12 November 2015

Trends in Handsaws

One recent project got me to thinking of a developing trend in handtools. Since I know that there are many industrialist bigwigs who read my weblog, I feel particularly obligated to impart my wisdom to this cohort through the weblogging medium.
Initially, I got an idea that I needed a planing board after reading a posting by Christopher Schwarz in which he referenced the idea from George Ellis, Modern Practical Joinery. Schwarz commented that he would post his thoughts later as to how to properly use the planing board. I followed his construction notes, blueprints and referenced the Ellis book from a .pdf file that I had downloaded. I've not yet had enough experience to write up new insights although I do have a few inklings and planned modifications to make the appliance function to its fullest potential.
The bench appliance is made up of several slats that float in grooves plowed into the long rails that are held in place at four corners with pegged mortise and tenons joints. Though I chopped the mortises easily enough with Lie-Nielsen chisels, I've found that I can cut the tenons more easily and accurately with a Japanese style rip tooth Z saw. This saw didn't particularly cost me much and I was able to buy it from a Shanghai tooldealer. I've become more and more satisfied with the purchase as I steadily make use of it.

A pullstroke seems to start more smoothly in end grain and keep in line with long layout markings. When cutting deeply, the broad surface of the unbacked blade has obvious benefits over a stouter, western style backsaw. The main feature worthy of comment, however, is that this blade is, in fact, detachable from the handle and disposable. The blade hooks in and is wedged between crimped metal of the handle. I've not yet noticed any diminishing of the blades sharpness since I purchased it two years ago.  I am confident that when I do decide that the sawblade no longer passes muster, I can buy its replacements locally, keeping the still functional handle.
It locks in place with a good, strong wallop
This feature is possible due to a method for cheaply producing sawblades: induction hardening. The teeth are hardened through magnetic oscillations, the same method on many glass topped cookstoves. The distinguishing aspect of this heating method is that it doesn't distort nor discolor the steel as with fire quenching. The teeth can be ground precisely before the hardening process; whereas, in older methods, the teeth needed to be tempered in order to be sharpened with a file. The upside of tempering steel is that the sawblade can be resharpened repeatedly after becoming dull, or even reshaped.


The red plastic handle for that I bought for the Z saw fits well in the hand and is easy to grip. It's lightly padded with some sort of dense foam. The handles are also available in different lengths, styles, and other colors, even wooden, and wrapped in bamboo binding. The range of blade options is even more impressive.

All of this is laid out to compare with the options that are generally available for broadly marketed western crosscut saws. Or is it clearer to say NonJapanese saws? Locally I am able to buy some of the wares offered by Irwin and Stanley, generally, whatever the bigboxstores and franchise retailers offer outside the Middle Kingdom.  Induction hardening has now become the industry default standard so much so that saws that are not made so are distinguished with the label, resharpenable, a marketer's neologism. I've been using this Irwin model for the last few months and I've been recommending them earnestly to students. I get good results with the saw both up on the high bench and down low for rough cutting. But eventually, it will become dull, just as my previous crosscut did, a Sandvik, seemingly no longer available in China. Paul Sellers has also written about his experiences with a similar Disston saw and the trends in the construction trades related to it.
as good as it gets marketwise
And when that sad day arrives, there will be no replacement blade, the whole saw, handle and blade, will be rendered disposable. I've noticed that both Stanley and Irwin are now beginning to offer Japanese style pull saws as part of their wares, yet with none of the options on the Japanese market. They offer push saws now with Japanese saw tooth geometry, but nearly all the saw handles are molded plastic, sometimes to imitate wood, the coloring, as far as I can reckon, is but a function of the market zone and not according to the consumer's preference. Despite attempts to reenter the bench plane market after abandoning it decades ago, (whither the surform?) Stanley has no apparent interest in offering anything more than a midrange handsaw. If there are screws, rather sawnuts, to attach the blade to the handle, they hold a meretricious function.

