Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sharpening the mighty chain saw

It may be that you haven't the slightest need in your life for a chain saw or anything remotely resembling it. If so, you can skip reading this post; I will not be in the least offended. If, on the other hand, you have an interest in the subject, read on.

Last year sometime I promised the Bodger's forum that I would post something on chain saw sharpening. I never did, because, as Robin Wood says, life got in the way. So I propose to remedy that omission now.

A chainsaw is a very dangerous tool. It is said that it is not, and in fact only its users are dangerous. I disagree. It is a very dangerous tool, and a dull chainsaw is most dangerous of all, because you try to force it and it will then jam, kick back on you , and generally ruin your day, and send you to the emergency room of the hospital to boot. So if you own a chainsaw, and your chain gets dull (which it will in half an hour of cutting) you must learn how to sharpen it. If not, then you will spend more money buying new chains than you will spend having someone else cut wood for you.

All that out of the way, how do you go about sharpening a chainsaw? There are basically two approaches, (1) on-the-saw and (2) off-the saw. For both of these situations there are tools.
This is my complete armamentarium of chain saw sharpeners. Left to right, a gadget for Dremel moto-tool type sharpening jig. Next is a cheap but adequate filing jig. The thing with a red base is a really good filing jig, more coming up. At right, the orange machine -- the easiest way to do it, but the chain has to come off the saw. Behind it, the chainsaw toolbox, made entirely out of the log, which holds essential chainsaw supplies. Sticking out of this are various sizes of chainsaw files.
They look like ordinary round files. They aren't. Buy only labeled "chain saw" files. The chain you buy will have instructions on the size of file required. Follow these instructions religiously. In this country, benighted in the matter of units, they will be absurd fractional inch sizes; more enlightened places will give you millimeters.

I do not recommend the Dremel sharpening kit. Maybe OK for occasional users. Not for anything serious. Too easy to blow the angles involved. I do not recomment the cheap-but adequate jig either. It jumps out of the set angle at the slightest provocation.

OK, on to the red-based jig. This jewel is available on the 'net from Cutter's Choice (ex-Penn-Zip).

Now we have to point out that a chain saw tooth is an extremely sophisticated 3-D animal. The angles of the cut have to be just so. With an axe, you can eyeball the angles. With a chainsaw, you can of course try, but you will get poor results unless you have protractor eye/hand coordination. Much better to use the jig. So you look at the instructions that came with the chain, and set the correct angles into the jig. There are two of them, horizontal (most important) and vertical. Usually the vertical angle is zero and the horizontal 30 deg. Read the directions on the chain sheet! So now you clamp your jig on to the chain saw.
With the proper size file in the jig, pull the chain up to the file and you file away. You will note that every other tooth on the chain points in a different direction. So you file all the starboard teeth in one go. Then reverse the angle on the jig and do all the port teeth. You don't have to file very much if you keep up with it.

I usually keep at least two chains per saw on hand. After two-three sharpenings on-saw, I go to the machine, and put a machine-sharpened chain on the saw. Machine sharpening is a dream (but you have to get the chain off the saw and put it back on again, whereas the jig above will work in the deep woods, where there are no plugs for the machine).
This is a closeup of the orange machine at work. The chain sits in a guideway and is held steady by a pawl. The vertical angle is, unfortunately, not controllable on the orange machine, but the horizontal is. The grinding wheel is in the act of descending upon the tooth (you move it with your hand) and, assuming you adjusted it properly, will do a chain in about 5 minutes. Again, you do port and starboard teeth in one go.

The orange machine I bought from HarborFreight. It's quite cheap, around $40 these days. There are much better machines at Cutter's Choice, like the Jolly; but they cost four times as much. Orange Machine will do all my regular chains; good enough.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A tough customer!

