Does Uber give a Lift?

The other portion of wood arrived in my shop today, wood which I described in an earlier post as ‘uber special’. Here it is, fresh off the boat, er, semi:

Doesn’t look like much, does it? This motley set of 6 boards cost as much as the two super-wide pieces of Honduran Mahogany I acquired a week or two back. What am I, nuts? (please hold off on answering that until you have read further…)

Another view:

What is this stuff, you might ask?

It isn’t Honduran mahogany, which goes by the Latin name of swietenia macrophylla, the word macrophylla meaning ‘large leaf’. The genus name, the word ’swietenia’, was named after Gerard von Swieten, a Dutch-Austrian physician who lived between 1700 and 1772, by a fellow named Nikolaus von JacquinBetween 1755 and 1759, Nikolaus von Jacquin was sent to the West Indies and Central America by Francis I to collect plants for the Schönbrunn Palace, and amassed a large collection of animal, plant and mineral samples.

There are three species comprising the genus Swietenia, namely:

  1. Swietenia macrophylla, or Big leaf Mahogany
  2. Swietenia mahagoni, referred to as West Indian, Santo Domingo, or Cuban Mahogany – it might also be called ‘small leaf’ mahogany (though accurate, that term is not used)
  3. Swietenia humilis, a small and often twisted mahogany tree limited to seasonally dry forests in Pacific Central America that is of limited commercial utility.
S. humilis doesn’t really count in the woodworking world as you’ll never see timber from it. S. mahagoni – notice how the word ’mahagoni’ is spelled with an ‘a’ there in the middle instead of an ‘o’ – was commercially extinct by 1900 or so, and commercial trade in the species pretty much ceased by WWII. I’ve noticed in a lot of books and articles, even scholarly ones, that the Latin name gets misspelled as ‘mahogani’. Tut, tut, tsk, tsk…
Today, Big Leaf Mahogany is sold as ‘Genuine Mahogany’, in contradistinction to many species which are commercially termed ‘mahogany’ due to some physical resemblance to true mahoganies of the genus swietenia, namely:
  1. Khaya spp., aka African Mahogany
  2. Entandrophragma utile, or ‘Utile’ 
  3. Entandrophragma cylindricum, or Sapele
There are others of course, including the dreaded ‘Phillipine Mahogany’ – a good article on the topic can be found here.
Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when both species of real mahogany were exploited/pillaged, what-have-you, Great Britain was the champion consumer, importing some 85,000 tons of the wood, primarily from Jamaica, in peak importation year of 1875. As early as 1846, when mahogany was chiefly used in shipbuilding, Britain imported 85,000,000 board feet of the wood. By comparison, the US was a lightweight, and the peak consumption year of 1899 saw 21,149,750 board feet imported. I take the above facts and figures from Clayton Dissinger Mell, in his seminal work on the topic, published in 1911 as monograph #474 from the USDA, titled True Mahogany.

‘Genuine mahogany’ is all we have left these days it seems, though in the days when mahogany was used heavily, the term ‘genuine’ would have perhaps been laughed at. The esteemed species of the two actually genuine mahoganies, was in fact the Santo Domingo Mahogany (s. mahagoni), as is noted by Mell, and Big Leaf Mahogany was considered inferior:

Though “soft” and “spongy” the apparently inferior Big Leaf Mahogany may be, I personally find it an awesome species, as it is easily worked, suited to indoor or outdoor use, and incredibly stable in service, hardly warping and never checking. I haven’t been able to compare it though to the other variety of course, so I am impoverished in that regard and lacking in perspective. Those guys – well, a few of them – in the 1800’s had access to materials which I can only imagine.

The ‘Age of Mahogany’, as far as furniture is concerned, was the period between the reigns of George II and George III, roughly 1727 to 1820. Mahogany, extolled by Chippendale, caused the pre-eminent wood of the time, namely walnut, to pass completely out of fashion.

In the work Good Furniture, Vol. 4, by the Dean Hicks company (1914), they even wonder if the success of English cabinet makers of the period could have been attained without access to mahogany:

As they note in that text, and as cabinetmaker’s of the period following about 1720 found through direct experience, that mahogany was a wood less liable to chip or check than oak, less likely to become worm-eaten than walnut, sound, tough, of uniform grain, procurable in large planks, rich in figure and color, and hence unrivaled for the purposes of cabinet making.

Again, the mahogany they were talking about is not Honduras Mahogany, but ‘Cuban’ Mahogany. Reading about Cuban Mahogany and learning that it was THE mahogany in the time in which lots of mahogany furniture and ships were built on a large scale, has lead me to a strong desire to get a chance to work the s. mahagoni material. Obtaining it however, has been a bit like chasing a unicorn. I’ve seen it for sale sporadically over the years by private sellers here and there, and there has been someone on ebay trying to sell some of late at quite high prices. Not sure how successful he has been.

And, like they say on the Hobbit house website,

A note on Cuban mahogany: this species is basically not available in lumber form these days. I think the best expression of this is (this is a slight paraphrase of a comment by Eric Meier of The Wood Database in an email to me):
I just tell people that unless they actually live in Cuba, it’s not Cuban mahogany and you’re being delusionally optimistic to think otherwise.

So, when a few months back an ad appeared from a fellow offering to sell some Cuban Mahogany, I was interested but skeptical. I emailed him to ask his pricing, which was quoted as “$24~$28 per board foot”. I didn’t have the funds at the time to pursue it further, so I put the matter on the back burner, and besides, it was probably anything but the real thing.

When the new cabinet project was in discussion with my client on the west coast, there came the point where he asked me which woods I recommended, and I said that I thought it would be great to carry the use of Shedua from the other cabinet I had built forward, and then pair it with mahogany. I was thinking exclusively of Honduran Mahogany, which is as likely as not to come from Peru these days, as that was what one would normally think of in respect to mahogany. When the client came back in approval of the plan to use those woods, I got to thinking about it more, and then remembered the ad from a few months back. I looked through my email and found the conversation and emailed the fellow again to see if he still had any stock.

It turned out he still did have a fair amount. I then asked him how he knew it was Cuban Mahogany, given how rare a material that is. He replied that it was ‘obvious’ as the wood had a deeper purple tone, and was considerably denser and heavier than the Big Leaf Mahogany. That sounded good, however, I was still skeptical and asked him if he would provide me with a sample or two, thinking that I could take it to a wood lab near me for analysis. He said he would do that, and if I declined to buy any wood I could pay him for the postage, otherwise, if I did buy some wood, he would absorb the cost. Fair enough.

A week or so later and two samples arrived, each about 8" square and 5/8" thick or so. Pulling them out of the package, I could immediately discern that the pieces were heaver than I would expect with Honduran Mahogany. I put in a call to the recently-retired UMass professor Bruce Hoadley, author of Identifying Wood and Understanding Wood, and left a message in regards to testing the samples I had. In the meantime, I did some further research, and learned that, by the conventional method of wood species identification, namely examining a cleaned portion of end grain under 10x~20x magnification and comparing physical features, swietenia mahagoni and swietenia macrophylla could not be distinguished. Hmm, a wrinkle in my plan….

I never did reach Professor Hoadley, though we had a fine game of phone tag for a while. I did manage to make contact with a Michael Wiemann, a botanist at the US Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory in  Madison Wisconsin though. He confirmed just what I had read, that one cannot distinguish between the two mahoganies by the usual method. I was thinking he would point me to some modern high tech method that I imagined existed, something involving DNA analysis or near-infrared spectrographic methods, however he said that distinguishing between closely-related species remains a challenging task in his field. He then said that what he would do, if presented with my sample, is refer to some notes from a British text on the topic. He said he could send me a .pdf of the relevant section if I was interested (?). You bet I was!

