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

European Woodworking Show 2015

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It’s hard to believe that the European Woodworking Show finished a week ago now, and I am typing this one handed while pinned to the sofa under the apprentice as she gently snores (even more incredible is that she is 5 weeks and 3 days old already). Last weekend was a huge blast, despite the 3am alarm clock on the Saturday morning. Thank you so much to everyone who stopped by my stand to say hello or to talk about lutherie.

The show really was an incredible event. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, as I’ve not demonstrated at a woodwork show before, and unlike most of the demonstrators there, I wasn’t really selling anything (other than myself). As it happened, I didn’t have any opportunity to work on the parlour guitar over the course of the weekend, as I had a constant stream of people wanting to look at Esmerelda and the tool chest, talk about some of my recent articles in Furniture & Cabinetmaking, and generally talk about lutherie and furniture making.

One medium sized SUV can take an Anarchist's Tool Chest, guitar, 4ft bench, overnight bag, and still have plenty of spare room.

One medium sized SUV can take an Anarchist’s Tool Chest, guitar, 4ft bench, overnight bag, and still have plenty of spare room.

One of the highlights of the show for me was getting to catch up with so many good friends, and to meet other makers, including some of the people behind my favourite tools. This networking has inevitably opened up new opportunities, which I hope to be able to write about on the blog in the coming months. But for now, expect a couple of exciting new articles, a forthcoming blog collaboration project with the Minimalist Woodworker, and also the opportunity to come and learn some lutherie techniques from me in the classroom. All of which I am greatly looking forward to.

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Catching up with good buddy Vic Tesolin

The quality of participants at EWS was of an incredibly high standard (where else does Sunday morning start with David Charlesworth trying out one of your guitars?), and I was honoured to be invited to take part in the show.  The following is just a sample of the folk I enjoyed meeting and talking to over the course of the weekend (and apologies to anyone I didn’t get a photo with, I will be sure to make amends at EWS 2017!).

My stand was directly opposite the lovely people from Skelton Saws. Shane makes some incredibly nice saws, and has some exciting new products in the pipeline, do check his work out!

My stand was directly opposite the lovely people from Skelton Saws. Shane makes some incredibly nice saws, and has some exciting new products in the pipeline, do check his work out!

The marking knives, awls and mallets by Bluespruce Tool Works are in constant use in my workshop, so it was lovely to meet the good folk behind these wonderful tools.

The marking knives, awls and mallets by Blue Spruce Toolworks are in constant use in my workshop, so it was lovely to meet the good folk behind these wonderful tools.

David Charlesworth playing Esmerelda. Just something that happens at EWS, apparently. And no, before you ask he didn't use the ruler trick on her.

David Charlesworth playing Esmerelda. Just something that happens at EWS, apparently. And no, before you ask he didn’t use the ruler trick on her.

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Oliver Sparks is undoubtedly one of the most exciting British talents to watch at the moment. You best believe that I’ll be ordering some of his planes pretty soon.

English woodworking royalty stopped by my stand to talk about minimal tool kits, traditional workshops, and guitar building! Having followed the English Woodworker for a long time, it was great to meet Richard and Helen in person.

English woodworking royalty stopped by my stand to talk about minimal tool kits, traditional workshops, and guitar building! Having followed the English Woodworker for a long time, it was great to meet Richard and Helen in person.

Ron Hock - the man who made me really understand sharpening. Truly knowledgeable, and thoroughly lovely chap.

Ron Hock – the man who made me really understand sharpening. Truly knowledgeable, and thoroughly lovely chap.

Great to catch up with Jamie Ward (c) and Steve (r).

Great to catch up with Jamie Ward (c) and Steve (r).

I’m already booked in for EWS 2017, and will have the apprentice with me for that show (child labour laws say it’s fine to have 2 year olds working for you, right?). So look forward to seeing everyone there in two years!

A tool chest is never truly complete…

Yesterday, inspired by James’ recent baby anarchist’s chest build and the fifth anniversary celebrations of the Anarchist’s Tool Chest on Chris’ blog, I fitted a tool rack to the front of my anarchist’s tool chest.

