A Simple Tool

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:

Center Gauge

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.

Center Gauge in Use

Center Gauge Mark

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.

Center Gauge Nail

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.

Sole Discretion

The topic of plane soles – as in smooth vs. corrugated soles – is one that often evokes impassioned opinions. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to crop on woodworking fora as often as other touchy subjects – like, say, sharpening or SawStops. Many users have no preference one way or another, but those who have formed a opinion typically view corrugated soles with a level of contempt normally reserved for laser-guided handsaws.

Paul Sellers has made his opinion known:

…corrugated soles grab shavings, especially super-thin ones that cling to the grooves of corrugated soles. Even flat soled planes do this. The problem inherent to corrugated soles is the grab and mush up in the grooves and on subsequent forward thrusts, damage the surface you are supposed to be smoothing. No craftsman I ever knew favoured these planes…It also damages corners and edges of wood when you start to plane angles such as chamfers or form bullnoses to things such as box lids, window sills and stair treads.

Yikes. Sounds like something I’d like to avoid. So what’s the point of the corrugations in the first place? Paul addresses that as well:

The corrugated sole was produced in Bailey pattern planes for a period with the intention of reducing the surface area of the sole to further reduce the friction of the plane on the surface being planed. Indeed it does do that…

Paul is actually kinder to corrugated planes than some other authors, who opine that corrugated soles do nothing to reduce friction, making them worse than useless. Well, I have been using the three planes pictured below for the past several years, so in the name of good fun, I would like to offer my contradictory assessment:

From top to bottom: Craftsman No. 5, corrugated; Stanley No. 6, smooth; and Stanley No. 7, corrugated.

Aside from the Stanley No. 4’s that you see peeking into the upper right corner of the photo, these three planes chew up the bulk of the shavings that are produced in my woodshop, and they have done so for quite some time. The No.7 is my most recent acquisition (from 5 years ago), while the No. 5 is my oldest companion (the first decent hand plane I ever owned, from 10 years ago).

So without further ado, here are a few unfiltered observations about the performance of these tools, with regards to the sole:

  • The corrugations do indeed drastically reduce the friction; I can easily use the No. 5 and the No. 7 without wax, whereas the No. 6 is nearly impossible to push once the wax wears off.
  • I don’t necessarily view the additional friction of the smooth sole as a bad thing. It’s just a gentle reminder to wax your stupid planes.
  • I rarely/never have an issue with shavings clinging to the corrugated soles. This is very likely related to the fact that I rarely/never make “super thin” shavings with my corrugated planes. The No. 5 is set up as a fore plane; it has a strongly cambered blade for hogging off meaty shavings, often cross-grained. The No. 7 is used almost exclusively as a jointer, for truing up edges; the blade is sharpened straight across, and it takes substantial shavings that curl up into neat, tight spirals. There’s simply nothing to get caught in the corrugations. None of my smoothing planes have corrugated soles, but I can certainly see how this might be an issue with their tissue-thin shavings.
  • Finally, I’ve never had much of problem with the corrugations damaging chamfers or bullnoses. For one thing, I would never use my jointer for this task (no use pushing more weight than necessary). And secondly, if I do use my fore plane (AKA No. 5), it’s only to hog off the bulk of the waste; I would inevitably follow with the smoothing plane set to a finer cut to tune up the edges.

In summation: Corrugated planes are fine for most situations. I think they’re particularly well-suited to jack planes/fore planes that take the coarsest shavings and can benefit from a little friction reduction. I would personally prefer a smooth sole for smoothing planes, but if I found a great deal on a corrugated No. 4, I certainly wouldn’t pass it up. For try plane/jointer planes, I don’t think it makes a nickel’s worth of difference either way. Just be aware that with the more massive smooth-soled planes, you’ll definitely need to keep the sole well-waxed, which is frankly a habit that you should get into anyway.


A Windsor High Chair

My wife and I have this conversation nearly every time I finish a furniture piece. I ask if there’s anything she wants me to build before I start my next project. Secretly, I’m always hoping that there’s nothing in particular that she wants so that I can pursue whatever suits my fancy. But there’s pretty much always something in particular that she wants. My obligation, so as not to seem neglectful, is to first build this particular thing prior to moving on to other projects that are tugging at my spirit. It is a rare and fortuitous event, indeed, when what I am asked to build is precisely what I would like to build, but such is the case with my latest project.

