One of the things we enjoy most at Tools for Working Wood is chewing the fat with our fellow woodworkers. We also love it when the showroom has a bunch of people from different walks of life and sometimes even different continents chatting about woodworking, sometimes giving advice or admiring pictures of each other's projects. So we decided to set aside a bit of time every Friday afternoon to get together. The idea is to hang out, have some snacks, and learn more about some aspects of woodworking. The structure of the Woodworkers' Hangout will evolve depending upon the interests of people who show up, and we have some different ideas for future weeks (for example, playing with different kinds of finishes). But right now we're taking out some interesting antique items. Last week we put on the white gloves and looked at a first edition of Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises. This Friday, it's hands-on with some really old English mitre planes.
The picture above shows the planes I will be bringing in. The oldest on the left is from the mid 18th century. I am not sure if it is usable, but this plane and the one next to it - a Gabriel mitre plane circa 1790 - are two of the oldest metal planes in existence. Probably fewer than 80 survive that are older. Christopher Gabriel is also known as the seller of the tools in the Seaton chest. The Gabriel mitre plane really reflects the English box mitre plane at its peak form (with a form that didn't change at all through the 19th century). Next to the Gabriel is a unmarked "Improved" mitre plane, probably by Spiers from the late 1850's or so. This plane reflects a time when users were adopting metal bench planes. I think this style was a last ditch attempt to transform the larger mitre planes into something useful. It failed. The style is a fairly rare form.
Finally, all the way on the right, is a small miter plane by I. Smith, probably dating from 1860's or so -- really the end of the road for the box mitre. Its most common application was for keyboard makers to plane ebony and ivory and other exotics, but by that time the world of mitres had moved on. Spiers and Norris, the two most famous steel plane makers, did make mitre planes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (I also have a much later Spiers mitre plane), but both companies made their reputations on bench planes of various sizes and styles.
If you search my blog for "mitre plane" you will find I have written a lot about the details. I am really excited after all these years of writing about the tools to actually set some time out so people can use them.
The plan for Friday (June 8 2018) is to have these planes (three of them at least) sharpened up and ready for action. If you are in the New York area on Friday afternoon and want to give them a go, come on by! As a tool collector, I think it's really important that we experience some of the older designs -- sort of a not-so-old Experiential Archeology. I think using these old and iconic designs will give you a first hand chance to experience at least a little of what our forebears experienced, and gives a practical context to these old tools.
N. B. If you have the urge to come to Brooklyn this Friday for the hangout (and we would love to see you) there is parking in front of our space and in the area, you will miss most of the traffic coming into the city on a Friday night, and after the event you can go out for a bang up evening on the town! If the weather is nice you should also go for a walk in Greenwood Cemetery. It closes at 7:00. If you bring disinterested friends and family with you we can direct them to nearby places with things to do that are not tools.
I was organizing some stuff in the shop the other day and I came across one of my old sets of chisels. As a tool collector, I have lots of tools that I have never used. The the four sets of bench chisels detailed here are different. They reflect different times and my evolution as a woodworker.
The very first set of chisels I bought - back in the early 1980's - was for my first or second class at The New School (then known as The New School for Social Research, then New School University - some consultants said search engines would be more impressed by the name - and now simply The New School). This was before I met Maurice Fraser, my woodworking mentor. This chisel set very much reflected a beginner's needs. I bought the set of four Marples bench chisels at Garrett Wade, the legendary woodworking store on Spring Street in Manhattan.
I quickly got disenchanted with the Marples chisels. I am not sure why, but in retrospect I bet it's because I could not sharpen them properly. I just didn't know how; what might have seemed obvious to others was beyond my comprehension at the time.
Pretty soon after getting the Marples chisels, I went back to Garrett Wade and bought a nice set of twelve Iyori Oire-Nomi. I chose Japanese chisels because I had just read Toshio Odate's great book, "Japanese Woodworking Tools." It was pretty obvious that (in accordance with the old saying about being a poor workman) it was far easier to find fault with my tools than to actually figure out how to sharpen efficiently. The Oire-Nomi were my most expensive tool purchase up to that time. I carefully stripped the oak handles and then sanded and refinished them with Watco. I also stamped the size on each handle. Of course difference sized chisels have different width blades, but when I had stripped the handles I also removed the sticker on each chisel identifying the respective size, and I thought it was vital that I replace the sticker with another method of identification. To this day I have a memory of stamping the sizes on each chisel - and I did a pretty good job. I should probably acknowledge that I had bought a number stamp set at a local flea market and was most certainly just jonesing for something to stamp.
