21 July 2015

Another word on Chinese made marking gauges

I've been aware of a high quality marking gauge from Lie Nielsen for quite a while and if my real parents ever discover that I was kidnapped as a child from the palace nursery, I will use my inheritance to buy it any everything else in the L-N catalogue. The Tite-Mark is of a distinctive enough design that it jumps out of every photograph of all the droolworthy toolchests that I've come across online.
I was intrigued to find its lookalike from this supplier. The seller offered replacement cutters, which made the tool seem usable if not first rate.
The first indication that something was amiss was the brand name in the printed catalogue, Marking Gauges.

Truly fit for hanging
 The shipment arrived and I noticed that the name was the same on the packaging. It certainly looked promising but in very short order, a series of discoveries made it evident that this is simply an unusually badly fabricated shanzhai model.
Tite-Mark's distant cousin?

One point that confused me was that there did not seem to be any fine adjustment threading. The two thumbscrews appeared to be tapped into the same solid piece of brass.
I secondly noticed how deeply the cutter was recessed into the headstock. Wow, that's certainly protective.
Down in a well

I began to pull the tool apart and the first really odd aspect was the channel that had been chiseled into nearly the full length of the beam. (The photograph on the website seems to intentionally obscure this feature and the image in the print catalogue is too small.) It required me to either remove the cutter or both thumbscrews to disassemble the piece.
Milled not broached

The thumbscrews showed their primary weakness immediately. Although nicely knurled, that little point makes hardly any contact with the round surface of a beam, necessitating the channel along its length to create a flat for it to press against.
Pointedly pointless

The modification to the beam started to make a little sense but then unexpectedly, I discovered that the headstock was not solid but a two piece affair connected by threads similar other marking gauges with fine adjustments.
Right tighty with a loosey goosey thread fit

But wait, how is this supposed to work together with the pointed thumbscrews compensated by the channel to allow the two parts of the headstock to rotate independently? It's a real headscratcher and another example of how great a gap there often is between Chinese (Taiwanese?) factory workers and their knowledge of what they are making even when they are attempting to reproduce the best that the market offers. But hey, that same factory did eventually find at least one buyer.

And to add another bizarre detail to this Frankenstein, there is also an unexplained threaded hole on the headstock similar in size to the ones for the thumbscrews. My best guess is that it was a mistake in manufacturing and simply plugged with plastic setscrew, but when you're on a roll, why stop with just one mistake?

27 May 2015

Same direction; relocation

Here is an image of my new workspace where I intend to continue sharing my skills and interest in woodworking and handicrafts.
The new studio

The last year turns out have been a complete waste of time and efforts save for the demonstrations that my present employers witnessed. Classes are already being reformatted and adjusted to suit the new venue. Updates will follow.

01 April 2015

Remaking a Chinese Made Marking Gauge

This project started out with a no-name marking gauge. It's not a branded tool which is an indication of its origin and a marketing ploy. It can be bought through a well established retail chain in the USA under its own label, but it originates from this factory. The same tool can also be bought in other countries putatively under different brands.

This establishes this tool as a commodity and with that in mind I set about to refining it suit my needs better with some modifications. A user review can be read here, which is overall positive. The positives that I note of the marking gauge are its substantial cutterhead which is held in place with a flush screw to the beam and which can be fully retracted into the headstock. This makes transferring measurements easy and accurate, much better than having to use a rule to set the cutter distance from the headstock. There are, however, two grating shortcomings of this tool.

The first is that the thumbscrew sits so close to the headstock that it can be difficult to get enough purchase with fingertips to tighten to the beam. This is compounded by a general problem with all marking gauges: slippage. The end of the thumbscrew has a small surface that presses against a polished rod's curvature, making the thumbscrew in this arrangement a very flawed design feature.

I set about tackling these problems by reducing some of the metal. The trick is figuring out how to do so safely and with precision. I thought I recalled another weblogger mounting a beam in a jig so it could be placed against a grinding wheel in a controlled manner. I did some searching but came up empty. I decided to go for broke. Even though the graduations on the beam are nearly illegible and without a reference point on headstock are also useless, I decided to be prudent, nonetheless, and to file a flat off the beam on the opposite side.

I didn't have any blue layout dye so I use a black permanent marker and then drew two closely spaced parallel lines, using a knife and a straightedge. I then made up two blocks of pine with vee channels to hold and protect the beam in the vise jaws. I set the beam in the blocks firmly with the scribed lines as upright as I could and began filing. The permanent marker proved to be not so permanent when I flipped the beam end for end but just enough of the reference lines remained. I filed down long enough to create what I think will be a sufficiently wide flat for the thumbscrew to bear against. I thought it better to not polish the flat since the filed surface would make it easier to line up the flattened surface with the thumbscrew. I then went ahead to work on the headstock.
Filing applied to one half
A flat filed along the full length

I tried the same permanent marker on the headstock but this proved to be even less effective. I planned to use a grinder with the face of the headstock against the toolrest. This made it necessary to scribe a straight line perpendicular to the axis of the thumbscrew over a contoured surface. There was no way to establish such a line so I ground down slowly and replaced the thumbscrew occasionally in order to check that the edge was square to the top of it.

