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Pattern Making  


In 1980 I graduated from school and was offered a job at Black & Decker's industrial division in Hampstead, Maryland. I was assigned to work in the "Advanced Concepts Group" that was tasked with designing new tools that represented new directions for the company. Black & Decker's first cutoff saw and first big plumber's drill came out of that group while I was there (I had nothing to do with either project).

Being young and green, and knowing just a fraction of what I was supposed to - there was, and probably still is, a huge disconnect over what was taught in Engineering School and what you actually needed to know to hold down a job at a manufacturing company - I was assigned the task of designing a vacuum attachment for a masonry drill bit. We currently stock the Festool equivalent of these drills, but in those days they were big, noisy, and messy. It was either Hilti or Bosch that had just introduced a vacuum cleaner attachment for the rather large drill bits that the drills used, and Black & Decker was not going to be left behind. But the problem was, the competitive design was patented. I needed to understand the patent (which I could do) and come up with a better, non-infringing alternative (not so easy). The result wasn't guaranteed to hit the market, but the engineering department needed to be prepared if the existing product took off and marketing wanted a quick response.

I don't remember the details of the project, but I know it never saw the light of day. It was a big deal for me personally since it was the first time something I drew up became a prototype. The project was canceled just when I got the prototypes but before we ever found out if the prototype worked. (I think it would have worked but have been pretty clunky.)

In any case, this was long before 3D printing and CAD, so with guidance I drew out a design that was given to a patternmaker for making a mold to be test cast in aluminum.

Pattern making!! In the factory where I worked, Black & Decker maintained two large machine shops and a small pattern shop. Unlike the machine shops, the patternmaking shop was mostly precision woodworking. This was the only time in my life where I saw woodworking as a science. When you make furniture, things are mostly square. Cabinetmakers have to account for wood movement, but as long as the piece doesn't split apart, the actual measurement isn't that precise. Patternmakers have to work to extreme levels of precision. The patterns need to take wood movement into account and generally create molds that can come apart and be precisely reassembled. The skill level needed was huge. My little nozzle that was designed by a green engineer needed to be re-engineered and sculpted in wood and wax by a highly experienced and trained patternmaker. Because it was a small project, the job was outsourced to a trusted third party whom I never met. If I remember correctly, his name was Herman Egan. I was told he was top notch and perfect for this sort of small, tricky project. I designed the nozzle but had nothing to do with the pattern design or figuring out how to make it.

The project was canceled and when I left B & D the patterns came with me. They are a work of art.

Let me see if I can explain how this all works succinctly enough so you make it to the end of the page.

This is what we are trying to make. It needs some machining, but what you have is an aluminum nozzle that is hollow in the inside and also has an undercut on the outside of the nozzle so that the air flow is smooth. If this prototype were to go to real production, it would be a plastic die-cast piece. These days, using a CNC milling machine we could easily machine a prototype out of a solid block, or 3D print it out of plastic. In 1980 machining the complex curves was nearly impossible to manually machine so the decision was made to cast the prototype.

The way sand casting works is the patternmaker makes a positive object that is placed in a bed of wet sand and then removed, forming a cavity that is filled with molten metal. The metal shrinks a bit on cooling, so the pattern needs to be slightly larger than the final product to account for this shrinkage. If the object being made has holes, undercuts, or hollows after the main pattern is removed from the sand, the patternmaker will need to make and install cores (made of clay and sand) in the sand to keep the holes and hollows from filling with metal. The patternmaker is responsible for making the wooden pattern for the main object and the "core boxes" that are filled to form the cores. Mahogany is often used (especially on small patterns like these) because it is easy to carve, holds details, and is fairly dimensionally stable (and augmented with glued-up sections to make it even more dimensionally stable). While small, the pattern for this nozzle has two cores and a follow piece, making it a pretty complicated mold.

