A New Tenon Saw to Match

This is the old backsaw I had been using as a tenon saw for the last few years.  It’s not a pretty sight.


I’m tempted to say that this saw had seen better days, but that would be completely untrue.  It’s an old no-name backsaw that my brothers and I used to build tree forts when I was little.  It used to live in a bucket with hammers, crowbars, and rusty nails.  (You can read the whole, sad story here.)  Since then, however, I’ve been treating this old backsaw better than it’s ever been treated in its sorry life.  The sharp edges on the handle got relieved with a file, and I’ve been keeping it sharp and rust-free in my tool chest.  So it is with some regret that I consign this old saw to semi-retirement alongside my other seldom-used saws.

The occasion of its replacement was a Christmas gift: a tenon saw kit made by Isaac Smith of Blackburn Tools.  (A couple years ago, I bought a dovetail saw kit from Isaac and made myself a nice little dovetail saw with a spalted pecan handle.  While not perfect, I’m pleased with how the saw looks, feels, and cuts.)  It’s been a busy year, so I worked on the tenon saw only periodically over the last few months, and this week I finally finished it.

The kit consisted of a saw blade (already toothed), a slotted brass spine, and the bolts and nuts.


That left me to make the handle, fit and shape the spine, drill the holes in the blade, and put everything together.  Oh yes, and sharpen the teeth.

If you’re looking for instructions on how to make your own saw, you can do no better than reading Isaac’s own series of in-depth, how-to blog posts.  I’m content to share a few highlights of my own saw build.

I’m not much of a metal worker, so all my interest lay in the handle.  Thanks to my friend Dominic at TGIAG Toolworks, I had a large number of templates from which to choose.  I decided to choose a handle style that fit my saw best: a Disston D-4, 14″ backsaw.  I dug out a nice piece of spalted pecan that I had been saving for a special project and went to work.


The work actually begins at the drill press, cutting out the top and bottom radii with various large drill bits.  Then I connect the holes with a coping saw and cut out the rest of the handle.  There are a number of other delicate operations involved, such as sawing the slot for the blade and cutting a wider slot for the spine.  After that, it’s all rasp-and-file work followed by sandpaper.

So after five months of picking this up and putting it down again, I finally have a working tenon saw.

Tenon Saw 2016

I do all my saw sharpening outdoors (at my wife’s request–she hates the noise). So I clamp my saw vise to one end of my saw bench, perch myself on a lawn chair, and go at it.  The blue tape on the jaws improves the grip and dampens the vibration from the file.  It took me only a few minutes to set, joint, and sharpen the teeth.

Tenon Saw 2016

My new tenon saw is now ready to go live in my tool chest with the other saws–and occasionally do some work to earn its keep. I’ve only made a few test-cuts with it thus far, but it cuts smoothly and quickly.

And I now have a tenon saw to match my dovetail saw.  They’re a fine pair of rippers.

I blame my college-aged daughter for the selfie with the saw.  She also thought I needed a picture of me as my alter-ego, Backsaw Man.

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One-Day Bookshelf: By My Daughter

Yesterday my wife and I were sleeping in.  But at about 7 a.m., I heard a quiet “zzzzzip. . . .[pause] . . . zzzzzip. . . .” outside my bedroom door.  It was my oldest daughter.  With a tape measure.

She had woken up early and decided that she was going to build a bookshelf for her room, so she was measuring the bookshelves in the hallway.  By 9 a.m., she and her mother were at Home Depot buying lumber.

After a bit of work with a hand saw and a hand plane, she was ready to lay out the joinery.  Mid-morning, my wife texted me at work asking where the split-nut driver was.  They needed it to adjust the stair saw for cutting dadoes.

N Builds a Bookshelf 2016

That afternoon, I came home to find nearly all the dadoes cut.  My daughter asked me to cut the last two shelves to length, as her arm was tired from sawing.

Just before supper, we glued up the top and bottom shelves.  We ate, went to church, came home, and put the smaller children to bed.  By that time the glue had set up, so we glued in the middle shelves.  We would have done the glue-up all at once, but I don’t own enough long clamps.

For the top, I showed my daughter how to cut rabbets.  (We sawed the shoulder with a back saw and split off the waste with a broad chisel.  It’s probably the fastest joint you could cut.)  We glued and nailed it to the top.

