This past Saturday Sally and I spent the evening at the Guggenheim Museum. Saturday nights starting at 5:00 PM the museum has a "pay what you wish" admission fee (rather than $25 per adult) so we were greeted with a line that extended around the corner. The night was relatively balmy, and soon enough we were admitted.
The museum's major exhibit was Hilma af Klint. (1862- 1944), a Swedish pioneer of abstract art -- the first major solo show in the US for this artist. Like most huge retrospectives, the exhibit’s quality was a little uneven, but basically I liked some of it. A secondary exhibit of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe featured selections from the Guggenheim’s large collection. The entire museum had the same issue of a superstar (in this case, the building by Frank Lloyd Wright) overshadowing the rest of the cast (all the exhibits).
The Guggenheim building was Wright’s last commission. I grew up on the Upper East Side in its shadow (just a block and a half away). My father remembers seeing Wright standing outside the building during construction taking in the details. As a exhibition space, the Guggenheim has always had a lot of issues. The spiral ramp interior, the odd cul-de-sacs inside -- it's less of a triumph of a museum than it is a triumph of a building. Maybe that's why the building overshadowed the exhibitions. In theory, an exhibition hall should recede into the background as we are overwhelmed by the contents. In this case, the building, despite being a uniform white color, really gets in the way. The art displays are unevenly lit and seem peripheral against the walls while the soaring use of space --- used to good effect when the exhibits are motorcycles or sculptures -- and the people all around the spiral were far more interesting than looking at the pictures on the wall.
The entire building is (looks like) poured concrete and the walls emerge out of the floor too with curves. Elements like the railings are concrete blended into the floor. The walls curve out of the floor, and the railings are integral to the structure.
Not everything in the design is successful. For example, rather than have standard bathrooms on one or two floors, tiny single-user bathrooms are scattered around the each floor of the exhibition space (which after all is like a giant ramp). Each bathroom is smaller than an Amtrak bathroom, strikingly uncomfortable and awkward to use.
Much more charming: the Aye Simon Reading Room, which Wright had designed as repository for his drawings and models of the museum. The architect Richard Meier redesigned it as a library with specially designed curved furniture in keeping with Wright’s spirit. The library is located through a keyhole door on the second floor.
The last exhibit I saw at the Guggenheim was a major work by Matthew Barney. In that exhibit the structure of the museum became part of the exhibit and the space was complemented by the exhibit and didn't fight it.
If you're in the NY area, you can not only go to its many museums -- you also take classes at Tools for Working Wood! Coming up next: Pate's Knockdown Shave Horse and Daniel Clay's Chip Carving classes. We also have offerings in mind for spoon carvers, wood finishers and a construction class. And of course Festool Fest returns on Saturday, April 6th. So stay tuned for more info.
We’ve been carrying the finishing products of H. Behlen & Bros. for many years. I personally have been using Behlen products since I was a kid living with my parents. Behlen is a grand old company and brand that has been around for ages (its origins date way back to 1888). But times they are a ’changing. Some time ago Behlen was taken over by RPM, a company that also owns Mohawk finishing. We just learned that RPM plans to close Behlen and fold it into the Mohawk line.
Our first reaction was to place a large order and stock up - particularly on Jet Spray aerosol lacquer, which some customers buy by the case. (As one customer once told us, “The guy finishing my chairs disappeared after the down payment, but he left me with his secret recipe of Jet Spray.” Then she bought 2 cases.) Some of our luthier customers are especially devoted to the Vinyl Sealer and Stringed Instrument Lacquer Aerosol. So we don’t want to disappoint. At this point we should be able to handle Behlen orders for a little while -- other than the DVDs, of which we have just one.
What happens when we run out? Our Behlen rep said that Mohawk already offers some of the same products and we could transfer over to the Mohawk line. But several issues are giving us pause. Mohawk finishes are mass market items. There is no relationship with a maker, just margins based upon volume. We can’t compete with the discounts Amazon gets. And Mohawk will cost more than Behlen -- even for what we are told is literally the same product. We’ll also have the nuisance of changing the products’ names, photos, codes, etc.
All of these factors have unintentionally introduced time for reflection: do we want to go this route? Increasingly we don’t. Perhaps it's because so many of our in-store customers describe their workshops tucked into a corner of their apartments, or bring their adorable dogs with them when they shop --- in any event, we are really aware that finishing sometimes takes place in the company of living things, without much ventilation. This makes us want to move away from aerosol nitrocellulose and toward finishing products that are less toxic to people, pets and plants.
And it is not just us. Most of our customers are small shops that don’t have big-time spray booths or individuals working in their homes or tight, shared workshops. Ventilation can be iffy. We’re all for fitted respirators with frequently replaced cartridges and nitrile gloves and the like if you’re going to go the standard finishing route. But how about skipping the toxicity in the first place? More and more of our customers want non-toxic finishes: finishes that are safe to apply and don’t have toxic out-gassing or residue. Increasingly there are very good alternatives.
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.