This is how most of my projects go; at least those that do not begin with a set of plans.

It all started with a revolver.

Last summer I bought myself a cap-and-ball revolver which I had desired for a long time.  I enjoyed making lots of black powder smoke with it while shooting at targets.  Then it came time to clean it.  None of my screwdrivers would fit the slotted screws.  A bit of research revealed that they were a special size (which was obvious) and that I needed a set of “gunsmith’s” screwdrivers.  A quick google then told me that those cost a bit much for something that often came for free with a new drill so I decided to grab one of the many drill-driver tips that I had laying around and grind them to the correct size.  Then I would turn some cherry scraps into a handle.

Then it all became a blur of activity.  Like this:

Get out the lathe from under the router table and turn some quick handles.

Realize that the belt is broken.

Contact the vendor – item is discontinued.

Figure out what the belt must have looked like.  Order one from amazon. Wait one week.  Install belt.

Fix lathe – turn handles.  Hmmm… tools are dull.

Get grinder from under bench and set up on router table.  Never use that router anyway.  Sharpen tools.

Grind the screwdriver tips down to size.

OK, screwdriver tip is too long, I’ll just cut off the excess with my hacksaw.  Whoa! The hacksaw is just skating across the surface of the old screwdriver bit (now a gunsmith screwdriver); drat! It’s hardened steel.

How to cut this?  Grinder!  Need a cutoff wheel in an angle grinder.  I have an angle grinder but no cutoff wheels.  Well, stick the angle grinder in the vise, put on the face shield, and try grinding it apart using the corner of the grinding wheel.

Works but slowly.  Forget that this makes things really hot.  Drop bit on floor.  (Profanity optional) Get some ice and cool off the bit.  Done!

Get small drill press and put on bench.

Figure out which drill size to use.  Hey, that’s 1/4″ – use a brad point so that you’ll hit the center.

Can’t find brad points so use regular twist drill.  Wander off center.

Search for epoxy.  Oh yeah, that last bunch leaked all over the shelf and was thrown away.  Hey, here’s some JBWeld.  Can’t remember what I bought that for but it will probably be good enough.  Use that.

Glue tips into handles.

Grab Watco Danish Oil.  This will be quicker if I just dip them.  Find something that might suffice.  Here’s a Mason jar.  What’s that black stuff? Could that be gunpowder?  Probably nothing; rinse it out and use it.

Pour in Watco.

Dip handles.

Go outside to pour remaining Watco back into can.  Didn’t drip much.

Realize that it would have taken less time to just wipe the  Watco on with a rag like the can says.

Step back and take photos.  Blog about it.

At least I did think ahead enough to use rectangular stock in order to ensure that there would be a flat place on both sides after turning.  That way, they won’t roll around on the bench when I lay them down.  All in all it’s a success because even though it would have been faster in the long run to just buy some online, it was very pleasing to make my own from junk and scraps I already had.  All Hail Self Sufficiency!

Not great but not bad either.  And... free!

Not great but not bad either. And… free!

For some reason, I remember hanging crown molding as no big deal. It was only this weekend that I remembered how frustrating it can be.

First I made the rounds of all the local family members borrowing tools. I have a compressor but it has lived at a brother-in-law’s place for several years and he thinks it’s his. When I got it, I found a leak in the hose. It’s just old and cracked – I’m not blaming anybody. The miter saw blade was so dull that it made more smoke than sawdust. The nailer I borrowed was described to me as fitting for crown molding but only shot little brads at 1 ¼” which is way too small. When I tried it, the brads didn’t even get all the way through the drywall much less into a stud behind. So the project started out with three strikes. I used the saw anyway.

All my crown projects have been hanging it in normal rooms so all the miters were inside corners. This saw I borrowed (same as the one I used to have) is apparently not intended for anything other than flat material because its fence is tiny. There’s no way I could put the molding on it in its natural configuration so I had to look up the angles you use when cutting it while it’s laying flat. Of course, I messed up the first end by having the saw tilted in the wrong direction.

Then I followed the usual advice to use a coping saw to cut the ends to make them fit. I’ll just cut to the chase and summarize by saying that today I sent Melissa to the hardware store for a tube of caulk.

Today, I remembered that one of our IT guys is a former trim carpenter. He told me that he got tired of always working in the cold, wet, and/or heat so he learned system administration. I consulted with him on the crown molding issue. His reaction was predictable; very sympathetic. I guess it’s tricky even for the pros.

