Putting Away the Power Tools

Posted by on Jan 22, 2016 | 5 Comments
Putting Away the Power Tools

When I was growing up my dad used a belt sander for everything. Need to smooth out some rough lumber? That’s what a belt sander is for. Need to round off the edges? Belt sander. It seemed like the belt sander was the most versatile tool in the shop.

It wasn’t until 15 years later that I discovered that jointers and planers are used for smoothing rough lumber. And rounding edges? Well, routers work for that, so do block planes. But, if you’re going for something with a little more nuance, even a router will sometimes have some difficulty. I discovered hand tools when I was trying to solve a problem – the problem of creating a replica of a stand I saw in a Kokufu album. When I went to a woodworking store looking for a router bit to put a bead detail on the stand I found that nothing close seemed to exist.

Once past the rough lumber stage of creating a stand, I largely switch to hand tools and hand work. The wood is first squared up for creating the joinery, then band sawn to rough shape to create the curves. After the band sawing is done the shop gets a lot quieter. While many people will immediately turn to a spindle sander, random orbit sander or a piece of sandpaper, I have developed a preference for the texture created by a sharp piece of steel slicing through the wood fibers. Sandpaper will tear a piece of wood, creating a dull finish. To get a smooth finish you can go through many different grits of sandpaper, each eliminating the scratches left by the previous. Or, you can use a spokeshave, block plane, chisel, card scraper and knives to cut the wood instead. Cutting leaves a sheen on the wood and the type of irregularity in the surface that dances in incidental light, beckoning your attention.

The stand I was trying to replicate lead me to discover the concept of a moulding plane, the predecessor to a profiled router bit. If you visit tool swap meets you’ll see piles of moulding planes with various profiles, each designed to cut a particular shape of moulding by hand. Moulding planes are great for long runs of wood, but I was working with short ones. So, I settled on a similar device – a custom profile scraper. The plane cuts with a knife edge which is wedge-shaped and pointed. The scraper cuts with a small hook of steel, just as sharp, but bent into a curl, and so small that you can’t see it. Scraping the steel along the wood cuts a small layer off, repeating this a few dozen times can allow you to cut a custom profile using only a small piece of scrap steel and a piece of wood to hold it and act as a fence.

The scraper and the four legs after being scraped to create the shape.

The scraper and the four legs after being scraped to create the shape.

A comparison of the unshaped leg at right and a shaped leg at left.

A comparison of the unshaped leg at right and a shaped leg at left.

Once all the shaping of the legs, the horizontal support structure and the apron are roughed out, I glue the pieces together. Gluing is very stressful, you can’t go back or undo it and the working time on the glue is about 20 minutes. Having done this a few times I tune up the fit of the joinery extensively prior to gluing. Glue is added to all the mating surfaces and then I clamp them all together using just a strap like one you would use to tie something onto a pickup truck. Bar clamps are generally too heavy for this type of delicate piece, and they can cause the legs to rack out of alignment. The strap pulls the points of the joints together nicely.

Once glued, and left to cure for 24 hours, it’s time to do the final shaping. If you’ve cut the joinery precisely then you’ll have minimal mis-alignment. Using a scraper or block plane can level out any joints that are not meeting perfectly. The rest of the shaping is aesthetic rather than functional.

2016-01-21 10.34.19mod

The top will float above the bottom on pegs. I suspect that these are typically made from wood, but I prefer to use reclaimed copper wire. With a couple coats of finish on the wood I carefully mark the positions of the wire and drill out holes in the base and the top to match. There are two verticals on each front and one on each side.

Making the rods that will hold up the top.    I use old copper wire, pound it straight with a hammer, then dunk it in Lime Sulfur to turn it black.   The patina created is easily flaked off so I coat it with a spray varnish.    After the finish dries I cut them to length.

Making the rods that will hold up the top. I use old copper wire, pound it straight with a hammer, then dunk it in Lime Sulfur to turn it black. The patina created is easily flaked off so I coat it with a spray varnish. After the finish dries I cut them to length.

A view of the details of the finished stand.   Just like bonsai, the delicacy created by  the right details creates a pleasing composition.

A view of the details of the finished stand. Just like bonsai, the delicacy created by the right details creates a pleasing composition.

The stand took me about three weeks to complete, with many interruptions. But the time taken is well worth it in the end. I’ll be using this stand to display my Blue Atlas Cedar at the Bay Island Bonsai show this weekend in Oakland, CA. Hope to see you there.

5 Comments

  1. Scott Piatanesi
    January 23, 2016

    You are very talented.

  2. dave crust
    January 23, 2016

    I admire your beautiful focused work. It represents great concentration. Funny, I have also used copper wire in wood work–in joint construction. I have reinforced rustic miters by down-drilling the face with two adjoining tilted holes, connecting them by routing the surface and installing a 1/4″ thick hand made copper staple.

  3. Carter Beall
    January 24, 2016

    I will have to try my hand at this for a tree I will be entering in a show this fall. I love hand tools and use them a lot, primarily because they tend to be less expensive to buy use and maintain than power tools with a lot of fancy jigs and hardware. A little off topic, but what do you use to sharpen? I am thinking of buying some shapton stones and a diamond plate to flatten them.

    • Eric Schrader
      January 24, 2016

      I use Japanese water stones for sharpening. I have a couple different grits. Your question is keen though, to use hand tools you need to understand how to sharpen, because dull tools will do nothing. For the scrapers I actually just use a fine file when the bur gets out of shape. Diamond plates work fine too!

      • Carter Beall
        January 25, 2016

        I have heard a lot of good things about the Japanese water stones, so that it what I think I will go for. I have some super nice Japanese chisels that I used today to cut a hole in a piece of Ironwood (Ipe) for a marking gage, and even after 30 minutes of pounding on this almost literally iron hard wood they are still sharp enough to shave with! I have to learn to keep them that sharp now. Thank You