The Apprentice knows her saws

Issue 253 of Furniture & Cabinet Making is now in print. The final issue of the year includes my review of the new Panel Saw by Skelton Saws, which was inspired by the Kenyon saws from the Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton. Also in this months issue is Anne Briggs’ account of Woodwork in America, and Glenn Rundell’s experience at The Windsor Workshop.
As you can see, the Apprentice is thoroughly enjoying my copy.

A Very Victorian Apprenticeship

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The following is based on an article first published in issue 251 of Furniture & Cabinet Making.

We all have different ways of learning new woodwork skills and refreshing our grasp of the basics, but how many of us have undertaken a Victorian apprenticeship in order to improve their woodwork? Well, that is exactly what I spent the summer doing, all from the comfort of my own workshop thanks to a nineteenth century text that has been republished by Lost Art Press.

A Very Traditional Apprenticeship

First published in 1839, The Joiner & Cabinet Maker takes the form of a story following the apprenticeship of a young lad called Thomas. We see Thomas at the very start of his apprenticeship when he builds a packing box for a customer to transport books, at the middle of his training when he builds a small dovetailed chest for a customer to take to school, and finally at the end of his apprenticeship when he builds a chest of drawers. Although the identity of the author is unknown, they were clearly either a woodworker or very familiar with woodwork, as the projects and tools are described with great detail and clarity.

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Processing rough stock by hand is just one of the core skills taught in The Joiner & Cabinet Maker

But more than just being a historical curio, by describing in detail three projects of increasingly complexity the book offers an opportunity to develop solid hand-tool techniques, and build up a compact handwork-focused tool kit, in a systematic fashion. As a consequence, I would argue that The Joiner & Cabinet Maker is an excellent introduction to hand tool work for the novice woodworker, and also a valuable refresher for more experienced folk.

Becoming the Joiner’s Apprentice

Over the summer I built the packing box and school box projects, and now have just the chest of drawers left before I complete my virtual Victorian apprenticeship – you can read my detailed build notes and experiences working on these projects by clicking on the “Joiner & Cabinet Maker” tab to the right of the page.

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Cut nails waiting to be clenched

The first project, the packing box, is held together entirely by nails – battens are clinched to the top and bottom of the box, while the sides are secured with nailed butt joints. As this is the first project Thomas undertakes in his apprenticeship his tool kit is limited to ruler, chalk line, jack plane, smoothing plane, square, marking gauge, rip and cross cut saws, hammer, and either a brad awl or drill. The simple construction methods and limited tool kit therefore make the packing box a very accessible project to the beginner, and is a useful reminder that it does not take an endless list of tools to build furniture. For added excitement, Thomas is only given 5 hours to build the packing box, so there is the option to race the clock with this build if you choose!

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Nail clenching is an often overlooked, but very valuable, joinery technique

The individual projects are fun to build, but work through them in sequence, using only the tools and techniques described in the text, and deeper lessons become apparent. I’m not just talking about how to cut a good dovetail, although the text tells you how to achieve that, but more fundamental skills which are invaluable to successful woodwork. For the packing box, Thomas has a single board (12’ 3” long and 9” wide) with which to build a box to the customer’s dimensions. To achieve this accurate layout and efficient use of stock is essential, particularly to harvest the battens that hold the top and bottom of the box together. The School Box builds on these themes while also introducing the key skill of processing rough stock with hand planes, as well as fitting locks and hinges, and making mitred moulding runs.

The projects are nicely paced so that techniques and tools are introduced at a rate that makes them easily accessible to the beginner, and the first two projects are simple enough that results can be seen rapidly, which makes them very achievable. What is more, by working through the projects in sequence you can start with a very small tool kit that is slowly built up. The complete tool kit Thomas finishes the book with is still quite modest compared to that of many modern workers. The cost and number of tools needed for furniture building can often be seen as prohibitive, and giving new woodworkers a shorter shopping list can only encourage new entrants to the wood crafts.

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Dovetailed base moulding for the School Box – as well as dovetailing this project also introduces making short runs of moulding

The lessons offered by The Joiner and Cabinet Maker are not just for beginners. The projects also offer a valuable refresher, and new perspective, for more experienced woodworkers. One of my favourite moments from the packing box was squaring up stock in a bench vice with a smoothing plane rather than using a shooting board as I would normally do. This sounds like a hard way to work, but actually it works really well and doesn’t take too long. Yes a shooting board makes things easier (especially on wide boards) but the realisation that you don’t actually need a shooting board can be quite liberating!

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Cut nails hold moulding in place and allow for seasonal movement of the lid

A New Generation of Apprentices?

