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Looks at Books


I read a lot and I firmly believe that no matter how indispensable a YouTube video, a blog, or a magazine article can be, the long form of writing - a book - can both entertain and educate the way no other media can. Here is a short list of books that we stock, old and new that I think are worth reading. Now actually I think all the books we stock are worth reading, but I particularly wanted to highlight some personal favorites. I'm including some of the many new books we stock along with some classics that really shaped my understanding of woodworking.

In no particular order:

The Mechanic's Companion by Peter Nicholson. This is a high quality reprint of the 1841 American edition of the book, which was originally printed in 1812. The Mechanic's Companion is one of those books you don't actually read as much dip into. It's structured as a dictionary, and it's an important book for anyone who has an interest in historical woodworking. What really turned me on is the inclusion of the 1830 building code of New York City. This is so interesting to me because it's the first gasp of zoning and regulation in New York. We have to comply with Fire Department regulations for our aerosols and flammable storage regulations (including passing the Certificate of Fitness test) so the rise of safety regulations especially caught my eye. Apparently in 1830 the regulations were pretty similar, though they weren't about spray lacquer - they concerned whale oil and gunpowder. The book also covers the tools and usage for different trades. But there is so much crammed into the book, you can always learn something new. For me, the woodworking tool material wasn't unfamiliar but the section on plastering was totally amazing.

"The Joiner and Cabinet Maker" is approaching a decade since we put it back in print. I still find it as exciting as ever to go through. For anyone interested in working unplugged, the first two projects are a great first set of challenges. If you can complete the third project - a dresser - you can confidently say that you really know what you are doing. Back then I thought the book was the best education for hand tool usage out there, and today I would double down and also say it provides an anchor for other hand tool instruction you might (and should) get elsewhere. It's also a good read, which is why I think you can learn from it pretty easily.

Robert Wearing's - "The Essential Woodworker" is the single best book on useful advice on woodworking every written. Short and sweet, it's a great practical book no matter what equipment you use - hand or electric. I can't imaging not having a copy.

Lost Art Press just reprinted "Welsh Stick Chairs" by John Brown and issued an English-language version of Slöjd In Wood by Jögge Sundqvist. Both of these books are standards in their field and if there is any interest in chairs or Sloyd projects these are obvious choices. I also want to recommend "Woodworking in Estonia" which is another standard text for greenwood woodworking - a bit more hardcore and less accessible than the other two, but also very worthwhile.

If you are looking for a great gift set both Roubo books, The volume on cabinetmaking and the volume on marquetry are awesome for woodworkers with experience who are doing traditional work, and the entire series of Charles Hayward books are awesome for everyone - especially a newbie. (Hayward is hands down the best writer and illustrator of woodworking books ever.)

"Ingenious Mechanicks: Early Workbenches & Workholding" by Christopher Schwarz is a historic look at useful clamping accessories for your workbench. I found it very informative and helpful when we were developing our Planing Stops.

If you just want a good read - "The Village Carpenter" by Walter Rose has been a favorite of mine for years.

Hardcore carvers might like "Manual of Traditional Wood Carving" by Paul Hasluck. I'm actually in the middle of the chip carving section. I took Daniel Clay's course in September and Hasluck has an article on chip carving explaining the English method of doing it. I have also been poring over the book's decorative designs for furniture as part of my research for my blogs on "The Future of Furniture." The text is dense but chock full of useful stuff.

For younger people who have an interest in early crafts and tools, Eric Sloane's "A Museum of Early American Tools" had a huge impression on me when I was a kid. Still does.

P.S. Next week I will return to "The Future of Furniture" with Part 3: Tools!
PPS Yes, this title was inspired by the recurring sketch [could link:] on Saturday Night Live with the original cast.

