, and I haven’t even mentioned the condition of the back, yet:

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It’s bad. It’s really bad.

Since a sharp edge is nothing more than the acute intersection of two polished surfaces, I’ve got to get the back polished before I can hope to make this tool sharp. Right now, it’s a long way from polished. I started by turning dowel about 1 1/2″ in diameter on my lathe:

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Then I saw a kerf down the length:

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And fit a quarter sheet of 180-grit sandpaper into the kerf:

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One tip: Sandpaper that is worn out from sanding wood can still have some life in it for abrading metal.

Then, I turn on the lathe and carefully work the entire edge, being careful not to round over the back of the edge too much. This is a more delicate process than it appears; you can do a lot of damage in a hurry, so be careful.

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After a couple minutes of work, I pull the inshave off for inspection:

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It’s getting there, but there’s still work to do. The polish has to reach right up to the edge, all the way across.

I continue with the 180-grit until I have an even shine, and then I work the blade up to 600-grit to give it a nice polish:

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After 600-grit, I charge the dowel itself with some green honing compound to get a mirror shine:

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And that’s it. The back is polished, and it only took 20 minutes or so. Now I can turn my attention to the bevel. Honing the bevel of a curved edge is always difficult and requires a fair amount of skill, but I found the shape of this inshave to be particularly hard. There is a lot of metal here – far more than a simple carving gouge – and besides that, the uneven curvature of the blade means that I’m constantly having to re-position my stones as I move along the blade. I’m not so sure I could have done this were it not for the hollow grind left by the grinding wheel.

I started with a 1000-grit slipstone, honing along the bevel, not across the bevel. I followed it up with a 4000-grit slipstone and a bit of stropping with honing compound on leather. The polish on the bevel is tiny – too small for me to photograph, unfortunately. Only the very edge needs to be polished.

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I was not able to get this inshave to my usual standards of hair-popping sharp, but I did get it sharp enough to easily slice through sassafras. I found that I could hog off thick chips, or very fine ones – the tool is surprisingly responsive.

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And it leaves a beautifully smooth surface. I think I’ll have no trouble going straight from the inshave to a scraper.

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So, there you go. My tool-making escapade for the Windsor chair is nearing completion. I still need to build a shave horse, but the number of excuses that I have for delaying the project are steadily dwindling.

How to Make a Handle for Your Elbow Adze

It feels a bit strange writing a “how-to” article for a task that I’ve completed exactly once in my life. I would prefer to link to an article written by an expert who’s made fifty of these things, but the internet seems curiously silent on this topic, so here we are.

An elbow adze gets its name from the shape of the handle. Unlike the more familiar western adze, with a straight handle fit into a metal socket, an elbow adze uses branch union for the handle, where the grain naturally follows an elbow shape.

Old Elbow Adze
This primitive elbow adze has a simple blade lashed onto an elbow-shaped handle.
Socket adze
The familiar Western Adze has a straight-grained handle that fits into a metal socket.

The elbow adze looks like a crude tool, but like any tool, it can be as refined as you make it to be – and even a tool that looks rustic is capable of very fine work if it’s well-made. So what’s the advantage of the elbow adze? More than anything, the advantage is the cost – forming the eye of a Western adze is no simple task, and adzes simply aren’t made on the same scale as a hammer, so it’s difficult for a manufacturer to make a half-decent tool while taking advantage of economies of scale. The plain fact is that nobody’s going to sell a million of these things. The best adzes today are still made by craftsmen, and their work doesn’t come cheap.

By removing the eye from the equation, you drastically reduce the amount of metalwork, but you complicate the handle-making process somewhat. That’s a win for us, though – we’re woodworkers; we can handle the woodwork (pun intended?)

So where to start? Well, I started at Kestrel Tool. They do sell complete adzes, but they also sell unhandled blades for a very reasonable price. You’ll also need a forked branch from a suitable hardwood. Choosing the right fork is a fun job, kind of like scouring the woods for the right crook for a spoon. The most important characteristic of the fork is the angle. You want something in the neighborhood of 60°.

