Thursday, September 8, 2016

Craftsmanship and Goals

September is finally here and this is my favorite time of year. The blistering hot summer days are behind us and the cooler nights feel much better. For me, September has always been a new beginning. This month I will also start my 53rd orbit around the sun. That means it’s time, once again to make an assessment of where I’m at and where I need to go in order to continue my lifelong goals.

Besides having a successful and rewarding career in city planning and grant writing, one of my goals is to be a successful luthier, or craftsman of guitars. Wikipedia defines a luthier as someone who builds or repairs stringed instruments. In addition, a craftsman is defined as a pastime or profession that requires particular skills and knowledge of skilled work. The term is usually applied to people occupied in small-scale production of goods, or their maintenance. For example luthiers!

My father Robert Keeley retired at age 57 as a tool and die maker from Milwaukee Electric Tool. A tool and die maker is a class of machinists in the manufacturing industries who makes dies, molds, machine tools, cutting tools, gauges and other tools used in the manufacturing processes. As my father would say, "I made the tools that made the tools." He was a craftsman! After 35 years with Milwaukee Electric Tool he retired early and his job was then outsourced to Mexico, most likely done by robots and computers. After 35 years in a hot and humid factory, his retirement was welcomed. I am now the custodian of many of his tools.

Today, craftsmen are difficult to find as our economy has transitioned to disposable consumer goods made in foreign countries. Many high schools no longer teach industrial arts or shop classes due to budget cuts. To make things even worse, some high schools no longer teach music programs. What a shame.

My great-grandfather Lester Lenhardt worked for Caterpillar. In the 1940’s he built his home in East Peoria, Illinois using only basic hand tools. 

I am the custodian of the two handsaws that he used to build that house. He was very proud of his home and his tools.

Last week I met a very nice retired couple, Roy and Orly Corey. I restored a very old violin that was made by Orly's grandfather. Her grandfather was a luthier! Roy was a retired pattern maker; a wood carver.  Roy was very interested in my shop and my tools, and I was very interested in his knowledge about woodcarving. As our conversation progressed, he mentioned that he was 71-years old and can no longer use his carving tools because his hands shake too much. He broached the subject of possibly trading his wood carving tools in exchange for the work I did on their violin restoration. He stated “I can see that you would appreciate and use my tools the same as I did.” I was humbled by his comment. 

This brings me to my next thought. As craftsmen, we are also caretakers of fine tools and one day will pass them down to the next generation of craftsmen. I would like to take a photo of Roy and some of his woodcarvings. I would also like to write a short and simple biography of Roy to keep intact with his tools. I hope his tools will carve beautiful objects made of wood for many decades, if not centuries to come. Roy’s woodcarving tools will outlive both me and him. Hopefully, when it's time, I as the new custodian will pass them on to the next generation of craftsmen.

Most of my hand tools are over 100 years old; several even older. They are quality brands such as Bailey, Disston and Marples which have worked flawlessly since their creation. I’ve collected them through the years wherever I can find them from family, friends, yard sales, secondhand stores and auction websites. Some of the tools have the previous owners name proudly engraved on them. 

My power tools are relatively new in relation to my hand tools. They have labels on them like Grizzly, Jet and Craftsman, but they are a far cry from the quality of my vintage hand tools. Made of plastic, cheap cast metal and manufactured in a foreign country, I continually struggle to keep these machines running smoothly to avoid disposing of them. Unlike the hand tools that produce wood chips, these modern tools produce a lot of dust; fine annoying saw dust which require a dust collection system and air filter. Plus, the bearings, belts and blades continually wear out. I doubt you’ll see my modern tools in some wood shop 100 years from now. They’ll more than likely end up in the scrap yard after I’m gone. Relics of a modern throwaway society.

This is my sharpening station. A true craftsman must learn how to sharpen a hand chisel with a stone before they can operate a modern day CNC machine.

My workbench is made from scraps of locally grown birch wood. Each board leveled, hand planed and held together without a single screw or nail. The legs are made from locally grown fir. I will say this: Roy the woodcarver spotted my bright red pattern makers vise as soon as he entered my shop. It is a tool of his trade! It is also a tool of a luthier...

What will the next generation of craftsmen, luthiers, pattern makers, woodcarvers, tool and die makers be like?

I don't know....

Until then, I will continue to work towards my goal of being a successful luthier, craftsman and custodian of vintage hand tools. 

