When you purchase an edge tool (plane, chisel, knife, carving tool, etc.), it will either have a "Factory Edge" or be described as "Sharp and ready to use." The idea of having a ready-to-use status is a comparatively new idea in tool marketing. Up until fairly recently - let's say 1960 - it was generally understood that most of the customers of tools were craftsmen who understood that even a new and sharpened tool would, after a few minutes work, require resharpening again. So why spend more initially for a temporary fix? But even more importantly, people have different preferences how a tool should be sharpened. Joseph Moxon (1678) writes in Mechanick Exercises about buying a saw:
"When Workman Light of a good Blade thus qualified [previously described], they matter not much whether the Teeth be sharp or deep, or set to their mind; For to make them so, is a Task they take to Themselves: And thus they perform it: [text goes on to write about saw sharpening]
I have a fair number of older tools whose cutting edges came with rough grind marks. These days, however, it is rare to see that. Most tools of any quality that are stocked by any dealer might not be ready to use, but they have at least a respectable "factory edge." The backs should be decent, the bevel ground to a good finish, and in theory the tool might even work, albeit perhaps inefficiently, out of the box. Carving tools are the exception. Most modern carving tool companies really intend for their tools to be usable right away. Ashley Iles tools, one of the first companies to offer sharp tools, deliver decent sharpness. Certainly the tools are sharp enough to get started and at least see if you like the way the tool feels in the hand. You can actually carve with the tools, but as you get more experienced, you will realize that the tools aren't as sharp as they can be, and the bevels are a little steep for some tastes. Flexcut - which we also stock in a limited number of tools, come sharp and ready to use.
Ray Iles's mortise chisels are not intentionally sharp and ready to use, but the factory edge is reasonable. Considering mortise chisel work without a superb edge, they work reasonably well straight out of the box.
Japanese tools as a group are now almost universally sold with a decent factory edge. This is also pretty new. Traditionally in Japan, one would purchase the tools from the toolmaker, ground only and without a handle. You would either take them to a handler for handles, or fit the mushrooming of the rear hand hoops yourself. The actual sharpening was up to you.
I am glad that all our chisels come with a good factory edge. I don't think any of them are ready to use, but for a lot of customers who don't have grinders, having a tool pretty close to usable saves hours.
Our veneer saws are sharp and ready to use. We found that our combination of hand and mechanical sharpening methods produced a far better edge than most people could easily do themselves. Having sharp saws means you can hit the ground running. It seemed to make more sense spending time veneering than figuring out how to get a veneer saw sharp enough to cooperate.
In the second to last picture in this blog here are three never used edge tools as they came from the factory. In the last picture are the same tools flipped over. Clockwise from the top.
A German Wilhelm Schmitt toothing iron from the mid-19th century. Yes! This is the same company known today as Two Cherries and the iron is stamped with the two cherries mark (see picture at top of blog). There are no grind marks, but there are file marks on the bevel. I think it's a laminated iron so filing the bevel below the toothed area would work.
A 1960's Stanley 720. The grind marks on the bevel are fairly fine, although the finish on the body of the chisel is even finer. This chisel was made on production grinding machines that were invented just before WWII.
Finally a 19th century Buck Brothers wooden plane iron. The bevel on this is close to a mirror finish, but not quite: there are regular fine grind marks evenly along the bevel. If you hold a rule against the bevel, you can see a very slight hollow from having been hand ground against a very large diameter wheel.
When the iron is flipped over, we can see the ridges of the toothing iron. This iron was designed to successfully plane weirdly grained wood. The marks look forged in, but I am not sure how. Interestingly, they aren't symmetrical - they are more like a sawtooth. Again I don't know why.
The back of the Stanley 720 has even, consistent, grind marks of a large rotary horizontal tool grinder.
Finally, on the Buck Brothers iron you can clearly see the weld marks of the laminated blade. The back is strangely polished and shiny. The back seems flat left to right but there is a definite hollow from front to back. The hollow means that it will be really easy when sharpening to get an even line of flat right at the cutting edge.
If I had to draw a conclusion, it would be that the tool makers made their tools with as close to a finished edge as time and the technology of the time would allow.
Sometimes this blog focuses on woodworking history, sometimes on woodworking technique. Sometimes I write about interesting things I have seen. Today I am writing about the mechanics of the business. While it is my great pleasure to research and explore woodworking - I just started a new research project which has totally invigorated my interest in furniture (more on that another time) - the thing that actually takes up a lot of my brain space, especially this time of year, is wondering if the company is doing a good job. Why are you shopping with us? Will you continue to shop with us? Are we doing anything that will drive you away?
We get asked all the time why we sell or don't sell certain items. And some customers notice that many of the things we sell have a fixed price that is the same as the price Amazon and other dealers use. This "MAP" - Minimum Advertised Pricing - is a technique used by manufacturers, especially in the age of e-commerce, to make ensure that the a couple of on-line vendors don't lower their prices so much that all the other retailers drop out. Retailers are not allowed to sell a regular product below the manufacturer's stated MAP price; if they do, the manufacturer will sanction or drop them. When TFWW first started, MAP pricing was pretty rare. Now it is more common. Without MAP, we rarely take on a new maker. We can't afford to.
Why do we love MAP? Basically, MAP encourages retailers to compete for customers based upon the full package. That is, the things that we try to offer as our basic business mission: service, comprehensive stock, expertise, pleasantness and convenience.
So in the case of Festool - we are the largest Festool dealer in NYC and one of the largest Festool physical stores in the US - we have comprehensive stock. Many times customers come in hoping that we'd be willing to handle a special request of an replacement part and they're surprised to find that we have it in stock. (And if your replacement part really is obscure, we would be happy to order it specially for you.)
As many of you know, we started out as a hand tool retailer, and the real reason we started selling Festool is that we were enthusiastic users of the tools ourselves. Once we started selling Festool, we quickly realized that most of our customers who were professionals who needed their tools right away. For our customers in the Tri-State area and beyond (Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, Eastern Pennsylvania), we could deliver tools the next day. Most of the US east of the Mississippi River could get delivery within 2 days. Dave, our Shipping guy, takes his job seriously and makes sure that if we can ship today - order by 3 pm EST or a smidgen later - we will. Festool orders over $50 ship for free anywhere in the US.
Our enthusiastic use of Festool means that you can call us any time and speak to someone who is a Festool user - someone who has practical experience with the tools. We ourselves are curious about how Festool tools can solve project challenges, and we're always happy to offer guidance to our customers.
It's also a point of pride for us that we will handle 30 day returns and both warranty and out-of-warranty repairs. If you are buying into a high-end premium brand like Festool, why not take advantage of the brand's premium features?
This Saturday we're going to have another Festool Fest, our homegrown alternative to the Festool Roadshow. We've hosted the Festool Roadshow (see the picture above), and we realized we can offer all the benefits of the Roadshow - Festool and Festool-trained staff making non-stop demos of the new and classic tools; Festool swag; show discounts; and refreshments - even when the Roadshow is skipping NYC. So no truck, but we're especially excited about the new Cyclone. And if you were curious about some of the newish Festool innovations like Granat Net but never got around to checking it out, come on down.
Festool Fest is a great opportunity to get the tools in your hands and even get to give Festool staff some feedback.
My desk is the hardware equivalent of purgatory. Everyone seems to think that if they have a tool and are not sure where it goes (on a shelf, in the workshop, on display, for a customer), the best course of action is to leave it on my desk. Here is a current partial accounting of the tools that are on my desk and should not be. I stress that this is only a partial list. I have more stuff on the left side of my desk that I haven't organized. From the top:
A Ray Iles Spoon Carving Knife - Store demo model, I think. (SD)
Underneath the knife you can just see the tang of an old Buck Brothers paring chisel. It's down to 1 1/2" long and it's too nicely forged to scrap. It lives normally in my pencil cup - see below for a better picture.
A random file handle is also hidden from view - no idea where it goes. (NIWIG)
Dowel auger bit - needs to go back into the collection. (NTGBITC)
Stanley shoulder plane blades - NIWIG
9/16" Forstner Bit - Workshop (Shop)
Hardware from Pate's Shavehorse Class - we need to get another round of classes on the schedule - NIWIG
Old Vix Bits - Mine! I've had these for decades. My toolbox (MT), where tools of mine go when I expect to be actively using them regularly.
Damaged Spot - Scrap?
Stanley 207 planing stop - NTGBITC Planing Stop atop a 3/4" dowel - (SD)
Incomplete set of Brace Friendly Easy Bits - (SD)?
Sample caning chisel. No idea where to put this - it's been on my desk for a decade.
Carving Tool - SD Replacement Brush from a Festool Router - NIWIG
Norris marking knive - NTGBITC (although it's actually been in my pencil cup for about 15 years)
1/8" auger bit sample. It's a prototype- not really worth production (NIWIG) 1/4" Jennings Auger Bit. Spurs are off - defective. (NIWIG)
10" Mill Fill. A little long - we will be stocking a shorter one later this year.
Incidentally - and I think studies have confirmed this is true for everyone - that when I clean up my desk (and/or shop, work area, etc.) I am more productive. When my bench or desk is messy I find it much harder to get work done. When my desk or workbench is clean it's a motivation to get cracking.
If the name Hammacher Schlemmer is known by the general public at all nowadays, it's as the very expensive seller of player pianos and other very expensive "lifestyle" curiosities. But the store's origins are as a large hardware store (based for a long time in New York City's Union Square area, at 4th Ave and 13th street, about 5 blocks from my apartment). Above is a picture of a page from the store's 1908 catalog. H&S not only sold tools directly, but it also distributed tools to many smaller stores. The catalog's page features some Stanley planes; the store's wholesale discount sheet, shown on the right side of the photo, shows that other store could buy the planes generally from anywhere from 25%-30% off. I am not sure what some of the discount ranges signify. (At the end of this post you'll see a picture of the front page of the discount sheet showing terms and conditions. The sheet is unique in my collection and generally rare. I found it in the front of the H&S catalog.)
Back in the days of this catalog, customers would have typically bought their tools from a local hardware store. These tools would have been purchased by the store from a regional distributor, who in turn got them from the factory -- or the importer. Each tier of sales cost money. The hardware store owner needed to make a living. The sales rep who sold to the hardware store needed to make a living. The regional distributor needed to make a living, and the factory had to make enough money to keep the sons of the founders in fancy golf shoes.
This system made a lot of sense because the cost of shipping goods was huge. You needed to ship by sea or rail. Goods needed to be handled by many people, and the final wagon ride to the store - well, it made sense to group stuff together. Involving a distributor made a lot of sense because the distributor could organize an efficient shipment of lots of different things from different vendors for one store, rather than tiny shipments made onesy-twosey. Just having one representative travel around selling lots of different lines made sense because traveling by train or buggy miles just for an order of two boxes of screws was very wasteful.
Even after the introduction of trucks, the system kept going until the 1970's when the interstate highway system drastically lowered the cost of individual packages going long distances. Delivery companies like UPS and FedEx made direct shipment to the end customer (or store) commercially viable.
In 1978 Home Depot was founded. The company's their major brilliant innovation was buying directly from the factory. Essentially they could sell stuff far less expensively than a local hardware store could because they were paying distributor cost, not wholesale. Home Depot's competitive advantage of course led to the collapse of the local hardware store and gave Home Depot the power to lower costs even more by squeezing costs out of manufacturers, many of which decided to downgrade their quality for Home Depot goods or go overseas to lower costs.
Nevertheless many American manufacturers still insist on selling through distribution rather than directly. What this means of course is that even if you purchase something from the company website, the prices are included extra margin for the non-present distributor - or middleman.
What does this practically mean? American products from old-line companies are a lot more expensive than their newer, more streamlined competitors since the cost structure includes the middleman, even if the middleman serves no real purpose in the 21st century.
Backward thinking also affects investment in the means of production. Some old-line manufacturers are not willing to replace machinery that more or less works. When I worked at Black and Decker, it was nearly impossible to make quiet-to-specification gears on our old, worn-out, gear making machines. But we could not get approval to replace the machines because the cost of keeping the machines (zero) was far less than buying anything new, even though the product we produced had lower sales. The accounting perspective was that it only made sense to invest if you were building a new factory to expand something somewhere, not to upgrade a current profitable venture. Black and Decker instead bought an appliance company and eventually got out of the industrial power tool business that I was part of.
There are lots of reasons why American companies have trouble competing, but these are some of the big issues.
Why should you care?
A few months ago we got word the Baldor was dropping production of their top-end 6" grinder that we use for our custom grinders. It was expensive, too expensive, but worth it for those rock solid cast iron tool rests. But apparently for a big company like Baldor, the low volume wasn't enough to keep it going. That's a real shame. A little investment in machinery, a less expensive distribution system, and their grinders would be a lot more competitive in pricing. They would appeal not just to those who want the best, but also those who just want a great grinder. Note: the 8" grinder is still in production and lesser Baldor 6" grinders will still be sold (albeit not by us).
Over the years some of my favorite products have been discontinued by large American makers. The volume is just too small to interest them. Norton got rid of its Lilywhite stones for this reason. Now Baldor. There are other examples, but it's too depressing to think about. Every time I hear a story like this I tell my rep that if the company feels that the volume is too small for them, they should just sell the division to someone who wants it. These are still viable products. Heck, Unicomp, the company that made the fabulous M-Clicky keyboard for the original IBM PC's, still makes them as a niche business for people who want a great keyboard. I am very grateful. I have two - one PC, one Mac.
PS - we still have a few 6" custom grinders in stock, but even after we run out the store demo model, which is my own grinder, is staying with me for the rest of my life.
In 1980 I graduated from school and was offered a job at Black & Decker's industrial division in Hampstead, Maryland. I was assigned to work in the "Advanced Concepts Group" that was tasked with designing new tools that represented new directions for the company. Black & Decker's first cutoff saw and first big plumber's drill came out of that group while I was there (I had nothing to do with either project).
Being young and green, and knowing just a fraction of what I was supposed to - there was, and probably still is, a huge disconnect over what was taught in Engineering School and what you actually needed to know to hold down a job at a manufacturing company - I was assigned the task of designing a vacuum attachment for a masonry drill bit. We currently stock the Festool equivalent of these drills, but in those days they were big, noisy, and messy. It was either Hilti or Bosch that had just introduced a vacuum cleaner attachment for the rather large drill bits that the drills used, and Black & Decker was not going to be left behind. But the problem was, the competitive design was patented. I needed to understand the patent (which I could do) and come up with a better, non-infringing alternative (not so easy). The result wasn't guaranteed to hit the market, but the engineering department needed to be prepared if the existing product took off and marketing wanted a quick response.
I don't remember the details of the project, but I know it never saw the light of day. It was a big deal for me personally since it was the first time something I drew up became a prototype. The project was canceled just when I got the prototypes but before we ever found out if the prototype worked. (I think it would have worked but have been pretty clunky.)
In any case, this was long before 3D printing and CAD, so with guidance I drew out a design that was given to a patternmaker for making a mold to be test cast in aluminum.
Pattern making!! In the factory where I worked, Black & Decker maintained two large machine shops and a small pattern shop. Unlike the machine shops, the patternmaking shop was mostly precision woodworking. This was the only time in my life where I saw woodworking as a science. When you make furniture, things are mostly square. Cabinetmakers have to account for wood movement, but as long as the piece doesn't split apart, the actual measurement isn't that precise. Patternmakers have to work to extreme levels of precision. The patterns need to take wood movement into account and generally create molds that can come apart and be precisely reassembled. The skill level needed was huge. My little nozzle that was designed by a green engineer needed to be re-engineered and sculpted in wood and wax by a highly experienced and trained patternmaker. Because it was a small project, the job was outsourced to a trusted third party whom I never met. If I remember correctly, his name was Herman Egan. I was told he was top notch and perfect for this sort of small, tricky project. I designed the nozzle but had nothing to do with the pattern design or figuring out how to make it.
The project was canceled and when I left B & D the patterns came with me. They are a work of art.
Let me see if I can explain how this all works succinctly enough so you make it to the end of the page.
This is what we are trying to make. It needs some machining, but what you have is an aluminum nozzle that is hollow in the inside and also has an undercut on the outside of the nozzle so that the air flow is smooth. If this prototype were to go to real production, it would be a plastic die-cast piece. These days, using a CNC milling machine we could easily machine a prototype out of a solid block, or 3D print it out of plastic. In 1980 machining the complex curves was nearly impossible to manually machine so the decision was made to cast the prototype.
The way sand casting works is the patternmaker makes a positive object that is placed in a bed of wet sand and then removed, forming a cavity that is filled with molten metal. The metal shrinks a bit on cooling, so the pattern needs to be slightly larger than the final product to account for this shrinkage. If the object being made has holes, undercuts, or hollows after the main pattern is removed from the sand, the patternmaker will need to make and install cores (made of clay and sand) in the sand to keep the holes and hollows from filling with metal. The patternmaker is responsible for making the wooden pattern for the main object and the "core boxes" that are filled to form the cores. Mahogany is often used (especially on small patterns like these) because it is easy to carve, holds details, and is fairly dimensionally stable (and augmented with glued-up sections to make it even more dimensionally stable). While small, the pattern for this nozzle has two cores and a follow piece, making it a pretty complicated mold.
The main nozzle is precision turned and glued together with the nozzle outlet that was turned and carved separately. The two spuds on the top of the main pattern are extra and and hold the two cores in place. The first step in casting the nozzle is to put the nozzle flat on a board with the undercut piece. The undercut piece was carefully carved and fitted to fit over the rear fin and rounded hose bottom. Sand gets poured over the entire object and rammed tight. Then the mold is turned over and the undercut piece is removed.
Both the pattern and undercut pieces have little holes on the bottom so the foundry can screw in a rod and lift out the two parts. With the undercut piece removed, sand is pour unto the space created and over the bottom of the nozzle. The two halves of the mold are separated and the red main pattern is removed. What we have is now a negative imprint of the nozzle in the sand.
While this is going on, a clay-based core material is forced into the two core boxes. The box coxes are also mahogany, glued up for stability. The two halves have registration pins drilled through from the bottom so they the halves align properly. The insides were turned and then a bit of wood glued in. The spiral channel then carved to make the shapes. In order to get a good stable glue joint, the grain of the built up piece is aligned with the outer material. In the pictures you can also see the layout and scribe lines used to do this accurately.
The second core for the inside of the hose part is made the same way, with a glued up block and three registration pins. The core tapers in at the end so that is registers with the mold and that tapering suggests to me that the entire groove was carved by hand.
Unfortunately I don't have any cores.
By the way, the box in the back of the group picture is what I kept the pattern and parts in since 1981. I think I left the hot pot behind.
Since the 1980's this type of patternmaking has been done less and less. Wooden patternmaking is largely a thing of the past. This project would be 3D printed directly from a CAD system. Sand casting is still done, but the patterns in many cases are CNC machined from plastics, styrofoam and other synthetic materials, not wood. The huge range of specialty patternmaking tools - such as long patternmaker's scribing gouges - are no long made. Scribing gouges differ from carving gouges in that carving gouges are shaped with an arbitrary "U" shaped curve. Scribing gouges were readily available in specific curvatures in with both the bevel on the outside (out-cannel) or on the inside (in-cannel).
Actually we don't have mounting difficulties anymore - because we've solved them! (Except it's the end of August and everyone seems to be on vacation.) In reality, most of the first batch of mild steel planing stops are ready to go - the tool steel versions are machined, but not hardened. We already have bags of mounting screws ready to go. The real holdup is packaging, which should show up at the end of this week. This is of course really frustrating for me, since I want to get stops to everyone who has hit that "Contact me when in stock" button, but the packaging is designed to do three things: give a nice presentation when you get your stop; hold the screws and everything so they don't get dinged up or ding something else up while in transit; and make assembling the final product, stop and screws, fairly easy for us to do in production.
The "Mounting Difficulties" title really has nothing to do with production. One of the main point about our stops is that we don't advocate for a traditional mounting. We just released a longish draft installation guide - click to download the pdf that details a bunch of easy installation methods, including the method we have for mounting the stop at the end of the bench. This method beats every other method we tried and is really easy to do. Eventually we might offer a fancy hardware kit, but basically the mounting hardware we used in this case is just a couple of bucks.
Most of the methods of mounting the stop start with screwing the stop down, using the three 1" screws we include with the stop into endgrain. Oy! The way we did it, or I should say the way I did it, was barely pre-drill and screw down the screw with very little torque. This has worked perfectly because when the stop is in use, the force against it is in shear and at a right angle to the screws, and therefore doesn't bother their position. The amount of torque a screwdriver exerts on a screw is considerably more than the force typically needed to remove the screw by pulling. Endgrain is a bit different because all you have is short little fibers keeping the screw hole intact. If you don't take care not to over-torque, the screw hole in endgrain the hole just strips out. I have installed at least a dozen stops in the past weeks, testing this or that, and sometimes a screw strips out. Pine, BTW, is the worst; oak and maple are better. But it still sucks.
The solution is pretty simple. I don't know why I didn't think of it three weeks ago. All you need to do is drill a couple of holes below the screw locations and tap in a couple of dowels (no need to glue them in unless they are loose). Then the screws will have something solid to grab into. You can even use a round chopstick if you want to. As long as the dowel is larger than the body of the screw it will work perfectly. I didn't even bother gluing the dowels in. I centered the dowels on the screws and pushed them in. The dowels function as wooden barrel nuts.
As of this writing we are still not taking pre-orders, but we expect to open actual ordering for mild steel planing stops this Thursday PM or Friday AM. There is a link on the product page if you want an email reminder when the stops become available. Hardened steel stops won't be available for a few weeks or so and will cost more. The unhardened mild steel planing stops are $18.95. The price of the hardened steel stops have not been finalized but we're targeting the $35 - $40 mark. Until we harden a batch we won't exactly know the cost of the hardened stops. We have had loads of trouble outsourcing hardening so we recently got a tiny computer controlled kiln, with argon gas, so we can take operations in-house. The hardened stops will be its first job. Wish us luck.