Working through the projects in The Joiner and Cabinet Maker has provided an entertaining and rigorous way to further develop my furniture building skills, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to delve deeper into hand tool furniture making. My daughter is a little young to have her own tool chest just yet, but when she is old enough to join me in the workshop I can’t think of a better way to start her off than with young Thomas’ packing box build.

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Cutting the keyhole for the School Box

Curing Plane Addiction

The following is based on an article that originally appeared in Issue 250 of Furniture & Cabinet Making magazine. Thank you to Patrick Leach for his invaluable knowledge on historic Stanley planes, Philip Edwards for his assistance with wooden bodied planes, and Classic Hand Tools for photos of the Lie Nielsen range of bench planes.

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My set of bench planes, from left to right: No.8 jointer, No.5 jack, and No.3 smoother

Step 1 – Admit you have a problem

1869 was a good year for woodworkers. Stanley had just started selling their Bailey pattern bench planes, which set a standard for metal bodied hand planes that endures today with tools made by the likes of Lie Nielsen and Veritas. In contrast to wooden planes, which were referred to by their function, those early Bailey pattern planes were helpfully numbered 1 to 8, with each successive number referring to an increase in size. The Stanley numbering system has become a familiar industry standard but also sets a trap for the unwary woodworker. Because while a standardised numbering system makes it easy to identify hand planes, instead of focusing on the function of a plane we start to look at our tool kits and at the gaps in the numbers. From there, it is only a short step to convincing ourselves that our work would be so much better if only we had a No.6 plane, or a No.2, or all eight. Yes, definitely all eight. Before you know it you are a tool collector, with an expensive habit to feed and a growing stable of tools to keep sharp and rust-free.

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Jack planes are versatile tools – they can be used for rough stock removal, smoothing, and as short jointers

Now, hand planes are the most totemic woodwork tools and form the cornerstone of any handwork tool kit, as well as being highly useful even in machine-focused workshops. However, the available range of planes can be bewildering, particularly to the beginner woodworker. Even if we focus on bench planes and ignore more specialised joinery planes (for instance, plough, moving fillister, and shoulder planes), the range of smoothing, jack, try, and jointer planes is extensive, particularly given the modern proliferation of bevel up and rebate bench plane models.

But what planes do we actually need to build furniture? Do we really need all 8 bench plane sizes, or is a smaller tool kit sufficient to produce high quality work? I am happy to report that there is a cure for plane addiction, and it starts with ignoring the size numbers and focusing on what we actually use the planes for. Here’s how it works.

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Smoothing planes come in a rang of sizes from the tiny No.1 (far right) to the much larger No.4 (far left)

Step 2 – Ask the dead guys

There are very few hard and fast rules in woodworking, but one that always holds true is that if you ask a question about which tools to buy, you will get many conflicting answers, each based on personal preference. The result is increased confusion and a longer shopping list. So lets take an entirely different approach, and ask woodworkers from the past 400 years. This approach is instructive, because pre-industrial woodworkers did not have the benefit of machines in their workshops, nor was pre-dimensioned timber as readily available as it is today. Instead, historic woodworkers relied on their hand planes to bring rough boards down to dimension, to prepare joints for gluing, and to smooth casework. And what is more, they needed their hand planes to work as efficiently as possible – time has always been money for the professional woodworker, and without a thickness sander or jointer to process stock quickly, efficient hand plane use was essential. Finally, tools were expensive so few craftsmen could afford to buy tools that would not be used. Even if you use pre-dimensioned timber, or incorporate machines into your workflow, understanding how pre-industrial hand tool workshops used hand planes helps to narrow the shopping list of bench planes.

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For a jointer plane the choices are between the No.6, No.7 or massive No.8

Joseph Moxon

Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works by Joseph Moxon is the earliest recorded English language text on woodworking. Originally published as a series of pamphlets in 1678 covering a range of skilled trades, before being compiled into a single volume in 1703, Mechanick Exercises provides a detailed account of the tools found on the bench of the 17th century joiner, and how those tools were used. Moxon helpfully identifies five planes in the joiner’s tool chest: the fore plane, the jointer, the strike block plane (an early precursor to the mitre plane) and a rebate plane. Moxon does not give any measurements for the size of the planes, but does provide clear descriptions of their uses. The fore plane, Moxon tells us, is to prepare timber for the smoothing or jointer planes. The jointer is used to flatten a work piece, while the smoothing plane is used to create a finished surface on the work piece. These are functions with which the modern woodworker is very familiar.

