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Joel's Blog
Updated: 3 min 38 sec ago

Plane Spotting for the Deeply Curious

Wed, 05/24/2017 - 4:00am

First of all, thanks to everyone who met us in Amana for Handworks 2017, and to Jameel and Father John of Benchcrafted for putting on another great event.

Thanks as well for the great reception our poster has gotten. For it I have to thank Tim, TFWW's designer, and Kate, our poster designer. And I want to thank our favorite woodwright for this photo.

I constantly get asked which plane is which, and while our limited edition poster on plane spotting has some basic profiles (and get the poster while we still have some - it's a limited edition and we are almost out), I thought it might be worthwhile to give you some links on how to do serious plane spotting.

Most of these sites don't go into the minutia of different versions of the same tool, but some sites do. If you're spotting planes because you want to use them, the most important aspect of plane spotting is figuring out if the version of an old tool you are about to get has the right features.

For Stanley planes, Patrick Leach's Blood and Gore is the gold standard on the web.

For the anti-Stanley folks, here is a link to Miller's Falls plane info.

For Record planes, try these two sites: record-planes.com and recordhandplanes.com.

For an overview of wooden planes, including illustrations of just about every permutation of wooden planes, John Whelan's book is the way to go. If on the other hand, you want to get more information on the dates and manufacturer of a wooden plane you already own, then Guide To The Makers of American Wooden Planes (temporarily sold out) is the way to go.

We stock a reprint of several Norris Catalogs with come commentary by yours truly. On the web norrisplanes.com has loads of info.

This site, which has a ways to go, is a good place to start learning about Spiers models and planes.

I know I have missed a fair number of great sites, so let me know about any omissions and I will add them to the list.




A Sense of Community

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 4:00am
Bill Robertson's miniature toolkit on display at Handworks 2015
As we head off to Handworks 2017, I find myself really looking forward to the feeling I have had at the two previous Handworks show, namely, being part of a community.
In a way, it's not a shock that the marvelous tool show that Jameel, Father John and the whole Handworks team have developed should inspire such a feeling. After all, we assemble together from all parts of the country, diverse in our backgrounds, political views and other interests, but united in our great appreciation and involvement in woodworking and hand tools. For the time we are together, our unity and sense of purpose is evident.
Surprisingly, lately I have been feeling a sense of community from a less obvious (to me, anyway) source: Instagram.
Tools for Working Wood's Instagram account was built up by thirtysomething TFWWers, visual artists who were already on Instagram. Initially Instagram participation seemed like one more item on a Things To Do list, so I wasnt sold. But more recently Ive been surprised how much Ive enjoyed playing - both as a exhibitor and as a viewer.
Look! Theres a beautiful piece of furniture handcrafted in Australia. Look! Flowers and produce from Theres Hepzibah Farms, the Talledega, Alabama farm owned by Charlie, TFWWs very first employee. Look, theres an amazing guitar crafted by our customer. Look, a new Lost Art Press book. A new tool, a new cabinet, a new celebrant of our ancient craft of woodworking.
By giving me a chance to see their work, and by tipping their hats - with likes, comments, and questions - to my news, we establish community.

Over the next couple of days some of us with come full circle, as Instagram friends meet in person for the first time at Handworks -- and real-life admirers become Instagram followers. These actions will add a welcome new dimension to our relationships, but fundamentally we already have something important in place: a shared sense of community.

The picture above is of a miniature toolkit and other items by Bill Robertson who showed off some of his work at Handworks 2015. One of the nation's foremost miniaturists he works to dollhouse scale so that lathe is only a few inches long. Everything Bill makes actually works - which is totally amazing. I am looking forward to seeing him again this week.

Amana Here We Come!

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 4:00am

Were busy packing up the pallets to head to Amana, ready before we are for Handworks 2017. Handworks has a special atmosphere, one that reminds us of the best features of woodworking and living as craftspeople. We dont have a road team, so its always a scramble for us. But its well worth it. We really feel moved to be part of this community and grateful to Jameel and Father John and the rest of the Handworks team for establishing such a meaningful show.


Some of the things were packing: first, we have a new poster! Its a limited edition (100 copies - actually 99 ), three-color silk-screened, 19 x 25 poster, printed on 140 lb paper (very heavy) from the French Paper Company - that is, not from France but rather the French family who have been making paper in Michigan since 1871. Plane spotting is the responsibility of every woodworker, and this poster will help keep you vigilant about which planes are hanging in your shop or house. (the poster isn't on the website yet but will be next week before the show).


Another new addition to our treasure chest: spoon carving knives from Ben and Lois Orford. Periodically people ask me about the future of woodworking, and one aspect of woodworking that is growing ever more popular is spoon carving. Newcomers to woodworking are learning what veteran woodworkers know: Its wonderful to use your hands and craft something useful out of wood. And lets be fair, greenwood is much more forgiving than hardwoods, and a spoon project is much faster than a highboy. Orford tools have a wide global following, and we are the only place in the US to sell Orford sloyd and crook knives. Well also be bringing spoon carving knives and froes by Ray Iles. We like to offer you choices!


