Thursday, March 22, 2012

Comings and Goings

It's been a bit of a break for me as far as blogging goes. Nothing planned, just that's how things unfold sometimes.

I took a business/pleasure trip to NYC last week and had a great time. my wife and I drive down to New Haven, Connecticut, and get on the Metro North train, which, in a couple of hours, takes us right into Grand Central Station in Manhattan. From there, it is mostly easy to get about using the subway. I wouldn't want to drive in and out of New York City if I could help it.

Some good news/bad news. The good news: I have gotten involved in a fantastic new project with a famous artist in New York and look to having several months of work ahead - most of the year in fact! I've been hired for my knowledge of Japanese and Chinese joinery. The bad news: I have had to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement, and that includes blogging about the project. So I certainly can't tell you who or what, and can't even show you how or why. Sorry about that, wish I could tell you more, but I can't.

While down in the city I had some another adventure relating to a book I acquired by James Monckton, the author of such seminal 19th century technical carpentry works as the National Carpenter and Joiner and National Stairbuilder. Last year, I managed to obtain a copy of his 1893 work Monckton's Practical Geometry, after trying in vain to obtain it through the national library system. It's quite a rare book and I could locate only a few copies in all the US library database-  mostly at universities where I imagine it is almost never referenced. Then I found a copy for sale for the ridiculous price of $30, so I snapped it up. When I received the copy, I noted on the title page a note saying that Monckton was Instructor for many years of the Mechanical Class in the "General society of Mechanic's and Tradesman's Free Drawing School" of the city of New York. I had never heard of such a school and was astonished to find after an online search that it in fact still exists. Founded in 1785, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesman of the City of New York is located on W. 44th street and boasts an Apprentice's library of more than 100,000 volumes! This was right on top of my list of places to visit in NYC, so I found my way there last week as soon as I could.

The Society is hosing in a 4 story structure now in the National Historic Register - here's an old photo:

Visiting the Apprentice's Library was a mixed bag, even bittersweet. It wasn't exactly what one would call bustling. During the two hours I was there, besides the sole librarian there were only two other browsers and a couple of old men sitting at a table having a chat. I looked through their entire collection of 19th century carpentry and building texts, hoping to come upon a hidden gem or two. I didn't find anything I hadn't already come across before however. And I could see plainly that there were many many books which hadn't been checked out of the library since the 1920 or earlier. I asked the librarian if she got many actual tradesman or craftspeople in the library looking up old texts on their trades, and she said it was pretty unusual. I found that kind of sad actually. Also, quite of a few of the books were getting so old that the act of opening them and trying to move through the pages would break the paper. The books were crumbling away. It was like participating in the end of an era, voices becoming silent, craft secrets being lost, and no one much knowing or even caring. In the end did come across a few volumes I want to look into further, so it was a productive visit.

I also had a small slice of time in which to pop into another library, and one considerably better known: The New York Public Library. Here's a picture of the structure after completion in 1908:

This library, like many of the public libraries in the city, were brought about not through taxpayer expense but by grants and endowments from robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie. This is an astonishing place - one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. From the outside, not much clue is provided of the sumptuous interior spaces. The entire structure is in the Beaux-Arts style. Ceilings in the main reading rooms vault up something like 50 feet:

Another room has some incredible Italian marble work around the doorways. The woodwork in the large reading rooms is, I'll say to my surprise, very well done. I have become so used to seeing poor workmanship, or poorly-maintained work, that I was somewhat taken aback to see something beautiful in form and clean in execution - and I guess fairly recent too as the library underwent a $50 million renovation in 2007. Seeing beautifully-executed woodwork in the built environment is for me an uncommon experience, unfortunately.

I was able to ascertain during my brief visit that there were several books of interest in the collection, however virtually all of them were warehoused off site and would need to be requested days in advance. I'll save that for next time I guess.

Another place I had been long wanting to visit was the Ming Furniture Gallery on East 64th street in Manhattan. The managing director, Damon Spilios was there and I sat down and chatted with him for about an hour and learned much about the art market and auction scene for Ming furniture pieces over the past 25 years. The gallery is small and very nondescript - I thought I had missed it when walking there at first. They have some great pieces on display and unlike in a museum, I was able to touch he pieces and crawl underneath and inspect them quite closely. That was an invaluable and unforgettable experience.

