Probably the classiest thing we have in our entire catalog (Colen Clenton Tools excepted) this year is our new Gramercy Tool Bags. They're elegant solutions to the challenge of schlepping tools around - a challenge that crafts people have forever faced. I have a collection of tool sellers' catalogs from the late 19th century on, so I thought I'd check in and see how tool-carrying has evolved.
The Chas. A. Strelinger & Co. catalog* framed the issue well, way back in 1896:
When a "Yankee" carpenter has a little job to do a few squares or a few miles from the shop, he takes his toolbox with tools (about 30 lbs. of tools, 15, sometimes 25 lbs. of box ) shoulders it, and starts off to his work. Now, we do not mean to quarrel with him for doing this, but it would suggest that it was about time to do away with the box business and use a Tool Basket. The middle size weighs about 18 ounces, and while the difference in weight between box and basket (from ten to twelve pounds) is not much for single lift, it certainly makes a big difference in a walk of a mile or two.
This basket can be carried over the shoulder by a stick shoved through both handles, or piece of sash cord, but when is only a few tools used, it can be carried the same as valise. The middle size measures when round, about 21 inches in diameter and when flattened sidewise by the shape and weight of the long tools (as jointer and saws), about 33 inches. They are soft and pliable, very strong, and with fairly decent usage will last for years.
Now I love the idea of a wooden toolbox (shown here in the 1912 Rd. Melhuish catalog) but I cannot imagine carrying it on my shoulder. Another possibility: a tool basket.
Baskets have limited space, but they are certainly a lot lighter than a big box. They don't seem to have died out until after WW II, and all the tool basket vendors (here the Charles Nurse catalog from 1893 and the 1912 Melhuish) seem to have sold similar versions in different sizes. The engravings for all these retailers look the same and could even be from the same plates.
Various trades used different sized specialty baskets or bags. (The Melhuish catalog doesn't draw much distinction between the bags and baskets - some are made of the same materials.) There are bags for “Engineers” - a general title for what we would call mechanics. And a bag lined with carpet for plumbers. My guess is that the lining was to absorb any water on the tools.
And the Tyzak catalog from the 1930s included a bag and basket (same material) that by its illustration was simpler than those of earlier catalogs, but might also be the same product as Melhuish’s specialty Engineer’s bag. Melhuish might not have had Instagram, but he obviously understood marketing. )
This large canvas bag from Melhuish 1912 is not only "improved" but in elements and structure seems to be a older cousin of a modern leather bag.
The Strelinger catalog makes a good point when it says that the tool box itself is pretty heavy, making a lightweight basket an improvement. But a basket is also open, not protected from rain, and vulnerable to spilling when put down. What is interesting is that unlike regular baskets for regular consumers, these tool baskets (and the ones in Strelinger) are reinforced. Without reinforcement, the material and stitching of the basket or bag will inevitably be stressed by the tools, and likely even cut or punctured. Leather bags were probably made in the era of these catalogs, but by and large they were too expensive for casual use by craftsmen, which could explain their absence from the catalogs I have.** Leather of course is the most waterproof of the natural materials, and most resistant to cuts and bruises. Klein Tool Bags, an American company that has been around since 1857, continues to make a wide range of tool bags today, including a mass-produced bag similar to ours. But by and large, tool bags and baskets seem to disappear from the tool catalogs, although I have not made an exhaustive search. My guess is with the advent of the automobile, the number of tradesman lugging tools around declined sharply and the concept of the milk crate filled with tools began to make lots of sense. And - ask anyone who routinely works on-site - the art of tool transportation can either be done efficiency or chew up half the day. For moving a lot of tools the Festool Systainer system is a great approach, I am seeing more and more of them on the streets in the morning as craftsman go into buildings to work on-site. (I will write about transporting buckets of tools another time.)
But sometimes you don't need a warehouse full of tools. Sometimes - oftentimes if you live in NYC - you’re taking public transportation. Sometimes you are going to a class or an office. Sometimes you not only have to earn a living but you have to impress a client at the same time. Plaster and paint coated milk crates don't leave the reassuring competence than a nice bag does with a client. They just don't want the mess tracked into their apartments.
This need inspires a return to the basics. Yes, if I have a couple of tools to cart, I just dump everything in my backpack and hope for the best. Anything with a sharp edge gets carefully wrapped. My backpack is tall enough for a dovetail or carcase saw but a sash is too long and risky and I worry about the handles getting busted if I put down the bag too roughly. I just brought back two valuable short saws home in my backpack and I wrapped them in cardboard for safety. I can't imagine doing that every day. As I have gotten older, my tools have gotten better, and so is the care I take.
