Sunday, December 31, 2017
Friday, December 29, 2017
I notice that this is the 999th post in the history of this blog. Funny how things add up after a while.
I hope readers out there had a relaxing holiday break of some sort.
I haven’t been in my shop much of late, what with the time of year, having had a cold, completing the renewal of my Construction Supervisor License by way of a 12-hour online course, plus working on a couple of different drawings besides the cabinet, and, last but far from least, I haven’t been there simply because of the unpleasantness inherent to working in an unheated shop.
I did put in a little time there yesterday, receiving a second shipment of the Florida Mahogany:
It’s around 180 board feet, all 6/4 and 5/4 save for one piece. A couple of these boards will be used in this cabinet project, while the rest will go into inventory.
Another piece of project stock arrived as well, namely this 12"x12" square of 0.25" thick nickel silver plate:
Nickel silver, aka German Silver, is actually an alloy of copper and has no silver present. I’m going to use this piece, larger than I needed but the smallest piece I could buy from the one supplier that carried plate this thick, to fabricate the door hinges for the cabinet. I am fabricating the hinges because I am unable to find something commercially available that does exactly what I want.
This week, and the next, is shaping up to have temperatures below freezing, and that is certainly not tempting me into going to the shop for any length of time. I’ve become averse to the prospect, and that is largely due to my past experience spending extended periods in the shop when it is so cold, namely the winter of 2015 when we had the infamous Polar Vortex phenomenon. One day during the MFA gate project I was turning over one of the main posts and felt something give in the fingers of my right hand. That injury proved a persistent one, and I was still feeling it from time to time, even in warm weather, some 9 months later.
Then last year, while it was a fairly mild winter, I managed to do a similar number on my left hand, not as bad as what I had done prior to my right, but bad enough that it lingered for months. When I strained my left hand, I had no idea what exactly caused it, all I know is that it started to hurt, felt decidedly weak, and took a long time to get better. I’m getting a clear idea now that working with my hands in cold temperatures is not something I should do if I can help it. I find that after just half an hour in a cold shop that my hands start to feel achy. I wish I had a warm space in which to work at this time of year.
In the shop I can wear gloves for some activities, put hot gel pockets in my clothes, but I can’t wear gloves while operating machinery and generally need to have bare hands on the wood and the hand tools for a lot of tasks. So I end up warming my hands frequently, either with warm water at the sink or by putting them in front of the infra-red heater. I’ve been thinking an electrically heated jacket might be a plan -or maybe a trip to the Bahamas….
Speaking of electric heaters, I put my infrared one on for the first time while bringing the mahogany into the shop, and as I have not been in the habit of using it, I also am not in the habit of turning it off either. I woke up at 5:00 am the following morning and realized that I had left the heater on at the shop for hours and hours. While it is not a fire hazard, it is a gobbler of electrical current, so I was on the road at 6:00 am to the shop, a 30-minute drive, to turn the heater off and not run the electrical bill up anymore than necessary. Then back home again - the morning is to be spent with my young son before I take him to daycare mid-day.
Because of the lack of winter heat and the distance away from my desk where I do design work, I’m think of ways to change my shop situation, and some plans are underway. The may well be something more concrete in the next 3 months, we’ll see….
Speaking of design, one thing I am wishing to do on this project is complete the drawing to every last peg mortise and detail, and am putting together a pile of take-offs (sketches), before doing anything with the wood beyond basic rough dimensioning.
Why the new approach? In the (distant) past I’ve done work from a pencil sketch, and as issues came up in the build I found solutions to those things that come up which the single sketch did not reveal - a lot of folks work this way. The door hingeing on a walnut vanity I built in 2005 or so springs to mind. A solution was found, but were I to design again I would have avoided making doors with curved hinge stiles in curved openings. Every project seems to have some minor aspect which becomes a challenge to deal with once it springs up.
With more recent project work, I draw the project using CAD, which I find to be most advantageous for the most part.
I’ve found though that the littlest overlooked detail - the one thing you assumed was straightforward and you didn’t need to wring out every detail in the drawing - that is the thing that can come back to bite you in the ass if you haven’t fully considered it. The fitting or action of a piece of hardware, or a decision to add a chamfer to an edge can have all kinds of unexpected associations that sometimes lead to compromises in the finished piece that would have preferably been avoiding if only you had stayed with the design aspect just a slight bit longer.
Basically, I am trying to ‘see’ everything in the route ahead before I start driving it (fabricate). See all those boulders in the river and moves from one to the next all the way to the other side before we start hopping across. It requires being patient when you are otherwise jonesing to cut something up and get it moved along. I’m sure I will fall short of doing this perfectly, but the effort does count perhaps.
So far, just staying with the drawings further than I typically would previously, resolving details to a finer granulation, has lead to a cascade of revisions to nearly every part dimension. The cabinet looks identical. Just little changes for the most part, 1/16" plus or minus, here and there, but it can add up. Some of this process has come about because my forays into resawing the mahogany for panels lead me to use the 'plane it down’ method to obtain many of them, and for the ones I did re-saw, the construction for many of the panels now will be with 2-piece panels, not 1-piece. The necessitates changes.
I have also revised the drawer construction detailing slightly:
The floor, sides and rear wall are of Honduran Mahogany, while the drawer fronts will likely be shedua, as illustrated. The changes are in the joinery at the front of the box, and in the form of the side pieces.
These are now the third iteration of my drawer design (begun on the 'Square Deal’ side table, then taken in a slightly different direction on the 'Ming-Inspired Cabinet’). This time, the drawer sides and runners will be formed as one, machined from one piece of material, instead of taking two pieces and joining them with a sliding hammerhead connection:
This 1-piece 'I-beam’ construction is a little bit stronger than what I was doing previously, and allows the drawer sides to sit further outboard, which in turn modestly increases the interior volume of the drawer. By machining the drawer side pieces and their runners out of solid rather than joining two pieces for each, I can radius the transitions, which again increases robustness and makes the drawer interior a little easier to clean. The contact between the side of the drawer and the side of the opening is still minimal, and the wide running surface for extended durability remains.
In place of the usual view of dovetails one comes across, the is the exposed drawer corner on this cabinet:
I think that looks sufficiently pleasing and interesting - I hope you’ll agree it’s not too 'busy’ at all - and definitely conveys that joinery is being used to put stuff together, for those who might notice or care about such things. The drawer sides being further outboard and 1-piece also opened up the possibility to do a half-blind dovetailed connections to the drawer front, but I prefer the wedged through tenons all the same.
I should be back to material cut out work on this cabinet sometime in the first week of January. In the meantime I think I’ll post again on design aspects for this piece. Now you know what’s coming, you know what to avoid I guess. :^)
Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. All the best for 2018 if I haven’t posted before the 1st of January.
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Wednesday, December 13, 2017
I started work on a video showing the assembly of the cabinet soon after the second cabinet was done. I knew I was in for a slog, as I am inexperienced with video work in general, and the number of clips I had to string together meant this would be the longest video I have made yet. I also wanted to add in a bit of narration, along with background music, so it was a struggle in certain respects.
