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Every weekday until the February 1st opening of Issue Four pre-orders, we will be announcing one article from the table of contents here on the blog. If you have yet to sign up for a yearly subscription, you can do so here.
From time to time, wonderful anomalies turn up in the furniture record and the corner cupboards from the Swisegood School of cabinetmaking (early 19th c. North Carolina) are no exception. These cabinets are renowned for their peculiar drawer construction, each employing a single board steam bent at oblique angles to form both the sides and back.
While kerfed steam bending was ubiquitous among coffin makers of that time, it seems to be unparalleled in cabinetmaking which left me scratching my head a bit. Where did this technique come from? Why don’t any other cabinetmakers employ this solution? How hard would it be to replicate?
These were the questions swirling around in my head as I trekked out to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, NC to see this furniture first hand and later as I stood at my workbench trying to replicate the process. It wasn't all smooth sailing, but each "failure" along the way taught me something valuable about the process, and I feel as if I ended up re-discovering something unique and potentially worthwhile. This article is a chronicle of my journey into the world of the Swisegood School of cabinetmaking, and an open invitation to try this distinctive technique in your own workshop.
- Jim McConnell
You can reserve your copy of Issue Four here.
Every weekday until the February 1st opening of Issue Four pre-orders, we will be announcing one article from the table of contents here on the blog. If you have yet to sign up for a yearly subscription, you can do so here.
Soon after I proposed an article to Mortise & Tenon about making and using a straightedge I got a mild to middling case of cold feet. How, exactly, was I going to come up with enough material to fill more than a paragraph about this subject? After all, I’m just talking here about an implement than need do nothing more than find the shortest distance between two points! You don’t even need a straightedge to do that: Ancient Roman artisans simply “stringere linea fibra” (stretched a linen fiber) to accomplish that task.
A string line, however, severely lacks the convenience of the straight edge. The trick, though, is to make the latter properly. After all, a straightedge isn’t just a straight stick - it's a precision layout instrument. It didn’t take me long to realize how much unpacking I’d have to do to deal with the ins and outs of making this deceptively simple tool out of wood. Not only would I be addressing why a trued line is important to our design and layout work in the first place, but I would need to explain how to make it so it would reliably tell that truth.
Suddenly I’m immersed in telling how to select appropriate species; which way to orient the stock’s grain direction; why certain shapes are better than others; and what kind of finish is best. And I haven’t even got to talking about how to actually make the thing and true it up. Now I’m not so sure they’re going to be able to give me enough room in the magazine!
Editor’s Note: We absolutely did have room and the whole article is excellent! Can’t wait to share this with you readers!
You can reserve your copy of Issue Four here.
Pre-orders for Issue Four open on February 1st. If you’ve already signed up for a yearly subscription, you’re all set. If you haven’t yet subscribed and prefer to purchase each issue individually, remember that the free shipping offer is for pre-orders only. Also, when the Issue Four pre-order window closes after Wednesday, April 4th, the pre-order brown paper wrapping with tradecard will no longer be available. If you want to make sure to never miss this special wrapping, the best way is to sign up for a yearly subscription and select “Auto-renewing Subscription”.
Every weekday beginning today, we will announce one article from the Issue Four table of contents here on the blog. Stay tuned. There’s quite a mix of articles this time!
Without further ado, the first article we’re announcing is the one I put together about restoring wooden bench planes...
In 1937, Walter Rose wrote, “I do not think the tools such as were used in the days of my youth can be surpassed. Even admitting the excellence of the modern tools that are used by hand, the old joiner’s affection remains for the old style of tools. He feels a spirit of affinity in a plane made of warm beech that does not seem to exist for him in cold hard steel.”
If you’ve been paying close attention the past few years, you know I am a wooden plane convert. Even though I was trained on high-quality metal-bodied handplanes, I decided to switch over to old wooden planes a few years back. What started as a curious exploration, turned into a revelation. There are many reasons that I wouldn’t trade my wooden planes for any others and, although I discuss many of these in the article, my main focus is on selecting, restoring, and using these planes. This article is about as practical as they come because my goal is to empower you to dig up one of those crusty old planes in an antique store and tune them back into glorious use again.
