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How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

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How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Trevanion » 20 Oct 2021, 00:08

So, a Mr. Guineafowl21 send me some cutter blocks for safekeeping that he had acquired, and I thought they were perfect examples of just how the spindle moulder got its fearsome reputation and worth a little write-up.

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Now, these square blocks aren't strictly spindle moulder blocks as they are clearly off a tenoning machine being of a small size with counterbores, but the points still stand nevertheless.

The square cutter block was one of if not the earliest style of cutter block and was a staple of the woodworking industry for many decades until their eventual ban in Britain in 1974 following the Health and Safety at Work Act, for good reason. These blocks are all manner of bad, they are incredibly loud when running owing to the major air disturbance caused by the large projection of the cutters, the large projection of the cutters themselves invokes a serious safety risk as any contact with them would result in a near-instant amputation, and they were very sensitive to imbalance and had to be very carefully and skilfully set to result in smooth running. The block that has the cutters I assume has been left like that after it was taken off the machine, and you can see just how dangerous these could be in the hands of incompetent/ignorant operators.

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You might make out from the picture that the cutters are bent backward with wood chips packed between the cutter face and the block, this is a very dangerous state for the block to be in and the scary bit is that this is how it would've been run the last time it spun.

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The cutters should lay completely flat against the block face with no discernable gaps anywhere, usually, the culprits of this symptom are serious over-tightening of the cutter bolts and/or serious over-work but I think the main culprit in this case is the former as the cutters appear to be curved along their whole length rather than at the projection.

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In the package was included a dovetail bolt which had sheared off at some point, my guess would be from overtightening when setting up but it wasn't uncommon for bolts to shear during running (again, usually from stresses caused by repeated overtightening) which would cause the very heavy cutter (compared to modern thin cutters) to come flying off at ~80mph into whatever was in its path.

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An assortment of cutters was included in the package as well, and this large curved one is a prime example of bad practice. The knife has been ground very heavily to the point where it is dangerously thin at the cutter slot where fatigue could cause the cutter to crack in half during running and come out of the block. On this particular example, you can actually see that the slot has splayed open and is no longer parallel, this is also incredibly dangerous as the cutter will no longer hold as effectively under the nut anymore and it has the potential to splay more and eject from the block during running.

As well as the square cutter block, another common set of cutters you might find in an old wood machining workshop would be a pair of slotted collars. These are a very basic form of cutting apparatus consisting of two spindle spacers with grooves run into them the thickness of standard knife stock. These were a relatively safe piece of equipment to use owing to simplicity of them being two collars and two knifes but they still required very diligent set up as they can still shoot cutters out if not tightened properly, unless they are the pinned type where a groove must be cut into the edge of the cutter to lock it in place. The main benefit of slotted collars over square blocks was the greatly reduced cutting circle, allowing you to get the cutting circle to less than 4" in diameter which was very handy for the moulding tight concave curves such as tangent handrailings in conjunction with a dumpling block mounted on the table (a very dangerous practice) or other work that required a small cutting circle.

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Another not-so-common cutter was the French head/cutter with is simply just a slot cut into the middle of a spindle moulder shaft and a cutter inserted into it. These were a niche type of cutter but they did have their merits when working in very hard interlocking timbers because they projected through the centre of the shaft so they had a negative cutting angle and scraped timber rather than cut. Cutters would be made from a mild steel rather than a high-speed or high-carbon steel as the scraping forces would shatter hardened steel during cutting, the mild steel profiles could be ground exactly the shape of the moulding as there was no cutting angle to take into account which was a small benefit. The mild steel would be ground to shape and then turned over to create a burr much like a cabinetmakers card scraper, only light passes could be made with the french head because of the negative angle, heavier cuts would induce chattering and eventually kickback, it was largely used by cabinetmakers rather than the joinery trade although it had its uses in handrailing thanks to its very small cut circle. Some french cutters had grooves cut into the bottom the width of the spindle they sat upon so that they couldn't come loose, but mostly they were simply held in place with a bolt from above, like in this picture of my own:

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(a good video of these cutters in action is this silent, black and white video, from about 6:45 onwards: https://www.ina.fr/ina-eclaire-actu/video/vdd10045545/la-fabrication-d-un-siege-a-l-ecole-boulle)

All in all, these blocks and cutters were incredibly dangerous, which is why safer alternatives were introduced such as the Whitehill Block, "The safety cutter of their day" some individuals might say, but then those weren't without their faults either.

