Sometimes a person you have never met, and know only through a book, can have enormous influence on you. David R. Russell, the eminent tool collector and author of Antique Woodworking Tools, was such a person for me. I was saddened to hear that he passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 82.
Collectors, if I can generalize for a second, usually collect on a theme. "Everything Stanley," "Tools that are painted Red," "Spokeshaves," "Tools made in my home town." Whatever. What I most appreciated about David's book wasn't that he had an awesomely cool collection - which he did - but he seemed to collect along the same lines as I do: tools of diverse backgrounds united by interesting historical significance.
The great tools of the pre-power tool age are at least fifty years old and in most cases much older. Most examples are worn out and beyond restoration. You can repaint and remove rust, but restoring worn thread and surfaces is largely impossible. Many great specialized tools are no longer available. And of course within the woodworking industry, most of the hand tools we know and love haven't been used for generations. Tool collecting in the style exemplified by David Russell is responsible for many of these tools surviving at all. David's generation of collectors was the first to really do research and try to put things in context. His collecting incorporated understanding the variety of tools, many designed for specific operations and specific crafts. The collection meant that this knowledge was preserved, organized, and published for the next generation of makers and collectors.
For this I am extremely grateful. As someone who uses tools, knowing a tool's origins and purpose made my work easier. And as a tool manufacturer and seller, I know our design and manufacturing decisions were informed by the reference material David and other contemporaries assembled.
I am also grateful for the eclectic interests of collectors, which can give value to oddball tools and blind alleys that would otherwise be discarded. Instead they can get saved and studied. Here is a case in point.
Leonard Bailey and Stanley Tools industrialized planemaking and had impact on tools everywhere. What was the effect on British toolmakers? Why didn't British toolmakers mount an attempt to make a competitive plane that could be priced like a Stanley but work like an English Steel infill plane? The answer is documented in David's book.
The tool in the picture below is a prototype Norris that I purchased when the David Russell collection was broken up and sold. It is Item 1138 in his book. David's thought was that it was an experiment by Thomas Norris, the great London planemaker. According to Russell's book, the plane is from the 1880s when Norris wasn't known (yet) for great tools and just finding his way as a tool seller. This is the time period when Stanley and American mass-produced tools were starting to make inroads in the British tool world. Competing with Stanley was a tough problem. It would take capital, which the small English makers such as Norris did not have. Instead, Norris seems to have bet on keeping the traditional geometry but getting rid of all the hard-to-make parts. This strategy was a failure. I am not aware of any attempts along this line outside of the three prototypes in Russell's book. The Norris plane in the picture was certainly never manufactured.
I have not really put this plane through its paces. The blade is a replacement and doesn't fit properly, and I need to machine a replacement screw for the frog adjustment. I'm guessing that it works adequately, but certainly without a proper adjuster it would be a poor competitor to Stanley, and without stellar performance, it would have difficulty competing with the excellent English wooden planes of the time. So it disappeared. But thanks to collectors like David Russell, the plane wasn't melted down and entirely lost to history. Norris apparently decided to go in the opposite direction and in the next generation went higher and higher end.
There is a lesson to be learned here. The English makers weren't necessarily hobbled by lack of ideas. They simply did not have the capital to compete with modern production -- and the successful ones understood they should not try. They succeeded the same way modern boutique toolmakers succeed today: find a high-end niche, make great products, and don't try to compete with Stanley (or any other mass production giant).
I was somewhat amused, in a gallows humor kind of way, to learn in a recent article about credit cards that credit card companies take the hit for fraudulent transactions. Sure they do, some of the time. But I can tell you that retailers, especially small retailers like us, take most of the losses especially online.
I’ve spent nearly two decades as an internet retailer combating online fraud. I’m not alone - sometimes I get calls from friendly competitors who want to alert others of the rip-offs and scams that have recently ensnared them. Lately we have gotten hit with a series of smaller frauds that you should be aware of, since it involves the woodworking customer.
Over the course of eBay’s existence it has been pretty common for some random seller to steal a picture and description of an item off a regular e-commerce site and then flog it on eBay at more than the retail price. If the item sells, the seller then buys the item and has it dropped shipped to the eBay customer. This system exploited the buyer’s ignorance but isn’t theft. It was pretty common, and I guess it still goes on. However with easy price discovery and the ubiquity of Amazon, this method of sales is hard to pull off unless the seller can get the merchandise wholesale (which the legit resellers do).