I stopped and started the video editing several times, due to discouragement. In fact, a month could pass between the simple task sitting down to work on it. In the end, I found renewed energy and got it done, and learned a lot on the process. However I am well aware it is hardly what you might call a slick production. I’m aways off off YouTuber ‘Clickspring’, put it that way. There are inconsistencies to the sound levels here and there, and I’m sure another round of edits and adjustments wouldn’t hurt anything. There’s a kind of cheesy Sketchup animation that I debated removing but left in at the end. Several portions of the assembly were not even filmed - like the bonnet assembly - because I forgot to film, or forgot to bring the camera, or the camera battery ran low, etc., so there are some gaps. But, people have been wondering and asking if they’d ever see this video, so I really felt it was better to put it out there and chalk it up to a part of the learning curve. In the end, it came out at about 30 minutes in length.
I don’t - or haven’t so far - vlogged in a purposeful manner, i.e., I don’t have a film studio, or 'set’, or the best lighting and sound equipment, not have I created a back drop scene to present a consistent view, with everything pristinely cleaned, including your truly. Not that those aren’t good ideas. I don’t wear a consistent clothing scheme, there’s definitely no wardrobe attendant, and thus the video I have made is hardly what one would call an innovative or clever work of branding.
It was informative to watch myself on video though and think about how I might improve for next time, both in terms of what I am actually doing on film, how it is filmed, and how it is described. I aim to improve those things as I can for next time. And there will be a next time for sure.
Anyway, you’ve been warned. Here’s the video showing most of the steps in the final assembly of the cabinet. Hope you enjoy - if you manage to get through, let me know your impressions:
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Friday, December 8, 2017
Most Japanese houses, though the rooms generally are smaller than in most parts of the West, have really large closets in the sleeping rooms. These closets are built to accommodate futon sets which, after having been aired out, are folded up for storage, allowing the room to be used for other purposes until it is time to turn in.
Some apartments however do not have these large closets, and neither do western homes generally. So, in Japan one can obtain a storage box for futon/bedding sets. Here’s one example:
The above example is pressboard and veneer by all appearances, and interesting that it features bifold louvered doors. The sizing, for those that do not immediately apprehend metric dimensions, are about 47.25" wide and tall, and 29.5" deep.
When I got to thinking about a cabinet designed to hold beddings, the first thought was a blanket chest, more particularly the earliest form of Japanese tansu, which is a storage trunk, or nagamochi:
There are wheeled variants of this form, the precursor to the ornate wheeled chest known as kuruma dansu. The wheels were means to be used in cases of emergency - fire conflagrations - whereby the owner’s possessions could be wheeled out of the house and down the street. Sounds interesting, however, when these type of cabinets became commonplace they actually caused a sort of furniture traffic jam in the streets when fires happened, and were in fact later banned in Tokyo.
And wheels on a chest are fine if the piece is meant to be moved frequently about a house, but that didn’t describe the brief from the client in this case.
Thinking more about the louvered doors, and how ventilation was a key feature for a cabinet like this, reminded me of certain Chinese cabinets in which the fronts and sides are largely, or entirely, composed of latticework panels, like this example:
Another one, out of a book of mine, appears distorted when it is not in reality:
I really like the above cabinet, but it was not to the client’s taste. Although the client spends a fair amount of time in Japan annually, he did not want the piece to look too “nippon ichiban” if you catch my drift.
With that in mind, I set to work on a design. The necessary dimensions were pretty well set from the outset, as it was to hold two sets of beddings like the box seen in the first picture above. That said, the client wanted me to keep the height down as much as possible. Unlike the long struggle I had with the design for the client’s sideboard this design came fairly quickly, and has only been revised in minor ways a couple of times since. It was a real comfort to come to a place of satisfaction with the design so early on.
This, then, is what I am building:
The cabinet’s final dimensions come out at 50" tall, about 48" wide, and 30" deep.
A view with the doors removed shows the interior, featuring a pair of drawers:
I thought the drawers were a useful addition, and would allow for the storage of sheets, alarm clock, etc.. I’ve drawn them with Macassar ebony fronts, however that remains provisional.
The end walls will be composed of hexagonal latticework, done with a trick joint so the kumiko appear fully woven, and an added bonus to the latticework is that, like a Town Lattice truss bridge, it provides terrific shear load resistance though the redundance of many interconnected bracing elements, which will keep the cabinet box from twisting or deforming over time:
At the moment there is a panel of Honduran Mahogany in the middle, and this is but one option. I may use another wood, and I am toying with the idea of orienting the panel’s grain, if it is a VG piece, vertically. I really like the ‘see-through’ aspect of having lattice at each end of the cabinet, and it also makes the interior bright and airy when the doors are opened.
Next, the back of the cabinet with its two-panel frame assembly with dovetailed stiffening battens, which will attach to the carcase via clips and be demountable, as is now a standard feature on my cabinets:
Detail of corner:
I’m having a little fun with the 3-way connection at the corners of the cabinet.
The doors on this cabinet will swing 270˚ open, thanks to some angled knife hinges which I will be fabricating. The door handles shown are to be replaced by pull knobs. The draw handles will likely be of similar form to those seen in his sideboard.
There we have it -how do you like it?
Got some time in at the shop today and, somewhat regrettably, the client’s last slab remnant was sliced up to yield the last of the required panels. I’m glad to have obtained the panels, most of which are 100% quartersawn, however it would have been nice if I could have had a more efficient conversion of the original slabs into panels.
I’m waiting on a delivery of some more Cuban (Floridian) Mahogany, which should be in my shop by the middle of next week.
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Thursday, December 7, 2017
I was planning to start talking about the design of the cabinet, however there’s another issue occupying my attention at present. Designing and building is an interesting process, and you can never predict everything, despite making all efforts to do so, when it comes to solid wood. This is especially true when you are buying wood at a distance and relying upon photos and descriptions of others.
When I designed the cabinet which forms the focus of this build, I drew it with a frame and panel system, and did so employing quite wide panels. Wide panels, after all, offer a clean and uncluttered look, and typically make for stronger construction as compared to using divided frames with multiple panels.
Initially, my thought was to use curly shedua for the panels and mahogany for the frame, however it proves impossible to obtain shedua wide enough, and I avoid glue ups generally, so that plan hit a snag. Shedua may yet feature in this build however.
Then I found some exceptionally wide 5/4 (1.25" / 31.75mm) slabs of Honduran Mahogany, at a nearly unheard-of 48" (1219mm) width. These appeared to provide all my panel requirements, and were thick enough that the prospect of re-sawing the material became within the realm of consideration. Since the alternative to re-sawing is to plane the material down, thus putting more than half of the stock up the chip collection system, I was keen to see if I could obtain as much as possible of what I wanted by re-sawing.
As mentioned in the previous post, the risk to re-sawing is that material un-evenness and movement after cutting may mean that you cut a precious board in half along it’s thickness only to end up with nothing usable.
