Sunday, January 16, 2011

Winding Sticks

I can't believe how fast the week flew by.

This time of year (i.e. not rowing season) I usually walk with some of my Tuf As Nails rowing crew at 6:30 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. But Wednesday night I set my alarm for 7:00 AM, thinking the NEXT day was Wednesday. I didn't figure out it was Thursday morning until I looked at my phone. Sorry ladies -- I'll try to do better this week!

I have been astonished each day to see the hands of the clock pointing straight up when Jim or Tim says: "Well, it looks like it's time for a lunch break," especially since we have actually accomplished quite a bit in the preceding three-plus hours.

Thursday started with a quick primer (which Tim, in his Monty Pythonesqe accent, pronounces "primmer") on the wonderful world of adhesives. We made a chart with types of glues down the side and characteristics across the top, the result of which is that I will probably never use the evil Gorilla Glue again. This was in preparation for doing our first glue-up in the course of constructing a pair of winding sticks, the purpose of which I will explain presently.

Jointing
But first a short digression on woodworking terminology. The word jointing has been bandied about quite a bit in the past few days, sometimes accompanied by edge, as in edge jointing. It didn't make much sense to me - I sort of assumed it to be a mispronunciation of joining, except that it was often said when we weren't joining anything to anything else. Maybe, I thought, it is one of those irritating nouns-turned-into-verbs that are cropping up everywhere these days. Finally I had to ask. Imagine my astonishment: it's actually a technical term that means making the side or edge of a board flat and true, presumably so it can be joined to another board. But it's also called jointing if you have no intention of joining it to anything else and you're just making the board flat and true for the heck of it. Logically enough, I suppose, a jointer is a machine (not a person) that makes boards flat and true. This is the sort of stuff that keeps me awake at night. (Scrabble note: yes, you CAN add "ing" to "joint" the next time it pops up on the board.)

We'll be doing a lot of jointing as we make our second tool: winding sticks. Winding sticks are two boards set on edge, about 18 inches long, 3/4 inch thick at the bottom tapering to 1/2 inch or so at the top, and two inches high. One of them is made of light colored wood - alder in our case - and the other is dark - we are using walnut. The dark stick has a sliver of the alder glued to it's top, making it about 1/4 inch taller. There is a small copper rosehead nail centered in the top of each board. Except for the light strip along the top of the dark board, the two pieces are identical in size and shape, their edges perfectly parallel. They are pleasing to hold, sit on the workbench without wobbling or falling over and make a satisfying plink when you pick them up in one hand. When you set them across a surface - a board, for example - perpendicular to its edge and with a bit of space between the sticks, they are  extraordinarily good at revealing any twist, or wind, in that surface. All you have to do is sight across them and line up the copper nailheads. If the shorter, light-colored stick is closest to you, you'll see a dark line of walnut below the light cap of the taller stick. It is quite easy to see if that dark line is even, or thicker at one end than the other. They are elegant, simple and useful.

We start, as on our straightedge project, by choosing sections of the fat alder boards. But this time the choosing and marking goes quicker and we set to work with the ripping and cross cut saws. The sawing goes faster too, and all of us are getting the hang of the rhythm and taking the weight off the saw blade. It sounds like some of the men I've slept with. (But not recently, of course. Not for a long time. On a climbing expedition or a sailing trip or something.) In any case, I'm pleased to report that I can now saw a pretty straight line with both types of saw, something I have never been able to do with a hand saw before.


Once we have the rough pieces cut approximately to size, we start jointing the boards with our hand planes. We take a pass or two along the edges of the boards with the plane angled about 45 degrees. This is known as spelching. (I am not making this up.) Its purpose is to prevent tear-out as we use the scrub plane across the grain to quickly remove excess material. Jim has us draw quick lines - or telltales - across the board with our wax pencil so we can tell which areas are higher or lower as we plane.

We keep checking the board for flatness by laying the flattened side down on the bench and trying to rock it back and forth; we also use our straightedges against the board and hold it up to the light to check for any gaps. When we are satisfied that one side is truly flat, we are to use marking gauges all around the edges to knife a hairline that is parallel to our newly jointed side, which is now called the reference surface. Jim shows us how to use our planes to cut the edges just barely "to the line" - and then draw little hash marks with the wax pencil. Then all we have to do is plane the middle of the board flat, gradually removing the marks around the edges. We will now have two reference surfaces that we can work from to do the edge jointing on our boards.

At first, I have trouble getting the small knife in the marking gauge to the right position. Jim taps it on the work bench and calls it a Vernier Adjustment - named after Vern, some guy in Minnesota. I'm not sure whether or not he is joking.

By the end of the day, we have the walnut and the alder boards jointed all around: they are ready for gluing - joining - together, a process known, sensibly, as joinery. I gather that one of the marks of a good joiner is that his/her joints more-or-less disappear in the wood, leading to joinery nirvana.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Each day begins with a bit of hand work on our project just to warm up. By Friday I am greeting my particular pieces of wood like old friends and I'm so happy to see them when I walk into the workshop.

After a half-hour or so, Tim or Jim gives a short talk or demonstration having to do with the day's lessons. Today Tim discusses the English categorizations and names of various types of woodworkers, and the traditional apprentice and guild system that produced generations of bodgers, carpenters, joiners and cabinetmakers. (Bodger: a woodworker who uses green - not dried - wood. And yet another Scrabble word!)

Glue Up
Jim takes over with a demonstration of correct gluing procedure with the yellow wood glue we will use to join the alder stick to the walnut. Once again, there are so many simple tricks of the trade that would have saved me a lot of grief over the years had I learned them earlier. We get everything glued up and then break for Friday pot luck lunch.


The sun has come out and it is warm enough to eat outside. It is Justin's birthday - I've brought a Milky Way Cake (my sons' favorite birthday cake) as my contribution to the pot luck. Kia has made a wonderful salad with beets, squash, cilantro and parsley from her garden and wild rice from China. Alex has created a delicious squash and wild mushroom soup, with toasted hazelnuts  and a morel mushroom on top. Mark has brought a fabulous loaf of bread from Pane d'Amore. There are local cheeses, a fresh bean salad, home made prosciutto. It is an incredible bounty of local and freshly made food. I begin to wonder if anyone will want to eat a cake that has almost nothing "natural" in it - other than a few eggs, and some butter, it is made from a cake mix, a pudding mix, and four melted Milky Way bars. But we sing happy birthday and most of the cake disappears.

Jim does a saw-sharpening demonstration and we spend our last afternoon of the week learning how to taper the winding sticks and do the rip cut that will leave the thin strip of alder joined to the walnut.


Sharpening the Plane
I spend a lot of time sharpening my plane blade. I start out re-establishing the primary bevel at an incorrect angle. It takes much longer to get back to the starting point than it would have to do the whole job if I had started correctly to begin with. (At the beginning of the week Tim said: "Early failure is good." I am proving to be a good student!) But, after a lot of back and forth on the various grades of sandpaper, the primary bevel is restored, the micro-bevel gleams like a mirror and my plane produces translucent curls with an ease I could only have imagined a few short days ago. The whole thing is, however, hell on manicures.

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