Comments: 2

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month

11/11/2018 World War One and Norris Planes

This is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. This blog entry originally appeared ten years ago this day. I thought it appropriate to repeat it. We have corrected some grammar and updated the pictures.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918 the "War to End All Wars" ended. Most of the great names of the English tool industries survived the war but really it marked the beginning of the end. Most of the reasons for the decline were changing tastes, changing technology, and other seismic changes that the war really sped up but didn't directly cause. During the war the British government realized that unless they supported business during the war many of their industries would not survive.
Some business simply switched to war production (as Norris did during WW2) but your average tool company like Norris during WW1 didn't have the machinery or the capital to do anything other than what they knew how to do - make tools or in Norris' case make planes. So the British government placed orders for a lot of stuff that may or may not have been actually needed by the army but was certainly needed by the manufacturers to stay in business.

Demand of course for fancy infill planes was obviously small, but Norris was issued at least one contract for a bunch of very simple A51's. I don't know if the intent was to use the planes and these simple models were the most price competitive to Stanley type planes. There certainly were a lot of military carpenters who would have needed the planes. Or if they were bought, stored, just as a way of subsidizing the company, and after the war sold as surplus.

As Norris' go it is very low end model of infill, crudely made compared to peacetime models. It has an iron lever cap and iron screw because brass was in short supply and strictly rationed for cartridges and weapons. The mark that indicates it was purchased by the defense department is the "Broad Arrow" or British acceptance mark, which was stamped on goods to indicate that they were accepted by the military as having passed any quality or standards tests. This plane is stamped on the side and also on the 2" wide iron.

All the parts are original and the iron and cap iron are also stamped with the Norris logo. The lever cap doesn't have the usual model number but this plane is basically a narrow no. 51. In the last photograph you can compare the plane to the more common 2 1/4" wide peacetime no. 51. In this case, a fairly early one.

To me this plane is more than a simple Norris souvenir. It's a witness to how, in a terrible time, Europe convulsed and war affected everyone and everything. Even the planemakers.

Comments: 6

The Future of Furniture - Part 2: Goals


What kind of furniture will furniture makers make in the future? Before we can reasonably predict the future of furniture, we need to understand the goals and values of the furniture's makers. Is it to build something practical? Engage in creative expression? Work practically within time and money constraints? Are we just trying to see if we can credibly perform one technique or another -- or make sure the piece is within our skill set or the range of our equipment capability? Are we striving to create an object of desire? These are all valid goals and of course they are not mutually exclusive.

I started thinking seriously about the future of furniture while talking with Corn Schmid, who teaches here at TFWW. Corn is in the middle of designing projects for classes. He was looking for furniture that a student could build, but more importantly, furniture that a student might WANT to build. And that started leading us down the garden path of the fundamental question: why should you build when you could buy?

The first impulse is to say that making something yourself makes it special. But at the same time, while my mom might treasure a neo-colonial mirror I made in ninth grade, I don’t think it’s a project that fits into most people’s lifestyle these days.

We can get into discussing practicality and use another time. On a deep level, what we all strive to do is create something that is meaningful to the end user. "Meaningful" can mean suggest usefulness or an emotional meaning or both. Most of the the time furniture (or any object we own, really) is just practical. Table, chair, desk, or bed: the reason Ikea makes a good living is delivering practical, useful objects at a great price. We know these items will eventually fall apart, but for now they solve a big problem.

Sometimes if you own something long enough it transitions from "practial" to emotional. The wooden desk chair I am sitting in as I write is a case in point. My grandfather, my father, and my mother all used this chair and I'll be damned if I toss it. I repaired it once already and I think it needs another round, and the back support just sucks. But it has become part of the family.

The mirror I made for my mom isn't that useful, but to her is has emotional meaning because I made it. But objects can have emotional meaning even without history or any personal contribution to their creation.

The teapot above is a mass produced cast iron teapot from Japan. It’s too small and inconvenient for everyday use, but when I do use it, making tea becomes a special occasion. I want to cup it in my hand, and when I see it on the shelf I wonder why I don’t use it more often. Obviously my attraction to the object is emotional not practical.

