Zen and the art of chainsaw maintenance

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We had some serious wind over the past week and with that came some windfall trees that will hopefully provide some of the timbers I’ll need for the frame.  Before I get started with that I wanted to make sure the chainsaws were ready to go.  Normally, I tend to eschew motorized machinery where a suitable, traditional hand tool would suffice, but since I don’t have draught horses and a pit saw crew (yet), I’ll have to settle for the portability and efficiency of a gas-powered chainsaw…for now.  I like to have two chainsaws: a smaller ~40 cc saw for limbing trees and clearing brush, and a larger ~70 cc saw for felling trees, bucking logs, and milling timbers.  The first thing I did was make sure the air and fuel filters were clean, before adding fresh fuel and bar oil (I try to store them empty, especially over long periods of inactivity).  Then I started them and let them idle for a while, adjusting the carburetor and throttle as needed.  Then I tested the compression in the cylinder to determine whether there was a good seal with the piston.

IMG_20170311_124347734.jpgThe smaller chainsaw had slightly lower than ideal compression but it should still run fine; the carburetor, throttle, and fuel mix can all be tweaked to get the whole machine operating in harmonious equilibrium again.  I checked the spark plug gap with a feeler gauge and made sure the clutch, exhaust port, and chain oiler were free from sawdust buildup and working properly.  Taking off the muffler to look into the exhaust port also allowed me to inspect some of the minor scoring on the piston which I suspect is the source of the low compression.  The next step was sharpening the chain, filing down the rakers and flipping the bar to make sure it will wear evenly from year to year.  The whole process is somewhat tedious but necessary to ensure smooth operation and maximize longevity.  And while it may seem like a hassle as I’m doing it, there is nothing more frustrating then having a chainsaw break down out in the woods halfway through a job or having to muscle a dull chain through a cut while putting extra strain on the engine.  It helps to think of the whole maintenance process as a ritual to achieve a certain peace of mind.  For me, a well-maintained chainsaw that starts on the first pull and bites effortlessly through a log is exactly like Robert Pirsig’s description of the Zen-like pursuit of quality in his motorcycle maintenance.  A wave of satisfaction accompanies the confidence that the machine is sound and its objective will be executed flawlessly.

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A joined tool tote

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I wanted to give myself some practice with joinery and hand tools so I thought I would make a traditional-style tool tote out of pine.  I didn’t take measurements and instead relied on a combination square to lay out all the joints and scribe-fit all the pieces together.  The ends are dovetailed to the sides with mortise and tenon corner braces near the bottom.  The tenons are pinned in place along the bottom edges with hand-split pine treenails in 3/16″ holes.

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The handle is a red maple sapling that I cut last winter.  The bark had been peeled and it was drying indoors for a year with endgrain sealer on the crosscuts.  I forgot what I originally had planned on doing with it but it made a nice handle for this project.  I lodged the sapling into holes in the end boards lined with a piece of leather to prevent it from spinning in the hole.  I pounded a little pine wedge in the hole underneath the handle to secure it firmly.

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The bottom of the box is a loose pine board cut about 3/8″ shorter and narrower than the sides.  It rests on top of the corner braces with four wedges lodging it in place.  I figured the bottom of the box shouldn’t rest directly on the ground where it could wick moisture from the soil and cause tools to rust.  The gap between the bottom and sides has the added benefit of draining away anything that might spill inside and provides a little air circulation.

It’s amazing to me how much more satisfaction comes from building something using only hand tools and joinery.  All of the rigidity of the box comes from the design of the joinery and the natural compression resistance/ tensile strength of the wood.  The facets of the box are held together in complementary tension to one another with no nails or glue whatsoever; just a few wedges and dowel pins in key locations.

The tools I used for this project:  Crosscut, ripping and dovetail saws; jack and block planes; 1/2″ and 3/4″ chisels with mallet; egg-beater drill, brace and bits; combination square; and a pencil.  I bought the lumber from a big box home improvement store after digging through the whole stack for the least cupped, least twisted and most knot-free boards I could find – not easy with cheap, 1″ flat-sawn pine.  I think it was around $8.00 for a 10′ 1×10 and 4′ 1×12 (the dimensions of the finished tool tote are pretty large:  about 3’L x 1’W x 2’H; big enough for axes, saws, etc).  Not a bad price for a nice tool tote, although it took me about 6 hours to make it considering all the mortise chopping.  This project definitely taught me that a quality backsaw for dovetails is something I need to acquire.  The little flimsy pull saw I was using was too frustrating to control and took too much effort.  I could’ve probably saved a little more time by using a rasp or file to clean up the joints.  The chisel seemed to produce the same rough results on the endgrain of kiln-dried pine while taking longer.  I also learned that, not unlike heavier anvils making for lighter work, a bench with a thicker top might be something I should think about building.

Well, now I have another wood item awaiting warmer temperatures for a coat of finish…

Hand-forged framing chisel

Picked up an old hand-forged 1-1/2″ framing chisel.  Actually, I don’t really know how old it is.  There are remnants of a maker’s mark stamped in the steel but I can’t determine too much other than it was a recessed rectangle shape.  There is also a crudely scratched “H+X” in the blade but it’s off-center and I suspect it was an identifier for a previous owner rather than something left by the smith.  I had to spend about an hour lapping the steel flat just to see what kind of integrity the blade had.  There are a couple of hairline cracks here and there but nothing near the bevel edge or around the socket.  Someone was probably hammering it without a handle because the socket has plenty of fresh dings but it’s not malformed enough to prevent a new handle from seating properly.  Overall, I’m pretty happy with it and I needed a big mortise chisel like this for timber framing so now I can cross it off my list.  I might want a 2″ chisel down the road as well but then I’d need to get a 2″ auger bit, too, probably.

