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Most old tools are anonymous–unless you knew the previous owner personally, there’s no way to tell who owned them before you did. But there are happy exceptions. Two of my handplanes have a previous owner’s name on them. And while the names don’t exactly give me a full history of these tools, they do tell me something about the men who owned them.
Mr. A. Robertson
My wooden jack plane was once owned by Mr. A. Robertson.
I know Mr. Robertson only by his name stamp on this handplane. I got the plane from a guy in Alaska, but I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Robertson lived in Alaska, or whether the plane was brought up there by someone else later.
Mr. Robertson really liked his name stamp.
I mean, he REALLY liked it.
He stamped his name on this plane no fewer than 26 times!
There are at least four name stamps on every side except the sole. On the top, there are six.
Mr. Robertson also stamped the wedge, and he punched his initials into the top of the iron.
At first, I thought that this was just a guy who was excited about a new name stamp, and that he got carried away marking his name on his handplane. But the more I look at the stamps, the more I think differently. This man was methodical–to the point of being obsessive.
If he had been merely trying out a new stamp, I would expect more irregularity in the depth of the stamps. But the depth is quite regular. Plus, he always stamps his name in pairs, and in each pair of stamps, one stamp is inverted. That suggests a very deliberate method. I think that Mr. Robertson was determined that nobody would steal his tool and be able to sand off (or otherwise disfigure) all the name stamps. After all, it would be relatively simple for a thief to do away with one or two stamps, but not 26. It wouldn’t be worth a thief’s time to erase that much evidence. The fact that Mr. Robertson had a name stamp at all indicates that he was a professional, probably working alongside other professionals–a situation in which it is all too likely for tools to disappear.
The general condition of the plane confirms Mr. Robertson’s meticulous character. The tool is quite well cared for, given its probable age. It was made by the Sandusky Tool Co., which operated from 1869 to 1929. That would place this wooden plane at over 88 years old at the very least. The iron has not been ground down very much. In a plane this old, I would expect more of the iron to be gone due to regrinding. But if the user is careful–as I think Mr. Robertson was–an iron need not be ground very often.
Yet the plane does show wear from regular use. The ends have been tapped regularly with a mallet, which is how these wooden planes are adjusted. When I acquired the plane, the sole was not quite level. It had been inexpertly resurfaced after some wear. I doubt that the sole had been planed down by Mr. Robertson, who was far too conscientious a man to have done a job like that.
I wish I knew more about Mr. Robertson. I wish I could compliment him on taking such good care of his tools. I hope that he would be pleased to know that his old jack plane is still in regular use, nearly a hundred years later. But I really, really want to know why he stamped his name on his plane 26 times. I’m sure there’s quite a story behind that.
Mr. R. Kendall
The second handplane is about the same age as the wooden jack plane. I picked up this Stanley #3C smoothing plane at an antique mall in Indiana. The plane is an early type 9, which means it was made sometime between 1902 and 1907. (Note for handplane nerds: I know it’s an early type 9 because it has a type-9 frog and body, but the lateral adjustment lever is that of a type 8, which means that the plane was probably one of the first type 9s produced, and the factory was still using the last of some of its type-8 parts.) The plane was in remarkably good condition for its age–it merely required some cleaning and the gentle removal of a little surface rust.
This is what the plane looks like after some cleaning.
And this is what it looked like before the cleaning, but after total disassembly.
When I first bought the plane, I didn’t even noticed it was marked. But as I was cleaning off the tote with some Murphy Oil Soap, I noticed something on the top. It seemed to be some initials punched into the wood:
I could just make out an RK. Perhaps you can, too.
I was intrigued. What could RK stand for? I thought it must be the original owner’s initials. I didn’t think much more of it until I started cleaning the rest of the parts.
As I cleaned the lever cap, I found that under a light coating of rust, there was an etch, faint but distinct. It was difficult to photograph, but in just the right light, you can read the name R. Kendall.
Now I knew what RK stood for!
