Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Riddle of the Shinx (II)

Well, I pulled the trigger and have purchased a used Shinx 3XV-360 Super Surfacer in Japan. Here are some pictures of the exact machine I bought:

The machine comes with the factory side tables and tool kit. It has been completely gone-through by the machinery rebuilding company I am dealing with and is in excellent condition. It's three-phase, 200v., and I have three-phase, 208v. power, so no issues there. One thing that makes Japanese machines attractive for import, besides the comparable voltages to North America, is that they are all built to work on 50Hz or 60Hz, so other than changing out the plug on the end of the cord, they are pretty much plug and play.

Infeed side, with table removed:


Control panel:

The machine has had one previous owner, and was not used much apparently. I paid about $5000 for it. It is still in Japan, as I am saving pennies to cover the shipping and crating costs, which, given the machine's size and weight (over 2000lbs) adds another $3500 to the price. Then of course there are likely to be brokerage fees and customs duties when it arrives in Boston, plus shipping to Western MA where my shop is located, so I expect that all-in, I will be looking at $10,000 for the machine. I consider that a good deal, though the shipping was more than anticipated. I'm psyched to at last obtain a good surfacer!

A few readers alerted me to a used surfacer for sale in the US, and while I had already known about it (it's been on the market a few months), I found the video produced by the sellers somewhat humorous - especially the opening scene - so I thought I'd share it here:

The board being thrown to the floor in the opening scene (how's that for the surface finish?), along with the continual shuffles of taking the board back around to the front to feed it again, illustrate well, I think, why having the side support tables, along with an auto-return function, is worthwhile on a surfacer. But the Royal Phoenix 10 by Marunaka is a pretty old machine, so fair enough. It was too small for my needs as well, but perhaps it will fit the bill for someone out there. No idea of the asking price.

I did a bit more digging into the history of fixed knife planing machines, as I had once seen an advertisement in an old machinery catalog for a primitive example. While I couldn't locate that example again, I did come across a bit of interesting information. Fixed knife planers were made in the US from around the 1850's. Here's an example, the Wilder Fixed Knife Planer, as shown in March 26th, 1853 issue of Scientific American:

Notice that the idea was to place a series of fixed knives - 8 in the above example - above the drive table (which had a form of conveyor system).

The earliest US patent I could find for a fixed knife planer was patent #8098 (May 20th, 1851), by William Beardslee, a machine configuration which placed the fixed knives in a vertical orientation:

As it turns out, what drove the innovation in terms of these fixed knife planers had less to do with trying to find a planer which would leave a glassy smooth finish, than it was to work around certain limitations of rotary head planers at that time, and, more significantly, to work around the patent monopoly and licensing costs then associated to most planers with cylindrical cutting heads.

While powered planers can be traced back to the 1790's in England, a certain William Woodworth of Hudson New York invented and then patented a 4-sided planer intended for producing tongue-and-grooved floorboards in one go - this is the infamous US Patent #5315X, for December 27th, 1828:

Several companies licensed the rights to make the machine, but Woodworth and his later heirs were extremely zealous in collecting fees for use of the design - known then as the Woodworth Planer Monopoly:

He and his partners built these machines, and sold them to operators who were set up in franchised territories. Franchisees charged $7 per thousand for custom planing, $3 of which went to the patent holders. This generated a huge profit and a war chest to intimidate anyone who might build or operate a machine designed for rotary planing of S4S lumber. Because of litigation costs, operators quickly settled and complied with patent-holder terms.

In that time the Patent Law allowed inventors to apply for patent extensions of 7 years, and Woodworth's heirs kept applying for these extensions, adding slight tweaks or improvements to the design, some of which they did not actually invent - like pressure bars - so as to apply for fresh patents. Like modern modern monopolists savvy in getting their way in the political process, the Woodworth's had an array of lawyers, editors, congressional 'friends' etc., that allowed them to keep the advantages accruing to their patent. According to Judith MacGraw's book Early American Technology: Making and Doing things from the Colonial Era to 1850, page 316, the patent was generating $15 million annually for the heirs, so it certainly was a cow they had grown fond of milking.

This patent monopoly was a big deal at the time, and still cited in a more than a few case Law Studies today. The situation came to a head in 1850 when Woodworth's son, William W., applied for another extension which would have perpetuated his patent until 1870. This created a public firestorm and mass rallies and letter-writing campaigns were organized. Finally, in 1856 the Woodworth patent was allowed to expire. The repercussions of this patent monopoly and its stifling of innovation changed US Patent law, as the 1861 amendment stopped the use of extensions altogether, setting the term to 17 years at most.

