Building Two Saws: Part 2

There’s a certain irony in the fact that people who blog about woodworking don’t spend much time writing about sanding, since sanding takes up a large part of most woodworker’s time.   So this is a blog post about sanding.

Once I discovered card scrapers, I spent a lot less time with sandpaper.  Even so, some projects just require a lot of sanding.  These saw handles are examples of projects on which I am spending some quality sanding time.

Two Saw Handles 8-2014 - - 8

Shaping the handles is not terribly difficult, and it didn’t take me long to do it.  I followed up the rasps and files with small card scrapers, and that probably saved me a lot of sanding time.  (The picture above shows the handles after scraping, but before sanding.)  While the scrapers can’t get into all the little nooks and crannies, they do an excellent job following contours and keeping flat surfaces flat, depending on how I hold them.  I use the credit-card scrapers from TGIAG, which are perfect for one-handed use on small projects like this.

I began sanding at 220-grit.  I seldom hold the sandpaper in my hand alone.  On the few flat surfaces, I used a sanding block.  On the curved surfaces, I used a couple of emery boards.  It’s a trick I picked up from pipe makers, who spend a LOT of time sanding contoured surfaces.  The regular emery boards are good for getting into crevices, while the foam-backed emery boards are excellent for contoured surfaces.  They come in different grits, though I usually just get the lowest grit available and wrap sandpaper around them.

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Using a backer for the sandpaper allows for much better control than simply holding the sandpaper in my hand, though there’s a time and place for that, too.  Control is crucial on a project like this, when the shape and feel of the handle is every bit as important as how it looks.

And speaking of shaping handles, I was reading an article by Willard Anderson on hand plane repair in the October 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking.  The author points out that a good tote should not have the same cross-section throughout the grip.  Rather, the middle should be close to half-round inside and out, but at the top it should be an ellipse so as to fit the web between the thumb and forefinger.  I followed this bit of advice, and the result is a very comfortable handle.

But back to sanding.  Some woods are well-behaved when being finished, but the grain of pecan tends to rise significantly when moistened, so I had to rinse the handles in water and let them dry in between grits.  Placing them in front of a high-velocity fan dried them quickly.  Then I sanded the raised grain back with the next grit.  Actually, I only used two grits: 220 and 320.  I could go to higher grits, but I don’t need these handles any smoother than that.

Also, when applying an oil finish to open-pored wood like pecan and black walnut, I have found it advantageous to leave the sanding dust on the wood when applying the finish.  The dust clogs the pores and makes for a much smoother finish, making a top coat unnecessary.

The next step will be cutting the saw plates to fit the handles, and then drilling out the holes for the saw nuts.


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Building Two Saws: Part 1

This week, I began building two saws, each with a different story behind it.  First, the stories.

Story #1

A few months ago, my next-door neighbor was cleaning out her shed and threw out a lot of junk.  My oldest daughter, K, was rummaging through the junk pile looking for whatever a 7-year-old might consider a “treasure,” and she pulled out an old saw plate.  It was a skew-back, about 22″ long, with at least two different sets of holes drilled for the handle.  The teeth were well worn and a little uneven.  Clearly this saw had seen a lot of use, and not a little repair.  But the plate was dead-straight, so I put it aside, promising K that I would make a kid-sized handle for it someday.

Story #2

My old broomstick-handled Crown dovetail saw has seen better days.  But recently, I acquired a dovetail saw kit from Isaac Smith at Blackburn Toolworks.  The kit consists of a toothed saw plate, a spine, and two saw nuts.  The kit has been sitting on my workbench for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been itching to get it assembled.  When I got the kit, I also ordered some saw nuts for K’s saw.

If you want to make your own saw, I highly recommend that you read Isaac’s series of blog posts on how he makes a saw from start to finish.

Wood Selection

Selecting the wood for the handles was pretty easy.  I have a lot of spalted pecan on hand, and it makes beautiful tool handles.  This wood is tough and difficult to split, so I can make a relatively delicate saw handle without worrying much about whether the handle will break if I drop it.  I chose stock that was rough-sawn to about 1″ thick and planed it down to about 7/8″ thick.

Two Saw Handles 8-2014 - - 1

I also downloaded a template for each handle.  For my own dovetail saw, I used the medium-sized dovetail saw template from Blackburn Toolworks.  For K’s panel saw, I used the Disston D-7 pattern from Dominic at TGIAG, but I printed it out at 80% of full size so as to fit a child’s hand.

Two Saw Handles 8-2014 - - 2

After cutting out each template, I used a glue-stick to adhere each pattern to the wood.  I tried to orient each one to get the best figure out of each piece of wood.  Then I took the wood down to the drill press and drilled out several holes with Forstner bits.  That makes for very smooth, even curves.  I didn’t have all the recommended sizes, and the sizes listed on the smaller template were now wrong because I had scaled it down.  So I just picked the bit that seemed the closest to each radius, and that worked fine.