In my view, it’s a shame that people seem to be intimidated by these simple blocks of wood with an iron. It’s like they think that there’s magic involved with tuning them but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In this article, I lay out the simple restoration steps that anyone can follow. I cover a handful of the most common adjustment problems and how I solve them quickly and easily.
Tuning an old wooden plane rarely takes me more than an hour. This is something you can do and so I hope this article inspires you to dive in. If you are intrigued by the idea of hand-tool-only woodworking but only have hefty, metal planes to slug around, you should hear me out. Wooden planes (especially fore planes) are game-changing.
You can reserve your copy of Issue Four here. Stay tuned for the second article announcement tomorrow…
This episode of our podcast is the first to feature a guest. Since our friend, Ben Strano of Fine Woodworking, was up in our neck of the woods this week, we invited him to join us in a discussion about the importance of hand skills and making things with personal meaning. And because Ben is not only a passionate woodworker, but he is a tech-nut, we also discussed how both print and digital media support those two vital things for this next generation of woodworkers. Ben describes his work behind the scenes at Fine Woodworking and tells us about what it’s like working with the woodworkers he looks up to most.
It’s still hard for me. After hours of working on a small cupboard for my wife this Christmas, I brought the pile of parts to my eight- and three-year-old boys to help me assemble it. I lined up all the parts just so and started the nails in their places before nervously handing them hammers. Every little boy I’ve ever known loves hitting things with hammers.
Back and bottom boards I have no problem with – it’s the top that makes me nervous. As they drove the parts together, I had opportunity to teach them how to control the hammer’s swing so as not to dent the surface below. Despite our best efforts, the top got a bit dented. By setting the nails below the surface and planing out the dents, I easily erased most of the damage. I did, however, leave the faintest reminder of the boys’ earnest swings. These are their fingerprints.
A small pine cat I carved for our seven-month-old
My wife and I have always loved making things and when we give gifts to our kids, we try to give something from our hands and from our hearts. It is an amazing experience seeing joy and gratitude on the face of your child after you’ve spent time creating something specially made for them. My boys are used to this kind of gift giving and look forward to making things for others.
Julia and I like to gift this way to each other too. If we aren’t making something with our own hands, we either end up finding beautiful handmade items at antique stores or providing each other the tools or materials to continue the making habit. This is our family’s way of severing ourselves from the destructive cycle of insatiable consumerism that runs deep in our culture. In our family, we try to gift simply and thoughtfully.
It’s not that purchasing new shiny things is always bad. There are products on the market that we cannot make ourselves. There are high-integrity businesses that make quality goods and my conscience is clear supporting them. Saddleback Leather is a prime example of a company we love. While we can’t afford to purchase many items from them, we’ve saved up throughout the years in order to purchase a few of their multi-generational-quality items. This is business at its best.
But more often than not, we make our gifts. Until you’ve experienced the joy of handmade gifting yourself, it’s hard to understand the rationale. For those accustomed to the convenience of Amazon.com and other retail giants, the transition to handmade can be hard. It takes a lot of time. It takes tools, energy, and skill. But these are exactly the things my family values. Teaching our boys hand skills empowers them for their future. They are growing up believing it’s normal to design a gift for a loved one, acquire the appropriate materials, and spend time crafting it.
Another side benefit is that it keeps gifting sane. Purposing to make by hand limits our giving to a reasonable quantity. Rather than heaping piles of disposable goods on our loved ones, giving a thoughtful handmade gift is something that is worth passing on to future generations. These are always the most personal gifts. As I examine the things we’ve made for each other over the years, I see love, thoughtfulness, and growth in skill. I think that’s a tradition worth continuing.
After extolling the virtues of metal planes a few months ago, I began to wonder if I had truly given wooden planes their due. I have had a hard time finding usable wooden planes locally, and so in a fit of curiosity I emailed Joshua to see if he could put a set of wooden bench planes together for me to use in the shop.
I had a good excuse. As part of an article I’m writing an article for Mortise & Tenon issue four I’ll be re-creating some pre-industrial techniques as part of a build and I wanted to limit myself to working with the tools that would have been available to the original craftsmen. Wooden planes fit the bill here, but I knew that in order to learn to work with them efficiently I was going to have to put my metal planes away for a while.