N Builds a Bookshelf 2016

She was pretty excited to see it all come together only 14 hours after she had decided to build it.

The next morning, she put a couple coats of lacquer on it.  By lunchtime she had positioned it in her room.  Because of the uneven floor, we had to shim one side to make it stand straight up, and we used an L-bracket on the top to secure it to the wall behind it.

N Builds a Bookshelf 2016

She spent the afternoon shelving her books.  Looks like she might have to build a second one soon.

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General Tools #820 Marking Gauge: A Review

I want to make one thing clear up-front: if you’re a woodworker, you should make your own marking gauges.  With only a few scraps of wood and some simple tools, you can make a functional tool in a single afternoon.  You can make them to your exact preferences, and the precision work required will build your skills.  The problem for beginning woodworkers, however, is that it’s really hard to make a marking gauge if you don’t already have one.

So most serious woodworkers have at least one mass-produced marking gauge.  There are many types on the market today, from rosewood-and-brass works of art to slick “wheel” gauges, at widely different price points.  What to begin with?  A beginning woodworker (especially one on a strict budget) will be looking for a simple, functional, and affordable gauge.

Here’s one option to consider: The #820 marking gauge made by General Tools, which retails for about $15.  (Disclosure: this model was provided to me by the manufacturer for review.)  It’s available from several online retailers, including Amazon and Wal-Mart.

It’s a small gauge, inexpensively made, but functional once you tune it up.  The fence locks securely.  The fence itself is well designed, offering a generous reference surface (1 1/2″) given the overall size of the gauge (about 6″ long).  My only initial complaint is that, when loosened, the fence is a little too loose on the arm, making precise setting finicky.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

It fits reasonably well in the hand, or in a tool chest drawer.  For myself, I prefer a gauge with a bigger fence, but the trade-off is that storing several of them in a drawer becomes difficult.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot.  Like some other mass-produced gauges, the General Tools gauge has graduations up to 5″ in 1/16″ increments.  The look nice, but they’re pretty useless.  You don’t use a marking gauge for replicating numerical measurements.  You set them according to the actual dimensions of a physical object–say, the thickness of a board or the width of a chisel.  The beauty of a marking gauge is that it is more precise than any ruler you could easily read with your naked eye.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

This is a pin-style gauge, which I find useful for marking stopped lines.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

So let’s see how it performs out of the package.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

I’m testing it against one of my own pin-style gauges, which is tuned and reliable.  Each of the parallel lines above was scribed with a different gauge.  Scribing with the grain is no problem–you probably can’t tell the difference between the two.  (The General Tools gauge is the one closest to the edge of the board.)

But across the grain, there’s a big difference.  My shop-made gauge sliced across this soft pine nicely, but the General Tools gauge tears the wood instead of slicing it.

But that’s exactly what all manufactured pin-style gauges will do out of the box.  Many woodworkers don’t know this, but you have to sharpen the pins correctly in order to be able to use them across the grain.

The pin is ground to a point, but to slice across the grain, you need a blade.  The way to achieve this is to hone the front and back of the pin, forming a rounded knife-edge.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

This pin is nice and hard–I couldn’t easily cut it with a file–so it should hold an edge once honed.  I honed the pin on a whetstone using a side-to-side motion. A little on one side, a little on the other side, until a burr is formed.  A little on one side, a little on the other side, until the burr is gone.

Now let’s try it again on that soft pine.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

A properly sharpened pin and a light touch results in a much cleaner line.  It’s not perfect, but serviceable.

Pine is difficult to cleanly cut across the grain anyway.  So let’s see how it does on a cabinet-grade hardwood.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

On this scrap of claro walnut, you would be hard-pressed to distinguish the marking gauge lines from a line struck with a marking knife.  (Answer key: the bottom line was made with my own gauge, the middle one with the General Tools gauge, and the top one with a marking knife.)  Any of those lines would be clean enough for workmanlike joinery.

Can you get a better manufactured marking gauge?  Of course you can–much better, but for a good deal more money.

If you are looking for a basic, affordable gauge, or if you need  a worksite marking gauge that you wouldn’t be heartbroken (or bankrupted) to lose, you might consider this tool.

