Staying Sharp

A few years ago I had written about my adventures in sharpening.

Not much has changed since then. I have thankfully acquired enough sharpening paraphernalia to keep my tools sharp, shiny, and happy for many years to come.

This does not mean I am not occasionally tempted to get my hands on new sharpening toys but I really do not need anything else in order to keep all my tools sharp.

In the past few years I have learned the following:

1) Diamond bench stones may not be as flat as advertised. Check a diamond stone with a straight edge before assuming it is flat enough to flatten the back of a plane blade accurately. Yes, there is a painful story here.

2) Glass makes a wonderful flat substrate for abrasive papers but don’t drop it! There is a story here too but thankfully it was not physically painful.

3) Getting tools as sharp as possible can become an end unto itself. These days I get a tool sharp enough to work well and then get back to work!

I still use a grinder to hollow-grind some of my tools and I still hone my hollow-ground tools freehand. A few occasional seconds of stropping and I can go weeks before needing to hone the edge again.

Sometimes I will use a honing guide to reestablish the bevel on a blade rather than hollow grind it again. It usually depends on how much metal needs to be removed or the mood I am in. 

For plane blades with high back bevels I usually use a honing guide. I used to think that after being able to sharpen freehand going back to using a honing guide was backsliding. I am over that bias now. I do what works.

I work in a small shop and everything happens on the bench. This old bench hook holds a fine grit and flat (I checked!) diamond stone, a 4000 grit waterstone, a nagura stone for creating a slurry on the waterstone, a spray bottle of water, one of the honing guides I sometimes use and some other sharpening paraphernalia. This is the stuff I reach for 90% of the time when the need arises to hone an edge.

Honing tools of a sharp dulcimer builder Staying Sharp

When it is time to hone some tools I take this bench hook off the shelf and put it on the bench and I am ready to go.

For a strop i use a piece of an old leather guitar strap charged with compound. I lay the strop down on a flat surface for stropping straight edges and use my hand to hold the strop in various shapes as needed for gouges, etc.. 

If and when I need to create radically different bevel angle I usually go to the grinder or use a coarse diamond stone to save time

When an edge becomes so bad I that I am ready to give up i wait for this guy to come around.

A happy man at the gridning wheel Staying Sharp

What’s On The Bench – 03/20/2014

The first day of Spring has arrived here with light snow flurries, brown grass peaking through melting snow, and an overcast sky that shows promise of letting a little sunlight poke through.

My body continues to heal and I am spending more time in the happy little corner of the world I call my shop.

I’m currently working on some custom orders. I’m also sorting wood for a run of dulcimers to have on hand for sale. The downtime while recovering from back issues and surgery has left me with few dulcimers to have readily available and I am hoping to have more available soon. Custom and advance orders always receive priority in the queue so please let me know if you are interested.

On the bench are sides in figured and colorful walnut for one of the custom dulcimers I’m working on.

Dulcimer sides freshly bent in walnut What’s On The Bench   03/20/2014

I took this photograph as I was preparing to saw the sides to proper length. Between the sides is a 2″ machinists square that I will use to layout the saw lines on the sides. The small bench hook will help me keep the sides in place while making the saw cuts.

Still on the bench is the spray bottle I use for misting the sides while bending. I use distilled water when bending sides to avoid staining the wood. Minerals found in water can stain the sides, especially when heat is applied, and using distilled water solves this problem. 

Also on the bench are some hold fasts and the ubiquitous mallet that keep many things clamped and held in place.

Some friends have suggested i hire some help or take on apprentices in order to increase production. It seemed like a good idea so when these two guys applied for the positions I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Apprentices out of control What’s On The Bench   03/20/2014

It did not turn out well.

Time to get back to work!


Shaping Up A Dulcimer Shape

Several years ago I spent weeks fiddling with the shape of my standard model dulcimer. After thinking I had finalized the shape I built several prototypes and again made some changes to the outline; some based on looks, some based on acoustics. I was very happy with the results.

During the months I was unable to work at the bench I spent a lot of time contemplating dulcimer designs and methods of construction. Passion is rarely static. 

Sometimes the process of bending the sides produced subtle variations in the outline of the dulcimer that seemed a little more natural than what I had originally drawn on paper.

I decided to incorporate the results of some of these subtle variations into the outline of my dulcimers, though I may be the only one who notices them! 

Shaping up a dulcimer shape Shaping Up A Dulcimer Shape

I have softened the curve leading from the waist to the upper bout and slightly increased the recurve near the tail. 

Let me out of here Shaping Up A Dulcimer Shape

 Passion is rarely static.


Is There A Dulcimer In There?

Wood is full of surprises.

I had just finished bringing a beautiful butternut dulcimer soundboard to final thickness when I noticed some odd-looking marks in the wood. Ends up there was a bit of deep checking inside that wasn’t revealed until I got it to final thickness.

Wood often has flaws and flaws are part of the wood’s beauty. Sometimes the flaw is merely cosmetic and ads beauty to the wood, sometimes the flaw is structural and decreases the strength of the wood.

In this case the flaw was a checked (cracked) area about an inch wide that went completely through the soundboard. This flaw across the grain weakens the top enough to make it unusable.

I am happy I learned this soundboard was unusable before putting the dulcimer together! There are often surprises within a board but I usually find them much earlier in the process. This one almost made it into a dulcimer! I probably would have discovered it before the dulcimer was finished but that would have meant a lot more time and work. It is much easier to replace a soundboard before the dulcimer is put together!

Sometimes wood is very cooperative. In the illustration below a piece of wood is telling a dulcimer maker that it will indeed make a fine dulcimer.A piece of wood tells me it will make a wonderful dulcimer Is There A Dulcimer In There?Wood that talks often has wonderful resonant qualities. It is important to make sure the wood speaks the proper language for the music you plan on playing on your dulcimer. If you play French dance music you want your dulcimer made out of wood that speaks French, etc.

There is a tradition of shipping logs around the world for many years so the wood becomes multilingual and can play most types of music. All this time and travel makes multilingual dulcimer wood very rare and costly.

I’ll stop now.


What’s On The Bench – 01/22/2014

I’m currently working on two dulcimers I began this past Fall before the last back surgery. I am so happy to be working again! It will still be a while before I am back to working full-time in the shop, which for a self-employed person who loves his job usually means most-of-the-time, but I am thankful and grateful for what I am now able to do.

The two current dulcimers I’m building both have walnut backs and sides. One will have a butternut soundboard and the other was to have a cedar soundboard but after planing and cleaning up the top I realized it was not cedar but redwood! I have a few sets of redwood I sawed up a few years ago that were unusually hard and stiff for redwood and one of them sneaked into the pile of cedar soundboards when I wasn’t looking. Soundboards do that. I have to keep them in a corral or they end up all over the house.

Redwood dulcimer soundboard in progress Whats On The Bench   01/22/2014If I had a better camera and/or took better photographs you would see the fine grain and beautiful color of this soundboard. But use your imagination! Pretty, ain’t it?

Also on the bench is a knife I picked up at an antique mall a few years ago.Strop and knife Whats On The Bench   01/22/2014This knife has a massive brass handle with rosewood scales. The handle has a set screw so the blade can be adjusted for length. The leather strop is a piece of an old guitar strap with some compound on it. Since using a strop I spend more time working and less time sharpening; a moment or two of stropping restores a fine edge and delays the need to hone the tool again.

I have several custom orders I look forward to starting in the near future. In the photograph below my lovely wife Cynthia is helping me sort through my wood stash to find just the right wood for these dulcimers:Sorting through a pile of fine dulcimer tonewood Whats On The Bench   01/22/2014Life is good!