Here’s the thing. I did put them away, and honestly I haven’t missed them all that much.
I should start by saying that I still believe most of the things that I wrote about metal planes are true. They’re precise, reliable and plentiful, and I think that one of the best arguments they have going for them is that anyone getting into hand tools is likely to be able to find one and get it up and running quickly. Not only that, but even as a complete hand tool novice I was taking wispy shavings with my $20 restored Stanley no.5 within hours of finding it languishing in an antique store. There are reasons that metal planes replaced wooden planes.
Still, it is possible that not all of those reasons are important to everyone, and there are good reasons to use wooden planes if they call to you. They’re not just for anachronists and fancy lads.
The set that Joshua sent took me only a few minutes to tune and a few days to get used to using. I did flatten the sole of the smoother, but otherwise I just sharpened the blades and went to town. The learning curve wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined. Thanks to some excellent instruction from Richard Maguire I was up and running in very short order.
On a halfway decent wooden plane, setting the blade isn’t rocket science. It does take a few tries until you begin to hear the differences in taps, and it takes a little faith to think that whacking the plane here or there actually does anything, but within a week I was instinctively adjusting the plane with no trouble at all. I’ve only had one hitch in the whole process - learning to properly hold the plane to joint edges - and I think I’ve overcome that. The planes do react to heat and humidity, so I have to remember to check the settings when they’ve been sitting in the cold shop overnight, but honestly, I would do that anyway.
I feel like I’m writing a little bit of a conversion story, but here’s what I love about them: they’re light, they’re efficient and they’re a blast to use. There’s something a little wild and free about them and that reminded me of one of the reasons I took to hand tools in the first place. They eschew some of the cast iron precision of machined perfection, but in skilled hands they produce work that is no less beautiful. My hands are getting used to them and so is my heart.
We’ve just uploaded Episode 4 of our podcast which is centered around sourcing lumber for furniture making. In reality, Mike and I both source our wood from all sorts of places. We harvest our own from the woods, use a lot of salvaged material, and also order from lumberyards. In our discussion, we go over the best way to store lumber for air drying (it’s simpler than you think).
You can listen to the whole episode above.
Links for this Episode:
Questions about this episode? We welcome your comments about how you source and store lumber...
A few quick things:
- First of all, Mike just completed a trailer for our new “Apprenticeship: Tables” video. This short trailer gives a quick walk-through of the chapters. You can check it out above.
- The press is almost done printing the “Tables” DVDs and so we expect to begin shipping them out very soon. Hang tight, folks. You should be seeing your DVD before the end of the month.
- We’ve received a number emails from folks asking about expedited Christmas delivery. While we don’t have shipping options listed on our website, if you really need expedited shipping service, please put in your order like normal and then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your order number immediately. We will check on the shipping difference and invoice for faster shipping right away. Our last shipment in time for Christmas delivery will be 24 hours from now: Wednesday morning. If you want to be absolutely sure to get your order before Christmas, do it now and email us for expedited shipping.
Thank you so much! Especially at this time of year our families are mindful of how blessed we are to have your support.
Podcast episode 3 is now up and can be listened to above. This time, Mike and I tackled one of the most common discussions we have with readers: how to get started on the hand-tool route. What change of mindset is needed to make the switch from power tools to hand tools? Should we be cutting practice joints? What are the biggest hurdles we encounter on this journey? We hope this episode is an encouragement to you to get into the shop to work with your hands. Have further questions? Leave us a comment and we’d love to help. Thanks for listening!
As I guarded our “Apprenticeship : Tables” video while it exported and uploaded (at rural Maine internet speeds, this can take many hours), I reflected on a phrase that Joshua and I have heard quite often as we represent M&T at various woodworking shows and events.
If you’re a hand-tool woodworker, you’ve probably heard it before. I’ll present the scenario: You might be giving a tour of your humble workshop to an acquaintance, or showing a little side table you made to some friends. You get a smile and some complimentary words. Further conversation uncovers the fact that you build using only hand tools. You sheepishly confess that you don’t even own a router.
The whole tone of the encounter changes, as if you’ve admitted to not having indoor plumbing or that you go without shoes during a New England winter. There may be a rueful shake of the head, a low whistle, and then (wait for it) here’s the phrase:
“That’s a labor of love, for sure.”
