The Numbering System of H&R’s

The numbering system starts from 1 through to 18, this gives a us 36 moulding planes. Thanks to the 60° of a circle cut by these planes, the width of the iron is the radius of the circle the plane cuts.
There are two forms of numbering systems – Even and Odd.
Robert Demers a tool historian and blogger suggests that the even and odd numbering system has nothing to do with the profiles radius, but rather to denote that it’s part of a full set, an even set or an odd set.
Al Sellens in his book Woodworking Planes says; “The size numbering refers to iron width but the numbering schemes appear to have been established to confound the scholar and to confuse the collector.”
Hollows and rounds before 1750 were unmarked as to their size or number. There is an 18th century JENION plane in Larry’s Williams collection that is marked. It is however unknown whether the mark was placed at a later date or it’s an original, Larry believes it seems to be an original.
A standard in the numbering system developed at the start of the 19th century.
The numbering and sizing varied between manufacturers. For example, (and
I hope you’re ready to be confused as all buggery). There are plane numbers that end at 15 with an iron’s width of 2”, then there are planes that begin with no.2 and end at 30 that increase by 2. For example: 2,4,6,8,10 etc. But each plane’s iron width differs from manufacturer to manufacturer even though they may be the same number. For example, one manufacturer will stamp a No.12 representing its iron’s width to be ¾”, but another manufacturer will say our No.12 is 7/8” and a third manufacturer will say our No.12 represents 1 5/8”. Larry Williams gives a good clarification of this numbering system and I quote;
“The major British makers seem to have followed this emerging standard relatively closely. Under this system, numbers correspond to the number of 16ths of an inch in cutting width; except on those planes wider than ¾” the increment of change switches to 1/8”. For example, a number 11 would be 11/16” wide; number 12 would be ¾” wide, and a number 13 would be 7/8” wide rather than the expected 13/16ths. This change, I believe, was an attempt to offer planes which allowed for visual weight of the profiles cut. Visually, there’s little difference between a 1 ½” diameter cylinder and a 1 5/8” diameter circle.
The width of hollows and rounds directly relates to the radius of the arc they cut. Most planes cut 1/6th of a circle, or 60º of arc. This means the cutting width of these planes is equal to the radius of the arc — a number 8 plane will have a ½” cutting width and cut an arc with a radius of ½”. It is convenient to judge the size of a circle by the width of the sole of the plane. My observation is that this too has some exceptions. Larger hollows and rounds tend to cut less than 60º and often cut a radius larger than the sole of the plane would indicate. For instance, a #18 from an unused set of GRIFFITHS, Norwich (c.1860) planes we have cuts a cylinder with a 2” radius rather than the expected 1 ½”. This matches the #18 profile of a little used set of MOSELEY (c. 1810).”

A No.8 Moseley has a radius of ¾” whereas the Mathieson of the same number that follows the British standard would be ½”.
He continues to say; “Another exception is that number 1 planes were listed as being 1/8” bare or less than 1/8” but larger than 1/16”.
Many American plane making firms closely followed the British system. Some didn’t and used a variety of systems. Greenfield avoided the increment change found in the British system. Sargent offered only planes that represented the even numbers of the British system but numbered them sequentially. Those American makers who didn’t follow the British system appear to have had their own different systems and no alternative American system is apparent.”
Larry Williams chose to follow this later British system except to stay with planes cutting 60° of arc. This ensured that the plane’s width will be the radius of the arc cut.

The list below is the numbering system that Larry follows. These sizes incrementally increase by 1/16” except for the No.13, 14 and 15 which increase by 1/8”.

151 1/81 1/8
161 1/41 1/4
171 3/81 3/8
181 1/21 1/2

Here is a list of numbering systems from other plane manufacturers including but not limited to Chapin Stephens, Moseley and Greenfield.

Plane NumberRadius of Profile
91 1/8
101 1/4
111 3/8
121 1/2
131 3/4
152 1/4
162 1/2
172 3/4
Plane NumberRadius
81 1/8
91 1/4
101 3/8
111 1/2
121 5/8
131 3/4
141 7/8
NumberIron Width
161 1/8
181 1/4
201 3/8
221 1/2
241 5/8
261 3/4
281 7/8
NumberIron Width
181 1/4
201 3/8
221 1/2
241 3/4

As we have seen not all followed a particular standard and since plane manufac-turing is no longer practiced on a large scale as it once was, we as small-scale manufacturers for the lack of a better word, can set new precedence to follow one standard.
Did you know that each plane manufacturer in the 1800’s produced about 70,000 planes a year?

Shaker Stools 240 Mod


My exploration of seating continues with a couple of Shaker inspired stools.  Many, many moons ago, long before GPS, we made a trip to Nashville for a friend’s wedding.  We had very little money at the time and knew this would be the only trip for that year.  Unfortunately, our time in Nashville was less than pleasant, other than the wedding.  Anyway, on the trip home we began looking for any stop that would salvage the trip.  My wife scanned over the road atlas and stumbled on the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill just outside of Lexington, KY.  So, on a whim, we routed ourselves to the village.

We arrived late afternoon on a Saturday and were pleasantly surprised that they had overnight rooms.  As luck would have it there was a room available.  Not only that, they had a dining hall that served family style meals.  So, we moved into our room and walked to the dining hall and had a very pleasant dinner by candlelight.