Reading that document, it turns out that the two mahoganies have a slight overlap in characteristics, looking at density, color, growth ring count, and so forth, so if you have a sample that sits in the zone of overlap, it is quite difficult to distinguish one from another. However if your sample is clearly sitting outside of that overlap zone, you can be reasonably sure of what you have.

For color and density, I was quite clear on the fact that the samples I had were unlike Honduran Mahogany, at least in my experience. The key point came down to growth ring count, which, for s. macrophylla is 4~8 per inch, and for smahagoni 10~25 per inch. The samples were happily very clear in that regard, as the growth ring count I saw on both pieces was around 20 per inch.

I was starting to feel fairly certain that I had stumbled upon some actual ‘Cuban’ Mahogany. I asked the seller for some more background on the material. I learned that it had been cut something like 40 years ago, and was from a wind-downed tree in the Florida Keys. He’d had it for about 20 years and had purchased it from another fellow, the person who obtained the wood from the trees originally, who had also squirreled it away for some 20 years.

Some further reading from Mull’s work True Mahogany revealed some other distinguishing characteristics in regards to mahogany from the Florida Keys:

Cool. The mahogany growing in the Florida Keys, at the northern end of the plant’s growth range, proves to be the densest.

And then:

It also seems to be the case that the mahogany from Florida has the shortest wood fibers of any mahogany in the New World.

I decided that even if this material was not actually s. mahagoni, but just some really nice s. macrophylla, it was worth it at the price regardless. I bought all the seller’s 8/4 material, and that is what arrived at my shop today. I’m excited to have captured a unicorn at last!

After dragging the wood into my shop, I immediately trimmed off the bug-eaten portions where the sapwood had once been:

The above board was one of the worst in that regard.

Did I mention ‘bug-eaten’?:

I also did some jointing and planing. Here’s a closer look at the surface of one board, where you can see the numerous white flecks on the face:

Those white flecks are called tyloses. I take them to be a sign of good material – at least when it came to Honduran Mahogany, where they are a rare occurrance, they had proved to be a sign of nice wood to work, and I’m thinking the same goes here.

Cutting this material was relatively easy, and the sawdust has a smell similar to Honduran Mahogany. The wood though is significantly heavier than any Honduran Mahogany I have had my hands on. I’m 99% sure I have that unicorn. This is up there, for me, with finding Huanghuali or Zitan (that is, seriously unlikely to happen in my lifetime). Sometimes you get lucky I guess.

The tree was on the order of 20" in diameter I would guess, with the widest board in my pile of 6 being 19" wide:

Edge-jointing after ripping the edge off:

I mentioned the growth ring detail – here’s a close up of what swietenia mahagoni  – the stuff I have -looks like:

I cleaned up, more or less, 5 of the 6 boards, and left the largest for the time being. Here’s a ‘family reunion’ sort of photo, with the recently-acquired Honduran forming the backdrop:

Welcome to ‘Mahogany World’.

The one large plank of Honduran was trimmed last week, giving me these pieces of stock for the front door panels and the drawer floors of the cabinet:

I need
from Tumblr https://davidpires578.tumblr.com/post/167965777869

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Switcheroo, and Mulling over Milling

One of the minor issues with the Zimmermann PS ½ sanding machine was the on/off switch, which was on the verge of having its buttons fall out. I decided to take a look-see. Fortunately, a standard hydrant key, which I happened to have in my tool set, opens the electrical box:

Inside everything looked un-molested, which was good:

The switch itself was in good shape, and there was a brochure inside the box that was for the switch. It is a Siemen’s model, however not something they make these days. A little digging around and I found a NOS one in Texas, which I ordered as a back-up, for all of $22.50. Get ‘em while you can.

The part which had failed was just a piece of rubber in the external push button set. I love finding stuff which is actually user-serviceable – so rare these days. The escutcheon itself is aluminum, not plastic as one might otherwise expect:

The fact that the rubber was divided into two bits, and not that cleanly cut, told me that a past repair had replaced half of the rubber, or maybe it had been repaired twice for all I know. Seems like this is a wear item.

I used a caliper to determine the thickness of the rubber sheet required and ordered some up online. When it arrived, I trimmed a piece to shape and then cut a pair of holes in the rubber using a special bit intended for that task in my milling machine:

A minute or two later, the switch was all back together and in perfect working order:

It’s nice when there are straightforward tidy solutions to things that can be knocked off the tick list, at low to moderate cost, in a short time.

Not everything works this way however…

It’s been a little over 2 years since my 1971 Zimmermann FZ-5V pattern milling machine arrived from Germany. That arrival was detailed in a couple of posts back in October of 2015 (here and here). While at least one reader at the time was unclear on why a woodworker might want a pattern milling machine, and another asked why I had gone the semi- ‘old ‘arn’ route instead of a more modern portal CNC machine – perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions – I had a lot of ideas as to how I could put this machine to good use. I also knew very little about milling machines in general, so there has certainly been a learning curve, and that is a curve I continue to ascend.

In these past 2 years, I have found myself using the machine more and more and it has become an essential tool in my shop. While a lot of what it does can be replaced by any number of scratch-built jigs out of scrap wood, MDF, etc., I have come to enjoy that the machine has allowed me to reduce my consumption and use of MDF and reduce the time and energy formerly sucked up in the making of jigs and fixtures, which then tended to get stuck in a pile in the supposition of later usability (only to find that a year or three later I can barely remember what the jig was even used for – or forget that I had even made it only to discover such was the case after having made another one).

The milling machine allows me to work with higher precision – repeatable precision – and to do so with greater safety than before. For one thing, to be able to fix the material down and run a cutter over it in full view is wonderful! To be able to fasten the work down to a table which does not flex, and hold that work with assurance it will not move while being cut is simply a revelation. This, compared with what was the norm for me previously, namely, check it and check it again, and the scene of trying to tighten a fixture clamp only to watch the entire fixture bow in the process.

I’m sold on having a milling machine, and going forward it will be an important part of my shop, right up there with the planer and jointer. In fact the milling machine makes the jointing and dimensioning of small parts a breeze. To mention a couple of other plusses, I can also work aluminum and brass, which expands capabilities into making custom hardware and fixtures. I can mill steel and cast iron, which has allowed me to repair/alter some of my other woodworking machines.

There are some negatives to this machine, and I would be remiss if I did not mention them, and indeed some of these negatives have lead to certain difficulties:

– The machine is large and bulky, and weighs 2.5 tons. I was worried it might break the floor in my space, but that did not come to pass. It’s not a machine though, like a jointer or planer, which you can just stuff a pallet truck under and move around conveniently.

– it’s an old machine, and Zimmermann provides zero parts support. Zero technical support as well. Their business these days is making and selling large portal milling machines that weigh 20 tons or more, like this one from 2000 that forms its own room:

Even that is now old, a FZ30 model. Their new machines are FZ100 series or even later.

So ‘little’ old machines like the one I have  from the distant past are simply unprofitable for them to pay attention to any longer I’m sure. Fortunately I have a parts manual and schematic diagrams for my machine, which helps somewhat.

– to repair certain things on a milling machine, you need a specialized machine. Care to guess what it is? Another milling machine. Toss in an engine lathe as well, and then a large granite inspection plate, and other inspection equipment. Do I have any of that? No.

