Woodworking tools are useless unless they are sharp. Learning to sharpen is an ongoing process; I have tried a number of methods and find that my technique and the materials I choose to use continually evolve.

There is not a right or wrong way to sharpen tools. If the tool gets “sharp enough to shave with” then all is well.grindstone 19499 lg

Sharpening basically involves bringing two edges to such a fine point that they almost disappear into each other. The two surfaces are ground with increasingly finer abrasives until what had been a scratched piece of metal becomes a mirrored surface.

What follows is a very basic overview of my sharpening process. You can find much more detail on the web, in books or by asking me a question. Please feel free to ask questions!

flatThe first order of business with chisels and plane blades is to flatten and polish the back. The back of the blade forms half of the edge. If the back of the blade is not flat and polished the edge will never be precise; it will show small imperfections and nicks and the edge will not stay sharp very long.

Flattening the back of the blade is a tedious process but well worth the effort. The back of the blade is held flat against the stone and polished until it is smooth. This is repeated using increasingly finer grits.

Here’s the set up I use most often for sharpening. I use several diamond sharpening stones. They cut quickly and always stay flat. The flatness provides a constant reference and keeps edges and the backs of blades straight and true.

I have a very coarse diamond stone that works so well I rarely use a grinder anymore. I have a few finer grit diamond stones that bring the edgesharp to a usable sharpness very quickly.

I use a fine Japanese waterstone for the final sharpening and polishing. The waterstone brings the edge to a mirror finish. I use the diamond stones to keep the waterstone flat.

On the bench you can see the sharpening guides I use. These are very helpful with maintaining a constant angle when bringing an edge to shape. I use them all the time with plane blades and chisels though I often work freehand when touching up a blade that is beginning to dull a bit.

Last but not least is a hand grinder with a hard felt wheel charged with a fine honing compound. This makes quick work of sharpening a knife, putting a razor sharp edge on a chisel and sharpening various odds and ends around the shop. It isn’t absolutely necessary to use the grinder for these tasks but it is a lot of fun!

In the future I’ll write about different types of bevels and angles for special tasks, blah blah blah….

Jew’s Harps

jhs2Jews Harps are found throughout the world. The name is an enigma; I have never heard a believable story connecting this instrument to the Jewish people.

There are also many names for this instrument depending on where it is found. Some of the more common names are:

Trump (French)
Khomus (Central Asia)
Doromb (Hungary)
Maultrommel (Germany)
Dan Moi (Vietnam)
Morsing (India)

Every culture has their unique variation of the Jew’s Harp but they are all basically the same; a frame of metal, bamboo or wood with a reed of metal, bamboo or wood.

jewsapOne of the more interesting instruments I’ve come across is the Jewasaphone. Someone thought this was such a good idea they patented it! Maybe they thought that everyone in America would have to have one!

The horn actually does make the Jew’s Harp sound louder if it is aimed at you. This can be a fun or frightening experience depending on who is at either end of the instrument.

I hope to soon have some sound files linked to this blog and I’ll make sure the Jewsaphone will be in one of them!

Margaret MacArthur

I first heard Margaret MacArthur perform when I was a teenager. I had just begun learning to play the dulcimer and she was one of the first players I had the chance to hear.

She performed at The South Street Seaport Museum in New York City. I was probably 17 at the time.

Margaret demonstrated a rare virtuosity on the dulcimer. She would play intricate counter melodies and harmonies to her voice. Her style was very understated yet extremely elegant.

A few years later I was hired to play at a festival for the first time. Margaret was also performing there. From the moment I met her I considered her a friend.

I would see her on occasion throughout the 1980’s while touring. I was always happy when we were both booked at the same festival. In those days touring was as much about seeing friends as it was about playing music.

