Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Planes, Chisels & Sharpening Things

Design Note: A few of my helpful readers on Day One pointed out that they were having trouble seeing some of the text, especially on the wood background. I have a very nice, large monitor, so it is hard to know what it looks like on other screens. As it happens, I am particularly fond of that wood background and I'd hate to get rid of it. It is a photograph of the hull of a Pocock Cedar Single built by Steve Chapin -- specifically, two book-matched planks of clear, vertical tight-grain, old growth Western red cedar, 3/32" thick. It inspires me every time I see it. So I have changed some of the fonts and other colors (within the design constraints provided by Blogger) and I hope it is now easier to see everything. Please let me know.

Wow. Today was a great day.

But before I tell you what happened, I'll tell you what didn't happen. I didn't feel frustrated, not even once. I didn't feel bored or tired, not at all. Despite standing most of the day, my feet didn't hurt. I didn't worry about the next task. I didn't gnash my teeth or say a single nasty word about computers/Microsoft/Windows 7/Bill Gates -- not out loud, not even in my head. From 9 to 5, I didn't write or answer a single email or make a single phone call (other than to Jim at lunch time). I didn't play Brickbreaker on my BlackBerry. I didn't hear the word "Arizona" or see a screen with moving images on it. I didn't drink too much coffee or crave chocolate at 2:30. I didn't cut off any of my fingers, or anyone else's.

What I did do was what I love as much as anything: learn new things from really good teachers. In other words, it was pretty much heaven.

The day starts with introductions -- there are six students and a group of three rotating teachers: Tim Lawson, Jim Tolpin, and John Marckworth, master woodworkers all, and really nice guys besides. We students say a bit about ourselves and our woodworking experience (or lack of it, in my case). One student, Kia, says her goal is to become a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments, which was a new word to me. Another plans to build wooden harps -- replicas of ancient instruments. Others are interested in furniture or tool-making. For my part, I just want to learn to use the tools and maybe figure out a way to incorporate my photographic work into useful three-dimensional objects, rather than flat things to hang on a wall or look at on a screen.

Introductions dispensed with, Tim takes the floor, goes over the basic safety practices and talks about how the class will be structured. He says we are there to "Explore. Play. Find Out. Discover." We will spend the first week learning the basic tools, and making some of our own -- a straight edge, winding sticks, and a bench hook -- plus how to sharpen things. Then we'll build a small bench or step stool, using various joinery techniques, followed by frame and panel cabinets and finally move into machine joinery and our Big Project. We'll also get to visit some local woodworkers' shops and maybe help fell a tree and mill it into lumber.

Tim talks more about the school's philosophical approach to woodworking. "Your head must be in the game," he says. "If you find your mind wandering, stop and go outside for a minute." "Using hand tools," he continues, "draws you into an immediate and personal, intimate relationship with wood." Other nuggets I wrote down: "This is a learning environment -- try it." "We will focus more on the process than the project, especially for the first few weeks." And this last one comes from Tim's background in the software industry: "Early failure is good." No problem there, I figure.

The Tools
Now we get to the exciting part: the tools. We arrange ourselves around one bench where Tim and Jim have set out gray plastic bins for each student, plus an array of individual tools . They name each tool and briefly explain its use. We students take our bins back to our workbenches and put "our" tools in the drawers. (Did I mention that each of us has our very own workbench for the duration, and that they are things of beauty --about six feet long, with thick, perfectly flat tops and various vices, holes and dogs?) You can see a list of the tools used in the course on the Port Townsend School of Woodworking Web site. Here is a photo of Jim and Tim with them.

Jim takes a few minutes to explain the various parts of the plane (we start with smoothing planes, but we also have small block planes in our kit -- who knew there were so many different kinds?) and then demonstrates how to adjust the blade and begin planing a rough board. First we have to figure out which direction to push the plane. This turns out to be harder than you might think but is made clearer by Jim holding up a handful of plastic drinking straws tied in a bunch, which he rotates this way and that to help us visualize how the wood grain works. He then demonstrates body and hand positions and body movement, which is actually what is doing the pushing. After a few passes, he has a beautiful curl of wood rising out of the top of the plane like smoke curling from a campfire. I have a feeling it is not going to be as easy as he makes it look. He tells us to listen to the plane as he draws it along the board, first with the grain and then against; there is a noticeable difference in pitch. He says the sound the plane makes when going the right direction is called snick, a technical term, another new word for the day -- and a pretty good one to add to the Scrabble repertoire.

At last we get to start working on a board ourselves. I feel awkward at first but Tim comes around and gives gentle pointers. My plane keeps jerking to a stop at one spot where there is a small knot in the board. Someone says I got a bad board. Tim helps me adjust the blade, and my technique, and presently I am able to push the plane all the way along the board without stopping. A pile of lovely shavings collects on my bench and the board is getting really smooth, quite quickly -- no sandpaper involved!
In what seems like no time at all, it is lunch time. I'm not very hungry, but I get out my little yellow lunch bag, take out a sandwich and a banana and begin eating. It is the best sandwich I have ever had. The banana's pretty good, too, and I eat it quickly. I grab my down jacket, step outside and walk to the top of Artillery Hill (the school is in Fort Worden State Park). Though it is a cold, gray day, the view is sublime.

In the afternoon, we dive right into sharpening which, I gather, is sort of a religion among woodworkers. Tim does the demonstration with one of my new chisels, so that's one less for me to sharpen. He and Jim talk about their differences of opinion on the best sharpening jigs -- apparently there are various sects in this particular religion. Jim quotes Groucho Marx: "I have my opinions, And if you don't like 'em, I have others." My kind of religion!

Anyhow, the whole process is painstaking, involving several new additions to my vocabulary and multiple passes of chisel back and forth on ever-finer grades of sticky-back sandpaper stuck to book-size sheets of 1/4" plate glass, followed by further smoothing and polishing on wet stones, culminating in the piece de resistance: the micro-bevel. Having completed this entire rigamarole, Tim proceeds to shave a few hairs off his arm with my freshly lapped, polished and micro-beveled chisel, which certainly seems sharp enough to me. Here is the tip of my half-inch chisel, after the sandpaper but before the wet-stone and micro-beveling.
We spend the rest of the afternoon sharpening our own chisels and doing more planing on our boards. By the end of the day I can't stop smiling.

Tomorrow and from now on we will start class a half-hour earlier so we have time to warm-up with a bit of hand work before the teachers begin. I will probably not be able to write tomorrow as we have an evening obligation in Seattle. Next task is to figure out how to do this from my BlackBerry, I suppose. Not while I'm driving though -- I promise.


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