A Grand Kentucky Adventure… part 2

We are now at the midpoint of the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class. Everyone is working hard, and everyone’s dovetails are improving. Monday was spent boiling dovetail techniques down to fundamentals, looking at body mechanics and the key processes at a really detailed and granular level, while cutting the tail boards. Tuesday consolidated those lessons while cutting the pin boards and gluing up the caress. We started today with a talk on cambering plane irons and demonstration on how to hone a camber. Everyone has now smoothed the exterior of their tool chests and are now onto dovetailing the lower skirts.

Although it is a completely different experience teaching the class, it has brought back vivid memories of the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class I took with Chris five years ago. That was a life changing event for me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to pass on knowledge to students now, and for the friendship and mentor I gained five years ago.

If you want to really learn about a subject, try teaching it. Explaining how you approach a technique, and answering questions (which are always insightful and intelligent, but never what you expect) really prompts you to drill down into both the how and the why. And so far it is going well – some of the students have had that lightbulb moment when a technique suddenly clicks, and they all seem enthused by their progress. Which is all I can ask for (apart from maybe more fried chicken, something that just isn’t done well in England). Knocking together a corner of my demonstration tool chest while the class watched was a little nerve wracking, but it went together just fine. That kind of fear keeps you honest.

The Lost Art Press store front is a dream workshop, with plenty of natural light, space, and fantastic bench provision (as you’d expect). I’ve been stationed at Chris‘ slab top Roubo bench, and working at that bench has me eagerly looking forward to completing my own Roubo bench over the autumn.

This afternoon we will complete the bottom skirt and get the baseboards nail in place.

An Anarchist’s Anniversary

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There are only a few pivotal moments in life – those moments which fundamentally change your course or lead down an unexpected path. Much of life is really incremental in nature; layers of small decisions or events which slowly accumulate until you find yourself on a particular path. That’s all very profound, but what does it have to do with woodwork? Let me explain. There are three key pivotal moments that I can think of in my adult life – enrolling at Totnes in 2007 (the first real woodwork I had ever done, and which ignited a love of handwork that continues to propel me), lunch at the Evil Eye in York with Dr Moss in August 2007, which twelve years on is still the best lunch decision I’ve ever made, and signing up to the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class with Chris.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class, and I have been reflecting on how that class changed my life. It fostered an interest in furniture making, which expanded my focus from lutherie, and gave me a new set of core skills I use when building furniture. It introduced me to someone I am lucky to consider a friend and mentor, as well as a wider community of good friends spread across the globe. And I got to share a bench for five days with a good buddy from university. All good things. But it was also this class which kickstarted my writing career – something I’d not previously considered, save for this blog. Blogging every day about the class (which you can read: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5), led to Derek Jones kindly inviting me to write for Furniture & Cabinetmaking, which in turn lead to articles for Popular Woodworking and a book deal with Lost Art Press. Which means that the class has led to assignments, and research trips in Inverness, the South of France, Glasgow, London, Pembrokeshire, Amana, and soon, Kentucky. Not to mention exhibiting at EWS 2015 and 2017, and the Midlands Woodwork Show earlier this year.

All of these came about because of that class, and I cannot imagine what life would be like if I had not have spent that week in Leamington Spa five years ago.

There seems to be a certain poetry in travelling to Kentucky to teach an Anarchist’s Tool Chest class at the Lost Art Press storefront. And I am really excited about teaching this class. I can’t promise my students that the class will be life changing for them, but I can promise that we will make some memories (as well as many, many dovetails) and have a lot of fun in the process.

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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.

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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…

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

My Ritual

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“…my blood moves, I feel alright, my ritual followed us to paradise…”
– “My Ritual“, The Folk Implosion

The following is something that has been nagging away at my hind brain for a while, and sometimes the only way to relieve an itch is to scratch it. This may be an unusual jumping off point to discuss woodwork, but stick with the history and theology, and hopefully all will become clear.