In some ways I'm saddened that people seem to have less and less interest in furniture that is not practical. But a great piece can and should connect emotionally with you. This past weekend I was in both Herman Miller and Design Within Reach and I noticed that Design Within Reach understands the emotional connection that people want. Their catalog is called "Objects of Your Affection." Sadly I find their stuff too generic to attract me, but I am not their ideal customer anyway.

As we simplify the furniture in our houses, and most of the time we only consider function and cost, it becomes more and more important that the furniture we build for ourselves and others does more. I can’t tell you that in the future we will or will not want a table to eat at, but I can tell you that if the table is anything we make as a single piece, it had better look and feel like something. Or nobody will care - including you.

On the other side of the coin, take a look at this Ikea ad that Corn showed me.

It's the opposite of what I am talking about. A perfectly good lamp gets tossed to the curb. Not demoted or given to a friend, but tossed to the curb and then to the landfill. What a waste. It's Ikea's business model so they can sell the same stuff again and again. After WWII my father came home from the war and went to college. At some point he bought a Dazor desk lamp. It was expensive at the time. About twenty years ago it broke but he liked the lamp and found a guy who easily repaired it. When my parents moved the lamp ended up here in the workshop where we liked it so much we got two more on Ebay. When you adjust its position it stays put and it gives off a lot of light. Basically the cost of that lamp averaged over the cost of its useful life is far less than the Ikea lamp.

So what might be one goal for designing furniture in the future? At least we want what we make to be useful. Ideally we would make something that is useful all the time, not just special occasions. At best we want to make furniture that engenders an joyous emotional response with the end user.

Comments: 14

The Future of Furniture - Part 1


Here are four links to articles in the New York Times that set me pondering.

The first says the antique furniture market is collapsing because nobody wants the old stuff, but the article gives hope for modern makers. How Low Will Market for Antiques Actually Go?.

The second says nobody wants the old stuff because people aren't using their living rooms or dining rooms since everyone congregates in the kitchen. Why Are Antiques So Cheap? Because Everyone Lives in the Kitchen.

The third article points out that our society exalts the expert but we would all be happier and have a lot more fun doing stuff if we were a little more tolerant of mediocrity. In Praise of Mediocrity.

The last article says the internet facilitates hobbies and crafts because people who are spread out all over the world are getting together in small little groups. This is not only true, it's AWESOME! And it's great seeing confirmation in print. Online Hobbyists Can Reaffirm Your Faith in the Internet.

I find the last two articles true and encouraging. I find the first two true but depressing.

It's the second article that ultimately I found most important. It's true adults do not entertain as much as previous generations did. We don't even eat meals together like our forebears did. We don't have staff so if you entertain, chances that guests who want to talk to the hosts have to hang out in the kitchen and help. Adults are also working longer hours so entertaining at home can easily become a big chore (or never happen).

What is interesting to me most of all is that historically it's not so much a change as much as a return to earlier patterns of living.

When the Bible says (King James Genesis 26:8-9)
{26:8} And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac [was] sporting with Rebekah his wife. And Abimelech called Isaac, and said, Behold, of a surety she [is] thy wife: and how saidst thou, She [is] my sister? And Isaac said unto him, Because I said, Lest I die for her.

The reason Isaac and Rebekah were outside was that there was no privacy inside.

Rooms and privacy came later. Before the invention of the chimney (12th century) almost everyone slept in one big room. The lord of the manor might have an area with some partitions, but heating was a big fire in the middle of the room with a hole in the roof. Just about everyone else slept in common spaces. A hayloft would have been dry and warm. Average people didn't have much in the way of possessions, so a big blanket chest might be all one would need. Peasants and serfs would have had their animals living inside to protect against their theft and also share the heat.

Without a separate fireplace going, the communal areas around the kitchen or really the main fireplace were where people gathered. The house was a place you slept, ate simple meals, and stored your few possessions. The Church, the local pub, the village common, and the street was where you socialized.

