How to Install Hardwood Flooring without Power Tools

Can you really install hardwood flooring in your house without a special pneumatic nail gun and an air compressor?  Yes, you can.  We did it, and with a few tools and some skill, you can, too.

First, the back-story.  (If you’re just looking for a list of tools and tips, you can skip this part and scroll down to Step 3.)  The bedroom we are re-doing was built in the 1970s, and it looked like this when we started:

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

The dark paneling took on a depressing, gray shade in the evening light.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

The carpeting was extremely nasty.  That color had to look almost as ugly new as it does now.  So we’re going to not only replace the old carpet with hardwood flooring but also paint the paneling a lighter color.  (Our oldest daughter did most of the painting.)

So the first step in re-doing your floors is to take up the old flooring and strip everything down to the sub-floor.  (The sub-flooring is the stuff that sits on top of your floor-joists and supports the floor you actually walk on.  There may be one or more layers.  In old houses it’s usually solid-wood planking fitted together with tongue-and-groove.  In newer houses it’s probably some kind of plywood.)

Removing the old carpet (and the pad underneath) is easy.  We went at it with a sharp utility knife, cut it into big pieces, rolled them up, and carried them out.  But what was underneath the carpet and pad was a little unsettling.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

See the gray stuff?  That is fine dirt and dust that was sitting under the carpet.  We could have shaken a lot more out of the carpet as we carried it out, too.  That’s the downside of carpet: no matter how much you clean the top, dirt will eventually filter through to the bottom and just stay there, accumulating a little more every year.

Step 1: Prepare the Sub-Floor and Remove the Trim

You never really know what you’re going to find when you take up old flooring.  Your sub-floor may be in great shape, ready to receive your new flooring.  Or it may be in terrible shape and need repair or even replacement before the flooring goes in.  If you find soft spots in your sub-floor, or places that have deteriorated, take the time to correct the problems.

Do NOT install good flooring over a bad sub-floor.  It won’t hold up, and eventually the new flooring will give way and reveal your laziness.  Don’t be that person.

Do ensure there are no nail heads or staples sticking up out of the sub-floor.  You can pull them up or just pound them down with a hammer.  I prefer to pull staples up with needle-nose pliers if possible and hammer them down only as a last resort.  Nails get pounded down.  Then be sure you clean the sub-floor well, ideally with a shop-vac or something similar.  Get as much dust and debris up as you can, because whatever you leave there will stay there for the next few decades!

Use a pry-bar (the kind called a “cat’s paw” is best) to carefully remove any quarter-round molding as well as the baseboards.  You can leave the baseboards in place and cover any gaps with quarter-round molding at the end, but I prefer to use the baseboards to cover any gaps and skip the quarter-round altogether.  It saves both money and space.

Step 2: Gather the Materials

A. The flooring itself.  There are many types of wood flooring out there.  The kind we used is essentially strips of pre-finished hardwood plywood.  It has a couple layers of soft wood underneath a top layer of hardwood (red oak in our case), and the pieces fit snugly together with tongue-and-groove.  You will need to carefully measure the space you are re-flooring and ensure you buy enough, generally 5-10% more square feet than you measured for.  (Be sure to figure in any closet spaces or doorways.)

B. The moisture barrier.  Don’t let this scare you: it’s the easiest (and cheapest) part of the whole process.  Go to your local home center and get a roll or two of roofing felt (or “tar paper”).  Not only will it serve as a moisture barrier, but it will also help prevent your new floor from squeaking.

C. Fasteners, including staples (for the moisture barrier) and plenty of nails.  Nails should be fine finish nails, either 1 1/2″ or 2″.  I prefer the 2″, as they seem to hold better.  We used 2 1/2 boxes to lay down about 200 square feet of flooring.

Pro-tip: Skip the typical hardware store brands and buy Maze Nails, available at Lowe’s and other suppliers.  These nails are made in the USA from steel that is demonstrably superior to the steel in other nails.  They are well-formed and don’t bend easily.

Step 3: Gather the Right Tools

Professional flooring installers have a special pneumatic nail gun driven by an air compressor and designed for nailing down flooring.  You can rent these tools from the local home center, but then you have to learn to use them, and that can take additional time.  I seriously thought about renting the equipment, but in the end, we decided against rental and opted to install our flooring by hand.  I’m glad we did.

At minimum, here’s what you will need (details on several tools discussed below):

  • Claw hammer (at least 16 or 20 oz.)
  • Nail set
  • Staple gun and staples (we have a Bostitch electric staple gun, and it works well)
  • Drill and small bit
  • Pull-bar and a couple wood scraps
  • Miter saw (to cut the flooring)
  • Handsaw (for trimming stuff that your miter saw can’t handle)
  • Knee pads

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

A few notes:

The drill is necessary for drilling a few pilot holes along the edges of the room.  You won’t be using it extensively, and you need only one small bit approximately the same size as your nails.

The pull-bar is one of those special tools that probably costs the manufacturer $1.50 to make but sells for $12.  Buy it anyway.  You need this tool for pulling pieces of flooring together tightly around the edges of the walls.  You can (and should) make a wooden variety for for use near but not at the wall.  A 12″ strip of hardwood with a chunk of wood screwed to each end (as seen above) will be useful until you get to the very edges, and then you will need the manufactured pull-bar.

Knee pads: you will be spending all day on your knees.  Even a cheap pair of knee pads will make this whole process a lot easier on your joints.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

You will be using your nail set a LOT.  Nail sets come in several sizes, to be used with different kinds of nails.  Some finish nails have dimples in the center of the head, and they can be set with a nail set with a fine point that fits into the dimple.  The Maze nails we bought do not have the dimples, so we used a larger nail set that fits over the head of the nail.  Be sure you have a nail set that fits your nails.

If you’re not comfortable or experienced in driving and setting nails, this may be the time to stop and ask yourself whether you really want to tackle this installation yourself.  A couple errant hammer blows can ruin the edges of your new flooring.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

You need a reliable saw to cut pieces to length.  It can be done freehand with a handsaw, or you can use an electric miter saw to cut your pieces of flooring to length.  I happen to have and old, hand-powered model, which I clamped to a sawbench.  It works pretty well.

No matter what kind of saw you have, be sure the blade is freshly sharp.

Step 4: Staple Down the Moisture Barrier

Roll out the roofing fabric, cut the pieces to length with a utility knife or heavy scissors, and staple it down.

See how easy that was?  Yeah, don’t get cocky just yet.  The hard work is just ahead.

Step 5: Open the Boxes of Flooring and Start Laying It Down

If you’re tackling this job yourself, a lot of what you have to do will be obvious as you go along.  Do open a couple packages at a time and select the floorboards you will want adjacent to each other.  Also watch out for damaged pieces (it happens), which you can often cut shorter for use at the ends of rows.

To begin, lay your first row of flooring up against one wall.  Put the groove side of the flooring up against the wall.  Leave a little space between the flooring and the wall to allow for seasonal expansion and contraction of the floor.  About 1/4″ will do.  If you’re not sure about the measurement, you can use a spacer (like a couple pieces of plywood) to ensure a consistent gap.  Drill pilot holes about a foot apart all along the edge of the flooring and nail the boards down.