A tree fell during the winter on Bery road, past the school. There are no houses there, so it is only used by the innumerable Alaska vehicles: ATV, snowmobiles, dirt bikes... anyway, the tree was a birch. Since I am obsessed by firewood at this time (the sun is shining, which is so unusual this year that I must take advantage) I thought I'd cut it up for firewood. So I took the car, the chain, the cant hook, and Parsifal --the works-- down there. This was a very difficult piece to saw up. The problem was that it fell down a bank. So the butt was still on the tree, and the top was on the ditch of the road. A beam in tension, in fact. So the tree cannot be cut from the top in any comfort: it will pinch the saw. The first day I pinched the bar on Parsifal about 5 times. Parsifal has a very narrow bar and a "Picco" chain (thin). It does cut down the risk of kickback and it makes nice ripping cuts. But on stuff like this he binds too much. He is 30cc -- not a big chain saw. I love the lightness but there are limits.

Time for plan B. Siegfried the 041 Stihl. 60cc, 50cm bar, wide chain. But Siegfried had a problem: he developed a ruptured artery (gas line break) and required major surgery and some spare parts. So I did the surgery and adjusted the idle and... after about 2 hour's work Big Sieg is running properly. Now, if we can cut that tree guy off at the butt, we can cant-hook the pieces down to the car.
Fire up Siegfried (first pull!) find a place that is close to the butt but supported, and go. One minute later, if that, and I was through the log. No pinch. A cinch! Siegfried dates from the 1980s. Still going strong. After this we bucked to three-droob length, (3x45cm) and muscled the corpses off to the car. The last bit was just too heavy and I used the chain hooked to the car to drag it home. The payoff is at hand:
These gentlemen await more bucking (I'll use Black Mac the McCullough electric It is feather-light and makes much less noise than the gas saws). And, of course, the final appointment with Jack the Splitter.

Moral of this story. If you live in the bush you need more than one chain saw. If you must have only one, make sure it's big enough. Siegfried is labeled "Farm Boss" and they ain't kidding. When he sings his aria, the wood notices it. That's Wagner for you. Loud and lots of brass in the orchestra, but by George you've got an opera.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Stihl Life II, or my aching woodpile

Well, Lysander the tractor wouldn't start. Sounds like he's out of gas. What could be wrong? But I put 5 gallons in! Blocked fuel line? Evaporation? Horrors. Lysander always starts. But winter is coming on express rails, and I have to build up my wood pile. So I decided to get in the stuff my neighbor had left piled up by the side of the power line right-of-way. This I can haul out with the car (Vicky, short for Victoria Suzuki Vitara) in compound low 4-wheel drive, as long as she's on the road. A couple days frenzied work with the logging chain and the cant hook (to lever the nasty logs around) and I had some prime victims.
The next job is to cut these guys into the 45cm Chalupy standard droob length. This is, of course, chain saw time. Here Parsifal comes into play.
My target is the log shoved up on my japanese style sawbuck, a remarkably simple X shaped sawbuck. Works like a charm, and you can maneuver it with one hand. Parsifal is, of course, my trusty Stihl MS 170 chain saw. Both my Stihl saws are named after Wagnerian heroes. They are, after all, loud. And somewhat temperamental. About one hour later, we had some more Stihl life:
Everything has been bucked, as the expression goes, to 45cm length; Parsifal is taking a break; standing up against a log is the cant hook, necessary to get the log off the ground so's you can saw it; and my new hard hat/ear muff/face shield, which, by the way, doubles as an extraordinarily effective mosquito deterrent. In the background, the regular sawbuck and the last of the logs, all sawn up.

It is not the sawing that is the "critical path" as the Operations Research people say; it is handling the better part of a ton of wood. You can't saw a log on the ground. You will run the chain into the dirt, and then your chain saw is kaput. So you have to raise the log off the ground. For this I use the cant hook (leverage) and a variety of hold-it-for-now fixtures. The japanese sawbuck is one, but a very useful thing is a piece of 4x4 with a ramp cut into it. Cant-hook your log up on the ramp and go.

