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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This month:

Twistin' Tools & Aesthetics

I Can See It, I Just Can't Draw It

Cutting (and Clamping) Corners

Twistin' Tools & Aesthetics

Aesthetics matter. Essentially a branch of philosophy dealing with our sensory perception as it relates to beauty, aesthetic perception also contributes largely to our sense of value. Astute marketers know this.

Immanuel Kant cautioned us that declaring something to be "agreeable" should more accurately be stated as "agreeable to me," since my perceptions may be, and likely are, different than yours. To say that something is "beautiful" is declarative. If you have the requisite experience (or others think you do), calling something "beautiful" virtually requires that others think it beautiful, too. Marketers assign an aesthetic of beauty or taste or quality or functionality by using trusted or likeable spokespeople (think celebrity endorsements or Flo, the Progressive Insurance spokesperson), mass acceptance (as in, "everybody has an iPod"), transference (those Clydesdale horses are awesome, the beer must be, too), and a host of other methods.

Figure 1 - Quick, which is the better chisel?

(Click images to view a larger image)
We do make relative value judgments based on perceived aesthetics, even though we might not want to admit it. If I could connect a hundred woodworkers to a brain wave meter and show a picture of two chisels lying side-by-side, one with a luscious hornbeam handle and hand forged blade and the other with a plastic handle and stamped steel blade, our highly conditioned brains would immediately register a perceived higher value to the wood-handled chisel based on our aesthetic. The subconscious mind (and possibly the heart), having been properly biased by the "heirloom" aesthetic, would signal that the wood handled chisel is better, costs more, and/or will produce finer work, keep an edge longer, and will be a tool that will transcend generations. There is really no sense in denying it.

These ruminations on aesthetics and the perception of value came about when I grabbed a bright orange plastic-handled tool that I use almost every day… my hand countersink set. In less time than it would take me to get a countersink bit from my drill bit drawer, let alone chuck it into a drill, I made three nicely formed matched-depth countersinks. Given the number of times I use this countersink set and the $12 price, it may just be the best tool value in my shop. But wow, that handle really is orange!

Most of the time the screws we use in the shop for wood-to-wood joints are on shop fixtures or are hidden somewhere on our project. Still, countersinking the head of a wood screw adds strength to the mechanical connection and sinks the screw head to a level flush or slightly below the surrounding wood.

Flat head screws can have countersink angles of 60°, 82°, 90°, 100°, 110°, or 120°, but the most commonly encountered by woodworkers are 82° and 90°. The 3/8", 1/2" and 5/8" cutters in the 3-in-1 Countersink Set sold by Highland Woodworking all have 45° flutes for a 90° countersink screw head angle. Not to worry though, for most applications a screw with an 82° angle will seat fine and look nice.

In the photos the middle two chamfers were produced with an 80° cutter mounted in the drill press. The other countersinks were made by hand. You can see the slight difference in angle and the slightly cleaner cuts, and were I making a large number of countersunk pilot holes or were they to be visible, I would definitely turn to the drill press. But for a handful of screws, nothing could be easier or faster than doing it by hand.

A little close scrutiny (you can click on the photos to enlarge them) shows that the steel screw has an 82° countersink angle and the brass screw (from a local hardware store) has a common 90° angle. Both are seated okay in this relatively soft poplar, but if you are working with hard wood and the fit is critical, match the countersink bore to the screw in use.

It was at first a bit of a mystery to me why there are three different diameters of cutters in the 3-in-1 Countersink Set. Since each cutter shares the same cutting angle, they will each make an identical countersink with the same number of "wrist twists." The three sizes are provided so you can use an appropriately sized cutter to chamfer a hole. If you work with dowels, the 3-in-1 Countersink Set will be dandy for chamfering holes to make assembly and glue ups faster and easier.

The only holes I have ever chamfered in my shop were the 3/4" dog holes in my workbench, and none of these cutters would be large enough. I use the three bits solely for making countersinks, and use them interchangeably, switching to a different cutter when one gets dull. I think of it more as a countersink tool with two spare cutters.

In cherry, pine, walnut, soft maple, and other such woods, the cutters require about 5 to 7 quick twists of the wrist to make a perfectly sized countersink. I apply 22 pounds of downward pressure on the bit for the first couple of twists, then lighten up to about 10 pounds for the next few. This leaves a cleaner hole and allows me to sneak up on the depth. By the way, I am quite sure of the pressure applied, since I practiced with a scale in order to tamp the coffee in my espresso maker to the internationally recommended pressure of 30 pounds for that perfect crema that marks a fine demitasse cup of coffee.

A good procedure for clean, tight, and attractive screw installation, is to first drill a pilot or clearance hole sized properly for the screw, then form the countersink. A clean pilot hole is important. If the pilot hole has chipping or tear out around the entrance to the hole the countersink cutter can exacerbate the tear out. Dull cutters can also result in ragged edges around the countersink, and it will be obvious when it is time to change to a new cutter. Keep the cutter as nearly vertical as possible when twisting the bit. The photo at right shows a technique I often use to keep the blade straight.

With three cutters and the almost fluorescent orange handle for just twelve bucks, you are really purchasing three hand countersinks for four bucks apiece. Don't even think about trying to sharpen the flutes – just toss the bit when it is dull and use the next bit in the set.

If the orange plastic handle is not in keeping with your refined aesthetic, Lie-Nielsen makes a beautiful 3-flute 82° countersink with a curly maple handle for just $35. I would surmise the hole it makes is as clean, crisp, and beautiful as the tool itself. If you are more comfortable with a power-driven countersink, Highland Woodworking sells a variety of diameters of inexpensive 90° single-flute cutters that are chatter-free and produce very clean holes.

For a quick low-noise solution though, a hand-driven countersink is hard to beat. Damn the aesthetics and full speed ahead. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

They're twistin. twistin, twistin,
Everybody's feeling great
They're twistin, twistin
They're twistin the night away

1962, written and performed by Sam Cooke


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