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Lucas Sawmill Is Small But Mighty

Scott Wunder of WunderWoods laying on giant white pine live natural edge milling

My sawmilling adventures began with an Alaskan chainsaw mill, which is just an attachment for a chainsaw to allow it to repeatedly cut a log lengthwise into lumber. It wasn’t anything fancy, and while it produced fine lumber, it was painfully slow to use. It didn’t take too many hours of me directly sucking in sawdust and fumes, while sweating my butt off, to start shopping for a more capable sawmill.

When I started my search, I considered bandsaws made by companies smaller than Wood-Mizer or TimberKing or Baker in a quest to also find smaller prices. While searching, I found several mills that looked suitable in the $5,000-$10,000 range, and I also came across a new “swing mill” from Australia called a Lucas mill.

The bandsaws looked to be a good choice as far as production went, but I didn’t have any way to move logs at the time, so the Lucas won out. It’s ability to easily break down and set up on site, while fitting in the bed of a pickup truck made it the clear choice, especially for larger logs. I say clear choice, but it wasn’t an easy choice. I didn’t like that the basic mill, fitted with a circular blade, was limited to 6″ or 8″ wide lumber without the optional slabbing bar attachment. And, my biggest fear was that this new mill from Australia, that I knew nothing about, might not be as good as it appeared in the videos.

Unfortunately, my fears were NOT immediately allayed. I went to pick up the more than $10,000 sawmill at the shipping terminal, and I couldn’t help but feel like I way overpaid for the amount of merchandise I picked up (Did I mentioned that it fits in the bed of my pickup truck?). There was only a sawhead, two long rails, and a few other miscellaneous metal parts that formed the frame ends. Besides that, the kit included a sharpener and some other odds and ends, but none of it added up to very much. I started doing the cost per piece arithmetic in my head, and it wasn’t looking good.

Here I am reading directions and setting up the 6" Lucas mill for the first time.

Here I am reading directions and setting up the 6″ Lucas mill for the first time.

Regardless of my buyer’s remorse, I was tickled to have a “real” sawmill and set it up in my back yard the very first chance I got. After just a short time reviewing the directions, I had the sawmill set up and ready to cut. Even for someone who had never set one up, the Lucas went together fast. It was then that I realized what I had paid for. I didn’t pay for lots and lots of parts and extra bulk. I paid for an impressively designed machine, with an amazingly small stature, than can tackle the biggest logs. I paid for all of the research and design that went into the mill by the Lucas boys, and I paid to not lug around thousands of extra pounds, and I paid for everything to go together with minimal effort and a minimal number of steps. I got all of that and more.

From a design standpoint, I can confidently say that every part of the Lucas mill is well-planned and simplified beyond belief. The only mechanisms that I have ever had a problem with are the winches that raise and lower the ends of the long rails. They work perfectly fine and they are quite smooth, but they can be dangerous. When fully loaded with weight, it is possible to release the winch and lose control, resulting in a violently swinging handle that can smash your arm and allow the sawhead to come crashing down. I know from personal experience, as this has happened to me more than once, with the last instance leaving me at the hospital with a possible broken arm (luckily it was just a very bad contusion). If they were to ask, I would recommend that the winch system be built like the raising and lowering mechanism on my TimberKing 1220 manual mill, which magically is able to easily raise and lower the sawhead with complete control and without the possibility of having a disastrous crash. I have no idea how it works, but it smoothly operates the sawhead with a very heavy 15 hp electric motor attached to it like it isn’t there at all.

Even logs this size, like the one I milled for Martin Goebel of Goebel and Co. Furniture can be milled with the Lucas mill.

Even logs this size, like the one I milled for Martin Goebel of Goebel and Co. Furniture can be milled with the Lucas mill.

Now that you know to watch your arm and to be careful when lowering the sawhead on the Lucas mill, I can continue telling you how wonderful the Lucas mill is. First off, realize that I bought a Lucas mill in 1995, so I have been using one for about 2o years now, and I still use it on a regular basis. It is a very versatile machine that can handle big logs with ease. I often get asked how big of a log I can handle, and with the Lucas mill in my corner, I can just answer, “Yes.”

Currently, I use the 8″ model, which means that with the 21″ diameter circular blade attached it can produce up to 8″ x 8″ dimensional lumber. I rarely cut 8″ x 8″, but the mill can easily be adjusted to cut any dimensions under 8″. I often cut 1″ and 2″ thick lumber by 8″ wide.

