The Halcyon Days of 2007

I am working away from home at the moment, and as a result my workshop time is limited to Sunday mornings, which has hit my productivity a little. I am still beavering away in the workshop however, and a more substantive post will follow soon. But in the meantime I was pleased to see that the Totnes School of Guitar Making have recently revamped their website. As a result you can see in progress pictures for each student going back to January 2006, with older course photos to be added soon.

Which means that you can now see course photos from my time in Totnes (summer 2007) showing the construction of Esmerelda, my 12 string acoustic guitar, here.

The website is a great introduction to a hand tool focused method of lutherie (the only machines used are a drill press for drilling machine head holes, and router for truss rod slots and electric guitar cavities), and the course photos are bound to provide an endless source of inspiration for new guitar builds. Highly recommended.

Significance of the Anarchist’s Tool Chest

The following is a slightly reworked version of my first column for Furniture & Cabinet Making (published in issue 224).

For many people, conflating woodwork with ruminations on mortality will seem like an unusual thought process. But for me, the idea of heritage in hand tool work, transcending generations, has always been a pivotal idea.

My own woodworking journey started in 2007 when I enrolled on a course at the Totnes School of Guitar Making, and until recently, my workshop activity has been focused on building acoustic guitars; although my most recent build was a mid-50’s Telecaster type electric. This summer, I attended the inaugural course run by the New English Workshop. Under the tutelage of Chris Schwarz (his very first class in the UK), we spent five days building The Anarchist’s Tool Chest from his book of the same name. Now, you may be familiar with this iconic project, but if not: in short, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is concerned with building an 18th century traditional English tool chest. Because what better way to start learning traditional joinery than a five day dovetail death march using southern yellow pine (an evil material which has no place in the workshop)! Let’s not make things too easy for ourselves, right?


I blogged daily from the course, but what I want to reflect on here is why this class was of immense personal significance for me. This is not just because of building the chest, but also because of what the chest represents. Let me explain.


In The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, Schwarz uses the chest as a literary conceit, a way of discussing the tools necessary to build furniture, and the skills necessary to use them. The chest is a way of restricting your tool wish list to the fifty essential tools, and as a statement of intent for craftsmen and craftswomen who seek to lead an ethical and sustainable life by building long lasting furniture and so escaping the spiral of buying disposable, chipboard, furniture-shaped objects. I read the ATC some five years after the course in Totnes, and it is hard to overemphasize the impact the book had on my thinking. The half articulated ideas which had been slowly fermenting since the course in Totnes finally coalesced, with Schwarz filling in the gaps and signposting where the path could lead. This was an approach that meshed with my own embryonic thoughts on woodworking, a Eureka! moment when everything started to make sense – very much like the time I first took a wafer-thin shaving with my trusty Clifton No. 5.


There is another reason why the ATC was loaded with personal significance; it was the last project I discussed with my grandfather. Although I had not done any real woodwork before the course in Totnes, it was something I had grown up around thanks to my maternal grandfather, who build everything from wardrobes to toys in his shed – an Aladdin’s cave of tools, many of which had belonged to his grandfather. So it was inevitable that when I took the lutherie course in 2007, we bonded over woodwork, constantly discussing new projects, techniques, and yes, tools. In 2011, as he lay dying in hospital, we continued to talk about woodwork, and he enthusiastically examined pictures of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest I’d taken in for him, and talked about timber selection and the construction techniques necessary for this project.

So yes, this was a hugely important course, even before you consider that it was taught by Chris Schwarz himself (a huge hero of mine).


But the learning experience did not stop when we all packed our tools up on the Friday evening (and not just because I still had my first frame and panel lid to build before the chest could be painted). Because, you see, manhandling the tool chest onto the bench in my workshop got me thinking again. And I couldn’t help but think that there was a punch line to the course beyond having improved my dovetailing.

And then it struck me. I knew exactly what I had attended the course to achieve. Building the chest is a way of representing the ideas I talked about at the start of this column; keeping the craft of hand tool work alive, of empowering woodworkers to build and to lead ethical lives without the crutch of cheap disposable furniture (or musical instruments). And yes, it will also keep my tools safe. This chest, which still connects me to my grandfather despite his passing, is the means by which I can teach my children, and (eventually) my grandchildren all of these things. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is essentially bombproof; built from southern yellow pine, dovetailed at the corners, with further dovetails on the upper and lower skirts, it should last for a hundred years at the very least.

