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A Look at Hitachi Beam Mortisers

My shop has two new additions, a hitachi  chain mortiser and hollow chisel beam mortiser.  These tools are for cutting timber framing mortises in beam sections typical of Japanese wooden architecture. When I first got hard into carpentry they seemed like rare unicorns, not available in the American market. Last time I looked, there’s sellers on ebay offering every major brand now, Hitachi, Makita, Ryobi. And these tools are even more common on Yahoo Japan auctions, just with better prices and more selection.  I had intended to only get the hollow chisel mortiser, but at only 6,000 yen the chain mortiser was too good a deal to pass up on, plus I like the color, haha.  Take two zeros off to get the rough yen to dollar conversion.

The only shipping option other than Sea Mail was EMS, both of which I assume use USPS to get the box to your door, so this was a major test of shipping and handling reliability. I paid extra for protective packaging, which apparently meant entombing the parcels in heavy bubble wrap. I would have appreciated double boxing at a minimum short of crating, but through some miracle they arrived nearly undamaged, mainly due to the robust quality of the castings and parts on these machines.

Hitachi’s CB21 chain mortiser, as it arrived. It’s used, so of course a bit of rust and a broken plastic adjustment knob from shipping damage. The chain mortisers seem to sell for quite a bit less than the hollow chisel mortisers in general. I could be wrong about this, but it looked like this model is out of production, and I couldn’t find replacement chains from any Japanese merchants which could be part of the low price I paid. I’m holding out hope though that I can find a chain from a different manufacturer that will fit.  

I got her all cleaned up and lubricated, ready to test. The chain was still nice and sharp. Both of these machines are meant to run at 100v, and I read through lots and lots of debate about whether or not its advisable to run them at 120 volts without a voltage converter. In general it doesn’t seem to be a problem, but maybe will shorten the motor life a bit.  One of the major limitations of this machine is the maximum width of beam it can ride. At full open between the clamps you get about 7.5″, rather inconvenient if you think you’re going to be mortising a bunch of 8×8’s.  The chain is 18mm wide, so can cut your typical 30mm wide mortise with a single throw of the axis control. I love though how robust the guide rods and casting are on this thing compared to the Makita 7104. Once I got it cleaned up and lubed its really smooth and rigid.

This is a shot of the lever arm that controls side to side movement of the chain. It has presets for different widths of mortises.

Here’s the other side of that control lever. For some reason as the numbers here get bigger the mortises get narrower, so it has me a bit puzzled. Where I have it set now it will cut a 28mm wide mortise, just wide enough to leave 1mm of wood to clean off the side walls. In total, it may not be a new Mafell, but I really can’t complain seeing as both of these machines plus shipping was 1/3 the cost.

The hollow chisel mortiser arrived this morning, and had me really worried to judge by the look of the packaging. Despite the mangled look of this the bubble wrap underneath did its job except for a bent guide rod on one of the clamping fixtures.

This is Hitachi’s 30mm BS30SA. The ‘SA’ part of the model number means it can handle a 155mm long chisel. The BS30’s are more common and less spendy.  I’ve had the good fortune to try this model before, which is why I looked for it specifically, Makita seems to make good hollow chisel mortisers too, and they go for a bit less at auction.

I pulled this machine apart a bit to clean the old gummed up grease from the ways and guide rods and re-lubricate.

Now, 30mm is a big chisel to push through most any wood, so I tested on some red cedar after sharpening the chisel and auger. Western red cedar is cruel to less than a finely honed edge and it crushed on the end grain, anybody know a source for conical diamond hones big enough for a 30mm chisel? I bought this machine with square pegging in mind so next thing I need to find is some smaller chisels, but at least they can be found for sale without trouble. One thing I did try that worked quite nicely was using the chain mortiser to rough a mortise and then paring the side walls with the hollow chisel mortiser with the auger removed, keeping things really dimensionally tight and consistent.

These are the first power mortisers in my shop, I still prefer to make smaller mortises by hand and frankly I’ve put in the time  to get good at it, so tradition holds some sway with me. Up to now I’ve drilled larger mortises and then chiseled, which is by no means slow (ok, I’m still slow), but it helps to have the extra efficiencies when working by yourself trying to get your timber cut and assembled before too much dimensional change from seasoning.