The next day we toured the village and I poured over the furniture and buildings as far as they would let me.  This was long before I had any tools or even a shop space, but the desire, the desire to build was there.  The last stop before leaving the village was the gift shop and there I bought three little books of scaled drawings of Shaker furniture.

That’s a bit of back story, but I thumb thru these books every now and again for inspiration.  This time around the stools caught my eye.  Actually, the rocker has my interest, but I figure the stools will be a good way to get my head around the process.  These are simple stools and should nestle nicely with the kitchen island that I converted my old workbench into.

I like most things Shaker, there is an elegant simplicity in all that they built.  The one thing I have never been a fan of though is the woven tape seats.  Seats woven with muted earth tones are OK, but the brighter colours just look out of place to me.  So, my stools will have seats woven with fibre rush.  It looks simple to accomplish and I personally like the look. After playing around with the proportions and a little time at the drafting board, here is what I came up with.

Not too different from the original Shaker design, just tweaked slightly.  I’m building these stools with what I have on hand.  The legs will be red oak and the stretchers will be white oak.  The seats will be woven from fibre (paper) rush.  I’ve gotten off to start turning the eight required legs.  The goal is to crank out one leg after work every evening.  So far, so good.  I’m three for three. I’m actually getting pretty quick at it.  Quick being a relative term.  The story stick is a handy thing for this repetitive work too.

I deviated from the Shaker simplicity and added a single bead to the leg as well as a little wood burning.  You know I can’t not add some wood burning.  Just one more reason I would have made a lousy Shaker.

Progress continues on the stools.  Mostly one hour at a time after work each day.  This has become my basic workflow as of late.  Come home, check in and then out to the shop until dinner time.  Then grab as much time over the weekend as I can.  Anyway…

I managed to finish turning all eight of the legs (posts).  These are close to final shape, but I’ll most likely chuck them back into the lathe and change the shape of the taper to the foot.  I also completed the initial turning of all of the required rungs.

When I design a project, I tend to focus on the overall proportions and keep the details to a minimum.  I do this so as not to overly influence the final product.  I know this seems counter to the whole idea of design, but it’s what works for me.  My goal is not to crank out identical, production style pieces.  If I make a piece again, I want the proportions to be right, but I also want each piece, or series of pieces, to be unique.  So, part of my process is to work each element in stages.  Essentially designing on the fly through a process of gradual reduction.

Working this way would drive some folks absolutely crazy.  A lot of people like to have everything mapped out ahead of time.  For me though, I like having the details sort of evolve along with the project itself.  Sometimes I have an idea about the details from the start, but often I don’t have clue what will develop.  I find this to be particularly true with my wood turning.  A contributing factor is that I’m not all that confident in my developing wood turning skills, but I’m beginning to find my way.

The point of all that rambling is that my pieces tend to change as a project progresses.  The first change to the project at hand was to add a bead to the legs.

The rungs were next to fall victim to change.  I first turned all of the rungs to a simple cylinder and added the tenons.  I then set eight of them aside to become the top rungs around which I’ll weave the fibre rush seat.  The remaining rungs went back on the lather and received a taper on each end.

The final bit of modification was to the foot end of the legs (post).  During the initial turning I established the transition point of the taper to the foot, but left this area “fat”.  I felt they needed a little more grace and took cues from some Shaker examples to added a bit of life to the taper.

So now I have all of my wood bits ready to go.  Next up will be the drilling of holes and assembly of the frames.

With all of the parts complete, it was time to bore some holes.  There are (24) rungs which left me facing (48) holes that needed to be drilled plumb and square.  It’s not that difficult of task really, but one errant hole can mess up the whole works.  Actually, a little variance can be beneficial by way of adding tension into the frame.  Too much variance though will either split a post or make it impossible to assemble the frame.

So, I cautiously began marking out and drilling each mortise holes.  To add a little extra stress, I had to be diligent with my depth.  These are blind holes and need to be as deep as possible to form a strong joint.  I used a standard auger bit and had to pay careful attention to the lead screw.  Half a turn too far and the lead screw would come through the opposite side.  To control the depth of bore you can count turns, strap on a vintage depth stop contraption or, as I did, wrap a bit of painter’s tape around the bit.

The process was to mark out the centres by sighting across the post at the top and bottom locations and connect those with a straight edge to establish the intermediate location.

The best way I have found to hold an individual leg is to place it in joiner’s saddles and clamp it to the bench with a holdfast.

The drilling is straight forward, but I checked my progress with a square.

No matter how careful you are, sometimes the point of the auger makes it through to the other side.

Sometimes though, it validates your skill with the brace and bit.

And so, I progressed, first with individual frames and then the entire frame.

The glue up was a bit stressful.  It was a lot of parts to assemble and hot hide glue doesn’t wait.  I was given a few extra seconds though, due to the high temp (88F) in my shop.  So, no pics of the glue up.  All of my concentration was on the task at hand.

The glued frames with a second coat of Tried & True Original.  The first coat was applied while the pieces were on the lathe.  That first coat of the individual pieces saved me a good bit of work when cleaning up the glue squeeze out.

A note about the grain orientation of the pieces.  I set the rungs so that their grain was perpendicular to that of the posts.  I also set the posts so that none of the rungs inserted directly through the long grain of the post.

