Finger Files

Little problems are sometimes big problems in carving. I mean this as in getting a file or abrasive into an odd spot. For example, recently, I was carving this small schooner for the top of a sign. I needed to smooth an area that was too tough to work with the usual riffler files, not easily accessible to sheet sandpaper, and not reachable by any attachment on my Dremel tool.

Frustrated, my eyes fell upon my set of Japanese finger files. I’ve barely used these in the several years I’ve owned them. I picked them up, thinking they’d be suitable for the odd job, but that odd job hadn’t materialized. So I grabbed one of the flat ones and discovered I could bend it. It was perfect for the job.

After using it to do the job, I examined the file and found that gentle bending did not cause the abrasive on the file to flake off. Also, there was no set on the abrasive; unlike toothed files, there were no teeth that ran in a set direction.

These tiny files will see a lot more use now. I purchased mine from Lee Valley, but I imagine other vendors also carry them. They are great for applications where toothed files might not be the most responsive tool.

A long game

Wood swells and shrinks with humidity despite careful construction, drying, and sealing. We call this movement, and most commonly, we see it across the width of a plank or piece of wood. This is why you sometimes see splits in panels of wood. Wood remains a living item despite being cut, resawn, planed, shaped, and coated. All our work in creating from it needs to respect this fact. If you sell your work as I have, you want to control that movement. It’s embarrassing when a cutting board fails due to poor construction. Preparing wood, so it is not likely to move excessively and split is what comes before you carve or shape the wood. It can be a long game, but it results in quality down the line.

That’s why I dug through drawers in the shop the other day. I was looking for my moisture meter. I was about to glue up some blanks for boat portraits, and I wanted to check the moisture content of the wood. This little doodad comes in handy around the shop when you need to build cabinets or construct glued-up cherry blanks for projects like ship and boat portraits or cutting boards. Although I’ve known some woodworkers who thought of these as expensive toys or other junk to clutter up the shop, they serve an essential purpose.
I admit to waiting until their prices came into my budget before buying one. Since then, though, I have faithfully used it.

I resaw my own cherry planks for much of my small work. Recently it’s all air-dried stock that initially came in as small logs. I rough saw it, paint the ends to prevent cracking, and let it sit for a year. Eventually, the small logs get taken to the bandsaw and milled into rough planks. The rough planks are now allowed to dry inside or under cover. All the while, the moisture of the wood is going down slowly. Cherry, which I favor, is a bit of a PIA to dry correctly. Dry it too fast, and it splits. So the rule is to let it take its time. I want the wood to be between 6 and 9 percent humidity when I work it into a box, toy, cutting board spoon, bowl, or portrait.

Doing things this way is playing the long game. It’s more time-consuming than going to a lumberyard and getting Alleghany cherry plank stock that has been kiln dried. But the native cherry has a more delicate coloration and grain that I’ve come to prefer. Of course, my tool and shop limitations make this viable only for the smaller projects, but that accounts for eighty or ninety percent of my work these days.

So sometimes, the long slow game is best.

Forgotten Tools

Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that's left before fitting into the hoop

Every craft has a few tools that seem so insignificant and ordinary that we pass over them when discussing how we work. Three that I can’t do without are a simple glove with the fingers cut off, my mallets – a large lignum Vitae one for heavy work, and a little palm job for the delicate touch – the final on this short list is a palm pad filled with a shock-absorbing jell.
These are indispensable next to sharp tools, yet they barely receive a mention in handbooks on carving.


The glove keeps your hand from getting abraded while removing the bulk of the background in a carving – sometimes called wasting the background. Remove a significant amount of wood manually without this, and the most minor damage you’ll have are abrasions and scratches from the wood. Splinters are, of course, an issue that the glove helps you avoid.
The shock pad will protect the palm of your hand from injury caused by regularly propelling the tool into the wood. Depending on how sensitive your hands are, you could be talking about carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, or merely a sore hand.
Whenever you remove a significant amount of wood, using a mallet is a great idea. Carvers mallets are rounded and come in a wide variety of sizes, weights, and wood species. I have about five, but my favorite is the little palm mallet made from a piece of firewood elm. It fits my hand perfectly and is light enough to allow a bit of finesse in hitting the tool.

