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The Literary Workshop Blog
I have made two pipes in the last two weeks.
The first is a freehand churchwarden, which was a lot of fun to shape. The textured top is the natural top of the burl from which briar pipes are made. I decided to leave a little of the texture around the stem, too.
This particular piece of briar had a few small flaws, but it cleaned up pretty nicely, and the figure is good.
The other pipe was something of an adventure. It all started with this briar wood blank:
The blank was originally cut so that the grain would run sideways, but it was thick enough that, when turned on its side, the grain runs vertically, which is more attractive on most pipes. This is the result:
This is the twelfth pipe I’ve made.
I don’t mean to turn this into a pipe-making blog, but I’ve been making them because the work pays. Eventually, I will post a short tutorial on shaping a pipe with hand tools, but I need to make a few more yet before I can be confident giving advice.
Filed under: Tobacco Pipes, Wood and Woodwork
Over at Lost Art Press, Chris Schwarz has been talking about “vernacular furniture,” or “furniture of necessity,” which is furniture that, while hand-made, is cheap and simple to construct using a small tool kit.
For example, when my oldest daughter acquired a box turtle (thanks to her father’s inadvertent destruction of its native kudzu habitat), it fell to me to build it an outdoor terrarium.
It had to be built and installed quickly, as the turtle was getting restless in its temporary home: a laundry basket. No time for dovetails, drawbored mortises-and-tenons, or floating panels.
I screwed together some 2X10s and made a frame lid out of 2X4s. The fanciest part was the lap joints I used on the lid. I painted the whole thing to match the house, installed hinges and a handle, and set it in place. The hardest part was getting the chicken wire in place. I came away with quite a few scratches on my hands and arms, but it should be raccoon-proof now.
Now that it’s done, my daughter is happy, and as far as I can tell, so is the turtle. And that’s what the “furniture of necessity” is really all about–keeping the women happy.
Filed under: Furniture, Home Improvement, Musings
When you build things that you hope will outlast you, it’s more than disappointing when they fall apart within a few years. Sometimes it’s because of abuse, but more frequently it’s the result of a design flaw that only becomes apparent with time.
For example, about five years ago I built three footstools like this one:
At the time, I lacked the confidence (and the skills) to cut an angled mortise. I had no tools for shaping round tenons, so I decided to try attaching the legs with lapped dovetails instead.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The problem is that dovetails are not designed to withstand the kind of force that would normally be applied to a stool. Whereas a dovetail on a drawer tends to tighten when the drawer is pulled out, this dovetail loosened the more pressure was put on the joint. Every time I stood on the stool, my weight was trying to force the joint apart. Eventually, every leg on three stools (that’s twelve joints, for you mathematically impaired folks) came loose.
The stools were made of construction-grade pine, so I probably should have given them a proper cremation and started over with fresh materials. But it’s hard to throw your own work away, even when it has failed.
So I decided to salvage the tops for rebuilt footstools, this time with proper joints.
The tapered tenons (which look like upside-down ice cream cones with the tips cut off) fit into matching tapered holes, so every time I stand on the stool, my weight is tightening the joint. It’s a trick that’s been used by chair makers for centuries.
Two of the original tops got cut into squares, and the third got cut into an oval. Each got battens nailed to the bottoms to resist splitting.
The resulting stools look more spindly than the originals, but they are lighter and sturdier. The splay of the legs (which the crummy photo above distorts) also makes them more stable in use than were the originals.
I am cautiously hopeful that the rebuilt stools will last longer than the first ones did.
Filed under: Musings, Wood and Woodwork
I recently finished my eighth, ninth, and tenth pipes.
All the advice for new pipe makers suggests starting with basic, classic forms, so this is my cherrywood billiard. Pipes like this are usually roughed out on a lathe. Getting everything symmetrical with hand tools is a bit harder. The owner tells me it smokes well.
This commissioned piece is my take on an “egg” shaped bowl. The tobacco chamber is wide and extra-deep for a long smoke–by customer request.
This is a slightly bent freehand I did as a favor for a friend.
I haven’t yet found a signature style, so I’ll keep experimenting until I find the forms that please both me and my customers.
Filed under: Tobacco Pipes, Wood and Woodwork
This afternoon, I was reading William Goldring’s The Pipe Book: A History and How to (1973), which briefly recounts the history of each historical type of pipe and explains how to make a similar one using a few, simple tools.
In the section on making a briar pipe, the author suggests using a saw to remove the initial waste from the briar block. He remarks:
Briar is a very hard wood, as you have undoubtedly discovered, and this precludes the use of an ordinary wood saw. Instead, a hacksaw must be used to make these and all subsequent cuts.
If by “ordinary wood saw,” he means a dull one, he is undoubtedly right. However, briar is no harder than some of our native hardwoods, and is often softer than hard maple or hickory. It seems Goldring had no idea that hand saws could be–or should be–sharpened, so he found the disposable blades of the hack saw more effective on the briar.
A sharp hand saw cuts briar very easily, in fact. It’s a pity that misinformation like this got into print, but it’s doubly a pity that Goldring evidently never had the pleasure of using a sharpened hand saw. I think he would have enjoyed it.
