Hand Tool Headlines
The Woodworking Blogs Aggregator
Tools For Working Wood
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
When I was first studying woodworking, I was taught that the Ancients (any cabinetmaker in the 18th or 19th centuries, but mostly the 18th century) would use really narrow pins as a decorative touch and also to show off their skill.
In the 1990s it became fashionable to use a fret saw to remove the waste between tails. This led me to the following questions:
Did anyone use fret saws in the 18th century to remove waste between tails?
Is there another reason for narrow pins?
Some baseline facts that would argue against the idea that fretsaws were traditionally used to remove waste:
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, fretsaw blades were hand made, usually by the craftsman using them. Marquetry and inlay makers started the day by making a blade. It would make no sense for a run-of-the-mill apprentice cabinetmaker to use a fragile, hand-made fret saw blade to remove waste. Moreover, blind dovetails, which of course are very common on drawers and things, do not lend themselves to having the waste sawn out.
No matter how you remove your waste, you want a clean chiseled baseline. The main reason for removing the waste with a saw is so that afterwards you can just put your chisel on the scribe line and push. The chisel will cut true and perfect. If you don't saw out the waste (with a fret or coping saw), when you chisel straight down on the scribe line, the mass of wood behind the bevel will push the chisel forward and past the scribe line. I was taught a simple and elegant solution: just start chiseling a hair in front of the scribe line and then stop when the chisels moves onto the scribe line.
I should note that I don't have anything against using a fret or coping saw to remove waste. But I am postulating is that in the 18th century it doesn't seem likely that this was done. Times of course have really changed. Today we not only have inexpensive fret saw blades that work well in thicker wood, we also have flush toilets and the option to use both modern conveniences, or one, or neither: it's up to you.
If you chisel your waste out and you use narrow pins, the narrowness is dictated by the smallest chisel you own. Since there are many examples of dovetails with pins that taper to a point, it is hard to believe that chiseling out was practical. Also, if you have ever tried it when the pin was narrow, you know that the waste just clogs up the space. It wedges in place and makes the task a slog.
Here is what I have been doing for the past couple of years: After I cut the tails out, I waste out the material between the tails by sawing straight down with my dovetail saw. This quickly clears enough material so that chiseling to the scribe line is easy. I need just two tools - a saw and one narrow chisel.
On soft wood, a thicker, less expensive saw works very well. You just clear the waste in fewer strokes - just the thing for an apprentice. But as one works in harder wood, the thinner kerf is easier and faster to push accurately and makes more sense.
As far as I know, there isn't a historical record to prove or disprove my theory, although maybe this blog will shake some informed comments. I do know, however, that this method is FAST. For a professional 18th century cabinetmaker, especially an apprentice grinding out drawers, it's efficient.
With narrow pins, you get wide tails. Drawers are mostly blind dovetails - you can't saw them anyway - but it's a lot faster to have narrow pins and wide tails than it is to have even sized pins and tails, because the pins get wasted away with the saw cuts. It's just as much work to remove the waste to fit a wide tail as it is to remove the waste to fit a narrow tail. You just need a wide chisel to match.
A few blogs ago I promised a class in hand tools. Two sessions of my dovetailing class are now on the event schedule BLOG,(973,here) and here. My goal is to teach hand tool usage as a practical thing, not magic. The tools we will use are very, very simple. I'm not trying to show you how you can make one prefect dovetail given enough time and equipment; I'm trying to show you that training your hands to cut straight isn't that hard. It's just like any sport that requires hand-eye coordination. We start at the bottom, and develop hand skill via a combination of simple technique, feedback on what we are actually doing, and practice. My goal is that by the end of the class every student will be producing credible work and be on the road to do greater and more complex work as their skills mature. Just in time for their 18th century apprenticeship.
You can register for the class here.
Time flies when you are having fun! Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my very first blog entry. I started my blog because everyone was doin' it, doin' it and we didn't want to be left out of the blogging trend. Also, we were about to move to Brooklyn from Manhattan and there was a lot of news to report. Over the years I have written on just about every woodworking topic I could fathom. I try not to write about the same thing again and again, but as we all know I do it anyway.
