Monday, December 13, 2010

Holdfasts, a Revelation

Well I've had my workbench for a while and the vises I built on it work pretty well, but sometimes you can't easily hold what you want to do in a vise. So I had been looking at different kinds of bench-top work holding solutions. I was looking around at the various hold-downs available from Veritas, Jorgensen, Gramercy Tools, and others.

I wasn't really certain what was going to work well in my bench since its top is only 1 1/2" thick and is double laminated, void-less Birch plywood. I was looking most at the Veritas Hold Down thinking it would work best with my bench and that it was certainly a quality product. The only thing putting me off was the price and since I wanted two of them that was a consideration. I didn't really liked the way the Jorgensen worked, seemed too much of a pain to move around the bench. Finally there was the Holdfast by Gramercy Tools. I decided to take a chance on the Gramercy Holdfasts since they were simple, $32 a pair, and my satisfaction was guaranteed by Tools for Working Wood.

The holdfasts arrived in a couple of days and I put them into service right away holding my screen door stiles to be mortised. I set both of them on the stile and pounded away with my mortise chisel with no movement from the stile held by the holdfasts. Since I was doing through mortises I flipped the stile over when I was halfway through, a bang on the back of each holdfast to release and a bang on the top to reset them was quick and easy and I was back to mortising in a jiff. I did this operation several more times since each stile was receiving 4 mortises. I never worked so smoothly and it was easy to position each mortise over the leg of the bench for maximum energy transfer to the chisel. I was impressed.

Now I don't know how I lived without these. I'm so happy with them that I recommend everyone try a set of these first. I'm in love and really enjoy the ease with which I can old my work anywhere on the bench and release it in a snap.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Basement Workshop Reorg, Part 3

Intro, Part 3
 Well its been a while since I've posted on this topic but September thru now has been busy with lots of work and travel. Now that I'm back home with some time to work on this blog and workshop I thought I should post Part 3. We're going to explore some of the changes, which some of you might consider drastic, that I made to make things easier and more fun in the workshop.

Move the Tool, Not the Workpiece
This phrase has become something of a mantra as I've been working on my shop reorganization. Since the space can be somewhat confining I have found that it takes less space to move the tool across the workpiece rather than to have the in-feed and out-feed space to accommodate moving the workpiece through the tool. This becomes especially important when working on projects of an architectural scale, such as the screen doors, since the having 16 feet of space to rip a stile is essentially not attainable.

Upon going through my shop I identified several tools that needed to be replaced with one or more other methods to accomplish their tasks due to their feed-space requirements. These were:
  1. Table Saw
  2. Jointer
  3. Planer
  4. Mortising Machine
  5. Router Table
Now I know the first 3 of these are generally considered the core of a woodworking shop but I was determined to find alternatives that would allow me to accomplish the same tasks as these tools. To do that the first thing I had to find out is what I was really using these tools for in reality, not just what they were capable of.

Table Saw
The table saw was perhaps one of the easiest tools to determine it's actual roles in my shop, which turned out to be ripping, slots and dadoes, and tenoning. I needed a tool or method to replace each of these roles.
  • Ripping: As those of you who read this blog may already know, the ripping role was replaced with a Festool TS75 track saw system. This is a very capable replacement for a table saw and anyone who tells you its only a saw for plywood needs to get more creative. I use it for breaking down sheet goods but I also use it for ripping and crosscutting solid wood as well. It also excels at making tapered cuts, since you can cut any line, as well as compound miters. Blind rips are also a cinch with the plunge cut capability. I'm not going to say I pull it out for every rip cut, sometimes I use my Disston D-8 5tpi or other handsaw. But if I'm going to rip alot of molding or something I'm pulling this badboy out. I've ripped 1/2 inch strips out of a 6 inch board with it, you just have to get creative with holding the work.
  •  Slots & Dadoes: For slots with the grain I've been using a plow plane, to be specific the Veritas Small Plow Plane. If you set it for a thick cut it can cut a 3/8" x 3/8" inch groove very quickly. What is also nice is that it is quiet and produces no dust, the curly-cue shavings it produces are easy to clean up. For Dadoes across the grain either use a power router with a guide or a crosscut back saw with a router plane. I usually choose by how many I have to do and what kind of time I have.
  • Tenoning: I've gone old school here. I'm using crosscut and rip back saws for this process. After doing 36 tenons for the screen door project I'm getting pretty good at cutting them, it doesn't take too long and I find I have less of a tendency to under-size the tennons than I did with the table saw. If anything I make them too thick which is easy to adjust with a rabbet plane.
Jointer and Planer
I had a 6in jointer and 12in planer that I have to admit I was using very little already just due to their capacity and the fact that I didn't really like them. I hated the way the planer would snipe out the beginning and end of the cut for around 2" on each end. I didn't like the jointer since I would have to cut nice wide boards down to face them and it had short tables so the work length was limited. I had thought about larger capacity tools but they also have a larger footprint, or a combination machine to reduce that footprint. What I have actually settled on was something I actually had already started doing for larger projects, using hand planes. Hand planes have several advantages over power machines. A very complete set takes up little space, good used ones can be had at reasonable cost, and they have unlimited capacity. You can plane a 3"x5" piece or a dining table with the same planes. Of course they take some time to learn how to use and sharpen and it took me several years to get good at it enough to let go of the power tools but several good books and YouTube videos helped ease the learning curve substantially.

Mortising Machine
I bought this bench top machine when I got interested in Arts and Crafts furniture and I used it to replace the drill holes and pare method. I used it quite a bit but lets face facts its a one-trick-pony. Drill a square hole perpendicular to the material, the minute you want an angled mortise you are out of luck, making a crazy jig, or buying a floor model machine. I had though about just chiseling them for ages but I never went for it, it seemed like a lot of work. Then Tools for Working Wood was extolling the virtues of the English pattern mortise chisels from Ray Iles. I bought one and man is that a chisel. You can wail on it into oak, pry the waste out with force and nearly never sharpen it. With the right technique I am pretty quick and I find it easy to make nice square mortises. I can also make them at angle for chairs. I now own them in 1/4", 3/8" and 1/2" and the mortising machine has found another home.

Router Table
Well this was attached to the table saw so it went with it. I only really used it for raising panels and rail&stile work and some slots. For slots you know I use the plow plane, and for raising panels I am using a fenced rabbet plane held at an angle. For rail and stile I usually make plain ones with mortise and tenon joinery but if I want molding on the inside I'll strike it with the hand held router or a molding plane and miter the edges at the corner.

Some Thoughts on the Above
While these methods support the above concept of keeping the workpiece still and moving the tool they also provide several other benefits. They are generally much quieter, which everyone appreciates since my shop is in the basement, and I find much more relaxing. They produce much less, if any, fine dust which is good for the health and makes cleanup easier. Also they provide a sense of satisfaction to me doing a job by hand.

I guess the downsides would be the learning curve of doing some of these methods as well as a perceived decrease in speed. I'm not really in it for the speed, this is a hobby and relaxation for me. Also some may talk about the accuracy/repeatability of my chosen techniques. I'm not a production shop and rarely produce 2 of anything that are identical. Also once you learn to work to the piece you are building and not to specific measurements accuracy becomes much less of a factor. Yes you have to be accurate to the measurement of the space you are fitting a specific drawer to, for example, but to have all the drawers and their openings be exactly identical becomes much less important. Besides, wood moves all the time, it will only be the size you make it when you make it.  

All in all with more space to move around in and a more quiet, less dusty shop where I don't have to wear hearing protection and dust mask all the time I want to spend more time in my shop and I do. Isn't that what its really all about.

Catch moving the workbench and new tool storage in future installments!