My Ritual… part 2

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I’ve written previously about how I find ritualised activity helpful for entering the right frame of mind at the start of a workshop day. And although at the end of a project I am always eager to start the next build, I have taken to spending a couple of hours cleaning up and re-ordering the workshop before I start work on something new. I suppose that this is really another ritual of sorts, helping as it does to clear both my head and the ‘shop.

 

The workshop was in sore need of some attention and tidying by the time I had finished the Policeman’s Boot Bench. Although I try to keep a clear and tidy workspace, working on the Boot Bench had prompted some major reorganisation of the ‘shop, including relocating my bench against the lefthand wall. Changing one element of a workspace invariably means you have to reorganise other areas, and I’d not had the time to complete this process since January.

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Having completed the Policeman’s Boot Bench – the shop is in need of a good clean and some thorough re-organisation.

 

And so although I am chomping at the bit to start building a staked work table (out of the Anarchist’s Design Book) for my study, I spent half a day clearing the shop, having a thorough clean, and re-organising everything into a more ergonomic and less cluttered, space. Sweeping up all of the hard to reach shavings once a piece is finished really does help to clear my mind for the next project. My Anarchist’s Tool Chest has become a favourite refuge for shavings, as it is just high enough off the floor to collect plenty of debris, but too low to the floor to get a broom underneath it. So after wheeling the tool chest out of the ‘shop, and pulling the workbench into the middle of the floor, I had a thorough sweep up followed by vacuuming any stubborn fibres I’d missed.

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The much improved clamp and timber storage corner of the workshop

Moving my workbench from the middle of the workshop to the wall had provided much needed stability while planing stock. However, it had resulted in cramped working considitons at the right hand end of the bench, which was squashed up against a growing stack of lumber and my overflowing scraps bin (the contents of which towered above the brim of the bin, threatening to cascade across the ‘shop floor). I’d not had time to address this corner of the workshop while I was working on the Boot Bench, and this was my first opportunity to impose order. I emptied out the timber racks at the end of the workshop, reorganising the timber I was keeping, and consigning less useful pieces to the recycling pile. This meant that a lot of the loosely stacked timber could now go in the racks, with a couple of larger pieces being stored in the rafters. Only one plank of Canadian pine is now freestanding, and that is because at 16′ long it is 5’ longer than my workshop is wide. The scraps bin received similarly ruthless treatment, and the contents which survived the cull were neatly stacked back in the bin. The other source of clutter was my growing collection of Bessey sash clamps, which found new homes clamped around the edge of the go-bar station.

The final element of this ritual is to break down and clean all of the tools I have used particularly hard on a project – usually my bench planes, and some of the more specialist joinery planes. Although I clean my tools after each use and sharpen regularly, giving them some extra attention at the end of a build does keep them in good working order and gives me an opportunity to address any minor issues. This included tightening the frog on my Clifton No.5, as it had started to come a little loose and rattle – probably from several months of taking big traversing cuts through tough oak.

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The re-organised and cleaned workshop, ready to start the staked work table

The workshop is now cleared and clean – providing the perfect setting to start the next project free of distractions or niggles. I’ve found the ritual of bookending each major build in this way to be very beneficial. So what rituals do you find help in the workshop?

For heritage quality workshop aprons, look to Texas

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One of the few times you’ll actually have to suffer my face on the blog.

I’ve been wearing an apron in the workshop for 3 years now, and although I worked quite happily for a number of years without the benefit of an apron, I can’t imagine working without one again. As I’ve written previously, putting on my apron is part of a ritual which signifies the start of a day in the workshop, and helps to clear my mind of anything but the task waiting for me at the bench. Beyond the psychological or ritualised aspects, a good workshop apron brings physical benefits – pockets to hold essential tools, protecting your clothes from damage and workshop abuse, and acting as a snug barrier to stop stray folds of cloth getting caught by machinery.

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Hammered rivets and crisp double stitching on the pocket flap

My final tool purchase of 2016 was a new apon from Jason Thigpen at Texas Heritage Woodworks. At the time it felt like a real luxury – my original apron is a fine example of a handmade garment and still has plenty of life left it in, but having two of Jason’s outstanding tool rolls (a chisel roll and auger bit roll), I couldn’t help but want a matching apron decorated with my Over the Wireless logo. Luxury or not, I ordered an apron from Jason anyway, and just before New Year’s Eve it arrived. And you know something? The moment I tried it on, I knew that this new apron was not a luxury at all. I do try not to write too many tool reviews as I think it’s far more interesting to write about what I’m using the tools to make. But sometimes you find something special that just deserves to be written about – wearing the new apron from Texas Heritage was one of those moments.