Baxter D. Whitney created and patented a planer in 1837 which planed on one side only, and this managed to evade the Woodworth patent. In time it became the archetype of the modern powered planing machine:


Whitney evidently felt the fixed knife planer also had merit, as they patented their own version in 1857, US Patent #17,992:

According to the entry at, apparently the frames and crude bearings of the rotary planing machines did not leave the smoothest of surfaces, and the fixed knife planer was created to address that deficiency. The patent application further states,

"This machine will be found particularly well adapted to smooth the surfaces of thin stuff such as is used for the hoop or sides of light wooden boxes (cheese boxes &C.) and veneered stuff."

Once the Woodworth patent faded into the background however, the rotary planer came to be the predominant machine used for wood planing, and the fixed knife planer disappeared from the scene by the beginning of the 20th century. Knowing how precise the blade grinding and knife set up of the super surfacer needs to be, I suspect that these early American fixed knife planers didn't work all that well, or at least did not lend themselves to use in a mass-production context, by uncaring workers just shoving stuff through machines. What has driven a certain amount of woodwork machine design in the US, besides economy in price, is that they be easy to use with a minimum of training (means labor costs are lower for the machine owner, and the labor easier to source), and can process as much material as possible (the more through-put, the more potential profit). The fixed knife planer likely did not fit so well into this mold.

I was looking on Japanese patent sites trying to get a sense of whether they might have taken the idea for the super surfacer from these early American machines, and at this point I suspect not. I think it is is a case of later parallel development. Looking at the Marunaka company website, I noted that they were founded in 1936, and they did not start working to develop the super surfacer until 1970. At that point, I doubt there were any examples of the early American fixed knife planers anywhere to be seen. I am curious to know if there were any brands of super surfacers in Japan in the period from 1900~1970. I haven't been able to find any examples so far of such old machines on any Japanese sites.

Anyway, back to the surfacer I have purchased, and which currently sits in a warehouse in Saitama Japan....

As mentioned in the previous post on this topic, just as there is no point buying a hand plane or chisel without having the means to sharpen the tools, there is little point having a super surfacer if one does not have a blade grinder. Shinx makes a fully automatic blade grinder, the SLA555:

These come in three sizes - above is shown the middle size, which can grind and polish a width of 650mm.

Trouble is there are not a lot of used blade grinders for sale in Japan at the moment, or of any brand of automatic grinder for surfacer knives for that matter. I prefer the automatic grinder as it will leave the most perfect knife surface, especially compared to manual-feed grinders, which are also hard to find for that matter. There is also a semi-automatic type of grinder produced by several manufacturers, also thin on the ground in Japan I have found.

After an extensive search, I found a couple of used Shinx grinders, but the machinery rebuilding company I have been dealing with said that neither was in acceptable condition - not good enough for them to put their name behind at least. I also learned that the price of a good grinder was likely to be about the same as I paid for the surfacer, and with the cost of crating and shipping added in, import duties, etc., I was looking at another $10,000.00. With this being tax season-  and yes, a chunk was bitten from my bank account - I don't have much spare cash floating about, so I was thinking it would be several months wait until I would be in a position to purchase a grinder. Even then, it was by no means guaranteed that I would even be able to locate a suitable machine.

Then I hit upon another idea. Looking at the Shinx machine brochure for the surfacer they currently produce, the EX-36, I noticed that among the four choices of knife arrangement that were offered, there was an option for 'スローアウェイ式', which transliterates to suro-awei shiki. Here's a fine example of an English word rendered in Japanese katakana script - suro-awei means 'throw-away' ~shiki is a Japanese word which means 'style'. Otherwise known as kaeba-shiki (替え刃式), disposable quick change knives are offered as an option on Shinx surfacers, along with other brands. If the factory offers them as an option on a machine of this quality, I suspected that the quick-change knives at least met performance requirements. More importantly, from my perspective, was that they represented an alternative to obtaining a grinder, shipping it, setting it up with power and water, allocating precious space in my shop to it, and so forth.

I sent a mail to the company asking them for more information about the quick-change knife option, wondering if the same could be retrofitted to the machine I had bought, how much it would cost to retrofit, how much the replacement knives cost, and whether they thought quick change knives were a good idea at all for surfacers.