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What you need to get started: A blade and a forked stick.

One thing that was impressed upon me as I scoured the web for information was that it’s not so critical that the handle is made from a traditional “tool handle” wood like hickory, white ash, white oak, or hard maple. All of those woods will make fine adze handles, of course, but this is a tool that will be used for slicing through wood, not banging into it like a sledge hammer. You also don’t have quite the same concentrated stress points like you do where the wood fits into the metal socket of a western adze. As a result, you can easily use a wood that isn’t quite as stiff and strong without a problem.

In the Pacific Northwest, where these adzes are still used for traditional carving (think totem poles), red alder is apparently one of the preferred tool handles, primarily due to the fact that the branch unions grow naturally at the proper angle. Red alder is similar to yellow-poplar in its strength characteristics. I would still be a little wary of using yellow-poplar, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use cherry, walnut, red maple, or red oak. I ended up finding a mulberry fork that looked just right, so I sawed out the fork, shaved off the bark, and left it to dry for a month.

Satisfied that the handle was dry enough to work, last night I set about finishing up the tool. I started by planing blade end of the fork down to the pith. There was probably about a 3/4″ thickness of wood left when I stopped. You’ll want to take some care to get the “flat” perpendicular to the handle, or else your blade will sit cattywampus.

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Carefully plane the “flat” where the blade sits. This is where the rubber meets the road wood meets the steel.

When I was satisfied that the handle was ready to test, I used a tip from Kestrel Tool and fixed the blade to the handle with a couple of hose clamps. It worked like a charm and held the blade tightly in place.

One of the firm principles of making proper elbow adze: The cutting edge of the blade should be at 90° to the spot on the handle where the index finger rests. This can be tweaked in a couple of ways. The blade can be pushed backward and forward slightly along the top of the blade, or the angle of the flat can be changed slightly to to dial in just the right configuration.

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A tip from Kestrel Tool: You can fix the blade temporarily in place with a couple of hose clamps.
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The cutting edge of the blade should be perfectly square to the point on the handle where your index finger will rest.

The adze looks about right, so now it’s time to put it to the test. I pulled out a scrap of sassafras started hacking away, holding the board on the floor between my feet. It was working well and pulling out some nice chips, so I roughed out an oval and tried to see how closely to the line I could cut.

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The adze pulled out chips easily in the soft sassafras…
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…and I found that I could cut closely to a line.

Satisfied with the way the tool was working, I was almost ready to lash the blade onto the handle. Before I did that, though, I decided to add a “shelf” to the top of the handle, behind the blade. Most adze handles have this part integral to the handle, but I found it much easier to adjust the position of the blade and ensure a tight fit if I was able to plane the flat, instead of sawing and rasping.

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I didn’t have any wood that would match the mulberry, so I went with a contrasting wood instead – bloodwood.
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I simply glued it in place with some cyanoacrylate and carved it to match the contour of the handle.
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One last detail before the lashing – carve out a hollow on the underside of the flat where the twine will be wrapped.

Finally, it was time for the lashing. This was the part that had me nervous, but it turned out to be the easiest step of all. I used “artificial sinew” – basically just some nylon or polyester cord that’s heavily waxed. It’s very strong, and the wax helps keep the lashing tight as you go. I’ll describe the steps briefly, but I think you should be able to figure it out from the pictures.

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1) Start by forming a loop on the back end of the blade.
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2) Now wrap the working end around the haft and over the loop.
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3) Keep wrapping, taking care to pull the cord tightly as you go (notice that I wised up and put the blade guard on the adze).
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4) Now we’re done wrapping. The cord is tight and the loops are pressed tightly together.
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5) Slide the working end through the loop you made in Step 1.
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6) Now pull the working end under the wrapping by pulling on the standing end from the loop in Step 1.
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7) Keep pulling until the intersection is in the middle of the wrapping, then pull both the working and and the standing end in opposite directions to form an “X” under the wrapping. Now just trim the ends, and you’re done.