As you add pieces of flooring, you will be nailing into the tongue side as you go. Here’s how:

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Start the nail in the corner where the tongue starts.  (I have my home-made pull-bar in the shot only so you can see the nail.)  Drive it in at about a 45-degree angle as far as you can.  Then use the nail set to drive it in the rest of the way.  If you find the nails difficult to drive in, you may wish to use a drill to bore a shallow pilot hole for the nail , but it’s an extra step and will make the whole job take even longer.

How many nails should you put into each floorboard?  At least one every foot, and probably more.  We found that 5-7 nails per floorboard kept them in place quite well.  Keep in mind that we are laying down thin strips of flooring, so that’s a lot of nails per square foot.   If your floorboards are wider, consider using more nails.

One little issue we had with our flooring was that sometimes the tongue collapsed around the nail as we were setting it.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Use the nail set or a flathead screwdriver to carefully clear the chip out from underneath the tongue, otherwise the chip will prevent the next piece from going in all the way.

When you come to the end of a row, you will have to cut the last floorboard to length.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018 (53).jpg

To measure how much to cut, simply flip the piece around, set it at the wall, and mark it with a pencil.  Then take it to your saw and cut it to length.  (This is where it really helps to be working with a partner.)

A note on the orientation of different lengths: When you start a new row, make sure that the individual pieces don’t end closer than 6″ to the end-joints in the previous row.  Also, lay out a whole row of floorboards at a time, not only to make sure you have a nice variety of coloring and figure, but also to make sure you don’t have to try to nail down a 1″ piece at the very end.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018


If you plan it out right, you should have a regular pattern of alternating floorboards.  We didn’t quite get it as regular as we could, but we got close.  I now wish we would have planned it out a little more carefully than we did.

As you lay down each floorboard, you will need to tap it in nice and tight.  This does not mean that you hit it hard, though!  Several light taps are better than one big wack.  Also, never hit the flooring with the hammer alone.  It may deform the tongue or otherwise mar the flooring.  Use a scrap of wood such as pine or plywood instead.  I found that a 2″X8″X1/4″ piece was about perfect.  Be sure to tap the end of each floorboard as well as the side.  The most difficult gaps to close are the ones at the ends.

When it comes to closing gaps between floorboards, do not settle for “almost.”

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

These boards are nearly together, but there is still a visible gap between them.  Dirt will eventually get into that gap, and the wood at the edges can chip and otherwise deteriorate.  One more sound tap and the gap will be closed.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Now the boards are seated properly, with no gap whatsoever.  You may find that you need to get one end of a floorboard seated properly, put in a nail or two, and then proceed down the floorboard alternately tapping and nailing.  Use the pull-bar every time you come close to the edges of the room.

90% of your time will be spent tapping boards into place and nailing them down.  You’re going to get VERY good at this after a couple hours.

One of the challenges of putting in new flooring is working around existing moldings, especially at doorways.  (Yes, you will find that you spend approximately 50% of your time working on 10% of the room.)  Here’s how to get everything fitted well.

We need to make space underneath the door trim for the flooring to go, so we need to under-cut the trim with a handsaw.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

First, use a spacer such as a scrap of the flooring to establish your depth.  If you are extremely fastidious, use a spacer that is just a little thinner than your flooring, so that the spacer plus the thickness of the saw’s blade is equal to the thickness of the floorboards.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Saw into the trim, making sure that the saw teeth do not touch the new flooring at all.  (Put masking tape over any nearby new flooring if you’re really worried about it.)

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Mark your piece to fit underneath the trim.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

You will need to use a handsaw to cut this notch out, too.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

If all has gone well, the board should fit nicely into the gap.

Step 6: Enjoy Your Process

With your nose to the floor all day, it’s easy to get so focused on the details that you can’t see the whole thing.  Occasionally, you should stand up, step back, and look at the big picture.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

You should also regularly clean up any scraps, dust, chips, and debris.

Step 7: Coming to the Other Side

One of the most difficult parts of laying the flooring is approaching the far side of the room, where you will almost certainly need to cut the last pieces long-ways to fit.  In our case, the last pieces needed to be only a fraction of an inch wide.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Our solution was to glue two pieces of flooring together with wood glue and let them sit for about an hour to let the glue dry.  (It was lunchtime anyway.)  Then we ripped them down to the necessary width on a bandsaw.  You can use a table saw, track saw, or even a circular saw if you’re careful.  It was much easier than trying to tap an extra-thin strip of a floorboard into place.

Do ensure you leave the same gap between the last floorboard and the wall on this side that you left on the opposite side.  And just as you drilled pilot holes and nailed down one side directly through the floorboards, do the same on this side.  If you’re careful, the baseboard will eventually cover the nail heads.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Step 8: Put Everything Back into Place

Once all the flooring has been nailed down, you can reinstall the base boards and any other trim pieces you removed.  Be sure to nail the trim back into the wall studs.

Now let’s see some before-and-after pictures:


Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

…and After!

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

It looks like a whole new room.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

The results look great.

Yes, it was a lot of work.  We put in about 2 1/2 days on the flooring, though we could have done it faster had we not made extra trips back to the home center for tools and supplies that we should have had in the first place.  By the end of it, my knees and back were aching, my hands were seizing up, and every time I closed my eyes I could still see floorboards and nails.

But we proved to ourselves that, with a few simple tools and a lot of perseverance, we could install hardwood flooring ourselves without having to rent specialized power tools.  And our new bedroom is cheerful and comfortable–at last!



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Working Wood with My Children (Mostly Pictures)

Ever since my children were old enough to hold tools, I have included them in my woodworking.  My workbench is right in our main living space–on one end of the dining room–so the kids can all see me every time I work wood.  They have all dabbled in woodworking here and there, though their interest waxes and wanes over time.

Here are a few pictures of what the kids have been up to over the past six months.

My oldest, N., is my most active woodworker.  She’s also old enough to be able to design her own projects and use all the tools effectively and safely.

She has tried her hand at many kinds of woodworking over the last few years.

N Woodburning Ornaments 2017

Last Christmas, she experimented with wood burning, and she made a number of lovely ornaments from sections of limbs that I had cut and smoothed down.  She sold some at a local craft market, and others went to various family and friends.

N Makes a Pipe 1-2018

This year, she made her first pipe.  Then she made a second pipe, which she sold to a friend.

N at the Craft Table 5 Rivers 2018

N. is quite the entrepreneur.  She makes wooden spoons and spatulas, as well as other little items, as time allows.  Every time I sell my wares at a craft fair, she is my able assistant.

N and K Make Spoon Butter

A few months ago, N. suggested that we make some woodenware conditioner to sell alongside our woodenware.  She researched different recipes and eventually settled on an oil/wax mix that could be sold in small tins.  She and my next-oldest daughter, K., mixed up a batch and got it ready for market.

K. has worked wood in the past, but at the moment she is more interested in tending the garden.

But, when the need arises, she still likes to make simple things out of wood–like her little berry patch sign.  She is very fond of setting up fairy gardens.

A M R Sand Spoons 2018

The youngest two girls, A. and M., share their oldest sister’s entrepreneurial spirit.  They’re not quite mature enough to take on building projects yet, but they are old enough to handle sandpaper.  When I make spoons and spatulas, I contract out some of my sanding work to them, paying them a fraction of the purchase price of each utensil.  They get to earn a little pocket money while learning a valuable life-lesson: money comes from work.

My youngest, R., especially enjoys working alongside me.  When I pull out my tools, he often asks me if he can do woodworking, too.  He loves to try out different tools on bits of scrap wood.

Sometimes, though, he gets to do something genuinely useful.