The responses are unsurprisingly predictable as to why brands like Irwin and Stanley, to call out just a few in the field, offer such a narrow range of handsaws and of such minimal quality. The executives will talk about market demands,  production efficiencies,  yada-yada, blah, blah, etc. The corporate/ business school culture is much more to blame. The top level honchos all know each other, or else they hire the same consultants, and thereby tend to do whatever the others are doing and indifferently follow the other's business plans without ever willing to admit so. And so it's not surprising that industrywide, the products would look so similar even if they weren't made in the few same Chinese factories.

It's amazing that very well paid men can convince themselves that they are earning their salaries while offering fewer options internationally than a single Japanese manufacturer can offer domestically. It makes me wonder whether industrialist islanders, perforce, develop higher standards for manufacturing due to the associated higher costs of production and local consumers even more discerning and demanding of domestic manufacturers. But the island setting cannot be the only factor. There are still a few manufacturers in the UK that rely on very highly trained craftsmen, but Sheffield steel is a shadow of what it once was.There are still small French manufacturers producing items that have long fell out of the mainstream but that still fulfill a niche market. The smaller scale of manufacturing and the shorter distance between craftsperson and factory seem to be more salient explanations.

Ecce, ecce! Here is my unsolicited advice to the leaders of the big industrial conglomerates that determine what handtools are available to the masses: do the right thing and take a cue from the Japanese sawmakers whose tool designs you've been surreptitiously offering under your brands, and make your saws with detachable, disposable blades. And while you're composing that email to your outsourcer in Dongguan, you might also think about offering more options for handles.  This is the last time that I waive my consulting fee, you shortsighted boomer bastards.

07 October 2015

MidAutumn Coursework: October 1st-5th

A group of seven students used their golden week holiday to learn about some fundamentals of woodworking with handtools. My assistant and I were pleased with their focus and diligence over the 5 day course, They learned such skills as joinery layout, handsawing, mortising, paring, dimensioning with benchplanes, and sharpening. The following photos are a sampling of their efforts.
Rebate joints

Using a drawknife to whittle down waste

Fettling a sliding dovetail socket

Kolrosing on a finished candlebox

All on task

An interloping paparazza!

Surfacing with a newly tuned jackplane
Coffee flavored Kolrosing

Transferring a design with marking knife

Final day group photo

Hardly Hardware

When of the challenges of doing woodworking in China is the severe shortage of hardware options. The institutional experience of physically searching for a little piece of metal shaped to suit a particular need on a shelf next to something that can also be picked up, handled, and compared with another piece doesn't exist in this nation that likely makes a good portion of what fills those big box stores. Given this unmet market need, it seems worthwhile to examine how the savvy, well compensated executives at Home Depot failed to establish a solid beachhead in China.
There are little shops scattered around Chinese cities that are referred to as 五金店, WuJinDian, literally five metal shops. They sell various household emergency supplies like replacement showerheads, a few lightbulbs, and other consummables in a space half the size of an American garage so the selection is decidedly limited to high turnover items.  There is no room for browsing with merchandise often packed in so tightly with hardly enough room for the owner to manoeuvre amid the organized chaos.
a common site on the Chinese urban fabric

I am, therefore, limited to shopping at B&Q and its own paltry selection of low quality goods. This is a rebuilding nation of megacities built of bricks, concrete, and concrete blocks. Most of the wood sold there is made to cover over the rough beton and the most nails are hardened for concrete. This British chain certainly has adapted to the Chinese consumer market but I see very little focused effort to ride the latest of interest in DIY. Much of the home furnishing product selection is a shanzhai mirror of what can be found at Ikea.
Home Depot's failure to maintain a market presence seems to have become gospel as to how the Chinese market is not ready for a 'traditional' hardware store format. What is never mentioned in such a superficial analysis is that for so many of the middle class DIYers, their first impulse is to search for what they need on Taobao. Taobao introduces its own sets of frustrations. Rather often a posted item is 'not in stock' but one is not informed of this until a day or two later. I'm also amazed at how poorly the search function works on it, necessitating thumbing through endless pages of 'promoted' items  in order to find close to one is looking for. My Chinese colleague is a competent writer and speaker of the language but the problems seem to often originate with sellers who either don't really know what they are selling so they instead use general terms thereby gaming the algorithm to put their items at the top of more searches. It follows then what the Chinese marketplace truly needs now is a brick and mortar outlet to accommodate this gap of general knowledge.