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Last Chance: Pipes for Sale

Today I’m featuring some of my handmade pipes for sale.  They’re nice pipes–genuine briar, well-fitted stems, precisely drilled for a good smoke.  I’d love to send them off to some good homes.  These pipes and more (along with a number of spoons and spatulas) are available at my Etsy shop.

Keep reading to find out why this would be a GREAT week to buy something from me.


Churchwarden pipe. $129  Here’s a pipe for all you Tolkien lovers.  It has a wide bowl and a very long stem, even for a churchwarden.  Overall length of the pipe is just under a foot long.



Diamond-shank billiard with metal infill. $119  A fun, faceted twist on a traditional shape. It’s a fairly big pipe at 6.5″ long.  The bowl is deep and should deliver a good, long smoke.  The void near the top is filled in with metal filings stabilized with CA glue and sanded flush with the surface.



Diplomat pipe. $99  The shape is traditional if somewhat uncommon.  This pipe would fit comfortably in a jacket pocket.



Dublin freehand pipe. $119  A small, freehand shape with a lucite stem.  This just might be a lady’s pipe, though smoking it won’t get anybody’s Man-Card revoked.

Here are two great reasons to pick one of these up soon.

First, some of these have been in stock for a while now, and their listings are just about to expire.  Most won’t be available by the end of the month.

Second, here’s an incentive: through Friday, 4/15, use the following (case-sensitive) coupon code at checkout for free shipping to anywhere in the continental USA:


The offer is good on anything from my shop, not just the items featured above.

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Daughter’s Dutch Tool Chest

This guest-post is by my newest oldest daughter, N.

For Christmas I was given several nice tools and all I had to put them in was a majestic plastic purple crate.


Okay, so a crate in the corner of my room isn’t exactly a majestic place to keep tools, and my dad knew that, so he told me my project was going to be to make a tool chest. He pointed to his (giant) collection of Popular Woodworking magazines, a copy of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and various other tool chest guides, and told me to pick one I liked. As an amateur woodworker—and by “amateur” I mean I could work a spokeshave and occasionally saw a seemingly-straight line—I had to be realistic about my skill set as well as conscious of how much space I really needed to have.  And after researching, I decided on a Dutch tool chest. (We followed Chris Schwarz’s plans from a Popular Woodworking article.) I began practicing sawing straight lines and making dovetails, and although I was nowhere near what I considered to be capable of building a tool chest, we began working on it over Spring Break.

The first step was cutting the sideboards and baseboard to size. I was scared to cut the diagonal line so I let Papa do it, then we cut a dado for the shelf, and after that, it was my turn to make my first set of real dovetails that would have to hold the weight of the entire chest…no pressure or anything. My first few attempts at dovetails prior to the tool chest were on scrap pieces and they did not turn out too incredibly well, but I must admit that I was relatively pleased with how they turned out on the chest, and even more pleased to know that my joinery skills were not quite hopeless. When we pieced it together, we only had to use three shims along the bottom!


We then made a quick sprung joint to edge-glue the two pieces for the lid together, and while that dried, we worked on the tongue-and-groove joints for the back panels.

N Builds a Dutch Tool Chest 3-2016I cut the panels to length, and cut them straight while wearing a golf skirt! (I was about to leave for the driving range with a friend.) It was quite a victory and I learned that the saw benches are my best friends. However, I ended up letting Papa do the actual tongue-and-groove joinery because I’m left-handed and struggled using a right-handed plow plane. I nailed the boards into place on the back, and cut the boards for the front and the door for the bottom shelf. The design in the magazine showed a drop-front for the bottom shelf, but I knew I couldn’t do that on my own, so I just used hinges and a latch.

Papa attached the top lid with hinges while I drilled holes for screws in the handles, and then it was ready for tools.

But I wanted to decorate it a little. I painted a Gothic-style “S” on the top of the lid and painted the base of the handles black to match, and after a few coats of lacquer, it was done!

The chest ended up looking beautiful, and I can now say that I can cut a straight line, successfully operate planes (the tools not the aircrafts), and make functional joints.

A very special thanks to my dad for all of his help and patience, and to the people on WoodNet who sent more tools to fill my new chest!