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Making Varnish

When repairing and restoring older musical instruments I always strive to use the “correct” type of finish that was used when the instrument was built. For centuries, musical instruments were protected with different types of homemade varnish that were applied by hand. Many were old recipes that were handed down through the generations.

During the latter part of the 1800’s musical instrument companies started applying oil varnishes with spray guns. Shortly after WWII they switched over to nitrocellulose based lacquers - a highly explosive combination of nitric acid and camphor. In fact, in the 1950's Fender guitars used DuPont automotive nitrocellulose lacquer paints on their electric guitars. Sea Foam Green, Fiesta Red, Daphne Blue are stock automotive colors from that period. Since the 1970’s instrument companies have been using modern thermoplastics such as polyurethane. Perhaps in the future they might switch to Teflon or a product that hasn’t been invented yet. The point being that instrument builders used what was readily available to them at the time to provide the best protection.

Last week a customer brought in a violin that was built in the 1920’s by her great grandfather. I was amazed that after 90-some years, this violin had never been varnished! She requested that I varnish the violin and make it playable again.

The first time I made varnish I was 14 years old. My high school art teacher had us mix raw linseed oil and an egg yolk to create tempera. This type of varnish became paint once a colored pigment was added. This was also the predominant method used in the Renaissance and pre-sixteenth century, when pure oil painting found its own following. The advantages of using this type of varnish include its resistance to water and applications for highly detailed and complex paintings. Sometimes we added turpentine or damar varnish for different effects. For damar varnish you only need three things. Damar crystals, real turpentine, and white beeswax. 

Many years ago my father gave me a set of very old books titled: Cyclopedia of Useful Arts, Mechanical and Chemical, Manufactures, Mining, and Engineering. This two volume encyclopedia was published in 1852 and is a valuable source of information about the 'how' of handicraft, industry and manufacturing, since it contains numerous illustrated articles describing the techniques, one of which is making varnish!

Definition - A varnish is a solution of a resin or a gum-resin in a liquid, which being spread over a surface, evaporates and leaves the solid in the form of a brilliant, transparent film. The principal substances used in varnishes are the following:

Solvents- (There are two types of varnish; oil varnish and spirit varnish)
Oil varnish can include oil of nuts, linseed oil, turpentine, rosemary oil, lavender oil.
Spirit varnish can include alcohol, ether, or wood naptha.

Solids- (These are binding agents)
Amber, anime, elemi, copal, benzoin, lac, colophony, sandarac, areanson, mastic, damar, common resin.

Colors- (Most of the predominant colors come from plant seeds, roots and stems)
Gamboge, annotto, dragon’s blood, aloes, cochineal, saffron, indigo, turmeric.

The resins, or as the varnish-maker calls them, gums, may be used either singly or combined, and the same applies to the solvents. One of the most desirable qualities in a varnish is durability, a quality which depends greatly on the comparative insolubility of the resin employed, its hardness, toughness and permanence of color.

Oil is the solvent for oil varnish. Alcohol is the solvent for sandarac and seedlac or commonly known as shellac, as in “spirit varnishes.” Spirit varnishes dry more quickly, harder and more brilliant than those made with turpentine. 

The recipe I use is simply called “1704 Varnish”. I learned of this recipe about 20 years ago from a violin maker in Spokane. At the time I thought this recipe was a secret, or at least not well known – lost knowledge. People were amazed that I could make my own varnish. Perhaps this was lost knowledge because nowadays people go to the hardware store to buy their varnish just like milk comes from the grocery store. A simple search on the Interwebs for “1704 Varnish” shows over 100,000 pages. Apparently it’s a popular recipe!

This varnish dries fast, is transparent and durable (not too hard or soft).

The myth is that this particular recipe was found handwritten in the family bible of Stradivarius. It is purely a myth but makes for a great conspiracy theory about the mystery of Stradivarius’ secret varnish. Regardless of the history, it is a good varnish. These are the ingredients I use:

90 grams seedlac
10 grams gum mastic
10 grams gum sandarac
400ml alcohol
14 ml Lavender spike oil

Sandarac is obtained from a small cypress-like tree. The tree is native to northwest Africa and Morocco. The resin exudes naturally from the stem of the tree as tears and is collected by placing tarps underneath the branches. My sample also includes the wings of several insects. Mastic and seedlac are also resins from trees. However, seedlac is made by taking branches of the cypress tree that are covered with the residue left by the lac bug. In this recipe the mastic improves adherence between coats, and the sandarac adds a bit of hardness . 

