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Joel's Blog
Updated: 52 min 17 sec ago

The Marquestry Plane Shows Up In England 1760-1780

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 4:00am

In Febuary 2010 I wrote a three-part blog entry showing that the earliest illustrations and texts about the planes we call "mitre planes" were in the marquetry sections of various books. My theory was that these planes were most likely used for leveling and planing the surfaces of marquetry panels and materials. The exotic woods used in marquetry are sometimes very hard and can easily tear up the soles of any wooden plane. You can read my blog here, here, and here.

David Lundqvist, a woodworker who lives in Sweden, just sent me a "missing link" in support of my thinking. The painting above, called "Die Ebenisten" [The Marqueters], was painted by Elias Martin in England between 1768-80. The painting shows two marquetry journeymen, George Haupt and Christopher Frloh (anglicised as Furlong), working for John Linell in London. I'll talk in a moment about why two Swedish journeyman were in London, but first focus your eyes on the metal plane located pretty much in the middle of the painting.

I think this is the earliest contemporary image of what we now call a mitre plane in England, and it comes just before the period when plane makers such as Gabriel and Moon were entering the metal plane market. The plane itself doesn't look dovetailed and seems to follow the European technique of brazing the body to the sole; admittedly the scan I have isn't perfectly clear, so I am not positive about this. David's research on Swedish cabinet makers led him to this painting. David also found two contemporary citations of the phrase "Rabot du Ebniste," or "Marqueter's plane" -- not "plane of iron," the term that the few earlier references in marquetry tool pages use for these planes, nor "mitre plane," a later term that shows up around 1820. We finally have both visual proof and documentation that the plane was recognized as a marquetry plane, not a mitre plane. Well done, David!!!

Another interesting question is why two Swedish marquetry journeyman were in England in the first place. My assumption was that England at the time was starting its rapid economic expansion with the advent of the Empire and the Industrial Revolution. The country was growing in wealth and an attendant demand for European-trained craftsman to create fancy furniture for the country's nouveau riche. David took a different approach in answering this question. David observed that by the middle of the eighteenth century the closed guild system of crafts, which was still thriving in Continental Europe, was starting to vanish in England. The craft guilds - groups of master craftsman in England - still certified new masters and still gave a seal of approval, but no longer had the power, legal or otherwise, to restrict trade. They were mostly social societies for the richer craft classes. Anyone could be a cabinetmaker, and a cabinetmaker could set up shop and hire apprentices. The loosening of the guild restrictions allowed new ideas to mature, which attracted talented immigrants. New blood and ideas became established in England, along with employment and training for immigrants. Trained Swedish craftsman could find good work and advancement in England, and not have to fight to get guild permission back home.

The painting currently hangs in the National Museum in Stockholm.

Joel's Blog Ten Ways I am Doing Things Differently - Part 4

Wed, 11/08/2017 - 4:00am

I've been working with wood since I was a kid. I took my first woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y when I was 6 years old. I've been taking classes and building stuff for over 35 years. For the last 17 I have been working at Tools for Working Wood. In that time, new tools and new techniques have come on the market. By and large I have ignored them in my personal work. However, I haven't ignored everything, and my methods of work have in certain areas changed dramatically for the better. I've broken up my list of ten things into three posts so I don't drone on and on to long. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here

The Moxon Vise

As I have gotten older it's been harder and harder for me to see anything. And bending over isn't much fun either. This isn't a joke. Sawing joints has always been problematic for me and I currently wear magnifying glasses for any close work. My bench (Frank Klausz style made over 30 years ago) is the right height for just about everything except cutting dovetails. It's just too low. So I hunch over thinking "there must be a better way." About ten or so years ago I found out about Jeff Miller's Bench on Bench. I built one and it was a big step in the right direction. Basically a Bench on Bench was a little table you put on top of your main bench and it has a double vise in the front.

Then along came the "Moxon Vise" popularized by Christopher Schwarz. The vise gets it's name from Joseph Moxon's "Mechanick Exercises" But as I wrote last week the actual connection between the wood press illustrated in Moxon's book and how the Moxon vise is used to today is at best tenuous.

Many vendors now sell complete vises or just hardware kits. We used to offer the entire vise but currently we are only offering hardware kits which we are very pleased with. Our kit came about initially from a joint project with the . They came up with the ears on the sides, a cambered jaw, and the little shelf for clamping tails during layout. We added acme screws, washers, big nuts that don't wear out their mortises and spin, and handles that can be moved out of the way. You can read all about how to design your own Moxon Vise here.

The big reason the Moxon Vise made my list of ten is that I feel that by raising the overall height of where I saw I can see better, bend over less, and the whole process feels so much less jury-rigged. I am sawing better and more accurately - partially at least because I can see what I am doing , but also with the work clamped pretty low in the vise I can still easily saw uphill and have the work solid and vibration free. Not to mention my posture is better and it's less tiring.

The picture above is me in the middle of sawing out tails using one of the showroom / class benches where we have fitted Moxon vises at each end.

So that's my list of ten ways my work has changed. I hope to be able to say in a few years that my skills have gotten better, that I am still learning, and maybe have an even better list.

Has your woodworking changed over the years too? I welcome your comments.

