Workbench v2: Milling the Top

At the end of the last installment, I had the workbench top-milling task to deal with. I’ve never worked with anything this large before, so I didn’t quite know what to do. A little rough experimentation revealed that the grain reversed on the faces of the timbers about two-thirds of the way across, where the face became tangential to the growth rings (a common occurrence in this type of sawcut).

In light of this, I decided to rip the timbers at the point that the grain reversed, so that I could match the grain direction across the entire width of the top (it also didn’t hurt that there were a lot of monster knots on the “thin” side). That would give me two roughly 8″ sections that I’d be able to mill and glue up.

The first thing I needed to do was support the timbers while ripping. I had a choice between making sawbenches or just going out to get a couple of 2x4s to fill in the sawhorse brackets that I had on hand (I’d long since scavenged most of the pieces I used the last time I used the sawhorses). I opted to defer the sawbenches again and got the 2x4s.

Ripping six feet on two of these timbers was a chore, but not quite as bad as I’d expected. It helped that I sharpened my big rip saw before. In the end, I had to make four of those cuts (two at the point where the grain reversed, and two more at the ends to eliminate some excessively bashed-up wood).

So then it was on to milling. Now I really had no clue what to do. The first thing I tried to mill the edges was to fasten some handscrews in an odd arrangement to hook it to the end of my bench:

This was quite a secure arrangement, but it didn’t work for two reasons: First, there was too much junk in the shop to the right of the timber to get a jointer plane over there, and second, the timber was now far too high off the ground for me to reasonably bear down on.

After some fretting and sulking, I reminded myself that Toshio Odate wrote about how Japanese carpenters secure stuff both big and small against a wall (or something). Looking at pages 6-7 of his Japanese Woodworking Tools book, I tried to think of how I might be able to do this with with western tools. The one really important thing, it seemed to me, was to be able to keep some clearance between the end of the timber and whatever you’re securing against.

In the end, I came to this arrangement with the same sawhorses that I used to rip the timbers:

One end of the timber rests on a board with a clamped stop, and that board sits on top of the sawhorse with one end secured against a timber in the house. Here’s a look at the stop:

This is really nothing special, but it surprisingly worked quite well and I was able to mill and joint the timbers with no further ado.

Well, the “ado” would not apply to the task of lugging these timbers all of the the place as I ripped, milled, and flipped them around. Ugh.

After I was finished jointing, I put the timbers side-by-side on my bench to see what I now had to deal with. Combined, they were 16 inches, and looking at this surprised me. I’d been thinking that I wanted 20″ across the top of the new bench, but now I wasn’t so sure. I believe that I’m going to trim that down to 18″, so now I need only one more 2″ wide strip to go across what will probably be the front of the bench.

The difficulty: Right now, I don’t have any pieces of douglas-fir in the appropriate size. The offcuts from the big rips are really a bit too knotty for my tastes (big knots in long-seasoned douglas-fir are essentially indestructible). I thought of getting one more timber, but then I had this other idea. I happen to have a piece of well-seasoned 8/4 beech that’s just the right length and width. Would it make sense to use that in the front? It doesn’t dent as easily as douglas-fir (even the excessively old stuff that I have).

Seems to me that (or some other piece of hardwood) would work. Oh well, I won’t be able to work on this for two weeks now, so I’ll have that time to think about it.

Workbench v2: Another Wood Installment

So, what’s been happening with the new workbench? Not much, because I needed more wood, so I’ve instead been dorking around the shop, cleaning things, and rehabbing old tools.

Last Sunday, I got the next installment of wood, and I now have all of the legs and half of the stretchers milled out:

That was the easy part. The task ahead of me is considerably tougher:

Those are two 6.5′ 4x14s that will somehow comprise the top in the end. I really have only the faintest idea on how I’m going to support these things as I’m ripping and sizing them. I suppose I could finally make some sawbenches.

And, of course, I have to glue them up. Yay.

Tapping Out a Western Plane Blade

Warning: What I talk about in this post is not considered standard practice in any way, shape, or form, and may be completely wrong.

I’ve been wanting an old wooden western-style smoothing plane for a while, and a couple of months back, I picked up an Ogontz/Sandusky coffin-style smoothing plane at the Alameda flea. It’s nothing special–beech body and a big laminated blade a little more than 2″ wide.