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Coming about in 1930-31 the Whitehill block was offered as a safer alternative to the infamous square block and was in regular use in workshops up and down the country until 1998 when the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) came into effect and banned them and all other non-chip limiting cutter blocks from use by 2003 (an overnight blanket ban would've been unfair, they gave 5 years for companies to purchase completely new tooling). The Whitehill block was a very versatile tool in the right hands and allowed for much thinner and cheaper cutters to be used as they were fully supported by the circular block during cutting, as opposed to the square blocks thicker cutters relying on their own stoutness.

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Thanks to the circular shape of the block, the much lighter cutters, and lesser projection of the cutters, accurate balance was less of a major issue with these blocks compared to the square blocks and a common practice was to grind one knife to the desired profile and then find a slightly heavier cutter which would be inserted deeper into the block so that it wouldn't cut but offer accurate enough balancing so that the machine ran smoothly without vibration, the best practice was to grind two identical knives.

As I said, these blocks weren't without their faults but they were a much more foolproof design than the square cutterblocks, although accidents did commonly occur. The main culprit of accidents with these blocks was not tightening the clamps properly during setup and then starting the machine up, I personally know of someone who took a cutter to the intestine after it ejected from the block from not being tightened up properly. The other culprit was using cutters that were too small to be clamped effectively or clamping too near the edge of the block with very little cutter in the block, which resulted in the cutters being wrenched out during cutting leaving the block damaged and unsafe to use further as it would no longer hold a cutter effectively.

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The photos above show a block that has both jaws heavily marred after a double ejection, the worst of which has been ground off by the operator and the block put back to use, a big no-no. With a cutter installed you can see how little surface area of the cutter is in contact the the clamping faces, running this would result in a very high chance of an accident due the knife only being gripped at the very rear of the jaws. The last two photos are from a different block that suffered a similar ejection.

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The above picture shows cutters in my collection that are way too small to be run safely in these blocks. At a minimum, the cutter should be as wide as the full height of the cutter block and it should be inserted into the cutter block at least 3/4", the cutters should be firmly clamped but NOT overtightened, over-tightening will cause the block to splay open over time and the cutter will only be gripped at the very back of the jaws causing an ejection during running.

Moving on to modern tooling, there are two safe cutter block types, the Euro-style chip limiting block and serrated chip limiting blocks, Euro-style blocks are far more common than the latter so I'll focus on those.

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This particular cutter block is a genuine Whitehill but rebranded for sale by Scott & Sargeant hence "S&S" on the block. It is a very genius design of cutter block as there is very little to go wrong to cause a serious accident like previous generations where cutters could be ejected from the block, the cutters and limiters are held in place by little pins as shown left and right in the above picture, which increases safety, as well as the added benefit of accuracy and repeatability (If you have a good quality block, some cheaper alternatives have inaccurate pins and I even have an example where the pins on the limiter side are too far forward and the limiters engage the work first, terribly made).

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The nut and bolt system of the older cutter blocks has been replaced with a small tapered gib which has two grub screws that bear against the cutter block body when tightened which pushes the gib outwards towards the cutters locking them in place, the cutter body and gib are cleverly designed in that the grub screws locate into two recesses which prevent the gib from falling out of the block should someone place the cutters and gib in place and snug up the screws but forget to tighten the screws fully, if the machine is run in this state it is fairly safe as centrifugal force will push the gib outwards onto the cutters. You may notice an odd noise and stop the machine to check if it is very loose but there is next to no risk of anything flying out. Because the gib is tightened with grub screws it is almost impossible to over-tighten these blocks (which only require light tightening) as the grub screw socket will fail before any serious damage is done, as well as the fact these are tightened with a small t-handle allen key, not a spanner which can be leaned on.

The limiters are a very good safety feature also, by having them installed you reduce the effective projection of the cutter to ~1.1mm which is significantly less than without them installed, it means in a single rotation the maximum per cutter that can be removed is 1.1mm (2.2mm total) which helps to prevent serious kickbacks where a cutter with greater projection would take large bites in a fraction of a second and throw it back at the operator with major force, as well as reduce the severity of injuries from operator contact with the cutters as hands do not get pulled into these blocks and you can pull yourself away from the cut whereas unlimited projections would pull you in. You will end up with severe lacerations in a contact with these cutters with limiters installed, but it is nothing compared to the complete amputation that would've occurred with older style tooling.