I use a triple beam scale to carefully measure the ingredients to 10 grams. Could this be the next Breaking Bad - A mild mannered luthier trying to make ends meet?

I use a pestle and mortar to grind the mastic and sandarac.

I use a coffee grinder to grind the seedlac.

It's just faster...

I use Lavender spike oil to make the varnish soft and supple. It also has a nice fragrance.

400 ml of Everclear alcohol is used as the solvent. You could use methanol, but I prefer to use natural ingredients. 

All the ingredients are added together in a glass jar and mixed twice a day for one week or until the ingredients have dissolved. At that time I will place the glass jar with the lid removed in a double boiler and heat for seven minutes, let cool and boil again for seven minutes. While still warm the contents are poured through a cheese cloth to filter out any dirt. 

We now have 1704 Varnish to restore our violin. 

There are many varnish recipes, but the concept is the same; solvent and resin. Add color as needed.
A simple varnish can be made by mixing pine tree sap (pitch) with alcohol and linseed oil. To make a dark brown stain simply boil walnut husks for 8 hours and decant off the liquid. For an alcohol based stain place the whole walnuts with husks in a jar for 6 months until the juice is extracted naturally. Then mix with alcohol.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Alba the Cat and more Sharpening Stone Experiments

This week we celebrated the fifth birthday of our cat. Alba is a beautiful feline that is part Siamese. She knew it was her birthday because she asked for lots of skritches and we were happy to oblige.  Alba was treated to several morsels of tuna fish.

My son Brandon received Alba as a gift when she was only a few weeks old. This is a photo of Alba the day she came into our home.

You'll be seeing more of Alba later..


Last week I received several questions regarding the Oven Dutch Cleanser (ODC) nagura and the red jasper stone from Jason who maintains My Peculiar Nature blog. Jason wanted to know if the five samples of ODC were a variety of different grits and if the red jasper would produce its own slurry, getting finer as I progressed with sharpening. Lets find out..

I took the Stanley No. 4 Plane blade to the DMT Extra Fine diamond stone and lapped the back and bevel. This would be a good starting reference to determine any changes in the scratch pattern.

Since I consider the red jasper a finishing hone I needed an intermediate stone after the diamond plate. The first stone I used to remove the diamond scratches was the vintage soft Arkansas stone. After about 100 strokes we start to see identifiable reflections of light on the back of the blade. Not quite a mirror finish but consistent haze.

Rudy at GSS provided five random samples of lithified tuff, or volcanic ash. I assumed all five were the same grit, but Jason pointed out that the five he received were of varying grits and texture. At first all five samples felt the same to me. Maybe it was because of the callouses on my fingers. However, after placing the tuff samples in a bucket of water, I was able to determine that two of the samples were course, two were medium course and one was extra fine. My friend did the same test with the same results. We have now confirmed and classified all five stones based on texture. I've already tried the course nagura stones on a previous experiment, but I didn't try the extra fine sample. All nagura stones are not the same and each nagura stone has a different effect on each sharpening stone. The key is to find the best match or pair for the maximum effect. The same can be true with tool steel and sharpening stones. Certain steels respond better on certain stones. Hence, my whetstone experiments.

Here is the extra fine ODC with a thick slurry on the red jasper. The extra fine ODC was easy to work with and didn't feel gritty. The jasper stone felt much different than with the course ODC nagura in previous tests.

After 100 strokes I start to see a faint mirror reflection on the back of the plane blade. The extra fine ODC works better than the course ODC from previous experiments.  

Next I wanted to try the Japanese Mikawa nagura stone for comparison. This nagura is extremely hard but also very fine. As you can see, it doesn't develop much of a slurry.

However, the Mikawa activates the red jasper and produces an almost mirror finish after 100 strokes. This combination is very promising. We have used 200 strokes on the red jasper.

To confirm with a previous experiment, the DMT diamond plate as a nagura produced the best finish on the back of the blade after 100 strokes. The diamond plate and red jasper is the winning combination here. The total strokes on the jasper is now 300. What if I did 300 strokes with just the ODC? Or 300 strokes with the Mikawa? This isn't very scientific, is it? I still think the jasper and diamond plate works best. The ODC and Mikawa nagura will be saved for other sharpening stones. The down side to using the red jasper is that it does not produce its own slurry while working the back of the blade. This stone must be activated with another stone or diamond plate.