For this and other reasons is worthwhile to pick apart, nay to challenge, the poor excuses that have been given to explain Home Depot's retreat. At the same time, I want to highlight some of the basic errors committed by Home Depot.
1) starting in the right place:
I seriously doubt that the big chiefs at HD did much reconnoitering before expanding their boxstore empire to include the middle kingdom. There are a few clues to indicate how the demise was seeded even before their invasion. Home Depot entered the Chinese market with an amazing 12 stores located in the following cities: Tianjin, Beijing, Xi'an, Qingdao, Shenyang, and Zhengzhou. The most salient point to mention is which city is absent: Shanghai. The premiere city in China that is more attune to international trends and receptive to them than any other is Shanghai. It's where any international brand with intentions of succeeding enters China before attempting to advance inland. It's better to fail or succeed in Shanghai with one store and to comprehend the challenges of the PRC than to to fail with 12 stores and to have to come up with pathetic excuses. My best guess is that Home Depot was so eager to get into the mainland market that it chose 6 cities around a central distribution hub, believing that it could replicate its model from the top down and not have to build up any brand loyalty or do any market research in much the same way that every other business with grand intentions of crashing and burning approaches a new venture.
2) small and few:
It's further evidence of ossified arrogance to think that every city needed two stores. In China, one crowded store has a better chance for success than two stores with no wait at the checkout lanes. There is a strong theme in Chinese mob psychology. If a restaurant is crowded, the logic is that the food must be good.  And yes, lemmings do come to mind whenever I observe this. Again, my best guess is that the big chiefs looked at the populations of these 6 cities and extrapolated expected demand based on the HD's presence in other markets.  That clearly didn't work out as planned and I put forth that the cavernous, empty stores only scared aware more potential customers.
3)Teach the fundamentals and never stop:
It's a punchline that the apron wearers in big box stores don't know much about what they are selling. That is not so critical so long as the customer base knows enough about what they need. The Chinese consumers with only slight exaggeration know nothing about anything that they didn't formally learn in school. Salespeople generally know even less than the intended consumers. As an example, I visited a showroom exhibiting ovens, some of which were high-end, imported European models. There were the usual surfeit of salesladies watching me intently, tripping over themselves, awkwardly trying to get me to buy a model by repeating the few words that they knew in English. I pulled out a tape measure to find out what the interior dimensions were when I noticed that all the oven racks were installed backwards with the 'guardrail' that prevents pans from dropping off the back positioned at the front. At first, I though this might be a fluke of one model until I realized that every oven was on display this way. This example repeats itself in China: salespeople with little to no knowledge of products new to the general market, attempting to sell items to consumers who know just as much.
From the very beginning Home Depot needed to train its Chinese staff about everything, and train them again, and do it again. And then they needed to open their doors and find creative ways to train the potential consumers. Also about everything for sale in their stores.
There was a lame excuse offered at the time of Home Depot's exit. The explanation was made that China lacks a DIY culture.
a Home Depot spokeswoman said: “The market trend says this is more of a do-it-for-me culture”(Burkitt, 2012).
Spokespersons are paid a lot of money to spin reality in order to protect the stock prices and the egos of their bosses.  The aforementioned trend is not at all in this direction. The Chinese have even adopted the term, DIY, to describe this middle class phenomenon. The situation in China is so underdeveloped that as much as the burgeoning cohort wants to get involved in DIY, they don't even know how or where to begin their education. There are no home repair sections in the few public libraries that exist, nor any DIY television programs. And there are certainly no helpful hardware men. The language barriers and internet censorship only exacerbate this situation. And so the Chinese do what every DIYer does when there is a project that is too much to tackle, (e.g. Repairing a stone chimney requiring scaffolding and a crane.) he hires a professional. Sadly, this same homeowner, therefore, is compelled to hire a professional to do just about everything. I use the term professional by the strict meaning of one who earns a living in a trade. Professional tradesmen in China are the one-eyed cobbling for the blind.
Relative Professionalism
It behooves us to recall exactly how the large boxstore model of retail became so successful in North America if not much of the developed world. They plucked the low hanging fruits of a mature marketplace by offering more cheaply priced goods from the advantages of lower production costs in a recently industrializing Asian nation. They were able to take even greater advantage of a large number of adequately educated and experienced homeowners who, sensitive to price, opted to spend less money in smaller hardware retailers that had cultivated the market for decades until their businesses could no longer compete with the megastores' buying power and extensive floorspace. Oh, and the ample meterfree parking! The newer stores could also easily find competent sales staff due to all the smaller hardware stores that were forced to lay off employees. The trendy term of art that was meant to keep the working class in their place for this dislocation at the time and to justify the stock options was 'creative destruction.'
The highly compensated executives at Home Depot must have had short memories or fallen victims of their own B-school egos. Their failure to recognize their own keys to success, by creatively destroying smaller businesses, as they consolidated wealth certainly is the clearest sign of the need for another dose of creative destruction.

