April 2013

Hmmm…  Just learned a valuable woodworking lesson.  Wasted a fair bit of time too but at least I didn’t waste any material.

This was a lesson in the compounding of errors.

I’m working on a queen-sized bed and have gotten to the part where I make the headboard.  It looks pretty traditional with two horizontal rails and a series of vertical slats between them.  I started marking out the locations for these by measuring in three inches from one end and using one of the actual slats as a gauge and another spacer I had made.  I just moved over from one mark to the next.

Experienced woodworkers will probably immediately recognize this as a situation where any errors you make in marking (which are inevitable) build on top of one another and you wind up at the other end with your slats totally out of whack.  This is indeed what happened.  I remember learning this in some science class or another and you’d think that as an engineer, I’d have thought of this but I was just blindly reading a set of instructions and did not think.

So I took a cabinet scraper and scraped off my lines. (Quick side note:  I am not particularly good with a scraper and wondered if I was actually burnishing a hook onto the edge until I actually cut myself with the edge.  So I guess I made a proper hook after all.)

I decided to make myself a story-pole to use as a common reference standard.  I then made a similar mistake when marking the story pole.  This is getting embarrassing.

Well, I went inside to think about it and spend time with Melissa.  I now know how to go about it tonight when I get out there and start again.  Measuring and marking seem trivial but there are subtleties that I guess we only really learn when this sort of thing happens.



Well, that’s it.  It looks like I’ve totally stopped blogging.  Which is a bit sad because it did provide a nice journal of what the family has been doing.

Since I last updated here, we’ve driven to Arkansas for a funeral (and got to see a lot of people we hadn’t seen in awhile), visited Evan a couple of times, he’s visited us a couple of times, we’ve completed the redecoration of Evan’s room and also Erin’s room.  I can’t remember if I ever wrote about how we’ve redone the hallway ceiling or redecorated the guest bathroom. We have only the ceilings of the master bedroom area and living room to do and I think I’m going to hire out the living room since the ceilings are so high.

And then I’ve gotten a good start on the queen-sized bed project.

Easter was fun since Mel hosted her entire extended family and (Evan excepted) everyone showed up.  So life has been perking along nicely.

Evan and Cassie experienced a hiccup with their wedding plans when the venue that they had decided upon abruptly sold the property and so they’ve had to revert to one of their other plans.

And finally, while in Arkansas, I was given Andy’s old black powder rifle.  I spent some time scrubbing the rust off of it and cleaning it up in general and am now ready to fire it.  I have had to acquire a number of things to support that and still need to buy some stuff but I’m almost ready to head to a range and shoot it.

