I try to write a new entry for my blog every week. I also try to make it useful or at least not boring. Sometimes I succeed. However because it's a weekly thing lots of content gets rolled under the covers and after a time lost. So this week I decided to take one of the earliest blogs I every wrote (#8 from a decade ago) and bring it current again. Yes I know everyone hates when magazines to a yearly article on the same subject again and again, but like magazines we have a lot of new readers who haven't see this topic.
(note: I shot a video for this yesterday but I didn't get a chance to finish editing it so check back over the weekend and I should have added it in).
Every time someone comes in and buys a marking or mortise gauge, I give them a quick demo on how to use it. It's not unusual for customers to know they need a gauge, but not how to use one. It's not their fault. There is a hell of a lot of misinformation on this subject, and using a gauge properly isn't intuitive.
The goal of a gauge is to provide a line that is just deep enough to catch a chisel or a pencil. Some people like deep cuts with a knife, but the deeper the gauge line, the more you will have to plane the finished surface - otherwise finish will catch in the line and the entire world will see the gauge line. The great woodworking writer Charles H. Hayward noted that when he apprenticed (around 1910) visible gauge lines in a finished work was considered sloppy but it was a common practice. These days, it is all too common and perversely considered a proud mark of "hand craftsmanship."
The problem that people have in using gauges is that when the gauge sits square on the wood, its pin will dig in, follow the grain, wobble, and give you a jerky cut. So various woodworking gurus have advocated filing the pins really short, so even if the gauge sort of works, you can't see where you are going; filing them into knives, so you get a deep line that is hard to get rid of later; remounting the pins on a diagonal; and giving up entirely and using a wheel gauge.
Here is how you really solve this problem:
1) Set the fence to the right setting.
2) With your hand curled around the fence and beam, tilt the gauge away from you and rest it on the long cornered edge of the beam (the corner away from you). The picture and diagram should make this easier to understand.
3) Put pressure on the fence in so the gauge is tight against the wood, and with the corner of the bean firmly on the wood, tilt the gauge towards you. With this method, with all the pressure going into the fence and edge of the beam, it is trivial to control the pressure on the pin. You can have a tiny bit of pressure on the pin that just leaves a mark for smooth visible wood, or you can just as easily bear down on with more pressure for rough wood so that you get a mark you can see.
3) Then push the gauge away from you, always keeping the long edge of the beam on the word. You push the gauge away from you so that you can see what you are doing. And of course with the pin tilted it won't dig into the wood.
4) You don't want the gauge to go off the the end of the board, because once the beam goes off the wood, you will lose control. So stop just before the end of the line and repeat from the other end of the board this time tilting the gauge towards you.
5) It's better to have a light mark than a dark one. If you have trouble seeing your scribe mark, just run a very sharp pencil in the groove.
6) That's it. A sharp pin isn't super important because in general you want a thin shallow line, but that's a personal preference. I don't think I have ever sharpened a pin in my life.
We sell gauges from about $15 and up. They all work. If you are getting just one gauge, I would suggest the Marples screw adjustable combination gauge. The screw adjust allows you to set the width of a mortise independently of the fence setting, which is a real boon. However, in a pinch all the gauges we sell work. You don't need the fancier Trial 1, although I do like the weight of it. Colen Clenton's gauges feel wonderful in the hand. You won't regret the purchase, but it's certainly a next gauge to get, when you settled into joinery and have the urge to splurge. Over the years I have acquired a lot of gauges because I will set a gauge to particular measure, and then put a piece of tape over the thumbscrew so that I don't accidentally move it, and I'll recognize that it's set for a particular project. On a long project, I can tie up gauges for months, so I have a bunch of gauges.
You'll see over the years and over your projects a hierarchy of favorite and "others" will naturally emerge.
PS - The scribe line in the picture looks a little ratty because it took a bunch of tries to get a shot in focus.
The traditional way of learning to carve was via an apprenticeship. Some kid who thought, or whose parents thought, that he had some talent for sculpture would be apprenticed at age 14 to a master carver. Ideally, seven years later the kid would be able to carve well enough and fast enough to make a living. Very talented youngsters, such as the young Grinling Gibbons, even had sponsors pay for their training. Amateur carving became a popular hobby in the 19th century, when shorter working hours made hobbies possible and the Arts & Crafts movement made craft hobbies attractive.