I realized that, for certain panels on this cabinet, namely the top panel, a board with a small centered band of flatsawn ‘cathedral’ in the middle would be the most ideal aesthetically, given the options. The required top panel was too wide for it to come from a quartersawn cut off of a 48" slab . That cut would, to have enough width, include a portion of flatsawn at one edge, and that pattern of figure would look visually unbalanced. The alternative to that approach was to cut off a chunk of 48" wide material to the required length and then slice off 10" from each edge, thereby leaving the middle portion with centered middle cathedral of flat grain. That could then be planed down to produce the panel.
Since every slab of wood has certain potentials, which diminish with every cut made, I figured it made more sense to obtain a narrower board of equivalent board footage to the slab remnant and use it instead of the 48" wide slab remnant.
I looked first to a local hardwood yard that has been holding onto a pile of about 2000 board feet of Honduras Mahogany, all 4/4 (25.4mm) thick, and in various wider widths. They’ve had this stuff for at least 20 years, and it hasn’t sold to any significant extent because they have kept the price on the high side, unchanged at $25/bd.ft for the last 10 years now. They know their business best I guess, but the last half dozen times I have popped by that yard in the past year or three I have been the only (prospective) customer, so I’m not so sure their business strategy is working all that well. I would have thought the idea of a wood yard was to bring wood in and then sell it, not warehouse it. Wood that sits in stock for extended periods is just going to cost them money, for the most part.
Anyway, they happened to have 4 boards in their pile, boards which were 29~30" wide, and being 4/4, the only recourse with that stock would be to plane it down to obtain panels, which was easier to consider since it involved significantly less waste than doing so with 5/4 slabs.
They got the forklift out and we broke the pile of boards apart, mouse turds and mouse nest building material flying everywhere (the wood pile has been sitting undisturbed for quite a while it would appear), until I could get a look at the 4 boards. Unfortunately, not one of them was suitable. They all had too much flatsawn grain, a result of being through-and-through cut pieces a few slices too far up from the center of the tree. I was looking for a board which was one of those slices just above the heart center, which would keep flat grain to a minimum, and quartersawn grain to a maximum. I had hoped that yard would be the convenient answer to my problem, but it was not.
Then I looked over Irion Lumber’s website again, and found some suitable material, with the aid of a bit of phone consultation with the salesperson there.
I decided to buy two more slabs from Irion, one being the last of the 48" slabs they had on hand, and the other a 36" wide slab which, from the photos, has a minimum of flatsawn and a maximum of quartersawn grain. My thought with the 48" wide, 10’ long piece was purely, “ain’t gonna see that again so buy it now and hold on to it”, while with the 36" wide piece I saw it as a perfect swap-in for the 48" x 88" remnant I had from one of the client’s slabs, in fact it was a near-perfect swap on a board foot basis. The 36" wide piece was 14’ (4.2m) long, and in order to save on trucking costs, I had them lop off a 4’ length from it, to keep the remnant board the same 10’ length as the 48" wide one.
This wood made it, via Fedex Freight, from PA to my shop in under 24 hours, somewhat astonishingly. When I got a closer look at the 36" wide board I found it was not quite what I expected. I had been thinking that, as it was a slice of a 36~38" diameter tree trunk, it would have the center of the flatsawn grain portion more or less in the middle of the width. Instead, it was at the ¾ mark, 27" in from one edge, 9" from the other. Possibly this board came from the bottom of the trunk where the buttressing is located.
So…my idea to obtain a piece for the cabinet top which had the centered cathedral was not to be, at least in terms of getting it from the newly-acquired 36" wide material.
But…the configuration of grain did offer an exceptionally wide band of quartersawn material. I thought I could look to make use of that feature.
I felt that for one of the interior panels, the cabinet floor or the middle shelf, I could be fine with using 2-piece panels. These could be edge joined in various ways, with glue or without. They don’t have a significant structural function, they just divide or enclose space and are a surface for beddings to sit upon.
I took the 4’ long, 36" wide piece and cut out an 18" wide chunk of the quartersawn portion. I jointed one face and edge, then ran the stock though the planer to clean off 95% of the opposing face. From there, I could examine the run of the grain more carefully. After lining out the board to obtain the best grain alignment, and trimming with a saw, then re-jointing an edge, I obtained a 15.5" (393mm) chunk, this being close to the tallest thing I could stuff through my Hitachi re-saw. It was a hair under 1.25" thick, and I gauged off a pair of lines 9/16" (14.2mm) in from each face along the edge, leaving a space for the saw kerf.
The boards did not move too much in the cut, and I was happy with the results at this stage:
The pieces are weighted as a precaution, not because they are warped or bowed.
As it turned out, the saw-cut I took was a hair fatter on one side than the other, and after dressing off the surfaces of both pieces in the planer, I obtained just two 3/8" (9.5mm) panels - on one piece, I was lucky to do so, with the final pass to dimension taking off the last bit of rough sawn face. These will be fine at this thickness for the middle shelf of the cabinet, sitting in a frame about twice as thick as the panel.
However, I realized that the likelihood of obtaining two ½" panels from this process was looking decidedly unlikely, especially when factoring wider boards, where I am wanting to obtain single-piece panels (like for the front doors, rear panels, and the top of the cabinet). And with wider material, I was faced with a greater likelihood that flattening out from any irregularities in the wood surface to begin with, and the potential effects of wood movement after the cut, were decreasing the chances I could get the material out from re-sawing that I wanted.
And even more to the point here was that wider boards meant no use of my Hitachi re-saw, which has 5 horsepower and stellite teeth giving just a slim 1.6mm kerf - the other saw options, either powered or manual, would likely associate to a wider kerf and therefore less chance of obtaining the results I was after.
Speaking of re-saw options, after my last post a reader wrote me from Denmark and, in a long detailed message, described his experiences with both French frame saws and old Japanese mae-biki oga type saws, the 'Whaleback’ form of single-man rip saw, and advocated strongly for me to use the maebiki oga. He was so confident that it was the best choice, and that the French saw was a lousy choice for the application, that he offered to send me one of his saws if I paid the shipping, on a 'give it a try and see how you like it basis’. Incredibly kind! It’s on it’s way now, and I should have it in hand in the next day or two. I cancelled my order for the French frame saw blade and got my money back no problem.
However, to continue, after my experience with re-sawing that first plank, I was thinking I needed to look at plan 'b’. However, the prospect of planing the stock down still caused me to hesitate. Was there another way?
Maslow talked about a Hierarchy of Needs. perhaps rather less formalized, I have my own, as applies to my work in wood, and here are a few worth mention, in no particular order:
- that I use wood wisely, both in how I select it, process and in how the design is to maximize lifespan
- that I design so as to limit wood movement via care in selecting material for purchase, and to cut, and in orienting grain in the piece
- that I employ joinery primarily, with reluctant recourse to fasteners and/or glue
- that I design to maximize the strengths of solid wood
- that I use the tools at hand preferably over taking pieces to other shops to have tasks done
- I take advantage of the fact that the 10’ long 36" wide board has such a severely offset flat grain portion, and chop out a pair of 46" long pieces to obtain the two door panels, purely from the wide portions of quartersawn available on that stick. To me, the benefits of the quartersawn wood outweigh the aesthetic of having the front doors display a tree trunk across the two panels. These two door panels will be planed down from full thickness.