The Lucas mill is called a “swing” mill because the blade can flip or swing with the pull of a lever from the horizontal to vertical position and right back again. The cool part is that both of the cuts line up with each other and work in concert to produce accurate and straight, completely edged lumber without a dedicated edger or any extra handling. In contrast, to edge lumber on a bandsaw mill requires flitches (lumber with bark edges) to be stood up in the mill and cut one or two more times to produce lumber with four square edges.

In the 1990's, I used the 6" Lucas mill to produce lots of 1" thick, fully-edged lumber.

In the 1990’s, I used the 6″ Lucas mill to produce lots of 1″ thick, fully-edged lumber.

When cutting dimensional lumber I can easily work by myself making the vertical cut walking backward, then making the horizontal cut walking forward and finishing by sliding the cut board backward and out of the way. After a quick repositioning of the sawhead and a flip of the blade, I am back to cutting another piece of lumber. When cutting dimensional lumber like this I get in a rhythm–walk backward, flip blade, walk forward, slide board, move and flip blade, then repeat. The first cuts on the outside of the log are firewood, but after one pass across the top of the log and then dropping the mill to the next set of cuts, almost every pass produces an edged piece of lumber.

Scott Wunder of WunderWoods milling a large white oak slab on the Lucas mill for Martin Goebel of Goebel and Co. FurnitureWhen I first got my Lucas mill I used it with the circular blade most of the time. Everything I produced was fully edged. Big slabs weren’t in style, so I didn’t even own a slabber, let alone use one. Now things are different. Live edges are in and so are big slabs, so the slabber is on the mill most of the time. The slabber is an attachment that turns the sawhead into a giant 2o hp chainsaw mill, with a maximum cut of 64″ wide.

I use the Lucas mill with the slabber attachment to cut all of my big logs that will produce slabs for table tops. With the slabber attachment the Lucas is not fast, but it can cut much wider than my bandsaw mill (maximum cut of 29″ wide), and it doesn’t make sporadic wavy cuts like the bandsaw mill. Knowing that I won’t get a miscut on a high-priced piece of wood gives me a great piece of mind.

The Lucas mill is great at flattening live edge slabs too.

The Lucas mill is great at flattening live edge slabs too.

These days when the slabbing attachment isn’t on the mill, the circular blade is, but not for milling lumber. I have been using it to flatten my kiln-dried slabs, and as long as the blade is sharp, it works great. After I move the slab into position, I just skim the surface with the mill to remove the high spots. Next, I flip the slab, drop the mill a bit and skim the other side. The end result is a perfectly flat slab, ready for final planing. The kids at Lucas sell planing and sanding attachments, but I haven’t used or purchased either one since I finish almost all of the slabs with the power hand planer or wide-belt sander.

Every time I use the Lucas mill, I am reminded how well it works, from quickly setting it up to making small adjustments, everything is simple. And, I know when I show customers how capable it is, they are impressed that such a lightweight, easy-to-setup mill can do so much.

Note: While Lucas is more than welcome to pay me to endorse their mills, as of now they do not. This was written for educational purposes and to let others know how my slabs are produced.


Sharpen Your Bandsaw Blade on the Mill

Using a small belt sander works great to touch up bandsaw blades.

Through the years I have dulled a lot of bandsaw blades on my sawmill, and for the longest time, I have struggled with keeping them sharp. I have tried multiple tools and methods to get this done, but only within the last year do I feel like I have found a good solution.

The problem starts with the bandsaw blade itself. It is a finicky conglomeration of bent teeth, cut from a thin piece of flexible steel that is somehow supposed to cut a straight line, not only from front to back, but also side to side, and if it isn’t well machined and sharp, there isn’t a snowball’s chance that this is going to happen.

Early in my career, when a new saw blade dulled and started to cut waves, I would try things like adding tension to the blade, slowing down my feed rate or even adjusting my blade guides. No matter what I tried, a dull blade would still make a wavy cut. However, if I used the exact same setup but installed a new blade, the cut would be perfect again. As a matter of fact, almost every other adjustment could be less than perfect and a sharp blade would still make a good cut. From 15 years of experience, it is clear that I need to keep my saw blade sharp and touch nothing else.

My standard course of action is to put on a new or newly sharpened blade from Wood-Mizer when my cut starts getting wavy. This is a great way to live. Nothing cuts like a brand new blade, and it feels like a treat to put one on. Even the resharpened blades cut great since they get a complete factory treatment, including cleaning and full tooth grinding and setting. I have always had great results from Wood-Mizer, and I highly recommend their new blades and resharpening service. (Disclaimer: I am not being paid by Wood-Mizer and Wood-Mizer doesn’t know I’m writing this post – they probably don’t even know I exist.)