Hopefully, you found this small article interesting. With modern Euro-style and chip limiting cutter block the spindle moulder is a far safer tool than it has ever been, while there is still an element of danger is it no more dangerous than a router table (I'd personally argue it's less dangerous) or any other piece of woodworking machinery if used safely.
Last edited by Trevanion on 27 Oct 2021, 21:23, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Mike G » 20 Oct 2021, 07:00

Fascinating. And scary as hell.
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Mike Jordan » 20 Oct 2021, 07:54

This type was in regular use in the days of my apprenticeship, wood machining being regarded as a separate trade to joinery, just the noise and draught from the cutter block was enough to keep me well away. The standard method of overcoming the curve in the cutters was to insert a piece if cigarette packet behind the back edge to tighten against. My tech course included instruction on use and setting but the machine was pre set by the workshop technician and very heavily guarded. I remember being told that the spanner provided with the machine was of sufficient size to allow the operator to tighten down the spindle nut. Common practise in the mill though was to slip a length of scaffold tube over the spanner handle to get it really tight!
In six years of working there I only ever experienced one cutter being ejected from a machine in use, that was from a tenoning machine and went straight through the asbestos roof.
I remember being told of a visit by a particularly strident factory inspector who stated that only idiots had accidents, this statement was allegedly accompanied by most of the machinists present putting their hands in their pockets.
I still own a Whitehill block but don't use it. I'm a very dedicated user of limiter tooling and limited projection tooling
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Andyp » 20 Oct 2021, 07:55

Well written and easy for an uneducated soul like me to understand. I am never likely to own one of these tools but interesting to read nonetheless.
cheers

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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby AJB Temple » 20 Oct 2021, 07:58

Very informative post as usual Dan. Would be interesting to see a modern cutter block for comparison purposes, pointing out how they are safer.
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby MattS » 20 Oct 2021, 08:31

Really interesting read. I obviously know about the notoriety but not why they are so dangerous. Those square blocks look very scary, I don't really like using the router table let alone one of those!
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby AndyT » 20 Oct 2021, 08:44

Thanks Dan, a really clear summary. In retrospect, the faults with the square blocks seem so obvious - the fact that they continued in use long after the safer alternative was available says a lot about attitudes to safety in the last century.
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Guineafowl21 » 20 Oct 2021, 11:05

Thanks - this will be a useful article to link to. This sort of thing is why so many old machinists have at least one missing digit, including the great Roy Sutton.

Nice to know that those blocks are in the hands of someone who knows enough not to use them!
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Trevanion » 21 Oct 2021, 00:07

AJB Temple wrote:Very informative post as usual Dan. Would be interesting to see a modern cutter block for comparison purposes, pointing out how they are safer.


Ask and you shall receive sir, I have amended the article with a bit on modern tooling :D
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Trevanion » 21 Oct 2021, 00:16

Guineafowl21 wrote:Thanks - this will be a useful article to link to. This sort of thing is why so many old machinists have at least one missing digit, including the great Roy Sutton.

Nice to know that those blocks are in the hands of someone who knows enough not to use them!


You might be surprised to find out how he lost that part of his finger, but it would be better for me to let him explain it in his own words:

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I find it kind of ironic, personally, it wasn't the near-lethal cutter blocks that got him, it was the blower :lol:
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Guineafowl21 » 21 Oct 2021, 10:19

Wow, two surprises there. One, he was attacked by some sort of leaf blower, and not the other fearsome spinny things; two, he’d written an autobiography. I might have a read of that.
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby AndyT » 21 Oct 2021, 10:30

...but no surprise that Trevanion's got a copy!
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Trevanion » 21 Oct 2021, 13:31

Guineafowl21 wrote:Wow, two surprises there. One, he was attacked by some sort of leaf blower, and not the other fearsome spinny things; two, he’d written an autobiography. I might have a read of that.


You’d be very lucky to find a copy, I would imagine not many were printed especially as it was only written a few months prior to his passing and I can’t imagine they printed it again afterward, this is the only copy I’ve ever seen, and it’s signed by the man himself :D

AndyT wrote:...but no surprise that Trevanion's got a copy!


