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Joel's Blog
Updated: 4 min 8 sec ago

St. Monday and the Sharing Economy

Wed, 05/31/2017 - 4:00am
From The London Cabinet-Makers Union Book of Prices - 1811
Over the years I have written many times about how cabinetmakers, and just about all craft workers, were paid by piecework. This was very true in the UK and marginally true in the US. The slum workers documented by Jacob Riis were paid by piecework. Workers bought materials from wholesalers, usually on credit, and delivered them complete, done at so much per piece. In the cabinetmaking world, even as early as the late 18th century, there were published price guides detailing how much a crafts-person got paid for particular tasks, although except in the best shops these prices were routinely discounted.

Whole trades were organized like this. The chairmakers at High Wickham, for example, divided the tasks of making a chair into over 40 jobs, each paid a different rate. In order to make a decent living, workers had to specialize otherwise they could not get fast enough and the tool requirements grew unaffordable. All these people were considered independent and were paid by the piece and charged for bench rental, assistance, materials, heat, and even electricity after it was introduced into the shops. Rates were determined - in the higher-end industries, and by better firms - by negotiation with representatives of the craftsman (in many cases, unions). The formulas could be mindbogglingly complicated. Lower-end firms simply didn't pay the union rates and had lower fees. In good times, when labor was scarce, there might be a bonus on top of all this. In bad times, when labor was hungry, rates would be discounted. Pricing in the London Book of Prices didn't change from its publication in 1811 until at least 1860, mostly because there wasn't much inflation and there was also lots of pressure to keep wages down, but also because rate changes over time were done as multipliers from the basic rate. The published rates were also prone to lots of abuse - discounts, arbitrary charges, bringing in outsiders so that established craftspeople could not get enough work. Prior to the invention of machines, skilled labor could fight back. It's not an accident that craft unions were the first unions that had any power, even as early as the 18th century. Craft unions also pioneered insurance for injury, work stoppage, and loss of tools. (Tools were stamped with the owners name for insurance requirements).

The trend toward wages based upon time rather than the completed piece came about as more and more industries mechanized. If in order to produce something you needed labor, a piecework wage to a craftsperson who brought their own tools and ways of working (within certain bounds) was the norm. As machinery and capital investment became more important, skilled labor was less important and a day wage for a machine minder became the norm.

Payday, in cash, was on Saturday. In many trades the craftsmen took Sunday off and then Monday, the theory being that they needed extra time to sleep off the weekend drinking. But St. Monday as the "holiday" was called also was a call to independence. If you could work hard Tuesday through Saturday and make your production quota, why should the independent worker show up on Monday? By World War II most of these practices had died out or had been banned, mostly because whole craft industries collapsed. For example, when the chair-making industry in High Wickham collapsed, it didn't mean people didn't want chairs; rather, the public just wanted different type of chairs, and the craft system could not adapt to them. New factories, built outside the old world of craft emphasized capital and machines over tradition and in many cases were built far from the old centers of craft. The piecework tradition was broken.

The important thing to understand about these working arrangements is that nominally the craftsman was independent and had total responsibility for quality of production, tools, and equipment (such as it was). What they didn't have was any ability to individually negotiate price or claim any responsibility of the company for continuation of work, a good reference, insurance, or vacation.

Does this sound like Uber? or any company in the new "sharing" economy? It should. And what we learned over the past centuries is that when you have individuals with no real control over the working conditions, and a company that no commitment to its workforce, it will end badly. In the case of the piecework crafts, eventually it turned out that massive spending on capital and mass production made the individual redundant, and a coherent unskilled workforce working on an assembly line was far more economical. Recently Uber arbitrarily lowered the rates it pays its New York City drivers and is investing millions in the technology of self-driving cars to replace thousands of "independent" drivers. Customers love Uber (and Lyft, Gett, Via, etc.) because they make hailing a cab a lot easier than the often dismal NYC taxi experience and most of the labor and work issues don't effect the customer.

Is there any difference between a 19th century Sheffield grinder renting a wheel from a workshop owner and a web designer renting a seat from WeWork or any of the other co-working spaces?

I mention all of this because when someone talks to me in glowing terms about the new job-creating "sharing economy," the phrase doesn't conjure up in my head hipster kids (anyone under 37) doing cool stuff when they want to but still having time to go mountain climbing. I think more of hordes of smart, well educated individuals working round the clock on some project until they either burn out or their employer loses their funding. And I think of Jacob Riis; I think of St. Monday; and I think that in two hundred years we are back were we started from.




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.