Friday 8 August 2014

An afternoon ‘ah-ha‘ moment

When Joe and I started making planes in 2000, we often commented that we needed a bell or horn to sound whenever we had an ‘ah-ha’ moment about plane making. The bell would have gone off every 30 minutes that first year - there were countless ‘ah-ha’ moments. Changing a process, an order of operation, a 180 degree about face or rethinking about how we were doing something. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to be learning at such a fast pace.

Sadly, there are not nearly as many ‘ah-ha’ moments these days... but I had a little one today.

I am not exactly sure where I got my ball pien hammer, but I do know that I have had it since the beginning. I tried several different ones; long handles, short handles and of course, different weights. The one I settled on is a little heavier than most people would likely use (the old adage of ‘Get a bigger hammer’ does not apply to piening a handplane together!). The head has come loose several times and it is currently wedged with a boxwood off-cut (Riley fixed our camping axe with a Rosewood wedge).

This hammer has become an extension of my hand- I know just where to hold it for various piening tasks and adjust my grip without even thinking about it. I know when to rotate my wrist a bit to direct the blows exactly where they are needed. It would be a very dark day if anything ever happened to it. A year or so ago I realized that the handle had a noticeable curve to it - not sure if I did that or if it came that way... might be a lefty thing.

The ball end has always been highly polished, but there was a fairly deep off centre pit which showed up from time to time on the piened surface. For some very odd reason, that pit annoyed me today so I did something about it right in the middle of piening a K13 shell. I went over to my disc sander and re-shaped the ball and went back to work. No more pit marks, but something had changed. It took piening a few dovetails to realize what it was. The surface of the dovetail was different but more importantly (and alarmingly), I was not able to see the precise location of the piening strike as I was making them. I have very good natural side light in the shop but the strikes were not nearly as clear as I was used to. I have always relied very heavily on light (natural or artificial) for feedback and this experience reiterated this fact. I stopped piening and looked at the end of the ball. It was no longer  polished, so I got out some sandpaper to re-polished it.

It only took a few minutes, and after the first 2 or 3 strikes I was back in business - much clearer piening strikes and the surface finish I was used to.

I am going to assume that this is common knowledge for blacksmiths - keep your hammers polished to aid in locating the hammer blows, but since I have no formal blacksmith training (nor planemaking for that matter!) this was a bit of an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. 

The photo below shows the difference between the two.  The freshly disc sanded ball pien blows on the left dovetail and the re-polished ball pien blows on the right dovetail. Click on the image for a larger view - the difference between the two should be very clear.

On another note, I want to thank all the Porsche loving people who wrote to talk about their 911’s, 356’s or their love of Porsche in general. It was great to make another connection. Sadly, the 356 has been returned to its owner, but Moe (who works at the shop) tells me a 911 will be coming in shortly - I can’t wait to see it!

And I may as well toss this out there too... if anyone has, or knows of a 1971 (my birth year) 911 that is for sale please let me know. I could make a heck of a lot of planes... just sayin :)

It does not need to be restored at all, in fact, I would like to take it on as a bit of a restoration project... now that I know how a ball pien hammer is supposed to look. 


Blogger Jeremy said...

Very interesting, especially since the opposite is true for nail driving hammers. Polish one of those up and you'll think you've forgotten how to drive a nail. Thanks for passing this on.

8 August 2014 at 09:29  
Blogger Bartee said...

Ah Ha ! Yes I can see the difference. The mark of a craftsman is his tools. Most often most people would not think those tools had quality.

Always enjoy your posts. My car is a 1957 Chevy.

8 August 2014 at 12:40  
Blogger Kevin Brehon said...

Thanks for this post. Every little insight helps.

9 August 2014 at 09:36  
Anonymous Tico Vogt said...


10 August 2014 at 08:53  
Anonymous Jonny said...

Very cool!
I always enjoy your posts.

11 August 2014 at 11:20  
Blogger Konrad said...

Thanks for the reminder of the framing hammer - maybe I should re-file the grooves that were once there - or maybe the disc sander would take care of it?


11 August 2014 at 11:27  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hey Bartee - a 57 Chevy is a pretty sweet ride - good call! Glad you enjoyed the post.


11 August 2014 at 11:28  
Blogger Konrad said...

You are welcome Kevin, and feel free to suggest other areas of plane making you might like to see.


11 August 2014 at 11:28  
Blogger Konrad said...

Thanks Tico and Jonny - glad you enjoyed it.


11 August 2014 at 11:29  
Blogger Jeremy said...

For a true framing hammer, I'd run a file in the grooves to give sharpish points so it looks about like My dad tells a story about filing his hammer and swapping a longer handle in the 70's as a poor Midwest carpenter when he first saw them on a Californian job site, as they worked so well (pre-nailgun days)
For a finish hammer, I'd only scuff with roughish sandpaper by hand; Using a power sander might take out the crown in the face, which you want to keep for control and finish work. The key is mostly "not polished and waxed" (unless it's a buddy's hammer:)

11 August 2014 at 12:22  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Konrad, are the dovetails dovetailed in two directions? Ie. Not like with wood? I thought I read something saying that and it still boggles my mind. I'd love to see a post showing that if you find time.

15 August 2014 at 16:22  
Anonymous Derek Cohen said...

Konrad, you need to lie about your date of birth - here's your chance to become two years younger! Then you would qualify for a '73 2.7 RS. Many reckon this was the greatest 911.

Regards from Perth (Australia!)


17 August 2014 at 11:08  
Blogger Al DaValle said...


I have to say how happy I am that there folks out there like you! It's a real rarity to find a person as devoted to maintaining the art/craft of our past. And the best part is that you are able to make a living at your passion. You are a blessing. Well done!!


19 August 2014 at 17:51  
Blogger Unknown said...

Depending on how much you love the feel of your hammer vs how traditional you would like to keep it, a simple blacksmith trick I learned is to soak the head of the hammer in antifreeze. Something about how the glycol soaked into the fibers and then not leaveing. I'be seen a few hammers go through many many years of hard use and never developed so much as a wiggle. But keep in mind the trade... it will hold like you would not believe, even if you try to replace the handle... the only successful fix, I saw, was to leave it in the fire to burn it all out.

4 September 2014 at 23:19  

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