In what feels like a lifetime ago, but was really only twelve years, I was immersed in studying history, coming to the end of a Masters course and preparing a research proposal for a PhD (this was before the pragmatism of the law won out, but that is another story altogether). My focus was on the 16th century, specifically radical evangelical movements in England, north Germany and Holland – those theological experiences that took the work of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli as a starting point rather than a destination, and really ran with it to some rather unusual conclusions. What is interesting (to me, at least) about early radical evangelism is how distinct social movements were formed and justified through radical theology, enabled by Martin Luther’s conceptualisation of a “priesthood of all believers” which had far wider implications than he ever intended. Because if Holy Mother Church is removed as a mediator between the laity and the almighty, then the common folk become empowered to develop their own theology, and to ritualise their existence in ways other than the “social miracle” of Mass. Suddenly theology, and the formulation of ritual, is not the preserve of the clergy and university theologians. Instead shepherds, soap makers (that’s you, Sebastian Frank!), and other lowly folk can get in on the act. This leads to some interesting high theological frameworks, but more crucially, unique ritualisation of the life experiences of ordinary people.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – mankind have been creating ritual to understand and explain their existence since time immemorial. But it is nonetheless fascinating. But what, if anything, does this have to do with woodwork (and if you’re still reading, congratulations on persevering)? Well y’see, recently I have been reminded of my history studies as I’ve been thinking a lot about how I approach the workshop and prepare myself to work. I do my best work when my mind is entirely clear of distractions, instead of being harried by time pressures, my next article deadline, whether I paid my credit card bill, or the myriad other passing concerns of modern life. Simply put, my best work is done when the only thing on my mind is the woodwork operation I am doing at that precise moment. I’m sure the same is true of many woodworkers.

So what is the solution? Three hours spent in zen meditation before I step foot in the workshop would probably do it, but doesn’t sound particularly practical. And to be honest if I had three hours spare I’d rather spent them at my bench making wood shavings. Instead, there are simple rituals which signify the start of “workshop time“, and which (on the whole) switch off the white noise of everyday life.

The very first thing I do, as soon as I step foot in the workshop, is to open my Anarchist’s Tool Chest – an act which exposes the tools of my craft (stop sniggering at the back) in readiness for work. I put on my ‘shop apron, into the pockets of which go my Starrett tape measure, Sterling Tool Works Double Square, and Blue Spruce Toolworks Sloyd knife. These tools are invaluable and constantly in use, so having them in my apron pocket makes for a far more efficient workflow as the number of trips to the tool chest at the end of my bench are greatly reduced. But it is more than that –  with these tools slipped into my pocket I can carry out any number of basic measuring, layout and marking tasks, which are really the fundamentals of any woodwork operation. The essential tools are now physically with me. So, with my apron round my neck I am ready to start work.

I’m sure I can’t be alone in having some small workshop rituals. At least, I hope I’m not (otherwise that would make me crazy, right?) And if you really want crazy then we could talk about the rituals I use for getting myself mentally prepared for martial arts tournaments, gradings, and significant training sessions. But we probably shouldn’t.  So what are your rituals, dear readers, how do you switch to “workshop mode”? Are there specific tools you put in your apron pockets, warm-up exercises at your bench for sawing straight, or albums you play as soon as you reach your shop?

Down the workbench rabbit hole… part 2

 

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An excerpt of Plate 11 from Roubo’s L’art du menuisier, showing the iconic workbench (with leg vise removed), photo courtesy of Benchcrafted

I’ve been on holiday in Devon this week, so I’ve not had an opportunity to make any wood shavings. But I have had plenty of time to think about woodwork, as well as taking the apprentice to the beach for the first time and getting her paddling in the sea. And slowly the details of the new workbench are starting to coalesce. There are plenty of question marks left, and some design choices left to resolve, but since my last post I have a firmer idea of what the bench should look like, and I thought that a series of blog posts charting the evolution would help direct the design process (as well as recording it for posterity).

