My Micrometer Is in My Other Pair of Pants

February 22, 2011

My left brain and right brain each accept the presence and ultimate necessity of the other, sort of like Sam the sheepdog and Ralph the wolf in the Looney Tunes cartoons I grew up with. My left brain tries any number of ploys to get over on my right brain—obvious gambits, like carefully reasoned arguments, and then subtler maneuvers, like trying to shame me into being more organized. But it got downright dirty when a very attractive and silky smooth micrometer was inserted into the the picture. My left brain slipped the micrometer into a pocket of my shop apron, and my right brain let it stay there for a little while, no doubt due to its nice weight and perfectly smooth mechanism. But that’s all the farther it ever went.

The fact of the matter is, when I make saws I rely on as few measurements as possible. I start with a handful of them, but by the end there are no numbers left that I care about. And the numbers I do use are not built into templates and things like that. I apply the measurements themselves each time from scratch. No doubt this is very inefficient and conducive to tiny errors.

So how can I work this way and ensure that all of my saws are the same?

Well, they aren’t. No two are exactly alike. Not exactly. The differences aren’t so great that one dovetail saw, say, is completely unlike another one, but they aren’t either carbon copies of one another. Far from it. I mean, what’s the point of working by hand and trying to emulate automation? That negates perhaps the biggest advantage that working by hand affords you.

What maintains consistency between them is the amount of care and attention given to each one, so that any uniqueness becomes a strength, not a deviation from a standard or ideal pattern. They all start from about the same spot and then are allowed to develop a bit of their own character. What is exactly the same in each case is the degree of internal consistency—everything gels. This way a saw can be unique and still be spot on. Otherwise, if a measured pattern is your standard, and you have any deviation from it, and that pattern remains your standard, you now have an error. The idea of tuning a tool for performance isn’t uncommon—I just start that whole process from back when the tool is built.

No it isn’t the most efficient way to make a saw—but it isn’t supposed to be. And yeah, a lot of the differences are soft and are difficult or maybe even impossible to quantify. That’s kind of the point. Measurements aren’t necessarily the most complete expression of detail. The left brain doesn’t always have a comparable way to express everything that the right brain does.

My left brain baits my right brain as if asking for Grey Poupon. “Pardon me, may I borrow your micrometer?”

My right brain yawns. “Sorry. It’s in my other pair of pants.”


Gas Up the DeLorean

November 30, 2010

Maybe even have Biff give it a good spit shine. Today’s destination? Seventeenth century Denmark. The joiner’s guild has built an ornate chest with various tools of their trade depicted on it. Chests like this were constructed by guilds and proudly displayed by them in their guild halls. A black and white photograph of the front of this chest is on page 130 of Goodman’s History of Woodworking Tools. Let’s don our puffy shirts and go in for a closer look.

All of the tools depicted on the chest are interesting, but one particularly caught my eye. Even if you didn’t already know, you could probably guess which one—that bow saw with the nice lines and the scrolls at the tops of the arms. Some time back, a year or more I’d guess, my neurons were mounting a titanic mutiny and I decided I needed a side project—so I decided to make this saw. I normally don’t copy or reproduce tools, but that’s pretty much what I did here, with the exception of a few liberties that I’ll explain momentarily.

Different people mean different things when they use the word “reproduce”—all biological senses of the word notwithstanding. With this saw my goal was to make a “reasonable” copy but not to agonize over reproducing the saw down to its last molecule. I wouldn’t imagine that was the spirit in which the original was made anyway.

So making the saw involved one actual measurement—the blade is about 22″ long. I chose that length because I thought it would be useful, and because the saw on the chest clearly is not a small turning saw. Everything else was sized according to information gleaned from the image on the chest, or in the case of the stretcher, the length was dictated by the length of the blade. I sketched an arm of the saw onto some poster board to make a pattern for the arms.

The toggle that tightens the cord is one of the places I took some liberties. The one on the actual saw is plain and I chose to put some low relief carving on mine. I also made the brackets that hold the blade decorative. The one liberty I took that I soon regretted was to make one of the saw’s handles longer and more vase-like. With the way the arms of the saw are shaped, it tilts your wrist right down into that handle. That could be easily fixed by simply replacing that handle with one that matches the handle on the far end, but in fact, making this saw once showed me several things I would do differently were I to make it again, so I didn’t bother changing anything.