The problem for me was that time in between cutting like new and cutting like crap. I would have a blade that was cutting great, but I could feel it pulling hard and on the verge of cutting poorly. I didn’t want to pull it off of the saw because it was running so well, but at the same time I knew my time was limited. If I could just get an edge back, I could keep cutting with the same blade and not have to mess with sending the blade off to be sharpened, and I would save $7 (by the way, I think $7 is a great price for the quality of service, but I would rather not spend it if I don’t have to). So, off I went, looking for a way to sharpen blades on my own.

In the past, I tried using a manual sharpener that came with my first bandsaw mill. It functioned like it was designed to, but the results weren’t great. Besides having to take the blade off of the mill and set it up in the sharpener, it used a stone that wore down quickly and wouldn’t maintain a flat, consistent face on the tooth (looking back, I probably should have tried some other stone options, but I didn’t).

Later, I tried a few other approaches. The first was using my chainsaw grinder, like the one below, which had a similar problem to the first grinder. The small stones would wear down quickly and the thin bandsaw blade would basically cut the stones in half.

This grinder is great for chainsaws, but not for bandsaw blades because the stones wear down too fast.

This grinder is great for chainsaws but not for bandsaw blades because the stones wear down too fast.

The next attempt used a sanding disc on a drill. I liked the idea of using sandpaper because it maintained a flat surface during grinding – it would wear down, but not change shape. This one showed potential, but it was incredibly hard to control because the spinning motion pulled the drill up and away from the blade.

I finally gave up, feeling like I had exhausted every option cheaper than buying a fully automatic grinder like the factory has, but I never gave up on the idea of sandpaper as a good abrasive that doesn’t change shape.

Up to that point, all of my attempts focused on sharpening the saw by grinding the front of the tooth. There was nothing else I could think of that would fit between the teeth and grind the front of them. But, then I thought about grinding the top of the teeth. This surface is easier to get to and taking material off of the top will still lead to a sharp point – it doesn’t really matter which face gets ground down.

I started off with my 3″ Porter-Cable belt sander just to try things out and it worked great. I could sand the top edge of the tooth with control and the speed was slow enough to not feel like I was burning the metal (which softens the teeth). The only problem was the weight of the belt sander, which might as well have been 1,000 lbs. because there was no way I could hold it to sharpen all of the teeth on the blade.

At the time I didn’t own a small belt sander, so I took a gamble and purchased a Porter-Cable 371 compact belt sander. I figured that even if it didn’t work for the blade sharpening I would at least have another tool in my woodworking arsenal and that there were going to be plenty of times when a small belt sander would come in handy. Finding other uses for the new sander hasn’t been much of an issue though, because it works great to sharpen blades, and it is always parked (plugged in) right next to my saw, ready for the next dull one to come along.

Using a small belt sander works great to touch up bandsaw blades.

Using a small belt sander works great to touch up bandsaw blades.

I simply leave the blade on the saw and grind just enough off of the top of each tooth to get the edge back. I use my free hand to steady the blade and to advance the saw to the next tooth. In a matter of just a few minutes I can be back to cutting, feeling like I have beat the system.

I use my left hand to stabilize the blade and to advance it to the next tooth.

I use my left hand to stabilize the blade and to advance it to the next tooth.

Now, there are limits to sharpening your saw like this. First off, no matter how good you get with the sander, the blade will not be as good as a new one or one that has had a full factory grind and set because this grinding is changing the geometry of the already finicky blade. And, it will do nothing to improve a blade that was just generally running badly or running badly for a specific reason like hitting a rock or metal (all of these problem blades get sent out for a full resharpening). It will, however, make a blade that was running well continue to run well and make flat, straight cuts for much longer.

Generally, it seems to work out that I touch up a blade with the sander a time or two and then send it out for full service or, for some of them, they keep working great and I keep sharpening them with the sander until they break. For all of the others, I hit something along the way (dirt, rocks, concrete, nails, hooks, cable, wire, screw-eyes, barbed wire, fence posts, screws, license plates, horseshoes, railroad spikes, chain, conduit, hangers) that either destroys the blade or dulls it enough that it needs a full regrind.

Even if I don’t use this method all of the time, it is nice to have another option to get back to cutting. If nothing else, I personally love the comfort of knowing that when I get down to my last new blade (and forgot for the second week in a row to order new ones) that I won’t be stuck cutting wavy lumber.