Like Mr. A Robertson, Mr. R. Kendall is mostly a mystery. Yet I can deduce a few things about him from this tool. Like Mr. Robertson, he cared for his tools very much.
I would guess that Mr. Kendall was a small man, or at least that he had small hands. The #3 is a fairly small smoothing plane, and my average-sized hands are not altogether comfortable on the tote. It is true that the #3 cost a little less than the #4, so it could be that Mr. Kendall was merely pinching pennies when he bought it. In Stanley’s 1934 catalog, the #3 with a corrugated sole cost $7.10 and the #4 cost $7.45–not an insubstantial price difference back then. Yet Mr. Kendall opted for the corrugated sole, an extra expense that a true cheapskate would have avoided. I think that the #3 fit Mr. Kendall’s hands, or perhaps his usual scale of work.
I do know that Mr. Kendall was a craftsman. The plane is expertly cared for. Despite its age, the wooden parts are in excellent condition, and the Japanning (the black paint on the inside of the body) is almost completely intact.
Also, the neat, cursive etching on the lever cap suggests a solid grammar-school education. His penmanship is precise. And the fact that this is a neat etch rather than, say, a shaky engraving indicates that he cared for the general appearance of his tools.
Mr, Kendall also knew how to adjust his plane for maximum performance. When I got the plane, the frog had been set pretty far forward, making the mouth very tight. Set that way, the plane will produce a fine shaving with minimal tear-out. While it is possible that a later owner re-set the frog, I doubt it. Frogs are not normally repositioned unless there is trouble with the plane’s performance. If Mr. Kendall was the one who positioned the frog, it is clear that he was knowledgable and experienced with handplanes.
It is highly likely that Mr. Kendall, like Mr. Robertson, was a professional woodworker of some kind–perhaps a furniture maker or a trim carpenter. An amateur has little need to put his name on his tools. But on a job site or in a busy shop, tools have a way of “taking legs,” as they say. Mr. Kendall valued his tools too highly to let them go easily.
One of the biggest changes in woodworking over the last century has been the de-professionalization of the craft. There are still a lot of professional cabinet shops as well as a few individual artisans carving out a living for themselves (sometimes literally), but I would guess that, today, the vast majority of woodworking tools, and especially high-quality hand tools, are bought by amateurs, not by professionals.
That means that, when we find high-quality, antique tools for sale today, there’s a good chance that they were originally owned and used by professionals. These were men who knew the value of hard work and good tools, and that’s why we have so many good antique tools available to us today. Without perhaps realizing it, these bygone professionals have left us a rich inheritance in their tools.
So here’s to you, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Kendall! I’m much obliged to you.
Tagged: #3, A Robertson, etch, handplane, jack plane, name stamp, plane, R Kendall, restortation, smoothing plane, Stanley 3C
Bibliophiles face an ongoing problem: where to store the books? In our house, we have run out of places to put more full-sized bookshelves, so we have had to get a little more creative by using more of our vertical space.
Enter the long wall shelf. I have always admired the ingenuity behind various wall-shelf designs. The above wall shelf is especially designed to hold books, and to make use of some available space above a window and a dresser (below the mirror) in our bedroom.
(Yes, I know there is an ugly water spot on the ceiling. Yes, the roof leak is now fixed. Thanks for pointing that out, though. It’s not like I look at that stain every single time I get up in the morning or anything.)
This is the second such shelf we have installed in our bedroom, and we love them. They keep important books within reach while still keeping them out of the way. There were, however, several challenges in designing and constructing them. (1) A long shelf that holds a lot of books is going to sag in the middle, and the longer the shelf, the more it will sag, so I had to come up with some sort of support system for the center of the shelf. (2) The shelf needed to be very strong, yet use simple joinery that could be cut on the ends of a 9-foot board. You don’t want this thing crashing down on your head while you’re rummaging through your sock drawer.
Taking my cue from old-fashioned timber-frame construction, I opted for angled braces on each end, attached to upright posts with lapped dovetails. The posts are notched and screwed into the back corner of the shelf, and the dovetails on the braces prevent the shelf from sagging forward. The tops of the posts are screwed to the wall studs.