That’s it! The wrapping took, maybe, 5 minutes from start to finish, and that was with me stopping to take pictures every so often. If you do a good job of it, your wrapping should last for years. Time will tell if I’ve done a good job, but the blade certainly seems as tight and immovable as I could hope for.

Now, I’m one tool closer to building that Windsor chair.

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The finished adze – rustic, but refined.

How to Calculate the Radius of a Circumscribed Circle of an Equilateral Triangle with Side Length (x) and Why You Should Care.

So, do I win the award the award for the most objectionable blog post title ever?

What? There’s no award? What a waste.

Well, anyway, one of my dear readers (and you are dear, trust me, I can count you on my fingers and toes) asked me about how I located the peg holes on the underside of the top of my sassafras kitchen table (from this post). The intuitive way would be to flip the table upside-down and set the base on top, then push it around until the distance from the point atop the legs to the nearest edge of the tabletop is equivalent for each leg.

The tops of the legs form an equilateral triangle. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to mark the corners of a congruent triangle that is precisely centered on the underside of the tabletop.

That would work, I suppose, but it would be finicky and prone to error. As my reader surmised, there is indeed an easier, more precise, more elegant way. First, we just need to envision that the top corners of the three legs form an equilateral triangle. The length of the sides is easy enough to measure. In this case, it was 28.75″ precisely.

Let’s call the length of the side (x). If you recall from high school geometry, there is a fixed relationship between the length of the sides of an equilateral triangle and the radius of a circle – we’ll refer to the radius as (y) – that passes through all three corners (i.e., a circumscribed circle).

That relationship is: y = x (√3) ÷ 3

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Mmm…numbers. For the record: No, I didn’t remember this formula. I had to look it up.

So, we just plug in 28.75 for (x) and we get 16.598820…Let’s call it 16.6″. I don’t have a ruler that’s marked in tenths of an inch, so I just used 16 38/64 (16.594″). I adjusted my trammel to the radius and scribed a circle on the on the underside of the table (you can see it on the picture above).

Okay, now we have a circle of the proper radius that is perfectly concentric to the edge of the table, but we still need to accurately locate the three corners of the triangle. Well, that’s dead-simple now that we have a trammel set to the radius. Just pick a point on the perimeter and start “walking” the trammel around the perimeter, making a mark at each intersection. You should end up at the same point that you started at (or very close to it) with six equally spaced marks around the circumference of the circle, forming a perfect hexagon. Drill a hole in every other point, and there you have your perfect equilateral triangle.

Mathematical constants are fun and useful!

So there you have it. Hopefully I made the process tolerably clear – it took far longer to write about it than it did to actually complete it.

Why Do We Aim For Perfection?

I’ll admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for crude antique furniture. I don’t mean crude in the sense that it’s poorly built or falling apart or left to rot for 50 years in a dank barn. I’m talking about the furniture that was built quickly and competently and well-used for a century or two, but without much consideration for the complete removal of surface blemishes and measuring marks. There’s something about the tool marks on a chair that connects me to the man who made it. Instead of seeing my own reflection in French-polished perfection, I see a window into another world.

Was the maker in a hurry? Was furniture-making his profession, or did he just build some chairs during the winter to pass the time before spring planting? Did he have a well-equipped shop or did he make do with a rough collection of tools? Did he take the time to sharpen his tools or did he press on with a plane that was well past due for grinding?

Every woodworker leaves a trace of his or her methods in one way or another, but in rough rural furniture, the questions and answers leap out at you before you even think to ask them. I was thinking of this after inspecting an old children’s ladderback chair that belongs to my niece. I sat in my brother’s living room inspected the chair for every tool mark I could find.

The chair probably originates from somewhere near the North Georgia antique shop from whence it was rescued. The paint color is a fantastic blue and red with stylized flowers on the back slats.

Children's Chair 1
Well-painted furniture only gets better as the years go by.