– unique Zimmermann-made tool holders limit what I can do. I can make zero use of the high speed head on the machine, for example, because it has a weird tool holder that is not longer made by the company.

The age of the FZ-5V is starting to show in a bunch of ways:

1) It won’t hold oil in its ways, especially the rotary table, which loses oil in a matter of minutes. I gather that the seals are worn out. Fixing them is not a simple job though. Way oil is not cheap, and I’m tired of cleaning up the puddles of oil off the floor, and it has been like this since I got it.

2) the manual spindle brake has now worn out. It’s probably a simple affair similar to a drum brake on a car, however to access the brake itself requires a bunch of disassembly. Now that it is worn out, sometimes I have quite a hassle getting a tool holder out of the spindle.

3) the quill has slop which allows it to rotate a certain amount. No amount of axial rotation in the quill is in fact desirable in the least. This slop led to much frustration when using the right angle attachment on a previous job, and produced some ruined parts as a result. The quill is also sticky and does not plunge smoothly. The spindle lock works, but when clamped on it gets stuck and won’t release, requiring that it be taken apart. Fixing the cluster of quill-related issues involves disassembling the machine’s head. If that is going to happen, one may as well replace all the bearings and seals while one is at it.  It is likely a $5000 bill to deal with the quill issues.

4) the power drive of the rotary table failed last month while working on a wheelstock for a Chinese wheelbarrow. This outcome likely connects to the problem of the non-existent oil retention. Repair may involve making a new gear, however getting access to that gear will require extensive dismantling of the machine and the parts are really heavy. Plus I have no idea what I’m doing, but why should that stop me :^). At least the manual drive system for the rotary table still functions, but it is physically and mentally tiring to use if you have to employ it for any length of time.

5) when powering the table assembly up and down in ‘z’ axis, there is a groaning noise during a portion of the travel. Not sure what is causing that, but it does not sound good and like other issue with the mill, extensive disassembly is required. If I am forced to take the saddle and the knee off, then I may as well replace bearings and seals while I am at it.

6) once in a blue moon, while using power feed to raise the table up, the electrical circuit sorta ‘goes to sleep’ and the machine table keeps raising after I have let my finger off of the button. This requires a quick sprint over to the disconnect switch on the wall. Once power is back on, the problem goes away, and it happens so infrequently that it is difficult to diagnose. I’m always apprehensive when raising the table up as a result. The machine’s electrical system relies upon old ceramic fuses, and these are not so easy to source. If I were to disassemble the machine, then I would also likely be looking at going through all the electrical stuff as well.

The machine remains largely functional, but the problems described above have been coming one by one, and seemingly a little more frequent in occurrence with each passing month. It’s an old machine. I worry though about what the next thing will be, and whether it will cause a part to be ruined, or further damage to the machine, or leave me stranded in the middle of a work process.

If woodworking was my hobby only, and I felt like I could take the mill’s repair work on myself (which to a large extent I am confident that I can), and had some money to spend on it, then I might choose to take it all apart and repair and restore it over the course of several months. That’s not my situation though. I simply can’t devote the time to it, and I know that any decision to strip down the machine invites the ‘tip of the iceberg’ effect in terms of what one might find that you really have to deal with once things are apart. Thus it is difficult to ascertain how much money it might cost to put the FZ-5V right.

I recently had a fellow from a spindle rebuilding company in New Hampshire pay a visit to my shop. The company, SPS Spindle, offers a site visit to price out repair work, saving one from the alternative, which is to take the machine apart and bring the parts to the company for inspection and pricing. Obviously, in assessing my machine, there are any number of unknowns, so the pricing is somewhat of a guess, but it looked like a rebuild of the spindle and quill on my machine, along with attending to the various other issue, including the tool holding problem, was going to be in the zone of $10,000.00.

Well, I have so far spent about the same money just purchasing and getting the machine into my shop, so the prospect of shelling out the same amount was not exactly mouth-watering. It’s not a crazy amount of money though, not in the world of large machines with spindles. The FZ-5V was selling for something like 50,000 € when it was last being made in the mid 1980’s. If it were on the market today, factoring in inflation, I would be looking at a purchase price for a new machine of 123,684.43 €, according to one online calculator I tried. Would I be in the market for a machine at that price point? No. Is a $10,000 repair on a machine which would cost 123,684.43 € otherwise reasonable? Sure it is.

I don’t get hung up on how much money has already gone into the machine, or let that guide any decision about what I should do now. I’ve spent enough time in the past dwelling on such ’sunk cost issues’ to have learned that it is not the most rational approach. When faced with the prospect that $10,000 might have to go into the FZ-5V at some point, I start thinking about whether $10,000 could be better spent perhaps. Yeah, I know, ‘wise use of money’ and ‘woodworking equipment’ is not a natural or entirely sensible combination in many people’s eyes. Maybe I should look at Bitcoin?

I asked myself if, at the end of the day, a $10,000 investment into that machine would result in all I ever wanted in that machine? Would it be my dream come true? No, in this case, it would not actually. The ergonomics of the FZ-5V are not the best, for one thing. I would like an even bigger work envelope, and have found turning hand wheels back and forth all day loses its charm rather quickly, as I find it hard on my rotator cuff muscles. A machine that uses a toggle switch, push button, or joystick to achieve the same motorized control of movement (like on my jointer or planer) would be preferable.

So, what are the options that loom large, besides repair?

1) Are their other machines with similar functionality and size? Well, yes…. Two similar sort of size pattern mills of which I’m aware are the Wadkin WS and the Oliver #102-103-104. Both machines are from the pre-WWII era. I’m not sure I want to step further back in time than what I have now, technology-wise, and I’ve been less than fully delighted with a past Oliver machine and a current Wadkin machine. The Wadkin uses a railway track on the floor for the main table, and this would not work so well with the wavy and movement-prone wooden floor in my space. The Oliver would be a challenge to get into the building, at 8’ of height, so some disassembly would be required. I doubt that either machine would be as precise as the Zimmermann, and the tooling would be of some older format, likely Morse taper #3 or #4, which is less desirable to me. The Oliver #103 does have 8 speeds, max rpm of 4100 and 6" of quill travel, a bigger work envelope with loads more x-travel, so it has attractions, despite my wariness of the brand.

2) Going to a bigger machine, with a Bokö milling machine, say. These are in the 4~8 ton range. I would be interested in this direction, but a bigger machine simple wouldn’t even fit through the door of the shop building, and I’m sure would be too much for the floor. At least there is parts support for Bokö however, and even a distributor in the US exists.

3) Go same again. There is a 1983 FZ-5V for sale in Germany, 12 years newer than the one I have. The machine reseller wants 6000€ for it, which is actually less than they bought it for, having had it on the market for a while now. Apparently it was not heavily used and does not leak oil, and to boot it has an additional motor fitted for powered y-travel, which would be nice. It uses a remote control panel on a swivel arm which improves the ergonomics. The electrical panel is more modern, with relays and a single circuit board. Without going to Germany to inspect in person, this is a risky purchase though, just like last time.

4) Go smaller. Zimmermann made a machine about half the size of mine, the FZ-1, which would be able to tackle 80% of what the larger machine can do, albeit at a significant reduction in work envelope:

5) Go modern with CNC. There are lots of options in this direction, ranging from machines way out of my price range to little gippers intended for pen turning and jeweler’s work. There is a DIY CNC scene, people welding up their own tables and buying components with which to build their own machines. However, most of what I have seen would appear to be designed more for production in volume than the type of work I do. I am not interested in programming just for the sake of drilling a few holes, or making a series of cuts on 2~4 parts. It doesn’t make sense, though the user-friendliness of these machines is improving from what I have heard. Many CNC machines are intended for sheet goods work and take up a lot of space, which I don’t have. There is likely a configurable solution, however it will require a fair bit of research yet.

