A homemade straightedge, version 2

6 07 2010

The previous straightedge I made was from narrow pieces of pine. Pine is relative stable, as woods go, but it still does move a little  and change shape with the weather. The straightedge consists of two pieces of wood; the reason there are two pieces is that they are used to check each other for straightness — no external reference object is needed, as long as the two pieces of wood are made into exactly the same shape. (You can read more about how it all works at the previous post.)

A little bit of warping is OK for some purposes. The straightedge is about 16 inches long, and when I put the two pieces together, it’s possible to fit three sheets of standard 20 lb. office paper between them. Assuming that they changed shape in exactly the same way (this may be an unwarranted assumption), each one warped about the thickness of one and a half sheets of paper, which is equivalent to .006 inches, or .15 millimeters. This is OK for some things, but it isn’t good enough for checking the flatness of a sole of a plane, for example.

I decided to make another straightedge, but this time around, I used 24 inch lengths of  1/2 inch thick Baltic birch plywood. This stuff is much higher in quality than regular construction-grade plywood: the wood is harder, there are almost no voids, and the plies are thinner, which means there are more plies for a given thickness. In this application, the most important property of plywood is that it’s stable; it won’t change shape with changing humidity.

The straightedge and the tools to make it. The plane was better for removing material quickly and getting it to shape, and the sandpaper on glass was better for fine tuning (and not having to sharpen).

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Hand plane skew angles

7 06 2010

Usually hand planes are pushed straight ahead, but sometimes it’s useful to turn them a little bit relative to the direction of motion.

When you push a hand plane straight forward, the cutting edge is a line that is perpendicular to the direction of motion. We can call this “normal” planing (pardon the pun). When you rotate the plane a bit and still push it in the same direction, the cutting edge is now at an oblique angle to the direction of motion. This is planing at a skew.

Left: normal plane motion. Right: skewed plane motion. The red line represents the edge of the blade.

One thing that skewing does is reduce the effective angle. This is the angle between the planed surface along the axis of motion, and the upper side of the cutting edge. A lower effective angle should reduce resistance when making a cut. Here’s what it looks like when you plane at a skew. (In practice, there’s usually not a big arrow in front of the blade, nor is there tiny writing all over the place.)

The relationship between the pitch, skew, and effective angles. The pitch angle is the angle between the upper side of the bevel and the surface being planed. The angle of the lower bevel doesn't matter here, so for simplicity, it's shown as flat on the surface being planed.

How do you calculate the effective angle from the blade angle and skew angle? It might help to have some definitions here.

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A homemade straightedge

16 05 2010

If you go to the office store or hardware store and buy a ruler, you might think that you’ve gotten two for the price of one: a length-measuring tool, and a straightedge. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. A regular old ruler may or may not be straight. Try this: put the ruler it down on a sheet of paper, mark a line along the edge with a 0.5 mm mechanical pencil, then flip it over and mark another line on top of the previous one. If the lines are directly on top of each other, the edge is straight — at least, it’s straight enough that the error can’t be seen with half-millimeter pencil line. I have at least one ruler where the gap between the lines is over 1 mm.

Nothing is perfectly straight. The only question is how far from straight your straightedge is. For most drawing and measuring applications, if it passes the test above, it’s good enough. But sometimes you need it to be better. In woodworking, the surfaces of some tools need to be very flat — much flatter than 0.5 mm. A hand plane with a sole that’s flat to only 0.5 mm would be worse than useless; it would unpredictable and inconsistent, and would gouge the workpiece horribly. (Unfortunately, inexpensive metal hand planes are all like this out of the box — maybe not as bad as 0.5mm, but bad enough that they really can only be used to damage wood. Seriously. This is not an exaggeration.) I don’t know exactly how flat the sole of a hand plane needs to be, but it certainly needs to be better than 0.5 mm, or even 0.1 mm.

I was considering buying a good straightedge, but before I actually did it, I saw in Toshio Odate’s book Japanese Woodworking Tools a method for making  a straightedge. The purpose of the straightedge in his book is specifically for checking the sole of a plane, but it could be used for any purpose.

To make it: the short version of the story is that you take two pieces of wood, put next to each other and plane them, then “unfold” the two objects so that the planed edges are facing each other, then check for light between them. If there’s light, you shave away the high spots and check again. The are two reasons why you make a pair of objects: first, you don’t need a good reference straightedge to check to see if your new straightedge is actually straight, and second, any deviation will be doubled, making it possible to see errors that are half the size of what you would be able to see even if you had a perfect straightedge to compare it to. This paired-planing method is, in theory, twice as accurate as making a single object and comparing to perfect straightedge.

Planing the two parts of the straightedge. There are two thin pieces of wood, clamped together so they don't fall over.

Checking for straightness. The pieces are "unfolded" so that the planed sides are facing each other. In this photo, the ends here are bowed apart, indicating that I put too much pressure at the end of the planing stroke. I eventually got it much better, but not perfect.

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Sharpening chisels consistently, part 2

2 04 2010

After my previous post about sharpening chisels, I received a helpful comment which informed me that another way to set angles consistently for sharpening chisels is to make a blade projection board. This takes just a little bit of work and has many advantages over the marking method I wrote about before.

The angle of the blade in the honing guide is determined by how far it projects from the front, and so the key to getting the same angle every time is to make sure that the blade projection length is the same every time. Having a physical guide is faster and more precise than visually lining up a mark.