What do you think, are these things worth it? I have a couple projects in mind and a good sawmill down the road that cuts local timber, a match made in heaven.


Steambending Snowshoe Frames

Thinking about what defines ‘shokunin spirit’ it can give pause. I’ve recently been enjoying the work of printmaker/carver David Bull, who tells the story of meeting wood block carver Ito Susumu:

I’m thinking of the exchange where David asks Ito how he feels about having to carve the same image so many times in his career. Ito tells David that he’s just a hobbyist, because he carves what he wants. I guess my point is that when opportunity knocks, go ahead and do the work that is asked of you.

Which brings me to snow shoes… I’ve been commissioned for a couple pairs. Of course, the only answer when asked if such or such a thing can be done is, “Hell yah, do that all the time, haha.” I’m looking forward to getting back to a more daiku-centric work, joinery and the like, but its winter and snowshoes/snowshoe furniture will sell well up here in the mountains.

Supposedly in the mail on its way to me from Japan are a hitachi chain mortiser and hollow chisel beam mortiser bought at auction from Yahoo Japan. I’m excited, super excited. The chain mortiser, 6000 yen, really? But it costs about $300 dollars to get something that heavy shipped over, lol.

So I  started with a book, “Building Wooden Snowshoes & Snowshoe Furniture” by Gil Gilpatrick.

There’s a lot of different skills that go into making a pair of snowshoes: steambending, weaving the webbing, and the leather bindings that hold the shoe to your foot. I was doubtful of finding straight grain white ash that would bend successfully, so that’s the first challenge I’ve taken on, everything else will follow more or less easily.

Developing the pattern from the book was the first step, fairing the curves with a bent piece of kumiko. Damn useful stuff that kumiko.

The pattern represents the inside edge of the snowshoe frame, and is used to lay out the bending form.

Snowshoes come in pairs, so the formwork is double sided.  The bend is one of double curvature at the toe, sweet and smooth.

I decided to go the wood route for a steam box. My setup is just simple things that I had lying around, with a large tea pot for my boiler and a rubber tube to transmit the steam to the middle of the steam box where the bend in the frames is tightest. In addition there are dowels along the length of the box that hold the staves off from the bottom so that the steam can get to all sides of the piece. I should have pre-soaked the frame pieces overnight, the first piece came out at two hours feeling stiff and like the steam wasn’t evenly distributing in the box. I cracked open both of the ends of the box so that a little steam escaped from both ends, it seemed to help.

The frames are nine foot long and shaped for the bend from their own pattern, then cut on the bandsaw and smoothed. One of these days I’m going to make a convex spokeshave for smoothing inside radiuses, but until then my hand scraping card works adequately.

Steam bending takes practice…I had an assistant to help as well.  But we were too slow the first time and made numerous small errors. The first stave cooled too much and failed in numerous places. After a few adjustments we tried again. Success! Or close enough, haha. Thankfully I saved the best Ash for the next time.

Where the upturn of the toe was unsupported by metal strapping I got a little split on one side, but its shallow enough that it will be sanded off I think. In steam bending the softened wood compresses easily, but still can fail in tension. The bend for the tip of the toe has support to keep the bending in compression, that was the easy part. Getting it around the rest of the form, especially at the tail, was harder.

I can see a couple of places where more wedges are needed to push the wood to the form. All together, I expected failures the first time around, but it was really exciting to see the wood take shape! I don’t want  to be the idiot hopping around on one snow shoe, so I guess I’ll have to try again and again until I get the hang of things.

The sides of my steam box cupped a bit, haha. But the joinery held together and swelled steam tight. I’ll try again next week when I can get an extra set of hands. In the mean time its on to sourcing the nylon for the webbing and other assorted parts and pieces, stay tuned.


Rescuing an Old Dresser

Do you recall the first time being asked to restore a piece of furniture? For me it was not really that long ago. I help re-seal a customers concrete patio, lo and behold there’s an old dresser that this lady had re-finished with her grandfather when she was a little girl, and she’d like it to be fixed up.

I take a look at it, its a bit rickety. But somehow I’m thinking, fix a few drawers, strip and spray some poly, blah, blah, yah I can do that for $400. As I’m loading the dresser into the back of my pickup I tell the lady’s husband in a most sincere tone, “I’ll take good care of it.”