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While I used the bandsaw to waste away a lot of the remaining wood, my turning saw came in handy for the inside of K’s handle.  I also used it to cut out a number of details in both handles.  When properly tensioned, the bow saw is extremely accurate.

The most delicate operation is sawing the slot for the blade.  If the slot is sawn crooked, the saw won’t work properly.  First I marked out the slot with a marking guage.  There are a number of ways to cut the slot itself, but I figured out a pretty simple method.

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I laid my stair saw on the benchtop and held it down with holdfasts.  Then I moved the workpiece back and forth to mark out the slot.  This handle is exactly the same thickness of the stair saw, which is on purpose.

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The other handle was a little thinner, so I raised it up on a sheet of paper so that the saw blade hits the exact middle.  If I were making a handle from thicker stock, I would put paper under the stair saw instead.

I didn’t cut the whole slot with the stair saw; I only went  about 1/4″ deep all around.  Then I put the saw handle in a vise and finished the cut with a regular hand saw.

Shaping the saw handle required a number of half-round rasps and files.  Although I’m working to pencil lines, it is largely a matter of freehand sculpting.  I’m not dead-set on copying every detail of a pre-existing saw, so the sculpting remains somewhat spontaneous.

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Clamping a large handscrew upright in a bench vise is a good way to hold the work.

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At the end of the day, I have K’s saw handle all shaped and ready for scraping and sanding–as well as drilling the holes for the nuts.

Next up: shaping my dovetail saw handle, and doing a little metal work.

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Classical Training–for a Pipe Maker

A lot of people who try their hand at making a tobacco pipe do so because they want to make a special shape that they cannot afford to buy, such as a blowfish:

No, this is not my pipe. It was made by Kei Gotoh and is in the collection of  Dustin Babitzke, who operates the Briar Portrait Gallery at

But pipe making is kind of like jazz–all the most innovative pipe makers are classically trained.  Before you can make a blowfish, you have to be able to make a billiard.  Consider the following, from Pipedia:

It seems like such a simple shape, and the description implies the same, but it’s actually somewhat difficult to make a good-looking billiard.  Exactly how tall should the bowl be?  How thick should the shank be?  How long should the stem be?  The bowl is 90-degrees to the shank, right? (Hint: it’s not.)  Get just one of the proportions wrong, and your billiard will look wrong.

So, a couple weeks ago, I took some time off from making my usual pipes (Dublin churchwardens with natural tops) and set out to make a billiard.  Instead of briar, I used some osage orange I had on hand, which I’m told makes a pretty good pipe, as domestic species go.

Pipe #29 Bodark Billiard 2014 - - 2

It took me every bit as long to make this pipe as it takes to make my regular churchwardens.  In fact, I think it took longer–especially since I’m working without a lathe.

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It’s not a perfect billiard, but I learned a lot while making it. Most of my pipes I make to sell, but I may keep this one.  I’m not going to be making billiards all the time, but I think I will occasionally set my “creative” work aside to make a classic shape, if only to hone my skills.  They say you have to walk before you can run, and walking is good exercise.  So is making a billiard.

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Back to School Project: Pencil Boxes

Among my projects this summer was a family commission.  My wife asked me to make four pencil boxes for our children’s desks.  The little shoeboxes they had been using to hold their pencils were falling apart (our kids are homeschooled), and they needed some more durable pencil storage.

I picked out some complementary wood from my lumber stash: black walnut for the carcases and spalted pecan for the tops and bottoms.  (Spalting is the result of a naturally-occurring fungus that begins to attack a downed tree within a few weeks of being felled. The fungus dies once the wood dries out. If you saw it up into boards after the fungus has begun to do its work, but before the real rot sets in, the result is spalting.)  I had salvaged all this wood some years ago, and I have been slowly sawing portions of the logs into boards on my little bandsaw.

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The outside dimensions are 10″ long, 5″ wide, and 3″ deep.  This is significantly bigger than most pencil boxes, but I was asked to make sure each box could hold both regular pencils and a full set of colored pencils, as well as an eraser and a sharpener.  (We finally discarded our electric pencil sharpener, so now we’re all sharpening pencils by hand at my house again.)  All the stock is about 1/2″ thick, except for the bottoms, which are about 5/16″. The bottoms are shiplapped and captured in grooves in the sides.  They are glued to the ends, so all seasonal changes of dimension will occur in the middle.  Yes, I bookmatched the bottoms. Yes, I am a little neurotic about stuff like that.

I finished each box with several coats of Danish oil.

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I haven’t cut dovetails in probably a year, but these went together pretty well. Of the four sets, three went together off the saw. I shimmed about one little gap per box.  I also had to plug the gaps made by the grooves I plowed for the lids in each end piece.  Fortunately, walnut end-grain is fairly non-descript, so the plugs are nearly impossible to see once planed flush. 

One fun detail was the thumbnail cutout in each lid. With a straightedge, chisel, and gouge, it was the simplest procedure of the whole project.  Here’s how to do it:

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Lay out the stopping cut. Use a chisel that’s about half the width of the finished cutout. Drive it as deep as you can into the center. Drive it in only a little on each side.

