Make a Windsor chair, and you’ll find yourself mounting a lot of 2″ stock on the lathe. Mount a lot of stock on the lathe, and you’ll probably find yourself wishing for a fast and accurate method of marking the centers.
I’ve used several different methods for marking centers, and never found one that I considered satisfactory. If you have squared-up stock, you can mark an “X” across the diagonals to approximate the center. It’s quick, but more often than not you’ll find that your stock is somewhat less-than-square, in which case, it’s inaccurate. If you’re using riven stock, it’s not an option at all.
Another method that I have used is taking a small compass and guesstimating the center, moving the central leg about until I find the proper center point. This is more accurate, and it works even for riven stock, but it’s also slow – and you end up with multiple center points (though I always try to mark the “correct” point more deeply) which can be confusing. A better solution is in order.
I came up with this simple tool:
To use, just center the tool on your stock with your fingertips, and give it a good whack with a hammer. You’re left with a perfect dimple, right in the center, that makes alignment of your blank on the lathe a snap.
I assume the tool is pretty intuitive, should you wish to make your own. Just pop a blank on the lathe and turn it to a cylinder of the appropriate diameter (2″, in my case). Make sure the bottom is perfectly flat or slightly concave, so it will be easy to center on your spindle blanks. Then drive a nail into the center (the tailstock conveniently makes a dead-center dimple) and clip it off about 1/8″ proud.
I made mine pretty with some fancy turned decorations and a coat of oil, but a simple cylinder would suffice. I figure a pretty tool will be less likely to get confused with a scrap and tossed into the kindling bucket when it’s inevitably dropped in the shavings.
This is the quickest and most accurate center-marking method I’ve ever used. It works just as well with riven stock as it does with sawn, and it will tolerate maybe 3/8″ of variation in the thickness without much loss in accuracy. They’re so quick and easy to make, it’s not a problem to make another center marker, for say, 1-1/2″ stock or any other thickness that you commonly use.
A couple weeks ago, I posted about making a new carving axe from an old carpenter’s hatchet. The axe has gotten quite a workout since I made it, and I couldn’t be happier with it. One curious feature of this old axe head is a couple of dimples on its right cheek. I’ve seen similar dimples, years ago, on the back of a chisel. I can’t remember who first told me about their purpose, but I suspect many of my readers already know.
One clue about their purpose lies in the form of a faint color change in the steel about 3/4″ from the cutting edge. This line demarcates the change between hardened steel and the softer steel.
The hardened/unhardened steel combination is found in many tools, from chisels to knives to plane blades, but it serves an absolutely critical function in a striking tool such as an axe. The cutting edge must be quite hard to remain sharp after repeated blows into wood, but unfortunately there is a positive correlation between hardness and brittleness. If we made the entire axe head hard enough that the edge stays sharp, we also increase the likelihood that the blade will crack during use. On the other hand, if we make the steel soft enough that brittleness is not an issue, we also resign ourselves to a blade that will not hold an edge for more than a few minutes. The solution? Combine a soft but malleable steel body with a hard but brittle edge. The softer steel supports the harder steel to create a superior tool.
There are many ways to accomplish this task. Traditionally, a blacksmith would forge weld a piece of tool steel within a wrought iron sandwich to make an axe head. This works well and yields a robust blade, but it’s also labor intensive (and therefore expensive). The modern method is to forge the entire axe head of tool steel, then harden only the outer edge of the blade. This is the method that was used for my axe.
So what does this differential hardening have to do with the dimples on the axe cheeks?
Notice in the picture above that the smaller dimple is located well within the hardened steel area, while the larger dimple is located just on the other side in the softer steel.
Those dimples are the vestiges of hardness testing done by the manufacturer to confirm that the axe head was hardened to certain specifications. In modern parlance, we tend to refer to steel hardness on the Rockwell scale. The higher the number, the harder the steel. Chisels and plane blades may measure around 60-62 Rockwell hardness. Axes will be a bit softer to remove some of the brittleness – 55-57 is typical for a well-made axe. Saws are softer still, since they must be sharpened by a steel file, rather than a stone, and “set” (that is, the teeth bent by a specific amount to either side), which a harder steel would not allow. A hardness of 50-52 is normal for saw steel.