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After three months heavy use the apron is develping some good character.

Jason offers three options for aprons – the “classic” full length apron in either waxed or unwaxed canvas, and a shorter “nail” apron, all of which are then customisable with a number of further design options. Those options include for the classic apron three chest pocket configurations, three lower pocket options, a choice between smooth or hammered rivets, and logo or name embroidery. All aprons come with double stitching for longevity, a wide selection of fabric colours, and choice of two sizes catering for most body types. If that sounds like a bewildering number of choices, Jason’s website clearly explains the choices and makes selecting your perfect apron a cinch. I dare you to have an apon desire that the multitude of choices offered by Texas Heritage do not satisfy, but if somehow you manage to do so, Jason offers a custom service so he can probably meet your specific apron needs.

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The clasp on the waist strap holds the apron in place without the need to tie knots behind your back.

For my new apron I selected a waxed navy blue canvas with hammered rivets, the “full” chest pocket configuration, and closed lower pockets, all topped off with the OtW logo in white stitching. So far so stylish, but why does the Texas Heritage apron stand head and shoulders above any workshop apparel I’ve previously tried? Firstly the fit and finish is outstanding. The stitching was crisp, particularly the OtW logo (stitched by Jason’s wife Sarah), and the rivets were perfectly peened with a gorgeous hammered finish. The apron fits perfectly too – it is snug but not constricting, and after a few minutes of work I forget that I am wearing it. Similarly, the lower pockets have good holding capacity but remain nice and snug to the body.

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This is the secret to true apron comfort – shoulder straps cross the body and spread the weight of the apron. No more neck and back pain.

Essentially, the apron becomes a second skin in the workshop. This is large part, I think, to the strap design. Thanks to an old shoulder injury sustained during martial arts training, I am prone to back and neck pain. My old apron used a neck strap which definitely aggravated this injury – there’s nothing like hanging heavy weight waxed canvas from your neck for prolongued periods of time to contribute to back pain. In contrast, the Texas Heritage apron has no neck strap, and instead uses two shoulder straps which cross the body using a metal hoop. This system means that the weight of the apron is distributed across the whole of your back and shoulders for a much more comfortable wearing experience, and as a result I’ve been walking away from my bench at the end of the day feelng much healthier. The waist strap is secured in place with a clasp rather than ties, which avoids any faff trying to tie knots behind your back. Finally, the lower pocket flaps do an excellent job of keeping shavings and saw dust out – there is nothing worse than digging through layers of hamster bedding in your pocket while looking for a tape measure.

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The OtW logo on my Texas Heritage chisel and auger bit rolls, and workshop apron.

I’ve been wearing the Texas Heritage apron for 3 months, and it has taken a beating while I’ve been working on the Policeman’s Boot Bench; man-handling 15″ wide 110″ long oak boards to be cut to length, extended planing sessions as I’ve processed the timber by hand, and cutting plenty of joinery. Through all that it has felt comfortable, and never hindered my movements. Although it no longer looks out of the box fresh, it is developing the pleasing character of an apron that sees regular use, and I can’t wait to see how it continues to age over the coming years.

One Saw to Rule Them All?

I have a confession to make. I think I might have a saw problem. By which I mean, I definitely have a saw problem. Specifically a back saw problem – in my tool chest you’ll find only the regulation issue two hand saws (a 1900 era Disston D8 rip, and the majestic Skelton Panel crosscut). But you’ll also find more than the three essential back saws. Now, on the whole I’ve managed to follow the principles in the Anarchist’s Tool Chest and have resisted the lure of buying unneccessary hand planes, or endless sets of chisels. But when it comes to back saws, well, Daddy has a saw problem.

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On the left my 10″ Doc Holliday dovetail saw, and on the right the 14″ Bayonet

The interesting thing about having a healthy collection of any one type of tool is that I find it prompts questions about how necessary each iteration of that tool is, and whether you could live with far fewer. And I spent plenty of time in the workshop before I owned a decent back saw, so it is possible to do so – not that I’d want to relinquish all (or any) of my saws. Each of my back saws sees heavy use, so they are necessary and I’m not about to thin out the herd. But still, the question of what a more compact kit would look like is an interesting one. Recently I think I may have found the answer. For context, my nest of saws contains the following back saws, all made by Bad Axe Tool Works: 10″ dovetail, 12″ carcase, 16″ tenon, 20″ mitre, luthier’s saw, and most recently, the Bayonet. So hardly the stuff of legendary excess. Like I said, a healthy collection.

I’ve been using the Bayonet as my sole back saw on the Policeman’s Boot Bench and the more time I spend with this saw, the more I’m convinced that it is not only the perfect first serious saw for the woodworker building their nest of saws, but also the foundation of a compact yet highly functional set of saws. For the uninitiated, the Bayonet is a 14″ back saw which Bad Axe bill as being a “precision carcase saw“. The 0.18″ gauge saw plate is 2″ deep at the toe, canting to 2 1/2” deep, and comes with a Disston style open tote. I had mine filed with Mark’s “hybrid” filing for cross-cut and rip sawing, and tricked out in a very pretty copper back as a loving tribute to the Apprentice’s flame coloured hair.

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The Bayonet cut all of the dados for the Policeman’s Boot Bench with ease.

The initial reason I ordered the Bayonet was to cut the dados to let the shelves into the Policeman’s Boot Bench. The Bayonet was designed to cut all manner of carcase joinery, and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it excelled at this task. And yet, the ease with which it cut 1/2″ deep dados in 14″ wide oak was astounding. Not just because the saw is sharp (although it is – the guys at Bad Axe really know how to sharpen), but also how effortlessly an accurately it did so. This goes beyond simple sharpness, and is a matter of some very clever design. The shallow saw plate, together with a carefully judged hang angle of the tote, puts your hand much closer to the workpiece. The result is a saw that dives into the work aggressively but with real exactitude, for a high precision cut. It sounds simple, but there is something verging on alchemy with the plate depth and hang angle on this saw.

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Whisper thin and arrow straight.

One risk when cutting across wide boards with a lightweight saw is that the saw can jump out of the cut until a kerf has been established. I’ve yet to have this happen with the Bayonet, which I’m sure is due to the lower centre of gravity created by the saw plate depth and hang of the tote. It has become a cliche to say that a saw tracks the line like it is on rails, but in the case of the Bayonet it is absolutely true – the first time I left a whisper thin, arrow straight, kerf across a 14″ wide board I was speechless.

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Dovetailing

Having given the Bayonet extensive testing as a crosscut saw, I started to wonder how it would fare as a dovetail saw. Conventional wisdom is that a hybrid filing will be slower in the cut than a dedicated rip saw. This may be true, but in a head to head test with my 10″ Doc Holliday dovetail saw, the extra 4″ length of the Bayonet mitigated against any loss in speed from the hybrid filing. The extra length also benefits accuracy when splitting those layout lines, as most inaccuracies in sawing originate from the change in direction of the saw. By reducing the number of strokes needed, the potential for a wobble in sawing motion is reduced and the saw stays on line. Cutting dovetails with a 14″ long saw does require some slight adjustment to posture and body position, but with those taken into account I tested the Bayonet by cutting the tails for the Policeman’s Boot Bench. The saw left beautifully crisp kerfs in 1″ thick oak, and the saw was noticeably faster than my dedicated dovetail saw. The extra real estate on the saw plate also acted as a more efficient heat sink, which reduces the risk of overheating when making a number of repeat cuts and so keeps the saw plate free of heat related warping. I did not gang cut my tails as I often do, but I am sure that the Bayonet would have been able to take dovetails in a combined thickness of 2″ in its stride. In fact, the only discernable disadvantage I could find was that I had to be more careful when approaching the baseline as the extra length of the saw did increase the risk of overshooting.

