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 Joel's Blog

I Am a Panda  

01/19/2018


I am a panda. Or a great ape. Or any of a number of animals - I'll choose the cute ones - whose terrain is disappearing and are therefore endangered. Tut- tutting or telling me how cute, chubby, and fun to watch I am doesn’t help much. "Oooh, check out that guy with the hand tools! Amazing!" Neither does lip service. On the face of it, our government agencies all love manufacturing and makers. They love to have “maker initiatives,” training, etc. They are even happy to make a small, zoo-like zone of a few blocks where manufacturers who already exist can try to still exist. But protecting the actual wild environment is another story.
Most of the energy in encouraging manufacturing in NYC is focused on "Maker Spaces," which are always well-intentioned and sometimes actually awesome. But the problem is that these spaces, much like a breeding sanctuary, is that it is not a real substitute for an improved wild environment. What happens to a fledgling business after you "graduate" from a maker space? If you have a prototype, you will probably will outsource your production to somewhere with enough affordable real estate to encourage manufacturing - a place that sometimes feels like anywhere but New York City. And what if you want to expand your business? That probably means not New York too. All the investment in maker spaces, incubators, and other startup support may pay off - but not for the people of the city.

Cabinet shops, which are TFWW’s retail life blood, are dying in NYC. Many landlords don't want messy businesses. Even in neighborhoods with industrial zoning - places that are zoned for mess and noise - the trend is to try to rent to offices and commercial ventures. Even if the business does actual making, their primary work is clean and silent. Offices and design shops have a far greater density of people than a woodshop, and so higher rents are easier to achieve. And of course once your tenant is a fancy office, it will want like-minded businesses for neighbors, not a company with a screaming table saw or spray booth. And once a landlord realizes that it can get more per square foot by skirting the industrial zoning requirements rents shoot up. Even if the space is available for a cabinet shop, the cost might be unaffordable.

Now I should mention that not all landlords are opportunists who bought property that was discounted because of its use restrictions but now are trying to evade their responsibilities. ( See my blog from a few weeks ago about Industry City). There are a many landlord - and thankfully mine is one (My landlord has been incredibly supportive of what we do and truly fights for continued manufacturing in NYC) - that really want industry to succeed. There are bunches of reasons for this. The first is that many people, my landlord and others included, want a city that is diverse. They recognize that not everyone is a web designer or a stockbroker. We have thousands of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, cabinet makers, machinists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and a range of other craftspeople and tradespeople who need a place to go to work, like being in the city, and most important, make the city far more interesting and full of ideas than it would be without them.

Let me give you an example:
Once upon a time, on West 22nd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, a tinsmith named Harry Segerman had a business two doors down from my grandparents’ luncheonette. Harry mostly made tinware, and later stainless fixtures, for the restaurant industry. In the years following WWII, Chelsea (nowadays an exceedingly trendy and expensive neighborhood) was a fairly rough part of town. A few blocks west were the Cunard Docks; the buildings were a mix of low rise housing and garment industry factories.
The area was inexpensive to live in, which attracted bohemian artists. Some of them wandered into Harry's shop and were enamored by the idea that you could take metal and bend it into interesting shapes. Harry, who was encouraging by nature and very interested in art, helped helped a lot of these artists make work in tin. Some artists took it a step further and developed expertise in sculpting with sheet metal because of his support.

On paper, this interaction is what cities do best. Art and crafts (and commerce) happen when a big city is a melting pot of ideas and skills. But it won't happen - and we will be the poorer - if New York City becomes solely a consumer of real things, instead of a designer, maker, and consumer.


Tags:Unclassified
Comments: 6

The Unheated Workshop  

01/10/2018


The temperature has been varying between really cold and OMG cold since the New Year, and unfortunately our indoor work temperature has reflected this. Our steel roll-up garage-style showroom door and super-high ceilings are major escape routes for heated air and our three gas powered reflecting heaters barely make a dent.

Are we part of a "proud" historic tradition? Amazingly, in days of yore cabinet shops in Europe and US, even in dank and chilly parts, were not heated.