I kind of presumed they might poo-poo the idea altogether, as they are in business to sell refurbished machinery, and would probably rather sell me a $6000 grinder than retrofit a part to the machine I had bought. To my surprise, they replied that they said that they thought it was a good idea. And not an expensive option either. All I would need to change out is the knife holder, which would cost $950.00. The disposable knives come in a 2-pack for a little under $80.00. The quick-change knives, as they are not re-sharpenable, can be made of a much harder steel than the HSS used in the grindable knives, and thus they last 3~4 times longer than the re-sharpenable type. Also, changing the knives out only requires a short period of time - loosen one bolt 1/2-turn, and slide the knife out and a new one in, then re-tighten the bolt. The quick-change knives are located using magnets, and there is no time required for dis-assembly, grinding, reassembly and precise setting of the knife to chipbreaker as with the conventional knife stock. No setting jig required either.

I thought about it for a bit and concluded it was worth giving this option a try. After all, if I found that this option wasn't working out performance-wise, or was costing more than I thought, the I can always opt to return to the conventional set up later on, and acquire a grinder and have it shipped over. Instead of having to scratch together $10,000 for the grinder+shipping, etc., I could look at spending $1600, which would get me the quick change knife holder and a 10 pack of blades (20 blades total), which should see me along a fair while, given the durability of the knives. The difference in price between going the grinder route and the quick-change knife route is more than $8000, and that buys 100 pairs of knives, leaving aside the other costs of setting a grinder up in my shop, and the time associated to changing out, sharpening and re-fitting the conventional knives to the surfacer.

Although the quick change knives are a consumable, and thus represent an on-going operating cost, the conventional grinder also had consumables in terms of the grinding and polishing wheels, and the knives themselves, which after multiple sharpenings will also need replacing, along with the chip-breaking knife. So, it's worth a shot, as far as I am concerned, to try these quick-change knives. I will give an account of their performance at a later date, after I've received the machine.

One last point for today's post: some out there have suggested that super surfacers are only suitable for softwoods, however my experience with them in the past, along with things I have seen and heard personally, does not bear this assertion out. I see that an older Marunaka machine actually had a chart on it giving the turntable cut angles for various woods (lower half of the picture below):

The row along the top of the plate with the Japanese on it lists Japanese wood species, some of which are not described in the English below, like sen, shitan, and so forth - not to mention the line up of names does not correspond precisely either. There are 28 woods listed in Japanese, 20 in English. Noble fir sits close to the 50˚ mark in English, but in the Japanese above it is just shy of the 40˚ mark. That matter aside, it does show that the manufacturer at least considers the machine capable of shaving woods as dense and hard as ebony and rosewood. I am now thinking that 0˚ is perpendicular to the material, so really hard woods will be cut with the greatest scrape, while soft materials like balsa and Paulownia can be cut with the knife at 50˚ to the direction of feed, with the greatest slice. Skewing a blade, after all, lowers the effective blade angle. That's one of the main reasons, I suspect, that super surfacers do such a good job: it's always a shearing cut. Interesting too is that this means that the surfacer can operate at greatest width with hard woods which must be tackled with more of a scraping cut, while the width capacity for the softest woods, due to the greater shear angle, is lowest.

All for now-  thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way. To read about the machine's arrival and installation, click here.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A New Light in Japanese Carpentry

Regular readers have likely noticed the drawing to the top right corner of this page, indicating the current study group project, a Japanese andon.  

Andon (行灯) are a type of portable floor lantern once common in Japan.

I made my andon out of cocobolo, which I had not worked with very much in the past. To anthropomorphize a bit, I found it an irascible wood. It is prone to warping and breaking - it was so brittle that it would break if you so much as looked at it askance. Given the propensity of this type of rosewood (perhaps all rosewoods) to have internal cracks and checks, and its tendency to tear out when planing, the amount of wood required to form the pieces that ended up in this lantern was on the order of double in some cases. The slender vertical kumiko, 1/4" thick and 5/8" deep, of which I required a dozen sticks, required more than 30 sticks be cut before I had 12 that would behave. And cocobolo is an expensive wood to begin with, so factoring in the waste, one can see that furniture made from this wood would be a pricey proposition.

And on the plus side, the polish obtained is pretty much unmatchable in any other species that is not a rosewood:

I finished the wood with two coats of wiping varnish followed by a wax buffing. As this piece won't be subject to much handling, and the wood itself is hard and dense, I thought that a light finish with wax was fine.