059da3dfcc92b6deccdc449cf8c54599I found myself thinking of Margaret today when I came across this photograph of myself playing one of her dulcimers while staying at her house. I was gigging in the area and she put me up for the night. Judging by the picture I’d say that must have been in the early 1980’s

Margaret had a fascinating collection of historic dulcimers and related instruments. It was like being in a museum where I could touch and play everything!

She told me that a lot of her style and technique on the dulcimer came from playing zither. Margaret had great left hand technique; lots of hammer ons and pull offs. slides. etc.

The last time I saw her was at a concert she gave in East Lansing, Michigan a few years ago. She was just as vibrant, creative and alive as she had always been.

Margaret passed away May 23rd, 2006.

Tools – part 1

chisI was cleaning up the shop today in preparation for getting some work done and I thought I’d take a few pictures of some of the tools I commonly use.

I enjoy working with hand tools and prefer using them instead of power tools whenever it is reasonable to do so. There are many aspects of lutherie and woodworking that can be accomplished more quickly with hand tools than one would think.

Power tools often need to be set up to perform a specific task but a well maintained hand tool is always ready to go to work. Power tools are also loud and they fill up the room with sawdust.

There is also a feeling of being in contact with the work and experiencing the subtlety of the wood that I only experience when working it with hand tools. I can feel, hear and smell the wood responding to being worked. This is a sensory pleasure but it also gives me information about the characteristics of the wood I am working with. As an organic material every piece of wood is different even when sawn from the same part of the tree.

planesPlanes. You can’t have too many. Well…you can but that hasn’t stopped me! I use planes all the time for truing boards, planing tops, backs and sides to thickness, shaping parts and many other tasks.

This photo shows some of the planes I most often reach for. They are each set up for different functions such as joining and truing long edges, rough and fine smoothing, trimming, shaping and cleaning up parts and more.

Lutherie – How it starts.

forest5I can’t remember where I read something that transformed my thoughts about working with wood. In an article about the difficulty of working some species of wood someone wrote the following as best I can remember:

“Wood was not designed to be easy to work or have perfect grain, stability, or color. Wood was designed to keep trees alive!”

Though I more or less knew this reading this statement helped me understand that working with wood is not unlike gardening or farming; it is working with plants.

This deepened my experience of appreciating the subtleties of each piece of timber I came across.

I shop for wood at local sawmills. I enjoy spending hours digging through piles of lumber. Usually I come home with only a few pieces of timber. Most sawmills aren’t cutting wood specifically for instrument making. A lot of wood that would make great furniture simply isn’t suitable for a musical instrument.

wood flooring plain sawn clip image001As a starting point I look for wood that is quarter sawn. Wood sawn in this way is more stable and maintains it’s integrity better when humidity and temperature fluctuate. This is very important in lutherie where very thin pieces of wood are used.

The fibers in a quarter sawn wood run the full length of the board adding stiffness, strength and the ability to be more resonant. Some species of wood will also show the most beautiful grain patterns when quarter sawn.

Quarter sawing wood is the least economical way for a sawmill to harvest boards from a log; there is a lot of waste. Wood is precious so it is good that all wood is not quarter sawn. Unless wood is sawn specifically for instrument making there will usually be only a few boards that come out quarter sawn per log. I look for them!

After finding the quartered boards I next look for boards that are clear of knots, pitch pockets and other things that are good for the tree but bad for an instrument. I then check for “run out.””Run out” happens when a board is sawn at an angle through the log. All those wonderful fibers are cut short even though they might at first look like they run the length of the board. “Run out” makes the board weaker and less resonant. Then comes pleasing grain, resonance (a good tap with a knuckle can tell me a lot about how suitable a piece of timber will be for an instrument) stiffness and texture.

woodattic1Once I get the wood home it goes into the attic for as long as possible. Though I have started making instruments again fairly recently I have been buying wood for several years in preparation for doing so. I let wood sit in the attic for at least a year before sawing it up it for an instrument. The wood is then stored in my shop for a few weeks to acclimate to the environment in which the instrument will be made.