25 August 2015

Dutch Toolchest: upper and lower sections

Following the lead of Christopher Schwarz and riding the wave that he induced, I built the Dutch toolchest in the early months of 2015 and by springtime, I was aware of a problem with the drop front. It had expanded beyond the allotted opening, making it nearly impossible to remove it, reinsert it, or use the sliding batten to lock it into place. The drop front required replaning about three times over the course of the following 6 months to make it workable. The drop front of the top section is made of white pine by eye.
I wanted to follow Schwarz' idea of a Dutch toolchest lower section on casters. The casters would give me a bit more flexibility in my new work environment and the lower section would house some of the additional tools I had acquired. I therefore rejected Schwarz's construction detail of a sliding batten that required lifting the top section completely off to remove the batten and thereby gain access to the lower section. He uses the lower section only for storing and transporting materials to offsite locations. I was instead drawn to the variation that he highlighted in a posting referred to as the Canadian Gravity Latch. This would allow me the same degree of access to both sections and to show off my Western woodworking skills!
I roughly followed his dimensions and made up the construction details of the gravity latch as I went along.
I have access to fairly clear Southern Yellow Pine so I chose that for my stock. I cannot yet get anything wider than 2"x10" in either SYP or SPF. I got around this hurdle with the upper section by using German made laminated pine shelving boards for the sides. I laminated SYP stock to create the 11-1/4" boards for the main carcase. These were dovetailed with rabbets on the tail boards to lend rigidity and ease the marking of the pins.
Dovetail joint

There was some twist that has started to develop but I managed to squeeze the four boards together, the dovetail joints pulling the corners in square. The back of the upper section had simple shiplap rabbets; whereas, on the bottom section, I had the wherewithal to make a tongue and groove joint. I used some scrap European Beech for the battens. (There is always a lot of this as scrap in this woodshop.) The gravity latch went together without much trouble as I had already understood the principle from having made the upper section.
Thumbcatch on the gravity latch
I unified the two pieces with the same beading plane and a coat of milk paint covered in BLO.
The DTC: upper and lower sections
And it worked for a while without a glitch. Yet since this is China, nothing is ever so easy. About a month or so after everything was together, I started to have trouble with the drop front. It was apparent that the newly exposed surfaces that had been planed down to 3/4"were cupping noticeably.
Newly ajar and uncloseable

Here is a similar example that occurred much faster when I attempted to dimension a piece for a shaving bench.
Released tension after exposing fresh surfaces

My first solution was to cut a series of relief cuts on the inside surface. This seemed viable and I had a circularsaw to execute this idea. After removing the battens, which had evidently done very little to counteract the released stressed with the SYP, I ran a series of sawcuts as deeply as I dared while avoiding the screw holes.
Seemingly reflattened yet still curved

Ribbed for everybody's pleasure

And then I reassembled the mechanism and crossed my fingers. I could see very little effect from attaching the battens and if there was any change to the curvature, it wasn't enough to bring it back to functionality. I pondered adding more sawcuts but I think I had maxxed out on that solution. It then dawned on me that I could simply removed the wood that was interfering with the fit. The battens proved to be prefectly positioned, built-in guides for this operation. I ran a making knife along both battens and after creating knifewall, then I sawed down a bit. I pared out most of the waste before cleaning up and doing the final fettling with shoulder and block planes.
Rabbeted with ease

The result hardly shows the major surgery that has been inflicted upon it. There remains some shelving or interior attachments to be added to accommodate whatever tools I decide to secure in it.