He advised several things. Always cut it about 1/8” over. Then bow it in the middle as you position the ends and it will force the ends into place. It may crush the fibers at the edges of your coped ends but that will close up gaps. Also, as you use the coping saw, you have to undercut it a lot – more than you think. That makes it hard to follow your line since small changes in the angle of your saw make big changes in where the teeth come out at the surface of your cut and it’s easy to get off your line. He used a pencil to darken the line to make things easier to see. This also makes the cut edge a bit fragile but it won’t fit otherwise. Then occasionally you have to roll the molding one way or the other to make the coped end fit the profile of the mating piece.

It’s very fiddly work and the least little mistake in measuring, marking, or cutting makes a big difference in the outcome. I haven’t tried just cutting a simple miter and avoiding the coping saw thing but it must be even harder to get that right or the pros wouldn’t use the coping saw.

Back before Christmas, Evan sent me some photos of some boxes that were being sold as “shaving boxes”. They are a simple wooden box with a split top. The inside surface of the top has a mirror on it and you can fold back one half of the top to extend the mirror. I think you are supposed to carry all your old-school shaving accoutrements (brush, mug, straight razor, soap, etc) in this and use it while traveling. It does look cool.

Later on, right before he and Cassie came for the holidays he asked me if we could make one together. This is pretty much every woodworker’s dream so we texted back and forth on the subject of design for a few days until we settled upon what he wanted it to look like. This is why I love cell phones (and partially why I don’t blog much – phones are easier); I could sketch something quickly on a piece of paper, photograph it, and send it quickly and easily. This was easier than using a drawing app for me. He sized it to carry his things specifically.

We got busy the day after Christmas. I had some leftover cherry from my bed project and I had already cut these to size and planed them down to the desired thickness. We spent a few hours shivering in the frigid garage laying out dovetails and cutting them until we couldn’t stand it anymore. We had one more such session but couldn’t finish the project and I got it done after they had left. As always, the finishing tool the longest. I actually bought some gel stain in a cherry color because that’s what he wanted and this looked really nice (normally I wouldn’t stain cherry). I used polyurethane on it since it was to be used for potentially wet things and I added many coats until I built up a film to make sure it was all waterproof inside and out. This was what he preferred anyway – most people do.

As with all my creations, I see all the flaws and they bother me forever after. I end up almost wishing I could start over. I suppose many other woodworkers feel that way although it’s difficult for me to imagine, for example, Sam Maloof ever feeling any of his chairs were substandard in any way. Still, Evan seems happy with it and even Melissa put it on display on a shelf for a month or so until he could come get it.

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Never has the phrase “Your mileage may vary” been more applicable.  The decisions I made as to how I worked were heavily influenced by how little space I have to work in coupled with the fact that I have a strange aversion to loud noises ( my love of rock music not withstanding).  Everybody brings their own biases into the process and what works for me may drive other people crazy.  In the end, it’s about your end product; if you produce something useful or beautiful (or both), that is success.  But here are some observations in no particular order:

1)      For mortises, avoid the drill-out-most-of-it method.  Chiseling out the rest tends to leave a tapered mortise wall – at least that’s how it worked for me.  Using a square block of wood to guide the chisel introduces just enough fiddling and clamping that it become quicker and easier to just bash them out with a chisel – that works better than you think it will.  Or buy a hollow chisel mortiser.  Or buy a Festool domino.  But if you’ve got the money and/or space for that, you probably never even went through any of this hand-tool business anyway.

2)      A router plane and a shoulder plane turn the process of making tenons from near-impossible to near perfect.  Again, this is true if you’re using hand tools.  But I’m gonna claim that even if you get rid of most of the waste with a power tool, these two hand tools will complete the tenon with perfection and avoid your having to spend a lot of time fiddling with a jig.   But hey, we all make choices…

3)      Laying out things works so much better with a divider than with even the most accurate tape measure.  And the more mortises you have, the more the layout will get out of whack with even the tiniest error creeping in at each measurement.

4)      Waxing the sole of a hand plane makes a huge difference in how much energy it takes to push the plane.

5)      Sharpening a saw makes a huge difference in how fast it cuts.  This seems obvious but it is still striking when you first experience it.  Perhaps because dullness sets in very slowly and you aren’t aware of how gradually things are getting worse.

6)      The humble holdfast is more valuable than any F-clamp.  And faster.

7)      The chamfer is an attractive accent and extremely easy to do with a handplane or spokeshave.  For me, it went faster than a router when I factored in the time it took to find the chamfering bit and get it installed into the router table and hook up the dust collection.  The crossover seemed to have been about twelve linear feet of chamfering – more than that and it became feasible to do all the router set-up.  But the routerless method was more pleasant due to the lack of noise.  If noise doesn’t bother you, then route on!

8)      You have got to learn to cut as close to your line as possible – whether with a hand saw of powered one.  Splitting the line is not some high-minded goal – you’ve really got to do that or risk making a lot of work for yourself later on.