I think it is fair to say that the two most totemic symbols of the furniture maker’s (or luthier’s) craft are the tool chest and the workbench. These are the items which we build ourselves, or at least have the skills to do so, in order to practice our craft and build other things. I’ve written plenty about the importance of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest previously, both in terms of how it provides a safe home for my tools but also for the ideas it represents. Similarly, the workbench is an expression of the sustainable and ethical life I seek to lead – the reliance on my own hands and skills rather than big-box stores in order to create an environment in which my family can live and flourish

What it is…

That does not mean that the new workbench should be kept in a perpetually pristine condition, far from it. But it should be indicative of my approach to woodwork – the solid workmanship, refinement, and lack of ostentatious ornamentation, that I hope my guitars achieve. And above all, the workbench should facilitate many years of working with wood.

So what exactly will this bench look like? As I started out by saying, I’ve not got there quite yet, but the details are falling into place. So this post is an examination of what the bench design currently is, and what it is not.

The decision I reached at the end of my previous post was for a Roubo style bench, and that is very much still the basis of the design. That being said, the proliferation of Roubo inspired designs means that simply saying a “Roubo bench” is not in itself a precise description – there were two “Roubo” designs in the second edition of Chris Schwarz’s Workbench Book, not to mention the split top design developed by Benchcrafted. And Mark Hicks of Plate 11 offers three different twists on the Roubo bench (all of which are stunning). So more precisely, my starting point is the iconic Plate 11 bench from Roubo’s L’art du menuisier, (as seen at the top of this post) with a couple of twists which I cover below – all of which are still in keeping with modern interpretations of the “Roubo bench”.

Whenever you start a new project you inevitably draw on what you have done before. In terms of settling on a workbench design, my recent Moxon vise build has been particularly thought provoking. Prior to my Moxon build my only experience working with oak was in 1/4″ to 1″ thicknesses for some of the internal fitout of my tool chest, and so the Moxon build was my first proper experience using oak in any real thickness (oak, it must be said, is not a typical lutherie timber). To my surprise, oak is a real joy to work. The Moxon was also my first encounter with Benchcrafted hardware. So now I know two things – that I want to use oak for this bench, and that I’ll be using Benchcrafted vise hardware.

Yes, oak will push up the build costs, but will also stand the test of time, and feels very English. Should that matter? Probably not, but a nice solid bench combining the best of 18th century continental design with a quintessentially English timber does appeal. As I found on my Moxon build, oak goes very well with the sand cast finish of Benchcrafted “C” type hardware, and so a Glide “C” leg vise will be fitted to the left leg of the bench. Speaking of work holding, I’m going to depart from the Plate 11 brief by adding a Benchcrafted wagon vise (again the “C” type with the sand cast finish). I use the dog holes in my Sjoberg end vise as a make-shift wagon vise and this method of working has become second nature, so a wagon vise currently feels like an essential addition rather than a luxury.

My final addition to the Plate 11 design will be a sliding deadman. Again, this isn’t a radical alteration, but it does add some functionality which is essential for my lutherie work.

Despite the additions, the bench will be recognisably “Roubo”, and will definitely include the iconic sliding dovetail joint attaching the legs through the benchtop, because after all, surely one of the main attractions of building a Roubo style bench is cutting this joint?

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The iconic sliding dovetail leg joint as drawn by Roubo, photo courtesy of Popular Woodworking

…and what it is not

First off, I’m going to jetisson the crotchet. With a good quality leg vise I’m not sure the crotchet adds anything, and I can see it fouling any attempts to secure my solera in the leg vise when assembling acoustic guitars. So the crotchet goes. More radically, I’m also undecided about the planing stop. This can always be added later if necessary (it is after all simply a chuffing large mortice through 5″ of oak benchtop filled by a friction fitted post), but with a wagon vise it feels a little superflouous. The elegance and simplicity of a planing stop and doe’s feet does appeal, but the wagon vise appeals more right now. Maybe I’ll see the error of my ways, but for now I think the planing stop might go.

There are still some major design decisions left to resolve, the most significant of which are the length of the bench, and construction of the top. My current bench is 6′ long, which is a reasonable size. Ideally I’d like an 8′ bench, so it is a case of seeing how comfortable the shop will be with an extra 24″ of bench length. My shop is 17′ long, so it will fit, but the far end has my sharpening station, bandsaw and go bar deck, so things may get a little crowded if the bench gets too long (which is sadly why I’ve had to scotch the glorious idea of building a 10′ long beast of a workbench).

With the top, I’m still torn between a slab top (comprised of a single, or maybe just two oak pieces), or a laminated top of 3″ wide oak. The laminated top involves a great deal more jointing than the slab top, but would be significantly cheaper. But if I’m honest, one of the real attractions of the Roubo form is the “Dreadnaught” slab-top design in Schwarz’s book, and as built on the French Oak Roubo Project for the past two years. So I’m leaning towards the slab top. If the slab top ends up being two-piece (which all really depends on what oak I can source) then I am strongly considering using loose pegged tenons (as demonstrated by Richard Maguire) to provide a mechanical joint in addition to the bucketload of epoxy. That should hold everything together for a couple of hundred years.

Where the slab top gets complicated is installing the wagon vise. Richard Macguire has previously sawn the wagon vise chanel into the slab top, and bolted an end cap to the slab. That works very nicely. But (and there is always a but) there is something very classy about a dovetailed end cap, which would require building a slab top with a laminated edge to dovetail to the end cap. Again, perfectly do-able, but it adds an extra step for no structural benefit – this is purely decorative. Jeff Miller’s stunning oak Roubo was built this way, and looks lovely.

So the impasse I’ve currently hit is whether to go with a pure slab top (with no dovetails), or slab top and edge laminate for a dovetailed end cap. What say you, dear readers?

Getting to Know… Brian Clites

In the “getting to know” hot seat this month is a maker thoroughly committed to resisting the “IKEA-ification” of household furniture. Brian Clites is a fellow Anarchist Tool Chest user, acadmic turned professional furniture maker, and as as you would expect, thoroughly interesting chap.

As always it’s an honour to feature other makers on the blog. So let’s get to know… Brian.

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1. You successfully defended your PhD dissertation last year. What was your PhD on, and how did you make the decision to move from academia to a furniture building career?

My recent doctorate from Northwestern University is in American Religious History.  My dissertation, “Breaking the Silence: The Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivor Movement in Chicago, 1936 – 2011,” was an ethnographically-informed history of the way that this community has transformed their pain and suffering into an agenda of social and ecclesiological reforms. It was a very challenging topic to study for six years. 

My decision to transition into furniture design was a mixture of pragmatism, ideology, luck, and an insatiable drive to create.
To be frank, I believe that the university system in the United States is broken. It is not broken merely because of its labor system. (In spite of being paid less than $100 per student per semester, I have actually loved teaching in adjunct and visiting lecturer capacities over the past five  years.)  It is broken because of the disjunct between what is taught and what is valued in our society.  And because of academia’s  inability to engage meaningfully in the crises of our time.  In spite of its benevolent self-imagining, the American academy exacerbates more than ameliorates problems like inequality, bigotry,  imperialism, and neoliberalism. 
All of that being said, the same ideals that drove me to graduate school ten years ago have driven my transition from hobbyist to professional furniture building.  Namely: the search for authenticity, meaning, integrity, and an anti-corporate lifestyle; my love for natural simplicity; and my lifelong goal of challenging – both physically and philosophically – the bare threads that hold together this vapid tapestry we call modernity.
It may not be true that teachers teach because they cannot do. But I build furniture because I cannot otherwise seem to live out the values that animate every fiber of my body.
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Tool Chest lifts by Brian