- The 48" wide slabs I have which are still full length, at 10’ (personal stock) and 11’ (the client’s piece) respectively, were not sawn by the most sophisticated equipment originally and if one tried to obtain a single piece, like a conference table, from the full length, then one would remove a huge amount of stock and be left with something like a 5/8" thick top or worse, and that is if there were no movement after stock removal, which is unlikely. A wide top that thin would perhaps be a bit unstable too. These slabs therefore are not ideally suited to becoming giant tables or desks, and in order to make the best use of them I think they need to be cross-cut, initially into a 1/3~2/3 format. This will provide, with the 1/3 sections, material for the remaining panels, and leave, with the 2/3 sections, a comparatively less bowed/kinked plank, which, if it were to become a large table or desk, would be a thicker piece after dressing than if the piece were not crosscut.
- I will accept the use of 2-piece construction for the remaining panels, by cutting slab remnants so as to obtain pieces that are entirely quartersawn. If you consider the choice between taking a 48" wide slab and cutting the 10" flanks of quartersawn off, and then planing down the middle portion, which is about 50% flatsawn, to obtain a one-piece cabinet top panel, versus cutting 14" bands of rift~quartersawn off both sides, and then re-sawing those into a pair of panels each, and accepting the 2-piece construction, I have to go with the latter option. It will move less and not be prone to developing splits over time as flatsawn panels can.
- In step (3) I am resawing slabs to obtain pairs of panels, and one set of these is to be ½" thick, and I can’t get two of those from one blank. However, I could re-saw each of the two blanks slightly off the centerline, so as to be able to produce one ½" board, and one 3/8" board, from each slab. Then I simply pair the ½" pieces together and the 3/8" pieces together afterwards. Maximizes the use of these two pieces of quartersawn slab.
- The two 46" long half-slab sections already trimmed from one of the slabs (see the previous post) were intended to become the front and rear door panels via re-sawing. One of those pieces however has a few bug holes and these holes go right through the plank, visible on front and back faces. I cannot use these for the front panels (and have a better option anyway in (1) above), however they could be employed for the back panels, and there is an option to either plane them down, manually re-saw, or trim to maximize the quartersawn portions, and then re-saw those to make a pair of 2-piece back panels. I’ll decide once I get into them further.
The above approach to cutting the various panels will hopefully leave the greatest amount of full width slab stock untouched, give me the nice 1-piece doors I wanted, and then 2-piece panels elsewhere, all quartersawn. I could choose a variety of ways of connecting the two piece panels together, including glue if desired.
It’s a great saw that makes a very thin kerf.
Here’s the 36" slab undergoing the first cross-cut:
After cross-cutting with a 96T blade, I swapped in a 24T blade for the rips:
After snapping a line, I let 'er rip:
That was followed by more cross-cutting to produce the two front door panel blanks:
I then dressed the blanks down on the planer to see what I had with clean faces to look at, and this is the result:
As you can see, the right hand board has a curious bit of grain, which looks slightly like a bark inclusion but it isn’t, just a sort of darker oxidized piece of folded/distorted grain:
I think I am fine with the panels not looking perfectly identical or having perfect runs of grain- this is a natural material after all, and I think that the grain 'curiosity’ adds something nice.
Then I took the two previously-sectioned slabs, f
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Tuesday, December 5, 2017
A few years ago - I’m shocked to find it was 2013 - I wrote a post on Wera Screwdrivers, sharing my high regard for their many products after many years of experience. I have been wanting to write a follow-up post on the same theme, this time in regards to Knipex, a German maker of fine quality pliers and wrenches, since then. However I have held off, wanting to have more time with their products before making any sort of review - and now is the time, ready or not.
Carpenters and woodworkers are not generally going to make daily use of a sliding jaw plier, but they are an essential tool in the kit, especially for field work where you never know what sort of situations you might have to deal with. And for those whose work with hands extends beyond wood to other media, and other contexts, sliding jaw pliers, in multiple sizes, pretty much are mandatory in the tool box. I work on my car sometimes, do irrigation work for my community, repair small engine on mowers and chippers occasionally, and keep my bicycle in tune - Knipex tools play a role in all those activities.
Before I got into Knipex tools, I’ll mention that I owned Channellock pliers of various configurations - this is an American brand familiar to most readers here I would think. Channellock are okay, will get the job done and all that, however, like a lot of American manufacturers that have been around for many years, their products do not seem especially innovative. They seem decent quality and of sturdy construction, but well-designed they are not, in my opinion. They’ve been making the same stuff for years, and maybe the company, and many of their customers, would agree with the sentiment “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
That’s never been my mantra, as I’m much more interested in continuous improvement and innovation where possible. And if there is a maker who exemplifies that approach, it is Knipex. I’d rather support companies that push the boundaries and strive to improve their products year after year, than those that rest on their laurels and just crank out the same old thing.
Knipex was founded in 1882, a few years before Channellock, incidentally, and the initial product focus was on blacksmithing tools like tongs. The company was a forge in other words. It’s a family-run business, currently managed by the fourth generation of the Putsch family. They make about 100 types of pliers with a total of 900 variants in terms of length, shape and finish.
I bought my first pair of Knipex pliers, a 250mm (10") pair of Knipex cobra pliers to be exact, after becoming thoroughly irritated with my Channellocks. Allow me to explain….
Picture the following scenario: you’re laying on your side in a tight crawlspace trying to get the Channellock slip-jaw pliers onto a plumbing fitting. You only have room for one hand on the tool, and as you try to maneuver into the tight space, your fingers slip off the tool’s lower handle. By design, the handle swings wide open, and in order to get your fingers back on it you have to squirm back out, get your other hand on the tool and place it back on the operating hand - and, in most cases, you have to reset the jaw opening as well. If this happens more than a time or two while you are in a physically awkward position, extreme annoyance can definitely creep in, I have found.
Or this scenario: you’re in a clear open space and trying to loosen a seized fitting which doesn’t offer a long grip surface. You adjust the Channellocks to the correct opening size and slip it over the fitting. You bear down to break it loose and it won’t budge, so you bear down a bit harder yet and suddenly the tool slips. The handles, by design, can come completely together, thus pinching a portion of your palm violently. This hurts in a special kind of way and does not tend to engender warm feelings towards the tool. Hands up: who likes a blood blister?
On top of this, there’s the design: the Channellock slip-jaw pliers carry what might be called excess weight - specifically, the jaw tips are on the fat side and can’t be maneuvering into tighter spaces. Further, the mechanism for locking the jaws offers a limited range of positions and it seems as often as not that you have the tool on a fitting such that the handles are too wide apart to quite get a good grip, or too close together, in which case the handles are hard to grip properly as well.