In the mid-1980's I started studying with Maurice Fraser. He had a set of Stanley 750's, possibly the most iconic of American style bench chisels. Naturally studying with Maurice made it clear that it was time to do some shopping. As Stanley 750's went out of production in 1962, this was a fine time to awaken my collecting gene. The assembly of my set took years, but as you can see all the chisels are in new or nearly new condition. One problem with the Japanese set I had is that the narrower chisels were almost square in section. This make cutting dovetails hard, and the 750's were a treat to use in comparison. Maurice taught me how to sharpen, which also influenced me as a woodworker and collector.
These are the chisels I used for twenty-five years. In that time I passed from an amateur woodworker/tool collector working in tech on Wall Street, to a guy who could get more tools directly from the manufacturer. When we started selling Japanese tools, I found that the chisels by Nishiki were the best I had ever used by any maker anywhere. So when for a short time we offered decorative chisels by Nishki, I decided to splurge and get myself a set of fancy dovetail chisels. These chisels have the longest edge retention of any chisel I have used, and are a joy to use. When I took a class with Toshio Odate in 2005, he made fun of the fact that the handles were made of Ebony, noting that the wood is brittle and hard on the hand. He's right. Setting the hoops was a nightmare because the Ebony would not soften. I ended up soaking the handle tops for hours and still had problems. But the Ebony transmits hammer blows very directly, a characteristic I like that very much. In retrospect, I would like to have a set of the Ashley Iles dovetail chisels. But aside from the samples in the shop -- that I use whenever I can -- I don't get much of a chance. They seem to sell out too fast for me to snag a set (customers always come first at TFWW).
When a tool maker or seller talks about paring chisels, we don't mean chisels that can be used for paring: Almost any chisel can be used for paring. Rather, we are referring to chisels that were designed to making accurate paring easy.
Paring is a chisel operation in which the chisel is used to shave precise amounts of wood from the work. The goal here is control - otherwise any chisel and a mallet can do the work. There are three important features of a paring chisel:
A handle not designed for mallets. Of the paring chisel's three features, this one is the least distinctive. To enhance control, paring chisels typically have handles designed to be pushed - thin, long, and graceful - rather than the big and possibly hooped handles that are designed to be struck. Thin handles also put the weight of the chisel at the cutting edge so that the tool is easier to maneuver.
Length. This is the paring chisel's second most important feature. Human hands aren't perfectly steady, especially when trying to push a chisel into resistance. But by making a paring chisel very long, the natural side-to-side movement of the hand's impact is minimized at the cut. And the benefit of the long length is that you can easily sight the chisel to make sure it is at the correct angle to the work.
Low Cutting Angle. This is probably the most important feature. The lower the cutting angle, the lower the forces needed to advance the chisel in the wood. This means more control -- and also less of a need for a mallet. While bench chisels are usually set at 25 degrees from the factory, and Japanese chisels at 30-35 degrees, Western paring chisel show up at 20 degrees -- or even less. This translates to an edge that is very fragile but possessing a superb cutting ability. It's why shaving razors are ground at such a low angle as well.
Of course the low angle doesn't work if the steel can't take the low angle. So the best paring chisels are all made of simple carbon steel, hand- or drop-forged for better performance. A wider chisel takes more effort to push through wood than a narrower chisel does, so the wider the paring chisel, the more important it is to have a low primary bevel angle and a blisteringly sharp edge. Last week I experienced the fragility of the sharp edge when I used the wide I Sorby paring chisel in the photo above and I accidentally knocked the edge against something (not very hard). The edge distorted. I stropped it, but it really needs to go back to the stone.
Up to the 1970's, paring chisels were mostly used by pattern makers for careful final dimensioning of a wooden pattern that would be used for metal casting. The best paring chisels on the market were officially called "Patternmaker's paring chisels" because those were the longest. They were also very thin and slightly flexible so that you could "English" them as you applied hand pressure.
Of course, English toolmakers were not the only ones to manufacture paring chisels. In the US, Stanley made a longer version of their iconic 750 chisels. The Stanley 720 series was their "paring chisel," and while not nearly as thin or as long as the English versions, the 720 comes out of the American millwright's chisel tradition and is typical of the paring chisels made by all the American makers.
Japanese paring chisels have the same long length, but the length is in the handle, not the blade. They are stiffer -- and to my taste less desirable -- but that's very much a personal preference. Millions of woodworkers would disagree with my preference. In reality, Japanese paring chisels are perfect for the precise joinery that Japanese woodworking is known for.