Let's think about this for a bit. Iron stoves date from the mid 18th century, commonly available central heating from the end of the 19th. Light was essential for craft work, but glass windows were not common in Britain and the US prior to the middle of the 19th century. In the spring, summer and fall, craftsmen worked in front of open windows - a source of light and air. Rain was kept away by roof eaves. In the winter and in truly inclement weather, translucent oiled cloth over the windows gave some protection from the elements. Shutters secured the premises at night and when there was no work.

While fine sawdust from sandpaper wasn't much of an issue before the 20th century, sawdust from sawing and plane shavings did present a constant danger for a fire. And with all that dry wood around, any small fire could easily become a deadly conflagration. Thomas Chippendale's shop, for example. burned in a fire in 1755; although he rebuilt his shop, his personal fortune never recovered from the disaster. And so unlike those lucky blacksmiths who had forges and bakers who had ovens, woodworkers had to exercise extreme caution around fire. Even smoking was generally banned anywhere near the shop. Open fires of any sort were forbidden in shops -- and with that, no ready source of heat was available in shops.

Even in the 18th century, there must have been some small fires to keep the glue hot. The Joiner and Cabinetmaker (1839) describes the apprentice's job of preparing and maintaining the glue pot and makes note of the "serious accidents [that] have sometimes arisen" with improper care, such as when a "hot cinder sticking to the bottom has set the shavings and the shop on fire."

With the advent of iron stoves, it was possible to have some heat in a workshop. But the lack of insulation in the shop, and the probability of working next to the outdoor light meant that on a good day your back might have some heat on it but your front and hands would be freezing.

Fortunately, in the winter the workdays bowed to the reality of shorter daylight and were shorter too.

The funny part of all of this is that at the end of my workday I ride on a (mostly) heated subway and a centrally heated home. Up until pretty recently your frozen cabinetmaker went home to a house probably heated only by a fireplace in the kitchen and parlor. If he was lucky and well-to-do, maybe his bedroom had a small fireplace, but by and large, your workplace might have been freezing and your home was pretty cold too.

And don't get me started about the plumbing.


Tags:Unclassified
Comments: 14

How to Cut a Groove in a Frame By Hand and Without a Plow Plane   

12/27/2017


I own just about every hand tool every invented. My mentor, the late Maurice Fraser, used to say that in the old days you could borrow something from the next bench, but nowadays most woodworkers are on their own. If they don't own the tool, they won't be able to do an operation.

There is truth to this philosophy, but for beginners the idea that you first need to acquire a store's worth of tools before you can do anything is both misleading and discouraging.

When I need to cut a groove, I reach for one of my many plow planes (actually a Stanley 45 - no need to sharpen any of the others). But I was taught a perfectly good method, that is still very applicable for stopped grooves, and pretty fast for anyone who happens not to collect tools like I do.

The most common use for a groove I can think of is holding a panel in a frame and panel construction. Nobody sees the bottom of the groove, which is makes it easier. As long as the groove is at least as deep as needed to hold the panel, the bottom finish isn't critical. On the other hand, usually at least one edge of the groove will be visible next to the panel and unless it is clean, it will truly look awful.

How do I cut a groove without the plow plane? The first step is setting my mortise/combination gauge to slightly larger than the chisel I plan to cut the groove with. It just has to be a touch larger, and since panels are typically angled, you have a lot of leeway with width. I want a little extra width so that I can pare to a clean line (like I did on my mortise). With the combination gauge set, scribe the groove the length of the frame. In this case, I have centered the groove and stopped both ends. With this method, stopping is easy and it saves having to worry about an unsightly gap or plug at the end of the piece. I've also run a pencil line in the scribe lines so that I can see what I am doing.


In a nutshell, here is how to make the groove: Using a regular 1/4" bench chisel I am going to make a series of chisel cuts, none particularly deep, each lifting up a bit of wood. Then, as I do multiple passes, I can easily clear the chips I have raised, and then repeat the procedure to go deeper. I have a tendency to do work in sections as I go in steady progression along the board.






I have found that periodically reversing the chisel and chopping at partially removed chisels helps clear the waste, as does using the chisel parallel to the groove to also break up and clear chips. I have gotten into the habit of using a different narrow or even slightly wider chisels (to chisel parallel to the grooves) to break up waste. I do this primarily because normally I would have to do two rails and two stiles to complete a frame and it saves wear and tear on the main chisel I need. I don't have to stop and sharpen.



