Chris Schwarz's Blog

When Seen in the Right Light

Hand-tool work can be confusing and frustrating when you follow the power-tool rules. Here’s a good example: I was working on finishing up the transitions between the aprons and legs of a Creole Table. After sawing them out, I had to first remove the bulk of the waste with a chisel, then follow it up with a rasp, a little sanding and then some scraping.

While working on the first corner I was having trouble seeing where the rasp was cutting in particular. The problem was that our shop at the magazine is too well lit. We have enormous windows on two walls and banks and banks of fluorescent fixtures in the drop ceiling overhead.  Plus task lighting at the benches. It’s like our photographer, Al Parrish, always says: “There’s too much light. I can’t see what I’m doing.”

So I took two steps backward and flipped off all of the overhead lights in the shop. With only the daylight coming in the windows, the rasp work was much easier. I could see every mark left by every tool in high relief. Same went for the marks left by the chisel, sandpaper and scrapers. They all were much more evident with side-lighting alone. Lots of omni-directional light eliminates the shadows that clue us into how we’re progressing.

This makes sense. Hand tools were developed to be used in shops that were dimly lit. And early workbenches are typically pictured in front of a window (check out the Dominy bench at Winterthur and the Andre Felibien illustrations of an early workshop in “Principes de l’architecture”).

But in the world of power tools, bright lights are helpful for most tasks. You don’t want anything dangerous and finger chewing lurking in a dark area. So light it up.

With the lights out, the work proceeded quickly and all of the transitions were cut smoothly (and I saved my company a few cents on its light bill).

I also had a little time to finally glue up the top for the Creole Table. This was my second attempt , the first was thwarted by unruly wood that was in tension. After surfacing all the boards for the top, I edge-jointed them on our Bridgewood jointer and noticed immediately that the machine was sniping the boards. Somehow the outfeed table had dropped below the cutterhead. Adjusting this part of our machine is a touchy operation, so instead of spending an hour futzing with it I reached for my jointer plane and trued up all three joint lines in about five minutes and then sprung all the joints by making stopped cuts in the center of each edge. The joints in the top closed up with one clamp across the center.

That was too easy. I felt guilty, so I added a couple more clamps. Then I scooted off to a barbecue restaurant with my family where I ate entirely too much brisket and bread pudding. More guilt (and pressure).

Christopher Schwarz

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