If you carve and don’t have these tools, you should acquire them – they are cheap and make your carving safer and easier.

Old Tools Don’t Have To Wear Out

This is an original Black and Decker Workmate from the 1980’s. For a while in the ’80’s it was my only carving bench. Then in the ’90’s it went to shows where I was doing demonstrations. Currently it lives outside the carving shop as a solid platform for working on projects that produce prodigious amounts of wood waste, like bowls.

From the paint and varnish you can see that I also use it for finishing. In all those years the only thing that has broken is one of the plastic handles. Today, I got around to replacing part of the bench top. It finally rotted away. Later this summer I’ll make a new one for the opposite side.

I doubt that any of the later iterations of this work surface could take as much abuse as this has and still be working. And remember it sits outside through New England winters.

The plastic hold down on the rear surface is a recent add on from Lee Valley – they are still making add ons that fits this bench.

If you find one of these at a flea market or yard sale give it a good look. It was made solidly in the USA when * Black and Decker was a top tool maker. I expect mine to keep going for many more years.

*As an aside I add that many later imitations were made of the original but did not have the sturdy steel construction.

Compact tools for efficiency and cost

I was reading an online review of a compact router a while ago. An otherwise well-regarded model was getting trounced. To paraphrase: ” I was routing two-inch green, live oak. After forty feet, the AceyDoucy 400 seized up on me. Don’t buy this router. Oh, and AcyDoucy customer service was terrible too. My next router will be the Totem 124XlR; it has excellent reviews!”

You see this sort of thing with compact tools often enough to make you think twice before buying. Of course the compact will not stand up to the punishment you can dish out to the full sized pro tool. They were never designed to. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be good reasons and circumstances to use a compact. Here are three that are important to me:

Space – they are compact and tend to take up less space than full size.

Cost – they cost less than their full-size siblings.

Capability– Since first introduced, there have been many improvements in their capacity. If you are respectful of the machine’s capabilities, you can expect excellent service.

In my basement shop, I have a full-sized bandsaw, jointer and router table and all the doodads which belong in that shop. But ninety percent of the time, I am working in my greenhouse carving shop and don’t want to run into the house and downstairs to do some tiny job. For those small jobs, I have compact versions that add utility to the carving shop and save a lot of time. I am not going to process 200 feet of teak on my small router table, nor am I about to resaw lots of cherry on the 10-inch bandsaw. But if all I’m doing is cutting some small project wood or trimming some boards, my compact tools do the job.

If you have a small workspace, do think about compact tools. They fit in small spaces, have a lower cost, and will do the job.

For my greenhouse shop, I chose a Rikon 305 10 inch bandsaw (the 306 was not on the market yet), and a Lee Valley compact router table. I equipped the router table with a smaller DeWalt router. But there are several good machines from which to choose. Just for clarity: I am not associated with Rikon, Lee Valley, or Dewalt. As with any purchase, the available tools will include the good, bad, and ugly. Take your time comparison shopping. One last tip: be wary of those review articles which rate “The ten best ——– of 2022.” They don’t always get it right.

Lots of us have small shops either through design or necessity. In my case, I deliberately downsized as I shifted from doing larger maritime work like quarterboards and transoms and started focusing on ship and boat portraits. Whatever reason you have for smaller quarters, I encourage you to rethink the conventional wisdom that large is always best.

Useless

Everybody should have a tool in their kitchen or their shop that they purchased because it promised to do multiple things well. It will teach you humility and the cost of human stupidity. The pitchman tells us that having this marvel of industrial design will obviate the need for five tools. And eliminate any need for help in multiple jobs.
We consider ourselves canny, wise, and sharp when it comes to sensing bull shit, but never the less get parted from our money. And so there it sits, taking up space in our kitchen or shop. It does all that the manual says it does, just none of them well.