Now all I need to do is figure out how to weave the seats.

Now that the stools were assembled, it was time to tackle the seat weaving.

The material that I chose to use is fibre rush.  This is a paper product that imitates the look of natural rush and has been in use since the early 1900’s.  I had planned on researching and writing a thorough post on fibre rush, but Cathryn Peters ( has a “history of” article on here site that covers it.  Jump over there and have a read and then come back.  I’ll wait…

…to understand the weaving process I read through the articles on Ms. Peters’ site, bought a small booklet on the subject and watched a bunch on YouTube videos.  The most helpful video, by far, was Ed Hammond’s ( video.

Having prepared as much as I could, there was nothing left to do but jump in and do it.  So, I gathered my supplies and tools and settled in for a long afternoon.

The pattern is a simple over-under and progresses counter-clockwise around the stool.

While the pattern is simple, the nuances that are the hallmarks of skill and proficiency are not.  As with most hinges handwork, these must be earned with time on task.  Where to push and where to pull?  How hard?  How large a coil of material can I work with?  On and on.  The thing that I struggled with the most is how to handle and turn the coil as I weaved.  The loose coil of rush must be continually rotated, in the correct direction, else the strand will untwist and leave you with a string of flat paper.  I fought this all afternoon!  Constantly having to stop and re-twist the strand.

There is a rhythm that began to reveal itself as the afternoon wore on and I became more and more comfortable with the process.  Over the rail, up through the middle…over the rail up through the middle.  Even so, my progress was clumsy at best, but I managed to get the first seat completed.

This first seat is presentable and I’m confident that the next one will improve in both execution and speed.  This first round of weaving took me six hours!  I also woefully underestimated how hard this process would be on my fingers.  My thumbs and index fingers are raw and sore.  So, either tape or gloves will be needed for the weaving of the next seat.

I spent my evenings after work weaving the seat for the second stool.  I was a little more comfortable with the process this time and actually enjoyed applying the rush.

I’m happy to report that I gained a little speed and the weave looked much neater.  So much so that I dismantled several courses on the first stool and re-worked it so that there wasn’t such a marked difference between the two.  Not a dramatic difference, but it would have driven me crazy if I hadn’t fixed it.


Just about everything I have read or watched says that the fibre rush should be sealed with a couple of coats of clear shellac or something similar.  This adds a bit of durability and stain resistance to the seat.  So, I dutifully complied with shellac.

The first coat took a good bit of shellac and I was a little worried that the uneven appearance wouldn’t subside once everything was dry.

The first coat did indeed dry to an even, albeit, darker colour and the second coat went on quickly.  I also took the time to add one more coat of Tried & True original to the frames of the stools.

With that, I’m calling these stools done.

Either hubris or taking the blame.  Not sure which.

Installed into the kitchen.