The real story is in the woodwork, though. The first surprise is the choice of the wood itself. This chair is made completely of yellow pine. It’s the only pine ladderback I’ve ever seen, and it probably only lasted this long because it was made for 30-lb toddlers instead of 200-lb men. Stranger still? The wood was riven (i.e., split from the log as opposed to sawed). That’s not unusual at all for chairs of oak or ash or hickory, but this is the first I’ve seen of riven pine for furniture. The riving marks are everywhere you look:

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There’s evidence of hatchet work as well:

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The flat spots on this foot appear to be the work of a hatchet. Also notice the grooves from the lathe work on the lower part of the foot. It appears the maker used a gouge instead of a skew chisel here.

The rungs were shaved with a drawknife, not turned. This is not unusual, but it’s interesting that the maker didn’t even attempt to make them round. They’re nearly square in cross section, with just the edges chamfered:

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Very crude rungs.

The mortises for the back slats appear to have been cut with a pocketknife – and they probably were. Apparently this was common practice in southern Appalachia as documented in the first Foxfire book.

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Notice the over-cut mortises. You can see where the knife scored the beads above the mortise.

Finally, a view from above. The maker didn’t even attempt to bend the slats – not surprising, since (a) yellow pine isn’t exactly known for bending well and (b) rough chairs like these were often made with flat slats anyway.

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The slats weren’t bent as they are in more refined (and comfortable) ladderback chairs.

In spite of (or really, because of) all of its flaws and asperity, I love this little chair. Who knows how many diminutive derrieres have rested in this seat over the years? Its current owner is certainly a fan – I caused quite a stir when I took the chair into the yard to photograph and joked with my 4-year-old niece that I would be using it to start a campfire.

As we poked and prodded the chair, I mentioned to my brother that I would find it hard to make a chair with the same kind of surface quality as this one, even if I made a reproduction. I know I’m not the only woodworker who shoots for a higher standard in my own work than I look for in an antique.

So what’s the deal, then? Why do we insist on such perfection in our own work while admiring the crude pragmatism of the old?

My brother, who is not a woodworker, but is one hell of a musician, offered an analogy that I found interesting. Apparently there was a bit of a trend recently in British rock to sound intentionally rough and unrehearsed – the instruments were left just a bit out of tune, the music was played a little sloppy, the vocals maybe not quite on key all of the time. The idea being that the bands were aiming for the nostalgic imperfection of the Rolling Stones, rather than the flawless polish of Rush.

It sounds like a good idea. I’d take the Stones over Rush any day, right? The problem, however, was that the music ended up sounding, well, contrived – at least, to fellow musicians. They wanted to sound soulful and natural, they but instead they sounded like they were trying to be imperfect.

I think it’s this idea of striving for imperfection that I take issue with. I’m afraid that my furniture would not resemble the brisk work of a competent professional, but the formulaic inconsistency of those godawful “handscraped” floors that seem to be popping up everywhere these days.

Handscraped floors
WTF? Whose hands did you scrape these floors with? Wolverine’s?

One could argue that the man who made this chair had more in common with a garage band than the Rolling Stones, and they would be right. The truth is, he wasn’t at the top of his game. There are far better examples of chairs in the historical record, with more attractive proportions and more careful surface finish. I don’t think it matters, though. Have a look at this blog post at Popular Woodworking if you’d like to see an example of an 18th century masterpiece complete with turning marks and tearout from riving. The blemishes are smaller and more discreet, but they’re still there, and I still try to avoid them.

I think it takes a surprising amount of skill to pull off this sort of historically accurate imperfection. Robin Wood can do it with his medieval bowls and spoons. Peter Follansbee can do it with his colonial chests and joint stools. But both of them have more than a couple of decades of experience working with traditional tools in traditional ways. I’m but a neophyte hack compared to those men.

What it boils down do, I’m afraid, is that I chase perfection to hide my own lack of skill.

October was made for camping. Camping was made for carving.