So that brings me to our new Gramercy Tools Leather Tool bags. We also stock Leather bags by Occidental - here and here. Occidental bags are wonderfully made, but too short for a hardware store saw, or a longer plane. One thing I like about tools bags in general is that they have a bottom, designed to have a place for heavier tools so that jostling won’t cause something to shift. I don't wrap edge tools other than in a rag so that the cutting edges are both protected and can't do damage. We made sure in designing the Gramercy bags that the hardware and straps are robust (a Klein bag that I loved years ago had strap issues) and the cover really covers. The straps are anchored inside the cover which looks cool but more importantly prevents the leather straps from catching and wearing over the years. I live in fear of a collectible tool falling out. The traditional hand stitching of the Gramercy Bag will wear better than machine stitching and that with the heavy leather should mean that the stitches won't be the first thing to go (the source of my Klein bag’s strap problems). We use vegetable tanned leather because I discovered that I have a tendency to leave tools in my bag for ages without special oiling or waxing and I don't want to worry about rust caused by the leather.
.* Note: While I quote from the 1896 Chas. A. Strelinger & Co, I don't show any engravings from their catalog because I don't own an original and the reproduction I have isn't at high enough resolution to do justice to the original.
** I have other American catalogs of the period but they are currently in storage.
I've said many time that a poorly sharpened saw is better than a dull saw. For some people, saw sharpening itself is tedious, although you can get into the zone and find your zen in sharpening. I have the additional challenge of declining vision, which translates into trouble with close work, so I use an Optivisor so that I can see the saw teeth. Overall I think doing a good job on a saw is a lot easier than sharpening a chisel.
The characteristics of a good saw vise is that it holds the saw rigid with no vibration. Vibration might not always come off as chattering noise, but it always will shorten the life of your files, and in general make the job of sharpening take longer.
If you use hand saws of any kind in the workshop, having a saw sharpening strategy is as important as a chisel or plane iron sharpening strategy. Since I hate fighting my equipment, I went from an old Disston saw vise (which was a little warn out and slipped a lot - we fixed it) to a larger Wentworth saw vise. It was the bee's knees for us, until it broke. It inspired the last stop on this line, our own Gramercy Tools Saw Vise, which is patterned after the Wentworth. Our vise is make of thick sheet steel, not a casting, so it won't break. I've never been a fan of the two-pieces-of- wood-clamped-in-a-vise substitute for a saw vise. I know it works; it's not as rigid as a steel vise, but it works fine in a pinch. I personally always figured that - just as I have upgraded by chisel sharpening over the years - a good saw vise was worth the investment. (Yes, I know I get the employee discount, but I work long hours and I've earned it!)
While we were busy perfecting the Gramercy Tools Saw Vise, options for great saw files disappeared. First we stocked Nicholson files, but they moved offshore. Then we stocked Bahco. They were okay but they didn't have a wide enough range. Then for years we stocked Grobet. Grobet was never a manufacturer, just a brand. Their Swiss-made files were actually made for them by Vollorbe, a huge company located in Switzerland with a modest profile in the US. A couple of years ago Grobet and Vollorbe had a dispute and ended their arrangement. Grobet sourced all their files from Italy (from Corradi) and from India (from an unknown company). Corradi makes a pretty good file, and I soon realized I didn't need Grobet to sell Corradi files. If I am going to sell Corradi files they might as well say "Corradi" on them and we began to import them. We have been pretty pleased. However, in our shop we discovered that the arises - the flat bit between the sizes of a triangular file - are pretty wide on a saw file (by any maker) and to get better performance we started filing our fine toothed dovetail saw with needle files. This works great and really speeds up the performance of the saw. On our hardware store saw and also our carcase and sash saws we got so disgusted with the inconsistency of the Grobet files that we started using 3-square files - which are seriously more expensive than saw files but have beautiful tiny arrises and gave us the best results. When we could not get them anymore from Grobet we began to order direct from Vallorbe. Even after we switched to Corradi files we ended up sticking with the 3-square files. The larger saw files work fine but the narrower arrises on the 3-square makes for faster cutting. It would be a no brainer except for the cost, and I suppose now that we are importing a range of Vallorbe files we really should do a test. So now, in addition to a full range of Corradi saw files, we are stocking a small range of Vallorbe files for sharpening saws.
Today I had the opportunity to chat with a customer about dovetail saws, and he asked me the same question that I get all the time: what makes one saw better than another? Of course, since TFWW makes the Gramercy Dovetail saw, I have a pony in this race. We’re lucky to live in a time in which people have a lot of good choices. There are many great modern makers of dovetail and backsaws. I know a lot of thought went into the Gramercy Dovetail’s design, so I end up talking a bit about those features, and what they mean to woodworkers.