I learned that the brass of the headstock is very soft, almost too soft to be an effective tool. Perhaps not surprisingly the manufacturer's website refers to headstock metal as copper. This doesn't appear to simply be a bad translation. I didn't so much grind off the metal as rub it off. There were no sparks and when the alloy heated up, I learned how the wooden handle is attached. A set of left handed threads squeezes it in place. It would be a simple matter to make a replacement of a preferred wood or with different contours if a user is so inclined.
Left handed threads on the butt of the headstock

There is also an accessory for this marking gauge, a double cutter for marking mortises. I advise against it. The small face on this gauge makes transferring two marks even more likely to create inaccuracies. It also requires the use of multiple brass washers as shims to establish the width. Other manufacturers have devised much better solutions for this function.

I am satisfied with the results. I would not suggest that somebody buy this marking gauge simply in order to go through what I did unless he is in China and Taobao is the best local source for handtools. Dating myself, I come across so many better made handtools today than when I began this craft. It's manifestly better to support those manufacturers or to delve into toolmaking oneself by making one or a few from scratch and scraps.

16 March 2015

Linenfolds on the thresholds

Here are some examples of linenfold carvings that I found in Amsterdam and in Belgium, mainly Brugges and Brussels, during my 2014 holiday travel.

Now I only need to get a stock of wide oak boards although pine seems to be used as in lower quality applications.

Delamination, Sweetheart

I found a bit of an odd problem when I opened up my #5 to examine the plane blade.

the split

When I first purchased the plane I noticed a faint line along the bevel, which I have seen with other laminated blades and I had then always associated with high quality tools, usually from Japan. I thought I had gotten lucky with this example from Stanley. Did they go through a phase when they were short on steel and decided to go all Damascene? Somebody with more experience with Stanley types might be able to put a date to when this was manufactured based on the logo.

Originally I only tuned up the blade on some flat whetstones only as far as was necessary to get it working since it was out of square. That was before the woodshop got a Tormek and a benchgrinder. Not knowing what to do other than remove metal, I ground off the tip square on the grinding wheel after marking the back of the blade with permanent marker and scratching in a line.

Ready for the grinding wheel

Ready for the Tormek

Then it was simply a matter of mounting it to the proper Tormek holder, moistening the stonewheel, and then letting the machine do its work. And the result is sharp but the delamination line is still present.

I don't know whether this is stable now or whether this split is going to be problematic all the way back up to the chipbreaker screw hole. Hopefully this posting might generate some informative responses.

Dalbergia and the tragedy of the too common

A few weeks back I came across a short news item that gave me pause. The efforts and expenses to build these items were clearly intended to produce the opposite effects in viewers from what effect they had on me.

I needed to do a bit of online research to help put in perspective my dislike for this style of what? Of oversized modelmaking? Of imperial nostalgia? Of architectural revisionism? It's a muddle to know what to call this type of project. Party triumphalism? It is too big to be anything other than a demonstration of state power with echoes of dynastic excess.

This project is wrong (or is it mainly odd? tonedeaf?) on so many levels that it's hard to ease into a critique. Why did anybody feel it was necessary or even advantageous to use such an expensive and hard to work material? The rosewood hardly adds to create an appearance of Beijing's former citywalls. Today with cgi walkthroughs and 3D software, how does such a thing educate a viewer  better than a Lego model and what are the intended lessons here?

In order to grapple with these questions, I write thus. There is a particular aesthetic amongst Chinese when it comes to wood types, I have learned. In order to explain this, I think it's helpful to examine a parallel attitude that illustrates how Chinese herbal medicine is imagined to work. The ginseng plant produces a root that is purported to have countless medical benefits. Two qualities seem to determine what makes ginseng potent. This first is its shape. The more it resembles a person, from what I can gather, the more expensive it is. It's very much similar to the medieval notion of the doctrine of signatures. Obviously the herb must be good for the body because it looks like a body! And who can argue with that willful logic?

The second quality is its source. The farther the spice or animal part has travelled to reach the consumer or the more difficult it is to obtain, the more effective it must be. I call this the doctrine of conspicuous hypochondria. This is why ginseng grown in exotic Wisconsin fetches a premium price in China and why South Korean ginseng dominates the markets outside Asia. The distance adds to the perceived value far above the actual shipping costs.

Rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) is a beautifully grained wood that is rather easy to identify even by novices. And it just looks expensive, to put it bluntly. The deep coloration has a visual mass to it that conveys importance and status without any additional explanation. Rosewood is also one of the essential species used in the traditional, high-end furniture tradition known as HongMu, 紅木. The forms and construction methods are strongly associated with the Ming and Qing dynasties, probably because, in part, not many examples have survived from earlier than those eras. The native stocks of the woods used for HongMu construction were depleted long ago along with most of China's forests, which only recently have begun to bounce back slowly with concerted efforts to reforest and enforced conservation.

Modern Chinese furniture and cabinetmakers have been, with an aim to supplying the expanding Chinese upper classes, in short order, continuing with the same depletion strategy by getting cut down as many trees as can be found of these slow growing, tropical species. And they really don't care about the laws that must be broken to obtain their raw materials. 

