Saturday, May 20, 2017

Distractions in wood

I seem to have discovered yet another distraction so I apologise in advance to those who might read this expecting to find information about oil painting. Though I will state up front that linseed oil does make an appearance in this article.

While searching for information, back in January, on ways to transport wet oil paintings on a passenger jet, I repeatedly came across general information on old-school woodworking techniques.

The last time I made any real attempt at traditional woodworking was over 40 years ago in high school and, frankly, I was pretty hopeless at it. Chisels and I were not the best of friends. We just didn't understand each other. When it came to hand saws, I was ambidextrous - I was equally bad with either hand.

I don't recall ever advancing to using a wood plane or creating a successful timber joint of any description.

But at the start of this year, while looking to solve a painting-related problem, I found myself mesmerised by craftsmen who demonstrated the use of "old-fashioned" hand tools. Unlike other "DIY" woodworking videos I'd seen before, there was no expensive bench saw, drop saw, drill press, planer or jointer in sight. And, rather than a workshop full of airborne dust and extraction ducting, the people I watched were surrounded by curly wood shavings lying around on wooden bench tops.

When I discovered Paul Sellers' blog and Youtube channel, I was soon hooked. A craftsman of some repute, Paul demonstrates traditional methods simply, calmly and in soothing tones. Every video I watched left me thinking "I can do that".

While I was away on a painting workshop in February, my wife found an old Bailey-style No. 4 wood plane, a chisel and a Stanley "eggbeater" drill at a car-boot sale in Perth. The plane was a nameless brand that looked like a traditional Stanley model but bore no confirming markings and, to be completely honest, it looked more like an experiment in rust preservation than it did a hand tool. Following one of Mr Sellers' tutorials I soon had it sparkling, straight and sharp. I now owned a plane.

Next came a brace and a marking gauge from another car boot sale. The brace needed some de-rusting and a small repair to make it function properly while the marking gauge surely showed its age but worked as required. Next came some garage-sale auger bits that also needed de-rusting and sharpening - a few more Youtube "gurus" sorted those problems out. I already had some cheap chisels I bought years ago from a discount hardware chain. I'd hardly ever used them and never knew how to sharpen them - another problem Mr Sellers solved for me on Youtube. I also had a couple of cheap squares - one of which was a garage sale acquisition in need of some serious love and attention.

I also already owned a couple of hand saws plus a cheap hatchet I bought when we used to go camping in what now seems like a past life.

In addition to all this, I live on a block littered with trees, and equally littered with fallen trees and branches, plus the long straight trunks of young trees I had to fell with a chainsaw because they insisted on growing where they shouldn't have.

Since moving here over 13 years ago, I have felt some of this timber should be put to good use rather than just feeding the worms or the fireplace. One of the trees, a eucalypt of some sort, produces a beautifully rich, rosy-coloured and very dense timber and I have always felt the urge to make something from it.

I don't know what species of eucalypt this is, but it has a wonderfully rich-coloured grain. You can see where I took a lump of wood from the end of a branch that fell following a storm a couple of years ago.

With all my new-found "knowledge" and my new old tools, I settled on my first woodworking project.

I grabbed my chainsaw and lopped a lump of wood off the end of a fallen branch of the rosy-timbered tree. I clamped it to a small bench and used the chainsaw to remove most of the split wood that occurs as end grain dries, and then continued with the chainsaw to reduce the round log to a rough block shape.

Further reduction was done using the hatchet I'd sharpened for the job. Then I took the plane and flattened one side of the block. All measurements would be referenced from this side.

With some more hatchet work, a bit of hand sawing, a lot more planing, some boring and chiselling and a lot more planing - and a bit more planing after that - I soon had a lump of wood that looked remarkably like a mallet head.

While all this shaping was taking place, I'd also grabbed a paler piece of wood from a different species of gum tree and I used the hatchet to pare it down to something that could make a handle. More sawing, planing, chiselling and still more planing "soon" had this lump of timber fitting neatly in the mortise hole in the mallet head.

My handmade mallet. (Photo courtesy of my son)

A few coats of linseed oil later, and I had a mallet made entirely with hand tools. The only "machine" or "power tool" I used was the chainsaw to cut and rough-out the raw material. The main tools used in shaping the parts were bought in less-than-stellar condition from garage sales and car boot sales then restored using little more than time and effort.

The mallet needs to be left to "acclimatise" now for a few weeks, after which I'll take a shaving or two off the handle so it sits deeper in the head.

My mallet posing with some of the tools used to make it.
In the photo above, you can see most of the tools I used and some off-cuts from the timber used to make both parts.

The mallet is hardly perfect. There are splits in the head because the wood was taken from the end of an already-splitting log, but I feel these splits give it some character and I just hope they go no further. I don't know if I'll ever dare to use it to hit anything - not because I don't trust it but because I don't want to mar the surface I took so long to create. I may just keep it as a memento, a sort of "museum piece". Regardless, it has already served its initial purpose which was to provide a vehicle to test some tools and learn some woodworking skills. I might make another one, a bit quicker and a bit rougher and from a wood I'm less in love with, and that mallet can be used to hit things.

Here's a close-up of the grain in the head of the mallet. This is treated with nothing more than boiled linseed oil. Otherwise it's just natural timber with no stains, dyes or varnishes.

I love it!

If you can identify this species from either the grain or the photo above of the tree, then please leave a comment. If it helps, I would describe the wood as very hard, possibly as dense as jarrah and possibly harder (it's not jarrah). The bark of the tree is pale grey, thick and somewhere between papery and corky and readily peels off fallen branches.

I'll sign off with a photo of a few vintage moulding planes I picked up last week from an online auction. I'll soon have these cleaned up and working too.