For instance, I didn’t entirely care for the curvature of the lower part of the arm for other reasons—the way it forces your wrist to tilt really saps your leverage and feels awkward. Were I to make this saw again I’d play around with that lower part of the arm to find something a bit more user friendly while retaining the character of the saw. Also, there is more wood in this saw than in most bow saws—while it was not ungainly or unwieldy, were I to make a second one I would play around more with the design to make it a bit lighter. Why not?

So why not just replace the large handle on this saw and tweak the arms a bit more? Well, I think I’d rather just leave this saw as it is and keep it as a frame of reference for subsequent forays. Sometimes it is best to let a first piece be a first piece, rather than try to impose on it from the outside a degree of refinement it didn’t possess from its inception. I just haven’t gotten around to making the second saw yet. Maybe some of you would like to make it too.

But first thing’s first—let’s get out of the 17th century before something happens and we’re stuck for the rest of our lives with no indoor plumbing. Or worse, 17th century beer!


The Man Who Was Used Up

October 30, 2010

When I was a kid I used to like scaring myself stiff reading horror stories after everyone else had gone to bed. I would read until I had reached a respectably petrified state, just short of tooth chattering and toe curling, then would slip into bed and promise myself I’d never take things that far again. Curiously, this strategy served me no better then than it did many years later in college when partying too much was the behavior in question—respectably pickled, just short of tooth chattering, ….

Stephen King novels and Edgar Allan Poe stories formed the backbone of these macabre after hours sessions. To this day I have a dream involving a pitfall trap baited with a miniature Snickers bar, and I blame it entirely on Edgar Allan Poe. I think his story The Pit and the Pendulum caused my belly button to go from being an outtie to an innie—no kidding. I still own the book I used to read from, a gigantic volume of his stories and poems given to me by my grandmother. No my grandmother wasn’t sick and twisted for giving me that book—I actually requested it. So leave my grandma alone.

And besides, the older I get, the more I think that maybe Edgar was just misunderstood. Maybe he just needed an outlet to transform his morose energies into something positive. Like what if he had discovered pen turning? He was obviously drawn to the pen. He might have spent his time at the lathe joyously turning pens for friends and family. Or what if he had learned how to tune a hand plane or sharpen a saw? I bet he could have designed one heck of a coffin.

But then what would our American literature be without melancholy Edgar lurking in the shadows? Especially at this time of year when the somber and the dreary are the order of the day? How could there be no Raven? No Telltale Heart? No Fall of the House of Usher? Should you ever be glad that someone didn’t discover a craft as interesting as woodworking? Even if what results are stories and poems as memorable as those written by Edgar Allan Poe? It’s hard to say. The only thing I do know is that I won’t be staying up late tonight to read his stories. I will, however, dip into the candy bowl by the door and treat myself to a miniature Snickers.


A Storm, a Saw Handle, and Bram Stoker’s Surprise Ending

September 24, 2010

So the other day we had this storm come through that I thought might actually break some windows. I was down in my subterranean shop working, when one of the cats came scuttling down the stairs and disappeared around the corner. That’s never a good sign, is it, when the wildlife vanishes. I had only a few moments to ponder this odd behavior before debris began hitting the house and everything shuddered. Then came the faint wail of the tornado siren. It was like being on a movie set—“Release the frightened animal! Storm! Siren! Action!” I obeyed my cue to action and went upstairs. I couldn’t believe it. The last time I’d been upstairs it was sunny out, but now it looked like a scene penned by Bram Stoker. Horizontal rain. Stuff flying everywhere. The windows creaked and the lights flickered. Hmm. What to do? What to do? Grab a putter and run outside like the priest from Caddyshack? No. I don’t golf. And besides, isn’t a captain supposed to go down with his ship? Maybe I should don a Gorton’s Fisherman rain slicker and grimly head for the wheelhouse. That would have been the stoic thing to do. But I don’t own one of those sweet rain slickers. So I did the next best thing—I slipped a small flashlight into my pocket and went back downstairs. I figured I might as well just keep working until the power went out. But to my surprise, try as it might, the power never stayed out. And after awhile, not only did the thunderstorm subside, but the finishing touches I was putting on this handle came to an end as well. And all of the woodland creatures reemerged from wherever they’d been hiding—an ending that Bram Stoker would have never seen coming.


Shop Notebook

August 3, 2010

Sucking in radon and making saws takes a lot of concentration. It’s nice to have a shop notebook handy where I can write things down so I don’t have to think about them anymore. I do this all of the time. It helps me focus on my work without either forgetting whatever it was that was worth writing down.

