Friday, February 25, 2011

Shaping an Ebony Tote, or, Have you been Cleaning Out the Fireplace Again?

Obviously the rear tote is the first thing your hand touches when you pick up a plane and you will either immediately like the tool or you'll be indifferent about it. There's an old saying "you never get a second chance to make a first impression" and this holds very true to the rear tote of a hand plane. This is also the area in which you get all the feedback that the plane offers while in use. For this reason I spend an inordinate amount of time in the shaping the totes on my planes.

There are basically two types of totes. Closed totes and open totes. Open totes tend to be more upright and this makes sense because they are unsupported and need the more upright configuration to maintain structural integrity. The shape of a closed tote can be enhanced because it supports itself and this allows a more forward leaning shape that most find much more comfortable and inviting. In order to close the gap between iron and tote the even steeper pitched planes have an even more forward leaning shape and I find them the most comfortable.

I started first thing one morning with the tote already in the shape shown in the photo below. Roughly shaped, all the features that fit it to the plane body already in place, some of the areas rounded over. This particular tote will be part of a 132-50P stainless steel panel plane. I will use three tools to form the details of the shape I want to achieve. I start with an extremely sharp 1/2" chisel, you have to start sharp because it won't stay that way long while working ebony, a fairly course rasp, and a fine cabinet makers rasp. Both rasp are flat on one side and rounded on the other. This is critical for obvious reasons. You'll need to refresh the edge on the chisel several times during this process. When the chisel starts pulling out pieces instead of shearing it's time to hone.

I begin by blending the transitions from the rounded areas to the areas that remain somewhat flatter and I find that I can remove material much quicker at this stage of the process with the chisel.

As you start approaching the desired preliminary shape take lighter cuts with the chisel. This will allow you to refine the larger flat facets of the chisel cuts and make the shape much fairer.

Also note that I'm using the chisel with the bevel side against the surface I'm cutting. You can gauge the depth of the cut easier this way and it follows the contour. In the picture below you'll see that I'm making the radius of the neck of the stem deeper than it started. Some areas of the tote need to be shaped into a more elongated radius, I'll talk more about that later.

Next I shape the thumbnail at the top of the horn. It starts as shown in the picture below. You need a lot of control here so I do this with the finer of the cabinet makers rasp, and I find that I can achieve much better symmetry in the shape if I just move the rasp from my right to my left hand rather than moving the tote so as to work both sides with my dominant hand. Working left and right handed in some areas is just something you have to teach yourself to do. You'll find that it saves time and your perspective of your work piece doesn't change which is very helpful when trying to achieve a symmetrical shape.

The competed thumbnail shape at the top of the horn.

The process of refinement continues by working with the coarser rasp and continuing with the finer rasp as we approach the final shape. It's hard to show what a rasp really does in pictures so I decided to spare you those details. Below is the completed shape after shaping and sanding. I typically sand up to 600 grit and then use #0000 steel wool to polished the surface even further.

If you examine the picture below thoroughly you see that the radius of the neck has been expanded into a more elongated shape that accepts your hand in this area, almost asking you to hold the plane. The areas at the bottom of the main stem are also shaped into an elongated radius but here is where there are some minor differences.

The neck just under the horn needs to be shaped in a similar manner on both sides of the tote, however the area at the bottom of the stem should be shaped based on the approach of the hand. In other words if the user is right handed then that area will be more elongate on the right side or side of approach, the other side needs to be less elongated so that area of your smallest finger from the joint to the tip has an area to grip. This particular tote was made for a left handed user so it's shaped opposite that description.

Because this tote is for one of my stainless planes I have a little more leeway in the shape at the bottom of the tote. I did not have to work around the confines of the areas where the side pieces attach to the center section as is the case in one of my infills.

The next step is to apply the shellac polish. I apply the first coat as full strength two pound cut shellac which is allowed to dry and then flattened with 400 and 600 grit sandpaper followed by #0000 steel wool. Then I apply several coats of french polish which is subsequently rubbed down with steel wool and then buffed on a soft buffing wheel. This makes it look as satiny as it feels.

As I mentioned early I started first thing in the morning shaping this tote. It did not get the first coat of shellac until later than evening around 7:00 pm. It was a long day, my hands, shirt, pants and everything that was even close to the workbench that day was as black as coal.....and I loved it. If you haven't figured it out by now.....I sort of live for this stuff!


