Saturday, 20 February 2010

I Saw The Light...

I started in woodworking when I was about 8, getting involved with my old man’s builds just so I could spend some time with him. By the time I was about 14 he had me trained and capable enough to do every dirty job that ever came up so he wouldn’t have to. If there was a need to anchor a hunk of wood or throw down a chunk of pink fiberglass insulation in a tiny little spot some where way off in the most desolate corner of the attic under the lowest eves in the entire house, I was my old man’s man for the job.

While it is the jobs that had me crawling on my hands and knees through that damned itchy pink crap that I remember the most, the reality is that he also taught me the good stuff too. I might not have been the brightest bulb on the tree, but his teachings about how to get the most out of a tablesaw allowed me to show my 8th grade shop teacher a thing or two about getting almost finished surfaces while dimensioning lumber.

This is not to say he didn’t give me any instruction regarding working with hand tools, because he did. Sadly, that instruction was only preliminary because old pop thought the days for hand tools were seriously numbered. While I can’t believe I’m going to use this term, and God help me for it, but for you younger guys, you have to understand that “back in those days’” power tools were just getting popular as better manufacturing processes and higher volumes started to bring their prices down so the masses could afford them. As a result, what Stanley did for hand tools back in the 10’s and 20’s, companies like Skil did for power tools in the 50’s and 60’s and when it came to them, my old man was at the front of the crowd.

There were a number of times I had to use a handsaw back then, cutting trim and the like, and I used to hate it. If I had a nickel for every cuff I got, followed by a gruff, “Let the damned saw do the work. You just guide it”, I’d be a rich man today. Of course if I had to pay a nickel for every, “I am letting it do the damned work”, answer that I gave, I have to give it all back again.

I hated handsaws. I don’t know what it was about them, maybe a hand/eye thing, but “cutting to the line” wasn’t in my repertoire. I’d have my tongue gnashed between my teeth, my finger pointing where I wanted to go, my driving shoulder directly over the stock, my drive elbow in line with the saw and my arm swinging back and forth in straight line sweeps and I would still watch in horror as that damned, stupid saw would start to track off one way or another on its own. Worse, I’d get through the cut, survive the old man’s cuffs and end up with an edge that looked like it had be whacked out with a hatchet, rather than pop’s prized Disston panel saw. If I was close to the line on the top, I was way off of it on the bottom, or visa versa.

When I was forced to give up the power tools and start working solely with hand tools the first ones I added to my collection were saws, thinking that if I had an array of them, I might stand a better chance creating successful cuts with them. In truth, I found that over the years I hadn’t got any better, and while I thought I had everything under control, “Let the damned saw do the work” was, and is, constantly ringing in my ears every time I pick one up.

To tell you the truth, I always thought that was about as stupid a direction as anything I ever heard before or since. I mean, come on; the saw doesn’t go up and down on its own. If I don’t use the physical force to do it, there is no way that board is going to get cut.

As a result of being saw challenged, I found little tricks to limit the need to use them, or if I had no choice, to allow for my expected mistakes. I replaced my old man’s Stanley 150 miter-box that I had left out in the rain 50 years later and purchased three backsaws of different sizes to use with it as well. The vast majority of cuts I have made since have been with that set-up. Because I never know which way the saw would wander, when I do my layout for cuts that can only be made “free-hand”, I allow anywhere from an eighth to a quarter to the length, knowing there will be some clean-up later. Hell, I have even found myself changing a design just to avoid having to cut a piece free-hand with a handsaw, that’s how bad I am with them.

For some reason, today, a miracle happened, the sawdust parted and I saw the light.

With the help of some of my fellow bloggers’ comments and some more research, I have changed my design for my “be-all and end-all” shooting board. I am sure much to Rob the Blogbloke’s chagrin; I am keeping the construction of it in furniture mode. I have a few shop fixtures in my cabinet that I didn’t make, but ones that are beautifully made in beautiful wood and every time I use them, well – they just make me smile. I am hoping this shooting board will do the same.

The first order of business for this build is to make a rather large wooden hinge, something I have never done before. I’m building just half of it to start, so if I screw up, I’ll only have to throw away a $20 hunk of wood, rather than $40 worth. Starting with a 1 ½” by 4” by 20” hunk of mahogany, I have to turn it into a hinge plate which means a ¾” by 2 ½” strip, the full 20” in length, has to come out of it. I thought about how to do this long and hard over the past two weeks, trying to figure out how I could avoid having to make these cuts with a hand saw, but to no avail. A handsaw it is and a handsaw it must be, and a course rip one at that.

With my heart in my mouth and my breathing nonexistent, I clamped the hunk into the vice and picked up the saw. As I started the cut, every word of my old man’s directions came back; all heard so clearly in his gruff and impatient voice that I almost turned around to see if he was standing behind me again. I started the cut, and as this had to be a blind cut, I worked the cut across the face of the wood, using my knuckles as a guide as I did, getting the saw’s teeth to level out as I went along.

Amazing. Just friggin’ amazing. As I was running that saw down through the wood, I started to hear a little voice in the back of my head saying, “Your letting the saw do the work”. Before long, it was screaming, “You’re doing it! You’re doing it!” Finishing one cut, I flipped the board and started the second, working, surprisingly, in the same manner. I was absolutely amazed at my progress and even said out loud, “So this is what the hell he was talking about. You go saw!”

It took over 50 years, but when the off-cut popped free, I realized that I finally got it. My blind cut was almost perfect, both cuts ending together and even, with no over-cut at all, but most amazingly, the cuts themselves were as smooth and free of rash marks as any of my old man’s cuts that I can remember.

While I’m proud of my accomplishments today with what most would consider a couple of basic cuts, there will still have to be some serious dressing of the resulting facings. You see, because I figured these cuts were going to be the same as all the others I had made in the past, each one was made giving an extra eighth of an inch for saw wander and for the first time in my life, I finally cut to the line.




  1. I'm smilin' with you Mitchell.

    Way to go!!!

    I'm sorta with Rob on the (cheap) materials I use for shop appliances, but I can certainly understand your sentiments about wanting to smile every time you use that new shooting board. I smile when I use mine because of how well it works, even though it is cheap. I also smile when I use one of my hardwood squares, because of how beautiful it is.

    Still smilin' with your success.

  2. So why - WHY - did it suddenly work? I've been struggling with the same problem. Why did it click for you? What was different?

  3. Ross
    In this case, Ross, I think it was my new-found relaxed attitude when it comes to doing these projects. For some reason I'm not in a rush to get projects completed any longer and I think that showed up in the operation of the saw. I realized afterwards that I wasn't "giving it hell", but instead, just leisurely enjoying the moment, so-to-speak.

    Thank you for the good wishes, Bob. I enjoyed the experience and hope to produce something that will also make me smile for years to come every time I use it.



  4. You must be my brother, apparentley we have the same father.

    "Let the saw do the work" was one of my Dad's favourites, too, along with "let the hammer do the work" and,"let the axe do the work."

    It's sage, if obscure, advice. I remember being frusterated every time I heard it. I find telling people to loosen their grip is more specific and results in the same effect.

    My Dad gave me the pink insulation jobs, too.