19 August 2015

Duelling Dowel Plates

Every woodworker is ably assisted with access to a machineshop, one with a vertical milling machine, surface grinder, engine lathe, forge, and all the usual tooling. With such a setup, somebody can make a dowel plate with as many increments as available drill bits. For those of us lacking such a tooling bonanza, Lie-Nielsen makes an offtheshelf model that is well worth its price. Actually they make two models, one with factional inches and another graduated in millimeters. A woodworker who wants to make full use of scrap pieces for making straightgrained dowels will do well to make use of  these two tools in tandem.
Only one size is based on the other
It's not widely known that the inch used in the USA was long ago defined according to the metric system as 2.52 cm. [Other inches are also defined according to the metric system.] Not approximately but exactly 2.52 cm, or 25.2 mm (since 1959, in fact). For those of raised on this preFrench revolutionary system, a good number to keep in one's head is that 25 (.2) millimeters equal and inch. This allows us to redefine the two seemingly incompatible dowel plates in a way that allows us to use them together.
Here is a handy list of the equivalence in millimeters for the fractional inch dowel plate sizes.
1/8" = 3.15 mm
3/16"= 4.725 mm
1/4" = 6.3 mm
5/16"= 7.755 mm
3/8"= 9.45 mm
1/2"= 12.6 mm
5/8"= 17.75

The dowel plate holes on the metric plate are: 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16

There is no secret code that can be revealed from staring at these numbers but I suspect that anybody who has already used dowel plates will readily see the expanded uses from having both. First, it's practical to reduce the diameter of dowels incrementally in order to produce straight and true lengths. The closer that one can space these steps, the better. As one can see, driving a dowel that just passed through a 5/8" hole into a 1/2" is a whole 1/8" reduction. A 16 mm step between these two can ease the dowel down to size a bit more gradually. The whole sequence of steps for reducing dowel diameters is thus:
5/8", 16 mm, 1/2", 12mm, 10 mm, 3/8", 8 mm, 5/16", 6 mm, 1/4", 3/16", 4 mm, 1/8", and lastly, 3 mm.
Secondly, sometimes, a slightly oversized dowel is what one needs whether to allow for wood compression, in dry or green woods, or due to unreliably accurate drilling setups. This seems to be more often the situation with hardwoods being driven into soft(er)woods. If one is working in fractional inches, an 8 mm dowel is slightly larger than a 5/16" hole (7.875 mm). The same is true for a 16 mm dowel in a 5/8" hole (15.75 mm). With the addition of some metric drill sizes, this feature can be expanded with the fractionally sized dowels being driven into metrically sized holes, too.

I don't know what's easily available in other markets, but I can readily find Japanese manufactured auger bits that use 1/4" drive shafts. This shank size seems to have become a standard for interchangeable tooling in the international market. The Japanese refer to this as a 6.35 mm hex drive. There is also a 9 mm hex drive for larger sized tooling.
A set of Japanese drill bits and a German make

These hex shafts can be used in both three jaw chucks for electric drills or in this amazing adapter that can be mounted into a two jaw brace. There are also adapters that accept 5/16" hex shafts and 9mm hex drill bits. Dieter Schmid Fine Tools, for one, in Germany offers a wide selection of Japanese auger bits as well as the necessary 2 jaw chuck adapters.
Packaged set of three bits for hang hole displays

I don't understand the Japanese sizing system. The packages of drill bits conform to what their customers want so it remains a mystery to me why drill bits might be bundled in a package with diameters: 6,8,9,10, and 12 mm. A bigger mystery is why Lie-Nielsen offers a metric dowel plate. Is it a sign that the Maine brand has reached inroads on international markets where the inch is merely a curiosity? Regardless of their reasons, I hope that this posting makes clear why both these plates ought to be in every woodworker's kit.

