Working with the lower end woods

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    Colin Scowen

    Much as I’d love to be able to build everything I build using nice hardwoods, the relative availability and cost unfortunately drives me to using pine and SPF for most of what I do.
    Don’t misunderstand me, these things end up looking great from a distance, and the people I make them for seem very pleased, but I see all the little flaws and such *tear out, less than crisp shoulder lines etc).
    I am curious, given how often I read / hear ‘this is a lovely tool but won’t work on pine’, if there are any other things that do work on pine aside from super sharp planes and chisels and sandpaper.

    Colin, Czech Rep.

    M W

    I have found that working with softer woods both coniferous and deciduous you need to keep your tools very sharp.

    I have some chisels I keep honed at ~20 degrees and only use them on pines and poplar. The edges won’t hold up to beating with a mallet. These are usually used for paring operations. Another wood working instructor, Bob Cosman, recommends 17 degrees for chopping out dovetails in pine.

    I know this is probably heresy, but I find that Japanese style pull saws make a much cleaner cut than Western saw in softwoods. Most traditional Japanese wood working was typically done in soft woods. So it is my impression that the saw tooth profile in those saw is optimized towards softwoods.

    Colin Scowen

    I might buy a couple of cheaper chisels and work them down to that. I have a pull saw, and I’ve yet to try it with the knife wall technique, but my experience so far is that I am better able to control a push saw. But that may be more familiarity than anything else.
    I also have a spare no 4 blade that I might try a stiffer bevel on as well.
    Looks like my weekend will be at the sharpening station 🙂

    Colin, Czech Rep.

    Sven-Olof Jansson

    In addition to a number of prototypes, I’ve made the kitchen for our croft from North Scandinavian Scots Pine (Pinus Sylvestris) [NSSP] – the same as seen in WWMC videos, if going by what’s stamped on the edges of the wood pieces.

    Compared to construction grade spruce, NSSP is not soft. Actually, probably medium hard; more like Douglas Fir, which it is very hard to differentiate from, and Southern Yellow Pine, though without the great variation between early wood and late wood of the latter. It works well enough with the default 25° of my chisels and bench planes, as well as with the 30° bevel of the mortice chisels. There are no problems with cross cutting and ripping, despite the saw makers’ claims that their products are set for hard woods. The challenges I’ve experienced are related to properties common to all conifers (long fibres basically), retailers not separating between species (calling spruce pine), and that big timber producers give no heed to reaction wood.

    The attached link should hopefully lead to information on any nearby retailer

    Sven-Olof Jansson
    London, UK; Boston, MA

    Greg Nuckols

    I have also come to draw a line between construction grade SPF and clear-ish pine. The former I no longer try to use for any but the absolute roughest projects. Too many knots and too much wild grain for hand planing, and when I’ve used SPF (kiln-dried) it always seems to be subject to severe movement. But clear pine, even from the local hardware store, is completely different (and, of course, more expensive). Although the hard latewood and very soft earlywood can present a challenge, I find clear pine workable with hand tools. Where I live (California) poplar is a very easy-to-work hardwood that isn’t too much more expensive than clear pine.

    Colin Scowen

    thanks for that, however I live in the Czech Republic, so buying timber in the UK would still be a 1200 mile round trip.

    Greg et al,
    I am not talking so much about construction grade wood, as I am able to sort through the various offerings in the local Obi to get clear rift or quarter sawn material. (Fence slats are my preferred choice at the moment, which I used for the frames on the attached picture). Where I struggle is getting to a timber merchants and being able to dig around in the hard wood sections. That’s why I am trying to understand if there are any significant differences in the way tools are set up, or work is done in pine vs hard woods.

    I suspect that Paul does not really work any differently between the two, but I would be interested in knowing how folks handle tearout when it happens. Or if chopping to the knife wall on a dovetail is done later in the process for pine vs hard wood, so that there is more resistance to moving the knife wall. I can understand that with a lower bevel angle on a chisel (per Mike’s suggestion), less sideways force is exerted on the wall, so less chance of movement.

    Colin, Czech Rep.

    Colin Scowen

    Finally got around to putting the low bevel on that chisel (a 14mm Narex, plastic handle, think I paid 3 or 4 pounds equivalent for it). I just cut a test dovetail, and found no sign of any fibers pulling out. This may be what I was looking for. I will need to make a box or two to give it a run for it’s money.
    That will have to wait a few weeks though, I have a couple other things to get out of the way first.

    Colin, Czech Rep.

    Ben Ellenberger

    I’ll second the recommendation for poplar, if you can get it. In California it is almost as cheap as decent quality pine.

    As for working with pine, I don’t sharpen or set up my tools any differently, but I do make sure I keep them sharp. As soon as they start feeling dull stop and sharpen. Since pine is soft, I do sneak up to the line when chopping. I’ll make my first chop a little bit off the line, remove waste, then come back and chop right on the line. It is easy to move your line if you get too aggressive. I also try to be careful with my last few chops that finish removing the dovetail waste. If you try to do it with one big chop you can tear a chunk from the middle of the board. It will be hidden in the joint, so it doesn’t really hurt anything, but I’ll slow down and take few more lighter chops at the very end to get a cleaner cut.

    I really like planing pine. I find it to plane really well with a sharp tool.

    Andrew Sinclair

    Like many of the other responses here I don’t think theres a lot you need to do that’s special in clear pine other than keep tools really sharp.

    The knots in construction grade are a nightmare: dull tools quickly and usually lead to opposing planing directions on either side of each knot. I usually thickness with one number 4 and switch to my best, freshly sharpened, #4 to clean up tearout with a very fine set and sometimes planing into a bad knot from both sides. I usually keep to clear boards if it’s meant to be a finely finished piece; though sometimes allowing the odd knot can be nice to add character.

    I do think Paul’s pine is a touch harder than the softest plantation pine. When pine is really soft, knife walls need circumspection when chiselling; but it is also easy to get a really deep knife wall, which helps!

    One thing I’ve been experimenting with is filing crosscut (heresy I know!!) on one of my 12pt tenon saws (I ended up with two 12 point saws due to Ebay imprecision). I’ve found 15 degrees of fleam to make crosscuts like tenon shoulders really neat. Sounds hideous filing this way though, compared to rip filing (maybe inadequate clamping of sawplate I suppose).

    One other key tip in pine is ironing out the dings using a damp towel and my wife’s laundry iron before final glue up.

    Also recently I tried two coats of shellac before glue up, and that is a big winner to improve the look around any squeeze out m, as well as *much* easier sanding after the sealer coat. It never ceases to amaze me how much nicer pine looks after 4 coats of blonde shellac and some beeswax…

    All the best, Andrew

    Andrew Sinclair

    I should also have said, I do think softwoods like pine and doug fir are much more demanding to work than the softer hardwoods like meranti. The range of hardness in the seasonal growth shows up technique flaws very clearly. In my mind that makes it a great teacher: if I observe carefully, it literally tells me when I’m doing something wrong!

    jason l

    Pine lower end wood? I don’t think so, it takes some skill and sharp tools to work on pine. It was the first wood I’ve ever practiced and learnt on.
    Very valuable lessons were learnt skill wise and sharpening wise, plus it’s a stunningly beautiful wood, I prefer pine over many other woods.
    Pine teaches lessons.

    Matt Sims

    Like Mike Walsh I also saw Rob Cosman’s recommendation to have chisels sharpened at about 17 degrees for dovetails in pine… It made a big difference and so I have some chisels ( a set from lidl), that I have at that sharper angle and use just for that. The difference is quite remarkable…

    Of course, they do need sharpening even more often, but it’s worth it.




    having a macro-camber is the way to go, you can adjust the angle of chisels relatively quickly without sacrificing too much material. whatever feels right to you. too steep an angle and the middle of your pin and tail recesses will look like wrenched teeth. Too shallow and you’ll be resharpening very often but probably getting a superb cut.

    like everyone said, sharpen often and well. pine is unforgiving if you get lazy.

    it’s your choice what finish you want to settle on. getting thin bevel edged chisels will be more useful for softwoods.

    Planes don’t care what you sharpen them to, within reason. read Paul’s many blog posts about sharpening.

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