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I had intended to include a tool rack as part of the original internal fit out last December, but at the last minute decided to wait until I had lived with the chest for a while to see whether it was necessary. After nearly 9 months of working out of the chest, I have found that the two smallest sliding trays were becoming increasingly cluttered with marking tools, screwdrivers, gravers, and other assorted small tools. So the tool rack started looking like a necessary and worthwhile addition.

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I still had some 1 inch square oak stock left over from fitting the trays and runners for the chest, and I cut that to length so that it rested on the middle runner at each side of the chest. The 1/2″ holes were drilled on 1 1/8″ centres, which did for the functionality of the tool rack. But as I have to look at the rack every time I open the tool chest, I wanted to pretty it up a little. First I cleaned up the show surfaces of the rack with a cabinet scraper, and then used my 1/8″ beading plane by Philly Planes to add a little visual interest. A coat of soft paste wax was the finishing touch.

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The tool rack was secured in place using two No.8 brass screws, so that I can easily remove it if necessary in the future. All told, the tool rack took me an hour of time, but has added real functionality to my tool chest. Although most of the holes in the rack are still empty, I have managed to de-clutter the two smaller sliding trays, and have a more ergonomic storage solution for many of the smaller tools I reach for on a frequent basis. Which makes that good value for a piece of scrap and only 60 minutes of my time!

Rust Never Sleeps… Part 2

There is a trap bloggers sometimes fall into (myself included) where we are so keen to show all the esoteric knowledge we have accumulated, that we neglect to talk about the basic things too. Nothing is so basic (yet vital) as good tool care, and I’ve been meaning for a while to write a brief explanation as to how I approach this topic for a while. This week has provided the perfect opportunity to write my thoughts on tool care, as I cleaned the tools I took on the Woodworking with Thomas Jefferson course.

I tend to split tool care into two elements; rust prevention (or tool maintenance), and rust removal.

Rust prevention doesn't get much more straight forward than this

Rust prevention doesn’t get much more straight forward than this

The primary ingredients of rust are dust and moisture, and so rust prevention is necessarily focused on keeping these away from my tools. My Anarchist’s Tool Chest is the first line of defence against rust, as the close fitting lid and dust seal form a very solid barrier. With the GoldenRod fitted I’ve not had any incidence of rust (or even of brass discolouring) for several months. A tool chest alone, no matter how solid, is not sufficient to completely guard against rust and there are a couple of simple steps which can help keep rust at bay. My rust prevention kit is very simple; a nylon bristled brush commonly found at most hardware stores (a tooth brush would work just as well) removes dust and wood shavings without marring the tool, while a spritz of camellia oil wiped on with my Sterling Tool Works microfiber woobie provides a protective coating from moisture.

The trick with a woobie is to allow it to become impregnated with your rust barrier of choice, and to avoid washing it unless it becomes contaminated with metal filings or other hard detritus. My current woobie has been in service for a year now, and having been sprayed with camellia oil regularly as well as used to wipe  3-in-1 onto my vice threads or other machinery, has become well impregnated with various rust barrier solutions. The result is a cloth which now only needs the occasional top up spray to keep it imparting essential rust barrier oils to my tools.

Simple tools such as marking knives and chisels only require a quick wipe down before they are returned to the tool chest. For planes, or other tools with moving parks, I disassemble the tools (including removing chip breakers from blades), wipe all of the components, and reassemble (being careful not to put the newly cleaned tool back down in any stay pile of shavings). The final tool in my rust prevention kit is a fine tipped air blower, which is run off a compressor at a gentle 15 PSI. The fine nozzle allows me to remove dust from parts of a tool where my fingers or the nylon brush can’t reach.

This combination is my first port of call for rust removal.

This combination is my first port of call for rust removal.

However, sometimes despite your best efforts some rust does appear. My first choice for rust removal is a Garryflex fine grit abrasive block. This is essentially a rust eraser which removes light rust while leaving the healthy tool metal untouched. For my own tools this is always sufficient thanks to the rust prevention methods discussed above. But where I am cleaning up an older tool (for instance some of the tools which previously belonged to my grandfather) with more stubborn rust, a more aggressive approach is needed. For this I use a stiff brass bristled brush which so far as removed all but the very worst patches (and I will write about tool restoration and widespread rust removal separately).