We tout our saw’s high hang handle and its light weight, which makes it easier to saw straight. This isn’t a useful feature for anyone who has spent a lot of time with other designs and has learned to saw straight accordingly. The Gramercy Dovetail has the smallest handle on the market, but we think it helps with the sawing. It’s rare that anyone has an issue when using the normal three fingered grip - most people find it very comfortable, just different than what they expected. A review in the woodworking press noted the small size of the handle as if it were self-evidently bad, which I found very frustrating. The handle isn’t cramped or uncomfortable to use. It would be a shame if this design feature puts people off unnecessarily. By the way the picture at the top of the blog is my saw atop a pile of student practice dovetails left over from the class.
Earlier this year I began teaching a class called Mastering Dovetails and it’s been fun to explore the concepts of sawing dovetails with the students. Most students use our Gramercy Tools Dovetail Saw but others bring in a variety of saws by other makers. It gives us a chance to play with different models and understand the design features of each better. I’m gratified when students gain the satisfaction of gaining a skill and find it fun to make dovetails well. The Gramercy saw is designed expressly to make woodworking more fun.
Gramercy Dovetail Saw is not the most expensive dovetail saw you can buy, but at $240 it is still a chunk of change. We totally get that it’s an investment decision that almost no one makes lightly. Remember if you purchase a dovetail saw from us, or in fact anything from us, you have a lengthy six months (and, if you live in the US, free return postage) to decide if the saw is right for you. And of course the best judge for this would be you yourself, not some pundit (like me).
Here are the criteria that seems to guide choice:
Does it look pretty?
Some people profess not to care about how a tool looks, but I think most of us do. Our tastes may differ. I happen not to like the modern streamlined look. I love classical detailing. For other woodworkers, it’s the reverse. But either way, I think every time you look at your saw, you want to be able to smile and say to yourself, "Wow."
Does it inspire you?
The main reason I don't like modern saw design is that my thinking about woodworking is deeply influenced by history. Every time I cut a dovetail I am thinking of some 18th century apprentice. I love the brass and wood or period designs that keep me in the mood. I constantly am reminded by my tools that I am not as good as my equipment. Nice tools keep me striving. In the case of our Gramercy Dovetail Saw, the handles are made of black walnut - which I love. I know many makers like to use exotic woods: Duncan Phyfe had a small saw with a zebrawood handle. I get the appeal, although an exotic handle can really throw off the weight of the tool.
How is the fit and finish?
There is an old saying among metal finishers, "Highly polished and deeply scratched." No matter who makes your saws, you want over the years to have honest battle scars, not simplifications because the maker didn't know how to fit a back, polish some brass, or make a handle without tearout. For me also - and the reason we have those nice decorative file lines on the handle is that it looks much better than a curve cut by a router - I don't want crude lines and corners, or a square handle with barely rounded over sides. We chamfer the brass on our brass backs and chamfer and round the nose. I like the finished look. I don't even like most historical backsaws post-1820 or so because the workmanship is just cruder than the earlier saws. I find the 18th century elegance that we copied inspiring. I’ve already written about our saw etch, and while saw etching uses a later technique (post-1860 or so), I love the what it brings to the tool.
Is it easy to start?
This is an actual important feature that shouldn't need mentioning, but everyone seems to report on it. Most modern saw-makers use foley saw filing machines to do their teeth. Foley machines are great but finicky and can't really reliably files saws finer than 15 tpi. In the era in which tools for handwork reached their peak - around 1800 - 1820 - dovetail saws were typically of much finer pitch (18 tpi and up) and pretty aggressive rake (zero). Starting a 15 tpi saw is a lot harder than a 18 tpi (or finer) saw, and I'm not a fan of the various schemes that are used to get around this problem, such as making the teeth less aggressive. sawing backwards, etc. I'm of the starting school of placing the toe of the saw on the wood, maybe tilted up a touch, and pushing forward, keeping as much weight off of the wood as possible so that the teeth do their job without jamming. Works like a charm with a fine tooth saw. THe only drawback to a finer pitch is that in thick material 1" or more the saw does cut slower as the gullets fill up.
Can you control the saw - and saw straight or at any angle you so desire?
We honestly think that the Gramercy Dovetail’s high hang handle and ultra light weight make it easier for a beginner to saw accurately. I’ve gotten to see a lot of beginners give our saw a try at shows and now in the dovetail class, and it’s easy to observe how quickly and easily beginners find the saw to control. A lighter saw influences the cut the least. Woodworking shouldn't about fighting your tools.
