Adding sculptural elements to our woodworking projects with hand tools may make them more interesting or help us reference a particular style; choices we are free to make during our design process. During restoration, our choice is removed; when a client’s piece comes into the shop missing parts, we need to recreate and then finish replacements to match the original aspect of the piece as close as practically possible.
In terms of necessary structure, legs and stretchers are often broken or missing entirely, as are supporting spindles of varying lengths. Decorative appliques and lengths of molding are often falling off, finials simply vanish…well, our task is to put it all back into order. These missing elements more often than not, turn out to be sculptural in form. And of these, most are formed on a lathe. You will occasionally need to replace a missing compound curvaceous element, perhaps a cabriole-style leg or sculpted chair arm and this is where the drawknife, rasp, file or spokeshave will come into play.
So far I have been emphasizing acquiring what I feel are the most useful hand tools for restoration work or woodworking generally. At this point, if you will pursue restoration I strongly suggest the purchase of a woodworking lathe. It need not be an expensive model. Perhaps the most important feature is that it accepts commonly available parts and accessories. Like me, you will be replacing many round spindly things of varying lengths and shapes, so you may wish to add some appliances to your lathe to make that safer and easier.
I began turning (turning=lathe work) out of necessity; I took some of my first restoration jobs and I needed to replace parts that I just could not find at any supplier. A friend lent me an old lathe (thank you, Bryan) with some tools and I figured out the basics. Since then, I have worked on good lathes, great lathes and those that were available. I was between lathes when I purchased my most recent tool; I needed it to complete a job, so I went to a nearby discount import tool retailer who, as luck would have it, was having a Lathe sale. The Lathe fit the stand that I already had and a motor powerful enough (3/4 hp) for most of my tasks. It is a lathe of necessity and so far it has worked well enough; there are some design issues I can quibble about, but it has seen me through dozens of jobs in the last few years.
Once you have a lathe, you’ll need a selection of lathe tools (sometimes called gouges or chisels). Here, I would avoid a discount tool dealer. You want very good quality tools that will last. These are not inexpensive new as you will discover, but bargains can be had on-line and at garage sales or flea-markets. Many of the tools made in our grandfather’s time (or likely your great-grandfather) were of decent quality, as customers were a bit more aware of any potential issues as tool use generally was still a part of their daily lives. Old sets of Craftsman turning tools (from Sears and Roebuck) are widely available at usually reasonable prices. They have a relatively narrow range of available edge profiles, but some can be re-ground to suit a purpose. Oh, you’ll need a grinder…but you’ll need one anyway to maintain your chisels and planes, adjust metal parts, etc.
Now there are articles out there, written by resourceful folks who have used their Drill Press (or even their drill motor) as lathe substitutes. This appears to work at least for smaller articles, and if you don’t mind tying up one of your drilling machines for the task.
Back to shaping; once the stock has been roughly sawed to shape, Planes, the Lathe, Wood Rasps, Cabinet Rasps and Files are used to remove the surface irregularities and refine the linear elements of the form. These tools are followed by Scrapers which remove the fine serrations left by the file and prepare it for finishing is sanding. These two will be covered in a separate post.
I use this for gross shaping and do that rarely; usually I am going from a saw directly to a rasp. This tool excels in green wood and I am almost always using dried stock. If my wood is soft enough and I need to remove a mass quickly in a way that would be difficult to accomplish with a saw, I will reach for a drawknife. These were commonly available at reasonable prices used, so finding one should not be difficult. If you live in an area where you may repair a lot of windsor chairs or other “green” woodwork you would certainly want at least one of these. Or course it is a 12-inch wide sharp blade being pulled toward your body*, so having your work well secured and being in complete control is necessary. These tools work best in concert with a shaving-horse; the author and teacher Drew Langsner** has produced much content on this subject.
Files and Rasps
The work that you do with these tools is sculpture, your are creating “form”. It may not seem very glamorous at first. For example, if you are going to make a nice 18th century chair with a cabriole leg and a ball and claw foot, it is easy to make the ball and claw the focus of your attention. Of the whole composition, it will take the most effort and require more investment in tools and looks very nice if done well. But carve an excellent ball and claw onto a rushed cabriole leg and the composition suffers. Creating smooth lines moving at just the right frequency and flow for the style of leg you are after is a crucial undertaking demanding every bit of mental investment that other aspects of the chair will. The rasp is a great tool of control and sometimes reminds me of a conductors baton.