The other aspect to the Channellock design which strikes me as a drawback is that to firmly grip an object, you have to squeeze the handles together, and then to tighten or loosen the object, you have to pull or push simultaneously as you grip. So the tool is asking you to do two physical actions at the same time, which I think is inefficient. It’s nicer if you can split those tasks from one another.
After while, I got fed up with Channellocks. I used to have 3 or 4 different pliers from that company, but I have sold or given them all away over the past while. I’ve moved on to something a lot better. I think
One day a few years back, while I was in an electrical supply store, I noticed some Knipex ‘Cobra’ pliers on the display shelf. After examining them a while I made the purchase. They felt good to the hand right away and seemed vey nicely made. They do cost more than Channellocks. You get what you pay for though.
Here’s what I am talking about:
Larger version of these type of sliding jaw pliers are commonly called 'water pump’ pliers, though they are useful for many more things than just water pumps.
In the hand, these pliers initially conveyed high quality and savvy design, and that was well before I became aware of some of the less obvious design advantages they offer. They ooze German quality. The grip was comfortable, slightly yielding and grippy, and was not kinda slippery, like the plastic handle dip used on the Channellocks, which I’ve also found cuts and punctures relatively easily.
Unlike the bare metal of the Channelocks, the Knipex steel is coated to be non-rusting - the term they use is a 'grey atramentized’ finish, the word related to atramentous, meaning 'inky black’. There are many more positional adjustments available for setting the tool to the item you need to grip. The nose of the plier is considerably narrower than Channellock, and thereby it is easier to get the tool into tight spaces.
Cobra pliers come in 7 different sizes, from 125mm (5") to 560mm (22"), which covers just about anything you might entertain working with sliding-jaw pliers.
The design of the Knipex plier hinge is such that if you let go of the lower handle is only drops a couple inches away, and thus you are able to reestablish a purchase with your fingers without recourse to getting your other hand involved. And if the fitting you were working on broke or the tool slipped, the handles cannot come fully together, thus there is no pinching hazard.
The prospect of the tool slipping on a fastener is however somewhat remote with this tool, by design. The jaws have a self-locking aspect, due to the opposed jaw teeth, and once the tool is properly set on the part, there is no need to squeeze tight with your grip while trying to push/pull. The following video from the company shows this feature better than I can explain it:
As if these tools weren’t convenient enough to use, they even have a newer version of the Cobra, which I haven’t tried, which combines the proven, reliable locking of the hinge bolt with an additional push function. This makes it easier to work in very confined and inaccessible areas. The adjustment directly on the workpiece is possible by simply sliding the pliers handle, as this video shows:
I’d like to try this version out, though I am close to having, for my needs, a full set of these pliers now. So it wouldn’t be out of any 'need’ basis, more on a 'want’ basis, if you know what I mean.
Besides having a wide variety of sizes, both a grey finish and a chromed finish, there are also options for the grip itself. You can get an 1000v-insulated version for working on electrical stuff, or a more cushioned handle called 'Multigrip’:
There is a further option in terms of the Multigrip handle, and that is a type which allows for easy tethering. The Multigrip handle makes a lot of sense for those tools which require repeated hand clenches to operate.
They also make a pair of Cobra pliers with an extra slim nose, 'ES’ type, for getting into even tighter spaces. I have a pair of these in my toolbox now too, and find them useful.
Here’s a few links to a few different Knipex Cobra plier models in various sizes and configurations, any one of which would be a good choice for all-around use:
Knipex 10" Cobra Pliers Multigrip
Knipex 10" Cobra Extra Slim Pliers
Knipex 7" Cobra Pliers Plastic Grip
Knipex 12" Cobra Water Quickset Pump Pliers
You might notice that I am linking to KC Tools instead of another retailer, like Amazon for instance. In fact, KC tools also sells on Amazon, but I would rather any directly referred sales originating here earn them extra instead directly of Amazon taking their cut. Amazon would appear to make enough money as it is, and I already link to Amazon books through the 'Worth a Read’ section at the bottom of the blog, so I feel like I’ve supported them already.
I’ve been buying from KC Tool for a few years now - not just Knipex tools, but Wera, Gedore, Wiha, and others that they carry, gradually acquiring a decent set of mechanic hand tools, and have been super happy with the service I have received there. I like that the store specializes in quality German tool brands and nothing else.
Here’s a sampling of my Knipex set:
Three sizes of Cobra pliers (a 4th one lives in my toolbox at home), the middle of which is the Extra Slim jaw model.
In this drawer you can see linesman pliers, high leverage cutters, duckbill pliers, needle-nose pliers of various configurations, cable shears, wire cutters, and carpenter’s pincers:
All of these hand tools are used on a regular basis, some more often than others of course. I’ve been acquiring them over years, often around Christmas time they seem to find their way onto my wish list and family members have been kindly obliging.
And here is my assortment of Knipex snap ring pliers, which are extremely helpful if you find yourself doing much in the way of work on the shafts and bearings of stationary woodworking machines:
The blue-handled tool is a Klein wire stripper. It works fine, though I’ll admit I’m tempted to replace it with a Knipex equivalent. I think I may have an addiction issue here folks, but I do use these tools, not just collect them.
I am so happy with the products I have purchased at KC Tool that I decided to approach them in the past week or so to see if they would be interested in a connection via this blog. You’ll note their banner now placed at the top right of the page - - clicking on that takes you to their main page where you can get an idea of the range of things they sell. Everything they carry is very nice - hard to go wrong with any purchase.
Here’s the deal: if you click through from this blog and purchase tools from KC, they kick me back a little portion of that. I have arranged to have any funds which accrue this way to simply be applied against future purchases of mine at KC. I like tools and my list of 'tools to obtain’ seems to stretch out indefinitely. So, any sales benefit me and it benefits them. And believe me, it will benefit you to own at least a few Knipex or other German-made tools. KC Tool has suggested also that they would be willing to send me products for testing and review, which would be cool. Bring it on!
I hardly ever do tool reviews or promote any particular brand, though there are definitely brand i have come to like very much, so if I can find a way to turn others onto these tools, and it benefits me as well by allowing for the acquisition of more tools, I can can’t see the harm in it. If this proves worthwhile, I would love to remove the Google Adsense stuff from my blog. No one’s complained about it, but it isn’t the most relevant to readers here for the most part.
I’d look to partner up with a few other companies supplying or making quality tools, however a few of the ones I’ve approached in the past seemed very uninterested in the idea, even if I wanted nothing in return for the promotion, believe it or not – and then virtually all of the ones that have approached me are just not relevant to this blog so I decline. It was so nice to find KC Tool as enthusiastic about this as I was.
I’m planning to add a 'Tool of the Month’ widget to the right of the page in the near future, and intend to do a review of Gedore, another brand carried by KC Tools, of which I now have a small collection, including some metric ratcheting wrenches, a couple of large wrenches, and a hook spanner. Again, awesome stuff, but I want many more hours of experience yet before I’ll feel ready to review them.