9)      If you use hand tools at all, your bench becomes all-important; it is as much a tool as anything else.  If you are an all-power-tool person, then all you need is a table to assemble parts on.

10)   Everything is great until you have to work on an especially large or long part.  Then your tried and true methods of work have to be altered.  A long bed rail may force you to abandon your precious band saw (or, hypothetically, your table saw with a tenoning jig that holds the work vertically) and grab a hand saw anyway because that’s really the only way to attend to that tenon on the end of it.

11)   A surface planer truly is a luxury that almost anyone can justify.  Life would be extremely difficult without it.

12)   A project becomes almost chess-like when you try to look ahead several moves in order to match the pieces of wood you have with the project you’re building but to do so successfully will make the project end up looking noticeably better.

13)   Sharpness is important but it seems that only the smoothing plane and a block plane intended for doing end-grain need to be as sharp as a razor.

I had one of those flattering but creepy moments this weekend when a got a phone call from someone who had seen one of my projects on the WoodWhisperer website and wanted to know if I would take a commission to make one for him. Somehow, I end up surprised when I put something online and someone actually looks at it.

On the one hand, I’m flattered. On the other hand I’ve never been contacted for a commission before. Kinda threw me for a minute.

FYI, it was an orrery I had made using a CNC router. That’s a mechanical model of the solar system where you can turn a crank and watch the planets move realistically. He was a teacher and wanted one for his astronomy classes.

this is it

Why Does Cherry Darken?

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this on this forum before but I have a Ph.D. in physics and have taken a number of chemistry classes as well so my desire for an answer to this question runs a bit deeper than normal perhaps.

I’ve done the usual Google search; also DuckDuckGo (which seemed to be more fruitful) and I’m more or less convinced at this point that the darkening originates with an oxidation process as opposed to simply saying that it’s the UV in sunlight. I haven’t done any real research other than to notice what happens in my own shop but putting all things together and combining it with what I know leads me to hypothesize that it is oxidation.

Going further, it seems that of all the possible things you could do to make it happen faster, the best way to accelerate the darkening would be to use potassium dichromate on it. Potassium dichromate is a powerful oxidizer (hydrogen peroxide and potassium nitrate) but which also has a chromium ion in the mix which would lead me to believe that it would impart a color to whatever it reacted with. I intend to buy some and experiment on some cherry scraps.

Thus far, I’ve tried putting the wood out in the sun for a couple of days and this definitely works but the wood continues to darken while in the house at almost the same rate after it’s had its moment in the sun which is why I suspected an oxidation process. The chemical treatment will be the true test. Or I could do the opposite: put a piece of cherry in a ziplock bag and suck the air out – perhaps backfilling it with nitrogen or something. By depriving the wood of oxygen, it should not darken at all.

I’ve also read that lye can be used but I’m starting to think that this would either not work as well or not work at all depending on the purity of the lye.

I could write up all this in very nerdy terms but this is my hypothesis; it only wants an experiment to check. In the interest of scientific validity, I have to say that none of this “try and see” methodology will definitively answer the question; that would take a long series of very carefully controlled experiments which I’m unwilling to undertake (or to fund).

In my career, my initial hypotheses have been found to be true by experiment about 50% of the time so this could go either way.

So I will do some testing the next time I get a chance.

I’m no expert by any means but I have more experience than I sometimes let on. I’ve been tinkering around in workshops since I was old enough to walk but I have only recently tried to do really high quality work. This usually includes putting a finish on the completed product.

But I hate putting finish on wood. I’ve already said that here. I deal with that emotion in a variety of ways.

Mostly by getting creatively lazy. First, I like shellac because it dries fast. Also, you can wipe it on with a rag instead of using a brush and then having to clean the brush.

I saw Scott Phillips on TV back in the ‘90s and he instructed us viewers to put shellac flakes into a jar of alcohol and just wait – sometimes for over a month until it dissolves. Well, I took enough chemistry to teach me that you can accelerate that process by increasing the surface area (by grinding the flakes into a powder) and by increasing the temperature. So I take an old blade-type coffee grinder that I’ve set aside for this purpose, grind the flakes to a powder, and then dump that into the alcohol. I then stick the jar out in my super-hot garage (if it’s the summer) and that stuff is mostly dissolved over night. Another day or so and it’s ready.

I’ve also taken to putting a nitrile glove on and then putting one of my old socks over that like a glove. Then I just dip my hand into the jar and wipe on the shellac. I like this because I don’t have to soak the entire rag with it and less gets wasted.

If, for some reason, I feel I need to use something tougher than shellac, I’ll use polyurethane because you can find it everywhere. I get the wiping kind (thinned) and just pour it into my sock-gloved hand and wipe away. If it’s a large surface area like a table top, I’ll just pour it onto the table directly and wipe that around.