The main nozzle is precision turned and glued together with the nozzle outlet that was turned and carved separately. The two spuds on the top of the main pattern are extra and and hold the two cores in place. The first step in casting the nozzle is to put the nozzle flat on a board with the undercut piece. The undercut piece was carefully carved and fitted to fit over the rear fin and rounded hose bottom. Sand gets poured over the entire object and rammed tight. Then the mold is turned over and the undercut piece is removed.

Both the pattern and undercut pieces have little holes on the bottom so the foundry can screw in a rod and lift out the two parts. With the undercut piece removed, sand is pour unto the space created and over the bottom of the nozzle. The two halves of the mold are separated and the red main pattern is removed. What we have is now a negative imprint of the nozzle in the sand.

While this is going on, a clay-based core material is forced into the two core boxes. The box coxes are also mahogany, glued up for stability. The two halves have registration pins drilled through from the bottom so they the halves align properly. The insides were turned and then a bit of wood glued in. The spiral channel then carved to make the shapes. In order to get a good stable glue joint, the grain of the built up piece is aligned with the outer material. In the pictures you can also see the layout and scribe lines used to do this accurately.

The second core for the inside of the hose part is made the same way, with a glued up block and three registration pins. The core tapers in at the end so that is registers with the mold and that tapering suggests to me that the entire groove was carved by hand.

Unfortunately I don't have any cores.

By the way, the box in the back of the group picture is what I kept the pattern and parts in since 1981. I think I left the hot pot behind.

Since the 1980's this type of patternmaking has been done less and less. Wooden patternmaking is largely a thing of the past. This project would be 3D printed directly from a CAD system. Sand casting is still done, but the patterns in many cases are CNC machined from plastics, styrofoam and other synthetic materials, not wood. The huge range of specialty patternmaking tools - such as long patternmaker's scribing gouges - are no long made. Scribing gouges differ from carving gouges in that carving gouges are shaped with an arbitrary "U" shaped curve. Scribing gouges were readily available in specific curvatures in with both the bevel on the outside (out-cannel) or on the inside (in-cannel).

Comments: 6

Planing Stops - Mounting Difficulties (An Update)  


Actually we don't have mounting difficulties anymore - because we've solved them! (Except it's the end of August and everyone seems to be on vacation.) In reality, most of the first batch of mild steel planing stops are ready to go - the tool steel versions are machined, but not hardened. We already have bags of mounting screws ready to go. The real holdup is packaging, which should show up at the end of this week. This is of course really frustrating for me, since I want to get stops to everyone who has hit that "Contact me when in stock" button, but the packaging is designed to do three things: give a nice presentation when you get your stop; hold the screws and everything so they don't get dinged up or ding something else up while in transit; and make assembling the final product, stop and screws, fairly easy for us to do in production.

The "Mounting Difficulties" title really has nothing to do with production. One of the main point about our stops is that we don't advocate for a traditional mounting. We just released a longish draft installation guide - click to download the pdf that details a bunch of easy installation methods, including the method we have for mounting the stop at the end of the bench. This method beats every other method we tried and is really easy to do. Eventually we might offer a fancy hardware kit, but basically the mounting hardware we used in this case is just a couple of bucks.

Most of the methods of mounting the stop start with screwing the stop down, using the three 1" screws we include with the stop into endgrain. Oy! The way we did it, or I should say the way I did it, was barely pre-drill and screw down the screw with very little torque. This has worked perfectly because when the stop is in use, the force against it is in shear and at a right angle to the screws, and therefore doesn't bother their position. The amount of torque a screwdriver exerts on a screw is considerably more than the force typically needed to remove the screw by pulling. Endgrain is a bit different because all you have is short little fibers keeping the screw hole intact. If you don't take care not to over-torque, the screw hole in endgrain the hole just strips out. I have installed at least a dozen stops in the past weeks, testing this or that, and sometimes a screw strips out. Pine, BTW, is the worst; oak and maple are better. But it still sucks.

The solution is pretty simple. I don't know why I didn't think of it three weeks ago. All you need to do is drill a couple of holes below the screw locations and tap in a couple of dowels (no need to glue them in unless they are loose). Then the screws will have something solid to grab into. You can even use a round chopstick if you want to. As long as the dowel is larger than the body of the screw it will work perfectly. I didn't even bother gluing the dowels in. I centered the dowels on the screws and pushed them in. The dowels function as wooden barrel nuts.

By the way, we are updating the installation guide and usage pdf as we get more experience with the stop so it will change over time.

As of this writing we are still not taking pre-orders, but we expect to open actual ordering for mild steel planing stops this Thursday PM or Friday AM. There is a link on the product page if you want an email reminder when the stops become available. Hardened steel stops won't be available for a few weeks or so and will cost more. The unhardened mild steel planing stops are $18.95. The price of the hardened steel stops have not been finalized but we're targeting the $35 - $40 mark. Until we harden a batch we won't exactly know the cost of the hardened stops. We have had loads of trouble outsourcing hardening so we recently got a tiny computer controlled kiln, with argon gas, so we can take operations in-house. The hardened stops will be its first job. Wish us luck.

Comments: 9

Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero --- and Tools for Working Wood?  


We are delighted when folks visiting New York take the time to come out to see Tools for Working Wood in person. Good thing we do, because especially in summer, we get many folks visiting.

We are not so easy to find. We're at the end of a dead end block. Our neighbor is a rusty wall that so screams "Grit!" that it was used as a backdrop for a photo shoot for the rock band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. We try to welcome visitors with a glass of iced tea this time of year, and if we have some cookies we share them too.

Our visitors typically fall into one of several groups:

Long term customers who have bought online and now find themselves in New York. Most of these customers are from the US. "Visiting my kid in Brooklyn" is often the reason for the visit from all over the US.

Eagle-eyed woodworkers who find us via Google Maps. We're grateful for all the nice things people have said about us on Yelp, but amazingly Google Maps - and the key word "Woodworking" in our name - has probably brought us more people.

Pilots squeezing us in during a layover at JFK. We're honored!

Dave, our shipping guy (and baker extraordinaire) is particularly excited when woodworkers make the trek from all over the world - Australia, Bolivia, Slovenia, Japan - to come to our shop. Fluency in English is a plus when seeking specialized tools, but it turns out pantomime, sketches, second languages, interpreters and Google Translate have all helped us meet the needs of woodworkers who aren't English speakers.

So we hope you'll stop by in person this summer and say hello. In addition we have some special treats to offer, besides the aforementioned iced tea:

Special events: This Thursday evening we'll be hosting a book signing party (with pinata) for Nancy Hiller. Nancy is a pioneering furniture maker, author and a really fun person. She'll signing copies of English Arts & Crafts Furniture and Making Things Work, sharing anecdotes and encouraging some mayhem with her traveling pinata. We'll have wine, cheese and other snacks. We hope you'll come to our showroom, 112 26th Street, Brooklyn, from 6 - 8 pm. For more information about this party, see here.

Expert advice: Tips on saw sharpening from people who have sharpened hundreds of saws. Advice about which router bit to buy based upon your chicken-scratch drawings of your project. Etc.

Previews of our Planing Stops and other tools: We've actually sold a bunch to different folks who read our newsletter and asked to see them. We don't even have the packaging selected! No matter. They've been seen in action.

Local attractions: Walk up the block to Greenwood Cemetery and visit the final resting grounds of Duncan Phyfe, Leonard Bernstein, Jean Michel Basquiat and other notable New Yorkers. Then have a pastry and espresso at Baked in Brooklyn across from the Cemetery. Then take the subway or ferry to your next destination.

And thanks for visiting!

Comments: 3

RIP Jennie Alexander 1930-2018  


Like many of you, I was very saddened to learn of Jennie Alexander’s death. Jennie was a hugely influential figure in the world of hand woodworking, and was an unusually kind and insightful person as well. When I heard the news, I selfishly thought, “But I still had some things I wanted to talk about with her!” A minute later I reflected that I hope someone will think that of me when I go - that I still had some ideas worth hearing until the end.

I never met Jennie in person although we periodically spoke on the phone. She was working on a book and in the past few weeks we had spoken about topics that included who were the modern makers of traditional spokeshaves and how universal the Miller's Falls Universal brace chuck was. It was in a discussion with her about Moxon and how he copied his illustrations from Felibien that gave me the idea for a blog about the two. She also kept me honest. She would call me about some question about tools and didn't want just an off the cuff answer, she wanted the actual historical reference. So I was sent digging trying to pin down where I had learned some obscure fact.

Jennie was best known for the book "Make a Chair from a Tree" and its successor, written with Peter Follansbee "Make a Joint Stool from a Tree. Jennie was also known for a gender change - she was John Alexander until 2007. As Jennie wrote on her website, “My name is Jennie Alexander. Until 2007, my name was John Alexander. I thank all those who have been so supportive and kind. Yes indeed, people change, times change, wood continues to be wonderful!”

Jennie’s work celebrated beautiful, functional pieces of furniture made with simple tools, straightforward techniques and no glue. “Make a Chair from a Tree” published by Taunton Press in 1978 (and later reissued by Astragal Press) inspired generations of woodworkers to see joinery in green wood. The chair itself featured in the book was legendarily comfortable and strong.

Lost Art Press featured a fascinating profile of Jennie’s life. Before she became a chairmaker (and revolutionary woodworker), she was a self-taught jazz musician, divorce attorney and father of three. As a young married couple, Jennie (then John) and wife Joyce fixed up their Baltimore home and learned the crafts that would later evolve into green woodworking. Jennie joined the. Early American Industries Association and became a protege of Charles Hummel, a curator at Winterthur and author of the seminal book “With Hammer in Hand.”

The profile captured an important part of Jennie’s character - her warmth, her encouragement, and her sense of gratitude. As one friend said, “She is always encouraging people. I think that is a special thing about her – generosity...Woodworking is such a special part of her life and she wants to share.”

Jennie’s papers on chairmaking and joinery will go to the library at Winterthur.
Comments: 3

Thomas Chippendale, Marketing Genius  


For many contemporary furniture makers, Instagram may serve the twin needs of inspiration and self-promotion.

Whatever did the talented and ambitious do before #instafurniture, #interiordesign, #maker, #furnituregallery, and the like? I had occasion to mull over this topic at the current Metropolitan Museum exhibit, “Chippendale’s Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker.”

Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779) is often hailed as Britain’s greatest furniture maker. As someone who often cherishes the great work of craftsmen who have fallen into obscurity, I am impressed that Chippendale continues to be well known by the general public. Perhaps the biggest reason is the lasting influence of The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, Chippendale’s book of furniture designs. As the Met’s program noted, “the unprecedented publication cemented Chippendale’s name as England’s most famous cabinetmaker and also endured to inspire furniture design up to the present day.”

In 1754 - six years after moving to London from West Yorkshire to start his workshop - Chippendale published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director. There’s no way around it: he was a marketing genius who understood how to create a taste for the kind of furniture a gentleman should want, and concurrently tout his own ability to meet this need. Chippendale was of course not the only game in town, but his design book was the most comprehensive. The book featured 160 designs for many kinds of furniture and in many different styles (Rococo, Gothic-Revival, etc.) Chippendale’s taste-making extended to the American Colonies, where eager readers sought to emulate the best British fashions and found in Chippendale a masterly guide. The book was a huge expensive undertaking - all those engravings cost money - but it was a major success, went through many reprints, and is still available.

The Met’s exhibit contains only a few actual Chippendale pieces. Most of the pieces in the show are by other furniture makers. American makers who took his designs and adapted them to American tastes and materials. The importance of the show is in showing Chippendale’s influence via examples such as Chippendale-style chairs made by Philadelphia craftsmen for General John Cadwalader, a Revolutionary War hero. The influence continues in another chair in the show, one designed in the 1980s by the starchitects Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi.

And of course there’s a first edition of Chippendale’s Director to continue the legacy of promotion and inspiration. Other ephererma which I found really interesting were trade cards from the eighteen century, and some original drawings by Chippendale for the book.

“Chippendale’s Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker” runs through January 2019 and is part of many celebrations in honor of the 300th anniversary of Chippendale’s birth.

Comments: 0

What's Old Is New Again  


This past weekend I went to the Museum of the City of New York. The main reason I went was to see the absolutely fabulous Stanley Kubrick exhibit. At the same time I stopped in at a small exhibit of the design work of the architect Rosario Candela. Candela's name is still dropped in New York real estate circles; he is the architect behind some of Manhattan's oldest luxury apartment buildings. The show included a settee c. 1926 that really caught my eye. It was made by a Queens-based company called "Company of Master Craftsman" and sold at the W & J Sloane department store. The settee is a semi-copy of a century previous settee by Duncan Phyfe. If you look at it closely, you can see it is very nice work but not up to Phyfe's standards. For example, the beading on the legs is nice, but doesn't exactly flow with the bottom rail. I was struck by how an interior designer in the 1920s - rather than create yet another Art Deco design -- instead decided that a throwback design was appropriate in a modern setting, and didn't make everything look dated.

This approach is really important to consider if you are planning to sell furniture now. We cannot sell furniture in an older style that is meant for an older house. That ship sailed. We have to show how great design doesn't become obsolete: while the inspiration for the new piece might be old, its context and value can be new. Colonial reproductions, for example, are a very tough sell. Almost nobody wants them. But you can tell people -- and you should tell people -- that your modern designs were inspired by great design from two centuries ago.

This thought allowed my mind to drift to the English Arts & Crafts movement, which I like enormously. Nancy Hiller has a great new book about the subject - including working drawings for several pieces. You can look at her book as a historical assessment of the style, which it is, but I think there is a lot more to be gained understanding the style and designs that make the English Arts & Crafts movement so appealing today. Then get some wood and seeing how the style fits in now.

P.S. The thought leaders* of the English Arts & Crafts movement were John Ruskin and William Morris. While Morris is mostly known for his design work, he also wrote turgid Icelandic sagas and a slightly more accessible futuristic book that you might enjoy called News From Nowhere. Nancy's book "English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects & Techniques for the Modern Maker" is available here.

P.P.S. The phrase "thought leader" is about as cliched as it comes, but I enjoy the vision in my head of a bearded William Morris making a presentation about traditional handwork to a group using a Power Point display and worrying about the number of Twitter followers.

Comments: 2
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.
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Recent Blogs:
Pattern Making - 09/12/2018
Planing Stops - Mounting Difficulties (An Update) - 08/22/2018
Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero --- and Tools for Working Wood? - 08/01/2018
RIP Jennie Alexander 1930-2018 - 07/18/2018
Thomas Chippendale, Marketing Genius - 07/11/2018
What's Old Is New Again - 07/04/2018
Much Ado About Planing Stops - 06/27/2018
Woodworkers' Hangout - Hands on With Mitre Planes - 06/06/2018
My Bench Chisel History - 05/30/2018
English Paring Chisels - 05/23/2018
This Old Dog Learns New Tricks - 05/16/2018
Making Stuff, and Other Human Impulses - 05/02/2018
Getting Things Done - 04/24/2018
David R. Russell - Some Thoughts on His Legacy - 04/18/2018
eBay Fraud - 04/11/2018
Blog Entry or Filler - You Decide! - 04/05/2018
Clamp Vs. Clamp - 03/21/2018
The Seaton Chest Revisited - 03/14/2018
Cræft by Alexander Langlands - 03/07/2018
News: much is happening here & OSMO is arriving! - 02/24/2018
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