He replies, “Oh, that thing is a piece of junk.”

Ah, so it is, so it is.

It should come as no surprise then that once the dresser was back in my shop I realized that it needed to be disassembled and all the joints re-glued. And hey, why not French polish the thing while its in pieces? Maybe I blew my work budget right at the get go because I knew I would enjoy the work only if I could do it to my own standard of quality. When its done, its done.

Not to lie, it was a piece of junk in terms of joinery. The panels sat in the same groove as the tiny wimpy stub tenons for the rails. By the time it got to me the only thing holding it together was the nails used to get it out of clamps on the production line.

That said, taking apart a piece of furniture you didn’t make is really fun and interesting. You get to be part detective, brushing the dust off of a past place and time, exposing wood that hasn’t seen the light of a workshop in a long time.

And gosh, pulling rusty nails is just excruciating. It makes you think of all the times you’ve read “disassemble the joint with as little damage as possible”. Well, just how much damage is possible, lets not find out. The drawer stops were little pieces of dowel glued in to the front drawer dividing rails, what a joke. They got replaced with proper dovetail stops mortised into the front dividing rail.


And worn drawer bottoms.

Which are  a simple fix.

I made up some finishing samples for the customer to look over. As it turns out the fewer choices you present the better. I’ve seen a dozen samples put in from of someone that pretty well melts their decision making ability, in the end they of course pick something not even shown, i.e. “match this color from this different species of wood on the other side of my house” kind of thing, ugh.

French polished shellac is a rabbet hole, but try it, its a beautiful finish, truly. Soon you’ll be convinced that everything, including the phase of the moon needs be considered when applying shellac with a rubber and spirits.

The front faces of the drawers were warped, which had to be corrected on the newly glued runner strips. I don’t care if the drawer face doesn’t sit perfectly flush with the frame, the drawer needs to run flat on the runners.

Now lets see how many specialized tools I can use repairing a drawer.

Marking the drawer bottom for a sliding dovetail batten.

Azebiki saw for cutting the sides of the dado. As an aside, if you pay $40 dollars for a saw like this expect to get a $40 dollar saw. Or be happy and practice your saw doctoring skills!

Routering out the waste. The drawer bottoms were badly warped. Normally I might have just flipped them upside down and called it a day, but the drawer stops had carved grooves in the drawer bottoms from sagging so much. Consequently the panels had to be held flat with battens for all the marking and cutting.

White Ash tools pleasantly by hand, including a little dovetail plane.

Cut too loose and the joint is pointless, too tight a fit and you warp the panel. Maybe there’s something to be said for always cutting tapered sliding dovetails?

Whew! One drawer down, four more to go.

But something fixed with care, it adds a charm all its own.

The shellac finish convinced me to buy a proper cabinet scraper, I spent way too long sanding out tiny digs from using a hand scraping card.  The wood was red oak, filled. Stained with a brown mahogany gel, body coats of amber shellac and then clear followed by a dark paste finishing wax. And to skip over all the tedious bits, it turned out quite well. Just in time for Christmas, and passed on to its next generation of owners.


This is everyones fault but mine…

I want to rant a little bit about how a building can get mangled in the build process because of a cacophony of opinion between the home owner, architect, engineer, and carpenters. Somewhere in the mix is me, yay!, which I am most pleased about because I have a job in the mountain community where I live and don’t have to travel hours every day to work or live in some flatlander corporate paradise.

The structure pictured below is an accessory building we affectionately refer to as the Garagemahal.

Its a nice little building, right? The architect lives directly in view of the thing so he pretty well designed something he could live with looking at all the time. The homeowner wanted to have a bathroom window added, notice it drawn in sharpie directly below the point load from the front gable. Notice how the smaller transecting gable has a higher ridge height than the main gable? Seems strange but it looks nice in the drawing.