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Wooden jack and jointer planes by Philly Planes

Benjamin Seaton

Ninety-three years after Moxon published the complete Mechanick Exercises, a young Kentish joiner named Benjamin Seaton was building a chest to hold his tool kit. Seaton’s tool chest, built in 1796, is the most complete surviving example of an eighteenth century joiner’s tool kit, and is currently maintained by the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, Kent. Seaton’s chest is also of interest because the tool kit was assembled at a time when the first chip breakers (referred to in the Seaton inventory as “double iron”) were first coming into use, and Seaton appears to have bought the more traditional planes as well as planes fitted with chip breakers. The Seaton chest contains seven bench planes – two jack planes, a fore plane, a try plane, two smoothing planes, and a jointer. The pairs of jack and smoother planes include one example of each with a chip breaker, and one in the more traditional single iron format. If we discount the duplicated planes, Seaton therefore considered five bench planes to be necessary. One word of caution is that Seaton did not purchase the tools himself, nor were the tools purchased as they were needed. Instead Benjamin’s father, a successful cabinet maker, bought the tools as a complete set, and it is quite possible that a wealthy father might have bought a more extensive kit than was strictly necessary for a favoured son. Still, the contents of the Seaton chest are very useful in understanding the typical tool kit of the eighteenth century furniture maker, particularly as the planes are of similar dimensions to their modern equivalents.

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The classic coffin smoother by Philly Planes

The Joiner and Cabinet Maker

Forty-three tears after Joseph Seaton bought Benjamin his tool kit, The Joiner and Cabinet Maker was first published. The author of the story about a fictional young apprentice is unknown, but they were clearly very familiar with woodwork and were perhaps a woodworker themselves, given the level of detail given about workshop practices. Despute being a work of fiction, The Joiner and Cabinet Maker can therefore be taken to be an accurate account of the ninetheenth century professional workshop. In the text, the apprentice Thomas makes use of a smoothing plane, jack plane, and jointer (referred to in the story as a “try” plane). The length of size for the planes is not given in the text, but as the story unfolds and describes Thomas’ work, it is clear that the author considered these three bench planes to be sufficient for the professional woodworker.

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Using a jack plane to rapidly remove material from rough stock

Step 3 – Curing plane addiction

Hopefully this post, together with the supporting cast of historic woodworkers, has shown that there is no need to amass a large collection of bench planes, and that high quality work can be achieved with a limited set of just three planes. While it is not possible to direct a woodworker to the specific size of plane they need, narrowing the choice to the three key tools based on their intended function will make the final choice that much easier. Although I have focused on the numbering system used for metal-bodied planes, the same approach can be applied to wooden planes.

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The smoothing plane excels at leaving a perfectly clean, finish ready, surface

The Secret Fourth Option

So far I have focused on how to go about selecting bench planes for your tool kit. But there is one other plane which I genuinely think no woodworker should be without, and that is the humble block plane. None of the historical sources discussed above make mention of a block plane, nor did it feature in the tool chest of Benjamin Seaton. This is primarily because the block plane has traditionally been viewed as a carpentry tool rather than something that the furniture maker needed. However, the block plane is a remarkably versatile tool, which is likely to become invaluable once you have spent some time using it. Likely uses include dimensioning small stock, chamfering edges, acting as a very small smoother, trimming end grain – particularly on runs of narrow moulding, and shooting small pieces to size. In many ways it could be seen as a smaller successor to the “strike block plane” Moxon described. As with bench planes, there are endless iterations of the block plane available, from the tiny 101 apron plane, to Karl Holtey’s incredible 983, as well as a choice in bedding angles for the blades.

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So how do you go about deciding what block plane to use? Again, this all depends on what the scale of your work, your hand size, and what you might use the block plane for. The one feature which I think is indispensible is having a low bedding angle for the blade as this makes trimming end grain much easier and less likely to tear out. But beyond that everything is personal preference. The main thing is that you give the block plane a chance, and include one in your tool kit.

A Stitch in Time: France’s last rasp making dynasty

The following is based on my profile of Auriou Tool Works from issue 249 of Furniture & Cabinet Making.

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Forge de Saint Juey, home to Auriou Tool Works

Of the many artisan tool manufacturers currently making high quality hand tools few can claim the heritage of Michel Auriou – the 4th generation rasp maker of Forge de Saint Juery. Most commonly known for their hand stitched rasps, the craftsmen at Forge de Saint Juery also make highly acclaimed stone carving tools, plaster sculpting tools, and most recently a range of wood carving tools in collaboration with master carver Chris Pye.