It had been used to a certain extent, and the most annoying thing about it was the way the blade face had been sharpened–it was rounded over. It was the “ruler trick” gone mad, I suppose. It may have been done with a grinder. A lot of old blades turn out this way and they’re not particularly easy to sharpen when in this condition. Because there’s often no set angle you can use on the stone, you can’t register it on anything. In this case, it was especially bad because it was quite convex, both across and up and down the face. Oh yeah, and it was pitted, too. Yuck.

I didn’t have time to deal with it, so it sat on the shelf until recently, when something occurred to me. Because the blade is thick and laminated like that of a Japanese plane, it might be possible to use the technique of “tapping out” to create a new flat for the face edge. I recently had to do this to a couple of blades and it seemed to me that it might be worth a try.

The problem is that I’ve never heard of anyone doing this to a Western blade. It could be just totally wrong.

So I tried it first on a blade from a big jointer that was suffering from a similar situation. To my surprise, it worked. But that was a large, brutish plane that I don’t use for delicate tasks, and I didn’t want to go blabbering about it until I’d tried it on something else, such as the smoother.

I’m not going to describe the process of tapping out because Wilbur Pan has already done that here. I used a small ball-peen hammer and the silly anvil on the back of my cheap machinist’s vise (I tried tapping on a block of wood at first, but that didn’t work–I might speculate that the soft steel in an old western blade is harder than the (typically) wrought iron used in the Japanese blades). Because the blade was rounded along the complete width, I had to tap it nearly all of the way to the sides. The result was that the high spots on the face were now the edge (as desired), as well as a spot in the center (we’ll see that later).

Before getting any further, I must give you this warning: If you’re interested in tapping something out, don’t try it on a thin Bailey/Stanley-style blade, or any blade that’s solid hardened tool steel. It will most likely crack or chip, because steel that takes an edge and is designed to cut wood is brittle. I’m going to guess that if you’re really crazy about the idea, you might be able to temper the blade first, then tap it out, then harden it again.

Now it was time to sharpen the blade and see if it worked. The bevel was in terrible shape, and there was a big nick, so I had to take it to my (horrible) grinder first. Then it was off to my Sigma Power #120 stone. First I worked the face to what I thought was a pretty good surface, then I put the thing in a honing guide, reformed the bevel at 25 degrees, and finally worked my way up through the grits on both sides. Thinking that the blade seemed sharp enough, I tested it out.

That first test did not go particularly well. I couldn’t manage to take a thin shaving, shavings kept getting jammed in the throat, and the surface left behind was ridged, not smooth. Much not to my amusement, the edge also seemed to have gotten kind of messed up.

I found the shaving thickness problem pretty quickly; the bottom of the plane wasn’t even remotely flat (it was bumpy). A couple of passes with my Veritas jointer fixed that, and I was able to get a good shaving. I popped out a little crud in the mouth, and that fixed the jams. But the surface on the planed wood was still crummy.

Perhaps my sharpening job wasn’t as good as I’d hoped it was. I took a photo with my macro lens; here is about 3/8″ of the edge:

Basically, the edge wasn’t really sharp to begin with in some spots, and there was still some pitting across the edge.

So I hit the Sigma Power #120 again to remove the pitting, and also to try to get a better bevel shape. I ended up with this after working through my stones:

There was still a very tiny nick-like thing for that one deep pit in there, but would it matter? Well, of course it would sometime, but at this point, I was more interested in seeing if all of this wasn’t a waste of my time, so I put the blade into the plane and tried it out:

Bingo. Translucent shavings, polished surface, yadda yadda. The wood on the left is beech, and the one on the right is some mystery softwood (spruce or fir, most likely). The softwood actually had some figure that the plane brought out:

Yeah, that’s a little birdseye that’s trying to come out. Strangely, I didn’t find the ridge from that little nick in the edge, but I’m sure I will sometime, so I still have to take care of that.

In the end, the face of the blade looks like this:

So in the center, it’s kind of the opposite of a Japanese blade–whereas those have the hollow in the center and are high on the edges, this one has a big annoying high spot in the center. However, that spot still gives you something to register upon when honing the face. It’s as easy to sharpen as a Japanese blade, too, because there’s much less surface area to float on top of the stone.

Well, we’ll see how this works out. As I hinted at the beginning of the post, this could possibly be one of the most idiotic things I’ve done to a tool.