Where Moxon Got His Mojo

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:00am

For over a decade I've been looking for a copy I could afford of Andre Felibien's masterwork, "Des Principes de l'Architecture, de la Sculpture, de la Peinture et des ..." [Principles of Architecture, Sculpture, Painting and ..] A copy finally popped up on the internet and I grabbed it. I have been spending the last week studying it. The book is well known, and you can get a scan on Google books here. I collect books. While it's wonderful to be able to read the book online from practically anywhere, I find having a real book in front of me is far more satisfying. The book's woodworking section starts at page 170, with all the plates are in the following pages.

There are several editions of the book, the first from 1676. This is the book that Joseph Moxon used to copy drawing from when he published the woodworking section of "Mechanick Exercises" two years later in 1678. If you haven't read Moxon, we stock the Lost Art Press version, or you can read the 1703 third edition here.

Moxon's "Mechanick Exercises" is important because it is the first book in English that tries to be a handbook on how to make things. Beginning in 1677, every few months or so Moxon released a chapter on a different subject. Blacksmithing, carpentry, house-righting were a few of the topics. In 1683, after a hiatus of several years while England was in turmoil, Moxon resumed the series, this time writing about something he know about personally: printing and typemaking. Whereas Felibien's book was really an encyclopedia of tools and objects - this is a hammer, this is a nail - Moxon pioneered the "How-to." The point of Felibien's book, in my view, was to give rich, educated people the ability to find out the basics of the world around them. Studying Plato at University was fine and dandy, but an educated person should not be confused by the real life going around them.

Moxon took it a step further. "Mechanick Exercises" tells a little about the tools; instead, it instructs. Here is the way to grind a tool, how to chop a mortise, etc. Fairly short in length, and written by someone who was far from an expert or a craftsperson in anything except printing, the book falls short of being comprehensive. But Moxon gets full marks or trying, and it's exciting to read his result.

It is pretty obvious - and has been known for a long time - that Moxon used Felibien as a source for all his tool illustrations. Seeing the original engravings started me thinking. First of all, if Moxon's book used French pictures, then one can assume that what is in Moxon are actually drawings of French tools. And in fact, many of the few surviving English tools from that era look different than the tools illustrated in Mechnick Exercises.

Another point I am pondering: the vise that we now call a Moxon Vise is hanging off in space on the side of the workbench, but are shown much larger hanging on the wall in Felibien's workshop. I love my Moxon Bench because the modern incarnation sits on top of my bench, raising the height for dovetailing and other joinery. But Moxon doesn't mention it in the text and neither book shows the vise in a modern usages. Felibien calls it a wood press, or vise, but that's doesn't help much, although the size of the vises in his book suggest that they were used for clamping things together, not as a vise raiser.

Probably the most obvious conclusion I can reach from comparing the photos is that Moxon really did a crappy job. The images are all crammed together on one plate, and two of the tools - the workbench and the frame saw - are cut off at the edge. The engravings are crude compared to Felibien's.

How were the engravings done? And who was the engraver? We really don't know. At the time of publication, Moxon was a successful printer so he would have had staff, but he also probably had enough skill to do the not-so-great engravings himself. I consulted by phone with my friend Jeff Peachey, a noted book conservator (who hasn't seem this copy in the flesh yet) His guess is that the engraver (whoever it was) just propped up the Felibien up and then directly sketched out the tool images on the copper plate. This would explain why the images are all reversed in the final print. We suspect the engraver might have used some sort of optical aid to help with the copying on some of the images. Moxon's image are greatly reduced in size from the original French ones, probably because he was trying to fit about 4 pages of tools onto one smaller page. That being said, and the reason why I suspect the involvement of an aid of a sort, is that planes drawings are a pretty good copy of the original image, but one of the saws is missing a little off the right side. The problematic saw would have been the last one engraved if the engraver worked from left to right (as you would if you were right handed). I think that if he was drawing freehand and just using the book as a reference he would have scaled it to fit. As it is it looks like he was in a rush, started off doing a pretty good engraved copy, but then ran out of space. Some of the smaller tools are pretty crude, as if he didn't see the need for a careful copy. The biggest change from Felibien is on the workbench. The wood press on the wall became something hanging in front of Moxon's bench. One interesting fact is that Moxon's bench has a hook front on the left and Felibien's doesn't. This suggests that Moxon might have copied the images but he was trying at least on some level to do more than just condense and copy a picture.

While I find the facts of the case interesting, and speculation on how the books came about fun, the real thrill for someone like me who loves history is just seeing these real-live books together. We don't know for sure how Moxon got the idea for "Mechanick Exercises," but I can tell you it is very possible that being a printer he had a copy of the French book soon after publication in 1676 and got the brainwave to take it one step further. I know when I was looking at Felibien and starting to understand some of the text, I found myself wondering: Okay, I know it's a woodpress, but describing it isn't enough. How do you use it? And, nice chisels! What do you use them for?

I guess that's the same question Moxon asked himself. But unlike me, he got off his duff and published a book about it.

