The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES, was developed as an agreement in 1973 to protect endangered species. Restricted materials on the CITES list are not permitted to be imported or exported. The CITES list continue to affect woodworkers in general and perhaps luthiers most of all. I personally believe we shouldn't be killing elephants and cutting down rare, slow-growing trees just so that I could have a fancy rule. Turning ebony or rosewood into flooring for wealthy clients doesn't seem to me to be the best use of those materials either. If you need to cover an instrument case or saw handle to make it resistant to slipping in your hand, there are now much better alternatives than sharkskin. I also understand why the trade in old banned materials such as ivory is largely banned. If it were legal to easily trade old ivory, no doubt all sorts of new ivory would magically appear on the market labeled as "antique."
By the same token I don't blame previous generations for using materials that at the time were neither endangered nor considered unethical to use. My tool collection actually contains a fair number of tools that use materials that fit this description, and I thought it would be interesting to look at them and understand why these materials were used and in what context.
Boxwood is a very slow growing small tree. There are many varieties with subtle differences. Boxwood is a very hard wood with very dense grain and, when freshly cut, a pale yellow color. Because boxwood is so dense, air drying takes years. When I was younger I used some small pieces for modelmaking and it was a pleasure to work with. It takes great detail and burnishes to a high sheen. While English Boxwood has become much harder to get, back in the 19th century and earlier larger pieces were (and are still) in demand for woodwind instruments. Flawed pieces were used for tool handles.
Boxwood rules were made in the millions up to the age of the tape measure, but most of them were not made of English Boxwood but rather various other boxwoods from around the world that were cut down by the boatload. (In the interests of brevity I am not trying to delve too deep into the various species). Drying boxwood results in lots of twists and checks. Consequently at the factory level, about half the boxwood would get scrapped at some point in production of rulers. The boxwood rule in the photo above is almost certainly not English Boxwood, and isn't straight anymore. The boxwood in the handle of the paring chisel above has a fair number of knots and defects that make it unsuitable for instrument making.
Boxwood tool handles were used on higher-end tools that were not meant to be struck. The wood is also pretty brittle so you cannot really force a tang into a handle without a drilling a decently fitting hole first. According to Ray Iles, boxwood handles were held in place with rosin.
Quick Tip (also from Ray): When you make a boxwood handle, it cuts drying time to drill the tang hole when you get the material so the wood can dry out from the inside and outside at the same time.
Brazilian Rosewood and Ebony are two tropical rain forest woods that were used almost exclusively for decorative higher end tools. Plane makers also used Brazilian Rosewood, Cocobolo and Ebony for plane handles. There were also a few makers who made wooden plane bodies out of these materials too. As far as I know, there is no mechanical reason for using these woods. Beech handles would work just as well; the earliest infill planes I have seen used beech infill. The material was always expensive and the infill of an early panel plane I have by Robert Towell (c. 1840) was made of several pieces of rosewood pieced together. Perhaps the rationale for using these woods on expensive metal planes - and not just English infills; Stanleys were very expensive in their time compared to wooden planes - was that the extra cost of fancy woods, compared to the labor and machining of the metal parts and fitting the wood parts, was nominal, and resulted in a fancier, more elegant looking plane. Most English infill planes used Brazilian Rosewood infill, but Norris and other companies sometimes used Ebony on their shoulder, rebate, and bullnose planes.
An interesting point about these woods is that to the modern eye - or my eye in particular - these woods aren't worth the hype. The Norris shoulder and bullnose planes above, which are essentially untouched since they came from the factory in the 1930's, feature Ebony and Rosewood. The Ebony looks like black plastic. The Rosewood is also very plain. Brazilian Rosewood sometimes has great grain, but most of the Brazilian Rosewood tool handles I have are pretty plain. Ebony, if properly selected, is stable and can make a good straight rule and other drafting instruments. Macasscar Ebony can have wonderful figure but it wasn't typically used for tools.
This brings us to the king of exotic materials: Ivory.
Ivory is the dried and seasoned tusk (from elephants, walruses, warthogs, etc.) Elephant ivory was the most prized because it was the largest, but walrus, mastodon, and a host of other ivories were popular. For tools, African elephant ivory was used the most because it comes in larger pieces and when dried properly it is the whitest. It was used for all sorts of decorative purposes. Just about every kind of tool was made at least once with an ivory handle, typically for presentation. Ivory was almost always used for the sheer luxury and decorative aspect. One exception: rules of various kinds used in drafting took advantage of ivory's particular suitability for precision rules. The picture features a folding ivory rules, but focus instead on the picture's six inch ruler that is part of the portable drafting kit. Ivory has three characteristics that made it a perfect material for precision rules: first, as long as you properly season the ivory, you could make thin, very slightly flexible, rulers that would stay pretty flat. Second, ivory is hard and brittle and you can scratch a distinct fine line on it for measuring. Finally, ivory's white color means fine markings are easy to see. Even the best boxwood rules cannot take as fine a line, or are as readable.