14 August 2015

First Course in Hangzhou

Between July 27th and August 7th, with the help of my assistant, I instructed my first Chinese students in woodworking, focusing on developing skills and joinery with handtools. A class of budding galoots spent their first week on smaller projects in order to devote the second to a Japanese tool chest based upon the initial design of Toshio Odate.

Something here that doesn't look right
 I was impressed by the level of energy and commitment among a group of true beginners. Their communication skills helped enable my lesson plans immensely.
All on task

Adding an ear to accept a grommet

Fitting the rebated bottom boards

Anarchy with filgree
Paring out a shoulder for a rabbet plane

These future heartbreakers could not be present for the group photo on the last day because their mother told them that they must be home before the streetlights came on

Fettling for a final fit

A pride of students and their accomplishments
The next scheduled course offering will take place during the first week of October.

13 August 2015

Starrett Combination Square Rehab and Praise

I've been annoyed with a problem that I suspect is common with similar vintage tools ever since I acquired a secondhand 12" Starrett combination square. While mostly a feature of its metalworking past, the scribe had trouble staying in its hole, dropping out unless it was inserted just so with the last bit of holding power left in the head.
About the same time that I was struggling to find a similar tool for students, I perused the Starrett website and noticed that there was an option for contacting the company. I selected "parts breakdown" in the reason scrolldown box. I wrote thus:
"I have an older model combination square with a scribe that has loosened over the years. Can you suggest any methods to adjust the hole that it inserts into or other ways to keep it secure and still useful?"
An acknowledgement arrived immediately and a fuller response forthwith. I reprint the email:

The Starrett part number is 01087-1/2. 

This awl bushing is just a small brass sleeve that has a taper on one end. The taper actually is what holds the awl in place. My guess is the taper section finally spread out over the years and the awl is now loose in the holder area. The old brass sleeve will need to be drilled out and the new sleeve inserted in its place (press fit). 

We can send you the replacement sleeve at no cost….the problem is getting it to you in a cost effective manner. If you have a suggestion on how best to send this low cost part to you – please advise.

Looking forward to hearing from you in this matter.

Ken Duffy

The L S Starrett Company - Export Department
121 Crescent Street
Athol, MA 01331   USA
Email: kduffy@starrett.com

Saints praise Mr. Duffy! Not even a demand for a receipt or a photo of the problem. I merely had to give a physical mailing address and the replacement parts would be on their way. Oh, I even asked for a few extra in case I screwed up the installation. He sent me five replacement parts. For those who don't understand why Starrett tools cost so much, this level of service explains their relatively low cost for the value of a tool that will outlive its owners.

The little parts arrived by FedEx directly from Athol, Massachusetts. I had offered to buy the free parts for the cost of shipping, but I was charged nothing. Not a cent or a fen. 

The instructions were to drill out the old shim and then reinsert its replacement. Being lazy and wary of letting my 'hard to replace in China' square come up against a twist bit, I pondered an alternative method. I took a short drywall and turned it into the soft brass insert. I then squeezed the head of the screw between vise jaws. 
The crudest solutions are sometimes the most elegant
I held a block of hard wood against the head and smacked it with a big ash mallet. It was driven out easily. Hurray!
I could see more clearly what had happened over the years.
The curtain peeled away
There are three flaps of metal on the end of the brass shim stock that compress against scribe. Either due to metal fatigue of abrasion, they no longer provided enough friction to hold securely. It's conceivable that after withdrawing the old sleeve, I could have pinched the flaps closer together and reinserted the original one. The amateur conservator in me was tempted to do so. The outer edge of the brass had been subjected to a lifetime or more of getting stabbed by the scribe's tip.

Shiny and shinier
I kept the original but decided to use the new sleeve and promised myself to cease being so rectally retentive. After blowing out the void in the head with compressed air, I pushed the new sleeve in with just finger pressure and then pressed the head against a flat surface to bring it flush.  

The tool rejuvenated and ready for the next lifetime of careful use.

From China I securely sing your mechanical praises, Laroy Sunderland Starrett, born in China, Maine!