R fixes a wooden truck 1-2018

When one of his wooden trucks broke, I glued it back together.  Then he reinforced the joint with a couple of screws.

He also likes to make his own building blocks.

R Wodworking 5-2018

He will happily saw up four or five blocks out of a single stick of wood, and then go build towers with them.  Sometimes I help him start the cut with the hand saw, but once he gets going, he finishes each cut.  A few years ago, I made that saw’s handle to 3/4 scale in order to fit a child’s hand.  I keep it sharp, and R. really likes using it.

R Wodworking 5-2018 (2)

R. also enjoys using a hand plane.  A Stanley #2 fits his hand just right.

But like all good woodworkers, he also knows that woodworking is hard work.  It takes a lot of energy, especially when you’re a kid.

R Wodworking 5-2018 (done)

Sometimes you just have to take a break and look at the clouds.

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How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 4: Stem-Bending, Staining, and Finishing

On balance, I would say that half of pipe making involves sanding. It’s not exactly the fun part of making a pipe, but the results are worth the care and effort.

Theoretically, rasps and files are used to establish the pipe’s shape, while sandpaper is used to refine the surface.  In reality, though, careless sanding can alter the shape of a pipe and even ruin a perfectly good shape.  So, although the pipe looks almost finished, it still has a long way to go.  Sand thoroughly but carefully.

Pipe Making Process 2018

But before we sand, we need to bend the stem. Some pipes have straight stems, but many have a stem that’s bent, either a little or a lot, depending on the desired shape.

This vulcanite stem will bend easily with the application of a little heat. There are a couple ways to do this, but I like to use hot water.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Heat a small saucepan or kettle of water to a rolling boil on the stove.  Turn the heat off, and put in the stem.  A pipe-cleaner inserted all the way through helps a lot.  For example, I can bend the end of the pipe cleaner so I know which direction I’m supposed to bend the stem.  Also, the pipe cleaner prevents the airway from collapsing as the stem bends.  Furthermore, it allows me to get just the stem submerged.  (I’m not interested in bending the tenon.)

Vulcanite needs just a couple minutes in the hot water bath to become flexible.  (Acrylic stems will need a longer soak, often up to 5 minutes.)  At your kitchen sink, turn on the cold water.  Remove the stem and bend it in your fingers.  (Longer stems, especially churchwardens, may require a form in order to establish a consistent bend.)  Run the stem under the cold water to set the bend.  Look at the bend closely to see if you got it right.  If not, back into the hot water it goes.  It may take two or three tries to get the bend exactly where you want it.

Now, especially you’re married, don’t forget to clean up the kitchen and dump out that pan of water when you’re done.  Nobody wants pipe-stem-flavored soup.

Next comes sanding.  Prepare yourself, because pipe making requires a LOT of sanding.

Pipe Making Process 2018

First, apply a dye to the wood.  It doesn’t much matter which color–as long as it’s not black–whatever color you eventually intend to stain the pipe will work just fine.

This stain doesn’t have anything to do with coloring the wood.  What it does is make scratches visible.  You are about to sand through several grits, each one removing the scratches left from the previous grit, until the scratches are too fine to be seen.  The stain makes those scratches easy to see.  In the picture above, you can see how the stain brings out the grain pattern, but if you look closely, you can also see distinct file marks all over the surface of the wood.  Those file marks would be much harder to see without the dye.

I generally begin sanding with 150 grit sandpaper.  Then I work down through 220, 320, 400, 600, and 1,000.

Pipe Making Process 2018

You can see my secret sanding weapon in the picture above: it’s a foam-backed emery board, which comes in a pack of three at Walmart.  I wrap the sandpaper around the board, and it gives me very good control.

Sand off all the stained area, and sand down the entire stem, too.  It’s a simple, somewhat monotonous process: stain, sand, and repeat with the next lowest grit.

Pipe Making Process 2018

You can see here how the dye has “caught” in several file marks, which require additional staining.

Sanding the stem takes even more care than sanding the wood.  The wood has a natural texture that tends to hide the smallest scratches, but the vulcanite should be absolutely smooth and scratch-free.  I usually spend twice as much time sanding the stem as I do on the rest of the pipe.  You can’t use a dye to bring out scratches in the stem, but you can look at the surface carefully under raking light.

Pipe Making Process 2018

As you sand, especially with the lower grits, be careful around the rim and other delicate areas.  You want to keep the whole shape crisp and well-defined.  Just a few errant strokes, especially with an aggressive grit, can change the whole shape of the pipe.

Sand with the grain lines as much as possible, too.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Once I get down to the lowest two grits (600 and 1,000), I have to start lubricating the sandpaper with water or mineral spirits, otherwise the sandpaper loads up with dust and stops cutting.

For the stem, you may well have to sand down to 1,500-grit in order to remove the finest scratches.  If the home-center doesn’t have the finest grits, you can get them at any auto-parts store.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Just to reiterate, this process is going to use a LOT of sandpaper.  But don’t rush the sanding process.  With briar wood, you can achieve an exceptionally smooth surface, and you don’t want stray scratches ruining the look of your pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

After sanding, the final stage in smoothing out the pipe is buffing.  The stem especially benefits from buffing.  I have a dedicated buffing machine outfitted with a stiff, cotton wheel, but they make buffing wheel attachments for drill presses, too.

I buff the stem with Tripoli wax.  You can buff the whole pipe if you like; it does give it a nice shine.  Just use a light touch, use both hands, and hold on tight!  If you’re not careful, the buffing wheel can grab your pipe out of your hands and fling it across the workshop–or even right into your face.  Wear eye-protection, too.  Flying pipes are no joke.

With the buffing complete, you can now stain your pipe the color you want.  Natural briar will finish fairly light but darken over time, but in order to bring out the figure of the wood, it’s best to use a dye.

But don’t use that swill they sell at the local home-center.  You are far better off using either a leather dye or an aniline dye.  Fiebing’s leather dye is an excellent choice.  Many pipes are stained in two stages, first with a darker base-color (usually a very dark brown) and then with a lighter color (often a red, orange, or yellow).  I’m using only one stain on this particular pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

To apply the stain, first warm up the wood with a hairdryer.  (Be careful not to heat everything so hot that the stem loses its bend.  I’ve made that mistake before!)  The wood should be warm to the touch all over.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Immediately apply the stain evenly to the entire the surface using a cotton swab.  Be careful to keep the stain out of the tobacco chamber.  It’s not that stain in the chamber will affect how a pipe smokes, but it does look bad.  If you do get stain in the chamber, you can always sand it out by taping some sandpaper around a dowel and using that to sand the chamber.  (You can even chuck the dowel in your drill press, if you like!)

Pipe Making Process 2018

Once the stain is dry and the wood is back to room-temperature, wipe down the pipe gently with denatured alcohol on a paper towel.  The result will be a nice, even stain–both on the pipe and on your fingers.  Wear rubber gloves if you don’t want dyed fingers for the next couple days.

Repeat the process with your second, lighter color if you are staining twice.

Now that you have the pipe the color you want it, it’s important to seal that color in.  I use a single coat of Danish oil over the whole stained surface.  (Watco Danish oil works just fine, but I use my own home-brew of equal parts safflower oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane.)  As with the stain, do your best to keep the oil out of the chamber.


Pipe Making Process 2018

The Danish oil really brings out the figure in the briar.  Let the oil finish cure overnight at least, then buff gently with a soft, clean cloth until it’s no longer tacky.