Ahhh! October. Best month of the year, as far as I’m concerned. At least it is if you live in the Deep South. The heat and humidity of summer finally breaks, beckoning even the most climate-control-loving indoor enthusiasts into the open air. It was a month made for camping, so this past weekend, we headed for the oaky woods of Georgia with a few friends and pitched some tents by a lake. I packed a few simple tools – a small axe, a Sloyd knife, and couple of bent knives – and spent Saturday whittling by the fire.

I love my workshop, but sometimes at the end of a long work session, I gaze at my bench stacked haphazardly with so many complex tools – metal planes with a couple dozen precision-made parts, taper-ground saws,  micro-adjustable marking gauges, multiform chisels and gouges all of different shapes and sizes – and I marvel at the hundreds or thousands of hands and minds that coalesced to create this toolkit that allows me to create a simple (or sometimes not-so simple) piece of wooden furniture.

When I carve spoons, the tools are so simple so few that the opposite feeling is invited. One man at a forge could easily make in short order all of the tools that I need to turn a crooked branch to a ladle. I find few things more primally satisfying than taking a few pieces of sharpened steel and a stick of wood and carving something useful and beautiful.

Choosing a branch for spoon-carving is a good way to start any morning. It’s just a walk in the woods with a purpose. The woods around my campsite were filled with oak, hickory, and ash. All of them have large open pores, but I want a close-pored wood for carving spoons (It’s a preference, not a necessity. Some of my favorite spoons are catalpa and sassafras, which have big, open pores but the golden glow of the heartwood makes up for it). Sweetgum and blackgum were plentiful. Both have small pores and are easily carved, but they don’t split well due to interlocking grain so I passed them up (they are pretty homely woods, too, unless your sweetgum has rich reddish brown heartwood, but they don’t develop heartwood until they’re pretty big). I found some chalk maples, too. Maple makes a good spoon but chalk maples (Acer leucoderme) are a species of hard maple, and hard maple is, well, too hard. I prefer red maple for carving. The understory was filled with sparkleberry, and the occasional wild plum, crabapple, and hawthorn. All of these species are perfect for spoon carving. Close-grained and attractive wood.

Sparkleberry and Axe
My walk in the woods yielded a nice length of sparkleberry.

Crooks always yield interesting shapes, and sparkleberry always has plenty of crooks. Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) is a species of blueberry, and one of the few that reaches the size of a small tree. I’ve carved it before – the wood is hard and dense and honestly one of the tougher woods I’ve ever used – probably close to hard maple or yellow birch in hardness – but it has a lovely pink color that makes it completely worthwhile. Since it was the most plentiful, it was the easiest to find a branch that was worth carving.

The grain of this branch was particularly sinuous, so I took care to follow the grain perfectly. Not only does this result in the strongest spoon, it also creates an eye-catching shape. It’s slower going than carving straight-grained wood, but I love the end result.Camping Oct 2015 012

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I have never left the pith (the very center of the branch) in a spoon before, but for this spoon, it was too eye-catching to whittle it away. It’s wide and bright red and completely solid. I took special care to leave it on the underside of the handle. Sparkleberry has an eye-catching ray fleck as well, somewhere between maple and sycamore.

After I finished up the big serving spoon, my friend (a coffee aficionado) mentioned that he could use a replacement for his plastic coffee scoop. So I took a straight-grained section of wood and tried to carve something that was more worthy of his prized Guatemalan java beans.

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He deemed it a success.
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Both spoons, underside.
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And topside.

This trip wasn’t all about woodworking, though. We still found plenty of time for hammock nonsense,

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Stacked 5-high!

Cooking over an open fire,

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My friends have an awesome blacksmith-made spit that I am officially coveting…

And enjoying the sunset by the lake.

Camping Oct 2015 030

Kitchen Table: Nearly Finished.