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Crisp tails, right off the saw

Will my existing carcase and dovetail saws be redundant? Not at all – they have other attributes which are beneficial for specific work, and for stock of 3/4″ thick or less the 10″ dovetail saw would be much more appropriate. But if I were looking to buy my first back saw then the Bayonet would be it – being able to cover rip and cross-cut joinery with one saw makes it a very cost efficient purchase, and means that the beginner would be able to handle whatever work they wanted to do without the need to save for a second saw in the a different filing. Similarly, the Bayonet makes for a very compact travelling nest of saws, as only a larger tenon saw would be needed to cover all bases. For classes or shows I’m certain that I will just be packing my Bayonet and 16″ tenon saw from now on. In short, this could well be the one back saw to rule them all.

Mark has also uploaded to the Bad Axe site a comprehensive knowledge bank covering all manner of saw care and maintenance, which can be viewed here. Even if you’re not in the market for a new saw, this page is well worth a view as it represents an invaluable distilation of Mark’s quite considerable knowlede, and a temendous gift to the woodworking community.

Coarse, medium, and fine

The following is based on an article I originally wrote for issue 252 of Furniture & Cabinet Making Magazine.

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Have you selected your bench planes? In Curing Plane Addiction I made the case that you only need three bench planes, chosen on their function rather than the size number assigned to them; a smoothing plane, a jack or fore plane, and a jointer plane. For me, that set consists of a No.3 smoother, No.5 jack, and a No.8 jointer plane, although each maker will have their own preferences.

Having selected your trio of bench planes, the next question is how do you use them? Now, hand planes are incredibly versatile tools and a complete guide on all that can be achieved with them is would be ambitious for a book, let alone a single article. So here I will focus on the fundamental principles of using hand planes, which can be summed up as coarse, medium, and fine.

Some historical guidance

The same historic woodworkers and writers that helped narrow down the choice for a set of bench planes in my previous article also had plenty to say about how to use them, especially Joseph Moxon – the author of Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works (1703, and re-printed by Lost Art Press 2013). Moxon gives two tips for planing work, which despite being incredibly useful, often get overlooked: always use the coarsest tool possible for most of the work, and traverse boards. I will come back to traversing later on, but for now let’s think about Moxon’s first tip.

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Full width shavings from a jointer plane tell you that the work is flat

Moxon helpfully explains that the jack, or fore, plane is the first plane to touch the work, and that the purpose of this plane is to prepare the work piece for smoothing or jointing with the other bench planes. The focus when using the jack is therefore to remove the worst of any saw mill marks and other irregularities, and to quickly remove material when bringing stock down to thickness. For Moxon the other important aspect of this is that it is not necessary to use all three planes in sequence on every element of a project. He also indicates that moving straight from the jack to the smoothing is perfectly acceptable when the component needs to be smooth but not perfectly flat. Similarly, if an element of a build needs to be flat but not smoothed (because for instance, it is not going to be seen once the build is finished) then stop work after jointing, and don’t move to the smoothing plane.

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From left to right, the thick shaving from a traversing cut with a jack plane, a full width thin shaving from a jointer plane, and the wispy shaving of a smoothing plane.

But what are the benefits in working this way? Well, an efficient workflow is essential in all workshops, and a large part of efficiency is using the right tool for the job. This can sometimes be forgotten in the pursuit of those beautiful gossamer thin smoothing plane shavings. You can flatten a board with only a smoothing plane, but it would take an awfully long time. Instead use the jack to get most of the way there, and then reach for the jointer for the final truing of the work. The smoothing plane is then only needed for a couple of passes on show surfaces.

Processing stock by hand

Although seemingly quite a basic task, processing rough sawn stock by hand is an excellent opportunity to learn, and practise, your key hand plane skills. I recently built a pair of saw benches out of The Anarchist’s Design Book (2016, Lost Art Press), and this seemed like the perfect moment to re-visit Moxon and those all-important hand plane fundamentals.

Removing Twist and Cupping

Before you first reach for your plane it is necessary to check the work piece for cupping and twist. Cupping can easily be checked by holding a straight edge across the width, while twist can be checked first by placing a straight edge diagonally from corner to corner, and by using winding sticks. The top of my saw benches was fortunately free from twist, but had become severely cupped.

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The yellow poplar for my saw bench top was free of twist, but was significantly cupped

Planing work that rocks or moves about is frustrating and time consuming, so with cupped boards I tend to work the domed side first, as the cupped side will rest securely on the workbench. If you are dealing with a twisted board, then address this before tackling the cupping. Work the two high corners until they are level with the two lowest corners, by working diagonally across the board with the jack plane, from the low spots to the high corners. Once the problem corners are level with the rest of the board join them up by working both along the grain and diagonally corner to corner.