;)
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Doug71 » 22 Oct 2021, 00:07

Trevanion, have you ever seen blocks like these, they are Whitehill and I have to confess in the old days we used them daily. I guess the serrated cutters were meant to make them safer, never had a cutter come out but have seen the cutters snap and fly off although sometimes they would just kind of fold back, maybe the serrations weren't a good idea :eusa-think:

The cutters were really easy to grind, would be nice if I could pick up some new ones from somewhere, purely sentimental reasons obviously......

whitehill block.jpg
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And yes the typical cutters ground way beyond what they should

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Regarding square blocks we had a big old Wadkin 5 cutter which used square blocks, not too bad in the mechanically fed 5 cutter but if just a few extra feet of moulding was needed the blocks sometimes got put on the spindle moulder, not for the faint hearted.
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Trevanion » 22 Oct 2021, 00:22

Doug71 wrote:Trevanion, have you ever seen blocks like these, they are Whitehill and I have to confess in the old days we used them daily. I guess the serrated cutters were meant to make them safer, never had a cutter come out but have seen the cutters snap and fly off although sometimes they would just kind of fold back, maybe the serrations weren't a good idea :eusa-think:


Ooo, those must be rare as I've never seen those before! Very cool idea with the hatched pattern cutters, although perhaps they caused stress risers in the steel which caused premature failure as you mention?

It would be interesting to know when these came about and how long they stayed in production for.
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby kirkpoore1 » 22 Oct 2021, 17:18

Very interesting! I've never heard of a square head being used on a shaper, but as you indicated I'm sure it was done as a quick and dirty expedient. Those were mostly used on moulding machines, and I would think that a typical shaper's spindle, even as far back as 1900, would turn too fast for them. Square cutterheads were of course also used on thicknessers (planers), planers (jointers), and tenoners among others. In the case of thicknessers, they were reasonably safe since the user's hands never got close to the cutterhead. A friend of mine had a square head jointer that he used for a little while until he got a better machine. He named it "Munch" for obvious reasons and was really careful with it. The danger of these machines was well known early, and round safety cutterheads had been devised by the early 1900's and could be retrofitted to existing machines. Of course, that cost money, and that means it wasn't always done.

Here's some photos and 1904 catalog images of what was then "modern" shaper cutters in the US: Slip knife heads.
IMG_9246 (2).JPG
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With this head, the bevel-edged knives rode in a groove milled into each of two disks. The spindle nut held everything together. The advantage was less tool steel, ease of adjustment, and with a smaller diameter it could handle a higher speed spindle. If the nut wasn't tight, though, watch out! By the way, you'll note that these are not a pair, but are two halves of two pairs. The spindle hole on each is a different size. Finally, the knife pairs had to be balanced and had to have the same projection to ensure a smooth cut.
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Shaper spindle on the upper left with slip knife heads.
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Slip knife heads were eventually replaced by lock edge heads, which had teeth milled into the edge of the knife. One of the cutterhead disks had a matching screw in it which kept the knife from slipping and (I think) allowed fine adjustments. In addition, the pairs of disks were bolted together to form a unit so that they could be set up on a bench away from the shaper as well as being able to be inverted and run in reverse if needed. Lockedge cutterheads were available until a decade or two ago.

The cutterhead on the lower part of the catalog page is a different type. This is a steel head where the whole head has been milled to the correct profile. This has a limited cut depth, so is safer, but of course is not as versatile. This would be analogous to a modern three wing carbide cutterhead.

There was another type of cutterhead called a "French head" over here that (I think) used a single knife that ran through a slot in the spindle. It was also held in place with a nut. I've never actually seen a good picture of this type--they were outlawed long ago.

A couple of more modern heads:
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Small insert head.
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This one became available back in the 1940's, I think. You can still get knives for it. There was a larger version made for table saws so that you could do edge moulding on your saw. It could also be used on radial arm saws. I had one, but it was, frankly, too scary and I tossed it.

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Freud insert head
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This Freud head was the style available before the types with the limiters. It has a 1-1/4" bore that has been bushed down to 3/4". I got it with my shaper, but frankly I think it's really too big for that machine. I'd rather have a bigger spindle and more power should I want to use it.

A couple more catalog pages showing heads that were available in 1904 for moulders, tenoners, and gainers:
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IMG_9255.JPG
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Finally, this is a cope head for a tenoner. It's the same thing as item 20 on the catalog page.
IMG_9250.JPG
Bent knife square cope head for a tenoner
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There you go! Now you're ready to scare the kids at Halloween!

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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Trevanion » 22 Oct 2021, 20:19

kirkpoore1 wrote:Very interesting! I've never heard of a square head being used on a shaper, but as you indicated I'm sure it was done as a quick and dirty expedient.