Last night I resolved to get the kitchen table out of my shop as soon as possible. I forget how unwieldy a 4′ x 4′ panel can be in a small shop like mine. Glad I don’t work with plywood in there. The last of the glue joints still needed to be leveled, and there isn’t a single surface anywhere in my shop (or home, for that matter) large enough to support a panel this size aside from the floor. So the floor is where I ended up – on my hands and knees with a jack plane and my smoother. It reminded me of the first furniture project I ever tackled – a cherry and maple coffee table. I sanded the fool out of that tabletop for hours on the floor of the side porch at my parents’ house. My knees regretted it for a week, so the second piece of furniture I built was my workbench (which now resides in my Dad’s shop).

table 001
Working on the floor. Just like old times.

This time it wasn’t so bad, though. It only took 5 minutes of work and the planing was done. If you’ve never used a well-tuned plane, it’s hard to imagine how much more efficient it is at leveling glue joints than a sander.

Next task was to lay out the circle. I didn’t have a paint can big enough so I grabbed an offcut from the scrap pile and rigged up a trammel with a nail, a pencil, and a small wedge. It took two minutes and worked perfectly, so I still feel no need to own a proper trammel.

table 006
Not every tool has to be built to last.

I cut out the circle with my jigsaw. Hope you didn’t think I was a complete Neanderthal. I have nothing against power tools – most of them have their proper place. I only get annoyed when I see power tools being inefficiently or as a substitute for basic skills. I do prefer to use hand tools when possible – they’re quieter and less dusty and they require actual exercise – so when a process can be done equally well with hand tools, that will always be my first choice. In this case, a jigsaw is the right tool for the job.

table 003
Notice the offcut is supported only by the 1/4″ glue joint at the top of the photo. That’s a good glue joint. Just sayin’.

I smoothed the edges with a spokeshave and some 180-grit sandpaper and propped it up on the legs to see how she looked. Not bad!

table 009

One of the shortcomings of the design for the base is that, unlike vertical legs, these legs will always be under tensile stress. Wood is far stronger under compression than tension. To help alleviate some of the stress, I decided it would be wise to affix the legs to the underside of the top to prevent them from bending.

I did this by boring a 1/2″ hole in the top of each leg and 3 matching holes in the underside of the top. I turned some 1/2″ dowel from Osage-orange and popped a short length into each leg. Now the base is fixed when the top is in place and can’t just keep squatting towards the floor as weight is applied.

table 007

All that’s left to do now is screw a couple of battens to the underside to hold the top flat, and put a finish on it. This grain is going to pop when I put the first coat of oil on – I can’t wait!

table 010

I’ve Got an Axe Inshave to Grind.

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.

-John Ruskin

Okay, so we established in the previous post that my new inshave is a bit of a disaster. But I’m an optimist and remain hopeful that I can turn the depressing collection of bent steel and varnished Asian hardwood into something that actually resembles a functional tool. The work begins at the grinder. First step is to take an edge that’s wavier than the Pacific coast and make it passably flat.

I always start any major grinding work by grinding the edge to 90°. There’s a good reason for this: you want to avoid creating a sharp edge for as long as possible, so the steel doesn’t heat up so quickly and ruin the temper. It also creates a guide and makes it easy to see where you need to focus your efforts when grinding the bevel.

no 001
Tool rest omitted for clarity. Please don’t try to grind your blades without a tool rest. This isn’t like a woodworking magazine where they show a tablesaw without the guards and say “Guards removed for clarity” but you know damn well they never even put the useless things on.

You don’t need to overdo it here. Just grind the edge down until the high parts are in the same plane as the low parts.

After – not perfect, but close enough.
You can see the “flat” created along the edge. It’s thick in the middle, where most of the steel was removed, and narrow around the corners, which started out as low spots.

Next, I drove a nail into my tool rest which functions as a bastardized version of the fancy-pants grinding jig that Peter Galbert wrote about a few years ago.


A quick look at the edge shows that the nail jig is located correctly. The stone is grinding right in the middle of the bevel, which will maintain the original grinding angle.


