Sunday, 5 July 2009

Overcoming, "Use It or Lose It"...

I went online the other day with the intent of purchasing Christopher Schwarz’s, “Building Furniture with Hand Planes”, when I spotted the offer for his latest work, a book entitled, “Handplane Essentials”. Never being one to fight an opportunity to add items to a shopping cart, I clicked on the link to investigate it further. In the post was a link that opened a pdf file which displayed the Table of Contents and Christopher’s introduction for this publication.

Viewing that short document, a few thoughts came to mind.

First was the black and white photography included. Wow. Nice stuff. Al Parrish, the guy behind those photographs, has had me as a fan for quite some time now. He has such an amazing eye for detail and incredible abilities for controlling light. You have probably viewed many pieces created by this talented man before and not known it. Over the years he has done work for just about everyone who is anyone, especially all things F&W. I searched for a site that, hopefully, would display some of Al's personal work as I think it would be amazing stuff to view, but sadly, one couldn't be found.

The next thought was about the layout. If the rest of the book looks as clean and inviting as these few pages, it is definitely something I want to own. Yes, I know, you are thinking who would buy a book because they like the layout? Well, in truth, I would, because I’m really into that kind of thing. The success of presenting anything, including knowledge, is based on its packaging, and if you don’t believe that, consider how you view squirrels and rats. They are very close cousins, you know. It is too bad this excerpt didn’t include a credit for the person who did the layout.

Then there were the quotes used, quotations being something that always fascinate me. I’m fascinated by them because they always make me wonder what the scenario was when they were spoken. Think about someone finding the quote, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” written on a bathroom wall a hundred years from now and, hopefully, you get the idea about what I am talking about here. Schwarz’s first quote by John Gay is something I live by, but never had it put into words before, so it was very cool to come across. His second choice, however, is one I’m not too sure about. He used a quote by Stonehouse (Shan shi), a poet I hadn’t heard of before, which states, “In 20 years on this mountain, I’ve never been cheated by a hoe”. My only thought after reading this one was, “…and what red light district have you been frequenting and how do I get there?”

Finally, there was his Introduction. In this short discourse, Christopher makes his case for hand tools over their power offspring and doesn’t do a bad job of it. Many of his arguments and statements are quite valid and indisputable until I came across the entry, “Power tools have brilliantly eliminated the need for the first-time user to be highly skilled to do basic operations. Even beginning woodworkers can turn out stunning feats of woodworking thanks to the cleverness of the tools themselves.” Oh, boy. Having spent a lifetime working exclusively with power tools, this entry immediately raised the hair on the back of my neck. How dare the man make such a statement.

I didn’t close the file right there and then but, instead, sat there for a while and thought about what the man was saying and considered why I was reading his offering in the first place. I considered why I made the switch to hand tools, which was done solely because I have lost so much of my peripheral vision due to glaucoma and other assorted eye ailments, that I started to share the worry held by those around me that I was going to lose a finger or two one day because I couldn’t see both hands at the same time. I thought about my past, which I have commented about often in this blog, stating I was taught the finer points of power tools at a very early age by my father and related how I constantly upgraded and added to those skills over the next forty years. I thought about how it was a long haul to learn how to properly cut something as basic as a miter joint on a table saw, let alone many of the other more complex tasks some of the other power tools are capable of. I then thought about what would happen if I made the switch back to power tools and came to the realization that while Christopher struck out with this statement, he was in the right ballpark.

From my perspective, having lived in both worlds, there are some very serious differences between using power tools and hand tools. The slope of the learning curve for each, however, isn't one of them. Just learning how to feed a piece of wood through a tablesaw takes considerable practice and knowledge to avoid even the slightest of binding, which, in the worse case scenario, can deliver the piece back to you in a very uninvited manner, or in the least, mar the cut. A tablesaw’s spinning ⅛” wide blade has haunted many of the most experienced craftsmen whom have added many a piece to the woodpile as a result of not allowing for it properly in the setting of the fence. Power tools, like hand tools, have their hidden Achilles Heels, and while they always have a way of finding you in both applications, in the power tool world, they find you faster and are much more apparent then when they appear in a hand tool application.

What power tools have over hand tools, Christopher, is “repeatability”. As I sat there and thought about what you wrote, considering what would happen if I made the switch back to power tools, I realized that I would have no difficulties whatsoever. The beauty of power tools is that once you learn the process, you can repeat it until the cows come home and always achieve the same results. Where I would have a problem is if I made the switch back again because the one thing that hand tools require over power, is hand/eye coordination, the biggest Achilles Heel in the hand tool world. I have written about this unique requirement a number of posts ago, but since mulling over Christopher's statement, it has been in the forefront of my mind every time I pick up a chisel or saw.

Currently, I’m in the process of building a new chisel rack for my tool cabinet. Built in the same manner as the rest of the racks in this ongoing, never-ending project, the frame is dovetailed together and the rack is through mortised to the frame. The last rack I built was finished last November, seven months ago. As I had built one immediately before that, the 8 dovetails and 14 through mortises this particular rack required all came off without a hitch and I was quite pleased with the results. The same can’t be said for this current one. Not having cut a dovetail in 7 months meant that I had serious difficulties in repeating the feat. I knew the processes and followed them, just like I would do if I was using a power tool, but the one thing I no longer had, the one item not required with that power tool, was the hand/eye coordination to pull it off, something that I had developed over the last few racks that I built. As a result, my cuts were not as true as they should have been and my chiseling was inconsistent. In the hand tool world, unlike the power one, "If you don’t use it, you lose it".