Industry City Wants a Handout as it Kills Woodworking Jobs

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 4:00am

I spent this morning at NYC's Department of City Planning exercising some civic duty - participating in a rezoning meeting. Industry City, my former landlord, wants to get a zoning change for its large Brooklyn complex which is currently zoned for industry and manufacturing, enabling it to have more retail, commercial and office space, and a hotel.

Their main public argument is that they have pumped millions into the complex, which has about 6.5 million square feet of space, and have increased the number of tenant businesses from a hundred or so to over 450 tenants, and they want to continue expanding.

I decided to testify because Industry City is extremely savvy and great at public presentations. They typically frame their approach as that of job creation and opportunity. Very clever! Who would be against this? Politicians and other civic leaders generally don't hear from people like me (and meetings that take up hours in the middle of the day are not going to attract many small business owners). My main point was that you can build commercial and retail space almost anywhere else in the city, but there is a real shortage of industrial spaces. Industry City in general doesn't like real industrial companies. When I moved to the complex in 2007, there were - by their count - over 60 cabinet shops. That's a lot of woodworkers and for us, potential customers. Now there are way fewer, and my customers are disappearing to places outside of NYC. Slowly but surely the infrastructure that makes our business, and in fact any hardware or lumber business viable, is vanishing. At some point critical mass will be gone.

Industry City was acquired by new owners a few years ago, and to their credit they did invest money in the buildings. As folks who visited us back in the old space might remember, we had only a freight elevator, and if you came when the operator was on lunch, you earned bragging rights to the 5 story stair climb. Our wires were all exposed. The new owners put in an elevator, improved the wiring and made many cosmetic improvements. These improvements warrant rental increases, but that is not what animated the sale.

Instead, it was the hope of a handout. In NYC, zoning restrictions mean that landlords and property owners cannot do whatever they wish with a property. Industrially zoned land is the cheapest kind of land in the city, relative to other uses (residential, commercial, mixed). The restrictions depressed the valued of the complex, which was reflected of course in the sales price. As new owners, the new Industry City team spent millions not only on building improvements, but also on lobbying to get pesky rules - their zoning restrictions - waived.

I thought it was important to remind the City Planning Commission about a few salient points. Industry City might brag about jobs that they say they "created," but they aren't actual job creators. The jobs that are now in Industry City now were mostly moved from other parts of the city, or would have been created in other parts of the city. This is not true of the manufacturing jobs. Losing industrial space means losing industrial jobs like cabinetmaking and set building, both of which have made a steady march upstate or out of state. Creating more commercial and retail space, which could go almost anywhere, out of rare industrial space seems like a bizarre goal given the large number of vacant storefronts NYC now has because of on-line shopping.

Another important point for the City to consider. Most of the investment money for IC and other large developments comes from international sources. The results of their hoped-for windfall resulting from a rules change won't even stay local. The billionaire that makes the huge return isn't living in NYC, their taxes and donations will end up supporting some other place somewhere.

Did my comments make a difference? It's hard to know. Sometimes these public presentations are window dressing on decisions made long ago. But I don't regret speaking up on behalf of woodworkers and other industrial workers. If I don't, who will?

People all over the country read this blog and many of you will think - why don't you just move here - rent's cheap. But we like it here and if the Government would just enforce the zoning laws we have and not let any big company with a pile of dough for lobbyists challenge the law - we would be fine. All the industrial space in NYC is under constant attack from big investors and foreign money who know with a stoke of the pen they can make a killing.

Our jobs are at stake.

An Introduction to Hand Tools - The Instructor Confesses

Wed, 10/11/2017 - 4:00am

Tomorrow night (I am writing this on Monday evening, October 9th), I will be teaching dovetailing. This Saturday I will be teaching a free class called "Introduction to Hand Tools" for the first time. So I have teaching on my brain. I've taught the dovetailing class before, so I know what's on tomorrow night. It's the second session, and we'll be learning about body movement and sawing straight. This afternoon I checked to make sure that all the wood we need is ready, and Tuesday need to double check that class saws are ready to rumba.

It's the Saturday class that preoccupies me a bit. The class is in response to the many people over the years who have come to our showroom, for themselves or looking for a gift, who are trying to wrap their heads around the idea of using hand tools. They sincerely want to expand their horizons. Sometimes they are familiar only with what Home Depot stocks and hand held power tools. This applies to professionals and amateurs alike. Many are perplexed by the idea what you can actually build anything by hand. Of course, misconception about hand tools are formed by never seeing the tools in efficient operation. You can drill a hole with an electric drill even if the bit is dull and the drill is noisy. But it isn't patently obvious how to work a brace or a bit so it's fun. We have a reputation and a lot of showroom and warehouse space devoted to hand tools, so the curiosity is natural.

What can I do to give people what they've come to discover? I have to get and hold people's attention. I have to make hand tool skill look like obtainable. I have to show the distinction between cheap knockoff tools that don't work well and quality hand tools. And - particularly for the amateurs - I have to show that the basic operations of woodworking by hand, operations that can be performed in a small apartment or shop, don't have to be painful, and can result in good results.

I try to be practical, not (just) philosophical.

I should teach how to measure accurately but I am afraid it isn't sexy enough to keep a class engaged. People want to see sawdust!

I think I want to teach people how to start a cut with a handsaw. That's a big problem people have. They try cutting something and since they can't start the saw they never get to the joyous moment when they can advance easily through the wood.

