Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making a Straightedge

For the past two days we have been making straightedges, which are not to be confused with (but do have) straight edges. The straightedge is a tool for, well, helping you make straight edges and, as such, must have at least one straight edge. You can go to Henery Hardware, about 5 minutes drive from the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, and buy for a few bucks a yard stick or a three-foot level, both of which (you might reasonably assume) have at least one straight edge. But, being immersed in the world of traditional hand woodworking at this point in the course, we are learning to understand, make, and use some of the tools that have evolved over centuries and been found useful by generations of woodworkers. Many of the techniques were developed in the days before electric lights, eyeglasses, or accurate measuring instruments when much of the work was done by feel. Layouts were done with dividers and knives rather than rulers and pencils, and working with hand tools didn't really require numbers. As Jim Tolpin noted, "Machines need numbers. We need physical reality."

Our straightedge will be made of alder wood. It will be three feet in length and about three inches in width, with a curved top, a four-finger hole in the middle, holes at each end for hanging, and a perfectly flat, straight bottom that will allow it to sit solidly on the perfectly flat work bench without even a sliver of light showing beneath. Jim assures us we will use it with pleasure for the rest of our lives, and I have to admit I don't usually feel that way about yard sticks and levels.

Choosing Wood
The first task is to choose our wood. As you can probably guess, we are not going to the lumber yard to pick up a few 1x4s. We are staring at a half dozen or so slabs of alder, rough sawn, bark still on, about 10 feet long, a foot wide, and an inch and a half or so thick, that are leaning against the workshop wall. One by one, we lift the boards onto the workbench and gather 'round. Jim points out some of the attributes of each, shows the grain patterns, knots and other features that must be taken into consideration as we figure out which parts to use. We have a straightedge that Jim made to use as a template and we move it about on the big board to see where we can most efficiently cut three rectangles a little bigger than we need. We will eventually slice, or resaw, each rectangle into two thinner pieces to make a total of six straightedges. We mark them out with a wax pencil -- one of those funny ones like I used in first grade that have a string you pull and paper that unwinds to expose a bit more nib. This pencil will become a good friend over the next two days.

Here are Alex, Kia, Justin and Mark working on the layout, using Jim's straightedge as a template.

We draw two parallel lines for our cut lines so you can saw between the lines instead of trying to follow one line. (So simple -- why did I not know this before?)  As you can probably guess, we are not going to saw this giant chunk of wood with a table saw. We carry the board to the saw bench, which is about knee high, and set it down flat on top.

Saws and Sawing
Jim grabs a couple of hand saws and explains the difference between a cross cut saw and a ripping saw, while simultaneously giving us a mini-history of saws, saw construction, sharpening techniques, setting saw teeth and why saws are the length they are -- namely, how far up the average woodworker ( 5'9" right-handed male, I think) can comfortably lift his elbow and how far he can push down without the tip of the saw hitting the floor. He plants his knee firmly on the big board and proceeds to take a few strokes. In just a few seconds he has cut a neat slot several inches in. As I watch Jim's fluid motion, a memory of my father, a jack-of-all-trades carpenter, floats into my consciousness -- I wonder how many times as a child I watched him make the exact same motion?

We take turns at the saw bench and make remarkably quick work of cutting out the rectangles. I find it pretty effortless, really, once I figure out how to relax and take smooth strokes, letting the saw do the work. It probably would have taken more time to find and put on ear protectors and dust mask, dig out the extension cord and do it with a Skilsaw. Of course, the hand saws in this workshop are religious objects, and hence, remarkably sharp.

Here is Jim, demonstrating how to start a cross cut.

The Dark Side
I don't want to give the impression that power tools are taboo in this workshop -- in fact, we are about to use one for the next step: resawing the thick boards into two thinner boards with the use of a band saw.  But first we must flatten one side of the rough board -- the reference side that will run against the "fence" of the band saw -- and one edge, which must be flat and perpendicular to the reference side. We do this at our work benches using a menu of hand planes, a tiny T-square, and that blue wax pencil with which we scribble squiggly lines on the board so we can tell which areas are still low after we run the plane over the board a few times.

At last it is time to go to the Dark Side. We grab our ear muffs and face masks and approach The Beast. Jim explains safety procedures and we take turns running a board through the saw. It's noisy, to be sure, but it does its job in exemplary fashion. It turns out I like this tool. A lot.

Alex at the band saw.

We each choose one of the now-thinner boards that will be our very own, from now on and for the rest of our lives. We will become intimately acquainted with this board. We will have a relationship with this board that may outlast some marriages. The day ends with a demonstration of the brace and bit we will use to drill the hang-up holes and start the finger holes in our soon-to-be straightedge.

With the threat of a snowstorm, our meeting in Seattle is cancelled and I am grateful. I head home, bake a 26th birthday cake for our son, Leif Whittaker, eat leftovers for dinner, watch a movie, and fall into bed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Today we spend the entire day flattening, cutting, shaping, squaring, smoothing and putting the first coat of finish on our straightedges. In the process, we practice with a variety of tools: several sizes of bench planes, a block plane, draw knives, spoke shaves, a Japanese keyhole saw, a coping saw, a card scraper, rasps and files, brace and bit a pinch of sandpaper and the ubiquitous blue wax pencil. I learn a lot of technical details about hand planes that I don't fully understand yet (but I know I want at least four) and another bit of plane terminology -- snipe: clipping the ends of the board with the plane -- ouch.

Here is a shaving from one of the last passes I made with the #4-1/2 smoothing plane. Jim is measuring it with a digital caliper. It is one thousandth of an inch thick!

The sun peeks out briefly at lunch time and Kia sits outside playing her banjo, her lovely voice drifting into the workshop as I eat my sandwich and slice of birthday cake.

By late afternoon, everyone has finally arrived at the "good enough" stage. We sign our names on our almost finished straightedges and take turns applying a coat of shellac and hanging them on a rack to dry. We'll apply additional coats until they gleam golden.

Here are the straightedges we made -- mine is second from the right.

Tomorrow we'll start a new project. And use our new tool!


  1. Thank you, Dianne, for sharing this adventure...with photos, too. I'm writing down all the new words so I'll be a worthy Scrabble opponent.xoxo, Janet

    1. I agree, thanks Dianne, for sharing this adventure and the photos, it's nicely done.

  2. Being able to control the blade speed can also help increase safety when using the machine. The main materials of the band saw blades are typically unalloyed or low Cr-alloyed tool steels.When a metal is alloyed it contains a mixture of different metals. There are many different types of metals used in making a band saw