Bridge To Nowhere… Part 1

or: The Enthusiasm and the Doubt

Due to other recent workshop commitments, and various demands on my time, the first opportunity I’ve had to work on the parlour guitar in 2016 came in late February. To be honest I find any lengthy period of time away from a significant build to be quite difficult – as I lose momentum it is easy to start focusing on the details of the build that I wish I’d done differently, and dwelling on any mistakes. The mind starts to play tricks, and convinces me that a perfectly good project is just glorified firewood – the enthusiasm starts to be replaced by a lingering self-doubt, and the incomplete parts of a project seem to taunt me. They say that sharks die if they stop swimming, and in a way large builds in the workshop can face a similar danger. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like this – most woodworkers I know have had a crisis of confidence over a big project, normally at a critical stage in the build (although there is the distinct possibility that I’m just a nut job). The best way I’ve found to respond to the mind’s treachery is to double down on the stalled project, because inevitably the project is in much better shape than I remember it and those catastrophic errors are simply not present.

So it was starting to go with the parlour guitar but fortunately getting stuck back into work, even on the mundane task of preparing an ebony bridge blank, was enough to dispel the growing self-doubt and get this build back on track.

The bridge of the original 19th century parlour guitar, on which this instrument is based, was 22mm deep with a straight saddle. Intonation on fretted instruments is always something of a compromise, but to my ears a straight saddle represents a compromise too far, so I decided to widen the bridge a little to allow for a compensated saddle. Increasing the bridge depth to 25.4mm gave me the necessary extra real estate without making the bridge look too heavy given the small body of the parlour guitar. The width remained at 149mm, as per the original design. I’ve always been a fan of the early Martin pyramid bridge design, but I’ve never had the opportunity to carve a pyramid bridge for any of my guitar builds. The pyramid wings will suit the parlour guitar’s aesthetic perfectly, so instead of the scalloped wings of the original guitar I’ll be carving pyramids for this instrument, which I’m greatly looking forward to.


The bridge blank secured on the shooting board by a 5-minute jig

Securing small work pieces can be tricky, particularly when it comes to planing small pieces on the shooting board. My solution for this was to make a simple fixture to hold the bridge blank in place. I marked out a recess 20mm deep and 174mm long (the length of the bridge blank) on a large piece of 6mm thick scrap pine. I defined both ends of the recess with my carcase saw, and while I was at it made a couple of relief cuts across the width of the recess. It was then simply a case of knocking out the waste with a 1″ chisel and mallet. The bridge blank then pressed tightly into the recess, and the larger pine piece was easily secured on the shooting board by way of a holdfast. The tight fit of the bridge blank meant that the work piece did not slide under pressure from the plane, which makes for a much less frustrating experience.


The Lie Neilsen No.51 shooting board plane and hold fast by Black Bear Forge are a fantastic combination

My main concern when shooting both long edges of the bridge was for a straight cut the length of the work piece, and which was bang on 90 degrees to the bottom of the bridge blank, with no undercutting. At this point I’m less concerned about the top surface, as this will be shaped once the bridge is fitted to the soundboard, but the bottom, front, and back all need to be perfectly square to each other. In the past I’ve used my Lie Neilsen 212 small scraper plane to dimension blanks, but for this bridge I wanted to see how the larger No.51 fared for shooting smaller work pieces. Needless to say, with a freshly sharpened blade, some careful setting of the blade’s lateral position, and the bridge secured in the jig, the large No.51 made relatively easy work of what can be quite a fussy job.


My 12″ Bad Axe carcase saw is the perfect lutherie saw, here you can see the guide kerfs prior to trimming the bridge to length

With the long edges trued up, I then cut the bridge to length.  For this I struck a line for the first end on all four sides of the blank with a sharp marking knife, before trimming the blank using my Bad Axe 12″ carcase saw. I wanted this cut to be as accurate as possible and to need minimal clean up. This saw leaves a very good finish behind, so the only issue was getting out of the way of the saw and letting it cut straight and square. For critical cuts like this I prefer to make a shallow kerf on each of the four sides of the work with the saw, just to the depth of the saw teeth. When I come to cut the full depth of the work, the kerf creates a path of least resistance which the saw follows. The result is a square and true cut. With the first end trimmed I then struck marking knife lines 149mm along the blank for the other end, and having established my guiding saw kerfs on all four sides of the blank, trimmed the bridge to final width. Some gentle clean up with a 13 grain Auriou rasp and a Bahco smooth cut file, removed the saw marks, and the bridge is now ready for the gluing surface to be curved to match the curvature of the soundboard. But you’ll have to wait for my next post to read about that…

Getting to Know… James McConnell

For the first “getting to know” feature of 2016 I am very privileged to be able to interview good friend, and writer of the Daily Skep blog, James McConnell. There are some incredible woodwork blogs out there, but in the 9 months that the Daily Skep has been live it has rapidly become my favourite, thanks to the way in which James constantly relates the practical to his search for meaning behind the process, in an ongoing dialogue with himself as to what it means to create. Some days I read the Daily Skep and am inspired to create and write more myself, some days I read the Daily Skep and feel like such an amateur hack in comparison that it would be best if I never wrote again. But regardless of which response I feel, James’ writing never fails to be thought provoking and inspiring.

So without further ado, let’s get to know James McConnell.


James McConnell, writer and curator of the Daily Skep blog.

1. You have built guitar amps, refurbished guitars, even screen printed. Where does your drive to make originate? What is it about making that compels you?

I come from crafty and resourceful stock. My grandmother and my mother were both experts with a sewing machine. My grandfather was a journeyman electrician and my father worked in a print shop. I grew up in a home with my parents and one set of grandparents. We didn’t always have a lot of resources but there was always something being made around me and as early as I can remember I was a part of that.

I can recall with equal clarity my grandmother showing me traditional quilt patterns and my grandfather showing me how to solder and rebuild an electric motor. Creativity was always encouraged and I had plenty of room to explore.

As I mentioned, my father worked in a commercial print shop that made labels. If you own a vintage Black and Decker product that was still made in the United States you’ve seen his handiwork on the side. He didn’t run the presses or create the artwork, but he was the linchpin between the two as he transferred the artwork to the printing plates that went in the presses. He was like me in that he always wanted to know more about things and to understand the details of process.

I  guess I just get interested in the details of the things around me and how they came to be. I can still remember as a teenager having a conversation with my cousin Michael (@puisheen on Instagram) who is now somewhat of an expert on vintage Fender offset guitars (Jazzmasters, Jaguars, etc) about how hard it would be to build a telecaster. We talked back and forth about the things we didn’t understand and I can remember clearly saying something to the effect of “well, someone knows how to do it, so I guess it can be done!”  That’s generally my attitude about the things in which I take an interest. The information is out there. The expertise is available. I just need to figure it out. I’ve since built two or three telecasters, a stratocaster, an SG and a Jazzmaster and probably a few more.

My hands are bored unless they’re making something. It’s just as natural to me as anything and I try to pass that along to my children as well by doing crafts and projects with them.


A selection of James’ guitar builds

2. Your woodwork is currently hand tool only, but you’ve written about giving up your table saw and power tools. What prompted your transition to a pure hand tool practice?  

I should add the caveat that it’s hand tool mostly. I still have a drill press and a rickety old bandsaw, but they see very limited use, and generally only when I need to work in a “production” mode. I have a few ancillary tools like a trim router that I use for specialized applications. There is also a cordless drill in my life, but that also rarely makes it to my bench.

I used to take a lot of trips to Appalachia to help rebuild homes for people, making them safer, warmer and drier. When I was doing that sort of work I always carried my table saw, circular saws, drills, etc in the back of the truck because they allowed me to do the work at hand. The goal for me there wasn’t personal fulfillment, but literally making sure someone’s roof didn’t leak or their foundation didn’t collapse, and getting that work done in a limited time frame. The tools were suited to the job.

That said, I gave up my table saw when I burned up the motor last year. I was dimensioning some stock and it just gave up the ghost. At that point some people would say to themselves, “well, I guess I need to go buy a better table saw” but I asked a different question: “did I need to go buy a better table saw at all?” I had just read The Anarchist’s Tool Chest and it had really challenged me to think about what kind of work I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. Instead of dumping hundreds (or thousands) of dollars into a new table saw I placed a few strategic orders with Lee Valley and Lie Nielsen and I haven’t looked back.

I’m in the middle of building myself a proper hand tool workbench at the moment. That is the most rigorous work I’ve encountered in recent memory and 95% of that work has been done with hand tools. I haven’t once felt the need to pull out the circular saw and I think that is, at least in part, because I have changed my understanding of “why” I work with wood in the first place. I’m not a cabinet shop. I’m generally in no rush. My work doesn’t put food on the table. My goal presently is to understand the nature of wood and enjoy working with it. I find that a much more manageable goal without a screaming router or whirring table saw.

The other added benefit is that most of the time I am in the workshop, my daughters are also in there with me playing and “working” alongside me. This gives me the opportunity to be present with them in a way that machines precluded.


James’ recent saw till build.

3. On the Daily Skep you write as much about the “why” of building as the “how”. What is it about the ideas behind the processes that fascinates you?

The question of “how” is essential but pedestrian. With some amount of effort and a little inquisitiveness, anyone can learn how to do any given operation. The question of “why” is far more existential and compelling to me.

If you were to ask about me, for example “can he build a chair?” any number of people could look at my technical skill and answer that question. Same goes for “should” he build a chair, “how” does he build a chair, and any number of other interrogatives. They’re all external. The question “why,” on the other hand is deeply internal.  Only the craftsperson can answer that question. “Why” would I build a chair? Perhaps it is because I appreciate the harmonic unity of a certain form and I want to explore that. Maybe I want to give it to someone as a gift, or maybe I simply prefer sitting elevated to sitting on the ground. Even in those answers there is always another question “why”?

The question of “how” leads to a different place than the question of “why.” Reductio ad absurdum, “how” leads to the industrial revolution; “why” leads to art.

To answer the question another way, let me tell you a story about the first time my father took me to his place of work and I finally saw what he did for a living. At his workstation, my father was a master of precision. He worked in thousandths of an inch. When computers were introduced into his work he worked in ten thousandths of an inch. His tools were magnifying glasses and super precise Starrett steel rules. As I watched him take the work handed to him by artists and transform it into the press plates that would print thousands of labels, I suddenly understood the importance of process. It became embedded in me that without his completely unheralded work, none of the other work would make sense. I saw “how” he did his work, but understanding “why” his work was important was revolutionary for me.

That’s the sort of question that interests me, and really the question that led me to hand tool work in the end. I have no particular feelings about “how” other people choose to work wood, but I choose “mostly” hand tools because it gets to the heart of “why” and allows me to be more intimately connected to the minutia of the process of creating.


Baby Anarchist’s Tool Chest

4. You’ve written extensively about rehabilitating old tools, including making some quite bold adjustments to your Disston mitre saw. Do you view refurbishing old tools as matter of convenience, or is there a more ideological reason (for instance as a means to connect with previous generations of craftsmen)?

In my toolbox you will still find the very same WEN soldering gun my grandfather used daily at work. It still has his initials etched into it alongside his employee number 1026. By all accounts it is a fine tool. It was a tool he relied on to pay the bills and so it was the best he could afford. When I was deep into vacuum tubes (valves) and was building amplifiers I used that gun almost exclusively. There was perhaps an element of sentimentality about that, but for me, it was also the right tool for the job. It allowed me to work efficiently and accurately.

So, it’s sort of a mixed bag. One part sentimentality mixed with one part practicality. When I see a tool that is in need of rehabilitation I do think about the hands that have held it before, but I’m also eminently practical about the whole matter. I pass tools up all the time because sadly they’re past the point of saving. It’s a judgement call and there’s a lot of latitude there, but unless I pick up a tool and see that it can reasonably be put back to use, I walk on by. You can’t save them all.

All of my full size and panel saws are vintage Disstons, and each one has it’s place in my till because it serves a purpose. Everything from an aggressive 5 ppi D-20 to a much finer D-23. I’ve got a wonderful all around D-16 rip saw, and it’s counterpoint in a D-8 crosscut. Each one was brought back from the rust pile either by myself or by a local guy named Chris Black who has a knack for resurrecting those old beauties. Perhaps my favorite is an early Disston no.7 Panel sized saw that I restored last fall. I had to make a new handle for that one, but it was well worth the effort as it has easily become one of my favorite saws.

That’s the long way around to say that I could be sentimental about those saws, but in reality they serve a practical purpose. I believe in saving the best of the past and carrying it into the future.


A rehandled saw, by James

5. Your original mission statement for the Daily Skep was for a community focused dialogue about handtool woodwork. You’re also a prominent member of the Instagram woodwork community. Tell me about your experience within the online woodwork community, what have been the benefits of community membership, and where do you see (or would like to see) the community going next?

Instagram is an interesting platform to me. People have criticized it for being a tool that people use to take “perfect” pictures that make their lives look better than they may be in reality. For me, Instagram isn’t about chronicling a “perfect” life, but about catching those “perfect” moments in what is otherwise sometimes a crazy, messy and chaotic existence. I very rarely stage pictures, but when I am working on something and the light just hits it in a certain way, or I walk by my bench and something catches my eye, Instagram is a great way of documenting that moment.

When I first stumbled across the online woodworking community it was actually through Instagram. One day I was randomly thumbing through photos and I came across one or two woodworking related pictures that really caught my attention. As more and more woodworking photos popped up in my feed I started to connect the dots between Instagram accounts maintained by people that I had seen doing instructional work on YouTube. From there I also stumbled across the blog kept by Anne Briggs Bohnett, and yours at Over the Wireless and things just started to connect. It wasn’t long before those connections became conversations and those conversations led to opportunities to connect even more.

I started The Daily Skep with that very vision, to be as you said, a place of community focused dialogue about the process and practice of hand tool woodworking. In the beginning it felt more like a monologue, but thankfully in the last few months that vision has finally started to materialize with lots of great comments and conversation with all sorts of readers. I would love to make it even more collaborative and feature guest bloggers and instruction as time goes on.

I seek that sort of collaboration because, for me, the primary benefit of the online woodworking community has been the interaction with others who are passionate about the same things I am. Woodworking, especially for amateurs, can sometimes be a very isolating pursuit. You tend to spend a lot of time on your own. The online woodworking community offers an alternative to that isolation insofar as it represents a shared story with all sorts of people you would never expect and it is full of challenge and encouragement and surprise. Everyday as I thumb through my Instagram feed I am blown away by the talent, creativity and courage that I see and when I read through the blogs I keep up with I learn more than I ever could have on my own. Wherever the community goes next, I hope that those qualities remain central to whatever it becomes.


6. And finally, you worked as content editor on the first edition of Mortise & Tenon magazine. Tell me how you got involved in that publication.Do you have more woodwork editing lined up (and if not, are you looking for more editing work)?

Content editing entails working with the raw transcriptions to bring them into shape and working alongside authors to revise, review and re-write articles. My work was concerned primarily with questions of flow and coherency and helping to develop the early work into what you will read in the magazine. It’s slightly more process oriented work, but any publication of this nature really requires a team of editors (and many readings) to bring out the best in the work.

The way I got involved in the first place was really just a story of being in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills. In undergrad I was on the senior editorial staff of our campus newspaper for three years and I had other experience as a writing tutor. I had mentioned that to Joshua in passing during in conversation, but honestly I didn’t think much more about it until he contacted me about coming on board with M&T. I edited one interview as an example of my work, and from there we hit it off famously. There were a lot of late nights and early mornings involved, but I truly believe the work will speak for itself. It was a pleasure and an honor working with Joshua and Megan, and I’m looking forward to getting started on the next issue.

Other than that I don’t currently have anything else lined up in terms of editing, but I am always available for freelance work and would be happy for the opportunity if something else came along.


Rust Never Sleeps… Part 3

I’ve previously written about rust prevention, and light rust removal, which accounts for somewhere in the region of 95% of my rust management needs, especially as I don’t tend to buy many old tools. But occasionally I do have the need to refurbish antique tools, and when I do the light rust removal strategies I’ve written about previously don’t really cut it. So something a little more aggressive is needed.

Amongst the tools I inherited from my Grandfather was his set of pre-WWII carving tools. By rights I shouldn’t have these tools – my Grandfather was supposed to hand them in to be melted down for Spitfires during the Second World War, but instead hid them under his bed. Which although a poor contribution to the war effort, does at least mean that I have some of the tools my Grandfather owned as a boy.

Fast forward some 70 years, and the carving tools were suffering from an unhealthy accumulation of rust from years stored in a damp workshop. Although my Grandfather had been rigorous for as long as I can remember about sharpening and oiling his tools in preparation for winter, his final years saw his workshop start to decline, due to ill health and advanced years. So four years ago when I inheritated his tools, I knew that some time spent on tool-rehabilitation would be necessary. I’ve been slowly refurbishing the carving tools in pairs (because doing the full set of 14 in one go sounds a lot like work, and I’d rather be building things than fixing up too many tools), and this seems like the perfect time to finish my occasional series on rust management strategies.


Two gouges in a solution of citric acid and hot water.

Fortunately with some basic chemistry, and a bit of elbow grease, most tools can be cleaned up relatively easy. My preferred method to remove severe rust pitting is citric acid, which can be purchased in powder form for a low cost from Amazon, or home brewing supplies. The powder is mixed with water (I use hot water as the higher temperature acts as a catalyst) to the desired strength, and tools submerged in the mixture overnight. For carving tools and small plane blades I use an old jam jar which also allows me to keep wooden handles out of the water. The citric acid attacks the rust while leaving healthy metal unscathed, and unlike the more specialized rust removal solutions, can be poured down the sink without any risk of environmental damage. You don’t even need to wear protective gloves when using citric acid, unlike the more aggresive forms of anti-rust chemical warfare. All of which makes using it a stress (and risk) free experience.



These gouges have just come out of the acid solution and are ready to be cleaned up with a brass brush. It is easy to see here which section of blade has been treated with the citric acid.

Once the tools have had the worst of the rust removed in the citric acid bath, I dry them and remove the remaining rust with a stiff brass bristled brush. A steel brush may be more aggressive, but also runs the risk of magnetising the tool blade, which I’d rather avoid. Going slowly with the brass brush works just fine, and to be honest if I’ve mixed the citric acid to the correct strength it doesn’t take much to remove the last of the rust. What is left is a dull, but clean blade, ready for sharpening.


After being cleaned up with the brass brush, these gouges are ready to be sharpened. You can see clearly how the previously rusted length of blade is much cleaner than in the previous photo.

To sharpen the carving tools I used a combination of scary sharp papers on some 10mm thick float glass for the outside edge, and some Arkansas oil stone slip-stones for the inside bevels. The whole process only takes a couple of hours of workshop time, plus a night or two of letting the tools soak in the citric acid solution, and these carving tools are now good to go for another 70 years or so.


Translucent Arkansas slip-stones are ideal for sharpening carving tools.