It’s customary to use a top-coat of wax over the oil finish.  (If you don’t use oil under the wax, the stain will eventually bleed through when the pipe gets warm while being smoked, staining the smoker’s fingers.)  Carnauba wax, applied with a buffing wheel, is the usual finish, though a good paste-wax will also work in a pinch.

Buff the pipe until it shines!

Pipe #49 Briar Author 4-2018

Hopefully, the result is a pipe you can be proud of.

Pipe #49 Briar Author 4-2018

Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 3: Shaping with Rasps and Files

When we left off last time, we had a stem inserted into a drilled block of briar wood.  Now, you could smoke this block if you wanted to (I’ve seen it done!), but you probably want to do some shaping in order to make your pipe look like, well… a pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

My first step in shaping is to draw some straight lines around the shape of the pipe and remove as much of the waste as I can with a saw.  Either a band saw or a hand saw will do nicely.  Just be careful not to over-cut your lines.

One of the most important parts of shaping is secure work-holding.  Most pipes are shaped on a lathe and then finished up on a disk-sander or belt-sander.  We, however, are going to be using hand tools, which require us to hold the work down mechanically.  I use a large handscrew set upright in my bench vise.

In order to make the handscrew adjustable while clamped in the vise, set a small scrap board behind one of the jaws of the handscrew.  Then, when you tighten the vise, one jaw of the handscrew will remain free and adjustable.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use a rasp to shape the block down to your lines.  My favorite rasps for this operation are hand-stitched rasps from Lee Valley.  They’re a little more expensive than machine-made rasps, but they leave a much smoother surface.  I use a 10″ and 6″ half-round rasp.

A rasp is a two-handed tool, hence the importance of effective work-holding.  Keep the work securely clamped as you proceed.

It is important to leave the stem inserted as you shape the pipe.  Although it’s technically two pieces, you need to treat it as one solid object from here on out.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Eventually you will have to start cutting away your layout lines.  That’s when things get interesting, because you have to start shaping entirely from memory.  It really helps to have taken a picture of your original shape as a visual reference.

Okay, so there’s a simple procedure for shaping a pipe with hand tools.  Most pipe shapes are essentially two cylinders that intersect (or some variation thereof).  In order to make a cylinder with hand tools, you first make a shape that’s square in cross-section.  Then you take off each of the four corners to form an octagon.  Take off each of the sixteen corners, and you have something approaching a cylinder.  That’s what we’re doing with this pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Here I’ve rasped the block roughly square, keeping the stem and the tobacco chamber in the center of everything.  Drawing the circumference of the pipe’s rim is a good idea.  I find myself drawing and re-drawing a lot of layout lines throughout the shaping process.  You don’t want things to be any more spontaneous than they have to be.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Beginning with the top of the pipe’s bowl, I have begun to take off the four corners to form an octagon.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The most difficult part to shape is always the junction between the bowl and the stummel.  A small, half-round rasp is especially helpful here.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The same square-to-octagon process applies to the bottom of the pipe, too.  Aesthetically, the lowest part of the bowl should not be directly under the center of the bowl; rather, it ought to be right under the back of the chamber.  (Take a close look at any well-made pipe in a standard shape, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Pipe Making Process 2018

As you shape the pipe, don’t just rely on your eyes.  Rely on your sense of touch, too.  Each time you remove the pipe from the vise, roll it over in your hands.  Gauge the thickness of the chamber wall all around with your fingers.  You will be able to feel irregularities in thickness even if you can’t see them.

Pipe Making Process 2018

As with the bowl, so with the stummel.  Take off the four corners to make an octagon, but avoid hitting the stem with the rasp.  Rasps dig into vulcanite very aggressively, and rasp marks can be difficult to sand out.  Stop the rasp work just short of the stem.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The result is a faceted pipe.  Some pipes include facets as part of the final design, but all these facets need to be smoothed out.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use the rasps to remove the corners and refine the shape as well as you can.

Pipe Making Process 2018

At some point, a rounded shape becomes difficult to clamp in any kind of vise.  I use a 3/4″ dowel clamped upright in my handscrew to stabilize the pipe while working the bottom of it.  With care, you can use a small rasp one-handed here.

Pipe Making Process 2018

At some point, you will be close enough to your final shape that you will want to switch from rasps to files.  A couple half-round files the same shape and length as your rasps are best.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Be especially careful around the stem-stummel transition.  You want a tight, even radius, especially at the top.  A chainsaw file is perfect for this operation.  I find myself going back and forth between my small, half-round file and my chainsaw file as I chase the exact shape I’m looking for.

Take your time here, and don’t give up too soon, or the whole pipe will look clumsy.  A well-defined transition between shank and bowl is one of the hallmarks of a workman-like pipe.

As you are refining the shape with files, you will gradually start working into the stem, too.  Continue to shape the wood and the stem as one piece, and check occasionally to ensure that the stem has not gotten pulled out or rotated along the way.  A second-cut file or smoother is best for stem work.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Notice that I am using one more little jig here.  A section of 2X4 with either a notch or a large, shallow hole cut into it works great for stabilizing the end of the stem as you work it with a file (and later with sandpaper).

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use your finest file to refine the shape of the button.  Some like a thick, heavy button; others like a very delicate one.  Whatever your preference, just remember that you’ll have to sand out all your file marks, so it’s best to leave everything slightly over-size.  A little sanding goes a long way on the button.

Pipe Making Process 2018

There are still a lot of little facets that need to be smoothed out, and the stem also needs to be bent.  But it’s starting to look a lot more like a pipe!


Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 2: Drilling the Briar Block

In my last post, I explained how I prepare a stem to be fitted to a pipe.  In this post, I will show how I drill the holes in the block of wood itself.

This stage of the pipe-making process is the most important in building a pipe that smokes well.  If you screw up the drilling, then no matter how awesome your pipe looks on the outside, it will be less-than-awesome in use.

Briar Blocks

Before we talk about mechanics, we need to talk about materials.  Tobacco pipes are typically made from briar wood.  The briar used for pipes is cut from a burl, which grows on the root systems of a scrub tree native to the Mediterranean region.  The burls are harvested, cut, processed, and cured by professionals.  It’s not the kind of wood you can grow yourself, at least not in the USA.

Briar Blocks

There are several suppliers of good-quality briar blocks in the USA, and the blocks come in many different shapes, sizes, and grades.

I could write a whole blog post about the different kinds of briar blocks you can buy, but the suppliers themselves can tell you all about their products.

I highly recommend the blocks from Vermont Freehand/PIMO.  Mark Tinsky at American Smoking Pipe Co. also has good briar.  If you’re just starting out in pipe making, I suggest buying a few cheap “ebouchon” blocks, though if you are really partial to pipes with the natural top, you can get small “plateaux” blocks instead.  Buy the cheapest grade to begin with.

“But wait,” you say, “who says briar is the only wood you can use for pipes?  Can I use something other than briar?”

It’s a fair question.  The technical answer is yes, there are a few other woods that will make a good pipe.  The bad news is that they are probably not woods you happen to have lying around the shop.  Olive wood, for example, makes a fine pipe.  So does strawberry wood, which comes from a small tree sometimes planted as an ornamental.  You can also use “morta,” or “bog oak,” which is cut from ancient oak logs that have been dug out of European peat bogs.  There are, however, a few domestic hardwoods, such as persimmon and osage orange, that can make a passable pipe.  Cheap wooden pipes are often made of pear wood, or even black cherry.  While these woods will smoke reasonably well at first, they will not last as long as a briar pipe.  If you happen to have any thick, seasoned chunks of such wood lying around, it won’t hurt to use them for practice, but they may impart an odd or unpleasant taste to the tobacco smoke.

