Colonial Craftsmen, by Edwin Tunis ~ 50 Years Later

imageI have been leafing through a fine volume, Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry by Edwin Tunis (d. 1973).  Originally published in 1965, this book was reprinted by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1999.  In it, Tunis surveys a plethora of early American crafts.  Some of these trades are still familiar to us: the baker, the tailor, and the gunsmith.  Others, such as the whitesmith, the limner, and the chandler, are all but forgotten now.

The opening section of the book, “New World, New Ways,” is perhaps the most instructive for the dilettante historian.  Tunis describes the early, ultimately futile attempt by England to impose her system of guild licensing and monopolies on the North American colonies, and he explains the ad hoc system that grew up in its place.  Colonial Americans used the apprenticeship system, for example, but the terms of each apprenticeship varied more widely than in England.  There was some European-style specialization in the larger towns, but most craftsmen did a range of work uncommon in many European shops.

imageWood was the most plentiful natural resource of Colonial America.  So naturally, much of the book is dedicated to woodwork of various kinds, though Tunis also describes many different types of metalwork, as well as work in leather, horn, paper, and other materials.  It is clear that Tunis has looked very carefully at many examples of craftwork; he knows in general how each was made and can say why it was made that way.  He has spent a good deal of time with old records as well as other documents, such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, and he is adept at providing amusing anecdotes about the early American economy.

Tunis does make a few mistakes along the way–mistakes that wider reading in European texts would have corrected.  He says, for example, that the “smoothing plane” is ill-named and was used only for trimming.  Moxon, however, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, indicates that the smoothing plane is used for removing tool marks from the fore plane and jointer plane, thus leaving a smooth surface.  “Smoothing plane” is exactly the right name for the tool.  There are a number of similar errors in the sections concerning woodwork, and I expect there are errors in other sections as well.  Tunis has not attempted to practice these crafts himself, so it would not be wise to trust him on every detail.  Nevertheless, the book is a delightful journey into the American past.


The best thing about the book is the hand-drawn illustrations, all by Tunis himself.  Some of them show artifacts close-up, and at his best he is nearly as good as Aldren Watson at rendering critical details.  (Watson’s book Country Furniture is an excellent companion to Tunis’s Colonial Craftsmen.)  The best drawings, though, show the craftsmen themselves at work.  A few drawings are funny, such as the tanner scraping a hide while warning a stray dog away from his work (at right).  Most, though, show a craftsman or two with full attention on the work itself, whether it be rifling the barrel of a musket or spinning blown glass into a large disk.

Tunis may not know enough about every craft he writes about, but he has certainly watched craftsmen of some kind at work.  Few other illustrators I know can capture the intent focus of a person engrossed in the job at hand, and his books are worth looking at just for that.

I was several chapters into this book before I realized that I had been enjoying Tunis’s illustrations since I was a boy.  In the local public library of the town in which I grew up, there was a battered hardcover edition of another of his books, Weapons, which I must have checked out dozens of times.  I had long forgotten the author’s name (if I had ever known it at all), but I eventually recognized the style of the illustrations.  So I suppose I have a sentimental attachment to Tunis’s work.

image Tunis wrote and illustrated a number of other books, including several more books on American colonial life, which I plan to acquire soon.  Now, fifty years after Colonial Craftsmen was published, we know more about many of the crafts he wrote about.  The Hand Tool Renaissance of the last twenty years has taught us much about how pre-industrial craftsmen did their work, and it has also helped to bring old, obscure books on handicrafts back into print.

I think that Edwin Tunis would be very pleased to see today’s revival of traditional handicrafts.

Posted in Reviews, Wood and Woodwork, Woodworking Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Turning in a New Direction

Recently I was helping an old friend clean out her garage.  Her late husband had been an amateur woodworker and metalworker, so she encouraged me to take any tools or supplies I happened to find.  Among assorted walnut boards, hand saws, and files, I found a lathe.

Lathe 2015 - -1

There’s a little rust here and there, but the motor runs and all the moving parts move freely.  The bed, motor, head and tailstock, and a long tool rest were all there.  The only things missing are a belt and a stand.  Not bad for being tucked away in the corner of a garage for years and years, buried under old Volvo parts.

It’s funny, but it was only two months ago that a friend invited me over to his shop to learn how to turn.  I left thinking, “I should get myself a lathe… someday.”  And now a lathe has been dropped into my lap.

I do believe in Providence.

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The Most Neglected Part of a Wooden Spoon

The other day I was using one of my big wooden spoons to mash up some avocados for guacamole and reflecting on wooden spoon design.  In discussions of spoon making, we carvers focus a lot on the profile and texture of the inside of the bowl, as well as on the shape of the handle, but we don’t give much attention to the back of the bowl.