Then just shuck off the sock and hang it on the edge of the garbage can to dry.

I’ve never had any problems with socks having lint – possibly due to the fact that by the time I throw them away, they’ve been washed so many times that all the lint is in the dryer flue.

If the thing that I make is small enough, I will go one step lazier and just dip it in the finish directly. I made some handles for a desk once and finished them in this way. This was much easier than any alternative. I put a screw into one of the screw holes and used it to grab onto and then hung the handles by that screw using a clothespin. Easy.

I also hate sanding; so I just try to avoid it by the proper use of a smoothing plane and cabinet scraper. Things usually look pretty good and I only end up having to sand curvy parts. I can deal with that. I prefer all this to using a random orbit sander just because of the noise and dust but I do still occasionally bust out the sander. There’s a time and a place for everything after all and my sander was pretty cheap.

…or as Norm would say: “Sawring”.

This is long so if you’re not into lengthy things, then skip to the bottom.

I’ve been making a craftsman style bed since January or so and completed the headboard and footboard rails last week. These were a bit wider than necessary (you know – to allow for mistakes) by about half an inch. So I needed to rip off the excess (each is 64”). Since I recently sold my table saw (and recovered a glorious amount of floor space), I intended to use the band saw. But my wonderful carbide-toothed ripping blade that I’ve had for years broke recently and defied all attempts to reweld it. During my last big cleanout, I found the old original bandsaw blade from 20 years ago that came with a low-end Sears Craftman that I had at the time. I now have a Delta but, surprisingly, it fit, so I strapped it on. It’s so dull that the wood began to smoke right away and very little cutting ensued.

So I got out my old Disston 26” rip saw that I had refurbished and went at it. When I say “refurbished”, what I really mean is that I scrubbed off the rust, oiled the handle, and made a n00b attempt at filing it. As it turns out, I didn’t do a bad job of it.

Well, that was a lot of work. After getting a few inches into it, I remembered that I had bought a jigsaw years ago at a father’s day sale – for $20. I got it out. After pushing away at that for a minute, I realized that I was smelling that same burning smell. I pulled the blade out of the kerf and it was completely bent out of shape. It had a bit of an “S” shape to it. And the memories came back of that jig saw never really cutting much of anything.

Back to the Disston. There’s nothing like necessity to force you into doing something that you kind of wanted to do anyway. Sort of like how there’s nothing like practice to make you a better musician but nobody ever wants to do that (at least I never did). Well, I sat back, remembered what I’d read (here and in the many books I have) about technique, waxed the saw plate, and went at it.

And the sweat rolled off my head like a river.

I tried this and that with my body position and after a bit, things began to straighten out and after attempting to correct the body alignment issues, the blade really began to advance. It got to feel rewarding.

I had four of these to do and after the first, I was really tired and sweaty. And now for an aside…

I used to play golf and the best game I ever played was one day when I was in danger of getting overheated. The temperature was about 115 and we went to play anyway because it was discounted and there was nobody else on the course (for obvious reasons). As I began to feel the fatigue and the effects of the heat, I dialed back my efforts. I concentrated on expending the least amount of energy possible which you do by attending to the proper technique. I just wanted to finish the game without caring any more how well I did. Surprisingly, I did better; there’s something about not caring that makes it easier to focus on your technique rather than the final outcome.

With this in mind, as I was just about too tired to keep sawing, I relaxed and tried to conserve my resources. No reason to try and force the saw because it seems not to help anyway. Just raise it and lower it and keep it straight. Surprisingly, my rate of cut went up a bit and with all this in mind, I managed to finish ripping the excess from all four boards.

Then I went and took a nap.

For the first one, I didn’t really pay enough attention to my vertical angle and ended up with more of a bevel than a real rip but that was easily remedied by some time later with a jack plane. For the later ones, I put a small engineers square next to the saw as a visual aid. It was remarkably difficult to stay vertical but with changes to my wrist position, I managed it. It took a few minutes of concentration to build up the correct muscle memory to maintain that position.

So I learned the following lessons:

1) Cheap tools are only good for their weight as a boat anchor. We all know this at an academic level but now I know it in my bones.
2) Practice makes perfect.
3) With hand tools, your bench is every bit as important as your cutting tools – both as a work surface and for holding the work.
4) When you have to, you really can rip 21 feet of 2” thick hardwood.
5) Finding yourself in a position of really having to muscle through a lot of material without your power tools to fall back on can be a really beneficial experience. Since it’s a hobby, that’s never a waste of time. Either you succeed or you learn something. Or both.

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.

 

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.