A high chair. A Windsor high chair, to be exact. A continuous-arm Windsor high chair, to be pedantic. (Those last two specifications are of my own preference. I was only asked to build a high chair.)

You can buy Windsor chair plans for lots of different types of chairs: fan-backs, comb-backs, loop-backs, balloon-backs, sack-backs,  and continuous-arms. With or without rockers. But where do you get a plan for a high chair? Heck if I know.

Although I reject published plans for the majority of my furniture, I am not quite at the point where I would feel comfortable designing a Windsor chair. They are complicated little sons-of-guns. I implored chairmaker Elia Bizzarri for help. His suggestion?

You can take Curtis Buchanan’s Continuous Arm or Comb Back plans and reduce the seat and back to 2/3 scale. The legs are 22″ long and the diameters are the same as the full size chair. Rear leg angles (into the seat) are 22 degrees and the sight line runs through a point on the CL 3.5″ from the front of the seat. Front legs are at 15 degrees, sighted at a point on the CL 5″ back from the front of the seat.

That may sound like gibberish to someone unfamiliar with the language of Windsor chairs, but it was all I needed. The good news is that I already had Curtis Buchanan’s continuous-arm plans as a Christmas present from my in-laws. Scaling them down was as simple as setting up the copier at work to 67%, and off I went.

Since I had no wood at the moment that would be suitable for the arm rail, it made sense to start with the undercarriage. First up was the legs. At 22″ long, these required a bit of scaling, as a normal chair leg is 18″ long. I found that the best appearance was gained by extending the balusters (the vase-shaped part in the middle) and the foot, and leaving the rest of the details (coves, beads, and birds-beaks) unchanged.

Optimized-High Chair 030 (1)

With those done, I turned my sights to the seat. The full-size seat is 18.5″ wide, but at 2/3 scale, I only needed a board a little over 12″ wide. Easy enough to find. I left the thickness at 2″, since I reasoned that the additional thickness will give greater purchase for the leg-to-seat joinery.

The carving process is identical to the last Windsor chair: First, flatten and thickness the board, then lay out and drill all of the holes for the legs and spindles, then carve and shape the seat.

I labored on my first Windsor chair seat for a few days, trying to understand the shape and making sure everything was just right. This one was done in a matter of hours. It’s amazing how much more quickly the work can proceed once you have the end goal firmly planted in your mind. I was not as timid to waste away the unnecessary material, because it was now immediately obvious to me which material was unnecessary.

Finally, I reamed the leg holes and made a few wedges, and the undercarriage was ready for assembly.


With that done, it was time to start on the spindles and the arm rail. Since no suitable wood grows on my little island on the Florida coast, that will require a road trip. Luckily, my dad lives in Colbert, Georgia, in the midst of the oak-hickory region. Even more luckily, he owns a small sawmilling operation, and white oak just happens to be his specialty…

Easter 2016 026

Repairing a Stanley Plane Handle

Today, I eschew my usual verbosity in favor of a pictorial:

Stanley Handle 053
A plane handle in sore need of repair.
Stanley Handle 055
The horn must be repaired in two spots. I flatten the first break with a sharp, wide chisel and select a rosewood scrap for the repair.
Stanley Handle 056
Superglue is my glue of choice for rosewood totes. It forms a strong, invisible bond, and it hardens on rosewood within 5-10 seconds. Use plenty of glue – the excess will squeeze out and you can clean it off later.
Stanley Handle 057
Saw the excess off of the patch.
Stanley Handle 058
Shape it with the chisel.
Stanley Handle 059
Now to address the horn itself. Flatten as best you can with the chisel.
Stanley Handle 060
If need be, you can resort to a bit of sanding to flatten the break. Place some 180-grit on a flat surface, and carefully rub down until you get a clean, flat glue surface. Careful not to tip the the handle at all, or your surface will be less than flat.
Stanley Handle 061
More glue. More rosewood scrap.
Stanley Handle 062
Sketch out the shape of the horn, then saw away the excess.
Stanley Handle 065
A carving knife, a chisel, and a rasp shape the patch so that it blends smoothly with the original wood. You can see that my patch covered the old nut-hole. I’ll open that back up with a small drill bit and a rat-tail rasp.
Stanley Handle 066
A bit of sanding blends everything together and removes the old finish. Now, the lower break must be addressed.
Stanley Handle 067
This was a relatively clean break, so I simply glued it back in place after a firm cleaning with a wire brush on both surfaces. Any gaps at the edges can be filled with additional superglue and sanding dust.
Stanley Handle 069
The lower repair is invisible after sanding.
Stanley Handle 070
Finally, the whole tote gets sanded to 220-grit and oiled. When it dries, I’ll follow this up with a coat of shellac, which I’ll buff out to a nice polish.