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This mural on Michel’s office wall was carved by customer’s using the Auriou range of plaster carving tools

A Family Affair

The Auriou tool business dates back much to 1856, when Michel’s great-uncle Paulin Causse moved from Saint Juery in the south of France to Paris, to work as a rifler stitcher for a business making plaster and clay sculpture tools. Paulin was subsequently joined by Louis Auriou, Michel’s grandfather. In 1933 Louis returned to Saint Juery having bought the tool business from Paulin, with his son (Michel’s father) joining the family trade in 1960. In 2007 Auriou closed for business but re-opened in 2008 under the Forge de Saint Juery moniker. Today Auriou is the only rasp manufacturer in France with its own forge, and continues to trade out of the forge the family first opened in 1967. “We are making to survive. But also we are making for the customers, for the tools” says Michel, reflecting on their practice. Tools are made in sets of 7 or 11, as well as individually, all from steel produced locally in Saint Juery by what Michel believes is the best file steel foundry in the world.

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One of the historic ledgers containing the designs and methods developed by successive generations of Auriou craftsmen

 

When I arrived at the forge on a warm April morning I found a hive of activity – Michel is training a new rasp stitcher, and has also taken on additional blacksmiths. If this was not enough, a couple of weeks after my visit the Discovery Channel were arriving to film a documentary about Auriou. Today, Forge de Saint Juery has increased from 7 to 13 workers, split between the blacksmith room where tool blanks are forged and cutting edges ground, and the stitching room where rasps are toothed.

Meet Michel Auriou

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Michel Auriou, 4th generation blacksmith

Michel joined the family business in 1980 at the age of 18, and has trained as both a blacksmith and a rasp stitcher. However following the rebirth of the Auriou brand in 2008 he has had little opportunity outside of trade shows to stitch rasps. These days his focus is split between preserving the knowledge and patterns developed over four generations of tool manufacture, improving workflow efficiency at the forge, and research and design for new tools.

It is when talking about the preservation of knowledge that Michel shows the greatest enthusiasm, and he unveiled to me the handwritten ledgers in which previous generations of Auriou craftsmen described their working practices and tool designs. Unsurprisingly, these records occasionally contain incomplete descriptions or conflicting designs of the same tools, and one of the biggest problems Michel experienced when restarting the company in 2008 was in extracting working methods and information from the historical records. This knowledge preservation process has resulted in detailed drawings, heat treatment techniques, and specifications, for each stage of production for each tool. In this way, Michel explains, that the preservation of knowledge also becomes a means by which efficiency is improved and tool quality is standardised.

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Chris Pye carving tools, in the grinding room

When it comes to tool design, Michel explains that his focus is always on the experience of the end user and “never about tools”. He continues, “if you are working with our tools, and you forget about the tools at your fingers, we have reached our aim”. So, for carving and sculpture tools Michel considers the shape of the tool to be the most important factor, followed by steel hardness and bevel angle. He also maintains that focusing on the technical specification of a tool at the expense of the user’s experience is missing the point. This applies, he suggests, particularly to technical aspects such as Rockwell hardness, for which he considers 53-55 Rockwell to be sufficient, and for the tools made at Auriou there is no need to achieve Rockwell 60. This focus on the user’s experience has paid off, and in France Michel tells me that stone carvers describe Auriou tools as not being “dry”; stone carvers report that the vibration passes into the work piece rather than the user’s hands.

Surprisingly for someone whose family name has become synonymous with hand tool excellent, Michel looks distinctly uncomfortable when asked what he considers to be his individual contribution to rasp making. He explains, “I don’t like to see my name on the tools. Until the 1980’s we put our customer’s names on the tools, then my father changed to using the family name”. More important to Michel is to preserve the knowledge and keep the company going, even if it is under a different name. “If I had to decide now” he says “I would choose another company name”.

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Carving handles, waiting for their tools

A stitch in time

He Auriou name is probably most associated with the hand stitching of their rasps, for which the forge is most renowned. Rather than using a machine to cut rows of teeth, each tooth on an Auriou rasp is individually cut using a “barleycorn” pick and hammer at an anvil. The small variations inherent in hand-cut teeth result in a smoother finish and reduced chatter when compared to the perfectly uniform rows of a machine-produced rasp.

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A stitcher uses the barley corn pick and hammer to cut each tooth individually

Talk about anvils and hammers and you will inevitably think of burley blacksmiths beating metal into shape. The stitching room at Auriou is a far cry from this preconception however. The emphasis is on good lighting and absolute precision, and the stitchers sit at their anvils wielding their hammers using just fore finger and thumb. The need for precision is obvious from anyone who has taken a close look at an Auriou rasp – the stitcher must hold the barleycorn in a constant orientation to the rasp blank they progress across rows of teeth. To aid in this precision, the curved side of the rasp is divided across the width into quarters, and each quarter is toothed along the full length of the rasp before reseating the blank on the anvil to cut the next quarter. Although repositioning the rasp blank makes for a slower process, it ensures that the barleycorn is held at a consistent angle to the surface, and results in the precise stitching for which Auriou are celebrated.