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Work the peak of the dome by working along the grain with your jack plane

Different techniques are needed for each side of a cupped board, and for the domed face you are essentially forced into working along the length of the board – it is all too easy to plane a convex curve into the work piece when working across the grain of a domed board. A jack plane set to a heavy cut will remove the worst of the dome by planing the peak of the dome along the length of the board. As the dome is reduced, work an increasingly wide section of the board, until the board is close to flat. Now is the time to move to the jointer, working along the length of the board until that face is flattened – full width shavings off a jointer plane will tell you when your work piece is flat. Depending on the project now might be the time to introduce the smoothing plane to the work piece, although for casework I tend to wait until the carcase has been assembled before smoothing.

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Chamfer the far edge of the work with your block plane to avoid spelching when using a traversing cut

With one face of the work piece flattened you can now work the cupped face. First, take your block plane and chamfer the far edge of the board – a few swipes should do it. Now you are ready to traverse the grain as suggested by Moxon. Starting at one end of the board plane across the width of the work piece and perpendicular to the grain, using a jack plane with a cambered blade, taking overlapping cuts until you reach the opposite end of the board. The chamfer left by the block plane will stop spelching, and as the jack plane removes the chamfer a few swipes with the block plane will renew it. Traversing the work piece in this way will remove the cupping while leaving the low middle of the board untouched, and because wood is relatively weak across its grain you can take deeper cuts than would be possible when working along the grain. Don’t worry that the surface is a little woolly; this will be removed by the subsequent planes. Just keep traversing and checking the progress with a straight edge – I tend to use the sole of the plane as this is plenty straight enough for this type of work, and is already to hand. Once your jack plane starts to remove material from the very middle of the board you know that the cupping has been removed. If the work piece is at the correct thickness then you can move directly to the jointer or smoothing plane depending on whether you need a perfectly flat, or smooth, surface.

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Traversing with a jack plane quickly flattens a cupped board

Thicknessing

In all likelihood, having removed any twist and cupping the work piece may need further planing to bring it down to the correct thickness. For this, you can exploit wood’s weakness to working across the grain, while adopting a technique that is a little less aggressive than traversing. As always, start with the jack plane. This time, work diagonally across the board, planing at 45 degrees to the grain, from one corner to the opposite corner. Then change direction and work back towards the original corner. One direction will leave a cleaner surface than the other, but do not worry about tear out or leaving a woolly surface at this point – the focus is on getting close to the finished thickness and on removing as much material as possible in a quick and controlled manner. As you creep up on the final thickness you can move to the jointer plane, working diagonally to start with, before finishing with shavings taken along the grain to clean up the surface. Once final thickness has been reached, you can break out the smoothing plane if necessary.

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By working diagonally across the grain you can remove very thick shavings with minimal effort, perfect when there is a lot of material to remove.

Conclusion

Processing rough sawn stock by hand is an excellent way to develop fundamental hand plane skills. It may seem that this article has been a guide on how to use your jack plane rather than all three essential bench planes, but really that is because a jack plane should spend more time on your bench than either of the other two. In my workshop the smoothing plane sees the least use of all my bench planes, not because I don’t smooth my work, but because I make my jack plane do all of the heavy lifting, with the jointer and smoother just finishing up the work. Even if you decide to rely more heavily on your jointer and smoother planes, knowing when to use them is essential to an efficient workflow. Similarly, although it may seem counter-intuitive to plane across rather than along the grain, this technique saves an extraordinary amount of time and has been used by craftsmen for centuries.

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The distinctive feathery edged shavings from a heavy traversing cut

A Tale of Four Hammers

I don’t often write posts dedicated to tools. Not because I don’t love woodworking tools (I do – nice tools are one of the best things about woodwork) but because on the whole I’m more interested in processes, in how the tools are used and what they contribute to a build. But sometimes it is fun to do something a bit different, and after clinching the bottom and lid for the Apprentice’s Memory Box I’ve been thinking about the the relationship I have with my hammers. Most people, I’m sure, will remember the post when Chris suggested that hammers were as personal as “things you put in your nether regions“. And while most woodworkers save their superlatives for planes and saws, a good hammer can be a beautiful thing.