Hardness is measured by forcing a very hard object (often diamond or tungsten carbide) of a specific size and shape into the object to be tested using a specific amount of force. The size of the the depression that is created provides a measurement of the material’s hardness. In the case of my axe, the depressions indicate that the object used for testing was spheroid, which means that a Brinell hardness tester was used. The formula for determining harness using the Brinell test is:
Which is a fancy way of saying: the smaller the indentation (Di), the harder the steel. So, looking again at the dimples in my cheek, we see exactly what we would expect. The dimple near the cutting edge is smaller (and therefore the steel is harder) than the dimple right behind it. It’s pretty intuitive, actually. Unfortunately, we don’t know the diameter of the indenter (D) or the force used by the test (F), so we can’t estimate the hardness using the information available to us, but still…Go science!
I can anectodally state that the steel in this axe head is quite good. I would assume that a manufacturer that cares enough to test its blades is probably more likely to be one that will make a good blade in the first place. So, do any of your cheeks have dimples?
You’ve probably seen them stuffed piles in the cluttered tables of an old antique store or flea market. Kicking around your grandpa’s barn. Maybe you keep one in your camping gear (like my Dad does) for driving tent stakes and splitting kindling. I’m talking about the once-ubiquitous carpenter’s hatchet. These little guys were useful for trimming odd bits of wood to size or driving the occasional nail, but most carpenters these days wouldn’t know how to trim a piece of wood with a tool that didn’t have a cord or a battery pack, so these things mostly languish unused in forgotten corners.
I’ve had a carpenter’s hatchet head kicking around my toolbox for who knows how many years, always meaning to put a handle on it but never quite getting around to it. I’m glad I waited, because I finally figured out what to do with it.
For the last five years, I’ve been using a Gransfors-Bruks hunter’s axe that I picked up for $50 (used) for spoon carving. It’s a great little axe, but the handle is about six inches too long so I always have to choke up when I use it. It’s not a convenient length for packing up when I want to do a bit of spoon carving away from home, either. Something needed to be done. I though about buying a new, smaller axe, but good ones don’t come cheap. Then I remember my old carpenter’s hatchet:
It’s a terrible shape for spoon-carving. The hammer head places the balance too far back, the wide blade gets in the way of your fingers when you want to choke up on the handle, and the straight bevel makes it difficult to carve curvaceous spoon profiles. No problem though; I own a hacksaw.
The hammer head is the first to go.
Next I turned my sights to a nice cutout for my fingers when I need to choke up on the handle:
At this point, it’s still pretty rough-looking, but twice as functional as it was 15 minutes ago. I couldn’t resist prettying it up a bit with some work on the belt sander and some 220-grit hand-sanding. I also re-ground the straight cutting edge into a gentle curve:
That shiny look is nice, if that’s what you’re into. I know better than to think it would look like this for long, though. A clean metal surface like this is a magnet for rust when carving green wood. I gave it a soak in diluted vinegar overnight to tone down the shine.
Much nicer, in my opinion. All that’s left to do is give it a handle. I shaved some riven hickory to an octagonal shape, then dried it in my kiln for a couple of days before hanging the head. I also darkened it up a bit more (and added some more rust protection) with some cold gun blue:
Not bad. But how does it work?
Very nicely. Very nicely, indeed.
I’ll admit, it will take some getting used to the shorter handle after 5 years of used a sub-optimal size. I think once I get the hang this one, though, it’ll easily be my favorite carving axe.
So, what have you got to lose? Hatchet heads like these are $5-10 at flea markets and on eBay. Maybe you’ve even got one in the junk drawer of your shop (like I did). A couple hours of work is all it’ll take to turn that forgotten tool into a fine carving axe!
As I was carving the seat last week, it became apparent that it would be difficult to achieve the surface quality that I was after by going straight from the inshave to the scraper. I really needed to add a travisher to my arsenal. I really can’t afford to buy one, and I had been hesitant to make one. It’s a complex tool, and the resources for building one from scratch are mostly nonexistent, so I was afraid I would be unable to make a functional tool without ever having seen one in person.
Ultimately, I realized that there were few other options, so I would just have to make my own. Elia Bizzarri sells travisher blades for the very reasonable price of $30, so I ordered one from him and in a few days it was at my doorstep. I was very pleased with the quality of the blade. The steel is substantial, and it comes with the bevel very well-ground to the proper angle. It’s not honed, but I can do that myself, no problem. It even comes with the threaded inserts and machine screws necessary to attach the blade to the wood – all I had to supply was the wood (I have plenty, just ask my wife!)