Milk Paint

By Gregory Merritt

Milk paint, or more precisely, casein (milk protein) based paint is once again enjoying a surge in
popularity. Some are drawn to its “historic” nature, some its ease of use, others still to its
“cool” factor and some because of its non-toxic nature.
Before we go any further I want to clarify what is and what is not casein based paint. There are
several companies marketing “milk paint” these days. Some are true milk paint others
however are not. That does not mean they are inferior products. They just are not true milk
paint. True milk paint will be sold in powder form only. If the paint comes pre-mixed in a can, it
is not a casein based paint and is most likely acrylic based. While these pre-mixed paints may
imitate the look of true milk paint, they do not behave the same or offer the non-toxic
advantages of true milk paint.
Now that we are clear as to what milk paint is not, lets look a little deeper into what it is. In its
powdered form milk paint will keep indefinitely. Making it convenient to have on hand and
quickly mixed for project. Once mixed with water (equal parts powder and water) milk paint
will only last days at best. Apply that mixture to wood however, and you have a hard, durable
colorfast coating that will last for a hundred years, thousands in some cases.
I was first drawn to milk paint due to its non-toxic nature. When I began woodworking in
earnest several years ago I made a conscious decision to use only non-toxic finishes. Unlike
some users of milk paint, I had no interest in creating a “rustic” or “historic” finish. I simply
wanted safe way to create a deep, rich painted surface on some of my projects. I was able to
obtain that goal, but not without a good bit of trial and error.
A smooth and deeply colored milk paint finish must be nurtured. Straight from the brush, milk
paint is dead flat in appearance and rough in texture. In fact the first coat of paint is down right
atrocious and you have a fear that you have ruined your project. Don’t panic, your on the right
Typically milk paint requires two or more coats to adequately cover a surface. There are
several factors that can influence this. Tight-grained woods such as pine, poplar and maple
will cover more easily than an open-grained wood such as red oak. The consistency of you
paint mixture will influence the number of coats need as well. I generally mix my paint so that it
is slightly thicker than typical latex or acrylic paint.
A few additional points to note about applying milk paint. Use the cheapest brush you can
find. While it is possible to clean a brush after use, its a 50/50 shot at best. Just throw it away.
Second, work quickly. Milk paint dries quick, the drying begins almost as soon as the paint
contacts the wood. Third, even though your are working quickly, be neat about it. Don’t leave
runs or drips and your final strokes should be with the grain. Almost all errors such as these
are fixable, but it is a lot less work to not create them in the first place. Lastly, do not spend
too much time working any one area or try and re-work an area during a session. Milk paint
dries too quickly and you risk creating more problems that will need to be fixed later. Simply
keep moving. It is far easier to allow the current coat to dry and add one more coat later.
That is it for the painting portion of the process. Rinse out your brush as best as you can.
Don’t throw it out just yet. You may find or create an area that needs to be touched up later.
Seal the container with any remaining paint and put that in the refrigerator. Now some may
chose to leave the finish “as is”. Dead flat and rough in texture. I, for one, do not like this look
and begin the nurturing process to obtain a deeper color and smooth surface.
The nurturing begins with 0000 steel wool. Yes, it must be actual steel wool. I have tried
several of the synthetic options and they simply do not create the same surface and color
quality that can be obtained with actual steel wool. Using the steel wool, I rub out the surface
of the paint to obtain a smooth, lightly burnished surface. This operation also deepens the
There are a couple of points to keep in mind during this operation. First, while milk paint is
quite tough, it is possible to abrade all of the paint away, especially on the corners. If this
happens, simply repaint those areas and begin again with the steel wool. The second point is
to use your sense of touch, your ears and your eyes while rubbing out and burnishing the
painted surface. Doing so will make the process much quicker and lessen the likelihood of
rubbing through to bare wood. I would love to tell you how to do this, but it must be
experienced to be fully understood. Don’t worry though, you will catch on quickly.
Now that the surface is smooth and color deepened, the final step in the nurturing process can
begin. Milk paint is a porous coating and is susceptible to water damage and staining if left
unsealed. Multiple products can be used to seal a milk painted surface. The two that I have
experience with are shellac with paste wax and linseed oil with beeswax. Both options work
equally well, but they too must be nurtured.
Opting for shellac requires two or three coats of shellac with the final coat being rubbed out
with 0000 steel wool. Then a top coat or two of either clear or tinted wax. The darker shades
of milk paint benefit from the use of a tinted paste wax which generates yet another layer of
depth to the finish.
Linseed oil and beeswax also requires multiple coats. With each coat being buffed with a soft
cloth. The one caveat is that the first coat should be linseed oil or thinned linseed oil only. The
resulting finish is buttery smooth with a low luster.
As you now know, a milk paint finish can be time consuming, but the reward is a durable,
deeply colored and smooth finish that could quite possible last for centuries.
I recently built a small Shaker-style footstool and will walk you through the above process from
raw wood to completed finish.

The stool in its bare wood state. All surfaces were sanded through 220 grit.
The first coat of salmon milk paint. Note that the coverage is thin.
After three coats of milk paint, waiting about an hour between coats, I have full coverage.
Smoothed and burnished with 0000 steel wool. The surface is now buttery smooth. Also, note
the slightly darker color tone.
The first coat of oil. In this case Tried & True brand “Danish Oil” (polymerized linseed oil).
The completed stool with an additional three coats of an emulsion of linseed oil and beeswax.

Hopefully the above example demonstrates how simple a milk paint finish can be. While I used
an oil top coat in this example, shellac can be just as easily used. The additional steps when
using shellac are that the cured shellac should also be rubbed out with 0000 steel wool and a
final top coat of paste wax should be applied. To add another layer of depth to the finish a
tinted paste wax can be used with good results. The table base below received just such a

The only disadvantage to milk paint is that it is time consuming by measure of days invested.
Depending on the size of your project your actual time on task will only be a few minutes for
each of those days though. However, the advantages of milk paint are more than worth the
extra investment of your time. Milk paint yields a durable, deep color that will last for years and
years. Milk paint is also non toxic. Making it a better choice for your health and safe for any
shop helpers that may come along.

I hope that this introduction to milk paint and its application will entice you to give it a try on
your next painted project. There are many possibilities beyond this basic application as well.
You can combine colors to create an infinite number of shades and colors. You can also layer
different colors to great effect. Who knows? Milk paint may just become you new “go-to”

Making a Japanese Dai

by Brian Holcombe

This is an extract from ISSUE II of “The Lost Scrolls of HANDWORK” magazine

I will detail the process of making a Japanese plane body, known as a dai, to compete in the annual NYC Kez, hosted by Mokuchi in Brooklyn, NY.   Kez is short for Kezurou-Kai, which translates to ‘Let’s plane’, a competition in which participants compete to create the thinnest wood shaving.

In competition, the shaving must not only be thin but completely intact, it must also be the full width of the board (usually around 2″) and the full length of the competition board which is typically 8′.  World record holders have pulled shavings as thin as 2 microns, which is almost impossibly thin, being far thinner than a human blood cell at 8 microns.

In Japan, it’s my understanding that competitors use Hinoki cypress, while in the US we will be competing by using yellow cedar, which is actually a cypress and very similar in quality to good Hinoki cypress.  The yellow cedar we use is very old and tightly grained.

Competitors often cut their own dai, some choosing exotic materials or laminating their dai in hopes of creating a dai that will wear well, hold their tune for a good length of time and hold the blade with good support.  I’ve chosen to use beech, which is not entirely ideal, especially by comparison to Japanese white oak, but shares some commonalities.  Beech is the traditional western plane making wood, it can grip and release the blade repeatedly without losing its ability to do so.  Beech is fairly stable and very much available.  In my case I’ve chosen beech because of those positive traits and the fact that I can access it locally.

