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.
The painting currently hangs in the National Museum in Stockholm.
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.
For over a decade I've been looking for a copy I could afford of Andre Felibien's masterwork, "Des Principes de l'Architecture, de la Sculpture, de la Peinture et des ..." [Principles of Architecture, Sculpture, Painting and ..] A copy finally popped up on the internet and I grabbed it. I have been spending the last week studying it. The book is well known, and you can get a scan on Google books here. I collect books. While it's wonderful to be able to read the book online from practically anywhere, I find having a real book in front of me is far more satisfying. The book's woodworking section starts at page 170, with all the plates are in the following pages.
There are several editions of the book, the first from 1676. This is the book that Joseph Moxon used to copy drawing from when he published the woodworking section of "Mechanick Exercises" two years later in 1678. If you haven't read Moxon, we stock the Lost Art Press version, or you can read the 1703 third edition here.
Moxon's "Mechanick Exercises" is important because it is the first book in English that tries to be a handbook on how to make things. Beginning in 1677, every few months or so Moxon released a chapter on a different subject. Blacksmithing, carpentry, house-righting were a few of the topics. In 1683, after a hiatus of several years while England was in turmoil, Moxon resumed the series, this time writing about something he know about personally: printing and typemaking. Whereas Felibien's book was really an encyclopedia of tools and objects - this is a hammer, this is a nail - Moxon pioneered the "How-to." The point of Felibien's book, in my view, was to give rich, educated people the ability to find out the basics of the world around them. Studying Plato at University was fine and dandy, but an educated person should not be confused by the real life going around them.
Moxon took it a step further. "Mechanick Exercises" tells a little about the tools; instead, it instructs. Here is the way to grind a tool, how to chop a mortise, etc. Fairly short in length, and written by someone who was far from an expert or a craftsperson in anything except printing, the book falls short of being comprehensive. But Moxon gets full marks or trying, and it's exciting to read his result.
It is pretty obvious - and has been known for a long time - that Moxon used Felibien as a source for all his tool illustrations. Seeing the original engravings started me thinking. First of all, if Moxon's book used French pictures, then one can assume that what is in Moxon are actually drawings of French tools. And in fact, many of the few surviving English tools from that era look different than the tools illustrated in Mechnick Exercises.
Another point I am pondering: the vise that we now call a Moxon Vise is hanging off in space on the side of the workbench, but are shown much larger hanging on the wall in Felibien's workshop. I love my Moxon Bench because the modern incarnation sits on top of my bench, raising the height for dovetailing and other joinery. But Moxon doesn't mention it in the text and neither book shows the vise in a modern usages. Felibien calls it a wood press, or vise, but that's doesn't help much, although the size of the vises in his book suggest that they were used for clamping things together, not as a vise raiser.
Probably the most obvious conclusion I can reach from comparing the photos is that Moxon really did a crappy job. The images are all crammed together on one plate, and two of the tools - the workbench and the frame saw - are cut off at the edge. The engravings are crude compared to Felibien's.
How were the engravings done? And who was the engraver? We really don't know. At the time of publication, Moxon was a successful printer so he would have had staff, but he also probably had enough skill to do the not-so-great engravings himself. I consulted by phone with my friend Jeff Peachey, a noted book conservator (who hasn't seem this copy in the flesh yet) His guess is that the engraver (whoever it was) just propped up the Felibien up and then directly sketched out the tool images on the copper plate. This would explain why the images are all reversed in the final print. We suspect the engraver might have used some sort of optical aid to help with the copying on some of the images. Moxon's image are greatly reduced in size from the original French ones, probably because he was trying to fit about 4 pages of tools onto one smaller page. That being said, and the reason why I suspect the involvement of an aid of a sort, is that planes drawings are a pretty good copy of the original image, but one of the saws is missing a little off the right side. The problematic saw would have been the last one engraved if the engraver worked from left to right (as you would if you were right handed). I think that if he was drawing freehand and just using the book as a reference he would have scaled it to fit. As it is it looks like he was in a rush, started off doing a pretty good engraved copy, but then ran out of space. Some of the smaller tools are pretty crude, as if he didn't see the need for a careful copy. The biggest change from Felibien is on the workbench. The wood press on the wall became something hanging in front of Moxon's bench. One interesting fact is that Moxon's bench has a hook front on the left and Felibien's doesn't. This suggests that Moxon might have copied the images but he was trying at least on some level to do more than just condense and copy a picture.
While I find the facts of the case interesting, and speculation on how the books came about fun, the real thrill for someone like me who loves history is just seeing these real-live books together. We don't know for sure how Moxon got the idea for "Mechanick Exercises," but I can tell you it is very possible that being a printer he had a copy of the French book soon after publication in 1676 and got the brainwave to take it one step further. I know when I was looking at Felibien and starting to understand some of the text, I found myself wondering: Okay, I know it's a woodpress, but describing it isn't enough. How do you use it? And, nice chisels! What do you use them for?
