Sunday, February 18, 2007

Where to Start? Where to Stop?

I had a visit from a young man who is aspiring to be a chairmaker. He was trying to weed his way through all of the information that he's been compiling and figure outwhere he should focus his attention. I have great sympathy for this position, not only have I been there, but it is a place that I find myself in constantly. Where to begin?
In woodworking and with my students I have a simple answer, sharpening. There is a lot of information out there about sharpening, in fact, too much. This is where the question turns from Where to start? to Where to stop?
When is the tool sharp? I have a simple test that I like to use. Any tool that will shave the end grain of a soft pine board and leave a smooth waxy surface is sharp. The soft pine will tear up with anything remotely dull. Why this test? By cutting the pine, versus shaving hair etc.. I can see the condition of the entire edge, not just that it has sharp areas but is completely sharp. To me this is vital because much of the finish surfaces of my work is straight from the blade, no sanding. Also, a sharp tool is a joy to use and in many instances, the only one that works.
When I was trying to figure out Where to start?, I got some woodworking magazines and read that the handplane could take feathery shavings and leave a perfect surface. Great, so I went to the hardware store, bought a plane, went home, assembled it and pushed it across a beautiful piece of cherry. Of course I mangled the surface. My inspiration was as damaged as the cherry. What they don't tell you on the box is that planes, or any handtool, are sold as kits. It is up to you to tune and sharpen the tool. Some expensive tools need very little tuning while cheaper ones may require hours.
I now know that even a screwdriver can take feathery shavings and leave a perfect surface, if it's sharp.
So after watching me work in the shop for a couple of hours, my visitor left with a list of books and the notion that he needs to learn to sharpen. I am adding the list of books to the blog.


greg said...

Looking at the picture of your seat I'm wondering why you work your gutter before you do the saddling. I don't think I have seen this before.

Peter Galbert said...

Honestly I had to think for a minute to find why I do it this way. I always try to do all the work that I can while I have the reference of the flat seat. This includes all reaming and carving. By carving the gutter first, I can use it to define the seat carving rather than having the seat carving define the gutter. I use a travisher with a relatively flat curve (I find most of them far too curved) to carve right up to the edge of the gutter. I can also imagine that with the seat carved, the potential for blowing out the short grain of the side of the gutter might pose a problem. It probably works fine however you choose to do it, give both ways a try and let me know!

Andrew Jack said...

hey Pete
i dont know if you check on older postings like this one, but while i was in TN, Curtis summarized the sharp tool/pine end grain issue by comparing pine to a tomato, whereas most other woods would act as an apple; only the sharpest knife will cut a tomato without crushing and deforming it, while an apple can be cut with a butter knife if need be. i hope all is well.