It was expensive enough that we couldn’t afford to pitch it out on trash day. We’d have to admit to the entire neighborhood that we were foolish enough to buy it. So it sits there in a corner covered in an old tablecloth. We search YouTube for videos that offer to show us how to make it genuinely functional; without luck. Everyone else who has one is shamed into silence because they can’t make it work either.

You think of ways to repurpose it and just set it up for one purpose, but that doesn’t work. You place an ad on Facebook Marketplace offering it to anyone who’ll come for it; no one does. In desperation, you put it out with a big “FREE!!!!!” sign on it, but even the city won’t cart it away. One night you dream of attaching hundreds of balloons to it and floating it away, but it crashlands in a neighbors yard, and the police ticket you for littering.

At last, you take a sledgehammer to it and place it in a dumpster, carefully concealing it beneath old wallboard and flooring. Take it from me; this last approach is desperate but works.

Curly

Smoothing curly grain or decoratively knotted wood can always be an issue in carving. Cabinet makers have tricks with scrapers and planes, but they generally are not working in the tight spaces that a carver has. This spoon was a particular issue. When I first made it, I didn’t notice the tiny stable knots in the wood. When I did see the knots, I thought to myself, ” when I smooth it down, it’ll look lovely.” Then it proved challenging to smooth, and I put the spoon to one side – too pretty to discard, but a finishing problem for another day.

Sometime in January, I saw these little flexible disc sanders demonstrated on the Treeline Woodworking* site and decided to try them. They are perfect for getting into tight spots that need smoothing. They are designed for use in Dremels, mini-carving motors, and flex shafts. Unlike some similar products, they seem to have just the right balance of stiffness and flexibility for working into the curves of a hollow like a spoon, small bowl, or an eagle’s feathers.

The completed spoon is now a Valentine’s Day present for my wife.

* I am not associated with Treeline or Mooreplastic.

The New Bandsaw

This winter, I have been enchanted by my new bandsaw. What? A bandsaw, enchanting? If you are a woodworker, yes, delighted and enchanted.

My venerable Delta, 14-inch bandsaw, died last year. After multiple rebuilds, numerous enhancements to increase its accuracy, and lots of loving, it failed.
While carefully comparison shopping for its replacement, I made do with the small ten-inch capacity Rikon saw I keep for light work in the carving shop. It was a trial. It did mitigate the loss of the larger saw somewhat but had neither the size nor power needed for many shop chores.
After I made my choice, finding a saw occupied lots of time. Vendors offered saws for sale that they did not have, couldn’t guess if they’d actually have, or which they had, but it was sitting offshore as part of the great supply chain SNAFU of 2021. I had heated and visceral arguments with hardware dealers about their integrity.

I ordered in June for an estimated delivery date of October. I was almost flummoxed when it arrived unannounced in late August – all three hundred pounds of it. To get it into the basement workshop required a custom-built ramp, some seamanly rope work, and three people.
The new saw, a Laguna 14/12 with a horse and a half motor, proved to be a better saw than the beloved old Delta. As a result, the sound of resawing can now frequently be heard as I reduce small cherry logs into small cherry planks.

As you may know, I am famous for picking through my woodpile for wood too good to be burned. I am now unchained. My mania for seeing what lies inside the hear of a log is unrestrained. All the “good stuff” is put aside for further drying, and all the scrap is kindling for the stove.

The only problem is that I’ll pull out a piece of kindling, show it to my wife or son, and say, “it’s too pretty to burn.”

My wife and daughters had enough the other day when I started lining up kindling on the dining room table to take photographs. The tablecloth, they assured me, was ruined.

It’s cold in the downstairs shop, but I have been exiled there till I learn to behave. But I have my bandsaw for company!

Safety

Christmas list for the shop:

  • Additional dust collector for the basement shop
  • Lee Valley Panel Gauge
  • new respirator cartridge replacements
  • new hearing protector “earmuffs.”
  • new safety glasses

Only one of these falls into the strict category of “tools,” the panel gauge. Most woodworkers wood refer to others as a sort of accessory product. Not something you’d use for making a wooden product for your store, your next show, or to decorate a commission.