The final material in my list is sharkskin -- or Shagreen, as it is also called. The portable drafting case above, which dates from the late 18th century, is actually made of thick paper and paper compartments covered on the outside with a sharkskin layer. Shagreen was commonly used on high end instruments and cases to give not only a waterproof backing but also a textured surface that gave a nice grip.
I have also seen Japanese saws with sharkskin handles.
The first real draft of this blog entry ended or rather stopped with the line above. I like my blog entries to have an ending. A summary. A big point. A sales pitch. Something, anything to tie it all together so I can bring down the curtain and turn the page.
But I am stumped. And that maybe the best conclusion to this blog entry. The materials listed here were expensive and exotic in their own time. Today they are mostly not commercially available, and in many cases ethically challenged. I think knowing why they were once used has historical interest. However, in most cases the tools in question aren't a grand example of craftsmanship - just a standard design in different fancier material. The tools survived the ravages of time because being expensive and in many cases primarily presentation tools, they were put in a drawer and left there. For the modern maker they are at best an attractive anachronism. In the few cases where stability was important these materials are a ringing endorsement of the invention of plastic. I find them cool to look at but I don't learn anything new about tool design from them.
Before the mid-seventeenth century, steel was not common. Craftsmen had a choice between expensive tools made of blister steel and iron tools that were case hardened to get a steel skin over an iron core. Moxon, writing in 1678, cautions the woodworker buying a saw to ensure that they buy one made of steel, not iron, because the steel ones were vastly superior. In the centuries before Moxon the situation was worse. Iron tools, bronze tools, crappy case hardened tools: none hold much of an edge. So it is quite obvious that pre-steel craftsmen were unable to build much of anything.
The expression "A poor workman finds fault with the tools" is well known. The inverse situation comes to mind when considering the many superb Medieval (and earlier) craft works. How on earth was it possible to do this work with the tools of the day?
The relief carving above (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) comes from the castle of King Ashurnasirpal of Assyria and is almost 3000 years old. The gypsum alabaster stonework is precise, smooth, masterful and most certainly done without steel tools. The creators would have used bronze and some iron tools and lots of abrasive sand.
The issue turns out not to be that these early tools didn't work. Even working in copper and bronze you can hammer harden an edge and then use honing stones to get a sharp edge. The edge will work fine. What you can't do is work for a long time with that edge. It just doesn't last.
What was the solution?
Before steel and tungsten, stone masons would use a tool for a short time and then have it reforged sharp. You needed a steady supply of extra tools and a blacksmith close by to get anything done. Also essential: an assistant to ferry the tools back and forth so that you did not have to stop the flow of work.
Here's a question for you. If you are milling wood by hand, and you have a brilliantly sharp blade made from common carbon steel (O-1), how long would the blade last before you notice it's getting harder to push and might be starting to get dull? Same question for A2 or D2. I am going to suggest that the O-1 will be noticeably dull in 10 minutes; the A2 and D2 in double or triple that. (YMMV.) Since most of the time we need to plane for longer than that, we really have the exact same problem the ancient or medieval stone mason had. Tools get dull before the job is done.
Stopping work to sharpen is a drag. The whole work flow gets interrupted. Even worse, the tendency is to push the slightly dull plane blade until it is really dull and starts to tear out. Sawing takes longer. In the case of chisel usage, the chisel slips instead of cuts.
The simplest modern solution is exactly the same as the medieval or bronze age solution. Before the days of the Skilsaw, house carpenters had a till of saws -- both for the optimal match of saw to task and to have spares to grab when the first used saw grew dull. This solution applies very much to the modern shop. When I do any serious planing, the first thing I do is sharpen up all the plane irons I have. They don't all have to be brilliant or fancy, but they do have to work. I have a pile of extra blades of various provenance, plus I pull all the blades I can from similar sized planes. (#4, #5) (#4-1/2, #5-1/2, #6, #7) and get them ready. I also try to have as many as possible matched with a cap iron, although I don't have as many cap irons as I do blades. I go to town and the second I feel the blade getting dull, I swap it out. This way, I barely lose momentum and the work gets done. I think psychologically even if you have an iron that holds up for a long time, being able to swap it out for something sharp really reduces the chance of bad behavior and pushing a dull blade towards the end of the job.