I had to drive down to south Arkansas for a funeral on Wednesday and I remembered that Dan’s Whetstone Company is not far outside Hot Springs.  I had read of them on woodtalkonline as being a good source of oilstones. This is on one of Google’s alternate routes back to Tulsa so I figured I should probably stop there.  I called them up first to ask if they had a showroom or perhaps a store in town.
They said “No, we don’t have a store or showroom or anything but stop on by anyway! Call first to make sure somebody’s in the office.”  Well then, off to the whetstones!
After passing through Hot Springs, Mel  and I drove down a gravel road which ended in some long warehouse looking buildings.  I am not gifted with patience and I soon tire of those winding Arkansas highways; I was beginning to think that it was a mistake to make this trip when we drove up to the place.  I went into the office building and was greeted by Brian.  I was a bit intimidated at first because as soon as Brian started talking it was clear that this was a pretty busy operation and they were shipping a lot of stones out of the place and I feared that I might be an annoyance.  I was put at ease: “Oh no, Dan wants the place to be open and available to anybody. Would you like a tour? “
Right away I realized that this was a stop worth making.
In some ways, it was more like a visit to a jewelry store than a store where you just pick something up off a shelf.  He asked me a series of questions about what kind of woodworking I did, what type of blades I sharpened the most (in my case plane irons and chisels), what size I wanted, did I want to shape and square the bevel or just hone and polish it.  After that interrogation, he recommended a Soft Arkansas and an Arkansas Black (sometimes known as a surgical black or, on rare occasions, as a touchstone which was used to determine whether a piece of gold was real or fake).  He then took my wife and I back to the warehouse.
I had wanted a 3x8x1/2 because I had used that size before and found it convenient without costing a fortune.  He began to pick stones up off the shelf.
It’s worth saying at this point that I have never ever seen a sharpening stone in a woodworking catalog or store that was bigger than 3×8.  This place had stones that make that look like a miniature.  While they do sell many small “pocket” hones, they had shelves and shelves full of whetstones what were 1” thick and 10 to fifteen inches long.  For any given rock, they get the biggest single stone out of it that they can and use the leftover to make the smaller stones.  These things were huge.  I asked who the customers were for these things and was told that it varies a lot.  Mostly knife makers, occasionally butchers and jewelry makers.  He picked up a 6x15x1 that would retail for about $550.
The only Arkansas Black they had with that footprint I wanted was 1 inch thick but another employee found a Translucent Arkansas of that size and offered that it was only slightly coarser and would do a good job.  (I seem to recall that Christopher Schwarz was using a translucent in some video I saw – perhaps on the Woodwright’s Shop).  He also found one for me that had a slight flaw on one side which would drop the price considerably.
With stones in hand, we walked over to the box shelves and choose a couple of wooden boxes which he handed to two women who were working a silk screen.  They quickly put my boxes under the screen and squeegeed on a logo and set them in front of a fan to dry.  While they were drying, he took us on a tour of the place.
I guess it was lucky that I drove up just when the bell rang for the afternoon break because the entire place was empty of people (who were outside having coffee) and the place was quiet for one of the few times during the day.  Basically, they haul boulders up from the quarry, dump them at one end, put them on “the big saw” which slices the boulders up, and then move them to the smaller saws.  From there they go to the lapping machines for flattening and polishing, and then they are graded before going into the warehouse.
The Big Saw is interesting; a huge circular saw of about 6 feet in diameter which is suspended from a gantry above.  It slices up the boulders and must be an impressive thing to see in operation.  For a place that cuts up rocks, it was remarkably clean.  I would expect rock dust to cover everything.  It’s not a floor I would eat off of but we did not have to wipe our feet before we got back into the car and that’s saying something.
As we walked through their warehouse, he showed me their “Arkansas Files” which I would call slipstones.  The smallest were triangular in cross section, about three inches long, and about the width of a large toothpick.  Amazing.
I gathered up my stones and as I was paying Brian for them, he coached me on a few things.  Sharpening is a thing full of myth and legend (which I knew) and all sharpening systems work if you master them.  He naturally believes that the oilstone is the best system but admitting to being biased.  One myth is that these stones are becoming rare.  They have three quarries and one has solid novaculate down to about 700 feet.  They will not run out of raw material any time soon.
I mentioned that Japanese waterstones are quite popular amongst woodworkers at the moment.  He smiled and said “So I hear.  All I can tell you is that we export quite a number of our oilstones to Japan.”
He included a bottle of their honing oil which he described as “light mineral oil”.  I don’t really know what that means but it smells similar to 3-in-1.  But he made the distinction that it is not 3-in-1 oil.  He told me that two or three drops on my stone would be plenty.  Do my honing, drop 2 or 3 more drops and wipe them around to lift the swarf, and wipe it with a rag.  Any more oil than that is what he would call an “oil bath” and is not needed although he added that everybody that came in the door had his own opinion about the best sharpening lubricant.  He said you could use water if you wanted to and one guy told him that he used nothing but a mixture of transmission fluid and turpentine.  Brian shrugged and said “whatever works for you”.  Some people just spit on the stone before sharpening and he doesn’t try to dissuade anyone from that.  He also said that if you think the stone is getting clogged or if you just want to you can scrub it with an abrasive pad like ScotchBrite and a cleaner like Barkeepers Friend or Comet.  So that answered my unspoken question about whether you can ever clean an oilstone.
He then told me that they have upon occasion heard from customers that stones sometimes seem to cut more aggressively when they’re brand new.  They quickly “wear in” to their normal grittiness but you can save yourself that break-in period by scrubbing them initially with an abrasive pad and letting them dry completely before using them.
So that was my field trip.  I bought two 3x8x1/2 bench stones; one ‘first’ quality (they have their own rating system) Soft Arkansas and one ‘second’ quality Translucent Arkansas with an almost imperceptible flaw on one side (this stone was discounted).  Both for $140.  Each came in its own wooden box made by the office manager’s husband in his home shop.  I struggle with a tendency to not want to spend money; it is painful for me to buy anything that is the ‘best’.  I have recently forced myself to buy some nice tools from Lee Valley and this was my first purchase of a set of nice stones.  So far I have not regretted buying any of Lee Valley’s tools and I suspect I will not regret this purchase either.
I was so tired after my long drive home that I didn’t get out a plane iron and try them out but I will tonight.  Without even using them, I’m tempted to recommend Dan’s Whetstones just because they’re clearly nice people.  It’s a family owned business that believes in good customer service.  But I’ll report back with the results.  I’m no expert but I can certainly tell if something is sharp and I can tell how long it takes to get it sharp.  Even though I’m a scientist by training, I get tired of the science at the end of the day so I’m not sure if I’ll do anything fancy like controlled testing other than using the stones and seeing if they cut wood afterwards.  But that may be good enough.  It was definitely a fun place to stop.
Kind of like when I stopped (unannounced) to visit Larry Williams at Old Street Tool. That was also fun and rewarding.  Woodworkers are nice folks in general.