My First (and Maybe Last) Turning Job

Believe it or not, until recently I had never done any turnings. I have been messing with wood for a solid twenty years and never once have I even turned on a lathe. I’ve seen Norm do it a bazillion times on “The New Yankee Workshop” and listened to plenty of other woodworkers tell me about their turning escapades, but I never felt inclined to do it myself. I guess it’s because I am not attracted to work that has turnings in it, so they rarely end up in pieces that I am building and if they do, I pay someone else to do them.

It wasn’t by my choosing, but I did agree to build a bench with multiple turnings after my customer changed her mind on what she wanted. She showed me a picture from of their “Tall Rabbit” bench and asked if I could make one like it for her with a variation on the length. Since I already had her deposit on the previous project, I didn’t want to say no and send back the money, so I said yes. I looked at it this way, if I consider myself a real woodworker and I am interested in spreading real-world useable woodworking knowledge, then it can’t hurt for me to have more knowledge myself. After all, was it possible that I would consider myself a real woodworker and die one day never having done a single turning? Sounded pretty hypocritical to me.

First off, let me say that the work from the kids at Sawkille is very nice, and though I don’t know them from Adam, I do appreciate the attention to design details that show in their work. I spent a lot of time messing with small details and proportions, and there is no doubt in my mind that they have spent exponentially more time on those same details and slight variations than I did.

This "Tall Rabbit" bench from is what started my career as a woodturner.

This “Tall Rabbit” bench from is what started my career as a woodturner.

The picture above is in black, but my customer saw some other variations and decided to go with bleached maple, and though it didn’t seem necessary on maple, bleaching gave the wood a very different look. The maple went from a light yellow-white to bone white with a couple of applications of two-part wood bleach. That part was as simple as could be – the actual turning was not.

Actually, I take that back. The short turnings weren’t too bad. After I turned the first couple and started to get a feel for it, the next 17 went pretty fast and came out nice. I got my time down to about 15 minutes each, which didn’t set any speed records, but it was a pace I could live with. If I did them all at that rate, I could turn all of the pieces in about 6 or 7 hours, which sounded like a fine day of work.

As you might have imagined, I wouldn’t have much to talk about if it all went down like that.

My troubles started when I stepped up to the legs and long stretchers. All of those are in the 24″ range, and about three times as long as the easy-peasy pieces. Out near the ends, where everything is solid, the work went according to plan, but in the middle, I would simply say that it did NOT. No matter how I attacked the middle, whether it be with a light touch or a hard push or maybe a quick jab or a different angle or a different speed or perhaps standing on a different foot or even just squinting a bit more, nothing improved. The piece of maple just jumped and kicked like a bucking bull, and I couldn’t stop it.

Even though I knew my problems were the result of the longer pieces, I imagined that a better turner (or at least someone who had turned at least once before in their life) could overcome the bounciness with better technique. I kept trying different lathe tools and worked slowly to get the pieces as good as possible, and while the overall shape was acceptable, the surface was not. It was nubby, like off-road truck tires, and there were plenty of spots were the wood was just ripped instead of cut. To finish up, I finally dumped the lathe tools and grabbed the sandpaper. I decided to take full advantage of the easy sanding on the lathe and let the paper do the work. Of course, it took awhile, but it was the only way I could come up with to overcome the bouncing spindle syndrome.

After I had a few of the long turnings done, I talked/complained to random shop patrons about my lathe fun and one of them mentioned using a rasp. Apparently, he had more turning knowledge than me (I think everyone does), and he had used the rasp a lot. It made good sense – a rasp is really just super-aggressive sandpaper. Plus, by holding the rasp more parallel to the piece than perpendicular, the rigid flat shape worked great to form the gradual curves with no humps. It wouldn’t have worked so well on intricate turnings, but it worked great in this case.

This is my version of the "Tall Rabbit" bench in bleached maple.

This is my version of the “Tall Rabbit” bench in bleached maple.

After finishing this project, I have a new respect for wood turners and turning. After all, my turnings were simple and still provided quite the challenge. When I think about some of the turnings I have seen, especially in other works, like large hollow vessels, and I consider all of the issues that the turner might face in a project like that, it really makes me appreciate the craft of it. And, though I may never do another turned project in my life, I am glad I gave this one a go.


General Tools MMD8P Moisture Meter Is Good On The Outside

The General MMD8P features a bright OLED display, built-in species correction, displays ambient temperature and humidity, and stores multiple readings.

The General MMD8P features a bright OLED display, built-in species correction, displays ambient temperature and humidity, and stores multiple readings.