We spend a lot of time today testing tools to find which keeps the longest edge. There are trade-offs in ease of sharpening, perceived sharpness, and cost. But in general, reviewers favor longer lasting edges made with alloys such as A2, D2 and PMV11, to name a few. Japanese woodworking tools have a reputation for considerable forging and correct hardening, which results in very long edge retention. But "longer edge retention" doesn't mean forever. I suggest that the next time you do some planing, have a spare iron ready to swap in. I think it will make your experience better.
One of my favorite developments at TFWW in the past year has been the growth of our classes. As folks who have come to our Brooklyn showroom could attest, we’ve always been happy to chew the fat about router profiles, give mini-lessons about how new products like the Planing Stop works, compare notes on different finishing products, and more recently, help you while away 5 minutes as you satisfyingly bore holes with the new Spoon Bits.
But you might have to dash off somewhere, or our phone rings, or something else disturbs your session on waterstones vs. oilstones vs. diamond stones. Or you might actually have a couple of hours or all day to dedicate to learning some new techniques or even build some furniture. We’ve been delighted to rise to the occasion. Some examples:
The current issue of Popular Woodworking features Pate’s article about the Knock Down Shave Horse, based on the class that Pate has offered several times at Tools for Working Wood. If you’re in the NYC area in early February -- or could justify a trip then -- Pate is teaching the Build the Knock Down Shave class again on February 9th.
If you follow us on Instagram, you might have seen the charming original poster Annie Raso made for Blackwing Pencils. Annie is an artist and woodworker whose Instagram showcases some of her love of block printing, an art form that combines these two vocations. Annie is going to teach an Intro to Block Printing class on January 26th.
Corn Schmid’s classes including Build the Zig Zag Chair have earned him a loyal corps of students. He has taught grinding and sharpening (next up on February 16th: a combination intensive workshop called the Sharpening Bonanza) and is contemplating his next construction class.
If you’re interested in wood finishing but put off by the potential chemical hazards, Eddie O’Donnell is teaching Environmentally Friendly Wood Finishing. Eddie will guide you though non-toxic vegetable, animal and mineral alternatives to the stuff that has you donning a hazmat suit. His class will be held on Saturday, February 23rd.
Finally, I want to thank everyone who wasn’t put off by this week’s Arctic temperatures, beginning with Eddie, who patiently warmed up the frozen locks enough to open them --- after an hour in the brutal cold. Amazingly, the folks who tried to visit our showroom but couldn’t get in came back, joined by others who wouldn’t let a little frostbite get in the way of woodworking shopping or knowledge.
We love when you stop by, and hope that if you aren’t local, you’ll come visit us anyway. We’ll have a beverage and snacks for you -- and maybe even a workshop.
You may think of Tools for Working Wood as primarily an online company, or a mail order company, but we have a showroom too! And we try to give customers reasons to visit us. Here are some of the best reasons.
- We often keep a pile of cookies at the front desk. I eat way too many of them. Mostly they're store-bought, but sometimes, like today, they're homemade. Sometimes Eddie's girlfriend gives him a bunch to take to work. I eat most of them.
- We are at the end of a dead-end street. When you get to the end, you don't park so much as just stop. Sometimes when you try to enter or leave the street big semis block the road. There is plenty of parking under the expressway too. And you can always come by subway, like most of us do.
- One of the main reasons people come to visit is to pick our brains about this or that. Sometimes you'll see folks deep in thought with one of our staff members about router profiles. Our showroom staff are professional woodworkers (cabinetmakers, luthiers, contractors, furniture designers) and you can ask them a range of questions and get an experienced answer. Also because we listen to our customers all the time, we learn a lot about what works and what doesn't work for a lot of people.
- We have a guest bathroom. It's not unusual for customer families to consist of one very excited person and four bored-looking people staring at your phones. We figure a bathroom, some hot tea and tourist tips are the least we owe the people you've dragged from their comfy hotel beds/museum/shopping excursion of their own choosing.
- You can play with our tools. We have tools for sale. Lots and lots of quality tools. And lots of demo tools you can try. This is your chance to get your hands on a tool, try it out, and see it it works for you. We stock everything in the store that you see on our website. In this day and age there are sadly very few independent tools sellers. We are one of the few. Come visit Monday - Friday 8:00am - 5:00pm, Sat 11:00am-5:00pm. You can also sign up for a class and make most of a day of it.