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Oh My Aching Back, Legs, Arms, Shoulders, Neck, Etc.

1950's Era Covel surface grinder in the shop of the former owner.

Ironically it sometimes takes machinery to make hand tools to a very high level of fit and finish. Last year I purchased a small 6 x 12 surface grinder. Initially I used this tool to perform the surface grinding on my plane irons when they returned from the heat treating process, but as it usually goes once you have a tool and get acquainted with the way it works you find ways to use it to the best advantage in other areas of your work. This sometimes leads to the pursuit of a tool with increased capacity.

Craig's List has recently met my needs in this area, maybe a little too well. In the case of the 50's era Covel surface grinder that I recently purchased it seems as though it worked out beautifully. A nice piece of old iron, in good shape, at a very good price. When I went to look at this machine I made sure that my good friend and master machinist Johnny Kleso could accompany me for the inspection trip. The ad stated that the machine had been completely disassemble, cleaned, painted and all parts that needed replacement had in fact been replaced. I've traveled to inspect machines in the past in which the ad stated they had been completely refurbished, or were like new, only to arrive and find a machine that had paint over rust.

Johnny and I walked into the sellers shop to find a machine that looked to be nicely refurbished. Of course the spindle is the heart of the surface grinder and if it's not running true then the rest of the machine is not worth much. I switched on the machine, the spindle started up and was whisper quiet. Not so much as a shudder when it started. Cool!

There was however a catch. This machine weighed 1800 pounds and was in a basement with only stairs as the access. The picture below shows the surface grinder partially broken down in the basement of the sellers shop.

A deal was made and I set a date in which to retrieve the machine. The day before I was to fetch the surface grinder my good friend Jameel Abraham was arriving to spend the week, escaping the Iowa winter. As you can probably imagine this was no coincidence. When Jameel left Iowa Sunday morning it was 12 degrees, when he got off the plane in Atlanta that afternoon it was 72 degrees, the sun was shining and the sky was quite blue. Unfortunately the next day it rained and so we postponed the transport of the surface grinder until later in the week. We arrived in Decatur, Ga. Wednesday morning with a bag full of tools, a camera, and a bunch of ziplock bags that would be used to label and package hardware. We disassembled everything that two people could carry away from the grinder and packed those pieces in the truck and then spent a couple of hours putting together a strategy for handling the three heaviest castings. We arrived home that night about 7:30 tired from a long day and we still had the task of unloading the truck.

We estimated the base casting to weigh 600 pounds, the base cap casting about 500 pounds and the spindle column casting maybe 350 pounds. A plan is needed to handle pieces of this magnitude safely, especially with the limited space in which to move these pieces. Things this heavy go down steps much easier than they go up steps.

The next morning we returned and unstacked the castings using a come-a-long hanging from a floor joist in the basement and lowered them onto a heavy caster that we then wheeled out the door. We made a ramp on the steps using a piece of 3/4" plywood. We tugged the pieces up the ramp with the come-a-long that was anchored to the base of a shrub that had been in place over a decade. No shrubs were injured in the moving of this machine, there was however a patch of oregano that took a pretty good beating from the foot traffic.

We wheeled the pieces around the house to the driveway to load them into the truck and that's when it started sleeting. The sleet turned into rain while we were loading the pieces into the truck with the help of an engine hoist. Luckily the areas of raw cast iron were well oiled, you can see the rain beading up on the oil in the picture below.

We were able to get all the parts in the truck, it was still raining and we were cold, tired, sore and wet. We headed home.

When we arrived home the first order of business was to take some Tylenol, the second order of business was to eat the burgers and fries that my wife Julie had waiting on us and the third order of business was to once again pull on our wet, cold gloves and unload the truck. Without the assistance of the young man pictured below using the engine hoist to remove the last piece from the truck, this machine would have not made it to my shop in any reasonable amount of time. Thanks Jameel, I will be forever grateful.

By 10:30 that night all the pieces were unloaded. We dried all the surfaces with paper towels and a hair dryer and applied a new coat of oil to the bare cast iron surfaces.

This picture was taken several days later and shows the machine fully reassembled and in my shop. This machine is truly massive and truly amazing in performance. This old iron thing could get addictive. I keep telling myself, "stay off of Craig's List"," stay off of Craig's list."

When pursuing the acquisition of a machine of this nature it makes all the difference to have the help of knowledgeable people and friends like Johnny Kleso and Jameel Abraham.

"Thanks guys!"