When the General Tools & Instruments MMD8P moisture meter ($199) showed up to be reviewed, I was excited. I have moisture issues with wood – it seems like it’s always too wet to use and I don’t want to wait. Waiting takes all the fun out of opening up a log, and the longer I have to wait for wood to dry, the less of it I can sell. That is where the ol’ moisture meter comes into play. Much better than just guessing how wet the wood is, a moisture meter should tell me exactly how wet the wood is. It sounds simple enough, just put the meter on the wood or at most push two pins into the wood and take a reading, but it isn’t always that simple.

There are a range of moisture meters out there and they don’t all work the same and they don’t all read the same. I was hoping that the MMD8P from General that just showed up would be the meter of my dreams and for once make me feel confident that I knew just how wet my wood was. And it appeared that is just might.

Though I wasn’t impressed with the light, toy-like feel of the unit, it has more buttons and obviously, more features than I am used to in a moisture meter. It shows the relative humidity and temperature of the environment, which is pretty cool and has a menu for selecting different wood species, which is also cool. My first moisture meter (that I still own) has paper charts for species and temperature adjustment. I don’t bother with the charts, but I will gladly allow the meter to make the adjustments for me, and the General MMD8P does just that.

The first thing I did was play with the species correction. The interface, while obviously not from the great designers at Apple, worked fine and I was able to get to the species I wanted after a quick perusal of the owner’s manual. There are more than enough species to choose from and they are accessible by just pushing the up or down arrows until the desired species appears. It took only a few seconds to quickly flip through the alphabetical list, pick a species, and start jamming the pins into some boards.

A notable difference between this meter and other pin meters that I have used is the thickness of the pins. These are stout, less like pins and more like cones. My first thought was, “Now, these pins won’t break. Finally, pins that won’t break.” They are built like a tank compared to the pins on my Delmhorst (which often break), but after using them, I am not sure that it’s an advantage. I felt like the pins didn’t penetrate very deeply, which made my readings feel even more like surface readings instead of core readings. It also seemed like the pins wanted to eject themselves from the wood, and any difference in pressure while taking a reading resulted in a variance on the readout. If I pushed hard, the reading might be 9% and when I let up a little, the reading could be 12%. Unfortunately, there is no way to know which of those numbers is accurate. In my head I want it to be the drier number, but my heart knows it’s the wetter number, or even worse.

The display on this unit, which is touted as a major selling feature is big and bright and can be configured to display critical information in a few different ways, though I imagine that most users will pick one option and just stick with it (most likely the one that shows all of the information and not a truncated selection). I chose a display option which shows the moisture content reading very large, which seems to just make sense. After all, that’s what it’s for.

I moved around my shop from board to board checking to see how it worked and finding the moisture content of random boards – most of which were around 10%. That is fine if it is accurate, but at the same time very disheartening, and here is why, in the form of a little more background.

As I mentioned, I have a moisture meter, a Delmhorst J-lite, which was the first meter that I purchased. It is a pin-type meter, just like the General MMD8P and it always reads 9-10% or drier. Maybe not always, but it feels like always. I think it is a lazy meter and doesn’t try very hard. It says in a very monotone and cubical job sort of way, “10% boss. Next reading, 10%. The wood that you cut just a few weeks ago, 10%.” If it doesn’t read 10%, it will only read lower (even painfully low), unless I just cut the wood, where it may possibly read higher. I was so sure that the meter wasn’t working properly that I called Delmhorst. Officially, it checked out OK, but I still don’t trust it.

Since then, when I really check for moisture I like to use a Wagner MMC220 pinless meter, which takes readings 3/4″ deep using electromagnetic waves. The numbers go up and down like I expect in different woods and even in different spots on the same board. It will read 10% too, but it can do 9% and 6% and even 13%. Heck, sometimes it even does 17% (crazy, I know). I am still not sure of its absolute accuracy, but at least there appears to be movement in the numbers, and in a logical fashion – wood that is newly cut is wetter than wood that has been on sticks for a while. It will even read accurately on rough cut wood and won’t leave holes when you are checking surfaced lumber or finished projects.

So, back to my review.

I used the General MMD8P meter, and seemed to get the usual 10%ish measurement. I was testing wood that had been dried and had been in the shop awhile, so 10% or somewhere from 9-11% made sense. Then I tried an 8/4 chunk of walnut that I had cut only two weeks earlier. Funny enough, I didn’t get 10% like I expected, but I apparently pushed the meter a bit and got it to go to 13%, which at least told me it was wetter than normal (for reference, it should have read off of the scale, or at lease 30%). I thought, “Here we go again – another ten percenter!”

