Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Skraper Winner

Thanks to all who left feedback about the cast iron vs. chrome discussion. As promised, we selected a random winner of one of our Skrapers.

The winner is Jim Woodward. Jim, please shoot us an email with your address and we'll ship out your Skraper.

We're still debating about whether or not to make the switch to unplated. But if and when we do, we'll give a head's up here.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Talking Bench Dogs

We get a lot of emails asking about bench dogs. They usually go something like this, "I'm building my bench using your hardware and am trying to decide between square or round dogs, can you help?" So here's my take on bench dogs.

I've built numerous benches using everything from particleboard (everybody's a beginner at some point!) to MDF and hard maple. And all of those benches had a different type of bench dog. But now all of my benches feature shop-made wooden square-section dogs with a wood spring, stepped shaft, and leather face. Here's why.
  • I can make a batch of dogs for every hole in my bench in about 2 hours, and I'll have enough dogs for the rest of the bench's life, even if I loose or ruin a few. And the total cost is just a few dollars, since most of the wood can be had from scrap.
  • The step in the shaft makes a flawless, effortless depth stop. I can push the dog down and be guaranteed every time that I won't push it through the bench to have it fall completely through. It requires no thought, no tedious adjustment to make sure the dog is below the surface of the bench.
  • The wooden spring holds evenly throughout the vertical travel of the dog, yet allows the dog to slide up and down easily due to the wide bearing surface against the inside of the hole.
  • The suede leather face provides a fantastic grip against the workpiece, allowing lower clamping forces and thus less chance for bowing or damaging the workpiece.
  • Square dogs can be raised high above the bench surface for more versatile workholding.
  • Wooden dogs have no exposed metal to bang into plane bodies or cutting edges.
  • Square dogs are always parallel to each other. 99% of my between-dog clamping has always been with parallel-ended workpieces.

And here's why I don't like all the other versions of dogs that I've tried.

  • Round dogs rotate in the hole. In my experience, 99% of furniture and cabinetwork is held between parallel-ended boards. I can't remember the last time I needed a dog to rotate a few degrees to hold something that was just a tad off parallel. Anything beyond a few degrees and the clamping pressure would pop the workpiece out anyway.
  • Round dogs require a less-than-ideal device to hold them in position. This device, whether its a wire spring or a bullet catch/spring plunger concentrates the force in one small area. I found that the wire spring can wear a groove in its hole (its mounted on the side, so it bears against edge grain), and the bullet catch shares the same problem. The bullet catch also requires a very smoothly drilled or milled hole to work nicely. If the hole is rough on the inside the bullet catch with cause the dog to move in jerky movements, and over time can cease to function entirely with wear. The threaded spring plungers do have some adjustability, but they are pricey. The commonly available bullet catches are cheap, but have zero adjustability. The bullet catch also has to be positioned precisely to get the most travel possible. It's also too easy to push the round dog past the bullet catch only to have the entire dog fall through the top and inevitably roll under some inaccessible place.
  • Square dogs with bullet catches solve a couple of these problems, but the issues with the bullet catch remain.
  • Commercial round dogs are made of metal, like brass or aluminum. When I built my first real bench after high school I outfitted it with round brass dogs. One day, while planing a thin board, I ran out of wood and my next stroke clipped the top of the dog. If I had been using a wood dog, I may have chipped out the end grain at the top of the dog instead of chipping both my plane body and iron. I have nicer tools nowadays, so there's no way I'll willingly place a metal barricade in the path of a finely tuned smoothing plane again.
  • Commercial square dogs made of metal. I never understood these. They have all the advantages of my favorite dogs, but are not only made of metal, they are steel. Why risk it? Nobody needs the shearing strength of a steel dog for woodworking. If you're breaking an ash dog you're doing something wrong.
  • Routing square dogs during a bench build allows you to cant the holes so they slant towards the end vise. This aids in holding workpieces to the bench top. This is difficult with round holes. Drilling a bunch of round holes in a thick bench takes longer than you might think. I can make a jig for routing square holes and have them routed in just a few minutes more than drilling round holes.
Having said all that, I can think of one situation where round dog holes shine: retrofitting an end vise to an existing bench without dogs. It's impossible to get square dogs into a bench top in this situation, unless you laminate a dog hole strip to the front of the bench.

Here's the drawing of the bench dog from our Split-Top Roubo Plans.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cast Iron Cast Your Vote

When we announced the new version of the Benchcrafted Tail Vise (the V.2) we reported some quality issues with some hand wheels we were using. This unfortunately caused some delays, which we are now virtually caught up from.

In the midst of this small fiasco we started considering offering different finishes on the hand wheels, not just chrome. So a production problem ended up blossoming into a brainstorming session. Can't complain about that.

First we tried a textured powder coat, and although we liked the more subdued look, after a few weeks subtle gave way to gaudy and we decided it just didn't work. Chrome might be flashy, but it has a tendency to reflect its surroundings, which can help it to look more subdued that you might think.

We also tried a manganese phosphate coating (it's what they use to blacken the parts of an M-16), but this turned out to be quite delicate. It scuffed and scratched too easily. It was also a little too "stealth fighter" for us. The black "forged iron" look was just not working.

During a recent visit to Czech Edge Hand Tool, we noticed a few vintage machines with unplated cast iron hand wheels. A half-century of handling had given the hand wheels a wonderful warm patina that not only felt great, but also looked wonderful. The texture was silky smooth, and the look was very traditional. We thought we might have discovered the perfect new finish we were dreaming about.

In the meantime we discovered a small midwestern firm that specializes in casting iron handwheels. And the quality is excellent. So we made up a Tail Vise with the wheel to see how it would look. We were quite pleased. Take a look at the first picture above. That's the raw cast iron wheel on the left, with a stock chrome-plated wheel on the right.

So here's the tease. We may or may not offer vises with the raw cast iron wheels. This depends on the feedback we get from you. The downside of the unplated cast iron is obvious. Rust. But with regular use, and maintenance, there should be no problem with rust (we even have a good lead on a finish that should make the raw iron virtually rust free). Most shops are filled with raw cast iron and regular maintenance is common practice. After all, the rest of our vises are untreated steel, and regular maintenance on those parts is a given. So, if you think that the trade-off you get with the more attractive looks of the iron wheel is worth the maintenance-free aspect of the chrome-plated wheel, let us know by commenting below (and feel free to elaborate). Your input is highly valued. So much so that among all those who participate, we'll draw one at random and send them a free Benchcrafted Skraper.

Cast your vote: Raw cast iron, or chrome-plated.