Good Tools Work for You, Not Against You

Nearly every tool is designed with compromises. In some cases, the compromise is made to increase the ease of production (and therefore lower cost). Other times, the compromise is made to make the tool more appealing to a broader audience.

After using a tool for a while, these compromises become very clear. You’ll think, “I wish this power cord was longer”, “this handle hurts my hand”, “it’s hard to read these scales”, or “why can’t I cut a straight line?” Okay, maybe that last one is user error, but you get the point.

Once you understand the compromises you can identify the root cause(s) of the problem and begin to theorize possible solutions. I never shy away from modifying my tools to make them work better for me, as my philosophy reminds me that tools are meant to be utilized, and anything that makes them work better for me, or easier for me to use, is a worthwhile modification. Of course, this customization may or may not benefit others, since I am making these changes thinking about only myself.
The Intuitive Handsaw
This momentous video (13:03) highlights some compromises, specific issues, root causes, possible solutions, and technique modifications that can improve tool performance.

My Tripot: Final Cleanup

Fascinated with the form of the tripot, and interested to see what was involved in making one, I started my own. I couldn’t think of a better way to understand and appreciate it than to make one myself.

In my first two articles about making my tripot, I showed how I shaped most of the interior and exterior. For the remainder of the shaping, there were no shortcuts – what was required was manual carving and sanding.

I removed the tripot from the lathe, then I used carving tools to remove as much extraneous material as I could between the bases of the three pots. I used only my fingertips as a guide to tell me where material still needs to be removed, since they were not only the most convenient measuring tools, but of the exact accuracy required.

My smallest veining gouge, a #11/1 (severity of sweep and width, in millimeters) was useful in helping define the separation between the two pots, and the joint was further refined with skew chisels which were better able to create a precise corner.

Because the center point where the three pots meet is recessed when viewed from the bottom, this means that to carve into this area is in fact against the grain. Of course, this makes it difficult to make clean and controlled cuts. My solution to this problem was to use micro scorps to shape this area. The scorps can cut on the draw stroke, so I was able to do much of the carving in the recess with the grain.

To blend the surfaces, I continued the shaping process with abrasives, starting at 80-grit and progressing through 180. Although hand sanding may be tedious it is a vital part of the process in creating a fine product and I actually find it relaxing and meditative.

At this stage, when it seemed like I was ready for finishing, I stopped and examined the tripot from all angles under my task light. I checked all surfaces again with my fingertips for any flat spots, high points, or defects.

I went back and fixed the deficiencies that I found. I tested a finish on a scrap of the same material, then applied it to the tripot using a foam brush, and rags to wipe off the excess.

My Tripot: Turning the Base

Fascinated with the form of the tripot, and interested to see what was involved in making one, I have started my own. I couldn’t think of a better way to understand and appreciate it than to make one myself.

In my first article about making my tripot, I showed how I shaped most of the exterior using a router and lathe together. Since then, I hollowed out each vessel starting with a drill bit to establish the depth of each pot, then using turning tools to reduce the wall thickness and shape the interior. For each pot, I had to mount the pot being worked on centred on the lathe axis, then mount counterbalances to allow the lathe to run without excessive vibration.

To accomplish this, I attached a disc of 1/2″ plywood between the face plate and tripot to which I strategically screwed scrap wood opposite to the bulk of the off-axis tripot mass. Pieces of the first tripot attempt worked perfectly.

After drilling out the centre with a drill bit mounted in the tailstock, I used a bowl gouge to hollow the vessel. A purpose-built hollowing tool would have allowed me more freedom in design (for example, creating more of a vase shape and less of a bowl shape) and provided greater control and safety, but since I don’t own such a tool and wasn’t prepared to purchase one, I made do. My confidence with the bowl gouge improved substantially with these intimidating cuts – many of which were well beyond the tool rest in tight quarters.

After hollowing each pot, I sanded the inside to completion, working through grits from 80 to 220. I found that Mirka Abranet cut more quickly than any of the abrasive papers I tried. Sanding the inside of small pots is not fun, and I wanted to finish and move on as quickly as possible. To assist in sanding, I improvised a tool to sand the inside bottoms by applying adhesive-backed hook strips to a 1/2″ steel drill rod.

To this tool, I attached the loop-backed strips of Abranet and chucked it in a heavy-duty drill for power sanding and ran the drill clockwise while the lathe turned the pot counter-clockwise.

While it might be safe and acceptable to hold sandpaper in your hand to sand the inside of a larger bowl, the small scale of this vessel, coupled with the fact that there are several other larger pots whirling around it, meant that I didn’t want my hands anywhere near the workpiece. So I chucked up a sleeveless sanding drum in my drill and fitted it with a piece of Abranet. I intentionally left it proud of the drum’s end to help sand the transition from side wall to bottom.