I guess that's the same question Moxon asked himself. But unlike me, he got off his duff and published a book about it.
I spent this morning at NYC's Department of City Planning exercising some civic duty - participating in a rezoning meeting. Industry City, my former landlord, wants to get a zoning change for its large Brooklyn complex which is currently zoned for industry and manufacturing, enabling it to have more retail, commercial and office space, and a hotel.
Their main public argument is that they have pumped millions into the complex, which has about 6.5 million square feet of space, and have increased the number of tenant businesses from a hundred or so to over 450 tenants, and they want to continue expanding.
I decided to testify because Industry City is extremely savvy and great at public presentations. They typically frame their approach as that of job creation and opportunity. Very clever! Who would be against this? Politicians and other civic leaders generally don't hear from people like me (and meetings that take up hours in the middle of the day are not going to attract many small business owners). My main point was that you can build commercial and retail space almost anywhere else in the city, but there is a real shortage of industrial spaces. Industry City in general doesn't like real industrial companies. When I moved to the complex in 2007, there were - by their count - over 60 cabinet shops. That's a lot of woodworkers and for us, potential customers. Now there are way fewer, and my customers are disappearing to places outside of NYC. Slowly but surely the infrastructure that makes our business, and in fact any hardware or lumber business viable, is vanishing. At some point critical mass will be gone.
Industry City was acquired by new owners a few years ago, and to their credit they did invest money in the buildings. As folks who visited us back in the old space might remember, we had only a freight elevator, and if you came when the operator was on lunch, you earned bragging rights to the 5 story stair climb. Our wires were all exposed. The new owners put in an elevator, improved the wiring and made many cosmetic improvements. These improvements warrant rental increases, but that is not what animated the sale.
Instead, it was the hope of a handout. In NYC, zoning restrictions mean that landlords and property owners cannot do whatever they wish with a property. Industrially zoned land is the cheapest kind of land in the city, relative to other uses (residential, commercial, mixed). The restrictions depressed the valued of the complex, which was reflected of course in the sales price. As new owners, the new Industry City team spent millions not only on building improvements, but also on lobbying to get pesky rules - their zoning restrictions - waived.
I thought it was important to remind the City Planning Commission about a few salient points. Industry City might brag about jobs that they say they "created," but they aren't actual job creators. The jobs that are now in Industry City now were mostly moved from other parts of the city, or would have been created in other parts of the city. This is not true of the manufacturing jobs. Losing industrial space means losing industrial jobs like cabinetmaking and set building, both of which have made a steady march upstate or out of state. Creating more commercial and retail space, which could go almost anywhere, out of rare industrial space seems like a bizarre goal given the large number of vacant storefronts NYC now has because of on-line shopping.
Another important point for the City to consider. Most of the investment money for IC and other large developments comes from international sources. The results of their hoped-for windfall resulting from a rules change won't even stay local. The billionaire that makes the huge return isn't living in NYC, their taxes and donations will end up supporting some other place somewhere.
Did my comments make a difference? It's hard to know. Sometimes these public presentations are window dressing on decisions made long ago. But I don't regret speaking up on behalf of woodworkers and other industrial workers. If I don't, who will?
People all over the country read this blog and many of you will think - why don't you just move here - rent's cheap. But we like it here and if the Government would just enforce the zoning laws we have and not let any big company with a pile of dough for lobbyists challenge the law - we would be fine. All the industrial space in NYC is under constant attack from big investors and foreign money who know with a stroke of the pen they can make a killing.
Our jobs are at stake.
Tomorrow night (I am writing this on Monday evening, October 9th), I will be teaching dovetailing. This Saturday I will be teaching a free class called "Introduction to Hand Tools" for the first time. So I have teaching on my brain. I've taught the dovetailing class before, so I know what's on tomorrow night. It's the second session, and we'll be learning about body movement and sawing straight. This afternoon I checked to make sure that all the wood we need is ready, and Tuesday need to double check that class saws are ready to rumba.
It's the Saturday class that preoccupies me a bit. The class is in response to the many people over the years who have come to our showroom, for themselves or looking for a gift, who are trying to wrap their heads around the idea of using hand tools. They sincerely want to expand their horizons. Sometimes they are familiar only with what Home Depot stocks and hand held power tools. This applies to professionals and amateurs alike. Many are perplexed by the idea what you can actually build anything by hand. Of course, misconception about hand tools are formed by never seeing the tools in efficient operation. You can drill a hole with an electric drill even if the bit is dull and the drill is noisy. But it isn't patently obvious how to work a brace or a bit so it's fun. We have a reputation and a lot of showroom and warehouse space devoted to hand tools, so the curiosity is natural.