I think I want to teach people how to set a hinge because that gives me a chance to demonstrate marking out and chiseling to a line. And it's easier than setting up a router.

I think I want to show people how to clamp their work. It's not very sexy but it's pretty useful. I know some tricks with a few clamps that let you set up anywhere even at the kitchen table.

I will have to plane something - wood shavings are sexy. And if I rub the shavings on the wood I can show a wonderful burnished surface.

And of course I plan to drill a big hole with a brace and bit, showing how to not splinter out at the end and also how a ratchet brace really helps with those large holes.

I think that's all I can do in a couple of hours. My main goal, of course, is to inspire. I hope that at least a few of the attendees will look at what I am doing, try it themselves and then go home, take the plunge and start building stuff.

If you are in the area this Saturday, you're invited to the class! For more details click here.

Ten Ways I am Doing Things Differently - Part 3

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 4:00am

I've been working with wood since I was a kid. I took my first woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y when I was 6 years old. I've been taking classes and building stuff for over 35 years. For the last 17 I have been working at Tools for Working Wood. In that time, new tools and new techniques have come on the market. By and large I have ignored them in my personal work. However, I haven't ignored everything, and my methods of work have in certain areas changed dramatically for the better. I've broken up my list of ten things into three posts so I don't drone on and on here. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here

CBN Wheels

When I was I school, we would go out of our way not to grind anything. The grinding wheel was smooth, the sharpening jig was very hard to set up, and without exercising extreme care, burning the tool was the norm. Around 2003 or so, Barry Iles of Ashley Iles Edge Tools taught me how to grind like a pro. (I later wrote about this technique for Fine Woodworking magazine and on my blog. This was a revelation for me and I started hollow grinding everything. Most of my sharpening kit became unnecessary. I helped develop the Norton 3X wheels which use seeded gel technology for cooler grinding, and they were a big step forward too. Then a few years ago I heard about CBN wheels, which are aluminum wheels with CBN crystals bonded to them. This innovation was great. The new wheels ran cooler than the 3X wheels and required no maintenance. No dressing or anything! The only trade-offs that I can think of are that they cost a lot more than regular wheels; you can't use them for non-ferrous metals (they clog); and they don't have the crown that Barry Iles showed me makes grinding so easy. I had some crowned CBN wheels made and I was sold! The non-ferrous problem is solved by changing only one wheel on a grinder to CBN. The cost is still, understandably, a deterrent to lots of people, but if you have the budget I cannot imagine why you would not switch.

The next couple of items are all tied together in how I make joints now vs thirty years ago.

Pistol Grip Saws

I learned on gent's saws. Gent's saws have two advantages for beginners: they are inexpensive and they are easier to use than a lot of other options. By easier to use, I mean easier to saw straight with. However, the straight handle, which great for enabling sawing straight, does so at a compromise is speed and comfort. I currently use our Gramercy dovetail saw. It seems as easy to use as a gent's saw but with more comfort and power.

Cutting Waste with a Coping Saw

I was taught to chisel dovetail waste out. It's not hard. I know a lot of people who use fret saws to remove most of the waste of a through dovetail. It does make chiseling to the final base line a little easier, but I have always hated the fragile blades. Using a bow saw or a coping saw isn't as straightforward. You kind of have to do two cuts, and the baseline needs to be chiseled anyway. It's a lot faster than using a fretsaw and you don't break blades. Start on one side of the waste, a little in from the edge of the joint, saw diagonally down until you touch - but not cut into - the saw kerf on the opposite side of the joint. Then, starting on that side, cut straight across the waste, removing the bulk of it all. BTW, the secret to a good coping saw is a sharp good blade.

No Layout Dovetails

When I studied woodworking, we measured compulsively. We spent weeks carefully cutting to a line and then chiseling out. As I have written in recent blogs, I discovered that the less I thought about it, the easier it was to saw straight. It was a huge wake-up call for me. My new model is treating sawing dovetails and everything else like a sport, in which practice, follow through, and instinct trump compulsive attention to analytic detail. This is the approach I use in my classes. We have had great success, and I can't imagine going back thee other way. It's true that there are some joints that do require compulsive measurement - a twisted dovetail for example - but once the hand skill are practiced, and the muscles know what they are doing, scribe lines and measurement became a welcome guide instead of an impossible standard to meet.

Has your woodworking changed over the years too? I welcome your comments.

New week - Number 10.

Ten Ways I am Doing Things Differently - Part 2

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 4:00am

I've been working with wood since I was a kid. I took my first woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y when I was 6 years old. I've been taking classes and building stuff for over 35 years. For the last 17 I have been working at Tools for Working Wood. In that time, new tools and new techniques have come on the market. By and large I have ignored them in my personal work. However, I haven't ignored everything, and my methods of work have in certain areas changed dramatically for the better. I've broken up my list of ten things into three posts so I don't drone on and on here. This is part two. Part 1 is here

Domino Joiner

When I studied in school, the idea of a powered joining system was an anathema to teachers and students of traditional methods. At the time, there weren't many options -- dowel joints were the most prominent. The Metropolitan Museum's Study Collection had Frank Lloyd Wright chairs that used dowel joints to hold the backs together. What made me notice this? The chairs were coming apart.