After detailing the final steps of the project of making a dresser, the anonymous author of Joiner and Cabinetmaker describes how cabinetmakers would use veneering and other techniques to set off the dresser to a different level of work. Such was the distinction between joiners work and cabinetmaking in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Cabinet work was veneered and decorated, whereas joiner's work was not. In professional work this is no different today. The low-end carcass will be melamine and the high-end Italian carcass will be birch plywood, possibly with some exotic veneering. The more expensive you go, the better hardware and joinery you get. But unlike furniture of previous centuries, today's Ikea doesn't look that different than higher end brands like Herman Miller to the average customer, especially without scrutiny or use. In my opinion, this is one of the fundamental reasons why furniture has declined as a measure of conspicuous consumption and status.
In the early days of the United States, hardwood was plentiful and much furniture was made from Oak, Ash, Birch, Maple, Walnut, and Cherry. Yet Duncan Phyfe, the great New York based 19th century cabinetmaker, based his work on high quality imported Mahogany. This of course makes no sense if you look at furniture from a modern perspective, in which form is the most most important aspect. But it makes a great deal of sense when you consider the importance of marking the distinction between joiners work and high-end cabinet work, for which you want a premium. You have to use fancier materials.
Before the American Civil War, after which factories began to churn out facsimiles of rich people's furniture, the middle class and the poor bought joiner's furniture and Shaker furniture. Windsor chairs were also the standard common chair. The upper class (and upper middle class) bought veneered, decorated furniture, upholstered and carved chairs, all of which served to show off their wealth.
The picture above is of the hand tinted color plates in Manuel du Tourneur by L.E. Bergeron (1816), showing exotic woods and materials that were used for (luxury) inlay, marquetry, and turning.
The trees were cut down* long ago and the Cuban Mahogany that Duncan Phyfe was so fond of is no longer available commercially. American Black Walnut, which once covered the east coast in the 18th century, is now nearly an exotic wood. The bulk was cut down for charcoal to feed the iron furnaces of the early American iron industry. The other common cabinet hardwoods are available but expensive.
Laminated woods have been used for centuries but it is only in the twentieth century that plywood has become ubiquitous in furniture. First plywood, then all sorts of laminated sheet goods became popular. Proper cabinet grade plywood is now a symbol of quality. Melamine, fiber board, particle board, and all sorts of sheet goods are currently being used.
In general, custom builders - both amateur or professional - don't use lower end materials much in furniture construction (other than kitchens) so I will ignore the materials of mass production.
As we see from historical examples, in order for furniture to be perceived as "special" it needs fancy materials, finishes, and detailing.
Nowadays the meaning of "exotic materials" has expanded considerably to include all sorts of material, including spalted wood (wood that has been colored and discolored by fungal growth) and wood with interesting grain patters caused by genetic mutations (bird's eye or tiger maple). Solid wood itself is considered sort of exotic. Guests in my home have sometimes complimented my furniture (made of solid walnut) then asked questions or made comments that made me realize they saw no real distinction between a walnut finish and solid walnut. For them, all wood was naturally beige-tan, so "walnut" meant an added color. Of course most of the exotic materials of the past are no longer available because of extinction or bans on importing to prevent extinction. Another reason these materials I think are less common is that most people cannot tell the difference between ivory, ebony, and white or black plastic. We are so used to seeing the roaring figure of exotics copied in artificial materials that the real thing is much less of a standout.
What has gotten extremely popular is the use of reclaimed materials and we will be seeing more and more of that as time goes by. Reclaimed materials are being used three ways: as inexpensive secondary woods. This has always been the case, nobody in their right mind would toss a nice piece of wood staring at them in the shop. A second use of reclaimed lumber, and possibly the most popular usage, is to take large beams and other wood from older structures and re-mill them so that they can be essentially reused again as new material. The advantage is that we get access to old growth wood and materials which are simply not currently available. In our shop our display board for our tools was made our of reclaimed pine that originally was in a whale oil factory. The pine is dead hard, dead straight in grain, and oil impregnated. It's wonderful stuff. I see flooring and other woodwork routinely made out of reclaimed lumber these days.