We, of course, know what they mean. They mean that we are quaintly idealistic, engaged in this outdated and labor-intensive pursuit – emphasis on “labor”. It is simply romanticism, a thing whose time has come and gone with the advent of the industrial age and, you know, AC power that comes right into your house. Hand-tool woodworkers work harder, not smarter, apparently.
The obvious answer to this statement is always a loaded one. It will either lead to a deep engagement about the whole mindset behind hand tool use, or will just awkwardly end the conversation.
“Well, it is.”
The last time I heard Joshua use this answer, it accomplished the latter. The man watched a couple more chops with the mortise chisel and sauntered off.
A couple of questions implicit in this statement might be drawn out by a more persistent individual. Questions that can engage our 21st-century culture with both a wide focus, and a narrow one.
(Wide) Is the whole point of technology to make life easier? And, are we better for it?
(Narrow) Why labor at something you don’t love?
The wide focus is more of a societal soul-searching. I’m not going to begin to tackle that one here.
The narrow one is better fodder for an individual’s rainy day thoughts. That’s where I’m going.
I’ve found myself digging into this one many times over the years. Rather than applying it to a current vocation or life decisions, I’m thinking strictly in terms of woodworking. Frankly, as we’ve said often, using a table saw or router table can be terrifying (and should be) . It wakes my kids up at night. It makes my basement workshop look like the surface of the moon.
Sawing by hand, as Jim eloquently expresses, is work. Rather than using nuclear or coal-plant powered machinery, though, I am cutting boards on pumpkin-pie power (‘tis the season). Those boards are surfaced with a 150-year-old plane that I bought for $9. There is a tactile connection to the work that using old tools (worn down by the hands of the past) and old methods brings. Technology may seek to offer a more precise surface, or make a process certain and predictable with a minimum of skill necessary. But at what cost?
Working wood with hand tools generates sweat. Sure, there’s labor involved. But we love it.
If you love this kind of work like we do, we think our new "Tables" video will be right up your alley. "Apprenticeship : Tables" is now available for digital streaming and the DVD will be shipping soon. This has been a long time coming, and we're delighted to finally have it out. Hope you enjoy it!
At long last, this “Tables” video is done and in our store. Mike has been laboring over this thing for a long time now perfecting each transition and tweaking each clip to get everything just right. I am blown away. It turned out better than I even envisioned. If you enjoyed watching our “Foundations” video, we think you will love this sequel.
This “Tables” video focuses on pre-industrial table construction. Rather than simply demonstrate each different operation of table making and its variations, we decide the best way to teach is in the context of a build. For this reason, I chose a table that has many of the construction variables one is likely to find in period work. The table is a pine “kitchen” table with tapered legs, a single drop leaf, H-stretchers, and a drawer. During the editing process, when we wrote down all the chapters and topics covered, Mike and I were surprised to see how much ground we were able to cover in this video. (No wonder it took us so long!)
Here are the time stamps for the video:
00:04:29 The Table Form
00:16:48 Stock Prep
00:52:04 Table Joinery
01:14:13 Tapering the Legs
01:46:47 Scratch Stocks
02:03:17 Turning Drawer Knobs
02:23:07 Final Assembly
02:26:53 The Drawer
02:37:32 Dovetailing the Drawer
02:55:07 Fitting the Drawer
03:05:07 Leaf Hinges
03:07:06 Rule Joint
03:08:01 Painting the Table
03:11:50 Burnt Shellac
03:19:23 Fastening the Top
03:21:12 Pocket Screws
03:23:29 Final Finishing Details
03:26:14 Leveling the Feet
You can purchase the new video here. The streaming version is available for immediate viewing (download option will be ready later this evening). The DVDs are in production now and we are expecting their delivery mid-December. We will ship them out as soon as we get them.
We are so proud to offer this video series and hope you find it an inspiration for your shop time.
Our new podcast episode is up and can be listened to above. In this episode, Mike and I discuss the relationship between tradition and innovation in our woodworking culture. This topic is near to our hearts and something we talk about often. Based on our interactions with readers about this over the past few years, this conversation touches on defining “tradition” and “innovation”, the advantages to one over the other, and how our individual and personal motivations for woodworking inform the way that balance plays out in our lives.