Now it was officially time to get to the bottom of this, once and for all. This new meter has the right look, it has all the extra buttons, it has a fancy display, but why must it always read 10%. I knew the walnut that I tested was soaking wet on the inside. Sure, the surface was perhaps 10%, but if I was strong enough, I guarantee I could ring water out of the middle of that board. I grabbed the $8 per board foot wood and threw it on my chop saw to expose some of the wood in the middle and took some new readings.

The very center was very wet and read as very wet, above 40%. As I moved towards the outside of the board it got drier, and in logical increments, until the outside reading of, you guessed it, 10%. That was good news. At least this meter had the potential to read something other than 10%, and it seemed to be accurate.

I took it with me to check on the kiln progress and went through the same process with 8/4 walnut in the kiln that was nearly dry. The shells were reading dry, around 6-8%, so I trimmed an end to test the inside. The General MMD8P meter did a good job of showing me the moisture content in the middle of the board and the moisture gradient as I moved towards the outside, just like it did in the shop. The numbers read as I would expect for how long the wood was in the kiln with a high number of 13%, and did a good job of telling me that the inside was still a little wet. So far, so good, for a pin-type meter.

I continued using the General MMD8P meter for the next few weeks. If I found myself wondering about the moisture content of a piece of wood, I checked it with the meter. It turns out that it isn’t just a ten percenter. In the shop, I got a full range of readings, and in a logical fashion. Shells were drier and when I cut into boards, the centers were wetter. The drier shells even showed a wide range of readings, again, all that seemed accurate.

The only problem is that I had to cut into the board to get an accurate reading. I know (and everyone else reading this knows) that the outside is drier and probably around 10%, but I don’t need a meter for that. I need to know the moisture content inside the wood and therefore, the overall moisture content of the wood. I need to know if the wood is still shrinking and how much shrinking it has left inside it. This is especially true in a species like white oak, for example, that doesn’t give up water and can be completely wet in the middle for a long time, even when the shell reads as dry.

The question that was continually in my head as I was reviewing this meter was, “Why would I use a pin-type meter that punches holes in the wood and only gives me a reading near the surface?” Unfortunately, the answer is I wouldn’t. No matter how bright the display, no matter how big the numbers, no matter how many corrections are built-in, no matter how many readings it can store, I wouldn’t choose a pin-type meter and I wouldn’t recommend one, not even at half of the price of a pinless meter. I think the General MMD8P meter is good for a pin-type meter with all of the controls that I could ask for and more, but it just doesn’t do the job that a pinless meter, with quick, accurate and deeper readings, can do.

Simple Green is super mean (in a good way)

Simple GreenWhen I think of green products, especially a green cleaner, I think of something that is nice to the environment and nice to dirt. I imagine a product that tries harder to make me feel better about using it than it does about getting the job done. Now, I am not in a hurry to damage the earth, but if I have to choose, I often lean to the more manly and more toxic.

One of my favorite toxic substances is lye. It is mean, and if you want something to melt any organic substance you can think of, lye is it. Lye is the main ingredient in Drano drain cleaner, and it removes clogs by dissolving the most common culprit – hair. I also know that it burns skin and while I use it to darken cherry, if left on too long and too strong it will actually dissolve the wood.

Now that got me thinking. I have used oven cleaner in the past to clean saw blades; it did a good job dissolving the wood stuck to the blades and it burns my skin. With those two things in common, there just might be lye in the oven cleaner. It doesn’t really matter what is in the oven cleaner, but it started to make a stronger connection in my head between lye and using it as a cleaner to remove wood and wood pitch that gets stuck to every high-speed tool in the shop.

I got very excited and very sidetracked and started using lye to clean everything, and it worked great. The most impressive use of the lye was on belts from my wide-belt sander. At $40 a pop the sanding belts are hard to part with, especially when I know the only thing wrong with them is that they are full of pitch. In the past, I had used the rubber sticks that are specifically built to clean sanding belts and there were always spots that wouldn’t come clean, but not with the lye. In just a matter of minutes, even the nastiest chunks of burnished and burnt wood streaks melted away and left me with a like-new belt. Luckily, the sanding belt itself seemed rather impervious to the lye.

I couldn’t believe it. There was only one thing left to do – go to YouTube and see if anyone else knew about this dramatic new finding. I didn’t find anything for cleaning big belts, only ideas for smaller belts and none of them mentioned lye. I couldn’t believe that no one had come up with this yet. Lye was the ticket. But as I soon found out, it wasn’t the Holy Grail.

The more I searched the internet to see what others were saying about lye, the more I came across what I assumed were the granola’s of the earth pushing Simple Green to clean saw blades. I thought sure, if you want your saw blades cleaned sometime this year then go ahead. Then I read a few more posts about the virtues of Simple Green and eventually I couldn’t ignore it, so I tried it.