So here’s my suggestion for the course’s final and most important lesson:- this chest will continue to represent these important ideas long after I’ve returned to the soil, and (with all probability) long after my grandchildren are gone. The enormity, and staggering simplicity of this, is beautiful.


Tool Review – Hamilton Marking Gauge

Everything we do in woodworking relies on accurate marking out. Without accurate and clear layout, it really does not matter how good your sawing or planing skills are, so it makes sense to invest in good quality layout tools. I’ve been happily using the ubiquitous Titemark marking gauge for over two years now, but sometimes having multiple gauges comes in useful, and recently I hard a layout task for which the Titemark was not suitable. This gave me  the excuse to finally order a 4″ marking gauge from Jeff Hamilton (by way of the tool store run by New English Workshop). I’ve been lusting after Jeff’s frankly gorgeous gauges since Chris Schwarz wrote a review of his panel gauge, so it was only a matter of time until I added a Hamilton marking gauge to my tool chest.DSC_0241

Jeff offers two sizes of marking gage (4″ and 6″) plus the panel gauge, in a range of timbers. I’ve always been fond of cocobolo since I built my 12 string acoustic guitar (which included a cocobolo bridge and headstock veneer) so I plumbed for that timber, although the cherry, walnut, African blackwood, and curly maple all look stunning as well.

If I thought that the pictures of the marking gauges were beautiful, I really wasn’t prepared for how these look in the flesh. The 4″ gauge is simply gorgeous; dainty and delicate but still exuding the air of a serious tool. Built from quarter sawn stock and finished to a very high standard, the gauge has a wonderfully tactile finish, in part due to the lovely bat wing curves of the fence. The fence itself is brass, and secured by a robust feeling knurled knob, while a thumbnail shaped blade takes care of marking duties. Shipping each tool in a drawstring bag is another nice touch.

Those batwing curves on the fence have a number of purposes beyond adding to the sublime look of the gauge. Firstly they increase the amount of exposed end grain, so keeping the fence stable throughout seasonal humidity changes. Secondly, they provide a comfortable and excellent way to pull the fence up against the workpiece when scribing a line (as shown below).


Good looks are all very nice, but if a tool doesn’t work well then it does not retain its spot in my tool chest for long. There are no such issues with the Hamilton marking gauge however, as in use the gauge works perfectly. The wide fence provides an excellent and stable datum against the workpiece, and the marking blade has scored everything from southern yellow pine to oak in my shop without any difficulties. The low profile of the fence compared to the large wheel of the Titemark is also a noticeable advantage. When laying out the hinges on my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, I found that the upper skirt on the chest was fouling the fence of the Titemark and prevented me from marking out an accurate line. The lower profile of the Hamilton gauge allowed me to get in close to the workpiece and scribe an accurate line without any fuss. The brass knob also locks securely and I’ve not experienced any slippage when marking out long runs.

In short, this gauge is a keeper, and I can see it getting a lot of use in my shop, from the usual joinery layout to marking the thickness of guitar headstocks. I will definitely be adding one of Jeff’s panel gauges to my tool chest in the very near future, which I suppose is the best I can say about any tool.

Going Dutch

With the hardware fitted, all that remained to complete the casework for the Anarchist’s Tool Chest was to apply the finish, and I’ve spent the past two weekends attending to this. With the lid removed from the case I first filled the (fortunately very few) significant dents with wood filler, and then sanded all of the exterior surfaces with 120 and 220 grit paper. Given that the tool chest is going to live in the workshop and will no doubt take a beating over the years, I focused on removing the worst of the tool marks and scratches, but did not strive to achieve a fine furniture or musical instrument level finish. Once the case and lid were looking good, I taped up the dust seal and back edge of the lid with blue painter’s tape to keep these surfaces paint free.


The only real choice of finish when it comes to tool chests is milk paint, and I am not one to argue with several hundred years of dead woodworkers. However, given that my current workshop is a little gloomy, I thought that the traditional none-more-black colour scheme of English tool chests would suck out light and add to the gloom. Consequently, I decided to go with something a little more European (sorry, dead English guys) and ordered a quart of each of General Finishes Federal Blue and Persian Blue milk paint, with the intention of having a very Dutch colour scheme of dark blue undercoat and lighter blue top coat. The advantage of a two colour scheme is that  the undercoat will show through as years of workshop use takes its toll on the top coat.


 I’ve not used milk paint before, but this experience was entirely straight forward and stress free. General Finishes advice is to apply their milk paint using a foam applicator or pad. My local hardware store didn’t have any large foam pads, so I resorted to a small foam roller (the sort used for glossing radiators) and a 1″ pad for cutting in round the edges and on the bevelled skirts. This is where my old student holiday job of painting school classrooms came in handy, and painting with the roller resulted in a swift and even application without any noticeable brush marks or flashing. The milk paint worked easily and is certainly comparable to applying a standard emulsion paint (and a lot easier than the graffiti resistant oil based eggshell paint we used to paint schools with). All told I was able to do a full coat of the chest and lid in about 40 minutes without feeling unduly rushed.  Being self levelling there was no need to sand between coats, and although using the roller left a slightly dimpled surface, the colour was even and for this purpose I didn’t think that a little bit of texture was anything to fret about.


 The first coat was predictably patchy, but each subsequent coat filled in the colour significantly. It was after the third coat that I decided to stick with just a Federal Blue colour scheme, and save the Persian Blue for another project. Four coats of Federal Blue resulted in a solid and vibrant colour. Milk paint does develop a patina quite quickly, and as I had only used one colour I decided to further protect the chest with several coats of General Finishes high performance lacquer, chosen because it was compatible with the milk paint and because they offered a flat finish option – there is no need for a high gloss finish on a tool chest.


 The lacquer was applied in the same way as the milk paint – a foam applicator cut in the edges and the bevels, then a roller to cover the large panels, and again, because of the even coverage left by the roller I did not need to sand between coats. A pint of lacquer gave me three good coats, which should provide ample protection over the coming years.


Once the final coat of lacquer had dried I removed the painter’s tape, and took the opportunity to fit four 50mm castoring wheels to improve the mobility of the chest (I want to lift it as infrequently as possible) before reattaching the lid and fitting the escutcheon. The lacquer needs a final flatten with 320 and 400 grit paper, but I will wait for a week or so before doing this, so as to give the lacquer time to fully cure. This flattening will be to remove any significant high points only, and I won’t be buffing my way up to 12,000 grit micromesh as I would on a guitar body.


 The only work left to complete the tool chest is now the internal fit out; saw till, runners, and sliding trays, after which I will be able to transfer my tools into the chest and call this project done.

Embracing the unfamiliar – JKD Super Seminar

I was fortunate yesterday to attend a four hour Jeet Kune Do seminar co-taught by Clive Elliott and Steve Martin. The opportunity to learn from two top instructors, and train with their students, was a real privilege, not to mention a fantastic chance to broaden my martial arts skill set.

This was the first JKD training session I’ve attended, although the R.AT. is grounded in JKD concepts. As a result, a lot of what was covered fell outside my core skill set of traditional Jiu Jitsu and Defendo. But cross training is something which is increasingly important to me, as a way to fill in the gaps ,and to address some of the assumptions which can develop if you only train in one art (attacks always start at a set distance, or in a set manner).

The seminar covered a significant body of techniques, from a number of different entry and exit points, and it was here that a theme started to emerge; namely of being able to transition between the different ranges of a fight and not get trapped in just one. For the uninitiated, the four fighting ranges are long range (kicking and some weapon attacks), medium range (punching distance), close (upright grappling), and groundwork. Most martial arts only operate within one or two of these ranges, which make it difficult to react if an attack originates in an unfamiliar range. Being able to effectively move between the ranges means that you can react appropriately, and move to a range where your core techniques fall.

So, over the course of four hours we worked on moving between the ranges and disrupting our opponents attacks, always from different starting points and assumptions. This included working from clinch, where I was delighted to get to use a technique with which I was intimately familiar (Koshi Garuma, everyone’s first hip throw, and the only thing which was familiar during the course), several sticky hands responses to a jab, cross punch combination, timing punches to disrupt a switch kick, and some wonderfully elegant lock flows on the knees and ankles.

Despite being well and truly out of my realm of experience and my comfort zone, a number of aspects of this approach really resonated with me, particularly being forced to work in ranges with which I am not familiar, and with attacks I am not used to dealing with. And this is such a necessary element of any training. This is not to belittle my core arts, far from it. But there are so many unexpected situations in which you may have to use your skill set, and training in a broad range of styles and arts presents the opportunity to functionalise training and increase the variety of situations which are no longer unexpected or unfamiliar.

Clive’s club are always a great bunch to train with, and the amount of information presented in just one morning by two expert instructors was incredible in breadth and almost overwhelming. I can’t wait for the next seminar!