It's been a tremendously rewarding experience for me on several levels. Of course I think the blog helps drive traffic to the website, but on a personal level it's made me a much better writer, gave me an excuse to investigate things I would not normally feel justified to do, and - most importantly - when I write about a subject, I get to think about it in depth, and learning more is very rewarding. It makes me happy when people come up to me and tell me that they read my blog. If you write and people read your stuff - it's a perfect world, and what more can you ask for.
The biggest problem I have today is that my time is limited and I don't have the luxury of research that I used to. That being said, I like to think woodworking is an broad subject and I've only scratched the surface. I would be remiss it telling you that up to a few years ago I pretty much wrote every word of the blog, with help from Sally, my wife, to make sure the grammar wasn't embarrassing. However in the past few years Sally has come to the rescue on more than one attempt and ghosted a fair number of entries. I think the rule of thumb is, if the spelling is good and the writing compelling, it's a good bet that she had a real hand in authorship. I don't feel bad about this - I feel wonderful that I get such support from my family. Nobody works in a vacuum, and magazines have staff.
I do have a request: if you have a favorite entry, or a post you remember fondly, I would love to find out about it. Maybe we will do a "Greatest Hits" page.
Thanks again for all your support.
PS Even as I look back to 10 years of blogging, I'm looking forward to July 29th, when master luthier Ian Kelly will be visiting our Brooklyn showroom and carving Spanish Cedar into the neck of a guitar. He'll be using a Gramercy Tools rasp, a spokeshave and sandpaper, and of course his own skill. We hope folks in the NYC area will stop by and you are all invited! Ian will be there from 1 - 5 pm.
My mother bought this bookcase sometime in the 1940's, I think. It was sitting in my parents living room for over 40 years before they downsized and gave it to me. I brought it to the shop because my apartment already has too much stuff but I liked having it around. In our former location I had an office and had room for the bookshelf and a need for a place for my tool books, but at our current location I've struggled to put it to good use.
I still love the bookcase but I admit it's now in the way.
What continues to charm me about the bookshelf? I'm old enough to remember Scandinavian modern BI -- that is, Before Ikea. I had a Wim & Karen bed. Blond wood, simple and elegant lines. Nowadays the Scandinavian look has been co-opted by Ikea - though to be fair Ikea has also rummaged extensively in Japanese and other nationalities' aesthetics - so much so that some people assumed that the pricey Wim & Karen furniture was Ikea's. But Ikea stuff never had the details of this bookcase.
I love the carved in recessed handles of the glass doors.
I love the glass top. Were the mod-century owners expected to put a highball glass on their bookcases? Of course. No wonder they needed a glass top.
Historically, this piece dates from the early days of "modern furniture". Unlike a modern piece, everything is solid. The shelves are pretty thick but chamfered at the bottom to give the appearance of a lighter design. That's a good trick and worth remembering. Since this is the early days the shelves, pins are turned metal, not stamped out.
I find the details at the bottom - a base that mimics the main carcass but is upside down, very interesting, and the large miters at the corners perfect for a peice that is modern in look but not really in construction.
The bookcase is in pretty good shape, albeit with a lot of nicks and dents. So it might need some refinishing. The glass is in very good shape and moves smoothly on its track, which of course is the key. If you are interested in having it for yourself, $199 or Best Offer takes it away. (Actually, you will need to take it away. We will not ship it though we will help you pack the glass for safe transit.) If it doesn't move in a week or two, off it goes to a charity thrift store and later into a new home of admirers.
In other news - this Saturday is my free sharpening class and on Saturday July 29th master luthier Ian Kelly has volunteered to come to the shop and Carving a Guitar Neck for us and anyone who want to see how it's done. Lutherie is one of the most interesting branches of woodworking where everything is a combination of science, craft, & sculpture. So that's going to be real exciting and it's free.
More modern instruction might add a fretsaw to the list of tools for removing the waste.
I have two problems with this approach. In the late 18th century thin, fragile, fretsaw blades were hand made, usually by the craftsman. They were not tools you would use for the rough work of chopping waste. The combination square hadn't been invented but wooden squares were common. Pencils not so much. Tools were expensive, and while an apprentice would use the master's tools in the beginning, as you can see in the Joiner and Cabinetmaker, written in 1839, the idea of using lots of specialist tools wasn't common.
I also cannot imagine that the step-by-step instruction that we have today were used. Apprentices learned by paying attention, and mimicking their betters.
In a typical blind dovetail drawer, the pins would have been very narrow and the tails wide. While some folks have written that this was a style and done for aesthetic reasons, I disagree. If you make your tails wide enough, and with tiny pins, it's really easy to waste away the bulk of the waste with a few extra cuts of the dovetail saw. (Note: in the picture above the pencil lines are just there to make sure I cut the tails in the right direction. The lines aren't guide lines for the saw - or straight). Chopping with a narrow chisel to the line then finishes up the job. Regarding the drawer fronts, with the sockets for the tails you can't use a fretsaw for much anyway; a wide chisel makes quick work of the waste. Chopping a space for a tail in a blind mortise is about the same amount of work no matter what the size of the tail.
Dovetailing drawers was considered junior work.
A question: By trying to emulate the sparse 18th century toolkit of an apprentice or journeyman, and cutting out some of the extra tools and steps, would it be easier to teach a novice how to do this basic joint?
The answer would seem to hinge on the ability to consistently saw straight coupled with accurate layout. Everything else is pretty easy. But perhaps all activities needing hand eye coordination are similar? Golf, Basketball, Ping-Pong: All of these sports are about practice, not specific instructions for throwing a ball in each individual case. Once you master the basic hand motions, instruction can make you more efficient, and planning can make you more effective.
Back to the workshop.
If I asked you to fill up a glass with water and walk across the room with it, it wouldn't be a big deal. Humans as a group tend to try to stay level and straight. The same thing is true with woodworking. As a test, I asked some people in our store - both people who aren't woodworkers and those who are - to try to cut straight. We didn't mark out anything. The cut needed to be square on the top and sides. In the photo above, the marked cuts are by one person who had never done this before. The first cut was with a gent's saw. It's off a little. The next cuts were with our dovetail saw and they were spot on. Finally, the last cut was made with the gent's saw, but with a little instruction on how to hold the saw. It's dead on too. (The other cuts in the wood were made by different people in the past weeks mostly to test saws and don't have anything to do with this experiment.)
I'm wondering if the difficulty beginners have in cutting dovetails is that we think too much. The adult education tradition for woodworking comes out of school instruction, often teaching a roomful of students who are mandated to be there. This is very different from teaching a small group of adults who WANT to be there.
I am working hard on offering a class in basic joinery that relies on amplifying skills that we all already have - like carrying a glass of water without spilling.
So far the class tool kit consists of a saw, a square, a marking knife, a marking gauge, and a chisel or two. I honestly believe that our dovetail saw makes it easier for someone to saw straight, but I also don't want to require everyone who takes our class to buy one of our saws if they don't want to. But a gent's saw - which is the next easiest thing - is affordable. I'm still working on the schedule, pondering whether it should be just a class in cutting a dovetail or a series of classes over several Saturdays (or weekday evenings) in which we grind, sharpen, learn to saw, and then make a dovetailed box.
By the way our last two all-dayclasses, Modern Furniture Construction - Making a Kitchen Cabinet and a Building a Zig-Zag Chair went great and we are doing a second section on Modern Furniture Construction - Making a Kitchen Cabinet on July 8th. There a couple of seats still open click here for details.
On July 15th, I am repeating my popular free class Sharpening 101. You are all invited.
Schools out for many kids, and we were delighted to host one young woodworking enthusiast this week. He was just 7 years old, but clearly loved woodworking -- and clearly understood the value of hands-on instruction.
I'm also thinking of last minute Father's day gifts because the window for actual tool delivery is pretty small. So consider the gift of classes. Learning how to make something with the tools you have is easily as useful and having the tool in the first place.
Ive certainly bemoaned the loss of shop class many times before on this blog, so I dont think Ill need to flog that horse again. Ditto the loss of woodworking classes at local YMCAs (and I learned woodworking at the YWCA that housed the Crafts Students League before the building met its inevitable end - NYCs highest and best use - as condos). With many traditional options gone, prospective woodworking students need to take advantage of whatever opportunities to learn woodworking that are available.
To this end, let me suggest a few:
For those in the NYC area, were offering Modern Furniture Construction classes with Sebastian Lata. This Saturday, June 17th, is Making a Zig Zag Chair, and another round of Making Kitchen Cabinetry will be offered on Saturday, July 8th. We were very gratified by our students satisfaction with the class. As one student wrote, I just finished the class in Cabinetry and found it highly informative and a day well spent. It is rare to find a practitioner of this caliber sharing real-world knowledge and experience. Highly recommended!
Im also resuming free classes. By popular demand (complaint?) Ill be offering Sharpening 101 on Saturday, July 15th. We have other classes in mind, ranging from hand skills to finishing, and were open to requests.
In Brooklyn Makeville Studio has a large calendar of a range of woodworking classes.
But of course not everyone lives close to a physical school.
Consider modern technologys advantages (while youre bemoaning changes) and take advantage of Chris Pyes subscription-only Woodcarving TV. The subscription offers instructional videos for all levels of woodcarvers (including advanced woodcarvers), and the opportunity to ask Chris for personalized advice about your carving. I'm a big fan. Chris he has set up gift certificates on his site too. Prices are all in pounds sterling, but your credit card will do the conversion automatically so it's not a big deal. (Right now 1 pound is equal to about 1.3 US dollars.)
I am rapidly coming up to the ten year anniversary of this blog - wow! - and I expect to be back to more tools, techniques, and interesting wooden stuff in the next weeks.
Happy Fathers Day!
Woodworking with Kids (Special Father's Day Edition) & Other Ways to Celebrate Father's Day & Posters
Fathers Day is not only a celebration of fathers, its a celebration of fatherhood. For most fathers, this means passing along values and traditions, and for woodworking dads, it means passing along a love of woodworking and craft.
For some dads, this can be done by having kids help along with a project. One of the many benefits of using handtools is how relatively safe they are to use. Woodworkers who (reasonably) hesitate to gin up the chainsaw for a father-child joint venture could consider some supervised work with one of our Flexcut carving sets.
When I was about 8 or 10 I don't remember my father bought be a copy of Whittling and Woodcarving by E. J. Tangerman and fifty years later I still find it inspirational. I should mention that at age 8 or 10 I wasn't skilled enough to do the projects - but fortunately I am now.
Other option: a finishing project. I can speak from personal experience that kids love finishing - and even love watching demonstrations of finishing. Want to watch the wood! Want to watch the wood! my then-toddler son shouted when I attempted to turn off a video demonstrating polishing. We sell many finishing supplies that are non-toxic and perfect for a joint project with your kid like shellac and milk paint.
We also sell many books that can help you pass along your love of woodworking to your kids or give you ideas for projects you could do together. Here are some great ones:
For the young (not a project book) Grandpas Workshop.
Wood Pallet Projects
Speed Toys for Boys
Kids Crafts - Woodcarving
Kids Crafts - Woodworking
I dont underestimate the challenge of prying kids away from their phones, but I encourage you to try. The joy of working with your hands and making something of value is worth it!
For older kids and adults we have Roy Underhill's very fun novel Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker!
Of course, we have plenty of great other gifts for fathers. Here are some of our most popular gift ideas:
Hardware Store Saw
Ben & Lois Orford Spoon Carving Tools
Blaklader workwear (& for the bold dad with a hot workshop, the Blaklader work kilt)
The Joiner & Cabinetmaker
For dads in the NYC area
And of course if you dont know what dad exactly wants, but you know hed love a woodworking present, theres always the option of a Tools for Working Wood gift certificate.(Well send the certificate via mail or email, in any amount you choose.)
I also wasn't going to mention this because I thought we were sold out but I totally screwed up the count and we have a few Plane Spotting Posters left. A few - under ten. First come first served.
Happy Fathers Day!
Over the years I have written many times about how cabinetmakers, and just about all craft workers, were paid by piecework. This was very true in the UK and marginally true in the US. The slum workers documented by Jacob Riis were paid by piecework. Workers bought materials from wholesalers, usually on credit, and delivered them complete, done at so much per piece. In the cabinetmaking world, even as early as the late 18th century, there were published price guides detailing how much a crafts-person got paid for particular tasks, although except in the best shops these prices were routinely discounted.
Whole trades were organized like this. The chairmakers at High Wickham, for example, divided the tasks of making a chair into over 40 jobs, each paid a different rate. In order to make a decent living, workers had to specialize otherwise they could not get fast enough and the tool requirements grew unaffordable. All these people were considered independent and were paid by the piece and charged for bench rental, assistance, materials, heat, and even electricity after it was introduced into the shops. Rates were determined - in the higher-end industries, and by better firms - by negotiation with representatives of the craftsman (in many cases, unions). The formulas could be mindbogglingly complicated. Lower-end firms simply didn't pay the union rates and had lower fees. In good times, when labor was scarce, there might be a bonus on top of all this. In bad times, when labor was hungry, rates would be discounted. Pricing in the London Book of Prices didn't change from its publication in 1811 until at least 1860, mostly because there wasn't much inflation and there was also lots of pressure to keep wages down, but also because rate changes over time were done as multipliers from the basic rate. The published rates were also prone to lots of abuse - discounts, arbitrary charges, bringing in outsiders so that established craftspeople could not get enough work. Prior to the invention of machines, skilled labor could fight back. It's not an accident that craft unions were the first unions that had any power, even as early as the 18th century. Craft unions also pioneered insurance for injury, work stoppage, and loss of tools. (Tools were stamped with the owners name for insurance requirements).
The trend toward wages based upon time rather than the completed piece came about as more and more industries mechanized. If in order to produce something you needed labor, a piecework wage to a craftsperson who brought their own tools and ways of working (within certain bounds) was the norm. As machinery and capital investment became more important, skilled labor was less important and a day wage for a machine minder became the norm.
Payday, in cash, was on Saturday. In many trades the craftsmen took Sunday off and then Monday, the theory being that they needed extra time to sleep off the weekend drinking. But St. Monday as the "holiday" was called also was a call to independence. If you could work hard Tuesday through Saturday and make your production quota, why should the independent worker show up on Monday? By World War II most of these practices had died out or had been banned, mostly because whole craft industries collapsed. For example, when the chair-making industry in High Wickham collapsed, it didn't mean people didn't want chairs; rather, the public just wanted different type of chairs, and the craft system could not adapt to them. New factories, built outside the old world of craft emphasized capital and machines over tradition and in many cases were built far from the old centers of craft. The piecework tradition was broken.
The important thing to understand about these working arrangements is that nominally the craftsman was independent and had total responsibility for quality of production, tools, and equipment (such as it was). What they didn't have was any ability to individually negotiate price or claim any responsibility of the company for continuation of work, a good reference, insurance, or vacation.
Does this sound like Uber? or any company in the new "sharing" economy? It should. And what we learned over the past centuries is that when you have individuals with no real control over the working conditions, and a company that no commitment to its workforce, it will end badly. In the case of the piecework crafts, eventually it turned out that massive spending on capital and mass production made the individual redundant, and a coherent unskilled workforce working on an assembly line was far more economical. Recently Uber arbitrarily lowered the rates it pays its New York City drivers and is investing millions in the technology of self-driving cars to replace thousands of "independent" drivers. Customers love Uber (and Lyft, Gett, Via, etc.) because they make hailing a cab a lot easier than the often dismal NYC taxi experience and most of the labor and work issues don't effect the customer.
Is there any difference between a 19th century Sheffield grinder renting a wheel from a workshop owner and a web designer renting a seat from WeWork or any of the other co-working spaces?
I mention all of this because when someone talks to me in glowing terms about the new job-creating "sharing economy," the phrase doesn't conjure up in my head hipster kids (anyone under 37) doing cool stuff when they want to but still having time to go mountain climbing. I think more of hordes of smart, well educated individuals working round the clock on some project until they either burn out or their employer loses their funding. And I think of Jacob Riis; I think of St. Monday; and I think that in two hundred years we are back were we started from.