Last week I acquired a Thuringian whetstone on eBay and wanted to compare it with my other stones as a potential hone. I've read a lot about Thuringian stones and how prized they are especially by razor collectors. Thinking this stone was a fine finisher I started with 100 strokes. The stone quickly developed a thick black swarf and was aggressive at removing metal. However, when I turned the blade over I saw that my mirror finish was gone. Of course, this stone is 'yellow/green' and is the smoothest and most sought after Thuringians. This stone compares to my vintage Washita and is very quick to remove metal. Perhaps even better, faster.. This natural stone cuts extremely fast.. I'm impressed!

Needing to progress back to the mirror finish I grabbed the Ozuku Asagi Koppa Japanese whetstone and a recently acquired Uchigumori stone which is a finger stone used to develop the unique haze on the steel of Japanese swords. The Uchigumori stone comes from the Kyoto mine and has a grit between 3000 and 5000. It has super soft particles that will not scratch the blade. I'm going to try it as a nagura. It develops a thick slurry and feels much softer than the Koppa. The Koppa feels hard like glass.

After 150 strokes the mirror finish is starting to return. I'm really enjoying working with this Japanese natural stone. The texture and feedback are very desirable when working the blade. As I get closer to the point of sharpness, I gradually use less pressure on the blade. By doing so, I can see the wire edge break off the end of the blade and sit on the middle of the stone.  This particular stone works much better than the red jasper. The Koppa and Uchigumori stone might be the winning combination.

After about 1000 strokes the blade is now razor sharp without the use of a strop or honing compound. Its hard to see with my camera phone, but this blade has a mirror finish on back. The reflections are tools hanging on my wall. 

A better reflection of the bevel that has been sharpened to 30 degrees. This blade is ready to go to work.

Lately my sharpening experiences have become therapeutic.

Happy Birthday Alba!!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Mystery of the Unknown Sharpening Stone

A couple weeks ago I was checking out eBay for vintage natural whetstones and found an interesting item. The seller stated 'this is an unknown whetstone. It is not a Hindostan, though it feels finer. It feels similar to bisque. There are saw marks all around the edges. It's hard and dense, not crumbly. This stone would be fine for knives, chisels, plane irons, etc.'

Curiosity got the best of me so I placed a bid for $11.99 and forgot about it. Besides, I would probably be outbid. No loss. A week later I received an email stating that I was the winning bidder. 

The game is afoot!

When the stone arrived it looked exactly like the photos and had a faint smell of oil. Did I just purchase another common Arkansas oil stone? I was beginning to feel disappointed. I decided to boil the stone in Dawn dish washing liquid. The stone didn't change color but the faint smell of oil was gone. I could see the original saw marks and the wear on the stone was minimal except for the normal nicks and chips found on a stone that may have sat in the bottom of an old toolbox.

I started flattening the stone on a DMT lapping plate and noticed that the color of the stone began to change as a fresh surface was exposed. Also, the texture did not feel anything like an Arkansas stone. The stone was very soft and felt smooth like fine chalk or clay and I could feel tiny quartz particles releasing as I continued to work it with the diamond plate. I decided to lap all six sides and chamfer the edges. 

I began seeing interesting mineral streaks laced throughout the stone which confirmed this was a natural stone and not man made. Was this an Ardennes Coticule or a Belgian Blue? 

Further research leads me to believe this stone to be a Thuringian!! 

The softer Thuringian water stones were mined in the area of Steinach/Thuringia, Germany during the 1800's by small family businesses and many were sold to Escher Company which was located in Sonneberg.

Thuringian water stones are slate stones or more precisely mud slate. These slates consist of quartz - which is an abrasive material, clay, mica (glimmer) and chlorite. The softer stones were found in the upper-Devonian age deposits. 

The hones came in different colors with yellow green, blue green, light green and dark blue. The color was determined by the amount of chlorite and other trace minerals in the stone. Escher would grade their stones by color and may have related to the speed which they cut. The lighter colored stones seem to cut faster. The more blue stones leave a finer edge and were preferred by barbers as razor hones and seem to be in the area of 12 to 15K in grit. The darker stones should be used with a slurry.

A quick search on eBay for vintage Thuringian hones show they sell between $70 - $400. Not bad for an $11.99 bid. The mystery of the unknown sharpening stone is solved my dear Watson!!

I will post my experiments with this stone in a future blog.

Thanks for reading.