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I went ahead and fashioned a hickory handle to fit in the socket and put a steel hoop at the butt.  I think the hoop will settle down a little more, the butt should mushroom out over it and everything should stay in place securely.  I must now get to work on a chunkier wooden mallet to drive this monster chisel.  I’ll also have to finish the handle with the pine tar, boiled linseed oil, and turpentine varnish I talked about in a previous post.  I have some other things that could use a coat as well but I’m probably going to wait until the weather is warmer to mix it up.  Turpentine is not my favorite thing to use indoors.

Disston panel saws

I snapped up three rusty panel saws on the cheap.  The skew-backed profile of the saw plates caught my eye and when I looked closer at the medallions they looked like older Disston saws even though one medallion in particular was obscured by buildup and totally illegible.  One of the saw plates had some black paint covering it so I couldn’t tell how far gone the steel would be from rusting but I decided to take a chance and buy all three since they were only a few bucks apiece.  I used some citrus-based stripping gel on the painted saw plate as well as the handle (someone had made a horrible attempt at staining it).  I unscrewed the brass fasteners and removed the handles.  After soaking the brass pieces in some warm, soapy water for a bit, I inserted them into my drill chuck one at a time and polished with some polishing cloth.  The emblem on one medallion indicated a saw made between 1896-1917 and the other indicated a saw made between 1917-1940.  I used the extensive resources available at the Disstonian Institute to date the saws.  The third saw with the paint on the plate and poor finish on the handle was not in fact a true Disston saw but an inferior quality saw made by the Disston company and sold under the Warranteed Superior brand.  This saw is still pretty old, probably dating back to the 1920-1940s but it’s definitely made with a lower quality steel plate and the handle seems to be made out of some sort of softwood lumber with less elaborate detail work and one less screw to secure the plate to the handle.  In spite of all this, it’s still of a much better quality than anything I could buy new for the same price.  I went ahead and removed the rust from the saw plates to reveal some minor pitting but nothing that would compromise the ability to cut safely.  I sanded the handles smooth and decided not to fix any of the chipped horns or fill in any of the nicks or gouges because again, I thought none of that would affect cutting ability.  After I applied a coat of finish and left it to dry overnight, I fitted the handles back onto the plates with the polished brass hardware and Voilà!

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I wasn’t even thinking about it when I purchased the saws, but the three saws together offer a nice range of different cutting possibilities depending on how I file and set the teeth.  One saw has 5 TPI, one has 6 TPI and the junkiest saw of the lot has 8 TPI.

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I’ll probably file the two nicer Disston saws as rip saws, with the 5 TPI plate filed for softwoods and giving the 6 TPI plate a little bit more of a rake angle for hardwoods.  The 8 TPI Warranteed saw already appears to have a little fleam on it so I’ll just keep that as an all-purpose saw for rough-cutting dimensional lumber and jobs of that nature.  The fleam does make the teeth a little more brittle, and that is somewhat of a concern with cheaper steel and smaller teeth so I’ll have to be mindful of knots and so forth.  The only remaining step is getting my saw set and files to bring them back into complete working order…

The road not taken

I had a friend, his dad, and another friend come up from Wisconsin to help clear some paths from the building sites down to the water.  It helped in convincing them that the gill-netting season for whitefish was underway.  And even though the weather did not cooperate for the fishing to be successful, I’m thankful they came to help because they were much more adept at path visualization than I am.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the descent from the building sites down to the water is about 60′ and much of it is the bare faces of giant granite boulders.  My approach would have been to clear a straight line down to the water and later devise a system of anchoring a staircase into the granite.  Luckily, my friends dissuaded me from this course of action.  Their approach, and what I quickly realized was the correct approach, was to follow the natural course of the topography in a meandering sort of way all the way down to the lake.  The paths ended up longer but much easier to navigate, and felt as though it was the natural way to travel, as if it was a well-used game path.  The paths also had the added benefit of winding around beautiful old-growth trees and past little vistas with views of the lake.  There were a couple of spots where the path had to cut across a low, swampy area or jump over a little ephemeral stream so we reused lumber from the old docks I referred to in a previous post to make foot bridges.  Instead of removing whole trees, we limbed them up to just above head-height.  Not only did this make the path more secluded and enclosed, but it also framed the path in such a way that it was apparent which direction one would have to walk.  I’ll have to keep up with the trail maintenance especially during the first few years.  A lot of the early successional stage vegetation around here is especially adapted to exploit a disturbance that has left a site clear and sunny.  As long as I stay in front of it, the forest will grow up naturally around the path and shade out anything wanting to grow underfoot, and I should have a defined, well-worn path in the future.

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For anyone interested in building trails of any sort I would recommend checking the resources available at americantrails.org.  I especially like the illustrated compendium of tools used in trail building.  They also have a section dedicated to wildlife impacts of trails; a research topic in which I was involved with the University of Wisconsin Sylvis Lab.

A shed…technically

I bought a kit for a temporary, carport-type structure at a big box home improvement store in Duluth.  It was on sale, whatever that even means these days, and even though it appeared to be made of cheap materials and might disintegrate after a few months, I needed something to temporarily house all the tools and materials for the upcoming projects.  It took an afternoon to set up, but the earth anchors that came with it were not going to work in granite.  I ended up just weighing down the frame with an assortment of scrap lumber and rocks.  It may be an eye sore but it has served its purpose well so far.  The ugliness of the gray tarp among the beautiful foliage is seriously making me consider building a timber frame tool shed for my first project.  This will have to do for now, and I do have to remember that I can move it whenever and wherever I need to.

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