We stock Japanese paring chisels by both Nashiki and Iyori. The former are superb, thin, easy to sharpen, and hold an edge. The Iyori chisels have a triangular section that makes them stiffer, but also easier and less expensive to make.
Back to English paring chisels. When shopping for them, look for beveled sides, not straight sides. Straight-sided chisels are known as "registered chisels." Registered chisels don't have the finesse you would want in a paring chisel. They're typically thicker and are more suited to larger work in timber framing.
Older English paring chisels have nice wide bevels -- more elegant and able to get into corners more easily. Sadly, those dating from the 1980s and beyond just have token beveling at the side and frankly don't pass muster with me. The reason we do not stock any Western paring chisels is that as far as we know nobody is currently making anything that I would consider worth owning.
Older paring chisels have nice octagonal bolsters, which were hand-forged, ground, and harder to make than round bolsters. Boxwood handles were the traditional material for paring chisels. Boxwood is brittle so it doesn't like being struck, but finishes up nicely and has a great feel to it. Incidentally, the traditional way of fitting boxwood handles was having a snug but not pressure fit on the tang, and attaching the tang with a bit of rosin poured in the hole. Both of these features are nice to have, but not requirements.
Because paring chisels are long, thin, and have bevels, they are hellish to make and require the highest skill level of any chisel. Stanley and others solved the manufacturing issues by making the chisels fatter -- at the expensive of performance. The basic problem is that the chisel forge has to forge a long thin straight blank, which is hard to do, and compensate for warping during hardening. After hardening, the chisels have to be made straight again, only to curl up as the side bevels are ground in. It's a no-win situation requiring great skill in forging and grinding. Ray Iles told me that by the 1970's Ashley Iles was forging large quantities of paring chisels, and one of Ray's jobs as a youth was bringing the paring chisel blanks to the one guy left in Sheffield who ground paring chisels for all the edge tool makers.
According to contemporary catalogs, English paring chisels were made in widths from 1/8" to 2". I have never even heard of an 1/8" paring chisel, so it's possible it's wasn't a practical size and was never really manufactured. For me, larger sizes -- 1 1/4" - 2" -- are the ones that get the most use, but since I am not a patternmaker, nor a Japanese temple builder, the main use I have for them is paring a mortise to a scribe line after chopping, and occasionally trimming a surface. For paring the odd fat dovetail joint, I use my regular bench chisels. Instrument makers also love paring chisels for the precise formation of wooden parts. With that in mind, what I recommend is that if you see some wide English paring chisels, in decent shape, that are fairly long, snap them up. But don't lose sleep if they seem elusive.
P.S. We expect to get a shipment soon of Ashley Iles beveled edge chisels with the wide 2" size back in stock. Uber long paring chisels might be a discretionary purchase but I think wider bench chisels are very useful. While you might not use them every day, having wider (1 1/2" or 2") bench chisels, are especially useful for cutting clean joints at a scribe line or cutting wide base between pins on a dovetail joint. As with paring chisels, with wide chisels of any kind, a low angle, and keeping them uber sharp will make them much easier to use and get the results you want.
I have been making things of wood and metal for a good long time. I started at age 6 in a woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y and I haven’t stopped since. In the past twenty years or so, as running a business has taken over my life, I have worked less in the shop, but I still get some time in. Perhaps more importantly, I have my years of experience of making things. I think my situation is pretty common with anyone my age.
Younger people look at me in a couple of ways:
A fossil: “Tell me, kind sir, what was it like then you first saw fire?”
Irrelevant: “Man, I love that you can use a screwdriver, but everyone uses screw-drills now.”
You Tube has many videos entitled “The last _____ (fill in the blank).” The videos typically feature some old guy who is making things exactly the made his grandpappy made them in 1910. And when the guy complains that he doesn’t have any apprentices (and hasn’t since 1967), you immediately think, “Of course! Who would want that job trying to make a living in that old shop?” We all sympathize and tut-tut about the old guy’s challenges, and on one level we think it would be kind of cool being the apprentice, but ultimately most craftspeople I know want to learn about the past in the context of working in the future, not as a museum piece. This doesn't mean many people don't try to master the old ways; many do. It also doesn't mean people don't try to earn a traditional living. But it's really hard to do so. Typically even wonderfully skilled craftspeople have to supplement their income with instruction. Teaching can be great, but many feel sad that the market that will sustain traditional work done traditionally is so small.