The beauty of this design is that you find your wall studs first, and then you build your shelf to span the distance between the studs. A couple big, long screws on each side, and the shelf is firmly and permanently anchored to the wall. I used 3″ long deck screws.
The shelf you see in the photo above uses central bracing only on the back. They are braces that are attached at an angle between the corner posts and the center of the back with lapped dovetails. While elegant when the shelf is empty, the braces take up space behind the books, and the big books hang off too far. For my longer shelf, I needed a different solution to the sag-problem.
I opted for a third post in the center of the shelf, but instead of the lapped dovetail I used on the sides, I decided on a tusked tenon. On the left, you see one of the braces for the end. On the right, you see the middle post and brace with its longer tenon. Making them required some precise layout and sawing, but cutting the joints was not difficult. I built the end assemblies first–which was easy–and then used them as a template for the central assembly.
I chopped the mortise in the post for the brace, then drilled it to drawbore the tenon. That will keep the brace from coming loose, even if the glue ever fails.
Laying out and cutting the through-mortise was the most difficult part of the whole process. It’s not easy to lay out an angled mortise precisely in the middle of a long board. I set my marking gauge based on the joint I had cut on the end of the board.
Since the end assemblies use the same angles and placement as the center assembly, everything should work out. Theoretically.
I would normally just chop out a mortise in wood this soft. (The uprights and braces are southern yellow pine, and the shelf itself is juniper.) But the mortise runs across the grain, not with it, so I bored out most of the waste with a brace and bit. Since it’s a through-mortise, I bored from each side. There was a lot of flipping this board over and over again throughout the project. After boring out the waste, I cut out the rest with some chisels. Cutting the mortise at an angle required some care. It’s a good thing that the insides of mortises are never seen, because I left that surface pretty ragged.
And just to prove that even bloggers screw things up sometimes, here is my first attempt at a dry-fit. I had cut the brace about 1/4″ too short, and you can see the gap between the shoulder and the upright. So I discarded that brace and made a second one that fit properly.
Once I had the mortise in the shelf cut, I put everything together, marked the tenon where it came out of the mortise, and then bored a 3/8″ hole through the tenon, just slightly overlapping the line.
I shaved down one side of a hardwood dowel and tapped it through the hole, pulling everything up tight. The dowel–or tusk–will hold up the shelf in the middle and prevent it from sagging. I rounded over the end of the tenon, just so I didn’t have any sharp corners sticking out.
And here is the shelf with everything glued up and assembled:
For a finish, I just rubbed some paste wax on it and buffed it off. There’s no need to do any kind of elaborate finish here. Once the glue set up, it was time to mount the shelf in its place on the wall.
Two big screws in each upright holds everything in place.
It will hold almost nine feet of books. And it won’t take me long to fill it up.
Wooden cutting boards are wonderful. I wouldn’t be without them in my kitchen. But over time, their surfaces get chewed up–especially if you keep your kitchen knives sharp. A wooden cutting board can go years and years before its surface needs to be restored, but eventually it will be time to resurface it.
We were thinning out our camping gear a while ago, and we pulled out this sorry looking wooden cutting board. The surface was just too nasty to put it to use in our kitchen.
“Well,” I thought, “I know what to do with this.”
I set to work planing down each surface with my smoothing plane. About two minutes later, the surface looked very different.
The handplane leaves a glassy smooth surface, so no scraping or sanding was required. The wood appears to be hard maple, which is very common in older wooden cutting boards. It’s a tough wood–the same stuff they use for bowling alleys and basketball courts. A handplane needs to be razor sharp to cut this wood effectively. A closely-set chipbreaker also helps a lot.
Now, I realize that not everyone who has old wooden cutting boards also has a good handplane. But if you’re the sort of person who does a lot of handyman projects around the house, I think it’s really helpful to have a handplane. An old #4 or #5 Stanley is not hard to find used, and with a simple sharpening routine, you can keep the blade razor sharp. (There are many good tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere.) Just avoid the new-in-the-box handplanes at the big-box home improvement store. They’re pretty much all junk.
