Workbench Day 11: Mortises, Tenons, Sharpening oh my!

After a few friendly reminders, I realize that it is indeed time to take a break and sharpen my chisels before I continue.  I want to make sure the mortises are as sharp and clean as I can make them to ensure a good fit with the tenons.  To do that, I need to get rid of the (gasp) factory edge that has so far lived on the tip of my chisels.

To do that I decided to make a little sharpening station, based off of something I saw in Dan’s Shop—an awesome resource for an aspiring galoot like me.   His version is just gorgeous—and takes up a LOT more space than I have available.  So, I decided to make a version of my own with cutoffs from the edge of the workbench 2x4s and a piece of cutoff 1/4″ plywood.  I use 3 6″x6″ tiles for sharpening and while I’d love to have 12″ beasties, when I bought them I was on less than a shoestring budget and for 60 cents a piece, I couldn’t lose. They are not granite or marble or glass (because I always love sticking my tongue out at purists….no, really just because that was too expensive at $5 a tile and I was still dipping my toes in the hand tool water so to speak and wasn’t ready to fully commit) but they get the job done (my planes seem to be sharp enough, at least!).

There’s not much to tell with this thing…just a slab of plywood 24″ long, about 8″ wide.  I measured, cut and countersunk holes for #8 1/2″ wood screws.

That was pretty easy, actually…does this mean I’m getting better?

Once everything was screwed down tight, I took my block plane and put a slight chamfer for comfort along the edges (whcih also trimmed the uneven cut that was left on the plywood from a previous project) and used some sandpaper to smooth out the rest.  All in all, I think it took me about 20 minutes, 10 of which were spent cutting wood.

Ready for duty. Well, almost, the coarse tile needs another sheet of sandpaper, but the other two are ready!

Now I’m all set for sharpening the chisels and can leave the whole set up together.  Even better, when the bench is complete (well, even before that…when the legs are on…) I’ll be able to clamp this baby down and use it to finish the bench.  I think it’s pretty solid for a scrap-together project.  And the fit of the tiles is pefect—nothing is needed other than friction.  I can fold the sandpaper over the edge of the tile and when it’s wedged home, the sandpaper is nice and snug.  The blue painter’s tape in the above photo is from the last time I sharpened my planes.

And let me tell you, this thing works great!   I clamped it to the benchtop because my temporary bench was too wobbly when I tried moving the chisels over the sandpaper.  Once it was locked down, I had the chisels sharp and shiny in about 30 minutes.

Works like a charm!

I had to spend some time with each of the 3 chisels I have to flatten and polish the back first.  But once they were shiny, sharp and polished to a nearly mirror finish…

I now had 3 wonderfully sharp chisels (waaaaay sharper than they were out of the box, which, to my inexperienced eyes was sharper than anything I’d used before to begin with).

I could shave with these things if I was suicidal…

That left me with just enough time to tackle another mortise and tenon—this time the right rear leg and the other tenon on the rear stretcher.  So I whipped out the trusty Black and Decker woodwrecker and set to work with a 5/8″ paddle bit.

Thanks to a long career at an arts and crafts store, I now have the freakish ability to judge whether something is level and square just by looking at it—almost never need to check if I’m drilling straight down. I eyeballed both mortises, for the record and they are good to go. Seriously! This photo is off slightly because I was trying to do it one handed and hold the camera too…

I followed the same procedure as yesterday, namely, slice the walls of the mortise with the chisels and creep up on the layout lines.  When I got fairly close, I started dry fitting and shaving the mortise and the tenon to get things nice and snug.  And may I say, holy crap those chisels are sharp—they literally went through the wood like a hot knife through butter.  I know that’s a tired old cliche, but I couldn’t think of a better cliche to use…it did not take hardly any pressure at all (unlike yesterday) and the blades just kind of slid down in the mortise on their own.  It was amazing!!!   Thanks to my fellow Lumberjock Brian for giving me the nudge to sharpen my tools.  WOW was it effective.  I’ll never use dull chisels again! This time it only took me 30 minutes to do what took an hour and a half yesterday!

And the picture says it all:

It’s alive!!! It’s aaalive!!!! Muuhwaahahahahaaaaa

Tomorrow should be an interesting day.  Those sharp chisels turned a sweaty, nerve wracking chore into a real pleasure.  I can’t wait to tackle more mortises!  Bring it, base!



About Steven M. Vaught

A native son of Delaware, now living in Illinois, Steven is a writer, family historian, amateur astronomer, sometimes-gardener, woodworker, father to three wonderful children, husband to a wonderful wife, and caretaker of one cheeky vizsla.
This entry was posted in Projects, Woodworking Skills, Workbench and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Workbench Day 11: Mortises, Tenons, Sharpening oh my!

  1. David says:

    Looking great. You had mentioned drawboring the tenons earlier. I wouldn’t. Just drilled through and pinned should be enough. You don’t want to blow out the tenons with high pressure from drawboring..

    • Is that because it’s just cheapo SPF stud lumber you think? I was kinda worried about that myself…even if it’s only 1/16″? Of course, now that I think about it, not sure what 1/16″ of an inch would do structurally on something this scale anyway…Chris Schwarz is the one that got me thinking about drawboring, but his bench was around 5″ in the legs I think..mine is only 3.5″… I have to admit, the main reason I wanted to drawbore is the historical coolness of it. More to think about…

      • David says:

        No, because there will not be that much distance between the end of the tenon and the hole. Not a big deal though. With dried lumber and modern glues, drawboring is not that big of a deal anyway. About the only thing it does is make it where you don’t need to clamp stuff up as much. Green woodworking is where drawboring really shines. Take a look through Alexander and Follansbee’s stuff to see that kind of work. Dried lumber just is not elastic enough to take that kind of pressure. On yours, just pull them tight and drill straight for the pins and drive them in. They are not going anywhere. Give them a little offset if it makes you feel better. Just be careful. The leverage of a tapered pin will focus a tremendous amount of force in a small area. That’s why they use the wooden gluts to split logs.

        Don’t knock softwood. It has a long history in woodworking. It is just a bit tougher to work with and has a different look. Hardwoods are ok for some stuff, softwood is great for others. Remember, softwood and hardwood classifications are not really about hardness. The hardest woods are softwoods (some of the ironwood varieties) and the softest are hardwoods (Balsa). Pine can stand up to decades of abuse as flooring. Spruce and fir are light and strong. That’s why spruce is the wood of choice for musical instrument sound boards, wooden boat masts, and aircraft. A softer wood workbench is really better than a hardwood bench in my opinion. I would rather the bench get dinged up than a work piece. You just re-flatten benches when they get grotty. A workbench is a sophisticated work holder, not a piece of furniture.

      • Wow, you have sold me on the straight pin. Thanks for the explanation, it makes total sense now. The stuff I bought is not only kiln dried but was in my shop for a week before I really started messing with it so I defeinitely couldn’t classify it as green. You’re right, I went and checked out Peter Follansbee’s blog again and sure enough it’s all fresh cut wood he uses! You know, I KNEW that too, just didn’t think anything of it. Thanks for opening my eyes to a greater appreciation of the lowly pine! I think what made me suggest SPF wasn’t the best was the way the wood is so fibrous—it just seems inferior to stuff like the plank of Hickory I have waiting to be used as a bench stop(s). The hard, dense Hickory just FEELS stronger compared to the light, fiber pine…but I have to say, when I put the two rear legs on that stretcher, it sure felt a lot more solid than I expected, without pins!

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