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.
The picture above is of the book about the Seaton chest and a couple of planes made by Gabriel that are in my collection.
In other news:
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.
It's great reading about making waddle hurdles to herd sheep to even out the fertilization of a field. It's less inspiring to read about the hard life of the chair bodger (see The History of Chairmaking in High Wycombe by Leonard John Mayes), who worked at breakneck speed, at piecework, making greenwood chairs.
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.
If you wandered by our warehouse lately, you would be hard pressed not to notice that there are many changes afoot. We just purchased our first machining center and we had to basically move everything in the workshop at least once, sometimes twice, to make room. And since the electricans are coming anyway, we are adding big ceiling fans too. Also a compressor, and lots of miscellaneous things like a refractometer in order to tell us the condition of the machine coolant.
It's all very exciting!
But just to make it interesting, I am writing this after a week of staying home sick battling the flu. Other staff members are sick too. I feel okay today, other than feeling the effects of not having eaten a proper meal all week, but I thought it would be prudent to stay at home.
Being sick and short-staffed, especially with the machining center coming, is not only cruddy of itself, but also made us realize at the last minute that we were not in a position to do the New Jersey Woodworkers Show next weekend. We're disappointed - we always have a good time at the show, but we know it's important to know your limits. For example, in order to be ready for the show we have to set up show inventory for packing. Since I was out sick, I couldn't do this. And the person who sets up the booth for the show has also been under the weather. This sets up a whole cascade of events. So sadly it's not happening this year. :(
Meanwhile other things are chugging along at TFWW. Festool prices go up on March 1, so if you were planning a purchase anyway do it now ( Click here). The big change for Festool is that all the vacuums (except the Autoclean) will start coming with smooth hoses. And the hose garage has improved too. Cost have gone up, so getting the older versions might be your choice, but we will have new models to sell on March 1st.
If you are in the neighborhood feel, free to stop by the showroom on Friday the 2nd (8 AM -5 PM) or Saturday (11 AM -5 PM) we will have snacks and other treats.
Also finally, I'm delighted to announce that Osmo finishing supplies are arriving this week. We have been trying to carry this line of environmentally aware and durable hardwax oils for a while and now we have succeeded. Watch our site or stop by to check Osmo out!
ps - That's our new compressor and tank coming off a truck from our local compressor dealer, Murlynn Compressor. Gerry has been great putting together a deal for us that made sense.
02/05/2018 The pictures do not do it justice!
I have written many times about how some landlords want to change the industrial zoning in Brooklyn to something friendlier to luxury housing.
Not all landlords favor this plan. My own landlord is one of them. He has a deep commitment to maintaining the industrial nature of Gowanus and supports this commitment by being a great landlord to his tenants. So when he mentioned to me that he has some vacant industrial space and asked me if I knew anyone who needed space, I was eager to help if I could. (And no, I don't get a commission or anything.)
Here's the deal:
5000 square foot space with a high ceiling. In addition it already has a built in finished mezzanine that from the pictures looks like great office space. It's on the ground floor, so loading and unloading supplies and goods is easy. It's in great shape and would probably need minimal electrical work. The previous occupant, a restoration shop, was there for 16 years. The location is near the F, G, and R subway lines on a fairly quiet block.
Bonus 1: The previous occupant and a nice spray booth that they want to sell. This is huge if you need to do finishing.
Bonus 2: Long lease. My landlord understands that unless you have a long enough lease you can't afford to invest in your own equipment and other stuff. Let's just say more than five years.
Bonus 3: Affordable. A commitment to manufacturing by a landlord doesn't just mean that he is willing to rent to you if you want to pay office rates. My landlord will offer you an affordable lease, understanding full well that everyone has be be able to make a decent living. You will also discover that he is really easy to work with. The lease is simple and there are no tricks anywhere.
Bonus 4: No brokerage fee for anyone, which saves everyone money.
This is awesome space and a rare commodity. If you are in need of shop space, and you want a place to settle down to for the next decade or so, and you really manufacture stuff, this is by far the best space in Brooklyn. And Gowanus is a great place to work, shop, and live. The shop is walking distance to a lot of great residential areas too.
Don't miss the opportunity! It will go fast. See below for more pictures.
Email me with your contact information and phone number and I will be happy to pass it on.
P.S. I understand that this blog entry might be a little unnecessary for those of you who don't live anywhere near Brooklyn or are not professionals needing space. But the single most popular question that gets asked in all Brooklyn wood shops (after "How's business?") is, "Are you going to be able to stay here?"
P.P.S. I am totally aware that I don't normally have blog entries that are basically advertisements, especially for other people, but this is an exception. My landlord supports me and what I do, so I would like to return the favor and support him and what he does. So I am.
I'm old enough to remember when people didn't routinely buckle up when they got into cars. Years of laws, enforcement of laws, knowing people who were maimed or killed in car crashes and probably millions of dollars of advertising later, most people I know wear seat belts every time they get into a car. We wear seat belts and accept that that the chance of an accident might be small but it isn't zero. We know that the seat belts will offer a lot of protection relative to the inconvenience of using them. We generally don't think, "Hmmm, I'm drunk so I had better buckle up" or "Taylor just passed his road test so guess I'll wear the seat belt" or "Only in bad weather" or "Only with my parents/kids in the back seat" or "Only on New Year's Eve." The practice most people have is protecting themselves every time.
So why is it in a workshop - especially a home shop - do so many people only put on safety glasses only before a potentially hazardous operation, not wear them all the time?