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The handle of this stitching hammer has been worn away by the forefinger and thumb grip used by Auriou rasp stitchers

Stitchers are trained for 14 weeks, but it takes as much as two years before they are stitching to the correct standard at a production pace. Watching an experienced stitcher, the barleycorn flies across the surface of the rasp blank in a succession of sharp taps, and a small rasp can be completed in 90 minutes. In contrast, an inexperienced stitcher can take several days to tooth a single rasp.

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The curved face of a rasp is divided into quarters along it’s width, and each quarter is toothed before reseating the rasp on the anvil for the next quarter.

Even if stitching is not physically demanding in terms of the force with which the work is struck, Michel explains that there is a steep learning curve. Most difficult is the concentration and focus needed to maintain the correct posture in relation to the work piece.

Universal problems

Over lunch at local favourite Restaurant Flambee, Michel bemoans the decline of both industry and education in hand tool skills – universal complaints which will be familiar to readers in the UK and American (and no doubt many other countries too!).

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A macro view of the stitched teeth on a rasp

Saint Juery was a little Sheffield”, Michel tells me, “in every house was a file or rasp maker”, and at the height of the rasp industry there were over 3,000 rasp and file makers in the city. Often these makers would work out of their own homes, although there were also larger businesses. Stitchers would be freelance and paid on the basis of each tool they stitched. As with Sheffield, this industry has declined and according to Michel, Auriou are now the only company in France (let alone San Juery) making rasps with their own forge. The decline of traditional industry has had an inevitable impact on Auriou’s supply chain, Michel believes that it is only a matter of time before Auriou will have to produce their own steel if they are to maintain current quality standards.

Similarly, the decline in hand-tool education means that there are now only a handful of places in France where it is possible to learn a hand tool focused approach to furniture building. As a result, Auriou export 80% of their current production run.

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Tool blanks waiting to be worked

The future

The re-opening of Forge de Saint Juery represents a remarkable recovery. However Michel is more focused on the future of Auriou tools than he is the past. Constantly throughout our time together he refers to improving efficiency at the forge, of which the knowledge preservation and standardisation exercise forms part. He also wants to continue to develop new heat treatment techniques, and expand the workforce at the forge in addition to the three new members of staff he employed in early April of this year. When asked how he goes about finding apprentices Michel explains that at first he thought it was important to find people with diplomas and training in related areas. He considers that to be a mistake – now he looks for “people who are very calm to be stitchers, and for blacksmiths I try to find a genius DIY person”. With so many forward looking plans, now is an exciting time for all at Forge de Saint Juery, and Michel’s intention to preserve the tool making knowledge accumulated by his family looks certain to succeed.

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Heating tool blanks prior to hammering them to shape

Curing bench plane addiction

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Issue 250 of Furniture & Cabinet Making hits the shelves this Friday, and carries my guide to avoiding plane addiction when selecting your set of bench planes. This promises to be a fascinating issue, as it contains my good friend Anne’s account of her visit to the Homestead Heritage Craft Village in Waco (Texas),  as well as an excellent feature on Bill Carter (one of the greats of English plane making), and an interesting twist on Tom Fidgen’s valet project by Matt Morse.

Behind the scenes at Auriou Toolworks

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Paulin Causse, Michel’s great uncle, and one of the second generation blacksmiths at Forge de Saint Juey

If you picked up a copy of issue 249 Furniture & Cabinet Making then you will have seen my feature on Auriou Toolworks. Forge de Saint Juery is a fascinating place to visit, and I walked away with far more photos than would fit into one magazine article. So here are some of my favourite shots that didn’t make it into the article.

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Stitching the teeth for a rasp is an exacting and precise process.


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Anvil and hammer for heavy duty black smithing


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Shaping the tang with a drop hammer


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Grinding the edge of a Chris Pye carging gouge


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Michel and myself


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Saint Juery is only a short drive from Albi, home to this beautiful 13th century cathedral (now a UNESCO world heritage site)

A Stitch in Time

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Back in April I took a trip down to the South of France to spend a day with Michel Auriou at Forge de San Juery. Today the October issue (249) of Furniture & Cabinet Making magazine lands in all good highstreets, and carries a four page article on my visit and interview with Michel.  Also included in this issue is an excellent article on grain painting by my good friend Martin Green.