That said, there are good reasons that briar is the ideal material for a wooden pipe.  Not only is the grain dense and beautiful, but briar has an unusually high flashpoint, so it won’t catch fire while you smoke.  Briar pipes, if taken care of, can be smoked almost indefinitely without wearing out.

Once you have your briar block in your hand, you can draw your pipe’s outline on one side.  Begin by drawing two lines, the center line of the tobacco chamber, and the center line of the draft hole, which intersect at the bottom of the pipe.  The rest of the pipe will be shaped around these two lines.

Briar Blocks

Your pipe’s shape can be as normal or as bizarre as you like, but for your first pipe, it’s best to begin with a relatively traditional shape, like a billiard, a poker, or a Dublin.  (Yes, pipe shapes have odd names: here’s one chart that lists a few of the many traditional shapes and names.)  Shapes with steep bends or lots of odd angles are fun, but they add a lot of complications to the pipe-making process.  For this tutorial, I’ll be making a modified “author” shape (not pictured above).

Drilling the Block

At the drill press, I set my fence so that the drill bit hits the block more or less in the middle.  I do look at the grain pattern on the briar block and try to plan for the best grain orientation, and on this block, the best grain orientation happened to be a little off-center.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The first hole to be drilled is the mortise for the stem’s tenon.  Using the right size drill bit (1/4″ in this case), I line up the bit with the center line of the draft hole.  Use a square to ensure that you are, in fact, lined up correctly.  Take your time to get everything lined up perfectly, because you’re going to drill several different holes with several different bits with the block in this position.  So clamp the block securely, and don’t move it until I tell you you can!

But before you drill, I should say a word about drill bits.  Not all drill bits labeled the same size actually are the same size!  Drill three holes with three different 1/4″ bits, and a 1/4″ tenon might fit properly in only one of them.  I highly recommend drilling a test mortise in a piece of scrap first.

The depth of the mortise is flexible, but a 1/2″ to 5/8″ is fairly typical.

Now, once you have drilled the mortise, don’t un-clamp the briar block!  You still need to level off the face of the briar so that the stem fits snugly up against the wood with no unsightly gaps.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use a sharp Forsner bit bigger than the diameter of the stem to kiss the top of the wood.

Keep the block clamped up for the next step, too, which is drilling the draft hole.  Most draft holes are either 5/32″ or 11/64″ in diameter; I’m using the smaller diameter here.  A high-quality brad-point bit works the best for this operation.  Regular split-point bits tend to wander.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Lower the bit to the top of the block, and lock it in place.  Use a ruler or dividers to measure the depth of your draft hole.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Transfer that measurement to your depth stop.  Now you can confidently drill your draft hole to a precise depth.  Briar is dense wood, so go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.

Okay, now that the draft hole has been drilled, you may finally unclamp the briar block!

There’s only one hole left, which is the tobacco chamber.  Tobacco chambers come in different widths, but the most common is about 3/4″.  I use a spade bit that has been ground down to produce a round bottom.  You can make one yourself with a bench grinder (grind slowly, quench frequently, and be sure to grind a relief-angle on each side of the cutting edge), or you can buy them ready-ground.

Pipe Making Process 2018

With the bit chucked into the drill press, use your depth-stop to set the final depth of the chamber.  Err on the shallow side.  You can always make the hole deeper if necessary.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use your square to ensure that the bit is lined up correctly with the center line of the tobacco chamber as you’ve drawn it on the block.

Pipe Making Process 2018

These re-purposed spade bits work okay if you don’t rush the process.  Go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.  If you have the block clamped up securely, you should be able to bore a nice, clean hole.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Even with the depth stop, it can be difficult to know if you’ve actually bored deep enough–or too deep!  One trick is to insert a cotton swab into the draft hole.  When the bit hits it, you’ll see it quiver.

Pipe Making Process 2018

And you’ll be able to easily see the cotton at the bottom of the chamber.  Drill down until you have gone all the way through the draft hole, but no farther.

A properly-drilled pipe has a draft hole that intersects with the very bottom of the tobacco chamber.  This is one of the most important features of a pipe that smokes well, so take your time to get this exactly right.

Now, with the briar block drilled, you can trim the stem’s tenon to length.  To do so, insert the tenon into the mortise as far as it will go.  Measure the difference (either with a ruler or with dividers) and use a small saw to trim that much plus about 1/32″ off the end of the tenon.  (The tenon should not quite bottom out in the mortise because, if the wood shrinks, it will open up a gap at the stem/wood junction.  Leaving the tenon short allows for a bit of shrinkage.)  Once you have trimmed the tenon, counter-sink the end of it.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Insert your stem.  Finally, it’s starting to look like a pipe!

In the next post, we will start shaping the pipe.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 1: The Stem and Tenon

Five years ago, I wrote here about making a tobacco pipe with hand tools.  That post assumed you were starting with a “pipe kit,” i.e. a pre-drilled block of wood with a stem pre-fitted into it.  I still think that is an excellent way to begin learning to make pipes.  But once you’ve decided you want to make more than just a couple pipes, you will want to begin drilling your own blocks–making the pipes yourself start-to-finish.  This post is the first in a series about how to make a pipe from a block of wood and a pre-molded stem.

Pipe #34 Briar Churchwarden Plateaux 2015 - - 08Professional pipe makers not only drill their own briar blocks but also make their own stems from solid rod stock–usually vulcanite (a hard rubber product) or acrylic.  But many hobby-level pipe makers (like me) prefer to use pre-molded stems.  These stems (sometimes called “bits”) can be bought online in many shapes and sizes for a few dollars apiece, and they come pre-drilled with a draft hole and roughly shaped.  I have used stems from a number of suppliers, including Vermont Freehand, American Smoking Pipe Co., and J. H. Lowe.

In order to fit a stem to a pipe, it needs to be modified in two ways:

Most obviously, they need to be refined in shape and texture.  Most vulcanite stems come rough-cast from their molds and require quite a bit of shaping and sanding before they are comfortable to hold and look good.  But first, they need to be fitted with a hollow tenon which will be inserted into the pipe.  There are a couple ways to accomplish this.  You can buy a special tool called a tenon cutter, made just for pipe stems, which fits into a drill press chuck and cuts a tenon on the end of a stem.  Or you can drill a hole into the stem and glue in a pre-drilled tenon, which is what I do.

When I make a pipe, the first step is to insert the tenon into the stem.  Most pre-molded stems come with a tenon-like stub on the tenon-end of the stem.  I saw that off with a small handsaw, then take the stem down to my drill press for drilling.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

I clamp the stem upright on my drill press table.  (Here I’m drilling out a diamond-shaped stem, but the principle is the same with any shape.)  Take the time to ensure that the bit is perfectly aligned dead-center over the stem’s draft hole.  Also double-check that the stem is indeed clamped straight up-and-down by looking at it from several sides.  Also double-check that you are using the right sized drill bit.  Then, with the drill press set on medium-to-high speed, slowly lower the bit into the stem.  Vulcanite is fairly brittle, so go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.  You need to drill down no farther than 1/2″.  If your drill press has a depth-stop, use it.  Otherwise, just eyeball it.

And yes, pipe making requires either a drill press or a good lathe.  You can’t do this accurately freehand.  This is a good time to remind you that, if you want to make more than one pipe and aren’t content working with pre-drilled pipe kits, then you have to invest in a workable setup.  Pipe making requires a number of tools and jigs that you either buy or make for yourself.  In other words, if you are going to go to the trouble of making one pipe, you may as well make a dozen.

Once the hole for the tenon is drilled, do not move the stem.  You need to level off the surface of the stem so that it is perfectly perpendicular to the tenon.  Switch to a large, sharp Forsner bit.  The exact size doesn’t matter, as long as the teeth around the edge of the bit clears the outside of the stem.  It just needs to be sharp.

Turn on the drill and, very slowly, lower the bit onto the stem.  Just kiss it with the bit.  (Excess pressure may cause the bit to rip chunks off the top of the stem.)  As soon as the whole face has been leveled off, you’re done.  Now you can unclamp the stem.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

If you don’t have a high-quality drill-press vise–or even if you do have one–it can be difficult to hold a long stem perfectly upright in a drill press.  The contraption shown in these pictures is the best I’ve been able to come up with, and it works fairly well.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

I began with a squared-up block of seasoned hardwood, about 2″X2″X6″.  On the drill press, I drilled a series of holes of different sizes: 3/8″, 1/2″, and 5/8″.  I also drilled a large counter-bore at the top of each hole.  Then I reamed out the top of each hole slightly because most stems taper somewhat.  Finally I sawed it in half down the middle of each hole.

To use it, I clamp the stem in the appropriate-sized hole, and clamp the whole thing to a fence on my drill-press table.  (The fence is nothing but a squared-up 2X4 clamped to my drill press table.)  To get the stem centered directly under the bit, I lightly clamp everything up as near as a quick eyeballing can get me.  Then I tap things here and there until the alignment is perfect, and I tighten the clamps.  It doesn’t take as long as it sounds.

Once the stem is bored and faced, it’s time to glue in the tenons.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

The tenons are made from delrin, a flexible, Teflon-like material.  You can buy rods of delrin in different diameters from industrial suppliers, but because the rods are long, shipping is often prohibitive.  Then you still have to drill out the center of the rod before it can serve as a tenon.  I prefer to buy delrin tenons pre-drilled, often from the same people who supply me with the stems.  The tenons come in several sizes.  I find myself using the 1/4″ diameter size the most, and that’s what you see here.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

Before gluing the tenons into the stems, they need to be modified just a little bit.  I always use a countersink bit to ream out the end of the tenon that will go into the stem.  (In the picture above, the tenon on the right is as it came from the manufacturer; the two tenons on the left have been countersunk.)  This makes it easier for the stem to pass a pipecleaner once assembled.

Now, remember when I said that the tenons were made of a Teflon-like material?  There’s an old joke that asks, “How do they get Teflon to stick to the pan if nothing sticks to Teflon?”  (It’s a true feat of chemical engineering, but don’t let’s get sidetracked.)  Glue won’t stick to these tenons, so you have to use epoxy to lock them in mechanically instead.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

With the corner of a file, cut several notches into the sides of the tenon, on the end you will insert into the stem.  They should be big enough to allow a generous amount of epoxy to flow into them.  Just don’t cut all the way down into the airway.

The epoxy will fill these notches and stick to the stem, thus locking the tenons in place–even though the glue does not actually stick to the tenon.

When applying the epoxy, be very careful not to get any glue on the inside of the tenon.  Be equally careful to ensure that every notch you filed is completely filled with the epoxy.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

You don’t need much epoxy for this operation, but you do need the right kind.  There are many epoxies on the market, mostly distinguished by the time they take to cure.  Here’s an important rule of thumb: the quicker an epoxy cures, the weaker it is.  The strongest epoxies require a full 24 hours to cure, and they are worth the extra time.  I use regular JB-Weld epoxy, which is widely available and extremely strong.

The cure-time is the reason I begin the pipe-making process with the stem.  Typically I drill and glue up several stems at a time, so as to have each one ready when I set out to make a pipe.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

With the epoxy applied to the tenon, insert the tenon into the stem.  Be careful not to drip any glue into the airway of the stem.  Then tap the tenon sharply on the bench top or a block of wood to ensure that it is fully inserted.

Finally, clean off all the excess epoxy immediately.  (This is another advantage of using the slow-curing epoxy; you have ample time to clean off the excess.)  Use a wet paper towel to wipe the excess off the tenon.  And soak a pipe cleaner in water and run it through tenon several times to ensure that no glue has blocked the airway.  You can also check that the airway is clear by blowing through it–and by simply looking through it.

Now set your stems aside to dry for a day while you turn your attention to the wooden part of the pipe.  In the next post, I will show how to drill the holes in a block of briar.



Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Marking Gauges for Sale

I love making tools for myself, and one of my favorite tools to make is a marking gauge.  Now that I have all the marking gauges I need, I have started to make them for other people.  I made the two gauges you see here from black cherry and spalted pecan, both of which were cut right here in Mobile County, Alabama.  If you want one, please e-mail me at  PayPal is the preferred payment, unless you live close enough that you can pick it up in person (in which case, nix the shipping charges).

Scroll all the way to the bottom for the full product description.

Edit: The small gauge is still available.

Marking Gauge: Regular Size, $40.00 +shipping  **SOLD**

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Overall dimensions: the arm is 7″ long and about 5/8″ square.  The fence is 2 1/2″ wide (at the widest point), 2 1/2″ tall, and 1 1/4″ thick.


Marking Gauge: Small, $40.00 +shipping

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Overall dimensions: the arm is 6″ long and about 9/16″ square.  The fence is 2 3/8″ wide (at the widest point), 2 1/8″ tall, and 1 1/4″ thick.

Product Details

Each gauge is made from black cherry, and the fence is faced with spalted pecan.  The bell-shaped profile of the fence gives you a convenient place to rest your index finger and thumb.  The profile also offers a wider bearing surface than most other gauges without making the fence too big to wrap your hand around.

The arm locks securely with a sliding dowel mechanism, which is operated with one hand.  Press the button on one side firmly and the arm locks; press the other one and it unlocks. (Tap the button on the bench for extra locking power; tap the other end to release.)  There is no side-to-side play in the arm.  At first, the arm will require some pressure to slide in and out, but this will become easier with repeated use.

The pin is made from hardened steel and sharpened to a rounded spear-point, so it cuts in either direction.  While a pin-style gauge works best with the grain, this gauge will also mark across the grain if used with light pressure.  As you resharpen the pin, you can tap it down from the top.

Finish is only paste-wax rubbed out to a light sheen.

Posted in For Sale, Marking Gauge, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Choosing a Back Saw: Everything You Really Need to Know

So let’s say you’re just starting to get into woodworking, and you realize that you really need a small saw.  The ones with the spines look nice.  They’re called “back saws,” right? They seem like they might be easier to saw with than the big handsaws because that spine keeps the blade stiff and straight.  (You would be right about that.)  You start reading online, maybe watching some YouTube videos, and you soon realize that THERE ARE SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF BACKSAWS!

For example, here are just some of the backsaws I’ve acquired over the years:

Backsaws 2018

So which ones do you really need?  Should you start with a dovetail saw?  How is that different from a gent’s saw?  What about a tenon saw?  Is that like a sash saw?  And what on earth is a carcass saw?  And OH MY GOODNESS WHAT IS THAT GINORMOUS BACKSAW IN THE BOTTOM OF THAT PICTURE?!?

There Are Really Only Two Kinds of Saw

When it comes down to function, there are essentially only two types of saws: saws that cut smoothly across the grain (called “crosscut” saws) and ones that cut smoothly along or with the grain (called “rip” saws).

The only difference is in how the saw teeth are shaped–any size saw can be sharpened for either rip or crosscut.  However, many of us find that backsaws, which have relatively small teeth, can often be used for general cuts across or with the grain–though any given saw will cut more easily in one direction than the other.  In my experience, a crosscut saw can be used for ripping, though the saw will cut slowly.  But using a rip saw for crosscuts is more difficult and leaves a more ragged surface.

So if I had only one backsaw, I would choose one configured for crosscutting.  If I could have only two, I would choose one of each.

Now, with the rip/crosscut distinction in mind, here are some of the usual kinds of backsaws you will run across:

The Dovetail Saw

Sharpened for ripping, the dovetail saw is optimized for making shallow cuts in end-grain, such as when cutting dovetails.  A dovetail saw is often 8″-10″ long.  Because of the fine teeth, however, a dovetail saw can also be used for small crosscuts–for example, cutting small dowels to length.  Dovetail saws typically have a fairly thin blade so as to leave a narrow kerf.  Thus, they are not suitable for crosscutting stock more than about 3/4″ square.

Backsaws 2018 Dovetail Saws

Dovetail saws are available with either a “broomstick” handle or a “pistol” grip, as you see above.  The broomstick handles are cheaper but a little more difficult to learn to use.

The “Gent’s” Saw

A small, general-purpose backsaw.  It is similar to the dovetail saw, but often sharpened for crosscutting.  It usually has a pistol-grip and can be anywhere from 6″ to 10″ long.  It can be used for dovetailing, small crosscuts, etc.  It’s often an essential part of a small, specialized toolkit, like for model making, but most woodworkers can get along fine without it.  It’s the one kind of backsaw I don’t own, so I have no picture of a gent’s saw to show you.

The Carcass (or Carcase) Saw

A medium-sized crosscut backsaw, often 12″-14″ long.  This is a workshop workhorse, ideal for all manner of small crosscutting jobs–from cutting tenon shoulders to small miters to pretty much any small sawing jobs you can think of.

Backsaws 2018 Carcass Saws

The top carcass saw in the above picture was my first backsaw, which I procured from my parents’ barnyard toolkit when I moved out.  It’s taken a lot of abuse but has served me well.  The one below is my trusty Disston #4, which is now my go-to carcass saw.  If I had only one backsaw, it would be this one.

The Tenon Saw

A medium-to-large backsaw sharpened for ripping, anywhere from 12″-16″ long.  As the name implies, this saw is designed especially for sawing the cheeks of tenons, so it’s designed to make deep cuts with the grain.  While it can sometimes do double-duty as a carcass saw, it excels at ripping cuts.

Backsaws 2018 Tenon Saws

Notice that, compared to a carcass saw, the tenon saw has a deeper blade under the spine.  Unless you cut a lot of tenons by hand, you really don’t need a tenon saw.  But if you do, then it’s practically essential.

So How Do I Know Which One to Buy?

Names and specifications will vary a little from manufacturer to manufacturer.  You’ll also see the size of the teeth listed on a lot of saws, but don’t worry much about that right now.  Any good saw manufacturer is going to match the size of the teeth to the kind of work that the saw is best for.

When in doubt, ignore the name and look at the product description.  How long is the saw?  Is it optimized for crosscutting or ripping?  That will tell you all you really need to know.

Should I Buy New or Vintage?

If you have it in your budget, you will be very pleased with one of the many backsaws available from small toolmakers such as Bad-Axe. and Grammercy.  In addition to a traditional lineup of backsaws, both companies offer what they call a “sash saw,” which is essentially a larger carcass saw with teeth that the makers claim is sharpened for either ripping or crosscutting. Both makers are very reputable, so I have no reason to doubt the claims they make for their “hybrid” or “combination” filing, though I have not personally tested them.  The saws offered by these makers are heirloom-quality tools that, with care, will last several lifetimes.  But they come at a premium, often $150-$300 per saw.

If you prefer old tools like I do, I highly recommend an old Disston #4, which is the carcass saw I use most frequently. They came in different lengths, but 12″ seems to have been the most popular. There are other excellent vintage saws, however. Spear & Jackson, Simonds, and Atkins all manufactured excellent backsaws, and any of them would serve you well.

If you find a vintage backsaw in the wild, often the teeth will be dull and need sharpening before the saw is usable. (Saw sharpening can be learned, but that’s another whole issue. It’s best to begin by sending them out to a sharpener.) With some patience, you may be able to find vintage backsaws available online from people who refurbish and sharpen them, which is ideal.

Two other new options are worth mentioning.  Veritas and Lie-Nielsen both make very good backsaws.  The handles are comfortable, and the teeth come perfectly sharp.  The Veritas is somewhat cheaper but lacks the “classic” look of the Lie-Nielsen.

I’ve tried out some of the backsaws from both Veritas and Lie-Nielsen, and they work very well.  Yet I don’t really like them as much as I like my vintage saws–or the two backsaws I made for myself.  The Lie-Nielsen’s handle is just a little too blocky, and the Veritas’s molded plastic spine feels weird.

More importantly, both the Veritas and Lie-Nielsen saws have relatively thin blades.  Vintage backsaws have thicker blades, and while that makes them a little heavier than some modern backsaws, it also makes them a lot less likely to kink if you accidentally twist them mid-cut. Yeah, I know the spine of the saw is supposed to prevent that. It does, usually. But believe me, it’s possible to kink the blade of a backsaw if you wrench it hard enough. (Yeah, I was a sawing novice once myself….) In my experience, the vintage backsaws stand up to harder use.

So Let’s Say I Can Buy Only One (or Two [or Three]) Backsaws Right Now…

It depends somewhat on the kind of woodworking you intend to do, but for general-purpose hand-tool work, such as joinery, here is my recommendation:

If I had only one backsaw, it would be a carcass saw sharpened for crosscutting.

If I had only two backsaws, I would add a dovetail saw.

If I had three, I would add a tenon saw.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to grip a handsaw.  This is the right way:

Backsaws 2018 Three Finger Grip

We call it a three-finger grip.  Extend your index finger along the handle like so.  You will find that this grip helps you saw straight as your arm swings to follow your index finger.  (It’s the right way to grip the handle of a handplane, too.)

If you use older vintage handsaws, you will quickly notice that the openings in the handles are quite small.  It’s not because men’s hands used to be smaller way-back-when.  It’s because saw manufacturers assumed that people knew how to hold a saw correctly.   They optimized their handles for this three-finger grip.  Newer handsaws have bigger openings in the handle to accommodate a four-finger grip, but don’t give in to that temptation.  Always use a three-finger grip on a handsaw!

Oh, and one more thing: that really long backsaw at the very bottom of the first picture belongs to a miter box, which is a device that allows you to saw repeatedly at a pre-set angle.  The spine slides through two guides, which both direct and support the saw.  This saw is not designed to use “freehand.”  It’s far too heavy for that.  You will sometimes find long backsaws like this in antique shops, but unless you own a vintage miter box, there is no reason to have one.