All for this time. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way, and please do pay a visit to KC Tools and take a look at what they have on offer.
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Monday, December 4, 2017
Sunday, December 3, 2017
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Saturday, December 2, 2017
Following on from a recent post about acquiring some mahogany, Swietenia mahagoni, originally from Florida, I had a few additional observations I’d like to share in regards to this special mahogany, based both on some recent readings and my impressions from having milled up a bunch of this stock now. I’ve learned much in the past few days. We’re all doomed, basically.
While I was searching for info on Swietenia mahagoni, I came across a British timber merchant who lists Cuban Mahogany as one of his species. On their page for the wood, one finds the following mouth-watering description:
“This stock is a fantastic find, unused old stock from a factory workshop originally imported from Jamaica in 1908. It is very rare, very famous and very desirable."
Then when you check their catalog for what is actually listed for Cuban Mahogany, you find out that this ‘fabulous’ and "very desirable” find is a few 2"x2" sticks, 24" long. Twigs, basically. Uh, jeez, erection lost.
Keim lumber lists a few bards from a non-straight tree, and a few of those individual boards go for
From what I understand the wood I have is from a Florida Key, or nearby, harvested some 40 years ago. According to the writer Clayton D. Mell, the Floridian variety was the densest of all the mahoganies found around the Caribbean and down into south America. My direct experience confirms how heavy this particular material is in the hand.
However, just because a mahogany tree grew in Florida there is no guarantee that the hard and dense quality of native Swietenia mahogani wood will be what lays within.
A Proceeding from the Florida Horticultural society by Julia F. Morton entitled “Our Misunderstood Mahogany and its Problems” was an enlightening read in this regard. It seems that Florida, in line with its national reputation as a super site for invasive non-native flora and fauna of all kinds, has become a place where mahoganies of all kinds are being planted as specimen trees. You can find Swietenia mahagani, and Big Leaf Mahogany (S. macrophylla) planted, as well as Khaya spp., or African Mahogany. So, if you stumble across mahogany lumber purportedly from Florida, it doesn’t mean it is the native kind. That’s one point.
And in cases where the native variety has been planted for landscaping purposes, the nature of the environs strongly determines what the wood is like. Location is everything.
As Morton notes in her piece,
“It develops a tall, straight trunk and hard, dark wood in hammocks on outcroppings of limestone on the Upper Keys. If close to the shore, it is protected by a fringe of mangroves. On the more humid mainland and poorly drained soil, the wood is pale and not as hard; limb breakage is common.”Further the author notes, as regards the native mahogany,
“Its native habitat in southern Florida was picturesquely portrayed by John Gifford in his book Living by the Land:
"It is common … in very low, limestone swamps close to the sea, where it produces wood of exceptional quality. It grows in little groups, often surrounded by red mangroves, and although spots where it grows are a trifle above the surrounding land, it thrives within a few feet of very salt water, flooded at times by storm and often actually sprinkled with salt spray … This tree is native to the Madeira Hammock … close to the Bay of Florida. Trees which have been there for a long time have on many occasions been flooded with salt water to a depth of several feet, and the land is more or less salty at all times, except when leached by heavy downpours of rain … It grows in the midst of the mangrove swamps, on jagged coral rock so rough and full of potholes that walking there is difficult and even dangerous.”
The note about the Madeira Hammock - the S. mahagoni is also termed 'Madeira wood’ (Madeira stems from 'madera’, meaning wood in Spanish.) - this location is found at the southern tip of the Everglades, West of Miami and north of the Keys - note the mark on the following map:
So that’s the sort of ecology within which the good native mahogany can be found - not that there is much native Florida mahogany to be had these days except in exceptional/illegal circumstances.
I had never come across the term 'hammock’ before as a ecological feature, so in case you are interested, here is the meaning according to Wikipedia:
“Hammock is a term used in the southeastern United States for stands of trees, usually hardwood, that form an ecological island in a contrasting ecosystem. Hammocks grow on elevated areas, often just a few inches high, surrounded by wetlands that are too wet to support them. The term hammock is also applied to stands of hardwood trees growing on slopes between wetlands and drier uplands supporting a mixed or coniferous forest. Types of hammocks found in the United States include tropical hardwood hammocks, temperate hardwood hammocks, and maritime or coastal hammocks.”As far as the ecology of the Tropical Hardwood Hammocks found primarily in Miami-Dade County, a very informative read can be found here. These hammocks are quite vulnerable to the effects of both climate change and associated changes in sea level, falling water tables, and human introduction of exotic plant species:
“Recent GIS mapping of invasive exotics throughout the Florida Keys shows that approximately 2,833 hectares (7,000 acres) of susceptible upland habitat have been invaded by exotic plants, especially Australian pine, Brazilian pepper and latherleaf (Kruer et al. 1998). Areas of disturbed substrate within and adjoining Keys hardwood hammocks are often heavily infested with exotic plants that are rapidly spreading into and displacing the natural plant community…Hybrids between native and exotic plant species have also begun to appear (Hammer 1996, Sanders 1987), ultimately threatening native species with extirpation or extinction.”
Fortunately, most tropical hardwood hammocks outside of the Florida Keys along the coast of the Everglades are now protected from development, but climate change affects everywhere, and invasives are spreading without regard to lines were draw on a map, so it all remains threatened regardless.
Swietenia mahagoni coming from southern Florida is a wood in which the location in which it grew is a huge factor in the quality of the wood obtained. I imagine the same goes for the species when it is growing on other islands in the Caribbean. Take for example a quote from Patrick Browne (1756) in his work The civil and natural history of Jamaica, in regards to S. mahagoni growing in Jamaica:
“This tree grew formerly very common in Jamaica, and while it could be had in the low lands, and brought to market at an easy rate, furnished a very considerable branch of the exports. It thrives in most soils, and varies both its grain and texture with each; that which grows among the rocks is smaller, but very hard and weighty, of a close grain and beautifully shaded, while the product of the low and richer lands is observed to be more light and porous, of a paler colour and open grain … The most beautiful part of the wood is that obtained by sawing across the bottom of the stem and root.”
I realize now that I am most fortunate to have stumbled into the 'good stuff’. Sobering to read the wood was but 'formerly’ very common in 1756.
I mentioned in the last post that there is some S. mahagoni for sale on eBay, apparently 97 years old and originally from Jamaica. Here’s a photo from one of the ads:
What’s curious to me about what is pictured, if it really is S. mahagoni from Jamaica (which is one of the places where it does naturally grow), then is why is this wood so light colored? The material I have, though not as old as 97 years (since cutting), is dark purple, and I have found that the surface oxidation, after some 40 years, penetrates deeply into the wood. Even Big Leaf Mahogany turns a darker color after a few years, so, I’m a bit suspicious of what is advertised there on eBay. 97 years old - really? It’s priced at $32/board foot. To give a charitable assessment, maybe it is a variety which is much blonder in color and doesn’t oxidize darker as it ages? Hmmm, it’s not convincing me, but you never know. I think I’ll give it a pass, and in any case, when I contacted the seller for a list of his boards and their sizes they did not reply, so I doubt we’ll be getting to the point where they would send samples.