Still (or Stihl) after a couple hours of this, the chain saw was dull, my back ached, and then some, and it was time to quit. The various pieces of wood await their interview with Jack the Splitter (See previous post). Then we have to stack it (more handling).

Notice the sun shining in these pictures. It has been 30 days or more without sun. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw blue sky. Sun? Whazzat?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Seat from the Pants

No, it's not at all flying an airplane by the seat of your pants. But the time has come to make a seat for the stick stool which I built. So what to do? A true Appalchian would use hickory bast. Last a hundred years, too. But unfortunately hickory is not a wood found anywhere near Alaska. Hmmm. At this point I was in one of the Willow thrift stores and my eye lit on a pair of blue jeans, cheap. Aha! So I took the jeans home and deconstructed the pants -- a tedious chore. Then I cut the pants into strips and hemmed them on my antique sewing machine. (I will add parenthetically that the instuction manuals for practically every Singer sewing machine ever built are online somewhere; Google is your friend). Sooo... we have some strips.
Now, how to apply the strips? I thought of sewing them all together and winding them on to the rail, as in homemade quaker tape. That wastes a lot of pants. So instead I sewed them, by hand, labouriously on to the rails. I am not the world's greatest seamster but I did learn to repair canvas tents in my misspent youth, so I used carpet thread and a short needle. You can see the first strip sewn in in the picture above.

Here is the current seat state:
I am about 75% through on the shorts. The pieces left over are woven through to show how the thing is supposed to look eventually. Actually, I think it's rather Appalachian after all. Pa built the stool and handed it over to Ma, who took a pair of Pa's worn-out overalls (pronounced "overhauls" by cognoscenti) apart and made a seat that way, not being about to let her wood stove go out while she searched for hickory bast. Now I have run out of strips. I still have some pants left, so it will be a close race. Got to cut out more strips, hem them, and sew them in. But, in modern argot, it will be a cool stool.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Stihl Life

If you live in bush Alaska, you must go with the seasons. In spite of my fireweed poll, summer will soon be over and it it is time (and past time) to attend to the woodpile. The trouble with doing this in the fall is that it is too late for the wood to dry out during the summer. Thus you will be plagued with wet wood all winter. The ideal time to get you firewood in is the spring, but unfortunately this year there were a number of obstacles, not the least of which is that Lysander's battery went kaput and it's a long way into Anchorage.

Anyway, I did collect a lot of Road Kill. This is my name for wood that falls across the road in winter, and is cut up by snowplow crews and left lying by the side of the road.
Parsifal, the small chain saw, stands next to the sawbuck on which reposes my almost new Stihl safety helmet/earmuff/face guard, a yard sale find at $20. Behind sawbuck is roadkill tree.

It is not the chainsawing that is hard. It is muscling the victim up on the sawbuck. The road crews cut it into arbitrary lengths, say a meter and a half; these logs weigh 20-30 Kg each, and you muscle it twice, once up on the sawbuck, and then again to heave it into a pile. At the end of the program, I figure I moved half a ton of wood. The photo was taken during one of my save-my-back breaks. The official Chalupy droob is 45cm long, because the aperture on my stove is 50cm (it is a Canadian stove and hence thankfully metric), so the sawing isn't arbitrary. If you do not know what a droob might be, I must refer you to the celebrated comic strip BC.

All chainsaws are not alike. If all you're doing is cutting wood for fun, as in "suburban use," why any mass-market chainsaw will serve your needs, and remember that you have to sharpen the chain. Frequently. But if you are doing big sawing, there are but two names: Stihl and Husqvarna. There's not much to choose between them, but I happen to have two Stihls, big Siegfried and small Parsifal. Siegfried is running again, after I replaced his whole fuel line. He is older, and hence more temperamental, but much more powerful. So for really big cuts, Siegfried gets the nod. But no matter how big the chainsaw, you still (Stihl?)
have to sharpen the chain.