Towards the end of my studying time, Lamello biscuit joiners started gaining popularity, and by the 1990's biscuits had become the go-to method for joining cabinets. Many cabinet shops had stationary mortisers for floating tenons for stronger joints.

Then Festool introduced the Domino into the US in the first years of the 21st century. It was a portable, accurate machine for installing floating tenons. This was a game changer. I was so impressed with Festool's innovation that when I opened TFWW, a center for hand tools, I decided to add Festool to the mix. Over the years as a Festool dealer and user my faith in the system hasn't been challenged. We routinely use Dominos in our own shop for all sorts of construction. There are cases where manually cutting a mortise is easier, usually when working with bizarro angles, and there is the satisfaction of chopping a mortise by hand. The system isn't cheap, either. But for me, the Domino me is an enabler of projects I would not ordinarily have the time for.


I am getting older - better than the alternative - and for the past five years or so I haven't been able to see detail. My eyesight has been bad since third grade, but worsened with time. About ten years ago I started wearing continuous bifocals for reading. I also have a pair of computer glasses for focusing on my computer screen and reading . Close-up work become impossible until I re-discovered what everyone else in the same situation had already re-discovered: Magnification! Specifically, the Optivisor, which we now stock. They are surprisingly comfortable. I use a number 5 (2 1/2x magnification) with a headlamp. It makes a huge difference for small work. For just doing things like sharpening a saw, lesser magnification a #2 (which only magnifices 1.5x which isn't much at all) is a game changer for me. The lower magnification gives me a greater working distance which is nice. I wear them over my glasses. They are US-made and are of sufficiently high quality so I don't get eyestrain. I don't know what I would do without them. The game changing was especially sweet because between the time I noticed I could not do close work anymore and getting the Optivior, I went through an unhappy period of thinking that my woodworking days were behind me. I live in an apartment and I don't really need more furniture, but carving and miniatures have always held an attraction. I had been hoping that I would become good enough at relief carving to really enjoy the results of doing it - something not possible without magnification.

Flake Shellac

My first encounter with shellac was with a small bottle of hobby store shellac that might have been purchased during the Eisenhower administration. When I tried to use it during the Johnson administration it seemed to just lie there and not dry at all. Shellac was a mystery until maybe ten years ago. At that time I started understanding the difference between what you got in bottles pre-mixed, and what you could do if you mixed up shellac flakes with good alcohol yourself. While I had seen French polish in museums, it was only then that I saw fellow woodworkers finish their work with French polish. For the first time I really understood how wonderful shellac could be. Since that time I basically have three go-to finishes. Finishing oil, for anything that I want a matte finish on and anything walnut. Polyurethane from a can, for anything I just need to keep clean of fingerprints and I don't care about. And fresh shellac, mixed up from de-waxed shellac flakes as needed, French polished, or just brushed on and rubbed out. That's my classy finish. I still love my oil finishes but a shellac finish is just classier on so many levels.

That's all for now. More to come next time. What are your gamechangers?

Ten Ways I am Doing Things Differently - Part 1

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 4:00am

I've been working with wood since I was a kid. I took my first woodworking class at the 92nd Street Y when I was 6 years old. I've been taking classes and building stuff for over 35 years. For the last 17 I have been working at Tools for Working Wood. In that time, new tools and new techniques have come on the market. By and large I have ignored them in my personal work. However, I haven't ignored everything, and my methods of work have in certain areas changed dramatically for the better. I'll break up my list of ten things into three posts so I don't drone on and on here.

Diamond Stones

I learned on Arkansas stones and I still use them for sharpening carving tools. I really love the feel of the stones. But during the 1990 - 2010 era, I mostly used water stones. Over the years I used many different brands, but nonetheless all water stones. I still use water stones in the kitchen for sharpening knives, but for woodworking tools and when I teach sharpening I use diamond stones do all the rough work. I use an 8000 grit finishing stone at the end because I don't think the 8000 grit diamond stones are nearly as fine, but diamonds do everything else. You can read about my experiments here.

Diamond paste works well but it's too messy for me, and I worry about getting it into my eye. I don't use lapping film, although it's great and popular. For the amount of sharpening I do, it's not practical: I would just blow through too much film. I think lapping film is best for low cost-of-entry on a professional system and for traveling. Some people love lapping film because it's largely maintenance free. It also works well for odd profiles, but it's not for me. The major problem I used to have with diamond stones is that they would wear out quickly and weren't flat. The DMT Dia-Sharp stones solve the latter problem, and by not using them to flatten water stones I solve the former problem. DMT makes lapping plates for flattening water stones, but currently I don't have one (I should but I don't).

The main reason for the switch to diamonds is that I am a lazy sod who is always in a rush. My water stones got out of flat. Water was sloshing everywhere - I didn't do the needed regular flattening and I didn't have a good place for a bucket of water stones. I love Arkansas stones a lot, but for regular chisels and plane blades, I find them slow. For carving tools, diamonds can replace a medium India stone, but diamonds, while cutting fast, leave scratches which would add in a step or two.