When I was a young woodworker, you could study carving in three ways:
In person at a class:
When I studied at the Craft Students League, carving was always a popular course. In-person craft classes provide the opportunity to for a teacher (and your classmates) to observe you carving and suggest ideas and techniques to improve. It's certainly the best means of instruction. But nowadays many carving programs (like the Craft Students League) have closed, and realistic carving and decorative architectural woodwork have decidedly gone out of fashion. Longer work hours may make evening classes difficult, even if you are lucky enough to live near a class. One-time workshops and seminars can be treats, but they don't have the regular weekly practice that a local class can have.
From books and magazines:
This is a fine way of learning and still has tremendous value. Carving magazines are a great source of ideas and designs, overviews on tools, and written instruction. They fall short, however, because a picture or drawing, even a before-during-and after picture, cannot always illuminate the particular misunderstanding a student has on a specific area. I had that issue myself with lettering. I went back and forth over one paragraph and I still did not get how to do serifs without breaking off a bit. Obviously the writer (Chris Pye - who is and awesome writer of instructions) missed the particular situation that a thickheaded student could miss.
From videos -- VHS and television shows back in the day, and in the modern world, DVDs: DVDs are the best of the video presentations. You can see the project being made, and things that are hard to understand on the written page can be easily demonstrated. Professionally shot and edited videos, traditionally 45 minutes or longer, are expensive to make (and so their cost must be recouped) and generally designed for linear watching on a computer (or old school DVD player). Increasingly this is not how people consume "content" - viewers expect to be able to find short videos focusing on particular issues that can be watched on a phone or tablet.
But here comes an entirely new method.
A couple of years ago, Chris Pye set up a subscription website to teach carving. The site now offers several hundred videos, all short. You can watch them in a curated sequence, or individually to answer a question, or randomly to see what's up. This is how I sorted my serif problem. I just watched the snippet I needed on serifs and I was done. I didn't have to wait for a DVD to arrive in the mail, and I could watch it at my bench until I got it.
I realize the obvious rejoinder to the idea of subscribing to a service is, "Why would I pay for video when I can get it all for free on YouTube?" This is a valid point. There are three main advantages to subscribing rather than viewing on YouTube.
The first reason is coherence. If perchance you were to wake up one morning and have a burning desire to make a nameplate, you might type "how to carve letters into wood" into YouTube. You would immediately get a list of credible videos. Some might be good, but most topics get a mix of good, off-topic and waste of time. You could probably muddle through and learn a bit.
But this isn't what really learning carving is about. It's a question of coherence. A good teacher will want you to understand sharp tools, which tools, lettering fonts, basic technique, and then more complicated approaches. The whole point of a website devoted to teaching carving as taught by one person is to get the benefit of your instructor's worldview and best practices. You get the sequence of lessons you need to really master the breath of a skill, and -- because all the lessons are taught by the same person or school -- the approach is consistent. YouTube, for all it's many wonders, gives a platform for every approach and method on the planet, and consequently it lacks consistency and depth. I am learning to carve the Pye way. It's not the only way to learn, there are several excellent sites on learning to carve via subscription. But as I know from previous experiences, Pye's approach really speaks to me, and with each video and my practice, I am slowly building forward. I am not learning every possible way to do something, but one way, that works and can expand.
The second service that you get with a subscription is that you can ask questions. If you have a problem you can email Chris and get answers.
Third reason is one of support and belonging. By supporting a teacher's subscription service, you enable more videos to be produced. The money goes straight to the teacher and goes a lot further. Because there is a revenue stream, production values are professional, and the topics covered can have both breadth and depth. And at the same time you are belonging to something. The school of carving that Chris has established, even though it's virtual, has a style and a method, and you now have studied and learned in the same way as all his other students. If you get together for a reunion, you can sing the old school songs and understand and support each other's carving in a way that schoolmates can. And as a matter of fact, that's why I periodically write about his site. I am learning to carve; I really like his approach; and like a good alumnus, I want to give something back so I work the old school tie into all the conversations I can.
N.B. The videos in this blog are from several sample lessons Chris has put on YouTube.
