A Hand-tool Challenge by Darrell LaRue

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Recently, one of the denizens of the Canadian Woodworking Handtool forum proposed the following:  "I just thought it might be fun to put together a small challenge to build say a box or something from rough lumber, using only hand tools."  Another member said "I'll start from a chunk of firewood". 

Aha!  Now *that* is a challenge.  The gauntlet has been cast, so I pick it up and head for the wood pile.  Now these guys were all thinking about a small box, but I felt I had to take this to a higher level.  I decided that one of those shaker-style tables with tapered legs would fit the bill.

First thing was to select some stock. My wife scavenged a 3 foot hunk of 12" diameter walnut log 5 years ago.  I had quartered it and used half for parts of a Windsor chair, and the other half spent 5 years being shuffled from one inconvenient spot to another in the garage.  I have tripped over these for the last time!

I use hand tools a lot (not exclusively, but I do a lot more by hand than by machine...) and I know that I do not relish the idea of re-sawing this much wood by hand.  If I was starting with rough sawn lumber this might not be such a problem, but this wood is 6 inches thick where I want to cut it.

The alternative is to split off the stock I need.  This is what Roy Underhill calls "the workmanship of risk".  It's much faster to split the wood than to saw it. But you can never tell what surprises await you when splitting.  Knots, wavy grain and such will deflect a split and ruin your stock.  But when I compare the hours I would spend sawing with the minutes I would spend splitting it's no contest.  So I took the froe and started whacking off planks.

The first plank was a disaster.  A small embedded knot and a bit of curving grain left me with a plank that would maybe give me a couple of aprons, but no stock for the table top. I split off a couple more and managed to get decent pieces (whew!).  Then I took the hatchet and trimmed away as much waste as I could to get the plank reasonably flat and straight. Again, the use of a coarse tool is much faster, but riskier.

 I use hatchets all the time to trim or shape wood, so I don't consider this too much of a risk. Then I put the plank on the bench and started scrub planning to get it level and mostly flat.

I switched to a jack plane and, using a straight-enough edge (I don't have a machinist's straight-edge, just a bar of aluminum that's straight enough for woodworking) and winding sticks, proceeded to finish the flattening job.  By this time I knew which was the better face and I started putting face marks on the stock. All measurements are done from the face side and face edge. Here is a picture of the winding sticks in use.

I didn't make the off side flat, just knocked enough humps off to let the plank lie on the bench without rocking. I usually end up with offsets on a panel glue-up so I figured if I had to plane it all down anyways, why do it twice? I crosscut the planks to 16 inches, and then squared up the edges. Glued and clamped, then set aside to dry.

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Stanley Chisels



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