I started by googling “Galbert Travisher”and clicking on “Images”. This gave me a wide range of different shots that I could base the design on. I kept the images pulled up on my phone while I worked in the shop. It was a big help to have a handy reference for just about every angle of the tool, almost as good as a measured drawing.
Next I had to choose the wood. I thought about making it in Osage-orange to give it a little bit of bling, and because it’s incredibly hard-wearing. I quickly dismissed that idea, though, because I was afraid I would mess up my first attempt, and if I was going to mess up, I wanted to do it with a wood that was easy to work. I settled on cherry instead. Cherry is quite a bit softer, so it may wear out faster, but I figure if I have to make another body, I’ll do from a harder wood when I’m confident that I know what I’m doing.
Now, on to the build. It’s best explained in pictures, so my commentary will be minimal:
Once the tool body was complete, I still had to sharpen the blade. I won’t go into detail here. Claire Minihan has already done that, and better than I could. With the blade razor-stinking-sharp, I re-installed it and gave the tool a test drive. I had to do a bit more fettling with the sole to get the proper reveal (the blade must project slightly above the sole, but not too much) and curve (the sole must be angled slightly so you’re able to carve a dished profile front-to-back).
Before long, I had the tool cutting oh-so sweetly. It’s a treasure to hear the sharp ‘snick’ of a finely honed blade slicing through wood.
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.
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°.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This post won’t be quite as long as the last, because frankly, the best instructions available for making a simple rounding plane are already on the internet. Just head over to Tim Manney’s blog and you’ll have one up and running in an hour or two (He calls it a tenon cutter – same thing).
I couldn’t help taking a few photos, though, just to prove that his process actually works. I briefly considered using more osage-orange to make a rounding plane that matches my reamer. But this process requires accurate planing, drilling, sawing, and reaming, so I decided a milder wood was in order. I dimensioned a 12″ length of cherry to 2 1/8″ (the width of my blade) by 3″ (enough width to clamp in my vice, but otherwise arbitrary).
I bored in a 5/8″ hole (since this will be the top diameter of the leg holes in my Windsor chair seats) about 3/8″ from the edge of the blank, and used my tapered reamer to cut the taper.
Last step: Treat your apprentices to a walk in the woods and a Thermos full of hot chocolate.
Previously, I linked to an article by Jennie Alexander about making a tapered reamer using just a piece of dry hardwood and a compass saw blade. The tools described in that article are a bit rough, but apparently work just fine.
Other chairmakers have taken that basic concept and elevated it to a new level. Tim Manney probably makes the best tapered reamers available that include several refinements beyond the original design. First, the top of the reamer is gently tapered to a point to aid in sighting down the reamer in use; the upper portion is turned to a perfect cylinder to allow it to be used as a reference surface for accurate measurement; finally, the tool includes a set screw to allow for a fine adjustment of the blade projection. I chose to copy this more refined design for my own tapered reamer.
I started by picking up a $10 compass saw from Lowe’s. I also picked out a nice piece of osage-orange. It probably doesn’t make too much difference what kind of hardwood you use, as long as it’s straight-grained and not too soft. It doesn’t get much harder than osage, and it certainly is eye-catching!
In our last post, we examined the tools that I’ll need to add to my chest if I ever want my Windsor dreams to come to fruition. I’m typically an adherent to the old “Buy the best tools you can afford” adage, but in this case, if I purchased the best tools available, the tally would come up somewhere between $800-1000. Technically not more than I can afford, but probably more than my marriage can withstand.
So, what to do. Well, fortunately, two of the tools on my list – the tapered reamer and the rounding plane – are easy enough to fabricate myself. Jennie Alexander published the methods for making a tapered reamer some years ago. You’ll still need a lathe and an old compass saw blade (or you can just buy a new one for 10 bucks), but that’s pretty much all it takes. Once you have your tapered reamer, you can make your rounding plane with a block of hardwood and a spare plane or spokeshave iron (I have plenty). If you’re feeling really swanky, you can use a frog from an old plane to build this awesome rounding plane.