One of the crappy things about using old planes is that a tremendous percentage are worn out. A steel mitre plane (or "infill" to use the modern phrase) unless made by a modern maker will probably be at least 150 years old. Norris, Spiers, and a few other makers continued making mitre planes up until the mid twentieth century but those are rare beasts. The average mitre plane you come across will be pre 1850.
Rotten wood can be replaced, but the most important feature of a mitre or a shoulder plane is a fine mouth. And not just a kind of fine mouth, the finest of mouths, especially if you are using the plane on end grain. The planes in the picture have mouths (with the irons withdrawn) ranging from a fat 1/64" to a fat 1/32". That's very fine.
Let's talk about fine mouths for a second. First of all it is pretty well understood that a super fine mouth on a smoothing plane breaks the shaving and reduces tearout. All well and good. But what about mitre, shoulder, and block planes? All of them are bevel up and used primarily for planing endgrain. Certainly there is no need for a fine mouth if the shaving is endgrain and will disintegrate on its own.
So why do unaltered historical examples of mitre and should planes have such extremely fine mouths?
There are two dimensions that concern us: the open space from the front of the blade to the lip of the throat - the effective mouth. And the absolute mouth opening when the blade is removed. As you can see from the photographs the mouths of these planes - a late 18th century mitre plane and a C. 1920's Norris shoulder plane are ridiculously fine and I would say this is typical of any infill in good condition that I know of. You do get planes that are worn out, planes where someone has widened the mouth, but for any infill plane in basic decent condition a very fine mouth is to be expected.
As we've stated before, planing endgrain doesn't require a plane with a fine mouth, but there are two very important reasons for having a fine mouth, especially when planing with a bevel-up plane.
Extending the iron sole of a plane as far as possible under a bevel up blade gives the blade more support and makes it less likely to chatter. Steel-soled planes can do this easily, but cast planes can't - unless they have a steel sole (like the shoulder plane in the picture). With a bevel down iron, there is a lot of support in the blade to prevent the very tip from bending and chattering. On a bevel up plane, on the other hand, the iron wants to bend and chatter around the edge of the sole. The more support the sole gives the iron, the more strength the iron has at the cutting edge -- and the better the plane will work. Cast mitre planes, by the very nature of a casting, cannot get as close to total support as a steel-soled dovetailed plane, where the steel sole can taper to a knife edge.
Controlling the cut:
If you are planing endgrain, especially if you are holding the plane in one hand and wood in the other, and you hold the plane perfectly against the wood when you start your stroke, you can determine the exact thickness of your cut by setting your plane iron. But if you are even slightly off and the plane is tilted on the wood, your shaving thickness will increase depending on the size of the plane mouth. The second drawing shows an exaggerated example of this. The practical effect of this is that you try to take a fine shaving and your plane jams, skids off the end, and takes an uneven chunk off the edge. Worse, you can damage that nice low angle cutting edge on your iron. A very fine mouth mitigates this and makes the plane easier to use, even if you aren't perfectly sitting on the wood. There is simply less space for the wood to jam into.
These points are small and minor. I understand that. But I get frustrated when someone compares the performance of a worn out 200 year old plane to an new modern plane, possibly of a lesser design. If you are in the market for a mitre plane, or a shoulder plane, make sure the overall mouth is minuscule. Also make sure that the iron and wedge match the plane. It's not at all uncommon for an old infill to have a replaced blade and/or wedge. Just normal use can cause this. Mitre planes had tapered irons and the original iron and wedge would have been fitted together so that you get continuous contact on the bridge. When properly fitted, the iron will set properly, hold its setting, and be easily adjusted. An ill fitting wedge just won't work right. If a parallel iron had been used to replace what was supposed to be a tapered iron, you will never get proper action without adjusting the wedge. Depending on circumstances, you will probably have a replacement iron with the original wedge. If you do and they don't fit, just put the original wedge in a safe place for when you resell the plane, and make a new wedge. Most shoulder planes used parallel irons so any replacement should fit it properly. Check before buying.
Many bevel up planes have cosmetic issues that don't matter, including damaged wooden parts (easily replaced) and misaligned wedges (easily adjusted). But - unlike a bevel down plane - bevel up planes with wide mouths can't be fixed with a thicker iron. You might like the feel of the plane but it won't get the action you would have gotten two centuries ago. Flattening a sole of a bevel up plane can easily, accidentally, widen the mouth. The steel sole behind the blade forms a knife edge and can be damaged. Unlike cast planes which can easily warp over time, steel planes stay pretty flat. A few pits and dings aren't worth worrying about. I would stone down any raised dings, but otherwise leave the sole alone. Before you try to flatten anything see how the plane works.
