Anything for a friend

Posted April 15, 2015 by D.B. Laney
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The great thing about being retired is I don’t have to do anything that I don’t find interesting or particularly challenging.  And, these days I’m apt to work on a project gratis just because it meets the interesting and/or challenging threshold.  This freedom is a great luxury and I’m very happy to have it.

A friend of mine (recently retired) decided to get back into sailing.  He picked up a nice little 28 footer.  Upon seeing the boat, I suggested that he needed a carved sternboard to bear the boat’s name and that I would be happy to make it,  just for the experience of doing a ribbon banner type of carving.  Obviously, he thought it was a good idea.

We spiled (scribed) the line of the stern onto a pattern and realized that it was going to take a fair amount of material.  Luckily, I remembered another friend saying that he had a mahogany plank that he was thinking about getting rid of.  After a little “horse trading”, we came up with a 20 bdft (8/4) plank of absolutely clear mahogany.  The stock had come out of a luthier’s shop and was just beautiful.

The first order of business was to cut the stern curve into the blank.  Thank goodness for yet another friend who could get 13″ under his bandsaw guides.  After rough sawing the surface was planed using an old Stanley 113.  (Which I found worked best by keeping the plane parallel with the direction of travel while skewing the cut.  Due to the curved surfaces, moving the plane diagonally changes the relationship between the curve of the work and that of the plane’s sole.)  The waste pieces were saved and used as concave and convex “dollies”.


Mahogany works like “butter” with any sheering tool (provided the tool is sharp).  The finish below is a product of planing with the 113.


I love to carve walnut.  But I have to say that I had forgotten how wonderful it is to carve mahogany.  The grain is consistent in both direction and density, which means crisp details and ease of tool re-direction.


We were both quite happy with the results.  The letters and pin stripes will be painted a marine white after a couple of coats of spar varnish.  Should be able to be read by the captain and crew of any boat “standing well off”.  My friend insisted on paying me for my efforts.  To which I replied, absolutely not.  In this case, the work was the reward.


He did, however, convince me accept a canvas bag which I found contained several bottles of 15 year old Glenlivet.  Hey!  What are friends for?

Getting it into perspective

Posted March 21, 2015 by D.B. Laney
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I’m pleased to say that there does, indeed, appear to be some renewed interest in applied geometry.  I’m convinced that it was one of the things that separated humans from the lower animals.

Several readers have said that they are intrigued by more advanced geometric techniques like l’art du trait and stereotomy, but found them hard to comprehend and a bit overwhelming. Rightly so, as these techniques have been shrouded in secrecy for centuries, thus assuring carpenters and masons a fair amount of “bargaining power.”   These techniques require the novice to have some level of familiarity with geometry and, sadly, the vast majority of the population has not had that experience.  A few days ago someone asked if I could recommend any books on the subject that might get the “pilgrim” started on the journey.

Well, the novice could start by reading Euclid’s Elements.  But trust me, the plot line is very difficult to follow and it’s easy to loose interest (a statement based on my own experience).  Perhaps the best way to become introduced to trade geometry is to read up on perspective drawing.  Yes, that’s what I said, Perspective Drawing.  Remember, geometry is a way of seeing.  Figuring comes later.

The very best book that I’ve ever come across on the subject is “Basic Perspective Drawing” by John Montague.  There are many editions which indicates to me that it’s one of the best tomes on the subject.  I think the drawing below will support my reasoning.  This is plane geometry:

From "Basic Perspective Drawing" by John Montague

From “Basic Perspective Drawing” by John Montague

Take some quiet time for yourself, with a “wee dram” perhaps, and peruse this book (or any book on the subject, for that matter).  My guess is that you’ll get the connection pretty quickly.  But beware, you may never again look at the world in the same way.

Wow! I sucked at math!

Posted March 20, 2015 by D.B. Laney
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I mean really, Algebra, Calculus?  Just couldn’t get my head around it.  (Also too busy chasin’ girls and not a member of the football team.)  Now Geometry, on the other hand…I could “see” that.

My friend Chad (of Woodchoppintime fame) and I were discussing this just a few weeks ago. After several glasses of a very nice bourbon cask ale, we concluded that Geometry is a way of “seeing”, not a way of “figuring”.  If I move myself in relationship to an object, I get a one view.  Conversely, if I move the object in relationship to myself, I get another view.  Hello!  This is the how they built the Pyramids and how Hiram put the “Temple” together.  It’s all about seeing.  And it’s about making yourself “part of the picture.”