As mentioned earlier, I have now milled up a bunch of the 'Madeira Wood’. Here, laying on the infeed table of the surfacer, are the components for the upper and lower horizontal frames with a few pieces of leftover stock standing to the left:
In the leftover pile I have a ribbon stripe board which is a bit of an orphan since it does not match anything else in this piece, along with a short and wide chunk which unfortunately has slash grain and is of limited usability:
More bug-eaten trimmings, and a pith board on the left:
Next are the pieces which will form the main posts, the front door frames, and some of the back framing of the cabinet:
While it is certainly true that to have the most direct feel for any wood you need to chisel it and plane it, or turn it on a wood lathe, I have nevertheless formed a strong impression of the material just by running it over my jointer, through my bandsaw, and even the planer. I can report that it does not suck. In fact, I am kinda ruined now for Honduran Mahogany. I was finding myself a bit giddy after cutting stock for a few hours. And I’m only giddy once every few years.
I now have a glimmer of understanding as to why joiners and furniture makers of the 18th and 19th centuries coveted this material like they did, and found the Big Leaf Mahogany 'spongey’ by comparison.
If you would entertain an analogy, S. mahagoni, at least what I have, could be described in the following manner: while Honduran mahogany is some kind of Weight Watcher's™ diet chocolate bar, this stuff is more like a decadent fudge and dark chocolate bar. Or, put another way: Honduran Mahogany is like Wonderbread™, while Cuban Mahogany is like an artisanal loaf from a specialty bakery with a chewy crumb and intriguing flavors. It’s hard to explain otherwise. I am in the process of obtaining more, as much as I can afford. Fortunately my sister in law has lent me some money to help out with this purchase, on very generous repayment terms.
I face a few challenges, beside staving off personal bankruptcy in my lust to buy more of this wood. One is the oxidation issue. The dark chocolate to purple color of the wood is the product of some 40 years of exposure, and the oxidation has reached deep into the wood - close to 3/8" (1cm). That means that re-sawn sticks have reveals of much lighter wood in the middle, trending towards the dark brown as you reach either arris on the face.
Obviously, a year or two down the line, the freshly-cut surfaces will darken and begin a journey to a point where it will all look much the same, namely dark chocolate with purple tones. I’m sure that 5 years from now it will be a good portion of the way there. However, the 'brand new’ appearance of a cabinet is important. I’m not one of those people obsessed with closely matching colors - that’s more of an interior designer tic it seems to me. I enjoy the variegation of natural materials, and like getting to know them as they change over time. However, the difference here between faces is quite striking, so maybe I’ll have to do something.
I spoke with the fellow from whom I obtained the Cuban Mahogany. He has long experience with Big Leaf mahogany, but has only worked a very small amount of his cuban stock, and was familiar with the issue of which I asked. He suggested a solution which had also crossed my mind, namely using dye on the lighter faces. He said that the dye will, over many years, weaken in effect, and sorta 'wear off’ the surface, however as that happens the wood is naturally darkening, so it’s like a simple case of replacement over time. That sounds good to me, and he recommended a particular Behlen’s product, an alcohol-based non-grain raising dye in the Solarlux line, the Van Dyke Brown. I’ve found Behlen’s stuff to be good, though for dyes I’ve employed TransTint products previously. I’ll of course test this stuff on a small scrap piece first. I also plan to check in with my client to see how he might like the piece without the use of dye to obtain greater uniformity of color. If it were my piece of furniture I’d be inclined to use the wood 'as is’ and let it age gracefully, but not everyone will feel similarly. I think I’ll build the piece and see how it looks all assembled before making a decision in that regard.
This cabinet, as it is going into a bedroom and will not be exposed to the same sort of hazards and wear conditions as were the coffee table, side table, and sideboard I built for the client, could perhaps be fine with a thinner, less tough finish, something even closer to the wood. With that in mind, I’ve chosen a German product made by Kreidezeit, and sold in the US under the Unearthed Paints label. This is a 'hard wax oil’, and is a blend of Carnauba wax, colophonium resin (that is, Rosin) and a Tung Oil/Linseed oil mix. The product is 100% solids, with no solvents or water. No friggin’ VOCs to deal with, which is all good as far as I am concerned. I initially came across this wax oil product on a Japanese website, which lead me to find the German company site and check it out further. I was glad to find they had a supplier in the US.
I’ve heard good things about the 'hard wax oil’ and it is very simple to apply, just wipe on, leave 20 minutes and
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Monday, November 27, 2017
The other portion of wood arrived in my shop today, wood which I described in an earlier post as ‘uber special’. Here it is, fresh off the boat, er, semi:
Doesn’t look like much, does it? This motley set of 6 boards cost as much as the two super-wide pieces of Honduran Mahogany I acquired a week or two back. What am I, nuts? (please hold off on answering that until you have read further…)
What is this stuff, you might ask?
It isn’t Honduran mahogany, which goes by the Latin name of swietenia macrophylla, the word macrophylla meaning 'large leaf’. The genus name, the word ’swietenia’, was named after Gerard von Swieten, a Dutch-Austrian physician who lived between 1700 and 1772, by a fellow named Nikolaus von Jacquin. Between 1755 and 1759, Nikolaus von Jacquin was sent to the West Indies and Central America by Francis I to collect plants for the Schönbrunn Palace, and amassed a large collection of animal, plant and mineral samples.
There are three species comprising the genus Swietenia, namely:
- Swietenia macrophylla, or Big leaf Mahogany
- Swietenia mahagoni, referred to as West Indian, Santo Domingo, or Cuban Mahogany - it might also be called 'small leaf’ mahogany (though accurate, that term is not used)
- Swietenia humilis, a small and often twisted mahogany tree limited to seasonally dry forests in Pacific Central America that is of limited commercial utility.
- Khaya spp., aka African Mahogany
- Entandrophragma utile, or 'Utile'
- Entandrophragma cylindricum, or Sapele
'Genuine mahogany’ is all we have left these days it seems, though in the days when mahogany was used heavily, the term 'genuine’ would have perhaps been laughed at. The esteemed species of the two actually genuine mahoganies, was in fact the Santo Domingo Mahogany (s. mahagoni), as is noted by Mell, and Big Leaf Mahogany was considered inferior:
Though “soft” and “spongy” the apparently inferior Big Leaf Mahogany may be, I personally find it an awesome species, as it is easily worked, suited to indoor or outdoor use, and incredibly stable in service, hardly warping and never checking. I haven’t been able to compare it though to the other variety of course, so I am impoverished in that regard and lacking in perspective. Those guys - well, a few of them - in the 1800’s had access to materials which I can only imagine.
The 'Age of Mahogany’, as far as furniture is concerned, was the period between the reigns of George II and George III, roughly 1727 to 1820. Mahogany, extolled by Chippendale, caused the pre-eminent wood of the time, namely walnut, to pass completely out of fashion.