9" is about average. You can go shorter or longer. Some people like a longer saw. In my class one student used a Gramercy Sash Saw that he purchased because he wanted a more versatile saw. It's a light saw for its size. It took a little getting used to, but it worked out fine. Fast too.
Is there a break-in period?
No lie: our saw has a break in period. This has gotten us into trouble with some reviews in the woodworking press. As far as I know, we are alone in echoing not just the general appearance of a traditional saw but also th4 way it is sharpened. This means aggressive filings and zero rake. When you first get your saw, it has seen only a few strokes when the shop tests it to make sure it tracks correctly and cuts fast. But those teeth are like needles. When you first use the saw, they will want to catch in the wood, especially in open pore species like oak. But after 10 minutes or so - the break-in period - any burrs and bits from the filing should be worn off have worn off and the teeth should be thoroughly evened out. At this point your saw will work smoothly and FAST.
Will the handle stay true over time?
We use Black Walnut because it is stable. I would guess that all of the mainstream materials used by everyone in the industry are fine, but if you do get a saw that is made from an exotic wood, make sure the maker says it will be stable. You won’t find much to admire in a gorgeous handle that is heavy and unstable. Nothing is more frustrating than a warping handle - especially on a premium saw.
Handle size and shape.
Think about golf. The amount of effort that goes into designing a handle and club that let's someone driver further is insane. And of course what a pro does is teach you to exploit the tool, not force the tool into your current posture. Sawing is exactly the same. The goal should not be that a saw handle feels perfect from day one. It might - hopefully it will, but it should not under any circumstances just mimic whatever you are used to, it should make you a better craftsperson.
Is it within your budget?
This is a tricky one. In theory, even the most expensive dovetail saw on the market is less than a trip to Disney World. And over time, per use, it's inexpensive. But a budget is a budget and all the dovetail saws worth buying are a healthy chunk of change - with two exceptions: The Veritas saw is well made, inexpensive (1/4 of the cost of ours), works very well, but way too modern for my tastes. I don't think it is as easy to use as our saw, but it's the best deal in well-made pistol grip saws. We also stock a straight-handled gent’s saw that I recommend to students all the time. It could use a sharpening out of the box but even so it works well, albeit slowly.
As you might imagine, I think the Gramercy Tools Dovetail Saw does well according to these criteria. But I admit I'm biased. If I didn't like the way our saws performed we would be making them differently. The real good news is that with so many modern makers to choose from, all of whom make fine saws with differing characteristics, no matter which saw you pick, you will end up with something pretty excellent.
I was at City Hall on Monday morning, testifying in front of the City Council subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. This was a slightly different subject than the one I testified about a few weeks ago, but the concept is the same - resist intrusion on what little manufacturing space is left in New York City. This was the first time I had ever been in City Hall and the first time I was in the Council Chambers. Built between 1803 and 1812 and remodelled several times since, New York City's City Hall is actually a pretty small building and isn't used much for the day-to-day running of the city. That happens across the street in the giant Municipal Building.
I don't know how much of the wood, stone, and plaster architectural details date from the original building and how much is from a pre-Civil war rebuild, but it is all awesome!
The hearing was about the merits of allowing as-of-right self-storage units to be built in Industrial Business Zones, areas in NYC that are specifically restricted to manufacturing uses. Currently it is legal to do so, but a new zoning law would ban it. The Council was holding a hearing about an amendment to the law that popped up recommended by the City Planning Commission to allow self-storage as-of-right after all, negating the law. Thankfully, most, if not all, the City Council members present felt that manufacturing jobs are better than self-storage dead space. They also expressed their views that sneaking in an amendment to the new zoning law (which was carefully debated and then approved by almost all the City's local Community Boards, neighborhood advisory groups that weigh in on issues like zoning) is kind of dirty pool. The sentiment was against the amendment.
My testimony was the same as before - you can put self-storage units anywhere in the city, but we are desperately short of manufacturing space. And by dangling possible exceptions in front of developers, you just drive up the price of property and rents based on anticipated speculation.
What I really want to do in this blog entry is just show off the woodworking and architectural detail of the space. My (ancestors') tax dollars at work! It is wonderful and worth every penny!
In Febuary 2010 I wrote a three-part blog entry showing that the earliest illustrations and texts about the planes we call "mitre planes" were in the marquetry sections of various books. My theory was that these planes were most likely used for leveling and planing the surfaces of marquetry panels and materials. The exotic woods used in marquetry are sometimes very hard and can easily tear up the soles of any wooden plane. You can read my blog here, here, and here.