We see “lines” that are “plumb”, “level”, or angled in relation to other lines.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t “see” things in terms of sines and cosines.  We see in reference to planes of view.  Ergo, Plane Geometry.



Geometry was what allowed masons and carpenters to build the great cathedrals of Europe, with not one computer on the jobsite.  Geometry was the “life blood” of our “brotherhood”.  It gave craftsmen position in society.

But then came Newton and Leibniz.  They changed everything.  After these two, the mason and carpenter were no longer officers of the town council, they were mere employees.

But hark!  There may be good news.  It seems there is a resurgence of interest in geometry and how it relates to our craft.  One can only hope.  But we must study, if we are to see.


Too many lines in the loft

Posted March 19, 2015 by D.B. Laney
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I woke up earlier than usual this morning and decided it would be good to spend the day in the shop. With a dozen or so unfinished projects, I have plenty to do.  While trying to prioritize the work I found myself thinking about geometry.  I mean, HELLO!  Who knows how the mature mind works?  Anyway… I decided I’d take a few minutes and engage in a little “puttering” (one of my Grandfather’s favorite words.  After retiring, the “old man” would spend endless hours in the shop.  Gramma would say, “Bert, what have you been doing out there all day?  Inevitably, Gramps would respond “oh, just puttering”).

So, I grabbed a piece of plywood (one that had been used to demonstrate the layout of an ellipse) and started “laying up some lines”.  The next thing you know, I’m working out some roof geometry, for what purpose?  I have no idea.  But skills must be practiced and the brain needs a little “refresher course”, now and again.

During my Pythagorean exercise, I found myself reminiscing about some of the craftsmen I have known and worked with in the past.  One stood out above the rest.

Decades ago, I spent a number of years in the ship building business.  Our Head Loftsman, Roy, was an Irishman who had trained and spent half of his working life at Harland and Wolff in Belfast (as in Titanic and many other famous vessels).  He was a quiet and reserved man.  He did not “suffer fools”.  And, he was a geometer, par excellence.  He worked on the mould loft floor.  For anyone not familiar with shipyards, sail lofts were used for sailmaking, rigging layout and mould lofts for laying out and making structure and plate patterns. The loftsman would layout the lines on the floor (painted black and, God Forbid, you should walk on a line), then make “moulds”  and measuring “sticks” that would be given to the building crews.  No tape measures in or about the dock or on the ways.  The loftsman ruled.

Roy was so good at his trade. I once saw him build a 1/8 scale section of an ice-breaking bow (all the structure) in order to prove that the plans the naval architect had drawn were incorrect.  Upon seeing the model, the naval architect, very famous and now long deceased, scratched his head, laughed and readily admitted his error.  He and Roy remained good friends until Roy’s death.  It was a friendship built on utter respect for one another.

I remember Roy telling me once, that one had to be careful as it was very easy to get “too many lines in the loft.”  Only now do I realize the depth of his message.

I certainly don’t miss getting up and going to work everyday.  But I do miss so many people that I had the privilege of working with over the years.  The were men with no need to boast.  They knew and honored their crafts and were good stewards.

Mould loft at Harland and Wolff

Mould loft at Harland and Wolff

Loftsmen at work (1958, Hull Daily Mail)

Loftsmen at work (1958, Hull Daily Mail)

If you’d like to know more about traditional building and what it means to be a craftsman, you may well find these blogs and sites of interest.  They are all excellent:

Hovelbenk – exploring traditional building with handtools

Norse Skottbenk Union – ditto

Michael Langford – Timber framing, traditional carpentry, boatbuilding and a good dose of life philosophy

Historical Carpentry – French traditional carpentry, l’art du trait

Peter Follansbee – One of the best known historic woodworkers in the world

Pegs and Tails – perhaps the most eclectic blog on the web.  History, period furniture making, craft, art.  Endlessly informative and entertaining and written with a “bent” toward erudition.





Posted March 18, 2015 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized


For most hand plane aficionados, the tool’s value is best determined by the thinness of the shaving it can remove.  Many’s the man who swells with pride when he says, “I’ve got this baby set up so I can take ‘half a thou’ consistently.”