Many woodworkers would consider some of the things on my list to be hindrances in the shop. For example, the little Rikon dust collector rolls around and is a tripping hazard. It can be hung on the wall, but then the panel saws that belonged to your father would have no place to hang. Also, the damn respirator gets in my way when I do close-up work, and the hearing protectors get in the way of the respirator fit. Finally, when you add the safety glasses, I look like something from a 1959 Sci-Fi movie.

Most of the woodworkers I know are odd combinations of very reticent to adopt new things and over-eager to embrace and spend on new gadgets. The gadgets promise to make your life in the shop easier. One is seen as getting in the way, and the other as the key to woodworking paradise.

It all works out until your hearing becomes impaired or you begin wheezing.

There is one dust extractor in the basement shop, two air scrubbers for tiny particles, and a shop vac. The carving shop has an air scrubber as well as a shop vac. In the carving shop, I produce less dust but more chips. Both shops have respirators, glasses, dust masks, and hearing protection. I make every effort to make sure that I use them.

Overkill? I don’t think so. Look, I have intermittent mild asthma. I am very interested in making sure that it does not get worse.  

Being breathless is something I can do without. Hearing? I love the sounds of the birds outside my shop. I’m not interested in losing what I’ve got. My sight? Try being a woodworker without vision – I’m already mildly impaired and have no desire to lose what I have.

I once worked at a job site where the motto was that safety was a habit we all need to form. So we learn to work around the nuisances if we want to continue creating. Safety equipment used to make made rare appearances in tool catalogs and online. Not so now. Take a hint from the companies you buy the toys from and make shop safety a habit.

I’ll tell you all about the Lee Valley panel gauge in a later post. It’s sure to make life in my shop easier and more pleasurable. Toys, you can’t live without them!

Whack!

You can’t carve without removing wood. And removing wood can be as delicate a process as lightly slipping the gouge through the wood or propelling it forcefully. Apply too much force in the wrong situation, and you have lovely kindling. On the other hand, be too bashful in pushing the tool through the wood, and you won’t remove the right amount.
The carver controls the movement of the tool through wood by holding and guiding with one hand and propelling with the other. With both hands on the gouge or chisel, your arms and the force of your body provides the energy. Need a bit more oomph? Use the meaty part of your palm to hit the end of the gouge. Here is the tricky part. It takes practice to learn to gauge just how much force is enough. Your body is continually giving you feedback on how effective your cutting is. With a bit of practice, you’ll learn to judge the force needed.
This sounds a bit metaphysical to the beginner, but it’s not – sensation is a free tool you need to learn to use if you’d be a carver.

When you need more force than a hand can provide, you bring in heavier tools. A carver’s tool to malleate, hit, or pound wood is a mallet; the words share a common root. Carver’s mallets come in many shapes and weights. But they are not the blocky square shape used by a carpenter or joiner. Instead, the carver’s mallet is rounded. The picture below shows some of the mallets I use regularly. Of course, the wood needs to be hard and dense to take the punishment the tool receives.

These are my mallets. Note that most are shop made from firewood, and yes the bench is dirty…I work on it.

Why do I have so many? Depending on the force needed, I’ll select my mallet. The largest one I use when “wasting” or removing large amounts of wood – as I might while hollowing the wings of a carved eagle. The smaller ones, like the little palm mallet, are for when I want more delicate control. I can often get finer control using this mallet than I can with both hands on the tool. Once again, it’s experience and paying attention to the feedback sensation from the tool and the wood.

Some of the mallets are shop-made, and some are purchased. My favorite palm mallet I shaped from a knot of elm. It was a hunk of firewood.
Whatever carving project you work upon, a star-spangled banner, or a delicate spray of acanthus leaves, You’ll make choices of tools. Like gouges and chisels, Mallets are not all alike. Don’t use the largest mallet if you don’t need it, and consider making some of your own. They are another helpful tool that you will need to master.

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