Again, I ran the lathe and drill in opposite directions This made for an efficient and satisfying sanding experience.

After all three pots were hollowed and sanded, I took the tripot off the lathe and cut off the waste at the base using the bandsaw.

I turned a tenon on a piece of clear pine to exactly fit the opening of the largest vessel and used this jam chuck to mount the tripot on the lathe facing the opposite direction to shape the base.

I tried using a pointed live centre before switching to a cup centre which allowed me to adjust the positioning of the bottom of the pot to ensure the pot was running fairly true.

I used a bowl gouge to turn the bottom round as far as I could without removing too much material from the other two pots.

This video (7:47) shows how the base was turned.

Then I created another jam chuck for the next tripot vessel and repeated the process, before sanding and carving to refine the shape. That’ll be the focus of the next segment on making my tripot.

My Tripot: Shaping the Exterior

Fascinated with the form of the tripot, and interested to see what was involved in making one, I have started my own. I couldn’t think of a better way to understand and appreciate it than to make one myself.

Loosely following an article in Woodwork by Hugh McKay on his process of making a pentapot (five vessels in one), I began work on my own.

First, I played around with a sheet of paper and a compass to lay out the overall sizes of the three vessels for my tripot. I wanted their diameters to be significantly different for interest. Since most of the shaping is done on the lathe, I knew that I needed the other two pots to clear the lathe bed when any one was mounted on centres. That limited the overall size of the piece I could make. I figured that it was also important that the three pots meet in the middle, and for the walls to not overlap so much that, when hollowing them out, the cavities would meet.

Once I had a layout that met my criteria, I transferred it to a piece of 1/4” MDF which became my template. I’m not sure this was really necessary, but it was one of the steps McKay used in the creation of his pots (the template did help me when I needed to start again… more on that later).

I chose a chunk of black locust about 8” thick. At the bandsaw, I squared up the blank, ensuring both ends were parallel to each other. I carefully positioned my template on the end grain, avoiding any checks, bark, or knots that could have compromised the strength of the tripot.  With a short screw in the centre of each circle representing a pot, I fastened the template to the black locust. Carefully, I cut to the lines using my bandsaw.

Next, I determined how tall to make each pot. I had to remember to accommodate for some chucking wastage at one end, where the screws would go in to hold the face plate. Again, following the recommendation of McKay, I used a drill press and forstner bit to remove the bulk of the waste. Boring into the end grain of a hard wood was not quick, and the results were not especially clean, with stalagmites and brad point divots abounding. I quickly cleaned up the resulting surface with a hand saw and chisels.

To profile the exterior, the pot could not be simply spun on the lathe and a gouge be presented to the work unless you were impossibly good at quickly applying and removing the tool as the other two vessels off-axis came around at you. Instead, shaping is done with a router with the work mounted on an unplugged lathe. This required some jigging.

I created a plywood platform that got mounted to the lathe bed. For my smallest router, which I had chosen to use for the shaping, I built a cradle to hold it securely in line with the lathe’s axis when resting on the platform. Lastly, I cut a template for the router to follow.

For a clean cut, ease of control, and long reach, I chose to mount a 1/4” up-spiral solid carbide router bit in the trim router. With a pot screwed to a faceplate and mounted on the lathe, I used the router to estimate where to position the template to remove the minimum amount of material, while creating a fully shaped vessel without flat spots. I clamped the template with a pair of clamps and got ready to start routing.

My left hand was on the wheel controlling the rotation of the lathe, and my right hand moved the router on the platform. Taking shallow bites, I slowly worked my way around the pot as far as I could. It took patience and focus to take only small bites, and to keep the router firmly on the platform. Several times, the router caught, tipped forward, and ended up carving deep holes in the side of the pot, requiring me to re-adjust the template to remove the divots. In the end, I ended up deciding that there was not going to be enough material left to make it worth continuing.

I started again. This is where that template came in handy. I simply screwed it to a new piece of locust and cut it out again at the bandsaw. After determining the height of the pots, I cut across the tops of the pots with a coarse handsaw, then split away the waste with a chisel and mallet. This was much quicker and cleaner than using a forstner bit.

At the lathe, I took the shaping process much more cautiously. Analyzing my previous failure, I realized that I would have a better chance of success if I: clamped the router to the platform to avoid tipping; didn’t use a spiral bit to prevent the bit from wanting to pull itself into the work; used a router bit with a short cutting length and a bearing to keep the cutting part from engaging with the other two vessels; and screwed the template securely to the platform. I took all these precautions for the second attempt.