The cut-out process starts by prepping dai blanks, choosing material that is rift sawn and with grain running straight on all faces to reduce or eliminate runout.  I resaw the blanks to the required thickness of 35mm and down to a width of 80mm and 85mm.   I’ve cut multiple blanks, some I will set aside to age and two I will cut out.  One will be used, the other discarded.

I’ve chosen a blade by Shoichiro Tanaka of VAR white 1, Tanaka is one of few makers using VAR white 1.  This would be an ideal blade for competition with exception that it is 65mm and so less ideal than the typical 70mm, but it was made available and so I have chosen to put it to the test.

Next in prepping the dai block, I plane all four sides square, starting first with the sole which I adjust using winding sticks.  The sole of a plane is the ‘bark side’ of the wood block, this is done so that any tendency for the board to cup results in two ‘skates’ on the outside edges of the sole, which are easy to flatten down without enlarging the plane’s mouth and so that blade is not clenched by that same cupping effect.

Once the block is squared I can begin my layout, starting first by marking the mouth line with a knife, then transferring that mark to the side of the dai where I can layout my blade, wear, escapement and bedding angles.

This dai is specifically made for a single blade, meaning it will be used without a cap iron, chip breaker, sub blade, or secondary blade (however you like to call it).  When cutting shavings this thin and on such fine stock, a single blade is ideal.  Few competitors will want to complicate matters by adding a chip breaker, if they do it will be simply so that their normal planes can be used to compete with.

If you inspect closely you’ll note that the wear angle, which refers to angle between the top blade and the mouth opening, is extremely tight.  I’ve shown it being a single line in fact.  The reason for this is that my goal in cutting the dai will be to set the wear angle so tightly that only a fine shaving can pass through.

The escapement angle is transferred back to the sole and used to set the width of the mouth opening.  This is not to be confused with the distance between the blade and mouth which will be next to nothing.

The lines are next transferred to the top of the dai and knife marks are then applied.

I begin chopping out the dai, first cutting the mouth area, then flipping the dai onto its top side to begin cutting the bed and escapement.

The mortise is now formed in its rough shape, and it looks just that.  I’ve remained inside the lines and have nearly come through the bottom of the plane to meet the work I’ve done at the mouth.

Finally, I break through, then close in on my final fit by chopping the bed until it is fairly thin.  Next, I true up the escapement and the wear until a clean surface is achieved and finally I pare the sides cleanly.

Now I can cut the side grooves, this is a fairly critical bit of work.  I use a flush cut saw to form the top of the groove, which is the critical cut, then again on the lower part of the groove.

After which I clear the grooves with an 3mm chisel.

Now I have something to work with, but still much effort remains.  At this point I finish trimming the bed down to my knife lines, leaving the area nearest the mouth quite heavy.

Finally, I can bed the blade, I do so carefully to ensure that I can create a nice fit between the bed and blade nearest the mouth.  If done correctly a ‘smile’ is formed.

At last I detail the dai, rounding over the back, chamfering all corners (except of the front and back of the sole) and finish planing the exterior faces.  I’m ready to begin tuning.

I’ve carefully tuned the sole, as detailed in my previous posts on the subject.  Happily, I was able to keep the mouth exceptionally tight, in this case from the sole it appears to be closed.

However, when we sight down the blade we can see that a shaving will be able to fit through.

The proof is in the pudding as they say, however this pudding would suggest I have a great deal of tuning ahead of me.  The shaving is thin and full length, but not nearly thin enough, a real winner would be revealing a cheese cloth appearance, suggesting that it can barely hold itself together.

Shellac as a sealer?


You’ll hear shellac tossed around a lot as the “best” sealer, mostly in woodworking magazines targeting amateurs. I’ve come across many professional finishers, however, who believe they should be using shellac rather than the finish itself, a sanding sealer, vinyl sealer or a catalyzed sealer for a first coat.

With only a few exceptions, there’s no reason for anyone to use shellac under another finish. Shellac has been totally overhyped as a sealer. Here’s the story.


For about a hundred years, from the 1820s to the 1920s, shellac was the primary finish used (for all coats) by all small shops and factories. In the 1920s shellac was replaced in factories by lacquer for two primary reasons: shellac resin (from bug secretions) is a commodity product that was going up in price as demand increased, while lacquer was going down in price; and lacquer thinner (a blend of solvents) makes lacquer much more versatile in different weather conditions.

Shellac continued to be used by painters and floor finishers working inside buildings and by amateurs until the 1960s. Then three things happened that almost totally ended shellac being thought of as a complete finish:

  • Oil-based polyurethane became available. It was originally marketed as a “no-wax” floor finish, meaning that it was durable enough to resist scratches without being waxed (as was necessary with shellac). Through the years, polyurethane became the most popular wiped and brushed finish for everything.
  • Homer Formby began marketing wiping varnish (varnish thinned about half with mineral spirits) as “tung oil” through TV infomercials and shopping-mall and antique-club appearances. He did a masterful job, creating a large market for his finish and for other brands as well.
  • Woodworking magazines began promoting Danish oil (a blend of linseed oil and varnish) as an easy-to-use finish that protected the wood “from the inside.” The finish became very popular with amateur — and some professional — woodworkers.