I might be a fossil, but I am surely not dead. So I’m still learning. I’ve been spending nights and weekends learning CAM using Fusion 360. It’s something I need to know. My experience as an engineer decades ago is making the process go pretty quick, but there’s still a learning curve. A long time ago I taught CAD to draftsmen --- back in the early days, with software that was very primitive in comparison to what’s available nowadays. I realized then that the draftsmen knew how to draft a lot better than I did. All I really needed to do is teach them was which button to push. When I did, a lot of the students thanked me because they had been really intimidated by the software. Many had been scared that they would have to go get a job at smaller companies that still did drafting by pencil. The really cool part was that these draftsmen quickly became the fastest and most productive members of the entire crew of drafting people and ended up with better, more productive jobs.
I think we all need to recognize that most craft knowledge isn’t written down. Becoming a master involves practice -- and staying a master involves a balancing act of receptivity to new tools along with a respectful understanding what has come before us. I also think that some of the younger folks should acknowledge that us old folks have the skill - we just need a little new training in which new button to push.
While we are on the subject of new tricks, I am in the middle of designing a new kitchen for my home. When my parents redid their kitchen in the mid 1960's, they went for "all hygienic" metal cabinets. At the time these cabinets were pretty pricey, so my parents took the cabinets with them when they moved. And the cabinets live on - they made the move to the TFWW shop. They're still doing useful service 50 years later (See picture above). My current kitchen was built (I think) in the 1970's with the cabinet construction built in place, with long rails connecting all the cabinets. The hardware is random, and - except for a drawer slide that I installed about 10 years ago - the drawers all run on wooden frames.
The kitchen in my last apartment, which I designed but did not build, was made out of modular units. With drawer slides and everything! It was totally custom, with the panels sawn out with a table saw and joined with biscuits. Grooves and recesses were done with a dado blade on a table saw. As it was custom, there were no filler pieces. We just took the available space, left a little room for a reveal to compensate for an out-of-square wall, and divided by the number of cabinets we wanted. At the time,a semi-custom kitchen would have had filler pieces to take up the difference between actual wall size and stock cabinet widths. (I miss my old kitchen!)
Part of the reason I had been shying away from building my own kitchen was the thought of having to mill up all the materials myself. A new kitchen is a big project, and I just could not see myself committing to this project on top of all the other commitments I already have. However, one of the younger members of my staff, a professional woodworker, turned me on to something that I didn't even know until recently was very practical. The plan is to ship the design off to a CNC router guy. For the price of materials and a fixed cost for routing, I will get back a custom kit, just like a pre-fab cabinet, only to my exact design.
It amazes me is how much things have changed since I was a kid. Being receptive to new ways of doing things helps me feel much less overwhelmed by the project. I certainly could do it a little less expensively if I cut the panels myself, but not by a lot.
So for all of my love for traditional technique and traditional tools, my latest project, one of necessity, will be made with modern materials and modern methods. My experience in woodworking over the years certainly hasn't made me an expert in CNC woodworking. (Far from it.) What this experience does grant, however, is to enable me to build and learn. As modern woodworking techniques take over professional practice, there are fewer and fewer professionals who can do hand work at speed. But the satisfaction hand work gives to people hasn't changed. Fewer and fewer people really want to have Colonial style furniture in their homes, but every day we see how younger woodworkers are learning old techniques to open up what they can design and execute. In my particular case, my kitchen cabinets will be CNC, but the cabinet and drawer pulls I am planning to sculpt by hand out of wood. So my skill will be used, and the final product will be something someone without hand skills won't be able to easily make.
Last week a gentleman who runs a local maker space invited me to teach some hand tool classes at the space. I was happy to have the discussion but we got hung up by a central question: How do you get students to the point at which they can produce something?
My own answer thus far as a teacher has been to teach classes in which the product is the skill itself. I teach classes in making dovetails, sharpening, installing hinges with hand tools, and so on.
I admire those who are developing schools teaching a class with a PRODUCT - and we’re offering an exciting one in June on building a collapsible shave horse, so I guess TFWW is also in this group - but these classes often highlight the tension between several contrasting human impulses.
As woodworkers, we feel making things, especially with our hands, is deeply satisfying. People also love learning new skills, and most people also enjoy the social aspects of learning in a group.
But we also have conflicting desires. The desire not to be the laggard, in danger of being left behind the group. The desire for instant or near-instant gratification. I want it now! And - crucially - our identities as consumers.
Nowadays shop class has been consigned to the dustbin of history for most people. Many students come to woodworking classes thirsting for the satisfaction of creation. Andrew Zoellner, the new editor of Popular Woodworking, wrote an inspiring call to arms, The Joy of Woodworking - Out on a Limb as his inaugural editorial. “We’re here to inspire people to make more of the stuff they have in their lives and to learn the virtues of craft,” he writes.