“Half a thou” is fine for a polishing plane.  But I’ve had people tell me that they’ve got their old No. 6 set up to take a “half a thou.”  My immediate thought is that this statement is coming from the mouth of someone who likes to “tinker” with tools but probably doesn’t do a lot of hand planing.  My opinion is based on simple math.  Let’s say I have to remove an 1/8″ from a board I’m jointing.  If I take that 1/8″ off by a “half a thou” at a time, it will take me 250 strokes to complete the task.  If I have my No. 6 set up to take a 1/64″ chip, I’ll do the job in 8 strokes.  I love to work with my planes.  But there is such a thing as “too much love”.

Old timers would tell you that when planing, you want to be able to remove the maximum amount required, while maintaining a surface finish that is appropriate to the task.  So remember that adjustable mouths and movable frogs are designed to allow for maximum shaving thickness, as well as minimum.

Back to work!


Back bevel or higher pitch – which is better?

Posted February 27, 2015 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Most of you know that I am not a big fan of honing back bevels on plane irons.  I believe that many inexperienced plane users allow themselves to be mislead, thinking that a back angle (bevel) is going to be some type of magic pill.  But after a crafts person is sufficiently confident in their ability to sharpen and maintain appropriate cutting geometry, the use of a back bevel can be very beneficial.

Several days ago I was working in my friend, Les’, shop.  He asked me if I’d take a look at his L-N #4 that he had set up with a York pitch (50°) frog.  He wasn’t very happy with the surface he was getting on a piece of cherry stock.  The stock was not particularly gnarly, but there was a grain direction change, right in the middle.  The iron was the same that had been removed from the Common pitch (45°) frog.  Les, who is always meticulous about the condition of edge tools, said that he believed the iron was sharp.  But I, “doubting Thomas” that I am, suggested that we test the edge.  Sure enough, the iron sliced a piece of unsupported paper easily.  Next, it trimmed a neat bare patch on the back of my forearm.  But upon closer inspection under a loop, it was clear that there were some tiny edge fractures present.

Cogitation began.  Increasing the pitch angle of a bench plane (bevel down), supposedly increases the tool’s ability to work in very dense and/or highly figured stock.  Obviously, either condition is a challenge to shearing tools.  And an increase in pitch causes an increase in the amount of effort required to push the shearing edge through the material.  Neither of us had ever experienced a similar problem when using an iron that was back beveled to effectively create a higher pitch.  Could back beveling be better than increasing pitch?  Turns out, yes.  Maybe.

Take a look at the following diagrams (Please note that, for the purpose of illustrating the problem, I’ve used Common Pitch (45°) and Middle Pitch (55°) for the examples.)




When a back bevel in employed, the increased included angle strengthens the tip of the iron.  The clearance (relief) angle is kept to a minimum, thereby providing the greatest possible amount of support to the iron.

When a conventionally prepared iron (25° primary bevel, 30° secondary bevel) is secured to a higher pitch bed (frog), the clearance angle significantly increases and the amount of unsupported surface significantly decreases.  I believe that the tip section would be effectively weakened by these two factors.

It may be appropriate to increase both primary and secondary bevel angles in order to increase tip section strength and reduce clearance thereby increasing the amount of support surface.  It is common for adjustable scraper planes (Stanley 12, 112, 212) to be ground at 45°.  But these tools are rarely used at attack angles under 90°.  We need to do some physical testing, as there seems to be very little, if any, information available on the matter.  If anyone has any thoughts and/or experiences on this question, please share them with us.

Good old Henry Ford

Posted February 27, 2015 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Still awfully cold here in NW Ohio.  But the sun is shining.  It’s a good day to sit around and think.

For some reason I started thinking about Henry Ford.  Farm boy with Irish roots. Pioneer industrialist.  Builder of some of the largest manufacturing complexes ever conceived.  Inventor, philanthropist, the list goes on and on.

But the thing I remember most about Henry Ford is that he paid his workers more than his competitors paid theirs, more than just “a living wage”.  Henry Ford was, above all else, a “long term” thinker.  He realized that well paid workers could be a huge, hitherto untapped, customer base.  Get a job at Ford Motor Company.  Buy a Model T.  A new middle class was born and America was “off to the races.”

Sometimes I wonder if anyone in American business or government still thinks that way?



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