6) Go to a metal working mill. With that, there is a reduced work envelope –  at least for the size of machine which can fit in my space – no rotary table with most machines (except as a small accessory which mounts to the main table) and much slower spindle speeds generally with machines built for cutting metal. There are high speed milling heads for some machines, and some come with really cool super versatile tables which rotate and tilt, like the Maho universal mills, and some, like Deckel mills, come with both horizontal and vertical spindle drives. A good machine though, is a chunk of change and is likely coming out of Europe, so this option is a well beyond my price range.

7) Go outside of the box with some sort of DIY fabrication to change things on the machine I have. I could, for instance, consider removing the head on my machine and fabricating a mount for an electrospindle which would solve quite a few problems. Higher speed, variable step-less speed control, built in motor braking, modern tool holding, etc.

I’m not really sure what to do at this point. There are options, including doing nothing. The machine will remain serviceable for a while longer, however I really have no idea how long I can rely upon it, so planning for what to do next is occupying my thoughts. It is tick-tocking its way toward becoming a 5500lb paperweight in my shop, and I feel I need to do something sooner rather than later.

Perhaps a reader out there has useful advice – if so, I’m all ears.
from Tumblr https://davidpires578.tumblr.com/post/167742475654

Switcheroo, and Mulling over Milling

One of the minor issues with the Zimmermann PS ½ sanding machine was the on/off switch, which was on the verge of having its buttons fall out. I decided to take a look-see. Fortunately, a standard hydrant key, which I happened to have in my tool set, opens the electrical box:

Inside everything looked un-molested, which was good:

The switch itself was in good shape, and there was a brochure inside the box that was for the switch. It is a Siemen’s model, however not something they make these days. A little digging around and I found a NOS one in Texas, which I ordered as a back-up, for all of $22.50. Get ‘em while you can.

The part which had failed was just a piece of rubber in the external push button set. I love finding stuff which is actually user-serviceable – so rare these days. The escutcheon itself is aluminum, not plastic as one might otherwise expect:

The fact that the rubber was divided into two bits, and not that cleanly cut, told me that a past repair had replaced half of the rubber, or maybe it had been repaired twice for all I know. Seems like this is a wear item.

I used a caliper to determine the thickness of the rubber sheet required and ordered some up online. When it arrived, I trimmed a piece to shape and then cut a pair of holes in the rubber using a special bit intended for that task in my milling machine:

A minute or two later, the switch was all back together and in perfect working order:

It’s nice when there are straightforward tidy solutions to things that can be knocked off the tick list, at low to moderate cost, in a short time.

Not everything works this way however…

It’s been a little over 2 years since my 1971 Zimmermann FZ-5V pattern milling machine arrived from Germany. That arrival was detailed in a couple of posts back in October of 2015 (here and here). While at least one reader at the time was unclear on why a woodworker might want a pattern milling machine, and another asked why I had gone the semi- ‘old ‘arn’ route instead of a more modern portal CNC machine – perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions – I had a lot of ideas as to how I could put this machine to good use. I also knew very little about milling machines in general, so there has certainly been a learning curve, and that is a curve I continue to ascend.

In these past 2 years, I have found myself using the machine more and more and it has become an essential tool in my shop. While a lot of what it does can be replaced by any number of scratch-built jigs out of scrap wood, MDF, etc., I have come to enjoy that the machine has allowed me to reduce my consumption and use of MDF and reduce the time and energy formerly sucked up in the making of jigs and fixtures, which then tended to get stuck in a pile in the supposition of later usability (only to find that a year or three later I can barely remember what the jig was even used for – or forget that I had even made it only to discover such was the case after having made another one).

The milling machine allows me to work with higher precision – repeatable precision – and to do so with greater safety than before. For one thing, to be able to fix the material down and run a cutter over it in full view is wonderful! To be able to fasten the work down to a table which does not flex, and hold that work with assurance it will not move while being cut is simply a revelation. This, compared with what was the norm for me previously, namely, check it and check it again, and the scene of trying to tighten a fixture clamp only to watch the entire fixture bow in the process.

I’m sold on having a milling machine, and going forward it will be an important part of my shop, right up there with the planer and jointer. In fact the milling machine makes the jointing and dimensioning of small parts a breeze. To mention a couple of other plusses, I can also work aluminum and brass, which expands capabilities into making custom hardware and fixtures. I can mill steel and cast iron, which has allowed me to repair/alter some of my other woodworking machines.

There are some negatives to this machine, and I would be remiss if I did not mention them, and indeed some of these negatives have lead to certain difficulties:

– The machine is large and bulky, and weighs 2.5 tons. I was worried it might break the floor in my space, but that did not come to pass. It’s not a machine though, like a jointer or planer, which you can just stuff a pallet truck under and move around conveniently.

– it’s an old machine, and Zimmermann provides zero parts support. Zero technical support as well. Their business these days is making and selling large portal milling machines that weigh 20 tons or more, like this one from 2000 that forms its own room:

Even that is now old, a FZ30 model. Their new machines are FZ100 series or even later.

So ‘little’ old machines like the one I have  from the distant past are simply unprofitable for them to pay attention to any longer I’m sure. Fortunately I have a parts manual and schematic diagrams for my machine, which helps somewhat.

– to repair certain things on a milling machine, you need a specialized machine. Care to guess what it is? Another milling machine. Toss in an engine lathe as well, and then a large granite inspection plate, and other inspection equipment. Do I have any of that? No.

– unique Zimmermann-made tool holders limit what I can do. I can make zero use of the high speed head on the machine, for example, because it has a weird tool holder that is not longer made by the company.

The age of the FZ-5V is starting to show in a bunch of ways:

1) It won’t hold oil in its ways, especially the rotary table, which loses oil in a matter of minutes. I gather that the seals are worn out. Fixing them is not a simple job though. Way oil is not cheap, and I’m tired of cleaning up the puddles of oil off the floor, and it has been like this since I got it.

2) the manual spindle brake has now worn out. It’s probably a simple affair similar to a drum brake on a car, however to access the brake itself requires a bunch of disassembly. Now that it is worn out, sometimes I have quite a hassle getting a tool holder out of the spindle.

3) the quill has slop which allows it to rotate a certain amount. No amount of axial rotation in the quill is in fact desirable in the least. This slop led to much frustration when using the right angle attachment on a previous job, and produced some ruined parts as a result. The quill is also sticky and does not plunge smoothly. The spindle lock works, but when clamped on it gets stuck and won’t release, requiring that it be taken apart. Fixing the cluster of quill-related issues involves disassembling the machine’s head. If that is going to happen, one may as well replace all the bearings and seals while one is at it.  It is likely a $5000 bill to deal with the quill issues.

4) the power drive of the rotary table failed last month while working on a wheelstock for a Chinese wheelbarrow. This outcome likely connects to the problem of the non-existent oil retention. Repair may involve making a new gear, however getting access to that gear will require extensive dismantling of the machine and the parts are really heavy. Plus I have no idea what I’m doing, but why should that stop me :^). At least the manual drive system for the rotary table still functions, but it is physically and mentally tiring to use if you have to employ it for any length of time.

5) when powering the table assembly up and down in ‘z’ axis, there is a groaning noise during a portion of the travel. Not sure what is causing that, but it does not sound good and like other issue with the mill, extensive disassembly is required. If I am forced to take the saddle and the knee off, then I may as well replace bearings and seals while I am at it.