In the Victorian age, when the industrial revolution gave rise to a large middle class, their private homes became miniatures of what rich people lived in. The parlor, the living room, and the upstairs bedroom. For the first time the kitchen was in the back, tended by a household staff in all but the poorest houses. The poor were crammed into single rooms and largely bought ready to eat food. Water, if the place was lucky to have running water, probably only came into a tap in the basement or kitchen. Bathrooms with plumbing come into play in the second half of the 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, the basic design of middle class private house was widely understood: public rooms, private rooms, and a kitchen in the back, with room for live in staff. After World War II, private house ownership exploded but labor was in short supply. Cities, New York City especially, provided an alternative model of middle class and upper middle housing before WWII, with a small maid's room and bathroom tucked in near the kitchen in the back of the apartment (with a second service entrance). But the white brick buildings that rose up in the post war period contained a nice kitchen in the middle of the apartment and no provision for staff.

As fewer and fewer families had anyone staying at home during the day (because everyone works), there was far less incentive and energy to entertain, show off their furniture as a symbol of wealth, and with the advent to television, live collectively.

In many ways we are returning to our roots. Everyone works, comes home at what used to be workaholic hours, and has little time for hours of socializing. We don't have the energy to emulate the very rich who still have staff and entertain. The furniture associated with that live-style sits unused. The new generation just doesn't bother. I have been amazed by a new style of multi-bedroom apartments in NYC that don't have living rooms. The apartment has bedrooms spoking off a central room with kitchen appliances. This model was presumably developed with roommates in mind, but families are also renting them. In more spacious suburban homes, the "den" has become a relic as family members spend more time in their rooms, alone with their electronics.

The future of furniture is a subject that interests me deeply. What will future woodworkers build? What is the point of building a nice dining room table if you don't plan to use it? Will we be inventing new furniture forms or just tweaking the old designs? Will the old techniques still have a place in this evolution? Or are we all destined to be building square melamine boxes? This blog entry is the start of an occasional series as I try to understand these questions. Before I can go forward I think I need to go backward and understand the social reasons why the furniture we have looks and is used the way it is. I think I also need to understand the difference between building a piece of furniture because it's an interesting project and building a piece of furniture because it's needed.

A lot of writers talk about people wanting experiences rather than objects. There is truth to this, especially in New York City where space is at such a premium, but humans have pretty much been thrilled about consumption since commerce began. I don't think I am ready to write off the possessions concept any time soon. Of course I want to learn how to encourage people to want to build things. In the next months I will be going to the library, discussing ideas with colleagues and experts, scratching my head, and trying to understand my world and where we are headed.

The picture above comes from "Furniture of the Pilgrim Century" by Wallace Nutting (1921).

In other news - our BT&C hardened planing stops are [finally] available.
Comments: 14

Block Printing Is Fun!


A few years ago I visited the Metropolitan Museum and saw an exhibit of British color linoleum prints from the 1920's. I was totally hooked. I wrote about the experience here. Since that time I have wanted TFWW to offer a class in linoleum block printing, but it's only recently that we have been able to put it together. Annie Raso, a NYC woodworking instructor and artist, will be teaching a Lino Block Printing class next month -- just in time to make holiday cards.

Now I know that many people no longer mail actual paper holiday cards. I also know that a laser printer can print a fine custom card if you want to. But if you have any experience with traditional letter press, you know that the feel of a impression of a block print on a piece of paper is something special. For me, certainly one of the wonderful parts of collecting books, especially old books, is getting a certain physical evidence of printing. It just feels special.

If you want to read more about my general enthusiasm for ink on paper printing - click here.

There are two basic types of wood carving that are associated with printing. In both types you draw your image in reverse on the printing block. In relief printing, you carve your design by cutting away everything from a block (typically a block of soft wood) that you don't want in the print. Then you cover your block with ink, ideally using a roller or brayer, and only the flat surface of the block (that remains after you've removed what you don't want included) receives the ink. Paper is pressed onto the inked block to make a print. Technically this is very easy, and you can even use a raw half of a potato to do a print. Wood blocks for relief printing can't really be used for very fine lines since the leftover surface would be very weak, but this type of printing is used on Japanese prints like Hokusai's Great Wave. Albrecht Durer made his fortune with them. William Morris used big wooden relief blocks for wallpaper printing, and wooden type, especially for headlines, was commonly used. Regular book printing uses slugs of lead with letters on them is a relief process, so if you want to illustrate a book in letterpress you would use a wooden book carved in relief. More on this in a moment.

The other type of printing is engraving, a process in which you carve the image rather than carving away the material that isn't being printed. Then you ink the entire block, wipe away any ink on the flat top of the block, leaving pockets of ink wherever you want to print. The use of an engraving press exerts a lot of pressure and forces the paper just below the surface of the block to pick up ink. This method is used to create fine lines in printing. Durer used it for some of his works, but it is more expensive to reprint than other methods. Engraving also requires a very dense flat block. Most engraving is actually done on copper plates, not wooden boards for this reason.

Whereas wood engraving requires a fancy engraving press and special tools, wood relief printing, in its basic form, needs very few tools. The big problem with wood relief printing is getting the right kind of block to print on. If there is unevenness in the grain of the wood - like pine - the grain high areas will pick up ink and print. Some artists use the wood grain as part of their design. Also, if the block warps because of wet ink, it could belly and no longer print flat. A soft wood that is pleasingly easy to carve has the downside of overall weakness: depending on the grain, wood can easily accidentally split off a bit of the design. Linoleum, invented in the 1850s when a manufacturer noticed the rubbery quality of solidified linseed oil, was the perfect solution. It has no grain and is impervious to moisture. So it is an inexpensive and easy to carve material.

Relief carving uses regular, but small carving tools, usually bent not straight, and you only need a few to do a great job. Basically all you are doing is removing material accurately to a line, then wasting out the non-printing areas to get them lower so that they don't print. We've been selling Flexcut's set of linoleum printing tools for a long time - Annie's class will use them - because the set includes the tools you need to get started, and they are sharp and ready to use. Having interchangeable tools with one handle keeps the cost down which is also important. Another good choice are Ashley Iles block cutters. Incidentally all short carving tools that you use one handed with the handle tucked into your palm are called "Palm Tools" in the US. Ashley Iles calls them "Block Cutters" because up into fairly recently that's what they were mostly for. While the Flexcut set has exactly what you need to go from beginner to intermediate, as you get more practice the huge range of Ashley Iles Block cutters can open up a lot of opportunity. Of course lots of carvers prefer block cutters for general carving but that is another story. By the way, carving a block is one of those activities that you can easily do on your kitchen table. All you really need, aside from sharp tools, is a non-slip mat to keep your work in place.

In the picture above I am just starting a block print of a cheerful pattern of flowers. I should take Annie's class and I bet I would do this more efficiently, but either way I am having a good time. What I am actually doing is outlining the patter with a narrow tool, and then I will remove the non-printing waste.

Here is what you can do if you are REALLY good!

The three prints are in order from left to right (or top to bottom on mobile)

Albrecht Dürer: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498)
Edward Burne-Jones: Troilus and Criseyde from The Kelmscott Chaucer (1898)
Katsushika Hokusai: Under the Wave off Kanagawa (1832)

Comments: 8

Sharp and Ready to Use


When you purchase an edge tool (plane, chisel, knife, carving tool, etc.), it will either have a "Factory Edge" or be described as "Sharp and ready to use." The idea of having a ready-to-use status is a comparatively new idea in tool marketing. Up until fairly recently - let's say 1960 - it was generally understood that most of the customers of tools were craftsmen who understood that even a new and sharpened tool would, after a few minutes work, require resharpening again. So why spend more initially for a temporary fix? But even more importantly, people have different preferences how a tool should be sharpened. Joseph Moxon (1678) writes in Mechanick Exercises about buying a saw:

"When Workman Light of a good Blade thus qualified [previously described], they matter not much whether the Teeth be sharp or deep, or set to their mind; For to make them so, is a Task they take to Themselves: And thus they perform it: [text goes on to write about saw sharpening]

I have a fair number of older tools whose cutting edges came with rough grind marks. These days, however, it is rare to see that. Most tools of any quality that are stocked by any dealer might not be ready to use, but they have at least a respectable "factory edge." The backs should be decent, the bevel ground to a good finish, and in theory the tool might even work, albeit perhaps inefficiently, out of the box. Carving tools are the exception. Most modern carving tool companies really intend for their tools to be usable right away. Ashley Iles tools, one of the first companies to offer sharp tools, deliver decent sharpness. Certainly the tools are sharp enough to get started and at least see if you like the way the tool feels in the hand. You can actually carve with the tools, but as you get more experienced, you will realize that the tools aren't as sharp as they can be, and the bevels are a little steep for some tastes. Flexcut - which we also stock in a limited number of tools, come sharp and ready to use.

Ray Iles's mortise chisels are not intentionally sharp and ready to use, but the factory edge is reasonable. Considering mortise chisel work without a superb edge, they work reasonably well straight out of the box.

Japanese tools as a group are now almost universally sold with a decent factory edge. This is also pretty new. Traditionally in Japan, one would purchase the tools from the toolmaker, ground only and without a handle. You would either take them to a handler for handles, or fit the mushrooming of the rear hand hoops yourself. The actual sharpening was up to you.

I am glad that all our chisels come with a good factory edge. I don't think any of them are ready to use, but for a lot of customers who don't have grinders, having a tool pretty close to usable saves hours.

Our veneer saws are sharp and ready to use. We found that our combination of hand and mechanical sharpening methods produced a far better edge than most people could easily do themselves. Having sharp saws means you can hit the ground running. It seemed to make more sense spending time veneering than figuring out how to get a veneer saw sharp enough to cooperate.

In the second to last picture in this blog here are three never used edge tools as they came from the factory. In the last picture are the same tools flipped over. Clockwise from the top.

A German Wilhelm Schmitt toothing iron from the mid-19th century. Yes! This is the same company known today as Two Cherries and the iron is stamped with the two cherries mark (see picture at top of blog). There are no grind marks, but there are file marks on the bevel. I think it's a laminated iron so filing the bevel below the toothed area would work.

A 1960's Stanley 720. The grind marks on the bevel are fairly fine, although the finish on the body of the chisel is even finer. This chisel was made on production grinding machines that were invented just before WWII.

Finally a 19th century Buck Brothers wooden plane iron. The bevel on this is close to a mirror finish, but not quite: there are regular fine grind marks evenly along the bevel. If you hold a rule against the bevel, you can see a very slight hollow from having been hand ground against a very large diameter wheel.

When the iron is flipped over, we can see the ridges of the toothing iron. This iron was designed to successfully plane weirdly grained wood. The marks look forged in, but I am not sure how. Interestingly, they aren't symmetrical - they are more like a sawtooth. Again I don't know why.

The back of the Stanley 720 has even, consistent, grind marks of a large rotary horizontal tool grinder.

Finally, on the Buck Brothers iron you can clearly see the weld marks of the laminated blade. The back is strangely polished and shiny. The back seems flat left to right but there is a definite hollow from front to back. The hollow means that it will be really easy when sharpening to get an even line of flat right at the cutting edge.

If I had to draw a conclusion, it would be that the tool makers made their tools with as close to a finished edge as time and the technology of the time would allow.

Comments: 5
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:
Looks at Books - 11/14/2018
The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month - 11/11/2018
The Future of Furniture - Part 2: Goals - 11/07/2018
The Future of Furniture - Part 1 - 10/31/2018
Block Printing Is Fun! - 10/24/2018
Sharp and Ready to Use - 10/17/2018
MAP Pricing & Festool Fest - 10/10/2018
The Desk of Lost Souls - 10/03/2018
The Zombie Distribution System - 09/26/2018
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
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