Theme Music by: Austin V. Papp and Jesse Thompson
Comments, Questions? Leave your thoughts below!
Sometimes it’s important to remember to not take yourself too seriously. It’s no surprise that we here at M&T are wildly passionate about hand-tool woodworking. We eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff and work hard to inspire others to “cut the cord” along with us.
It’s good to be able to laugh at yourselves sometimes too, though. Because of our reputation for being zealous for pre-industrial woodworking, we thought this spoof sticker would be a great way to have a little fun. As you may know, the classic “Kill Your Television” sticker epitomizes paranoid anti-technology fanaticism. The radicals that adopt this slogan swear that the downfall of modern society is catalyzed by mind-numbing tube worship. It seems, for them, that all modern ills can somehow be brought back to the television.
One could argue that the woodworking equivalent is the table saw. If ever there was a machine scapegoat for hand-tool enthusiasts to deride, the table saw would be it. They often point out the inherent danger of the tool and usually credit its existence for the degradation of skilled workmanship. This sticker was designed for these zealots.
In all truth, I do have a serious aversion to table saws and am happy I never have to use them. If you agree and would like to fly your hand-tool flag, let this sticker be it.
You can get yours here.
After ripping fifty feet of 6/4 Southern yellow pine by hand the other day I sat down to give my arm a rest and I snap a picture for social media. It wasn’t long before a friend commented on my post that there is, in fact, such a thing as electricity these days and I was welcome to use his table saw. Curiously, I had no urge to take him up on it.
I’m the first to admit that my shop is hand-tool centered, but not exclusive. I have a few machines for specific purposes - a powered lathe, drill press and bandsaw. The lathe and drill press I make no apologies for. I love them. I am sometimes tempted to equivocate about owning a bandsaw, but I find it very useful in processing green wood for bowl turning and the occasional resaw. Most everything else is hand work.
At Mortise & Tenon we are unabashedly about exploring the possibilities of hand tools and hand work. We try not to be pretentious. We know we don’t live in the 18th century and freely admit that we wouldn’t be able to publish as we do without modern technology, but at the same time we want to encourage people to discover the joy of pre-industrial woodworking and to understand that these tools and techniques aren’t necessarily as slow as we moderns make them out to be. If anything, pre-industrial woodworking is full of efficiencies we might readily overlook.
The fore plane is a great example of this sort of efficiency, but admittedly, the rip saw is not.
I’m generally not working to anyone’s timetable but my own, and I enjoy the exercise of ripping down boards when I’m not in a rush, but there are still times I look at a pile of lumber and sigh, knowing what’s ahead. Practice equals speed with many hand tool techniques, but this is one place where almost anyone will admit that hand tools earn their reputation as slower than their mechanical counterparts. Sawing is work, and no matter how ripped you are, ripping a pile of long boards, even with the sharpest of hand saws, is not as efficient as running lumber through a bandsaw or table saw. At least, not in the way that we generally think of efficiency.
Standardized tests train you to think in hours per person per units of work, and this kind of equation makes it feel like picking up a hand saw is the equivalent of wasting one of the above variables. This logic may make sense in professional cabinet shops today, and even in pre-industrial shops of centuries past, but if you’re not totaling person/work/hours to write out paychecks or feed your family, what’s an extra day on a project intended to last decades? And honestly, of all the things that slow most of us down (or keep us from finishing projects entirely), ripping stock by hand isn’t very high on the list.
In my workshop I’m rarely on anyone’s payroll, and I welcome the challenge of handling rough stock in this way. I enjoy the test of sawing to the line. I relish the meditative rhythm of the teeth through the wood. I like feeling physically tired at the end of the day, because after hours of other stressful pursuits, it feels good for the soul.
Ripping stock by hand may represent an “inefficiency” in some ways, but once I admitted that to myself and decided that I wasn’t at all bothered by the idea, it was a short path to finding joy in it. In any case, I’ll make up the time with the fore plane and that’s an equation I can live with.
- Jim McConnell, content editor
Mike and I have resisted for a while now (too many commitments already) but finally feel able to commit to periodic podcasting. You can listen to the first episode above and look for future installments here on the blog or at our SoundCloud page. Feel free to offer your feedback below. We’d love to hear your thoughts.