In the work Good Furniture, Vol. 4, by the Dean Hicks company (1914), they even wonder if the success of English cabinet makers of the period could have been attained without access to mahogany:
As they note in that text, and as cabinetmaker’s of the period following about 1720 found through direct experience, that mahogany was a wood less liable to chip or check than oak, less likely to become worm-eaten than walnut, sound, tough, of uniform grain, procurable in large planks, rich in figure and color, and hence unrivaled for the purposes of cabinet making.
Again, the mahogany they were talking about is not Honduras Mahogany, but 'Cuban’ Mahogany. Reading about Cuban Mahogany and learning that it was THE mahogany in the time in which lots of mahogany furniture and ships were built on a large scale, has lead me to a strong desire to get a chance to work the s. mahagoni material. Obtaining it however, has been a bit like chasing a unicorn. I’ve seen it for sale sporadically over the years by private sellers here and there, and there has been someone on ebay trying to sell some of late at quite high prices. Not sure how successful he has been.
And, like they say on the Hobbit house website,
A note on Cuban mahogany: this species is basically not available in lumber form these days. I think the best expression of this is (this is a slight paraphrase of a comment by Eric Meier of The Wood Database in an email to me):So, when a few months back an ad appeared from a fellow offering to sell some Cuban Mahogany, I was interested but skeptical. I emailed him to ask his pricing, which was quoted as “$24~$28 per board foot”. I didn’t have the funds at the time to pursue it further, so I put the matter on the back burner, and besides, it was probably anything but the real thing.
I just tell people that unless they actually live in Cuba, it’s not Cuban mahogany and you’re being delusionally optimistic to think otherwise.
When the new cabinet project was in discussion with my client on the west coast, there came the point where he asked me which woods I recommended, and I said that I thought it would be great to carry the use of Shedua from the other cabinet I had built forward, and then pair it with mahogany. I was thinking exclusively of Honduran Mahogany, which is as likely as not to come from Peru these days, as that was what one would normally think of in respect to mahogany. When the client came back in approval of the plan to use those woods, I got to thinking about it more, and then remembered the ad from a few months back. I looked through my email and found the conversation and emailed the fellow again to see if he still had any stock.
It turned out he still did have a fair amount. I then asked him how he knew it was Cuban Mahogany, given how rare a material that is. He replied that it was 'obvious’ as the wood had a deeper purple tone, and was considerably denser and heavier than the Big Leaf Mahogany. That sounded good, however, I was still skeptical and asked him if he would provide me with a sample or two, thinking that I could take it to a wood lab near me for analysis. He said he would do that, and if I declined to buy any wood I could pay him for the postage, otherwise, if I did buy some wood, he would absorb the cost. Fair enough.
A week or so later and two samples arrived, each about 8" square and 5/8" thick or so. Pulling them out of the package, I could immediately discern that the pieces were heaver than I would expect with Honduran Mahogany. I put in a call to the recently-retired UMass professor Bruce Hoadley, author of Identifying Wood and Understanding Wood, and left a message in regards to testing the samples I had. In the meantime, I did some further research, and learned that, by the conventional method of wood species identification, namely examining a cleaned portion of end grain under 10x~20x magnification and comparing physical features, swietenia mahagoni and swietenia macrophylla could not be distinguished. Hmm, a wrinkle in my plan….
I never did reach Professor Hoadley, though we had a fine game of phone tag for a while. I did manage to make contact with a Michael Wiemann, a botanist at the US Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory in Madison Wisconsin though. He confirmed just what I had read, that one cannot distinguish between the two mahoganies by the usual method. I was thinking he would point me to some modern high tech method that I imagined existed, something involving DNA analysis or near-infrared spectrographic methods, however he said that distinguishing between closely-related species remains a challenging task in his field. He then said that what he would do, if presented with my sample, is refer to some notes from a British text on the topic. He said he could send me a .pdf of the relevant section if I was interested (?). You bet I was!
Reading that document, it turns out that the two mahoganies have a slight overlap in characteristics, looking at density, color, growth ring count, and so forth, so if you have a sample that sits in the zone of overlap, it is quite difficult to distinguish one from another. However if your sample is clearly sitting outside of that overlap zone, you can be reasonably sure of what you have.
For color and density, I was quite clear on the fact that the samples I had were unlike Honduran Mahogany, at least in my experience. The key point came down to growth ring count, which, for s. macrophylla is 4~8 per inch, and for s. mahagoni 10~25 per inch. The samples were happily very clear in that regard, as the growth ring count I saw on both pieces was around 20 per inch.
I was starting to feel fairly certain that I had stumbled upon some actual 'Cuban’ Mahogany. I asked the seller for some more background on the material. I learned that it had been cut something like 40 years ago, and was from a wind-downed tree in the Florida Keys. He’d had it for about 20 years and had purchased it from another fellow, the person who obtained the wood from the trees originally, who had also squirreled it away for some 20 years.
Some further reading from Mull’s work True Mahogany revealed some other distinguishing characteristics in regards to mahogany from the Florida Keys:
Cool. The mahogany growing in the Florida Keys, at the northern end of the plant’s growth range, proves to be the densest.
It also seems to be the case that the mahogany from Florida has the shortest wood fibers of any mahogany in the New World.
I decided that even if this material was not actually s. mahagoni, but just some really nice s. macrophylla, it was worth it at the price regardless. I bought all the seller’s 8/4 material, and that is what arrived at my shop today. I’m excited to have captured a unicorn at last!
After dragging the wood into my shop, I immediately trimmed off the bug-eaten portions where the sapwood had once been:
The above board was one of the worst in that regard.
Did I mention 'bug-eaten’?:
I also did some jointing and planing. Here’s a closer look at the surface of one board, where you can see the numerous white flecks on the face:
Those white flecks are called tyloses. I take them to be a sign of good material - at least when it came to Honduran Mahogany, where they are a rare occurrance, they had proved to be a sign of nice wood to work, and I’m thinking the same goes here.
Cutting this material was relatively easy, and the sawdust has a smell similar to Honduran Mahogany. The wood though is significantly heavier than any Honduran Mahogany I have had my hands on. I’m 99% sure I have that unicorn. This is up there, for me, with finding Huanghuali or Zitan (that is, seriously unlikely to happen in my lifetime). Sometimes you get lucky I guess.
The tree was on the order of 20" in diameter I would guess, with the widest board in my pile of 6 being 19" wide:
Edge-jointing after ripping the edge off:
I mentioned the growth ring detail - here’s a close up of what swietenia mahagoni - the stuff I have -looks like:
I cleaned up, more or less, 5 of the 6 boards, and left the largest for the time being. Here’s a 'family reunion’ sort of photo, with the recently-acquired Honduran forming the backdrop:
Welcome to 'Mahogany World’.
The one large plank of Honduran was trimmed last week, giving me these pieces of stock for the front door panels and the drawer floors of the cabinet:
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