It's true that when working with hand tools there is less chance of kickback from a saw, but there are plenty of other hazards - sawdust in the air, sharp edges, splinters, etc. - all of which can fly into your eye when you least expect it.
Here is what I insist upon with all my students and strongly recommend to all woodworkers: when you enter the workshop, get into the habit of putting on safety glasses right way. Any kind would work as long as they are comfortable enough so that you actually wear them. Get into the habit. You will be glad you did.
In the picture above we have four forms of eye protection. The ones in the lower right with the black frames are prescription safety classes. You get them from an optician. I like them because up until recently we didn't have any glasses that worked with googles (see below), and by using these glasses I save wear and tear on my regular glasses.
I also have an oversize pair of glasses OTS XL that fit over my regular glasses, seen here over my glasses on the upper right mannequin head. For people who truly need their glasses, this is a godsend. These are the only style of safety glasses that I have seen that really work well over a pair of eyeglasses. Highly recommended.
If you don't wear prescription glasses, you have a range of options that are comfortable and inexpensive. The pair with the black nose piece (lower left) fits almost all faces. You can also get safety glasses for kids and adults with small faces. We know adult woodworkers who have complained that nothing fits them -- until they tried the glasses worn by the picture's upper left mannequin. This is great for instilling good work habits if you kids hang out in the workshop with you (and we hope they do), and for giving small adults the routine protection others take for granted. Click here for more info.
The Capstone shield is great when you need more protection and don't want to swallow wood chips being thrown at you. Great for yard work too. The Shield opens and closes
With the exception of prescription glasses, safety glasses are also remarkably inexpensive, as a matter of fact if you click on the links and want to order one pair of glasses the shipping will be more than the glasses - so you might just want to add a pair to your next order and save shipping.
The title of this blog post comes from Harold Llyod's great film. The scene below is amazing - even with camera magic. Lloyd did his own stunt work, which is remarkable especially considering that his right hand was missing fingers due to an accident several years earlier. In the film he is wearing a glove designed by Hal Roach and movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, a former glove salesman.
I am a panda. Or a great ape. Or any of a number of animals - I'll choose the cute ones - whose terrain is disappearing and are therefore endangered. Tut- tutting or telling me how cute, chubby, and fun to watch I am doesn’t help much. "Oooh, check out that guy with the hand tools! Amazing!" Neither does lip service. On the face of it, our government agencies all love manufacturing and makers. They love to have “maker initiatives,” training, etc. They are even happy to make a small, zoo-like zone of a few blocks where manufacturers who already exist can try to still exist. But protecting the actual wild environment is another story.
Most of the energy in encouraging manufacturing in NYC is focused on "Maker Spaces," which are always well-intentioned and sometimes actually awesome. But the problem is that these spaces, much like a breeding sanctuary, is that it is not a real substitute for an improved wild environment. What happens to a fledgling business after you "graduate" from a maker space? If you have a prototype, you will probably will outsource your production to somewhere with enough affordable real estate to encourage manufacturing - a place that sometimes feels like anywhere but New York City. And what if you want to expand your business? That probably means not New York too. All the investment in maker spaces, incubators, and other startup support may pay off - but not for the people of the city.
Cabinet shops, which are TFWW’s retail life blood, are dying in NYC. Many landlords don't want messy businesses. Even in neighborhoods with industrial zoning - places that are zoned for mess and noise - the trend is to try to rent to offices and commercial ventures. Even if the business does actual making, their primary work is clean and silent. Offices and design shops have a far greater density of people than a woodshop, and so higher rents are easier to achieve. And of course once your tenant is a fancy office, it will want like-minded businesses for neighbors, not a company with a screaming table saw or spray booth. And once a landlord realizes that it can get more per square foot by skirting the industrial zoning requirements rents shoot up. Even if the space is available for a cabinet shop, the cost might be unaffordable.
Now I should mention that not all landlords are opportunists who bought property that was discounted because of its use restrictions but now are trying to evade their responsibilities. ( See my blog from a few weeks ago about Industry City). There are a many landlord - and thankfully mine is one (My landlord has been incredibly supportive of what we do and truly fights for continued manufacturing in NYC) - that really want industry to succeed. There are bunches of reasons for this. The first is that many people, my landlord and others included, want a city that is diverse. They recognize that not everyone is a web designer or a stockbroker. We have thousands of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, cabinet makers, machinists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and a range of other craftspeople and tradespeople who need a place to go to work, like being in the city, and most important, make the city far more interesting and full of ideas than it would be without them.
Let me give you an example:
Once upon a time, on West 22nd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, a tinsmith named Harry Segerman had a business two doors down from my grandparents’ luncheonette. Harry mostly made tinware, and later stainless fixtures, for the restaurant industry. In the years following WWII, Chelsea (nowadays an exceedingly trendy and expensive neighborhood) was a fairly rough part of town. A few blocks west were the Cunard Docks; the buildings were a mix of low rise housing and garment industry factories.
The area was inexpensive to live in, which attracted bohemian artists. Some of them wandered into Harry's shop and were enamored by the idea that you could take metal and bend it into interesting shapes. Harry, who was encouraging by nature and very interested in art, helped helped a lot of these artists make work in tin. Some artists took it a step further and developed expertise in sculpting with sheet metal because of his support.
On paper, this interaction is what cities do best. Art and crafts (and commerce) happen when a big city is a melting pot of ideas and skills. But it won't happen - and we will be the poorer - if New York City becomes solely a consumer of real things, instead of a designer, maker, and consumer.
|The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.|