Shellac is much more difficult to use (see below) than these three finishes, so it almost disappeared as a finish except in a few niche markets such as French polishing and handmade reproductions of antique furniture.

Companies supplying ready-to-use shellac disappeared one after another until only Zinsser remained. Seeing its market disappearing, Zinsser (Bulls Eye), with the help of some woodworking writers, turned shellac into a sealer, even introducing a dewaxed variety (SealCoat) that was marketed for use under polyurethane.

But here we return to the central question: Why not use polyurethane itself as the sealer? It “seals” the wood perfectly well. Why use shellac under several coats of polyurethane — or under any other finish? The answer is to solve a problem.

Shellac has wonderful blocking properties, better than any other finish. It blocks silicone contamination, which causes fish eye, odors (for example, from smoke or animal urine), and residual wax extremely well.

Shellac also blocks the resin from pine knots and very oily exotic woods, which can slow the drying of lacquer and varnish significantly.

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But notice that the first three situations are all refinishing problems, not new-wood problems, and the last is rare for professional finishers.

So for almost all new-wood situations, we come back to asking why use shellac at all?

Types of shellac

Not only is there no benefit to using shellac as a sealer in most situations, there are good reasons not to use it. Shellac is a difficult finish (or sealer) to use.

The first reason is the confused naming. Before you even get started, you have to learn the different types of shellac.

In liquid form there are clear (actually pale yellow) and amber shellacs. Until about 20 years ago, when Zinsser changed the names for marketing purposes, these were labeled “white” and “orange.” “Who wants orange furniture?” the Zinsser rep explained to me to justify the name change.

There’s also dewaxed shellac, which is more expensive. Should you be using that? Or will the shellac with its natural wax still included work just as well?

In flake form, which you dissolve yourself in denatured alcohol, there are many more varieties: blonde, superblonde, lemon-yellow, orange, garnet, button, ruby, extra dark and more. These names all refer to the color, ranging from pale yellow to very dark orange.

A second issue is the way solids content is measured. It’s not the standard percentage method used for all other finishes. It’s “pound cut” — the number of pounds of shellac resin dissolved in one gallon of alcohol.

Clear and amber liquid shellacs are three-pound cut. Dewaxed SealCoat is two-pound cut, which is no longer listed on the label. Though conversion to percent solids is possible (so you can predict the total build of your finish), this is another difficulty you have to overcome.

A third issue is shelf life. Once shellac is dissolved in alcohol, it begins deteriorating (more rapidly in hot temperatures). It takes longer to dry and it doesn’t dry as hard. After the shellac has deteriorated a few years in the can, the finish you apply over it may wrinkle.

Shelf life is not a problem if you dissolve your own from flakes (an extra step) because you know when you did this. But it is a problem if you buy already-dissolved shellac. Zinsser has stopped putting the date of manufacture on its cans. So you can’t know how well the shellac you’re using will perform without calling and finding someone who can translate the stamped lot number. You don’t know how long the shellac has been sitting on a store shelf or in a warehouse.

A fourth issue is blushing. You can control blushing with products that thin with lacquer thinner. Just add some retarder. It’s not so easy with shellac because there aren’t retarders available.

A fifth issue is ridging. Unless you thin shellac a good deal, it has a tendency to ridge at the edge of brush strokes and orange peel when sprayed.

If all this isn’t enough to make you question the wisdom of using shellac as a sealer when you don’t have one of the problems mentioned, consider that shellac is a relatively difficult finish to sand. It gums up sandpaper unless applied very thin.

Bottom line

You might conclude from this discussion that I don’t like shellac. This would be wrong. I like shellac a lot.

But my background is refinishing. Shellac is a wonderful tool for solving refinishing problems. It’s also great as a finish when you want to replace an original 19th century finish with the same thing.

But there’s rarely a reason to use shellac in a factory or cabinet shop making cabinets and other objects out of new wood.

Bob Flexner is author of “Understanding Wood Finishing” and “Flexner on Finishing.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.

100 year old Process for the Ebonising of Wood

By H. C. Standage

Boil 1 pound of logwood chips 1 hour in 2 quarts of water. Brush the hot liquor over the work and lay it aside to dry. When dry, give another coat, still using hot. When the second coat is dry, brush the following liquor over the work: 1 oz. of green copperas to 1 quart of water, to be used when the copperas is all dissolved. For staining, the work must not be dried before the fire, but in the sunshine. If in a warm room then away from the fire.