6) once in a blue moon, while using power feed to raise the table up, the electrical circuit sorta ‘goes to sleep’ and the machine table keeps raising after I have let my finger off of the button. This requires a quick sprint over to the disconnect switch on the wall. Once power is back on, the problem goes away, and it happens so infrequently that it is difficult to diagnose. I’m always apprehensive when raising the table up as a result. The machine’s electrical system relies upon old ceramic fuses, and these are not so easy to source. If I were to disassemble the machine, then I would also likely be looking at going through all the electrical stuff as well.

The machine remains largely functional, but the problems described above have been coming one by one, and seemingly a little more frequent in occurrence with each passing month. It’s an old machine. I worry though about what the next thing will be, and whether it will cause a part to be ruined, or further damage to the machine, or leave me stranded in the middle of a work process.

If woodworking was my hobby only, and I felt like I could take the mill’s repair work on myself (which to a large extent I am confident that I can), and had some money to spend on it, then I might choose to take it all apart and repair and restore it over the course of several months. That’s not my situation though. I simply can’t devote the time to it, and I know that any decision to strip down the machine invites the ‘tip of the iceberg’ effect in terms of what one might find that you really have to deal with once things are apart. Thus it is difficult to ascertain how much money it might cost to put the FZ-5V right.

I recently had a fellow from a spindle rebuilding company in New Hampshire pay a visit to my shop. The company, SPS Spindle, offers a site visit to price out repair work, saving one from the alternative, which is to take the machine apart and bring the parts to the company for inspection and pricing. Obviously, in assessing my machine, there are any number of unknowns, so the pricing is somewhat of a guess, but it looked like a rebuild of the spindle and quill on my machine, along with attending to the various other issue, including the tool holding problem, was going to be in the zone of $10,000.00.

Well, I have so far spent about the same money just purchasing and getting the machine into my shop, so the prospect of shelling out the same amount was not exactly mouth-watering. It’s not a crazy amount of money though, not in the world of large machines with spindles. The FZ-5V was selling for something like 50,000 € when it was last being made in the mid 1980’s. If it were on the market today, factoring in inflation, I would be looking at a purchase price for a new machine of 123,684.43 €, according to one online calculator I tried. Would I be in the market for a machine at that price point? No. Is a $10,000 repair on a machine which would cost 123,684.43 € otherwise reasonable? Sure it is.

I don’t get hung up on how much money has already gone into the machine, or let that guide any decision about what I should do now. I’ve spent enough time in the past dwelling on such ’sunk cost issues’ to have learned that it is not the most rational approach. When faced with the prospect that $10,000 might have to go into the FZ-5V at some point, I start thinking about whether $10,000 could be better spent perhaps. Yeah, I know, ‘wise use of money’ and ‘woodworking equipment’ is not a natural or entirely sensible combination in many people’s eyes. Maybe I should look at Bitcoin?

I asked myself if, at the end of the day, a $10,000 investment into that machine would result in all I ever wanted in that machine? Would it be my dream come true? No, in this case, it would not actually. The ergonomics of the FZ-5V are not the best, for one thing. I would like an even bigger work envelope, and have found turning hand wheels back and forth all day loses its charm rather quickly, as I find it hard on my rotator cuff muscles. A machine that uses a toggle switch, push button, or joystick to achieve the same motorized control of movement (like on my jointer or planer) would be preferable.

So, what are the options that loom large, besides repair?

1) Are their other machines with similar functionality and size? Well, yes…. Two similar sort of size pattern mills of which I’m aware are the Wadkin WS and the Oliver #102-103-104. Both machines are from the pre-WWII era. I’m not sure I want to step further back in time than what I have now, technology-wise, and I’ve been less than fully delighted with a past Oliver machine and a current Wadkin machine. The Wadkin uses a railway track on the floor for the main table, and this would not work so well with the wavy and movement-prone wooden floor in my space. The Oliver would be a challenge to get into the building, at 8’ of height, so some disassembly would be required. I doubt that either machine would be as precise as the Zimmermann, and the tooling would be of some older format, likely Morse taper #3 or #4, which is less desirable to me. The Oliver #103 does have 8 speeds, max rpm of 4100 and 6" of quill travel, a bigger work envelope with loads more x-travel, so it has attractions, despite my wariness of the brand.

2) Going to a bigger machine, with a Bokö milling machine, say. These are in the 4~8 ton range. I would be interested in this direction, but a bigger machine simple wouldn’t even fit through the door of the shop building, and I’m sure would be too much for the floor. At least there is parts support for Bokö however, and even a distributor in the US exists.

3) Go same again. There is a 1983 FZ-5V for sale in Germany, 12 years newer than the one I have. The machine reseller wants 6000€ for it, which is actually less than they bought it for, having had it on the market for a while now. Apparently it was not heavily used and does not leak oil, and to boot it has an additional motor fitted for powered y-travel, which would be nice. It uses a remote control panel on a swivel arm which improves the ergonomics. The electrical panel is more modern, with relays and a single circuit board. Without going to Germany to inspect in person, this is a risky purchase though, just like last time.

4) Go smaller. Zimmermann made a machine about half the size of mine, the FZ-1, which would be able to tackle 80% of what the larger machine can do, albeit at a significant reduction in work envelope:

5) Go modern with CNC. There are lots of options in this direction, ranging from machines way out of my price range to little gippers intended for pen turning and jeweler’s work. There is a DIY CNC scene, people welding up their own tables and buying components with which to build their own machines. However, most of what I have seen would appear to be designed more for production in volume than the type of work I do. I am not interested in programming just for the sake of drilling a few holes, or making a series of cuts on 2~4 parts. It doesn’t make sense, though the user-friendliness of these machines is improving from what I have heard. Many CNC machines are intended for sheet goods work and take up a lot of space, which I don’t have. There is likely a configurable solution, however it will require a fair bit of research yet.

6) Go to a metal working mill. With that, there is a reduced work envelope –  at least for the size of machine which can fit in my space – no rotary table with most machines (except as a small accessory which mounts to the main table) and much slower spindle speeds generally with machines built for cutting metal. There are high speed milling heads for some machines, and some come with really cool super versatile tables which rotate and tilt, like the Maho universal mills, and some, like Deckel mills, come with both horizontal and vertical spindle drives. A good machine though, is a chunk of change and is likely coming out of Europe, so this option is a well beyond my price range.

7) Go outside of the box with some sort of DIY fabrication to change things on the machine I have. I could, for instance, consider removing the head on my machine and fabricating a mount for an electrospindle which would solve quite a few problems. Higher speed, variable step-less speed control, built in motor braking, modern tool holding, etc.

I’m not really sure what to do at this point. There are options, including doing nothing. The machine will remain serviceable for a while longer, however I really have no idea how long I can rely upon it, so planning for what to do next is occupying my thoughts. It is tick-tocking its way toward becoming a 5500lb paperweight in my shop, and I feel I need to do something sooner rather than later.

Perhaps a reader out there has useful advice – if so, I’m all ears.
from Tumblr https://davidpires578.tumblr.com/post/167742475654

Keeping Company

Funny things keep showing up at my shop, though not altogether unexpectedly. The other day, a fairly imposing crate was maneuvered in by some unlucky blighter (me):

A panel came off the crate to reveal a machine and some related supplies within, all safe and sound:

Looks kinda like a bandsaw, huh? But I’ve already got two of those, and no interest in collecting more. So, what could it be?