Where this latest project has it over the previous one is in the finishing of the surfaces. On the current one, I have used scrapers exclusively, where on the others, while I attempted to use a scraper; I didn’t have the greatest of luck with it and ended up sanding them. Having used scrapers in the past, I am well aware of their abilities, but it is that “use it or lose it” thing.

In my hand tool world, you can “cheat” on just about anything but cutting a dovetail. From what I have seen and read on the web, most agree with me as, according to just about everyone in the hand tool world that I have been exposed to, using a jig to thickness plane a piece of wood with a jointer plane is acceptable, but using one to cut a dovetail is the world’s biggest no-no and something to be scoffed at. While at the heart of it, it really is an irrational attitude, but it is one that I believe in and honour. As a result, while you would have to hold a gun to my head to get me to buy a jig that would hold my saw at the perfect angle to cut a dovetail, I didn’t hesitate to buy Lee Valley’s offering of their "Veritas Scraping Set".

What an amazing set, each piece a perfect example of proper engineering and design.

First, it comes with a multitude of scrapers in different thicknesses, 4 to be precise (A), all “super-hard”, in Rc48-52 steel no less, whatever the hell that means.

Next, it has a Jointer (C) which holds the 8” file (B) that is also included with the set. While any piece of square stock can take the place of this jointer to keep the file square with the scraper, this piece of extruded aluminum is like adding a long handle to a broom head – it is not necessary to get the job done, but it sure makes life a lot more comfortable while you are doing it.

Then, included in the $92.00 (CAN) set is the burnisher (D), the reason I bought this kit, even though all of these pieces are available separately. Burnishing the hook has always been my downfall in the past when it comes to using a scraper. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I don't. I can learn how to hold the burnisher to do its job properly, but when I go back to it in a month, or even six months later, that ability has disappeared and I have to start all over again. Because of time constraints, I don’t pick up a tool as often as I would like or as often as it takes to maintain my abilities with it. When I do find those few precious hours in a week, the last thing I want is spend it practicing to regain my abilities with it. I may not take shortcuts when it comes to cutting a dovetail, as that would be sacrilegious, but when it comes to something as mundane as sharpening a scraper, I’m all for anything that helps, and this thing truly helps.

This plastic handle is very comfortable to hold and very easy to maintain a constant pressure with. To overcome the “use it or lose it” thing, you dial in the angle you want and that angle stays consistent across the edge of the scraper. The process is simple. After clamping a scraper in a vice and filing it flat and square with the jointer, you coat it with a minute amount of oil. The instructions that come with the set suggest that you wipe your finger behind your ear and then across the scraper edge as this is about all the oil you need. So far, I have passed on that one and so far have stuck to swiping my finger across a paper towel that has a drop of Norton Sharpening Oil on it. Once oiled, you then set the burnisher’s dial to 0° and slide it over the scraper via the slot in its bottom. With a bit of downward pressure, you pass the burnisher back and forth a couple of times and the result is that you have spread the edge a bit and it is now set up to be rolled. Adjust the dial on the side of the burnisher again, this time to anywhere from 1° to 15°, and again slide it over the scraper, put some downward pressure on it, and pass it back and forth again a few times and you are done.

Combine the ease of use with its accuracy, and this item stands out as one of the best investments in my cabinet.

Popping it out of the package, having a quick read of the instructions, and I was on my way to setting different degrees of hooks on all four of those scrappers in minutes. I didn’t hook the first, the thinnest scraper, but left it after passing the burnisher over it a few times with the dial set to 0°. The next thickness up, I put a hook on it which was 5°, then the next up got a 10° hook, and finally, the thickest in the set got a 15° hook. With this set-up, I start out with the 15° one, which removes material quickly, then I just work my way down the degrees, doing the final passes with the 0° hooked one, which puts a sheen on the beautifully smoothed wood.

To do this, it is a simple matter of changing the blade in the holder (E) that comes with the set. Talk about taking the pressure off, this little gizmo holds the scraper and distorts it at the same time through the use of a centre turn screw that pushes out on the centre of the blade. The only thing I have to do is find the sweet angle to hold the thing at and push or pull, whichever is appropriate. Sweet! I did find two small issues with this tool, however. At only 1 ⅞” high, I find it a little narrower than I would like and because of the way it holds the blades, you can only sharpen one edge, making it necessary to return to the vice more often. Its ability to hold a setting for the bend forever and the stress it takes off your hands overcome these perceived shortcomings in a serious hurry, though, so I doubt I would ever scrap again without using it.

So there you go, Mr. Schwarz, even in the hand tool world there are tools that make woodworking geniuses out of the uninitiated.



P.S.: I continued on to the site's Checkout with my purchases of Christopher's book and DVD but for some reason, maybe it was the web master's way of helping me get even, when I filled out the form and hit "Submit", it came back that it didn't like my address, it was correct but I reentered it again, then it came back that it didn't like my credit card number (now that I write this, maybe it was my wife and not the web master's fault), and after going through that circle three times, I gave up and closed the site, so I still do not have his "Building Furniture with Hand Planes" DVD, which I want. I'll try again another time. (Just to be honest about all of this, I use a Mac with Safari as the browser and despite what Mr. Jobs says, this combo is not always compatible within the internet world.