In this video, I describe my setup, and demonstrate the shaping method.

My process worked well, and the extra precautions I took were worth the effort.

After routing all three pots as much as I could, there were a few spots that the router couldn’t access. I cleaned those up with skew chisels and carving gouges.

Next up: hollowing!

Defects Are Hints For Something Better

In all the creative work I have done with live-edge material, I have always looked at a cut section – where a limb was removed or the material cut to length – as a shortcoming.

But recently, I had an epiphany.

Like so many of my revelations, this one came while experimenting on a piece of scrap wood worth nothing to me. This particular piece of wood was about the size of a 2×4 roughly three feet long. The middle foot had the bark intact and the area to either side was cut straight.

I was carving for no reason other than to carve for enjoyment. I started removing material, trying to make the cut edge flow into the live edge. Then, as I like to do, I began forming a twist. Completely by eye, I carved a quarter twist into the first third of the board, blending it into the bark as best I could.

The result was very interesting. It was no longer an area of defect that you should divert your eyes from and politely pretend you hadn’t noticed. It was not apologetic, rather it was a bold feature that demanded equal, if not greater attention than the live edge. I think that the irregularity of the done-by-eye twist worked favourably with the organic bark edge.

Moreover, I feel that if used between two sections of live edge, this twist would not only fit in with equal authority, but it would in fact visually tie the two live edge sections together.

I am never satisfied when I have to make a compromise in a design to make up for a shortcoming. This, however, is not a compromise – it is taking a problem and fully exploiting it for what it really is: a design opportunity.

twisted edge sculpted into live

Woodworking On-the-Go with Modified Knives

Anytime I go somewhere and anticipate the possibility of having some free time, I like to have a knife with me to carve.

My First Modified Carving Knife

I started with a German #8 chip carving knife with a fixed blade. I modified the blade to extend the cutting edge right to the handle, and to reduce the overall blade length. Since the blade didn’t fold, I drove it into a wine cork and used that for safe carry. This is a very nice carving knife, and it has become my shop knife, used for everything from opening packages and quick scribing rapid material removal (like a small one-handed drawknife) and carving.

The synthetic cork shown here is the second or third guard that the knife has had, as they sometimes get lost. I find that this synthetic cork does hold together better than the first natural cork, since the blade width is about half of the cork diameter.

Two Folding Knives: One for Carving, One for General Work with a Chisel Tip

A Folding Knife for Carving

The German fixed-blade knife got replaced as a pocket carving knife when I acquired a folding Opinel knife with a broken tip – the perfect opportunity to make a folding carving knife, which is safer and more convenient to carry, and equally suitable for carving.

I like the Opinel knives because they are lightweight, comfortable to hold, have a simple lock that secures the blade in the open and closed positions, and feature a taper-ground high-carbon steel blade that takes and holds a fine edge. They are also very affordable.

To modify the knife for carving, I shortened the blade length, reshaped the back of the handle for comfort, fit a piece of wood inside the handle to keep the blade from closing too far, and put it to work.

 

A General-Purpose Folding Knife with a Chisel Tip

The knife that I carry with me most often is a cheap Gerber with a stainless steel blade. I like it because it has a handy spring clip, is easy to open with one hand, and features a stout blade with a solid frame lock. The blade is bevelled on both side, so this is more of a utility knife for me – I use it for opening packages, trimming my finger nails, and most recently, to assist in some impromptu joinery clean-up/furniture repair (dowels were too long and needed trimming).

As a reader of my blog, you likely know my affection for chisels. Knives are very useful, but chisels afford more control, and the force is applied inline with the blade. So, I decided to modify my stainless steel folder to include a chisel tip as an experiment. First, I wanted to see if it was possible, and how it would look. Second, I wanted to find out how useful this chisel grind really would be, and if it would restrict the capabilities of the knife in ways I typically use it..

I used my bench grinder and 120-grit wheel to first blunt the tip and grind it straight (I was surprised at how quickly the metal disappeared). Then, I angled the tool rest and ground a 25 degree bevel by eye (length of the bevel is about twice the height). I refined the bevel with my diamond plate, then polished it with a felt wheel charged with honing compound, which was mounted on the other end of my bench grinder.

The modified blade looks good and the ~5/8″ chisel tip seems useful, though I haven’t had a real-world application to test it. I did notice that the actual edge is not straight. This is a result of the shape of the blade – as supplied by the manufacturer, the un-ground back section of the blade is flat, the primary bevel is hollow-ground, and then there is a secondary bevel. The result is a chisel with a slightly hollow back and two trimmed corners – kind of like a lazy W shape. This chisel isn’t intended to replace a proper one, but hopefully will prove handy when one isn’t available. I will continue to carry this knife and test it at every opportunity.

