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Posts from the ‘Tools’ Category

On another plane

I love tools and I’ve accumulated a collection of them over the years that gives me the ability to tackle nearly any home improvement project. Since moving into our house, I’ve become fascinated by 18th century building techniques, and I’m consistently awed by the quality of work that builders were able to achieve using only their muscle power, ingenuity, and a few hand tools. In today’s age of power-everything, it’s easy to forget that hand tools can be quicker and easier to use for some construction tasks, with no sacrifice in the quality of the finished work, and with a whole lot less noise.

When it came time to install casings around the windows and doors of the new kitchen, I wanted to match the delicate bead detail that appears on the original trim in our house. I could have bought a router bit, chucked it into the router and gone to town, but the annoying voice in my head insisted that that approach would be way too straightforward. Eager to try out a different approach, I ordered a wooden hand plane from the Internet with a blade shaped to cut a beaded profile on the edge of a piece of wood – big mistake. The plane was as dull as a butter knife, and I could have achieved the same finish quality by gnawing the board with my teeth. Frustrated, but not yet ready to go the route of the router (pun intended), I ventured to Pittsboro, a small town similar to Hillsborough about an hour’s drive to the South. There, on the second story of an old building on the main drag is a place that I should never be allowed to visit with a wallet again, a collector’s tool shop stuffed to the rafters with antique hand tools.

With some guidance from the gregarious shop owner, I selected an expertly sharpened beading plane and rushed home to give it a try. Old moulding planes are beautiful objects.  Most of them are fashioned out of a solid block of beech wood, giving them a nice weighty feel and a beautiful appearance.

beading plane side

The surface that rides against the work piece is called “boxing” because it’s almost always made of boxwood, an extremely dense, hard-wearing wood. The butt end of this plane is marked with the size of the profile (3/16″) and the manufacturer’s stamp (Casebeer Reed & Co. in New York), and the other end features the original owner’s mark (C. Altfelix).

beading plane owners mark

Using this tool is hands down the most satisfying woodworking activity I’ve ever experienced.  As you slide the plane across the wood it creates long, delicate curlicue shavings and makes a satisfying “zzzzziiiiiippppp” sound.

beading plane shavings

After about a dozen passes, the plane carves a perfectly smooth, delicately rounded bead.

bead profile

Whereas routers are obnoxiously noisy and unwieldy machines, using a moulding plane is almost meditative, and so, so satisfying. Nothing short of a video will suffice to demonstrate what I mean. If you watch this and still don’t understand, I suggest you never try woodworking – it doesn’t get better than this:

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A missed American moment

Last weekend, I finally admitted to myself that the foot-tall grass in our lawn was out of hand rather than attractively scruffy. Once you start mowing in North Carolina you don’t quit until late fall, so I push off the first pass until as late in the spring as possible.

When we moved into the Ordinary House, we hired a lawn service. They did a passable job, but their riding mowers left muddy divots in the grass and their schedule was erratic. When I realized that we were paying hundreds of dollars a month for mediocre work that I could do myself, my self-reliant streak kicked in. I dusted off my old push mower and spent hour after hour pushing it across our three-quarter acre lot. The results were good, but the job was a time sink and took my attention away from  more pressing projects, like that kitchen that I’m supposedly building.

This year, I promised myself that I would let my tightwad shield down just long enough to buy an expensive mower. Even so, I resisted that purchase until last weekend, when I walked into Home Depot and saw the model I’d been ogling on super-sale. Half an hour later, I was walking behind it my yard.

Yup, you read that right: walking behind it. I’m sure you’re wondering: 3/4 of an acre and you didn’t buy a riding mower? What kind of American are you?

Problem is, our yard has enough corners, flower beds and other obstacles that I’d spend an hour going behind the riding mower with a push mower. The mower I bought is a 30″ self-propelled push model by Toro, called the Time Master.  It’s  maneuverable enough to do most of the detail work, but has 9″ more deck width than my old mower, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that those extra inches decrease mowing time by nearly 40%.

toro timemaster width

The mower is very heavy, weighing in at nearly 200 pounds, but the self-propelled transmission pulls it at any pace, from a crawl to a trot. The blades are engaged separately from the engine, so you can move a stick or dog toy out of your way without turning the machine completely off.   It’ll bag or mulch or discharge to the side. And although it’s large, the push handle folds up while it’s in storage, so it actually takes up less floor space than the smaller mower.

toro timemaster storage

The Time Master took some getting used to.  It felt cumbersome at first, but after an hour I got the hang of it. Though I admit the idea of a riding mower with a cup holder is appealing, I think this is the right choice for our yard.  The mower does the job relatively quickly, it can be stored in the shed we already have, and we spent far less money than we would have to get a riding model.

Now that I’ve mowed once, it’ll be a weekly chore through October.  Twenty-six weeks of pushing will be the true test of my positive first impressions.

 

Update: no update

Note to self – get a flu shot next year. Last Thursday, a tickle in my throat in the morning progressed to a feverish fugue by nightfall. It was four days until I felt like half a human being again. I’ve been lucky to dodge the influenza bullet for several years without benefit of a shot, but this was a convincing reminder of how unpleasant an illness it is. Needless to say, the kitchen remains in exactly the same condition I left it week before last. With a few more nights of rest, I hope to tackle demolition of the walls this weekend.

In preparation, I bought a new toy. Meet the unfortunately named VacMaster:

vacmaster

I’ve owned several loud, bulky shop vacuums over the years. Some sucked harder than others (read that however you prefer), but none was particularly satisfactory. They all had a tendency to tip over and dump their contents, and to spit dust into their exhaust, defeating the purpose of vacuuming in the first place. After learning how filthy a very old house can be while I was demolishing the kitchen ceiling, I decided an upgrade was necessary.

The new vac is small, but VERY powerful. It’s relatively quiet, has a long hose and cord, and wheels designed to give it plenty of stability. Most importantly, the tool is fully HEPA rated by the EPA. The entire unit is certified to filter 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns. Translated, this means that the exhaust air of this vacuum is cleaner than normal room air. I can safely vacuum nearly anything, from piles of mouse poo to lead paint chips to plaster dust with confidence that they’re completely contained within the filter bag and won’t be spread any further.  It was a several hundred dollar investment, but one that will pay off in peace of mind as I continue to work on The Ordinary House.