Category Archives: Hand Tools

Making Odate’s Japanese Transom Part 2: Mitered boxed mortise-and-tenon

Japanese transom frame pieces

With the main frame mortising completed the mitered boxed mortise and tenon can be cut. It is without a doubt the hardest joint I have ever had to execute, but fear not! It took me three practice tries to get comfortable with the sequence of layout. If you can follow along, this can be accomplished.

Mitered boxed mortise and tenon

Fundamental to being able to make a joint like this is the skill of sawing perfectly to your layout line and square. Desmond King, in his book “Shoji and Kumiko Design”, gives a great set of exercises for learning to run a Japanese saw straight and true in a cut.

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It really, really pays to practice consistently to build up your muscle memory. I use a wooden cutting fence to start my saw kerf. I bring the fence up to my cutting knife that has been placed in the knife line and make a series of practice cuts on a squared piece of scrap pine.

Practice cuts

I do not mark a line on the side of the cut to tell me if it is square or not, you just have to be able to cut square. I make these practice cuts one at a time and check with a try square. Really pay attention to how it feels when you are cutting correctly. If you can do this fairly consistently you’ll save a lot of time paring your joints with a chisel.

Cutting tenon cheeks

Although I originally learned to rip the tenon cheeks before cutting the shoulders, Odate does the opposite. The rationale is that you can over cut your shoulder without it showing in the finished joint, but if you over cut the cheek it will show. Cutting the shoulder first gives you more feedback when you reach the bottom of the cut on the cheek. This is the time to be fearless and cut right to the line. I find that if I’m afraid of overcutting the line my hand will twist the saw away.

Veritas plow plane

Of course, I’m no master tategu-shokunin and most of my saw cuts require a little cleaning up. I use my Veritas router plane with an auxiliary fence to trim the tenon cheeks to the line. If you don’t have a router plane check out Paul Sellers video on Youtube “The poor man’s router”. Sellers is old school and awesome, I’ve learned a lot from his videos and hope to get his books some day.

Shooting board

With all of the mortice boxes cut I trim the end of the joint square on a shooting board. I left an extra 1/8″ on the end of each joint for this purpose.

Marking mortise box height

Now the end of the joint is a consistent reference for marking the top of the mortise box. Leaving any less wood than 1/4″ would create a problem when cleaning the mortise for the box on the tenon.

Cutting mortise box

Here’s the cut, once again started with a little wooden fence and cut straight down. To complete the cut you flip the piece over and make a starting kerf on the outside miter line.

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This cut gives the teeth of your rip saw an nice place to start when cutting the miter.

Miter cut

Just like cutting the secondary shoulders on any fully housed tenon you cut away from your shoulders to avoid scratching them with the saw.

Paring endgrain

Trim the joint up, paring the end grain on the diagonal from both directions to avoid gouging your shoulders with the chisel. If you’ve managed to make it this far you are rewarded with half of an awesome looking bit of joinery.

Finished boxed mortise

This post is getting quite long, so I’m going to break this up into another post. Look for Odate’s Japanese Transom Part 3: Mitered tenon and final transom assembly.

Making Odate’s Japanese Transom with Asanoha Pattern

Japanese Transom

I just finished this Japanese transom yesterday and have been eagerly anticipating sharing this. When I first read through Odate’s book “Making Shoji” I marveled at the complexity of his kumiko joinery. While this certainly is a complicated project to execute, if you start with an understanding of the proper sequence of layout and are capable of accurately dimensioning your lumber the final assembly will go smoothly.

I bought some Hemlock a while back that I bought at a discount from the Woodcraft in Loveland, CO, because apparently no one wants to work Hemlock. But its a soft wood with even straight grain, from trees big enough to produce decent width vertical grain boards. I used Hemlock for the interior trim of my mothers house, and was pleased with how easily it worked. It does have a tendency towards brittleness.

Kanna for Planing Kumiko

I prepared all of my lumber in my usual manner, ripping on a table saw and dimensioning with hand planes. The kumiko I cut with a band saw from a carefully dimensioned 3/4″ board of vertical grain. The bandsaw kerf wastes a lot less wood than the table saw, an important consideration because kumiko must be cut from top quality lumber. The edge of the board is planed and squared after every cut, producing kumiko that only need to be planed to thickness on one side. To do that, I have a 50mm kanna from toolsfromjapan.com to which I have attached two pieces of kumiko the thickness of the final material I want but made from oak. I plane down one piece of kumiko to use as a cutting gauge for the mortises and lap joinery, and then shim out the thickness gauges with a couple pieces of paper and plane the rest of my kumiko. That way I have enough material left on the kumiko thickness to remove layout marks before final assembly, and can finish plane the kumiko to very controlled tolerances. Better than the 50mm kanna would be a plane with enough width to handle two pieces of kumiko at once.

