Jun 05 2011
Woodworkers often ponder what matters to produce the highest quality outcomes in woodworking. Defining quality is the key. It is a combination of tooling and technique to be sure. There are times we can save money; there are times we should invest for the long haul from the beginning. It isn’t always about money as much as it is about how far we want to take our outcomes.
Here are some considerations for bringing high quality to woodworking.
- Layout tooling is a very big deal. Accurate layout is the first phase of getting where one wants to go.
The subsequent work with tools will diminish this accuracy, so starting as high on the accuracy scale as possible is beneficial. Good layout tools and the skills to use them help provide the ultimate in fit and finish, whether you are going to make a Morris Chair, or a William and Mary Secretary.
Any cut is meant to be to the line, so what quality should be the line? What a line is to a framing carpenter is different to the fine woodworker. This can mean choosing well for quality squares, rulers, straight edges, protractors and bevels that hold their angle. Marking gauges, compasses, curve layout tools. Finally, honing the skills that help you to use them all comprehensively.
Joinery is a huge factor in woodworking. How joinery fits is key, and how good it looks is desirable. Layout is the second step after truing the boards. Always mark the face, waste, and which side of the line to work to.
Remember, a pencil will blunt as you use it, so knowing when to resharpen it, or to use harder leads, a pen, or better, a marking knife (where the line can then be darkened with a pencil or lightened with a chalk pounce) is important. Red pencils can be helpful on darker woods.
- Sharp tooling. This means that any woodworker must find their path to high-level sharpness for themselves and perfect their ability to provide it to their tools. There is more than one way, but being perfect with one is all that is needed. Saws, Planes and Chisels depend on sharpness. There isn’t any compromise.
Quality edge tooling is a combination of edge holding, stability, and ergonomics.
If any tool will not retain sharpness adequately for its needs, consider upgrading its cutting edge. If it is a chisel, replace it. If it is a plane, narrow the problem to its fault. If it is the iron that is failing, replace it. If it is the sole or the adjuster, perhaps you can repair it, and sometimes it isn’t worth the bother.
Even vintage tools can be replaced cheaply enough when you consider the value of your time and what you prefer doing with it. On some old tools, fettling never ends, but if the tool is good, fettling takes well. Do consider any tools’ usability in ensemble with the sum of its parts. If you have to fight a tool to make it perform, upgrading it could be worth consideration.
The better a chisel feels in the hand is a bigger part of how well they do the work than one may think. Too, consider its task. This can also mean that sending a paring chisel to do a butt chisels job can be fraught with peril. Peril you say? Yes, peril. Tools need not be expensive, that’s fine, but consider the specific purpose carefully. Compromising with tools often requires greater skill. Consider next the cost of wood per board foot. What is the cost of your board? Common Walnut runs $7.00. Curly Mahogany runs $100.00 per board foot. Wannabe tools and compromises are risky when a wood stretcher or replacer isn’t available. It always happens when you are almost done.
There are different types of chisels for specific purposes. (e.g. pairing, butt, bench, skew, dovetail, etc.) There are different planing bevel angles required for specific outcomes. It is important to learn these differences what, when and why, as they affect ease of use and finish quality. Remember to observe these differences in different materials and under changing circumstances.
On bench planes, there are also different plane iron sharpenings, mouth openings, and chip breaker settings, if offered, that can inter relate to one another. Some planes are purpose made for specific tasks, like a jackplane, which for it’s usual task wants a radiused iron and an open mouth. Or a smoother that likes very sharp irons sharpened square to the sides and a closed mouth. We have to set these planes up for the outcomes we want them to help produce. Our ignorance of these understandings isn’t something wood will abide.
A thicker plane iron is inherently more stable than a thin one. Some will argue this but I won’t. This has great influence on finish quality. On planes with thin irons like the old Stanley planes, thin irons are aided and stiffened by the cap iron, but depending on the type of work the plane is doing, the cap iron setting cannot always provide stiffness nor it’s connected chip breaker to the correct proximity for both or either to help stabilize the iron.