So, yesterday was final assembly, and my wife dropped by and took some video of the process.

Here's the video we came up with after wrestling with Apple's iMovie 11 for a few hours - we're not going to win any film awards but a decent first pass by the post I hope, with some photo stills between the short video clips:

I like the koto, or Japanese zither, and found some short pieces to add as a soundtrack to the above - perhaps it adds a nice atmosphere to the video. Don't worry, this music isn't playing in my shop full time :^)

A couple of pics for those who have a dial up connection and can't watch video online:



The next study group project is going to be a series of Japanese traditional joints. If you're interested in getting involved with the study group, please drop me an email. If you join for 6 months or longer, it's less than $20/month, and it's challenging yet quite possibly rewarding.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. Comments always welcome.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Ask the Man Who Owns One

I came across a series of intriguing short silent films showing the Packard Motor Car Company logging timber (film 1), milling wood (film 2), and crafting car bodies (film 3). Yes, they used to make car bodies from wood at one time, and it is fascinating to get a glimpse of how that was done. Some nifty jigs were employed, and, for a thrill, wait until you see how they get the shaper spinning:

I found the jigs quite inventive, and noted that they were using some sort of slot mortiser for the mortises on those frames. Love the line about "features which make for beauty, comfort, safety and visibility". Packard, once THE luxury automobile brand, made some management blunders after WWII which diluted the brand, then they merged with Studebaker (which happened to be close to insolvency), and they croaked in 1958. At least they had the dignity to die here in the US instead of being outsourced.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Gateway (V)

Post 5 in a series describing the design and construction of a Japanese garden entry gate for the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Post 1 can be found here, with subsequent posts linked at the bottom of each entry.


I dropped by the drying facility just a couple of miles up from my shop, where they had moved the Port Orford Cedar timbers in position to go into the dehumidification room. The timbers will remain in dehumidification for several months before going on to vacuum kilning. Most of the material is either quartersawn or rift cut, so I didn't need to worry too much about degrade as the wood dries, however with the largest sections the end grain runs in a semi-circle on the section and thus cracks would likely propagate on at least one face. A good way to mitigate this effect is to kerf the face that will shrink the most, and my larger cicular saw with a rip blade fitted is well-suited to the task.

Here's the stack I wanted left out of the dehumidification room - in particular I needed to deal with the two main posts on the bottom of the stack:

Three of the four bonus 9"x17" pieces needed kerfing - here's the first, with the kerf offset to align to the peak of the grain curve:

Not sure what, if anything those might be of use for, but they may as well get dried with the rest.

Then onto the main task. The saw was at maximum depth of cut, which enabled it to just reach the center of these 11" thick columns:

Done - these were nice sticks, perfectly clear as far as I could see:

There is the matter of the 17' long, 9"x17" beams - missing from the shipment (hence the 'bonus' pieces mentioned above) - which will be getting milled up in Oregon early next week. I should have those a week after that and expect, based on what I know of the log sizes the timbers will be cut from, that they will probably require kerfing before they go into dehumidification. So, I'll be back with the saw once more in a few weeks.

After the material has been in dehumidification for a month or so, I will bring some wedges over and tap them into the kerfs to help them along the process of opening. I'll return every month or so to tap the wedges in a bit more as required. As the timber dries and shrinks, the kerf opens to a wedge shape, and this opening accommodates most of the tension created by the drying process. Later, when the drying is complete and the material dressed to shape, the wedge-form sliced opening up the beam will be filled in with a slice of wood.

The wood is quite wet still, but it was nice to run a saw through such butter after the bubinga slice up of the other day, not to mention the rosewood I've been working for the past while.

So nice that spring is finally here!

All for today - thanks for dropping by. On to post 6

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Square Deal (6)

Sixth post in a series describing the design and build of a couple of tables, and maybe more. If you're a first time visitor, post 1 in this thread can be found here.

After a few days of delays in shipping, where the bubinga slab languished in Carlisle PA for 3 days, the stick was finally up in my neck of the woods. I decided against picking it up yesterday as the weather was inclement, however today brought sunshine and a whopping 50˚F (10˚C), which, after the brutally long cold winter was have had in Massachusetts, seemed like some sort of beckoning of the heavens. I scooted on up to Dumerston VT, just north of Brattleboro, to see what wonders awaited at the ABF Freight depot.