On the 17th I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wanted to look again at their Chinese courtyard exhibit and the collection of Ming Furniture on display. Getting there was a bit of an adventure as it was St. Patrick's day and people dressed and decorated in green were mobbing the area as there were parades underway. So, getting into the museum to have a sit in the quiet and sublime enclave of the recreated Chinese courtyard was a welcome respite. Actually, it wasn't the courtyard itself that drew me, it was the room with the furniture! Passing through the doors of the room, which are latticed with Ginkgo wood, I was able to sit down and just soak up the essence of the space. They have some great pieces, including one in particular which I am quite inspired by:

Looking at this piece I would first think 1920's, not 1620's. I like the re-entrant form of the legs and the sleek lines.

Another stunning piece - actually two pieces - are a large pair of wardrobes found in a connected gallery space:

The inlays of stone, wood, and glass on these cabinets are really amazing - even more so the closer you look!

After my time in the Chinese exhibits, I sat a while in a small study room furnished with Nakashima low chairs and a burl table, then went on to look at a special exhibit of the work of furniture maker Duncan Fyffe. Frankly, the Fyffe pieces, other than a small sewing box, were of no interest to me, either aesthetically or construction-wise. From the Museum's description of the exhibit:

"Phyfe's greatest contribution to the industry was perhaps his role in introducing the city to a unique blend of the English Neoclassical and Regency styles—found in design books such as Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book (1793) and Thomas Hope's Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). His shop is thought to have greatly influenced the aesthetic interests of local patrons. Along these lines, the cabinetmaker introduced elements such as lyres, harps, and faces into his furniture that related contemporary decorative arts to the motifs of classical antiquities. Because Phyfe's career lasted through the 1840s, his shop eventually transitioned to produce wares in the Late Grecian Greek Revival and Rococo and Gothic Revival styles, as well."

Sorry, but snooze. Here's a fairly typical example of his shop's work:

Most of the pieces I saw were veneered in Mahogany and as I expected, even with such a fine collection, many of the pieces had areas with bubbling and cracked veneer. It just doesn't stand the test of time. The details with the animal feet common on many pieces and the inelegant attempt at tension between curved and angular parts just doesn't work for me. Like a lot of work, instead of letting the wood speak for itself, one gets the sense that the wood is somehow not enough, that there is some striving to create effect and interest in the piece with other means. The chair has beading on the seat edges, plus cast metal animal feet, plus a lathe-turned spindle between curved leg assemblies, plus carving on the splat, and even some inlay on the crest rail. Too much going on at once imparts a certain sense of chaos, busy-ness. There's no repose. Maybe I don't explain that feeling adequately. I'm sure he has his fans though. Not me.

And of course with NYC there are innumerable restaurants to try and so much going on. When country mouse visits the big city there is a lot to take in, and a 3~4 day dose is perfect for me. I hope you enjoyed this field trip report. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tool Review: Jessem Mast-R Lift Excel II (Assembly)

It is when you assemble a tool that you learn a lot about both the product and the company's attitude towards it. A common flaw, incredibly, are instruction manuals which are, at best, cryptic translations. We've all been there. In Jessem's case, the instruction manual is written in house and by a native English speaker. It is neatly laid out, concise, and clear to read. Not flawless, but better than most.

That said, I was a bicycle mechanic for about 5 years in my early twenties, so wrenching on things, especially when Allen head bolts are involved, is second nature. Anyone handy enough to work with woodworking tools should have no problem assembling the Mast-R Lift Excel II. In today's post I'll walk through the assembly steps as a photo-document of the process, which should give readers a much clearer picture of the lift itself and the way it is designed.

The bolts are Imperial (inch) scale, and come with a light coat of lubrication out of the bag. I invariably put a dab of grease on bolted fastenings, either on the threads of the bolt itself, or in the tapped hole:

With the table mounted upside-down on sawhorses, it was easy to access the underside for sliding bolts into position:

The lift mechanism is bolted into place through the table top, instead of simply into the table top, which is a very strong means of mounting. Other less critical parts are attached on the underside of the table top, like the dust port. The first three bolts mount the lift's gear housing to the table, which indexes its position, then each of the two stanchions is bolted into place with two bolts per stanchion foot. For the time being, I did not fully tighten the bolts.