That’s a mistake.

Spoon Backs 4-2015 - 1The back of the spoon’s bowl is useful in many mashing and squeezing tasks around the kitchen.  The butter spoons I featured here a while ago are not used to scoop but to squeeze the buttermilk out of freshly-churned butter.  I use the backs of my own mixing spoons to mash lumps of flour left in batters.

That’s why a good mixing spoon should have both bowl that is smooth on the inside and nicely rounded on the outside.

I know a lot of spoon carvers like to leave facets on the backs of their spoons.  I don’t, in truth, know whether this makes them less useful for mashing and squeezing, but I prefer to smooth out the backs of my spoons fully, removing any facets left from the spokeshave.

Spoon Backs 4-2015 - 2I also find that a deeper spoon is better for mashing than a shallower one.  I have a few flatter spoons that are excellent for stirring sauces or pancake batter, but the deeper ones have a bigger curve on the back, and hence a broader surface area.  They are even more useful for mashing and squeezing.  And if the back of the bowl more or less matches the inside of your mixing bowl, all the better.

Use a well-made spoon, and enjoy your guacamole.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 4 Comments

I’m not going anywhere, but I’m now in a lot of other places

Pipe #32 Briar Diplomat 2014 - - 08Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m not posting as much here as I used to.  Not to worry; I’m not abandoning this blog.

Aside from the usual struggles to balance work, home life, and my hobby, there are two big reasons for the slowdown on this blog:

1. My woodworking repertoire has narrowed of late.  I still work wood a lot, but I’ve been focusing on wooden spoons and tobacco pipes, to the neglect of the furniture work I had been doing a few years ago.  It’s not so much that my interests have changed; I have found a market for my wares, and I enjoy having a hobby that contributes to the household economy.  However, I don’t want to turn the Literary Workshop into “the spoons-and-pipes blog,” so I try to post here only when I want to share something of general interest to woodworkers.

2. I’ve been using other media outlets to display my woodworking, and they all take some time for me to maintain.  In addition to my Etsy shop, I am maintaining a Facebook page for the spoons and an Instagram account for both spoons and pipes.

Spoon for Critique White Walnut 3-15 - - 9If you would like to see more frequent updates from me, please “like” my Facebook page, Schuler Woodenware, and follow me, steve_schuler, on Instagram.  As always, you can find select spoons and pipes for sale at my Etsy shop.

In the meantime, I hope to keep posting here every couple of weeks or so.  I have a number of interesting furniture projects coming up, and I look forward to doing some build-along blog posts.

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She Sure Fooled Me!

Some time ago, I had been working on a big home improvement project for which I had collected a lot of lumber over the past year.  One evening at quitting time, I left some of the lumber out on the porch overnight.

When I came back to it the next morning, this is what I saw:

Dust Piles on Lumber 2014

Small, conical mounds of sawdust, all in a row.  “Oh No! What is it?!?” I thought. “Carpenter bees? Enormous powder post beetles?”

Well, as it happened, it wasn’t an insect infestation at all.  My daughters had come in to play in the sawdust after I left, and they had made the little piles of sawdust for fun.

This story didn’t happen on April Fool’s Day, but it was still a great (though unintentional) prank.

So the next time you want to play a prank on a woodworker, leave some little dust piles in a line right under his best lumber.  Then stand back and watch him freak out.

Posted in Kids, Wood and Woodwork | 4 Comments

“How Long Does It Take You to Make a Spoon?”

It’s a question I get a lot when selling my wooden spoons at craft markets, and I was never sure how to answer.  I couldn’t remember the last time I timed myself on a spoon from start to finish.  And anyway, my workspace being one end of the dining room, I’m frequently interrupted.  My standard response has been, “under an hour, if the wood behaves.”  But I really wasn’t sure.

So his afternoon, the house was fairly quiet, so I decided to time myself.  I found a billet of black walnut, traced my template onto it, and started the stopwatch on my smarphone.

Timed Spoon 3-2015

Even though I got interrupted twice (once by my wife and once by my daughter), I managed to go from rough stock to scraped surface in just under 20 minutes.  The only thing left to do is raise the grain with some water, let it dry, sand back the grain, and apply a finish.  Not counting dry-time, that’s about another 3-4 minutes of work.

I guess that means my stock answer was half right.

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French Wooden Spoon Carving, c. 1930

I recently ran across this fascinating, seven-minute film reel from the 1930s.  The first two minutes show French artisans making wooden spoons using traditional methods.

But what, you may ask, takes up the other five minutes?  If you watch the whole thing, it appears to be a montage of footage from a festival.  What’s the connection with spoon making?