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Spoons, Spatulas, and More Spoons

Every time I get ready for another craft show (about once every three months) there is a flurry of activity in my house to get ready–making sure we have enough business cards, filling up the petty cash, and most importantly, replenishing our stock of spoons and spatulas to sell.  You would think that by this time we would have everything streamlined, but somehow, there are always one or two things to learn.

Rainbow of Spoons and Spatulas 3-2016

Walnut and pecan are familiar woods to me, but a year or so ago, my brother gave me a chunk of teak left over from a project.  I had never worked it before, and I was interested to see if it would make a good spoon. It’s an oily wood, fairly lightweight and easy to work, though a bit prone to tearing out.  I think I prefer it for spatulas.  The two medium-brown wok spatulas and spoon between them in the middle of the picture above are teak.

Spoon Making 3-2016

My wife has started making several spoons, but she’s seldom completed them.  (Something to do with having a bunch of little kids, maybe?)  This time she pulled out a half-finished cherry spoon from several years ago and got it done.  She made a rounded handle, which she admits isn’t ideal for heavy stirring, but it works fine for light jobs.  This one now has a permanent home in our kitchen.

Spoon Making 3-2016

My oldest daughter is now making spoons, too.  We each set up on either end of the workbench.  We have almost enough tools for us each to work separately, but we do sometimes swap tools back and forth.  The Swiss-made gouge and the low-angle spokeshave are particular favorites on both ends of the workbench.  And she’s now almost as fast as I am.  She sold several of her own spoons at the craft show, and she’s enjoying earning a little extra pocket-money.  She’s also much better at sales than I am.

Spoon Making 3-2016

The drawknives get a lot of work when we’re in production mode. The more material you can remove with the coarse tool, the faster the work is.  And when you’re actually trying to make a bit of money working wood, then speed is important.  We don’t sacrifice the quality of the product or the integrity of the process–everything is still shaped by hand.  But we learn to do that work as efficiently as possible.

Spoon Making 3-2016

At the end of a long day at the workbench, it’s a pleasure to see a small pile of spoons and spatulas ready for finishing.  It’s not every job that ends with a useful, tangible object.  I never get tired of picking up a spoon or spatula and saying to myself, “Yeah, I made that.”

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Another Great Use for a Handscrew: Holding Very Small Pieces

Reading old woodworking books like Aldren Watson’s Hand Tools, it’s amazing to me how often a handscrew is recommended for solving work-holding problems.. I use them all the time, and here’s one handy way to use that classic clamping device.

I was trying to cut up some small scraps of figured hardwood to make refrigerator magnets, and I was having no success clamping them in a regular bench vise for either sawing or planing.  (The scraps are all briar wood left over from making tobacco pipes.)  In desperation, I reached for one of my smaller handscrews.

With the piece secured in the handscrew, I clamped the handscrew into my bench vise and used a panel saw to resaw it.  The handscrew held it very tightly while holding the workpiece at a comfortable height for sawing.

One of my daughters wanted to come see what I was doing.  She’s happy about the prospect of having pretty wooden magnets for the refrigerator.

Once I had sawed the workpiece to the right thickness, I took the handscrew out of the vise but left the workpiece in the handscrew.  Then I set the whole thing up against my planing stop and planed the surface smooth.

Yes, those are different workpieces in the photos; I did this with several pieces.  It worked extremely well.

The magnets have been securing the kids’ artwork to the refrigerator for quite some time now.

(Note for You Curious Types: the timestamp on the pictures is accurate.  I just now got around to blogging about this.)

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Chunky, Blocky, and Ugly: My Earliest Spoons

Over the holidays I visited my parents, who live in another state.  As I was digging through one of their kitchen drawers, I came across two mortifying objects: the first wooden spoons I ever carved.

Here they are, with one of my recent spoons for comparison:

Early Pine Spoons

Early Pine SpoonsI have only the vaguest memory of making these spoon-shaped objects nine or ten years ago.  Obviously I was just practicing in some home-center pine.  There are so many things wrong with these spoons that I just don’t know where to start.  The handles are square and blocky.  The rims of the bowls are far too wide.  The underside of the bowls are hardly shaped at all.

In short, they are utterly unsuited for any actual kitchen task, and my first impulse was to sneak them out of the kitchen and burn them.  I think it was only my primal fear of The Mother that kept me from doing so.