This past weekend, in spite of coming down with a cold, I needed to get out of the house and went to see A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde at MOMA. I should mention that if you are a NYC resident you can get a NYCID card which among other benefits gets you a free one year membership to MOMA. Which means in spite of being sick, I could pop in for an hour and a half, see the exhibit for free and not feel I had to spend all day because I paid a $25 admission fee (though it's free on Friday evenings).
I am a huge fan of Futurism in general so it was obvious I would want to see this exhibit before it closed. But while I was walking through the show I had a thought. Context! The exhibit consisted of pieces expressly made as "art" for gallery shows and other pieces - posters, books, and costume designs - that a century later are recognized as art and included at the show. I realized that I gravitated toward the posters, books and a dining set, my favorite piece, that I absolutely would love to have. I didn't get anything out of the pure art pieces (although a paper sculpture of a head was very cool).
What I realized is that the work intended for public consumption at the time had context. The artists and designers were trying to convey a message and they used the new vocabulary of the avant-garde to express the thought. And the works are POWERFUL. But the gallery material seems far more tentative and maybe experimental (and 15 years earlier, which might have something to do with it). They certainly doesn't hit me over the head. The context is different. The work was intended for a more limited audience that wanted to see "art" and was more forgiving and more indulgent. The message of the work is about the artist, not about some performance the artist was asked to promote in a poster.
Pondering this thought I went to test my theory.
The picture at the top of this blog is of a 1961 E-Type Jaguar, which is the centerpiece of an exhibit from the museum's collection of art from the 1960's. The car had the same impact as the avant-garde posters. First of all, the very fact the Jag was on exhibit shows us that it is now considered art. (To be fair, the car has been part of the MOMA design collection since the late 60's). It blows away everything else in the hall. While the works on the wall might define the 1960's for artists and collectors, for me at least the design vocabulary of the 60's was set by items such as this car. It influenced real world design much more than any art piece on display.
Maybe if I had to draw a conclusion, it would be that the art on the wall is commentary on what the artists saw and felt at the time, but the pieces from the outside world are what changed the world.
Just before leaving I stopped for a minute to see "Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh, probably one of the top five most famous pictures in the world. Many people stopped to look and take a picture of it. It didn't have to compete with any objects in the room, and it comes from a time when single paintings drew huge crowds (although not to impressionist work). My son, who is twelve and considers walking around a museum to be mind-boggingly boring, really had a hard time grasping that the picture behind the glass was the original painting and that was what was special about it. Times have changed and I think the ubiquity of electronic images make seeing the real thing less unique, less special. Seeing furniture in real life 3D on the other hand is still something the internet hasn't mastered. Although maybe with VR coming soon, maybe it will.
Modern furniture designers and makers are constantly being told that what they do is craft and not art. Woodworking certainly is craft, but as the Jag shows us, sometimes it's art. It's also pretty hard to make a piece of furniture that when people look at it they go "WOW."
But when they do: "WOW!"
I was totally in the midst of working on a post about mitre plane geometry when I made a discovery that totally put me in another direction. In the picture above are 4 mitre planes. I had laid out four planes in what I thought was chronological order, using what I knew about the planes and their makers.
From left to right:
Spiers - Latter part of the 19th century.
I Smith - Mid 19th Century (1860's?)
??? - Very early 19th century - Unmarked, possibly by Gabriel.
Christopher Gabriel - late 18th century.
The maker's stamps on the Spiers and Smith planes are on the lever cap or bridge. This is sort of what we would expect from any iron plane after the 1820's. It was pretty easy to stamp the bridge, and it's a spot that didn't get a lot of wear.
In the very early iron planes - such as the first two on the right - the steel stamps used for stamping wooden planes weren't that hard and wouldn't last very long stamping wrought iron. They were designed for wood. So Christopher Gabriel stamped his name on the inside of the front infill. On wood. On the side of the front infill which is nearly is nearly impossible to stamp once the plane is assembled so it won't be over-stamped by owners over the years. This particular plane has some numbers stamped in the bridge, which was not unusual for a Gabriel plane, but number stamps were easier to replace than a custom-made name stamp. Why Gabriel stamped numbers on the planes has been a subject of much speculation over the years.