It’s not obvious from the film, but this is a wooden spoon festival. Or, to be more precise, it is a French festival in the city of Comines called La Fete des Louches, or ladle feast, and it features people dressing up in red costumes and throwing wooden ladles out of castle windows while a crowd below tries to catch them.

There is, of course, a legend about the origin of the practice: a medieval nobleman locked in the top of the tower decides to toss his spoon out of the window to alert the people to his plight, and they eventually storm the castle and free the nobleman.  Or something like that.  (My college French is a little rusty.)  It was formalized as an official festival in the late 19th century.  The point is that this is a real festival that still goes on today.

Or maybe the point is that one way to keep traditional handicrafts alive is to throw handcrafted items into crowds of excited people.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 2 Comments

Campfire Spoon Carving

I’m not much of an outdoorsman, but when I go camping, I bring my Sloyd bag–a satchel that holds a few knives, sharpening equipment, and some small pieces of wood to carve.

I was camping with my family not long ago, and between hikes and food prep, I found some time to whittle out a couple of spoons while sitting at the campfire.

Sloyd Spoons in Walnut 3-2015 - - 1

The wood is black walnut, which cuts nicely with a knife even when bone-dry, as this stock is.  Only you have to keep your knife extremely sharp.  I stopped to strop often.

I began with this little eating spoon and finished it off before starting on its big brother, a stirring spoon from the same wood.

Sloyd Spoons in Walnut 3-2015 - - 3

My Sloyd bag includes some card scrapers and a bit of sandpaper.  When I was finished sanding the spoons, I oiled them with the only thing I had on hand–nonstick cooking spray.  I’ll give them a proper finish later, but I wanted to see what they would look like with a bit of finish on them.

The shapes are a little unconventional, but in principle I like them.  I call them Gothic spoons, after the pointed arches of Medieval cathedrals.  I have been looking for a distinctive design for my lap-carved spoons, and I think I’ve found it.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 2 Comments

I Learned to Turn

A few days ago, I was selling my spoons at an arts & crafts show, and I got talking to one of the other vendors there, a semi-retired gentleman who turns wooden bowls and vessels.  He had a number of pieces made from spalted wood, and we talked a lot about salvaging downed trees for our projects.  I mentioned that I had always wanted to try turning but had never really gotten the chance.  Before I knew it, he had invited me to spend some time in his shop learning to turn.

Not long afterward, I found myself in his two-car garage/shop listening carefully while he talked me through the basics of turning.  Some of it was familiar–sharp tools, attention to cutting angles, cutting “downhill”–but I was still a little nervous when I first put the gouge to the wood.

I chewed up one bit of wood just trying out each tool.  Then I asked if I could try making something I could actually use: a carving mallet.  He said, “sure.”  I picked a promising piece of pecan out of the pile (sorry about all that alliteration), mounted it on the lathe, and started turning.  This is the result:


As I turned the mallet, an end check appeared in the handle.  No matter, my mentor told me.  He took it over to his workbench and filled in the void with crushed malachite and superglue.


It’s not a perfect mallet, but I think it’s serviceable.  I’m afraid I left the handle too thick, though to tell the truth, I’m hesitant to try it out.

Whether or not I actually use this mallet, I think I’m going to have to get myself a lathe–thanks to my new friend and mentor.

Posted in Tool Making, Turning | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

How I Sharpen

There is no “right” way to sharpen hand tools, but there are a lot of wrong ways.  My own sharpening regimen has developed serendipitously, but it fulfills the essential requirements of a good sharpening routine:

  1. It is simple.
  2. It is fast.
  3. It is easily repeatable.
  4. It results in a keen edge.

I offer the following not as a tutorial on how you should sharpen, but as an example of the essential elements of a good sharpening routine.  I’ve tried to keep my explanations very simple, but I’ve added some footnotes for anybody who really wants the nit-picky details.

Mixed Media


Aside from my bench grinder, which I use only for repairing damaged edges, I have three pieces of sharpening equipment: a DMT coarse diamond stone, a soft Arkansas stone, and a strop.  I’ve been using the diamond stone for about eight years now, and it still cuts quickly.(1)  The strop is a piece of leather glued to a flat piece of hardwood and rubbed with honing compound.(2)


Let’s begin with this chisel, whose edge I chipped the last time I used it.  Here is the edge as it came from the bench grinder.  I ground it at about 25 degrees.  Most of the time, I’m sharpening tools that are merely dull from use, but either way, I take the edge through three essential steps.(3)



Beginning on the coarse diamond stone lubricated with mineral spirits,(4) I rub the bevel side to side.  Normally I use two hands, but I needed one of my hands to hold the camera.


The coarse stone has removed metal all the way to the edge.  You can see where the stone was cutting at both the top and bottom of the bevel.  Because the grinder leaves a hollow, it will take several more sharpenings before the entire bevel is flat.(5)

More important is the part you can’t see, but that my finger can feel.  There is a substantial burr on the back of the edge.(6)  This burr tells me that it’s time to move on to the next stage.(7)



I now move to a finer abrasive, this time a soft Arkansas stone, also lubricated with mineral spirits.(8)  I rub the bevel on it side to side, just enough to remove the scratches left by the previous, coarser abrasive.


The burr is still there on the back, but the bevel is shinier now.


Now I flip the blade over and rub the back over the stone.  This flips the burr over to the bevel side of the edge.  Just a few circular strokes is all I need before moving on to the final stage.(9)



I now strop the bevel (only pull, never push!), taking perhaps 30-40 quick strokes.  This flips the burr over again, and it also polishes the cutting edge.


Finally, I turn it over once more and strop the back.  Usually this removes the burr entirely, leaving a very keen edge.(10)  Sometimes with a really stubborn burr, I have to go back and forth between bevel and back a couple of times until the burr is completely gone and the edge is brightly polished.

The Test

There are as many ways to test the sharpness of an edge as there are ways to sharpen it.(11)  I like to test on wood.


An edge that will easily pare the end-grain of soft pine and leave a smooth surface will cut other woods just fine.

This whole process doesn’t take long–two or three minutes from start to finish.(12)  A bigger cutting edge, such as a hewing hatchet or a drawknife, might take a little longer, but not much.


  1. Diamond stones have a reputation for wearing out quickly. I have had one diamond stone, a cheap off-brand, wear out very quickly, but good ones do not. They do, however, lose their initial aggressiveness quickly. (It says so in the instructions that come with the stone, but who reads those?) Don’t be shocked when this happens. A diamond stone isn’t really dull until the nickel matrix holding the diamonds on the steel plate has worn off. It’s pretty obvious when it happens.
  2. I use the green honing compound from Lee Valley. You don’t need much. I still have most of the bar I bought eight years ago.
  3. I have Chris Schwarz to thank for the “coarse-medium-fine” phrase, though he applies it primarily to hand planes.  It applies to a lot of processes in woodworking.
  4. Diamond stones can be used without lubrication, but I prefer some liquid. It prevents the swarf from building up under the surface being abraded, and I think the stone works more smoothly with lubrication. I prefer mineral spirits over water because it won’t rust the tool if I neglect to wipe it perfectly clean.
  5. Some woodworkers prefer to maintain a hollow grind on their edge tools, so they must grind more frequently. It may be helpful, but it’s not necessary. In an ideal world, an edge tool of mine would be ground only once in its lifetime–before it leaves the factory–and I wouldn’t need a grinder. But the world is not ideal, and edges get chipped or otherwise damaged. Therefore, I own a grinder.
  6. Some people call this a “wire edge,” while others call it a “feather edge,” even though we’re all talking about the same “burr.” If you hate nomenclature that is confusing, please choose a hobby other than woodworking.
  7. This applies only to single-beveled tools, such as chisels, gouges, and plane irons. Double-beveled tools are sharpened on the coarse abrasive on both sides alternately until a burr develops. I then proceed as follows.
  8. I’ve tried several lubricants on my natural Arkansas stones, and mineral spirits work well. They prevent the stone from clogging better than anything else I’ve tried.
  9. Some tools, such as carving gouges, require a more polished edge, so usually I insert a second “Medium” step here: a hard Arkansas stone, also lubricated with mineral spirits.  I hone the concave backs of carving gouges with a black Arkansas slip stone, which takes the place of a strop.
  10. Sometimes, if you watch closely, the burr will detach all in one piece, and suddenly you’ll see what looks like a bit of extremely fine wire laying on the strop. Do let the strop remove the burr. Never break it off with your fingers, or it will leave a jagged edge that won’t cut as well as it should.
  11. Thanks to the Internet, the “arm hair test” has now become the ultimate test of sharpness–if your edge tool can pop hairs off the back of your hand or arm, it’s sharp. That may well be true, but it doesn’t tell me what I really want to know: will it cut wood? Besides, by the time I’ve sharpened a few chisels, usually the back of my hand is a bit sweaty, not to mention gummed up with sawdust, so the arm hair test is usually impractical for me.
  12. When I was first learning to sharpen, I took longer, but once I established an effective routine, I sped up a lot. If your standard sharpening routine takes more than five minutes per edge on the average, then you probably need to simplify somewhere.
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