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Don’t we all start at the beginning? Even bringing the wealth of experience or talent or skills that one might have from another field to the bench, we still take our first steps in complete, utter, and blissful ignorance.
Then when we start to make our mistakes on a project, we learn about the process, the materials, and the tools. We learn how to hold ourselves at the bench, how to hang onto things, and we discover how much there is still to learn.
Join us at the Studio for The Compleat Novice class starting March 29th. It’s sure to be a fine beginning.
It won’t come as much of a surprise that woodworkers are frequently good at more than one thing. Sometimes it’s necessary, other times it’s just for fun. I was in Hillsborough, N.C., last week working with Elia Bizzarri on two new videos and we started talking about what music to use. He asked if we’d like him and a few of his friends to play something. “Yes!” was the easy […]
Amy Herschleb attend Jim Dillon’s Hand Tool Sharpening class at Highland and came away with a new appreciation of working with sharp tools. In this series she will go into thoughtful detail on the 3 methods of sharpening Jim Dillon taught. Today she covers Method 3, The Tormek System.
The final technique covered in class was the Tormek system, specifically we used the T-8. The slow speed wet grinder put a new edge on a worn-out tool while the leather wheel, with abrasive paste added, polished the tool. It can be fitted with a wide array of jigs for different shapes of blades from knives to scissors to chisels to axes. A plastic gauge that rests against the grinding stone sets the angle at which you are removing material. In class I watched the principles of the operation, then put them to good use while in Florida, putting a new edge on my kitchen knives (a couple of them older than me) that had probably never been sharpened in their entire culinary careers.
Even with a jig, the process demands a great deal of attention, especially with long knives or those that end in a curve. In this instance, the use of a Sharpie is vital. By coloring the cutting bevel black, you may see where and where you are not wasting material. Often areas near the heel or the tip are ground away unevenly, because so much depends on consistent movement of the blade across the stone. By paying attention to the markings, the sharpener may check for inconsistency along the edge.
The Tormek system allows you to grind either toward or away from the bevel, toward for most knives and away for small knives. I ground the knives toward the bevel with the universal tool rest set up horizontally, keeping one hand on the jig and the other on the handle, floating the blades back and forth, keeping the jig resting on the tool rest bar.
Due to the shape of the wheel, sharpening on a this surface creates a concave bevel, that is, a slightly hollow shape. This makes for a narrower sharpening edge, and faster sharpening times. Over time, the sharpening bevel gets bigger as the blade gets shorter from sharpening. When sharpening takes too long, it’s time to regrind.
Beyond a couple false starts involving a flying carving knife (no one was hurt) and a gouge I tried to put into the leather stropping wheel and the part where I ignored Jim’s advice to test a blade on the arm hairs instead of a thumb tip (I wasn’t sure I’d done that good a job. Spoiler–I had) this went off without a hitch. For once, my kitchen is equipped with a selection of sharp and useful knives, and vegetables and meat may be cut down efficiently without gratuitous sawing and strong-arming.
After experimenting (in a supervised environment and then free range) with a variety of methods, I am most satisfied with the Tormek system. Sandpaper, though easy to come by and easy to replace, is absolutely repulsive to me in a tactile sense and will destroy a manicure. Knowing where there are two Tormeks at my disposal certainly helps things, as I can re-grind worn down tools, then keep them sharp at home with a 1000/6000 wet stone.
Amy received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She is the staff writer at Highland Woodworking. In 2015 she and her dad co-founded Coywolf Woodworks, their hobby shop in North Florida.
The post Tool Sharpening for a Beginner, Part 4: The Tormek System appeared first on Woodworking Blog.
Hi Wilbur: When it comes to making chairs, what is the japanese equivalent tool for a TRAVISHER? Thanks
I’m not sure there’s a true equivalent, since traditional Japanese woodworking didn’t involve making chairs with sculpted seats. Having said that, there are Japanese planes with convex soles that can be used for that sort of task. They are sometimes referred to as “spoon planes”.
They are made in various sizes ranging from large block plane size to finger planes. Here’s one that I have that’s on the finger plane of the spectrum.
If I was to try to make a chair seat with Japanese tools, I’d probably start by using a gouge to get rid of most of the wood, and then use an appropriately sized version of one of these planes for the finishing steps. If you want to see how someone who actually knows what he’s doing did this, Brian Holcombe has a great article on how he made a chair using Japanese tools.
I got through the first 3 chapters of Richard Maguire's sharpening video.There are 3 more chapters available now with the 7th one due on the 22nd(?). I was reluctant to buy this because I didn't want to muddle my head up with another person showing their way of sharpening. The 3 chapters I've seen so far have been an eye opener. I have watched them each two times so that I could digest and not miss anything that Richard put out.
Like the other videos outputted by Richard and Helen, this one is outstanding. He explains each step in a way that I can easily grasp what it is. I would recommend this to anyone interested in understanding and upping their sharpening game. And this is based on just watching half of it. He also makes sharpening look like it is as easy to do as breathing air. I'm hoping that I'll be able to do it 10% as well as he does. And I'll be happy with that too.
|the real time is 1545|
After the first day I switched from the Westminster chimes to the bim-bam and I was disappointed with them at first. I could barely hear the first hour count when they sounded. Instead of being a 'gong' bim-bam, they have a bell sound which I don't like as much. But as time passed, they seem to get louder and I could hear them and count the hour as they bim-bam'ed..
The first problem is the hands. They don't fit properly on the time shaft and I think they are slipping. I can move the minute hand 5 minutes in either direction before I feel resistance from the time shaft. It has been running now for two days and the chimes are working correctly but the indicated time is off.
The second problem is the paper dial. Where my finger is has a hump. It is humped in a few other places too but not as high as it is here. The minute rubs on it as it passes by and it looks like the hour hand barely clears it too. I will have to fix these two problems before I try to set the time again.
I will have to take the movement out to fix the dial. Fingers crossed on getting it off without ripping it.
|adhesive dot holding the dial in place|
|double sided adhesive dots|
|more than 4|
|first use of my veneer roller|
Went looking for my plastic hands but I couldn't find them. Searched the shop and then I searched upstairs. I looked there because I set up the clock while watching the Perry Mason marathon. After searching for a while I gave up without finding them.
|fixed the problem|
What time is it when 7 bells rings onboard a ship?
answer - 0330, 0730, 1130, 1530, 1930, and 2330
When translating Andre Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier,” we debated converting all of his dimensions to U.S. Customary Units or metric. After some discussion, we decided to leave them as-is for the same reason that we tried to maintain Roubo’s writing voice. This is a work of the 18th century, and so we sought to keep it there.
Translating French inches from that period isn’t difficult. Roubo uses the units of “thumbs” and “lines.” A thumb is just slightly more than our modern inch — 1.066″. The thumb is further divided into 12 “lines.” Each line is equivalent to .088″ today. The French foot is 12.792″.
If you wish to complete your “period rush” when reading “With all the Precision Possible: Roubo on Furniture,” you might like to have a ruler at hand that is marked in French inches and lines.
Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney of burnHeart has put his “Pied du Roi” rulers on sale today, and they are gorgeous and useful when reading Roubo.
If you have ever wanted one, don’t wait. Brendan says it will be awhile before he makes more.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Roubo Translation, To Make as Perfectly as Possible, To Make as Perfectly as Possible, Roubo Translation
It is no secret that I prefer a hand-rubbed oil finish. It is my go-to finish of choice. I don’t think that I am alone in this fondness. Judging by the blog posts and articles that I read, several others feel the same way.
Oil has a lot of things going for it. It is easy to apply, easy to renew and easy to repair. It can also be better for your health, depending on your product of choice. An oil and wax finish does have some shortcomings though. It’s not the most durable finish and if your after a high gloss, forget it, it is not going to happen. Also, an oil and wax finish requires some maintenance. It will need an occasional buffing and reapplication once in a while.
Yes, an oil and wax finish is easy to apply. Your don’t need any special training or skill, but don’t mistake easy application for quick or less work. The finishing process can span several days. Possibly even a week or more, depending on the size of the project and surface quality that you are after. If you want a hand-rubbed finish…yep, your actually going to have to rub it by hand…a lot.
Since I’m just completed two large tables, I thought I would discuss the steps that I go through when applying an oil and wax finish. I’m no expert, so this is not holy writ, just the steps that I have found to work best for me. Please feel free to question or contradict any of all that follows.
Note: time on task in the following is based upon one face of a 30″x77″ table top.
First and foremost I want all surfaces to be from an edge tool. I use sandpaper when I need to, but those areas are given more attention with oooo steel wool or burnished with shavings. Why? I want the surfaces to be burnished and that is what a cut surface from an edge tool is. A burnished surface is basically a head start on an even luster from the finish. I prefer to use Japanese planes, but any well tuned finishing plane will get the job done. Push, pull, iron body, wooden body doesn’t matter. It just needs to be sharp and finely set.
If I can’t get the burnished finish from an edge tool, I’ll use the alternatives that I mentioned earlier. Rubbing a handful of shavings on the surface of the work piece is quite effective. 0000 steel wool will get the job done too. Alternatively, I will use the uzukuri technique to both texture and burnish the surface. This is what I did with the table top.
First using the rough and then the medium uzukuri brush, I went over every square inch of the table top. I also employed a couple of different size gouges for areas that had deep tearout or that I simply wanted to have a more pronounced texture effect. In all it took between seven and eight hours to complete the uzukuri treatment and bring this table top to the point of being ready for the oil.
Step two is an application of linseed oil only, no wax. This is a penetrating coat of oil and for this I use Tried & True brand Danish oil. Which is a polymerised linseed oil and contains no heavy metal driers and is completely food safe. Also I have tinted the oil with “Raw Sienna” artist’s oil paint, which imparts a warm amber tone to light-colored woods such as pine, poplar and oak. To apply this first coat of oil I use a soft cotton cloth and vigorously rub the oil into the wood. The friction induced heat helps to drive the oil into the wood. This application took between thirty to forty-five minutes. I then let the oil “soak” in for five to ten minutes.
Below are side-by-side comparisons. With tinted oil on the left, without on the right.
Once the oil has been allowed to dwell, I begin buffing the surface and removing any oil that remains on the surface. I’ll continue this until the surface has NO remaining wet areas. This step took about fifteen minutes. After a couple of hours I go over the surface once more to remove any oil that seeps back to the surface.
Then I wait for twenty-four hours. Technically the directions on the can say eight hours, but I almost always let it dry for twenty-four hours.
Step three begins with buffing the surface once again with a cotton cloth. I repeat if necessary. What I’m looking for is no color or oil coming up on the cloth. Then I buff the surface yet again. This time with 0000 steel wool. This further burnishes and seals the surface of the wood. All this buffing takes about thirty minutes. Now I’m ready for the second coat of oil.
For the second coat of oil I use Tried & True Original finish. This is a mixture of polymerised linseed oil and beeswax. Again, it is food safe and contains no heavy metal driers. Just like the first coat of oil, this is vigorously applied. This took another half hour to forty-five minutes. The product needs to “soak” in for an hour before buffing off, which took an additional fifteen to twenty minutes.
Then I wait for another twenty-four hours. Buffing once more along the way.
Coat number three follows the same exact steps as the second coat. Buff, burnish with steel wool, apply the oil and wax mixture, wait, buff, wait, buff again and wait.
Generally three coats will do. One coat of the tinted linseed oil and two coats of the linseed oil/beeswax mixture. After the third coat has been allowed to dry, forty-eight hours this time, a final buffing with a cotton cloth completes the finish. I’ll typically add one more coat after a few months have passed. From then on out, a periodic buffing is all that is needed to keep the piece looking fresh.
So there you have it. An oil and wax finish doesn’t require any great skill, but easy is a relative term. This type of finish does require some hard work and time. Sure, you could skip some of the buffing and burnishing steps, but the end result will suffer…trust me on this.
On my first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York I saw, among the monumental and famous pieces, a small item that captured my eye. It was so impressive that I even decided to buy a postcard with a picture of it. This was a spherical shaped miniature wooden box that, once opened, displayed an intricate biblical scene that shocked me with its complexity and level […]
Amy Herschleb attend Jim Dillon’s Hand Tool Sharpening class at Highland and came away with a new appreciation of working with sharp tools. In this series she will go into thoughtful detail on the 3 methods of sharpening Jim Dillon taught. Today she covers Method 2, Using Waterstones.
The next technique we practiced was with Japanese waterstones. Jim recommends Ian Kirby’s book Sharpening With Waterstones, which covers far more material than the title suggests. We began with 800 grit and worked up to 8000. A simple setup for waterstones Jim suggested was to make a wooden rack for the stone that will sit atop a 5-gallon bucket, so that the stone may be rinsed efficiently and the mess contained. In lieu of this in the classroom setting, after the initial soak, we wet ours constantly with a plastic squirt bottle and kept the stones on plastic sheeting.
The Japanese stone (specifically the 1000/6000 combination stone) is a great tool for touching up blades after using them, such as in the kitchen, before they can wear down far enough to warrant grinding a new edge.
Several weeks later, when I had the chance to visit the shop in Florida, I tried Dad’s DMT Duo-Sharp diamond stone. This one also had a plastic base and was reversible, with a grinding grit on one side and a polishing grit on the other (Dad’s is Fine/Extra-Fine). This I simply kept on the counter near the sink to rinse, then thoroughly dried the stone and base after use to protect the nickel from corrosion.
I found this technique to work very well, when I had the angle set by a guide. Without it, I managed to dull a kitchen knife significantly, simply by sharpening at the incorrect–or even an inconsistent–angle. This episode in the kitchen particularly emphasized the importance of careful setup and attention to detail in what risks being considered (by the uninitiated) the least vital of tasks. Meticulous preparation does indeed save you time down the road, as our buddy Young Thomas learned 178 years ago.
Check back tomorrow to read Amy’s thoughts about the last of the three basic systems of sharpening she learned.
Amy received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She is the staff writer at Highland Woodworking. In 2015 she and her dad co-founded Coywolf Woodworks, their hobby shop in North Florida.
The post Tool Sharpening for a Beginner, Part 3: Waterstones appeared first on Woodworking Blog.
My next step in the Great Kerfing Plane Saga was to go where I think kerfing plane evangelist Tom Fidgen started – kerfing planes with a fixed fence to produce a set width to the cut. My most typical use of resawing by hand is making hand-sawn veneers, so I decided to make my first kerfing plane part of that equation. Since I am not yet as skilled at veneer sawing as the craftsmen in the 18th century Parisian ateliers, who routinely harvested twelve sheets of veneer per inch of stock, I struck a more realistic task of cutting eight per inch. Thus, my need was for a dedicated kerfing plane set to 1/8″.
Falling back on my old habits and routine, I made the body of my plane from 13mm baltic birch plywood. I had first made a pattern for the tool, one I could use repeatedly. I derived the pattern template from a backsaw, which I traced onto 3mm plywood and cut out. The template now hangs overhead off a joist in the shop, awaiting for new kerfsaw-making urges to strike.
I traced the new kerf saw pattern on the thicker plywood, and drilled out holes where they would make the sawing the most amenable. I accomplished this with my coping saw in a couple minutes. Once I was done with the sawing I worked on the profiles of the handle with rasps and files so that it was comfortable in my hand.
I made a 3mm rectangle to be glued to the heavier plywood to provide for the cutting spacing.
The assembling continued apace with another scrap of bowsaw blade and a piece of scrap brass barstock to serve the retaining element to hold it all together.
The completed tool is a delightful amalgam of lightness with robustness for vigorous use, combined with comfort and precision for repeated cutting of veneer.
The test drive was perfect!
I followed up on this kerfing plane with one for some teaching I had upcoming, where the ultimate objective was to derive prepared oak boards of 1/4″ thickness from 5/4 stock. In this case I made the fixed cutting distance 3/8″ since this was the closest scrap I had handy, and in recognition that the folks I would be teaching had no woodworking experience and a bit extra waste would be advantageous. I will soon recount that tale, confirming the tool removed a huge potential hurdle to them completing their assignment and future task.
Thanks again Tom Fidgen for leading me down this path of simplicity for the sake of precision and efficiency.
|I can't fix this|
|outlined the scratch area still to be done|
|lots of ugly looking scratches|
|5 more minutes of work|
|compared to the first pic, it is finally getting smaller|
|switched to my 80 grit runway|
|5 strokes on 80 grit and I got a consistent scratch pattern|
|10 strokes on the coarse diamond stone|
|stepped down to the coarsest diamond stone|
|consistent scratch pattern - not as coarse looking as the 80 grit|
|back to the coarse diamond stone|
|what my bevel looks like|
|couldn't get rid of all of the scratches|
|going to road test it as is|
|thin and wispy|
|smooth as a baby's butt|
|other end smoothed|
|flattening the back|
|ten strokes on the 80 grit|
|after 80 grit back to the coarse stone|
|still have a hump to flatten|
|highlighted the problem spots|
|my last run on 80 grit|
|still needs more work|
|20 minutes later|
|pits are gone|
|before I road test the iron|
|took another break|
|not quite 5" to the center of the screw|
|the iron from the plane with paint on the sole|
If everything is set up the same way and I'm using a honing guide for repeatability, why can't I raise a burr now? Did the iron somehow get out of sharp in use - the back of the iron wasn't meeting the toe of the bevel at nothing anymore? Or did I sharpen this before this and not get a burr and just went with a shiny bevel? If I had done that I can see me not being able to raise a burr here and now.
I will have to take this from this point forward. I will raise a burr on this and sharpen and hone it. The next time I have to touch it up we'll see if I can get a burr off of the stones.
|no detectable burr off of the coarsest diamond stone neither|
|got my burr off of the 80 grit runway|
I still have a ways to go on my sharpening. I would like it to be a 1-2-3 event and then back to woodworking. I think I have a ways to go before that happens.
What was Perry Mason's win loss record on his first 7 cases?
answer - 7 straight losses - from Perry himself in the TV Movie 'The Case of the Musical Murder'
After the worst Thursday on record, I awoke the next morning and resolved to sort out this stool. I needed more maple, so I headed to Frank Paxton Hardwoods and found the perfect board waiting for me. Straight. Clear. Flat. Reasonably priced. So I assumed I’d get into a car accident on the way home. (No collisions.) I milled the new seat, assuming it would be case hardened and twist […]
My daughter Katy made another monster batch of soft wax for the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool event last weekend and had 45 tins left over to sell in her etsy store. Check it out here.
Remember: It’s for furniture. We had some people visit the store last Saturday who seemed intent on using it on their lips, beards and what-not. It will sting, and not in a good way.
Also, don’t use it on your dog, though it would be great to have a dog that smelled like soft wax. Gerbils are right out. Parrots? Verboten. Argh. Just furniture.
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: Uncategorized
|24 hours and ready to unclamp|
|got 3 packages of AAA|
|put the batteries in backwards the first time|
|fixing the clock upstairs|
|back to sharpening|
I can have the shiniest bevel in the universe and still have an iron that wouldn't cut wet paper. A sharp iron is where the toe on the bevel goes to nothing meeting the back of the iron. Therefore, I can have a shiny bevel and a dull iron at the same time.
Now we come to the burr. I've been watching sharpening videos a lot lately and 4 or 5 stand out for one thing. These guys only use two stones to sharpen - a coarse stone to raise a burr and a fine stone to polish the bevel. Two of them that come to mind are Rob Cosman and Richard Maguire using the two stone method. The two stones apart, all of the methods I watched raised a burr first.
I kind of realized that I wasn't doing this a few months ago but I don't sharpen that often. And I was out in La-La land being seduced by that shiny bevel. I also think I was under the influence of Mars being in the House of Jupiter. Or is that the other way around?
The burr raised is much more important then the shiny bevel. The burr comes from the zero meeting of the back of the iron and the toe of the bevel. Once I feel a burr straight across I can then get my shiny bevel.
|I only sharpen at two angles 25 or 30|
|I set the honing guide on the top and drop iron down|
|the iron rests on an aluminum angle iron|
|current stone setup|
Coarse, medium, and fine diamond stones with a 8000 Japanese polishing stone.
|stropping is last|
|my coarsest diamond stone|
This raises another thought I had on my sharpening method. I am questioning my repeatability with the honing guide. But since I haven't been a good boy and checking for a continuous burr each time, I may be chasing my tail on this. I should establish getting a burr each and everytime I sharpen before I question the repeatable factor with the honing guide.
|a few minutes work and I had my continuous burr|
|you can have a shiny bevel and a burr|
|off the extra fine stone|
|shiny I do like|
|the 8K removed the burr and the black lines|
|the chipbreaker has a chip in it|
|LN A2 iron|
|I still don't buy the thick iron PR|
|cleaned it off|
|I still have a burr|
How much silver is in Sterling Silver?
answer - 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper
Here's a nice pine box from Daniel. He used the 90 degree guide to pare down to the base line giving a nice flat bottom to his dovetails, good idea. I've seen a few different ways to achieve this, the classic way is to chisel a hump in the middle from both sides and then carefully pare it flat. Personally I prefer a hollow in mine, it's faster, no less strong and gives me the reassurance of no gaps on assembly.
Many woodworkers assume that pine is an easy wood to dovetail, it's soft and forgiving which means you can bang home the joint without much risk of splitting. However that same softness is also a disadvantage as the sides easily collapse under pressure and spoil the crispness of the finished joint.
I've found the best combination for dovetailing is a 'hard' wood for the tails, which hold their crisp shape and a 'softer' wood for the pins with some flexibility. A classic combination is hard maple and walnut, which also gives a strong colour contrast to the joint.
The dovetail alignment board below was Marks first project with his new 1:6 and 90 degree guides and he looks to have done a great job. The alignment board is a very useful tool and a great project to get used to using the guides. It's best made from a single board (quarter sawn if possible) for future stability. If you leave the parts over long then any mistakes made in the joint can be cut off and you can have another go.
Using 3/4" board also makes you appreciate the need for squareness in your dovetails, the thicker the material the more chance your cuts will wander off square and the joint won't fit. This is where the magnetic guides really come in their own keeping the cuts straight, but above all, square.
Nice to see a bit of Blue Spruce tool porn in there!
In early March 2017, Jim Tolpin woke up in the middle of the night with a revelation: He finally understood where trigonometry comes from. “I was actually just working on that when you called,” he says. “And I actually think I just figured it out.”
He approached it the way an artisan would, hands-on, intuitive. “It hurts my head to keep doing this,” he says. “Why am I doing this? Why am I waking up in the middle of the night thinking about math? I literally got up early and just started taking notes, looking up Latin and root words.”
Jim is, above all else, a teacher. But he’s the best kind of teacher. The kind who never believes he knows it all, the kind who never stops learning. In some ways, he can’t help it. It’s in his blood.
Jim grew up on the East coast, specifically Springfield, Mass., with his parents and his sister. His family is East European and came over several generations before. Most of them were in the sciences, but his highly educated grandfather was a craftsperson, who found work in America as a grocer and cabinetmaker.
As a young boy Jim spent the weekends with his grandfather, tagging along to lumberyards, helping him pick out material and working on small projects with him at home. “He definitely was a very early inspiration to the pleasures of making something with your hands and seeing it come to life,” Jim says. “I attribute that to him.”
Jim’s parents were not craftspeople. “My dad was basically a bean counter and a court reporter, and my mom was an at-home mom,” he says. “I related quite a bit more to my grandparents than I did to my own parents.”
Most everyone else in Jim’s family? Teachers.
In high school Jim fell in love with studying the sciences. “I had some super-nerd friends and we got together and built ham radios and went up to the mountains with our radios and set up antennas and did all that kind of fun stuff,” he says.
Jim attended University of Massachusetts Amherst, first majoring in physics and then switching to geology with a minor in journalism. He enjoyed field work, especially mapping, and working with his hands.
“At this point I really enjoyed learning about science and understanding the basic concepts of it, and I wanted to do what Carl Sagan ended up doing, which was bringing science to the public and being able to explain it to the public,” he says. One of Jim’s favorite professors taught both geology and journalism. Jim’s future career, science writing, seemed obvious. He was accepted into Stanford to pursue a doctorate. in just that. But then came the Vietnam War. Jim got a deferment and entered the Teachers Corps in Wooster, Mass., for one year.
After the Teachers Corps, Jim got a job teaching geology at the University of New Hampshire in 1970. There he met some students who had studied under Tage Frid at the Rhode Island School of Design. They were taking on various cabinetmaking and installation jobs, and Jim devoted himself to them, helping them and learning from them. “Within just a year or so I think I learned more about woodworking than I did about geology in four years of college,” he says. “Because of that total immersion, that total engagement.” At this point, “science writer” began to fade. “I had an inherent compulsion to want to work with my hands,” he said.
Enter Bud McIntosh, an old-school boat builder. Bud turned out to be a huge influence on Jim, convincing him that he wouldn’t be throwing away his education by going into woodworking. “He also had a degree in classic literature, actually, but he devoted his whole life to boat building, and found it a challenge from start to finish.”
Something clicked. Jim realized there could be challenge, joy and the chance to always learn new things in the field of woodworking. “My mind and my hands would be fully engaged,” he says.
Jim continued cabinetmaking and then got a job with another boat builder in Rockport, Maine, fitting out interiors of workboat-type yachts. It was a crash course in complicated woodworking (think slopes and curves) that improved his work.
In 1978 Jim moved out to the West coast, Washington state, specifically, with his young family for opportunities in boatbuilding. He heard the pay was better — and it was. He found work right away doing interior finishes on boats, but soon transitioned to cabinetmaking for a couple reasons: he could make even more money and he realized he was a more efficient cabinetmaker than he was a boatbuilder.
Jim learned how to make a (good) living out of a small cabinetmaking shop. He experimented with setups, and figured out the best way to design his workflow. And from that came his first book: “Jim Tolpin’s Guide to Becoming a Professional Cabinetmaker.”
So he wasn’t his own version of Carl Sagan. And he wasn’t teaching anyone about science. But he was teaching woodworking. And so, his college dream began to come true in another way. (Spoiler alert: He’s now written more than a dozen books and has sold more than three-quarters of a million copies.)
During these years Jim says he thoroughly enjoyed cabinetmaking, and not just the making. He enjoyed figuring out, and writing about, how to run a successful cabinet shop. “Really the goal, in cabinetry, is to design a system where you can hire some kid off the street and in one or two days you can teach him the entire process,” he says. “When I realized that I was that kid off the street, it wasn’t challenging anymore.”
So he explored new avenues of woodworking. This included green woodworking, and building pitchforks and chairs with his friend, Dave Sawyer. “And then I got into this whole notion of building small boats,” he says. “I did a couple small boats and then I got into gypsy wagons.”
Yes. Gypsy wagons.
“That was a real challenge,” Jim says. “I didn’t have plans for building gypsy wagons. I did have some museum drawings but they didn’t show joinery. And I needed to do joinery for something that could travel on the highway. So I kind of did a lot of seat-of-the-pants engineering to build these things.” He built six.
It was during these years that Jim became a prolific writer. “I’m writing stuff down as I’m learning it,” he says. “So after I learned something and felt like I really had a handle on it I’d write a book about it. There’s a whole series of books that happened one after another and I slowly migrated from making a living woodworking to making a living writing about woodworking. I was really getting into a balance of journalism and doing the craft itself.”
And Jim loved that balance. He was living out Bud’s wisdom, engaging both his hands and his mind while also doing what he loved — woodworking along with constant learning.
“Most afternoons and evenings I’d be in the shop making stuff, testing things out, testing out some theories about the process,” he says. His mornings, when he says he was “freshest and not antsy,” were devoted to writing. “I was constantly discovering a different way of looking at all these processes and trying to really understand what’s really happening when we use a tool on wood in a certain way. What’s really going on from a physics point of view? And I’d do some analysis about that and experiment with that. I’m not a fast learner, by any means. I had to really experience it. I find that I have to work from my hands to understand something.”
With his books, Jim became a household name among woodworkers. With this fame came the reputation that he was, as he says, an absolutely fantastic woodworker. “I’m an OK woodworker,” Jim says. “I do pretty good woodworking.” But, he says, he’d never consider himself a fine woodworker, one who builds studio furniture. “I just basically became a good woodworker that does good stuff.” (I tell him he’s being humble.)
He admits to being a good teacher — it’s his passion. But he finds it interesting that people confuse the prolific writing he does with this idea that he’s an exceptional woodworker. “I’m much more interested in the process, in teaching the process than I am the product.”
He has no attachment to the things he makes, which likely stems from 25 years of cabinetmaking and spending a month on a project only to sell it to a client and never see it again. His joy, he says, came from the process of making them.
With a number of books under his belt Jim was approached by Tim Lawson at a neighborhood party. Tim thought Port Townsend was the perfect location for a woodworking school. “It’s a very rich learning environment here and there are so many masters of different trades here,” Jim says. “He just approached me and asked me if I’d think about it and I thought about it for about 30 seconds and said, ‘Yeah. Let’s see what we can do.’”
But Jim had one condition. “If I did teach I would only teach the hand tools because I was done with routers and tables saws,” he says. “Well, not exactly table saws but I was absolutely done with routers and power sanders. I gave them all away. I’d be happy to never see one for the rest of my life.”
For Jim this was a circling back to his time as a boat builder, which required lots of hand fitting with planes and chisels. This also meant a return to another love: learning. “I returned myself to studying and practicing and really developing my hand tool skills,” he says. And he now firmly believes that machines aren’t able to teach the same things as hand tools — an intimate connection with the wood is essential. “And for selfish reasons I just didn’t want to be around students and power tools,” he says. “They scare me, the tools scare me to death.”
Jim and Tim teamed up with John Marckworth, and the three founded the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. It officially opened its doors March 8, 2008. Today the school is considered to be one of the finest in the country.
In many ways, Jim has lived several lifetimes but his story, of course, doesn’t end here. About five years ago he attended a lecture about proportional systems and the influence of Grecian architecture in furniture at a Woodworking in America conference given by George Walker, a man he’d never met. And George attended Jim’s lecture on how our bodies inform the form and function of furniture, having never met. At the end of each lecture, Jim and George were asking each other questions the other had never considered. “And basically, we’ve been talking ever since,” Jim says. “He can’t shut up about it. Neither can I. We find there’s always something to learn about the ancient systems that have been in place for thousands of years about designing furniture and building.”
It was after those lectures, at a bar in Chicago, when Jim said to George, “You’ve got to write a book about this stuff.” George said, “I don’t know how to write a book.” But Jim, of course, did. “We just ended up in full collaboration mode,” Jim says.
The result: “By Hand & Eye” and “By Hound & Eye,” with “Tricks and Truths: Geometry of Antiquity For Artisans of Today” forthcoming.
The duo has formed their own company, By Hand & Eye, LLC, and occasionally meet up to give talks. Recently they both traveled to Los Angeles to give a 90-minute talk to Google’s design team. (And if you haven’t watched the “By Hand & Eye” animation made by Andrea Love, who also was the illustrator of “By Hound & Eye,” you must. You can see it here.)
These days a typical week in Jim’s life includes continuing program development for the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, working on projects for Lost Art Press, woodworking (the day we spoke he said he was headed over to a friend’s house that afternoon to help plank an 18-foot-long rowboat) as well as what he calls “reality maintenance chores.” He also goes to the school two to three times a week, visiting classes.
Since moving to Port Townsend Jim has remarried. His wife, recently retired, worked as a physician for more than 30 years. He has two grown children from his first marriage and now also has a grown son and a 15-year-old who lives at home.
Home is in uptown Port Townsend, an old Victorian town and one of the only Victorian seaports left in the United States. His house is one of the oldest in town. The design of his shop, which was completed a couple years ago, was informed by the existing house. Jim designed the shop and one of the school’s main instructors, a third-generation carpenter named Abel Isaac Dances, took the lead on it. Several graduates from the school’s foundation course spent a summer working as paid apprentices, and together they built 90 percent of the shop using only hand tools.
The town of Port Townsend is small and fairly quiet, except in the touristy summer months. And, it’s walkable. Jim and his wife can walk to the movie theater or down to the water in about 7 minutes. They visit farmers’ market and grow their own herbs and berries — lots of raspberries. “I feel like I’m living this charmed existence,” he says.
Jim says he can’t imagine ever leaving Port Townsend. It’s home. In the years ahead he expects growth in the woodworking school, with expanded programming. “And I always think that the book I’m working on now is the last book I’m ever going to write, and that was six books ago,” he says, laughing. “If I know I have something worthwhile to say I will probably keep writing.”
And ever the life-long learner, Jim plans to continue the role of student. “There are college courses I want to take online,” he says. “I may go back to college for all I know.” He tells the story of his uncle who, at 100 years old, went back to college to major in American history. “I talked to him when he went back to college, and he said, ‘I’m really cheating, actually.’ And I asked him, ‘Why are you cheating?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m majoring in American history and I lived through half of that.’ He was a very funny guy. He was an inspiration to me. He had this love of learning his whole life.”
Jim’s love of learning shows up every day in his shop. “This is what happens to me: I’ll be doing something and I’ll just question, Why am I doing that? I was one of those really annoying students that always asked that question. I even asked why one and one equals two, because that made no sense to me. It turns out it’s a good question, by the way, in mathematics.”
Jim says he loves going back and revisiting things he had been taught, but this time with deeper meaning and explanation. “I want to know the intuitive reason why all these things work,” he says. “I mean, how long did it take me to realize why a plane is called a plane? It’s because it makes a plane. I should have known that. I should have known that 35 years ago. As soon as you say that to someone they whack their foreheads. It’s fun. It’s just really fun and that’s why I keep doing it.”
This constant questioning, thinking, experimenting and processing requires intense focus, which is why Jim enjoys working alone. His shop music is lyric-less: classical, Gaelic or electronica.
This intense focus also requires breaks. For fun, Jim enjoys making gliders. “I make wood that flies, basically,” he says. Made out of balsa, most without motors, Jim says they’re simply hand-launched things that play with the wind. It’s a passion that stems from his childhood, when he would make stick-and-tissue model airplanes.
He’s also keen on keeping himself physically fit, which means walking every day with his wife and rowing solo or with one person most every day in the warmer months. He goes to the gym almost every other day for basic conditioning, in order to continue rowing and working with hand tools as he is now. “When I do that stuff I’m not thinking about all the other stuff,” he says. “I’m just enjoying being outside, getting into nature and getting into the physical exertion of my body.”
The paths in Jim’s life have led him to unexpected places, and yet, the destination has always been the same: figuring out a process with his hands, and knowing and understanding it so deeply he can explain it, simply, to others. “I love being in the position of not knowing but maybe going to find out,” he says. He hopes to keep his eyes as wide open as possible, while not taking things personally and observing slowly. He encourages others, particularly longtime woodworkers, to do the same.
“Pass on what you know while you still can,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who want to know this stuff. If you have an inclination to teach, do it. You’re not more than you think you know, so pass it on.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
Filed under: By Hand & Eye, By Hound and Eye, Uncategorized
Last night I got home from work and my wife said, “You smell like mothballs.” I am pretty sure I looked a bit disheveled too. I had a blank stare on my face and had the hair-falling-out-of-the-ponytail halo going on. “I just had a mind-blowing experience,” I replied.
I had just gotten back from the Fisher house and was digging deeper into a couple of chests of drawers that had never seemed relevant to the Fisher story. I never gave them too much notice because they looked nothing like the rest of his work – too fancy. Because he built furniture for a rural community, most all of Fisher’s work was on the less expensive side of things. He made ladderback chairs, candlestands, six-board chests, etc. ranging between $1 and $3 apiece. He never really got the opportunity to exercise his (uber meticulous) skill on furniture that was a bit more upscale. That is, until Mr. Johnson commissioned two chests of drawers in 1812. As I was tracing through this story while putting together the manuscript, I was struck by the fact that Johnson paid $14 for the two chests, making it Fisher’s biggest commission ever.
What did those chests look like? And where are they?
At that moment, it dawned on me to revisit the two chests I’d been dismissing as not from his hand. Maybe these were made by Fisher?
Mike and I had the drawers out, our heads inside and flashlights glaring for a good long while. We began to reveal bit by bit little evidences that make it possible that Fisher was, in fact, the maker of these chests. Besides the fascinating chalk marks that tie these pieces together, we were looking at some unique construction details like the fact that the backboards that were resawn by hand and attached bookmatched next to each other.
My mind reels as I record this story in the book. With the War of 1812 (which Fisher was adamantly against) just declared, his new infant son deathly ill and his windmill partially assembled, this commission must have been a dramatic one to work through. Putting these kinds of stories together in this book has been an amazing privilege. There is more to write so I should end here, but it’s refreshing to come back up for air to share with you my adventures in writing.
Filed under: Uncategorized
The next couple of weeks will feature some chairmaking here. As I said earlier, I’m revisiting the ladderback chairs I began my woodworking career with…I shaved some posts & rungs and chopped slat mortises – but shot no pictures. But today, I had some wainscot chair work to do; and what a world of difference. I had to fashion one hewn rear post for a wainscot chair like this:wainscot chair, side view
The “cant” or “rake” to the rear post is hewn, not bent like in Alexander’s ladderback. This post starts out as a split billet 3″ x 4″ x 48″. That’s a lot of oak. I hewed it oversized; a few weeks ago I worked one and it was too close to the finished size. When I was done hewing and planing, it came up “scant” – i.e. too small in cross-section to match the first one. Here, you see the template laying on the riven and hewn piece:
Thinking about the JA chairs – this one billet had enough wood to maybe make 3 or 4 posts for a JA ladderback. This is a rare case where I work primarily on the tangential face first. I want the front face of these posts to be the radial surface (it’s going to be carved, & I like carving that face better than this one). So the cant gets laid out on the growth-ring plane.
Once I hewed and planed that face pretty flat, I scribed the template and began to hew the shape. The front is easy enough to hew, because of the way you’re cutting down the grain. In this photo, I have the front faces planed, and I’m cutting the thickness of the post above the seat. I decided to saw, rather than split this, so I can use the piece that’s coming off – it will become either a stretcher or one of the carved figures that is applied to the side of the chair. I made a relief cut at the seat height, and am sawing down to that cut. In the photo, this saw cut is nearly done. Then the stuff below the seat will get hewn away, there’s nothing worth saving there, so hewing is quicker than sawing. Easier too. You can see relief cuts there too, I stood the piece up on its top end and hewed down to the mid-point.
Cleaning up these rear surfaces is pretty easy. They don’t have to be dead-flat or true. I shim under the end, and shove the post against my bench hook/planing stop. A holdfast keeps it in place. I’m only planing as far as the plane will fit. It gets close to, but not up to, the angled spot where the post leans back. I skew the plane to get close…
Then switch to a spoke shave. it’s one of the few times I use this tool in joiner’s work. That’ll sneak right up to that junction.
I have to let it dry out a couple of weeks, then I can cut the joinery in it & continue on with the chair. I have another to start in the meantime, so there will be more chair work on the blog soon.