Woodworking Digitally is More Convenient, But Not Better

What Do I Mean By “Woodworking Digitally”?

First, let me define digital. I don’t exclusively mean the use of measuring tools with LCD screens. I mean the use of any numbers at all, whether Metric or Imperial, decimals or fractions. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

digital: of, relating to, or using calculation by numerical methods or by discrete units

Pros and Cons to Using Numbers

Whether following plans or making your own, numbers play an important role in communicating sizes. Of course, communication is not a bad thing. However, the disadvantage of building using measurements is that sizes of the things we design and build tend to be based on convenient numbers (e.g. 42-1/2” or 850 mm) rather than sizes best suited to either the materials being used or the product being built.

If you are designing and building the item yourself, why not build without numbers? There is no rule that says a board 3/4” thick is the ideal balance between strength and weight, or that it a 1×4 is perfectly proportioned.

A Few Examples of Not Using Numbers

Numeric values are not required to build a good chair. A chair seat should be deep and wide enough to sit in comfortably, and at an appropriate height. Stack some toolboxes and plywood and try sitting on it. Add or remove layers and experiment with different heights. Do you want your feet to rest flat on the ground? The chair height you find comfortable likely isn’t an even number.

Move forward and sit on the edge of the seat. Move backward until you’re comfortable and make a mark where the back rest would be. Or start with a chair already made, and test it to see if you would change any proportions.

Already have your materials on hand? Maybe your project allows enough flexibility to use the wood to its fullest. Pick the best boards for the table top and arrange them for the best grain match. Then cut the table top as big as possible. Maybe it’ll be rectangular, or maybe it will be elliptical.

This table was made for a cherry crotch slab, and I made it as big as it allowed.

Building a cabinet for a specific spot and need it to hold dishes? Use a straight scrap of wood to make a story stick. Simply make marks on it indicating the length, width and depth of the cabinet. Line up your plates and bowls on the counter and figure out how many shelves you need, and how much headroom is required for each.

Flip your story stick over and make additional marks on the back for the location of each shelf. Then transfer these dimensions either to the material or directly to the saw.

Story sticks are also ideal for replicating something. You never have to ask – is this shelf 14-7/8 or 14-15/16 inches wide”, or “is 14-3/4 inches close enough”? Instead, it’s just a definitive line for the width of the shelf. Better yet, if the shelf is removable, you can use it to set up a stop block or rip fence to produce an identically sized part.

How often do you need to find the middle of the board? This is a task that I do very frequently, and there’s no reason to bring numbers into the mix. A common approach is to set a combination square so that when the stock is against one edge, the blade is locked near the middle of the board. Make a small mark along the end of the blade and flip the square so the stock rests against the opposite edge. The middle of the board is equidistant from those two marks, and you can readjust the square to be as precise as you need.

Never forget, invert, or mix up numbers again. Never make a rounding error and stop working with convenient dimensions. Work to a level of precision beyond what is practical with numbers. Save the digital for reading blogs.

Mounting Shelves and Pictures on Walls

Since moving into our new house last year, I have hung dozens of pictures and shelves. Okay, maybe not dozens, but very likely a dozen. Every time, the challenges are the same: what is the best location, where are the studs, and is it level?

While not immediately obvious, we always do reach a consensus of where best to hang the shelf or picture.

I am also fortunate to have a trusting family that doesn’t second-guess my ability to mount things level. However, I have certainly hung more than one where my “helper” is peering over my shoulder at the level and reminding me that it’s slightly slanted.

“Thanks, but why don’t you try levelling this a round clock?”

Not only is this not helpful, but it actually makes the process more aggravating. Sometimes I want to use the level in a very different way from which it was intended.

Besides that, I find playing “find the stud” is irritating enough (I’m pretty sure that whoever framed my house was an M.C. Escher fan). Instead of a stud finder, I need a pair of X-ray goggles. Or a treasure map.

While I’m still saving up for X-ray goggles and searching for that map, I have found a solution to make finding level easier, and I recently got to try it mounting one of my #WSBO wall shelves. Check it out: the First Guess Gravity Gauge.

Working Efficiently in a Small Shop

It can be a challenge to work efficiently in a small shop, but I have arranged the equipment in the space of a 1-car garage to allow me to build with components up to five feet in length without having to rearrange. In fact, the only machine that is on wheels is my 13″ thickness planer.