Cutting Kumiko Joints

I had to discard about half of the kumiko I cut because of terrible warping as they came off the bandsaw. Just because a board looks like it has straight grain doesn’t mean there aren’t other stresses in the board from drying. Perhaps its just the character of Hemlock. The frame componenets didn’t warp badly coming off the table saw so perhaps it was just that particular board.

In the above photo you can see the lap cuts after being cut and cleaned while attached to a kumiko cutting jig courtesy of Desmond King’s book “Shoji and Kumiko Design” . I was struggling with making these cuts while holding them atop saw horses as Odate demonstrates.

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With the lap cuts done I mortised the tsukeko, and cut the blind mortises on the horizontals.

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Great care must be taken when cutting these blind mortises. I was working atop my planing beam, which is doug fir, and found that even though I didn’t cut all the way through, the pressure from cutting dented out the other side of the mortise. Next time I try this I’ll be sure to work atop hardwood.

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Assembly of the kumiko was surprisingly easy considering the number of pieces. The lap cuts alternate on the verticals but are cut all on one side for the horizontals. No need for glue here, the tsukeko frame holds things together nicely and will tighten up when the main frame is assembled around it.

Asanoha hinge pieces

From there I moved on to what seemed quite daunting at the time, the asanoha pattern pieces. The entire pattern is made from only three internal pieces within each square. They are: the diagonal, the hinge, and the key. Above you can see me fitting the hinge piece against the diagonal.

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Here is my setup for cutting all of these little pieces. In the foreground I have my angle shooting jig with 45 and 30 degree angles. I’m using a WoodRiver low angle block plane. To the right of that is my miter box. Both employ cutting stops that trim each piece just slightly over size. From there I can individually fit the pieces to their opening. It was much faster to take a whole set of pieces through every operation at once than to cut and fit pieces one at a time.

With the diagonals in place you get to the most challenging part, the hinge. You have to cut exactly in the center of the piece, only leaving a tiny bit of wood the thickness of a sheet or two of paper.

Cutting Asanoha hinge piece

To make a cut like that consistently is a matter of thousandths of an inch. Once again, Desmond King comes through with a great technique utilizing a lamp shining horizontally against the saw. I just have to say thank you to King for a simple and elegant solution that I never would have learned short of studying in Japan. The low angle of the light exaggerates the thickness of the remaining material by a factor of at least 10x.  It also allows you a visual reference for holding the saw exactly horizontal in the cut. You want to use your thinnest kerf saw for this. I use a Nakaya Eaks 210mm kumiko saw from toolsfromjapan.com.

Asanoha key

Once you’re working on the key its just a matter of spending the time to make all of these little pieces. One thing that Odate does not mention is trimming down the 60 degree nose at 90 degrees a pass or two thicker than the kerf of the saw that you used to cut the hinge pieces. If you don’t, as I found out, the sharp angle will cut through the hinge when you try to insert it. I’d rather have a tiny gap at the tip than a gap at the sides.

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After the first leaf on the left was done and I settled into my technique my fits improved considerably and I went back and junked a couple of pieces with bad fits. My fingers ached from holding the block plane and the sharp little pieces in the angle jig, but I got it done.

Stay tuned for part two where I mortice the frame and cut the totally awesome mitered boxed mortise and tenon joint!

Old School Spindle Steady

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I whipped this up one day when I was out of cash and tired of poor results end drilling spindle work by eye with a cordless drill. Thankfully like most woodworkers, I’m swimming in small hardwood scrap. The wheels for this spindle steady are made from cherry with ironwood bearings pressed in. I didn’t have bolts lying around to secure the wheel arms to the frame, but I’m quite familiar with fitting a wedge. The wheel arms are adjusted the same way as a wooden hand plane, light taps with a hammer. If your wedges are not mated quite perfectly to the frame the vibration of the lathe will work them loose. In practice they must be set quite tight or you risk a sloppy hole.

Of course, hardwood wheels do tend to compress the wood grain of the spindle, but its not a problem if you do your end drilling after roughing down to a cylinder. Then its a simple matter to locate the tailstock center on the hole you drill and go to town turning down your spindle.

This spindle steady is definitely noisier than a commercial one  with ball bearings and neoprene wheels, but I’m about getting shit done with the stuff I have and not waiting for the nth tool to do better work. Oil your bearings!

Hand Scraping a Hand Plane Sole Flat

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The plane was made by a fellow named Spiers of Ayr, Scotland about a century ago and is of a style called an “infill” plane because of the Brazillian rosewood that fills the body. Its interesting to note that the body was not cast as one piece, but was joined together from three pieces that were double dovetailed together. The joints are so tight that they are all but invisible, a very beautiful feature. And consider that this plane was made by hand!

I started by refinishing the wooden bits, sanding out some of the more minor dings and dents, and then finishing with dutch oil and several coats of paste wax. It looked a lot nicer, but without a blade I couldn’t try it out. To top it off, the wood had noticeably shrunk (a common problem when wood goes from balmy Scotland to Colorado) and probably warped the sole of the plane. I bought the largest blade I could find, a massive 3/16″ thick Lie Nielsen which turned out to be too thick for the mouth of the plane.