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Four Decades on a Thumb: Old-Growth Page Holders

I was planing down a batch of thumb-ring page holders yesterday. That kind of repetitive work gives me time to reflect on the origins of the material I am using.  In this case, I was making the page holders out of some short pieces of old-growth pine that I had salvaged out of the garage of a long-deceased woodworker.  I have no idea how he came to own them, or what he intended to do with them.  After keeping these pieces of wood on my shelves for a few years, I decided to use one for page holders.

Thumb Ring Page Holder Old Growth Pine 2018

The grain of this wood is very fine, and the growth rings are tiny, in places over 30 rings per inch!

The boards were a little under 5 inches wide, but those few inches represent nearly 150 years of growth.  In contrast, most of the pine used for the 2X4s you get at home centers might have 3-12 growth rings per inch.  The old-growth pine, however, has grain lines so small they are sometimes difficult to see, let alone count.


Many of these page holders have over 40 growth rings apiece.  You can count about 19 rings on the top half of the page holder pictured above.  There are another 21 ounderneath.  That’s four decades on one thumb!

(And if you were wondering what a “thumb-ring page holder” is, well, now you know.  It reduces wrist strain when holding open a paperback book with your thumb, and I sell them for $5 apiece.)


I love the way these page holders display the growth rings prominently on their edges.  Because the grain is so fine, these page holders are incredibly smooth, too.

Wood like this doesn’t come around every day. I’m privileged to be able to work with these pieces.


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How to Replace a Tang Chisel Handle

There’s something especially satisfying about making or modifying your own tools, but it’s even more fun to do so while helping one of your kids build her tool collection.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

This 1 1/4″-wide Buck Bros. chisel was given to my oldest daughter a year ago.  The handle it came with is obviously a replacement, so I’ll be giving this chisel its third handle–at least.  While not poorly made, the handle it came with was much too thick for my daughter’s hands (or my own hands, for that matter).  Also, if you look carefully, you can see that the handle is not straight but is canted to the left a little bit.

Fortunately, with a little care and the right materials, tang chisel handles are relatively easy to replace.

The first step is to remove the old handle.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

First I sawed the end off the chisel with a hacksaw.  Normally I use a regular handsaw to saw wood, but I didn’t know exactly how long the tang was, and I didn’t want to risk hitting the tang with my good saw.  As it turned out, I estimated correctly.  But I’m glad I was cautious anyway.

After sawing off the top, I split away as much of the old wood as I could with an old chisel I keep around for use when I might hit metal.  With some of the wood split away, it was easy to pull the remains of the old handle (ferrule and all) off the chisel.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

The next step is to select an appropriate piece of wood for a new handle.  There are many good choices of wood species, but in my opinion, the best handle woods are very hard and difficult to split.  Domestic woods such as hickory, hard maple, elm, and pecan are especially good choices.  I have lots of dry pecan wood on hand, so that’s what I used.  I began with a straight-grained blank that was about 1 1/8″ square and about 4″ long.

Using a hand plane, I tapered it slightly on all sides, but I left it significantly oversized in thickness.  It might seem like it would be better to shape the handle completely before installing it, but are two good reasons not to.  First, it will actually be easier to shape the handle after it’s installed because I will be able to grip the chisel’s blade in the vise which I shape the handle.  Second, and more importantly, the tangs of these old chisels are not precisely machined.  They are often a little crooked or otherwise irregular in shape, so a dead-straight handle may still go on crooked in the end.  (See below.)

A traditional part of some tang chisels is a leather washer that is compressed between the handle and the bolster (that’s the swelling just above the tang that supports the handle).  The leather washer acts as a shock-absorber when the handle is struck, and it also provides just a little wiggle room when we install the handle.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

From a little scrap of leather, I cut a small square.  I used a leather punch I had lying around to punch a hole in the middle, but it would have been just as easy to use scissors.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

After pressing the washer onto the tang, I used scissors to trim it to the width of the bolster.

Now, with the handle blank roughly dimensioned, it’s time to drill the hole for the tang.  I might more precisely call it a series of holes because, as you can see, the tang is not straight but tapered.  We will use several size drill bits to make a stepped hole.  In the end we will literally be driving a square peg into a round hole, which if done correctly will create enough friction to keep the handle on permanently.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

I began with a drill bit that is the same dimension as the very top of the tang.  I held the handle upright in a vise and just eyeballed a straight hole with my handheld electric drill.  After drilling down about 1/2″ into the handle with it, I stopped and switched to another, smaller bit.

I suppose I could have done this more precisely on the drill press, but that really wasn’t necessary.  If the hole ends up being not quite straight, that’s okay.  The handle blank is oversized, and we can correct for a wayward hole as we shape the handle.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

The ideal situation is to be able to press the handle on with just hand pressure until it is about 3/8″ or 1/4″ from being fully seated.  This tang is a little longer than my smallest drill bits, however, so I ended up using a small pipe reamer to open up the hole.  I also used a chisel to square up the very top of the hole in order to fit the tang more precisely.

At this stage–before seating the handle completely–take a careful look at the handle in relation to the blade.  If the handle seems to lean one direction or another, rotate it on the tang until you get the best alignment.

With a chisel, it’s always good for the handle to be canted up slightly toward the bevel-side of the blade, so err in that direction if possible.  Remember what I said about not worrying about a perfectly straight hole?  This is why.  You can actually use a misaligned hole to your advantage.

Now stand that chisel up in the vise and give the handle a couple smart whacks with your mallet.  If you’ve done your work right, the handle will go on tight without cracking.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

Even with your best efforts at alignment, the handle will probably be skewed slightly in one direction or the other.  In the above picture, you can see that the handle shows just a little twist in relation to the blade, probably due either to a twist in the tang or in the handle hole.  But it doesn’t really matter.  We’ve planned for this.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

Now comes the fun part–in my opinion, anyway.  Stand the handle up in a vise, and use a spokeshave (or a rasp and file) to shape the handle however you want.  I like an octagonal handle that swells a little at the end, which is a traditional shape for chisel handles that aren’t turned.

After squaring up the handle by eye and tapering it down toward the bolster, I sketched an octagon on the end and used the spokeshave to shave down to my lines.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

At this point, it’s important to trust your hand even more than your eyes.  While a visually pleasing handle is a bonus, it’s not your eyes that will be using this handle.  It’s your hands.  So if it’s comfortable to hold, that’s all that matters.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

With the facets cut on the handle, I turned to relieving the sharp edges on the end, which is one of the most crucial parts of the shaping process.  In use, the heel of your hand will often be pressing on the end of the chisel handle, so it’s imperative that the handle not cut into your palm.  I used a spokeshave to cut generous chamfers all around the top of the handle, but a rasp and file would work just as well.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

When is the shaping work finished?  When your hand says it is.

After the spokeshave work, I went over each facet with a card scraper to remove any tearout.  I also used the scraper to break all the sharp edges.  I find that the facets help a lot with gripping the chisel in use, but sharp edges are still uncomfortable, so a balance between facets and rounded corners is best.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

A light sanding and an application of paste wax complete the project.  Now I can sharpen the chisel and put it to work.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

My daughter had tang chisels in two sizes, both of which needed handles.  So now she has a pair of useful chisels.  These vintage chisels take a wicked-sharp edge.  With care, they should serve her well for the rest of her life.

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