Workshop Archaeology

The following is based on an article I wrote for issue 237 of Furniture & Cabinet Making.

Although there is a reassuring lack of ancient spike filled pits under my bench, and no nest of vipers guarding my tool chest, I have recently found myself drawing inspiration from my favourite childhood Indiana Jones movies and assuming the role of a workshop archaeologist (sadly this is where any comparison to Harrison Ford ends).


Thanks to a family friend I recently came into possession of a large batch of tools being disposed of in a house clearance. I had no idea what was included in this collection, so when several large boxes where unloaded from the delivery van I was curious to discover what they contained. A pristine condition Shopsmith combination lathe/ band saw/ disc sander machine was the undoubted centrepiece, which means that I can finally build that pair of Roorkee chairs I’ve been promising myself. The rest of the collection was a jumbled assortment of smaller items in several battered hardwood boxes, and I have been slowly sifting through these crates and working out exactly what they contain.

I didn’t know the former owner of these tools, nor do I know anything about him other than what his tools tell me. And so I have started a process of workshop archaeology; piecing together an impression of another craftsman from (what is probably just a selection of) his tools. And in doing so, the idea of heritage (about which I have written before) started to call its siren song. Because I began wondering what a future woodworker and workshop archaeologist would surmise from the contents of my tool chest. If all that is left to tell the story of my craft is my tools, what would they say?

Thanks to two readers, I now know what this mystery tool is.

Thanks to two readers, I now know what this mystery tool is.

I don’t think the contents of my tool chest would surprise anyone. It is very obviously focused on hand tool work, and save for a couple of specific lutherie tools, most of my tool collection looks like it was lifted from the pages of the Joiner & Cabinetmaker or any other traditional handwork text. So you will find the standard issue hand planes, chisels, marking and measuring tools, and a nest of saws. Only the bending iron, purfling cutter, and fret files might give any indication that I am predominantly a luthier rather than a cabinetmaker.

A set of letter blocks, but what sort of printing machine do they fit?

A set of letter blocks, but what sort of printing machine do they fit?

In contrast the collection I recently acquired makes for a varied, and fascinating subject. The vast collection of router bits, in addition to the Shopsmith machine, allows me to infer that the previous owner was a predominantly machine based woodworker. He was also, I think, a metal worker. There is an endless supply of round and square steel stock, milling bits, and numerous metal working tools including some wonderful knurling tools and parallel jawed pliers. But some of the crates hold more unexpected wonders. A bag of small brass letter blocks for use in a printing machine, a pyrography machine, and a 3” sweep brace, were some of the more unexpected finds buried in one of the crates. It is hard to picture this craftsman; was he accomplished in many crafts, or was he a spirited dabber? What as his work like? Whatever the reality, the sheer breadth of his interests leaves me wishing that I could have talked to him about his craft.

My Anarchist's Tool Chest

This Anarchist’s Tool Chest houses all of my tools.

By sheer coincidence, my excursion into workshop archaeology came just after I had finished reading Virtuoso, the recent book on the tool cabinet of American piano builder H.O Studley (published by Lost Art Press, 2015). And my experiences of trying to piece together a picture of an unknown craftsman reminds me of the work that Don Williams undertook in researching Virtuoso (although my workshop archaeology is on a far less grand scale). Like my mysterious craftsman, we know little about Studley, but in Virtuoso Williams‘s forensic examination of Studley’s iconic tool cabinet, and the tools it contains, together with solid historic research builds a picture of the elusive craftsman who built and used the cabinet. It is a fascinating read, both for the intricacies of the tool cabinet, which in many ways resembles a 3D puzzle, and also for the light it sheds on a craftsman who has been obscured by the tool cabinet he clearly intended to be his legacy and the expression of his craft. As a book examining the very highest levels of craftsmanship, and workshop archaeology, Virtuoso comes highly recommended.


Very few of us ever achieve the enormous level of skill that H.O Studley possessed. But most of us will create at least one piece of work which will outlive us. And like the owner of my recent acquisitions, we will leave behind a tool collection that others will pick through and make use of, continuing the heritage of woodwork. I find this very comforting; the idea that my tools will continue to be used to create long after I am gone. At my old martial arts club there was a tradition of never washing your belt, because the dirt it picked up represented years of hard won experience and training. I like to think that the patina and wear on each of my tools carries a similar message for the future owners to interpret and decode.

So, the next time you lift the lid on your tool chest (or open the door to your workshop), consider what the contents would say about you and your craft to a future workshop archaeologist.

The important of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest

I have written previously about the personal significance of my tool chest (particularly in issue 224) but in short this is a traditional 18th century English design, recently re-popularised by Christopher Schwarz in his book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest (Lost Art Press, 2011). The chest serves several critical functions in my workshop. It protects my tools from dust and moisture (the two key ingredients of rust) and serves as an excellent vessel for both storing tools and working from. Because of the robust construction (a dovetailed carcase, and mortise and tenon lid, all in inch thick southern yellow pine), the tool chest will also serve as an ark for my tools, ensuring that my children, and their children, can continue to use my tools for many years to come. But most of all, my Anarchist’s Tool Chest is a constant reminder of how I want to approach my craft. It is a reminder of the countless craftsmen who came before me and used the same traditional tools, techniques (and yes, form of tool chest) as I do, and of those that will follow the same path long after I am gone.

This guitar, and my tool chest, are all that is needed to tell the story of my craft.

This guitar, and my tool chest, are all that is needed to tell the story of my craft.

Getting to know… Bern Billsberry

I’m kicking things in a slightly different direction today, and interviewing good buddy, tool maker, and community minded woodworker Bern Billsberry (maker of the invaluable, and now infamous, Nut Saver).

This will hopefully become a regular feature on the blog, so if readers think know of any other makers who have an interesting story to tell, or who deserve more exposure, please do let me know. But for now, let’s meet Bern.

Bern was an early adopter of Skelton Saws

Bern was an early adopter of Skelton Saws

You’re a professional woodworker, right? Can you tell us about how you trained?

I’ve been a self-employed carpenter and joirner for nearly 30 years having trained with my Dad who had a joinery & cabinet making shop. He carried out work for the National Trust, as well as work on listed buildings and restoration work for the antique trade, so I had a varied grounding which covered many aspects of the trade. His joinery shop was full of big old cast iron machinery – Watkin, Wilson, Danckaert and Elu power tools.

Once I had completed my training with my Dad I then ventured out on my own, I was in my early twenties.

Following on from question 1, what does an average day in the workshop/ on site look like for you What sort of work do you commonly do?

Work can vary quite a lot, I’ve spent most of my time working on domestic properties. General carpentry and joinery including cut roofs, dorma extensions, wndows, doors, staurs, kitchen fitting and also small building work – extensions and conservatories. Sometimes I would have the opportunity to make built-in furniture like alcove cabinets and wardrobes.

I would now like to focus on working more in my workshop and therefore trying to reduce my commitment to site work. Toolmaking, cabinet work and joinery is the path I would now like to go down, but finding it much harder to earn a living from it so I am still carrying out some site work at the moment to top up my wages.

My working day in the workshop is a long one, I usually start around 8am and don’t finish until around 8pm. With site work I aim to arrive by 8:30am and more often than not will be home by 6pm.

You are a man of many tool chests, including an Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and a David Barron chest. But the most fascinating chest is the travelling bench/ chest you were using on the first New English Workshop course. Tell us about this chest.

Bern's site tool chest

Bern’s site tool chest

Like my Dad I have always been fascinated with tools and tool chests.

The travelling bench/ chest came about when I worked as part of a two-man team for a small window installation company back in the 90s.  The company van would be loaded up with all the tools we needed, but my work partner would always have to leave the job site for on reason or another, taking with him whatever tools were still left on the van. There was always something I needed and I would have to struggle o, so I came up with the tool bo that would hold all the essentials I would need to carry on with the job and it could also double-up as a bench, hop-up, saw horse and door buck. Jim Toplin’s Tool Box book was a big help and inspiration, and still is.

Bern's Dad's tool chest

Bern’s Dad’s tool chest

Most people will know you as the maker of the Nut Saver. Where did the idea for the Nut Saver come from, and how did the design develop from the original concept?

I attended one of the 2014 New English Workshop classes taken by Chris Schwarz, to make the Anarchist’s Tool Chest. We were advised to use pliers to tighten the brass collets on the Veritas skew rebate plane fence, as then tended to slip in use. My plane was brand new and I didn’t want to damage it with pliers, but there was no alternative. I wasn’t happy to keep causing this damage and was keen to come up with a solution to the problem.

The original inspiration for the Nut Saver

The original inspiration for the Nut Saver

I remembered a tool that I had – a strap wrench back from around the time of the Second World War made of cast iron with steel reinforced braided webbing. After a little research on the web, I found it was an RAF tool for aircraft maintenance. This tool worked a little too well as you could quite easily over tighten and cause damage to the threads, so I needed to come up with something that would tighten with just the right amount of torque.

I decided to try out leather in place of the webbing as I felt it had all the right properties and is a pleasing combination with timber. Leather is a great natural product that is easily worked, and readily available, with the right amount of flexibility and grip to be gentle on the brass. Having a love of wood it was an easy decision to replace the metal parts with timber and I also wanted it to be something that fellow woodworkers could make for themselves. With this in mind I kept the tool uncomplicated and it took only three prototypes to perfect the design with just small tweaks between each one.

A trio of Nut Savers and the Veritas skew rebate plane than prompted their development

A trio of Nut Savers and the Veritas skew rebate plane than prompted their development

The Instagram community has obviously only been around for a short part of your career, but you’ve really become a mainstay of the online community. Can you tell us about how community between craftsmen has changed (or evolved) over the course of your career?

You never stop learning in this career and now with social networking it is a lot easier to gain information from really gifted craftsmen and women that love their work and are willing to share their knowledge. In the past it was rare for craftsmen to invite you into their workshop and tell you the secrets of the trade. Now sharing information is the norm and this will help to keep the arts alive for the future. I try to pass on some of the knowledge I have gained over the wears and help new woodworkers out whenever I can, but just like them I am also still learning, especially with my keen interest in traditional hand-tool skills.

You’ve made dovetail markers, the nut saver, and I’ve also seen some mitre jigs on Instagram. What is the next tool you plan to build?

I’ve been working on some shooting boards and the mini-bench, and would really like to make some wooden planes. I have a few new ideas which are still in the early stages of development and need more evolving. All will be disclosed if and when they are a success!

Mini-bench and Nut Saver

Mini-bench and Nut Saver

Playing the Shell Game


Back in April I cut and installed the headstock inlay for the parlour guitar, and wrote about the process for Furniture & Cabinetmaking (issue 236). What follows is an expanded version of that article.

The first task with any inlay is to select an appropriate design. I find that line drawings work best, as they give a clear indication of where the cuts need to be made, and ensure that the design is not overly dependant on engraving. I make multiple copies of the final design, and mark on the master copy the material which will be used for each element of the work. For the parlour guitar I chose a rose design, the stem of which is 1.5mm square sterling silver wire, the leaves are mother of pearl, and the petals are both green and red abalone, all set into an ebony headstock veneer on a steamed pear neck.


Shell blanks can vary in thickness, which can make life difficult when it comes to cutting the recess for the inlay. So before I start cutting I check the thickness of each piece of shell with callipers, and any pieces which are too thick are brought down to thickness by sanding with 80 grit paper on a piece of 10mm thick float glass. It is important to thickness from the back of the shell, so that the show face isn’t worn though.

With the shell thicknessed, I glue sections of the design onto the shell using contact adhesive (this is why multiple copies of the design are necessary). Correct orientation of the shell is critical to a design translating well to inlay, and I always seek to arrange the design so that different elements catch the light from different angles. If the whole design catches the light at the same point then it will look stunning from that position, but dull from every other perspective. If light catches different elements of the shell as you move around the design, then it will look good from every angle.


To cut the shell I used a Knew Concept’s piercing saw and No.2 blades, cutting right on the line and supporting the work with 3” wide piece of southern yellow pine into which a “v” shape has been cut. The saw blade moves within the “v”, while the shell remains supported on two sides, which keeps it from snapping. For cutting curves, the shell is slowly rotated, and the saw maintains a constant position.


Those with ninja-level sawing abilities will be able to inlay shell straight off the saw. For the rest of us, a set of needle files is essential to refine shapes. I use the same birdsmouth support when filing the shell, and this helps keep the filed edges of the shell at 90 degrees to the show face.

Once the shell has been cut and refined, it is time to cut the recess. I glued another copy of the design to the work piece, and defined the edges of the recess with No.10 blade scalpel blade. This can be done either by tracing the edge of design, or around the shell pieces, depending on design. This ensures that the shape of the recess remains crisp and no more material is removed than necessary. For this design, I scribed round the line drawings, as there were too many small pieces to make scribing the outline of each piece of shell practical.


If the recess is large I use a Lie Neilsen No. 271 router plane fitted with a 1/32cutter and the optional depth stop (which for this work is less of an optional fixture and much more of a necessity). This design was too small for the router plane, as the plane blade would have bruised the sides of the recess. So instead I used a Dremel in a router stand, and a 1.6mm down cut spiral cutter. Whichever method you chose, it is key that the recess be uniform in depth, placing the top surface of each piece of shell at, or just under, the surface of the wood. This is so that when finish sanding, the thin show surface of the shell is not sanded through, and that any film finish does not collect in hollows and obscure the inlay design.


Wire is much easier to bend before it is cut to length, so I placed the end of the wire stock in the recess and guided the wire into the channel, bending it to shape. Once bent, I cut it to length and filed away the burrs.


Gluing fragile shell can be a fraught experience, so I prefer to use a 24 hour epoxy with working time of at least 90 minutes. Epoxy can be dyed to match the surrounding wood, either using wood dust or filler dyes. For inlay set into ebony I use lamb black to dye the epoxy, adding it slowly until a good colour match is achieved. Ensure a good coverage of epoxy on the sides and floor of the recess, and then place the pieces in. On designs with a number of pieces in a single cavity, such as this rose design, I fit the interlocking pieces first, followed by any free floating pieces. The one disadvantage of epoxy is that it can be very thick, and so it is necessary to really press the shell into place (while taking care not to snap the shell) to make sure it is flat on the floor of the recess. I then left the epoxy for 24 hours to set and cure, and then sanded the excess back with 340 grit paper and a hard sanding block.


The inlay is glued in and left to cure.

I’m pleased with how this inlay has turned out, and hopefully this post goes some way to demystifying the processes. With careful cutting, filing and routing, pleasing inlay is within the reach of pretty much all woodworkers.

A fishy tale of sound hole decoration


The finished sound hole decoration, and sound hole

Progress on the parlour guitar has slowed a little since the Apprentice arrived, but I did find the opportunity to install the sound hole decoration this week. I had intended to work on the sound hole decoration at EWS, and to maximise the number of skills shown in the demonstration my decoration design was alternating blocks of ebony and mother of pearl between ebony banding. As it happened, I had no opportunity to do any work at EWS thanks to the level of interest from attendees. Since EWS I have been pondering the design again, and decided to revert back to my original design of a simple herringbone inlay. The corner purfling on the guitar will also be herringbone, so the matching sound hole decoration will avoid introducing another clashing element, which is particularly important on a small bodied guitar when the decorative elements are so much closer together. The previous design work was not wasted, as I was able to use the same spacing and circumferences as I would for the shell/ ebony design.


Before I make any cuts to the soundboard, I always make a test piece using offcuts from the soundboard timber. This allows me to check the spacing of the cuts and ensure that the inlay fits before I make the critical cuts for real. The two edges of the trench for the inlay were cut using a rosette cutter from LMII, after which I removed the bulk of the waste with a Lie Nielsen No.271 small router plane. The depth of the trench is critical, as the soundboard is only 2.7mm thick and the herringbone inlay is a little over 2mm high. This gives very little margin for error, and I set the rosette cutter blade to just a hair under 2mm so that a small amount of the herringbone could be removed after gluing.


With the bulk of the waste removed, I then fine tuned the trench using a 0.81mm mini chisel and small marking knife, both by Blue Spruce Tool Works. With these I am able to remove any debris from the two corners at the bottom of the trench, so that the inlay fits flush to the bottom.


Bending the herringbone on a bending iron

The herringbone banding is very fragile and won’t bend without some gentle persuasion. I bent the herringbone to the correct radius on my bending iron, going very slowly to avoid the edge banding snapping, or (even worse) the marquetry de-bonding and scattering  pieces across the workshop. When bending thin banding such as this, the trickiest part is keeping the length of the banding in a consistent horizontal plane, as applying heat to just one side will encourage it to slowly corkscrew as it bends. This will result in an inconsistent pattern once the inlay is planed flush to the soundboard. Once the banding was bent to the correct radius I levelled out the horizontal orientation by placing the banding on the flat top of the bending iron and trapped it under a broad chisel for a couple of seconds.


The banding is inlayed and ready to be levelled to the soundboard.

The banding was a good tight fit in the trench, so a final touch was to bevel the leading edges of the banding with a cabinet scraper. This eased the banding into the trench and ensured that the edges of the trench would not be bruised when the banding was inserted. The banding was glued in using Titebond Liquid Hide Glue, which had been warmed by leaving the glue tube in a jug of hot water so that it was less viscous. Ordinarily I mix my own hide glue, but hadn’t much opportunity recently. The Titebond worked well and I will certainly use it for future work. With a liberal coat of glue in the trench, the banding was placed in position and gently tapped fully into the trench with a small hammer.

DSC_0752I left the banding to cure overnight, and then planed the excess banding flush with my low angle block plane, followed by a small cabinet scraper. The scraper allows the banding to be taken perfectly flush without removing any material from the soundboard, which is critical given the thickness of the soundboard at this point – there is little opportunity for sanding or removing plane tracks once the soundboard has been thicknessed.

With the decoration complete the sound hole was then cut to a 90mm diameter, again using the LMII rosette cutter and the blade set to the full thickness of the sound board. Next I will be writing about how I approach bracing the soundboard.


Cutting the sound hole