The final usage of reclaimed lumber is the most interesting. This coming Saturday we will be having a book signing with Yoav Liberman in honor of the publication of his new book, "Working Reclaimed Wood: A Guide for Woodworkers, Makers & Designers" The reason Yoav's book is so interesting is that reclaimed lumber is increasing is used as a material in its own right. The wear and tear of the previous uses are left in. The reason the material is used is not because it once was a wonder bit of wood, it's being used because it shows its own history. This of course opens up a high avenue for design and exploration and gives the maker a wide choice of materials made unique and interesting because of past usage. And as I said previously success in high end furniture has always been about demonstrating something unique.
Solid wood furniture can be detailed with carvings, but solid wood is also a very variable material. Surface treatments and finishing deserve their own blog entry.
Yoav's signing is this coming Saturday, you are all invited to this free event. For more information click here
*If you want to read a gripping story of the lumber camps in Mexico where Mahogany was harvested I heartily suggest B. Traven's Jungle Series. The last few books take place in the camps, although the entire series is wonderful.
I think it is fair to say that most furniture is made of solid wood or sheet goods - the latter being plywood, melamine, or MDF, depending on budget and design considerations. As discussed in the last blog, cutting sheets goods accurately and with a clean, ready-to-glue edge isn't trivial, and it's a real roadblock for a lot of beginners who are just trying to build their first pieces of useful furniture.
The obvious solution is to use a table saw, panel saw, or a portable saw and rail system like the Festool TS55. The first method requires a large amount of free floor space - eight feet on each side of the saw. The second method requires eight or nine running feet along a wall. The last method requires saw horses, and at least ten or so clear feet to set up the saw and have a little room to work on a full sized (8') panel. All of these methods require an initial capital expense of $600 and up and some training (not much).
I don't think any hand tool can cut a clean edge in plywood, so I don't think that's practical for any except very rough work.
Professional cabinetmakers in New York City have similar problems. Space is at a premium, and while having a table saw is pretty important for some of the work, breaking down panels to exact size can be slow, and errors are expensive. Noah Grossman, a cabinetmaker located in Brooklyn, applies a solution to the problem that is becoming more and more popular among professional woodworkers.
The walnut plywood panels above are part of a sideboard Noah designed and built, but instead of cutting all the material in his own shop (which he certainly has the capacity to do), Noah found it was easier and cheaper to outsource the cutting up of the panels to a CNC shop.
All across the country, CNC shops offer exact dimension cutting of sheet goods usually for a fixed cost over material cost. CNC shops can cut, rebate, drill, form splines for joinery, drill for hinges, and perform many other operations. Unlike a small shop with a basic CNC router, the best of these shops have sophisticated materials-handling equipment and automatic tool changers for flexibility. Modern CNC shops are set up to handle sheet after sheet of goods far more efficiently than any single person feeding a table saw could. Another bonus: as long as the CNC receives a correct data file, it's their responsibility for tear-out, damage, and any other screw-ups. Other parts of cabinets can also be outsourced very economically. There are many companies that will be happy to make dovetailed drawers for you in any size and quality for your cabinet. Noah did point out that outsourcing the sheet goods was only part of the project. The base of this sideboard was made from solid, using regular methods, in his shop.
Currently I am not aware of any CNC shops that cater to weekend warriors. Pro shops just don't want to deal with the learning curve and hand holding amateurs need. But I think in the future, after some brave entrepreneurs decide to specialize in the non-professional market, outsourcing the cutting of sheet goods will be a major facilitator for sheet good projects of all kinds. If you want to build a kitchen as a part-timer, having everything correctly cut for you makes a very large project manageable. Outsourcing precise material cutting will also encourage the creation of all sorts of free-form furniture that an amateur can design but can't really make in a regular shop. Most importantly, the parts of a project, as in Noah's case, that are made of solid wood, can be made by hand in a small shop.
I don't see much advantage in owning your own CNC machine if you are only doing a few projects a year.
Noah called this approach "Custom Ikea," and he's not far wrong. But big deal! Much of modern furniture design look like Ikea design, only better made, out of better materials. Ikea specializes in modern furniture; just because something in an Ikea store looks at a distance like your modern project is no reason not to build modern stuff, if that's what you want.
The last picture, another project by Noah Grossman and Alec Gessner, is a fairly straightforward run of white cabinets. Here CNC was used to cut up a large amount of similar panels. This is a real win for the small shop because handling that many sheets of lightweight MDF is a physical and logistics challenge in a small shop. Getting the dozen or so cabinets correctly cut and ready for assembly makes for a better, quicker job.
Yoav's approach to "The Future of Woodworking" is non-traditional, and shows the potential of what you as a maker can do with wood, using as an inspiration some existing materials that have exhausted their original purpose.