Well, here we have it, a Zimmermann PS ½, the ‘PS’ standing for Profile Sander:

All grey cast iron, except for the access doors with the plaques on them. The hand wheel at the bottom front is used for tensioning the belt.

It seemed like my Zimmermann pattern mill could use some company (hence the title of this post), and as I said previously, if I could have one of everything Zimmermann makes, that would be very fine indeed. Not that I have the room for such a fantasy – this machine takes practically the last available piece of real estate in my shop.

A view of the other side reveals that this machine was optioned with the built-in dust extraction unit:

A closer look at that extractor:

The machine was the top of the line offering from F. Zimmermann, and combines two models, namely the PS-1, which is the lower table and platen portion only, and which can be used for sanding into the middle of circular objects. To that they add the foldaway overhead arm, making the machine a PS 1-slash-2.  The upper arm gives a more precise and rigid control of the platen, and yet can be swung out of the way and the machine converted, with a changeover to a shorter sanding belt, to what could be called the ‘PS-1 function’. The upper arm in fact tilts to 45˚ as an intermediate position, or can be swung right down to rest upon the floor if you needed more room to maneuver:

Like Zimmermann bandsaws, table tilt adjustments are effected by a rack and pinion drive, the table on this machine tilting in both directions:

The only broken piece on the machine is the on/off switch, which is still functional however:

I’ve sent an email to Zimmermann in regards to parts, but hopes are low in that regard. I’ll be able to fabricate something with new switches though. Other than that, a couple of plastic knobs are chipped, but as these are Kipp items, can likely be sourced easily enough.

A second switch on the front gives two speeds in either belt direction:

Later machines from the company (they made these up to around 2010 I believe) had a control box mounted on a swing arm.

The tilt is adjustable in 0.25˚ increments:

A new belt is put on but not yet tensioned up:

The lower guide gives more precise control of the belt and has ceramic guides fitted. Note the sweet planed table – seeing the condition of the table in photos from the seller is what told me that the machine had seen modest use at best. He told me that he machine had been acquired for one particular (unusual) job, and had seen sporadic service since.

Originally this unit came out of Ohio in 1977, back in the day when Zimmermann maintained an office there:

Another aspect which convinced me to buy this machine was that it came with every available option, save for the table lamp, including a complete set of solid steel profile bars:

You might say I’m getting back into heavy metal. Including the platen mounted on the machine currently, that makes for 10 bars altogether.

4 of the bars have convex profiles:

And 4 offer flat profiles in different widths:

Many of these look unused. The pulley on top of the bar allows for ‘PS-1’ functioning, with the belt traveling up and around the platen. They can be used with the overhead arm set up as well.

Two of the bars, including the one currently on the machine, are in a dovetailed profile, which allows sanding access into acute corners:

In the background you can see the auxiliary guide which is fitted to the tops of the bars in the ‘PS-1’ configuration.

I wired in a new 3-phase outlet, and picked up a piece of (ridiculously expensive) 4" flex hose to connect the machine to dust collection. After I wired a plug onto the cord, it fired up and ran perfectly. It’s decently quiet too!

I had long been considering this machine, however I had only seen them for sale in Germany, which, when factoring the shipping cost with the typical price you might see, made the machine one I would never likely purchase. However, when one of these machines appeared for sale a few months ago in Pennsylvania, my eyes opened wide. I hadn’t realized that there were any of these in the country for one thing. Then to find a fully optioned, top-of-the-line machine with low usage, and hundreds of sanding belts to boot, well, I was chomping at the bit. Trouble was, I had very little spare cash and couldn’t make the purchase price ($3000) happen. Is this a familiar situation to any of you? I hate being in that position where such an opportunity comes along at the very time one is under-resourced, because you never know when you are going to come across something like that again. Probably never. The time to buy something unusual and desirable like that is when you see it.

Then I decided offer the seller his full asking price, on the condition that he would allow me to pay the machine off in 3~4 payments over 3~4 months, and said that if I fell through on my end, he could keep a portion of my payment. To my surprise, the seller, the owner of the Lebanon Pattern Shop in Lebanon, PA, who was retiring and clearing out his stuff, agreed to my offer. At the end of the process, he was also willing to crate and deliver the machine for shipment for $150.00, which was very fair I thought.

The shipping was another interesting aspect, and something I normally dread due to hassles with past shipments and trucking companies who do not seem have the most careful folks operating the forklifts at times.

A friend of mine on the CW forum mentioned that he had acquired a Hitachi bandsaw and was having it shipped through Fastenal stores’ ‘3PL’ program. 3PL stands for ‘3rd Party Logistics’. This is a system of shipping between Fastenal stores using their own trucks. If you can have an item crated on a pallet and delivered to a Fastenal store in the seller’s area, then the item can be shipped from there to a Fastenal store near you for a low price.

How low a price you might ask? Well, Lebanon PA is some 330 miles (500km) from my location, and they shipped the PS ½, which weighs nearly 1000lbs (400kg) for – drum roll please: $75.00.

That was not a misprint. Just $75 to ship the machine, which I then picked up at my nearby Fastenal via rental of a Home Depot pickup truck. Since the item was fully crated, it was also insured for full replacement value. You can ship stuff without a crate, but then it will be uninsured.

Any downsides? Well, yes. They have a long list of items they won’t ship, so forget it for farm animals, household effects, etc. The item will ship on what might be termed a ‘loose’ schedule, and could take anywhere from 4~14days to ship, depending upon what room they happen have on their trucks. And you might think they would have a tracking system that you could use online, so you would see where you item was at any point in its journey. They do not. And if you call 3PL customer service, you will be hearing an automated recording telling you to visit the website and submit a quote. Typical piss-poor customer service stuff that is becoming rather the norm these days with a lot of larger companies. People at the Fastenal store are of little help either with the 3PL shipments ,and also have difficulty connecting with a human in the 3PL department. According to the local store I dealt with, the shipment was due to arrive on the 7th of this month, and when that day came and went without the item arriving, I got a little frustrated with the process and ended up calling their head office in Minnesota. At first they referred me to that same phone number with automated message, but after I was having none of that I eventually, a day later, I was put in touch with a real person at head quarters who could actually give me useful information.

So if you are in no hurry, are okay with your shipment being largely MIA while in transit, have a cooperative seller you can work with who lives near a Fastenal store, and you like to save money, then shipping via Fastenal might be for you. I will use it again where I can, now that I know what to expect.

All for this round. Thanks for visiting!
from Tumblr https://davidpires578.tumblr.com/post/167502895314

Widely Admired Stuff

Some new wood showed up yesterday, ‘beamed up’ from Pennsylvania:

The white columns you see behind are 8’ (244cm) apart.

There are actually two boards parked here:

There’s a little waviness to the resaw lines, but the pieces are pretty good otherwise, and not cupped.

The front one comes in at nearly 13’ (actual it is 155" or 394cm) in length, though what I in fact paid for was a 10’ piece:

The board has a couple of splits in it, so they don’t count those portions in the tally.

The board in behind the front one has no splits and is over 11’ long.

And the width of these boards averages about 48", being tapered from nearly 49" at the butt end to 47" at the ‘narrow’ end on one:

And thickness, though advertised as 5/4 stock, was closer to 1.375". Nice!

I find it a bit mesmerizing to be in front of a piece of wood like this:

I needed help from 3 other folks to get these into the building from the parking lot. And then i sat there for the better part of half an hour just staring, slack-jawed in incredulity. Yes, many would testify that this is one of my more normal facial expressions, but here it was more pronounced than usual.