When I am done to depth I take a paring chisel - the widest I have available - and slice down at the scribe lines to give me a finished clean edge.




Your first reaction to this method might be that this is a really slow way of doing it. Compared to a plow plane, absolutely. This stile took me about 20 minutes. I could go a faster if I wasn't trying to take pictures, but not much. If you are doing a stopped groove like this and you have a plow plane it might make sense to use this method for the first inch or so at each end of the groove, and then plow the rest. Unless you have a router table, for one small box bottom it might be faster and safer to do the gooves by hand than trying to jig up a router for the grooves.

Tags:Unclassified
Comments: 6

How to Mortise the Moxon Way: Part 2, Chopping the Mortise  

12/20/2017


In Part One we laid out the joint and cut the tenon. Next up: I have to make the mortise. The first thing I want to do is check to see if the tenon I made is still the same width to which I set the mortise gauge. If not, I will have to adjust the mortise to the new width and possible change its offset from the edge of the stile. As it happens, [I cut the tenon pretty consistently- do you mean in general or in this instance?] and the settings I saved are still applicable. As an aside, I should mention that I own three or four combination gauges. None of them are fancy, but it's not at all unusual for me to use several at a time. For example, in this case I am making the mortise right after cutting the tenon, but if I were building something larger, I might have to size more material and work on some other part, and therefore need another gauge to transfer those measurements somewhere else. Since this gauge was taped over, I know that this measurement is safe and correct. I am ready to layout the mortise.




I want to make sure I have space in the bottom of the mortise for any squeeze-out of glue and also if the mortise bottom isn't perfectly flat. So I am setting the depth of my mortise to a little past the length of the tenon. I will also chamfer the edges of the tenon to make it easier to insert. To make sure I don't get carried away, I amI wrapping masking tape at the correct depth of the mortise chisel. I am using a traditional English Mortise chisel. The oval handle makes it easy to keep the chisel aligned with the joint. This style of chisel is as beefy as it comes and can take a lot of levering force.

Using a mortise gauge, I lay out the exact dimensions of the width of the mortise, and using a knife and square, I knife in the ends. I always worry if there isn't much distance between the end of the mortise and the end of the stile, I could blow out the mortise in the process of levering out waste. So if possible, I try to make the stile a little longer than final dimension to add stength to the top end of the mortise. It's easy to cut the stile to an exact length later.

When you mortise you lever out lots of material, so to avoid crushing the ends of my mortise, I draw a pencil line about 1/8" or 3/16" in from each end. I initially chop to these pencil lines so i don't damage the final edge. My mortise is about 5/16" wide - but my mortise chisel is a little narrower (1/4"). This gives me some wiggle room so I don't worry much about damaging the sides of the mortise while chopping.

With the bevel of the mortise chisel facing me, and the chisel edge on the far penciled line, I take my first blows. I'm not trying to go too deep. Then I wiggle my chisel back and forth, put it out and move the chisel about 3/6" closer to me. I make another blow or two and then tilt the chisel away from me. As the chisel is trapazoidal in section, this loosens the chisel in the cut, and pushes back at the chip I just made between my first and second cut. Then I pull the chisel towards me, prying out and ejecting a chip of wood. I am going to repeat this all the way to the end of the mortise. As I do this, I end up going a little deeper with each stroke. By the time I have reached the end of the mortise I am about 1/2" deep. The key to doing a successful mortise in this way is making sure that you do not go far enough between cuts, or deep enough, so that when you try to lever out the waste you can't and the wood fights back. If that happens, just take a smaller bite. If you aren't able to lever out the chip and continue trying to force the chisel towards you, the tip - which is fairly thin near the cutting edge has no place to go - might snap. So pay attention.







After I finish one pass along the length of the mortise, I repeat what I am doing until I get to my final depth. The deeper the mortise, the harder it is to eject chips. They do get stuck. If nothing else works to get rid of the chips, I try poking around with a narrow bench chisel to break up the stuck chips.

Finally I am at the depth I want. Then, and only then, will I chop the ends of the mortise to the final length.

The final step is putting a paring chisel on the each scribe line and pressing down. Long paring chisels are easy to hold vertically. Ideally you want one the width of your mortise. For this mortise I used a 1" bench chisel that I had in the showroom. I have wider and longer chisels but not with me on that day. More importantly, I think a 1" bench chisel is pretty typically the widest chisel in a lot of workshops. It just requires a few more passes.

I chamfered the edge of the tenon and then did a test assembly. The first time I tried to bang it together, it didn't go all the way down becauseI had not fully removed enough material out of the bottom of the mortise. End grain has no glue strength so it doesn't matter if the tenon is short a little. It's a good thing it leaves room for glue, but obviously the bottom has to be clean enough so that the mortise and tenon fit together all the way. In retrospect, I think I would have had almost as strong a joint but a lot easier time of chopping and levering waste if I made the tenon a little shorter and the mortise not as deep.

The main picture shows all the tools I used in this project - with the exception of a Starrett 12" Combination Square (I forgot I used it). For the mortise I ended up using the much smaller Starrett 14D Double Square - but both work. You can also pre-drill the waste. A Forstner bit in a drill press works really well for that. Totally hand done mortises have two real advantages. First, the number off tools you need are pretty minimal, and you also don't need a drill press. Second, if you can cut a mortise and tenon entirely by hand, doing joints at odd angles - perhaps for a chair, or for some modern design - is pretty easy. You have to pay attention but the basic skills of layout, accurate sawing and chopping are identical.



And basic skills of layout, accurate sawing and chopping are as essential to the woodworker as they were in Moxon's time, so long ago.


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Comments: 4

How to Mortise the Moxon Way: Part 1, Layout and Cutting Tenons  

12/17/2017


Many moons ago I studied woodworking with Maurice Fraser at the Crafts Students League of New York. Maurice taught me a mortising technique that he had developed over time. Then, about five years after I stopped taking classes, Maurice called me all aflutter because he found the exact instructions for mortising that he had been teaching all these years. The instructions were in the first English book about woodworking: Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises (1678). The book was well-known in certain woodworking circles back then - I had heard of Moxon and had even glanced through the book - but it had nowhere near its current popularity. As Maurice discovered with his own reading of the book, Moxon championed the "Maurice way" of chopping a mortise. Here is my how-to based on Moxon's technique.

The Goal:


The goal in mortising is to join two pieces of wood, usually a stile - the vertical piece - to a rail, the horizontal piece. While there are hundreds of permutations of the joint (ones glued in, doweled in, mitered at the bottom, cut off or haunched at the top, etc.), at its simplest, a mortise-and-tenon joint is the end (typically rectangular), of a rail, stuck in a hole (also typically rectangular) that is chopped into the stile. Glue or a dowel is used to keep the two parts from disassembling.

Mortise and tenon terminology is at best confusing.


Mortise-and-tenon joint can be "blind" - the tenon ends somewhere in the body of the stile - or "through" - the tenon goes completely through the style and is either flush to the opposing face of the stile, or decoratively planned to stand proud. If you were to look at a piece of furniture with a blind joint, you would not ordinarily be able to see the quality of the joint, though a sloppy fit will fail over time because of sheer stress on the glue. With a through joint, on the other hand, the fit of the tenon in the mortise is visible on the exposed side of the joint. Sloppy work is noticeable right away.

The width of a mortise is based on the size of the rail material. Theoretically at least, you can make the mortise very, very thin in proportion to the rail thickness, but you would get a mortise only as strong as the actual section of the tenon that's left. You could also make the tenon very very fat, but reducing the shoulder size weakens the joints resistance to torque. Over the years the basic rule of thumb is that the width of the mortise should be about one third of the width of the rail. The height of the mortise should be about three quarters of the height of the rail. Obviously these ratios are for reference only and the dimensions can be modified based on other mechanical requirements of the project and the tools available. Usually the tenon is centered on the rail, but actual positions are very variable, again depending on the project.

Which Comes First, Mortise or Tenon?


The answer is whichever side of the joint will be more consistent. Supposing you are making a table with eight mortises attaching the legs (stiles) to the rails supporting the table. If you are using a table saw to cut the tenons in the rails, it is a pretty quick process, and the tenons will be consistent. However they might not be totally consistent to a standard measurement. .380" not .375", or .365" not .375". If you have previously chopped your mortises at .375 exactly, or if you used a 3/8" mortise chisel and they are a touch bigger, there is no guarantee that you will be able to assemble your joint without shaving all the tenons, or getting a looser fit than you would like. On a through mortise, even .01" can be unsightly. If, as in this case, you first make your totally consistent tenons, then set your mortise gauge and scribe your mortise to whatever the actual final thickness of the tenons actually is, you will get a perfect fit no matter what the actual tenon dimension turns out to be.

If you are sawing your tenons by hand, you might want to measure each tenon for finished thickness and then scribe the mortise to what you actually ended up with. I can easily hit any precise width with my mortise. Tenons are a lot harder for me to saw consistently. With machine-made mortises, of course the opposite is true.

But you say. "My mortise chisels are of a specific width. What do I do?" And this is what sets apart the Moxon method from other approaches. Scribe the mortise to the exact dimension you want and then pick the next smallest size of mortise chisel that you own. This is why, unlike any other type of chisel, mortise chisels were (and still are) sold in 1/16" increments, not 1/8" increments like bench chisels. Chop the mortise. (We will go into this topic in excruciating detail in Part 2.) With a slightly narrower chisel, you will end up with a tiny amount of material on the sides of the mortise inside of the scribe line that needs to be removed. What Moxon describes is that when you are all done chopping, you place a wide paring chisel on the scribe line and push down. It's a trivial operation, the excess material just peels off with a little downward pressure on the chisel. You're left with a perfectly sized joint. Another awesome advantage of paring is that with a little wiggle room in the joint, you do not need to be as precise in chopping as you would if the finished joint were intended to be the same width as the chisel.

Before I start chopping I need to lay out my joint.

Layout:


In this case, I am making a simple blind mortise for a frame and panel. Depending on the joint and your mood at the time, you can cut the groove for the panel first or last. But in general you should do joinery first, so that you are working with beefy square parts. I'll write more about laying out the mortise later, but for now we are focusing on the tenon. If I were making a frame and panel to a specific size, I would have cut the rails to the correct size, leaving material for the tenons. It's important to pick one face and edge of the rails for reference; all measurements and square lines need to come off those reference edges. Otherwise if your material isn't perfectly parallel, you will never get your scribe lines to line up. First I will lay out the tenon shoulders with a knife. I mark all around with a square and knife.

Using the 1/3 rule, I set my mortise/combination gauge and lay out the tenon. Centering the mortise pins on the work is pretty easy. I wrote about the method a long time ago, in a blog here. Using a sharp pencil, I darken the scribe lines so I can see what I am doing. One important feature of working by hand is that there is no real benefit to laying out the mortise and tenon at the same time. Depending on how well I saw, I should be fine, but it's also possible that the final tenon will be a different dimension. But for now at least I put tape on both the mortise adjustment and the fence adjustment on my mortise gauge so that I don't mindlessly move them. When I need to lay out the mortise, they will be perfectly set if need be. In case you don't use a marking or mortise gauge much, check out this link to a blog I wrote on how to use a mortise gauge.



Sawing:


The basic concept of sawing the tenons is pretty simple. I have written previously about sawing straight and my goal is to saw the tenons obliterating most of the scribe line. While there are a bunch of ways to do this, what I do is clamp the rail at forty five degrees in my tail vise. You can also do this in a face vise but I love my tail vise. Then, with both the top and and sides in view at the same time, it's quick work with a sharp saw (in this case my Gramercy Tools Sash Saw) to saw a diagonal line from the end of the stile in the back to the shoulder line in the front. I am paying a lot of attention to ensure the saw is cutting where I want it to, and that I am not sawing past the shoulder line. While I saw I look over the end of the rail to make sure I am on track. If I am not, I can apply pressure on the saw to change tracking slightly, or ease a saw kerf to the line. If you are doing this for the first time, I would suggest practicing to get familiar with your saw and cutting straight. The operation is basically a ripping cut and any saw except one filed purely crosscut will do fine.

After sawing diagonally on the first cut I turned the wood around, tilted it the other way and sawed diagonally in the other direction. My first diagonal cut really helps the saw track properly.

Then with the rail vertical, I saw straight done to the middle. As on the last cut the existing diagonal cuts once again do a great job of keeping the saw on the straight and narrow, but I have to be vigilant in checking both sides of the tenon to ensure I don't overshoot the shoulder line. You might find yourself with a little belly in the center of the joint that cannot be easily sawn away without damaging the shoulders. Ignore the belly for now.




With the vertical cuts done, I go to a bench stop to saw the cheeks off. I want nice clean lines. Even with a sharp saw I get nervous so I very gently chop a shallow cut at the shoulder line. First light cuts at the scribe line with a wide chisel, then angled cuts from the waste to the scribe line, popping out a small "v" of wood. It's dead easy. Then I just saw the waste tenon cheek free. The most important thing is to pay attention so you don't forget to stop at the tenon. Chances are that even when you think you are done the cheeks won't pop out because of a little belly of wood left over from the saw cuts. Most of the time a little pulling on the waste frees it. Sometime I do have to go back with a saw (being careful not to get carried away). Any schmutz left by the cheek is trivially removed with a couple of paring cuts on the face of the tenon.




Finally, all we have to do is cut the tenon to length. I used a square to drop down saw lines from my original tenon layout. The typical proportion is that the tenon length is 3/4 of the height of the rail. In my case I am splitting the 1/4 shoulder space 1/2 on each side. I cut straight down but not all the way. I am careful not to accidentally saw into the shoulders of the rail. That would look very ugly, so I stop a little proud. Then I saw most of the waste tenon away. Using a chisel narrower than the width of the rail, so I don't damage the shoulders, I then chisel out the rest to a clean line. End grain has very little glue strength, so I typically try to undercut the shoulder a little so I know I will be tight at the visible edge.



With the tenon done, I am ready, in Part 2, to lay out and chop the mortise.

NB Incidentally, while it has taken hours to write this entry, in real life - as long as you accurately lay out your lines and can saw pretty straight without panicking - cutting the tenon, shoulders is a matter of a few minutes.



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Comments: 2

Why Schlep? - A Look at Tools Baskets and Bags  

12/13/2017

Charles Nurse 1893

Probably the classiest thing we have in our entire catalog (Colen Clenton Tools excepted) this year is our new Gramercy Tool Bags. They're elegant solutions to the challenge of schlepping tools around - a challenge that crafts people have forever faced. I have a collection of tool sellers' catalogs from the late 19th century on, so I thought I'd check in and see how tool-carrying has evolved.
The Chas. A. Strelinger & Co. catalog* framed the issue well, way back in 1896:

When a "Yankee" carpenter has a little job to do a few squares or a few miles from the shop, he takes his toolbox with tools (about 30 lbs. of tools, 15, sometimes 25 lbs. of box ) shoulders it, and starts off to his work. Now, we do not mean to quarrel with him for doing this, but it would suggest that it was about time to do away with the box business and use a Tool Basket. The middle size weighs about 18 ounces, and while the difference in weight between box and basket (from ten to twelve pounds) is not much for single lift, it certainly makes a big difference in a walk of a mile or two.
This basket can be carried over the shoulder by a stick shoved through both handles, or piece of sash cord, but when is only a few tools used, it can be carried the same as valise. The middle size measures when round, about 21 inches in diameter and when flattened sidewise by the shape and weight of the long tools (as jointer and saws), about 33 inches. They are soft and pliable, very strong, and with fairly decent usage will last for years.

Now I love the idea of a wooden toolbox (shown here in the 1912 Rd. Melhuish catalog) but I cannot imagine carrying it on my shoulder. Another possibility: a tool basket.
Rd. Melhuish 1912

Baskets have limited space, but they are certainly a lot lighter than a big box. They don't seem to have died out until after WW II, and all the tool basket vendors (here the Charles Nurse catalog from 1893 and the 1912 Melhuish) seem to have sold similar versions in different sizes. The engravings for all these retailers look the same and could even be from the same plates.
Charles Nurse 1893 - on the last pages of the catalog it was a late addition

Rd. Melhuish 1912 - by 1912 everyone seems to be carrying them

Various trades used different sized specialty baskets or bags. (The Melhuish catalog doesn't draw much distinction between the bags and baskets - some are made of the same materials.) There are bags for “Engineers” - a general title for what we would call mechanics. And a bag lined with carpet for plumbers. My guess is that the lining was to absorb any water on the tools.
And the Tyzak catalog from the 1930s included a bag and basket (same material) that by its illustration was simpler than those of earlier catalogs, but might also be the same product as Melhuish’s specialty Engineer’s bag. Melhuish might not have had Instagram, but he obviously understood marketing. )
Samuel Tyzak c. 1930's

Rd. Melhuish 1912

This large canvas bag from Melhuish 1912 is not only "improved" but in elements and structure seems to be a older cousin of a modern leather bag.
Rd. Melhuish 1912


The Strelinger catalog makes a good point when it says that the tool box itself is pretty heavy, making a lightweight basket an improvement. But a basket is also open, not protected from rain, and vulnerable to spilling when put down. What is interesting is that unlike regular baskets for regular consumers, these tool baskets (and the ones in Strelinger) are reinforced. Without reinforcement, the material and stitching of the basket or bag will inevitably be stressed by the tools, and likely even cut or punctured. Leather bags were probably made in the era of these catalogs, but by and large they were too expensive for casual use by craftsmen, which could explain their absence from the catalogs I have.** Leather of course is the most waterproof of the natural materials, and most resistant to cuts and bruises. Klein Tool Bags, an American company that has been around since 1857, continues to make a wide range of tool bags today, including a mass-produced bag similar to ours. But by and large, tool bags and baskets seem to disappear from the tool catalogs, although I have not made an exhaustive search. My guess is with the advent of the automobile, the number of tradesman lugging tools around declined sharply and the concept of the milk crate filled with tools began to make lots of sense. And - ask anyone who routinely works on-site - the art of tool transportation can either be done efficiency or chew up half the day. For moving a lot of tools the Festool Systainer system is a great approach, I am seeing more and more of them on the streets in the morning as craftsman go into buildings to work on-site. (I will write about transporting buckets of tools another time.)

But sometimes you don't need a warehouse full of tools. Sometimes - oftentimes if you live in NYC - you’re taking public transportation. Sometimes you are going to a class or an office. Sometimes you not only have to earn a living but you have to impress a client at the same time. Plaster and paint coated milk crates don't leave the reassuring competence than a nice bag does with a client. They just don't want the mess tracked into their apartments.

This need inspires a return to the basics. Yes, if I have a couple of tools to cart, I just dump everything in my backpack and hope for the best. Anything with a sharp edge gets carefully wrapped. My backpack is tall enough for a dovetail or carcase saw but a sash is too long and risky and I worry about the handles getting busted if I put down the bag too roughly. I just brought back two valuable short saws home in my backpack and I wrapped them in cardboard for safety. I can't imagine doing that every day. As I have gotten older, my tools have gotten better, and so is the care I take.

So that brings me to our new Gramercy Tools Leather Tool bags. We also stock Leather bags by Occidental - here and here. Occidental bags are wonderfully made, but too short for a hardware store saw, or a longer plane. One thing I like about tools bags in general is that they have a bottom, designed to have a place for heavier tools so that jostling won’t cause something to shift. I don't wrap edge tools other than in a rag so that the cutting edges are both protected and can't do damage. We made sure in designing the Gramercy bags that the hardware and straps are robust (a Klein bag that I loved years ago had strap issues) and the cover really covers. The straps are anchored inside the cover which looks cool but more importantly prevents the leather straps from catching and wearing over the years. I live in fear of a collectible tool falling out. The traditional hand stitching of the Gramercy Bag will wear better than machine stitching and that with the heavy leather should mean that the stitches won't be the first thing to go (the source of my Klein bag’s strap problems). We use vegetable tanned leather because I discovered that I have a tendency to leave tools in my bag for ages without special oiling or waxing and I don't want to worry about rust caused by the leather.
The Gramercy Tool Bag in dark brown. We also stock a lighter Whisky brown version


.* Note: While I quote from the 1896 Chas. A. Strelinger & Co, I don't show any engravings from their catalog because I don't own an original and the reproduction I have isn't at high enough resolution to do justice to the original.
** I have other American catalogs of the period but they are currently in storage.

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