For those who make our livelihood from making stuff with our hands, or teaching others to make stuff with their hands, getting paid is also a challenge.
Hand tools teach us to be responsive to subtleties and ignore the pace of contemporary society. Tuning out competing fundamental needs is a much harder act -- one I am still learning.
PS - My wife is actually the chief writer of this post. I am a lucky fellow in a bunch of ways, and at this moment grateful to be with someone who can turn a bunch of thoughts into a blog entry under deadline.
N.B. The pictures are of some spoons Pate, who will be teaching the City Dweller's Collapsible Shave Horse class, made on her shave horse.
I have been self employed for twenty-two years and running Tools for Working Wood for just over nineteen. I recently saw an Instagram post by a woodworker (among other trade she practices) @anneofalltrades. In the post Anne expressed her worries about all the things that don't get done and how difficult it is get the tasks she wants done get done. So I decided to throw in my two cents and posted a comment. Some of the issues Anne raises involve setting boundaries with other people, but many of her issues are pretty common to just anyone running a business, especially a business where your labor is an integral part of production. The issues also affect hobbyists who are trying to build a serious project but simply are stymied by everything else in their lives.
My comment stemmed from a desire to help out. I certainly wouldn't say my method is the best or the only way of getting work done. But the techniques I describe below are practical. They make me more productive and able to get through the day without wanting to that the first one-way bus to the Bahamas.
The immutable facts of the case:
There are twenty four hours in a day. Doing nothing but work (+ eating and sleeping) isn't sustainable for any sane person - even if one enjoys their job.
We all have or need to have other commitments to spending time with family, friends, and just chilling. The guilt we feel about "wasting time" when we aren't working is real, but misplaced.
In addition and maybe more importantly, Anne touches on this, always feeling that you are not fulfilling your (self imposed) obligations can lead a feeling of helplessness, depression, and the feeling (totally unjustified) of failure.
I actually enjoy most of my day. There is just too much work in it.
I keep two lists. My main list consists of everything I need to get done. The list has big projects on it - "Produce some new tools" - but overall I try to be pretty atomic in tasks: "Contact the guy in order 123456 and find out the problem." As I get closer and closer to doing the tasks, I tend to be more basic as I break things down. I also try to put in enough detail on the list so I don't waste time puzzling over what I mean. This last bit is especially important because putting something on the list isn't the same as getting it done, and some items stay on the list for years. This list has several hundred tasks and I refer to at least the more current parts of it on a daily basis.
But that doesn't get me out of my hole. It just defines the hole.
When I get something done on the list I cross it off.
Every day I make a the second list. It's a short list of what I actually think I can accomplish in a reasonable day. Late Friday I will probably make a list for what tasks I need to do for the weekend. I try to make this list realistic. My daily goal is to clear that list. If I do, I know I can relax and do other stuff for fun. If I don't, I know I am overcommitted. Over the years I figured out that the list needs to be pretty short, because during the day I will inevitably spend time chatting with customers, vendors, colleagues and or spend time on critical events. Meetings go on the list too. The list is very atomic. After I cross stuff out, I feel a real feeling of accomplishment and "permission" to have some fun. The day's work is done. When I don't finish my list, I start wondering about how to lower my deliverables through postponement, delegation, and any other strategy I can think of.
It's not a perfect system, but it has enabled me to relax without guilt, and focus on tasks that need to be done.
The worst thing you can do is not write down a list. Relying on your memory is not only iffy, it's real work. Who wants the stress of wondering if something important was forgotten? Without a list there is also just a formless, unending, overwhelming atmosphere sense of falling behind.
By the way, for long-term tasks I use Any.do and for the daily list I usually use a post-it at my desk. I go through a lot of post-its.
What does this have to do with woodworking as a hobby? you might ask. Simple: suppose you want to build a desk or another complex project. If you go into your shop thinking "What's next? I gotta build a desk!" it is easy to be overwhelmed. But if you go into your shop with a list saying, "I have an hour only. I will mill the wood for the drawers," you can actually get stuff done. You feel encouraged by what you're accomplishing, not discouraged having only one hour to spend. I have found written procedures for pacing a project very very helpful. Less stressful and more productive.
So that's my two cents. All I can say is that it works for me. It takes some discipline and sometimes I slack off. When I slack off I find my stress level increases. Less and less gets done and I complain more.
The picture above is a corner of my desk on April 24, 2018. It's not pretty. Cleaning it up is on my main list, but it's not anywhere near the top of my list. I do find that a clean desk helps me work faster, but I just don't know where to put half the stuff. It's a work in progress, and like the rest of us, I am still learning.