What is it? Would you believe this is Honduran Mahogany? It’s way old stock material, dredged out of some defunct warehouse, and was likely milled up into slabs 20 years ago or more.

There’s no more genuine mahogany like this coming down the pike. There no chance of mahogany like this ever being imported again to the US, as far as I can tell.

I remember when doing an early furniture project, my first paid furniture commission in fact (see here) around 2002 or 2003, and I had obtained several 8/4 planks of Honduran. One of those planks turned out to have a significantly darker purple cast to it, featured more white flecks on the board surface, and had a far richer, more delicious feel to it when pushing a chisel through a paring cut. The other boards were fine, but that purple-toned one was special. I’ve talked to other woodworkers and they remember the same sort of thing. But those boards are a thing of the past.

When I went back to that same hardwood dealer to obtain more Honduran for a follow on project, the ‘new’ shipment was in, and it paled in comparison to the one I had encountered but a few months earlier – almost like they had reached the end of the logging road. I had to change plans and that turned into my first meeting with a wood which remains a favorite: bubinga.

Later in 2003 Honduran Mahogany went on CITIES Appendix II. Since then the supply has been gradually drying up. Most of that species now comes out of plantations, Peru being the biggest supplier otherwise, and it is an inferior product in most respects, at least in comparison to the ‘glory days’ (which I only barely experienced). They’ve been cutting mahogany for a long time, and most of the good stuff has been gotten.

I greatly respect Honduran Mahogany as a wood, thinking it a superior choice for interior or exterior use. The Japanese lantern in my front yard (described in a series starting here) is constructed of this wood, and in 5 years of sun, wind, rain and snow, it has nary a check in any of the exposed portions of end grain, and next to no degrade otherwise. It takes aging gracefully to a whole new level. The mahogany frame of the tsuitate I built  in 2010 (see the first post in that thread here) in my living room similarly has aged to a fine dark chocolate color and is very well behaved through seasonal RH swings.

As a result of my deep respect for this wood, I’ve been hunting for nice boards for a while now, and pick them up when that serendipitous intersection of [right price] and [money in hand] occurs, which is not near as often as I might like.

The boards shown above however were a chance discovery while looking for something else, and caused me to change materials for the upcoming cabinet build. I had been planning to make the frame of the cabinet in mahogany, and was thinking figured shedua would look really nice for panels; trouble was, I couldn’t find figured shedua, which is quartersawn, any wider than about 13", so forming a front door panel out of that stock would necessitate a glue-up, which I tend to avoid where possible. I really wanted to find some nice wide (@22") panels of a wood which would go well with the mahogany frame, and if I couldn’t find something suitable, I was considering redesigning so as to not need wide panels.

One wood I was considering strongly was gonçalo alves, a wood from Brazil (mostly), however when I looked around the results were not scintillating. There were wide boards, and there were nicely figured boards, but a board combining both characteristics did not seem easy to find. And gonçalo alves is super hard and dense, much more so than bubinga, and the prospect of working it into panels did not intrigue me too much, other than perhaps as a masochistic challenge.

I looked and look and then I stumbled upon one of the above boards on Irion Lumber’s site. After rubbing my eyes a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating upon seeing such an enormous piece of mahogany, I sent my client an email suggesting that we go the monochrome route and make the cabinet out of mahogany for both frame and panels. he wrote back shortly thereafter and agreed that the board was magnificent and that I should proceed to acquire it.

A slab as wide as this one confers a beautiful visual in that the pair of front door panels present a view of a wide tree trunk, but as important to me is that a wide slab cut just above the pith of the trunk is a slab in which most of the width is composed of quartersawn material. Obtaining wide quartersawn mahogany otherwise seems a bit of a tough ask at this time. Generally this species seems to be cut through and through rather than for quartersawn grain.

Later that night, around 3:00 am, I couldn’t sleep just thinking about the crazy mahogany board and got back on the computer to have a look at the piece I had purchased one more time. Sometimes the interval between seeing and believing is not instantaneous, if you know what I mean. While drooling over the pictures once again, I noticed that they had a couple of other boards of similar size listed. After thinking it over a while, I sent another email to the client suggesting it would be wise to obtain a second board. While the first board was sufficient to the build, if anything went wrong with cut out, or the board had defects which added up to greater than anticipated losses, it would be really good to have some back up, and for all I know the stock could be sold out the next day. I suggested that any left overs from the project could be resold, or purchased by me, or utilized in a follow-on project. Once again, the client agreed with my thinking and that’s how I have ended up with two awesome boards of Honduran Mahogany. And added bonus is that the shipping for two boards turned out to be exactly the same as for one board, so a minor economy was realized too.

So, are these two mega slabs of Honduran mahogany the “uber special wood” I alluded to in the previous post? Uh, nope. Of course, they’re totally incredible pieces, but the ‘uber’ stuff, well that goes to another level of ‘special’. That material should be coming my way in about a week, and I’ll tell you that story when it gets here – let your imagination run wild in the meantime, if you like.

Thanks for visiting The Carpentry Way, and don’t be shy about saying hello if you feel so inclined.
from Tumblr https://davidpires578.tumblr.com/post/167360496914

Widely Admired Stuff

Some new wood showed up yesterday, ‘beamed up’ from Pennsylvania:

The white columns you see behind are 8’ (244cm) apart.

There are actually two boards parked here:

There’s a little waviness to the resaw lines, but the pieces are pretty good otherwise, and not cupped.

The front one comes in at nearly 13’ (actual it is 155" or 394cm) in length, though what I in fact paid for was a 10’ piece:

The board has a couple of splits in it, so they don’t count those portions in the tally.

The board in behind the front one has no splits and is over 11’ long.

And the width of these boards averages about 48", being tapered from nearly 49" at the butt end to 47" at the ‘narrow’ end on one:

And thickness, though advertised as 5/4 stock, was closer to 1.375". Nice!

I find it a bit mesmerizing to be in front of a piece of wood like this:

I needed help from 3 other folks to get these into the building from the parking lot. And then i sat there for the better part of half an hour just staring, slack-jawed in incredulity. Yes, many would testify that this is one of my more normal facial expressions, but here it was more pronounced than usual.

What is it? Would you believe this is Honduran Mahogany? It’s way old stock material, dredged out of some defunct warehouse, and was likely milled up into slabs 20 years ago or more.

There’s no more genuine mahogany like this coming down the pike. There no chance of mahogany like this ever being imported again to the US, as far as I can tell.

I remember when doing an early furniture project, my first paid furniture commission in fact (see here) around 2002 or 2003, and I had obtained several 8/4 planks of Honduran. One of those planks turned out to have a significantly darker purple cast to it, featured more white flecks on the board surface, and had a far richer, more delicious feel to it when pushing a chisel through a paring cut. The other boards were fine, but that purple-toned one was special. I’ve talked to other woodworkers and they remember the same sort of thing. But those boards are a thing of the past.

When I went back to that same hardwood dealer to obtain more Honduran for a follow on project, the ‘new’ shipment was in, and it paled in comparison to the one I had encountered but a few months earlier – almost like they had reached the end of the logging road. I had to change plans and that turned into my first meeting with a wood which remains a favorite: bubinga.

Later in 2003 Honduran Mahogany went on CITIES Appendix II. Since then the supply has been gradually drying up. Most of that species now comes out of plantations, Peru being the biggest supplier otherwise, and it is an inferior product in most respects, at least in comparison to the ‘glory days’ (which I only barely experienced). They’ve been cutting mahogany for a long time, and most of the good stuff has been gotten.