Then I mounted the dust port, which is held in place with 4 Phillips head screws:

Next up is the support bracket for the crank handle - notice the use of two sealed cartridge bearings:

One of the sealed bearings is for the support of the shaft of the crank handle, while the other one is for the parking brake mechanism. A cheaper product would have used bushings.

A closer look at the parking brake mechanism on the other side of the mounting bracket:

Here I've slid the crank handle shaft onto the support bracket and am eye-balling the fit of the shaft end into the collar:

It was then I discovered a problem: the shaft would not go sufficiently far into the collar to allow for proper engagement of the two grub screws with the dimpled holes on the shaft. Here the shaft is part way in - fully inserted it was about 5/16" short of the mark:

I got out my caliper to double check the length and then carefully inspected the inside of the collar, but all seemed fine other than the shaft was simply too long (or the dimples were too far back):

As it turned out, what had happened was that the shaft had been assembled backwards at the factory. There are a pair of set-screws fastening the handle onto the shaft, so all it took was to loosen those two screws, slide the shaft out and reverse it, then re-tighten the two grub screws. A minor issue in the end but I can see it could cause some people trouble. I spoke with Darrin Smith at Jessem about it and he is going to re-design the shaft so that the dimpled holes are identically spaced at either end of the shaft and thus it won't matter which way the shaft is put on and it will fit.

Next up were the pair of 'L'-shaped stiffening battens which span the underside of the top:

The top is 0.5" aluminum, so the battens are hardly a requirement in terms of stiffening the top, however if you look closely at the above picture you can see that in actuality the aluminum top is split into two halves, joined by the muted gold-anodized T-track. Thus, the stiffener bars in this case help tie the entire tabletop together. The table stand will also help tie everything together as well.

Once the issue with the shaft had been resolved, I mounted the support bracket to the table top:

As with the lift carriage, I did not fully tighten these mounting bolts.

Next up was an optional accessory which I had decided was worth buying - Jessem's remote power switch:

This switch is a safety feature that allows for the router to be turned off quickly should the need arise, and it spares me fumbling around underneath to hit the router motor switch all the time.

The backside of the switch has two grounded 3-prong receptacles:

This switch is not made in house by Jessem but it seems solidly put together, fitted to a steel mounting plate and with 12g. wiring:

To put this switch on the router, I had to undo a couple of bolts at the stand's corner and then the switch slips seamlessly into place:

Then the stand, flipped upside down, was placed onto the tabletop:

I loosened all four corners before I attached the stand's horizontal members down to the top:

The stand is held to the top with 4 or 5 small Allen head cap screws on each of the four sides, and all of these bolts fitted in without a hitch. The tapped holes for each bolt were chamfered at the factory so that the bolts could easily insert, and I found no instances of machining debris in the mounting holes which would cause problems putting any of the Allen bolts into place.

Once the table was tied down to the top, I re-tightened the main bolts at the stand's corners. Then I fitted the crank handle:

The grub screws lock the handle shaft to the gearbox:

Next up was to fit the router.  The lift is configured from the factory to accept the Porter Cable 7518 directly. There is a slight glitch in the manual at this section as you are told to jump ahead to 'step 17' for mounting the P.C., however a little detail is thereby omitted: the router lift needs to be brought up to its o-ring bump stop before fitting the motor. That didn't take too long to figure out. The router slug was slid into place and after the bottom of travel is found, I make a pencil mark on the router housing:

The router needs to be drawn back from the bottomed-out location by about 1/16" (1mm) so that the lift cannot get jammed in an effort to bring the router up to maximum height. The pencil mark allows me to clearly see that 1/16" rise I need:

Once in place, I tightened the main carriage bolt to clamp the router slug firmly.

Next up was another optional accessory, a very important accessory from my point of view - a digital height gauge:

Like all the other components, the height gauge was well packed and came with its own instruction sheet:

The mounting bracket for the gauge is made in house by Jessem, while the gauge itself is made by Wixey a brand name of products made by Barry Wixey Development. It's a handsome and stout little unit:

The bracket attached to the underside of the tabletop with four (!) Allen head cap screws:

That's going nowhere  - a very strong mounting.