Hide Glue
I grew up on Titebond. Back in the 1980's we all felt so superior to those DIYers who still used - horrors! - Elmer's glue, while, we used real wood glue for gluing up our projects. And it was yellow too! What I hated then, and now, about Titebond is that if you ever got it on the wrong spot, you'd have the big hassle of cleaning the wood so that it could take finish. I still use Titebond for gluing Dominos and some other general tasks. But if there is any risk of surface contamination, I much prefer hide glue. Being mostly transparent to finishes = a massive time-saver for me. I don't use hot glue. I suppose I should, but I don't have a place to put the glue pot. I do most of my woodworking snatching odd moments and I just can't think ahead to soak glue pellets. (Why is it that every time I think of the word "pellets," I think of hamsters?) But Old Brown Glue is great stuff, is real hide glue, and put putting it out in the sun or on a radiator for a minute makes it perfect to use. So that's what I do.

Hand Sawing

When I first studied woodworking, it was generally accepted that sawing dovetails by hand was perfectly acceptable, but milling timber and cutting it by hand was a waste of time -- and really impossible to do well. However, in the early days of TFWW, I needed to build a couple of projects and for the first time I didn't have access to a table saw. At the same time, there was a major revival in backsaw manufacture, and a real re-evaluation of handsaws in general. On those early projects I ended up sawing lots and lots of maple by hand, and by the end of the project I was reasonably good at it. These days, I am much more likely to grab a handsaw than to wander back to see if the bandsaw is free. For plywood, I use a Festool plunge saw, but for everything else, I pretty much use our Hardware Store Saw. (I have wonderful Disston saws in my toolbox, but the display Hardware Store saw is physically closer and cuts faster). These days I expect myself to cut square by eye. Then normal procedure is to use a shooting board to complete the job (if real accuracy is needed).

I'll continue my list next time. What's on your list? I love traditional methods for doing stuff. I love history and the feeling that I am walking in the footsteps of those who went before us. On the other hand, I have limited time do build anything. and I value efficiency. I personally like developing hand skills rather than getting single purpose tools, and I am continually learning. So that's why I've change the way I work, and I will continue to change (I hope).

Dovetailing Classes: a New Approach

Wed, 08/23/2017 - 4:00am

Traditionally, professional joiners and cabinet makers weren't trained the same way we train adults in woodworking nowadays. First of all, joiners and cabinetmakers began their training at much younger ages. Training consisted of a combination of observation and practice and lasted several years. "Practice," of course, sounds a lot less boring than "repetition," but the two are the same thing. Certain tools that are pretty common today didn't exist. Dovetail gauges, honing guides, and magnetic saw guides, commonly used for joinery nowadays, are all inventions for the amatuer market.

There is nothing wrong with contemporary methods. There is no reason for anyone to suggest that there is only one true way, but I personally have always been interested in pre-industrial professional practice. I'm sort of like the amateur golfer who wants to be able to hold my own on a pro course. I know the idea is laughable - I will never be able to compete with the pros - but I want to at least be in the ballpark (or golf course).

When I studied years ago I did it the old fashioned way. very slowly, trying for perfection, and intellectualizing every move. Then after I read the Joiner and Cabinetmaker I started thinking about professional training. Trusting yourself, not trying for perfection the first day out - which can be paralying for many, but just trying to do decent apprentice work. Learn how to saw straight. Learn how to do very accurate and consistent layout. What shocked me was how possible it was to get good via planning and practice. I wanted to teach this method of instruction and see its effects on other students. So I developed a multi-part class, Mastering Dovetails, which is finishing up this week. The only tools we use in the class are a dovetail saw, marking gauge, a few chisels, layout knife, and a pencil, with the optional use of a coping saw. Waste on the tail board was done by sawing into the waste with a dovetail saw and making chiseling a little easier. I demonstrated using a coping saw for waste, and some students opted to use that for their tails.

For the first three hours of the class, students were instructed in how to saw straight and use a marking gauge. This was all about hand-eye-body coordination, and how to work with your entire posture so that sawing straight is a natural and expected phenomenon. Then we spent the next three hours cutting a simple through dovetail without marking anything, except waste and where to cut the pins from the tails. The square was used after the fact to check our work, not to lay it out. With the dovetail done, the students took six sets of wood home to work on a daily dovetail homework. For the final three hour session, the students add did a blind dovetail.

I was really impressed by how easily the students learned to saw square. Not perfectly square, but absolutely decent. Their initial dovetails mostly went together without trouble. Everyone came in with pretty well done homework. The blind dovetail (which is exactly like a through dovetail except you have to mark out the top of the tails too, and borrow the teachers skew chisels for the corners) went together for all the students far more easily than I thought. When I studied woodworking, it took ages to get to this point. My students had no trouble. So I am really pleased with the approach and I think it is worth pursuing.

What students liked best about the class is the attention to body movement. One commented that understanding that attention to accurate layout and learning how to saw straight and consistently raises the mist on all joinery, of any complexity and makes it accessible. Where I fell short was I should have written a cheat sheet for the steps in doing the homework. I will for next time (this fall). I also left out some tidbits of information that I ended up sharing a little belatedly. So a cheat sheet would be good.