Now that the nail jig is properly located, the painstaking work of grinding the bevel begins. There is a lot of metal to remove, and a deft touch is required to avoid bluing the steel and ruining the temper. It probably took almost an hour of grinding, checking, and grinding some more until I was finally happy the the results.

An hour later, and all is right with the world.
The grind is even and there are no screwy waves and dips in the edge.

The hardest part of the process was getting a smooth grind around the corners. The middle of the blade was no problem at all. I haven’t used this technique on a drawknife, but it was easy to tell that it would work beautifully on a straight edge.

Up next: I still need to polish the back of the blade and hone the bevel.

A Tale of Two Tools: Kestrel Adze vs. Two Cherries Inshave

I think every woodworker is probably aware of the giddy anticipation of ordering a new tool and finally having it arrive. Sometimes those tools exceed our highest expectations. Other times excitement quickly fades to disappointment as soon as the package is opened and reality interrupts. I’ve mentioned previously that I ordered an adze blade from Kestrel Tool as well as a Two Cherries inshave from Amazon for carving Windsor chair seats. I’ll discuss my impressions of each tool, since they represent opposite ends of the spectrum between elation and letdown.

Let’s start with the good. The Kestrel adze blade cost $70 shipped. I could have paid $200 for a complete tool, but I don’t mind making my own handle. For a bargain price, I got an exquisitely shaped and sharpened blade. The camber is perfect. The back is polished to a mirror-finish.

kestrel adze (2)

The bevel is ground at the correct angle. Honed razor-sharp.

kestrel adze (3)

The non-critical parts of the blade still wear the marks from the forge as a badge of honor. The blade is neatly stamped with the maker’s name, as it should be. The maker is rightfully proud of his efforts.

kestrel adze (4)

The tool even comes with a handy guide filled with information about using the tool, selecting and fitting a handle, patterns, and lots of other helpful information. I used the pattern in the book to pick out a mulberry branch that should work perfectly for the handle.

kestrel adze (5)
Aside from spoons, I don’t often get to use branches in my woodworking. This should be fun.

Alright, the fun is over. We’ve seen the good, now we’re skipping the bad and diving straight into the ugly.

Doesn’t look so bad from a distance, does it? Let’s have a closer look…

Since the blade came wrapped in oiled paper, the first and most obvious unpleasantry that I noticed upon unboxing my inshave was the handles. Now I realize that handles will be functional, but the trio of flimsy metal caps and ferrules, poorly turned wood, and carelessly applied stain and varnish doth offend both hand and eye.

I would have paid extra for them to send me the tool without these handles.

More to the heart of the matter, however, is the condition of the blade. The grinding was utterly atrocious. I make no exaggeration when I say that it was the worst condition of any woodworking blade that I’ve ever purchased new. The corners were both nearly a full 1/4″ out of level from the rest of the blade. How is it even possible to ship a tool this poorly finished in good faith?

I would say that it looks like the grinding was done by a Cub Scout with a Dremel tool, but I’m afraid it would be an insult to Cub Scouts.

And finally, the worst surprise of all. The curvature of the blade is not what I was expecting and doesn’t even match the stock photo at Amazon. I haven’t measured it precisely, but I would guess that the curve at the corner follows a 1″ radius. That’s just too dramatic a curve. The primary radius is not quite as bad, but it’s larger than I would prefer. I have never used an inshave before, all of this may be meaningless when I finally put metal to wood, but it’s clear that the shape of this inshave is very different from those used by most chairmakers.


It’s going to be a near-Herculean task to get this sucker into working shape, but I’m going to take a whack at it. I’ll post an update with the results.

So there you go. Moral of the story: save yourself some heartache and order from a reputable toolmaker. I can’t say that I’ve ever been disappointed when I’ve order a tool straight from the maker, and the Kestrel adze was no different. As far as Amazon…well, that may be a perfectly reasonable place to buy a DeWalt router (I wouldn’t know) but it ain’t the place to buy your hand tools.