I greatly respect Honduran Mahogany as a wood, thinking it a superior choice for interior or exterior use. The Japanese lantern in my front yard (described in a series starting here) is constructed of this wood, and in 5 years of sun, wind, rain and snow, it has nary a check in any of the exposed portions of end grain, and next to no degrade otherwise. It takes aging gracefully to a whole new level. The mahogany frame of the tsuitate I built  in 2010 (see the first post in that thread here) in my living room similarly has aged to a fine dark chocolate color and is very well behaved through seasonal RH swings.

As a result of my deep respect for this wood, I’ve been hunting for nice boards for a while now, and pick them up when that serendipitous intersection of [right price] and [money in hand] occurs, which is not near as often as I might like.

The boards shown above however were a chance discovery while looking for something else, and caused me to change materials for the upcoming cabinet build. I had been planning to make the frame of the cabinet in mahogany, and was thinking figured shedua would look really nice for panels; trouble was, I couldn’t find figured shedua, which is quartersawn, any wider than about 13", so forming a front door panel out of that stock would necessitate a glue-up, which I tend to avoid where possible. I really wanted to find some nice wide (@22") panels of a wood which would go well with the mahogany frame, and if I couldn’t find something suitable, I was considering redesigning so as to not need wide panels.

One wood I was considering strongly was gonçalo alves, a wood from Brazil (mostly), however when I looked around the results were not scintillating. There were wide boards, and there were nicely figured boards, but a board combining both characteristics did not seem easy to find. And gonçalo alves is super hard and dense, much more so than bubinga, and the prospect of working it into panels did not intrigue me too much, other than perhaps as a masochistic challenge.

I looked and look and then I stumbled upon one of the above boards on Irion Lumber’s site. After rubbing my eyes a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating upon seeing such an enormous piece of mahogany, I sent my client an email suggesting that we go the monochrome route and make the cabinet out of mahogany for both frame and panels. he wrote back shortly thereafter and agreed that the board was magnificent and that I should proceed to acquire it.

A slab as wide as this one confers a beautiful visual in that the pair of front door panels present a view of a wide tree trunk, but as important to me is that a wide slab cut just above the pith of the trunk is a slab in which most of the width is composed of quartersawn material. Obtaining wide quartersawn mahogany otherwise seems a bit of a tough ask at this time. Generally this species seems to be cut through and through rather than for quartersawn grain.

Later that night, around 3:00 am, I couldn’t sleep just thinking about the crazy mahogany board and got back on the computer to have a look at the piece I had purchased one more time. Sometimes the interval between seeing and believing is not instantaneous, if you know what I mean. While drooling over the pictures once again, I noticed that they had a couple of other boards of similar size listed. After thinking it over a while, I sent another email to the client suggesting it would be wise to obtain a second board. While the first board was sufficient to the build, if anything went wrong with cut out, or the board had defects which added up to greater than anticipated losses, it would be really good to have some back up, and for all I know the stock could be sold out the next day. I suggested that any left overs from the project could be resold, or purchased by me, or utilized in a follow-on project. Once again, the client agreed with my thinking and that’s how I have ended up with two awesome boards of Honduran Mahogany. And added bonus is that the shipping for two boards turned out to be exactly the same as for one board, so a minor economy was realized too.

So, are these two mega slabs of Honduran mahogany the “uber special wood” I alluded to in the previous post? Uh, nope. Of course, they’re totally incredible pieces, but the ‘uber’ stuff, well that goes to another level of ‘special’. That material should be coming my way in about a week, and I’ll tell you that story when it gets here – let your imagination run wild in the meantime, if you like.

Thanks for visiting The Carpentry Way, and don’t be shy about saying hello if you feel so inclined.
from Tumblr https://davidpires578.tumblr.com/post/167360496914

Fall 2017 Prospects

A fair amount has been happening, work-wise, of late.

At the end of the long cabinet job, I hadn’t been getting many enquiries, and other than some remaining work for Jeff Koons, now on hold awaiting the sourcing of more Burmese teak, a work desert seemed to be in prospect. While having a break between projects can a good thing, just to mentally recharge, clean the shop, attend to personal matters, and so on, the prospect of a blank slate for work is of course not welcome. Bills need to be paid, overhead covered, after all. A furniture-maker/joiner’s survival, especially as a one-man shop, can be precarious at times, as many in the same position will attest. Yes, I quit my day job for this, and it is my choice to have a line of work which can be unpredictable, but usually the satisfactions outweigh the trepidations.

My client for the large ‘Ming-Inspired’ cabinet project sent me an email upon receiving the piece expressing his delight, however after that he seemed to go radio-silent, so to speak, and several emails went unanswered from my end. He’d previously expressed interest in a follow-up project, for one thing, and for another I was interested to see how he liked the cabinet once he’d had some time to get accustomed to using it. After about my third email sent out with no reply, I decided it might be best to leave off, and was left simply baffled as to the silence, and fearing perhaps that he was in the end unhappy with the cabinet. This idea didn’t really fit in with my understanding of the relationship otherwise, however sometimes things can take a weird turn in life as we all know.

Anyway, it turned out that my client had sent a certain email from an account he hardly ever used, and all my replies to that email (I hadn’t noticed the address change) had escaped his attention completely. Eventually he did check that account, and we’re back in touch and in fact I’m working on the design for another cabinet. This cabinet is to contain a pair of Japanese beddings, futon, and I’ll be starting a build thread on this in the near future. I’ve obtained some uber special wood for that project as well, but I’ll keep tight-lipped about that for the time being.

I was also contacted by a the Asian Language Department of a large university in upstate New York, looking to remodel their space to reflect a Chinese and Japanese traditional architectural aesthetic. That prospect was quite intriguing, however initially their proposed budget was a bit on the tight side and I was struggling to find a way to make possible the sort of results they were seeking to achieve. In recent days however, some more funds have been secured, and some decisions have been made on their end as to which design elements to keep and which to eliminate, so it is very much looking like that project will go ahead in the near future. Again, I’ll start a thread on that when/if the time comes.

Then I was contacted by an architecture firm, also in upstate New York, about a project down in Pennsylvania to restore a couple of ‘Japanese Teahouses’. I use single quotes around that term for a reason, as the buildings are neither truly Japanese nor are they teahouses. They sent me a variety of materials on the existing buildings, and I could tell after a glance or two that the buildings, constructed in the 1920’s, were not built by people knowledgeable in Japanese architecture. They’re simulacra in other words, though better in achieving a Japanese look, than most other attempts I have looked at. I told the architectural firm that I wouldn’t be too interested in restoring the buildings, but would be in constructing new ones that were more authentic in construction and detail. And if the budget were insufficient for that sort of project, which it might well be the case as I think the budget has already been agreed upon months ago, that I could instead provide Japanese doors and windows and other millwork details for the project. We’ll see how that unfolds. We’re in the preliminary discussion phase at this time. At this point I have no idea what direction things may take with that project, if any, though there seems to be a deadline in place for the work being completed by the end of next summer, so it seems things must get moving on it in the near future.

So, in the meantime I have been doing a bunch of work from home, design, communicating with clients, calling up wood suppliers, and so forth. It’s a relief to have gone from sterile promontory, to borrow a line from Hamlet, to a situation with several irons in the fire. Very soon I will be starting work on the new futon cabinet and the wood for that should be arriving within the next week. Hope you’ll stay tuned for further developments.

from Tumblr https://davidpires578.tumblr.com/post/167275290904