Another learning experience was the discovery that students didn't all have sharp chisels. So in October, the next time I teach this class I will add in an initial segment on grinding and sharpening. We do offer these classes for free - we have a free grinding class coming up on September 9th - but in the limited-enrollment Dovetail class, the students will be able to grind and sharpen up their own chisels too.

Overall I am really proud on how well everyone did. What's really cool for a teacher is seeing students who never even owned tools before, who are doing the homework on a kitchen table to a couple of clamps, do great work.

MoMA's Lost History of Woodworking and Craft Classes

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 4:00am

Nowadays the Museum of Modern Art, aka MoMA, is well known for a rarified take on expensive modern art. I try to go visit MoMA several times a year (natives and savvy tourists know when the $25 admission fee is waived) and often feel frustrated by the insularity and smug self-consciousness of the art. Interestingly, at its inception MoMA very assertively proposed a very different model. It conceived of itself as a place whose mission was educational in the broadest, least academic sense, in the words of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MoMAs founding director.

I own an intriguing book published by MoMA in 1951, How to Make Objects of Wood, in keeping with this mission.

The book was the third in the series, Art for Beginners, which was planned as a means of self-instruction for persons working on their own and as an aid for the teacher in directing large groups. The authors of the book included Victor DAmico, a progressive educator who began working as the director of MoMAs Education Project. In that capacity created several outreach programs, including MoMAs War Veterans Art Center and its successor entity when the veterans center disbanded in 1948, the Peoples Art Center.

The books other two authors, Kendall T. Bassett and Arthur B. Thurman, were affiliated with War Veterans Art Center; Bassett was also affiliated with the Peoples Art Center.

I must confess that I was struck by these entities names, which certainly evoke another era. MoMA has an extensive education program to this day, but the activities, which include a lovely program for kids and on-line and in-person classes for all ages, really focus on art appreciation. Hands-on craft is generally restricted to kids' projects. I couldnt find MoMA classes for adults that promoted craft as something to do oneself, rather than something to admire when an expert creates it. But the War Veterans Art Center and the Peoples Art Center promoted the idea that art could be made by all sorts of regular people. Rather than just copying what was in a gallery (the traditional museum approach), students at these Centers worked in a workshop to develop their craft and creativity.

According to this press release announcing the War Veterans Art Centers first art show, The Art Center has a twofold object: to give veterans an opportunity for personal satisfaction in creating some form of art; and to provide preliminary professional training in the fundamentals both of fine and applied art.

The center, which was founded in 1944, 15 years after MoMAs founding, was open free of charge (for both instruction and materials) to all returned service men and women. The press release described the center as a place where returned service men and women not only learn but produce painting, sculpture, ceramics, industrial design, jewelry, silk screen printing, graphic arts and allied subjects.

The first years divisions included Design Workshop; Drawing and Painting; Graphic Arts; Jewelry and Metalwork; Lettering, Layout, and Typography; Orientation; Sculpture & Ceramics; Silk Screen Printing; Wood Engraving and Book Illustration; and Woodworking Design (taught by Kendall T. Bassett). A typical student was a veteran who prior to the war worked as a farmer but doesn't want to go back to farming and has decided that our class in Woodworking Design offers him an opportunity to develop a new vocation. Another student mentioned by the administration suffered an eye injury in combat and was cautioned to avoid heavy labor. Attracted by the class in Woodworking Design, he came to the Center where he hopes to learn to make toys and small furniture, thus using his skill without physical strain. Response and Responsibility: The War Veterans' Art Center at the Museum of Modern Art (1944-1948), a master's thesis written about the center, noted that veterans were screened but allowed to enroll at any point of the class and proceed at their own pace at projects that were organized for increased complexity -- a system Victor DAmico developed specifically for veterans, although it has obvious echoes in progressive child education generally.

In its excitement about its individual-centered approach, MoMA proposed to distribute pamphlets directly to veterans for self-instruction; the publication project then grew into the Art for Beginners series, a partnership with Simon & Shuster for publication of books for the general public. How to Make Pottery and Ceramic Sculpture, published in December 1947, was the first. I have that book and another book from the series, How to Make Modern Jewelry in their 1960s paperback editions. (The series includes another book, How to Draw and Paint.)

What did the books have to say?

How to Make Objects of Wood is a notably straightforward book. There isnt chat about the philosophy of woodworking. The text, which addresses design and construction techniques, and the numerous black & white photographs and sketches, all come right to the point.The tone is encouraging in its matter-of-fact belief that the reader can accomplish a great deal if he or she follows the instruction. The participants from the War Veterans Art Center were, after all, experienced at following commands.

The projects start out with a joint and eventually graduate to a desk and dollhouse. You can do it, the book suggests. We believe in you.

Although MoMAs progressive centers had broad support from its trustees, including members of the Rockefeller family, they withered away with the retirement of their chief champion, Victor DAmico. The redemptive project of making objects of wood, as the humble title called them, was forgotten.

Nowadays we have plenty of veterans, plenty of art museums and a profession called art therapy that requires a masters degree. But we dont teach woodworking at museums, and we generally separate therapy from vocational training or just evening education. Programs like the War Veterans Art Center or the Peoples Art Center ended up unable to survive the absence of their charismatic leader, but the ideas they represented deserve a resurrection.