Rust prevention, and removal, do not need to be complex processes. In fact, I think that the hallmark of a good rust prevention regime is one which is simple enough to become part of your workshop routine, without the need to dedicate additional time or resources.

On the endless layers of simplicity (or, why the dovetail saw is mightier than the sword)

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It was with some horror that I realised only two weeks before my course with Roy Underhill that I’ve barely cut any dovetails this year. This has mainly been due to losing workshop time because of the move, and then focusing on the parlour guitar and my Furniture & Cabinetmaking articles. But even though I know I can cut a half-decent dovetail (thanks to last year’s dovetail death march with Chris Schwarz) I thought I should get reacquainted with my dovetail saw and put in some practice before the course with Roy.

And then I had a slightly better idea. Because you see, it is always worth stripping a technique back to very basics, and revisiting the fundamentals, regardless of your current skill level. This is a training technique I have always found to be very beneficial (and enjoyable) in my martial arts training. Leave the complex techniques alone for a few minutes, take something simple that you know off by heart and break it down to its constituent parts, dissecting exactly what happens at each stage of the technique. So instead of diving straight in to those practice dovetails, I decided to spend a couple of nights running through the Night of 100 Cuts exercise. Now, I wrote about this exercise back in June last year, but in a nutshell it involves practicing each of the 5 cuts you use in a dovetail (square on and straight down, angled left and straight down, angled right and straight down, square on and angled left down, and square on and angled right down) in isolation. So 20 repetitions of the first cut, followed by 20 of the second cut, and so on.

And here is the interesting thing about repeating this exercise for the first time since the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course. When I first started using the exercise last year I thought it was all about training that all important muscle memory of what dead plumb actually felt like, and how that compares to a 1:4 angle slope for cutting tails. And yes, that is an important part of the exercise. But I think it goes beyond that. Much like when I start breaking down my favourite joint manipulations in martial arts training, this week I have found Night of 100 Cuts to be an opportunity to focus on each aspect of each cut. So what are my feet doing? Where is my centre of balance and weight distribution? How am I orientating my upper body and shoulders in relation to my sawing hand? How am I gripping the saw (like I’m cupping a baby bird, as you asked)? What is my left hand doing? All the same questions I would ask when breaking down a wrist lock (apart from the cupping action, we rarely cup in the dojo).

And then, how do all of the above change when I move from cutting the left edge of a tail (square across the board, downward slope to the right) compared to cutting the left edge of a pin (angled to the left across the board, straight down)? To what extent does my posture, stance, and movement change between the five cuts? It becomes a forensic examination of the technique from the ground up.

Building things is always more fun than practice cuts or practice joints, but practicing a high number of repetitions of each cut, safely away from a real life project, means that you can analyse and adjust each element of your technique, and understand what effect your stance and posture have on a particular cut.

Of course the ultimate aim is to not have to think about any of this, just to step up to the board and cut row after row of perfect dovetails right off the saw (what in Jiu Jitsu we refer to as “mushin”; a clarity of mind in which the body can react without higher thought processes interfering). But to get there, the mind has to do a lot of thinking, and the more we progress and understand a technique, the more I think it is possible to get out of a seemingly simple exercise like Night of 100 Cuts. Because as our understanding and skill level increases, we become more sensitive to the nuances of a given technique or operation.

Simplicity, it would appear, is onion-like in its layers.

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Over the Wireless On Tour: European Woodworking Show 2015

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I am very pleased to announce that I have been invited to pitch up my bench at the European Woodworking Show at Cressing Temple on 12 and 13 September this year!

I will be working on the parlour guitar and demonstrating some lutherie techniques over the course of the weekend. I also plan to have both my Anarchist’s Tool Ches and Esmerelda in tow.

If you are planning to attend EWS 2015 then please do take the time to stop by my bench and say hello; it will be great to meet new readers and say hi to some old friends.

Rust Never Sleeps

One of the functions of any tool chest is to protect the tools from dust and moisture; the two  ingredients of rust. Like most woodworkers, I keep a keen eye out for rust on my tools – these are not just the means by which I practice my craft but also heirlooms which I want to pass on to my children, and hopefully my grandchildren (that all important hand tool heritage). So when I loaded up my completed Anarchist’s Tool Chest in December I decided to err on the side of caution, and included three VCI pots to ward off rust together with a small humidity gauge to keep an eye on conditions within the chest.

After 4 months it became clear that the chest had been very effective at keeping out dust, in large part due to the close fitting lid which includes a significant dust seal. And over the winter, despite being situated in two different unheated (brick and concrete) workshops, the chest maintained a constant relative humidity of 73%. So it was clearly maintaining a steady enclosed climate. However, all of this has not been sufficient to prevent some rust from appearing.

Completely eliminating rust is unachievable unless you keep laboratory conditions in your workshop (not using the tools on wood may also help), but the level of rust I was experiencing was higher than I would have expected, although my no means catastrophic. My regular routine includes wiping down all tools after use with a cloth soaked in camellia oil, and removing localised rust spotting with a brass bristled brush and a 120 grit Garryflex abrasive block. A more detailed post about tool care is on the cards for later this summer. But I very much prefer not to have to take remedial steps, so I started researching other rust preventative solutions.

In the end I settled on a 24″ GoldenRod from Lee Valley. The GoldenRod, despite a name redolent of 70’s porn films, is a low power convection heater for tool chests and gun cabinets, and is designed to keep the ambient temperature within the cabinet above the dew point so that moisture does not condense on the cold metal of tools and cause rust. A few minor adjustments were needed to my tool chest to fit the GoldenRod. First I drilled a 6mm hold through one floorboard to allow the power cord to pass out of the chest. I may fit a rubber grommet to this hole at some point in the future, but at present there doesn’t seem to be much call for this as the cable is a very snug fit. The success of the GoldenRod depends on having good air flow from the heater, so I decided to fit the GoldenRod behind the saw till wall, as I tend to leave the three sliding tills stacked at the back of the chest. Positioning the GoldenRod against the saw till wall therefore gives unimpeded air circulation throughout the chest as there is nothing immediately above the heating element, while situating it towards the back of the chest against the moulding plane corral would have positioned it immediately beneath not only all three sliding trays but also the wedges and irons of any moulding planes I added to the chest. I then screwed the plastic feet of the GoldenRod to the floor of the chest, and fitted a divider of thin pine to keep tools from coming into contact with the heater. The divider is held in place with cleats at each end, and while the cleats are nailed to the chest side the divider itself is just friction fit and can be removed if I ever need to. The final step was running the heater cable to a Goldsource step-down transformer, as the GoldenRod only runs on 110V power rather than the full-fat 230V we get out of the wall here in the UK. So how has it worked? In the 13 weeks since I fitted the GoldenRod I have had no rust issues whatsoever. The temperature in the chest has been kept firmly above the dew point, often by up to 10 degrees Celsius,  which means that my tools have remained dry and rust free.

In the course of researching rust preventative solutions, I also came across a handy freeware dew point calculator from General Electric. This app has been invaluable over the past few months, and I highly recommend it for readers who are experiencing rust issues, or just want to understand what conditions in their workshop actually mean. Free to download from the Apple App Store (I have no idea if there is an Android version), you enter the current temperature and relative humidity values, and the app calculates the relevant dew point. Easy as that, and far preferable to wrestling with formulae to work out the dew point yourself.

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The GoldenRod prior to fitting the pine divider.

Breaking Radio Silence – the Shop Tour Edition

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We’ve now been living in Birmingham for four weeks, and the endless mountain of boxes has slowly been whittled away to only a handful. Which means that I’ve finally had time to not only set up the new workshop, but also to spend a couple of days in there, making wood shavings and progressing the parlour guitar build. What I’ve not had any opportunity to do until now is to blog, but as normal life is slowly re-established, that will all change and I hope to catch up on my blogging shortly. In the meantime, here is a tour of the new workshop.

Before moving in, and while my tools and workbench were still in Bristol, I took the opportunity to do some work on the new workshop to make it a more pleasant environment to be in. The shop itself is a brick and breeze block garage attached to our house, measuring 11 x 17ft, so a good size. There is no ceiling in the workshop, which means that I have the benefit of the roof beams and a large apex roof above me, which gives a very spacious and airy feel.

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My first task was to seal the concrete floor, and the wall which I would be facing while at the bench, with a 1:4 mix of PVA glue and water. This is far cheaper than floor sealer, and does exactly the same job of preventing paint from soaking into the porous bricks and into the concrete. After two coats on the wall and floor, I painted the floor with a tile red concrete paint, while the wall got two coats of white emulsion. This job was really to brighten up the workshop, and particularly the wall which will end up in the background of pictures for the blog and for magazine articles. Once the floor paint had dried I put down two rolls of 3mm thick textured rubber matting, which will be more comfortable to stand on than bare concrete, and will hopefully protect the cutting edges of any kimikaze chisels which decide to take a leap off the end of the workbench.

DSC_0392At the far end of the shop I put up a series of shelf brackets, the bottom of which has a shelf for my iPod speakers, glues, oils and sundry items. The rest of the shelf brackets are by way of a timber store, and hold my current stock of furniture stock, mainly oak, pine, and assorted hardwood pieces. All lutherie timber is kept in the house until needed, but the workshop is a fine place to keep more robust timber.

I also built a 4ft wide sharpening station, using two sheets of MDF and  some work table supports from Machine Mart. This proved to be a cost effective way of having a rigid secondary table for sharpening and assembly tasks. My go bar station, band saw, and drill press all fit up at the end of the workshop, which means that the main work area is kept free from clutter and I have plenty of space round all four sides of the bench. My Anarchist’s Tool Chest is also readily accessible from its position just to my right as I work, and within an easy arm’s reach of the bench.

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This is pretty much the workshop I have been longing for over the past 8 years, and I am looking forward to working here. It is not quite finished yet – there is a paucity of power sockets (only one double socket) and the lighting is not great, but an electrician is coming round soon to fit a dedicated fuse board and then I should have plenty of light and power. This is shaping up to be a very pleasant, and productive space!

Parallel Skills (or why choke holds made me a better woodworker)

The following is a slightly reworked version of my second column for Furniture & Cabinet Making (published in issue 227).

Clive Elliott demonstrates a blood choke on the hapless author.

The first time acclaimed martial arts instructor Clive Elliott demonstrated how to dislocate my spine, my woodworking improved significantly. No, really. Let me explain. While teaching a WWI combat system, Clive recounted how his Thai boxing improved after he started training in Silat, while his Kali weapons techniques were improved by his boxing body mechanics. The message was that practicing different arts with different focuses would help to improve your core skill set. Most of us are familiar with the idea of “transferable skills,” but what Clive was suggesting was something more subtle: “parallel skills.” So far, so brutal. But what, you ask, does this have to do with woodwork? Well, the more I thought about this idea of parallel skills, the more I saw something that could apply to both martial arts and woodwork.

So let me offer a suggestion and a challenge. To improve as woodworkers, we need to stop building what we ordinarily build and try something different.

Build Parallel Skills

I am not suggesting that we do not need to be proficient at building whatever our primary focus is; far from it. The foundation for any woodwork must be an understanding of the techniques to build your main projects. But after those fundamentals are understood, try something new. Because when you come back to your main area of focus, you may find that your skill set is much improved.

Cutting a tight dovetail uses a number of core skills

Here is why I think it works. The majority of woodworking operations are not skills by themselves but instead draw upon a range of core skills. When we talk about dovetailing what we are actually referring to is accurate marking out, sawing to a line, and chiselling to achieve a flat baseline. Practicing those skills will improve your dovetailing, and although there are practice exercises you can try, building a project is much more satisfying.