In this episode, we talk about the shipping out of our new Issue (#3) as well as the new book in our store: Zachary Dillinger’s With Saw, Plane & Chisel as well as two new stickers (one of which is soon to be revealed).
We then discuss the progress on our new timber frame workshop.
There is also an excerpt of our recent Ask M&T YouTube video “What is a Fore Plane?”
Because of a wind storm that knocked the power out this week (stalling progress on the Tables video edit), Mike and I have been working on sheathing the shop the past few days. We are just about finished with the first floor and we have one of the gable ends upstairs complete. This part of the project has been fun as we are able to work to carpentry tolerances rather than furniture tolerances.
This is no normal carpentry job, though. Choosing the right board for each spot has definitely made this a slower process because we’ve got all kinds of random lengths and widths (often tapering) to work with, not to mention the waney edges and ragged ends. We are also selecting the most attractive (and wide) boards for the more prominent areas in the shop. Needless to say, each board selection is the result of careful consideration of many factors before we do the custom shaping to fit the adjacent board.
We know we’ve still got a long way ahead of us until the shop is complete but each step is an exciting glimpse of it taking shape.
Mike and I just posted a new installment of our YouTube series: “Ask M&T”. In this video, we cover one of the most frequent questions we get online or at shows: What is a fore plane? Mike recounts his early struggles with hand tools using a little block plane to remove bulk material and eventually realized he was using the wrong tool for the job. What he needed was the coarse roughing tool called a fore plane. In this video, we explain why we believe this tool is absolutely essential for every hand-tool woodworker.
We then touch on the history of the terms “fore” plane, “jack” plane, and “scrub” plane and explain our preference for the wooden version. There is also some discussion about where to get them and what to look for.
The three key features of a fore plane are:
- 16” length (give or take a couple inches)
- Convex iron
- Wide open mouth
Enjoy the video and send us more questions for future installments!
A little while back, wooden planemaker, Jeremiah Wilding contacted me to get some feedback on a plane he was developing. He had been fine tuning a “Yankee” style fore plane and wondered if I could give it a test run. This plane was a joy to use. Because of the precision of his workmanship and the lack of warpage (from a century of neglect) this plane adjusted easily and predictably—a luxury not every antique plane offers.
Wilding explained that the “Yankee” style planes lacked carved eyes and had rounded edge chamfers and flat end chamfers. It’s a simple and classy look that I quite like. The plane Jeremiah sent me was made of maple and was 15-3/4” long with a 2” single iron.
The thing about this plane I love over others that I’ve seen on the market is the small, off-center tote, much like many 18th-century examples. This is very similar to Jonathan Fisher’s tote and enables me to comfortably use a two-fingered grip as my pinky lays down the side of the plane. I’ve found this grip to be incredibly helpful when doing stock prep. The standard 19th-century shape (with its high center of gravity) and centered position honestly feels a bit awkward to me now. I’ve brought my Fisher plane copy and a standard 19th-century wooden plane around to woodworking shows and just about everyone that compared the two in use lit up and told me that they completely agreed: this tote (and grip) is much more comfortable. As I was testing Jeremiah’s plane, I felt much at home. For me, this is the biggest selling point of this plane. You’ve simply got to try this tote. It’s incredible.
Drop Wilding an email to order one of his incredible planes. If you don’t have a wooden fore plane, you don’t know what you’re missing.
We’ve got a brand new book in our store! Although we don’t typically carry other publishers’ books, Zach Dillinger’s “With Saw, Plane & Chisel” is so in line with the vision of M&T, that it would be crazy for us to not to stock it. Many of you read our interview with Zach in Issue Two in which we discussed period furniture reproduction and authenticity of craft process. This guy’s approach to woodworking is uncannily close to our own.
Every time I think about writing another book I imagine how I’d describe period techniques and tolerances. I would show what amount of tear-out is acceptable and in which areas. I’d walk through the construction of different forms to show how they can be built efficiently using only hand tools and then I’d probably even include a section discussing the heart of craftsmanship. Well, the good news is, I don’t have to write that book. Zach’s already done it.
You can purchase a copy of this incredible book here: