First article of 2019

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Over the autumn I put my regular bench planes away, and put a Lie-Nielsen No.62 through its paces to test whether a low angle jack really is the only plane you need. Issue 280 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is now in print, and contains a four page article about that test, and my conclusions. So if you were wondering about the utility of low angle planes, it might just be worth a read.

Sharp Fixes Everything

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Writing about sharpening has always felt pretty redundant to me, simply because everything that needs to be written about how to sharpen has already been written – read “The Perfect Edge” by Ron Hock, the “Sharpen This” series by Chris Schwarz, and then get back to making your nicely sharpened edge tools blunt again (that’s the fun part!). So, over the five years of the blog I’ve always resisted writing about sharpening.

But this year a number of factors caused me to re-examine my sharpening routine and to change my system. So after getting acquainted with my new approach to sharpening, I thought a brief blog post was in order. I want to be clear though, there are many sharpening systems out  in the world, and all work providing you spend enough time to understand them. I”m not saying my current system is “best” (whatever that means), just that right now, it satisfies my needs. At Totness we used a Tormek followed by a fine water stone, finishing with a leather strop. After Totness I used oil stones for quite a while, because that’s what my Grandfather used. And for the past six years I’ve used Scary Sharp film on a sheet of 10mm thick float glass, lubricated with Liberon honing oil. All of those systems achieved a razor sharp edge, and I put in enough hours on each system to understand how to get my edge tools sharp. Each sharpening medium has different foibles, and there is always a period of familiarisation, which is why flitting between different systems is a recipe for blunt tools and frustration.

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Shapton Pro water stones – 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 grits (top to bottom)

Scary Sharp worked really well, and the cost of admission is very low (£20 for an A4 sized piece of float glass, and a couple of pounds for the film itself). For those on a tight budget, or who are just starting out, it is an excellent system. So why did I make the switch? Parly because the Apprentice is starting to come into the ‘shop with me, and shows an interest in doing some basic tasks. It’s going to be a good few years before she’s sharpening edge tools, but with her being in the workshop I wanted to reduce the number of unpleasant chemicals splashing around. So honing oil was out.

The other factor that started to grate on my with Scary Sharp was the need to replenish the film every so often. Peeling off the old film, scrubbing away the residue and dried swarf with a meths soaked rag, and then applying the new film, all of this takes time. No one sharpens as often as they should, and anything which presents even a minor barrier to sharpening is less than ideal. Added to this is the fact that the film sharpens very nicely when new, but then cuts slower and slower as the abrasive is worn away. Which is not to knock Scary Sharp as a medium – if you have the patience and discipline to change films often, and if this doesn’t interrupt your workflow, then it is an excellent system.

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Setting the correct amount of projection to hone a 35 degree bevel, thanks to the angle block by Derek Jones

So a sharpening medium that can be lubricated without oil, and has a sustainable and fast cutting action? My solution was a set of Shapton Pro water stones (available in the UK from Knives and Tools). This isn’t a cheap option by any means, even using a minimal set of 1,000 grit (Orange), 5,000 grit (Pink) and 8,000 (Green). Adding a flattening solution to keep the stones true (I went with a DMT Dia-Flat plate) also adds to the cost. But after 6 weeks or so of using this system in the shop, I’m very pleased. Using a gentle spritz of tap water from a plant spray meets my criteria of having a non-harmful lubricant. And the Shapton stones cut very quickly, helping to achieve a keen edge in very little time. The faster it is to sharpen, the more often I sharpen. Flattening the stones with the Dia Flat is also a very quick process – the stones don’t dish particularly quickly, which means that minimal flattening is needed after each use. So right now this system works for me, and I am staying sharp.

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Honing the bevel

The rest of my sharpening kit is very simple. Honing guides are a whole other topic (and one I want to write about even less than I want to write about shaprning). After using a couple of different guides over the past six years, I’ve spent the past 3 being monogamouse to the Lie Nielsen honing guide, which holds blades firmly and allows a consistent bevel to be honed with ease. Again, it’s not better than the others, but it works for me. Derek Jones makes a very nice angle block for use with the Lie Nielsen guide, and that has been my go to for over 18 months now. I also keep a small engineer’s square in my sharpeng kit to check for square cross the width of the blade. The only thing I need to get now is a tray to hold the stones on in use.

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My simple, but effective, sharpening kit

Adding a little family heritage to the tool chest

Over the past couple of years visiting my parent’s house has become an opportunity to learn more family history, and connect with the lives of long-gone relatives I never got the opportunity to meet. While the Apprentice rampages around their beautiful garden with her Nana (my Mother) in tow, my Father will often weave more threads to the family tapestry. Some of these threads relate to relatives who had skilled trades, and occasionally the insights into our family history will be accompanied by surviving tools. There are several wooden planes now sitting on my bookcase which previously belonged to my great-great Uncle Bill, who was a pattern maker by trade.

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The Starrett catalogue entry for the No.900 Set for Students and Apprentices (screen grabbed from Instagram)

We last visited in August, and while the BBQ was cooling we got to talking some more about family history. During the Second World War my paternal grandmother worked at Lucas – a major electrical and engineering firm in Birmingham whose name is still present on some impressive buildings in the city centre. Dad disappeared into his workshop to find the micrometer his mother had made at the start of her time at Lucas, and while he couldn’t find that, he did unearth a wonderful boxed measuring tool set by Starrett.

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Great-great Uncle Bill’s set

This set belonged to another great-great-Uncle Bill (not the paternmaker) who worked as a scales engineer repairing and recalibrating shop and industrial scales. Specialist industries in the Midlands have long been focused on specific towns, including chain making in Cradley Heath (including chains for the Titanic), lock making in Willenhall, nail manufacture in Dudley, and leatherware for horses in Walsall. The manufacture of springs, and measuring scales, focused in West Bromwich. Dad believes that great-great-Uncle Bill Phillips worked for Avery, rather than Salters (the other great West Bromwhich scale manufacturer).

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I’ve not seen a Starrett set like this before, but thanks to the help of the good folk of Instagram in piecing the puzzle together, it appears to be an example of the No.900 set for students and apprentices. The fabric case marks it out as having been manufactured in the 1930s and 40s, following which Starrett switched to a wooden box. The lack of patent date on the dividers suggests that this is an early (1930s) example.

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The 6″ combination square moves sweetly and is still dead-nuts square

The tools themselves show some patina (as you’d expect from being part of a workingman’s tool kit) but the mechanisms move sweetly and the numbering is clearly legible. There are a couple of tools missing  (No.390 centre gauge, No.83 4″ divider, and the No.241 4″ caliper), and I am going to try and track down period authentic examples of each of those to complete the set.

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The set fills out a couple of gaps in my own toolkit, and thanks to the generosity of my Father in entrusting me with an item of family history, I’ve added the set to my Anarchist’s Tool Chest where I expect it will serve me well for many years (and likely outlast me – Starrett tools are both precise and built to last). So the Starrett set joins my Grandfather’s hammer and a number of other tools in my toolchest which have been passed down through the generations, adding a sense of family history and hand tool heritage. And the toolchest will preserve them until the time comes to pass them on again.

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Rising to the Occasion

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Furniture & Cabinetmaking issue 274 is now in stores, and features my in-depth review of the new panel raising plane by Philly Planes. Also included is Nancy Hiller’s article on the history and social significance of the Hoosier Cabinet, and part 3 of Steve Cashmore’s on-going series of WoodRat techniques, along with plenty of excellent content and inspiration.

Help Fund Auriou Tool Works

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Forge de Saint Juey, home to Auriou Tool Works

Last week a mailshot landed in my inbox from Classic Hand Tools about a crowdsourced funding drive Auriou Tool Works are undertaking. I was fortunate to visit Auriou back in 2016, and it is a truly special place steeped in over a century and a half of dedication to craftsmanship. Michel Auriou, the 4th generation of his family to work at the forge, has an encyclopedic knowledge of his craft, and a real passion for building on the Auriou legacy. It would be a real tragedy if Auriou were unable to continue trading

The crowdfunding site can be found here, and the newsletter from Classic Hand Tools is reproduced below (with kind permission of CHT). If you want to invest in a woodworking institution, and help ensure the survival of an incredibly important family business, then click through to read more.

Auriou Toolworks is just 162 years old. It survived the 2008 financial crash through assistance from 2 altruistically inclined investors who worked hard to keep this historic forge going when the proverbial hit the pan several years ago.
The order book for Auriou tools has always been full this last decade with great demand from North America and the UK in particular. However,  retiring skilled workers, worn out spring hammers, tooling and other essential equipment plus lack of credible government funded training schemes for apprentices have always constantly undermined the drive to get the forge on an even keel.
Funds are now needed for capital investment to keep the company going.
The ownership fully returned to Michel Auriou last summer and he is seeking help through crowd funding to help secure the future of toolmaking at Forge de Saint Juery (home of Auriou Toolworks).
We are happy to direct potential funders to this cause as at Classic Hand Tools, we do believe that Forge de Saint Juery is alone in its forging and rasp/riffler techniques which makes them appreciated by hobbyist and professional woodworkers worldwide.
Commercially, as their UK retailer, we would like to see them continue for decades to come.  Of greater concern to the wider woodworking world would be the loss to the hand tool making fraternity should Auriou tools disappear from the marketplace for ever despite their healthy order book.
As a matter of disclosure Classic Hand Tools Ltd does not (since September 2017) have any share capital in Forge de Saint Juery – home of Auriou Toolworks. Consequently we cannot comment on the financial well being of the company but can confirm we have recently received 2 large stock orders and have large orders placed with Forge de St Juery for delivery this year.
Michel Auriou is unaware of the posting of this newsletter. We feel his crowd funding initiative deserves as wider audience as possible. Any correspondence can be directed to Michel at michel-auriou-fsj@orange.fr
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A stitcher uses the barley corn pick and hammer to cut each tooth individually

Karl Holtey profile in Handplane Essentials

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

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

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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.