Friday, April 24, 2015

Why Use Wooden Hand Planes? A Craftsy Guest Post


I was recently invited to guest blog on Craftsy.com, a DIY educational site covering everything from quilting to cake decorating to woodworking. Despite being the stodgy traditionalist/suspicious New Englander that I am, I decided to give it a go. I’ll put something up about once a month or so and I’ll make sure to let you all know here when each Craftsy post is published.

Because they already have some good woodworking posts, I tried to think about what I may be able to offer that’s unique. I decided to start a series about wooden hand planes. The first in the series is titled, “Why Use Wooden Hand Planes?” Here's an excerpt:
"Why aren’t people flocking to wooden bodied planes like they do to old Stanleys? Is it because they are too crude to do fine work? Are they too tricky to use? Are they simply antiquated technology left in the dust of their metal bodied counterparts? Are these things even worth messing with?"
Check out the post and let me know what you think. Do any of you guys use wooden hand planes in your work? Do have any arguments for or against to add to my post?

In this series I plan to cover restoring old ones, adjusting the cutting action, and more. Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Visit from an Itinerant Blacksmith


On one of my trips to the Tool Barn a while back I picked up a little hand wrought pry bar. If cut in half, it looked perfect to convert into two metal-toothed planing stops. I took it home and it’s sat on my shelf for a few months now. It wasn’t until I ran into my buddy, Drew, the other day that I made a plan to do something about it. Drew (besides being a third generation horse-powered farmer) is an accomplished farrier. He travels around to the peninsula’s horse farms trimming hooves and “shoeing”. I think of him as a rural equine podiatrist/blacksmith. When I was talking with him about this project, he mentioned that he had an appointment just down the road from my studio this Friday and offered to stop by.





Sure enough, Friday afternoon, that forge-on-wheels rolled up the driveway ready to go to work. Drew setup his gear and within minutes, the forge was already getting up to temperature. He cut the bar in half, tapered the shafts, and bent them to 90°. It was, of course, a relatively simple project but it was fun to watch him work out of the back of his van in my driveway.









After Drew left, I set out to install one in my bench. I got it most of the way driven into the block but ran out of time. It’s not quite flush to the top of the stop block yet. Sticks up a bit like the Felebien and Moxon benches. It works great but looks a little goofy. The teeth were cut with a saw sharpening file. It may be in my head but I think it holds a little better than my former saw plate version. I think the thinness of the saw plate doesn’t get quite enough purchase on the stock. Besides, hand wrought fixtures look legit.


Felebien's planing stop

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Refreshing Massachusetts Banter


Yesterday I took a trip down to MA to visit with my good friend Freddy. We spent time at his shop discussing work and Freddy showed me some of his favorite new tools while I snapped some pictures. After that we drove over to the Peabody Essex Museum to discover that the Gould exhibit is no longer on display. Whoops.  We decided to grab some lunch instead before heading over to Phil Lowe’s place.






When we arrived, Phil, Artie, and Freddy proceeded with the customary ribbing and banter. I enjoy watching these guys interact because it’s refreshing to see such a strong (practically familial) bond amongst fellow tradesmen. Phil was again generous with his time and sat down with me for a little while to let me ask him some questions for an upcoming project I’m working on. His answers were full and bursting with insight. It was a total treat to get that time with him.






It was a terrific trip all around: good friends, cool tools, and great furniture. These guys are such an inspiration. Next time I go back I’ll have to bring donuts from The Holy Donut and my home roast coffee again. (I brought an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Flores blend yesterday.) I’ve done this the last two times now and I seem to have developed a reputation as the coffee snob that brings the awesome donuts. I’ve set a precedent and now I’m obligated. A small price for great friendships.



Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Frame and Panel Chest Lid


When I built my tool chest last year, I seriously considered opting for a one wide board top like the vast majority of chests I’ve seen. I'm used to them and the construction process is stupid easy. The major downside is that no board that wide would stay still through the changing seasons. I anticipated constantly battling the lid being too tight or too loose. Though typical in traditional chests, I think this would drive me nuts so I opted to follow Chris’s advice and make the lid in a frame and panel style. Yeah, it’s a little fancier than necessary but, dang, it’s a good idea.

Every year as the seasons change I get calls from people telling me their furniture is acting weird. Drawers are stuck, veneer is popping off, etc. The radical fluctuations of relative humidity in these times do a real job on wooden furniture. I was curious to see how much (if any) my chest lid would move into and out of winter. Guess how much movement there was? Absolutely positively none. The lid performed exactly the same (air-whooshing friction fit) every single day since I installed the hinges. Honestly, I was really surprised at how well it worked.