David Lundqvist, a woodworker who lives in Sweden, just sent me a "missing link" in support of my thinking. The painting above, called "Die Ebenisten" [The Marqueters], was painted by Elias Martin in England between 1768-80. The painting shows two marquetry journeymen, George Haupt and Christopher Fürloh (anglicised as Furlong), working for John Linell in London. I'll talk in a moment about why two Swedish journeyman were in London, but first focus your eyes on the metal plane located pretty much in the middle of the painting.
I think this is the earliest contemporary image of what we now call a mitre plane in England, and it comes just before the period when plane makers such as Gabriel and Moon were entering the metal plane market. The plane itself doesn't look dovetailed and seems to follow the European technique of brazing the body to the sole; admittedly the scan I have isn't perfectly clear, so I am not positive about this. David's research on Swedish cabinet makers led him to this painting. David also found two contemporary citations of the phrase "Rabot du Ebêniste," or "Marqueter's plane" -- not "plane of iron," the term that the few earlier references in marquetry tool pages use for these planes, nor "mitre plane," a later term that shows up around 1820. We finally have both visual proof and documentation that the plane was recognized as a marquetry plane, not a mitre plane. Well done, David!!!
Another interesting question is why two Swedish marquetry journeyman were in England in the first place. My assumption was that England at the time was starting its rapid economic expansion with the advent of the Empire and the Industrial Revolution. The country was growing in wealth and an attendant demand for European-trained craftsman to create fancy furniture for the country's nouveau riche. David took a different approach in answering this question. David observed that by the middle of the eighteenth century the closed guild system of crafts, which was still thriving in Continental Europe, was starting to vanish in England. The craft guilds - groups of master craftsman in England - still certified new masters and still gave a seal of approval, but no longer had the power, legal or otherwise, to restrict trade. They were mostly social societies for the richer craft classes. Anyone could be a cabinetmaker, and a cabinetmaker could set up shop and hire apprentices. The loosening of the guild restrictions allowed new ideas to mature, which attracted talented immigrants. New blood and ideas became established in England, along with employment and training for immigrants. Trained Swedish craftsman could find good work and advancement in England, and not have to fight to get guild permission back home.
I've been working with wood since I was a kid. I took my first woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y when I was 6 years old. I've been taking classes and building stuff for over 35 years. For the last 17 I have been working at Tools for Working Wood. In that time, new tools and new techniques have come on the market. By and large I have ignored them in my personal work. However, I haven't ignored everything, and my methods of work have in certain areas changed dramatically for the better. I've broken up my list of ten things into three posts so I don't drone on and on to long. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here
As I have gotten older it's been harder and harder for me to see anything. And bending over isn't much fun either. This isn't a joke. Sawing joints has always been problematic for me and I currently wear magnifying glasses for any close work. My bench (Frank Klausz style made over 30 years ago) is the right height for just about everything except cutting dovetails. It's just too low. So I hunch over thinking "there must be a better way." About ten or so years ago I found out about Jeff Miller's Bench on Bench. I built one and it was a big step in the right direction. Basically a Bench on Bench was a little table you put on top of your main bench and it has a double vise in the front.
Then along came the "Moxon Vise" popularized by Christopher Schwarz. The vise gets its name from Joseph Moxon's "Mechanick Exercises" But as I wrote last week the actual connection between the wood press illustrated in Moxon's book and how the Moxon vise is used to today is at best tenuous.
Many vendors now sell complete vises or just hardware kits. We used to offer the entire vise but currently we are only offering hardware kits which we are very pleased with. Our kit came about initially from a joint project with the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop. They came up with the ears on the sides, a cambered jaw, and the little shelf for clamping tails during layout. We added acme screws, washers, big nuts that don't wear out their mortises and spin, and handles that can be moved out of the way. You can read all about how to design your own Moxon Vise here.
The big reason the Moxon Vise made my list of ten is that I feel that by raising the overall height of where I saw I can see better, bend over less, and the whole process feels so much less jury-rigged. I am sawing better and more accurately - partially at least because I can see what I am doing , but also with the work clamped pretty low in the vise I can still easily saw uphill and have the work solid and vibration free. Not to mention my posture is better and it's less tiring.
The picture above is me in the middle of sawing out tails using one of the showroom / class benches where we have fitted Moxon vises at each end.
So that's my list of ten ways my work has changed. I hope to be able to say in a few years that my skills have gotten better, that I am still learning, and maybe have an even better list.
Has your woodworking changed over the years too? I welcome your comments.