I had a conversation with a colleague that drives the point of this essay in more clearly and really draws a contrast with how I and others whom I admire view woodworking. I mentioned one day that I wanted to obtain more raw stock of one wood in particular, a species of larch, that has many of the same qualities of southern yellow pine if only a bit knottier. I often see it planted as an urban tree even in Nanjing, distinctly shedding its needles and growing ramrod straight trunks. In my mind, the fact that this is a wood that can be sourced locally is a big positive. There is also a native species of open-grained cypress that is dense and stable but I have mainly seen this used in fingerjointed gluelams for cabinetry.
He told me that it was not expensive and easy to buy yet he was dismissive of my appraisal. "This is a too common wood." And that was the end of that conversation. This same colleague after telling me about the existence of sawmill operations in the city limits then stalled about revealing their addresses so I could visit them on my own time. He must regard that lumber as 'Too local" not worthy of our woodshop and yet a similar attitude explains why imported rosewood was used to create a citywall when the same local clay or stone as in the original would have been deemed inappropriate for the task.

This past weekend many of my coworkers and I participated in the Shanghai tradeshow and this was the stock that was to be used for demonstrating bowl turning.

Padauk, probably sourced from Africa
The whole local, sustainable aspects to woodworking that pervade much of what has always appealed to me about the craft is flipped on its head in much of the middle kingdom. And it's likely that this preference of the exotic and endangered involves a degree of class prejudice. Much of China is locally grown and sustainable as least as far as Chinese peasant farmers are concerned so that the idea is well known but it is also strongly associated with poverty and backwardness. There are a few examples of backtotheland movements but not to work the land, mostly to get away from the urban ratrace and take advantage of telecommuting.
So far in China woodworking is still primarily a hobby reserved for the swelling ranks of the middle class and their unrefined aesthetics and crass tastes predominate. They certainly don't want to be associated something too common or local. It might require another generation before younger woodworkers begin to see the trees around them as principal sources for their craft.  

02 February 2015


I have known about gesso as it relates to gilding and how to expect it on antique furniture, but I had never gotten around to working with it nor discovering its potential. It represents one of those well established methods of woodworking that fell out of favor with the advent of industrialism and plastics, in particular. And as with so much of woodworking of old that has been experiencing a revival, I think gesso has potential to follow this trend.
Initially I was planning on following the method that Pfollansbee uses to attach hinge battens to a 6 board chest lid: clenched nails. I ended up having to use Scotch pine glulam for a lid, which made me reconsider whether clenched nails would be appropriate or effective. I thought first about countersinking the underside of the battens and attaching the lid with woodscrews. The thinness of the lid stock made me hesitate. I had finally found a source of hide glue in China and the idea of gesso as a filler seemed to arise sua sponte.

I had already marked off the spacing but had not predrilled the holes for clenched nails. I instead drilled the pilot holes for the screws and then countersunk for the screw heads below the lid surface. At this point I was committed to using gesso even though I had not quite figured out how to make it or what to expect from it. Online resources focus on gesso as sizing for preparing paint surfaces on wooden panels, which is a good start and better than nothing. I bought both plaster of Paris and chalk dust, but I have not yet experimented with the plaster of Paris. I also bought the chalk dust as an additive for milk paint, but I have not been using it for that.

There are some guidelines for determining the consistency of the chalk dust/ hide glue filler. The most useful one is to create a mixture that resembles light cream. My gesso ended up as a rather heavy cream but I applied it anyway.
applied to deep countersinks

At about the same time that I was struggling to complete the 6 board chest, I was building a Dutch tool chest. I had glued together some blocks that would be drilled through to accept grommet handles. Some short grain split out, yet rather than curse the arbor gods, I saw another opportunity to try out gesso as a filler.
second application

The tool chest bracket required two applications. Since gesso is a water based filler, as it dries, there is some unavoidable shrinkage. After letting the gesso dry sufficiently. I used a riffler to abrade the excess and then a card scraper. I am still not certain what the best way to bring down the excess gesso to form a flush surface. It can be moistened as I did on the 6 board chest lid to produce a smooth surface. The water also lifted the milk paint, which had to be reapplied anyway.
scraped gesso flush with surface

smoothed with hot water

Both of the surfaces were intended to be finished with milk paints. It might be that as the rise of the natural wood grain aesthetic rose, and the use of painted surfaces fell out of fashion, the use of gesso also dropped off. I was eager to see what the results would be after painting.
painted and oiled gesso infill

smoothed and overpainted

The gesso does not seemlessly fade into the wood surface, but I still like the results and am  further intrigued by what else can be done with it. I have not applied oil to the 6 board chest lid but the results of the linseed oil on the gesso in Dutch tool chest bracket show that the gesso accepts the oil well enough.
I think that adding some glycerin to the hide glue can enhance the elasticity of the gesso to account for seasonal expansion. It might be possible to texture the gesso to make it match the pattern of endgrain. I will also go lighter on the chalk dust in the next batch. It's clear from these two examples that gesso opens up possibilities that I had not considered previously. It complements the the use of milk paints wonderfully.