One of these days I will do a post on chainsaw sharpening. Just so you don't think I'm bigoted, I also own a McCullough electric chainsaw. I use it all the time, in fact I use it by preference. It is lighter than the Stihls, and starts every time. Unfortunately there are very few power outlets in the woods, so Black Mac's range is limited.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Turnin' the wood

I think the pole lathe (in my case the bungee lathe) is an ideal tool for young children. The effort required is just pulling down a bungee cord -- even a child can do that! So a few days ago Neoni and her friend came by, saying that they wanted to build something. Anything in particular? We're not sure. Far be it from me to refuse them, so I showed them the candlestick (this is what you could make -- the carrot) and then we put a piece of alder (soft, good for kids) into the lathe and off we went. Having shown them the carrot, of course, we have to introduce the stick. This is turning the piece down to a cylinder before shaping it.
Neoni's friend turned out to be astoundingly good at this. She has the touch. Turning on a pole lathe requires much more finesse than turning on powered lathes. In the latter, the motor powers you out of most of your errors. In the former, an error is a jammed tool. There are three variables (we engineers call it "degrees of freedom") viz. The amount the tool is advanced, the angle at which you attack the wood, and the twist of your wrist which affects the amount of wood you remove. The two girls took turns getting a cylinder.
The pole lathe is about as safe as you can get with a child and an edged tool. On a power lathe they could get the tool thrown into their face. Bad news. Besides, if they ever go to power, they will have learned how to hold tools for maximum effect.

In the end we made a very respectable candlestick for Neoni's friend. She will give it to her mother (or her father) as a present! Once we started turning for real, with a spindle gouge, I was too busy to take pictures. The girls tend to get fascinated by the cuts and go too deep. Oooh, look at the shavings coming off! Me: Keep that tool moving! I allowed sandpaper to smooth it out. They are young, after all! We were at it one hour, and Friend allowed as how she thought it was ten minutes. She loves the spindle gouge; it is just her size.

On the whole, a stellar afternoon.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Splittin' wood the easy way

Ever since I got my woodstove, getting wood in for the winter has been a priority chore. This involves three steps: (1) locating your wood. (2) Cutting it up, or bucking, the wood to size, and (3) splitting it. No matter how efficient your stove, it won't burn unsplit logs, not very well anyway. I have omitted major steps, such as towing the wood out of the woods with Lysander the tractor, and the almost infinite amount of handling you have to do; but of all these tasks the most onerous is splitting. Thus far, aided by my son, I have done all this stuff with a maul and a double-bitted axe. Although satisfying, it is a lot of work. All this has changed.

For my birthday, my son and daughter gave me an electric splitter. An incredible device. The electric motor drives a hydraulic pump, which pushes a ram, and there is a splitter post at the other end.
Behold Jack the Splitter. At the left of the picture, the splitter wedge. Center is my victim. At right, concealed by a black safety guard, is the red hydraulic lever. You push down on a green button and let the motor spin up (0.1 sec). Then you push down the red lever under the guard (another 0.1 sec). The hydraulic ram travels majestically down the rail, about 2 sec. It contacts the wood, and crack! your log is split. It can't take another 2 seconds! Total time under 15 seconds. You now take one half and set it in the splitter:
and repeat the sequence. I caught Jack in the act there. You can see how the ram drives the log against the wedge. Maybe you can't see the ram, it is black; a most unphotogenic color. A charm, a marvel. I may split some wood with a maul just for fun; but I am not bound to it. I thank my offspring very, very much.

At the end of this stint, a few days worth of wood.
Actually it might go a week! This is all "road kill" wood; stuff that the snowplow crews cut down. I collect that stuff first thing every spring; most of it is birch.

Now I have to stack it, but I will let it dry out on the back porch for a few days.
Unlike Jack the Ripper, my Jack is not (to my knowledge, anyway) wanted by Scotland Yard.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Quit grousing, summer's not over yet!