Simple Green worked great on my saw blades. They cleaned up as quickly as they would have with lye or oven cleaner – WHAT? I truly couldn’t believe it. No way on God’s Simple Green earth was it going to beat the muscle-bound, knee-busting power of my good friend lye. There was only one way to find out, so I put them in a head-to-head test on a belt of wood-clogged sandpaper from my wide-belt sander.

I am sure you can tell from the title that Simple Green had more than a good showing. Simple Green worked just as well as lye – absolutely no difference. If a spot needed to soak a bit with lye, it needed to soak the same amount with Simple Green, with the added benefit of not melting everything it touches. I don’t know what is in that stuff, but it works.

Lately, I have even been using it in my drip system on my sawmill. In the past (when my sawmill was outside) I would resort to using diesel to keep the blades clean on pitchy wood, like pine. It worked, but at the end of the day everything felt extra dirty and smelled like diesel, which is the exact opposite of how it should smell when cutting fresh wood, especially pine. Just a little Simple Green added to the water in my drip system keeps the blade clean and the shop smelling fresh. It really is amazing how well it works.

Simple Green, who knew?

Widebelt Sander Gets Straightened Out

I went shopping for new tools last year after my fire. One of my best finds is a 36″ AEM (now TimeSavers) widebelt sander, affectionately known in the shop as the “FriendMaker”. It is a 20hp wood-eating machine that is in great shape for its age. I would say it is perfect, or at least now I would. The only problem that I found after I ran it was a groove or three in the front sanding drum. I didn’t know a lot about this sander and told myself that it would be alright if the drum wasn’t flat because the platen, which is a flat bar that presses the sandpaper to the wood would smooth things out. And it did (kind of), when it wasn’t falling apart.

The TimeSaver was costing me time with these deep grooves.

The TimeSaver was costing me time (and money) with these deep grooves.

The platen is a piece of aluminum about 37″ long and 1-1/2″ wide. It has a piece of stout felt attached to it that is covered with a separate piece of graphite fabric. The graphite reduces the friction and allows the machine to apply pressure to the backside of the sandpaper without burning through everything. The sander had the platen in it when I got it, and I assumed that it should be in there all the time, so I used it all the time. I was getting decent results, even with the grooves in the front drum, but I was going through graphite and felt quickly. I had to baby the machine and the graphite was still wearing out. I finally broke down and called TimeSavers to talk to a tech guy.

The good news was that the tech guy knew what he was talking about. The bad news was that he assumed I did to, even after I told him that the machine was new to me, that I had never used it or one like it before and that he should assume that I knew nothing about it. It took me close to a half an hour of going back and forth to finally figure out that it isn’t necessary to use the platen all the time. If I wanted, I could run it without the platen. Well, now I was listening (not that I wasn’t before). Turns out that the platen is for finish sanding and shouldn’t be used to take off more than .005″ at a time. It was for smoother grits, like 150 and up. The platen spreads out the sanding pressure to keep the sanding scratches from going too deep. Good to know.

Now things started to make sense. I had read that my sander could take up to 1/8″ per pass on rougher grits. That was a crazy number compared to .005″, and I am all about crazy. If I could take that much off at a time it would be a real game changer for me. The problem I faced with my new aggressive sanding technique was that the front drum, which is rubber coated, had those grooves in it that I mentioned earlier. Smaller pieces could run through and avoid the bad spots, but bigger pieces couldn’t. And many times the smaller pieces would drift into the zone with the groove and come out with high spots. I wanted to fix it, but it looked like a daunting task. There is no obvious way to get the drum out, and I had heard that redoing the drum would cost thousands. As much as I am all about crazy, I am also about cheap. Thousands for a resurfaced drum was not in the cards for a machine that I got for $2,500.

So, I coasted. I used the sander almost every day and tried to avoid the bad spots. I even put the platen in when it was vital for the part to be flat. No matter how careful I was, parts would still come out with hidden ridges, the sneaky kind that only show up in the finish, when you want them the least. I kept coasting until, out of pure coincidence, the guy that sold the exact machine to the original owner stopped by my shop trying to sell me new machinery. He asked me how the sander was working, and I told him about the drum and the grooves that were ruining my life. He casually mentioned that I could “dress the drum” if there was enough of it left. He took a look at it and assured me that I could fix the drum on my own. All I had to do was search the internet for info and videos on “dressing the drum”.