Paring the joint for the slipper heel, on an acoustic guitar neck in steamed pear

Focusing on parallel skills is an approach I have found to yield results. My focus is on lutherie, particularly acoustic guitars, although as regular readers will be aware, I have recently branched out into cabinet making with my Anarchist’s Tool Chest. And after just one project in a different field, my skill set has improved. When I build acoustic guitars I attach the neck to the body using the slipper heel (or “Spanish heel”) method, in which two slots are cut in the neck, into which the sides are wedged. This requires accurate sawing followed by precise paring to the baseline, and I covered this in more detail back in May. Before I went on the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course in July, I cut the slipper heel for my current acoustic guitar build. And because it is a joint I have done a number of times, I made a good job of it. After the course finished, I did the final tuning of this joint, and I was amazed to see that my chisel work and sawing had improved since I last cut the joint. What had caused this noticeable improvement? Cutting dovetails for five solid days on the course.

Gluing an acoustic guitar in a solera. Once the glue is dry the mahogany wedges will be trimmed to length and the back glued on.

Problem Solving

This is the second major benefit of trying a new area of woodwork. Think about it: whether you build Danish minimalist tables, lutes, or Shaker grandfather clocks, we all use wood. And unless you build something novel and cutting edge, most problems have been encountered before by others.

Dyed sycamore veneer between a birdseye maple neck and fretboard, on an electric guitar build.

Here’s an example: one of the things that crops up on guitar building forums is people getting in a tangle when using thin veneers, either as an accent line between other timbers, or as a face veneer on electric guitars. Ultimately they devise complex and ingenious solutions to do this. But if these guitar builders thought like an 18th century ebéniste, then they might find that a simple veneer hammer and press would be easier (and pose less risk to the household Dyson than a home-brew vacuum mould). Similarly, there are lutherie methods that translate to other fields of woodworking. When gluing up braces to acoustic guitar soundboards, I use a “go bar” deck – essentially bending thin strips of ash to fit into a space shorter than they are. The downward pressure of the go bars provides precise force, and is useful for any number of clamping tasks. I once read a woodwork book where the author explained how he parked his van on top of his work to get the necessary pressure, and although this apparently worked very well, it lacks the elegance of a go bar deck.

Using go bars to glue braces to an acoustic guitar soundboard

The Challenge

In throwing down this challenge I am not trying to tell anyone how to go about their craft. But, I hope I have shown there are benefits to breaking out of our comfort zones and trying something new. And I am happy to put my money where my mouth is. Although lutherie will continue to be my focus, my project list for 2015 includes building a trunk and maybe a pair of Roorkee chairs. And I have no doubt that my guitars will be all the better for it. So, what will you do that is different in 2015?

Anarchist’s Tool Chest – Glamour Shots

With our relocation from the West Country to Birmingham now imminent (only two weeks to go until move date!) every available moment has been spent filling boxes and packing up, which means that I’ve only had one day in the workshop so far this year (and that day was spent working on something which will be unveiled soon). Which is why there has been radio silence on the blog for longer than I would have ordinarily liked.

With the trays completed before Christmas the Anarchist’s Tool Chest build was finished, and over the festive break I found time to load up my tools into the completed chest. I also added a cleat to the back of the saw till wall to hold my coping saw in the main well of the chest, and a nylon cord stop so that the weight of the lid does not pull the hinges out. Brass chain would have been more historically accurate, but the chord is good and strong, so will do the job.

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Now that the chest is complete and fully stocked with tools, it is the perfect opportunity to show some detail shots, before I move into the new workshop.

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The escutcheon and lock.

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The top tray contains marking and lay out tools and tool care supplies, while the middle tray holds my lutherie related tools and plane blades (toothed blades for my block and bench planes, router plane blades etc). The bottom tray (not pictured) carries small planes (block and shoulder planes), my chisel rolls, and other tools which are too large for the other trays but too small to lie on the floor of the chest.

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The book that inspired the chest.

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Here you can see the cleat that holds my coping saw, the saw till, and part of the main well of the chest.DSC_0334

Signed by Chris Schwarz. When I am next at home I will add my signature to the back wall.

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The stop cord, and the lovely contrast between milk painted exterior and unfinished dust stop.

All that remains now is to move the chest into the new workshop and start working out of it. This project has been at the top of my to do list since 2011, so to have successfully completed it brings a great sense of satisfaction, all the more so given that it is my first furniture project. I genuinely can’t wait to start working out of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest!