Sometimes with woodworking, what seems crazy one day can be quite sensible the next.
I distinctly remember reading in the late 1990s a manuscript from an author who was building some Morris chairs. He used an 8′-long beam compass to lay out the shallow curves on the chairs’ stretchers and had to enlist his sons to help him strike the arc.
Fellow editor David Thiel and I chuckled about that detail when we read it. It seemed like a lot of trouble for a shallow curve that we would strike using a flexible piece of thin hardwood and a couple nails.
But this week I’m not laughing anymore.
This week I’m building a Stickley sideboard for the next issue of Woodworking Magazine, and one of the prominent features of the piece is a shallow curve on the front rail. When I built the prototype of the project I used the flexible-stick-and-nails approach to lay out the curve.
After staring at that curve for many months on the prototype, it bugs me. It’s not a perfect arc. It’s a subtle thing, but I think the arc is a little flat.
So yesterday I built a monster beam compass that was more than 4′ long. The beam itself is 1/2″ x 1″. At one end I drove a #8 x 2″ screw through the beam. At the other end I drilled a 1/4″-diameter hole. Then I whittled a pencil to fit snugly in that hole. (Good luck trying to find the right drill bit to fit a standard pencil. Are pencils metric?)
I drove the screw into my benchtop just a tad then secured my sideboard’s stretcher to the bench with a holdfast. I struck the arc then cut it out. It’s perfect.
What’s next? Am I doomed to build a jig that holds too-thick biscuits so I can sand them to perfect thickness? Am I going to build a router table with a micrometer built into the fence?
Shoot me if I do.
– Christopher Schwarz
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