I helped frame up the grade level walls, but everything didn’t get sheathed before the main contractor went on holiday for an elk hunting trip. The truss contractors installed most of the trusses and the building leaned out of plumb because they had to pull all of the external bracing to get their crane in to lift the trusses. It leaned over more than an inch. And then they nailed the sheathing up without racking the frame plumb again. The trusses themselves were screwed up, the homeowner ordered with some kind of condensed set of plans and so they arrive without dropped gable ends that allow for lookout rafters to support the gable end overhang. But they got put up anyway, so the truss guys partially sheath the roof with a lesser gable end exposure of 18-1/2″.

Apparently I get to frame a ladder for the gable end overhang and just fasten it to the end trusses. It puts the overhanging roof load in tension, which seemed so sub-standard to me that I didn’t even know it could be done until I studied my framing books a bit. But there are corbels on the gable end that support the barge rafter so I won’t lose sleep over it.

Lets look at the truss sections for the roof.

The main gable is formed with “attic room” trusses, scissor trusses for the smaller gable, and an interior ceiling plan thats vaulted in the middle at the same pitch as the roof.

Of primary concern to me is the valley rafters. This is how the architect drew it.

Now, have I lost my mind, or did the architect? Vaulted ceiling means the center square of this building is stick framed. Tripled girder trusses support both the roof and floor load of the smaller gable and so all that load goes onto the perimeter load bearing wall (remember that sharpie drawn bathroom window?).  But the ridges are at different heights, and the valley rafters have to hang on the lower ridge and carry down to the girder trusses. So why did the architect draw them as all intersecting in the middle?  Not to mention that there is no top plate for the valley rafter to land on, its going to hit the side of the girder truss. The top chord of the girder truss is 2×6, not nearly enough depth to nail an LVL sized to carry the load so it requires some kind of metal hanger. With my luck that connection point will be smack in the middle of a metal gusset plate. And shouldn’t that connection point be specified by the truss company per IRC? Having to move the valleys to where they need to be will change the interior ceiling plan as well, fun times!

So basically the architect drew it wrong, the engineer took their money but said nothing, the homeowner provided bad info to the truss designers who delivered the wrong trusses which then proceeded to fuck the building when the contractors installed them. Or maybe I just missed something.

Now I’m apparently the guy that can handle roof geometry and will get up on a 12/12 pitch roof in January in the mountains. Thank god for fall protection equipment. But I don’t get paid enough for shit like this.

So now I’ll leave you with a cute picture of a little girl learning to play chess and we can all feel better.

Summer’s warmth and providence

The days here are getting longer again, looking forward to summers warmth.  Lets take a look back at last summer.

With the warmth and sunlight grass grows, matures, and can be cut for hay. For the past couple of years I’ve been using a scythe, which is indescribably enjoyable work, very honest. Properly peening a scythe blade takes a bit of practice. But anyway I got it into my head that I’d like to see how much work making hay is on a small scale.

Making hay by hand is hard work, lots of it, in a constant rush because summer thunderstorms might ruin all your work. But you have a good reason to make a wooden hay rake. Riving your pegs is a necessity, hopefully from a stout wood like hickory.

Loose hay takes up a ridiculous amount of space. Still, there’s good arguments for leaving it loose in a haystack. Most importantly, baling hay is a lot of work, but you get to make a baler. And if you’re like me, and do a bit of blacksmithing and metalwork, you’ll be right at home in the making.  The plans for this baler are free online from Tillers International.

The attraction of the continuous baler is production, but it needs skill to load the hay into the baler evenly. The tendency is to push too much to the bottom of the infeed box and your bales will want to banana apart.

Good compound leverage, very effective. As I recall there was an error in the plans with the placement of the bearing rod for the plunger. The plunger face has to push fully past the spring loaded dogs that hold the hay from pushing back into the infeed box. Isn’t there always a sneaky error in a set of plans though? You’re clever people and will figure it out.

Do you love small unexpected touches? I bought these pens which shipped from Japan and came with a little folded paper crane. It got me wondering if there’s  a machine that can fold these mass production style, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Back from reminiscing about summer’s warmth, baby its cold outside. But maybe time to make some snowshoes?

Gabe Dwiggins

I read Sebastian’s final blog post this morning:

I too haven’t written much lately, mainly the struggle to express the ways in which life changes and how it changes us in turn.

And I must say thank you so much for what you have been willing to share, I greatly respect the honesty in your work and writing. For what the future holds let us favour optimism and give thanks for all things crafted with love.