Much further along the dark road is this: sell the item on eBay for whatever you can get, then buy the item with stolen credit card information you can pick up on the Dark Net for a few bucks. You don’t need to buy wholesale! Since you aren't actually paying for the merchandise - but you get the money from the buyer - it's win-win. Oh right, except for the merchant in the middle, acting in good faith (and in our case, conscientiously including tips, any available rebate information and a friendly salutation on the packing slip). We and other merchants ship the merchandise, happy for the sale, and then a month later we discover that the person who "bought" the item didn't actually do so at all. Since we thought we were sending a present bought from one person to another (with different shipping and billing addresses) we get charged by the credit card company - the stolen amount plus a penalty fee - because it's obviously our fault.
Why am I telling you this?
If you buy new tools on eBay, and the seller does not have a lot of feedback, and the price is below normal retail, chances are you are the unwittingly participating in a fraud. Obviously this might not be true 100% of the time, but if a price is too good to be true, it's too good to be true. One other tip to watch out for: the item is listed as in the US but the seller profile shows another country. I buy on eBay, although rarely new stuff, and the overwhelming number of buyers and sellers are honest folk. But the tiny percentage of rotten apples is keeping me up at night.
Sure, at first glance this might look like a blog post. But a closer look might reveal that I don't really have a blog post this week. I was hoping to, but then I didn't have a topic I really wanted to write about until yesterday and then I just ran out of time. I’m writing notes for a class I'm teaching on joinery and I was hoping to do the “professional” thing of getting multiple uses from my work. No surprise - there’s more work to do than I thought. And it started out as one entry, now it's a three parter. So this will have to wait - perhaps next week? Try me again in a couple of days.
I have truly believed for years that leisure is the mother of invention and lately I don’t have the gift of idle, random thoughts flitting through my mind. No breezes here! (Though I am very much looking forward to the ceremonial opening of the big garage door in the front of our showroom as the weather gets warmer. Those are some great breezes.) I find it much easier to write a blog post when I feel that mental leisure.
The upside is we have a lot of cool things going on. Our new Haas machining center just arrived, and getting it set up is a big and exciting task. I’m learning a lot.
We also received a big Ashley Iles shipment, with more to come. We’re carrying Osmo now, and are in the process of expanding the selection. And the new Festool 2018 tools are here. I’m most excited about the Connectors for the Domino DF 500 - we use and love the Connectors for the Domino XL and have been waiting for these new ones - and the Granat Net sandpaper. We’re revving up for the Festool Fest on Saturday, April 21st. The Festool Roadshow isn’t coming to our area for the foreseeable future, but we can do our part to bring Festool demos, Festool knowledge and Festool swag to Brooklyn. And ideally we’ll bring some freshly baked cookies to the party as well. If you are in the area you should definitely come. I love these open events because I get a chance to put names to faces.
On the subway on the way to work each day I’m in the middle of reading Gary Rogowski’s new book “HANDMADE Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction” and I'm liking it a lot. More on the book another time. We don’t stock “HANDMADE” right now but we will - I just need to order copies. Another thing to add to the list of possibilities. Spring is finally coming, I need a long vacation but maybe I can grab a nap. Hopefully I will get a chance to write something or finish what I'm writing for next week.
The picture above is our new machine arriving a week and a half ago - we've been running around ever since. It's now installed and starting today ready to rock!
What should tools cost? When does a cheap price represent a bargain -- and when is it only a fool's bargain?
The price of metal is pretty much the same around the world. So except for labor intensive products such as clothing, the main price advantage many Asian imports have is newer manufacturing ability, lower development costs, and a cheaper design.
Newer machinery gives you an advantage because if you are building a new product line to make something, you buy the latest equipment in the competitive markets of Asia, and the equipment might even cost less than it does in America or Europe.
Lower development costs are pretty obvious. While some Chinese companies do innovate, the faster route of a cost reduced product is to start by copying the original product. At the very least, you saved development costs and probably marketing costs as well.
A cheaper design can knock off a proven winner and use thinner, cheaper, and less accurately machined materials -- and save the manufacturer a boatload.
Why do I care? I get frustrated when generalizations about a knockoff product affect the expectations of the original USA made product. "Why should I pay for your overpriced product when I can buy X for much less?" the customer thinks. That original product may perform much better than the knockoff -- and even demonstrably save time and money -- but the knockoff can redefine the worth of the product.