Okay, two down, four to go. This is the part where the women and children should avert their eyes, because I’m about to mention a retail giant that I should already know to avoid. No, not Wal-Mart. Definitely not Home Depot or Lowe’s. Yeah, I’m talking about Amazon. I’m not going to include any links in the next couple of paragraphs, because frankly just admitting that I bought tools from this company is embarrassing enough. In lieu of the $51 Henry Taylor skew chisel from Lee Valley, I ended up buying a one from Hurricane Tools for $20. It seems to be an acceptable tool; the handle is ash and nicely shaped, and the steel is HSS, though it is a bit light on the thickness compared to my other turning tools – no complaints yet, but time will tell.
My other Amazon purchase, however…I’m not so happy with. I noticed a Two Cherries inshave that was listed for a reasonable price of $81 – almost half the price of the Barr scorp (you’ll notice that toolmakers seem to use the term inshave and scorp interchangeably, but I tend to refer to smaller, 0ne-handled tools as scorps and the two-handled, drawknife-like tools as inshaves). Anyway, I’ve never owned tools by Two Cherries, but I had always heard positive reviews of their carving tools, so I decided to give it a go. I only had to wait two days, and I excitedly opened up the box and was sickened to discover what Chris Schwarz derisively refers to as a “tool-shaped object”. The grinding of the bevel looked like it was done by a Cub Scout with a Dremel Tool. The handles looked diseased – poorly turned and finished with gunky stain and varnish that felt like pond scum in my hands. Worst of all, I could see immediately that the shape of the blade didn’t match the grainy stock photo and would be somewhere between difficult and impossible for working the back of the seat. The grinding can be fixed. The handles can be replaced. But there’s not a damn thing I can do about the curvature of the blade. The corners were turned to a too-sharp radius, and now I’m afraid the tool is going to be useless. I’m not going to return it, though. Nope, I’m going to fix this sucker up as best I can, grind it, hone it, maybe even replace the handles. If I find, after all my work, that it’s still unworkable for a Windsor chair seat, then I’ll sell it on eBay – with a complete and accuratedescription of the tool’s strengths and shortcomings – and it will return to the wild as a better and more useful tool than the one I received. If I send it back to Amazon, this bastard tool will just end up in the disgruntled hands of yet another aspiring chairmaker, and if there’s one thing the universe doesn’t need, it’s another disgruntled aspiring chairmaker.
Anyway, let’s move past this disappointing chapter, because there’s brighter news on the horizon. The Kestrel Sitka gutter adze that I’ve coveted for years was a bit rich for my blood, but fortunately, the maker sells the blade only for the bargain price of $64! It took more than two days to arrive, but the wait was worth it. Unpackaging this tool was a completely different experience than opening the box that contained my inshave. The blade was expertly shaped. The back was buffed to gleaming perfection. The edge was razor-sharp. It was the kind of tool that you pull out of the package every few minutes for the first few days, simply to admire its integrity (or is that just me?). This is how every tool should make you feel. I immediately headed for the woods to begin searching for the perfect branch fork to fashion the handle. The pickings were a bit slim, since the forest around my house is mostly filled with live oak (perfectly strong, but the branches fork at the wrong angle) and red cedar (not strong enough). I finally found a red mulberry branch that was just right, and I have it drying in my shop at the moment.
Okay, so now we’ve covered 5 of the 6 tools that I need: I’ll fabricate the tapered reamer and rounding plane myself; I’ll make the handle for my fabulous new adze iron; I made a deal with the devil for the skew chisel and inshave. The only tool left is the most expensive, and not surprisingly, the most difficult to make correctly: the travisher. So far, I’m up to $175 in tool purchases – a bargain to be sure, but I’m near the end of my rope for the next couple of months. Elia Bizzarri sells travisher blades for only $3o for folks who want to make their own…but I’ve never held, or even seen, a travisher in real life. I’m just not confident that I could make a functional tool without ever having used one. Since I can’t afford to buy one, I’m afraid that I’m going to be stuck carving the seat without it. I’ll just have to do as good a job as I can with the inshave, and finish it off with scrapers. It’s not an ideal solution, and I may find myself trying to make a travisher halfway through the build, but that’s my plan at the moment.
Finally, the last tool that I need, the shavehorse: I’ll be tackling Peter Galbert’s “Smarthead” shavehorse for that. Looks like I have my work cut out for me, and I’m not even close to starting that chair…