James Krenov’s Fine Woodworking Program at the College of the Redwoods here in Fort Bragg, California, has an almost 30-year tradition of Friday evening get-togethers known as Elephants. The weekly gathering of students, faculty, staff, families thereof, friends, neighbors, former students, community members, local artisans and a couple of local toolmakers got its name, as I understand the history, from the Carlsburg beer-like product known as Elephant Beer. Carlsburg’s Elephant Beer has an alcohol content of 7.2% so the perennially impoverished student body chose it to get the “most bang for their beer buying buck.” The school week invariably ended, therefore, with something along the lines of, “Let’s go for Elephants” and the moniker stuck. The gathering takes place next door to the FWW shop/classroom — alcohol being illegal on school grounds — in the backyard of Pacific Textile Arts, with their gracious permission — and includes volleyball, scintillating conversation, and an amazing array of pot-luck dishes.
This post is really about the bottle opener that’s attached to one of the picnic tables. Needless to say, it gets a lot of use. A LOT of Use. Do the math: there are 23 students, five or six instructors and the multitude of local families and hangers-on mentioned above (pretty much) all of whom drink beer from bottles. Most of those bottles are of the must-use-opener type (this is a classy bunch). I figure two or three beers each times thirty or so drinkers times 52 Fridays times almost 30 years and my respect for that opener soars.
So next time you’re in our lovely neck of the woods on a Friday around beer-o’clock, come on by. Bring something yummy to share, your best conversational skills and, of course, a beer or two that need an opener.
I enjoyed the recent dialogue about bevel-up and bevel-down planes, their respective wear bevels and such that, I believe, started here. It was an excellent exploration of the basic issues pertaining to how planes actually work. While I don’t advocate one or the other (honest!) I think there have been some misconceptions that needed air (or is it light?) about which does what and why and I appreciated the way the exchange enhanced the knowledge base. I figured I’d about used up my two cents when I found out yesterday that my friend and neighbor, Brian Burns, has just released a new, revised edition of his book, Double Bevel Sharpening: The new/old method for eliminating tear-out with hand planes, and jointers and planers.
This book sheds yet more light (or is it air?) on the subject from someone who has done exhaustive research and experimentation for the last decade and a half and has distilled it all down to a simple approach in a 20-or-so-page booklet that sells for a mere $13.75 (including shipping!) from Brian directly: 866-214-9472 or from Luthier’s Mercantile or Japan Woodworker. Brian explains how you can plane any wood with a standard bench plane, without tear-out, by simply adjusting the angle of attack through the judicious application of a back bevel on the blade. The book is full of useful information for your hand planes as well as your jointer and planer, with illustrations, diagrams as well as plans for a sharpening system that facilitates it all.
Brian adds a lot of useable information to this dialogue. The conclusion I’ve drawn from all this is that, for plane irons, it may be time to scrap the notion that a blade has only a bevel and a flat back. I’m starting to see a new plane geometry paradigm: that there are simply two bevels that meet at an edge and that adjusting their relationship to one another and to the plane and the wood will help us realize the best performance from whatever plane we have.
Another lazy man’s blog post today. My friend Joel of Tools for Working Wood recently wrote about his method for determining if a blade is sharp. I am trying, with this blog, to add or highlight information about sharpening that is not in my book*. The subject of sharpening unfolded before me as I did the research for and wrote The Perfect Edge and as is so often the case with such projects the more I learned the more there was to learn. So I am using this blog to add to the general sharpening knowledge from time to time as new techniques and equipment come to my attention. So today’s post is just another that points you to something that I find interesting, in this case Joel’s “Feel the Burr.”
Joel’s finger-test for sharpness was not included in my Chapter 5, Fundamentals, which includes a couple pages on edge testing. Here’s my section (it looks much better in the book):
Low-Tech, Touch-feely Edge Testing
Your blade is dull when too much effort is required to push a blade through material, or your edge is leaving behind a rough surface. A dull blade can be an educational opportunity, however, and with a bit of study, perhaps a magnifying glass or loupe, you can learn a lot about how to test for sharpness.
Know anyone with self-inflicted bald patches on their forearms? They’re all woodworkers, right? This phenomenon relates directly to the most popular technique in determining sharpness: whether or not the edge shaves hair. The shaving test provides revealing data on how sharp an edge is by how it cuts hair and by how the blade feels to the skin underneath while the test is performed. If the edge presses the hairs against the skin, not cutting them at all, but trapping them and then scraping along until the hairs slowly give way to being cut – that blade is not so sharp. If the edge snaps off hair with little or no pressure applied, it’s sharp! Shaving hair off your forearm provides a relative scale based on empirical evidence and it is a traditionally straightforward, handy and useful test for many of today’s (and yesterday’s) woodworkers.
I find it easy and quick to gently apply the blade’s edge to the top of my thumbnail. I use just the lightest pressure; not trying to cut into the fingernail even a little. If the blade catches with no sliding at all, it’s sharp! An edge that’s dull will skid on the nail without that telling catch. If you’re squeamish, use a ballpoint pen barrel instead of a thumbnail. You can also test the edge for uniformity by sliding the edge of the blade along the edge of a thumbnail (or pen barrel) as if to cut it but, again, with only the lightest pressure. Even the slightest imperfection or roughness will telegraph clearly and tactilely. You’ll know without a doubt whether or not you have more work to do on that edge. If the edge is sharp along all of its length, it will glide smoothly on your nail’s edge, with no discernable vibration to indicate a rough spot.
Then there’s always the paper-cutting trick. A sharp edge will slice a sheet of paper easily and cleanly, without catching, pulling or tearing.
The fourth, handy, low-tech sharpness test is to simply look closely at the blade’s edge to see if it reflects light. The closer an edge is to zero-radius the smaller that edge is; therefore the less it reflects. When properly sharp, it won’t reflect at all. You’ll need to get the light at the proper angle – a magnifier helps – but it’s not at all difficult to do. A couple of tries and you will clearly see that a dull edge reflects light while a sharp edge does not. Try this method with that blade that isn’t cutting well. In fact, that dull blade offers a good opportunity to try all these simple tests and get a feel for each of them. Then, when the edge has been sharpened, try them again to feel and see the difference. I mostly use the thumbnail test because it’s so quick to do, but I have a few bald patches on my arm as well. At least with the latter two methods, you won’t need to wear a long sleeve shirt.
Sometimes this job is just too easy. Two posts in a row about sharpening techniques that I think are significant enough to share and all I have to do it point you to them. (If you’ve already seen them, I apologize for my redundant laziness (or is it lazy redundancy?) Earlier this morning I posted a link to Rob Porcaro’s posts about the Veritas Scraping Plane when along comes Chris Schwarz’s post from the Woodworking Magazine Blog about sharpening a router plane blade that even includes a video illustrating the process: Video: Sharpen a Router Plane Blade