On the other hand, if I could go back and talk to my past self about these spoons, I would have only one thing to say: “Keep going.  There’s still a spoon buried in these pieces of wood, but you haven’t gotten it out yet.”  Because, aside from being pine, there’s nothing in these spoons that couldn’t be fixed by simply removing more material, especially in and around the bowls.

Now, at the risk of thoroughly embarrassing myself, here’s another picture of some of my other early attempts at making kitchen utensils (c. 2007).

Wooden Spoons 1

All except the spatula on the far right are hard maple–not, perhaps, the easiest wood I could have started with.  But it was the one hardwood that I could get my hands on at the time, so I used it.  The spoon on the right saw some long-term use mixing bread dough, though I eventually thinned out the bowl to make it more graceful.  The flat-ended spatula (second from the left) is still in regular use, and I continue to make spatulas like it regularly.  Perhaps the oddest one still in use is the narrow one in the middle.  We designed it for stirring big pitchers of lemonade and other beverages, and it still does good service.  In fact, other than rounding over the end, I’m not sure I could have designed a better stirring paddle.

The rest are still lying around somewhere, in the backs of kitchen drawers or at the bottom of a cardboard box of abortive spoons.  (What IS that thing in the middle with the hole in the middle of it?  A stirring paddle?  A slapstick?  It’s hard to remember…)   Much as I hate the look of some of them, I don’t have the heart to just toss them out.

Besides, I learned a lot from these spoons, failures though many of them were.  Mostly, I learned not to give up, that if one spoon didn’t turn out right, I could lay it aside and try again.  And again.  And again, until I got it right.

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The Evolution of a Display Table

What do you do when you start making more spoons than you can sell or give away?  You start selling them.  But not just anybody will pay $10 or $15 for a hand-carved spoon.  You have to get them in front of the kinds of people who are most likely to buy them.

Over the last few years, I’ve set up a display table at a few local craft markets.  I don’t do this a lot, maybe three or four times a year. But my display table has evolved quite a bit as I’ve tried out different things and found out what works for me and what doesn’t.

This is my very first display table:

Show Table Little Flower 2011

There was a lot of square footage to cover, so my product was pretty spread-out, sorted by type and price.  I put a photo album of my other work out.  And I had a tool chest with some of my tools so I could demonstrate my work and show off some of the tools I used to make spoons and other things.

It wasn’t a bad first set-up, and I sold a few items.  My price-points were right for my local market. (I could probably get double for my work in bigger, more craft-conscious cities.)  The tablecloth was the right sort of visual background.

But there were some problems, too. There was too much empty space on the table, and the product looked picked-over from the get-go.  Everyone loves coming to a full display; only bargain-basement types will pay attention to a depleted display, and bargain-hunters aren’t my target market.  Also, the album and tools were a distraction; they drew attention away from the things actually for sale.  And frankly, I don’t like taking commissions from strangers, so I shouldn’t have even shown work that I would want to make again on commission.

After a couple unsuccessful displays at various places, I found a venue at a quarterly  Night Market the Mobile Museum of Art.  The clientele was exactly what I was looking for: savvy people who are serious about cooking and value high-quality, handmade utensils–and are willing to pay a fair price for them!

Show Table MMoA 12-2014 - - 2

This display was more successful.  A small table enabled me to come around and talk easily with potential customers.  (I don’t like having to talk across a table.)  I set out my most attractive items within reach of customers, and I covered the available space with my product.  I tried to make my vertical display more consistent–I salvaged the boxes from junk piles around the neighborhood, and my wife placed Mason jars in them to organize the space.  (She’s smart!)  I also added some business cards.

It was a much better set-up, and I sold significantly more product.  But the arrangement still needed to be tweaked a little bit.

Night Market Table Mobile Museum of Art 12-2015

My most recent display was by far the most successful.  First, my wife and I had begun to notice which types of product were the best sellers, so we brought a lot of them.  (Large spoons and wok spatulas are the most popular.)  I added a couple matched sets, and I added my thumb-ring page holders.  It’s important to have a variety of price points, and I like to have items that are affordable for everybody.

Most importantly, we turned the handles of the spoons toward the customers.  If somebody picks up an item, there’s about a 50% chance that he or she (usually she!) will buy it.  As spoons and spatulas are purchased, we replace them from the jars in the back so the table always looks full.