Well also be bringing lots of our most popular tools - Gramercy Tools holdfasts, saws, saw vises, hardware store saws, and finishing supplies, T shirts (a customer with already owns one of our Gramercy T shirts came by today to buy a shirt for his buddy and another one for himself, and declared, This is the best T shirt ever.), and more.


Amana here we come!

OMG - 16th Century Boxwood Miniatures PT2 - and other news

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 4:00am

I went back to the Cloisers this past Sunday to see the Small Wonders exhibit again and also to hear a talk on the miniatures by David Esterly and Pete Dandridge. David Esterly a master carver and sculptor who has been looking at how one goes about making such small items, and Pete Dandridge is the Metropolitan Museum conservator who handled, cleaned, researched, and took apart these tiny carvings.

I attended with my friend Jeff Peachey, who is an acclaimed bookbinder with extensive knowledge of historic tools and techniques.

I learned a lot from the presentation, and also developed a few of my own theories.

The first thing I learned was that these little wonders were pretty sturdy, presumably because boxwood is a very strong and dense wood. Some of the carvings show a lot of wear. I would have thought that the fragile carvings inside would be prone to damage if the beads were shook or exposed to shock. Apparently not.

The Wikipedia entry on the beads suggests that each took 30 years to complete. This defies common sense: who could have spent their entire career on one carving? The panelists thought that almost all the beads were made over a 30 or so year period, possibly by one maker or one shop. (The works are not signed.) Why the carvings stopped being made is a mystery, with several theories proposed. Perhaps the maker retired and nobody picked up the creative baton. Another idea: the carvings fell out of fashion. At the time the Netherlands, where the carvings originate, was going through the throes of a Protestant reformation; fancy decorated prayer beads would have fallen out of use and fashion.

The exhibit includes a miniature diorama of tools (damaged) examples of the work of a Miniaturist named Ottavino Jannella C. 1654-60(see above). Are these miniature tools the actual type of tool used to carve these types of miniatures? The panelists thought possibly they were. Peachey and I thought there was no chance this was the case: the tools' handles were simply too small. When you work on miniatures, the carving tools might have been tiny but it is far easier to mount them in full sized handles.


The other thought I had was about magnification. Next to the the case of tools is a pair of cracked spectacles. In those days magnifiers existed, although given my own nearsightedness I cannot imagine anyone wearing the crude lenses of the 16th century for any length of time without getting painful eyestrain. We also know from 19th century documentation that a woodworker who wore spectacles would be considered handicapped and would not be able to keep a job. I don't have documentation saying this was also the case in the 16th century, but I can't see why it would not be. My own thought is that a trained carver who was nearsighted would love working on miniatures. The general consensus was that the carvers worked on raised benches (like jewelers). A raised bench would bring it close to focus. A nearsighted carver would have a distinct advantage over a carver with normal eyesight for this kind of detail work. Of course a magnifier would be helpful but there is a big difference between occasionally using a glass versus having to stare all day though crappy glass.

On the actual carving, most of the detail was done in layers that were then assembled. David Esterly showed a bit of boxwood where he laid out part of one layer and then started carving. What he actually did was lay out the design on a larger piece of material so he had tabs on either side of the actual work that could be used to clamp down the wood and would be removed later. He also categorically stated that carving the boxwood by holding it your hand and carving with the other wouldn't work because the boxwood is so hard you would need a rigid setup to make any progress.

When you get down to tiny details the carvings lose a lot of detail. Eyes are suggested but they don't have the detail of a larger carved eye; foliage is suggested, but not leaf by leaf. However, when you look at the piece from a normal close distance, the overall tableau suggests incredible detail, which is exactly the effect you want. So from a carving perspective, the resolution does stop, but from a viewer perspective the detail is amazing.

Pete, the conservator, has handled the miniatures and made a short film on how the balls were assembled. In general they were carved from layers, which were put together and could be taken apart (when you removed the right pegs in the right order). The outer shell would have been turned and then carved. By themselves, the shells are very beautiful and tricky carvings. Each layer they would have been sawn to rough size, as much waste as possible drilled out, and then the details carved. Spears, swords, and other small details were fitted separately at the end. I say fitted because they were not glued on, but rather fitted into a socket or hole.


Pete did tell me that the reason that the bead in Whittling and Woodcarving was disassembled was the research has shown that the bead as originally exhibited was actually assembled later, improperly from a multiple sources. Currently there are not plans to reassemble it, and it will stay as a construction study. I understand the logic but I am bummed about that.


A link to hi-res photos of all the items in the exhibit is here.

A link to the page with the video is here:

In other news this coming weekend (May 6) we are having a free class on using Lockwood Dyes. It will be taught by Herb and Jesse from Lockwood. Staining and dying wood is a bit of magic for many woodworkers so having it explained by the experts is useful.

In June, we're offering two all day modern construction classes. Since they're comprehensive all-day classes, they aren't free, but I think they are well worth the cost for anyone wanting to do modern construction. The first class is about how to design and build a Kitchen Cabinet (you go home with a small cabinet). The second class is building a Zig-Zag chair (you go home with a chair). In both cases you will be using Festool portable power tools to precisely cut and join your work. Being portable, Festool is the perfect system for someone who doesn't have the space for large stationary saws. Click here and here for more details.


Finally, if you do carve miniatures or any small work, take a look at our OptiVisors or OptiSights. Don't be like Medieval or Renaissance craftsman, who were peering through Coke bottle bottoms (an analogy that doesn't work well in the days of plastic soda containers, but you know what I mean) when you could easily slip these viewers on. They've made a real difference to me personally. I had thought I was unable to do close work anymore, but with the Optivisor I find I am back in the game.


OMG - 16th Century Boxwood Miniatures PT1 - and other news

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 4:00am

These past few weeks have been totally crazy. In the front of our shop, we're busy building three workbenches and their accoutrements for Handworks in Amana next month. In the back of the shop we're busy making saws and other stock for the show. This coming Saturday is the massive Festool Roadshow (free food, drink, gift bags, etc. - check it out) and that requires tons of legwork too. We also started a new blog of videos we found on various woodworking topics that we think others might find interesting too.

While all of this is happening, I was seriously concerned I would miss the "Small Wonders" show at the Cloisters.

Some background:

I have been going to the Metropolitan Museum since my youth I grew up a few blocks away in a small tenement that is now the parking garage for a fancy building. Im also a big fan of The Cloisters, the Mets affiliated museum near the northern tip of Manhattan. The Cloisters is made up of cloisters excavated from French monasteries, indoor chapels and contemplation gardens filled with plantings of fruit trees and medicinal herbs that would have been used in medieval Europe. I like to visit the Cloisters every year or so and take in the ambiance of the gorgeous architecture, tapestries and other art.



The first and still favorite book of carving I ever owned (when I was about 8) Whittling and Woodcarving by E. J. Tangerman, which had a picture of a miniature boxwood carving from the late 15th/early 16th century from the Met's collection. It's about 2" in diameter. When I visited the Met regularly as a kid, I made it a point to search out the carving. As an adult I would regularly stop by to see it at and I'd always be filled with wonder. So I was determined to catch the show about these boxwood carvings,"Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures." The show is a joint project organized by the Met, Torontos Art Gallery of Ontario and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and will be held in all three museums (and maybe others). The micro-carvings include prayer beads, altarpieces, coffins, skulls and other tiny creations. They are shockingly intricate and shockingly tiny. Some open up to reveal intricate tableaux. The next time I see a walnut shell, Ill be disappointed if I dont see an elaborate carved crucifixion within.


The carvings were both popular and mysterious in their own time. Henry VIII was a fan, as were many other rich and royal collectors. But the artists, and their techniques, were largely unknown. As a Dutch collector in the 17th century complained, It is regrettable that the maker of this ingenious piece has not made himself known with any sign. More recently, conservators and historians used CT scans and other scientific tests to analyze over 100 of the micro-carvings, and learned some interesting things about the carvers techniques. The most complex carvings were made in layers, with a given layer containing different figures of the tableau. The layers were then installed with tiny pegs and glued, but made to seem as if everything were carved from a single block of wood. If the carver needed access to a hard-to-reach area, he incorporated slits through which he could pole a tool through, then artfully concealed the slit in the artwork. Conservators discovered less careful, even somewhat shoddy work such as multiple holes, in some of the carvings undersides.. But peeking behind the curtain is possible only to those who dismantle the carvings, leaving the rest of us to marvel at the illusion of perfection.


According to a New York Times article about the exhibit, The original woodcarvers used foot-powered lathes, magnifying glasses made of quartz, and miniature chisels, hooks, saws and drills. The works were so detailed that individual feathers are visible on angel wings, and dragon skins are textured with thick scales. Crumbling shacks are shown with shingles missing from their gabled roofs. Crenelated spires have scalloped molding tucked along their doorways, and there are deep grout lines between bricks. Saints robes and soldiers uniforms are trimmed with buttons and embroidery, and there are nearly microscopic representations of jewelry and rosary beads.


For me, aside from my longstanding interest in one of the beads - in fact the the very one that the curators disassembled for the show - the amazing realism of the miniatures is one of the most exciting aspects of the carvings. There are also many other thrilling aspects. They have remarkable grace and fluidity. And although everything is off limits to grubby hands, some of the components within the dioramas, such as doves displayed in birdcages, can move around.

This coming Sunday (the day after the Festool Roadshow) I am going back to the Cloisters to hear a talk on these carvings by David Esterly, a scholar and master carver. I am looking forward to his insights on these miniatures. In part two of this blog I expect to have something interesting to report back.






Spooncarving and News

Wed, 03/29/2017 - 4:00am

This week I wanted to share a round-up of news 'n' bits.

We're excited to announce that we're about to offer spoon carving tools from Ben & Lois Orford, British toolmakers and leatherworkers based in Herefordshire. You can't beat spoon carving in its ability to produce something beautiful and useful quickly. As some have said, just take some green wood, carve away the part that isn't a spoon, then soak in linseed oil. We currently stock spoon carving tools by Ray Iles but we love the Orford tools too and we wanted to give you all the options we could.

While we are on the subject of spooncarving the video above is a short, delightful video that features a young couple who carve spoons, sell their wares at markets, and travel around, enjoying their craft, their freedom and each other.

In other news, new Festool prices will be in effect April 1st. If you're thinking about purchasing a Domino, TS55 or a router, now is a good time to take advantage of the pricing. While we are out of some items (FS-RTAB.XX,router tables), for example, as long as the order it placed before the first we will honor the older price even if the item is backordered. The new Domino Connectors are being introduced in the US along with new batteries, and a rugged Bluetooth radio.

On Saturday, April 29, we'll be hosting the Festool Roadshow. We'll have a trailer full of Festool tools to play with, along with workstations and Festool trainers to stump. WE will be offering food and Festool will be providing some giftbags. If you're in the New York area, come join us. We think it will be a fun time. And if nothing else an excuse to visit Brooklyn, wander around, see some stuff and sample some of the local dining. See more information here.
That concludes this week's round-up; next time I'll be back to more typical blog fare. Stay tuned!

How to Use a Marking or Mortise Gauge (reprise)

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 4:00am

I try to write a new entry for my blog every week. I also try to make it useful or at least not boring. Sometimes I succeed. However because it's a weekly thing lots of content gets rolled under the covers and after a time lost. So this week I decided to take one of the earliest blogs I every wrote (#8 from a decade ago) and bring it current again. Yes I know everyone hates when magazines to a yearly article on the same subject again and again, but like magazines we have a lot of new readers who haven't see this topic.
(note: I shot a video for this yesterday but I didn't get a chance to finish editing it so check back over the weekend and I should have added it in).

Every time someone comes in and buys a marking or mortise gauge, I give them a quick demo on how to use it. It's not unusual for customers to know they need a gauge, but not how to use one. It's not their fault. There is a hell of a lot of misinformation on this subject, and using a gauge properly isn't intuitive.

The goal of a gauge is to provide a line that is just deep enough to catch a chisel or a pencil. Some people like deep cuts with a knife, but the deeper the gauge line, the more you will have to plane the finished surface - otherwise finish will catch in the line and the entire world will see the gauge line. The great woodworking writer Charles H. Hayward noted that when he apprenticed (around 1910) visible gauge lines in a finished work was considered sloppy but it was a common practice. These days, it is all too common and perversely considered a proud mark of "hand craftsmanship."

The problem that people have in using gauges is that when the gauge sits square on the wood, its pin will dig in, follow the grain, wobble, and give you a jerky cut. So various woodworking gurus have advocated filing the pins really short, so even if the gauge sort of works, you can't see where you are going; filing them into knives, so you get a deep line that is hard to get rid of later; remounting the pins on a diagonal; and giving up entirely and using a wheel gauge.

Here is how you really solve this problem:

1) Set the fence to the right setting.
2) With your hand curled around the fence and beam, tilt the gauge away from you and rest it on the long cornered edge of the beam (the corner away from you). The picture and diagram should make this easier to understand.
3) Put pressure on the fence in so the gauge is tight against the wood, and with the corner of the bean firmly on the wood, tilt the gauge towards you. With this method, with all the pressure going into the fence and edge of the beam, it is trivial to control the pressure on the pin. You can have a tiny bit of pressure on the pin that just leaves a mark for smooth visible wood, or you can just as easily bear down on with more pressure for rough wood so that you get a mark you can see.
3) Then push the gauge away from you, always keeping the long edge of the beam on the word. You push the gauge away from you so that you can see what you are doing. And of course with the pin tilted it won't dig into the wood.
4) You don't want the gauge to go off the the end of the board, because once the beam goes off the wood, you will lose control. So stop just before the end of the line and repeat from the other end of the board this time tilting the gauge towards you.
5) It's better to have a light mark than a dark one. If you have trouble seeing your scribe mark, just run a very sharp pencil in the groove.
6) That's it. A sharp pin isn't super important because in general you want a thin shallow line, but that's a personal preference. I don't think I have ever sharpened a pin in my life.

We sell gauges from about $15 and up. They all work. If you are getting just one gauge, I would suggest the Marples screw adjustable combination gauge. The screw adjust allows you to set the width of a mortise independently of the fence setting, which is a real boon. However, in a pinch all the gauges we sell work. You don't need the fancier Trial 1, although I do like the weight of it. Colen Clenton's gauges feel wonderful in the hand. You won't regret the purchase, but it's certainly a next gauge to get, when you settled into joinery and have the urge to splurge. Over the years I have acquired a lot of gauges because I will set a gauge to particular measure, and then put a piece of tape over the thumbscrew so that I don't accidentally move it, and I'll recognize that it's set for a particular project. On a long project, I can tie up gauges for months, so I have a bunch of gauges.

You'll see over the years and over your projects a hierarchy of favorite and "others" will naturally emerge.

PS - The scribe line in the picture looks a little ratty because it took a bunch of tries to get a shot in focus.

How to Learn to Carve in the Modern Age - The Online Approach

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 4:00am


The traditional way of learning to carve was via an apprenticeship. Some kid who thought, or whose parents thought, that he had some talent for sculpture would be apprenticed at age 14 to a master carver. Ideally, seven years later the kid would be able to carve well enough and fast enough to make a living. Very talented youngsters, such as the young Grinling Gibbons, even had sponsors pay for their training. Amateur carving became a popular hobby in the 19th century, when shorter working hours made hobbies possible and the Arts & Crafts movement made craft hobbies attractive.

When I was a young woodworker, you could study carving in three ways:
In person at a class:
When I studied at the Craft Students League, carving was always a popular course. In-person craft classes provide the opportunity to for a teacher (and your classmates) to observe you carving and suggest ideas and techniques to improve. It's certainly the best means of instruction. But nowadays many carving programs (like the Craft Students League) have closed, and realistic carving and decorative architectural woodwork have decidedly gone out of fashion. Longer work hours may make evening classes difficult, even if you are lucky enough to live near a class. One-time workshops and seminars can be treats, but they don't have the regular weekly practice that a local class can have.

From books and magazines:
This is a fine way of learning and still has tremendous value. Carving magazines are a great source of ideas and designs, overviews on tools, and written instruction. They fall short, however, because a picture or drawing, even a before-during-and after picture, cannot always illuminate the particular misunderstanding a student has on a specific area. I had that issue myself with lettering. I went back and forth over one paragraph and I still did not get how to do serifs without breaking off a bit. Obviously the writer (Chris Pye - who is and awesome writer of instructions) missed the particular situation that a thickheaded student could miss.

From videos -- VHS and television shows back in the day, and in the modern world, DVDs: DVDs are the best of the video presentations. You can see the project being made, and things that are hard to understand on the written page can be easily demonstrated. Professionally shot and edited videos, traditionally 45 minutes or longer, are expensive to make (and so their cost must be recouped) and generally designed for linear watching on a computer (or old school DVD player). Increasingly this is not how people consume "content" - viewers expect to be able to find short videos focusing on particular issues that can be watched on a phone or tablet.

But here comes an entirely new method.

A couple of years ago, Chris Pye set up a subscription website to teach carving. The site now offers several hundred videos, all short. You can watch them in a curated sequence, or individually to answer a question, or randomly to see what's up. This is how I sorted my serif problem. I just watched the snippet I needed on serifs and I was done. I didn't have to wait for a DVD to arrive in the mail, and I could watch it at my bench until I got it.

I realize the obvious rejoinder to the idea of subscribing to a service is, "Why would I pay for video when I can get it all for free on YouTube?" This is a valid point. There are three main advantages to subscribing rather than viewing on YouTube.



The first reason is coherence. If perchance you were to wake up one morning and have a burning desire to make a nameplate, you might type "how to carve letters into wood" into YouTube. You would immediately get a list of credible videos. Some might be good, but most topics get a mix of good, off-topic and waste of time. You could probably muddle through and learn a bit.

But this isn't what really learning carving is about. It's a question of coherence. A good teacher will want you to understand sharp tools, which tools, lettering fonts, basic technique, and then more complicated approaches. The whole point of a website devoted to teaching carving as taught by one person is to get the benefit of your instructor's worldview and best practices. You get the sequence of lessons you need to really master the breath of a skill, and -- because all the lessons are taught by the same person or school -- the approach is consistent. YouTube, for all it's many wonders, gives a platform for every approach and method on the planet, and consequently it lacks consistency and depth. I am learning to carve the Pye way. It's not the only way to learn, there are several excellent sites on learning to carve via subscription. But as I know from previous experiences, Pye's approach really speaks to me, and with each video and my practice, I am slowly building forward. I am not learning every possible way to do something, but one way, that works and can expand.

The second service that you get with a subscription is that you can ask questions. If you have a problem you can email Chris and get answers.




Third reason is one of support and belonging. By supporting a teacher's subscription service, you enable more videos to be produced. The money goes straight to the teacher and goes a lot further. Because there is a revenue stream, production values are professional, and the topics covered can have both breath and depth. And at the same time you are belonging to something. The school of carving that Chris has established, even though it's virtual, has a style and a method, and you now have studied and learned in the same way as all his other students. If you get together for a reunion, you can sing the old school songs and understand and support each other's carving in a way that schoolmates can. And as a matter of fact, that's why I periodically write about his site. I am learning to carve; I really like his approach; and like a good alumnus, I want to give something back so I work the old school tie into all the conversations I can.

N.B. The videos in this blog are from several sample lessons Chris has put on YouTube.

Mitre Planes and the Finest of Mouths: Why? What Evidence? What to Look for When Shopping for Mitre and Shoulder Planes

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 4:00am

One of the crappy things about using old planes is that a tremendous percentage are worn out. A steel mitre plane (or "infill" to use the modern phrase) unless made by a modern maker will probably be at least 150 years old. Norris, Spiers, and a few other makers continued making mitre planes up until the mid twentieth century but those are rare beasts. The average mitre plane you come across will be pre 1850.

Rotten wood can be replaced, but the most important feature of a mitre or a shoulder plane is a fine mouth. And not just a kind of fine mouth, the finest of mouths, especially if you are using the plane on end grain. The planes in the picture have mouths (with the irons withdrawn) ranging from a fat 1/64" to a fat 1/32". That's very fine.

Let's talk about fine mouths for a second. First of all it is pretty well understood that a super fine mouth on a smoothing plane breaks the shaving and reduces tearout. All well and good. But what about mitre, shoulder, and block planes? All of them are bevel up and used primarily for planing endgrain. Certainly there is no need for a fine mouth if the shaving is endgrain and will disintegrate on its own.

So why do unaltered historical examples of mitre and should planes have such extremely fine mouths?

There are two dimensions that concern us: the open space from the front of the blade to the lip of the throat - the effective mouth. And the absolute mouth opening when the blade is removed. As you can see from the photographs the mouths of these planes - a late 18th century mitre plane and a C. 1920's Norris shoulder plane are ridiculously fine and I would say this is typical of any infill in good condition that I know of. You do get planes that are worn out, planes where someone has widened the mouth, but for any infill plane in basic decent condition a very fine mouth is to be expected.


As we've stated before, planing endgrain doesn't require a plane with a fine mouth, but there are two very important reasons for having a fine mouth, especially when planing with a bevel-up plane.

Blade support:
Extending the iron sole of a plane as far as possible under a bevel up blade gives the blade more support and makes it less likely to chatter. Steel-soled planes can do this easily, but cast planes can't - unless they have a steel sole (like the shoulder plane in the picture). With a bevel down iron, there is a lot of support in the blade to prevent the very tip from bending and chattering. On a bevel up plane, on the other hand, the iron wants to bend and chatter around the edge of the sole. The more support the sole gives the iron, the more strength the iron has at the cutting edge -- and the better the plane will work. Cast mitre planes, by the very nature of a casting, cannot get as close to total support as a steel-soled dovetailed plane, where the steel sole can taper to a knife edge.

Controlling the cut:

If you are planing endgrain, especially if you are holding the plane in one hand and wood in the other, and you hold the plane perfectly against the wood when you start your stroke, you can determine the exact thickness of your cut by setting your plane iron. But if you are even slightly off and the plane is tilted on the wood, your shaving thickness will increase depending on the size of the plane mouth. The second drawing shows an exaggerated example of this. The practical effect of this is that you try to take a fine shaving and your plane jams, skids off the end, and takes an uneven chunk off the edge. Worse, you can damage that nice low angle cutting edge on your iron. A very fine mouth mitigates this and makes the plane easier to use, even if you aren't perfectly sitting on the wood. There is simply less space for the wood to jam into.

Left to right: Christopher Gabriel - late 18th century, Norris 20E shoulder plane in nearly unused condition, I Smith - Mid 19th Century
These points are small and minor. I understand that. But I get frustrated when someone compares the performance of a worn out 200 year old plane to an new modern plane, possibly of a lesser design. If you are in the market for a mitre plane, or a shoulder plane, make sure the overall mouth is minuscule. Also make sure that the iron and wedge match the plane. It's not at all uncommon for an old infill to have a replaced blade and/or wedge. Just normal use can cause this. Mitre planes had tapered irons and the original iron and wedge would have been fitted together so that you get continuous contact on the bridge. When properly fitted, the iron will set properly, hold its setting, and be easily adjusted. An ill fitting wedge just won't work right. If a parallel iron had been used to replace what was supposed to be a tapered iron, you will never get proper action without adjusting the wedge. Depending on circumstances, you will probably have a replacement iron with the original wedge. If you do and they don't fit, just put the original wedge in a safe place for when you resell the plane, and make a new wedge. Most shoulder planes used parallel irons so any replacement should fit it properly. Check before buying.

Many bevel up planes have cosmetic issues that don't matter, including damaged wooden parts (easily replaced) and misaligned wedges (easily adjusted). But - unlike a bevel down plane - bevel up planes with wide mouths can't be fixed with a thicker iron. You might like the feel of the plane but it won't get the action you would have gotten two centuries ago. Flattening a sole of a bevel up plane can easily, accidentally, widen the mouth. The steel sole behind the blade forms a knife edge and can be damaged. Unlike cast planes which can easily warp over time, steel planes stay pretty flat. A few pits and dings aren't worth worrying about. I would stone down any raised dings, but otherwise leave the sole alone. Before you try to flatten anything see how the plane works.



Context!

Wed, 03/01/2017 - 4:00am

This past weekend, in spite of coming down with a cold, I needed to get out of the house and went to see A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde at MOMA. I should mention that if you are a NYC resident you can get a NYCID card which among other benefits gets you a free one year membership to MOMA. Which means in spite of being sick, I could pop in for an hour and a half, see the exhibit for free and not feel I had to spend all day because I paid a $25 admission fee (though it's free on Friday evenings).

I am a huge fan of Futurism in general so it was obvious I would want to see this exhibit before it closed. But while I was walking through the show I had a thought. Context! The exhibit consisted of pieces expressly made as "art" for gallery shows and other pieces - posters, books, and costume designs - that a century later are recognized as art and included at the show. I realized that I gravitated toward the posters, books and a dining set, my favorite piece, that I absolutely would love to have. I didn't get anything out of the pure art pieces (although a paper sculpture of a head was very cool).





What I realized is that the work intended for public consumption at the time had context. The artists and designers were trying to convey a message and they used the new vocabulary of the avant-garde to express the thought. And the works are POWERFUL. But the gallery material seems far more tentative and maybe experimental (and 15 years earlier, which might have something to do with it). They certainly doesn't hit me over the head. The context is different. The work was intended for a more limited audience that wanted to see "art" and was more forgiving and more indulgent. The message of the work is about the artist, not about some performance the artist was asked to promote in a poster.


Pondering this thought I went to test my theory.

The picture at the top of this blog is of a 1961 E-Type Jaguar, which is the centerpiece of an exhibit from the museum's collection of art from the 1960's. The car had the same impact as the avant-garde posters. First of all, the very fact the Jag was on exhibit shows us that it is now considered art. (To be fair, the car has been part of the MOMA design collection since the late 60's). It blows away everything else in the hall. While the works on the wall might define the 1960's for artists and collectors, for me at least the design vocabulary of the 60's was set by items such as this car. It influenced real world design much more than any art piece on display.


Maybe if I had to draw a conclusion, it would be that the art on the wall is commentary on what the artists saw and felt at the time, but the pieces from the outside world are what changed the world.

Just before leaving I stopped for a minute to see "Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh, probably one of the top five most famous pictures in the world. Many people stopped to look and take a picture of it. It didn't have to compete with any objects in the room, and it comes from a time when single paintings drew huge crowds (although not to impressionist work). My son, who is twelve and considers walking around a museum to be mind-boggingly boring, really had a hard time grasping that the picture behind the glass was the original painting and that was what was special about it. Times have changed and I think the ubiquity of electronic images make seeing the real thing less unique, less special. Seeing furniture in real life 3D on the other hand is still something the internet hasn't mastered. Although maybe with VR coming soon, maybe it will.


Modern furniture designers and makers are constantly being told that what they do is craft and not art. Woodworking certainly is craft, but as the Jag shows us, sometimes it's art. It's also pretty hard to make a piece of furniture that when people look at it they go "WOW."
But when they do: "WOW!"


Mitre Planes and an Observation about Maker's Marks

Wed, 02/22/2017 - 4:00am

This blog entry wass derailed - in a good way.

I was totally in the midst of working on a post about mitre plane geometry when I made a discovery that totally put me in another direction. In the picture above are 4 mitre planes. I had laid out four planes in what I thought was chronological order, using what I knew about the planes and their makers.

From left to right:
Spiers - Latter part of the 19th century.
I Smith - Mid 19th Century (1860's?)
??? - Very early 19th century - Unmarked, possibly by Gabriel.
Christopher Gabriel - late 18th century.

The maker's stamps on the Spiers and Smith planes are on the lever cap or bridge. This is sort of what we would expect from any iron plane after the 1820's. It was pretty easy to stamp the bridge, and it's a spot that didn't get a lot of wear.

In the very early iron planes - such as the first two on the right - the steel stamps used for stamping wooden planes weren't that hard and wouldn't last very long stamping wrought iron. They were designed for wood. So Christopher Gabriel stamped his name on the inside of the front infill. On wood. On the side of the front infill which is nearly is nearly impossible to stamp once the plane is assembled so it won't be over-stamped by owners over the years. This particular plane has some numbers stamped in the bridge, which was not unusual for a Gabriel plane, but number stamps were easier to replace than a custom-made name stamp. Why Gabriel stamped numbers on the planes has been a subject of much speculation over the years.


I pegged the second plane plane from the right as early because of its construction, and possibly by Gabriel, but it's unmarked where it should be - on the wood. There's also some discoloration on the bridge. Since the plane shared some styles with Gabriel, I thought it might have been one of his. The wedge is a replacement. The dealer who sold me the plane back in 2000 thought the same about all the dating.

Now, putting the planes in order for this blog entry shook everything up.

As I put the planes in order for the photograph, I saw a stamp that the dealer overlooked -- and I overlooked for nearly twenty years. The plane bears a stamp just under the hole in the front of the plane. The "WATER" part was pretty easy to read, but it took awhile to suss out the "BY" at the front. "BYWATER."

Richard Bywater made planes in London from 1790-1814. Christopher Gabriel owned a large firm that was also in London.

The chances of Bywater not knowing of Gabriel's iron planes would be zero. One characteristic of Gabriel's planes is the long toe. Like the Bywater plane. But why is the maker's name stamped on the toe?

Maybe it's not a maker's stamp but an owner's? It's possible, but I don't think so. I think the random chances of an unmarked early plane being stamped with the name of a planemaker isn't zero but it's small. (Even if the stamp doesn't exactly match any of the marks included in Goodman and Rees's "British Planemakers from 1700.") And if we are talking about Bywater the planemaker, it's more than possible he didn't make the plane himself as the tools of metalwork are different than the tools of woodwork. The reason the plane would have been marked on the toe is that there are very few planes on an assembled mitre plane where you can swing a hammer enough to mark the metal deeply without running the risk of bending something. I certainly wouldn't risk it.

If Bywater didn't make the plane, who did? Craftwork in 18th century London was done by small independent Little Meisters who either worked in their own small quarters or worked in a larger shop, working on their own but buying parts from the master, all paid on piecework. Did this plane come out of the Gabriel shops, wholesale, to be retailed by Bywater? Was it made by a Little Meister working for Gabriel, made on the sly to sell to Bywater?

I don't know: it's all speculation. Do you have any ideas?


How To Grind Part 6 - How to Repair a Damaged Edge Without Burning the Steel

Wed, 02/08/2017 - 4:00am

Previous parts are found here:
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.
Part 4 is here.
Part 5 is here.

In previous blogs we discussed the need for grinding for a variety of reasons. This final reason is the most unfortunate one: you need to repair a damaged cutting edge. This problem could come about from dropping the chisel (see photo), burning the steel from incorrect grinding, or any number of crises. If we were to grind out the damage by just grinding the bevel like we normally do, we would burn the steel and create more damage. The drawing illustrates the problem. Constant grinding on the bevel heats up the entire bevel. When the damaged tip get heated, the heat has no place to go - especially when the rest of the bevel is heated up too. Even with a cool wheel, this will be a problem.

The solution to this problem is simple. We first level up the tool rest and grind the chisel end square past the damage. As we are only grinding at the tip, not the entire bevel, there is little heat, and the heat has someplace to go (see sketch).










I can free-hand grind pretty square on a crowned wheel, but a scribe line to guide your grinding can be useful. Or after grinding, a few passes on a stone to ensure a straight edge can be helpful. If you are a little off, it doesn't matter. Final honing fixes everything. As you can see in the picture, you want to grind back to an even flat just past the damage on the chisel.

Then we will reset the rest and grind to a wire edge, just like we did before in Part 5. The only difference is that instead of setting the rest to grind in the middle of the bevel, we want to grind a bit towards the back of the bevel to compensate for the blunt edge we just ground. If you are shortening the bevel angle and not really correcting damage, you would also grind a blunt end, but not move the bevel back.



In Part 5, when I ground the chisel I checked to see my bevel disappear, then stopped. In this case, the bevel will disappear fairly quickly, but my work will not be done until I have removed the blunt end. As I grind, I look to see that the flat end starts to disappear. In the first photo, the flat end is about half gone (and uneven). I continue the grinding, with more effort on the thick side, until both sides are even and the edge (seen as a white refection in the light) disappears. Then I am done and ready to hone.


This concludes this series on grinding. I hope it make sense to you and I hope the series encourages you to grind your tools for better geometry.
Here are links to some of the production I have mentioned in the series:
Norton 3X Grinding Wheels
Crowned CBN Grinding Wheels
Fancy Wheel Dressers
Plain Wheel Dressers
Custom Baldor Grinders that we have tricked out with better wheels, balance, and adjustments
Diamond Stones

For instructions on honing your freshly ground edges - click here.
Also searching my blog will turn up a lot of sharpening material from past years.
Finally if you are in the NYC area I will be teaching both grinding and honing in two free classes in March. Please see the events menu for the exact schedule, more classes will show up shortly.

Thanks for reading, Joel