Most of the things I build involve components not longer than five feet, so work goes very smoothly. Some machines have the capacity to work with stock greater than five feet as they sit and I sometimes take advantage of that, and other times I use a hand-held tool instead.

I have written an article for Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement Magazine that will appear in a future issue describing my layout, the benefits, and why it works well for me. If you work in a shop with limited space, I think that you’ll find the article interesting.

This time-lapse video was recorded during the Wall Shelf Build-Off, and illustrates my workflow in the shop, and how I use the limited space that I have. Duration: (10:18)

For more pictures of my shop, check out this post: Welcome to the New Shop.

Results from the 2017 Wall Shelf Build-Off

Well, the ballots have been tallied and that means it’s time to award some prizes.  Although there were not as many entries as I had hoped for, the shelves built were well-constructed, innovative, and certainly well made considering the two day time limit. This made it tough for judges to decide which shelf was the best of each category. Several categories were decided by a single vote.

Sponsors and Prizes

First, I’d like to thank the generous sponsors who have provided the prizes. Please use the links below to learn more about the sponsors and their products.

Judges

I would also like to recognize the judges who took the time to carefully review the shelf submissions and cast their ballots.

Prizes

In addition to every prize awarded, each winner also will receive a 360 Woodworking Fanatic Membership!

Click on any image to read more about the shelf design.

By Category


The winner of this category is certainly no stranger to innovation when it comes to furniture. The award of Most Innovative Design goes to Judson Beaumont and Straight Line Designs.

For their efforts, Popular Woodworking will be sending them a copy of Contemporary Furniture: 17 Elegant Projects You Can Build.

11a


This very creative and original design, carefully crafted, earned Danny Siggers’ shelf the title of Best Concept.

His design has earned him a Kerfmaker from Bridge City Tool Works.

6b


With a very resourcefully-built and arguably wacky design, the shelf built by Brian Prusa edged out other shelves in the categories of Best Use of Materials and Most Off-the-Wall (Figuratively Speaking) Design.

His floating live-edge shelf earned him a copy of Build 25 Beautiful Boxes from Popular Woodworking and a Set of 4 Bench Dogs from Time Warp Tool Works.

brian-prusa


I don’t think it’s a surprise to any of us that the wild-looking wall shelf with lots of curves and bent laminations won the prize for the Most Ambitious Design. Eric and his daughter Hailey’s design also earned the title of Most Inspiring Design.

Coming your way will be a 2-year Print or Digital Subscription to Popular Woodworking, and a Woodpeckers Mini Square from Ultimate Tools.

4b


Flair Woodworks Reader’s Choice Awards.

Ballots were scored as follows: 3 points for each #1 vote, 2 points for each #2 vote, and 1 point for each #3 vote. With 171 ballots cast, the maximum number of points that a shelf could score was 513.

Flair Woodworks Reader’s Choice #3 goes to Danny Siggers, whose shelf got 21.5% of possible points. The prize for this category is a 1-year Digital Subscription to Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement Magazine.

danny-siggers


Flair Woodworks Reader’s Choice #2 goes to David Barlow’s shelf with 30% of possible points.
He will receive a copy of Vic Tesolin’s book, The Minimalist Woodworker: Essential Tools and Small Shop Ideas for Building with Less.

david-barlow


Flair Woodworks Reader’s Choice #1 is awarded to Eric and Hailey Zuehlk, whose shelf attracted 38% of possible points  and earned them a signed copy of Ron Hock’s book, The Perfect Edge.

eric-hailey-zuehlk


There were three individuals who accurately predicted the top three Flair Woodworks Reader’s Choice. We broke the tie, and the award of a 1-year Digital Subscription to Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement Magazine goes to Eric Zuehlk’s brother, Brian. Clearly that family has good taste!

Judges’ Top Picks

Coming in Judges’ Honourable Mention, with 13% of the points from the judges is Matt Kummell’s shelf with impressive angled joinery and eye-catching metal inlay.

Time Warp Tool Works will send him a set of 4 Bench Dogs for a job well done.

matt-kummell


Receiving 16% of points from judges, the Judges’ Runner Up is…me and my “Hashtag” shelf for displaying carved letter blocks.

I will be declining the prize of a Kerfmaker from Bridge City Tool Works, since I already own one.

chris-wong


And, taking the Judges’ Top Shelf award with 24% of all awarded points by judges is that wicked design by the Zuehlks.

Well done – Green Buddy Distributors will be sending you a Grex AOS368 Angle Random Orbital Sander.

eric-hailey-zuehlk2


Remember that you can view all the Wall Shelves built during the #WSBO two day build on this page. Thanks to everybody who participated and voted. See you next time!

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