Good to go for another century or so. Total elapsed time from start to finish? 30 minutes. Don’t be afraid of the broken totes, folks.

A few notes on the choice of glue for these repairs: I usually see people recommending epoxy for rosewood handle patches. I dislike epoxy for this purpose for two reasons: The slow setting time means that you must clamp the patch somehow, which is always awkward and prone to shift. Cyanoacrylate (superglue) sets up so fast that you can simply hold the piece in position until it hardens. Secondly, epoxy is basically impossible to remove, so if the repair ever fails, it’ll be more difficult than necessary to fix. Cyanoacrylate dissolves in acetone, so it is easily removable. Regarding the strength of superglue? In my opinion, the roughest handling this tote should ever face will be during the cutting, rasping, and sanding of the patches. If the glue holds up to that treatment, it should certainly hold up to normal use. I’ve had a Stanley No.4 with a repaired handle in constant use for the last decade with no signs of problems, so I’m quite confident in the longevity of this repair.

This Is How I Dado It

Rabbets, dadoes, and grooves are the foundation of boarded furniture. You may ask what “boarded” furniture is, and if you do, then I would direct you to the same source from whence I learned the term: Adam Cherubini’s February 2012 article from Popular Woodworking. In that article, he states:

‘Boarded’ is an archaic English term that was used to describe a form of woodwork characterized by the use of fasteners [nails] as the principle means of attachment. The iconic 6-board chest is probably the most familiar boarded furniture form.

Builders of boarded items also had to deal with the challenge of joining boards at right angles. Many of us believe the best way to join boards is either with dovetails or mortise-and-tenons. Builders of boarded furniture typically did neither.

The idea of nailing boards together, rather than lovingly crafting each joint with dovetails and tenons to micrometer-approved specifications, might rub some the wrong way, but I have eagerly embraced this method over the past few years as an expeditious way to create attractive and robust furniture.

Boarded furniture is not without joinery, but the joints tend to have the function of merely aligning the boards for assembly with nails and/or glue, ensuring that each joint goes together squarely and without difficulty, rather than securing the structure together. You could assemble a pegged or wedged mortise and tenon without glue, if you wished, and it would still be almost as strong as the same joint assembled with glue. If you assemble a piece joined with rabbets and dados and omit the nails, your assembly will be fortunate to withstand a spirited sneeze.

To make sure we’re all on the same page before I go any further, let’s also discuss the differences between three similar joints: grooves, rabbets, and dadoes.

Actually, discussion takes too much time. Let’s look at a picture that I drew instead:

illustration 001
Groove: a three-walled trench that runs parallel to the grain; Rabbet: a two-walled recess that can run either parallel or perpendicular to the grain; Dado: a three-walled trench that runs perpendicular to the grain.


Grooves and rabbets are pretty easy to cut if you are a hand tool woodworker. To cut a groove, you use a plow plane. The fence is registered against the side of the board and cuts a groove a specified distance from the edge. The rabbet is equally easy to cut. Use a rabbet plane, preferably one with a fence. The fence can be fixed or adjustable. Rabbet planes with fences are often called fillister planes. If the fence is adjustable, it would be called a moving fillister plane. Again, the fence registers against the edge of the board and cuts the rabbet a pre-determined distance from the edge.

Now we get to the dado. The dado, you’ll notice, falls in the middle of the board, unlike grooves and rabbets, which are near the edges or the ends. This precludes the use of a fenced plane for making this joint. As a result, there is not one simple tool or method to making a dado by hand. Now, there is such thing as a dado plane. It’s just a simple rabbet plane with nickers on both sides to prevent tearout during the cross-grain cut. However, it’s not a stand-alone tool; it must be paired with a batten clamped across the board to guide the plane.