2. You’ve been building furniture professionally for just over 6 months now. How have you found those first 6 months?

As I was contemplating this life change last summer, I received a lot of helpful input from academics, friends, and family. However, the  best advice I received was from Christopher Schwarz. As I recall, Chris’s words were: “One business model is to make a career out of your passions. To do whatever it is that you cannot keep yourself from doing.  A ‘job’ that would make you happy whether or not someone pays you to do it. Find that path. And pour all of  yourself into it. In my experience, the income will follow.” 
On the ‘bad’ days – when I do not have any commission to speak of; when I’ve just ruined a drawer that I had already spent 14 hours on; or when my wife and I cannot pay the mortgage on time – on those days, Chris’s words ring particularly true. Because I am happier than I’ve ever been before, day in and day out, working with my hands.
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A run of Brian’s windsor chairs

3. On your blog you’ve written about making a deliberate choice to use local saw mills, and how you’ve found that making that choice in turn has changed your understanding, and experience, of woodwork. Would you care to elaborate on that sentiment? How has the use of local saw mills changed your perspective?

I discovered another great mill just last week. The sense of awe and wonder I feel in such spaces is tough to describe. There is something fabulous about knowing the tree that a board came from, and knowing in turn the town in which that tree lived, the people who cut it down, and the millers who sawed and dried it. 
Trees don’t talk to me. (Yet.) But the people who turn trees into boards have a lot of wisdom, a lot of knowledge, a lot of advice. And on the whole, I’ve found that they’re really nice folk. Men who are as interested in what I’ll do with the tree as I am in how they came to find, acquire, and process it.
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Brian has a well-stocked Anarchist’s Tool Chest – I’m particularly envious of his collection of moulding planes!

4. You recently became involved in Lost Art Press. Tell me how that came about, and what your role at LAP involves.

 I do not have any formal relationship with Lost Art Press.  I was lucky enough to be in Chris’s last Anarchist’s Tool Chest class and, over drinks, we discussed the idea of a user forum, which he later invited me to help out with. Once the forum reached its beta stage, I stepped back. John and Chris do a great job with it. Most days, in fact, Chris replies personally to the new threads. I highly recommend the forum if you haven’t tried it yet, especially as a space for friendly conversations about the history and methods of hand tool woodworking.
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5. In addition to building furniture you also clocked up a lot of time teaching last year. From your blog it looks like your teaching combines practical woodwork with a strong philosophical element. How do students respond to that mix, and how do you find those two elements compliment each other? 

If money were not an issue, I would not teach philosophy. And I would not teach woodworking. Instead, I would (in my dreams) hold the first university position as “Professor of the Humanities With Your Hands.”  
In the most socially-conscious of today’s classrooms, students are asked to think about the ethics of labor.  But while all of them are consumers, very few young adults have (or will ever) produced anything tangible.  This dissociation leads to a chasm that is breaking the social bonds of civilization.
Instead of having students read Walden Pond in a classroom, I want them to live in the woods for a week (or more).  Instead of just reading about the Industrial Revolution, I want students to make a chest of drawers with their hands, then compare it to the Ikea crap in their dorm room.
In an era that defines ‘value’ solely as the lowest number of greenbacks, I seek to instill a different sense of that word in my students. 
Value. Quality. Ethics. Aesthetics.  These are not antithetical terms. And yet, in modern life, we so rarely can find them in the objects – not  just the furniture, but also the clothing and especially the plastic devices – which literally occupy the most intimate spaces in our lives. 
But to answer your question more succinctly: my students dig it. I don’t ask them to learn my values – just to recognize their hands as an extension of their mind (not some inferior, disassociated entity, as Plato and Augustine would have it, of which we should be ashamed).  
Humans can think better with our  hands than we can without them. And millions of western laborers do so every day. But we do not ‘value’ such symmetries of body and mind nearly as much as the abstract equations running Threadneedle and Wall Streets.
To make is to think.  But the inverse, increasingly, does not hold true.
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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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