Night Market Table Mobile Museum of Art 12-2015

The business cards are buried in the center of the table.  I don’t know that I have ever made a substantial sale that I could attribute primarily to a business card.  So I don’t push them.  I want potential customers to pick up a spoon, not a business card.  But everybody has a business card, so I have one, too.

Night Market Table Mobile Museum of Art 12-2015

I’m sure there are a few more ways I could tweak my display to be even more effective, but it’s come a long way.

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Is It Okay to Copy?

Should artisans avoid copying the work of other artisans?  Is it ethical to use another person’s design in your work, especially if you are selling it?

These questions and ones like them come up regularly in the craft world.  For example, in an impassioned blog post at the American Craft Council site, Harriete Berman says that, in general, artisans should sell only original work, not copies of other people’s work.  She urges stores and galleries not to sell “derivative work” and that “designers should not be surfing the web for ideas.”  She especially has in mind unscrupulous artisans who are looking to make cheap knock-offs for a quick buck.

On the other hand, carver and turner Robin Wood writes in a recent blog post that he encourages novices to copy excellent work in order to learn the craft, though he also says it’s annoying to see near-copies of his own work offered as if his design were generic.  He allows that his own designs are not absolutely unique but are based on historic designs, but he also maintains that his designs are identifiably his.  (If they weren’t, why would anybody attempt to profit by copying them?)

Pipe #29 Bodark Billiard 2014- - 1

I made this billiard pipe in imitation of many other billiards I’ve seen.

Going even further, if you read a few of the critiques of first and second pipes posted over  at Pipemakers Forum, the experienced pipe makers will often suggest that a novice pipe maker start with classic shapes, such as the billiard, the poker, and the bulldog, and they will urge new makers to try to copy good examples of those shapes.  Anybody who can execute those shapes well (and I certainly can’t, yet) is well on his or her way to being an excellent pipe maker.

But where is the line?  Legally, we can consider intellectual property laws, copyrights, and trademarks–these are serious legal issues that professional and semi-professional artisans need to know about.  However, the health of a craft and the creative process must look beyond legal questions for guidance.  (Not all legal actions are moral actions; on the other hand, some actions that are moral in themselves may not be legal in certain circumstances.)  If we persistently discourage artisans from imitating each other’s work, we will kill our crafts within a generation, for imitation is at the heart of learning handicrafts.

To begin with, I hope we can agree that forgery is unacceptable.  We should not tolerate one person offering his or her own work as if it were made by somebody else.  In Academia, we call that plagiarism, and it happens across all the arts.  An article at the Poetry Foundation, for example, reveals a disturbing trend in the contemporary poetry scene: up-and-coming poets will sometimes take another person’s poem and publish it under his or her own name, essentially stealing a good poem from another poet.

I hope, too, that we could accept full disclosure as standard practice.  If you make a billiard pipe, call it a billiard–don’t claim it’s an original design.  If you make a chair in the style of Chippendale, call it that.    A reproduction of an existing piece should be labeled as such.  And if you’re inspired by a design you found on the internet, then give credit where credit is due.  If you’re not sure whether a design is original to a single artisan or whether it’s a traditional design, you haven’t done enough research.

As a teacher of writing, I have to help students see the difference between legitimate fact-finding and plagiarism.  My guideline is the same as I give my students for determining whether a certain fact is “common knowledge” or whether it needs a citation: if you find the same information in three different, credible sources, and none of them acknowledge a source for it, then consider it common knowledge.  Similarly, if you see the same design produced by several respected makers, it’s probably a traditional design.

I might also note that Thomas Chippendale is dead, as is whoever first designed the billiard pipe.  You can stay out of a lot of trouble if you only copy from dead people.  That’s what we mean by “traditional design.”

Beyond that, though, I think that novice artisans don’t copy enough.  We live in an age that prizes originality and uniqueness–at least, we say we do–to the extent that we often dismiss old patterns and traditional designs, however well executed.  But somebody who has never learned how to reproduce another person’s designs has not yet learned the craft, just as a musician who cannot play a Mozart piece has not yet learned to play well.  But once that person can imitate a master, he or she is well on the way to developing a unique style.

Posted in Musings, Wood and Woodwork | 7 Comments