Karl Holtey profile in Handplane Essentials


Over the past 5 years I’ve found the first edition of Chris’ book Handplane Essentials to be an invaluable reference, so when he announced last year that he was working on a revised second edition I knew I would have to pick up a copy. What I didn’t realise, until an eagle-eyed reader at EWS 2017 told me, was that along with a lot of new content by Chris the 2nd edition of Handplane Essentials also contains my profile on Karl Holtey.

My copy arrived last week, and although I have only had a brief opportunity to flick through it so far, my first impressions are that the second edition builds on what was already an excellent body of reference material. To have one of my articles included in this collection is a real thrill, and I’m looking forward to stealing some time to read the new edition in depth. Handplane Essentials can be found in the Popular Woodworking store here.


Book Report – the OtW Top 5 Picks for Woodworking Knowledge

My first introduction to handwork was in a formal class environment at the Totnes School of Guitar Making. In contrast, save for two week long classes through New English Workshop, all of my furniture building has been self taught through trial, error, and judicious amounts of reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and so it was inevitable that as I became more invested in woodwork I would start to build up a healthy reference library. A common question posed on forums and social media (as well as, you know, actual human to human interaction) is what woodwork books are worth reading, especially from the perspective of the beginner. Vic wrote a thought-provoking post on this very subject a couple of years ago.


This is why I need to build the boarded bookcase from The Anarchist’s Design Book – half of my woodwork library is currently languishing on this Billy bookcase from IKEA, and the remainder is still boxed up.

So, I thought it was about time that I threw my hat into the ring and offered up my five essential woodwork texts. This bost has been percolating at the back of my mind for ages, and to be honest whittling the list down to my top five picks felt like a really tough challenge. There is a huge volume of woodwork reading material out there, and it pains me to omit Roubo, Moxon, Hayward, or Krenov (especially Krenov). So this list is a starting point, and not a list of the only books you need to read. It also reflects some of my enduring pre-occupations with woodwork, namely how to make the crafts accessible to new entrants, which a woodworker more inclined to other matters, might skip. I’ve also focused on furniture making rather than lutherie (otherwise Bob Benedetto’s excellent book on archtop guitar making would have found a slot). But without further ado…


The Anarchist’s Tool Chest – Christopher Schwarz

The inclusion of this title will be a surprise to exactly no one. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest was such a pivotal book for me (and countless other woodworkers) when I first read it. Chris made a critical leap by linking the philosphy and practice – expressing exactly what it was about woodwork that appealed to me, and then identifying exactly how to go about it. And while the tool chest itself may have been a literary conceit, Chris offers a much needed antidote to the forums which insist you cannot build anything until you have a well appointed machine room in addition to bulging lists of handtools. The book thoughtfully guides you through a compact tool kit which will cover nearly all furniture building needs, and explains how to separate used tools worth buying from tool-shaped junk. In short, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest equips the reader with the motivation to make things by hand, and the means to execute those ideas.

If I could only have one woodwork book, this would be it. The following passage sums up the power of this book, and the thrill I still get everytime I lift the lid on my Anarchist’s Tool Chest: “The mere act of owning real tools and having the power to use them is a radical and rare idea that can help change the world around us and – if we are persistent – preserve the craft”.


The Joiner and Cabinet Maker – Anon

I’ve written about the The Joiner and Cabinet Maker previously, but it would be impossible to write this list without including this book, so it’s worth explaining again.

The story of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker follows a young lad called Thomas through his mid-nineteenth century apprenticeship, and covers in great detail three projects. The first is a packing box (which I also wrote about here). Then follows a school box at the mid-point of his apprenticeship, and finally a chest of drawers before Thomas becomes a journeyman. By following a progression of projects chronologically, we see Thomas start out with only a few tools and using them to learn key skills to build simple items, and then growing his tool kit and his skill set. Building along with Thomas offers an opportunity to build skills in a structured and organised fashion, and to invest in a tool kit on an as needed basis, organically and cost efficiently.

If you have never built anything out of wood, I would suggest starting with this book, and building all three projects in order, only using the tools and techniques mentioned in the book. That would give you a compact (and affordable) tool kit and a solid set of the fundamental skills needed to build a wide variety of furniture. I still haven’t built the chest of drawers from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, but I plan on doing so as soon as I have a clear slot in my workshop calendar.


The Perfect Edge – Ron Hock

I’m not sure any subject in woodworking carries as much voodoo or conflicting information as sharpening. Which is nuts, because really sharpening is ancillary to the fun of working wood. Sure, humanity is wonderful in its variety, and there are probably folk out there who just sharpen things as a hobby. Me, I really like making tools blunt by using them (and then I have to sharpen them again, dammit). But it is nigh on impossible to do woodwork until you can sharpen properly – sharpening is one of the fundamental gateway skills. Fortunately, Ron has written a book which explains metallurgy, the science behind sharpening, and the various sharpening options, in a way that is clear and free of voodoo. I’ve never read any other books or articles on sharpening  because I’ve never needed to – with Ron’s clear guidance I can get a razor edge on my tools quickly, and back to the business of working wood.


Making Things Work Nancy Hiller

This book won’t teach you how to cut a perfect dovetail, or how to design your dream cabinet, but what it will do is give an incredible insight into the life of a professional woodworker. Nancy is an entertaining and thought-provoking writer who recounts annecdotes gathered over the course of her career with humour and insight, exploring why people are motivated to make things with their hands as well as the hard reality of what that career can entail. When I started formulating this list I knew I needed to include something which spoke to the why of woodwork as much as the how. Written from the perspective of a life dedicated to craft, and with a sharp eye for detail, this book fills that slot (and pipped The Impractical Cabinetmaker by Krenov to the post).


The Minimalist Woodworker Vic Tesolin

Want to try woodworking but don’t have a workshop or a tool kit? Worried about the space and cost demands of embarking in the woodcrafts? Let Vic be your guide. I’m all in favour of anything that can lower the entry bar to woodwork, and Vic’s book should frankly be essential reading for all aspiring woodworkers. Through the course of the book, Vic explains how to set up a work space, identifies a minimal tool kit, and walks the reader through a series of projects building essential shop fixtures (a workbench, tool storage, and bench appliances) to develop the skills to use those tools. The quality of photography is great (poor photographs in woodwork books is a particular bugbear of mine – for some reason lutherie books often contain the worst photos, although I’m never sure why) and the book is written in Vic’s customary no nonsense style.

Dispatches from Carmarthenshire

I’m now back home from rural Wales and reflecting on what was a very productive week at Chris Williams’ workshop. The five days yielded a beautiful chair made by Chris (which other than a lick of paint, is now complete), nearly 700 photographs, and endless pages of detailed notes on the build process. Everything we need to now write the “make a stick chair” section of The Life & Work of John Brown. This feels like a huge milestone. A big thanks must, of course, go to Chris Williams. Over the course of the week Chris not only built a beautiful chair, but he maintained good humour when asked to hold awkward positions for repeated photographs, and answered all of my questions patiently and with clarity. His generosity with his knowledge and experience is what makes this book possible


And that’s a wrap!

I’m still sifting through the photos (and it will take a couple of days to properly survey everything) but in the meantime, here is a taster of what you can expect from the book.


Saddling the seat with an adze


Stick shaping with a draw knife


Scraping the arm


Cutting the swan neck on the doubler


Drilling the seat


Paring the sticks flush to the arm


Completed arm

All Assembly Required

or: The Anarchist’s Office Suite, Phase 2

The staked desk was the first of three pieces for my office, and by the summer I will hopefully have completed the remaining two projects – a boarded book case and a staked chair, both from the Anarchist’s Design Book, and both in maple to match the desk.

Because my workshop is unheated, I tend to tee up projects a couple of months in advance of when I plan to start them – breaking stock down to rough dimension and then stickering it in the house to acclimatise until I’m ready to get building. Before I can work on the book case , I am writing (and building) a project article for Popular Woodworking, scheduled for the October issue later this year. But in the meantime, and before I started working on the piece for PopWood, I took some time to prepare the stock for the bookcase and chair.


Breaking maple boards down with the Skelton Panel Saw

When marking rough timber to length I prefer a timber framer’s square, and a chunky carpenter’s pencil (my saw *ahem* addiction means that I have a healthy supply of the carpenter’s pencils Bad Axe include with each saw), while rip cuts are easily marked out with a chalk line. Although this is not tricky work, I tend to take it quite slowly so that I can look over the boards carefully and make cuts to avoid knots or other defects. Once the boards have been marked out, and triple checked that the lengths are correct (including an extra inch or so to allow for any end checking that may occur), onto the saw benches they go to be broken down. Sawing the stock is straight forward – my Disston D8 handles rip cuts while the Skelton Panel Saw cross cuts stock to length.


Stock preparation tools – Skelton Panel Saw, timber framer’s square, and carpenter’s pencil

After breaking the boards down I left them in the workshop for a week or so before stickering them in the house. I find that this staged process of cutting to rough length and width, resting in the ‘shop, and then moving into a heated environment avoids shocking timber and so reduces drying related movement or checking. Once I’ve finished the project article for PopWood, it will be onto the book case, which will provide a home for the remainder of my books and research materials currently languishing in boxes on the floor. And finally, the chair. Slowly but surely, the office suite is coming together!


In this pile of maple is a boarded bookcase, just waiting to be assembled.

Welsh Stick Chairs – A Beginner’s Guide

If you’ve been waiting for an update on the John Brown book, then you might want to pick up issue 268 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking (which went on sale yesterday). Issue 268 carries my “Beginners Guide to Welsh Stick Chairs“, featuring photos of historic examples, and chairs by John Brown, Chris Williams, and Chris Schwarz. As always, the rest of the magazine contains a bumper crop of projects, reviews, and tricks of the trade.

Staked Work Table – in situ, in pictures


A vintage compass (from 1904) sits on the corner of my desk. The lif of the compass is engraved with “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

As soon as a project is finished and installed, most of my attention tends to switch to the next build on my work bench. The staked desk is a little different, in that I’ve been sitting at it most evenings this week catching up on various items of work. And it has been wonderful to spend some quality time working at the desk – I’m sure this is a piece of furniture that will age well as I spent many hours, and years, working at it.


A confluence of components – the top, batten, and leg all coming together.

One of my favourite post-completion stages is always taking detail shots of the completed piece. Gareth is booked for a photo session in April, so there will be new additions to the Portfolio section of OtW in the near future. But in the meantime here are some detail shots I took of the desk in situ.


The finish on the top worked very well. Plenty of protection, and the figure is emphasised without becoming distracting.


Maker’s mark on the left hand batten.




More facets. This time one of the back legs.


Left hand batten.


This is my favourite detail – the leg tenon entering the batten. Just a little hint of the, compound angles, and lovely facets. I could look at this element of the desk all day.

Pretty Up

As every project nears completion I start to think about what finish will be the most appropriate given the timber selection, the location of the project, and the intended use. Some woodworkers have a favourite finish that they reach for as a matter of course, but I’ve never found that one magic finish. Sure, there are finishes which I really like for certain timbers or applications (water based lacquer for acoustic guitars, shellac and black wax for oak, milk paint for pine), but there is no one finish which I instinctively reach for. The benefit of being somewhat restless when it comes to finishing solutions is that I’m always open to trying new products or combinations.


The completed work table in situ. Maple, sea foam green, and teal. All the hallmarks of a vintage Stratocaster!

For the staked work table I planed up an offcut of the top as a sample and divided it into quarters. I like to have a couple of options to choose from, and with my sample board prepared I tried varying combinations of blonde shellac and hard wax, blonde shellac and Osmo Polyx, and a choice of either Osmo Polyx or Osmo Raw directly onto the maple (with no shellac). What I was looking for was a finish that subtly displayed the figure of the maple, but which did not add a high sheen – I will spend a lot of time working at this desk and don’t want to be distracted by light reflecting off a high gloss finish or by the figure becoming too loud.


Applying shellac with a rubber

After living with the sample board for several weeks I decided that a base coat of blonde shellac with a top coat of Osmo Polyx matt would achieve my desired criteria. The shellac lifts the subtle curl of the maple top but never becomes too brash, while the Osmo adds a low-sheen protective layer which will ensure the longevity of the desk.

Before I applied the finish I spent some time checking the assembled desk and making pretty; cleaning up glue squeeze-out from the batten sockets, flushing up the front of the battens with a smoothing plane, and removing any last traces of tearout with a cabinet scraper. Finally, I broke the sharp corners of the desk top with 220 grit sandpaper. This last step is both for my comfort (maple can take a wicked sharp edge when planed) and to reduce the risk of the aris breaking in use.


The top after two coats of shellac. Now for the Osmo.

Most of my finishing solutions tend to be quite simple – I want the finish to look good but I also want it to be easy to apply, and this was no exception. Previously I’ve applied shellac using a good quality polishing mop, but after some sage words of advice from Derek Jones (Derek really knows finishing) I decided to try applying shellac using a rubber. A quick order to John Penny Restoration later and I had plenty of lint free rags and skinned wadding to make the polishing rubber. Derek’s book provided a very useful walk through on how to fold the rubber and use it to apply the shellac. I used blonde tiger flake shellac from Tool for Working Wood, mixed to a 2lb cut. This went on very easily, and after two coats the figure on the table top was popping nicely without becoming brash. Using a rubber left a smoother texture than brushing shellac, which reduced the need for sanding between coats, and will definitely be my preferred method of applying shellac going forwards.

The final step was to apply the Osmo. I ragged generous coats on to every surface save for the underside of the top (which left with just a shellac coat) and then wiped off the excess after 20 minutes. Two coats applied 24 hours apart gave a good build up of finish and left a matt sheen which is attractive without being distracting.


Quality inspection by the Apprentice

After leaving the desk for another 24 hours to get rid of the worst of the chemical aroma of Osmo, I moved the desk up to my study. This is the first piece of furniture I’ve built for our house, and the first time I’ve decorated a room with a specific furniture project in mind. When I started to decorate the study I wasn’t sure what colour to paint the walls – it is a small room so I wanted something that made it feel light and vibrant. Dr Moss suggested that I look to my favourite vintage guitars for inspiration, and so the walls were painted sea foam green and teal (my two favourite vintage Fender colours) with the knowledge that the Anarchist’s Office Suite of desk, chair, and bookcase, would all be maple. Moving the desk in was the first opportunity to see whether this combination had the desired effect. I’m pleased to say that seeing the desk against the painted walls really does evoke a mid-1950’s Fender Stratocaster, so the concept worked!

But more than that, the desk is sturdy, comfortable, and provides a very generous working area. It is also a very tactile piece – the smooth top contracts wonderfully with the roughly scalloped underside, and it is wonderful to run your fingers over the facets of the legs.


Loaded up with my iMac and ready for work.

And so, I’m sitting in my study, typing the first of many blog posts which will be written at the new desk (not to mention magazine articles, and the small matter of the John Brown book). The study will continue to be a work in progress until I’ve finished the staked chair and bookcase to match the desk, but already it feels good to have a dedicated and comfortable place to work. I’ll be covering the progress of the rest of my Anarchist’s Office Suite over the coming months.