So off I went on walk day. Cloudy, threatening rain. The first thing I saw -- indeed, right in the driveway -- was the famous Alaska spruce grouse.
These birds are none too smart. If you are patient, you can get within a meter or less of them. They must know my driveway is safe. There was a whole family:
Eventually their defensive instincts, such as they are, came to the fore and they buzzed off. But I usually see them in fall, although they are there year-round. Hmmm. Could fall be coming early? A weighty question. We must consult the Alaska Oracle. So on the same walk, we did a Fireweed poll. Fireweed is not bad, because the leaves from young plants make a good salad ingredient. However, what we are after is the flower. Here is an exemplar:
You will observe that the flower is only halfway up the thing. Traditionally, when it gets to the top, summer's over. One flower does not make a good poll, so we consulted as many fireweeds as we could on our walk. Very nearly unanimous: don't fret, still some ways to go! I am relieved. I have enough undone chores without coping with frosts and snow.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Alaska Transportation III -- quiet interlude

Many people in Alaska own airplanes. As I believe I said before, in the Mat-Su borough alone, there is one airplane for every 128 persons (I am quoting from memory, so maybe that's 148, 157 or 123. It's somewhere around there, OK?) and that is an astoundlingly large number. Few roads, long distances. A little down the road from me, on a little-used road, is one of these owners:
A cloudy, cool morning in Alaska. An idyllic, iconic Alaska scene. This gentleman is only 30 Km from Anchorage as the crow (or the Piper Cub) flies. So he can get there in a quarter hour. It takes me two hours by road. Almost enough to make me wish I had kept up with my flying lessons long ago.

It is, however, expensive to fly. Assuming you have your pilot's license and you FAA physical up to date, there is the small matter of insurance, and the not-so-small matter of aircraft maintenance. And the very large matter of weather. In winter, of course, you put skis on your plane and land on the ice. Well, no you don't. Are you a certified airframe mechanic? I thought not. Go find a CAFM to put your skis on. By the way, have you been checked out on skis by a certified instuctor pilot? No? Then you mustn't land on ice, either. I know a PhD physicist who got all the certificates. He does all his own work and his plane costs him very little. But he must be one in a million!

Monday, August 2, 2010

And why did the moose cross the road?

One of the frequent corollaries of Murphy's law (there really was such a person, look up Aloysius X. Murphy if you like) is that when you really, really, need your camera you will not have it. Thus, I make an effort to carry it. Well, today was cloudy, ugly, and looked like rain. Not a day for the camera. They get wet in the rain. Not good for electronics. But it was a walk day, and I decided to walk on the bike path which parallels the Parks highway, the main connection between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

The virtue of this walk is that I can detour and check out the airplanes; the defect is that there isn't much ever going on. So I had this dialog with myself: "if it rains the camera will get wet. A hundred bucks down the tubes. " My alter ego said "yes, but what if you see a moose crossing the road?" I said, of course, "Alter Ego, you're as wet as my camera will be if it rains." Reply: "Trust me." Hmmm. Alter ego, maybe we'll listen to you. I tucked my camera into a sealable sandwich bag, which I had wisely purchased for just such a purpose. Off we went. A few minutes out of the Willow community center, what should we see but...
...a moose crossing the road! Good grief, Alter Ego was right! I apologize for the blurry quality of the picture. I was at least 300 meters away; I went to extreme tele and snapped. This pic has been ruthlessly cropped and enlarged 200%. It's mommy and junior. I think it's a pair I have named Jemima and Ginger. I have had several encounters with this pair. Ginger is a little slow, or perhaps merely curious, but eventually gets the idea. Notice Jemima's flawless road-crossing technique: walk, do not run. Just about every driver in Alaska will "give the moose a brake" but they have to see you to brake; if you bolt out there chances are you'll be hit, with fatal consequences for all concerned. Who says moose are stupid?

And the sun came out, but long after I had come in for the day. I think it's a conspirancy theory.