What can I do to give people what they've come to discover? I have to get and hold people's attention. I have to make hand tool skill look like obtainable. I have to show the distinction between cheap knockoff tools that don't work well and quality hand tools. And - particularly for the amateurs - I have to show that the basic operations of woodworking by hand, operations that can be performed in a small apartment or shop, don't have to be painful, and can result in good results.
I try to be practical, not (just) philosophical.
I should teach how to measure accurately but I am afraid it isn't sexy enough to keep a class engaged. People want to see sawdust!
I think I want to teach people how to start a cut with a handsaw. That's a big problem people have. They try cutting something and since they can't start the saw they never get to the joyous moment when they can advance easily through the wood.
I think I want to teach people how to set a hinge because that gives me a chance to demonstrate marking out and chiseling to a line. And it's easier than setting up a router.
I think I want to show people how to clamp their work. It's not very sexy but it's pretty useful. I know some tricks with a few clamps that let you set up anywhere even at the kitchen table.
I will have to plane something - wood shavings are sexy. And if I rub the shavings on the wood I can show a wonderful burnished surface.
And of course I plan to drill a big hole with a brace and bit, showing how to not splinter out at the end and also how a ratchet brace really helps with those large holes.
I think that's all I can do in a couple of hours. My main goal, of course, is to inspire. I hope that at least a few of the attendees will look at what I am doing, try it themselves and then go home, take the plunge and start building stuff.
If you are in the area this Saturday, you're invited to the class! For more details click here.
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 here. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here
When I was I school, we would go out of our way not to grind anything. The grinding wheel was smooth, the sharpening jig was very hard to set up, and without exercising extreme care, burning the tool was the norm. Around 2003 or so, Barry Iles of Ashley Iles Edge Tools taught me how to grind like a pro. (I later wrote about this technique for Fine Woodworking magazine and on my blog. This was a revelation for me and I started hollow grinding everything. Most of my sharpening kit became unnecessary. I helped develop the Norton 3X wheels which use seeded gel technology for cooler grinding, and they were a big step forward too. Then a few years ago I heard about CBN wheels, which are aluminum wheels with CBN crystals bonded to them. This innovation was great. The new wheels ran cooler than the 3X wheels and required no maintenance. No dressing or anything! The only trade-offs that I can think of are that they cost a lot more than regular wheels; you can't use them for non-ferrous metals (they clog); and they don't have the crown that Barry Iles showed me makes grinding so easy. I had some crowned CBN wheels made and I was sold! The non-ferrous problem is solved by changing only one wheel on a grinder to CBN. The cost is still, understandably, a deterrent to lots of people, but if you have the budget I cannot imagine why you would not switch.
The next couple of items are all tied together in how I make joints now vs thirty years ago.
Pistol Grip Saws
I learned on gent's saws. Gent's saws have two advantages for beginners: they are inexpensive and they are easier to use than a lot of other options. By easier to use, I mean easier to saw straight with. However, the straight handle, which great for enabling sawing straight, does so at a compromise is speed and comfort. I currently use our Gramercy dovetail saw. It seems as easy to use as a gent's saw but with more comfort and power.
Cutting Waste with a Coping Saw
I was taught to chisel dovetail waste out. It's not hard. I know a lot of people who use fret saws to remove most of the waste of a through dovetail. It does make chiseling to the final base line a little easier, but I have always hated the fragile blades. Using a bow saw or a coping saw isn't as straightforward. You kind of have to do two cuts, and the baseline needs to be chiseled anyway. It's a lot faster than using a fretsaw and you don't break blades. Start on one side of the waste, a little in from the edge of the joint, saw diagonally down until you touch - but not cut into - the saw kerf on the opposite side of the joint. Then, starting on that side, cut straight across the waste, removing the bulk of it all. BTW, the secret to a good coping saw is a sharp good blade.
No Layout Dovetails
When I studied woodworking, we measured compulsively. We spent weeks carefully cutting to a line and then chiseling out. As I have written in recent blogs, I discovered that the less I thought about it, the easier it was to saw straight. It was a huge wake-up call for me. My new model is treating sawing dovetails and everything else like a sport, in which practice, follow through, and instinct trump compulsive attention to analytic detail. This is the approach I use in my classes. We have had great success, and I can't imagine going back thee other way. It's true that there are some joints that do require compulsive measurement - a twisted dovetail for example - but once the hand skill are practiced, and the muscles know what they are doing, scribe lines and measurement became a welcome guide instead of an impossible standard to meet.
Has your woodworking changed over the years too? I welcome your comments.
New week - Number 10.
|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.|