The shop notebook isn’t always the place where the most important things get written down—I don’t need to write that stuff down. That stuff gets written straight into the saws. But even so, and perhaps for that very reason, the notebook has a unique proximity to my work—not the most important stuff, but indispensable stuff. New ideas, sketches, problems and how I solved them, nitty gritty details about more peripheral things I don’t have occasion to make every day.

I can’t imagine that anyone who spends a significant amount of time in their shop wouldn’t benefit from keeping a notebook around. It’s amazing how clearly you can focus on your work when you have someplace to unload your thoughts.


Old School CNC

July 4, 2010

A really huge difference between me and the old makers is that I work the way I do by choice; they worked the way they did because that was the only way to work. It was work. If they’d had access to cell phones and CNC capability they probably would have torn off their puffy shirts and run around yelling, “Goooooaaaaaaaaaaal!” Big breath. “Gooooooooaaaaaaaal!”

Which isn’t to say they didn’t care about their work; guys using CNC today care about their work. But the reality is that most of the Western saw tradition is in fact that of production saw making. The West doesn’t really have an artisan saw tradition like the East does. Which is too bad. Because Western saws are fascinating and subtle tools that lend themselves to just the sorts of refinements that are best rendered by careful individual work. They’re capable of holding and responding to those refinements not unlike how boxwood is capable of holding fine details when it is carved.

(boxwood armored horse carving)

When you point out that you use hand tools you risk people thinking that you’re being kind of ideological about it. Nevermind that I use machines for some things too. Ideology isn’t what interests me—I work the way I do because it’s such a powerful exploratory and creative tool. It agrees with me for that reason. It allows me to work at the resolution I want to. Here are a few pictures of my old school CNC—some of it anyway.

(various large rasps and files)

(various carving tools and chisels)

(small shop-made gouge with walnut handle)

(small sampling of needle files)

I think there’s a lot of potential for saws to be refined in the Western tradition. There are a lot of nice saws being made these days. Nicer than have been made in a long, long time. But the thing is that Western saws have pretty much always been production tools. There will always be a home for good production saws. It seems to me the really interesting frontier for Western saws is in the artisanal direction, just the opposite trend that you’d see with something that started out artisanal and that was subsequently productionized.

It’s like sometimes you have to go backwards in order to go forwards.


The Cosmic Pizza

June 26, 2010

Saturday nights, homemade pizza is a big deal around here. I make no claims to being any kind of chef, but it usually falls to me to be the architect of these things. My wife is a vegetarian, and I’m not, so my side of the pizza looks like something was sacrificed on it, and hers looks like a still life from the farmer’s market. We just pretend that none of the poison from her side will run over on to my side. We’re good with that.

From week to week no two pizzas are ever exactly alike. Some pizzas turn out better than others, and over the years we’ve had our favorites. We’ve also had the occasional dog, usually pizzas with some untested idea behind them, like the time we went to make a Mexican pizza and wound up mixing in too many Italian ingredients with the Mexican ingredients. It was like eating Taco Bell in your car and crashing into a Donatos. Just a bad scene all the way around.

I don’t measure a lot of things when I cook. Most weeks the smoke alarm goes off almost simultaneously as I open the oven to remove the pie, which of course makes me look like I use it as a timer. But tonight something really unbelievable happened.

I opened the oven door to take a peek. “Holy $%@#!”


“I think it’s perfect.”

“It’s perfect?”

“I think it might be.” To my utter astonishment—see, I’m not real anal and won’t just camp outside the oven door while the pie bakes—I seemed to have opened the door at the exact moment when the pie was at the peak of perfection. The cheese, the crust, the dead animals on my side, the vegetables on her side, it was actually a little mesmerizing. Like opening your oven to learn that the planets have just aligned a particular way—you expect to just look in and see a pizza, but instead find something kind of weird and cosmic. A moment sooner or later and I’m not sure it would have been the same.

I pulled it out and looked at it up close. It was so perfectly suspended between overdone and underdone,  it was like you could look at it and easily imagine these other possibilities, kind of like some sort of hologram. I set it down on top of the stove. My wife walks in.

“Oh my god that is perfect.”

“Yeah.” I was still kind of freaked out. Then it hit me. “It’ll never happen again.”

The perfect pizza. Perfect in every way. Delivered like a cosmic mandala into the portal of our oven. But the eeriest part of all? The smoke alarm didn’t go off.