Searching I went. No videos. The only thing I found was one posting on WoodWeb about how to dress the drum. I was really hoping for a video because I wasn’t in a hurry to destroy the drum and mandate the purchase of a new one. However, the one posting was all I could find. I read it and it made sense, so I stopped looking and decided to give it a whirl. It ended up being quite easy and intuitive. I just never would have thought of sanding the rubber drum on my own, but once I knew it was an option it all made sense.

Because I couldn’t find a video on how to do it I decided to make my own. I’ve been wanting to start making videos because I think the videos can be a lot clearer than still shots. I don’t like seeing or hearing myself, but I decided it is something I just need to work through. So, here it is, my video on “Dressing the Drum on a Widebelt Sander” (just click the photo of the sander below). Next up is a full-time, non-judgemental cameraman.

Click here to see how to dress a drum on a widebelt sander.

Click the photo above to see how to dress a drum on a widebelt sander.

The premise of the whole event is that a flat board covered with sandpaper is sent through the machine (with the sanding belt removed) and sands the rubber drum smooth. It starts with a new 36 grit sanding belt and a piece of 1/2″ thick MDF with radiused leading edges. The width of the MDF  is determined by the throat opening of the machine and what is the widest piece that will fit through it. In my case, it is about 39″ wide. The length of the MDF is based on the width of the sandpaper minus 2″. The minus 2″ is so the paper can completely cover the two radiused edges. My paper is 37″ wide, so the MDF is 35″ long. The new sanding belt that is applied to the MDF runs at a 90 degree angle or perpendicular to the way it normally runs. Doing this allows the MDF to be a little wider than the drum and to be sure the drum gets completely sanded on each pass. The key is to have a wide, flat, consistent-thickness sanding block to send through the machine. After the MDF and sandpaper are cut, apply the sandpaper to the MDF with spray adhesive (3M SUPER 77) and trim everything flush.

I was instructed on WoodWeb to use a high feed speed, low grit and very shallow cuts since the rubber could just melt instead of being sanded.  It didn’t take long. I took light passes and was done way before I got the video shot. In all, I only sent the MDF sandpaper block through 10 times to remove the 1/16″ deep grooves.

Now, I use the drum all the time and never use the platen. I consistently and confidently take of 1/16″ or more per pass (even on wide stuff) with the 36 grit and 1/64″ with the 100 grit. It is amazing how different my life has been since I “dressed the drum” on my sander.

The Kreg Jig: Is It Real Woodworking?

The "Rocket" is the Kreg jig that I use.

I am finally willing to admit it – I use a Kreg jig. I use it regularly and I like it. I don’t use it everywhere, but I am finding more uses every day, and it scares me a little. I am a woodworker, a custom woodworker. I use time-honored joinery like mortises, tenons and dovetails. It doesn’t feel right to add the Kreg jig to the list. I can’t and won’t do it. It isn’t real woodworking. Or is it?

I haven’t decided, officially. Used in the right places it is totally acceptable in my mind. For face frames, nothing is faster, the joints are tight and, with a little glue added, strong and stable. And, since the face frame is joined to a cabinet box it gets extra help in the support department to keep everything in place. So, it’s fine on face frames. What about the cabinet boxes that the face frames attach to?

The “Rocket” is the Kreg jig that I use.

I say O.K. The boxes get support from the walls and I use regular screws all the time, so pocket screws must be acceptable (as a footnote, I like to screw cabinets together when possible, so that I can take them apart for “design changes”). Face frames, check. Cabinet boxes, check. What about furniture? Maybe something very much like a cabinet or cabinet box, just not attached to the wall? Now, it starts to get really murky. Officially, out loud, I say no way. Furniture must be assembled with furniture joints, not pocket screws. Then I ask myself why and I don’t have a great answer except that it doesn’t feel right. Assuming that the pocket screw joint is just as strong as a “real” woodworking joint it shouldn’t really matter, but it does. I feel if I take the quick and easy way out, I am less of a woodworker. I can’t get past it.

Here’s the thing that is odd to me. I think that the Kreg jig works great and all of their products (at least the one I have used) are top-notch. I, especially, like their screws. It may not seem that important, but their screws are the best. I use them whenever I can, even when I am not using pocket holes. They never strip out or break, and they are self-tapping. Their drill bits are well made and stay sharp for a long time. When I was working on opening my new shop, Kreg products were the first ones to come to mind to have for sale. It’s clear that I like them, but I still think, in the back of my mind, that they aren’t for real woodworkers.

To this day, I will make sure that the Kreg jig and screws are always with me, but I won’t always use them. Weird?

What do you think? Please leave a comment.

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