So after I posted the above pictures to social media, I got a message from my mom. Would I please bring my handplane next time I visit so I can resurface her cutting boards too?
Sure, Mom. I’d love to.
These are her cutting boards before I started work on them. They had belonged to my grandmother, and I remember them being in our kitchen growing up. In addition to the marks left from normal kitchen use, there were scoring marks from craft projects, as well some paint splatters and pinprick holes. I had to remove quite a bit of material from each side, but when I was done, they looked pretty good.
I not only resurfaced the working faces of each board, but I also scraped the grime off each end and edge with a card scraper. When I brought the cutting boards back into the house, my Mom hardly recognized them. But she was pretty happy with them.
I hadn’t brought any finishing materials with me, but I don’t think it’s really necessary to put any finish on cutting boards anyway. They will slowly but naturally absorb oils in the kitchen. I’m not lazy, just efficient.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of cutting boards, I was in a high-end home-furnishings boutique in a big city last month, and I ran across this fancy cutting board:
It’s probably more of a serving platter than a cutting board, but you get the idea. Zoom in on the price tag if you can, and you’ll see it’s priced at $140.00
It certainly is a nice piece of spalted maple, but I think the price is a little steep. But I’ll tell you what: if you want a similar cutting board, I will happily make you one out of spalted pecan for half the price of the above cutting board.
Tagged: cutting board, cutting boards, handplane, maple, resurface
I travel for work once or twice a year. This summer it’s a week-long stay in a hotel, and I have evenings pretty much to myself. In such situations, I never want to be without my spoon carving tools and a few blocks of wood. Here’s my work-station:
The tools fit into a small bag. I bring along a couple sloyd knives, a couple other knives, a hook knife, a spokeshave, and card scrapers, along with an Arkansas stone and a strop. I also bring an old bed sheet to spread on the floor to catch shavings. It catches most of them. At the end of the night, I roll up the sheet and either take it outside and shake it (I find an area covered with wood mulch), or I carefully put them into the room’s trash can.
Here are a few I’ve made recently:
I’m using mostly black walnut, which carves pretty easily even when dry. The lighter wood is the walnut sapwood, which actually is a little tougher than the heartwood. Softer hardwoods like poplar also carve pretty well while dry. I do prep my blanks beforehand, cutting them to length and shaping one face with the drawknife or hatchet. Everything else is knife work.
At some hotels, I’ve been able to carve outside on the deck. I try to select an out-of-the way place, but people sometimes stop to watch anyway. If they do, I often have a pleasant conversation about woodwork or handicrafts. If they don’t, I get spoons made.
Either way, it sure beats watching TV all evening.
Tagged: hotel, hotel room, sloyd, sloyd knife, spoon making, spoons, travel, wood spoon, wooden spoon, wooden spoons
People ask me where I get my wood for the spoons and spatulas I make. The truth is, I find it. Most of the time I salvage limbs and logs from downed trees, but sometimes I find wood in more interesting places–and that wood always has a real story.
A few years ago, we discarded an old desk that had completely fallen apart. But we saved two of the drawers to use as containers. We gave the big drawer to the kids to use as a small toybox, and the small drawer lived for several years on top of the clothes dryer, where it served as a tray for detergent and dryer sheets. After being dropped a couple times, the machine-cut dovetails finally gave way, and the drawer collapsed. I was about to toss the pieces in the firewood pile, but after seeing the straight, clear grain on some of the pieces, I decided to try repurposing the wood for spatulas.
The drawer had four sides and a plywood bottom. I threw out the bottom, as well as one side that had too much run-out in the grain. Two other sides had straight, clear grain, and while the pieces were pretty thin (just under 1/2″ thick), I thought I could use them. (That’s the bottom two pieces of wood in the above picture.) These pieces were obviously oak, probably red oak, a common furniture wood. Red oak is very porous, so most varieties are not very good for wooden spoons, but it can make pretty good stir-fry spatulas. After looking carefully at each piece for any splits, I laid out some spatulas from a template.