The Hardware Store Saw - The Long and Short of It

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 4:00am

The overwhelming number of handsaws that we see in the wild are 26" long and made by legendary companies like Disston, Alkins, or Simonds. There were many other companies making handsaws, but these were the Big Three. And they all made very good saws. Of course, a restored beat-up 50 year old saw probably won't be as nice to use as a never-touched classic saw, but overall the historical choices of steel, tooth pattern and handle design were excellent. These saws were made by people who knew what they were doing, feeding a market that know what it wanted.

Or did they?

In the late 19th century, Warren Bundy of Minnesota City patented a B.M.T. saw tooth design which was put into manufacture by the Montague-Woodrough Saw Co. The BMT's basic concept was miniaturizing the specific design features that made fast-cutting timber saws so compelling - deep gullets and specialized raker and cutting teeth - and modifying them in smaller back saws and handsaws for use in carpentry. This resulted in a kick-ass, fast-cutting saw that blew through material. The execution wasn't free of complications. The BMT saw cut fast but left a marginally coarser surface than did a fine handsaw. The tooth pattern was irregular and could not be sharpened in mechanical sharpening machines like a Foley Saw sharpener. And Montague-Woodrough Saw Co. was tiny compared to the Big Three, making it a challenge to get the saws into distribution.
So the saw design died on the vine.

But let's give a fresh look at these problems. The distribution issue was a fact of 19th century sales and marketing. In order for the saw to be popular, it really needed a big company behind it and it didn't have one. Nowadays the current saw market is a specialty market, and manufacturers of all sizes can get access to customers in all sorts of ways. The marginally coarser surface turns out, upon further examination, to not be a big deal. In general, the main use of any handsaw nowadays is to break down stock so the final edges and ends can be shot for accuracy and the surfaces planed. For regular framing the cut quality is more than very good with little or no splintering out.

The most important reason the saw never caught on, in my opinion: Sharpening! Hand sharpening the saw isn't particularly hard. In many respects, it's easier than sharpening a traditional pattern saw. The company saw fit to include sharpening instructions etched into the side of the saw. A customer could use regular saw files, but the saw couldn't be sharpened in a machine. So on a construction site where all the sharpening services used filing machines sharpening, a BMT pattern saw would be a big deal. Not so today. A computer controlled setter makes setting the saw straightforward work. The saw's pattern of teeth is a little confusing, but hand filing is routine. The BMT is actually a pretty easy saw to sharpen.

At the first Handworks show in 2013, the late Carl Bilderback, gentleman and saw expert extraordinaire, brought a BMT pattern backsaw by Montague-Woodrough Saw Co. and showed it around. Timothy Corbett, TFWW's designer, was working the show with me and was very intrigued. He was working on a knotty problem. We had said for years and years that we would not manufacture a panel saw unless we could make something better than Disston did in the 1920's. We experimented with taper grinding, tensioning, etc. We could make a good panel saw but nothing really better than Disston. I don't feel bad about that: Disstons in good shape are really good. We thought there might be an interesting market for a "hardware store saw" - you know the kind of saw you put in your tool box, take to a jobs site, to a lumberyard, and so on. The blade was only 16" long, which I though was too short for regular work, but otherwise it made sense. The saw's design had a few cool tricks - using a handle that turned it into a square and ruler was also pretty fun - that made the saw especially useful. In our eyes, the big competition was the cheapo saws you get at the big box stores for a few bucks. The handles are crude and uncomfortable, and the teeth can't be resharpened, but they crosscut like a demon. And rip horribly. We thought there might be a market for a nice saw that could rip and crosscut well. But what would be the tooth pattern? The basic rip and crosscut patterns that Disston and others used are fine and dandy, but they don't crosscut as fast as a big box saw (especially in a shorter length). This is where Tim was when we arrived at Handworks. Carl's saw got him thinking.

The actual tooth pattern we ended up using on the hardware store saw isn't a BMT pattern. It's a variant Tim came up with that works a little better, and needs almost no set. We send a prototype to Carl for his comments, and showed the final design to Carl at the 2015 Handworks. He was really pleased that his work and research was able to inform modern toolmakers. The Montague-Woodrough Saw Co in the pictures was a gift from Carl to Tim.

But getting back to our original point. We find in the shop we have a tendency to grab a hardware store saw for all sorts of stuff. I had thought it would be too short for "serious work" but I have to say I was wrong. As you can see in the video below, it cuts fast, doesn't splinter, rips and crosscuts very well, and is just convenient. I just didn't feel the need to go into my toolbox ( a good ten feet away) to get my regular full sized saws anymore. The extra features of the built-in square and ruler have come in handy, but the shorter length means it's easier to store, transport, etc. I don't feel I am going too slow and need a longer saw. Of course a longer saw in the same pattern might be nice, but it would be inconvenient, and I am debating if my two full sized saws that are mounting in the lid of my toolbox should be replaced with one hardware store saw freeing up space for a sash saw.

I don't have a way of predicting certain how popular this type of saw tooth would have become if it had been marketed by a bigger company and was easier to machine sharpen using a 19th century technology, but I think it would have had a much bigger, well deserved impact. I can certainly celebrate it today.