The rasps we are discussing here are about a foot long, hardened steel shaft that has one flat and one convex or “half-round” face; usually over an inch wide and varying in thickness. Wood Rasps are used to rapidly and uniformly take off stock; perhaps marks from sawing, or following the faceted work of a Draw-Knife. I struggled with a way to describe the cutting action of a rasp. The flat rasp has many small “rasp cut” teeth that appear as little dents on the surface that, for lack of a better description, scratch away the wood. The more teeth a rasp has, the finer the pattern of scratches that result. Not all rasps are created equal though. The commonly available thick Wood Rasp is a bit clunky, and has uniformly distributed and usually quite aggressive teeth, which can leave a distinctly grooved pattern on the surface of the wood. A Nicholson #49 Cabinet Rasp has teeth distributed in an irregular pattern, and the resulting surface is not as aggressively furrowed. The thin body of the cabinet rasp tapers nicely along its length, allowing you to approach a variety curvatures on your work. Rasps come in much smaller versions as well; quite handy when shaping difficult wood grain in carvings. You can run across old ones that have been kept in excellent condition but here buying new is preferable to used, at least until you may develop a real familiarity with the nature of the cutting action you need; many used rasps and files have been very badly treated and are quite dull.
The rougher surface left by rasp work is followed up by the File. Very similar in form to the rasp, file “teeth” are cut differently; instead of the individual teeth of the rasp cut, files have a series of long shearing blades in close repetitive sequence along the length of the bar, looking something like a zig-zag pattern when viewed from the side. These orientations of the “blades” milled into the file’s surface may be manipulated to produce finer or coarser cutting tools. As with the rasp, purchasing new files is preferable to used.
Rasps and files have a long tapering tang at the top of the bar which is usually inserted into a wooden handle for convenient use. Rasps and files are generally sold without handles, though there are some plastic handled versions available. Wooden handles are relatively cheap and usually available right next to the files. Buy or turn them on your lathe, but use them. There are some workers for whom the handle is a fussy formality to be dispensed with. Never mind the the long, tapering steel tang is keen enough on some tools that it could pierce or gash their hand during use, these thrifty and daring souls (who strangely maintain handles on their chisels and saws) enthusiastically promote Pye’s “Workmanship of Risk”.
Files and Rasps are not sharpened as other cutting tools you will buy; they are very hard steel prepared for immediate use. Your job is to keep them in as good a condition as you can to maintain their performance; this means not letting them come into contact with each other on the bench or in storage where they could be easily chipped or dulled from rubbing against one another. This is how they are often found in used condition; heaped into chests or coffee cans all askew and quite chummy. The cutting edges of any other tools that accidentally come into contact with a file or rasp will certainly be damaged. Another task is keeping them free of accumulated wood debris with a file-card; a paddle like brush with short, stiff steel bristles vigorously applied during and after use.
This tool can step in at almost any point of the shaping process depending upon its size and how it is set to cut; it is quite versatile. I have several from coarse to fine in terms of stock removal and though not used often, I would not be without them. And truthfully, if properly tuned they are a joy to use; I have to make sure that I don’t cut too much wood off getting carried away by my enthusiasm. Mine are the old wood style that I consider true “shaves” in that the blade suspended in a one-piece wooden body, lies very close down to the wood surface. Early on I had a few cast-iron spokeshaves that had irons mounted at angles like planes as well as cap irons; even though I made efforts to tune them, they never worked as well as the wooden models. Now, a number of new metal models have come on the market recently that I have no experience with, so you may wish to explore those as options. Try to find an old but serviceable wood version at an antique shop or flea market first; tune it up and put it to work so you have something (inexpensive) to compare to.
*R. Underhill is the acknowledged Wit regarding potential drawknife calamity.
**Green Woodworking ($35.00) and The Chairmaker’s Workshop ($50.00). S&H for U.S. orders is $5.00 for 1 book, $7.50 for both. Payment by personal check. Order by postal mail addressed to: Drew Langsner, 775 Black Pine Ridge Rd., Marshall, NC 28753
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