Possibly it was more a more common practice in Britain than in the USA, a lot of the British literature I have concerning spindle moulders go into great detail about using square cutter blocks on the spindle moulder but it seems American texts refer to much smaller tooling being used with slotted collars seeming to be the favorite. A good American text is "Modern Shaper Practice" by W.H. Rohr but physical copies are extraordinarily rare, to the point where even I don't have one! Fortunately, someone has scanned their own into a PDF:

https://awwm.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/modern-shaper-practice-by-w-h-rohr.pdf

kirkpoore1 wrote: A friend of mine had a square head jointer that he used for a little while until he got a better machine. He named it "Munch" for obvious reasons and was really careful with it. The danger of these machines was well known early, and round safety cutterheads had been devised by the early 1900's and could be retrofitted to existing machines. Of course, that cost money, and that means it wasn't always done.


I have a good illustration out of "Machine Woodworking" by Herman Hjorth that shows the difference very well:

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That cope head is very interesting, any idea why the were cutters bent like that? Surely there wasn't much too be gained from such an aggressive cutting angle?
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby kirkpoore1 » 24 Oct 2021, 19:52

Trevanion wrote:That cope head is very interesting, any idea why the were cutters bent like that? Surely there wasn't much too be gained from such an aggressive cutting angle?


No idea. Two possibilities come to mind: First is it might reduce the chance for blow-out on the back side of the cut. Second would be to allow greater clearance for the bolt head.

As far as square head usage, it might be that American shops, having more room, were likelier to have more stand-alone machines such as sash stickers which could do short runs with easy setups.

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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby toolsntat » 24 Oct 2021, 21:48

kirkpoore1 wrote:
Trevanion wrote:That cope head is very interesting, any idea why the were cutters bent like that? Surely there wasn't much too be gained from such an aggressive cutting angle?


No idea. Two possibilities come to mind: First is it might reduce the chance for blow-out on the back side of the cut. Second would be to allow greater clearance for the bolt head.

As far as square head usage, it might be that American shops, having more room, were likelier to have more stand-alone machines such as sash stickers which could do short runs with easy setups.

Kirk


I reckon it allows the knives to chisel the cut rather than the normal "scrape" trajectory.?
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Trevanion » 24 Oct 2021, 23:19

toolsntat wrote:I reckon it allows the knives to chisel the cut rather than the normal "scrape" trajectory.?
Cheers Andy
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The angle of attack is dictated by the angle of the face of the cutter relative to the centre of rotation, on a square block this is about 30-degrees if using the regular straight cutters but with these cutters pictured they bend around the block and appear to become closer to about 45-degrees relative to the centre of rotation at their peak, it's a much harsher cutting angle than the regular 30-degrees. Perhaps it's for extraordinarily soft timbers that are liable to splech with a shallower angle? :eusa-think:
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby clogs » 25 Oct 2021, 07:11

Trevanion,
some of us read every word.......
spelch is that just a tech term.......?

this subject is all v/interesting.....
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Trevanion » 25 Oct 2021, 07:53

clogs wrote:spelch is that just a tech term.......?


Spelching is a term for tear-out while cross-grain cutting.
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby wallace » 25 Oct 2021, 08:10

I have a load of old square blocks and some of them have sandpaper on the knives to presumably to gain more grip. I've read in some wadkin literature that this should not be done for obvious reasons
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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby kirkpoore1 » 26 Oct 2021, 04:31

I asked over on OWWM.com, where people have used these things (as well as made their own cutterheads, etc). The consensus is that the angle will let the knife slice the end grain rather than scrape it. Here's a comparison between a fairly modern shaper head and the hook-knife cope head:

IMG_9267.JPG
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IMG_9271.JPG
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(Rats! They rotated on me!)

You can see that the cope knife is hitting at a much shallower angle.

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Re: How The Spindle Moulder Gained Its Notoriety

Postby Bod1 » 27 Oct 2021, 11:36

This topic, explains the attitude the Wood shop Foreman, back in the late 80's when I was lorry body building.
In past years the factory had been building ash framed lorry bodies, and as such had a full wood machining section.
Mostly Wadkins, of every description, rip saws with caterpillar tracks, chain mortisers, radial arm saws, that looked very much like Dalaks from Dr Who!
Amongst these were several spindle molders, NOBODY but nobody apart from him was allowed to touch them, if another machine could be used, then it was.
He would only use one himself, when the danger zone around the machine was clear, and that was big!
When he retired after 50 years, the wood shop was closed.


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