There are a lot of different opinions floated out about accuracy and precision in woodworking, and further, about how it applies in handtool woodworking. I’d like to take a few moments and help add some additional perspective from a toolmaker, and from someone who has also had a long career as a journeyman tradesman. This read is a little long, but I feel the perspectives will be helpful to us as we develop our craftsman skills.
I don’t want to overstate what others I’ve read are saying, but cumulatively I read a lot of woodworkers who write say things like: “wood has too much movement for a need to work accurately”. “Measuring is unnecessary, just match things up so that they are good enough”. I could go on, but I am sure we are all aware of what I am referring to.
On it’s face, sometimes these statements may be true, maybe only true for those who state them, but they can be precarious things to say in a context where the reason why is not well prefaced. Let me explain.
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There is a lot of information about wood movement on the information highway, and some of it has painted itself in a corner. That’s ok, We can help sort this out.
More often than I wish were true, I find myself reading generalizations about wood as a building material and woodworking methods that I wish were better understood, because they create incorrect impressions and misunderstandings. Some we may have seen are: “Wood moves, so being very accurate with it isn’t all that important”, “Wood has seasonal movement you know, so there is not too much concern for high accuracy”. “Just get it close” and “Wood moves, so you can’t really rely on it as an accurate or precision material”. Sound Familiar? It’s unfortunately not the best of advice.
There are many other statements often made along these lines, but they don’t even tell half the story. In fact, statements like these have influenced many who read them that wood is a terribly inaccurate material and is difficult to use for making fine things. Some go on to reiterate what they have heard: “Well you know, wood moves and so there is that accuracy issue”, or “Wood isn’t really a precision material”, without really understanding that this issue is really not nearly as big as they have been lead to believe. See, it looks a lot like what was said in the preceding paragraph, only paraphrased, and not at all any better understood. Understanding this is one of the most important things in woodworking. Sure, knowing how to use tools is great, but what good is that if we don’t understand the material the tools are used for?
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Over the past several years I have received many inquiries regarding woodworking methods that are difficult to make safe. Believe me, being very fond of my fingers and their daily health is always in the forefront of my mind as a full time toolmaker.
Some of the most common questions have been regarding working with short lengths of stock, and thin stock. Both of these sizes of wood not only commonly put our fingers in the near vicinity of rotating cutters on many different power tools and shop machines, but are also such that the power tool or shop machine can grab them and remove control from the operator.
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Recently we have had some emails from woodworkers who have been having challenges with building their projects and having them come out square.
The biggest thing we need to realize about squareness is that we take it for granted, but when we really have to make something square, it is something that begins with wood selection, and evolves from meticulous prep work.
Our layout lines have to be drawn on stock that is already “right” in terms of squareness and dimension.
The joinery we cut and form into those boards must be as accurate as the stock itself.
Fitment will tell the tale. Errors when we make any become cumulative, and sometimes the only trick that works is to be right.
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Recently, a woodworker emailed us looking for a solution to a problem he was having with the alignment and fitment of boxes, drawers and carcass work such as blanket chests, bookcases and chests of drawers, using dovetails for the case and drawer joinery. He also mentioned his interests in small box making and again, enjoys dovetail joinery for those as well.
The Long Grain Shooter, shown in left hand.
The alignment and fitment issue was, that once the casework was assembled, his carcass or boxes were not square from top to bottom, and the joinery would either bind, go together under extreme stress, sometimes fracturing pins or would not sit square on a flat surface when the box or casework was placed on the edges, even though the dimensional widths of the boards were perfectly the same. All this was due to mis-alignment from un-square ends on the dovetailed boards. Continue Reading »
It’s one of those questions I get asked quite often, and interestingly, the answer is pretty succinct. Precision, safety and accuracy. But the reasons behind why we may want to shoot come from a lot of different woodworking situations, and these situations can usually be improved by using an accurate shooting board.
Having a shooting board can be a solution to many woodworking’s problems. What a shooting board does in it’s most basic form is create a chute for a hand plane to slide squarely (side to side, and front to back) to the work, and position a fence to hold the work at a specifically given angle, such as 90 or 45 degrees, so that the end grain of the work can be planed square and smooth. The finish result desired is the smooth finish and squareness front to back, top to bottom. Continue Reading »
One of the most important tools in a woodworkers design arsenal is the Golden Ratio. It is the ratio that balances the long sides of rectangles, with the short side of rectangles, and as a ratio it can be used for either interchangeably as long as one leg length is known.
The Golden Ratio , or Phi as it is commonly called is a ratio that is described as:
Phi= 1 + the square root of 5 over 2. (approximately the ratio of 1 : 1.618)
It has been used in design work going back some 2,400 years. It is still commonly used today for design in Architecture, Engineering, Furniture, Art, Publishing, even Web Design. It has even been found in Nature. If you would like to know more, the Wikipedia Article on the Golden Ratio is very good. A search engine will turn up even more information. Continue Reading »
Accurate cuts right off the saw are always nice, but that isn’t always reality. Sometimes we don’t need accuracy, other times getting it will make a woodworker break out in a cold sweat. Never the less, when you really need that magic to happen, you need it. Sometimes the boards are special, rare boards, with amazing figure. Other times they are just barely large enough for the project, and every saw cut has to be right on the numbers or the last board could be too short. It’s times like that when every cut counts.
Imagine for a moment what some of those crucial cuts are about. Sawing drawer fronts in a matched flitch? Figured boards book-matched where waste isn’t an option? Need to saw dados on target? Accurate angles in face or edge grain? Thick bench legs that match? (That’s a big cut!) Tenons, Finger Joints, Dovetails?
For a long time, I have wanted to develop a sawing fixture that offered great ergonomics, and high miter box like accuracy. I also wanted it to be widely capable of handling many sawing situations and allow the use of any saw, so that the right saw for the job could be utilized. First we developed the East / West Bench Hook, which allows the sawyer to do their best work, and then we developed a magnetic saw guide that helps maintain high sawing accuracy over a wide range of sawing situations, and as an added bonus, it also helps develop good sawing posture and muscle memory. Continue Reading »
Work to a line. Cut on the waste side of the line and leave the line on the work.
Supporting Tip: Mark which side of the line will be the waste side. The waste side is the part you don’t intend to keep.
This isn’t about measuring as much as it is about marking. Marking exactly that which we want to keep is the best way to assure things fit when we assemble our project’s parts. If we don’t observe this however, it can render our careful measurements powerless. The fitment of our work is what we honor the most. Continue Reading »
In The Craftsmanship of Dick Proenneke, we looked at how Dick took a number of hand tools into the Alaskan wilderness, and used them to homestead and create all the things he needed to live and survive. It was rustic carpentry from available timber that was felled, seasoned and milled by hand on site. We all got to look over Dick’s shoulder as he showed us how these tools could be used to create most of what would be needed to make a comfortable home and live well in a remote area.
Dick wrote that what he had accomplished was good enough for “rural work” but in reality, he was a very talented user of hand operated tooling, and knew what he could accomplish with the woods he had access to and the kind of durability he needed from them. Rural work did not mean he quit refining the quality of his workmanship, it meant he built the way he did so as to provide utility, endure hard use and inclement seasonal conditions.
Colonial Williamsburg Photo
Hand tools are also very highly regarded as the go to tools for fine work. Work on pieces where tolerances are exacting, or the sizes of the pieces are so small or thin where powered tooling would make it difficult to work safely or accurately. Continue Reading »