Polishing the Work

To polish this work, first give a coating of very fine glue size, and when dry smooth off very lightly with No. 180 paper, only just enough to render smooth, but not to remove the black stain. Then make a rubber of wadding about the size of a walnut, moisten the rubber with French polish, cover the whole tightly with a linen rag, put one drop of oil on the surface and rub the work with a circular motion. When the work has received one coat, set it aside to dry for about an hour. After the first coat is laid on and thoroughly dry, it should be partly papered off with No. 180 paper. This brings the surface even and at the same time fills up the grain. Now give a second coat as before. Allow 24 hours to elapse, again smooth off and give a final coat as before. Now comes spiriting off; great care must be used here, or the work will be dull instead of bright. A clean rubber must be made as previously described, but instead of being moistened with polish, must be wetted with 90 per cent alcohol, placed in a linen rag screwed into a tight even-surface ball, just touched on the face with a drop of oil, and then rubbed lightly and quickly in circular sweeps all over the work, from top to bottom. For the fine ebony black stain, apple, pear and hazel woods are the best wood: to use. When stained black they are the most complete imitations of the natural ebony. For the stain take gall-apple 14 oz., rasped logwood 3 1/2 oz., vitriol 3 1/4 oz. For the second coating a mixture of iron filings 3 oz. dissolved in strong wine vinegar 1 1/2 pints is warmed, and when cool, the wood already blackened, is coated with it 2 or 3 times, allowing it to dry after each coating. A strong lye is now put into a suitable pot to which is added coarsely bruised gall-apples and blue Brazil shavings, and exposed for the same as the former to the gentle heat of an oven which will yield a good liquid.

Staining the Woods

The woods are now laid in the first named stain, boiled for a few hours, and left in it for 3 days. They are then placed in the second stain and treated as in the first. If the articles are not thoroughly saturated, they must be once more placed in the first bath and then in the second. The polish used for wood: that is stained black should be white (colourless), to which a little finely ground Prussian blue should be added.

The Mortise and Tenon Joint in Woodworking

Of the various joints used by woodworkers in the several branches of the craft, none is more important than the mortise and tenon. Indeed, it may be classed as fundamental, for it enters into every sort of wooden construction from a Howe

truss or a trestle bridge to a Chippendale chair or a fancy cabinet.

A Universal Joint

Properly proportioned, it forms one of the strongest methods, and certainly the most all round effective one, for joining framing of almost every description. Some

Suggestions for the design and application of a universal joint familiar to all workers in wood

consideration of the various forms of this universal joint and of the rules for its design under varying conditions are therefore here presented, chiefly for the benefit of the beginner readers of this magazine.

Simple Forms

The simplest form of mortise and tenon joint is to be found in the case of rough constructive framing where two pieces of timber are to be joined at right angles, uncomplicated by panels or other considerations which affect the form of the joint in almost all the finer work of joinery or cabinetmaking. In such a case, the rule is to make the tenon one-third of the thickness of the material as shown in Fig. 1

Perfect Proportions

 In passing it should be noted that this proportion ought never to be exceeded, for while the tenon is often made less than one-third the thickness of the material without detriment, a tenon greater than one third the thickness of the material leaves the “cheeks” of the mortise weak in proportion to the strength of the tenon.

Fig. 2 is one of the first modifications of the simple mortise and tenon joint found necessary in framing and is used where the mortise is at the end of a piece. Such a tenon is said to be “haunched” or “relished,” the idea being to leave a solid portion at the end of the mortised piece. It will be noted that a small piece of that part of the tenon which is cut away to form the “haunch” or “relish” is left on and fitted into a corresponding groove in the mortised piece. This small part is not always left parallel but is often cut back to nothing at the outer end, as shown in the case of the table leg and rail in Fig. 3.

Width of Tenons The width of tenons in joinery and cabinetmaking is another factor which must receive consideration, for it is bad construction to make a tenon too wide in proportion to its thickness. The effect on such a tenon when its wedges are driven in is shown in Fig. 4,

where the tenon is buckled by the pressure of the wedges and the cheeks of the mortise forced out. The rule for the width of a tenon is that it should not exceed five or six times its thickness. A familiar application of this rule is in the case of wide rails of framing where the tenons are formed at each edge of the rail, leaving a relished portion in the centre, as in Fig. 5.

For the bottom rail of an ordinary panel door a combination of Figs. 2 and 5 is necessary and is shown at Fig.6

Warning as to Wedges

To save complications in the drawings, no wedges, or provision for them, have been shown, but in joinery work at all events most mortise and tenon joints are well wedged. In this connection a word of warning as to the form of wedges may not be out of place, for it is a common fault with beginners to make their wedges of too great an angle. To be most effective a wedge should have an angle of not more than 5 or 6 degrees, as is shown in Fig. 7.

Fig. 2 was spoken of as the joint for the angle or end of a piece of framing but where the framing is oblique a special “open,” “slip” or “slot” mortise and tenon joint is used. This is shown in Fig. 8 and is used by joiners in framing the triangular panelling in the spandrel or “drag” often placed underneath a flight of stairs to form a closet or enclose a lower flight.

Through Tenons

In cabinetmaking the through tenon is seldom used because of the unsightly appearance of its end grain on the edge of the framing. Given that the tenon fits properly so as to fill the mortise completely, there is no doubt that the short tenon is perfectly satisfactory for indoor work. If, however, the door or framing is to be exposed to the weather, the old-fashioned method of concealed wedging, known as “blind” or “fox” wedging, is to be recommended.

Fig. 9 is a sectional view of a fox- wedged tenon and shows several slim wedges inserted in saw kerfs in the end of the tenon, ready to be driven home as the tenon enters the mortise. The mortise is of course made slightly larger on the inside to allow of the consequent spreading of the end of the tenon, the whole arrangement forming a very effective joint.