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My first hammer – a dainty ball pein hammer which used to belong to my Grandfather. She ain’t pretty, but she does the job.

There’s not much call for hammers in lutherie, apart from seating frets in their slots (for which I use a dedicated fret hammer). Sure, a hammer is a useful thing to keep around, but it isn’t what I’d call essential. So for years the only hammer in my tool box was a small ball pein hammer that used to belong to my grandfather. After decades of hard use it is unlikely to win any beauty contests, but for my limited needs at the time it did pretty well. To be honest I’m not sure I asked any more of it than gently tapping shell inlay into a cavity, or knocking in fretboard locating pins prior to glue-up, but it worked fine for those rare moments I needed it, and is still in my Anarchist’s Tool Chest.

It was signing up to the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class in 2014 that made me realise I needed a beefier hammer. That dainty ball pein hammer was entirely inadequate when it came to knocking in 6d nails for the bottom boards, or even the 4d nails I used to hold the top dust seal in place. So I dived into the boxes of tools I’d inherited from my grandfather and found a larger claw hammer. The sticker said Stanley, but I’m guessing the hammer was a modern product – it feels pretty unbalanced, the handle is far from comfy, and the face is perfectly flat. Not that I noticed these imperfections at the time. As I say, I was inexperienced in the ways of nail punishing.

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The small claw hammer by C Hammond of Philadelphia works like a dream when it comes to delicate work.

My first encounter with a great hammer came in late August 2015, just after the Apprentice was born. Among the gifts the Apprentice received from friends and family to celebrate being earthside, was a small claw hammer made in the nineteenth century by C Hammond of Philadelphia. This hammer currently resides in my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, on loan from the Apprentice (although it will be returned to her as soon as she enters the workshop). For driving headless brads and other small nails, this hammer is perfect – the balance is ideal for delicate work, and it instantly showed how lacking my other hammers were. It was a revelation, but one that meant I couldn’t go back to my Stanley hammer-shaped anchor. I needed a large hammer for driving nails into casework, particularly as I’d already resolved that 2016 would be the year I finally worked my way through the projects in the Joiner & Cabinet Maker.

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Up close – 8oz hammer by C Hammond

Unfortunately it is a long bus ride from Birmingham (U.K) to the nearest Mid-West Tool Collectors Association meeting, or most of Chris’ other suggestions to find a good hammer. So I decided that commissioning a blacksmith to make me a hammer to my exact specification would be the only way to go. The ideal opportunity presented itself when I started thinking about writing a follow up to the Dancing About Architecture article for Furniture & Cabinet Making. How could I put myself on the customer-side of the maker/customer relationship? I needed to commission something, but what? A larger hammer, obviously. I’ve admired John Switzer’s work for years, and knew that he could solve my current large hammer inadequacy. So we discussed a brief, including engravings of historic hammer patterns, and identifying all of my key requirements. Two months later, the last large hammer I will ever buy arrived from Beulah, Colorado. Like the smaller C Hammond hammer, the Black Bear Forge hammer is perfectly balanced and does exactly what I ask of it. At 16oz it drives larger nails with authority, the domed head reduces the risk of “frenching” the work, and the carved handle fits the hand just right.

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My 16oz hammer from Black Bear Forge. The last hammer I will ever buy – it is simply that good.

It is easy to look at something as apparently simple as a hammer, and to assume that all hammers are born equal. Afterall, it is essentially a chunk of metal on the end of a stick. But that would be to gravely underestimate the blacksmith’s art. Poise and balance are as important to hammers as they are to ballet dancers, and having had the privilege to use great hammers, as well as hammer-shaped objects, it seems to me that a great hammer wants you to get out of the way and let it do its job. I can clinch nails with my Black Bear Forge hammer till the cows come home, and never feel the slightest fatigue in my hammer hand or arm. A poorly balanced hammer on the otherhand requires steering and fighting in order to drive those nails, and tires you out faster than it should.

None of this is to to say that my perfect hammers are yours – Chris was right when he said that hammers were intensely personal. But making the move from a big box store hammer might just be a revelation. And if you can’t find a secondhand hammer you like? Well, there are some very talented blacksmiths out there…