I see a lot of wide boards warp and shrink in the objects in my studio. It’s par for the course. I appreciate the simplicity of a one board top but sometimes you just got stop friggin around and opt for deluxe. If you’re looking for a recommendation about whether you should invest the time in a frame and panel lid, you now know what I’ll say.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Hewing the Manuscript


Most of my blog posts are written after much thought has gone into them and usually they’re just the fruit of my meditation at work. By the time I open my computer to begin putting words to page I, for the most part, know where things are headed. This writing comes easy to me especially because I can’t usually be “wrong”... they’re just my thoughts about my work. When it comes to making statements about historical persons or events, however, more careful wordsmithing is required. As I have been working on the Fisher manuscript this winter, I have been forced to reckon with the demands of a whole new genre. I can’t just wing this one.

I’ve been wrestling with some questions in the process. How does one set out to build a competent and careful representation of Fisher by highlighting one particular aspect of his life work without distorting the whole picture? How does one become confident that they’ll provide enough (but not too much) background information about preindustrial furniture making trade practices, New England social relationships, eighteenth century academia, New England Calvinism, agrarian seasonal schedules, windmill technology, or broader stylistic influences ?

Here’s what I’ve come up with: you build a manuscript exactly like you build furniture. Start with a sketch, draw some plans, hew your stock, cut to length, refine the pieces, cut the joinery, and assemble.

Start the project by collating all of the miscellaneous facts you’ve gathered. Then make a Table of Contents and a descriptive paragraph for each chapter. Then start an outline for each chapter. This could be compared to having your plans drawn. Once you’ve got your plans, get out your hewing axe and begin taking those rough ideas and hacking them into something more manageable. Just start writing. Don’t stop to over-analyze it. You just gotta keep the flow going and get it out onto the page. This is the stage I am at right now and it ain’t pretty. I’m having the same reaction today’s woodworkers have the first time they approach freshly riven stock. It’s alarming that nothing’s even remotely flat or square. This is my manuscript today.

So I have been hewing out the chapters of my book. I’m making a mess and it doesn’t look like much but I know, like woodworking, that each step of the process is all about further refinement and eventually the pile of sticks begins to resemble something worthy of use.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Recognized for Anachronistic Authenticity


I’m not sure that most people would be honored by being pointed out for dogged adherence to outmoded work habits but I take it as a compliment. This is because the primary motivation behind my furniture making is historical research. I want to reproduce the preindustrial work process as close as I can in order to gain insights inaccessible through documentary sources alone. By reverse engineering historic furniture I can recreate the process, which in turn, helps me understand why the artifact is the way it is.

I know that’s not the reason most people choose to pick up plane, saw, and chisel. Some may want to express artistic creativity, others want to experience the satisfaction of developing manual dexterity, and others still take up the pastime for the DIY economic advantage. None of this interests me whatsoever.


Yesterday evening, I opened my email after work to discover an email from Early American Life. In it, I discovered that I have been selected for their 2015 Directory of Traditional American Crafts. As their website explains, “The Directory of Traditional American Crafts is an honor bestowed on a handful of artisans who work in traditional media, styles, and crafts. In addition the Directory is also a buying guide. It presents to you a selection of the best historically informed handwork in America today. The Directory will help you select the best furniture, pottery, ironwork, decorative objects, and more for period-correct decorating, collecting, or movie-making.”


For my application, I selected three projects for evaluation: Eden’s tavern table, my cabinetmaker’s tool chest, and a mahogany looking glass (which will be featured in an article in Popular Woodworking this August). I provided pictures for the judges and described the process and materials used based on historical precedent. Being listed in the Directory has been one of the goals I have been working towards as it is one of the few recognitions for true period authenticity. I am humbled and honored to receive this acknowledgment and I hope to only improve in skill and knowledge of period cabinetmaking. I am keenly aware of the many ways my work can improve but I can honestly say I’ve accomplished what I set out to do with each project: I’ve been able to stand in the shoes of the artisan of 200 years ago to understand a little bit better their thought process and ultimately the artifacts they produced. This sleeves-rolled-up research is what I’m all about anyway. It’s the best way I know to learn about our cultural heritage.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Futz if You Must


Although I often use scratch stocks in my repair work, there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of having just the right molding plane to replace a small piece on a project in the studio. None of my tools are of the fancy collector variety and some of them other most discriminating tool connoisseurs would pass by because they need occasional fiddling to get to work right.

Almost my entire tool set was picked by a man named Skip Brack, owner of Liberty Tool Company. As “users” from estate auctions and old sheds around New England, these are ready to be put in the hands of folks that appreciate them for what they were created to do. I so appreciate having these guys around and it’s a good feeling to carry their story a little further.


The moral of the anecdote is: Don’t be too picky about your tools. Futz if you must. Don’t beat yourself up that you can’t afford any of those primo infill planes. Lord knows I can’t and I get by just fine. I like my tools like I like my furniture: workmanlike but not extravagant.