Filed under: Musings, Tobacco Pipes, Woodworking Literature
This compost, which has been sifted through a 1/2″ screen mesh, is made from about half leaves and half wood shavings with minimal “green matter” (kitchen waste). I just dumped the material in the bin and forgot about it, and it took nearly a year and a half for it to rot down completely. Nevertheless, the result is a rich compost with lots of earthworms and nutrients. I used some of it to make potting soil, while the rest will become mulch on my summer gardens.
After a little reading and a lot of experimentation, I have found that there are a few important principles for making good compost, especially from wood waste:
- A bin that holds at least 27 cubic feet. A smaller bin will still work, but much more slowly. A bin at least 3′X3′X4′ speeds up the process, and it will yield about 40 gallons of finished compost.
- Lots of green matter. While it’s theoretically possible to put in too much, very few home kitchens generate that much. Put in all your banana peels, apple cores, orange peels, and especially eggshells.
- Keep it moist. As I add the brown matter (leaves and wood waste) I soak the pile down with the hose. A compost bin in the sun will tend to dry out, whereas one in the shade is less likely to get dry. Check every so often that the middle of the pile is moist but not soggy.
- Turn it frequently. I use a big garden fork to loosen up the pile. Ideally, I would turn a bin 2-3 times a week, but I’m lucky to get it once a week. But the more frequently you turn the pile, the quicker it will rot down.
You can get a lot fancier with your methods and materials if you like, but even if you choose to dump it and forget it, you will eventually get your compost.
Filed under: Gardening, Home Improvement
Although tobacco pipes have been used in the Americas time out of mind, the iconic wooden tobacco pipe was developed only in the 1850s, eventually displacing the clay pipes that Europeans had been using since the sixteenth century. The story goes that a French military officer was traveling in Corsica and broke his clay pipe, so he asked a peasant to make him a wooden one. The peasant made it from the root of a local shrub called “briar,” presumably because the wood does not ignite easily. The officer brought his new, wooden pipe back to France, and an industry was born.
Thus, the art of shaping pipes from briar wood is a relatively new skill, going back less than two centuries. Compare that with the art of making chests, cabinets, or chairs. The printed evidence for such crafts goes back to the 1700s, and the documentary evidence goes back millennia. Look for information in building a rocking chair or a curio cabinet, and you are deluged with information. Look for information on how to make a pipe, especially with hand tools, and you get much less.
Most briar pipes are shaped on lathes and refined on grinding/sanding equipment. There is some file work in tight spots, but most pipe makers rely heavily on machines for the bulk of the work. There are, however, many makers of “freehand” pipes, mostly artsy creations of no predetermined shape. Freehand pipe makers sell their work at a premium, so I suppose they have little incentive to reveal their methods.
There are a few classic texts on briar pipes, which I am gathering and reading as time allows, but they are leaving me with a lot of unanswered questions about many of the details of the work. The internet has helped fill in some of the gaps, but I’m still having to figure out a lot of the details on my own. Being lathe-less, my work thus far has technically been “freehand.” I am currently working with a lot of rasps, files, and card scrapers, improvising work-holding techniques as I go. I don’t like the way most “freehand” pipes look, so I’ve been experimenting with a more traditional look, yet without the traditional shaping techniques.
I don’t yet know how my personal style is going to develop, but I already feel as though my work is sailing in uncharted waters. For a beginning craftsman, that’s not a comforting feeling.
Filed under: Musings, Tobacco Pipes
I have never regretted being picky about my stock selection at the lumberyard, but I have sometimes regretted not being picky enough. When faced with stacks and stacks of construction lumber at a big box home center, however, it can be difficult to find stock that is straight enough and clear enough for use in furniture. Digging through the pile at random is a waste of time. Instead, there are important clues that will tell you where to dig.
First, look at the end grain on each end of the pile.
In pine, boards from slow-grown trees have thinner growth rings closer together. These are desirable because closely-spaced rings make the wood stronger, but also because such wood has likely come from a larger tree with fewer knots.
The boards indicated above might be worth digging for. You would have to work around the pith in the top one, but the wood is quarter-sawn on each side of the pith, so this wide board might yield two narrower ones.
However, looking at the end grain at one point in a 16′ board won’t tell us much about what’s in the rest of the board. So we proceed to step two.
Second, look at the visible edge grain on the side of the pile.
This is a stack of 8′ boards. The two boards pointed out above show some promise. The grain is regular and relatively straight, and there are no knots visible anywhere along the length of either board. Time to start digging!
Yes, indeed, both boards are worth taking home! The one on the bottom has almost no defects at all, and the one on the top (on its edge next to the pile in the photo above) also has minimal flaws.
Here’s one more example of promising edge-grain:
Crooked edge grain indicates the presence of knots near the middle of the board, and even if the knots are small, the reversing grain will be difficult to plane. The boards indicated above, however, are worth looking at.
They turned out to have lots of usable wood in them.
Lastly, start down at the 16′ 2X12s.
The widest and longest boards come from the biggest trees and will tend to have fewer defects than the smaller boards. But don’t overlook the smaller dimensions. I’ve found 8′ 2X6s that were almost completely free of defects. As you walk past the piles, glance at the edge grain, and you’ll soon see some wood that catches your eye. Just steer clear of the 2X4s and 4X4s. Those tend to have the most defects.
Filed under: Wood and Woodwork