Making the jig is simple. First, decide which angles you want to use for the primary and secondary bevel. Next, put the blade in the honing guide and adjust the blade projection until you get the desired angles. For each angle, measure how far the blade sticks out. Then take a board and attach stops that are those distances from the edge.

To gauge blade angles, I used an application for my iPod Touch called Clinometer. Even though it’s not particularly important to set it at a specific angle (27 vs. 28 degrees, for example), it’s still nice to know what the angle is.

Measuring the angle of the chisel in the guide, on a glass plate (the other side happens to have sandpaper glued to it).

I made the jig with stops for 25 degrees for the primary bevel, and 28 degrees for the secondary bevel. The stops were placed at 41 and 34 millimeters.

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Sharpening and resharpening chisels at a consistent angle

1 04 2010

According to the Internet, a sharp knife is a safe knife, and the sharper, the better. Some people like them to be literally razor sharp — sharp enough to shave with. (For reference, good knives, when new, are usually sharp but not shaving-sharp.) For me, as long as a knife is just plain sharp and can cut easily, I’m happy. Going the extra distance to make it razor sharp doesn’t make it perform that much better, at least for my purposes.

With woodworking tools, it’s a different story. A razor sharp chisel or hand plane lets you do things that simply aren’t possible with one that is merely sharp. Since wood fibers are much tougher than (most) food, having a really sharp chisel matters more than having a really sharp knife. With a chisel, it can be the difference between using a hammer and just cutting by hand, or between leaving a rough edge and a glassy smooth one. A very sharp plane can leave a surface that’s smoother and shinier than is possible with sandpaper.

When sharpening a chisel or plane blade, it’s important to hold it at a consistent angle so that the very edge of the blade doesn’t get ground down at a more obtuse angle, and so that you can assess sharpness by looking at how it reflects the light. If the surface is rounded instead of flat, the light doesn’t reflect off it all at once, making it difficult to tell if you’ve ground away all imperfections in the cutting edge.

Many expert woodworkers sharpen their tools by hand and have trained themselves to hold the blade at a steady angle. I’ve tried doing it this way, and I always end up with a blade that has a rounded profile. So I bought a cheap (about $10) honing guide. It holds the blade at a steady angle and has a little wheel that lets you roll it along a sharpening stone.

A chisel in the honing guide

The guide makes it trivial to grind the chisel at a steady angle, but it’s still a bit of work to set the angle of the chisel the consistently, time after time. What I did previously was this: put the chisel in, tighten the holding screw, then place it on a flat surface and check if any light is visible between the blade and the surface. If so, loosen the screw, move the blade, and do it again. Usually it took around three or four tries before I got it just right. And then there’s the issue of grinding the microbevel, which has an angle a few degrees steeper than the main part of the blade.

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Do I really have to grind coffee right before brewing it?

3 03 2010

Coffee people always say that you should grind your coffee immediately before brewing it, because once it’s ground there’s a lot more surface area, which allows the flavorful stuff in the coffee to oxidize. Is it just a subtle difference that only serious coffee snobs would notice, or is it noticeable by anyone? How long can you wait after grinding before it starts losing flavor? This calls for a taste test.

The coffee is a light roast Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from Metropolis, and it was roasted 15 days ago. Yesterday morning, I tested four batches, ground at different times.:

  • Freshly ground (a few minutes before brewing)
  • 9 hours ago
  • 24 hours ago
  • 7 days ago

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Calibrating a dial thermometer

26 02 2010

How accurate is your kitchen thermometer? And if it’s accurate at one temperature, does that mean that it’s accurate over its entire range?

What brings me to this question is, of course, coffee. I’ve found that some kinds of coffee are very sensitive to the brewing temperature. Just a couple degrees in either direction can make a good coffee bitter or sour, and if the temperature is just right, it can bring out undertones of cocoa, delicate berry notes, and perhaps even a lush, winelike acidity. OK, I admit that I just copied that last bit from fancy coffee websites. My coffee palate may not be particularly refined, but I do know from experience that sourness and bitterness depend on temperature.

The adjustment nut

The kind of thermometer most commonly found in the kitchen is a dial thermometer, also called an instant-read thermometer. (But what thermometers aren’t read in an instant?) They are typically calibrated in one of two ways. The first way is to put it in boiling water, check the reading, and if it’s not at 212 degrees (or 100, if you live in one of those other countries), use a wrench to turn the adjustment nut on the underside of the dial until it is. A couple of things to be careful of when doing this: First, it’s hot! Second, unless you live at sea level, the boiling temperature of water isn’t exactly 212 degrees. I live in Chicago, which is at about 600 feet, and the boiling temperature here is just a tiny bit lower, at 211 degrees. (The boiling point of water decreases by about 1 degree F for every 500 feet of elevation.)

The second way to calibrate a thermometer is to put it in ice water, and adjust the nut so that it reads 32 degrees. When it comes out of the freezer or in from the outdoors, ice is usually colder than 32 degrees, and water from the tap is generally much warmer. When you put the two together, it takes some time for the ice to warm up to 32 degrees and for water to cool to 32 degrees, so before adjusting the thermometer, you should wait a while for the water and ice to stabilize at the freezing point.

This brings us to the next question: If you calibrate your thermometer at the freezing or boiling point, does that mean that it will be accurate over its entire range?

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