I’ve never used a dado plane, but I don’t particularly like the idea of a dado plane. First of all, how many would I need? A 3/4″ plane would handle the bulk of my work, but what if I wanted to cut a 1/2″ dado? Or a 1/4″ dado? Do I really want to buy and maintain another tool for every single width of dado I might possibly want to make? No thanks. I also don’t really like working using clamped battens as a guide. This is just a personal quirk, but they always seem to be in the way, and just a small bump out of alignment can result in some very bad words if it isn’t noticed in time.

Fortunately, there is a fairly simple and efficient way of cutting dadoes by hand, without any fancy specialty tools, which brings me (finally) to the point of this article: How I Cut a Dado by Hand.

Dadoes are typically cut in pairs; most often, their purpose is to hold a horizontal board (such as a shelf) to two vertical members (the sides). Therefore, to get the most accurate assembly, it make sense to lay the boards side-by-side to mark both sides at once. I use a framing square and a sharp striking knife to lay out the walls of the dado.

ToyShelf 012
(Ignore fact that I don’t have the sides paired together in this photo; I did, indeed, mark them as a pair).


With the dado defined, I follow the knife with a wide chisel, driving it with a few solid taps into the knife line. I do this along the entire knife line, on both sides of the dado.

ToyShelf 014
Use your widest chisel. I’m using a 2″-wide bevel-edge chisel.


With both edges scored deeply with the chisel, I can begin to remove some material. I use a router plane for this task, removing perhaps 1/32″.

ToyShelf 015


Be sure to carefully clean up right to the chiseled wall of the dado; it’s important for the next step.

ToyShelf 016


With the floor of the dado slightly relieved from the rest of the board, I now have a wall that I can use to guide my carcase saw. With a careful two-hand grip (one hand on the saw’s handle, one on the saw plate to gently press the saw against the wall of the dado) I begin to cut a shallow kerf to further define the dado’s wall. Precision is important here, but not in all regards: the saw must be kept perfectly aligned with the wall, but it’s okay if you slightly over- or under-cut the bottom of your dado. I’m shooting for about 3/16″ deep. Enough to align the shelves when it comes time to assemble, but not enough to unnecessarily weaken the sides.

ToyShelf 017


Finally, with both sides cut to the desired depth with the carcase saw, you can set the router plane to take a rank cut to remove the waste as quickly as possible. The final two passes are set more lightly to smooth out the bottom of the dado.

ToyShelf 018
The best shaving you can make is the thickest one you can take.


So there you have it. Simple, predictable, and efficient. And no specialty tools necessary. (Unless you consider a router plane to be a specialty tool, in which case, I would argue to the contrary if you intend to do more than a modicum of your work with hand tools).

ToyShelf 020

Things That I Didn’t Buy

So I was driving home on Sunday afternoon, my hatchback and floorboards overflowing with a newly acquired fleet of bronze and iron, my wallet convulsing with pain. I passed an antique store. A really big antique store. I did a U-turn.

Now, before you go about staging an intervention for me, let me assure you that I wasn’t remotely interested in buying more tools. I do, however, enjoy the opportunity to see what kind of furniture awaits. Rural southern “antique” stores tend to be light on the antiques and heavy on the dumpster salvage, but you never know.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I found, but the pleasant surprises will have to wait until tomorrow. Today, I’d like to direct your attention to some tools that I didn’t buy on Sunday.

For example, I didn’t buy a kinked, black-spray-painted keyhole saw  with mismatched replacement nuts for $12:


I didn’t buy a rusty, plastic-handled handsaw for $35:


And I most definitely didn’t buy an “economy” brace with a chuck of questionable adequacy for $75:


I wasn’t sure whether to admire the booth owner’s ambition or feel sorry for his ignorance. More of the latter, I suppose.

I did see one tool that was at least interesting to look at (in a different booth): a mahogany-handled ripsaw with a steel plate on the cheeks and domed brass nuts. I’ve seen one like this before that was in much better condition, at twice the price. I believe these things were often branded for specific hardware stores. Could be a beauty if it was cleaned up. But no, I didn’t buy it. My Disston 6 PPI No. 7 still works just fine, thanks.


I Can Explain…

Last Friday, I posted a thoughtful essay on the adverse psychological effects of owning unnecessary accouterments. Then on Sunday, I drained my bank account to buy thousands of dollars worth of tools that I do not need.