Modern plane and blade makers have bypassed this concern by supplying a thicker iron that usually overcomes the issue. If the iron is working, then nothing is broke. If the iron chatters or won’t cut well at any mouth setting or depth of cut, consider upgrading it, particularly if using most any vintage plane.
Sharpness is everything, always. Dullness is at the root of most problems with either the tool or the wood. Perfecting the ability to sharpen adequately for the tool to work outcomes that are favorable from the wood is any woodworkers goal.
- It’s the 21st century. Most woodworkers can buy S4S lumber anywhere. This can save you some time, but it still isn’t ready for fine work. It still has room for improvement. Is it square and flat? Are there grain issues? Is there twist, wind, cupping? S4S often is not fully seasoned or acclimated before it is planed. Time has been given to allow the board to move some more, so choose carefully. Since these woods are so obtainable, do feel free to use them if they help get you where you want to go, but leave the challenging boards at the store. If you like the idea of getting started on a project and you lack a full kit, choosing these woods carefully can really help get you going.
A good first saw for working in S4S lumbers could be a16 inch-ish long, sharp western backsaw or Japanese equivalent is important. If Japanese saws seem right to you, consider the Ryoba.
- A Jointer plane need not be top of the line, but one should have one, and it should be capable of accomplishing the tasks of flattening and straightening. If you can’t true the work, you can’t expect anything else. It is probably more important to have than a smoother. Any of the jointers from wood to infill can bring this, but in the end, if they can’t, woodworking suffers. For fine work, absolutely zero layout is worth doing if the wood surface has not been properly prepared in advance.
Make or Buy. A shooting board is one of the tools that take woodworking accuracy, fit and finish further, and most woodworkers will find the need for this accuracy, both fit and finish somewhere along their journey. It brings qualities to the final outcome similar to that of the jointer planes. It can help you bring finish dimensions to your work that you may not yet be able to achieve free hand. There are other jigs that help. A good bench, because workholding is a big part of refined crafsmanship. Clamps, guides, what-have-you, the list can go on, depending on your desired outcomes.
There is a corollary to 3,4,5 and 6: If number 2 is not observed, nothing else matters. This means, even low price can be high quality if one can make it sharp and it can stay work-sharp.
- Tooling isn’t everything. Develop yourself. Knowledge is but one thing, ability is another. One is schooling the other is practice. They are parts of the puzzle. We too must be sharp.
Train your brain and body to do this work well.
Learn and practice only the best techniques. For best results, sawing is with the grain first, then across it. Chisel across the grain first, then with it. Observe ergonomics, posture matters.
Observe the outcomes and results from your tools and trust what you observe over what you read in books. This will show one fastest, where improvement is needed or not.
Learn grain reading and what the do’s and don’ts are with grain, including the long, the short and wood movement, as they are hard fast rules. Learn to be patient, let wood move by allowing it to acclimate. Make your big cuts to true it and let it rest. Then after a few days take it to final size, check that it is ready and then work only what you can fit. Preparing all your wood before you work it can allow movement to occur that you can’t correct. It happens. Wood grain is the decider.
Don’t work wood when tired. Woodworkers are not high quality when tired. It’s about safety and the final outcome.
Always consider the safest way to do anything before starting. Consider also what can happen if safe practices are not followed, before starting. Shortcuts are throat cuts.
Have I left a lot out? Yeah. Probably. This is a lot to build on, in ensemble.
Remember, It isn’t just high quality from what we are willing to pay. That is only part of the puzzle for some of our success. Success in woodworking is an ensemble of qualities, from both tooling and technique and the boards themselves.
Were you aware we make woodworking tools? We have a full product line of tools and jigs for use in both hand and power tool woodworking, that help improve your skills and workflow, while improving your speed, accuracy and in many cases, help keep you safe.
We offer a full line of shooting boards and accessories for tackling the most challenging projects, as well as sharpening stations, drilling jigs and benchwork accessories that help keep you sharp and accurate on many tasks!
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