I recently bought a knockoff bar clamp from Harbor Freight to test it against the Universal Bar Clamp made by Dubuque that we have been selling for over a decade. What are the differences between the original clamp and its knockoff? The results were striking.
Metal thickness: the wall thickness of the original aluminum tubing is almost double the thickness. This means the original is much stronger and not prone to flexing. The knockoff is not nearly as strong as the original, and it flexes if you bare down. All the casting of the original are heavier and better finished than the knockoff.
Length: Both clamps are sold as 24" clamps, but this ostensibly straightforward number means different things for these different products. For the Universal clamp, 24" means you can clamp something 24" wide. The knockoff, on the other hand, has a maximum clamping distance of 20" and another 4" that do nothing. Beware the "overall length" measurement - a bait-and-switch abuse, in my view and a big deal.
Overall fit and finish: The screw on the knockoff is drilled at an angle not straight on. Very annoying. The original has deeply punched slots for a wide range of adaptability and solid engagement. The knockoff has half the slots, which are barely punched in.
The import costs about $10; the Made in USA original costs $26.
I am not categorically knocking cheap tools. I would much rather you do woodworking with the equipment you can afford, even if it's more work, than not do anything at all. That would really suck. But it's bizarre to read an article in the woodworking press that shows a style of clamp with a "how to fix it" hack that unintentionally by omission tars all clamps of that style with the same brush. I would have been much happier if the article mentioned that the flex in the clamps they were using aren't typical of all the aluminum bar clamps you can buy -- just the low end ones in the article.
I own pretty much every hand tool ever invented. Then again, I'm a tool collector. But the reality is that many amateur woodworkers who don't think of themselves as collector also amass a huge range of tools. It's because they need them! As amateurs, we do a wide range of work, and in most cases we don't have the opportunity to borrow specialized tools (especially sharp ones).
This situation was not and is still not the case in professional shops. Professionals specialize, and they only have the tools for the work they typically do. If something comes out of left field, or if they do not feel they have the expertise to do even a recurring task, the typical solution is to outsource the work to someone else.
It was always this way, and maybe more so in the days days before power tools. Unless you specialized, you could not work fast enough. An additional problem: it was prohibitively expensive to have all the specialized tools needed by various corners of the trade.
You can see this situation very clearly in The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton. The chest was purchased, fully stocked, from the firm of Christopher Gabriel & Sons, a very well known and successful plane maker and hardware store (ironmonger). The tools in the chest were eminently covetable. When I look at the chest, I am filled with envy, and I know I'm not alone in these feelings.
But if you look closely at the inventory that came with the purchase, you realize that you can't actually build early 19th century furniture with the tools. And indeed you were never supposed to. The tool chest is a great example of the specialization in the woodworking trade. What defined high-end custom woodworking in 1797? It was the difference between joinery and cabinetmaking. High-end furniture of the time was veneered, inlaid, and to some extent -less so than in earlier times - carved. The original tool chest had no veneering tools. The set includes a set of gouges in the kit, but they aren't a carver's kit. There is also nothing for finishing.
The reason for these gaps wasn't that Seaton workshop didn't build carved and veneered furniture; it's that, like everyone else, they specialized. Carving was a different guild. After the cabinetmaker built the basic carcase, specialists who worked either independently or within the main shop would handle the veneering, work the inlay, carve and finish.
Seaton didn't have carving tools in his tool kit because he didn't need them. If he knew how to carve, this work would be ancillary to his main work -- almost a hobby. As a carver, he would work very inefficiently compared to a professional carver. Having a nice set of carving tools that would not be regularly used would be a waste of money. Seaton's tools - full sets of chisels and saws, and a good range of planes that is far more diversified than what a less successful journeyman would have - signified his prosperity. He had much more than a beginner would have just have the minimum to get the job done.
It's also interesting to note that there are several veneer hammers in the toolbox that were not part of the original inventory but must have been added later. Why? My best guess would be that Seaton decided later in life as a successful cabinetmaker to to bring operations in-house and either do the veneering himself or by others in his shop. But as a beginning Journeyman - when the case was purchased - he would be specializing and didn't need veneering tools.
