Building Two Saws: Part 4 (Done!)

There is a moment at the end of a long project that woodworkers live for: the last bit of hardware has been installed, the finish is wiped down for the last time, and the piece just sits there on the bench, surrounded by tools and debris.  It is finished.

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Take a deep breath: there is nothing more to do but put these away, where they await their first project.

Backtracking a little, one of my favorite parts of this project is that it forced me to get creative in order to solve little problems along the way.  For example, the saw nuts I have are extra-long and need to be sawn off and filed so that they sit flush with the handle or slightly below it.  Marking a screw to be cut short isn’t as easy as marking a piece of wood.

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First, with the nut screwed all the way on, I set the assembled bolt on the saw handle with the head flush.  I used a marker to color the screw where it needed to be cut.

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I then put the whole thing into a machinist’s vise (protected with some brown paper), and sawed/filed it until the inked section was gone.  Backing the nut off the sawn-off screw evens out any burrs left from the filing, ensuring that the nut will be able to thread back onto the bolt.

I opted to finish the handles with paste wax, and I’m happy with that decision.  I sanded the handles lightly so as to smooth out any burrs left from the drilling.  Sanding also packs the open pores of the pecan wood with sawdust, and when the finish is applied, the dust acts as a grain-filler.  (Note: this works well with oil and wax finishes, but I wouldn’t try it with a film finish.)  Then I rubbed a liberal amount of paste wax onto the handle, working it especially into the exposed end-grain.  Then I heated it up with a hairdryer, which melted the wax into the wood.  The wood absorbed more wax than I expected, so I applied two coats.

Then it was just a matter of straightening out the saw plates, sharpening the teeth, and testing them out.  The dovetail saw, being new, required only a very light touch-up with a file, as well as setting the teeth.  The panel saw, however, needed more work.  The teeth were dull, uneven, and over-set.  I jointed and filed the teeth, and then stoned them to remove some of the excess set.

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I did opt to leave some of the patina on the saw plate, more out of laziness than anything else.  The staining doesn’t affect how the saw cuts.  I kind of hope that some saw expert picks up this saw in 100 years and puzzles over it.  A skew-backed panel saw, split nuts, no medallion, and an extra-small tote made from figured hardwood.  It should keep him guessing for a while.

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The spalting is visible only on the show side of the handle, unfortunately.  Fortunately, my kids do not care.  I’ll get them to try it out soon.

The dovetail saw’s plate required a little straightening before it would track straight.  Thanks to Isaac’s Smith’s advice on the subject, this operation was simple and relatively stress-free.  Essentially, you find out where the plate is bent and use your hands to bend it in the opposite direction.  Check it carefully each time, and it will eventually be straight.  It worked so well that I immediately got out two older backsaws that didn’t track straight and straightened them out, too.

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Now my dovetail saw is done.  I could spend a lot of time pointing out the little aesthetic flaws.  Should I make another backsaw, there are a few things I will take more care over, but on balance I am happy with the results of my work.  It fits my hand perfectly, and it tracks true.

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Now to start a project that requires dovetails–lots of dovetails!


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Building Two Saws: Part 3

Although I usually feel like a competent woodworker, any time I am faced with metal work I feel like I’ve gone back to kindergarten.  This project has, however, forced me to get a little more comfortable with metal working.

But first, one important photo I forgot to share last time around:

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Work holding isn’t always easy when working with an irregularly-shaped piece.  That’s where a handscrew held upright in a bench vise gets really, really handy.  I place a spacer block behind one of the jaws so that the bench vise clamps only one jaw, leaving the other free to move.  That way, I can easily reposition the workpiece with a turn of the lower screw.

Once the saw handles were shaped and sanded, it was time for a little metal work.  Both saw plates needed trimming to fit the handles.  The panel saw also had at least two separate sets of handle holes drilled in it, so I opted to cut that whole section off the back, shortening the saw by maybe an inch and a half.  I marked my lines with a black marker, taped the saw plate to a backer board, and cut it off with a hacksaw.

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In retrospect, I should have just used the tape itself as the layout line, but oh well.

The dovetail saw plate also needed one corner clipped to fit into the handle slot.  I filed both cuts smooth.  Then I shaped the brass spine with a file and sandpaper.  (Not wanting to get metal filings all over my camera, I opted not to take any pictures of that process.)  The work went quickly, as brass is quite soft and easy to work.  The drawback is that the brass is also easy to mar with an errant stroke of the file.  After sanding the spine, I took it down to my buffing machine and put a nice shine on it.  I went back and forth between the sandpaper and the buffer several times before I was satisfied with the surface finish on the spine.

The next challenge was drilling the holes for the bolts and nuts in the saw handles.  This presents a challenge, as the holes must be lined up perfectly.  It’s easy to drill a hole through one side and then counter-sink it for the head of the bolt.  But how does one counter-sink the other side?  Normally, one would do this with a special drill bit called a piloted countersink.  But since I had only five holes (three of one size and two of another), I didn’t want to buy a special bit.  There is a way to do this with regular drill bits, and while it’s time-consuming, it works just fine.

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First, clamp down the workpiece on the drill press table and drill the narrow hole all the way through.  Then, without moving the workpiece, counter-sink the bigger hole to the necessary depth.  My drill press has a decent depth-stop, so getting a consistent depth was pretty easy.  The smaller hole should be perfectly centered in the larger hole.

Now turn the workpiece over, put your smaller bit back into the chuck, and (without turning the drill press on), insert the drill bit into the original hole.  Turn it backwards a few times to be sure the workpiece is in the right place.  Clamp down the workpiece; it is now perfectly centered on that hole.  Back out the small bit, put in the larger bit, and counter-bore it from this side.

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It’s a lot of changing bits in and out, but the results are precise enough for my purposes here.

I then drilled holes in the saw plates for the bolts.

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For the dovetail saw, I considered squeezing the slot in the spine so as to hold the saw plate by friction alone–which is the traditional way of constructing a backsaw.  In my imagination, it seemed like the right thing to do.  But when I started to try to close the slot, I found that the brass is pretty springy.  The more I thought about it, the more I saw that the likelihood of my ever wanting to remove this saw plate from the spine is about nil.  So, in a moment of weakness, I reached for the super glue.  A dab in each end of the slot, and the saw plate was solidly seated in the spine.  Sometimes chemistry wins out over mechanics.

So, at the end of the evening, I am almost finished.  I will need to trim the screws to final length, apply a finish to the handles, and sharpen the saws.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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