The sole presented the greatest problem. I bought a large precision straight edge and a feeler guage set to be able to measure how far out the sole was, and it turned out to be bowed and twisted to the tune of about .006″. I’ve lapped out smaller planes with sandpaper on a granite flat, but this plane was too large, and too out of flat. I considered sending it to a machine shop for surface grinding, but the clamping force on the plane during the grinding process would have warped it, and was too expensive to boot. Besides, sending a valuable antique to a machine shop is just asking for trouble. I finally came upon hand scraping, laid out the cash for a granite surface plate large enough for this monster of a plane, and picked up a nice carbide scraper from Anderson Bros. and the diamond abrasives to sharpen it. I scraped every surface on my drill press and vice to get a feel for the process. It turns out that scraping cast iron is a joy compared to the mild steel of the jointer plane. Scraping the sole turned out to be twice as slow as cast iron for me to achieve the quality of surface finish the plane deserves. You can see in the photos the progression of the sole of the plane as it gets progressively more flat.

The granite plate is inked with prussian blue oil paint and the object to be flattened is rubbed against it. A brayer would have been nice to spread the ink, but my palm worked just as well, as long as you don’t mind a blue hand.

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When you pull them apart, the blue transfers to the metal, and you then take a pass over the inked spots with the scraper. After each pass with the scraper the sole of the plane was deburred with a fine synthetic sharpening stone.

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The scraper removes about .0001″ at a pass. Then you do it again, and again, and many more times, alternating the direction of your scraping pass perpendicular to the last. I’ve since learned that a HSS scraper blade would leave a better quality surface when scraping mild steel. The carbide was prone to galling on the cutting edge, leaving deep scratches that took many passes to remove. I also was truly careful not to slip off the edges of the mouth opening and gouge out a bunch of metal that can’t be put back.

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I probably spent about twenty-five hours scraping, and man does that paint get absolutely everywhere! The resulting pattern of scrapes is quite beautiful with the light reflecting on it, and the quality of the surface is comparable to a high quality surface grind job (the plate is flat to .0001″).

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I knew I was doing a good job when I started to have a hard time getting the plane unstuck from the plate, and having the plate lift on me, which weighs 150lb.  As you approach full flatness of the plane the amount of ink on the surface plate should be lightened considerably.

With the sole flat I removed a little metal around the mouth so that the blade would fit, and polished up the bronze lever cap. Although planes of this period did have blade adjusting mechanisms, this plane showed no screw holes where it would have been mounted. The blade would have also had a cap iron, but the blade I bought was so massive it was not necessary, and I substituted a small piece of oak under the lever cap to make the blade seat properly. To adjust the cutting depth and alignment you tap on the blade with a small hammer.

I’ve received a great deal of satisfaction from restoring this tool. It is the bedrock of accuracy in my shop. It performs beautifully, truly the best hand plane I have. Its interesting to note that I spent about the same amount of money restoring it as it would have cost to buy a brand new top of the line Lie Nielsen, but the Spiers is unquestionably the finer tool.

Homemade Wood Clamps

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I made these clamps for layout work as a direct result of my adventure making shoji for the first time. I have plenty of your typical screw type wood clamp, but they’re cumbersome and heavy if you only need moderate pressure to hold a few pieces together for marking. Doesn’t it also hurt badly when you hit a metal clamp while cutting with your expensive Japanese saw? Well, these clamps excel at holding kumiko together to cut the joinery. They may not be quite as nice as the fine little brass clamps you can get from Japan, but as many as are needed, in whatever size, can be made for almost no cost for the wood.

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The construction was very straight forward. The beams I made from oak, the braces with the mortices are from walnut. The beams are 1/2″ x 3/4″, by whatever length is needed secured. I’ve made a couple sets of these in different sizes: 6″, 12″, 24″. A hole is drilled in the sliding brace for a pin, and then that same hole is used to pilot holes into the beam every 1/2″. The braces measure 1″ square, with an inch of clamping surface below the beam. You can basically prepare your brace lumber in sections about 12″-16″ long, lay out many at the same time, and drill and tap the hole for the wood screw as well as cut the mortices before cutting the braces to length. A 1/2″ thread box and tap was used to cut the wood threads, in this case from maple. A bit of fitting was required to get a good fit for the brace that carries the wood screw, but allow the other two pieces to slide easily upon the beam. An oak pin and a couple lengths of 1/8″ steel rod finish things off.

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Here I’ve put them to use for a bit of assembly work gluing up the bridal slip joints on a cabinet door.  Using tools you’ve made to make other stuff is its own special kind of satisfaction. I’ll never buy another wood clamp if I can help it. Its a load off my mind not to have to find the money for sets of parallel bar clamps. And sure, you can’t be using these clamps to pull the twist out of a 2×4. If you need that much clamping pressure you probably did something wrong, and may I then offer you my commander timber framing mallet?