The final piece (the top one in the above photo) was originally the front of the drawer, which was thicker. It was also veneered on both sides, so I couldn’t easily tell what kind of wood it might be. I suspected either maple or poplar, both of which are common substrates for veneer. I had to do some guesswork on the best layout for this piece, but I also had to avoid the bolt holes in the center.
Weathering had turned this wood pretty gray, but I knew there would be a more attractive color underneath. I took each piece to the bandsaw and carefully cut to my layout lines. My templates are just a little oversized, in order to allow for the stock removal that follows.
Then I went to work with my drawknife, spookshaves, and card scrapers. The drawer sides were indeed red oak, which is quite hard when seasoned, and this wood was about as seasoned as wood can get! But it also cuts cleanly with sharp tools. I understand why furniture makers like using it.
The thicker, veneered piece was definitely a variety of poplar. There are several different kinds of poplar, though I haven’t bothered to attempt a more precise identification. The fact that this spatula was once a drawer front kind of overshadows the exact wood species.
The poplar had some small, tight knots in it, but otherwise there were no flaws in this wood at all. These are the fronts of each spatula.
These are the backs. The Danish-oil finish did indeed bring out some nice colors in the end.
Working with salvaged wood, especially from old furniture, is always a risk. You never know when you’re going to reveal a flaw that renders that piece unusable. But when you succeed, the risk is worth it.
What is the best way to preserve a seed? I first came across this question in a gardening book, and it’s a trick question. The answer, of course, is to plant it.
I have thought about that question a lot since one memorable day last summer, when my wife got a call from our neighbor. Did we want some dry goods? She had some to share. And she wasn’t kidding. In front of her house was a big U-Haul truck full of preserved dry goods–dozens of buckets and barrels of rice, beans, wheat, corn, pasta, coffee, and other foodstuffs.
It had come from a local prepper who just died. (If you don’t know what a prepper is, you can look it up on the Internet. Prepping is a big trend down here in the Deep South–people who are seriously preparing for the end of civilization as we know it by stockpiling food, supplies, guns, and ammunition.) When this prepper died, he left half a dozen storage units full of about $30,000 worth of supplies. So what was in that U-Haul was only a fraction of what he had stored up for himself. We happily took whatever we thought we could reasonably use, and passed on the rest to others.
It was all very well contained. The owner had spared no expense in keeping out moisture and insects. Yet we found that upon upon closer inspection, we found use-by dates from over ten years ago!
Still, the food was free, so we decided to try it out anyway. We cooked the pinto beans, but they came out a nasty gray color, and they took almost twice as long to cook as fresh beans would have. And they didn’t even taste very good. Some of the other items, such as the sugar and pasta, were edible. But the lima beans, the cornmeal, and the wheat were all very stale. The coffee was undrinkable. I don’t know what kind of existence this prepper had imagined for himself once civilization collapsed, but had he actually had to live on this food, he would have been far less comfortable than he probably imagined.
This experience got me thinking about this whole trend of prepping. The assumption behind prepping is that an isolated individual (or a small family) can maintain some semblance of civilization–food, shelter, safety, and comfort–alone and virtually unaided, probably while holding off bandits by using the thousands of rounds of ammo that the prepper has stockpiled alongside the foodstuffs.
It’s not a new fantasy, I suppose. What, after all, is more American than living by your wits on your own little compound deep in the woods, surrounded by a few loyal family members and a huge stockpile of food and ammunition? Modern-day prepping is Little House on the Prairie with a vengeance.
If there is one thing I learned from the contents of that U-Haul, it is the basic folly of prepping–of stockpiling food on the assumption that, someday soon, your stockpile will be all you have to live on. But even the biggest stockpiles run out, so preppers realize that eventually they will have to be able to grow enough food to support themselves and their families.