Okay, so I’m a giant hypocrite. But I can explain, sort of. A woodworker friend has recently retired and transitioned into full-time RVing. Since he no longer has a shop, he is selling his extensive collection of premium tools – Lie-Nielsen, Blue Spruce, Veritas, Caleb James, Czech Edge, and many more – not to mention a huge assortment of books and videos. He wanted to sell the Lie-Nielsen planes as a single lot, to avoid hours of picture-taking, listing, emailing back and forth, fielding questions and offers, packaging, and shipping. I don’t blame him. And there is no woodworking tool that is more unwieldy to pack and ship than a plane. I’ve been there, and it’s a lot of work.

My immediate reaction should have been to back away slowly. But instead, I was intrigued. I’ve always been a bit of a cheapskate. Usually I piece together the tools I need as inexpensively as possible, through fleabay finds and antique store bargains and my own handiwork. I’ve never been one to shy away from rust or repairs, as long as the tool is solid. I had never even seen a Lie-Nielsen plane in person until I visited their manufacturing facility/storefront in Maine in 2014. So I thought to myself, “Self, wouldn’t it be nice to pick up a few of the planes that I’ve always coveted at a decent price? I’ll just sell the rest. It’s not like these planes will require hours of rehab like most of the tools I’ve sold in the past. It should be easy!” So against my better judgment, I made an offer.

I think I was halfway through photographing the planes when the enormity of the task fully sank in. And with that, the first twinge of buyer’s remorse bubbled into my consciousness. Well, what’s done is done. I am the proud temporary owner of a sprawling fleet of bronze, iron, and cherry.

More than being embarrassed at my hypocrisy, am reluctant to turn my blog into a commercial venture. But since it may be of interest to some of my readers, please feel free to visit the “Tools For Sale” tab at the top of the page. Bevel-up bench planes are currently listed. Much more to add in the following weeks.

I Split Off More Than I Could Hew

A couple of weekends ago, I had a minor incident while hollowing out a large shrink pot. (What’s a shrink pot, you ask? Luckily Dave Fisher covered that topic a couple of weeks ago – click here). I thought I was being clever by using a chunk of maple too knotty for spoons or kuksas for my shrink pot. Turned out to be a costly error. I got one of my favorite gouges stuck in a knot, and it shattered as I was trying to persuade it loose.


The gouge was a vintage Swan that I picked up for $5 at an antique store in Louisiana. Hard to replace (at least for that price).  I determined that there was enough steel left to grind it down and put it back into service.

The tricky part here is trying to cut down to good steel without getting the blade too hot and ruining the temper. I took a hint from a blacksmith friend and stuck the gouge through a potato to just below the lowest point of the break.


The potato acts as a heat sink, so you can grind as needed without getting the steel too hot. I used a cutoff wheel on my Dremel to cut off the bulk of the waste, and the potato worked as advertised – the steel never even got hot to the touch.


Of course, I still had to reshape the bevel at this point. I do this with a deft tough on the grinder. I prefer an 80-grit white Norton stone for this task. It runs considerably cooler than the cheap hardware-store gray stones. I also prefer to do the final shaping on the side of the stone rather than the face. This allows me to get either a flat or slightly convex bevel. I find that a concave bevel is counterproductive on a carving gouge. It tends to cause the tool to dive into the wood uncontrollably. A slightly convex bevel helps the tool slice into and out of the wood.


A steady hand and a gentle rolling of the gouge against the side of the wheel produces a neat bevel that requires very little finishing work with stones and a strop.

The freshly ground bevel
The bevel after honing and stropping

The inside of the gouge required some attention as well. This old tool had a fine layer of surface rust and some minor pitting to go with it. To remove the pitting, I first turned a small hardwood dowel, slightly smaller than the inside diameter of the gouge, and cut a small kerf along the length. Chuck the dowel into a cordless drill. Slip a narrow strip of 220-grit sandpaper into the kerf and wrap it around the dowel. A bit of masking tape helps hold it in place. Now you can use your custom “stone” to hone the inside of the bevel and clean up the pitting.


I find it easiest to hold the gouge in a vise, using two hands to guide the drill. It can get away from you if you’re not careful, but a nicely polished interior is your reward. You can quickly buff the edge to a perfect shine by charging the dowel itself with honing compound and power stropping.


I now have a functional gouge once more – but I will admit it doesn’t have quite the same balance after losing more than an inch of its length. Time will tell how much use this gouge will see in the future.

Do Your Cheeks Have Dimples?

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.

Spoon Blank (4c)

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.

Spoon Blank (4b)

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.brinell

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?


Get Bent: Build a Steam Rig for Under 50 Bucks

This week, I was finally ready to steam-bend the crest rail for my Windsor chair. The only problem was that I didn’t have a steaming rig. As with so many things in woodworking (and probably any other hobby), you can spend about as much or as little as you want to spend to get yourself set up for steam-bending. I tend towards the “spend as little as possible” end of the spectrum.

So with that in mind, I dropped by my local hardware store and Wal-Mart and picked up the parts I needed to cobble together a functional steam rig for as little money as possible. The total tab was very reasonable for a rig that should last for many years.

Here’s what I bought:

  • 1 – 5′ length PVC 4″ pipe, schedule 40 ($12)
  • 2 – 4″ cleanout caps ($6)
  • 1 – 24″ length braided 3/4″ water heater pipe with threaded female ends ($11)
  • 2 – 3/4″ double male threaded iron adapters ($2.50)
  • 1 – hot plate ($11)
  • 1 – tea kettle ($6)

Total cost: $48.50

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Considering that many people pay $80-$100 just for a wallpaper steamer to produce steam, I figured that was pretty reasonable.

Here’s how I put the thing together:

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Drill a hole in the PVC pipe with a spade bit. A 15/16″ or 1″ bit will work fine. Thread one of the male adapters into the pipe.
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Now you’ll need to fit the other threaded adapter into the tea kettle. Make sure your tea kettle has a round spout to simplify this task. Wal-Mart sells these ones for under $7 that work perfectly.
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We’re going to make a wooden bushing to fit the threaded male adapter into the tea kettle. The iron threads nicely into wood, and the wood will fit snugly into the spout to make a perfect seal.
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Choose a soft wood so the male adapter will thread into it without splitting. Here, I’m using a scrap of cypress. Turn it to the proper diameter to fit snugly into the tea kettle. A tiny bit of slop is OK, since the steam will make the wood expand anyway.
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Then put the cylinder in a chuck and use a 1″ Forstner to drill out the center.
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The bushing is made. Now I just have to cut it to size with a fine-toothed saw.
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A perfect fit. If you don’t have a lathe, you can probably do this by drilling the hole into a scrap of wood and carving around the hole until the bushing fits. Just stay away from plastic/rubber for your bushing – it will melt!


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Now just attach the PVC pipe to something sturdy (here I tied it to an old shavehorse) and hook everything up.  Fill the teapot with water and crank the hotplate up to HIGH.
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Soon, you should see steam billowing out the ends of your pipe. Now’s the time to put the plugs in. I ended up using a sponge on the far end and a cleanout cap on the near end. Best to have steam moving through the rig rather than plugging up both ends. You definitely do not want it to be air-tight. You’re trying to bend wood, not detonate PVC pipe.
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My crest rails were 3/4″ thick at their thickest point. General rule-of-thumb is to steam 1 hour per inch of thickness. I left them in the steamer for about 50-55 minutes and they bent like a stick of Juicy Fruit. Man, I love steam-bending!

A few things to keep in mind:

Ideally, you want your steam rig to be just big enough to contain the parts you’re trying to bend. I’ll be using my steambox for Windsor chair parts and maybe the occasional ladderback, so the 4″ PVC is a perfect size that should fit anything I want to throw at it. My first steambox was a 12″ x 12″ x 48″ plywood box that was really oversized for what I was using it for. No use heating more space than you have to.

Speaking of plywood, most steamboxes are built using plywood, which I suppose is better than PVC pipe. The pipe can actually melt at high heat. But PVC pipe is cheap, good plywood is expensive, and bad plywood won’t last very long. My hot plate is not powerful enough to melt the PVC, so I’m happy with it.

Finally, don’t let your steambox run out of water! I had about 2 cups left in the tea kettle after 55 minutes. I doubt I’ll ever have to steam anything more than an hour, so the tea kettle should work perfectly for me. You may need to size it up if you’re bending something much thicker than an inch.

Good luck, and get bent!