Double Tenons of Doors A common requirement in architects’ specifications for first-class doors is that the lock or middle rail shall be double tenoned on the outer stile. Such an arrangement is

shown in Fig. 10, the idea being to allow of the insertion of a mortise lock without destroying the tenon, which would occur if the usual single tenons in the centre were provided. A very effective form of mortise and tenon formerly common in constructive work is

shown in section in Fig. 11 where one side of the mortise is formed to fit the dovetail shape of the edge of the tenon. Its chief use was in attaching to the backs of solid door frames the blocks which are built into the walls by the masons to hold the frame in its position.

Another joint familiar to everyone before the days of wire nails and “balloon” framing was the “stub” mortise and tenon used at the junction of the corner post with the sills of a building and shown in Fig. 12.

Tusk Tenons

No account of the various mortise and tenon joints would be complete without a description of that much beloved one of the old carpenters, the tusk tenon joint. In fact, wherever floor timbers are properly framed today the joint is still used and is a most effective one.

Fig. 13 shows the joint and it will be seen that it is quite scientific, inasmuch as the wood in the mortised or bearing piece is cut away chiefly on the neutral axis, that is, in the centre of its depth where its fibres are theoretically neither in compression nor tension when the beam or joist is loaded.

Two or three methods of laying out the joint are used, probably the best being that shown in Fig. 13a.

The depth of the timber is divided into six equal parts and the tenon made equal to one of them and laid out in centre. The notch or step below is made a half of the remaining depth and the upper shoulder is sloped off from a point immediately above the line of the notch. The complications of the simple mortise and tenon joint arising out of the use of mouldings, panels, rebates, etc., are very numerous, but speaking broadly, the main things to be observed in designing this joint are the proper proportions of the thickness and width referred to in the early part of this article.

Grinder Wheel Alignment

I recently bought a slow speed grinder as I’ve grown beyond weary sharpening A2 steel entirely by hand. If my plane irons were thin Stanley O1 blades, then I would never need a grinder even if the blade was nicked. However, it is what it is and life goes on.

With every new grinder or with every new wheel replacement, you will need to balance or align the wheels. You also may have to periodically balance the wheels throughout the life of the wheel due to dressing, wear and profiling. The balancing of grinding wheels is essential despite dressing them! Skipping this step may cause chatter marks, excessive wheel wear and spindle head wear to name but a few.

When you start the grinder, you may notice that the wheel has a slight wobble. This can be due to the large flange washers not running true. Fixing this isn’t as difficult or time consuming as you may think.

First turn the machine on and look at the wheel to see if there is a wobble. The chances are high that there will be. If there is, turn the machine off, unplug it from the wall, wait for the wheels to stop turning and take the covers off.

Make a reference mark on each flange washer and the wheel to record their original location.

Next, loosen the shaft nut and rotate the flange washer clockwise and the other wheel counter clockwise by ½”.

Tip: If the wheel is new, you may notice the flange washer won’t rotate due to it being stuck to the paper. I used the tip of a flat blade screwdriver to strike the flange washer, a light tap is all that is needed to unstick it from the paper.

Tighten the shaft nut by hand and rotate the wheel by hand. If you don’t feel confident that you will observe any change, then tighten the shaft nut and turn the machine on. If there is still wobble in the wheel, turn it another ½”. Keep doing this until you’re satisfied. You could spend an eternity finding that sweet spot, but at some point you will have to stop and say it’s good enough for my purpose. A small amount of wobble is fine.

The final step is to dress the wheel. The centre bushings “roughly” centre the wheel on the shaft. Inaccuracies in the manufacturing process may cause fluctuation in the wheel and to address this, a wheel dresser can be used to make the wheel run true.

Place the wheel dresser on the tool rest angled upwards with the edge of the wheel dresser facing the wheel. Slowly bring the wheel dresser to the stone until you hear the untrue side touch the dresser. As you apply light pressure, the face of the stone becomes true.

Some things to be aware of:

The left side shaft nut has left-handed threads and so the nut is tightened counter clockwise. The right-side shaft nut has right-handed threads and is tightened by rotating it clockwise.

Do not over tighten the shaft nuts. Doing so can cause damage to the wheel and the flange washers. A light touch is all that is needed. The direction of travel will keep the nuts tight.

When buying a new wheel make sure the R.P.M. rating is greater than the grinder’s motor. The outer diameter of the wheel must be according to the size specification of your grinder. The bore diameter of the wheel must be the same as the original wheel.

Do not remove the labels on the sides of the wheels. They help to spread the holding pressure of the tightened nuts on the grinding wheel flanges.

Applying the entire face of the wheel dresser to the stone without the support of a tool rest may introduce deeper grooves and further untrue the stone.

Troubleshooting as is in the manual

If the adjustment of the flange washers does not make the wheel run without side to side oscillation, then remove the wheel and flange washers and check the shoulder on the motor shaft at the point where the flange washer seats against it. A slight burr on the edge of the shoulder can stop the flange washer from seating properly. The burr can be removed using a file to smooth the edge of the shoulder. Look for any roughness on the surfaces of the flange washers and smooth these spots on sandpaper placed on a flat surface. Then replace the wheel, re-adjust the flange washers, and dress the wheel.

With wheels properly aligned,this is a wonderful machine that serves its purpose in eliminating the drudgery of sharpening A2 plane blades. With the further aid of an after-market tool rest, you’ll have one powerful addition to your sharpening tool kit.