The gauge references directly to the lift itself - here is the clamp-on bracket which mounts to the lift carriage body:

You can see on the bottom left of the picture a small rare-earth magnet. This magnet connects to the gauge's linear positioning device. Clamping the bracket onto the carriage is accomplished by a single bolt:

Then the positioning device is bolted into place with two cap screws:

Last step is to plug in the cable:

The digital readout requires a pair of AAA batteries, which are not supplied.

Next on the agenda was to fit the mounting brackets for the fence. These are a pair of 'L'-section aluminum extrusions, held in place with 4 cap screws:

Another view:

That was that as far as the assembly went in an upside down position. I flipped the entire unit right side up and moved the table back into place.

Then I slightly loosened and re-tightened the bolts mounting the lift and the support bracket for the crank handle:

This process of leaving the bolts a bit loose until all the parts are in place helps ensure that there is good alignment between those parts when final tightening is done.

Then I placed a straightedge on the top and fastened the 'L'-shaped T-track extrusions onto the table ends. The fence attaches to these two extrusions:

The lift comes supplied with a single insert ring, and the mounting handle:

I noticed right away that the insert ring is not only a different color but a different material than the one I had in my old Excel. I've since learned that the old ones were made of phenolic, while the new ones are made of glass fiber reinforced polycarbonate, a much stiffer/stronger type of plastic. Jessem is paying attention to all the details.

One glitch arose - the insert ring handle's pins are spaced slightly narrower than they should be and it took a bit of force to get the handle onto the insert ring. Darrin at Jessem said that this was a problem at the plastic injection molding supplier, where they were likely removing the handle from the mold before they had fully cooled. This problem will be addressed at Jessem and I look forward to receiving a new handle when they become available. For now, the handle is workable - just a 1/4 tun to lock the insert ring in position:

Now I could start to check out the lift, as assembly was complete. First thing I looked at was the action of the cranking mechanism - it is massively improved over the old one! Just smooth as silk, one finger is all you need to twirl the crank and move the lift up and down:

The parking brake also works extremely smoothly:

A 1/4-turn is all it takes to lock the crank in place:

Another view:

Another view - note that I have the older version of the Jessem Mast-R Fence, and in fact I prefer it to the newer one:

The newer fence is an outsourced product, but Jessem intends to bring production back in house and do a thorough revamp of the fence as well in the near future. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with, as my old fence is very stout and well-designed.

Then I put a couple of batteries in the Wixey to see how it worked:

The gauge can read in either metric or inches, and reads to a refinement of 0.001". It is no problem to accurately move the lift in one thousandth of an inch increments.

Finally, I hooked up the dust collection. The Excel II comes with a 4" port, however I connect my large Festool Vac to the table, and need to reduce down to 2.25". That proved to be more of a hassle than I expected, but in the end I found an adapter and a 4" rubber flex-cuff at Woodcraft which did the job perfectly. Well, almost perfectly -  I ended up slicing 3/8" off of the large end of the PVC adapter to get the parts joined up cleanly:

Another view:

The nice thing about this lift, though by no means unique, is that the router can be cranked up high enough so that bit changes can be made topside without special tools:

At this point, from my experience assembling the Mast-R Lift Excel II, and initial impressions working the crank mechanism, I would say the Excel II is a big improvement over the early model in every respect. It is without question, in terms of design and quality, the best router table and lift on the market. If you are looking for a stout and well made router table that will provide years of service, a machine capable of working to very high accuracy, then this is the table to get. It's not the cheapest in price - in fact it is the most expensive table package - but compared to other woodworking machines it is quite reasonably priced. In my shop, a router table is an essential piece of equipment, and I am very happy to have a dead flat, smoothly operating router table. I look forward to using this machine and seeing what it can do. If you've been running a router table in a piece of plywood or mdf attached to your table saw, you'll find the Excel II a substantial leap forward.

All that said, I must put in a caveat: I haven't put the new Excel through its paces thoroughly. I did some routing work yesterdays and there were no telltale marks on the material like you would see form a non-flat top.  I was impressed. The design and operation seem great at this point, however sometimes it takes a while using a thing before one becomes aware of any issues that might be lurking. So for the time being, I will state I am most impressed with the Excel II, however final determination will wait until I have put a few hundred feet of wood through the machine. Keep an eye out for a part 3 to this thread in the near future. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way, and comments always welcome.