I pegged the second plane plane from the right as early because of its construction, and possibly by Gabriel, but it's unmarked where it should be - on the wood. There's also some discoloration on the bridge. Since the plane shared some styles with Gabriel, I thought it might have been one of his. The wedge is a replacement. The dealer who sold me the plane back in 2000 thought the same about all the dating.
Now, putting the planes in order for this blog entry shook everything up.
As I put the planes in order for the photograph, I saw a stamp that the dealer overlooked -- and I overlooked for nearly twenty years. The plane bears a stamp just under the hole in the front of the plane. The "WATER" part was pretty easy to read, but it took awhile to suss out the "BY" at the front. "BYWATER."
Richard Bywater made planes in London from 1790-1814. He was a contemporary of Christopher Gabriel who owned a larger firm that was also in London.
The chances of Bywater not knowing of Gabriel's iron planes would be zero. One characteristic of Gabriel's planes is the long toe. Like the Bywater plane. But why is the maker's name stamped on the toe?
Maybe it's not a maker's stamp but an owner's? It's possible, but I don't think so. I think the random chances of an unmarked early plane being stamped with the name of a planemaker isn't zero but it's small. (Even if the stamp doesn't exactly match any of the marks included in Goodman and Rees's "British Planemakers from 1700.") And if we are talking about Bywater the planemaker, it's more than possible he didn't make the plane himself as the tools of metalwork are different than the tools of woodwork. The reason the plane would have been marked on the toe is that there are very few planes on an assembled mitre plane where you can swing a hammer enough to mark the metal deeply without running the risk of bending something. I certainly wouldn't risk it.
If Bywater didn't make the plane, who did? Craftwork in 18th century London was done by small independent Little Meisters who either worked in their own small quarters or worked in a larger shop, working on their own but buying parts from the master, all paid on piecework. Did this plane come out of the Gabriel shops, wholesale, to be retailed by Bywater? Was it made by a Little Meister working for Gabriel, made on the sly to sell to Bywater?
I don't know: it's all speculation. Do you have any ideas?
In previous blogs we discussed the need for grinding for a variety of reasons. This final reason is the most unfortunate one: you need to repair a damaged cutting edge. This problem could come about from dropping the chisel (see photo), burning the steel from incorrect grinding, or any number of crises. If we were to grind out the damage by just grinding the bevel like we normally do, we would burn the steel and create more damage. The drawing illustrates the problem. Constant grinding on the bevel heats up the entire bevel. When the damaged tip get heated, the heat has no place to go - especially when the rest of the bevel is heated up too. Even with a cool wheel, this will be a problem.
The solution to this problem is simple. We first level up the tool rest and grind the chisel end square past the damage. As we are only grinding at the tip, not the entire bevel, there is little heat, and the heat has someplace to go (see sketch).
I can free-hand grind pretty square on a crowned wheel, but a scribe line to guide your grinding can be useful. Or after grinding, a few passes on a stone to ensure a straight edge can be helpful. If you are a little off, it doesn't matter. Final honing fixes everything. As you can see in the picture, you want to grind back to an even flat just past the damage on the chisel.
Then we will reset the rest and grind to a wire edge, just like we did before in Part 5. The only difference is that instead of setting the rest to grind in the middle of the bevel, we want to grind a bit towards the back of the bevel to compensate for the blunt edge we just ground. If you are shortening the bevel angle and not really correcting damage, you would also grind a blunt end, but not move the bevel back.
In Part 5, when I ground the chisel I checked to see my bevel disappear, then stopped. In this case, the bevel will disappear fairly quickly, but my work will not be done until I have removed the blunt end. As I grind, I look to see that the flat end starts to disappear. In the first photo, the flat end is about half gone (and uneven). I continue the grinding, with more effort on the thick side, until both sides are even and the edge (seen as a white refection in the light) disappears. Then I am done and ready to hone.
For instructions on honing your freshly ground edges - click here.
Also searching my blog will turn up a lot of sharpening material from past years.
Finally if you are in the NYC area I will be teaching both grinding and honing in two free classes in March. Please see the events menu for the exact schedule, more classes will show up shortly.