While I am on the subject of specialization, I want to give a shout-out to Sharpenmygouge.com. This is a carving tool sharpening service started by Mark Atkins, a student of Chris Pye (and under Chris's watchful eye). While most carving tools sold today are sharpened at the factory, Chris Pye teaches that we need to "commission" our tools before use. The factory sharpening leaves the tool usable, but not optimal. When you get a new carving tool, or if you are resurrecting an abused one, you will probably want to lengthen the bevel, and if you follow Chris, to add an inside bevel. And of course the tool itself needs to be uber sharp. This service is really too expensive for a casual sharpening, but well worth the expense for that initial commissioning, especially if you haven't ever used a properly commissioned carving tool. Unless you have the proper equipment, tools that need a lot of work will eat up a lot of your time. In general, a properly commissioned carving tool can go ages with just regular and consistent stropping, so there is a lot to be said for starting off right.
03/07/2018 An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts
My brother in-law gave me a gift of a new book that is making the rounds, Cræft, by the British archeologist and BBC presenter Alexander Langlands.
Most of the book is a collection of stories on various craft activities that he participated in -- and how the activity historically played a role in various communities. Cræft identifies how the particular craft developed the way it did in each area as it evolved due to environmental, economic, and social change.
I ended up with very mixed feelings about the book. Langlands has a very romantic view of craft. Most of the crafts he discusses are rural: fence making, roofing, weaving, etc. in their most idealistic terms. While he does talk knowledgeably about rural crafts of the 20th and earlier centuries, for me craft is far more urban and abusive.
It is entirely one thing to romanticize a thatcher coming to redo a farm roof. The story of how regional materials play a part in crafts is compelling, as is the understanding of the environment. But it is entirely another thing to ignore the incredible, highly specialized skill a grinder, for example, needed to earn a living, and the avoidable dangers (known at the time) of inadequate ventilation leading to silicosis. I also can't square ignoring the difficulty in making a living as a cabinetmaker in the face of constant pressure on wages.
There was a very very good reason that cabinetmakers and other crafts formed the first unions and societies back in the 18th century, and rural craftsman never did.
If you wish to read a contemporary account of a rural carpenter, I highly recommend The Village Carpenter by Walter Rose. Rose describes a world of skill and quality of life that I think many of us can wistfully envy. Langlands' stories are in the same vein. If you wish to read about the other point of view, the world of the garret master and the slaughterers, and the low end cabinetmakers of the 19th century, I highly recommend reading "London Labor and the London Poor" by the Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew, a contemporary of Charles Dickens. Below is a link to Volume III of the book, which contains the section on cabinetmaking.
I think Langlands' major point -- you cannot look at craft as an isolated skill but as part of the entire fabric of society -- is an important idea. I am a huge fan of skilled craft. Langland might look at craft as a skilled approach to the necessities of the environment, but for me craft is more about an expression of skill that gives one options. And in that sense, craft today might have more of a future than in did a century ago. It was rare in the 19th and early 20th century craftspeople for someone skilled in craft to have many options. Typically people specialized because otherwise they could not work fast enough to make a living. Certain crafts - woodworking, for example -- had more options than most. An architectural woodworker or joiner would do different work depending on the job at hand, but the bodgers had to excel just in one area to be competitive, and the work could easily be stultifying.
Today being a skilled craftsperson means so much more and is more in line with Langland's ideas. For example, professional chair makers might not be as fast at the pole lathe as their forebears, but they will be able to build an entire chair from scratch. They will be familiar with many different techniques and methods of making a chair - all within the vernacular of a hand made chair. They will not restricted to a region or style - unless that's what they want to do. To make a living, the modern craftsperson needs to be far more in tune to what the customer wants, and also how to entice a customer. The chairmaker of a century ago competed on price and quality at all levels of the market. Today, the low end is either done by machine or by extremely poorly paid craftspeople living far away. The craft chairmakers working in prosperous countries world compete on quality, originality, and ability to get "likes" on Instagram. These multi-pronged obligations may seem exhausting at times, but they make the job more interesting - a good thing. Langlands' depiction of the craftperson's connection to the community deeply resonated with me. Indeed, the future of crafts in the US, Europe and other wealthy areas of the world is intimately connected to a sense of community and belonging to something bigger than oneself - no matter what specific product is created.
But at the same time we should not forget that as a society we are very inconsistent. Langland's very encouraging. He's right that craft is both satisfying and has very much been part of the culture of civilization. I hope this book inspires people to work more with their hands. To explore any craft. But let's also not forget that most of clothing we wear while we practice our crafts, and the phones we use to snap pictures for Instagram, are made by another group of craftspeople, who are paid terrible wages even by the standards of the countries they live in, and yet have real skill and craft and also take pride in their work.