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With a gouge, cut in toward your line little by little. Try to keep the cutout nice and symmetrical.  You will need to cut a little on each side, as well as in the middle.  Don’t try to take off too much all at once.  Deepen the stopping cut with a chisel or knife as necessary.

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And there it is. It takes all of two minutes per lid.

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I think we’re ready for school to start now.

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Recent Pipes

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this summer making more pipes.  I learn a little bit (and sometimes a lot) with each one I’ve made recently.

Pipe #28 Briar CW Plateaux 2014 --4 Pipe #26 Briar Curchwarden Giants Chimney 2014- - 2 Pipe #27 Briar Gothic Ruin  2014- - 7

I’ve been experimenting with layering different stains on top of each other, and I think I’ve finally found a process that works.  The idea is to sand the wood to a fairly fine grit, apply a dark dye, and then once it dries, sand back the wood evenly but not too much.  Then I apply a lighter dye.  The result is that the darker dye penetrates more in some places than in others, highlighting the variations in the grain.  I then sand to my finest grit and apply a coat of Danish oil to prevent the dye coming off in the user’s hand.  Last comes a coat of wax.

I’m planning to try some traditional shapes next, just to hone my skills.  And while I enjoy working with briar, I hope to experiment with some alternative woods as well.

Some of the pipes above are available at my Etsy shop.

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The Memory Box

The other day, my oldest daughter, K, was reading a book that suggested she make a “memory box,” essentially a decorated shoe box in which to store keepsakes.  She mentioned the idea at the dinner table, and I asked if she would rather build it out of wood instead.  She brightened up at the idea, so after dinner we went down to my lumber stash to find some suitable boards.

Memory Box Build with K 7-14 - - 1I just happened to have some leftover 105 wood siding on hand that made perfect sides.  We also found wide boards for a top and bottom.  We opted for a “Bible box” design, with the sides joined together with nailed rabbets.

She held the boards while I cut them to length.  She helped split out the rabbets.  She drilled the pilot holes for the cut nails, and she drove several of the nails in.

The 105 siding has a cove routed into the top, which is supposed to fit into a rabbet on the bottom.  We found the rabbet very convenient for nailing in the bottom of the box.

Eggbeater Drill Yankee 1530 - - 2When we were drilling the pilot holes for the nails, she kept trying to spin the eggbeater drill the wrong direction, as she’s a leftie.  After a while, she blurted out, “Don’t they make drills for left-handed people?”

I paused, and then said, “Actually, they do.”

I reached into my tool chest and pulled out a little eggbeater drill, a Yankee 1530.

What’s special about this little drill is that it has five different settings:

Eggbeater Drill Yankee 1530 - - 1It can be spun left or right, or half-speed, among other options.  I had gotten a while ago in a trade for a mallet I made.

She found it a little easier to use when I put it on the left-hand setting.

It took us a couple work sessions to get the whole box put together, and she still intends to paint it, but she and I are both happy with the result.

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She doesn’t know it, but this will be a memory box in more ways than one.

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Three-Dollar Saw: Restored

Last month, I posted a picture of a Disston no. 8 handsaw I found for three dollars.  It took me some time to get the saw back in action, not because the work was difficult or time-consuming, but because other projects have been taking up my time.

Disassembling the saw was as easy as removing the nuts and sliding the handle off the saw plate.  The finish on the handle was nearly gone, so I sanded it down and applied a few coats of Danish oil.  These saws normally came with a film finish on the handles–shellac, I think–but I prefer an oil finish that doesn’t get slippery when my hands begin to sweat.

I Saw Sharpening Station Outdoors 2014cleaned the surface rust off the saw plate.  There was no pitting.  I decided not to try to restore the mirror-polish that the saw must originally have had.

The teeth were in decent shape, but it still took me a while to sharpen it.  It’s a 24″ long saw, and there are 9 points per inch.  (That’s nearly 200 teeth on this saw.)  To make the sharpening experience more pleasant, I brought the whole outfit outside into the shade of a big tree.  I clamped my little saw vise to one end of my sawbench and went to work with the files.  (I decided to touch up my big rip saw, too, as it was feeling a little dull.  It’s a Disston 12, which is the one in the vise above.)

Taking the saw for a test-drive in some soft pine, it left a pretty smooth surface, and the saw glided through the wood as if it were cutting nothing at all.  While the saw plate is bowed just a little along its length, it’s not kinked, and the saw tracks true to a line.  Testing a saw in softwood might seem like cheating, but it’s not.  For one, I work in softwoods a lot.  More importantly, the fibers in softwoods tend to tear and chip out when being sawn, especially across the grain, and that tends to leave a ragged surface.  If your tool can cut cleanly across the grain of a pine board, it’s plenty sharp for the work it needs to do, even in hardwoods.

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This saw is a keeper, at least for now.

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