To my relief, the board had not been chewed up into kindling, or set on fire, etc., through the vagaries of the shipping process - it was unscathed, and they even cordoned it off with road cones:

For some reason - perhaps the usual imagining of my often slightly unhinged mind, I thought the board looked shorter and smaller than I had thought it should.

The tape measure doesn't lie though:

I had originally planned to have the board brought out to me by tow truck, however given the truck depot location, about 50 miles from my shop, the towing quote was $275, so I went to plan 'B', where I show up with my own 1-ton truck and saw the board into two 'manageable' chunks so it could be loaded.

Having thought out the cut pattern in advance - losing a bit of sleep over it in fact - I did not suffer especially from any qualms when digging the circular saw into the plank.  I just marked out my cut line, set the saw for a depth of cut about 2/3 the board thickness, and went on ahead without so much as a deep inhale:

By cutting at 2/3 depth I was being cautious, not knowing whether the board might have some residual tension in it that would cause the blade to get pinched. Believe me, with a 14" blade and this particular material, blade pinching is definitely something to be avoided.

All went well however, there was no binding, cracking, groaning or popping, and I'm not talking about my lower back either.  It was a good sign - the wood was well-behaved. I made the next cut to sever the boards. The opportunity to make a 16' long conference table was lost forever, but I seem to think I'm making two or three pieces out of this slab, so all is good.

Time to load up:

And then the remnant at 81" length was slid on top:

 All buttoned up and ready to head back to my shop:

The cut surface told me two things - the board had a larger flatsawn portion than I might have hoped, and my crosscut blade could use sharpening. I haven't used that saw for more than a year so I had forgotten about that:

Now, back at the ranch, so to speak, I had the thrill of unloading, without benefit of a forklift. The two gentlemen upstairs helped me off load the 81" piece, which we could slide off and onto a heavy duty trolley (again, thanks to the gentlemen upstairs for the use of this fine piece of equipment!), so it was tucked inside in a matter of minutes.

More gymnastics were involved with the larger portion of slab. Again, I had spent some time thinking this out ahead of time, rigging a come-along to an overhead i-beam:

Here's the upper end of that connection:

It required a long ladder to get up there, a climb I found a bit terrifying frankly. I haven't rock climbed in a long time, and well, I guess I find heights scarier than I used to.

The board was swung inside - here I'm working solo - and I got a pallet truck on to one end:

A little more fiddling around and I got the entire board onto the trolley, and once balanced, easily wheeled it inside:

Once I'd tidied up outside, got my truck re-organized and parked, and had taken the come-along and support strap down (more scary ladder climbing), I enlisted some help from the upstairs shop to tilt the 'chunk' up against a pair of posts:

This board has come great curly figure on the tangential portion:

Now, where was that remnant? Time for more cuttin' action.

I set it up on some dunnage, marked the line and sliced it in half:

Again, the wood behaved well and no pinches. I needed to pinch myself-  this was good news! The right half above, which was the narrow end of the slab, had a bit of sapwood still in place. I was hoping to be able to obtain my tabletop board, to be 38" square, from that uppermost slab portion.

I carefully marked out the slab centerline, and a pair of lines spaced 20" off to each side from that centerline to define a 40" slab width. Then I trimmed off the edges to leave a 40"x40" slab, visible in this next photo, over to the right:

Again, the trimming showed no big moves or warpage in the material- this board looks really stable. Also, the above picture gives a sense of scale, doesn't it? That right piece is 40"x40", so the rest now is well, frickin' huge! And oh so heavy.

The other portion of the 81" slab, a piece about 40"x50", is visible to the left side of the above picture.

The offcuts from the tabletop trimming:

One side of the trimming has little salvageable material, but I'll see if I can squeak something out:

These trimmings are heavy little chunks!

I was pleased to find that after trimming, there was only a small portion of sapwood left on one corner of the slab, and this will be trimmed off later no problem:

The above view shows the side edge of the board, which rests upon its end grain edge.

There we have it. No vertebrae were crushed, no one had to visit the emergency room. Pretty much a success all around. Whew!

Next step will be to take the tabletop slab down to dimension. I'm still wavering a bit on whether I'll just hog off the material from either side, or whether I'll try to get a slice resawn off of each side. I was leaning towards the resawing, however the board has some slight checks on the flatsawn surface portions, so I'm thinking that a 1/2" slice from each face will incorporate these checks, which makes the overall piece less usable. I'll decide in the next day or two what course of action to take.

All for now. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. On to post 7.