An essential component of any serious prepper’s stockpile (alongside dry goods, ammunition, fuel, and camping gear) is vegetable seeds. In that U-Haul, we found no fewer than five “kits” of seeds. They were bought mail-order from a company that specializes in supplying preppers, and they came with a manual explaining that one kit of seeds could grow enough food to feed a family of four.
As an experienced gardner, I knew that was a lie. There were not nearly enough staples, such as corn and beans, to plant even a reasonable garden plot. There were few easily-grown, hardy plants, such as kale, that really would be helpful during a food shortage. More importantly, the seed kits had been bought several years ago and then locked up in a storage unit. Just for fun, we tried to plant a few of these seeds. None of them came up.
This brings me back to where I started: the best way to preserve seeds is to plant them. But seeds don’t feed people; agriculture does. Growing enough food to feed a family is more than just sticking seeds into the ground and hoping for the best. It requires intimate knowledge of the soil, of your local climate, and of the kinds of plants you wish to grow. In other words, it requires culture. And real culture only happens in relatively large communities over time.
As an analogy, let’s say that I was convinced that the world would soon lose all of its knowledge of woodworking, and I was determined to preserve woodworking as a craft. (Which, incidentally, I am.) I might be tempted to buy as many tools and as much wood as I could, store it away with a few books about woodworking, and wait with baited breath for the woodworking apocalypse. But a better approach would be to learn as much as I could about woodworking, to actually practice woodworking regularly, and to teach other people to work wood–to get tools, wood, and skills into the hands of as many people as I could. And that’s exactly what a few people back in the 1970s and 1980s did when they saw that the old ways of working wood were about to die out forever. They knew intuitively a principle that preppers do not understand: the only way to keep a way of life alive is to practice it, and to teach others to practice it, too.
Prepping, on the other hand, assumes that a total withdraw from culture is necessary for survival, and in a twisted way, I think it may actually contribute to the cultural collapse that it fears. The more people stop contributing to the wellbeing of their society, the more likely that society is to decline. If you really want to preserve your way of life, first learn all you can about it. Then find ways to actively pass on your skills and materials to a new generation.
Tagged: children, culture, food, prepper, prepping, preservation, preserve, skill, skills
Today was Workbench-Organization-Day. It’s amazing how cluttered my workbench can get over a few months. It took me a couple hours to toss all those forgotten scraps into the firewood pile, organize the pieces of When-I-Get-around-to-It projects, and–of course–collect and putting away stray hardware.
You know how it goes. Spare nails, screws, nuts, and bolts accumulate at an an alarming rate in the corners of workshops. Sometimes I think they breed there. I have a couple small dishes that I keep on my workbench for collecting these bits of hardware when I find them, but when the dishes start to overflow, it’s time to actually put things away.
I’ve tried a few different hardware-storage systems. Well, “system” might be too strong a word. Like most “handy” guys, I have nails, hinges, and L-brackets in some random coffee cans and jars, but little by little, I’m converting to a simple modular-storage system. It’s taken me a while to make the conversion, though, because I need to drink more tea.
Yes, I use the leftover tins from Twinings loose-leaf tea for storing hardware. They come in two convenient sizes, and the lids are made such that boxes of the same size will neatly stack on top of one another. Unlike mason jars or coffee cans, these rectangular containers can be packed next to each other in a drawer with almost no wasted space between them. And they’re totally flexible. Changing the contents is as easy as writing a new label.
The only downside is that, unlike glass or plastic, I can’t see what’s inside each one unless I open it. But I’ve cracked or broken enough glass jars and plastic containers that I’ll gladly put up with limited visibility. I usually just dump the entire contents onto my bench, pick out what I need, and then hold the box up to the edge of the bench while I sweep the rest of the hardware back into it. You can’t do that with a round jar.
I’m normally a coffee drinker, so it’s taken me some time to replace most of my mason jars and coffee cans with tea tins. I still have several to go.
So pour me a cuppa tea, guv’nor! I’ve got more hardware to put away.
Tagged: box, hardware, hardware storage, storage, tea, tea tin, Twinings